Trying to “evade the academic literature”

There’s a wonderful discussion in the midst of this review essay of Bernard WIlliams’s collected essays, which incidentally sound fantastic, in which the author defends Williams against accusations of lazy scholarship. I’ve written about this issue in the past (particuarly here and here) and it’s one which continues to concern me. The author of the essay brings out much more clearly than I have been able to what I see as the crux of this problem: the prohibition on ‘evading the literature’ has a disciplinary function, drawing scholarly endeavour into an over-production of scholarly work that has structural origins and, through doing so, fuelling the over-production which is the underlying problem. This isn’t an argument in favour of ‘evading the literature’ but it as an argument against such a prohibition being axiomatic. The “Sisyphean task of attempting to stay up to date” often works to squeeze out time for thinking about the things that most interest us.

Seeing the range of Williams’s knowledge is important because it casts into new light a refrain often heard about his academic philosophical writing: that it is characterised by a fundamental laziness regarding scholarship, evidenced by the fact Williams only ever cited his friends and his students.

The accusation is usually meant as one of sloppiness, of Williams’s unwillingness to supplement his dazzling intellect with the hard work of scholarly endeavour, trusting that he could evade the academic literature by simply being quicker than his peers. Perhaps this is true, but these essays suggest a better line of explanation. We can now see that Williams was not lazy: he spent an immense amount of time reading and thinking, and knew much beyond his own academic arguments. What he chose to do was spend time thinking about things that most interested him, rather than engaging in the Sisyphean task of attempting to stay up to date with the vast and ever-expanding sea of contemporary scholarship, which tirelessly throws out publication after publication in every conceivable niche of enquiry. It is undeniable that the vast majority of present scholarly output in philosophy and attendant disciplines is of a poor standard: it is either unoriginal, original at the expense of being preposterous and tiresomely pointless or trivial, or else diligent and robust but utterly devoid of interest to anybody other than those academics who have made a career out of grinding out points and counterpoints within debates that only exist because of the very professionalization of intellectual pursuits of which their activity is a function. Williams chose to bypass all of this and get on with being original and interesting. It is not at all clear that he was making a mistake.

The present government’s Kafkaesque “Research Excellence Framework” demands that academics churn out publications, regardless of whether they have anything to say. More generally, there has been a pronounced cultural shift in professionalized academia away from teaching and towards measurable ‘outputs’, encouraging academics to translate whatever modest or untenable ideas they have into high ‘impact’ publications. Academia is in danger of ending up moribund via a prolonged case of morbid obesity. Williams’s advice was the exact opposite of all of this: disciplines like philosophy should not encourage, or give incentives for, publishing, unless what one writes is likely to be very good indeed; likely to be both genuinely interesting and original. This was not (as it is often mistakenly taken to be) a matter of snobbery on Williams’s behalf. It was a function of a well thought-out view regarding what philosophy is, one that comes out strongly in the later essays collected in Essays and Reviews. In essence, for Williams, philosophy is not like science. In science, the big breakthroughs come from brilliant thinkers, but the rest of the time everybody else can usefully get on with collecting data and increasing the sum of human knowledge. Philosophy is not like that: in philosophy, you are not only not adding data if you are making bad, or unoriginal, or stupid, or pointlessly banal and repetitive arguments, you are getting in the way of those who are trying to make sense of our world, and who might be able to make more sense of it than those who have tried before. If this is elitism, it is justified by the seriousness with which Williams wanted to make more sense of our world than has hitherto been managed; the brute truth is that most practitioners of contemporary academic philosophy just do not help in that task. (There is a separate question as to whether one needs to be a highly talented and original thinker in order to teach at a university. That in turn raises questions about what the role, purpose, and corresponding organizational structure of the modern university should be—questions to which it does not seem that anybody at present has particularly good answers, least of all the present government.)

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