Philosophical lab infrastructure

The short version of this post: Philosophers have practically no lab infrastructure.

The long version:

Coming back to my research about philosophy departments in France, I was recently reading an institutional document describing the (highly-rated) research laboratory for philosophers at the University of Paris-8. Apparently it was a bureaucratic requirement to write a section describing the “infrastructures” available to the laboratory. But since Paris-8 is a typically underfunded public university, operating in cramped quarters on a small campus in the Parisian banlieue, the sad reality is that their infrastructure was quite limited. To the point of comedy.

I quote:


L’unité dispose d’une salle de 35 m2, équipée d’un téléphone, de deux ordinateurs fixes et d’une connexion par WIFI. Elle est meublée de tables, chaises, et bibliothèques. Elle est située dans un bâtiment neuf de moins de deux ans. La surface disponible par chercheur membre de l’équipe à titre principal est de 1,5 m2.

The unit possesses a room of 35 m2, equipped with a telephone, two desktop computers and WiFi access. It is furnished with tables, chairs and bookshelves. It is situated in a new building less than two years old. The available surface per principle laboratory researcher is 1.5 m2.

One and a half square meters per researcher is just about enough to cram a chair into, and clearly not enough for any sort of individual workspace. Accordingly, there were none; the room in question was purely used to hold small seminars. The whole laboratory staff would never have fit inside it, and when they did have meetings, they took place elsewhere.

There is, of course, something charming about the plaintive note that at least the tiny room is “situated in a new building less than two years old” (the building pictured above). It’s as if the author felt obliged to put only the most positive spin on a clearly inadequate situation. Nevertheless, there is something to learn here about what counts as infrastructure for philosophers at Parisian public universities: in short, all the productive infrastructure (the books, the libraries, the computers, the desks) is elsewhere, generally at home, and the campus becomes purely a place of knowledge exchange, not of knowledge production. Which is why it it is possible to have a philosophy lab with practically no facilities.

On real problems

I came across a confrontational moment in one of my interview transcripts. We had been talking about philosophers’ metanarratives about “truth.” But my interlocutor found my questions a bit too oblique.

Philosopher: But I don’t know — you aren’t interested in the solutions to problems?

Ethnographer: The solutions to philosophical problems for example?

Philosopher: Problems! Real ones! For example do you consider that the word “being” has several senses? Or not? Fundamental ontological question. Do you accept that there are several senses or one? It changes everything. And what are your arguments one way or the other?

Ethnographer: Well me personally I’m not an expert—

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A philosopher’s ethnic joke

I was thinking of reading a famous — in some quarters infamous — book called La pensée 68 (i.e., ’68 Thought), by Alain Renaut and Luc Ferry, a 1988 critique of 60s French intellectuals. So far I’m only a few pages into it, but I thought I would just reproduce the epigraph, which consists of an ethnic joke that Ferry has repeated elsewhere. It goes like this:

A Frenchman, an Englishman and a German were assigned to study the camel.

The Frenchman went to the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, spent half an hour there, talked to the keeper, threw bread to the camel, teased it with the tip of his umbrella, and, when he got home, wrote a column, for his newspaper, full of keen and spiritual observations.

The Englishman, along with his tea-box and comfortable camping supplies, went and set up his tent in the Oriental countries, and after a stay of two or three years, produced a thick volume overflowing with facts, without order or conclusion, but with real documentary value.

As for the German, full of disdain for the Frenchman’s frivolousness and the Englishman’s absence of general ideas, he closed himself up in his room to write a work of several volumes, entitled: Idea of the camel drawn from the conception of the self.

Un Français, un Anglais, un Allemand furent chargés d’une étude sur le chameau.

Le Français alla au jardin des Plantes, y passa une demi-heure, interrogea le gardien, jeta du pain au chameau, le taquina avec le bout de son parapluie, et, rentré chez lui, écrivit, pour son journal, un feuilleton plein d’aperçus piquants et spirituels.

L’Anglais, emportant son panier à thé et un confortable matériel de campement, alla planter sa tente dans les pays d’Orient, et en rapporta, après un séjour de deux ou trois ans, un gros volume bourré de faits sans ordre ni conclusion, mais d’une réelle valeur documentaire.

Quant à l’Allemand, plein de mépris pour la frivolité du Français et l’absence d’idées générales de l’Anglais, il s’enferma dans sa chambre pour y rédiger un ouvrage en plusieurs volumes, intitulé : Idée du chameau tiré de la conception du moi.

I’m not sure I find it a extremely funny joke, but academic humor is always worth documenting as a cultural artifact, if nothing else.

Philosophizing in senior year?

I met an interesting professor in Aix earlier this spring, Joëlle Zask, who has worked on Dewey and early 20th century culture theory (she suggested the Sapir article I mentioned earlier this spring). Here I want to translate a short interview she did in 2007 with a monthly culture magazine in Marseille called Zibeline. Philosophy, as foreign readers may or may not know, is taught to all French high school (lycée) seniors, has a long political history in French education, and periodically causes controversy. Some of these stakes are apparent here.

Philosophizing in senior year???

1) The 2003 “official instructions” for the philosophy teaching program in senior year say: “Philosophy teaching in senior year… contributes to forming autonomous minds, warned of reality’s complexities and capable of putting to work a critical consciousness of the contemporary world.” What do you think of this?

These formulations pose two major problems.

First, it strikes me as shocking that a philosophy textbook should begin with a series of “official instructions.” An instruction, in the sense of a directive, is entirely contrary to the “autonomous minds” that we are told to “form.” Are we told to “force our students to be free”? Moreover, in the context of schools, “instruction” has a second dimension: we still talk about “public, obligatory, civic instruction” [in connection with public education]. But instructing is not educating. Instructing basically means shaping someone’s mind to fit the competences that the institution judges socially useful. Educating on the other hand means communicating a potential to a mind which, one day, will allow it to help define what is or isn’t valuable for its society. Yet according to the “official” declarations, we’re still on the model of instructing, in both senses of the term.

Second, the goal proclaimed for high school philosophy teaching is completely exorbitant. I know that many people subscribe to it. But we should be astonished by the excessive disproportion between the end and the means: they have groups of thirty pupils, a very limited range of practical exercises, lecture courses, etc. And above all, it’s impossible for philosophy teachers to “form autonomous and critical minds” if the pupils haven’t been invited to be autonomous or critical since the day they arrived in the schoolhouse. Not to mention that the art of thinking isn’t reserved for philosophy. Would one be exempted from “thinking for oneself” in history, literature or physics? It must be said that the goal [of our philosophy teaching] is, in our present circumstances, pretty disconnected from these realities; and we might therefore give up on grading students’ homework against an ideal that very few people can claim to have attained. We could, at least for starters, propose simpler exercises that would be better adapted to our students’ competences (the ones “formed” by our instruction) and to our own. At the university we do all this readily enough.

2) What should be at stake in philosophy teaching? What should be its goals?

Well, I don’t want to say that there’s nothing special to expect from philosophy teaching. To my eyes, philosophy is in essence a critique of our values and an effort to demonstrate, by one method or another, the legitimacy or pertinence of the values we hold. The philosophers who we’ve read and reread over the centuries have all undertaken an examination of the values of their times. That said, these philosophers don’t play the moral purity card [la carte de bonne conscience]. They direct their critical examination at themselves, working with their own keen perceptions of the possibilities and blockages of their epoch. Today, as in the past, many people, including our official instructors, defend some values without examination and try to impose them on others. Wondering where our values come from, going over them with a fine-toothed comb and sorting them out, creating new ones, scrutinizing the motives for our adherence to them and the mechanisms that inculcate them — that’s what a reading of the philosophers can invite us to do. And that’s a truly priceless service.

Like Zask, I’ve been struck by the official rhetoric in France about teaching people to have free and critical minds, which always seems to entail, as Zask points out, the contradictory project of “making” people free, and to presuppose the unlikely premise that educational institutions know what freedom or criticality are. But I’m most interested, here, in the part of the interview that proposes a definition of what’s essential about philosophy: a critique of values.

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Haiti and the poetry of broken utopias

And what does it mean when a research project that thought it was about France and about arcane educational questions suddenly finds itself confronted with an event from across the sea? What does it mean when the question of the intellectual production of a single academic department in the Parisian banlieue turns out to be in part about how the university becomes a site for the reception and mediation of mass trauma?

Part of the answer involves this poem I came across today, by Jean Herold Paul, a Haitian doctoral student in philosophy at Paris-8 (a department that turns out to have long-standing links with Port-au-Prince). I’ve translated it with his permission for you all.

The night that we are
(in memory of Jésula and Wilmichel)

bric-a-brac of apocalypses
bric-a-break of our utopias

and if…
and then…
but are we still?

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
a horrible night
where only our dead appear dimly
without name or register
without farewell or burial

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
what’s left of us?

bric-a-brac of apocalypses
bric-a-break of our utopias

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
it’s still night
at least our presence is reflected there
a simple sensation of being somewhere
without knowing who we are
where we are
without knowing with what or with who we are

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
when will we be able to mourn
for ourselves?

university as creation of the future

I was reading a post by Stanley Katz on the impending closure of the University of Florida’s philosophy department and saw that he’d written another article called “The Pathbreaking, Fractionalized, Uncertain World of Knowledge.” This article begins by quoting A.N. Whitehead:

“The task of the university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue.”

This strikes me as an interesting take on the way the university finds its place in history. There are so many other ways of imagining the university’s historical trajectory: It’s the proud offspring of Western Europe, spreading around the globe to bring enlightenment. (This sounds like Whitehead, but is oriented towards transmitting a prior civilization rather than creating a new one.) Or it’s the ruin of an elitist institution, bereft of its mission of teaching reason or national culture, a degraded victim of neoliberal processes of corporatization, privatization, and auditing. Or it’s a cyborg composed of part medieval tradition, part incoherent consumerism, part mega-scientific research, a patchwork of past and present struggling to stay in motion.

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increased American interest in philosophy

An article called “In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined,” in the Times, reports that the number of undergraduate philosophy majors is climbing across the country. The interesting thing is that the reasons given for the increase in enrollment are far from traditional justifications for philosophical inquiry. A student at Rutgers, Didi Onejame, is said to think that philosophy “has armed her with the skills to be successful.” What are these skills? “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking,” says the executive director of the APA. Students also, apparently, find it “intellectually rewarding,” “a lot of fun,” good training for asking “larger societal questions,” and a good choice for an era when the job market changes too fast, supposedly, to pick a more reliably marketable field.

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