The three faces of philosophy

[Adapted from a post initially published at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog in 2014.]

Philosophy is a big tent kind of thing. There is a world of difference between being philosophical,  being a proper philosopher, and being a professional philosopher. The first is an action; the second, a kind of vocation; and the third, a description of an academic job.

As far as I can tell, the practice of doing philosophy is intimately related to the state of being philosophical.  To do philosophy is to engage in the rational study of some characteristically general subjects (e.g., morality, existence, art, reasoning), for the purpose of increasing understanding and reducing confusion. In the ideal case, being philosophical involves manifesting certain virtues: you must have the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and you must proceed using a reflective skill-set (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). The bare requirement for being philosophical – even when you do it badly – is that you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways.

It is possible to do philosophy without being a proper philosopher or a professional philosopher. This is unusual, as these things go; to see that, compare with engineering. The requirements for doing actual philosophy are quite a bit lower than the requirements for doing actual engineering. To do philosophy you have to approach some of the general questions while behaving philosophically; to do engineering, you have to be a proper engineer. So, it is seldom claimed that Meno was a proper philosopher, but we won’t hesitate to say that Meno was seriously doing philosophy with Socrates. In contrast, professional engineers would probably not say that a child playing with Lego has really seriously done some engineering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Lego. If it came to that, I’d be more inclined to say there’s something wrong with engineers.)

And yet, in the vocation of philosophy, there are unusually high barriers to success. A person who does philosophy in a middling way is not a proper philosopher; if you can describe her philosophizing in a cheap metaphor, it is a sign that things may have fallen short of the mark. Proper philosophers do productive work that is worthy of attention, however you would like to cash that out.

Moreover, I would argue that the merits of a work in professional philosophy are only obliquely defined in terms of their vocational traits. Professional philosophers are judged according to various things, including their scholarly competence, their intelligence, their papers, peers, prudence, and pedigree. By and large, professional philosophers are not directly tested on whether or not they have philosophical acumen. Indeed, it is rarely stated outright what ‘being philosophical’ amounts to, uneasily marked by opaque approbative terms (which, following Amy Olberding, we might dub ‘top-notchitude’). When you ask professional philosophers to articulate their conceptions of good philosophy, it is sometimes asserted that the professional desiderata overlap substantially with the philosophical traits. And I think there is something to that. But at their worst, professionals will float blissfully along from one encounter to the next operating on the assumption that whatever they are up to is all aces, and good riddance to the rest of the profession. (Consider that in certain areas, professional citation practices are remarkably ad hoc; and consider that most articles are cited only once or less even when published). Beneath the wandering skies of top-notchitude, we have the shifting sands of the documentary record which ostensibly makes up the bulk of this field’s productive output. So there is at least some room for someone who is committed to philosophy as a vocation to look at the profession with a skeptical eye.

But despite the fact that philosophy can be discussed in any of these modes – as proper (the vocation), as professional (the job description), and as philosophizing (the act) – it is instructive to notice that they share certain commonalities. At one end of the spectrum, proper philosophers should be seen to hold the four virtues; and at the other end, the worst professional philosophy is evaluated in terms of tropes that imply some one or more of these virtues are out of sync. Whatever else we think about philosophy and its fate, we should not be lulled into an identity crisis. I say, again, that philosophy is best understood as the kind of projects and habits it encourages and cultivates in us, and which makes us better directed towards making sense of things. This is something to hold onto, something worth protecting, come what may.

Do academic strikes undermine collegial governance? Three ways of saying ‘no’

Academic freedom comes hand in hand with collegial governance. Take one away and you lose the other. Here, as shown in recent blogging by Shannon Dea, collegial governance presumes the condition of scholarly autonomy — as an institutional fact, it is the scholars who get to decide how to manage job postings, candidate searches, hiring, tenure review, and so on. In contrast, when collegial governance dries up, you end up with institutions that are governed adversarially, where as an institutional fact, scholars have to fight and negotiate to maintain their legitimate institutional powers.

These ideals make sense in the abstract. But when we think about how collegial governance relates to academic unions, the reality can be complicated. To probe the question, I will imagine three ways that someone might claim that academic strikes are threats to collegial governance. I will then provide some replies. Each time, the upshot is that the act of striking can be consistent with collegial governance (for this post, “collegiality” for short).


Some people – call them Strike-Skeptics — believe that the threat of an academic strike inherently undermines collegial governance. On this view, the ‘fight-and-negotiate’ stance of the academic union is necessarily non-scholarly. To threaten to strike just is to transform the whole institution into an adversarial contest, because it involves a political and economic act, which means taking a stand in a place that isn’t fitting for an academic union concerned with scholarly and pedagogical affairs. Hence, the Strike-skeptics may conclude: if you are turning adversariality into an institutional fact, then you can’t be contributing to a system of collegial governance.

Let’s accept that all strikes are political and economic acts. Does that support the conclusion that strikes are necessarily non-collegial (or that academic labor-relations are inherently adversarial)?

Certainly not. To see why, all you need to see that is a bit of charity. So, for the sake of argument, assume the best of everyone in a strike position. That is, assume that everyone is just trying to fulfill their institutional role. If that is so, and you look at the intentions of the strikers, then you will find that academic unions represent scholars that ostensibly hope to continue to manage affairs that are properly under their remit: hiring, tenure, and teaching. Insofar as they make financial demands on management, it is for the sake of maintaining what is required for academic self-governance. The same, presumably, can be said of the intentions of administrators – but, again, only on the assumption that they play their appropriate role as managers of finances of the institution in conformity to its mandate. So, it is false to say that the act of going out on an academic strike is necessarily anti-collegial.

On the other hand, there is a sense that the governance structure considered as a whole cannot be antecedently ‘collegial’ in such cases. If it were, there’d be no need to strike to perform those functions. Even on the charitable interpretation, if an academic union needs to strike, it is acting like the canary in the coal-mine. So even if both managers and strikers intend to govern collegially, the institutional fact is that it is not being governed collegially. And that’s a bit of a puzzle. It says that, even in a best-case scenario, two parties can each intend to govern together — yet, in fact, jointly end up governing adversarially (at least for the duration of a work stoppage). But that is not the fault of the strike. It is something you have to say about the whole package.

Upshot: you can’t infer the worst from individual parties just from the fact that they don’t succeed in coordinated governance. Your pessimism – or optimism — has to be established through argument.


A Strike-skeptic might insist that the ideal of collegial governance antecedently assumes that a scholarly body only manages scholarly affairs, not fiduciary ones. Nobody ever said that the academics had the right to manage the University’s pocketbooks. The Strike-Skeptic could then say that to extend your ambitions, in this way, would be to fly in the face of collegial governance. For, by parity of reasoning, just nobody ever said that management has the right to manage scholarly affairs. So, if you turn the tables on that argument, it looks as though the strikers must be adversarial, because they are making claims about finances. Right?

Well, I’ll grant the premise. For, it sure does seem to me that insofar as the Board of Governors’ decisions over financial matters undermine and underwrite the academic decisions of the Senate (and affiliated bodies, committees, etc.), we should have the critical resources at hand to be able to say that collegial governance has been compromised. So, e.g., if funding for a faculty position were to disappear when it turned out the leading candidate chosen by the search committee is politically controversial, or if Senate-side offices were strong-armed into accepting departmental restructuring which resulted in layoff of tenured positions, then we should say that institutional fact of the matter is that the governance structure is non-collegial. And the adversariality owes to the fact of obvious intentional overreach on the side of the Governors.

I won’t grant the Strike-skeptic’s conclusion, though. Because there is an important difference, which is that we are talking about institutions with an academic mandate. The task of the Board is to act as steward over the finances of the institution insofar as it is a place of learning, research, and teaching – that is, to protect academic freedom in its many stripes and guises. That means they have a definite positive obligation to respect the sovereignty of the academics. So, through these cases of overreach, the Governors neglect their own duties as stewards. In contrast, the task of an academic union is to function as a steward over their academic functions, first and foremost. That does not imply anything at all about what they are able to demand on the financial side. It only implies that their fiduciary concerns must be a function of their academic ones.


But what about cases of bad intentions during a strike? Surely they do occur — and they matter when they occur, don’t they? Yes, fine. But at this point, I want to stress that I am talking about collegial governance full stop, and that I have a certain idea about what that amounts to.

To get at that idea, we have to observe a difference between two ways of undermining collegial governance. In one sense of collegiality has got to do with following procedures, e.g., the rule of deferring to committees in hiring; the other, to do with substantial cooperation, e.g., making all and only those demands that are consistent in spirit with the reasons that grant these powers to committees. This is worth noting because, during times of crisis, when confronted with the question, “is this contributing to collegial governance?”, I default to asking whether the parties are being substantially collegial, while in times of normalcy, I default to asking whether they are procedurally collegial. Let me explain.

Procedural collegiality. You can undermine academic sovereignty by brute force, by interfering with the ordinary processes of governance. So, e.g., if the Board at Miskatonic University were to ignore the recommendations of the Tenure & Promotions committee in the Department of Cthulhu Studies and instead convinced the Dean to choose their drinking buddy, they would be violating the procedural sovereignty of the academics. This may be commonplace at Miskatonic, but thankfully in the real world this is less common. Presumably, violations of this kind are rare because they are so egregious that you’d never be able to get away with it, normally.

Substantial collegiality. As we have seen, it is possible to undermine academic sovereignty by respecting the process but not the substance, i.e., by making strategic reallocations of funding to avoid substantial outcomes: say, the hiring of a controversial professor, or the firing of tenured professors through departmental collapse. In such cases, there is a thin procedural sense in which collegial governance has been maintained, because when questioned everyone can apparently say that they are fulfilling their institutional roles. But in substance, that cannot be said, as their claims to fulfill their institutional roles seem like cloak-and-dagger tactics, better fit for a Cold War novel. And this sense of adversarial governance certainly can occur when an academic union is on a legal strike, due to the wrong intentions of one or both parties.

We can use the words however we like. But when our task is to make sense of the idea of ‘collegiality’, full stop, in contentious cases like strike situations, my view is that we should care quite a bit about the substantial requirements of collegial governance. So, it is perverse to refer to bad faith participation in a process as ‘collegial’ as such; if either employer or union were to negotiate in bad faith during a bargaining year, we wouldn’t want to call that collegial governance full stop, even if it turned out to be procedurally collegial in some sense. Then the task is to figure out what counts as ‘bad faith’, as an intellectual community. But in this case, there is no excuse for ignoring the burden of argument. If an informed observer cannot make a competent appeal to some objective standards of fair cooperation during legitimate bargaining, then they have no business referring to the relations as inherently adversarial.

(As an aside, in less contentious cases – during the ordinary day-to-day business of governance — I think the procedural aspect is the more important default issue. But I have to insist that the procedural aspect can’t be a necessary and sufficient condition in the discussion. If it were the whole story, it would pre-empt an important kind of conversation that is required in order to protect the institutional promise of the colleges.)

Elijah Millgram at Daily Nous

Elijah Millgram is one of my favorite philosophers working today, so I was pleased to see him write a series of blog posts over at Daily Nous. I took the opportunity to comment excessively, and enjoyed the ensuing dialogue.

In “Doing it All By Yourself“, Millgram takes a shot at the illusion of the lone wolf philosopher, the philosopher who claims authority over the general topics of philosophical concern. I think Millgram’s points are well-taken, and generally approve of attempts to temper the arrogance of certain kinds of philosopher who assume that the disciplinary boundaries of philosophy are non-porous.

All the same, in my comments I worry that Millgram’s comments make no room for philosophy as a branch of authentic inquiry into the ways things work. For example: me. I do philosophy because it makes things make sense by my own lights; I do not do it because I am the self-conceived titan of rationality, fit to serve as umpire of critical thought. Maybe I can’t “do it all by myself”, but my own voice has got to be in there somewhere.

In “Metaphysics by Forgetting“, Millgram argues that the apriori is a kind of cognitive blind spot — we take our givens as givens because we’ve forgotten that they came from more humble aposteriori beginnings. I agree with him, more or less, though only when it comes to the matter of intuitions and other states which (I think) have the feature of ontological neutrality.

In “Metaphysics as Intellectual Ergonomics“, Millgram advances a wide-ranging intellectual programme, which he refers to as ‘intellectual ergonomics’. His programme is probably best seen as a form of analytical neo-pragmatism, but if so, it starts it all afresh and unfettered. His comment here is too brief to evaluate very well, but it relies heavily on the notion of repurposing of conceptual schemes. In this, it stands in stark contrast to the neo-pragmatism of Rorty and Davidson.

In the ensuing comments, Izzy Black and I have a good conversation about the prospects of metaphysics, which I found enormously helpful. The disagreement, as it emerged in the course of the exchange, seemed to come down to an argument over whether or not the intelligibility of the world demanded conceptual schemes. I argued that this could not be the case, given that the transition between schemes may involve the theoretical imagination, which does not rely upon the prior authority of any conceptual schemes in order to operate fully.

In “Keeping it Real in Philosophy“, Millgram argues that the discipline is at risk of becoming corrupt and unproductive, and argues that we should be thinking seriously about how to develop procedures to mitigate disaster. To help the cause, he enlists the aid of Jerome Ravetz, author of parallel works in the sociology of science.

I offer my own spin on some of the problems of the profession, expressing worries about overly strident condemnations of the quality of work. Here, I’m afraid that I self-consciously run the risk of coming across as something of a middling apologist-reformer.