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Meditations on contract faculty teaching philosophy

This post was written by Rational Hoplite in a recent thread. I thought it was worth sharing in its own right because it speaks to a major issue in the profession. — BLSN

A few years back I was lecturing (adjunct) at a local state university — a non-elite, non-ranking institution with mercifully generous admissions standards, and (hence) a student body fielded mainly from two smallish contiguous area codes. I myself did a semester there very many years ago before completing my undergraduate studies at an equally non-elite non-ranking university with equally charitable admissions policies, in one of the two aforementioned area codes.

This institution had but one “core requirement” philosophy course — an introduction to logic, which frog-marched the students across the badlands of modus ponens and modus tollens, categorical syllogisms, and logical fallacies. At the beginning of the course students sat an 80-question exam consisting of these topics, and at the end of the course sat a version of the same exam — similar ratios of question-types, but different phrasing. Performance on the exit-exam (we were told) could not count for less than 80% of the students’ final grade.

We were given rather a lot of lee-way as to how we delivered the content; and although there was predictable convergence, no two instructors taught the course the same way.

Once it became clear to me that this was the only philosophy class the undergrads were required to take, I took it upon myself to ensure we covered a few other things — among them, (1) an introduction to the main branches of philosophy, and how epistemology and logic are related; (2) a reading and discussion of The Euthyphro; (3) a discussion of the differences between knowledge, belief, and faith; and (4) a discussion of the difference between ‘training’ and ‘education’.

This last topic mattered to me, because of the nature of the course content, on the one hand, and the departmental parameters for assessment, on the other. I had scope to *train* students as I saw fit, to the end of ensuring they performed well on the exit-exam; but the generous latitude notwithstanding, there was very little space therein to advance one whit the students’ education — in the true sense of the word.

Since I used the first two weeks of the term to introduce students to the mood and method of philosophy – to make real for them, so far as possible, what “being philosophical” (about something) might mean, and how important it is that those we designated as “educated” (rather than “well-trained” or “degree-holding) have a philosophical attitude – students tended to leave the first fortnight of my lectures with precisely the sort of look we like our students to have at the end of the session. Students often lingered behind to chat, or follow-up with questions or comments; and even if only a few disclosed to me their symptoms, many showed signs of having been bitten by the bug. But it was very dispiriting to hear students leave the lectures of my colleagues, who – by staying squarely on-track – began their lectures with “All men are mortal…”, and thereafter faithfully plodded through their chosen textbook.

Not that there was anything at all wrong with that. But our students – many of whom should not have been at university, frankly – were, in their first month of their first semester, still looking for those things that would distinguish college from high school. Yomping around on the terra incognita of “If P, Q” on day-one of their first philosophy class ever wasn’t winning hearts and minds to the cause. (There seemed to be little point in discussing the etymology of ‘philosophy’ – which most of my colleagues seemed to do before “Socrates is a man” – if one was going to ignore the question “How does knowledge differ from wisdom?” and jump straight into validity.)

At the first faculty meeting (in October, five weeks into the term), the HoD asked how the new adjuncts were faring; and I – too prideful and stupid to know either my place or how one should respond to such questions from one’s new boss – dared to offer for discussion whether this “core requirement” was such a good idea, and ask of the assembled troops whether it seemed terrible to anyone else that the *one* chance we are guaranteed to make an early impression upon undergraduates is with BARBARA rather than Socrates.

The HoD and senior faculty were very kind and gracious in their response to my untimely meditations. It is how my queries were tabled, though, that is the point of this story.

I insisted – and quite possibly pounded the conference table – that it was our duty (I pray I did not say “solemn duty”) to have our students leave the classroom a little better than they were before they entered it. A little more curious. A little more skeptical. A little confused, perhaps – confused in that positive, productive sense – but certainly a little better than they were when they slammed down hard on the alarm clock and stumbled out of bed in the morning. All educators (I insisted) have this duty; but of all departments, and among all specialists, we more so than others — for if not the philosophers, then who?

“Well” chuckled the four-year-and-still-returning adjunct next to me, “I think you set your standards a little high”.

“Shall we aim instead leave them no-better-off, or worse-off?”, I responded.

I remained at the university for five consecutive semesters, and in the narrow space allotted me tried my best to ensure that my students were getting their “If P, Q” (etc.), but were also learning to expect more from themselves, and were engaging their other subjects with an inquisitive and critical eye — and interested in taking more philosophy courses. My enthusiasm for these simple objectives was manifestly not shared by tenured faculty, while the adjuncts were concerned that coloring outside of departmental lines might redound negatively upon them and injure their status within the guild.

I will tell you that am between forty and fifty years-old, and in no sense or context am I an old-timer. But when I return to my cache of books from the likes of Hocking, Muirhead, Sidgwick, Santayana, or Royce, or rummage through JSTOR archives or Google Scholar for early papers, I confront every time the feeling that philosophy is no longer what it was, and that something wonderful has been lost.

That sentiment, I know, is absurd. But I know, too, that The Guild is not what it was — or, it seems to be no longer what it seems to have been. The basic questions we ask, and enjoin our charges to ask with us, have not changed — or, have not changed very much. I think we all welcome additional questions, as we do new voices to our shared stoa (painted or unpainted).

But I would not mind a real renaissance of philosophy — not by way of new books or para-genres (A Philosopher’s Guide to Metallica on the shelves of Barns~Ignoble left me shuddering), but by way of a return to confidence that what we do is very important. Not for the Guild, or the Academy; not for “democracy” or “social justice”, or even for Western Civilization, or for any single such thing; but for all the good things that may yet be made possible by the courage of an unassuming undergrad from a non-elite, non-ranking state college, who – having become a little more philosophical than she was the month prior – one day finds herself prepared and confident to say: “Sorry, I don’t think that makes sense — and here’s why”. She will need some logic to identify the problem, and for her “here’s why” to be compelling; but she will need philosophy to know that making sense of nonsense matters.

Literature and the Banality of Evil

This is a guest post by Tony McKenna. Tony is a Hegelian Marxist philosopher whose writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, New Internationalist, Monthly Review, New Left Project, Counterfire and the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

Fiction is unique.  The central criterion for literary creation is not the availability of a given content but its absence.   A historian may look at a centuries` old mansion and yearn to penetrate its secrets; to discover its precise age and to derive a realistic account of the day to day routines of the people who once lived there.  To shed light on it.  But to a writer of fiction the same house proves alluring for the very opposite reason, for its dark inscrutability, its mystery – as those are the factors which spark the imagination; they make us consider what shapes might be lurking in its murky shadows, what ghosts rattle around in its secret cellars or undisclosed attics.  It is privation, the lack of a coherent content which focusses our creative power and forces it to intercede; the imagination is driven to fill the void with its own forms.

This is simultaneously the most wonderful and the most terrifying element about being a story writer.  On the one hand you don’t need expensive stuff.  You don’t have to rely on lab equipment or any other set of pricey paraphernalia beyond the cost of pen and paper.   And yet…and yet…despite the humbleness of your tools you can create, quite literally, anything.   You can call into being spaceships or monsters or even whole worlds which put into the shade anything Hollywood with all its sleek, slick CGI generations might dream of.   An empty page presents us with an infinity of possible wonders untrammelled by the limits and finitude of our actual existences.   The writer J.M Barrie made the unfortunate mistake of growing old but Peter Pan, on the other hand, – he will remain young forever.

At the same time there is a cost.  As any creative writer knows, that blank page, replete with its infinity of potential, is also capable of exacting a terrible price – submitting the writer to its infamous ‘tyranny.’     The essayist who is bereft of ideas can always find a new topic or situation to hand, in a newspaper or on TV, to analyse and comment on, but in the case of the creative writer – they have to call into being the situation itself; the characters and plot.  Their process is the stark pain of birth, the harsh bright of a brand new day.

And all too often it is an abortive process; the character or situation you devise is not able to rise to the level of fictional being, of believability, and you realise you have just spent the last week or month or year labouring in vain. This, assuming you are able to alight upon an idea in the first place, to perform the miracle which the creative act constantly demands; that is, the creation of something from nothing, the filling of that empty page with  the depleted reserves of your imagination day after day after day.  Is it any wonder writers of fiction have acquired a reputation for alcoholism?

And the sad truth is that few fictional writers will ever be published, let alone acquire the status of a Stephen King or Rohinton Mistry.   Worse still the art of creative writing itself is something which is increasingly looked down on, derided or dismissed. The recent proposals of Michael Gove, for example, to implement more poetry into the primary school curriculum were met with almost universal contempt.  On a recent edition of Question Time, the panellists were challenged to recite a poem from school which had most helped them in their careers; the implication being an almost satirical one – a sense that the lofty airy fairy poetic imagination could have little connection to genuine social accomplishment.

And yet, literary creativity and the indulgence of imagination are not simply abstract, unworldly pleasures to be enjoyed by those with their heads in the clouds.  These things have an eminent practical value too and are important to the function of the social order just as much as the science based subjects, though in a radically different way.

Having witnessed first-hand the trial of Adolph Eichmann in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase – ‘the banality of evil’.  In articulating this, she didn’t mean that evil acts were now so common-place that they appear to us as ordinary and every day.   Rather, she argued, the forms and structures of National Socialism had affected a new degree of separation between the individual subject and the life and thought of others.

The death camp guard was able to carry out their day to day routine, not because they were inherently evil, but because he or she was acting within the mechanics of a bureaucracy which had successfully abstracted them from their victims.  The guards would focus on the minutiae and the immediacy of bureaucratic routine to such an extent that they lost the broader capacity to imagine what the situation of the victims actually felt like.   The ‘banality’ of evil to which Arendt refers lies, ultimately, in its lack of imagination.

Perhaps the truth of this is in some-way validated by another of Nazism’s ritualistic horrors – the burning of books.  Certainly the regime wanted to supress any currents of information which ran counter to its own social philosophy – political thinkers in the Marxist tradition were particularly targeted.   But a diverse set of literary works was also used to feed the flames.  It wasn’t simply about eliminating information which had an antagonistic character to the regime, though this was a prime consideration. Rather the ritual implies something more profound; that is – the burning of the creative imagination itself.   For this was key to the security of the regime itself, it needed to assure its ‘banality’ in order to function.

The lazy, fashionable anti-intellectualism which regards the products of our creative imaginations as somehow inessential to the real world – is critiqued most effectively, perhaps, by a simple consideration of those places where the imagination has been reduced to ashes.

Who Sleeps in the Unmade Bed? Conceptual Art and the British Artists Movement

This is a guest post by Tony McKenna. Tony is a Hegelian Marxist philosopher whose writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, New Internationalist, Monthly Review, New Left Project, Counterfire and the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

The modern art produced by the Young British Artists movement has for the last two decades sustained bitter controversy. The movement itself seems to polarise commentators in a vivid opposition. Those who think an unmade bed or a shark pickled in formaldehyde are creations which only someone with more money than sense could regard as genuine art, and those who believe they are significant works in their own right, subject to ridicule precisely because they are radical, visionary and different. They are designed to make you think, as the defenders of such conceptual art will often have it.

The Marxist analysis of the commodity form proves extremely useful in regard to this particular debate. Marx identified the two-fold nature of the commodity – its use and exchange components. The use value of an object is immanent in the process which has called it into being. In the very moment a carpenter has finished screwing in the final leg, the chair at once exhibits as a use value for the simple fact it can now be sat on. The use value is, therefore, actual.

But the exchange value operates in a somewhat different fashion. The exchange value, according to Marx, does not subsist in the immediacy of the chair, its physical properties; instead the exchange value can only be realised through the process of exchange in the sphere of circulation. The use value is actual and immediately given – inexorably bound up with the creative process which has yielded the product. But the exchange value exists as potentiality – it can only ‘become’ in and through a specific set of market-conditions which confer upon it its reality.

If we gaze upon Van Gogh’s Starry Night we at once experience it as an aesthetic use-value. To put it simply, we are moved by it. We are moved because the Dutch Master poured not only colours and shapes into the canvass but also his very being. We know, of course, that this painting was eventually commoditised – it went before the market, was successfully sold, and so its exchange value was realised: in the movement from potency to actuality, the exchange value was allowed to ‘become’. It is through a consideration of the logic of use and exchange a la Marx that we are able to unravel the riddle of the nature of the Young British Artist movement, and conceptual art more broadly. Art historian John Molyneux in his essay The Legitimacy of Modern Art attempts to argue in favour of works like the Unmade Bed or Andre’s Bricks or Duchamp’s Urinal (Fountain). But what is most interesting is the logic which underpins his position. He argues that the artist’s work consists in realising ‘how a particular intervention such as exhibiting a urinal or line of bricks could make a meaningful point or raise significant questions.’ It is the point at which the object enters into a specific set of social relations which is important here. From this Molyneux draws the broader conclusion about art – ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface, arrangements of words on paper, sequences of sounds in the air etc., only become [my emphasis] art in certain social relations.’

Molyneux provides his own well-reasoned take on the argument which is most often deployed to justify conceptual art as a legitimate art form. What is absolutely critical to this formulation is the moment of ‘becoming’. We have already observed that the Starry Night as a work of art exhibits its use value in and through the process of its own creation. It contains that aesthetic use value immanently as a finished fact irrespective of the ‘social conditions’ in which the work is presented. It moves us whether we encounter it in a gallery or in a basement.

But that is not the case with Duchamp’s urinal, for instance. Its use value as an art object is not immanent in the process of its creation; rather this use value ‘becomes’ – i.e. is realised as art only when placed in the context of an exhibition, for it is the placement in this specific social context which ‘makes the audience think’. Likewise Enim’s Unmade Bed has an aesthetic use value which must ‘become’; that is the use value is generated through the movement from potentiality to actuality. When she got out of her bed, it was not art, but when it appeared in an exhibition, it ‘became’ so.

And so the ‘use value’ of much conceptual art, and the art of the Young British Artists movement in particular does not operate according to the modus-operandus of use value in general but rather according to the logic of exchange. What the Marxian analysis allows us to perceive – is not that people are revering these ‘art works’ as cutting edge and avant-garde simply because they are desperate to keep up with some empty but fashionable standard, though this may be superficially accurate. What is exhibited here is a more profound truth; that is, the way consciousness is mediated by the forms and structures of social existence. One of the fundamental features of the current economic crisis is, in a certain way, the predominance of exchange over use, in as much as it is a crisis of finance over and against industry. Less manufactured goods are produced in proportion to the creation of financial incentives such as subprime mortgages, the packages which combine these and the subsequent speculation on such packages; all of which, in tandem, created the financial bubble.

The use value of a chair for most consumers (as opposed to capitalists buying the item in bulk for purposes of investment) consists in its ability to be sat on (though of course it has other plausible use values – firewood, for instance). But when someone purchases a ‘package’ of subprime mortgage loans the use value for the buyer consists in the products ability to make him or her more money. In other words the use value here appears as something which accords explicitly with exchange and the reproduction of capital. Profit is increasingly generated from the packaging of mortgages and the insurance of these packages instead of the actual productive activity of building and selling houses.

Likewise in the sphere of conceptual art, the meaning of art is increasingly abstracted from the process by which the artist creates the object through his un-alienated labour activity. In the Young British Artists we see this vividly – the artist merely presents a ready-made object – the creation of which was nothing to do with the artist; rather its arrangement and presentation within a given social context is what truly constitutes the artistry. The artist’s activity is abstracted from the process of production in a similar way to that of the financial speculator. In the case of Damien Hirst the abstraction was so extensive that he actually had assistants create the vast number of spot paintings he puts his name to.

Hegel says – ‘essence must appear.’ In conceptual art we see the appearance of the fundamental conflict of capitals, industrial and financial, which is, as Marx would say, a ‘practical abstraction’ that takes place at the level of social being in its historical unfolding. Conceptual art is one of the forms in which that abstraction appears to consciousness.

Give Away Your Vote – That’s Crazy (Or Is It?)!

This is a guest post by Jason Foster.

Many years ago, I was berated by a friend for my plan to abstain from voting in a general election on the grounds that none of the political parties fielding candidates in my constituency held views similar to mine (perhaps of little surprise, given how little sway anarcho-syndicalism held in Tebbitt’s Essex of the 1980s).

My friend told me that if I did not exercise my vote, I had no right to complain about the actions of the elected government. The converse of which was, presumably, if I did vote for a party which represented none of my political views, I had every right to complain if a government formed by that party acted in a way I objected to, even if it were completely in keeping with its pre-election manifesto, which I had previously read, understood and disagreed with.

Well, Nick East, pick the bones out of this. The ‘give your vote’ campaign wants abstainers to donate their vote to those in other countries who have more of a view on British political life than the many jaded, underwhelmed ballot-casters which make up a good part of the British electorate.

The driving concept is that British citizens vote for British governments, which make decisions that affect many people in other parts of the world, who do not have a vote in Britain’s general elections. Which, considering the Iraqi military adventure debacle or the waste-dumping in West Africa super-injunction farce, seems a fair point to raise.

Egality, the activist group driving the campaign (and, I like to imagine, the bitter enemy of think-tanks Liberty and Fraternity), points out that there are many thousands of people who are entitled to vote in British elections who, for one reason or another, do not cast their vote.

Indeed, it is one of the ironies of the modern democratic system in Britain that the right to influence how we are ruled should be treated with as widespread indifference by the many, that the principle of universal franchise is routinely reduced to the diktat of the relative few who can be arsed to generate an opinion and go to a polling station to express it once every five years.

But here comes the crunch: Egality is urging us to give our unused votes to people in other countries – specifically Ghana, Afghanistan or Bangladesh – to use for their own political agenda.

Technology provides the means: Would-be abstainers sign up via the website, and receive a text message on polling day directing them who to vote for. Predictably, there are Twitter and Facebook elements.

(Actually, why leave it there? With the internet, the possibilities are endless: For example, what is there to prevent a vote-exchange system – the Multi-Coloured Swapshop of Suffrage, if you will – where a voter in, say, Sutton Coldfield swaps their May 2010 vote with a freedom-lover from California for a future Presidential contest, with comments moderated by Noel Edmonds? Or a ballot auction clearing house, (a new Ebay category of franchise, for example) where one can sell one’s vote to the highest bidder? Or indeed a combination of the two models, based along similar lines as the carbon credits offsetting scheme?)

When I first heard about the ‘give your vote’ campaign, on the radio in the kitchen, I cheered aloud for the sheer obtuseness of it. It’s not often you get this kind of high-browed imbecility. But when I came to set down exactly what I found so deplorable about it, I could not put my finger on one single reason. So many tried to muscle in at the same time, none could get through the front door.

Even now, after I’ve had a while to think about it, I cannot settle on one of the many reasons why one should object to the prospect of, for example, a Pashtun nationalist in downtown Kandahar casting a vote in, say, my south London constituency, where one of the most pressing political issues in recent months revolved around what should be done with a piece of graffiti (or is it art?) personally spray-canned by Banksy.

Indeed, I find myself in the bizarre position of wondering whether the ‘give your vote’ campaign is a perfectly reasonable idea, and it is merely my knee-jerk, mid-life reaction to it that prevents me from understanding this.

So here’s the deal. I will freely give my vote to the party of choice of the person who gives me the most salient argument as to why the ‘give your vote’ campaign is such an abhorrent betrayal of the principles of democracy, (or, if you’re feeling very persuasive and optimistic, why it is a good idea).

On Child Abuse

This is a guest post by Ralph Sabella.

I read a short story at a read-aloud group. The plot involved a 30 plus year old woman seducing a boy of 13. The seduction, rather delicately done, only involved the woman being provocative in her dress and having the boy massage her feet. The reading produced considerable discussion, the most interesting element being the difference between the women’s and men’s reactions. The women expressed sorrow for the boy, for his confusion and the frustration he had experienced, but also for the seductress in her need to use a child to alleviate her own sexual frustrations. All the men couldn’t get past wishing they had been in the boy’s shoes. None of the latter voiced upset with the woman’s behavior.

How would it have gone if the sexes were reversed, i.e. a man and a young girl? There would have been a general outcry against the man, certainly no feelings of compassion for his having to relieve his sexual tensions through the mild and delicate luring of a girl, and, I’m sure, great concern for the girl’s welfare. No disclosure to any sexual arousal here by men or women.

This is not to condone the actions of the adults in either scenario, but interesting questions are raised if the attitudes of my small group of friends are those of the general population, and indeed the basis of how child molesters are judged and sentenced: men harshly and women less so.

I consider myself a non-sexist, liberal who generally believes in equal rights for everyone, and I’m a male to boot, yet I’m not disturbed by the legal gender inequity when it comes to child molestation, and I’m not sure if I shouldn’t be upset with myself.

Why should a man, say, for the same crime be given the more severe punishment than a woman? I think there is the understandable fear that men are often physically dangerous in such circumstances but to sentence a man on that basis seems to be convicting him of a crime he didn’t commit. If it’s meant as a warning or deterrent then, considering that women as care givers and teachers of children are far more conveniently positioned for wrong doing with the young, wouldn’t it make sense to warn and deter them more strongly?

Identity Two


I sure do miss reading Potentilla’s sharp and friendly comments, so was glad to read what’s on her mind at Auspicious Dragon yesterday, where her husband Colin posted this. He tells me he’ll read comments to her. Potentilla’s “Christian” in real life…funny, she once told me, because she’s not. — Jean Kazez

Christian may not be always able to remember why she started the sentence that she is currently in the middle of, but that doesn’t stop her being able to remember the title of philosophy essays in obscure journals when they help her make her point. In a way it makes sense – easier to get somebody to read something than to try and explain it.

Anyhow, Peter Strawson, ‘Freedom and resentment’ from the Procedings of the British Academy, 1962.

The essay isn’t primarily about the point she was trying to make, but it does contain a succinct description of her current state. That is, the state of not being considered to be a full human being.

In the hospice a patient would have to be much worse than just badly behaved to get any opprobrium. Probably to provoke the staff a patient would have to be doing something harmful to another patient. And maybe in extreme cases not even then. Your status as a responsible adult is held in suspense. It isn’t fully revoked but it isn’t in place either. The relationship between the carers, helpers and domestics and the patients is odd. Not odd as in being unexplicable, but odd as in being outside of the norm of everyday life.

Strawson talks about our reactive attitude to people that we see as being excused from normal civil behaviour because of some factor no fault of their own. He was thinking of the very young, or the mentally ill, but it can also apply to those in pain, or under the influence of necessary drugs.

The second and more important subgroup of cases allows that the circumstances were normal, but present the agent as psychologically abnormal – or as morally undeveloped. The agent was himself; but he is warped or deranged, neurotic or just a child. When we see someone in such a light as this, all our reactive attitudes tend to be profoundly modified.

(Note: if you read the essay, I realise that I may be conflating Strawson’s two subgroups. But the aim here isn’t to produce a critical essay of Strawson’s ideas).

So when Christian talks about not knowing who she is anymore, this is partly a result of what is going on in her head, and partly a result of the fact that everybody around her is treating her in a way she can understand is not normal. It is this loss of her complete identity that, possibly, distresses her most.

This is worth thinking about because this is a state that waits for many of us. And if you think not, then you haven’t looked inside an old people’s nursing home. Identity isn’t about the practicalities of numbers on a card, but about being treated like an adult by being expected to behave like one.

Strawson talks about our ability to suspend our normal reactive attitudes in exceptional cases and for short periods of time. We will allow people we know a certain scope or allowance for behaviour not normal nor mature. To receive permanent, or at least long term, dispensation, a person needs to be marked out in some way – be it illness, or learning disability, or youth – such that they are clearly outside of normal expectations. Being tied to an oxygen tank and a morphine pump is one such marking.

The question of ‘what is a person?’ and how we, collectively or individually, respond to the walking bundles of chemistry that make up the outward appearance of person-ness turns out to be a fascinating question.

A copy of the Strawson essay appears on the UCL website – but note the warning to refer to the original before relying on the web copy.