Philosophy is DEAD!

It is Five! years since I first started this blog. So let us go back to the beginning…

How To Be a Philosopher

I do my work in cafes. I am of the tribe of lone Mac toting, slow sippers, who ‘hot desk’ for the price of a double espresso. Amidst this tribe of authors, playwrights, English students, designers, entrepreneurs, aspiring or otherwise, I work, I think, I write. The hot young baristas serve me with friendly familiarity, yet with no suspicion of what I do.

I am a philosopher.

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How to be THIS philosopher during Covid-19: Woman (Part I)

Little did I realise that my life — shaped by marginalisation, illness, and privation — would prove ideal preparation for a global pandemic. But there you go. I have skills.

In light of my life experience, it has also been interesting (to say the least) for me to watch the impact of Covid-19 on my professional field of academic philosophy. Without doubt, everyone is trying their very best. Resulting in extraordinary efforts made, generosity shown, compassion given. Nevertheless, it appears to have opened up academic philosophy’s existing fault lines in deep and unexpected ways. Aside from the understandable general panic, as I see it, philosophers have been exposed as desperately unskilled, and more importantly, that many do not realise that it is skills — learned practices, techniques and strategies — that are needed, ‘now more than ever,’ to do the job. Unfortunately, that talent, our ‘first rate minds,’ alone will save us is a terrible lie we’ve long been taught to believe.

For the philosophers yet to notice, sorry but no, you cannot ‘talent’ your way out of a pandemic, nor, indeed, through everyday life. Talent, like any given human disposition, and like the accidents of circumstance, is just another thing dealt to us by luck. Skill is the way we can endure, understand, and flourish amidst our particular dispositions and circumstances. Nevertheless, academia, especially philosophy, is caught up in this lie and prioritises talent, which results in a model where the university’s job is to stuff ‘first rate minds’ with the matter of academe, without regard to what it takes to rightly grasp, handle, and form it. Getting these formal skills then becomes a matter of luck. But it need not be.

In my case, luck not only has given me a ‘first rate mind’ but also womanhood, a body carved out of pain and dis-ease, and an outlook defined by a lifetime of going without. Most recently, luck has given me a presumptive Covid-19 bacterial lung infection, very luckily, one that has not killed me. Still, throughout it, throughout all of this, it has been my skill (the fruit of long, challenging, purposeful cultivation) that keeps me safe and relatively comfortable, here, on my own, in my tiny top floor flat. Now, if you’re thinking, and especially if you’re now feeling the need to tell me, that I’m ‘just so lucky to be able to cope’ you can fuck right off.

Otherwise, if you are curious, this three-part post will give you a glimpse of how to be this philosopher during Covid-19. Each part will couple my life experience of, and skills grown from, being a woman, chronically ill, and poor with the exposed fault lines in academic philosophy of the notions of care, productivity, and precarity. (Yes, there will be fucking swearing.)

I begin with woman and care.

WOMAN (PART 1)

As time is presently accordion-like, a year of life squeezed into a day stretched out by living, it was a long-short few weeks ago that my twitter feed first erupted in response to the observation that academic journal submissions were up 50%, with the sharp increase made up near entirely by men (for reporting on this see here and here).

It provoked the right and reasonable response of anger and frustration by professional academic women. It has been argued that this mark of men’s productivity starkly exemplifies the enduring inequality of the gendered expectation of what counts as men’s and women’s work, even in a pandemic. Men are society’s professional providers; women are hobbyists who keep-house, proving care for those in it. The expression of angry frustration, and the terms of this expectation of woman as carer have almost exclusively been set out with respect to women caring for men and children. Instead, here, I want to highlight how women are expected to extend their necessary caring for to themselves, which does not simply deny them the same levels of professional productivity as men but potentially their lives.

On the face of it, I have the ideal lockdown conditions to be productive. I am readily single, purposefully childless, turning 40, and by luck live alone in an affluent, well-serviced, middle-class neighbourhood in the United Kingdom. Currently, perhaps atypically, then, I am a professional academic woman in philosophy who does not have men or children to care for at home. I only have to take care of myself. But that is the problem.

Since I self-isolated on 17 March with presumed coronavirus symptoms, and throughout the past long-short weeks of various levels of incapacitation and threat to life, mostly keenly written in the prescriptions for two courses of antibiotics to treat my infected lungs, the sole coordinator of my care, my safety, my comfort, my staying alive, has been me.

You rightly suppose that given the conditions of living alone during UK lockdown I have needed to perform most of my in-house care for myself — my own washing, cooking, medicating. Of course, I could not manage all aspects of my required care on my own. I have been managing with great support both professional and personal. I am grateful for the efficient, thorough, and serious assistance I received from NHS111 Covid-19 service and my GP. I am grateful for my regular virtual sessions with my therapist. I am grateful for many of my favourite and familiar local shops now doing online ordering and delivery. I am grateful for my two best women. Though both living many miles distant from me, thanks to the one sharing my time zone, who when asked, became the keeper of my contingency plan. She continues the regular checks to see that I am safe to be home alone and will call an ambulance/police if I am ever not. While half a world away, thanks to the other who gifts (via Whatsapp, mostly) virtual packages of care. I am exceedingly grateful to my neighbours. Although mere acquaintances, upon my somewhat random initial asking, they have been willingly collecting my antibiotics and various other essentials for me (especially when my lungs can’t do our building’s motherfucking stairs).

So what you I now need you to notice is that throughout this I have been necessarily, exclusively responsible for organising and ensuring that I received this care. In the absence of voluntary acts of care — no actual giving nor gifting of care arriving at my door, no spontaneous bringers of soup — without my existing skill and physical ability to coordinate my care, to ask, I risked getting too ill to get help and no-one noticing. For me to be cared for, I, woman as carer, am expected to be — wholly, divinely, humbly, responsible.

The gendered expectation to take responsibility for my own care comes clearly into focus with the language, the words, the phrases used by people who generally and sincerely care about me to express their care for me during this time. 

Standardly, I am offered care as the statement: ‘now, you let me know if there is anything you need.’ 

No matter how well intended, this instruction forms the biggest non-offer offer known to human. It gives you, the offerer, a sense of generosity, altruism even. However, not only does it absolve you from needing to do any caring for me at all, but also requires that for me to have any chance of receiving any care from you, I’m entirely responsible for organising it. I first have to work out what care you might be able to genuinely offer me, and then I have to find the fortitude to ask you for it. Upon which you can always make your apologies; ‘really sorry but…, or how about … instead.’ Honestly, Deliveroo (et al) is quicker, easier, and probably cheaper.

The complimentary statement to the non-offer offer instruction that I regularly receive is the after-the-fact admonishment: ‘You should have told me!’ Often appended with the after-thought, ‘I would have [insert your tokenism here].’ 

Here you, the offerer, get to claim neglect; that in my needing care and not calling on you to offer me care, I have failed to care for you. Read that again, slowly. Maybe just give it one more read; yes, it does say that at the height of my need, when I simply have no energy to tell you, I have been neglecting your need to offer me care.

Also, I am repeatedly being told: ‘take care of yourself.’

Often pitched as a heartfelt plea, it again captures the tone of admonishment that I am somehow care-less — but really, why wouldn’t I be taking care of myself, you think I’m here trying to die? It equally captures that it is entirely my responsibility to be care-ful, i.e., myself caring for myself; while again demanding that I need to care for you by caring for myself, otherwise I’m threatening to carelessly ‘break your heart.’

And truly, fucked if I know how I am meant to survive on your ‘thoughts,’ ‘hopes,’ ‘prayers,’ ‘hopes and prayers.’ And, what the fuck is it with all the Whatsapp’ing of those inspirational quotes, animal videos, ‘humorous’ memes? Guessing, it’s so I don’t ‘get down’ while I take care of myself not dying? Sorry, I haven’t the time to ‘get down,’ I’m taking care of myself not fucking dying.

Finally, to best manage with Covid-19 requires access to up-to-date information, careful monitoring of symptoms, and taking practical measures in light of that information and those symptoms. I survive on FACTS. My requests for information are because I have reason to think you have access to facts I don’t; complex things that might draw on your expertise or simple things, like, is this shop open? when? Is it doing delivery? Is it properly socially distanced? By offering me your ‘reassuring’ intuitions to give me ‘peace of mind’ instead of the facts you just keep me isolated and at risk, you make me unsafe, uncared for. 

The ubiquity of these turns-of-phrase give the impression that they are innocent, or throw-away. ‘It is just the sort of thing you say in this sort of situation,’ you reply, then perhaps you counter with, ‘it is how you act that matters.’ This would be fine, if it was actually true. However, as I hope my description of what these catch-phrases of care shows is that in the absence of voluntary acts of care (the blessed soup-bringers) they actually guide our action, or more accurately, inaction. I suggest this applies particularly in caring for women, where proffering such phrases is assumed sufficient. The thought is that as the natural givers of care, woman as carer, doesn’t really need caring for, and if she does, naturally she knows best how to take care of herself. I suspect that women will recognise similar patterns and attitudes towards their care in their own lives — the non-offer offers or no offers at all — probably in their own homes right now. 

Sure, I accept that these same phrases are aimed at plenty of boys and men. But context is important. Think about when boys and men hear them, and from whom. The obvious, repeated cliche of ‘now you take care of yourself’ is a mother calling after her son, perhaps who’s returning to university, or the likes, undoubtedly with a packed lunch and a term’s worth of laundered pants. Notice, the instruction is subsequent to an act of care, the packing of lunches and the doing of laundry comes before any heartfelt plea. During this pandemic, in virtue of being cared for by women (again with the lunches and the laundry) it is these same men who can up the academic journal submissions by 50%. (I fancy that even the men living alone, when they really need it, are foremost being cared for by acts rather than catch-phrases.) In ordinary times, it also these men who benefit from the care of the academy.

On the existing university model of stuffing ‘first rate minds,’ it is once more luck that dictates who receives the support, mentorship, advancement that is needed to succeed in philosophy departments. Care comes about by chance; the right lecturer, advisor, or supervisor at the right time, relying on the accident of personalities that fit. The cultivation of collegiality and academic skill, then, is informal and ad hoc. It is the chances for pints, coffees, corridor conversations that underscore the building of networks of care in academic philosophy. Yet, receiving this care is not pure luck, men are regularly, naturally invited into these informal circles, whereas women regularly, awkwardly need to ask — repeating the gendered expectation to be wholly, divinely, humbly, responsible.

The gendered expectation that women in academic philosophy need to be responsible for their own academic care is not only shaped by the norm of woman as carer but also the norm of professional man. As such, it reflects the deep inculturation that men are first seen as professional colleagues, who will provide for the academy so it provides for them, a meeting of minds offering a world of friends; whereas women are first seen as hobbyists who play at worldly things, in my case philosophy, until they settle down to become wives, lovers, mothers, keepers of home and child. Believe me, it took many challenging sessions of polite and impolite disagreement with my therapist to come to really understand what is going on here for me. To see that as a woman, in academic philosophy and life, I am necessarily, sometimes dangerously, by-and-large completely subconsciously, seen first by my male counterparts as a potential fuck never friend. No meeting of minds, at least not initially. Though this strict heteronormative division of labour and relations is a thoroughgoing fucked up social standard to perpetuate, it is one we have, and it is the one that women disrupt every time we enter our professional world. 

So under this social standard, relying on academic philosophy networks of care to develop informally, casually in corridors, cafes and bars, it’s natural to invite a man. ‘Hey, mate, wanna come for a pint?’ forms the innocent imperative of collegiality, the making of academic friends. However, to invite a woman colleague in the same way forms an impropriety; as upstanding professional philosophy gents, dear fellows, we ought not propose fucking our fair associates, even if deep in our souls we are most desirous, we might needs want marry her later. The phrasing harks back to the eighteenth-century but the general attitude, the underlying social gender division, persists. Moreover, it leaves professional philosophy women to entirely do the asking, for themselves, and often for other women. And in having to do all this asking, us professional women philosophers continually risk appearing to our male colleagues, as either needy (wanting a place in the world outside the home) or horny (since, we are for mating, not for mates). Last time, I described how this plays out for me with early academic career male equals, reprising my harsh yet real terms from there, I can’t help but come across as an all-round cock-sucker. If academic philosophy really wants to institute systemic change, to truly overcome these norms, then academic philosophy needs to stop assuming networks of care can be established informally, naturally. Stop assuming that the skill of caring is natural, altogether.

Importantly, I do not think you are an unforgivably bad colleague if you’ve been confounded by these norms; nor indeed are you an unforgivably bad friend if you use these catch-phrases of care with me or anyone else. My aim is not catharsis; it’s not one long, convoluted offended/offensive subtweet, nor intellectual revenge porn, I’m not shit-posting philosophy’s sex(ist) tape. Rather, I want to bring to light how we all contribute, ideologically and practically, to the social structures of care, in and outside the academy, and the norm of woman as carer. So if anything, I’m thinking that you’re human. And I fully realise I’m part of my own problem, I am completely complicit in advancing my own identity as chief carer, especially in managing my chronic illness, in contrast to being someone who is cared for. Hey, turns out I’m human, too! Yet, as I’m learning, care is not an essential womanly disposition, not our particular ‘talent,’ but a skill. One that is usually learnt by unacknowledged example from parents, teachers, mentors; and thankfully for me also formally from my therapist.

Luckily care, and caring well, is a skill that we can all learn, be informally and formally instructed in, for everyone’s benefit — men and women equally. So where to start? While I hope that the coronavirus crisis precipitates real institutional change, motivating the academy to properly reflect on its bad habits, mid-crisis no one of us is particularly well placed to do this (though, if any VCs, Provosts, etc do happen to read this, I’m happy to work as a paid consultant). Instead I propose we each make our aim small, nevertheless, it is by far the most important one of all. That we try to better care for those we already care about. Drawing on my Covid-19 pneumonia experience and my own efforts to learn how to be more skilled at genuine care, for myself and others, I have some suggestions you might want to try out with someone you love.

Just for once, ask a fucking question. To identify if someone is in need of care, and to properly care for them, requires sentences with question marks at the end. Forget all this mind-reading bullshit, love does not equal mental telepathy. Beyond the generic ‘how are you?’ to find out how the person you care about needs caring for I suggest asking: ‘What do you need right now?’ Unlike the non-offer offer, this question focusses on the person being asked. It permits your friend in need every variety of answer; such as, ‘I need you to leave me alone,’ ‘chocolate,’ ‘an ambulance,’ ‘I don’t know’. All of which then allows you, the care-giver, to act accordingly. With real care you can then appropriately respond; such as, by saying ‘goodbye’ and perhaps that you ‘will check in later,’ deliver chocolate, call an ambulance, ask more questions to help work out what is needed. It can help if your further questions are specific and concrete. ‘Do you need bread?’ is a much easier question for the ill, overwhelmed, and vulnerable to answer than ‘do you need anything from the shops?’ As is, ‘I have soup, would you like me to drop some round?’ Only after you have expressed your care as questions, can you come to know how to care for those you care about. It is after these careful conversation can you arrive at simply stating your care, e.g., ‘I am coming round with soup,’ or ‘let me know if you need anything else.’

Shut the fuck up and listen. So you have managed to ask question, great! Now don’t think you know what the person you care about ‘really’ needs. (I repeat! Forget the mind-reading bullshit.) Take any answer they give seriously, and literally. It is not open to your interpretation, only further questions. If you’ve been asked to get Tangfastics, get the bloody Tangfastics, do not suppose it means any generic chewy sours. There could be good yet non-obvious reasons for the specific request (e.g., dietary requirement, genuine comfort from that preferred brand). If you can’t get Tangfastics, check if the other available chewy sours are okay instead. Similarly, if a request is generic, check which specifics count, as in ‘can the bread be white or brown?’ If you are worried that what the person is saying is not what they really need, especially if you are genuinely worried about their safety, then still ask more questions, do not immediately take things into your own hands. Ask, ask, ask. Real listening is care.

Stop making fucking comparisons, even in your head, it really isn’t about you. We all know that the last thing we want to hear when we are sick, tired, and/or desperate, is just how much someone else is sick, tired and desperate. Legitimate or not, we really just don’t want to hear it. Please remember this, when you are in the midst of caring for someone, you do not earn the right there and then to compare your lot with theirs. Definitely don’t say it out loud, but even if you are thinking it, in your head, your comparisons gets in the way of care. Although healthy, caring relationships are requited, in the moment of caring for someone it must remain unrequited. Your best acts of care are gifted, without conditions. Or thoughts of the returns. 

All of us are prone to thinking ‘aren’t I a good friend for taking care of you, you don’t deserve me’ or ‘why don’t they care for me, I deserve some care, too.’ We rightly agree that we all deserve care; that we deserve to have our needs met, especially when we can’t do so for ourselves. But it is a mistake to measure someone’s need for care against what we think they deserve. True care is not, and never should be, the getting and giving of just desserts. Unfortunately, though, care is regularly made conditional, measured on who deserves what, when, and how much. ‘Well, that seems only fair’ you think, ‘those who need care deserve it, those who don’t, don’t.’ Among other things, the problem with this view is that it dangerously crosses its wires when it comes to the relation between having the skill to care for and being deserving of care. As I’ve tried to highlight here, in naturalising women as carers, we falsely inferred that because women naturally know how to do the caring for, they do not need the caring for. They can take care of themselves, naturally. So, it follows from ‘who needs care, deserves it,’ that women, who have no need for it, also do not deserve care.

On this measure, care is reduced to a cost-benefit analysis of needs vs. deserts, and the ways to prioritise its benefits. The utility of care is most clearly seen in how we (both figuratively and literally) are forcibly sold self-care. It is vigorously advertised as prioritising yourself over others. We have conveniently delivered to our devices ever more elaborately priced ways to build up our defences against those undeserving recipients of our care, all for our own benefit. In the end, it means all care has a price, and getting it depends on if you can afford to pay for it. Care, like coal and gold, is then traded like any another commodity, and the impact of Covid-19 might let us see if it is the money or the carers that run out first.

To free ourselves from all these measures and norms of care is deceptively simple. All it takes is to give our care freely, gift it indiscriminately, and to hell with the consequences (truly, you need to forget about the consequences, the returns, the checks and balances). Simple but far from easy. It takes courage to offer yourself up to the world, with all that potential for fucking it up and being knocked back. Again start small, if you’re wondering how someone you know is going, go on ask them, right now. If you think someone might like some of your soup, go on ask them, right now. And then just keep on asking, listening, learning, caring.

#IWD2020 How to be this Woman Philosopher: It is not my job to teach you.

Early Career Academia is a strange place. It occupies a between space. An end and a beginning. Ascribed status without standing. Deep with precarity, shallow with connectedness. This means you are always working. 

Working to have work. Working to have future work. Working to gain standing. Working to connect. Working to be seen, believed, respected. Working to eat, sleep, breathe. This means you need, perhaps more than ever before, the ‘together with’ at the root of ‘colleague.’

By accident of location and timing, I happen to be the lone woman amongst my current early career academic philosophy colleagues. The last time I was genuinely the lone woman in the room, was in extension maths class in high school. 20 years ago. 

Unexpectedly, my lone-ness exaggerates the strangeness of the space. What came before is not allowed to end, so what comes after never really begins. I am constantly being pulled down, whilst having to pull myself up. One hand is pushed back by the philosophy men at the same stage, the other hand is dragged down by the philosophy women at the stage below. Pulled in these ways, it is the first time my woman-hood has completely isolated me in a philosophy environment.

For the graduate-stage women philosophers, I make for a safe ally, confidant, and guide, which is disproportionate to my own safety (i.e., lack thereof) and resources. The additional burden is that I represent a channel, a connection, a voice to advocate for the space and support that these women rightly need to flourish. But this overdetermines my standing. No matter how well-respected I am by my senior colleagues (and that is very well, thank you), as the institutionally new, most junior, non-permanent woman faculty member, my lone voice cannot bring to light the potential structural problems and solutions you are asking me to. I understand. And want to help. But I need you to understand that calling on the lone woman philosopher to informally represent all women philosophers only further risks her safety, making her The Problem. Instead, you must use the existing channels available to you, especially, where you can act as a unified voice (that is, after all, what students reps are for). It is not my job, and it is not my job to teach you that it is not my job.

For the early career-stage men philosophers, I represent an object, an obstacle. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I have had the good fortune of receiving exceptional academic mentorship from the most senior of philosophy men, without the all too common suggestion of sexual object. And also enough of the ‘together with’ of similar-stage colleagues, both philosophy women and men, to off-set the attitude that women are an obstacle to the goings on of proper philosophy. So it came to me as a sharp shock that my efforts to create the ‘together with’ of my between-space same-stage colleagues was mistaken for me wanting to receive philosophy mens’ cock. My efforts have been seen either to be asking them on a date (explicitly to receive actual cock), or asking them for help (implicitly to receive metaphorical cock from he who crowed his superior philosophical bollocks). Either way, and with true understatement, this undermines my status. I learnt the true extent of this undermining, this complete disregard, of my current status on the singular occasion I have made reference to it.

I am not going to go into details, no recreation of actual words, as it is the shape of the incident that is important. At social drinks, post-philosophy event, I happened to be in a one-to-one conversation with a graduate-stage philosophy woman. I was sharing my view on her particular concern, which due to my career stage and specific circumstances I had direct experience of and expertise in, when one of the graduate-stage philosophy boys interrupted and overtook the conversation to tell her she should listen to what I was saying. In this act, he appropriated and presented my view as if it required his validation. Rightly or wrongly (and my right or wrong is actually not important here) I countered that I am part of faculty and I doubted that he would interrupt and act toward any of my male faculty colleagues in the same way. He responded by accusing me of pulling rank. All my attempts to explain myself — that my claim was that his actions disavowed me of my own expertise, invalidating my status, denied my so-called ‘rank’, and was in no way an appeal to its authority, etc — only escalated his aggression to the point that it could not be defused (not by me, at least).

Although in that moment I was under genuine threat from this philosophy boy, the real harm to me was the response of the early career philosophy men throughout the rest of the evening. The boy ran himself out of steam, but not before one of these (same-stage as me) philosophy men was alerted to him being on the boil. That forced me to explain the incident to this philosophy man, unexpectedly releasing it to be a talking-point that the similar-stage philosophy men could pick up with me at any time. Turning what, for me, should have been a casual pint and chat into a night long enquiry, with the protracted, relentless demand that I consider the ways that I was mistaken. It was my mistake to appeal to my status, to ‘pull rank’. It was my mistake to make assumptions about the boy’s intent — how did I know he was a misogynist arsehole, and not just an arsehole? Now I can learn from my mistake. Avoid being The Problem.

At no point did these early career philosophy men grasp the brute fact that my claim was that the boy denied me the ‘rank’ that this same boy would never question in these very men. Rather these men fixated on my apparent lack of judgment, significantly, my failure to imagine the boy’s point of view.

But it is not my job to imagine the point of view of the philosophy boys that undermine, insult, and abuse me. It is not my job to explain, justify, and dispel the misogyny I receive from philosophy men. It is not my job to walk away, turn the other cheek, miss out because I happen to be a woman occupying this between-space of early career academia. Yet it has become my work. And it is exhausting.

I am just so fucking tired of having to teach philosophers how to treat me as a philosopher.

I am just so fucking tired of teaching people how to treat me as a person.

I am just so fucking tired.

What are we doing when we’re doing philosophy?

It all begins with a question. ‘What is philosophy?’

The conversation is initially tentative, nervous, but rather quickly it reaches a crescendo as my brand new class of first year university philosophers-in-training find confidence both in themselves and their new acquaintances. It is around this time I call back the attention of the room.

‘Tell me, what is philosophy?’ I ask again, this time so that the answers, which have been so far discussed with neighbours and around tables, can now be shared with me and the class as a whole. Momentarily, the tentativeness and nervousness returns. Then a bold spokesperson starts us off: ‘Well, we think philosophy is the search for truth.’

‘Oh good’ I reply, eagerly. ‘But what is truth?’

‘Umm…something that is true.’

‘Like what?’

‘Ahh…maybe…that the earth is round not flat.’

‘That is indeed true. But isn’t that a scientific fact? What has it, that kind of truth, or any kind of truth, got to do with philosophy?’

‘Hmm.’

‘How about we keep thinking about that while we consider some of the other answers,’ I suggest.

Another bold spokesperson speaks up: ‘We think it’s the study of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics.’

‘Very good’ I reply, again eagerly. ‘They’re the main fields of philosophy, right?’

‘Yes.’

‘Remind me, what are they about?’

After some to-ing and fro-ing, and careful conversation, I summarise the conclusions: ‘So, then, in the most basic terms, metaphysics asks what exists or is, epistemology asks what we can know, while ethics asks how we ought to act. Great! But aren’t those all really different things? What makes them all philosophy?’

‘Hmm…maybe they all aim at truth.’

‘Oh excellent!’ I reply, most eagerly. ‘Do you mean something like, metaphysics looks for what truly is, epistemology looks for what we can truly know, and ethics looks for how we truly ought to act. But, isn’t every academic field, or in fact, every ordinary person, looking for the truth of what is or knowable or the right ways to act, so what makes all these true-lys philosophy?’

‘Hmm.’

This is the extremely abridged account. The actual in-class conversation, with many diversions, will have gone on for over an hour at this point. When a confused, somewhat contemplative, slightly uncomfortable quiet settles over the room, an important quiet that I must not disturb. 

Finally, an exasperated yet sincere voice breaks the silence, ‘I haven’t a fucking* clue.’

I smile in spite of myself, actually I’m beaming — ‘Brilliant.’

Within their very first hour and half session my philosophers-in-training experience, find for themselves, genuine philosophical ignorance. I am so proud. And to my continued surprise and delight these philosophers-in-training come back for more.

The more that we (these philosophers-in-training and I) explore is the question: What are we doing when we are doing philosophy? Philosophy is generally taken to be the study of the fundamental nature of the world (metaphysics), knowledge (epistemology), and action (ethics). However, throughout its history, philosophy has understood its own aims (what it is for) and methods (how to do it) in different ways. In the Western Tradition — that by accident of birth and training I have grown up in — philosophy has be shaped by two main aims: ‘how to live?’ and ‘what can be known?’ These two aims are readily compatible and feature throughout the field’s long history. Nevertheless, perhaps controversially, I suggest that there is an identifiable, historical shift from one to the other; minimally a shift in emphasis, maximally a shift in foundation. Directly connected to these shifting aims are the variety and changing practices of philosophy; that is, what it means to be a philosopher. As I become more familiar with non-Western philosophical traditions, I also suggest that similar shifts in aims and practices can be seen in them. And in order to understand what we are (perhaps, ought to be) doing when we are doing philosophy only really comes into view by the exploration of this history of philosophy’s philosophy.

In the forthcoming series of posts, my view on these shifts of philosophy’s aim and method will be developed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I begin with Socrates, yet less surprisingly, as the child of the existing lovers of wisdom rather than the father of all philosophy.

Next time: Love of Wisdom, the Birth of Socrates’ Method.

*For very important philosophical and pedagogical reasons, all language, all words, are permitted in my classroom, with the only limitation or condition being that some words or combination of words, may or may not be permissible for certain participants to say or use (for instance, unlike 2Pac there are no circumstances that I can legitimately use the n-word). Similarly participants receive appropriate warning of the discussion of difficult topics and can excuse themselves at any point without reason nor requiring permission. However, if a mistake is made, we have the difficult conversation about what makes it a mistake. This fitting expression of exasperation is no such mistake. Furthermore, under this proviso, and well before any student says it, I will have said fuck/ing in relevant context at least twice in this class and will continue to do so throughout the course.

#HTBAPhilos REBOOT

The monthly How to be a Philosopher has laid dormant for quite some time. But it is about to get a Reboot. So as it is the first of the month (and the usual #HTBAPhilos publication day) I though I would prepare you for the future regular instalments.

Although it will remain all about being a philosopher, the forthcoming posts are going to be a serialised jaunt through the history of being a philosopher. I shall look at the various philosophical aims and practices that have arisen, evolved, peaked and died, gone from revolutionary to orthodoxy to antiquated, throughout history. All with the view of carefully thinking about the question, imagining and re-imagining, what are we doing when we are doing philosophy?

It will be a thrilling, surprising, and hopefully enlightening, ride.

The first proper reboot edition will be out on the 1 November. In the meantime, you might like to catch up on the existing monthly editions listed here. Along with my two, I think my most important and best, complimentary special editions: Philosophy Please Choose LOVE & What the World Needs Now? An Imagination.

I am looking forward to our future philosophy adventures.

What the world needs now? An imagination

‘They’ve lost all reason!’ is the common cry.

Whatever it happens to be over, if the planet is going to boil humanity to extinction, whether or not humans from different places and circumstances actually count as human, or [insert whatever-else-appears-to-be-sending-the-world-to-hell-handbasket here], everyone seems to be grasping for reason.

But actually the world is full of reason, reasons, reasoning, even ‘the reasonable’ right now. There is a whole internet overflowing with them — good, bad, and indifferent. Indeed, everyone is exerting their reason.

‘Ah but what we need is proper critical reasoning’ I hear the philosophers proclaim. ‘Which ones would those be?’ I ask. ‘Perhaps, the critical reasoning that we philosophers are using to shout at each other — they’ve lost all reason — in exactly the same way as all the other humans are?’

No, what the whole world appears to have completely lost is its imagination. To stop for one moment and try to imagine all the things our reasons blind us to.

Try to imagine what reason it would really take to get on a leaky boat where it is most certain you will die quickly from drowning or slowly from dentition, but you get on it anyway, with your children?

Try to imagine what reason it would take to sincerely believe that those people and their children, if they actually make it off the boat, are a genuine threat to you?

Try to imagine the possibility that the seeming small individual demands we put on the planet might have impact beyond our own reasoning?

Try to imagine what it would take to believe all those reasons that are not our own? Just try to imagine…

Instead, we are beside ourselves, aghast, repeatedly, hopelessly pleading ‘how do we get them to see reason?’ As if our own reason requires being seen, yet never being seen to. As if every one of ‘them’ are not also just like us and require being seen, and not just seen to. All without a moment imagining how we ourselves might need to ‘see reason.’ Or to see that sometimes reason is of no use at all.

The world is truly frightening right now. And it does feel safe to hide amongst our own reasons and those who share them with us. But if we just keep busying ourselves with protecting our reasons then suddenly we will all find ourselves on one side or the other of a detention fence, de-humanised, overheating, aghast, each of us pleading ‘can’t imagine how we got here.’

For if we, each of us, cannot imagine how we might be part of the problem then we remain part of the problem. Until we can imagine something different for ourselves, for everyone, all the reasons stay the same.

So for this Fourth Anniversary of How To Be A Philosopher, please simply take the time to try to imagine. #RadicalKindness

Thank you

Time to Walk the Walk (3rd Anniversary Edition)

So it is three years, today, since I started this blog. To talk the talk of philosophical practice. Hurrah! Now, as of today, I am contractually obliged to start to walk the walk. To teach, explore, discover, assess, reflect on philosophy as a practice across its history and traditions with real live university students. Ahh!

After a very long stretch of climbing the shit mountain (some of which is described in the last edition), now quite to my surprise and relief I have scored not one but two academic philosophy jobs at two universities. Taken together they pretty much make one academic job; this cobbling together of part-time gigs, often at multiple institutions, is the current (problematic) usual for early career academics. But, what is unusual in my case, is that I have managed to get any job at all (let alone two!) while inhabiting the commonly maligned no-person’s land of major thesis corrections — completed, submitted, viva’d, still not yet awarded the PhD, more than student less than Doctor. Surprisingly,  too, is that the two institutions are actually near each other, and both are prepared to accommodate my commitments to the other.

Continue reading

#IWD2018: How to be this PhilosopHER

I have been effectively homeless for about 10 months now. The only reason I have not been literally homeless is due to the generosity of my friends. I am deeply grateful for their gifts. Nevertheless, I lack home in the essential senses of permanence, security, mine.

My homelessness is the direct outcome of my husband leaving me. I understand his reasons. For you to understand them is his story to tell. But this is not about him. This is not about any one of the men, who without malice nor intent have done me great harm by wielding power over me that they deny that they possess. This is not even about the institutionalised, internalised, implicit biases of Man. This is about this philosopHER. I am her. Continue reading

A Divine Orgasm? How to be a Philosopher celebrates turning two

Well, as regular readers may have noticed, this Philosopher has been on blog hiatus so she can get her PhD written. But today I have put a pause on the thesis-ing to do a bit of blogging to celebrate the second birthday of How to be a Philosopher!

Since I really can’t escape my thesis at the moment, I thought I would deviate from talking about philosophical practice and tell you about some philosophical content. You guessed it, my thesis. Definitely not my academic pitch, the ‘thesis of my thesis’ for fellow philosophers, but the after a pint or three in the pub ‘well you asked for it’ random punter pitch. Continue reading