© R. Kevin Hill and Figure/Ground Communications
Dr. Hill was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on October 31, 2010
R. Kevin Hill is associate professor of philosophy at Portland State University, where he teaches philosophy of law, Kant, 19th and 20th century Continental philosophy and Wittgenstein. He is the author of Nietzsche’s Critiques: The Kantian Foundations of His Thought (Oxford, 2003) and Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2007).
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I recall a point in time in the mid-1980s where I consciously decided not to be a professor, after reading John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, which paints this Americanized Dostoevskian picture of the life of an academic in decline and despair. My goal had always been to be a writer. Unfortunately, my conception of what a writer is was modelled on Nietzsche, in terms of the genre structures one might work within. I had tried to develop in that direction in an academic creative writing workshop setting, but their conception of literature was limited to poetry, the short story and the novel, and these, of course, only done in a certain manner in which we are now up to our eyeballs. In the end, the only social place I could discern was philosophy professor or literature professor, and I had even less interest in teaching literature than I did about writing about middle-class dysfunction in workshoppy short fiction. Becoming a professor, having that role grow into me, was a gradual process.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
Well, most of the professors I knew as an undergraduate were from the last generation not to face labour market pressures in academia. Certainly much of the role remains the same, but people were more relaxed. The phenomenon of the “overqualified” professor at a less prestigious institution had not become pervasive. And reflective awareness of these things, of the need to be shark-like to survive, blogging and websites catering to students and junior faculty whose primary goal is survival against long odds, none of that had occurred yet. In a way, our generation had to figure these things out from scratch because our mentors had no idea how the market had changed and what you had to be able to do to function in it successfully. Other changes seem more specific to philosophy. There was a kind of illusion of “normalcy” in the Kuhnian sense, whether one came out of the phenomenological and dialectical tradition, or out of the tradition that Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein initiated. We’ve lost that, and one senses a deeper insecurity that mirrors the economic one, in that it is far from clear what philosophers are supposed to be. The Quinian erasure of the boundaries between science and philosophy has had enormous effects on people in the latter tradition.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in this age of interruption characterized by information overflow?
I don’t find commanding attention especially challenging, and e-mail has been a godsend, while at the same time reducing boundaries between work and private life. I spend a great deal of time away from campus in a kind of continuous ‘office hours’ mode, meeting with students digitally.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
There is a kind of maturation and wisdom through service to others that we all should experience, and work life contributes to that. Too many undergraduates and early graduate students view academia as a way of avoiding the so-called real world and avoiding the sacrifice of self-importance involved. But all of the world is the real world, and academia is the industry concerned with higher education manufacture and delivery. People who think that this will be a way of hanging on to youth or freedom or importance are likely to be gravely disappointed. One must be ready for a vocation and all that that involves.
Clearly, you practice what you preach: you must be among the first persons I meet that has not one, but two doctoral degrees – a PhD and a JD. I think this is remarkable in a day and age when so many people choose the easy way out and tend to think of education as a means to an end rather than a telos. Still, I am curious as to why the two doctorates, and how your dual training in philosophy and law might have reinforced one another…
The JD was after the PhD, and initially was a way of waiting out the job market and developing my fallback skills further, but I did have philosophical goals in mind too. I had been interested in ethics and political philosophy but enormously frustrated with all the available models within philosophy, so I went to law school with an eye to developing a different way of thinking about normativity. I’ve been happy with that the experience.
You mention “waiting out the job market” and “developing fallback skills,” and earlier you spoke of the overqualified-professor-at-a-less-prestigious-institution phenomenon. The following question, which I think ties in nicely with our present discussion, was drafted by Iain Thomson: “What does the future of the public university look like from your perspective, and what role do you think philosophy might play in that future?”
Well, I should clarify that I wasn’t thinking of myself! However, it is a fact about academic philosophy now that oversupply of the labour market, combined with some measure of competition for talent, means that “better” people in a certain sense are ending up at less prestigious places. In some respects the public benefits. It also means that the Humboldtian research model of the university becomes more feasible at all levels. But this may not be altogether what the public wants or needs, and future academics need to be better prepared in many respects for a role as educators that is something other than training graduate students to produce more academic philosophers who speak primarily to each other. Philosophers need to reflect more on their public function and role, and make a better case for their public value. It is ironic that there has been so much contesting of Plato’s legacy, and yet we have accepted the idea that philosophy as we practice it has intrinsic worth, and hence need not justify its existence to the community that supports it. This lack of dialogue with the community does not make us better philosophers, not entirely (though it is helpful in some respects). A recent sociology book about the decision-making process in funding research proposals devoted an entire section to how off-putting non-philosophy decision-makers find most philosophy proposals. For a vocation that should be concerned with achieving clarity in the public interest, the grant proposals struck most non-philosophers as arrogant, opaque, and of little wider interest. This reception by the larger community is something most professional philosophers know about, at least implicitly, but it has provoked remarkably little reflection or discussion. At the same time, the larger community is roiled by ideological discussions. Non-philosophers care a great deal about making larger sense of their world, at least politically, but they go to other sources for world-orientation. We are so quick to judge the quality of the ideas we find outside our circle that we seldom stop to consider the hunger they imply. This is not the “public intellectual” model that was much discussed in the 1990s, which is essentially a strained attempt to be topical without relating that effort in a thorough and genuine way to one’s own activity as a “researcher” and teacher. Rather, people actually want philosophy itself. That we are the last people they seek it from should trouble us.
Perhaps because of the reasons you’ve just enumerated, it would appear that philosophy is in crisis. In a world concerned with utility and practicality – indeed obsessed with producing tangible results – it would seem as though philosophy has been robbed of its protagonist role by arguably more “applied” disciplines that tend to be more topical or thematic in their orientation. Communication is a good example of a discipline that may have arisen following the failure of philosophers to connect and share their ideas with the external world. Do we do a service to philosophy when we attempt to communicate it in plain language?
Wait a minute. What does it mean to say “communicate it” in plain language? First, if we think of this as a conversation between parts of a community, then there seems to be something strange in thinking that there is a meaning which is distinct from that conversation which we might withhold, and which can be clothed in words in various ways. For me, there are just words. Second, there seems implicit in the question some of the assumptions about philosophy that the research model has encouraged, that it is a form of technical knowledge, that it can only be shared with fellow researchers. This is not a phenomenon the research university serves; it is produced by it. Third, the “canon” consists in the main of remarkably accessible texts, precisely because of their public and revolutionary character. And there are different forms that accessibility can take. Heidegger is “accessible” for example, but that’s not the same thing as being easy or plain. In a very different way, the later Wittgenstein is accessible too. I honestly think that some of these difficulties in initiating dialogue are due to us, to the ways we haven’t thought enough about what we want to say. And of course, dialogue is not monologue. Do we listen to non-philosophers? Have we given ourselves an accounting of what philosophy itself is? And don’t forget eros: in some ways the dialogue is a seduction. Plato obviously knew that. Heidegger knew that (though he didn’t speak of it much). W. W. Bartley III wrote intriguingly about the role of a kind of seduction in Wittgenstein’s teaching method. Though the worries the question expresses are real ones, I worry that they lock us into thinking about what we’re doing in the wrong way. I’m tempted to elaborate on this seduction metaphor, but I think I’ll stop there! Suffice it to say that it isn’t wise to blame the object of seduction for not returning one’s attentions.
Interesting distinction between accessibility and easiness: I personally found Heidegger’s Being and Time extremely difficult, yet equally rewarding and infinitely more accessible despite its idiosyncratic language than, say, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which I think is less difficult but not nearly as inviting. Paradoxically, I experienced a sense of empowerment reading Heidegger that I did not feel with Sartre, who is often described as the philosopher of freedom. To trace a parallel in ecological terms, I would say that the difference in experience is comparable to attending a seminar vs. attending a lecture. Do you think these two thinkers/books illustrate the problematic you’ve just presented?
Well, Sartre was so much of a certain time and place, and there is a certain uncritical reliance on dialectical patterns in his thought that goes with that. The figures I keep coming back to, and always find fresh, are Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault and Wittgenstein.
Richard Rorty also singled out Heidegger and Wittgenstein as his favourites, in addition to John Dewey. What attracted you to each of these authors? Is there necessarily an affinity between them?
It’s probably easiest to work backwards historically. The most enduring influences on my thinking have been Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, but of the two, Wittgenstein is the more important. Thinking of philosophical problems as arising out of troubled or confused reflection on our social and linguistic practices, and thinking of their dissolution as something achieved by a kind of therapeutic thinking, that’s absolutely central for me. Puzzles are not the whole of philosophy, but they are an important part of it, and Wittgenstein’s general approach has always seemed to me what was most fruitful for dealing with them. What I try to do in my own thinking, is use techniques akin to Wittgenstein’s to approach moral and political questions, though Wittgenstein himself did not do so. As someone who was surprisingly unreflective about morality and politics, I don’t think he saw the need. And though I am not dogmatic about this, my tendency is also Wittgensteinian in thinking that what philosophers have to say about morality and politics when they respond to their own puzzles by theorizing is farther from clarity than what ordinary people unreflectively think. What happens when ordinary people philosophize, something that is much more common than we realize, is another matter. The interest in Heidegger stems from reading division one of Being and Time in much the same way as people like Bert Dreyfus have, and finding that it dovetails with much of what one could learn from Wittgenstein. The later Heidegger is interesting because of his sense of the narrative unity of Western metaphysics, but here one must be careful to not lose sight of detail that will always confound any such sweeping narrative. The parallels between the Heideggerian narrative and the Foucaultian one(s) are fascinating. I read The Order of Things in the mid-80s and it was like a revelation. I am working through the College de France lectures now, and find both the work on “security” and the rise of the state, and the work on the self, Stoicism, etc. important and interesting. My attitude toward Nietzsche is terribly ambivalent. He offers tools that supplement Wittgensteinian tools for philosophical “therapy” in terms of identifying the psychological sources of certain temptations philosophers fall into. In terms of his own views, his questions are almost always tremendously important and his answers maddeningly, frustratingly wrong. This dovetails with endorsing “what ordinary people unreflectively think” about morality. But even the therapeutic side of Nietzsche seems dangerous. When we approach Nietzsche politically (nowadays more from the left than the right) there is a tendency to honor his suspiciousness. Yet it seems evident that our own real politics have become all but poisoned by suspiciousness, by viewing discussions as symptoms of hidden interests rather than taking them at face value and participating in them. There is a kind of crypto-Nietzschean refusal to take statements at face value; instead we read them as ploys to induce self-sacrifice, to facilitate exploitation, that circulates in conservative global warming skepticism, for example. Plato is hardest for me to talk about. There has always been a tendency to read Plato in terms of his otherworldliness, and this has the effect of smothering our reading in an excess of (mostly antagonistic) interest. So I deliberately turn away from that as a topic, which means that my experience of Plato is very little influenced by Nietzsche or Heidegger. To me he just is philosophy, he is what philosophy is, and everything that is right and wrong with philosophizing can be found in him. No one is better at articulating how seemingly unrelated problems connect and intertwine. My idea is to unwind Platonic moral mistakes using Wittgensteinian instead of Nietzschean or Heideggerian tools. And yet Plato is also a fertile source of thinking about so many topics, and he is often simply right if read charitably. Plato shows that philosophy is not exclusively “therapeutic,” for he offers with his otherworldly vision a kind of world-orientation, and even if we reject that vision, we should not reject the notion that offering such visions is central to philosophy. Lastly, Plato shows the way that philosophy can participate in the moral and political life of the community without being aloof from it; to the extent that I agree with those who say that philosophers should be public intellectuals, I would say “yes, if by that you mean a public intellectual the way that Plato was.” Naturally this is distinct from endorsing his view.
Building up on one of your earlier questions, what are the advantages and disadvantages of studying topics rather than particular authors or thinkers, the way traditional philosophy tends to do?
There is no denying that studying topics apart from figures can lead to a gain in precision, and there should be people who do that, indeed, a whole subculture which does that (there isn’t one thing we should all be doing). But that best serves the puzzle-solving aspect of things (philosophy is 1] puzzle-solving, 2] visionary orientation, and 3] advice). But the value of the puzzle-solving is usually due to the way that the puzzles emerge naturally out of certain concerns, and we can lose sight of that too easily. For example, there has been a great deal of effort invested in philosophy of mind in trying to make sense of “the mental” as embedded in nature, but you can go through an awful lot of that literature and never know that there is a whole politics implied in that, a whole stance toward religion implied in that, and that both of these things have a history, and that whatever significance these discussions have ultimately comes from that. The other two functions, orientation and advice, aren’t really separable from a relation to, if not a system, then a person, historical and discursive circumstances that people found themselves in, etc. In the end, you can’t have a dialogue with a topic, a topic does not offer a compelling orienting vision, and a topic cannot advise. I realize this all sounds rather old-fashioned, but that’s probably the influence of Plato speaking.
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