Tuesday January 27, 2009
Last Saturday I caught the train down to Stoke-on-Trent to spend the day talking philosophy with old friends and colleagues at Staffordshire University. The event was a one-day conference on style and method in philosophy. It is a worthy topic for discussion: if philosophers tend (as they often seem to) towards a certain delirium or madness, then I can’t help thinking that there should not only be method in their madness, but also a good dose of style.
The paper I gave was very much work-in-progress, and was born out of some reflections on the relationship between various technologies of writing and the styles and methods of philosophy. The central question is this: what kind of thinking, what kind of philosophy, does the blog make possible? It is a question of interest to me personally in part because these days, given that I am no longer formally part of a philosophy department, my own practice of philosophy (if this is what one wants to call it) increasingly takes place – in terms of actually writing philosophy – online, through writing blog posts such as this one; and the more I write and reflect on writing in this particular form, the more it seems to me that the particular modes of thinking that go on whilst writing in the form of a blog are very different from the modes of thinking that go on in academic philosophy. So what I want to do in my next few posts is to explore some of the implications of using the blog as a form of philosophy.
To begin, perhaps I should confess (and as Tanabe Hajime insisted, if one wishes to philosophise, first one must confess) that from the start I have been uneasy with the label “philosopher” – and certainly with the label “professional philosopher”. Despite over ten years of involvement with things philosophical, when people ask me what I do, I have never found it easy to say “I’m a philosopher”, and certainly I have never seen myself as a professional philosopher. I sometimes manage to stammer “I’m interested in philosophy” or “I write a bit of philosophy” or even “I teach philosophy”; but to claim that a philosopher is what I am – and a professional philosopher to boot – has always seemed to me to be going too far, to be claiming far too much for myself. I am too painfully aware of my own lack of rigour, of the feebleness and the limitations of my own thought processes, of the way, when I am trying to read Kant or Hegel or Husserl or Frege or Wittgenstein, my mind tends to wander off into pleasant reverie (“Oh, look! A squirrel!”) I’m too aware that I lack the gravitas of speech and thought that seems required of a professional philosopher, too painfully conscious that the things I write and think are, in the end, simple-minded and lacking in sophistication. I’m too afraid of the seriousness and severity that the label “professional philosopher” seems to imply, too alarmed by the forbidding vocabulary that the philosophers habitually employ.
So the blog seems a more comfortable way of engaging with philosophy, a form that is unabashedly amateur, without the kind of authority that one expect of a monograph or textbook. Nobody expects a blog to be authoritative. When you read a blog, you do so with half an eye to the fact that the writer might be deluded, ill-informed, feeble-minded or just plain wrong. And it is refreshing to write in a form in which one no longer feels the need to claim authority, in which it becomes possible to write even if you suspect that there is a good chance that you may be, in fact, deluded, ill-informed, feeble-minded or plain wrong.
The term ‘amateur’ is often used as one of abuse. However, when it comes to philosophy, I’m not sure that it should be seen in this way. Indeed, when it comes to philosophy, there is a case to be made that the professional philosopher is something of an oxymoron. How so? Let me put it like this: the paradox of the world’s oldest profession (and for those of you who have spent too long in the high-minded company, I am not talking about philosophy here) is that love is something that cannot be bought, or so it is widely believed, without falsification: one might want a lover to be subtle, skilled, imaginative, competent, knowledgeable even, but it is hard to imagine a piqued lover complaining that ‘the trouble with you is that you are just not very professional.’ Love is – as etymology indicates – a business for amateurs, if we understand ‘amateur’ not in the weak sense of one who is simply inept and lacks the requisite skills, but instead in the strong sense of one who does what they do out of love, out of passion. And if we want to maintain, as some still do, that philosophy has something to do, however obscure, with the love of wisdom (a question that I might come on to in a later post), then perhaps professionalism is not all it is cracked up to be.
So if this blog does tackle questions of philosophy, it does so in the most amateur fashion. Put another way, I write because I believe that wisdom, or what scarce and simple-minded wisdom we might manage to secure, is something worthy of love and of cherishing. To blog about philosophy is, I suspect, to find a way of thinking and writing that, precisely on account of its amateurism, permits certain kinds of thoughts and hopes and aspirations and confessions and confidences that have become difficult, or perhaps even impossible, within the framework of professional philosophy.
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