I was an academic philosopher for over twenty years. I published in journals that were indexed but had no readers, advised my students to be rigorous rather than creative, and furiously insisted that philosophical thought exhausted itself on a few technical problems that in no sense should have any bearing on a thinker’s happiness. To paraphrase the symptoms that Fernando Savater associates with stupidity, I did all that as though possessed by a spirit of seriousness, feeling like the executor of some high mission, constantly fearful of others, impatient vis-à-vis reality (the shortcomings of which I saw as part of a conspiracy), having more respect for someone’s academic degrees than for the strength of their arguments, prone to forget the limits of reason and discussion as I pursued the intoxicating high of my own character.
When I look back, I wonder how I could have believed with such conviction that this mental framework was the only one that could lead to significant thought. Don’t get me wrong. To me, philosophy still possesses what Bertrand Russell ascribed to logic: a cold and austere beauty, both profound and overwhelming. Whoever has delved into philosophy knows that their capacity to explore problems is due to their ability to argue about them, approach them from different sides, and flip them around like an omelet on a frying pan in ways that make others end up with a mess. Leaving philosophy has been for me a painful and gradual process, not a cynical conversion marked by intellectual imposture. In truth, I have not distanced myself from philosophy as such, but merely from a certain way of practicing it: academic philosophy. I have stopped seeing academic philosophy as an occupation valuable enough to transmit the force of the discipline that it claims to represent. Most of all, I have stopped seeing academic philosophy as an intellectual exercise. It is difficult to deny that the way in which we have been practicing philosophy has stripped it of its force and charm. If I am to explain in all honesty the reasons for my decision, I must give an insider view of the difficulties inherent to the academic exercising of philosophy.
Let us start with what I deem most obvious, namely the problems inherent to the type of philosophy that we practice in Colombia. In his intellectual autobiography, Rudolf Carnap mentioned one of the trends that he considered most pernicious for the development of philosophical thought—what he called “historic neutralism”. He remembered a doctoral dissertation in which a student had attempted a study of the ontological argument attributed to Anselm of Canterbury. As Carnap pointed out, ” In his [the student’s] view, as in that of some of my colleagues, the ontological proof was not only of historical importance which no doubt is the case, but also represented a problem which must still be taken seriously”[i]. The student had ignored Kant’s argument showing that “exists” is not a predicate. The intellectual environment in present-day Colombia’s philosophy departments is similar to that seen by Carnap at the University of Chicago a century ago, where classical authors were the pillars of instruction and were treated with reverence. Philosophy curricula are still assembled that way: Presocratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and so on. Each thinker is seen as part of a story that ends with the philosopher that one feels to be an expert on. This historicist vision is best described by an expression once uttered by Marcos Camacho, a famous warlord from Rio’s favelas, as “infected by the vice of humanism.”
In Colombia, the “vice of humanism” is wedded to what the first generation of professional philosophers called a “concrete philosophy,” inspired by the ideas of Martin Heidegger. The three pillars on which this “concrete humanism” rests, if I may use such an expression, much hamper any attempt to wield philosophy as a tool adequate to thinking about anything other than philosophy itself. First of all, thinking is not done for something else’s sake; second, philosophy is indispensable; and third, philosophy allows the development of a world vision that transcends that of the scientist.
This and other like-minded visions have molded the way that philosophy is seen in our academic environment, and this, in turn, has closed the door to any possibility of relating philosophy to any other kind of knowledge. “Concrete humanism” imposed on philosophy a strictly philosophical vision; the philosopher’s duty was to develop what the German Romantics called a Weltanschauung, a world-view that is pure, exclusive, and must not be contaminated by life’s minutiae such as happiness or sex. In a philosophy department one studies what Plato said about love, not love as seen by Plato. Paradoxically, against all Socratic tradition in which philosophy was but a part of the stimulating and educational power of the city, one is not supposed to mention philosophy alongside terms such as “cultural offerings”.
Universities have played an important role in this story. Their promotion-and-tenure structure places no value on a philosopher’s publishing in a magazine directed at a general audience. If we are to understand the way in which the academia has distorted philosophy, we must take a brief look at the history of universities. When Darwin returned from the Galapagos, he reported not to a university but to the Royal Geological Society – in the nineteenth century it was scholarly societies that conducted research. Universities, defined by Humboldt as groups of people united around the peculiar spiritual life brought about by knowledge, were barely noticeable. According to philosopher A. C. Grayling, it was first in The Hague and then in Berlin that the two institutions, the scholarly society and the university, came together. The new model then spread to British universities, from there to America, and eventually to the rest of the world. The problem was that the marriage of teaching and research effectively killed Humboldt’s idea of a university structured around spiritual life. Anybody with research credentials could do research, regardless of their skill or relevance.
In Colombian universities, which adopted the nineteenth-century model only recently, the situation was disastrous. Like in the rest of the world, universities in Colombia assess their philosophers based on how many papers and citations they have garnered. The least effective way of having citations is writing texts for students. In a medium that has no research tradition, accrediting institutions have favored “frontier research”. Thus, universities invest in projects that are far removed from academic life and which bring out the “numbers”. And whence is the “juice” squeezed out that funds this research? It comes from tuition fees, in such a way that teaching is doubly harmed: teaching is denied resources, and the funds are destined for an activity that provides no feedback. I taught at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá for 17 years, and it was astonishing to see that in Colombia’s most expensive university I often had more than 125 students. The advantages of institutions that combine research and teaching thus become obsolete.
Bryan Magee, the BBC’s philosophy popularizer, put it neatly when he narrowed down the options for a beginning academic: either obscurity or specificity, with no way to train others in philosophy from the ground up. In Colombia it is not rare to find philosophers whose religious beliefs led them, ironically, to learn Foucault’s work by heart. And all this in an environment that is avid for ideas. In a country like mine, professionalization comes late and implies that we take philosophy in the ill sense of a specialized career. No charming people with new ideas, no original thoughts. That is why we do not have our own philosophy popularizers. Universities are not interested in such a figure; they care about that diffuse thing called “knowledge” as much as restaurants care about nutrition.
Logical positivist Moritz Schlick said almost a century ago that philosophy is an activity, not a set of theories. Perhaps, statements like this one were not meant to be taken so seriously that someone would consider abandoning academic philosophy, as I did. What is true is that these ideas open up a panorama that we had not envisioned since Russell’s time: it is necessary to allow philosophy to be infused, once again, with intellectual toil and to relate to other fields of knowledge. If philosophy is reduced to “concrete humanism”, or to an elaborate set of instructions for reading itself, then it is as interesting to me as a technical manual. The danger in seeing philosophy in this way is that we have delegated the tortuous job of thinking about reality to people without formal training in the study of concepts and categories – journalists, preachers or lawyers. Fortunately, philosophy has a boundless, radical, honest intellectual richness, one that verges on self-immolation, because by saying what we have said here, we have been doing philosophy all along. Of course, not the kind of philosophy favored by academia.
Translated from Spanish by Juan Pablo Fernández
[i] Carnap, Rudolf (1963). Intellectual Autobiography. In Schilpp, Paul Arthur (Ed.), The Library of living philosophers, v.11: The philosophy of Rudolf Carnap. (pp. 40). LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court