The first article to consider is Benjamin Bratton’s recent piece, “How Philosophy Failed the Pandemic, Or: When Did Agamben Become Alex Jones?” If I need to explain who Alex Jones is to you, then I can only sigh and congratulate you on the purity and innocence of your contacts with the world. Agamben – Girogio Agamben, that is – most likely is someone who merits a brief introduction, especially to a non-European reader. Agamben is a famous and – rare among “famous” philosophers – still living philosopher, Italian by birth but well known throughout much of European readership, even the non-academic ones. As such, he is very much a public philosopher. Even I have heard of Agamben before this, although his work is very much outside my AOS (Area Of Specialization.)ii However, Agamben came trampling into my sandbox last year when he began publishing – in public venues, not subject to peer review – indefensible twaddle about the COVID-19 pandemic. This was all breath-takingly infantile nonsense that anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of science could easily shred without even trying. As Bratton reviews this in his above cited article, I’ll not repeat any of it here.
The point I wish to examine is Bratton’s laying the fault for Agamben’s fatuous drivel at the feet of the entire discipline of philosophy (which is Bratton’s central argument.) Bratton is very clear on this last point, up to and including the very title of his essay: he’s not asking us to consider how Agamben failed the pandemic, he specifically cites philosophy as a whole. This despite the fact that even a few casual inquiries will easily satisfy one that very few philosophers share anything even remotely akin to Agamben’s infantile spew. Let’s try to frame this within some extremes that will be useful for their extremity.
Extreme 1: A white man commits a murder. Am I, a white man, complicit in that murder for failing, both before and after, to make multiple loud and public condemnations of murder?
Extreme 2: A cop in an overt act of racist violence murders a black person. Are other cops complicity in that killing for failing, both before and after, in making multiple loud and public condemnations of racist violence?
Notice how in #2 we’re more inclined to say “yes,” because cop sub-culture is overwhelmingly inclined to give members of that sub-culture a free-pass when they do so, even when they do not individually approve of the behavior.
Academic sub-culture is much closer to #2 than #1, because while there is less inclination to actively denounce public philosophy these days, there’s also a decided lack of enthusiasm for encouraging it. (However, even this is improving.) But there’s still a legitimate question, both within and without, of that sub-culture: is this entirely or even mostly our fault?
The second article is by Nicholas Dirks, titled “The ‘Two cultures’ must finally be reconciled.”iii The “two cultures” in the title refers to C.P. Snow’s essays on the problem of the separation between social and humanistic studies on the one hand, and the “hard” sciences on the other. Dirks enjoyed some specific experiences and successes attempting to mend this divide, bringing the two broad streams of thought back into conversation with one another, as Chancellor of UC Berkeley. His discussion is almost exclusively limited to the social sciences, though he does make a few casual references to matters of ethics as having a place in STEMiv discussions. But Dirks does highlight the COVID-19 pandemic as a perfect example of why this two-culture breach needs to be mended.
Reading these two pieces, one finds in Dirks’ discussion some concrete suggestions of things that can be done, but they can only be done by persons in situations of significant power and authority. (Few people, if any, outrank the chancellor at a university.) Meanwhile, Bratton’s piece offers little or nothing in the way of suggesting what philosophers should do, especially as they are being universally tarred by the brush of a single person; and Agamben is ultimately just a loud-mouthed anti-vaccine buffoon. For those of us who were or are in the academic trenches, neither piece really provides any insight into the essential matter of actually addressing the problems they wish to solve. The wringing of hands is understandable, but what are us mere mortals actually supposed to do here?
For example, you are reading my blog right now, and insofar I’ve enjoyed a measure of success at being a public thinker, at bringing philosophical issues out of merely academic confines and into the world at large. But it is not as though the internet is beating a path to my metaphorical door. The New York Times used to have an op-ed column devoted exclusively to academic scholars and philosophers. But, despite the fact that it was enormously popular, they shut it down with no more of an explanation than some vacuous hand-waving. So how is someone like myself supposed to be heard when editors won’t even give me a first, much less a second glance? How are we philosophers supposed to bring our voices to the public when the persons who control such access ignore well-reasoned arguments wholesale while giving someone like Agamben carte blanche access to their pages to spew infantile, and utterly fatuous twaddle? (One is reminded in this regard of the Washington DC press’ habit of giving vapid, “both-sides” reporting to Trump’s aggressive fascism and bald-faced lies, while never actually calling him out for either.)
To be sure, I know I can try to do more. I could write more letters to the local newspaper. I could get bold and write letters to NYT and WaPo. (True story: some 35+ years ago when Reagan and his childish “Star Wars” “missile defense”v program was a big deal I wrote – and I mean wrote, there was no internet – letters to the 50 largest newspapers in the country, stamped and mailed them all out.) So, I could do more; I even have done more. But at the end of the day, we are all limited by the gatekeepers – the editors, the chancellors – in how we can effect things … “from inside the system” …
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i Snow’s original essay was complaining that the sciences did not receive the respect they deserved within the academy. Having largely reduced the concept of education to that of vocational training, it is now the humanities that typically get dismissed as having no “value.”
ii Philosophers (and other academics) rate their kinds and degree of expertise according to “AOS” (per the above) and AOC (Area Of Concern). Your AOS is the collection of topics that you can publish high-end research on and teach at top graduate levels, while your AOC is the collection of topics that you can comfortably teach to upper-division undergraduates. I list my AOS as “process philosophy/Whitehead,” “philosophy of logic,” “philosophy of science.” All of these subjects came to the fore in Randy and my book, The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Emiricism. In my AOC I would list such things as “philosophy of economics,” “ethics,” and “history of science/mathematics” (I’m better at the “history of mathematics” than “science” part. This also came to the fore in the book.)
iii This article is found at the Times Higher Education website. A registration and login is required, but there is no paywall.
iv “STEM” = Science Technology Engineering Mathematics, that is the “hard” sciences, in case you didn’t already know.
v Per the two quotes: “Star Wars” is quoted because that was the nickname for the program. “Missile defense” is scare quoted, because simple arithmetic could prove the program could not possibly work. Our enemies would simply vastly expand their offensive missile capacity so as to overwhelm any possible defense grid, and they would do so at significantly less expense than our fairy tale “defense” grid. Since “Star Wars” couldn’t possibly work without significant offensive missile reduction anyway, and since that reduction would never occur while the “defense” program was in place, any halfwit could see that the only intelligent course of action was simple reduction.