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I have never met Peter Railton, but I feel I know him. I say this after reading his recent Dewey Lecture. We are virtually the same age, born in the same month, one year apart. We went to high school in New Jersey during the 1960’s and had similarly adverse reactions to the experience. We both rebelled against the status quo in HS. We both had our flag incidents. We both supported the Civil Rights movement and fought to end the war in Vietnam. We probably went to many of the same demonstrations. (One example: I was one of the students whom Nixon encountered at the Lincoln Memorial* preceding the demonstration against the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, which Peter mentions. I use his first name here, because that feels right.) I am sure that we engaged in the same sort of conversations about collective action. (Accusation: ‘You are not really a Marxist because you don’t BELIEVE in the revolution.’ Peter will know what I’m talking about.) I saw other young people take all sorts of ethically driven risks, as did Peter. (Another example: a young, untenured history professor who participated in the seizure of the computing center at Stony Brook to protest the Vietnam War, who, when people pleaded with him to leave before the police arrived–because he had a wife and young kids and would likely lose his job–said in response: I need to be here; I need to do this.)  In addition, Peter and I probably hung out with some very similar academic types when we were young.  He mentions the Stuyvesant and Bronx Science students he met at a program at Columbia; when I attended Stony Brook as an undergrad many of the students had come from Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.** And although I don’t suffer from the kind of deep depression that Peter describes, I certainly had bouts with it, especially in my younger years.  I could go on.

But why focus on these similarities? Because I know where Peter is coming from, and because I know this, I am disappointed at the reception of his Dewey Lecture, on the blogs and on social media. Yes, people praised it to the skies, and others were so moved they cried. However, before I read it myself I had the impression that the focus of the lecture was the public acknowledgment and struggle with depression by a member of the profession. This is the emphasis, for example, of the open thread on Daily Nous.*** It seemed that the lecture offered support to those who have lived in fear, terrified that their closeted or ‘damaged’ selves would be exposed, destroying their careers. I thought, Bravo! for Peter, for raising this issue and putting himself out there. The personal is political.

But the issue of depression only appears toward the end of the lecture, the fourth of four life lessons Peter addresses, and it is preceded by the following remark:

I’d like to roll my three life lessons together to make a fourth. (Beware narrative unity!) The stunning reversal of age-old attitudes toward gay marriage came about, not simply because the heterosexual population became “educated” about homosexuality so that they no longer “thought” it a stain on one’s character. It came about, I believe, through experience-based moral learning of the kind Dewey continually emphasized. Enough gay individuals courageously took things into their own hands and came out publicly.  (p. 13)

In the narrative preceding the depression discussion, which only accounts for three or so pages of the fifteen-page lecture, Peter is actually casting his net wider. It’s worth noting the title of his talk here, which is clearly meant to suggest a broader range of concerns: “Innocent Abroad: Rupture, Liberation, and Solidarity.”  Peter is addressing several issues: he wants to emphasize the connections between thinking and doing, the importance of experience or practice, the value of working with others even when it takes time from our own personal projects, and the ways in which privilege, of various kinds, deforms people’s lives. By extracting the depression discussion and focusing on it out of context, we risk missing—or evading—the more general challenges of his address, most notably, how we often let our personal fears, desires, interests, etc., get in the way of doing the right thing, or even trying to do the right thing. If we miss this, we fail to see that doing the right thing, or at least trying to do it, is itself a crucial part of a moral education. I take it that Peter is perfectly well aware of the fact that this last claim will not sit well with people committed to making philosophy ever more specialized and technical, while dismissing alternative approaches as inherently inferior, or at best outdated. For these philosophical technocrats the nature of what they do no more requires them to think about practices than, say, a theoretical mathematician qua mathematician. But Peter is trying to highlight another dimension of the relationship between thought and practice, one that Dewey would find congenial.

Once again, Dewey was right—once we allowed ourselves to think—and act—in our own right, beyond existing boundaries and institutions, seemingly immoveable aspects of the system could be put in jeopardy. But we would have to accept placing ourselves in jeopardy as well. The slogan of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley had been, “We must throw our bodies on the gears of the machine,” and by laying their bodies on the line, Berkeley students had won the right to hold political meetings and distribute information freely on campus. (p. 6)

Peter also revives another Deweyan concern: myopic assumptions about what constitutes being good at philosophy, which can be damaging to philosophy, as well as to the lives of individual philosophers. (Dewey railed against what he called the “epistemology industry” in his day.) We have limited ourselves by overvaluing one set of skills, restricting philosophy to one kind of game, to the point of dismissing those who have other virtues and aptitudes.

Other philosophers pay one’s work the respect of taking it seriously enough to listen for the arguments … and then attempt to find and apply the most telling stress test. You’re smart if you can meet and beat the challenge. (p. 11)

This can be of tremendous value. But is it really all that’s going on? Is this really entirely about the selfless pursuit of truth? And is this the only way of showing respect for work, or learning from dialogue, or testing our views? How did smartness get to be so central in evaluation in a discipline that is supposed to be seeking knowledge and wisdom? And what is it doing to us as students, teachers, colleagues, and researchers to allow this culture to persist? What are the full costs of this culture, in which we all to some degree participate, even if only passively? (p. 11)

Our ideology of smartness may work against an ideal of inclusiveness. So it’s no longer cute—can we also make it no longer cool? (p.12)

Contrary to the way in which people in the profession often think about philosophy, Peter argues (1) that thought and practice should not be seen as inhabitants of different realms, and (2) that people in the profession shouldn’t overvalue a certain kind of cleverness—one might say a set of skills involved in particular language games—to the detriment of other aptitudes and skills that philosophers may possess. But his critique of academia and philosophy doesn’t begin and end here. He is going after the big enchilada: privilege.

The deep truth, as I saw it, was that the factories and office floors and slippery decks of fishing boats were full of people just as intelligent and curious as the people I’d met at university, but whose abilities were never going to have the chance to develop that was enjoyed by those more privileged. Their lives would be a succession of days filled with work that was necessary just to get by. Thereby they generated the tremendous surplus that kept afloat the privileged classes in the style to which they were accustomed. This aspect of our economy, this relentless pressure for productivity at the bottom and the resulting fundamental inequality of fates across the social hierarchy, has gotten worse, not better, in the years since. (p. 8)


Peter understands that the system, as we fondly once called it, thrives on what Marcuse called the productivity principle. (One doesn’t have to agree with all of Marcuse to catch his drift here.) It’s everywhere. It hasn’t stopped. And it’s seeping deeper and deeper into academia. How many articles is it necessary to have now in order to be competitive for an entry level tenure track position? One or two—or eight, or ten?   Instead of resisting this machine in philosophy–a discipline with a poor stonemason as its exemplary figure, one highly critical of fame and who opposed having his thoughts cast in writing—philosophy is getting sucked further and further into the machine. First, we as a profession have gone along with the commodification of recognition. (We don’t sell our wares, but we do publish them and hope that they get passed around. And when they are widely traded, we bank the recognition in various ways.)  Now we have commodified reputation. (Yes, this criticism is pointed at rankings systems, especially the reputational sorts, which are damaging to philosophy and support the status quo. Rankings are somewhat like the SATs—well-intentioned support for meritocracy gone awry. The SATs predict little but correlate extremely well with parental income, thereby extending and underwriting existing privilege. I don’t know if Peter shares these views, but given his ethics and politics I expect he would.)  Worse, people who succeed can come to believe they deserve their status on the merits, because they have won the productivity game, imagining–as some winners in the capitalism game do–that they have personally earned all of their rewards, conveniently ignoring what the social scientists who have examined professionalism tell us about how affiliation and networks can trump merit.   (See “Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks.”)

The way some people who have succeeded, or who are on the way up, think about entitlement and privilege poisons our relationships to each other and to our discipline. And while the successful sometimes seem to think that it is politically incorrect to fail to show support for less fortunate colleagues, I am sure that many secretly believe that underemployed philosophers haven’t made it because, well, they don’t have the right kind of smarts. Even if we don’t consciously think this, the system fosters implicit attitudes of this sort.

We need to examine what we do to find ways to make education more affordable and inclusive, and to take, as well as resist, initiatives. This is today’s challenge for activism. Such activism won’t be either comfortable or glamourous, and it will mean a lot more meetings. In particular, those of us who are beneficiaries of the extraordinary privileges of senior academic life have to take up the cause of helping to make it the case that those at the beginning of academic careers have real prospects of secure and productive professional lives. If the philosophical profession can show solidarity with our most vulnerable members, even as they show solidarity with the many communities they aspire to serve, then Dewey will look down upon the philosophical world and smile. (p. 10)

The challenge here is clear: “those of us who are beneficiaries of the extraordinary privileges of senior academic life have to take up the cause of helping to make it the case that those at the beginning of academic careers have real prospects of secure and productive professional lives.”

Peter’s talk indeed raised the question of a humane and decent response to the issue of depression in the profession. Our neglect here is only one instance of the many ways we fail to do the right thing in philosophy. And doing the right thing involves more than thinking—or talking—about the right things. There lies the challenge of Peter’s Dewey lecture.

 Can we, like good Deweyians, combine theory and practice to create the open and diverse community of inquirers that was the ideal represented in the best spirit of the 1960s and 1970s—even if, in truth, we very often fell short. The thing is, we are still falling short. And we’re running out of excuses. (p.12)


*See,  “I Am Not a Kook: Richard Nixon’s Bizarre Visit to the Lincoln Memorial,” The Atlantic.   I arrived after Nixon had been there for a while.  The Atlantic article captures the bizarreness of the event, to a degree.  At some point I may write a more detailed account of what I saw; I can say here that it was  genuinely scary.  Nixon appeared drugged and out of it.  His voice would rise and fall in odd ways.  He was not well.  (In response to a question about Bobby Seale, the Black Panther, he responded in muffled tones, “how would you like to have an ice pick in your stomach?”)  And he was the guy with the finger on the nuclear button.

** Stony Brook was being billed as the new Berkeley or the Berkeley of the East by no less than Governor Rockefeller. It was flush with funds—we had heard that C. N. Yang, the noble laureate in physics, was making $100K a year—in the early 1970s, a huge sum at the time.

*** A noteworthy exception is here, in a post by Eric Schliesser (the title consciously or unconsciously echoes this post by Bharath Vallabha).  Schliesser responds to Railton’s call to action with gratitude for Railton’s contribution to “re-igniting the conversation” about the relation between theory and practice. In that capacious re-framing, Schliesser asserts the “right” of everyone to “exit from activism:”

To be clear: everybody has the right to exit from activism, even ones that are merely symbolic or small gestures. The world needs thinkers as much as it needs activists. As Hobbes notes humanity’s actions proceed from opinions, and the activity that shapes the content of these opinions is a philosophical task.

Schliesser casts the re-ignited conversation in terms of “professional norms” that weigh in the balance with “personal morality or individual conscience.” In the scary chasm between moral activism and institutional slavery, he locates an exciting opportunity to reconsider the “prudential decisions” that “all of us make” in light of the demands of the “public role(s) of philosophy.” Not, perhaps, what Railton had in mind here, but surely well-intentioned.


The inferiority cartoon in the post is from here.

3 thoughts

  1. Thank you Mitch, for bringing Railton’s lecture into the full light of day, and thanks even more for your own reflections on his challenging talk, which raises all the right issues in this needful time. – Ed Casey

  2. Your blog post is related to a book I just started reading, “The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”, by David Graeber. Graeber talks about how bureaucracy is endemic in most private and public institutions in the US now and how anti-democratic it is, as well as how beneficial to the powerful, moneyed classes and interests.

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