The history of philosophy is written by the victors

A decade or more ago I was sat in the back of the audience at a large international conference. The speaker presented a view that was the same as my own: a view that they knew I had presented in print some time earlier. No attribution was made. In the Q&A, that view was then named after the speaker: ‘the N-view’. I had seen a false history of philosophy constructed before my eyes. What should I have done? Interjected that it was actually my view first? Allege an injustice? I didn’t want to make a fuss or look egocentric so in the end I did nothing.

There are, after all, far more egregious cases in which a view is attributed to a philosopher – even an argument for which they are best known – that was in reality presented by someone else first. Take Descartes, for instance, who everyone knows as the creator of the Cogito argument. But this argument appeared in Augustine’s City of God a thousand years before. Augustine wrote:

I am certain that I am, that I know that I am, and that I love to be and to know. In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force.  If they say: “What if you are mistaken?—well, if I am mistaken, I am.  For, if one does not exist, he can by no means be mistaken.  Therefore, I am, if I am mistaken.  Because, therefore, I am, if I am mistaken, how can I be mistaken that I am, since it is certain that I am, if I am mistaken?”

I recently came across a lesser known but just as startling case. I am doing some work on the history of empiricism and wondered where to start. Locke is often considered to be the founder of the movement because he so clearly articulated the empiricist principle. Yet reading Hobbes, I found exactly the same principle in his Leviathan: ‘For there is no conception in a mans mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of Sense. The rest are derived from that Originall.’ Now this might only be a coincidence, you could say. Or perhaps Augustine ‘anticipated’ Descartes just as Hobbes ‘anticipated’ Locke. But in both instances, we have a plausible explanation of how the later writers would have known the work of the earlier. In Locke’s case, this came to light only recently when evidence emerged proving that he had read Hobbes closely.

What can we learn from this? First, I’ve learned to always do my research and fairly attribute to others, as a matter of intellectual justice. Next, we should be cautious about simple historical summaries that attribute big breakthroughs to individuals. Philosophy is a collective endeavour, whether we realise it or not, where the reality involves tiny increments rather than world-changing leaps forward. What I find even more interesting, however, is what this tells us about the construction of history. Just as they say that history is written by the victors, so too is the history of philosophy. Those in a position of influence can and will use their platform to tell us the story as they see it: usually a story that promotes their interests. It is crucial, then, that we keep the receipts since it is the works of less lauded thinkers that often enable us to reappraise the dominant narrative and, if warranted, reject received wisdom.

Rejection

What one personality trait do you need to be a successful academic? To be intelligent? Hard working? Creative? I suspect that you will need all of those. But they will not be enough. I am mainly asked about this by budding academics in their very early career stages. Typically, they might be considering a PhD and wondering what an eventual academic life would be like and would it suit them.

With time to dwell on it, and reflect on my own experiences, I’ve arrived at an answer that I now know to offer. It’s an ability to cope with rejection. There are very few academics I have met who have not been rejected in many and major ways. In our careers we will make unsuccessful job applications, grant applications and probably promotion applications. And those are the nice rejections. In addition, most of the papers you submit to journals will be rejected, often with brutal comments stating as fact that you don’t know anything about a topic you’ve worked on for the last five years. A referee might even point out that you struggle to write English to an acceptable standard. If you’re lucky enough to get work in print, there’s every chance a reviewer will come along and point out that it’s not worth reading. I’ve had all of this and more.

Academia will not be a great experience if you struggle with rejection since it is the default. It would be easy to say that you need to be tough but I don’t entirely buy that. Our profession would not be best served by us all becoming hard as nails and accepting of a brutal, Darwinian competition of all against all. Other coping strategies have their drawbacks too. Some academics become reluctant to submit themselves to peer review but then they don’t publish enough to gain success. Others come across as arrogant but I’ve found this usually an ineffective defence mechanism. Their self-confidence might in truth be eggshell thin and can crumble with the next set back.

Some degree of personal resilience will undoubtedly be necessary. There are ways that you can bolster this. Supportive friends, inside or outside academia, can help you through those difficult moments of self-doubt. We also need to develop our senses of self-love, self-care and self-esteem, since these can become eroded and have to be replenished.

The biggest positive impact on our profession would come from systemic changes. This sounds like something beyond our control until we realise that many of us are parts of that system. Almost imperceptibly, there comes a transition from being the one rejected to being the one making the rejections. If you’ve lost your humanity on the way up, then you might end up perpetuating that brutal and harsh system you originally despised. The self-love and esteem that got you to your new position of power now needs to be replaced by care for others. A key realisation, which sadly not everyone has, is that qualities you need when you are fighting the system are not the ones you should have once you are the system. If we lose our empathy along the way, we can end up being exactly what we fought against. With an oversupply of willing labour, I am sure rejection will remain a fact of academic life. Nevertheless, there are better ways we can manage it if we can reflect upon our own contribution to the professional environment.

Philosophy and ignorance

It is natural for philosophers to take ignorance as their adversary. Philosophers love wisdom and wisdom is the antidote to ignorance. Knowledge is sometimes understood as holding intrinsic value but in many cases it is of extrinsic value too. Ignorance is often the basis of stupidity, such as when it is the root cause of racism or homophobia. Wilful ignorance is negligent and vocal ignorance is harmful, when given a platform.

The relationship of philosophy to ignorance is nevertheless complicated. Someone once put it to me that philosophy was about discovering new areas of ignorance. What we learn in philosophy are the new things we don’t know about. And in venturing into those spaces to eliminate the ignorance, we discover even more that we would need to know. We are always uncovering the hidden complexity within an issue that initially looked simple.

This constitutes a major problem for the philosophical method. Because so many issues are interconnected, for all we know there might be infinite complexity behind every subject. Philosophy is a Sisyphean labour. But we are finite beings with only so much time in which to work. Where, then, do we stop? The practical and pressing question we all face is how much ignorance we are willing to tolerate.

I’ve tried to approach this problem pragmatically in my career since I knew that to become a professional philosopher I would have to publish articles and books. The trick was to make them look complete, yet I recognise that all philosophy is incomplete. The purist in me accepts, in a very real sense, that I am still working on my first book. Back in the early-90s, I wanted to write on free will. When I started on the literature, I realised that to understand free will, I would need to grapple with some difficult metaphysical topics, such as causation, properties and laws of nature. So I went and studied those. As I started on causation, though, I found that I would have to understand powers, and possible worlds, and Humeanism, and so on. And to understand powers, I would have to read Aristotle, and Aquinas, and a growing contemporary literature that directs me to further problems. The philosophical task is never ending, which is why I’ve still not written my first book.

Perhaps the true philosophical attitude is to take joy in one’s uncompletable task and pleasure in discovering the hidden complexity behind apparent simplicity. Easy answers are tempting but a serious task of philosophy is also to problematize: to draw attention to the underlying ignorance. It would be a startling discovery that philosophers are actually seeking ignorance rather than knowledge. We are, but such ignorance is not an end in itself. We do want to know; it’s just that we also understand how difficult that is. The ignorance we reject is not simply a lack of knowledge but more of a rush to judgment and deficiency of natural curiosity. It can be fine to admit that we don’t know something. More our enemy is thinking that we know something we don’t.

To review or not to review?

This week I had a review published in Times Higher Education of Wyn Grant’s Political Football. I must be lapsing into that philosophical cliché of absent mindedness since I’d forgotten about it even though I read and reviewed the book only two or three weeks ago. Or does it reflect the fact that a review is hardly a career milestone? Given my years and grey hair, I’m occasionally asked advice from early career academics and one question that comes up is the place of reviews in your publication record. They seem to count hardly anything on your CV so is it worth doing them at all?

If you’re on the job market, I’d suggest that your time is best spent working on articles or your own books, and similarly if you’re aiming for promotion. A published review can get you a little bit of credit but more for services to the profession than for publication. You will have some words in print, certainly, but they will be very few words, of necessity lacking philosophical depth, and coming at a significant opportunity cost since it takes time to read a whole book properly for review purposes.

Despite giving advice like this, I note that in my career I have published around 18 book reviews, which is too many. I’m not good at following my own advice. Since I’m not looking for future promotions, however, I think I can afford to write them. I think of it as a way of paying forward. Books deserve reviewing. I’m glad that journals still publish reviews and realise the significance of my own books being reviewed. If early career academics cannot afford to spend time on that, then it is right that people like me do. I recognise my privilege.

There are some good reasons to accept a review assignment, whatever your career stage. If it’s a book that you really need to read for your own research, then a review can be a perfect opportunity. Not only will you get a free copy, and the impetus to sit and read it, you will probably do so carefully, given that your verdict is to be a public matter. I also consider the requested assignment. I once had to read a very big book but managed to negotiate doing so only if the journal gave me 4,000 words. It was worth the considerable time, I thought, if I could engage with the philosophical argument of the book more than superficially.

In recent years, I’ve also started to consider the art of the review. Even if I have very few words, I still try to tell a story with them. I have little interest in reviews that merely list the contents of the book. A ‘good’ review is a creative endeavour, even though it is a definite mistake to try and eclipse the book that is its subject. That’s what the reader of the review is interested in. But I think there is no harm in presenting the review in an entertaining way, perhaps with some kind of angle. Additionally, I have a rule to always respect the time and effort of writing a book. An author will have put a significant slice of their life into it and it is mean to focus unduly on the negative. I try to concentrate on the positives, since they are to be found in almost every book. Only once did I make it clear that I really disliked a book and I had already made sure that the author was successful and famous enough to take it. It’s fine to speak truth to power. Just avoid at all costs speaking power to truth.

Neither defence nor attack

For some time I’ve been trying to find a sweet spot in philosophy that’s neither defence nor attack but something in between; or something else entirely. So much of our discipline consists in making objections to other positions or responding to the objections concerning one’s own. I get the point of that, and can do it when required, but I also think that it can distract us from what our real business should be.

I was happy to get a paper accepted in a major journal this week but must confess sorrow that it was a largely reactive piece. I try not to do this. The dilemma I faced was that while I didn’t want to dismantle what another philosopher had said, there was a series of unanswered and high-profile objections to ideas I cared about. It’s hard not to reply in such an instance since, if I didn’t, others might assume that I couldn’t.

I’d much rather explore and develop new ideas than defend old ones from the misunderstandings of critics. Nevertheless, that can be a duty, at times, especially as I always think it’s an honour when others take time to engage with my work. The creative work that really excites me, however, is to articulate a new position or new perspective on a long-standing philosophical problem. This is where I think the real breakthroughs and progress are to be made. To develop a new insight on the free will question, for instance, or the problem of consciousness, or the relation between particulars and universals. That’s what I see as the work.

In that respect, I’m more pleased with the final chapter of my recent A Philosopher Looks at Sport. The issue of inclusion in sport has become a matter of heated debate in philosophical circles and wider society and I find much of that discussion toxic. Rather than attack the views of others, though, I had a free space in which to articulate a vision of what sport could be, or at least to push the idea that this is the question that should concern us. My interest is in a philosophy that is forward looking, in a whole variety of senses, rather than trawling through all the tangles in which we have formerly found ourselves.

The positive approach is the one that I hope will ultimately win out. The best philosophy strikes a balance between detailed argument and articulation of an attractive vision. The latter gets neglected if we are merely defending old ground or attacking that of others. What have we got to say? What is our new contribution? Will someone in the future be able to state our view of the way things are? They won’t be able to do that with work that concerns only the way things are not. Defence and attack seem only able to give us the negative. Greater progress will always be made in the discovery of what is rather than what is not and we would do well to prioritise our efforts accordingly.

Positionality in philosophy

Part of the code of being a proper analytic philosopher is to never argue ad hominem. We teach our students that, while they can attack a philosophical position, they should not attack the person who produced it. It doesn’t matter if the philosopher was mean-spirited or cruel to animals since the arguments they have produced stand alone and must be judged only on the basis of their content and validity. It would be a terrible critique of Hegel’s philosophy, for instance, to say that he always looked grumpy.

Nevertheless, I am starting to wonder whether philosophy is naïve when it adopts this absolute stance. My first degree wasn’t pure philosophy. I took humanities, majoring in history of ideas: a discipline in which we always looked to understand a philosophy in its historical, social and economic context. Analytic philosophy instead attempts to produce a view as if from nowhere. The problem is that every view is a view from somewhere.

An ahistorical, decontextualized approach ignores what social scientists call positionality. We should acknowledge that everyone has a position within the social structures of their world and this position can be reflected in their interests: in what they write about and the attitudes they adopt towards certain matters. Philosophers are not used to declaring any conflicts of interests because, they might believe, they would never be swayed to write anything other than the truth, no matter who pays them to do their work. But I don’t see why philosophers should be better than anyone else at rising above their positionality.

As universities look to decolonize their curricula, good practice would be for us all to acknowledge that our work represents a certain perspective and location within history. Most of the great names of the Western analytic tradition were writing from a position of privilege, often in the service of a patron. We can engage with the ideas of Hobbes’s Leviathan, for instance, but should not be afraid to question why he wrote it, whose interests it was serving, and whether those interests could have taken Hobbes in a certain direction. I’m sure they did. And could it be that Hume’s unpleasant political views also permeated his works of supposed pure philosophy and influenced his conclusions? Again, I think so.

If this is right, then I ought to reflect on my own positionality. From what historical perspective do I write? I probably need more training from a social scientist to do this properly but, as an initial attempt, I’d declare something like the following: I am a white man employed at a university in the global north in the early 21st century. Some of my research has been funded by a research council and some by a charitable trust. I am left-leaning, without physical disabilities and pro-LGBTQIA+ rights. I grew up in an England struggling to cope with the dissolution of its empire.

I have tried listing the features of myself that I think are most significant. They might not be the ones that truly have the biggest influence on my work and someone else is probably best placed to judge that. I can only report my self-perception. But as an exercise in reflection on my own privilege, I think it is worthwhile to produce such a statement.

Bravery is not enough

Yesterday was traumatic. Medical staff fought for the life of Danish International player Christian Eriksen after his apparent sudden cardiac arrest during play, all of it broadcast live to millions of viewers at home. It was probably the first time they had witnessed CPR administered in a real situation and it was clear that a well-known player might die before our eyes. A few hours later came the wonderful news that Christian had pulled through.

Athlete protection has become the hottest and most disputed topic in philosophy in the last year or so, which came as a surprise to me. The issue has produced the most passionate disputes among twitter philosophers that I’ve ever seen so I’m sure that those who really care about athlete safety will be all over this incident. It is clear that the best preparation and protocols were in place and, as far as I can tell, they succeeded. I am sure that there will be subsequent enquiries into the care the player received prior to playing. Does the sport do all it can to monitor cardiac health? Are the physical demands of modern football too severe?

Matters of athlete protection also applied to Eriksen’s teammates. The story we received was that it was their decision to play the rest of the game, after a break of almost two hours. But were their best interests served? If it was traumatic for us at home, imagine how much more so it was for those young men, witnessing at such close quarters a personal friend almost die, playing the same sport that they are expected to continue playing. After the restart, they were clearly not at their best. At elite level, you cannot afford even a 5% drop in your game. A couple of individual mistakes saw them lose the game to Finland 1-0.

Sport frequently promotes bravery and heroism as virtues. I see them also as sometimes unhelpful and unhealthy masculine values. When I witnessed my father’s cardiac arrest, I did not get the help I should have in dealing with the trauma. A few weeks after he died, I was scheduled to give a talk at Birmingham University and did not want to cancel. I pushed on, but it went very badly. I couldn’t think of philosophy at that time. I wish that someone had advised me to take time out, not to be brave but to accept and respect my own vulnerability in the situation. More recently, I repeated the same mistake when my mother died. I didn’t ask for help and was back at work the day after the funeral. Someone told me to be strong. That was terrible advice.

I’m sure those Danish players were under no direct pressure to finish the match. Values can guide our actions in indirect ways, though. Sport is full of fantastic stories of victories in adversity, of winning it for a stricken teammate, of proving your worth when the chips are down. But yesterday was an ordeal that will stay with them for life and I do not think that playing out a defeat really helped them process that trauma. Nor would a victory have been much better. We need a sport that recognises, first and foremost, that it is played by human beings who, like everyone else, sometimes need our care. Someone should have told them not to play, to put themselves first, to be with their friends and families, to acknowledge their vulnerability, to be all the things an athlete is not supposed to be but a person undoubtedly is. Bravery and independence can take us only so far in these situations.

Buying a voice

There’s a dirty and difficult subject that I can avoid discussing no longer. We have to talk about money: that filthy lucre, as the Bible calls it.

I’m reading Plato’s Protagoras in which, as usual, Socrates takes a swipe at the sophists. The historical Protagoras was one of the first and possibly greatest sophists and, from what I can tell, was a notable philosopher in his own right. Socrates would not accept him as such, though. Philosophers pursued the truth whereas sophists, he insisted, were compromised because they took payment from students and would teach them to argue for either side of a debate. Protagoras is willing to teach wrongly for the sake of money (an act again referenced Biblically, in Titus 1: 11).

I’ve sometimes said that Socrates was my philosophical hero but this is mainly on the grounds that he saw philosophy as an antidote to common sense. I still like this conceptualisation of my discipline. As teachers of philosophy within an educational institution, however, we have to acknowledge that we are all sophists now. We receive payment for discussing philosophy and we show our students how to construct arguments for any position. We are not concerned for their souls, these days, and certainly are not there to tell them what is true and what is false. They must decide that themselves. Teachers have all become sophisticated by the system.

Protagoras had an excellent argument for his own sophistry. You are more likely to understand and remember something if you pay for it. We don’t value as much something that we get for free. I am sure that universities around the world will welcome this argument.

Granted that Protagoras has a point, I still think it’s good to give something freely even if it’s not all good to receive that way. Having posted a few pieces, WordPress emailed me this week and asked if I’d like to ‘monetise’ my blog. I’m not sure what that would involve – advertising perhaps – but, no, I definitely don’t want to monetise it. I’m delighted if anyone reads my words here. Communication concerns a precious human connection and I wouldn’t want to jeopardise that in any way. I’m just pleased that I have a voice.

I am lucky enough to be paid for some of the writing I do and I am grateful generally to have academic employment in a world of so much poverty. I wouldn’t blame anyone who takes payment, given the world’s socioeconomic arrangements. But it is liberating on some occasions, when we can, to do something just for its own sake.

Socrates saw the pursuit of truth as its own reward. I admire also a writer such as Alan Moore, who has turned down millions of dollars for movie adaptations of his work. To be able to do that already assumes a certain level of privilege, though. Even Socrates had that (note the references to slaves at the start of the Protagoras, 310a-c). Sadly, we have a world in which the model of knowledge production is based on privilege. That’s something I’d love to see destroyed. Historically disempowered people also need a voice and that should not be something that you have to buy.

Overproduction

This week I heard of a radical plan that would allow academics to publish only one paper every three years. I was shocked at first by such a drastic alteration to the research landscape. On reflection, it’s not too bad an idea. Just think of the stride forward in quality. If we could publish so infrequently, we would think very hard about our work and make sure it is absolutely our best possible effort. Journal editors and referees would have far fewer submissions to contend with so we could also expect a better decision process too.

Of course, the plan was purely speculative, in conversation with an academic friend. It won’t happen. But it did lead me to reflect on some of the self-defeating working practices we have adopted. Specifically, I am thinking of a system that rewards overproduction and with which we drone-scholars have complied.

One of my first proper jobs was as a low-grade civil servant in the Leeds North branch of the DHSS administering the benefits system in the early-80s. I was a member of a trade union called the CPSA. The branch had a legendary shop-steward called Derek Naden, who was famous throughout the whole Leeds Association. Management trembled in fear at the mention of his name. He could call a walk out at a moment’s notice if the thermometer fell one degree below the agreed minimum room temperature. Derek always warned us about the dangers of overwork. Consequently, many of us sat drinking tea for much of the day since management caved to union demands for generous rest periods. The job was so boring that at times I wanted to do more, just to pass the time, but union members always warned against setting too high a standard and introducing unsustainable working patterns. Then the 84-85 miners’ strike happened and that golden age was gone.

I left the civil service to take a degree but I was still never far from the world of work. I had a string of summer and part-time jobs to make ends meet. One summer I got a job working for a private contractor who had jobs from the local council to cut grass, clear vacated council houses, demolish dangerous buildings, and so on. Privatisation and outsourcing were now the trend, all in the name of efficiency. We were divided into two teams of three and I found that the team leaders had reached an informal agreement between themselves to never do more than nine jobs a day. Sometimes we had finished those nine jobs by lunchtime but we would still do no more. We would go back to one of our houses and drink tea while watching a VHS movie. Never more than nine jobs.

It may seem that we were lazy, that Derek Naden was a mischief-maker, and we were exploiting the power workers had at the time, but I think there was at least some wisdom there that has been lost. Many academics have accepted and even embraced wholeheartedly unsustainable practices. I know that, earlier in my career, I did too. I’ve been guilty of overproduction, working every weekend, answering emails at 11.00pm, walking off transatlantic flights straight into the lecture theatre, wanting better teaching scores than my peers, and the sin of foregoing tea breaks when I was up against a deadline. We are in a profession where we love our discipline and this lures us into more and more unpaid work. Quality of life, health and well-being, are put on hold. Fortunately, I can still recall Derek Naden’s voice warning us “It’s the thin end of the wedge”.  

I have future book plans, certainly. But I have also begun training to walk the Pennine Way next summer. I now have plans that are outside of work. Perhaps this means some other professor will get more papers published than me that year. So be it. I do love philosophy and I have things I want to say before I retire. Yet we all have a role to play in fostering a responsible working environment. Neither our research nor our students are best served if we are constantly frazzled, burnt out or indisposed.

Nothing to see here

This week I had the fun of working on the cover design for my book, Absence and Nothing: the Philosophy of What There Is Not. It’s the most involved I’ve been in the design of a book and I was very pleased with how accommodating Oxford University Press were.

Given the subject matter, I wanted the cover to have letters that were absent though their shadows were present. You ‘read’ the title only by seeing its shadow. I rejected a couple of proposed designs that made the letters look too solid, and we agreed on a very minimalist solution.

There was a remaining worry that the words were a little too ghostly and might be difficult to read. Would this put off potential buyers who were browsing the covers? I hope not. I remembered something that happened years ago when I was a lecturer at Nottingham. I was given a study leave and wanted to put a sign on my door informing students. In the middle of a sheet of an A4, I typed ‘I am on study leave’ in the tiniest possible font. I think it was 6pt.

Surprisingly, absolutely everyone who passed by read the sign. No one could resist leaning in to see what it said. Even I, when I was passing my own door, couldn’t stop myself from looking closer. Someone passing for the 20th time couldn’t help looking. Michael Clark was my Head of Department back then and eventually asked me why the notice was so small. ‘I wanted to attract attention’, I could reply with good evidence.

How does this relate to the proposed book cover? I think most of us are curious beings and don’t want to miss out on potential new information. If something intrigues us, we will make an effort to get it. Similarly, if I want my kids to listen to me, I’ve found it better to speak more quietly than to shout. The title is not completely easy to read, I admit. It’s not exactly hard but if someone glances and sees the design, the element of uncertainty might produce a double-take. If so, it will get more noticed because of the slight doubt as to what it says. We are natural problem-solvers, after all, and sometimes it’s nice to play with that.

Thanks to Constantine Sandis for the title for this blog.