The Market of Philosophy

I’ve always been curious to know what the insiders thought of the academia of philosophy. Philosophy has always been close to my heart, but I’ve always resisted entering the academia. I believe my ego has always wanted to, but my heart has always rejected it. Being Japanese with deeply ingrained Zen values, for me, an academic pursuit of philosophy was self-contradiction of sorts. Wittgenstein had always encouraged his students to leave the academia and get real jobs. He felt that it was the only way to be a real philosopher. His advice resonated in me as well. Yet, my superficial ego has never been able to resist peeking into the academia every so often, and wondered what it’s like to be immersed in it. (I’ve been getting glimpses of it in essays like this.)

I studied fine arts in the late 80s. At the time, the French Postmodern theories dominated the philosophical air of the art world. I’ve read many of the well-known titles, but most of them never resonated in me. Now the only French thinker who has any meaning for me is Jacques Derrida. I immediately noticed that his central message was the same as that of Wittgenstein. And, ultimately the reason why the ideas of both Derrida and Wittgenstein felt natural to me was because Zen Buddhism shares the same perspective on the nature of language. But, curiously, nobody in the academia seemed to be discussing the similarities.

I eventually found “Wittgenstein and Derrida” by Henry Staten, which confirmed that I wasn’t the only person who saw the similarities between these two philosophers. I then emailed the author and asked about his view on Zen Buddhism as compared to the works of these two philosophers. He didn’t feel that there were any similarities. But I eventually found an essay by Steve Odin, a professor at University of Hawaii, where he talked specifically about the parallels between Derrida and Zen.

If one were to intellectually discuss Zen (which is not something serious Zen practitioners would do), Derrida would be closer to Zen than Wittgenstein is, as deconstructive thinking is a strategy commonly employed in Zen. (e.g., in Zen, life of a human being has no more value than that of an insect. Many such instances of “Logocentrism” are deconstructed by default, preventing the trap of building any structures on them. The aversion to written doctrine is an attempt to prevent their disciples from seeking “transcendental signified” in the illusory appearance of permanence or fixedness of written text.) Wittgenstein, on the other hand, was closer to Zen in practice; how he practiced his own philosophies in real life.

For me, these were rather obvious similarities, so it puzzled me that nobody seemed to be connecting the dots. It’s like we are all searching for the same star but some of us only know when the star is visible, and the others know only the location. We all sit in the same cafeteria, but we never share the information. Why does this happen? I think it has to do with how the market works.

Western philosophy is a market like any other. Philosophical ideas that successfully spread in the academia must meet certain criteria which are defined by the market. As with any other markets, emotion, not reason, is the primary force that drives the market of philosophy. What ideas gain currency in it is not determined by the truth but by the emotional reactions to the supposed truth. It has more to do with the pettiness of our egos than with any objective evaluation of the truth.

Many in the academia are driven by their desire to be perceived as intelligent and insightful, as well as by the fear of being perceived as mediocre or stupid, that is, by the sense of superiority and/or inferiority. This sounds rather juvenile, but philosophers are human beings too. When a piece of writing is incomprehensible, it ignites both fear and desire in them. If you can comprehend a work that most others deem incomprehensible, you’ve got something to brag about. If you can’t, you would have to blame/attack/accuse/criticize the author for his/her inability to articulate their ideas in plain language, but your real motive is that you want to prevent it from gaining currency in the market, so that you wouldn’t appear stupid.

In this way, in the market of philosophy, misunderstandable style of writing plays a key role in propagating one’s ideas. Your writing can’t be just any gibberish; it must be misunderstandable in a certain way. It needs to be seductive and mysterious. And, it needs to leverage (or graft itself onto) the established authorities in the market, by making connections to the past philosophers and their respected ideas. (Wittgenstein was an exception to this, but he did make the right people-connections.) After all, how many copies of Derrida’s books, for instance, would you think were actually sold to someone who understood it? I suspect that the vast majority of the copies were sold to people who hoped to understand him (driven by the fear of inferiority and/or desire for superiority) but were unable to crack his code, which would mean that Derrida’s successful career was largely supported by those who misunderstood (or did not understand) him. Derrida’s style of writing does have a seductive combination of poetry, mystery, evidence of his vast knowledge in philosophy, a hard-to-get attitude, and intimidating analytical skills. Those who can have him love him, and those who can’t, hate him.

Those in the academia are naturally concerned about their careers and achievements no less than the rest of us in other fields. Unless you are lucky, you cannot simply build a career by just doing whatever you find interesting. To build a career in any market, connections must be made of both people and ideas. A career or an achievement, in the end, is a constellation of these connected ideas and people. This means that the activities of philosophers, i.e. thinking, must be driven by what encourages these connections. And, the best way to promote the spread of any products or ideas is to appeal to our innermost emotions. Writers like Derrida and Gilles Deleuze successfully accomplished this. However, this is not to say that their writings were mere gibberish. It is like a sensational news story on TV that stirs much fear in people; there could still be a truth/fact behind the sensationalism.

This is where Eastern and Western philosophies fundamentally differ. What drives most Eastern philosophers is not a career or achievement. They want to escape the pain and the suffering of everyday lives by achieving Enlightenment, which is equally superficial. (Eastern philosophy is more like a religion by the Western standards.) In both East and West, what drives them to philosophy is their ego.

The point of pursuing any subject as a career is ultimately about competition. The value of your career is measured in terms of superiority and inferiority. The practitioners of Eastern philosophy, on the other hand, just want to be free of suffering. They are just concerned about themselves. They do not care to become respected or famous for their achievements.

This would partly explain why Western philosophers are not particularly interested in drawing connections to Eastern philosophies. The academia has been established in such a way that it rewards certain connections more than they do others. Western philosophers connect only the dots that would enhance their own careers. In fact some connections are even looked down on. The Eastern philosophers, on the other hand, have a more holistic approach, and they encourage making connections to a variety of seemingly unrelated matters. Whatever helps to attain Enlightenment is good enough for them. The Western philosophers gain respect and authority by specializing. So, they wouldn’t, for instance, integrate physical exercise to their philosophies. In the East, the truth is to be found in relationships. In the West, the truth is to be found in discrete objects/subjects. There are no incentives for the Western philosophers to make connections to Eastern philosophies. What they are playing is a game that has been established for centuries. There is a power structure within the academia that needs to be protected. To do so, certain connections are encouraged while others are discouraged, or even punished. Making the right kind of connections is, therefore, the key to getting the attention of the market. This is partly why the modern philosophical books cannot be read without knowing almost the entire edifice of the Western philosophy. It is a game of making connections in the right places. And by “right”, I don’t mean meaningful, interesting, or valuable. It’s “right” in terms of how it can win the market share.

The Alan Sokal/Social Text affair was a good example of doing the “right” thing in the market primarily driven by emotions. For the supporters, the Sokal affair proved that it wasn’t because they were stupid that they couldn’t understand Postmodern philosophy; it was a huge relief and vindication for them. The fact that there were people who claimed to understand it, was making them feel inferior. Before Sokal published his work, the tension built up from their fear and insecurity was already ready to burst. It just needed a catalyst. On the other hand, the supporters of Postmodern philosophy had been enjoying their superior positions, until the Sokal affair undermined or destabilized the power structure of the market. Even Derrida was compelled to respond to the affair (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to read it because no English translation was available.) After all the discussions and arguments about the Sokal affair, in the end, it was about feelings. For some, it was an opportunity to get back at the people who made them feel stupid, and for some, it was an event that threatened their sense of superiority. In this manner, it isn’t that people are driven to pursue philosophy to find some sort of truth, understanding, or awareness for themselves. Philosophy is a business like any other; it is primarily driven by the pettiness of our egos.