Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy

This statement has been posted in a few places already, but it’s definitely worth making sure everyone sees it:

Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy

Enemy of doxa, corrupter of youth, promulgator of discomfiting intuitions. That philosophy is unpalatable to the powers that be: this is not news to Socrates and his comrades.

Today it is no philosopher in particular, but philosophy itself that is ordered to drink the hemlock, sentenced to death for corrupting the capacity of what used to be called “the University” to turn greater profits. Philosophy is convicted of impiety before capital.

The present situation at Middlesex University makes the stakes excruciatingly clear. Even “excellence”—the preferred contemporary replacement for such antiquities as learning, knowledge, or thinking—is no longer enough. Even the “ranking” of a program is no matter, nor is its contribution to the reputation of the institution. Nor does it suffice that a program should sustain itself financially, or generate revenue. The operative question is simply: could more revenue be generated through its elimination? Could one, for example, restructure enrollment so as to swell Work Based Learning programs that draw lucrative funding from corporate sponsors? Could one get away with simply reallocating external grant funding already secured by the Center for Research in Modern European Philosophy (reportedly some £1 million through 2016) while eliminating the expense of actually running the Center? According to administrative logic, neither the international reputation of Middlesex Philosophy nor its financial solvency have any bearing upon the verdict that it makes “no measurable contribution” to the University. According to the calculus of greed and exploitation—the calculus of capital—philosophy at Middlesex, as Alex Williams rightly puts it, is worth more dead than alive.

What lessons are we to draw from this example? And what sort of a response might those lessons entail?

We might insist that philosophy is essential to the university—that only an institution which includes it answers to an acceptable vision of what the university should be. And we might then demand of wayward administrators the reversal of an “irrational” or “unethical” decision: the restoration of philosophy to its proper place at the core of any university worthy of the name. Or, on the other hand, we might find in the termination of philosophy the expression of an essential truth about the university’s role as a modern institution: to reproduce the relation between capital and labor—through the production of cultural capital when convenient, through the excision of cultural mediation when expedient.

The era of such expediency is everywhere upon us. Discussions of “The Crisis of the Humanities” proliferate at a dizzying pace. How can we proffer more compelling accounts of “what it is that we do” to administrators looking askance at abstruse investigations no longer even regarded as charming? Can we compete on a level playing field with the verifiable results of science and engineering by drawing up lists of our recent “discoveries”? Can we compete with the profit margins of private business schools embedded in public universities by insisting upon our invaluable contributions to civil society, our production of a thoughtful citizenry? How can we account for the worth of our teaching by metrics that calculate the value of programs according to higher, rather than lower, student/instructor ratios? How can we justify our existence, our form-of-life, in short, amid the unchecked reign of bureaucrats whose moral compass is neither the novel nor the Nicomachean Ethics but the consulting firm?

To its immeasurable credit, the response of Middlesex Philosophy offers an alternative to both indignant pleading and professionalized handwringing: concrete resistance.

The students, staff, and faculty at Middlesex have opted to intervene in “the crisis of the humanities” by taking a common space of thought and practice with the determination to hold it. What inspires is the escalation of their radicalism in response to administrative obstinacy. First they occupied a boardroom to protest the cancellation of a meeting, seeking a proper explanation for the closure of their program. The next day they took the entire building, demanding a reversal of the decision. Today a red and black flag flies over the barricaded Mansion House at Middlesex, and thinkers from around the UK and continental Europe are travelling to the occupied Trent Park campus to participate in an open program of art, philosophy, and politics events called Transversal Space.

This sequence is a prolegomena to any future philosophy.

We cannot rely upon the goodwill of administrators and their consulting firms to uphold the grand tradition of the Academy, nor to offer wild-life preserves for modes of critical reflection that assuredly do not serve the interests of their species. We will not secure “the future of the humanities” by the authority of the better argument nor through appeals to a higher good than goods. If the very capacity for philosophical activity is to survive, then by any means necessary we will have to make it unprofitable to destroy the time and space of resolutely unproductive thought. What Middlesex augurs is that the 21st century is a time in which the material conditions of any possible thinking will have to be constructed, expropriated, and defended by common force.

Kant’s project, at the core of critical modernity, was to banish dogmatism by accounting for the conditions of any possible understanding. But now it is not critical reflection but rather the dogmatic operations of capital that pose the question quid juris? to philosophy. To subject Kant’s critical idealism to a materialist inversion, today, is to recognize that the conditions of any possible philosophical reflection—reflection upon conditions of possible understanding, or anything else—will depend upon material powers of resistance, the construction of times, spaces, and forms of life capable of holding their own against the vacuity of philosophy’s erasure.

“The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The present crisis of the relation of philosophy to capital means that philosophers will have to change the world in order to interpret it. It is not that philosophy will be obviated by the real movement of history, the coming-into-being of communism, but rather that communization is now the pre-condition of any possible philosophy.

“In the sphere of this faculty you can determine either everything or nothing,” writes Kant in the preface to the Prolegomena. From California, to Puerto Rico, to London, to Zagreb, to Greece: We Want Everything.

Nathan Brown
University of California, Davis

Marija Cetinić
Comparative Literature
University of Southern California

Gopal Balakrishnan
History of Consciounsess
University of California, Santa Cruz

Aaron Benanav
University of California, Los Angeles

Jasper Bernes
University of California, Berkeley

Chris Chen
University of California, Berkeley

Joshua Clover
University of California, Davis

Maya Gonzalez
History of Consciousness
University of California, Santa Cruz

Timothy Kreiner
University of California, Davis

Laura Martin
University of California, Santa Cruz

Evan Calder Williams
University of California, Santa Cruz


7 thoughts on “Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy

  1. It is not “the operation of capital”.

    You have to forget about it, otherwise you create an infinite front you can never defend and which leads to arbitrary splintering. Forget about bringing capitalism down or the government. Just win your battle against the sophistry of a particular administrative staff. That’s what philosophers shall be prepared for anyway and that’s why they shall be scared and admired. In order to succeed don’t do it like Nina Power and show a 45 sec clip of your opponent just to demonstrate your annoyance. You are not in the position of winning by such childish arrogance. Start to study the symbolic production of those people thoroughly instead of producing secondary literature to Kafka, Zizek and Marx.

    Whoever is going to win here I hope some of you grad students and professional philosophers will learn from this incident.

    • I think you’re setting up a bit of a strawman here. I don’t know of one single person involved in the MDX struggle or the UC struggles that would fall into the trap you (rightly) cite. Similarly, focusing on one single tactic (whether it be a video or even an occupation) neglects the multitude of other ways in which this struggle is being carried out. So while I agree with your point, I think you are aiming at the wrong targets.

  2. Actually, I for one am quite happy to fall into the” trap” that Kay cites (quite wrongly in my opinion). To recognize the manner in which particular political struggles in specific historical situations are indeed bound to the larger systemic and structural functions referred to here as “capital” is the sine qua non of an intelligent Marxist politics. To refer to an analysis that situates a particular struggle in this way as “childish arrogance” is…misguided. There is no contradiction between understanding the particular tactical exigencies of a specific struggle and situating that struggle within a larger analysis of political economy (hardly touched upon here, of course). Failing to do this isn’t necessarily “childish,” but it surely misses the point, since what’s happening at Middlesex is happening and will happen elsewhere, again and again and again. And not simply because of a “particular administrative staff.”

  3. Pingback: Middlesex Philosophy « Amy De'Ath

  4. Nick, I think that Kay has a point, though I am not sure she helps by singling out Nina Power, anymore than Nina could have helped by her aggressive tone. And, in any case, Nathan Brown seems to back up precisely what Kay says (I mean he admits of the naive Leftism which Kay worries will splinter and fail).

    I find it astounding, really, that people evoke the history of class struggle, then repeat its mistakes.

    There were so many possible actions to consider aside from an occupation, and whilst, when the decison was made I naturally wanted it to work – as I continue to support the students and tutors at Middlesex – it may be useful for people not involved in the core protest to understand exactly what is being talked about at ground level, politically speaking. For if this is a worldwide problem in humanities departments, the world needs to conceive of a response. Otherwise, as Kay points out, you may as well just save the department in isolation, on its own terms, and stop virtually invoking a new Comintern!

    Kay rightly calls for people to try and save philosophy tuition rather than trying to overthrow Capitalism. Unfortunately these kind of situations often provoke knee jerk tired old Leftist postures, and I might argue that that is what is coming across, at a time when you could so easily put a different message across, in new ways.

    This SHOULD be a worldwide protest. Indeed, it is. Yet the terms of the protest seem to narrow around hackneyed old political analyses. The shift in technology has been such that it seems just plain odd that occupation has been deemed the principle means of protest. The space which philosophy inhabits is far wider than the physical space of the institute. Unleash that space on the powers that be, and they would tremble. That has in part happened, but I think it lost momentum after the signing of the online petition, with the net being used merely to document rather than facilitate. I think the space of dialogue, and of thought could be well employed in its expansiveness, as it transcends the institution. How much scarier, for the Academy, is the notion that humanities don’t need the Academy, don’t need a grounding space, and will go on without thre academy, unchecked by its stifling form filling and regulatory processes, which often stop tutors from actually seeing students, and which stop students developing to their potential? The Salon de Refuses is a good model here, perhaps.

    ‘“The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The present crisis of the relation of philosophy to capital means that philosophers will have to change the world in order to interpret it. It is not that philosophy will be obviated by the real movement of history, the coming-into-being of communism, but rather that communization is now the pre-condition of any possible philosophy.’

    The above, written by Brown, misunderstands the quote with which it opens. I’d say ‘be the change you want to see’ might be a useful correlative to that quote here, because by re-enacting failed struggles, you’re just going to keep on struggling and failing, which is not what Marx advocated. It is a symptom of Leninism, and it has been woefully unhelpful for the world at large.

    In ‘changing’ the world has it have occured to anyone to examine alternative methods of teaching and funding philosophy? Why do people so much mourn the loss of philosophy at Middlesex, if Middlesex doesn’t want philosophy to be there? If Middlesex is managed by morons, and if this is merely indicative of the situation at large, would it not be a good idea to cut and run? Because this fight will be fought perpetually otherwise.

    If a college decides it is going vocational, then philosophy would be as a square peg in a round hole. Now, the decison may be politically driven, but I cannot see how the best response is to evoke 1968, or any period of Leftist struggle which has failed. Is some kind of call to ‘Marxist Politics’ the best the academic world (and it is the whole academic world now) has to offer? Is there not something new, something else we might have missed, and something, at that, that is not bang between Left and Right ?

    Is it possible to set to set up humanities tuition aside from the Statist-Capitalist (Blairite, in a word) system it stands within? Would that make tuition better and more widely available( quite possibly, yes)? People have nothing to lose but the University accreditation and independent inspection system (their chains). How then would a new system of accreditation be set up? Would it be needed? Are these questions being asked? Because I think that people outside the immediate milieu of protest at Middelsex are seeing rather a big jump from a closed department, to the proclamation, of, amongst other things, the spirit of 1968, and Communist Revolution.

    Of course, I’m being unfashionably un-Old-Leftist here, but why can’t we draw debates along these lines? Why is the questioning of the prevalent dogma just shouted down on forums, and ignored? It is the precisely the drowning out of voices that were not towing the line which ruined the potential of 1968.

    Unfortunately, I think the trouble is that half of the world read Marx and ignored him, and the other half read Marx and took him too much to heart.

    Finally, I think that the department can, will and should be saved in some form, and I hope it goes on to provide answers to pressing questions in new ways. And I hope that the University of California does too. And I hope the debate can continue, but that it allows for innovation. Or, long term, we’re not going to see the fair world we so want to see.

  5. I have finally found the place. it is a very good statement, it helps, because it gets out of the dilemma let’s convince them of our spiritual necessity ( SO WHAT we don’t want leisure thinking) and/or show them how efficient we are by their own criteria. That both of these can be tactically used, that’s OK. But the problem is most of these struggles really bog down on those lines.
    Here in France we got so far : we want something, now, not nothing later. But we lost a semester-long strike ( change of the statutes of teaching staff was the starting point) and it is effectively a defeat as philosophy ( and other disciplines) is being deserted. it is becoming a ridiculous pastime at the university, to put it mildly. Philosophy is taught in high school, so that holds something. But we need to think of other ways of working together.
    I am not sure that philosophy is going to stay at the university it might have to go elsewhere. you know like in old times hahaha Rousseau, Spinoza, Benjamin

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