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Notes from a philosophical Starbucks

Modern High Streets in the western world are dreary, wretched places. They’re all the same as each other – brash, jostling queues of the ubiquitous supranationals that are our real governors.

They’ve shut down the shops owned by real people. Each offers a ‘retail experience’ which is identical wherever in the world the shop is. That’s what we want, they tell us confidently. Customers, they say, are nervous, conservative creatures, who need to know that they’ll have the same taste in Des Moines as in Oxford. Eventually, and tragically, they’ll be right.

This hasn’t just happened, of course. It’s the result of a determined and aggressive policy. Real, unbranded people stand no chance before the corporate blitzkrieg.

But at least some people realize that there’s a war on. Here’s Paul Kingsnorth on the Reverend Billy, the founder and leader of the ‘Church of Stop Shopping’: ‘In his stentorian wail…..he will treat the assembled [Starbucks] customers to a sermon on the evils of ‘Frankenbucks’….He will tell them about the battles the company has engaged in to prevent its workers joining trades unions. He will tell them about Starbucks’ corporate policy of ‘clustering’ many outlets at once in parts of town where there are local cafes, and expanding the clusters until only Starbucks is left…’1

 Stirring stuff. But something very similar is happening in the philosophical High Street, without much or any opposition.

 Globalization entails a worrying concentration of power in a few hands, the suppression of individual voices, and a homogenization of product. We’ve got all of that in academic philosophy.

 We tend to write what will be published, and to be published you’ve got to show that you belong to, and are conforming with the rules of, a particular school.2 There’s a cartel at work. The market will only tolerate products from a certain number of big philosophical brands. You’ve got to have the mark of the Beast to buy or sell. You can just about get by with a recognizable hybrid of two brands, as long as you wear their badges clearly.

 I’m not talking here about institutional nepotism (where you only get published if you’re from the Ivy League, for instance). I’m talking about true intellectual branding. It’s fine to be a utilitarian, or a virtue ethicist: but something really new, or a really weird cocktail of the old with properties significantly different from the constituent elements? Forget it.  Scholarship is perceived as the business of adding footnotes to footnotes to footnotes. Safe is good. A footnote to a footnote is safer, and therefore more scholarly and marketable, than a footnote.

 It wasn’t always this way. Yes, of course there were plenty of  ‘schools’ in the ancient and the mediaeval world. Pupils sat at the feet of Socrates. He stamped the imprint of his mind on theirs. But it wasn’t like a brand. Nobody was denied a hearing if he didn’t parrot the paragraphs of the Master.

 It’s changed, and it’s serious. It undermines the whole philosophical enterprise. Platonic gadflies can’t possibly be sycophantic or fearful.  


1. One No, Many Yeses, The Free Press, 2003, p. 129

2. Some of the blame should be laid at the door of the current peer review process: see The Deadly Dangers of Peer Review.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. “It undermines the whole philosophical enterprise. Platonic gadflies can’t possibly be sycophantic or fearful. ”

    It undermines the whole *academic* philosophical enterprise. Presumably that has been going on for a long, long time (we can no doubt find some philosophers driven out of Oxford for not towing to the right party line).

    Whether academia is necessary for quality control is another matter. I think it does a great deal of good despite its biases and limitations. But other mechanisms and forums may be available. Some philosophers have been writing novels with noticeable social impact. The crowd around the Less Wrong blog/forum are doing philosophy of an entirely new brand without being strongly affiliated or limited by academia.

    Globalisation leads to a reduction of diversity because of something like the area law in ecology: the number of species is a very convex function of the area surveyed, so if previously separate patches are merged one should expect endemic species to be lost. But there is a countervailing factor in the long tail: new modes of distribution and networking allows idiosyncratic groups to develop their stuff and get support for it. For every Starbucks there is also a kickstarter for something 99.99% of society would not want, yet 0.01% fervently desire – and get. I think the same might be true for philosophy in the future too.

  2. Not sure what you mean by globalisation. There are those that seem to think that Anglo-American tradition of philosophy is philosophy. This so annoyed as an undergrad I decided to answer all my Part II Tripos without reference to any analytical philosophers with the exception of Wittgenstein and Ryle. (Ryle’s ‘Concept of Mind’ is a dumbed down version of Heidegger’s ’Sein und Zeit’. Discuss) Things are slightly better now (especially in the US), but there is still a strong tendency to think that A-A philosophy is the known world of philosophy.

    I think this has something to do with the ’intellectual branding’ you refer to in your post. Most A-A philosophers like to keep within their comfort zone and be safe because there is, I believe, a fear that if they explore the limits of thought they might slip into foreign habits. If you think the Continent is cut off because there is an intellectual fog in the Channel, it is very easy to marginalise anyone who does not have brand loyalty.

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