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Ignorance and Markets

This is an unsigned editorial from the January 2009 issue of Philosophy (vol. 84, no. 327). Submitted for comment, without much commentary from my end. (Yet.)

Editorial: Ignorance and Markets

It may not be true that no one predicted the recent crash in the financial world. But it is certainly true that most well-informed observers and participants, including most importantly those who believed they were actually running things, were caught unawares. If they had been aware, they would have been able to avoid the worst consequences, at least for themselves, and even profit from the situation.

The 2008 financial crash has been compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall, in that just as the one signalled the end of an uncritical belief in socialism, at least of a centralised sort, the other signals the end to an uncritical belief in markets.

Let us leave aside the point that the markets of 2008 were actually heavily regulated in all sorts of ways, and so hardly unfettered. There is in fact an interesting parallel between 1989 and 2008 in one significant respect. Both events were largely unforeseen.

In one sense this is encouraging. For all our knowledge and technology there is much, even in human affairs, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable. This is, in a sense, judgment on hubris. It can also be liberating, particularly for those who do not see themselves as masters of the universe.

But should 2008 be seen as a decisive moment as far as belief in markets is concerned? Much will depend on what is meant by a market, no easy question when, as already mentioned, no markets to-day are unfettered, and are not likely to be in the foreseeable future.

We should, though, not forget that for followers of Adam Smith, such as Hayek, one of the main philosophical arguments in favour of markets was precisely the unpredictability of human action and of events more generally. From this perspective markets are not seen as perfect predictors, which there cannot be. But in situations of uncertainty they are seen as the most efficient and least hazardous way of disseminating information in a society and of responding to what cannot be predicted. It would be somewhat paradoxical if a failure of prediction was in itself taken to be an argument against a system which takes unpredictability as its starting point.

— Philosophy 84 (2009), 1. Cambridge University Press.

Thoughts?

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distributed Book Club #3: Stanley Cavell, Foreword: An Audience for Philosophy, from Must we mean what we say? xxi-xlii

As I was saying the other day, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in thinking about some ordinary language philosophy, and about some of the topics that Stanley Cavell raises in his masterful collection of essays, Must we mean what we say? The book is published by Cambridge University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use, such as Cavell’s fascinating and puzzling forward, in which he addresses the question, What is the audience for philosophy? Is there one? To whom or to what do we address ourselves when we speak in a philosophic mode, and what can that tell us — about philosophy, and about us as would-be teachers or practitioners of it?

Foreword: An Audience for Philosophy

If the essays which follow do not compose a book, collecting resonance from one another, nothing I can say in introducing them will alter that fact. The relations among them are no less complex than the complexities I have sought to trace within the essays themselves; and any concept I would wish to use in characterizing their relations is either itself already at work within the essays, so far as I have been able to put it to work, or else it would require the working of another essay to do what I would want with it. The surface thematic overlappings among the essays are, I think, sometimes surprising, or surprisingly numerous. Because it would be tiresome to list them here, I have made an index of the themes I find, and found as I wrote, to be of guiding importance. Certainly I do not by this mean to suggest that I have fully treated any one of these themes; a number of them are just glanced at. But I have in each case wished that the place I have made for a theme’s appearance provides data for further investigation of it.

Although various portions or drafts of separate essays were being written during essentially the same period, I have as far as possible arranged them chronologically acording to their date of completion. It will be said that two of them–those on Endgame and on King Lear–are pieces of literary criticism, or at best applications of philosophy, while the remainder are (at least closer to being) straight philosophy. I wish to deny this, but to deny it I would have to use the notions of philosophy and of literature and of criticism, and the denial would be empty so far as those notions are themselves unexamined and so far as the impulse to assert such distinctions, which in certain moods I share, remains unaccounted for. Its account must include the obvious fact that these subjects, as I conceive of them, do resemble one another. One line of resemblance is marked where, in the essay on King Lear, I suggest a sense in which that play could be called philosophical drama and where I characterize a philosophical criticism; another line is projected at the points at which I note that each philosophy will produce terms of criticism directed against other philosophies, or against common sense, which are specific to that philosophy, and hence defining for it. In wishing to deny that some of these essays are philosophical and others not, I do not deny that there are differences among them, and differences between philosophy and literary criticism; I am suggesting that we do not understand these differences. At various moments I am led to emphasize distinctions between philosophy and various of its competitors, various interests and commitments and tastes with which, at various moments in history, philosophy was confusible–e.g., between philosophy and science, and art, and theology, and logic.

If I deny a distinction, it is the still fashionable distinction between philosohy and meta-philosophy, the philosophy of philosophy. The remarks I make about philosophy (for example, about certain of its differences from other subjects) are, where accurate and useful, nothing more or less than philosophical remarks, on a par with remarks I make about acknowledgment or about mistakes or about metaphor. I would regard this fact–that philosophy is one of its own normal topics–as in turn defining for the subject, for what I wish philosophy to do. But someone who thinks philosophy is a form of science may not accept that definitio, because his picture is of a difference between, say, speaking about physics and doing physics. And this may be not only a special view of philosophy, it may be a partial view of science; because certain ways in which certain persons talk about science are a part of the teaching of the science, and the ways in which the science is taught and learned may be taken as essential to an understanding of what that science is.

I do assert a distinction throughout these essays which, because it may seem either controversial or trivial, I want to call attention to from the beginning–a distinction between the modern and the traditional, in philosophy and out. My claim is not that all contemporary philosophy which is good is modern; but the various discussions about the modern I am led to in the course of these essays are the best I can offer in explanation of the way I have written, or the way I would wish to write. The essential fact of (what I refer to as) the modern lies in the relation between the present practice of an enterprise and the history of that enterprise, in the fact that this relation has become problematic. Innovation in philosophy has characteristically gone together with a repudiation–a specifically cast repudiation–of most of the history of the subject. But in the later Wittgenstein (and, I would now add, in Heidegger’s Being and Time) the repudiation of the past has a transformed significance, as though containing the consciousness that history will not go away, except through our perfect acknowledgment of it (in particular, our acknowledgment that it is not past), and that one’s own practice and ambition can be identified only against the continuous experience of the past. (This new significance in philosophical repudiation itself has a history. Its most obvious precursor is Hegel, but it begins, I believe, in Kant. For it is in Kant that one finds an explicit recognition that the terms in which the past is criticized are specific to one’s own position, and require justification from within that position. A clear instance of such a Kantian term of criticism is his characterization of an opposed Idealism as making the world empirically ideal and transcendentally real; another is his diagnosis of dialectical illusion.) But the past does not in this context refer simply to the historical past; it refers to one’s own past, to what is past, or what has passed, within oneself. One could say that in a modernist situation past loses its temporal accent and means anything not present. Meaning what one says becomes a matter of making one’s sense present to oneself. This is the way I understand Wittgenstein’s havingdescribed his later philosophy as an effort to bring words back to their everyday use (Philosophical Investigations, §116; my emphasis), as though the words we use in philosophy, in any reflection about our concerns, are away. This is why Wittgenstein’s interlocutors, when he writes well, when he is philosophically just, express thoughts which strike us as at once familiar and foreign, like temptations. (Heidegger’s consciousness that our deepest task, as philosophers and as men, is one of getting back to a sense of words and world from which we are now away, is an intimate point of similarity with Wittgenstein.)

These reflections will perhaps seem uncongenial to many of my professional colleagues, but they are meant to collect data which most of us, I believe, have noticed, but perhaps have not connected, or not taken to be potentially philosophical. Take, for example, the fact that the isolated analytical article is the common form of philosophical expression now, in the English speaking world of philosophy; something reflected in the fact that the common, and best, form of philosophy textbook is the assemblage of articles around individual topics. This is often interpreted as symptomatic of philosophy’s withdrawal from its cultural responibilities. The trouble with such an idea is that it occurs to a person who imagines himself certain of his culture’s needs, and certain of his capacity to supply them on demand, and ignorant of our cultural situation–in which each major form of expression (say painting and music and philosophy) has, where serious, taken upon itself the characteristic cultural responsibility of preserving itself against its culture, against its own past accomplishments, which have helped to inform, and to distort, present culture; past accomplishments which are used as names by those incapable of contributing to the present, against those who would take those accomplishments as setting the tasks of the present, or setting the terms in which present activity has its meaning and acquires its standards.

Analytical philosophy can, alternatively, be interpreted as symptomatic of philosophy’s finally coming of age, or accepting its age, assimilating itself to the form in which original scientific results are made known. The trouble with this idea is that these articles are not accepted the way scientific papers are; they are not felt to embody results which every member of the profession can then build from. On the contary, it seems to me commonly assumed among the serious philosophers I know that when they look into a new article they will find not merely a number of more or less annoying errors, but that they will find the whole effort fundamentally wrong, in sensibility or method or claim. Even when it is good–that is, when it contains one interesting or useful idea–the interest or usefulness cannot simply be taken over as it stands into one’s own thought, but will require independent development or justification from within one’s own procedures. It often happens that what makes an article or passage famous is its enunciation of a thesis which the profession is fully prepared to annihilate. The refuting of Mill on desirable, or Moore on indefinable, or Wittgenstein on private language, have become minor industries, established more than one living. These can be disheartening facts, especially among the young who are entering the profession and are still deciding whether it can support life–as though the profession as a whole has forgotten how to praise, or forgotten its value. (In emphasizing that criticism has been the life of philosophy from its beginning, I do not wish to camouflage what is genuinely disheartening about its present. I mean merely to remember that criticism need not be uncomprehending, nor always entered out of enmity.) It is hard to convey, to anyone who has not experienced it, how pervasive this malaise has become. For it controls one’s response to one’s own past work as well as to the work of others, and it applies not merely to chunky articles, but to each assertion one hears or makes.

The figure of Socrates now haunts contemporary philosophical practice and conscience more poignantly than ever–the pure figure motivated to philosophy only by the assertions of others, himself making none; the philosopher who did not need to write. I should think every philosopher now has at least one philosophical companion whose philosophical ability and accomplishment he has the highest regard for, who seems unable to write philosophy. Were such a person content with silence he would merely be the latest instance of a figure always possible in philosophy, possible indeed nowhere else. (It would make no sense to speak of someone as a gifted novelist who had never written a novel; nor of someone as a scientist who had made no contribution to science. In the case of the scientist, the contribution need not be his own writing; but one could say that he must affect what his field writes. His contribution, that is, may be oral, but it must affect a tradition which is essentially not oral; this suggests that such contributions must be exceptional. It indicates further that writing plays differing roles in different enterprises, even that writing means something different, or has a different inflection, in contexts like writing a novel, writing a fugue, writing a report, writing (up) an experiment, writing (down) a proof. If silence is always a threat in philosophy, it is also its highest promise.) But one finds instead various contraries of contentment, perhaps a tendency, more or less contained, to cynicism or to despair about the value of writing or of philosophy altogether–discontents often not sufficiently unambiguous, or not showing early enough, to force or to permit a break with the field. Philosophy inspires much unhappy love.

If these are facts of philosophical practice now, they must have a sociological-historical explanation; and what needs to be explained is what these facts point to, that the writing of philosophy is difficult in a new way. It is the difficulty modern philosophy shares with the modern arts (and, for that matter, with modern theology; and, for all I know, with modern physics), a difficulty broached, or reflected, in the nineteenth-century’s radical breaking of tradition within the several arts; a moment epitomized by Marx’s remark that … the criticism of religion is in the main complete … and that … the task of history, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world … (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction). This is the beginning of what I have called the modern, characterizing it as a moment in which history and its conventions can no longer be taken for granted; the time in which music and painting and poetry (like nations) have to define themselves against their pasts; the beginning of the moment in which each of the arts becomes its own subject, as if its immediate artistic task is to establish its own existence. The new difficulty which comes to light in the modernist situation is that of maintaining one’s belief in one’s own enterprise, for the past and the present become problematic together. I believe that philosophy shares the modernist difficulty now everywhere evident in the major arts, the difficulty of making one’s present effort become a part of the present history of the enterprise to which one has committed one’s mind, such as it is. (Modernizers, bent merely on newness, do not have history as a problem, that is, as a commitment. The conflict between modernizers and modernists is the immediate topic of the two essays on music–numbers VII and VIII.) I might express my particular sense of indebtedness to the teaching of Austin and to the practice of Wittgenstein by saying that it is from them that I learned of the possibility of making my difficulties about philosophy into topics within philosophy itself–so that, for example, my doubts about the relevance of philosophy now, its apparent irrelevance to the motives which brought me to the subject in the first place, were no longer simply obstacles to the philosophical impulse which had to be removed before philosophy could begin, hence motives for withdrawing from the enterprise. It was now possible to investigate philosophically the very topic of irrelevance, and therewith the subject of philosophy itself; it is characteristic of philosophy that from time to time it appear–that from time to time it be–irrelevant to one’s concerns, or incredible in itself; just as it is characteristic that from time to time it be inescapable. No doubt there is a danger of evasion in this spiralling self-consciousness; perhaps one should indeed search for more congenial work. Just as there is the danger of excusing poor writing in insisting upon the complexities of consciousness one is at each moment attempting to record, or to acknowledge. –Am I talking only about a condition within America? If so, it is said in the spirit in which a certain kind of American has usually spoken of his country’s release rom the past: out of a sense of disappointment in struggle with vistas of peculiar promise. And as usual, it is the expression of shock in finding that one’s mind is not, and is, European; which in practice means (and in philosophical practice means emphatically) English or German. –If others do not share these doubts, or find these dangers, I certainly have no wish to implicate them.

* *

The topics of the modern, of the philosophy of philosophy, and of the form of philosophical writing, come together in the question: What is the audience of philosophy? For the answer to this question will contribute to the answer to the questions: What is philosophy? How is it to be written? In case a philosopher pretends indifference to this question, or not recognize that he has an answer to it, I should note that this question intersects the question: What is the teaching of philosophy? Not, of course, that this question is likely to seem more attractive to those responsible for teaching it. On the contrary, like their pressed colleagues in other fields, professors of philosophy are likely to regard their teaching obligations as burdens, certainly as distant seconds in importance to their own work. Whatever the reason for this state of affairs, it has a particular pertinence for the philosopher. A teacher of literature, is, say, a professor of English, and he can say so; a professor of anthropology is an anthropologist, and he can say so. But is a professor of philosophy a philosopher? And to whom can he say so? One often says instead, asked what it is one does, that one teaches philosophy. And that is the problem. Does one teach philosophy? And when one is gripped by that question, one is really asking: Can philosophy be taught? Who is in a position to speak for philosophy?Such questions express that difficulty I referred to a moment ago as one of maintainining one’s belief in one’s own enterprise. (Hegel, I am told, said that he was the last professor of philosophy. I think I know what he would have meant–that he was the last man to feel that he could speak evenly about every way in which the philosophical impulse has found epression, the last with the natural conviction that his own work was the living present of philosophy’s history, able to take that history for granted. And that would mean that philosophy, as it has been known, is past. The mention of Hegel here reminds me that the sorts of problems I have spoken of in connection with the teaching of philosophy more familiarly arise in thinking about the history of philosophy, about whether anyone but a philosopher can write or know its history, and about whether a philosopher could allow himself to do so.)

When, in Austin at Criticism (Essay IV), I complain that Austin never described his procedures accurately and circumstantially, I am in effect complaining simultaneously of a lack in his philosophizing and of a failure in his teaching. These complaints have their proper weight only against the recognition of how powerful a teacher he was; for it was in part because Austin was devoted to teaching, according to a particular picture ofwhat teaching can be, or should be, that he avoided certain ranges of what the teaching of philosophy perhaps must be–the personal assault upon intellectual complacency, the private evaluation of intellectual conscience. (This range of teaching is not confined to philosophy, though its proportions and placement will vary from subject to subject. This is what I am talking about in the opening of the essay on King Lear, in pointing to the New Critics’ concentration on the teachable aspects of the poetry.) A major motive for wishing to leave the field of philosophy, for wishing relief from it, from one’s periodic revulsions from it, would be to find something which could be taught more conveniently, a field in which it was not part of one’s task to vie with one’s students, nor to risk misleading them so profoundly. Wittgenstein, though he swiftly resigned his appointment as Professor, was, as I read him, unofficially readier for these requirements, and like every great teacher he would have distrusted his right, or the necessity, to impose them. (The great teacher invariably claims not to want followers, i.e., imitators. His problem is that he is never more seductive than at those moments of rejection.) I find that his Philosophical Investigations often fails to make clear the particular way in which his examples and precepts are to lead to particular, concrete exercises and answers, for all his emphasis upon this aspect of philosophy. At the same time, his book is one of the great works about instruction–the equal, in this regard, of Rousseau’s Émile and of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments.

Because such writing as Wittgenstein’s and such practice as Austin’s strike certain minds as conservative, and because such minds are apt to be over-confident in the faith that contrasts, like conservative vs. liberal, and liberal vs. radical, helpfully explain the behavior of the world and clear the mind for steady action, it is worth noting that these teachers thought of their work as revolutionary–not merely because what they did was new (something which can be overrated or overprized) but because they also thought it plain enough and immediately fruitful enough to establish a new common practice in thinking, and open to talent regardless of its standing within the old intellectual orders. This is another guise of the issue of the modern. I mention it again here because those of us who share, or credit, Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s sense of their revolutionary tasks are responding (as part of the experience of their work in making problematic the relation of philosophy to its tradition) to the concern and implication of their work for correct instruction. (There is no revolutionary social vision which does not include a new vision of education; and contrariwise.) This, together with the fact that their philosophical procedures are designed to bring us to a consciousness of the words we must have, and hence of the lives have, represents for me a recognizable version of the wish to establish the truth of this world. But then wherever there really is a love of wisdom–or call it the passion for truth–it is inherently, if usually ineffectively, revolutionary; because it is the same as a hatred of the falseness in one’s character and of the needless and unnatural compromises in one’s institutions.

When, in what follows, I feel pressed by the question of my right to speak for philosophy, I sometimes suggest that I am merely speaking for myself, and sometimes I suggest that philosophy is not mine at all–its results are true for every man or else they are worthless. Are these suggestions both right, or are they evasions? They express an ambivalence about the relevance or importance of philosophy–one might say, about its possession–which is also one of philosophy’s characteristic features. I have recently noticed a bit of philosophical literary practice which seems to betray this ambivalence. On half a dozen occasions over a period of a few months I found on philosopher or another referring to something called Horatio’s philosophy or Horatio’s view of philosophy, as though Hamlet’s strangely welcomed discovery that

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

constitutes a crack at Horatio rather than a manic release from philosophy (and from reasonableness) as a whole. (The generalizing non-possessive your is common enough in Hamlet’s way of speaking, and there is no evidence that Horatio’s view of the world is distinctive.) Perhaps the reason for this misreading is that philosophers have become threatened by an idea that philosophy has its limitations or impotencies. But I think it also expresses a legitimate confusion about the source or possession of philosophy altogether, as though half believing and half fearing that its natural state is one of private persuasion. I call this confusion legitimate because it isn’t as though the philosopher had some automatic or special assurance that his words are those of and for other men, nor even that any particular arrival of his words ought to be accepted by others. His examples and interpretations have, and are meant to have, the weight an ordinary man will give them; and he is himself speaking as an ordinary man, so that if he is wrong in his claims he must allow himself to be convinced in the ways any man thinking will be, or will not be. –Who is to say whether a man speaks for all men?

Why are we so bullied by such a question? Do we imagine that if it has a sound answer the answer must be obvious or immediate? But it is no easier to say who speaks for all men than it is to speak for all men. And why should that be easier than knowing whether a man speaks for me? It is no easier than knowing oneself, nad no less subject to distortion and spiritlessness. If philophy is esoteric, that is not because a few men guard its knowledg, but because most men guard themselves against it.

It is tautological that art has, is made to have, an audience, however small or special. The ways in which it sometimes hides from its audience, or baffles it, only confirms this. It could be said of science, on the other hand, that it has no audience at all. No one can share its significance who does not produce work of the same kind. The standards of performance are institutionalized; it is not up to the individual listener to decide whether, when the work meets the canons of the institution, he will accept it–unless he undertakes to alter those canons themselves. This suggests why science can be popularized and art not (or not in that way), and why there can be people called critics of art but none called critics of science. I might summarize this by saying that academic art is (with notable exceptions) bad art, whereas academic science is–just science. (It is hardly an accident that creative scientists are on the whole at home in a university and that creative artists on the whole are not.) Now, what is academic philosophy? It seems significant that the questions, What is the audience of philosophy? Must it have one? If so, what is it to gain from it?, have no obvious answers.

When you wish to make serious art popular what you are wishing is to widen the audience for the genuine article. Is this what someone wants who wants to widen the audience for philosophy by writing summaries or descriptions of philosophical works? Or is he, as in the case of popular science, providing simplifications which are more or less useful and faithful substitutes for the original work? Neither of these ideas makes good sense of philosophy. I think someone who believes in popular, or in popularizing, philosophy (as differentiated from someone in an open business venture who finds profit in excerpting and outlining anything in demand) believes that the ordinary man stands in relation to serious philosophy as, say, the ordinary believer stands in relation to serious theology–that he cannot understand it in its own terms but that it is nevertheless good for him to know its results, in some form or other. What reason is there to believe this? There is every reason to believe, on the contrary, that this is the late version of one of philosophy’s most ancient betrayals–the effort to use philosophy’s name to put a front on beliefs rather than to face the source of the assumption, or of emptiness, which actually maintains them. Those who guard themselves from philosophy show a healthier respect for it than those who are certain they know its results and know to whom they apply. For when philosophy is called for one cannot know beforehand where it will end. That is why Plato, as is familiar, at the beginning of the Republic allows the good old man to leave (to see to the sacrifice) before Socrates releases his doubts; and why, recalling that moment, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra leaves the old man (the old saint) he first encounters on his descent back to man, without relating his sickening tidings. Philosophy must be useful or it is harmful. These old men have no need of it, not necessarily because they are old, but because their passion for their lives is at one with their lives; either, as in the case of Cephalus, because his private passion is well spent and he is without rancor; or because, as in the case of the old forest creature, his passion remains in control of his old God, who was worthy of it. The advantage of their age is that their sincerity is backed by the faithfulness of a long life. Otherwise, where sincerity asserts itself, it calls for testing. I do not say that everyone has the passion or the knack or the agility to subject himself to philosophical test; I say merely that someone can call himself a philosopher, and his book philosophical, who has not subjected himself to it.

My purpose is to make such facts into opportunities for investigation rather than causes for despair. The question of philosophy’s audience is born with philosophy itself. When Socrates learned that the Oracle had said no man is wiser than Socrates, he interpreted this to mean, we are told, that he knew that he did not know. And we are likely to take this as a bit of faded irony or as a stuffy humility. What I take Socrates to have seen is that, about the questions which were causing him wonder and hope and confusion and pain, he knew that he did not know what no man can know, and that any man could learn what he wanted to learn. No man is in any better position for knowing it than any other man–unless wanting to know is a special position. And this discovery about himself is the same as the discovery of philosophy, when it is the effort to find answers, and permit questions, which nobody knows the way to nor the answer to any better than you yourself. Then what makes it relevant to know, worth knowing? But relevance and worth may not be the point. The effort is irrelevant and worthless until it becomes necessary to you to know such things. There is the audience of philosophy; but there also, while it lasts, is its performance.

–Stanley Cavell, Must we mean what we say? (Cambridge University Press, 1969/2002), xxi–xlii.

How Intellectual Protectionism promotes the progress of science and the useful arts

… by using the force of law to try to prevent Georgia State University students from accessing works of science and the useful arts unless they pay $50–$100 a pop to go through an academic publishing racket for obscure books with little resale value.

(Via Roderick Long @ Austro-Athenian Empire 2008-05-21.)

Please note that in the real world, outside the fever-dreams of academic publishers, sharing books and articles is an essential part of the life of a research university. Besides lending the book itself, every department has a copy machine, and every professor uses it, quite often, to run off paper copies of articles or chapters that they give away to their students. I have a file box with easily several thousand pages worth of xeroxed articles that I accumulated over the course of my college career. Or, if the professor doesn’t have the book herself, or doesn’t want to put the xeroxes on her tab with the department, every University library has self-serve xerox machines and a book-reserve system, where the professor can ensure that a copy of the book is always available for students to share with each other, and to xerox the relevant sections out of if they want to take it back to read on their own time. And all this is available even though professors could have forced each and every student to go down and pay for the $50-$100 anthology at the University bookstore.

Are these godless commies and lying, thieving mutualists that infest the Academy stealing from poor, innocent academic publishers by passing around xeroxes? No; all it is is that they aren’t insane, and they are aware that supporting some particular academic publisher’s business model is not their students’ responsibility.

Yet as soon as the University eliminates the paper medium, and facilitates exactly the same thing through an non-commercial, internal University course pack website — which does nothing at all more than what the xerox packets did, except that it delivers the information to pixels on a monitor instead of toner on a page — the publishers’ racket can run to court, throw up its arms, and start hollering Computers! Internet!, send their lawyers to try to shake down have a discussion with the University administration for new tribute to their monopoly business model, and then, failing that, utterly uncontroversial decades-old practices of sharing knowledge among colleagues and students suddenly become a legal case raising core issues like the future of the business model for academic publishers, while even the most absurd protectionist arguments are dutifully repeated by legal flacks on behalf of sustaining the racket. (Thus: It’s difficult to argue that this is a truly noncommercial use [even though Georgia State receives no money from students for the course packs]. Georgia State may be a nonprofit institution, but its students pay a lot of money for course materials, and would presumably pay money for the materials being provided to them by the university.)

A few years ago, when I was living in Ypsilanti, I sat in on a seminar over at the University of Michigan on Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein. There were a few textbooks to buy at the University bookstore (most of which I already owned), but a lot of the reading consisted of articles collected into a xeroxed course pack of anthologized articles. To get the course pack you went down to this copy shop in downtown Ann Arbor where the professor had left the master copy for the course pack. You paid Excel a fixed fee for the course pack; they took down the folder with the masters from the shelf, and then escorted you to a self-service copy machine where you had to mash the Copy button in order to make the copies yourself. Then you gave the copied sheets back to them at the counter, where they would take the copies you made back and bind them for you.

The reason that you, personally, had to push the copy button is because xeroxing articles out of books for the purposes of a class is legally speaking, completely non-controversial, but if you paid exactly the same amount of money, and the copy shop did exactly the same thing, except that an employee mashed that Copy button at your behest instead of making you do it yourself, the elimination of that minor inconvenience to the student would instantly convert the transaction from non-commercial to commercial copying, and thus expose the copy shop to a crippling lawsuit, as actually happened to Michigan Document Services in Ann Arbor back in 1992.

So, to be fair, I suppose you can credit the Intellectual Protectionists with fostering knowledge and innovation in one respect: by relentlessly attacking any sharing practice that they can get away with attacking, and exploiting any technological change in order to chip away and obliterate as much of traditional fair use protections as they can manage, have produced an absurd dynamic in which basically identical transactions are treated as radically different from one another, in courts of law, such that, in order to avoid lawsuits, academics, libraries, and copy shops have been forced to invent all kinds of creative new ways of splitting hairs and engaging in the most ridiculous sorts of casuistry just to keep on doing what teachers normally do, while covering themselves from the threat of a ruinous lawsuit.

Thanks, Intellectual Protectionism!

Oh, and by the way.

Incidentally, in case you are interested, the academic publishers currently suing Georgia State University to try and force their students back into the academic publishing racket are Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and Sage Publications. The publisher that went after Michigan Document Services in 1992 was Princeton University Press. Wouldn’t it be interesting–a funny sort of coincidence, you know, one of those weird things that just happens in life when you were least expecting it–if bloggers committed to free minds and free culture just happened to start posting large quotes (of about 10-15 pages) from Cambridge, OUP, Princeton, and Sage books on their public, Google-searchable websites, under principles of fair use? All strictly for the non-commercial purpose of educating interested readers, of course. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it turned out that there was so much interest in talking about the topics covered in one of Cambridge’s, OUP’s, Princeton’s or Sage’s books that the whole book ended up getting posted, by a crazy series of coincidences, in protected bits and pieces on different websites, at the same time that those publishers are trying salvage their broken business model by mounting this massive screwjob on identifiable targets like innocent students at Georgia State?

The funny thing is, I was just thinking the other day that my readers here might enjoy learning some ordinary language philosophy, which might be illuminated by appropriate fair-use quotations from Stanley Cavell’s Must we mean what we say? (Cambridge University Press, 1976/2002), and some ancient moral philosophy, for which an absolutely essential source of appropriate fair-use quotations is Terence Irwin’s masterful study on Plato’s Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1995), and also some feminist political theory, which obviously demands taking a look at some key passages from Susan Moller Okin’s Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton, 1979). If you have a blog yourself, maybe you might find that your readers would be interested in discussing other key passages from those same books. Who knows? Or perhaps they’d be interested in discussions that other fine books from Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton and Sage happen to touch on.

I’m just sayin’.

Feel free to let me know what books you’re talking about with your readers about in the comments.

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