Readers of the Cocoon may have come across this post over at Daily Nous discussing Bharath Vallabha's post over at Rough Ground on his attempt to write a dissertation prospectus in a manner stylistically similar to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. In brief, Vallabha recounts how philosophically liberating he found that mode of exploration. Like others, I can't say how fruitful it was. However, I am interested in one kind of response his piece stimulated.
Although some of the comments over at Daily Nous were sympathetic to Vallabha's piece and manner of exploration, other comments--particularly the following one by "p"--were highly critical:
If you want to write in a non-scholarly style – you better good at it AND you better have something truly important to say. One of the first things I teach students is not to imitate Plato, Montaigne, or Sartre – for the very simple reason that they were original writers in addition to being highly original thinkers and that what we see from them is not their undergraduate papers, but fruits of long and painful labors (as it is also in Wittgenstein). One is surely free to write whichever way one likes – but I should not blame others if what one writes does not seem to merit their efforts.
Although I sort of agree with the last part of this--"p" may be right that one should not blame others if if they judge that one's work "does not seem to merit their efforts" (though I'm not sure this is always the case)--similar statements could be made about philosophy done in any way whatsoever. However one does philosophy, if one wants to enjoy research success, then (perhaps) one cannot complain if others don't "get it." Fair enough. This part of "p's" comment I'm not too concerned about (though it may still be worth bemoaning philosophical closemindedness, etc.).
What I am concerned about is the part where "p" writes, "If you want to write in a non-scholarly style – you better good at it AND you better have something truly important to say." Others at Daily Nous raised the concern that this line of thinking plays into a problematic "cult of genius" (which holds that only geniuses are permitted to do non-standard stuff). While I share that concern, my basic concern about the comment is much more basic. My main concern is with the comment's apparent presupposition that one only ought to do something in philosophy if one can do it darn well and have something super-important to say.
Why am I concerned about this? The answer, in a nutshell, is this: it seems to me to play into a relatively common view/norm--one which seems to me prevalent in many quarters, though not all--that the sole (or at least primary) aim of a professional philosopher should be to outcompete others and "say something truly important"...as though philosophy done any other way, or for any other purpose, is worthless, or worth looking down upon. Yes, I hope most of us would prefer to do philosophy well as opposed to badly (however we understand these things). But still, for all that, I think we should be uncomfortable with the idea--even if it is only implicit--that a philosopher has to have awesome ideas, publish awesome papers in awesome journals, etc., in order to be a worthy member of the discipline doing something philosophically worthwhile, and that if they muck around with thinking or writing in a non-standard way, "they had better be good" at it. What about philosophical exploration for its own sake? What's so wrong with simply trying something for a period of time, even if it doesn't pan out--particularly if one's reason for trying it is that one is frustrated with the manner in which academic philosophy is conventionally done? Further, suppose one decides one just wants to be a great teacher of philosophy, and one thinks it may be worthwhile (in one's own case) to forego conventional conceptions of "research success" (something which, again, one might not care about if one thinks--as some Wittgensteinians do--that analytic philosophy is inherently misguided). What's so wrong with that?
Perhaps the concern that some have with Vallhaba's post concerns the "message it sends" to graduate students. Perhaps the worry is that impressionable grad students will be swayed to do really unconventional things, to their own detriment. If that's the worry, I think it is one that may be worth discussing. As (I hope) we all know, a career in academic philosophy contains many risks, and if one wants to be successful in the discipline, it is important to know what is and is not likely to lead to career success. That being said, let's not treat that as though its the only issue that matters--that the sole aim of a philosopher (even a graduate student) should be career success. For instance, I discovered during my graduate studies and early career as a faculty member that I could never do a certain type of philosophy for a living--not because I'm unable to do it, but because (A) I think it is philosophically wrongheaded, and (B) I couldn't see myself spending my life doing that kind of philosophy. I also didn't see any reason why I should have to spend my life trying to convince others it is philosophically wrongheaded in journal articles. I've always wanted to do philosophy that truly excites me, and what truly excites me are certain types of things but not others. So, while yes, there are risks for doing unconventional things--particularly in graduate school and such--I think this is merely reason to caution people against risky career moves, not a reason to say things like, "You had better do that only if you're going to be damn good at it and have something truly important to say." Informing and cautioning people about career risks can be reasonable and kind. So can a substantive discussion of the merits of different philosophical methods and outlooks. But, or so I think, we should stop there. In particular, we should stop short of implying that others' philosophical methods or interests are only worth pursuing if they are "good at it and have something truly important to say." For not all of us value the same things in philosophy, nor should all of us have to.
Or so say I. What say you?