Philosophy and Capitalism

Normally academics shudder at the thought that academia is getting engulfed in market forces. There are protests of how the dignity and majesty of the intellectual life, and especially of the humanities, are going to be rendered profane if even academia is seen through the lens of capitalism. No, this is not a space about buying and selling; no, here we don’t primarily interact as customers; no, here we interact in terms of our shared humanity which is more fundamental than our relations in the market place!

This is a fascinating response. It depends on a fundamental divide between the academic space and the market space. On this view, ideally before a person enters the market place as an employee or a business owner, or any other capitalist identity, their consciousness needs to be first raised to care about more than just making it in the market. They need to be made into critical thinkers and citizens.

Where can this happen? It can’t be a space which is itself mired in capitalism, for that does not afford the necessary reflective distance from capitalism to gain a humanistic perspective. So it has to be a space set over and above market forces, and this is academia. The medieval colleges were literally set apart from the town. Contemporary colleges no longer are literally set apart that way (though a Cornell or a Williams might feel as if they were), but, the idea goes, they are conceptually set apart nonetheless. They can be in downtown Manhattan or right next to the inner cities of West Philadelphia, but in principle they are not caught up in either the wealth of Manhattan or the poverty of West Philadelphia. They stand apart with a critical gaze on capitalism, and focus instead on cultivating the humanity of the students.

There is a glaring problem with this idea. In the medieval case, when a student went from the university into his professional life in town, there was something connecting the university and the town. That was the church. The university was the theoretical end of the Church, and the church in town was the practical end of the Church. This meant that what the student learnt in the university was guaranteed to be applicable for the rest of his life in town. Not because the education was so intrinsically amazing. It was because though the mode of life in the University and the town were different, the fundamental concept of a flourishing human being was the space in both places – and this was enabled by the shared Christian framework which underlay both places.

This is no longer true. If the university is a space outside capitalism, and the town is now defined by capitalism, in what way is the university education applicable outside of the university? Often the worry is raised whether if you study philosophy, you will get a job outside academia. As can be found now on most department websites, this worry is misplaced: philosophy majors can get many kind of jobs if they are open to that idea.

The real worry is not: will the philosophy major get a job? It is: will the philosophy major be able to apply his philosophy education when he gets the job outside academia? 

If academia is set over against capitalism, then the only mode of reflective living the professors can pass on to the students is the mode of reflecting where people can engage with each other as something more than just fellow customers. This is the mode in classrooms and dorm halls: an intellectual community is assumed here as if, even in the middle of major metropolitan cities, students could interact with each other like they were in a village – an intellectual village. Fair enough. It is a nice experience.

What happens though when the student graduates, and now suddenly his relation to his fellow citizens is rendered one through the lens of capitalism? What does a reflective life look like then? If one assumes a contrast between the academic and the market spaces, there are only three options, none of which is good.

The first option is to embrace the capitalist mode as natural, and to then think of philosophy as a wonderful thing for when one is in college; kind of like how one might look back with nostalgia on college as the time when spring breaks were possible. But this means to effectively give up on philosophy in one’s adult life, as if philosophy was a nice indulgence in my early adulthood, but which has to be set aside as one grows older. This is hardly the image of a philosophy life.

The second option is to want to continue to live the reflective life, and so resist the capitalist forces. On this view, academia is a space where a fully reflective life is possible, and only the best of the best thinkers get to enjoy that. If one is not good enough to succeed in academia and get a job there, then the only way to hold on to the dream of a philosophical life is to resist capitalism when outside academia.

The problem with this option is obvious: the value of a philosophical life is given by how much one is able to life reflectively in the face of forces which make it hard to live that way. This means that the non-academic struggling to live a reflective life faces a harder challenge than the academic who gets to have their life bracketed from capitalism. So then why think that the academic philosophers are the ones who are the best thinkers? It is possible to think this only when “best thinker” designates something other than “who lives the best philosophical life”; when, in fact, thinking well gets identified not with facing the challenge of doing philosophy in the middle of the market place, but with thinking well within the supposedly non-capitalist community of academia.

The third option is to embrace both living a philosophical life and capitalism, where one doesn’t try to give one or the other, but holds on to both. This is the normal narrative of the ideal of how a philosophy major can live a philosophical life: their philosophy education will both help them get a job and live reflectively for the rest of their lives.

But how can the philosophy education enable this dual approach when the education itself was supposed to happen in a space altogether devoid of capitalism? In a classroom the students interact with each other not as fellow customers, but as fellow thinkers. When the student leave academia, his relation to his fellow citizens is now fundamentally one of engaging with fellow customers. What does doing philosophy with a fellow customer look like? The student has never been taught this. So how can he practice it after leaving college?

One side-effect of capitalism is the disintegrating of a shared communal framework beyond capitalism itself. This is actually the hardest problem with doing philosophy outside academia. When one is in class, there are mechanisms in place which make people listen to each other, and it is because of such mechanisms that a shared intellectual conversation is possible. Outside academia right now, there are no such mechanisms.

If I want talk philosophy with a person on the bus, and so want raise the topic of God or free will or justice, there is nothing which binds me and my fellow riders such that they have to listen to me, or vice versa. On the bus the main relation we have is that we all just paid $2 to get on the bus to get to where each of us wants to go. In a robust community, one can invoke the shared identity of the community as the binding force for why we have to listen to each other. Without such a robust shared identity, there is nothing hold the people together in the conversation. This results in indifference or shouting across divides.

In order to help with this situation, it is no use to simply focus on how academic philosophers can change their teaching methods. For no matter what content is taught, or what method of teaching is tried, as long as the contrast is built into the classroom that is set apart from capitalism, the classroom will not help the non-academic trying to engage in philosophy in the public domain.

To enable public philosophy, what academic philosophers need to do is to embrace the fact that academia is getting caught up within capitalism. Not because capitalism has no problems; hardly. Rather, because the only way to deal with the problems of capitalism at this stage are from within it, and the academic’s stance of noble separation from capitalism is not helping do philosophy in a way that can resonate on the streets. In order for the philosophy classroom to be an incubator for the students living philosophical lives outside academia, there has to be a core similarity between the classroom and the street.

Of course, in the big picture it is moot whether or not academics embrace capitalism in academia. That transformation is happening and will happen. The academics resisting the corporatization of academia are fighting a losing battle. Just as well, since the old model of academia as separate from capitalism failed for the most part at creating public philosophy.

But if academia accepts capitalism onto its campuses, how can the values of a humanistic, reflective life survive? Great question. The way to address it is not to make academia into a beacon on a hill, something holier-than-thou looking down on the masses caught up in capitalism. That model sets philosophy and the humanities apart from everyday life, and so dooms them even as it hopes to preserve them. Better instead for academics to confront the same reality the rest of us outside academia are facing, and that shared context can enable new perspectives and possibilities.

A philosophical life in the midst of the market? As long as we assume we have to keep philosophy separate from the space of capitalism, we are bound to reaffirm out-dated notions of both philosophy and capitalism. But if we try to understand how philosophy can thrive in the midst of capitalism, that is bound to transform our sense of the possibilities of both. If you take two things which are very different and run them into each other at full speed, the result will be something so transformative that it would have been altogether unimaginable earlier. But it might also be just what was hoped for all along.

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