Ahhhh, SPEP. It's a guilty pleasure for most of us. The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy conferences happen only once every year, and for folks like me anyway, it's about the only chance I get to see my far-flung friends. Sure, it's also a chance to reunite with the Continental Philosophy Diaspora, to see what's new and hot and exciting in our field, to glad-hand with publishing reps, and to get cheap(er) books... but, admit it, for a lot of people, SPEP is also the organizing body for one helluva an annual cocktail party.
However, officially, SPEP is the professional organization that represents European/Continental philosophy and, by extension, European/Continental philosophers... or, more accurately, mostly American philosophers working in the European/Continental tradition. There is a long history that explains why SPEP, sometime in the early 1960's, became necessary, first as an alternative and later a supplement to the APA (American Philosophical Association). I can't go into all of that history here, but you can read a short version of it on the SPEP website. According to the SPEP Constitution, the purpose of the organization is "to promote scholarship, teaching, research, and publication affiliated with phenomenology, existentialism, and other traditions associated with continental philosophy." And for most of it's history, SPEP has done just that. As they used to say in the Virginia Slims ads, we've come a long way, baby.
So what does SPEP have to do with the issues we have been discussing herein-- i.e., the diminishing number of viable Continental graduate programs and the regularity with which one of those (already few) programs rises to prominence at the expense of another? My basic (and I think pretty non-radical) claim is that this problem ought to be of serious concern to SPEP. Of course, I don't know what goes on in the Executive Committee meetings, so maybe this already is of some concern to SPEP... but I do know what is reported at the annual business meetings, and I can't say that I've heard anything about this in any official capacity for at least the decade that I have been attending meetings. (When Walter Brogran was in charge of the SPEP Advocacy Committee, I felt like I heard an inkling of these kinds of concerns, but far less so now.) But we do have an Advocacy Committee... and I think that we may also have something that needs advocating.
One problem, on my view, is that the original aim of the Advocacy Committee was "to take a more active role in promoting and furthering [SPEP members'] interests in relation to the wider philosophical community." (My emphasis added) That is, we originally needed the Advocacy Committee to advocate on behalf if SPEP members to the APA, something which I think we can all agree that committee has been largely successful in doing. The alleged antagonism between these two organizations, which necessitated said advocacy, pre-dates me a bit, so I can't comment too much on how things were. But my experience now is that there isn't much left of a vigorous "Us-vs.-Them" battle between SPEP and the APA, (where the APA was presumed to represent a "threat" to the survival of Continental philosophy).
Rather, there is an "Us-vs.-Us" problem.
It's not necessary to rehash it again here, as I think the problems have been sufficiently elaborated in the discussion following my previous post. Let me instead forward the following proposition: If it is the case that SPEP is the professional organization that represents the interests of Continental philosophers, then the dwindling number of viable Continental grad programs (which, of course, are the primary supply source for future SPEP-ers) ought to be, in my humble opinion, Agenda Item Number One for the organization. So, the question is: "is this a problem that calls for some intervention on the part of SPEP?" or, less charitably formulated, "does the fact that this problem doesn't seem to be an explicit issue for SPEP possibly implicate SPEP as part of the problem?"
I say "duh, YES" to the first question. To the second, I'm reserving judgment...
I don't have a ready-to-hand manifesto laying out a plan of action for how I think SPEP should intervene. (Well, I kind of do... but you'll have to keep reading.) There are a host of obvious problems with even suggesting that SPEP could effectively intervene. But, inasmuch as SPEP already has a history of thinking about itself as "promoting and furthering [its members'] interests in the wider philosophical community," then it seems like we ought to be able to recognize when something is broken in our own ranks and is prohibiting the promotion and furtherance of our interests.
Let me acknowledge (and try to head off at the pass) a few of these obvious objections:
Objection #1: SPEP cannot tell individual departments how to build (or re-build) their graduate philosophy programs. Such decisions fall under the purview of those institutions, are subject to a host of considerations known only to those institutions, and are limited by resources provided only by those institutions.
Of course, this is true. SPEP has no say in how Penn State or Memphis or DePaul or whatever other school with a Continental philosophy program decides to construct its department. Our SPEP dues do not contribute to the offers and counter-offers that motivate senior faculty to move (or to stay put), nor do they supplement graduate student stipends. However, I would argue that it might be the case that SPEP (and its members) underestimate the kind of influence they can and do have on the way Continental philosophy departments do what they do. More on that below.
Objection #2: Professional philosophers are people, too. Membership in SPEP does not mean that we have forfieted our right to determine the direction of our own lives: where we work, when and if we move, how much we get paid, etc. Even if SPEP were to "strongly suggest" that more people stay put in order to preserve the integrity of more programs, nobody is obligated to toe the Party Line.
Again, conceded. Although more than one person in the previous discussion suggested something akin to an "academic draft," which may not be the worst idea ever. Look at the med school "matching" model. That works pretty well. At any rate, my suggested "interventions" will be far more tame...
Objection #3: SPEP is not a union. Its obligations to its members are qualitatively different, and its membership does not constitute a "bargaining unit." The "interests" of the SPEP membership are not unified enough for the organization to step in and try to prescribe/proscribe a course of action for the whole of Continental philosophy.
Maybe. I'm not so sure. The history of the interaction between SPEP and the APA does suggest that, for some time now, SPEP has viewed itself very much on the model of a union. And that same history also suggests that SPEP has some experience with prescribing courses of action that are (perceived to be) in the service of protecting the integrity and survival of Continetal philosophy as a "whole." Maybe we need to have a larger debate about whether or not the problems we have discussed here are in fact real problems, whether or not they really pose a threat to the integrity of our little corner of academia... but the beginning of that conversation, I think, must at least acknowledge the possibility that Continental graduate programs are diminishing in number and stability. And, hopefully, we can all at least agree that as the grad programs go, so goes the rest of us.
Objection #4: There's no problem here. This is just a natural cycle. It happens in every discipline and subdiscipline of academia.
Describing something as "natural" does not mean that its not also still problematic. See: the majority of literature from race theory, feminism and queer theory. Jeez.
I will now be brief and to the point. Here are a few modest suggestions for how I think SPEP may be able to effectively intervene in this trend:
1. Establish a committee-- separate from the Advocacy Committee, but perhaps reporting to it-- that is comprised of one representative from every self-identified "Continental" graduate program. Require (and fund) biannual meetings of those representatives to discuss the number, stability, and health of graduate programs in Continental philosophy. Make the report of that committee a part of the regular SPEP business meeting.
This is the first step, I think, to "officially" acknowledging these issues as issues of genuine and immediate concern to SPEP and its membership. The monster you know is better than the monster you don't know.
2. Set some standards for what counts as a "Continental" philosophy grad program.
I know this is going to be an unpopular suggestion, but I think this can be done in relatively non-objectionable ways. For example, "any graduate program with 3 or more tenured philosophers working in SPEP-focused traditions (European philosophy, race theory, feminism, aesthetics, whatever) constitutes a SPEP-recognized program." The point is not to "rank" these programs (God forbid!), but rather to set some standard for judging when they might be in trouble. It would also be a way to clearly identify, for job market purposes, which people are coming out of "legit" programs in Continental philosophy.
3. More prizes for junior faculty scholarship. Prizes with money.
One (non-poaching) way to "build" new programs is to develop junior scholars. This can't be the sole responsibility of the individual departments, many of which are strapped for resources, time and mentors. At last year's business meeting for SPEP, the Treasurer reported that the organization is about $10 grand in the black. Let's "incentivize."
4. Require the SPEP Executive Director to deliver a "State of the Union" address at every annual meeting. This address should include explicit references to the number and health of Continental grad programs in any given year.
The point here-- and this is really my major point-- is that we need to talk, talk, talk about this. In public places. All together. The only way to develop the kind of organizational ethos in which SPEP members see themselves as personally invested in the survival (and strengthening) of our graduate programs is to make the recent diminishment of those programs a central component of our public discourse. Obviously, the ideal situation would be one in which the strength of each of the individual programs is tied to the strength of the others. This can only happen, I think, if SPEP makes a real and concrete effort to re-orient the way that its membership prioritizes their investments in Continental philosophy.
That's it. Discuss.