Empty Professionalism

Last night my philosopher colleague Daniel Berthold gave a reading from his new book The Ethics of Authorship: Communication, Seduction, and Death in Hegel and Kierkegaard. I haven’t read the book, but will have to now. He’s a very impassioned speaker, and talked eloquently about the implications of writing in one style or another, and how no style is ever ethically neutral. In passing he referred to eleven tricks he’d discovered that help philosophers get their papers published in journals, and how every trick will make your writing worse. So afterward I asked him about these tricks. Among them: having lots of footnotes; using citations from articles by the editors of the journal; attacking some particular writer or viewpoint; putting the main point early in the article (which he doesn’t like to do, and given the crescendoing style he exhibited, I can see why); and so on. He admitted having learned to use these when he was untenured, and regrets having “sold out” to that extent, however temporarily. Coincidentally, another philosophy professor friend of unconventional leanings had just written me a note about how difficult it is to fight the “empty professionalism that surrounds one in a university.” I think of my colleagues in the more academic departments as being more at home in this environment than I am, and it’s interesting to find that even they find their creativity curtailed, their most sparkling assets as humans and scholars turned into professional liabilities. 

Meanwhile, a talented and recently graduated young composer just told me that his composition professors wouldn’t allow him to write music with a steady beat – because it was “shallow.”


  1. says

    Sounds like an interesting book. I have a soft spot in my heart for good philosophers: those who understand that it is the philosopher’s job to teach others how to think well.

  2. says

    This is a cool post. I often think that much of academic writing is killing (or, at the very least, not advancing) the idea of the essay as a literary form – or the idea that the writing process is itself part of the creative process, of tackling an open question. Great essays will often start with such questions. And while I don’t expect everyone to follow the road of Montaigne in asking, “What is experience?,” it would be nice if the “argument” and “methodological approach” of many an academic paper would throw us into the messy business of experience rather than amplify the idle (as you say “professional”) chatter of the “community of scholarship.” Why? Because so much of that kind of writing is done without *style.* I mean that last word in terms of both literary style and classiness. (It’s so easy to treat an absent author like a pinata). Well, that all sounds rather harsh; and I don’t want to sell short the importance of the university. Maybe it’s that the essay can and should be as much about exploration as it is a place for explanation. Every essay that bounces off of other people’s arguments simply for the sake of doing so mistakes the faddish trees for the cultural forest. And so, in terms of their relevance for (intellectual) culture, essays written in that spirit are destined to go unheard in the long-term. They invariably become those trees that philosophers will sometimes talk about: the ones that fall in forests when no one’s around.