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The Game: Academics, Autodidacts, and Institutionality

By suspendedreason
    2021-02-23 17:52:25.929Z

    Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change:

    Visualize a small number of particles—three to six—moving through a tunnel of time; each draws energy from its past momentum, renewed and accelerated by repulsion from the other particles. This tunnel is the attention space of the intellectual world; indeed the tunnel is created by the movement of the particles and the tensions that connect them. The tunnel’s walls are not fixed; it extends forward in time only so long as the negative interplay of the particles keeps up a sufficient level of energy. As arguments intensify, the tunnel becomes brighter, more luminous in social space; and as positions rigidify, going their own way without reference to one another, the attention space fades.

    Surrounding the tunnel are the ordinary concerns of the lay society. Persons on the outside notice the intellectual tunnel only as much as the glow of its debates makes it visible from a distance. Intellectual stratification is represented by distance from the core of the tunnel. The walls of the tunnel are no more than a moving glow generated from within. The trajectories of the particles and the borders between light and shadow are seen most sharply at the center, by viewers situated on the main energy lines. The farther one is from the central zone, the harder it is to see where the walls are, this membrane of relevance for the controversialists inside it. In the half-light of semi-focused regions, it is easy to mistake residues of old arguments for the central issues that will generate the forward thrust of the attention space. Provincials, latecomers, and autodidacts flail in the wake of past disputes but do not catch up with the bright center of energy.

    Here's Dave Chalmers taking the opposite view:

    One way that philosophy makes progress is when people work in relative isolation, figuring out the consequences of assumptions rather than arguing about them. The isolation usually leads to mistakes and reinventions, but it also leads to new ideas. Premature engagement can minimize all three.

    What are the advantages of the inside? What are the advantages of the outside?

    • 3 replies
    1. suspendedreason
        2021-02-23 17:57:32.287Z

        Some morsels from the archive:

        Ibn Khaldun argues that each dynasty has within itself the seeds of its own downfall. He explains that ruling houses tend to emerge on the peripheries of great empires and use the unity presented by those areas to their advantage in order to bring about a change in leadership. As the new rulers establish themselves at the center of their empire, they become increasingly lax and more concerned with maintaining their lifestyles. Thus, a new dynasty can emerge at the periphery of their control and effect a change in leadership, beginning the cycle anew. (src: Wiki)

        That's how academia as a profession, instead of aristocratic hobby, functions: by deciding on ends and optimizing for them. People at the top compete for selling potential ends to the bottom. I think this has led us to a dead-end, because there's too much competition for deciding new ends, too much competition at the top, and so people either want to make benchmarks that don't last as a kind of designed obsoletion or making things that are genuinely hard but can't convince their friends to work on it (src: anonymous Slack convo)

        1. In reply tosuspendedreason:
            2021-02-23 17:58:37.344Z

            And from T Greer, on how living cultures become institutionalized:

            The thinkers and practitioners from 19th and early 20th century did not think of themselves as being part of a specific intellectual discipline. They were not experts in "strategic studies," "activism," or "business strategy." Credentials in these fields did not exist. Indeed, they were not yet recognized as professional fields at all. There was no canon for potential strategists to master, no position for potential strategists to strive for, and no degrees to validate potential strategists' pretensions. Those who theorized and strategized did so because of an irrepressible intellectual fascination with the topic or because their immediate responsibilities demanded it of them.

            By the turn of the millennium, these were fully professional fields with their own graduate degrees and industry hierarchies. Much of the intellectual work done over the last three generations was done for the sake of obtaining credentials or jumping through professional hoops. 'Correct' frames of thought had been ingrained into the relevant communities. What had once been an exciting, open-ended pursuit that defied existing categories had been nailed down into domains of licensed expertise.

            There are some similarities between what I am describing here and what happened to the strategy-related blogosphere (the "strategy sphere") c. 2008-2014. In the years before, online writing about war and strategic theory has been dominated by anonymous junior officers desperately debating paths to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were complimented by a small host of (again, mostly anonymous) citizens nerdy enough to play along. What mattered most was the quality of one's thinking. By the end of the era, however, blogging had become a prestige medium. People wrote to promote their careers. What they wrote could not compare to what had come before.

            Where things go from here depends upon the social nature of the field in question. If the field is attached to a plane where there are real world consequences for mediocrity (say, a general staff), reality might crash in and force a reshuffling of the social deck. In academia few fear such exogenous shocks. There the field devolves into little more than an intellectual patronage network. Doyens of a past age act as king-makers. Scholarly disputes linger on, ossified remnants of ancient gang-wars.

            1. In reply tosuspendedreason:
                2021-03-08 00:16:46.759Z

                Cosma Shalizi, review of Susan Haack's Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate

                many young (and even not so young) scholars in the humanities are tempted to buy into bad doctrines because they look like the only ones dealing with serious and interesting topics. To end this temptation, they need to see not only that those doctrines are whacked out of their skulls, but that there are sensible and substantial alternatives. Haack doesn't provide any of her own, and, worse, doesn't connect with or even point out the really sophisticated and attention-worthy scholarship on these issues.