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Philosophy in the Academy

The following polemic began life as a reaction to the
frustrations of various discussions with professional philosophers of issues that are central to the radical transformation
of social relationships from alienated and oppressive ones to
free, equal-socialist-social relations. It is addressed primarily
to people in or near to the movement, and is not meant to convince
straight academics: for that, I know, a different sort of work is
needed. Much of it may be treated more as an expression of
feeling than a ‘rigorous’ series of arguments. But if we can’t
communicate publicly about our reactions to our work in Radical
Philosophy, where can we do so, and what is it for? I don’t
think that doing so is a separate enterprise from producing the
philosophical work we need. Unless we recognise the nature of
what it is that oppresses us about our situation – and this can
be done best, or only by communicating about it – we will not be
able to spot clearly enough the directions in which to move to
combat it.

At least, part of me thinks so.

A central contention of Warnock’s book ‘The Object of
Morality’ is that morality is an instrument for ‘ameliorating
the human predicament’, which he sees as characterised by the
fact-that people have limited sympathies, limited rationality,
Like Hart, and other bourgeois thinkers who, following
Hart, repeat these phrases, he does not inquire seriously to
what extent these alleged features of ‘human nature’ are the
products of contingent and changeable historical circumstance.

But to have a serious interest in this question, even to take
it seriously as a question, is not easy for someone who does
not see the need for a radical transformation of social life,
and who has little perception of the way people’s lives are
screwed up in capitalist society.

The first two replies merely require us to point out in
turn that it is just this that is the complaint, that we ought
to question the idea of ‘departments of philosophy’, or that
we must simply accept the current structures of academic
institutions. But the third requires more of a response.

One problem with it is that most students will not go on to
do further work in philosophy, and for them the whole idea of
their undergraduate education as a preparation for further
work in philosophy i~ i~relevant. They will have wasted time
in which they could have developed a deeper sense of at least
some issues of importance to them, they might come to understand certain features of their society and 1 i ves more fully.

But even for those who do go on the argument is weak. For what
happens in practise is that what gets transmitted is a certain
jargon, a carping sensibility, typically a lack of much sense
of cooperative work, and little sense of the way philosophical
questions are raised in all sorts of disciplines: philosophy
cannot be defined in terms of a certain set of techniques,
whatever those are. Philosophers use very different ‘techniques’,
thinkers who do not use ‘techniques’ typical of analytic philosophy raise questions of philosophical importance, have insights
and discuss questions which touch on the most- general and basic
features of reality and of human experience. If anything is to
be taken as indicative of the philosophical character of a
thinker it is this latter feature rather than the use of any
specifiable set of ‘techniques’. And it is quite absurd to
say that without knowing these ‘techniques’ it is impossible
to see what is philosophical and valuable in these questions or
writers. For those who produced them ex hypothesis did not
employ such ‘techniques’, people have criticised and responded
to them without employing reduction ad absurdum, or the analytic/
synthetic distinction, or what have you. But even if there
were something in the idea that philosophy has to be seen as
at least in part involving a set of techniques, this would
settle nothing about what should be done: for there is no point
having these techniques unless they are going to be employed to
illuminate and become clear about such central features of human
life, and there is no guarantee that it is those who satisfy the
narrow definition of philosophy who will have the best insights
here. It is hard to think of a single academic philosopher in
the 20th century from whom one can learn as much about human
beings as one can from the Freudian or Marxian traditions. But
more strongly, the complacency, intellectual elitism and escapism
that the practise of philosophers encourages makes it difficult
for them to apply such ‘technique’ in any but an external and
reductive way to whatever they touch. (This goes with their
conceptual and political conservatism, evidenced in Warnock’s
discussion referred to above, but which is a pervasive feature
of such discussions).

The ‘human predicament’ is supposed to be ameliorated by
the abstract principles which Warnock takes to be the core of
morality: principles of non-malificence, fairness, beneficence
and non-deception. But it is obvious that the extent to which
these ‘principles’ will be applied is largely determined by the
social and economic conditions under which people live. And of
course these principles may characterise not only individuals
and their actions but a whole social structure, which may
incorporate unfairness, deception, indifference to other person’s
interests and needs in its very structure. A serious examination
of what would ‘alleviate the human condition’ would involve an
inquiry into which social forces and tendencies are progressive
and which are reactionary, an analysis of specific forms of
oppression and of the nature of oppression, and some account
of what institutional forms and modes of social relationships
would reduce or overcome these forms of oppression. But then
one would need some understanding of the role of institutions
and of specific social forces in perpetuating oppressive
relations, whereas Warnock’s conception is entirely individualistic and thus historical. ‘The human predicament’ is
characterised by individual failings, such as limited rationality
or limited sympathy – (but is it clear what unlimited sympathy
There is no sense of the role of particular ways
would be?)
of life or modes of social organisation in limiting or developing
human sympathy and human rationality. Both the problem and the
remedy (living up to principles) are due to individual failings
or individual excellences.

But we should not expect any deep understanding of social
oppression from a straight philosopher. To engage in this
inquiry in a serious way involves having a political perspective
of a radical kind, for only radicals can be expected to take
seriously, in their lives and in their thinking the need for,
and possibility of, a radical and liberating transformation of
social relations. Whereas it is a feature of a conservative
mentality that you have no sense of the need for such a transformation, that you don’t see what people are at when they work
at developing notions of non-oppressive forms of social relationships, in which for example, the imposition of sanctions is not
seen as the necessary cement binding society together, or standing behind the possibility of social existence: If you don’t
see how screwed-up capitalist society is, if your politics are
conservative (whatever political party you support), and you are
complacent about current forms of social life, this will mean
nothing to you, as it will if you ascribe whatever is wrong to
individual viciousness or insensitivity, rather than to features
of the social system. But then what is the point of discussing
these questions, which must be central to the way we think of
ourselves as radicals, with a straight academic?

(This seems
to me especially relevant to our practise as radical philosophers
within the academy.)

Again and again I have found that there was little or no
understanding of what these problems were, let alone of their
importance, on the part of such academics. This is not surprising in view of their elitist formation, which is maintained
daily in the practise of ridding their students of ‘muddles’

and ‘confusions’, of ridding them of what they see as problems
and replacing these perhaps inchoate intuitions with professional
jargon and clever puzzles. Such academics are not in the best
position, to say the least, to develop an unalienated conception
of human powers and relationships, even if they cared to do so.

They tend to be more concerned with the jealous preservation of
the little space they have managed to eke out for themselves
from the sciences, and do so in part by turning their work into
a narrow specialism removed from any systematic attempt to
understand the nature of human reality. They come to be
dominated by the mystique of teachini ‘philosophy’, with the
question of whether or not a student is good at ‘philosophy’,
with students having a wide coverage of ‘philosophy’: the
fetishism of ‘philosophy’ renders nearly impossible any idea
of working with students to develop their own ideas and problems,
possibly in relation to some philosopher (or psychologist, or
sociologist, or whatever) but going where the ideas and interests
may lead rather than forcing everyone’s thought into the pattern
imposed by syllabus and exams, a syllabus which often frustrates
not only the students. The answers they might give to these
criticisms are: that teachers are hired to teach philosophy,
that anyway they have to work within the system approved by the
bureaucracy, or that philosophy just is a specialised field with
its own set ef techniques and its own set of problems which
students must learn before they can do serious work of their own.


The student who is admired and who goes on tends to be
the one who is adept at picking up the jargon and manner of

learn from them, at the very least what their problems and
concerns are, can he ever be an instrument in the liberation of
their thought? (one wonders more and more whether this is
possible within the framework of the academy, whether it is
only by good fortune that this ever happens, and that it happens
~lhen it does despite the academic structure.)

tne professional philosopher, always on the scent of the slight
mistake in what someone has said, abstracting from the idea or
general conception it contains, who picks up the minute, carping
put-down, and gets his/her problems and ideas from the latest
professional book or article. It is characteristic of this
type that they come to think they can dismiss a complex
theoretical system such as marxism or psychoanalysis in a few
deft ‘moves’ or with a few clever points, and to distrust
whatever is not put in the professional patois of ‘claims’,
unpacking, entailment, and which does not have the sleek
professionalism and glibness that usually passes for brilliance
and rigor. These academics deserve the students they breed;
but the students do not always deserve such academics: caveat

What are some other features of the professional?

– Competitiveness, and the resulting difficulty of
having a serious cooperative discussion with him (especially
one that is not formulated in the terms of the trade);he has
to assert himself, and is so absorbed by his professionalism
that he is rarely concerned to see where an idea which may
sound strange to him comes from in a person’s life or thought.

If he does relate it to anything it is likely to be some
academic source, often quite alien to, and distorting of, the
original impetus.

– An unwillingness to distinguish between what is a
serious position or problem and what is not. Ideas are treated
at the level of ‘what someone might say’, or ‘a position that
could be maintained’: a position that is absurd, that no one
would seriously maintain, is treated on the same level as
something that is a serious live option, that makes a difference
to people’s lives. Perhaps this is especially true in’ what is
called moral and political philosophy, where an ideology (and
fantasy) of neutrality reigns, understandable in view of the
typical philosopher’s isolation from any political movement.

Neutrality is, however, a fantasy: to treat with equal seriousness and respect a viel, which comes to terms with the oppressiveness of bourgeois society and one which does not, without taking
a stand, is already to take a stand, if only that of the philosophical voyeur. Some academics seem to see themselves as
above or outside political stnlggle, claiming to see themselves
as committed to the pursuit of knowledge. But they do not see
that some political movements and ways of life are more favourable to the development of knowledge and understanding than
other, obscurantist, ones and that withdrawal is itself a bad
form of politics.

One thing that can help in such situations is to force
person to say what ~ thinks, where he stands, to confront
hlm as a person with a definite political practise, and to
destroy the attempt at the escapism of ‘I’m a philosopher’ or
‘this is not an entirely implausible thing to say’.


– Verbal athleticism and glibness, apparently designed to
stun students and others into a baffled silence. This often
goes with the pretence of knowing the answer to all questions.

Such a teacher can only be bluffing, and it is the aura of
having a position (an office), and people’s hang-ups about
authority (themselves engendered and reinforced by the
authoritarian structure of philosophy and other academic
departments, that enable them to get away with it. Since many
students come expecting that there are certain people who know
the right answers, or who don’t care too much because they
want the degree, and know they are going to be examined by
people who include these teachers and others who think roughly
like them, it is difficult for a student to get outside the
definition of the subject, the mode of work and the general
views which are presented by such teachers. Besides, it is so
easy for teachers in a position of authority and with sometimes
considerable verbal dexterity to put a student down, to confuse
him without trying to see by further questioning what he is
trying to say, or with what els~ in his thinking it connects,
that students have to struggle not to become submissive and
hrowheaten. Some philosophers seem to see their ability for
the quick kill, the lightening put-down as proof of their
professional skills.

In a way it is, but this is indicative
of the kind of skill they have (and their oppressive function)
rather than of any philosophical understanding. You might as
well look on the ability of a uniformed man with a machinegun
to terrorise unarmed civilians as proof of his rightness.

Rather than trying to help a student get clear about and
develop his thought, it will often be labelled as being a view
of a Humean, etc. kind (the student may never have read Hume):

this thought is forced into a mould which it is often distorted
by. The professional is so concerned to parade his skills that
he is rarely attentive to what is behind a student’s question
or remark, and this is made especially difficult by the authoritarian structure of the classroom situation, (and of British
society), which forces upon people the idea that the teacher
is someone who knows the answers, not someone who may be
engaged in working with his ‘students’ on difficult questions.

The elitism of the professional is linked with this: he is the
person who knows what the important questions are, and can spot
‘muddles’ with a vengeance. Typically he does not think he has
‘nything to learn from his students. But without being able to

– It is necessary always to penetrate to the social and
political core of any position, or way of working in philosophy.

These can be democratic or authoritarian, foster critical and
independent thought or aim at inducing a sense of inadequacy
and dependence, encourage cooperative work, or heighten competitiveness and privatisation, be precious and escapist or
engaged and serious. Philosophers think they are being paradigmatically rational and objective when they are being
detached and artificial, parading as paradigmatically rational
a particular mode of relating to the world which treats withdrawal, escapism, indifference, sarcasm, and disengagement as
the appropriate response to human and political problems.

These attitudes are strengthened by their highly privatised
way of working and their frequent careerism. It is superficial
to treat these features as just ‘sociological facts’ irrelevant
to understanding the kind of work they produce, or to the
emphasis on the need to master certain professional ‘techniques’

as what is centrally involved in the formation of a philosopher.

(Note the emphasis on being ‘a good philosopher’ or ‘good at
philosophy’; there is relatively little talk of the development
of philosophical understanding.)
In all this the important thing is not to ‘blame’ anyone,
not to point the finger at particular people, for their roles
are largely determined for them by the structure of the institutions within which they work and the forces which maintain that
structure which have an interest in the fragmentation and compartmentalisation of knowledge. It is important to see also
that this is to a great extent a defensive posture; note the
way lines of thought or questions get ruled out as not being
‘philosophical’ this is indicative of escapism and fear, as
well as, or together with, professional specialisation.Identifying yourself as ‘a philosopher’ is supposed to free you
from the need to be acquainted with facts and theories being
developed in the relevant sciences. This tendency is perhaps
especially marked and especially disastrous in the philosophy
of mind, moral and political philosophy. Thus psychoanalytic .

theory gets treated as an afterthought, as a special case, which
can be discussed after we have already worked out what intentions,
motives, freedom,conscience etc, are. Freud is generally not
seen as having a philosophy which has widespread ramifications
throughout the ‘fields’ I have mentioned. The same tends to be
true of the treatment of Marxism which, when it is studied, is
treated as a special subject, not as a philosophy which involves
a whole approach to questions about e.g., knowledge,morality,
politics, law, and the ‘mind’. Into which academic pigeonhole
are we to fit problems like the relationship between social
being and consciousness? Thus it is rendered harmless by being
fenced off as a ‘special interest’. The stakes here are the
autonomy of ‘philosophy’ challenged by these among other systems
of thought (though I am aware of the inadequacy of this description, and the suggestion that what we have to do with here are
finished or completed bodies of propositions which are simply to
be adopted or rejected, in part or in whole; this is an alienated
way of relating to a way of thought). But the problem does not
just concern the autonomy of philosophy (and philosophers) and
their independence or lack of it from the sciences; nor is it
just that the same sort of problem arises in other ‘fields’.

There is a general problem about the institutionalisation of
philosophy and other forms- of knowledge, the drawing of their
critical and political sting by being made into academic
special isms within a context of overall social and political

One question we have to come to terms with is: is it
possible for us, trapped within these institutions, to relate
ourselves in a non-elitist and non-alienated way (e.g. at a
purely intellectual level) to the continuing struggles against
oppression and for the creation of liberated forms of life?

One form such a contribution might take, is to develop ways of
working together and ways of communicating, in addition to the
Journal, that threaten the hold of the philosophical establishment on the manner and content of theoretical production: circulating manuscripts, reduplicating them, incorporating various
comments within the circulated manuscript; holding weekend or
week long study and discussion sessions, possibly with small
numbers in a single house; encouraging reflection on and within
the concepts that have been developed within the movement in
the last years, notions of liberation, of the control of one’s
life, of oppression, authoritarianism, and so on. Serious
liberating work on these problems is not likely to come from
anywhere else (don’t leave it to the bureaucratised academics).

We must avoid being constrained by the academically sanctioned
boundaries between philosophy and sociology, psychology, etc.

and rid ourselves of the hang-ups about being ‘philosophers’:

we must aim at a comprehensive view of reality, especially of
human reality, and for this the sources that can be drawn on
are much wider than what normally appears on the reading lists
in philosophy departments.


I am aware of the schematic and sketchy character of the

posItIve suggestions I have made: but I think it symptomatic of
our state that we don’t have lots of ideas – and activities going about this. Maybe not everyone in sympathy with the
general idea of radical philosophy feels these needs. When
talk about new modes of communicating, this must include more
or less regular meetings, preferably, though not ~nly in small
groups, where the separation between our lives as persons and
as radicals, and our lives as academic philosophers can be
overcome, at least to an extent. Lastly, a suggestion that
one of the most important areas in which we can intervene
philosophically and politically at this point is that of education and the philosophy of education, at present, despite
recent good work by Dave Adelstein and Keith Paton (The Great
Brain Robbery), dominated by a reactionary ideology emanatIng
largely from the London Institute of Education.


Thus the structure of philosophy departments reproduces
the fragmentation of understanding which seems to be an essential
feature of capitalist society. How, while remaining within the
academy can we avoid being agents of this and other forms of
oppression? How can we ourselves avoid being screwed up by the
false positions and compromises we are forced into (exams,
lectures, posing as authorities, being subject to authorities)?

Can we get our own heads (and lives) straight while we are
subject to its domination, to the disruption it imposes on our
own thinking? Should we get out, trying to contribute to the
‘,building up of radical culture and thought outside the academy,
living in a more integrated, revolutionary manner? Perhaps
‘radical philosophy’ will help to make the academy more liveable,
by placing politics where it should be, at the centre of consciousness, not as a special, peripheral subject: but is this

ADDENDUM: A Note about “the Theory of Knowledge”


Perhaps, in some way, ‘the problem of knowledge’, and
that of political practice, are one.


Philosophy departments customarily allot separate courses
to epistemology and to moral philosophy. This seems to enshrine
a fact value distinction into the very structure of the degree.

(In one course we discuss knowledge, in another values.)



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One of the central questions of ‘epistemology’ concerns
the conditions under which it is possible to acquire knowledge
(or in Winch’s words, how the mind can have contact with
reality). But the knowledge about which this question is asked
is usually knowledge of facts about the ‘material world’. If
the question is understood to include knowledge about oneself,
about one’s society and one’s relationships with others, then
the Marxist contention that capitalism is intrinsically a
mystifying social formation in which people are systematically
prevented from seeing the truth about their lives and their
society (and its Freudian, etc. analogues) immediately becomes
relevant. The question about knowledge has to be dealt with in
the context of the question: what kind of society and social
relations would enable a non-mystified view of reality, would
replace illusion with knowledge? This transfers the focus of
the question from the individual mind to the type of society
which makes knowledge possible and accessible. It also raises
the question of how this knowledge enters the mind, and the
relationship between the person and his knowledge; thus it
would involve issues about non-oppressive forms of education,
an education which liberates people’s capacities to discover
and to do things for themselves and with others, which enables
them to understand their society. It is a feature of the
capitalist system that it cannot allow this to happen, that its
nature and operation is obscure to those who work and live
under it.




Colia MacCabe

The rationalistic world view (a view which incidentally is,
think, the predominant one for us here and now, and which
daily approaches its timely end) changes the focus from the
comunally shared world of the tribe to the world individually
experiences. That this view can be historically linked with an
increasing division of labour is something which should become
clear during the course of my argument. Here the emphasis
changes from a world which finds its continuity running through
itself to a world which finds its continuity in the world of
self which perceives the world as out there and which objectifies
this world so that it finds its being independently of the
perceiving self. This factifying of the world is accompanied by
a negatIon of other areas of experience in which the facticity
of the world is not so marked, such as dreams, hallucinations
and other similar phenomena. In particular, the area of the
world which becomes highly problematic is other people.

Experienced both as physical facts of the world and also at
another level as beings with direct contact with the conscious
perceiving self, other minds become problematic. Thus in the
rationalist world we find the world split into two, on the one
hand, the world of self, and on the other, the world of fact,
and caught uneasily between the two, other minds and those
experiences of our own body which we cannot characterize as
self or not-self.

The following paper was read to the Cambridge Philosophy
Festival on March lOth, 1972 (see Cambridge Report). It is
intended to raise problems rather than to offer final answers.

The last section of the paper (“Discussion”) was added after
the Cambridge meeting and deals with some of the points raised
in the discussion there.

Let us begin by trying to define three different attitudes
to the world; the mythological, the rational and the fictive. In
the mythological world there is no distinction of kind between
the experiences of self, the experience of other human beings,
and the experience of the external world. Indeed, the world is
not even seen as external in this way. All three categories are
underpinned by and articulated along methods of explanation in
which the governing power is placed outside in a fourth category
– that of the gods – which it is impossible to disentangle from
the rest but which is their ultimate support. The experience of
self in this world is not necessarily seen as an experiential
continuum in terms of which the rest of the world is defined but
rather the experiences of the self find their discontinuities
reconciled in the continuum of the world ratified by the gods.

Indeed these discontinuities are not even seen as such in a
continuous common world. The world of dreams, the common sense
world of ordinary waking life and the world of mystical or druginduced states require no existential ordering in the life of
the self, their ordering is guaranteed in the life of the tribe.



Before I attempt to describe the third attitude to the
world I would like to make clear what I am doing in offering
these descriptions. I do not think I am describing fully the
world view of any particular culture at any particular moment
in its history. Rather these are theoretical descriptions
which will, I hope, prove their usefulness in the inquiry I am

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