Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Speaking of Philosophy

The picture to the left there is from my dissertation defense party, which took place at a much-beloved dive bar in Philadelphia (Oscar's Tavern) where I have imbibed almost equal amounts of libations and philosophical conversation. As a matter of fact, this setting (and settings very much like it) is about my favorite mise-en-scène for field-testing ideas and arguments. Almost nothing can rival a good old-fashioned pub talk for separating the wheat from the chaff of descriptive and prescriptive claims. And if you choose your interlocutors right-- smart, quick, agile thinkers (with strong livers)-- then you can have your mettle really tested in ways that sitting at home, alone, with a book and a laptop will never achieve. I feel very fortunate to have spent a lot of time with just such smart, quick and agile thinkers in a variety of pubs and cafes over the years, and I can (quite literally) trace exact quotations from some of my written work back to these very conversations. However, for the most part, this is not how "professional" philosophical conversations happen. In our profession, somewhat regrettably, the conventional practice is still to straight-"read" prepared papers to an audience at conferences. There are always Q&A sessions following, but they don't have the same kind of philosophical flexibility or spontaneity as a "real" conversation-- that is, one not principally focused on a text.

The always-provocative Mikhail over at Perverse Egalitarianism has begun an interesting discussion concerning what the "proper" medium is for "doing" philosophy ("Philosophy: Oral or Written Medium?"). He was responding to Graham Harman's observation that we actually don't want to hear philosophers speak spontaneously or off-the-cuff, in the way that we might expect of politicians, because "they wouldn't have anything interesting to say." When philosophers say something interesting in interviews, according to Harman, it is only because their statements are vetted and edited post-interview... which means, of course, that we're actually impressed with what they wrote and not exactly what they said. So, Harman concludes:

Philosophy is largely a written medium, and skill in oral debate is generally overvalued here.

Mikhail disagrees. And so do I. Mikhail writes (and I hope he'll forgive me for the long quotation, but he has a snarky way of putting things that, at least in this case, seems to performatively enhance his point):

I always thought that philosophers valued a kind of oral ability to debate, to encounter the points of others in a lively spontaneous exchange - or is it just me? Wouldn’t it strike you as awkward if in a philosophical exchange one simply said something like: “I will have to get back to you on that, I will think about it and write an essay later and send it to you"...

I think as much as I agree with Harman’s assertion that philosophy is largely a written medium, I wonder if this statement should be taken as simply describing the reality as it is and therefore should continue to be, or if one might say that philosophy is largely a written medium, but doesn’t it have to be?...

I don’t think that it should be one way or the other, of course, but I always thought that interviews or lectures or conferences for that matter are good in terms of seeing the philosopher at work in the present time, not mediated by written and rewritten texts and editing - I suppose that’s why I think that people who read their conference papers are lame: why bother if you could just email your text to others and get written response? Why not just talk about it? Maybe all conferences would benefit from a good pub session - no papers, just talking. Afraid of saying something stupid or banal or boring? Well, go to your room and write an article for a journal then - “Rebeer anyone?”

Let me say, for the record, that my appreciation of "oral" philosophy is not about privileging the (alleged) immediacy of the relation between idea-and-speech over the (alleged) extra-mediation between idea-and-writing. But there is something to Socrates' arguments in the Phaedrus (275e) that one of the drawbacks of writing is that it cannot answer questions , modify itself, change directions, or come to its own defense. What I appreciate about "spontaneous, off-the-cuff" philosophical conversation is that it gives me a chance to measure not only the strength of my interlocutor's ideas, but also the agility of his or her thinking. And, of course, it gives my interlocutor the chance to evaluate the same in return. I don't think that is an "overvalued" skill (as Harman claims). I think we value that skill in philosophy classes every day, where we try to cultivate in our students the value of good thinking, and not merely the value of good thoughts.

Finally, I think that blogs are an interesting kind of mid-way medium between philosophical speech and writing. Obviously, they're written, but the ones that I follow regularly aren't "written" in the same way that one would write a conference paper (including this one!). There is more spontaneity to them, and they approximate as closely as possible the advantages of speaking in their "comments" sections (where the "writer" can and does modify herself, change directions, or come to her own defense). That was part of the motivation for my decision to incorporate blogging in my classrooms, to reinforce the importance of both philosophical thinking and philosophical thoughts.


Mikhail Emelianov said...

i slightly blushed at "always-provocative" and then quickly tried to hide it with a frown - sad but true. you make great points, i think i agree with you here.

anotherpanacea said...

While I do think it's true there's something valuable about philosophical conversation, about thinking as a public activity, I'm not sure it's best displayed at the big conferences, where careers and reputations are made or broken. As you rightly point out, it seems to flourish at the bar afterwards, generally provoked by the one truly great (or truly terrible) paper of the day.

I think the difference has to do with the status of digression: at a conference, a fifteen minute side-argument is a clear violation of communal norms, but at the bar afterwards it can lead to a richer conversation. The best small conferences do provoke this kind of thinking out loud, and in my experience, at least, it's because of a continuity between paper-reading and bar attendance: the group is cohesive enough that the round tables generally star the same crew that stayed up until 1 AM the night before talking about music, and they're less stuffy about acknowledging the overlap and putting it to philosophical work.

In other words, I'm all for thinking out loud with friends, but when it comes to professional colleagues and rivals for paid work, I'd rather keep my thinking to myself and just share the results.