Performance Philosophy

Performance Philosophy

There is one aspect of being a philosophy professor that I don’t miss: the performance aspect. I mean the giving of lectures and conference presentations. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t much like it either. It doesn’t mesh with the essential work of being a philosopher, i.e., thinking, reading, and writing. You have to transform into being a performer. It’s not that I don’t like performing tout court: I was a drummer and a gymnast, and both are types of performance. I’m not against “showing off”. But philosophy is not inherently a theatrical matter; conversational, yes, but not like acting or dancing. I always felt that performing philosophy was somehow debasing it, besmirching my thoughts. I remember at Oxford once when Julie Jack asked me, “Are you performing this afternoon?” I icily replied, “Well, I am reading a paper”. Then there was the time when I was visiting at UCLA (1979) and a young American guy took it upon himself to advise me on proper paper-presentation comportment: “You need to maintain eye contact, establish communication with the audience”—that type of thing. I haughtily informed him that in England we let our words speak for themselves. He was genuinely baffled. I am all in favor of insulting the audience, just to show that I have no desire to be popular with them. You should always maintain the impression that you are indifferent to the audience’s reactions, truth being your only concern. Anyway, there is always some idiot who thinks it’s time for public combat—a type of competition—and this person needs to be dealt with accordingly. So, my lecturing style was extremely unflamboyant, though not without dashes of humor. I wasn’t there to entertain. I think the theatrical-entertainer model has done significant harm to philosophy in the USA: it has turned philosophy into a branch of PR, a form of social manipulation. I name no names, but pick your favorite philosophical performer. Perhaps the worst kind of philosopher is the one who acts the part of a “serious academic”: the glasses, the jacket, the cadences and posture. Really, one should seem uncomfortable and out of one’s natural element, slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. Anyhow, I no longer have to tolerate this descent into showbiz. I spend my time in the recording studio, so to speak: no more concerts and public appearances. Philosophical performance is distracting and tiring, and not of the essence. If you want to perform, become a musician or an actor or a gymnast. If you want to philosophize, keep away from the spotlight.

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6 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    Learning to present is a part of North American school curriculum and it starts in junior grades. It is deeply ingrained in the US/Canadian academic and professional culture and is not bad in itself, but it is hard disagree with your opinion about the place of performance in philosophy. You are right about there being philosophical reputations built on performance including in writing — e.g. the style of writing of Jerry Fodor. He was a serious philosopher nonetheless, but his constant “Aunty” and “psmith” digressions about his philosophical opponents brought him a lot of “likes” from superficial audiences who never bothered to understand his arguments.

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    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Fodor is an interesting case (my old colleague and friend). He loved opera and was a performer himself, but (as you say) he was also a genuinely good philosopher. I think his performance was partly an antidote to his chronic depression. Also, you are right about the audiences.

      Reply
      • Free Logic
        Free Logic says:

        I’m surprised to learn he was depressed… I enjoyed his rigorous thought and his deep understanding of linguistics, psychology, philosophy and the theory of computation — he was a true polymath. Also his loyalty to folk psychology and other “folk” notions such as truth deserve respect as without this conceptual machinery our species would become something else…

        Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I was thinking of the Beatles who found performing ultimately stultifying and retired to the studio. There is something crude about performing, philistine even (especially in philosophy).

      Reply

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