Philosophy is good advice, and no one gives good advice at the top of his lungs... I should like those subtle thinkers to teach me this: "what are my duties to a friend and to a man?" rather than "what number of senses is the expression ‘friend’ used?" It makes one ashamed that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this into a game.
In short, no one knows WTF is going to happen. Praise the Lord, we’re all brothers and sisters in ignorance! (And you needn’t fear the economists – they’re as frightened as you are, and only the Chicago School economists have a taste for human flesh).
- John Emerson
John Emerson has been posting "peasant wisdom" (freelance scholarship) in print and online for about ten years now. He traffics in crafty political radicalism and what he calls generalism, against the reigning academic milieu of specialisation and analyticity. He's a self-described "economic nihilist", and writes on the heartbreaking comedy of the dismal field from the outside, but well. However, you're as likely to see a piece on the Daodejing with a title referencing Henri Michaux, or an analysis of Nietzsche's marriageability, as you are a hardcore attack on modern methodologies.
Three essays, "Les Érudits Maudits" (on the humanities and class), "Thick and Many-legged" (on value and first philosophy) and "Attendent Lords" (on the Analytic stranglehold on philosophy) form an overlapping statement of his perspective.
What is a social critic but an academic troll?
I stumbled onto your Trollblog in 2009, just as I was starting to realize the scale of the problems with my areas of study, philosophy and economics. These just so happen to be your areas of gouging satire. What was galvanizing about it was your connection of the two fields' issues. The pathologies as I understand them:
- Philosophy: One dominant ideology has extraordinary science envy, which obsession has driven spurious professionalization and led an important social-intellectual guardian up its own arse. Pluralism has attenuated, in what had always been the most basically pluralist field.
Economics: An unscientific method with delusions of value-neutrality and a sixty-years-dead metaphysics controls all funding and influence. Also physical science envy. Unlike philosophy though, this lot have political power, and continue to wreak quantifiable suffering by exploiting policy-makers at a global level. (There's also the troubling thought that there might be endemic adverse selection into the field...)
- Academia in general: As an indirect result of military spending on academic research in the early C20th, "paradigmatization" has seized almost every field, and universities have become markedly market-oriented. Narrowness is mistaken for rigour, jargon for precision, and categories for joints: déformation professionelle is everywhere, and won't apologise neither.
What will it take for honest, humanistic economics? Is positive economics salvageable, as Kalle Lasn's latest good intention assumes? Or will we really never change - that is, be actual scientists or actual social theorists? Does it warrant burning the thing down?
Emerson:I don't think positive or scientistic economics is salvageable. I think that economics should intellectually be like history (i.e. eclectic), and professionally like law: a mercenary profession, but with some thinkers who are not merely doing tasks for people with money. It will never be purer than law and shouldn't be. Note that I don't understand economics: I watch what it does. I'm more knowledgeable about philosophy, in my own way, but with enormous gaps. I have no illusions that I'm a better philosopher than the average PhD. I'm just a mostly-outside critic who dislikes a lot of what they do and how they work.
JE: Actually, very few economists take the Laffer curve seriously, to my knowledge. A BIG problem with economics is that once someone has a PhD they're an economist, and what they say represents the profession, regardless of how many other economists accept that view. This is a quality control problem. Knowing that someone is a PhD economist from a top 20 school doesn't tell you whether they're an idiot or a sociopath or something better.
Unfortunately, the important economists aren't the sensible academics, but policy advisers, Federal Reserve economists, ideologues, op-ed writers, and so on. Applied and popular economics really outweighs pure economics, because pure economics isn't good enough to dominate the mercenary economics.
Q3. The first ideological requirement in economics is that you believe that people are unprincipled. I don't see it; do you buy it?
JE: The problem with "rational man" (Sen's sociopath) is not that it's not a realistic description of humans in general - though it isn't - but that economics, and modern life, tend to produce too many of them. I have known more than one ordinary, non-drug-addicted, non-psychotic, non-felon American who shamelessly cheated first-degree relatives and took them for everything they could get. My brother tells me that the people who fish money out of the tip jar at his restaurant are invariably rich.
I actually never thought that the "rational man" was ever intended to be descriptive, but more as an ideal to strive toward, for certain illberal people. Likewise, economics has its scientific predictive descriptive aspect, but (as Galbraith said) one of its main jobs is to explain that, e.g., the Populists really had no complaint against the banks.
Q4. One of your sustained themes concerns les érudits maudits ("the cursed scholars"): what you regard as the unforgiveable deception of millions of Arts students heading toward menial work; the contemptible structure of enrichment education.
Maybe there's a fundamental problem with Arts students' preferences - i.e. people drawn to study the humanities view straight career education as compromising. But how do you get this through to us? It's hardly a secret that our Arts career will be constrained and fraught.
JE:I have little to offer on this question. I am doubtful about the university as a rewarding livelihood but don't see an alternative. It would be possible to do scholarship as a leisure activity if you had an OK job, but to do that you wouldn't have time and probably not money for a "normal life", for example a family life.
Q5. Do you know if philosophy in non-Anglophone universities is faring any better? (There's an idea that this is all peculiar to the WASP zone.) To what extent does "Continental" avoid the paradigm?
JE: I have relatively little interest in Continental philosophy, for better or worse. I think that the smartest thing to do within academia would be to find places, probably not philosophy departments, where people seem to be doing interesting things. Geography seems to be an interesting field. History. Maybe social science. Maybe interdisciplinary, but that's a risky career if you're thinking that way.Q6. Is there a non-professional philosophical community to speak of? This could be the blogosphere's finest hour. (Albeit, a forum without any power...)
JE: My biggest mistake was not trying to find or make a community. Isolation hasn't been good for me. To do that you'd probably have to hang out in various university towns and maybe take a few classes here and there, do free-lance writing, attend conferences if possible as an independent scholar, and befriend and correspond with interesting people who are willing to correspond with you.Q7. There's only one lecturer at my college who could rightly be described as a "philosopher of life" - that is, one in forty that works with human problems, where one can find Nietzsche, Dilthey, Sartre, Polanyi, Levinas, Toulmin for undergrads. What duties does philosophy have to the public? Is personal philosophy the right replacement for Analyticity?
JE: I don't really think of philosophy as such, except in the most general sense where Montaigne, Lichtenberg, Epictetus, Guicciardini, Thomas a Kempis and miscellaneous others are philosophers. I don't especially think of duties to the public, but we're all part of the public.Q8. There have always been lifestyle gurus muscling in on philosophy - these days, they manifest as self-helpists (with some blurring the line - Alain de Botton for example) Where does philosophy end and the hollow begin?
JE: Not an area of interest but I really hate a lot of that stuff, when it's commercialized and publicized. Usually in America it tends to be optimistic when optimism is often the problem. I think of philosophy as a way of using your strength and not as a comfort or remedy.Q9. Your writing style is startling, erring to belligerence. The non-professional philosopher Nassim "Tear down the Memorial Prize" Taleb is much the same; is it the freelance role that enables it? Or is your intellectual anger greater than dissenting academics'
JE: I really have nothing to lose and sometimes I write purely expressively. I have several layers of reasons to dislike the current system, not all of which deserve anyone else's attention. I deliberately overstate rather than understate.Q10. Your new blog, Haquelebac seems to be doing you good (or, your good is doing it); while you were already writing about whatever you wanted, historical distance seems to be lending you some peace. What is it about, say, the feats of Asian warlords that draws you?
JE: I started studying Chinese for Lao Tzu, then poetry, but eventually the constant presence of nomads in Chinese life, after about 200 BC, captured my interest. Philosophically it's interesting regarding the origins of the state and the place of violence and treachery in the world.
Q11. You're a fan of literary nonsense - Rabelais, Michaux, Carroll. What's so tempting about the absurd?
JE: I am pretty eclectic, doing philosophy, literature, history without thinking about their relationships.Q12. Doesn't Cynicism's recommended distance from society imply viewing it as irredeemable? Are you a Cynic for your sanity's sake?
JE: I am much less detached than I wish. I don't really see much place for a personal input from me any more. This isn't a general theory though. More like the present moment of my personal situation. The American finance-technology-military-media-methodology machine may be invulnerable.
Q12. What are you working on at the moment? Any new collection on the way, or is the Daodejing occupying you? I spy your fascination with C19th Brazilian radical preacher Antonio Conselheiro; any plans to vindicate him?
JE:I am not working much. I do plan to put out more collections, but my energy flags. Your interest is a positive factor, believe me. The topics would be Lao Tzu and Chinese philosophy, the rise of Genghis Khan, the origins of Chinese shi poetry (the Cao clan), Populism, and the general philosophical stuff you've showed interest in.
If you care about contemporary philosophy, economics, frustrating politics, Sinology, or the objects of the fields thereof, you'd do well to go engage with Emerson...
To me, once you think life is about success, you lose. It commits you in some way of accepting the world as it is, because the world decided who succeeds and who fails, regardless of how you define “success”.
If you take chances, you risk failure — success is a kind of result, and the results of what you do are out of your control. Not only is there an enormous chance element, but the cards are systematically stacked against certain sorts of goals.
There are various other ways of living than the search for success, but it’s hard even to state them in a country as activist, optimistic, and conventional as the U.S.