Teaching Philosophy: “Mildly Discreditable?”

Here’s Raymond Geuss, a  philosopher at Cambridge, discussing the profession of teaching philosophy:

I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments. I thereby help to turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace which protects it against criticism and change. I take my job to be only mildly discreditable, partly because I don’t think, finally, that this realm of words is in most cases much more than an epiphenomenon secreted by power relations which would otherwise express themselves with even greater and more dramatic directness. Partly, too, because 10 percent of the job is an open area within which it is possible that some of these young people might become minimally reflective about the world they live in and their place in it; in the best of cases they might come to be able and willing to work for some minimal mitigation of the cruder excesses of the pervading system of oppression under which we live. The remaining 5 percent of my job, by the way, what I would call the actual “philosophical” part, is almost invisible from the outside, totally unclassifiable in any schema known to me—and quantitatively, in any case, so insignificant that it can more or less be ignored.

So the experience I have of my everyday work environment is of a conformist, claustrophobic and repressive verbal universe, a penitential domain of reason-mongering in which hyperactivity in detail—the endlessly repeated shouts of “why,” the rebuttals, calls for “evidence,” qualifications and quibbles—stands in stark contrast to the immobility and self-referentiality of the structure as a whole.

I’m teaching Leibniz later this afternoon, and I have to tell you, this isn’t boosting my morale.  Thoughts?

30 thoughts on “Teaching Philosophy: “Mildly Discreditable?”

  1. from geuss’ page at cambridge:


    In Lent 2010 Raymond Geuss is scheduled to lecture on aesthetics and on political philosophy in Part II of the Philosophy Tripos. He is, however, not a member of a College and does not supervise undergraduates in the Faculty of Philosophy. He recommends that prospective post-graduate students in his areas of interest consider applying to the interdisciplinary M. Phil. in Intellectual History and Political Thought, administered by the Faculty of History, rather than to the M. Phil. of the Faculty of Philosophy.

    Contact Details:

    Raymond Geuss is not himself on e-mail and does not respond to e-mails addressed to him c/o the Faculty Office. Please do not attempt to use the secretarial staff in the Faculty Office as an indirect e-mail conduit; such attempts will be unsuccessful and will merely add to their work-load unnecessarily.

    • “Not on e-mail”? What does he think this “e-mail” is? A drug? Isn’t it like saying “Raymond Geuss is not on mail or on phone, please do not attempt to mail him anything or call him” – how does he get in touch with people? By pigeons?

      It’s sounds as though either he’s very dry (and British) about it or he’s just a gigantic Harman-sized dick.

      • Oh boy, Kay – don’t even get me started on this latest idiocy: clearly, it’s a valuable exercise for that special “arrogant self-important schmacks schmucks” party, but to put it out in the open like that as if it is a legitimate topic is just embarrassing. My favorite part, however, is this:

        Another reader submits a “most overrated” nominee. Name withheld, of course: “You certainly have everyone buzzing with this question. I guess there is a load of worried people thinking Harman is going to pick the philosopher that I devoted my life to!”

        a) Why “of course” after the “name withheld”? Harman’s known for all sorts of “unmasking” gestures, including publishing emails, IP addresses, recordings of phone calls, privately shot videos, sketches and so on – why stop now?

        b) Really? There are people out there who are worried that Harman will announce his candidate for “the most overrated philosopher” and it will crush the young spirit who dedicated his (I suppose quite short) life to the figure that the all-wise Harman declared to be overrated? This email surely must be a fake – I can’t believe there are idiots out there who would ever write anything as remotely moronic as this. Unless it was a joke, then it’s funny, but if the author of that email is really worried that his favorite philosopher will be judged to be overrated by Harman – the most underrated philosopher of all times, as he clearly wants to be known (I’m sure Bryant is already outlining a book on Harman called “Rumor of the Hidden King”) – then I think it’s best that he seriously reexamines his life (let’s face, it’s probably a dude) and just end it all with some pills…

      • I think you mean “schmucks” not schmacks. But Mikhail, you see, there are criteria which means one can make a normative statement about such things. I kind of hope my favorite philosophers come out as overrated in all of this, it would only serve to reinforce some of my crucial life decisions.

      • “It has to do with packaging two words together, and subtly transferring the virtues or vices of one word to the other.”

        Isn’t that what an adjective does? Doesn’t “handsome dog” “transfer the virtues or vices of one word to the other”? Oh the nefarious alchemy that “packages two words together” and transmutes one word into another . . . Good thing Harman is unmasking this dangerous duplicity!

      • Thanks, now my title – The Nefarious Duplicity of the Adjectives – looks totally lame and people will argue that I stole it from you.

        It’s amazing how great things look when you pretend like you’re the only person who ever thought of them, isn’t it? “Wow, what if we create a philosopher that deals with objects? You know, those things over there? Refrigerators and toasters and hammers and so on!” – “Amazing! What shall we call it?” – “Hmm… let’s see”…

        Talk about reinventing the wheel.

      • He reminds me of St. John’s people I’ve met. The same sort of false familiarity with high culture, the fascination with ranking . . . He does seem to think that he’s discovered this gaping hole in the english language. “Put two words together and you get more than you started with! Who authorized this? Don’t worry, I’m on the case!”

        I’m going a little crazy, the weekend can’t come too soon . . .

      • To b)

        Isn’t this plausible in the networked blogosphere? Harman is the alpha-philosopher of a small network of people; the one who stabilizes the feeling they are onto something great and who is sufficiently robust for not being knocked out in the first round when being confronted with someone outside of the circle. I don’t think he falsely attempts to appeal to “high culture” but ranking, eternal quibbling about what’s in and out, underrated and overrated, who is boring, who are the enemies i.e. the trolls and greys etc. is just management of social groups you find everywhere: in parties, on the schoolground, in academia, in the media, in programmers communities…

        Sociable actvities often look puerile but being connected and socialized is not regulated by expressing individuality and intelligence. Harman plays parlor games with the young guys. I cannot stand most of them and apparently I’m in companionship with R.Geuss who can’t stand them as well, while they are the important aspect of learning philosophy for his students.

      • That ‘well said’ was @ Kay’s “to b)” – or not to b)…. Robust alpha-philosopher metadiscursively stabilizing and managing social groups of mostly young guys via parlor games, check. I like this party game we have here better, pin the tail on the Harman is fine, but mostly because I enjoy the company.

      • He’s speculatively deferring his own judgement because it’s well so much more fun letting other people (his imaginary “email correspondents”) give their own judgements, just as he’s deferring the “killer argument” that’s going to “blow Hegel out of the water” until his next book. I presume a press conference will be called for the announcement of that “killer argument”. I personally cannot wait.

      • Geuss (who I believe is American by origin) used to teach at the University of Chicago, where I got my Ph.D. He had moved on by the time I started there, but stories were told about his handwriting, which was reputed to be so minuscule as to be virtually indistinguishable from a mere wavering line. (In one such story, he was refused passage through US customs because his passport appeared to have no signature on it.) Perhaps he refuses to use e-mail because he prefers to reply by handwritten notes that no one can read.

  2. I’m trying to tune into the morale bust here, but I can’t get past the fact that a lot of self-satisfaction with a touch of self-reflection sounds like a pretty good life to me.

    Seriously though (;-0), I’m supposing Leibniz bucked you up, Shahar? Torturing ourselves with how we wish things were just doesn’t compare to appreciating how they are.

  3. —I’m supposing Leibniz bucked you up, Shahar?

    Aargh. Best of all possible worlds…

    —Torturing ourselves with how we wish things were just doesn’t compare to appreciating how they are.

    Right, I’m so good at self-torture!

    You must admit that Geuss’s observations couched in terms of say, political philosophy or critical theory (the tradition in which Geuss is sedimented) poses a rather delightful critique grounded in er…frustrated possibilities. Or, is this merely whiny sanctimony, as someone just pitched to me a moment ago? More self torture, as I always say…

  4. Yes, I must admit it. But are the frustrations the products of possibilities or of projections? Is the world not what it ‘could’ be, or not what it ‘should’ be? Boring old mirror trap, I know, bottom up/top down, inductive/deductive and all that. Anyway, Leibniz is worth taking seriously – what is possible right now. I like Geuss’ ironic tone.

  5. Imperfect of schmecken, right? “Schmackt gut!”

    By the way, it looks like our favorite OOOSR is now attacking the “humble upholstery and put upon springs” . . . He’s sure got everyone buzzing! Which cliche will he call out next? The anticipation is killing me!

    • He’s not “attacking” – he’s providing a critique, since when others criticize, they are despicable critics, but when he does it, it’s awesome, because he has already published some books, i.e. “put himself out there,” therefore he is allowed to say whatever the hell he wants, even if it’s horribly self-important and utterly banal observations about how everyone hates X, therefore I must write a book about it.

  6. I didn’t realize I was supposed to have a favorite philosopher. If it’s Tuesday it must be Epictetus. But I certainly consider it a matter of scholarly competence to know what the failings of my objects of study are, by various standards, along with what they’re good for. For example, Mikhail is a schmuck but runs a great bitchfest; Shahar is whiny and sanctimonious but knows a bunch about Portuguese folk music; Carl pontificates about scholarly competence but doesn’t smell as bad up close as he looks like he will; and so on.

    As for most overrated, this is a gift that keeps on giving. Most overrated Biblical prophet? Most overrated northern European cheese? Most overrated Renaissance musical instrument? Most overrated Central Asian horde? Most overrated Yiddish insult? Golly, I can’t stop!

    • Whiny, santimonious and prosylitizer of Portuguese folk music. I’m a triple threat!

      Mikhail, I’ve had enough of your sneers from nowhere.

      Most overrated reaction to blogging? Most overrated cliche? Most overrated blogger? Most overated Coen Brother’s film? Now I can’t stop…

      • Well, I’m going to go think about it now – really thought-provoking stuff. In fact, I would rather not say what I think about all these comments, I will save my thoughts for a brilliant and provocative essay I will be soon writing about it, which I will then include in a “must-read” and “instant classic” collection of my essays.

  7. It’s not necessary to teach classes in order to understand Geuss perfectly.

    In a world where no one affords to do something “just for the sake of it”, the hardest thing is to make it in a profession that you really like, and to discover that 95% of the actual practicing is … dislikable !

    Just to be some irony added to it, too…

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