Nina Power: A related question. Your conception of philosophy is that it is essentially ‘empty’, but how do you see the role of philosophy with regard to this need to generate new ideas? What role does philosophy have that perhaps it didn’t ten years ago? Is there a resurgence of interest in philosophy in general? The number of students applying to study philosophy (and economics!) has risen a lot since the financial crisis. Does philosophy have a task?
Alain Badiou: I think there has been a long sequence since the eighties where the dominant philosophy was in fact without interest. I mean, why philosophy if all it says is that it is a very good world? It’s democratic, it’s better than other worlds, it’s not perfect, but perfection is not a good thing. And so in that sort of orientation, philosophy becomes two different things: a media one, which promotes ideological propaganda for the state of affairs, and the academic disciple. But in the end if philosophy is something between public propaganda and academic speciality, it’s not very interesting. So philosophy was not in general, with some exceptions as always, something which could interest young people because it was without an critical or existential function. I think it is a little different today, there is a new generation, there are young philosophers who are interested in a new figure of philosophy: neither purely academic speciality nor purely ideological propaganda for the world as it is. I think it also explains that the interest in philosophy is also a political one. Not because philosophy is directly politics, I don’t think it is, but because this new philosophical possibility is in relationship to the political situation, but not reducible to it. There is a subjective necessity today to struggle against reforms and so on, and to have some ideas. If philosophy can in the end be free from the media operations on the one side, and enclosure on the other, it can be useful for the development of the movement, because the weakness of the movement itself is an ideological one, not a practical one. [from this interview at Infinte Thought]
The Leiter debacle has got me thinking. (If you’re unaware, catch up here, here, here, here, and here.) Why exactly was Leiter so threatened at the mention of currents in European philosophy of which he was unaware? Why was he so shockingly reactive and defensive in response to an innocent and friendly tip?
I don’t think, as Graham suggests, it’s because he’s just a bully. Of course he is, if the condescending tone of the posted correspondence is any indication. Yet I think it’s more likely that his response was motivated by fear, however conscious it may be. It certainly evinces an objective fear on his part, and likely represents a similar affection on the part of the species of philosophy he represents. And I use ‘species’ here in an overtly Nietzschean sense.
It seems odd to me that Leiter has written so much on Nietzsche, and even edited and contributed to a volume entitled The Future for Philosophy, when his demeanor is demonstrative of the very reactive, ‘scholarly’ values against which Nietzsche preaches his philosophy of the future. Now to a certain extent, Leiter’s arrogance and condescension could be defended as Nietzschean virtues, as bold and dominating expressions of power, et cetera. This could be the case, if these traits didn’t belie a deep distrust of any type of philosophy that doesn’t conform to scholarly specialization and ‘cornering’ as Nietzsche puts it. Indeed, Leiter’s mocking contempt for thought not doled out by the philo-scholarly division of labor, that does not submit to the ‘values of today’ and instead repeats that sort of solitary, unsupported and untimely thought that gave birth to philosophy in the first place, is about as un-Nietzschean a disposition as one can imagine. His attempt to dismiss out of hand any philosophical work that does not conform to his high scholarly standards, that is not domesticated and absorbed into the established values, betrays nothing less than what Nietzsche disparagingly names ‘herd morality’.
If Leiter does display forcefulness and arrogance, it is only to serve the values of obedience and commonality, that is, the values of the scholar and ‘academic specialty’. Now, this is not to say that we should champion anyone who claims to be a philosopher, so long as what they are doing is ‘different’ and uncommon. If anyone recognizes the value and importance of study, of respect for the philosophical tradition, and of rigorous engagement with that tradition, it is Nietzsche. Take, for instance, this quote from §211 of Beyond Good and Evil:
Those philosophical laborers after the noble model of Kant and Hegel have to determine and press into formulas, whether in the realm of logic or political (moral) thought or art, some great data of valuations – that is, former positings of values, creations of “truths.” It is for these investigators to make everything that has happened and been esteemed so far easy to look over, easy to think over, intelligible and manageable, to abbreviate everything long, even “time,” and to overcome the entire past – an enormous and wonderful task in whose service every subtle pride, every tough will can certainly find satisfaction. Genuine philosophers, however, are commanders and legislators: they say, “thus it shall be!” They first determine the Whither and For What of man, and in so doing have at their disposal the preliminary labor of all philosophical laborers, all who have overcome the past. With a creative hand they reach for the future, and all that is and has been becomes a means for them, an instrument, a hammer.
Scholarly rigor and engagement with tradition are not to be abandoned; rather, they are of the highest value to any philosopher. But for the philosopher who is more than a mere scholarly laborer, serving the interests of today and the established values of the academy, for those Nietzsche names philosophers of the future, these activities are not the end of philosophy but a means to an overturning of established values.
I don’t know if Leiter personally identifies as a ‘Nietzschean’, whatever that might entail, but he has certainly done enough scholarly work on Nietzsche that he should realize he is precisely the type of ‘philosopher’ Nietzsche polemically rails against! I have not read his collection The Future for Philosophy, and I do not doubt the scholarly merit or interest of its contents, but if the title is the citation of Nietzsche it appears to be, then I can’t help but wonder how such a scholarly volume serves to put philosophical labor in service of an overturning of the very values of domestication it formally represents. What I mean is that this volume, whatever its contents might be, nonetheless has the form of the ‘values of today’, those of academic legitimation and specialization. This is the form of philosophy as a special discipline whose intent is to produce works about and for that discipline, and to legitimize intellectual products that conform to this intention.
Leiter’s repulsive conduct regarding Jacques Derrida’s death is only more evidence that he cannot tolerate any ‘allegedly’ philosophical work that does not strictly conform to the scholarly standards he represents. Derrida of course was as much a scholar as anyone, as specialized and focused on intra-philosophical, or at least intra-academic, commentary as anyone, as submissive to the extant infrastructure of universities and publishing houses as anyone. And yet the formal and substantive deviations of his prose from the domesticated norm were enough for Leiter to spit on the grave of a fellow philosopher.
This sheds new light on Leiter’s post about open access philosophy journals, and his venomous replies to Micheal’s responses which sparked this whole debacle. He bemoans the lack of open access publication in philosophy as compared to other fields, especially the sciences. Yet why has it been so easy for prominent science journals to adopt open access? Presumably because their intention is to enable members of their fields to more easily access and build upon that information. I’d assume that Leiter desires a similar conversion by prominent philosophy journals for the similar effect it would have for students and scholars of philosophy. Leiter’s reaction to Michael’s comment that there are, in contemporary ‘continental’ circles, several open access journals, as if Michael was behaving objectionably in even mentioning these publications, becomes legible against the background of this desire. The reaction was likely provoked by the ethic embodied by these journals (explicitly or not), one not focused on intra-disciplinary distribution, but rather on a political praxis aimed at overcoming established values attached to the privatization of intellectual property and academic seclusion of philosophical discourse and motives.
Such a praxis has, to more or less of a degree, been a principle feature of contemporary European philosophy since at least the turn of the last century. We see evidence of it in the political engagements and public affiliations of figures like Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, Agamben, Negri and Badiou; in the open rejection of capitalist-parliamentarianism and support of communist experiments by figures like Sartre, Lukacs, Althusser and Merleau-Ponty (Zizek would even include Heidegger [pdf] on this list); in the significant status of feminist and queer theory in the works of de Beauvoir, Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva, Butler, and post-colonial theory in Fanon and Said…the list goes on, and this only touches on a few of the biggest names. If contemporary European philosophy owes a debt to Nietzsche, insofar as it has from the beginning been characterized, across all its diversity, by an aim to overturn established values and think what new values are possible, it owes as much of a debt to Freud and Marx, insofar as it has been characterized not only by cloistered academic reflection, but by the question of praxis, of actively intervening in the established social structure itself, rather than passively analyzing and criticizing it. These questions of praxis have not always been successful, but nor have they been universally ineffectual. Moreover, we should learn from Nietzsche that the success of these past labors should only be determined by their usefulness for our own, lest we continue to confine ourselves to reflective impassivity.
These questions of praxis, of how we are to actually overturn established values, are the questions of contemporary European philosophy, and they have in the last two decades or so become only more sharply and clearly articulated and answered. I cannot speak for so-called analytic philosophy, as I have had very little exposure to it, but as far as I know the most radical political positions it has encompassed are the sort of multicultural liberalism of figures like Rorty that mirror established values rather than questioning them. As for Leiter, from what I’ve seen on his blog, he seems to have similar liberal commitments.
Now to be clear, I am not suggesting that the value of a philosophy be measured by the political positions it is used to endorse – far from it. What I’m claiming is that there is a formal disparity between European and analytic philosophy concerning the ‘subjective position’ of its practitioners (and I mean subjective here in the same sense as Badiou does above), and it comes down to a perceived necessity to break with established values and revalue them for the former, and to support and enforce them for the latter. Again, I don’t mean to speak for everyone on the other side, but if Leiter is at all exemplary, then this judgment should have at least some truth. So, as Badiou says in the exerpt at the beginning of this post, the point is not to make philosophy directly political, but to have a political interest in or form of philosophy, to attach philosophy to our political situation and use it to ask what is or might be possible in this situation, and more over, to question the values that already hold sway. Philosophy should be in the service of reevaluating institutions like intellectual property, academic specialization, and scholarly legitimation. The goal is not to make of philosophy an undisciplined free-for-all, but rather to take our discipline into our own hands, as per Nietzsche.
So the difference between contemporary European philosophy and analytic philosophy – at least as represented by Leiter – is less one of content or the quality of content than of form. The difference is between philosophy in the service of critical intervention in the socio-political establishment, and philosophy in the service of academic legitimation and specialization. Moreover, the latter is not strictly opposed to the former; it can and should be subordinated to the former. But Leiter represents those who would pursue the latter to the exclusion and denigration of the former. To repeat, I don’t know to what degree he actually holds this opinion and the fear associated with it, but as his conduct in the discussion with Graham and Michael demonstrates, he objectively or structurally exemplifies it, by way of his status and role in institutions like the Philosophical Gourmet Report. And as his interest and engagement with certain parts of the ‘continental’ tradition indicates, this disparity can’t be drawn between two substantial traditions, but rather, is between two subjective stances regarding philosophy as a whole and its purpose.
In his “Author as Producer”, Walter Benjamin claims that truly revolutionary art is not characterized solely by its content, but by its form, that is, by the forms of production and distribution that actualize it. The author who challenges these forms, and whose work is inseparable from formal innovations in its production and circulation – he or she is the author of works of a revolutionary quality and impact. For Benjamin, intellectuals take sides in the class struggle by virtue of their willingness or unwillingness to intervene in and undermine the existing means of intellectual production – universities, publishing houses, and journals included. So while Leiter may have a blog and may call for more open access journals, his reaction of disgust and dismissal to philosophical work that not only uses but champions innovations like internet publication and digital distribution, work that aims to transform the means of philosophical production rather than supplement them, is nonetheless perfectly understandable. To Leiter, we are ‘betrayers of our class of origin’.