April 28, 2012

Blog vs. Academic Essay

Note to self: blogging isn't like writing an academic article. Don't get hung up on having an intro, and setting up the topic, referencing others constantly, etc. Don't treat a blog post as an academic essay which I am self-publishing.

When one is an academic it can feel as if writing a professional essay is nothing other than simply thinking out loud; that is, one is just following a train of thought in a rational way. Of course, even for academics it doesn't always feel this way. If one is not well known in the profession, there is a need to keep explaining one's ideas in terms of other, well-reputed thinkers. This can be wonderful at times. But it can also be grating and deeply annoying. At its worst, it can feel oppressive.

One of my favorite contemporary academic philosophers is John McDowell, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He has some very interesting things to say, and when I was in grad school I especially loved his book Mind and World. But even when writing my dissertation I would wonder: why do I have to explain my own thinking in terms of McDowell's work, or any one else's work? Does the fact that I resonate with his book mean that in some sense his thoughts have infiltrated my mind, and now I can't explain my own ideas independently of his vocabulary and his way of setting up the debates?

This raises a deep issue. In writing an academic essay it is essential that other professionals can see the essay as reflecting some accepted ways of formulating the debates, ways of argumentation, and ways of making a move within the debate. "Accepted" doesn't mean accepted by every academic; there is no such thing. But it does mean accepted by some group which has some sway in the profession, so that there will be at least some people who will stand up and say, "Yes, this essay is advancing knowledge, and it is wonderful!". If one writes in a way independent of any such group, one courts the objection that one has lost touch with academic standards and is not contributing to objective inquiry.

What does this kind of a process mean for the subject of philosophy? In the classrooms philosophy professors often say things like, "In philosophy we question all assumptions. Nothing is taken for granted." As a professor, I said the same kind of thing. It is inspiring stuff. It inspired me when I was a philosophy student. It still inspires me.

But, how does one professionalize the process of questioning all assumptions?

If in order to write an academic essay there has to be some group which accepts the framework of the essay as correct, then is it possible to question any assumption in such an essay? In The Philosophical Review or Mind or Ethics one can question particular assumptions regarding free will or mind or value. But can one question, for example, whether philosophical knowledge can be gained through the journal process? Of course, such journals can publish articles discussing that issue (though they rarely do). But can it really question the assumption of whether philosophical knowledge is gained through journals? Or would it only have the appearance of questioning?

Once this issue is on the table, there is a slippery slope. For if one cannot question all assumptions about philosophy through academic essays, then is it really the case that the journal process is an objective method for arriving at philosophical knowledge? And once there is a question about the validity of the method itself, perhaps it is the case that it is not the right method for coming to knowledge even about free will or mind or ethics. After all, if the method for seeking philosophical knowledge cannot be self-critical, how can one be sure that it can be critical with regard to particular topics in philosophy?

What does it say about McDowell as a philosopher that though he has written widely on mind, values, knowledge, etc., he has not written equally critically on the professionalization of philosophy? Or even written much about the topic at all. It is easy enough to say one should question all assumptions. It is harder to question the assumptions which one depends on in living one's life. I don't deny McDowell is a wonderful philosopher. But it is thought-provoking to see the limitations of even the philosophers one likes best.

Here is the real reason to not treat a blog post as an informal academic essay. For me the appeal of blogging is that it enables intellectual conversations independent of institutional structures of what counts as philosophy. Blogging is exciting because it isn't as bound to institutionalized momentum of how one ought to write and talk about philosophy. So it would be wasting the point of blogging to treat it as still ultimately a form of an academic essay.

Stretch the boundaries of philosophy. Its mode of expression. Its participants. Its self-conceptualization. Use blogging to do this. And to push oneself as a thinker and as a person. Engage with others on the project. A group endeavor. Form new methods of communication for philosophy. Help create new modes of philosophical interaction. The endeavor is too big for any one person or group or even generation. But get as far as you can in the time allotted to you by nature. And enjoy the ride.

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