Keep the Assembly Line Rolling

Another hurdle to philosophical utility arose in the late nineteenth century with the onset of bureaucratic culture. Professionalization, specialization, accreditation… all of these are, if not anathema to philosophy, at least deeply troubling to the spirit of philosophic inquiry, which is more about the usefulness of questioning than the providing of answers, and of challenging rather than coloring within the lines.

Max Weber’s iron cage systematically squeezed out the in-between spaces where philosophers had found the elbow room to cause trouble. Bureaucrats reconfigured and absorbed the spaces where philosophers could provoke. The problem has been further exacerbated with the present-day fragmentation of the public sphere: Springsteen’s ‘57 channels and nothin on’ is quaintly anachronistic in the age of Web 2.0 and its essentially infinite number of sites.

The institutional purification of philosophy was part of this wider trend. From his base at Harvard, William James did his best to stem the tide. As Francesca Bordogna (2008) notes, James sought to “alter the way that many American philosophers understood their discipline and challenge the professional self that many of them championed” (14). Philosophers in the early twentieth century, he thought, were too obsessed with their disciplinary routine and reputation for scientific respectability (to avoid the title of mere amateur): “Their paralyzing intellectual inhibitions, James subtly implied, were not dissimilar from the pathological case of ‘habit-neuroses,’ functional diseases of the nervous system that resulted from the habitual repetition of an action or from the exclusive use of one part of the body” (Borgogna 2008 14).

In the age of Henry Ford, philosophers were becoming assembly line workers in the new knowledge spaces of professional discourse and departments. This change mapped onto the shifting geography of the university, as the older unifying ideals of piety and Bildung gave way to a mélange of institutional goals. Academics were no longer related to one another through the informal intellectual community of the Republic of Letters; they were assembled as units in standardized bureaucratic structures, segmented into disciplinary stovepipes serving a diversity of purposes. Despite this diversity of educational goals, one function dominated all the rest: produce new knowledge (Veysey 1963). Ford’s productivist metaphysic held sway, and philosophers fell under its trance, embracing a new kind of existence as professionals and experts.

But James ultimately fought a losing battle against this inward-looking professionalization.