Academic life

Philosophical archeology

I’m having to try to sort out my philosophy library — I can’t start shelving yet another wall at home — and that’s a painful business. It’s not just that I’ve always had a rather self-indulgent book-buying habit and so there is a ridiculous number to sort through. It’s also a matter of encountering long-past philosophical selves, and not quite wanting to wave them goodbye. In the seventies, I was mostly interested in the philosophy of language (though there is a lot of ancient philosophy books too dating from then, and a lot of Wittgenstein-related stuff); from the eighties there is a great number of books on the philosophy of mind; from the nineties a lot of philosophy of science and metaphysics. Digging through these archeological layers I’m reminded of past enthusiasms — not just of mine, but quite widely shared enthusiasms which seemed philosophically rewarding at the time, but some of which now seem rather remote and even in some cases quite odd misdirections of energy. What creatures of fashion we are!

But at least in those more academically relaxed days I could follow my then interests wherever they led or didn’t lead (I never got bored). Young colleagues now don’t have the luxury: to get even their first permanent job they have to specialize, concentrate their resources, carve out a niche, build a research profile: and it takes more of the same to get promoted. The structures that we philosophers have allowed to be imposed on “the profession” (as we are now supposed to think of it) have thus come to be in real tension with the free-ranging cast of mind that gets many people into philosophy in the first place. What Marxists used to call a contradiction …

Vice-chancellors, please note

Moscow university in the 1820s, a place of dissent and a reputed ‘hot-bed of depravity’. The Tsar appoints Prince Golitsyn Director to impose order. Herzen writes: ‘Golitsyn was an astonishing person. It was a long time before he could accustom himself to the irregularity of there being no lecture when a professor was ill; he thought that the next on the list ought to take his place, so that Father Ternovsky sometimes had to lecture in the clinic on women’s diseases and Richter, the gynaecologist, to discourse on the Immaculate Conception.’

Which no doubt improved classes no end. The university also had its own prison for recalitrant students. Models for us to emulate, surely.

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