August 13, 2010

Reflections on Philosophy: Paul Ennis Interview

“I would say that everyone should approach the tradition in two ways: one path should be straight-forward and probably pretty mundane. The other should be sporadic, and a little more intuitive. The combination tends to be effective and helps satisfy the twin demands of any good philosophy writing: rigor and originality.”

“Regarding what we ‘ought’ to be doing, well I don’t think it is my place to prescribe any kind of ‘ought’ to other people since this is not my area whatsoever. I suppose my ideal ‘ought’ would be something like staying true to that fundamental impulse to inquiry no matter the cost.”

Brent Vizeau: First off, thank you for taking the time to have this conversation. I want to begin by asking, where does philosophy begin? I will preface this by making clear that I don’t mean with Thales or the “Greek miracle”. Rather, I mean to ask about the motivation for doing philosophy at all, and for taking the approach/perspective that you do? I want this to be able to go a number of ways, so I will suggest a few ideas to help hone in on the sort of place I think this question could go.

It is often thought that philosophy begins in “wonder” or curiosity. Simon Critchley argues, instead, that it begins in disappointment. It has been pointed out to me that philosophers like Hegel have “one great obsession” that colors their whole approach. Do you think that there is this kind of pre-philosophical element at the beginning of philosophy? If so, what gets you going? What is your experience of first moments/motivations?

Paul Ennis: I really don’t know how to answer this question because I have never answered it for myself. I have no idea why I do philosophy though I do have a response to the (oft-asked) question of what philosophy is or does: philosophy is to ‘know why you believe what you believe.’ I suppose my base motivation for pursuing philosophy is that I really do want to know why I look at the world the way I do.

Certainly I don’t have ‘one great problem’ like Hegel or Heidegger had. I am jealous that they knew so early what they were trying to figure out. There is a whole series of problems that I want to solve but the answers seem to sprawl out across all kinds of disciplines. But I do take these ‘events’ of philosophy seriously. Even though the ‘Greek beginning’ has been hugely compromised and even the Enlightenment has come under attack for its quasi-theological approach (which Hegel had already accused it of in the Phenomenology) I still consider these fundamentally positive interventions into the history of thinking. That would be my shotgun answer but the core of philosophy for me is something entirely different.

It is a prolonged investigation of fringe, albeit rational, problems such as, but the possible examples are legion, the emergence of transcendental subjectivity. You have to be a peculiar sort to take this as a guiding theme for your life’s work, but once you become familiar with the force of the historical meditation on these kinds of problems it is difficult to extricate yourself from it. So I’m not sure it is a simple case of being motivated to answer certain problems prior to reading philosophy and then working that problem out in dialogue with the great thinkers.

Rather it is a kind of slow accretion where you don’t have a problem to sort out but then through reading great thinkers you become convinced that these problems matter. Then the latent ideas that you would normally have pushed aside start to bubble to the surface and you learn to take them seriously. So I don’t think there is a pre-philosophical impetus – more like a post-philosophical impetus if that is possible! Of course the philosopher can’t help but ask what is possible.

BV: Do you take a systematic or principled approach to tracing out your initial motivation, obsession, or curiosity? If you are able to articulate a kind of beginning to your philosophizing, do you have a deliberate way of following through? Or is there a reason to avoid such a structured way of going forward? Perhaps, the assumed teleology of the question is problematic?

PE: I can be very principled if I’m following something that truly interests me, but I would be lying if I claimed that everything I do follows this path. The truth is there is a lot of groundwork in philosophy and a lot of it is unglamorous. For instance I’m not hugely interested in Kant per se but it is important, as someone working in two areas that can be considered reactions to Kant, that I understand what is happening in the Critique of Pure Reason. So I’ve engaged in a lot of principled reading on people like Kant, and Hegel falls into the same category, that I plain ought to know about.

There needs to be a certain degree of structure to any philosophical project. I tend to take the approach that if there is a consensus that x, y, and z are great thinkers and the tradition pivots around reactions to them then it is unlikely that this consensus has emerged by chance. I respect the canon in that sense. Nonetheless if you want to write about the topics that truly interest you (the obsessions as you put it) then you can’t remain at this point. You need to read a little more widely than that and here there is less structure, a fuzzier path to follow.

So if I were to consider this in teleological or systematic terms I would say that everyone should approach the tradition in two ways: one path should be straight-forward and probably pretty mundane. The other should be sporadic, and a little more intuitive. The combination tends to be effective and helps satisfy the twin demands of any good philosophy writing: rigor and originality. The most radical thinkers, say Heidegger or Adorno or Foucault, are all masters of the tradition, but you couldn’t call them mere interpreters because they build upon the tradition and offer something new and exciting. So you can learn how to go about your own project by following that approach.

There is a feedback loop to the entire discipline in that sense. You spend time in the company of effective philosophers by reading them and then try your hand at becoming one yourself. Most of us will end up as interpreters and that is important work I think because you are helping set up the coordinates for fresh approaches to thinking about the world. That, I suppose, would be what makes the groundwork worth it in the end. Most of us, if we are honest, are providing the ingredients that might be used by a master chef some day. If I managed to achieve even that I’d consider it a job well done.

BV: What would you say the work of a philosopher consists in? Is it our job to create, polish and present ideas? Is it enough to learn for ourselves? I suppose I’d like to uncover some of the ideas we have about what we ought to be doing. There may be a number of perfectly legitimate occupations of the philosopher, and perhaps a number of illicit ones.

PE: I have a somewhat strange attitude to what philosophy does. Technically I don’t think it does anything. As Heidegger was fond of saying the moment philosophy starts ‘doing’ something it is no longer philosophy. So it is a peculiar exercise. Depending on your broader stance about the world some people think philosophy should help solve political problems. I’ve always denied that (and taken some flak for it too). I don’t oppose political intervention, but I don’t think philosophy is useful in the political domain. It tends to muddy the waters somewhat. That being said I consider not engaging in social problems an intellectual failure. I just don’t consider philosophy the best tool to start fixing them. Here we should look outside philosophy and solve practical issues in a more direct way.

So I think it really is a simple affair of preserving ideas, keeping them alive, and trying to create a picture about the nature of reality to the best of your ability. The harsh fact is that some people are better at this than others and so a lot of us spend our time reading about what smarter people thought about reality. The way I see it there are enough people who want to learn about philosophy to warrant its academic study since you can always become a lecturer and keep the cycle going. As the business types would say: there is a market for it. And that market allows us to pursue philosophy in our research in a way that has no end as such. I admit this is a dangerous way to frame it since I suspect most business types running Universities would love a chance to take out most philosophy departments. So we have to work hard to prove our worth and not expect people to just accept that we deserve to be here.

We are immensely fortunate to be able to do what we do. You get to follow the ideas and inhabit greater minds than your own. I really do think this is one of the better ways to spend your life and I rarely fret about the choice of pursuing philosophy in its own right. I do fret about all the intellectual labour involved. To the casual observer an academic philosopher looks to be sitting around reading the occasional book and taping on a keyboard from time to time. But from the inside you learn that the academic philosopher is a jack of all trades juggling a plethora of deadlines, hopes, and promises in their head – alongside the real world problems that, contrary to popular opinions, exist in our world too.

Regarding what we ‘ought’ to be doing, well I don’t think it is my place to prescribe any kind of ‘ought’ to other people since this is not my area whatsoever. I suppose my ideal ‘ought’ would be something like staying true to that fundamental impulse to inquiry no matter the cost.

BV: Would you say that you have a philosophical – in the sense of doing the work of a philosopher – program? For instance, one might have the goal of producing polished ideas to the public based on their philosophical interests. This might mean that one works on writing articles. Maybe you start with a research phase, followed by a write up, followed by a new research phase in a linear fashion. Some might write when the motivation strikes them, but never according to a work program. What do you do? And what would you like to do in this regard?

PE: Imagining for a moment that I could even conceive myself as warranting the title philosopher (this is an awkward one for us since there is no real alternative for naming the study of philosophy that doesn’t sound awkward). I think I do have a program. Since I don’t have a public audience as a lowly graduate student I sort of aim to reach other academics if possible – usually other graduate students but a lot of established academics can be immensely helpful (and considering their workload they really don’t have to be). Not having an audience is probably a good thing at this stage. I can’t imagine how crippling it would be to know that people want to read your books!

In terms of getting work done I’m a little scatter brained but consistent if that makes sense. I’ll take on a fairly large amount of work, commit myself to ludicrous deadlines, and so on, but I will always make sure that I hit a deadline no matter what. I think I picked this up in school from a great school teacher I had who used to say that there was no smart people, just hard workers. So I suppose it is linear enough since I am operating with certain projects in mind at all times. Writing wise I tend to spend the first and last week of the month reading and the middle weeks getting stuff down. I never mix reading and writing since I can’t read if I’m mostly writing and vice versa.

However as nice as this picture sounds the real work gets down in moments of inspiration when the urge to drive just sweeps over me for a few days. I have no idea where this urge comes from but it seems pretty common when I talk to other graduates about this kind of thing. Some days you just wake up and write pages and pages. Other days you might prefer to mow the grass rather than sit in front of your laptop (in Ireland finding days to mow your grass is not as common as most places!). Then there are the chance encounters with works that set your mind racing.

For me there has been a small amount of these encounters, but the one that matters to me most was first encountering Meillassoux’s After Finitude. I wrote an entire chapter for my dissertation in about a week after finishing it. The chapter was rubbish and the article I tried to get published on it even more so. But the point is that you go back and revise, revise, revise and you get a grip on things. That kind of encounter is what I would like to happen more. On a more pragmatic note when it comes to Heidegger I’ve basically spent 3 years reading his corpus and jotting on the margins of his books. That is how it mostly happens!

BV: I’m also wondering about philosophical communities. We work in spatial proximity to other philosophers (or students of philosophy, however you want to demarcate this), but rarely it seems do we work in close intellectual proximity. What do you make of this isolation? Or do you disagree that there is a lot of isolation from others in our field? Would you rather a different kind of community to work in? If so, are you able to begin articulating what it might look like?

PE: This can be a strange one for sure. You get a real sense of it at ‘local’ work in progress seminars rather than conferences where mutual minds met. Our two major departments in Ireland (Trinity and UCD) are classic examples of how one can be so spatially near and yet so intellectually distant. Our department (UCD) is heavily continental and Trinity is pretty much analytic to the core. When we mix it up it feels like heading into alien territory and all kinds of misunderstandings happen in terms of what we reckon philosophy is all about. An important factor in the general isolation is that, in the words of my friend Sef, ‘the more philosophy you learn, the greater the silence gets.’ So the more specialist you become the harder it is to articulate your project. The only way to counteract this, and I am by no means very good at this, is to write papers in as direct a manner as possible and really try to communicate with everyone and not just those on your wavelength.

The barrier to this is that we all want to look extremely rigorous etc., and this causes us to construct defensive intellectual strategies that operate on a kind of gatekeeper basis. Another solution that has worked for me is blogging and reaching out to people that way. It kind of creates an even playing surface for all participants but it does require a lot of consistency and effort. It is pretty easy to let your blog die, but I cannot speak up enough on their merits. Without blogging I would probably have remained a pretty isolated graduate working on Heidegger and occasionally bumping into Heidegger scholars at conferences twice a year.

So we are lucky to live in a time when it is possible to generate these online networks and they do come ‘alive’ as evidenced by the Dundee ‘Real Objects and Material Subjects’ conference in Dundee this year which rather surreally was attended by a massive amount of people I feel I almost knew in advance. But I’m not hugely interested in this side of philosophy (ethics, community, and so on) since it just ain’t my area. I maintain that philosophers are for the most part socially awkward creatures and we probably prefer the idea of such communities than the real thing. I’m pessimistic about the social side of life so I’m happy that we have reached a relatively sensible accommodation in the academic world between isolation and the mutual exchange of ideas.


  1. great questions. nice blog.


  2. I'm glad you mentioned blogging as a way out of academic isolation. For my part, this new blog is a way to both make writing a more natural part of my life, as well as being a small community building effort. I'm not sure that I will have a large readership, but it gives me a place to have discussion like this one, and to share what I'm thinking about with others.

    I don't accept that isolation is better for the philosopher. Working out ideas for and with others gives us a measure of what we really know, and forces us to learn about the gaps we encounter in trying to share the ideas with others.I suppose I should post this point in the comments of the more relevant interviews.

  3. You'll get readers in time. I think it took my blog a year before people started to re-visit. Readership for these specialized blogs will always be small tho I think they tend to be loyal.

    Regarding isolation I would veer towards bouts of isolation followed by relatively intense encounters with other people. But you are right that you won't spot the gaps ourselves. I've overlooked major problems in my work that were easily spotted by friends working in other areas.