May 25, 2017

Getting Typecast In Philosophy

Six years ago, I started producing videos on philosophy in YouTube. At this point I have over 1,000 in my main channel, and I produce about five new videos each week. That’s roughly 250 videos each year. There are philosophy channels whose videos garner a lot more views than mine. Those tend to have one of four things going for them. Either they are short, glib, and high production. Or they have somebody relatively famous speaking in them. Or they’re put out by a channel with a very strong (usually single-minded) stance, and correspondingly committed fans. Or they enjoy the backing of some major institution, with pockets deep enough to plaster advertisements all over the web.

For a guy who shoots, lectures, edits, and promulgates videos on his own, I’m pretty happy with the solid base of viewers that have developed for my philosophy videos. Although I’ve improved the lighting, sound quality, and editing a bit over the years, my videos remain low tech and low production - and viewers consistently tell me that watching them feels like being in a classroom, or a conversation, or a tutorial session. Although some of them are short as 10 minutes, many of them are over an hour long, and it is extremely gratifying to discover that many viewers watch them all the way through (and in some cases, multiple times).

You see, my video production activity is all about the content. What I strive to do is what I have done as a professor throughout my entire teaching career – to present the topics, thinkers, and texts as fairly and as fully as possible to my students. In the online setting, this ends up generating an interesting conundrum, one that I have often remarked upon, and which now I would like to set out in a bit more depth. Simply put, it is this: from my approach in presenting the ideas of particular thinkers, many of my viewers automatically assume that I not only am in agreement with, but am a devoted proponent or follower of those thinkers.

Here Is What Happens

Typically, for any one given person watching the videos, we are talking about thinkers in the singular. Here’s what I mean by that, by way of example. They see me lecturing in the Half Hour Hegel series – which is past video 180 at this point – and they assume that I must be a Hegelian. Or, they watch one or more of my videos about Stoic philosophy, and infer but I must be a follower of that school. I have videos on figures ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Jean Paul Sartre, Alasdair MacIntyre, and even a few on Ayn Rand.

How do I know what viewers assume about me along these lines– namely that if I am presenting a thinker, it is because I agree on a fundamental level with that thinkers ideas, and therefore wish to disseminate those ideas as widely as possible? That’s pretty simple. They tell me as much – or they tell me other things that imply this – in their comments on the videos, or on my channel. Some of them email me, or message me through social media.

Those comments and messages tend to be either positive or negative, depending on how the person feels about the figure whose ideas and works I am presenting. If they like that thinker, then they’re happy I am presenting his or her thought, and I’m a good guy in their book. If instead they dislike that thinker, then I’m a bad guy, articulating a point of view, arguments, and ideas that don’t deserve to be expressed.

These evaluations of a thinker and of my presentation can often be connected in interesting though predictable ways with the other commitments of the viewers in question. When I talk about Aristotle for example, contemporary Catholics who often haven’t read him but know that Thomas Aquinas drew upon him I’m happy to see me explaining Aristotle’s point of view. Randian Objectivists who also typically have not read Aristotle, but know that Ayn Rand praised him highly likewise respond positively, though frequently on different points. The I Love Science meme crowd, knowing that a good bit of modern science involved rejecting some ideas from Aristotle, can be counted on to respond negatively, as can certain types of feminists, who know that Aristotle did indeed say some boneheaded things about women in his time.

There’s also another type of comment that gets posted with considerable regularity. These typically start out with an expression of surprise. They might run along these lines:

“Dr. Sadler, I watched your videos on Friedrich Nietzsche. He is a serious critic of Christianity. So it seems really strange that you’re talking so positively about St. Anselm of Canterbury. How can you take him seriously as a Nietzschean?”

 Or: “Wait a second. I watched your videos on Jeremy Bentham and utilitarian philosophy. What’s all this stuff about Kant and deontology now?”

How These Confusions Arise

It’s quite understandable that many viewers would make these sorts of assumptions. After all many of the videos out there present some relatively systematic or at least consistent point of view or perspective, and so seem to advocate that point of view (as well as explaining it and providing examples). Or the videos critically attack that point of view, presenting it primarily in order to lay bare its errors and putatively mistaken assumptions. And I think it’s also quite true that - with the exception of those people who call themselves devils advocates - most people setting some position out in detail mean to advocate for that viewpoint.

This isn’t just the case for YouTube videos. That tends to be the norm in many areas of our shared culture, whether intellectual or otherwise. There are exceptions of course, But those exceptions really do tend to confirm rather than confute the norm. My approach is quite different, so it lends itself to the sorts of mistaken assumptions and misunderstandings.

And yet in my own field of philosophy but in others as well, the approach I adopt represents a striving towards a certain ideal. Some people like to call this the principle of charity, meaning by that expression that in interpreting another person’s position one ought to assume that it could be reasonable, and attempt to read it in such away so that It would make the most sense. I suppose there is something like that going on, but that is not my primary motive. It is actually a bit simpler than that.

When I am presenting a complex body of thought a great thinker not only likely took considerable effort to work out, but which also did us the favor of writing down, my main goal is to figure out what is actually being said in the first place. I suppose that I slip naturally into the intermediary position of the teacher, who wants to share these interesting - and perhaps even true ideas with his or her students - and who therefore has to do a good bit of work to bridge between the thinker and his or her text, on the one side, and the body of students, on the other side.

It isn’t the case that I don’t have my own views, sometimes quite critical, on the material that I’m presenting. But I don’t see those views of my own as likely to be of great interest or weight by comparison to the ideas of the thinker I’m presenting. Perhaps to my students they are, and sometimes they do ask me about them, And then I tell them. If there’s time. That’s the key issue – Time – as I’ll explain in just a little bit.

In the case of a college class, my students know - or at least eventually realize – that I adopt a similar stance towards each thinker and text I am introducing them to. Although I haven’t researched this, I do suspect that many of my viewers come to my growing collection of video lectures through their interest in a particular thinker or school of philosophy. They watch what videos I have available on that, and conclude – hopefully because of my competent and enthusiastic exposition – that I am a supporter or an admirer of that position. And then they wind up surprised.

Passing As Something I Am Not

So there are really two tendencies at work in combination. The one is the tendency to assume that if someone presents someone else’s thought – and doesn’t engage in explicit criticism of it – it is because they are in fundamental agreement with that person. The other is that of viewers viewing selectively – in my case, typically watching their way through my videos on one thinker before even noticing that I have many other videos on other thinkers.

I’m perfectly fine “passing” as a proponent – though not as a partisan – of philosophical figures, approaches, and movements to which I have no strong allegiance. It is not as if I’m in some way harmed in the process, or as if I’m doing some damage to those thinkers or their works, after all! And if that sort of pedagogical approach gets viewers or students to take the ideas more seriously, to spend the time to flesh out a fuller understanding of them, that strikes me as a considerable benefit all around.

What kind of person have I passed as in philosophy? Different people associate me with a variety of ultimately incompatible perspectives, depending on what they have watched and how they know my work.

I’m alternately a faithful follower of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, Mary Wollstonecraft, G.W.F. Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alasdair MacIntyre, and even (since I have a few videos on her) Ayn Rand. For those who have read my works, they might add people who aren’t yet represented in my videos – Maurice Blondel, Jacques Lacan, and Max Scheler.

Some of these are more understandable than others. I am after all, the editor of Stoicism Today, so I must be a committed Stoic, right? I am certainly committed to promoting Stoicism as a philosophy, and as a community of inquiry, worldwide. I find a lot of positive, interesting, and effective ideas, arguments, and practices in Stoicism. I provide lectures, workshops, webinars, and online classes about Stoic philosophy. But that doesn’t mean that I am actually a Stoic!

Over the last three years, I have produced over 180 videos in the Half Hour Hegel series, a line-by-line, paragraph-level commentary on one of the more difficult classic works of philosophy, G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It is quite a commitment of time, thought, and energy, so you might assume I’m a Hegelian. I really do like Hegel, and think his work can be incredibly useful and insightful on some matters, but I’m not a Hegelian.

Before leaving the organization – not over ideology, but other matters – I took on a leadership role, not only teaching, but designing and building programs, and recruiting students and faculty, for an educational startup oriented largely by classic and contemporary Marxist thought. I’m not a Marxist.

I studied with Alasdair MacIntyre, and judge from my experience that when it comes to virtue ethics, he is the real deal – someone who walks the walk, not just talks the talk. I am a member of the International Society for MacIntyrian Enquiry, and maintain a network of connections with people who can truly be called MacIntyrieans. And yet I’m not a MacIntyrian.

What I am is someone who sees great value in helping others encounter and understand ideas, thinkers, systems that I see – often for different reasons in the varied cases – as worthwhile, as making some contributions that deserve being talked or taught about. That often makes me a “fellow traveller,” someone who can’t go all the way with the true believers, but who can in good conscience – and in fellowship – be a well-met companion for a portion of the path.

The Factor of Time

I have come to accept this situation, at first grudgingly, and then quite happily. My earlier academic career gave me some practice, albeit in a slightly different context. Because I have a number of different scholarly interests, I gradually became known as a young professor within multiple circles. The people who knew me from my written work and presentations on Aristotle and ancient philosophy were one group. Those focused on Hobbes and other early modern thinkers were another. Then there were those who knew me through our mutual interest in St. Anselm. Or 20th century Catholic thinkers. Or phenomenology. Or Business Ethics. Or. . . .

My interlocutors would invariably be surprised to find that in addition to doing work in the area of interest we shared, I strayed into or dabbled in those others.

I suppose that if I had devoted sufficient effort to doing much more networking, it is quite possible that I could have done something to bring these circles into a closer focus, at least upon myself. But how much effort would that require? And more importantly, would that have paid off, and with what dividends? Yet more importantly, is that sort of blatant self-promotion the sort of thing I’d be comfortable with? The answer to that is No – and there’s still one more even more important consideration. Wouldn’t the time required have to be robbed from the other activities closer to the core of my work, goals, and projects? The answer to that is, Yes.

While it is a bit easier to engage in that sort of marketing (or “raising awareness”, or “branding”, or whatever you like to call it) in the online environment, it still consumes a lot of time. And that’s the one resource I never have enough of to squander. That factor of time makes a direct impact on the dynamic discussed here in another way. I never do get around – in my video work (I do get in a bit of it elsewhere) – to engaging in the step-back-and-critique portion of the work, after sympathetically and competently presenting a philosophical position or thinker.

Why not? There are two different reasons. In order to really do a solid job presenting a philosophical text in video format – a text rich in concepts, involving complex arguments, often situated in relation to selected predecessors and contemporaries – a good bit of time is required. Just to provide a few examples of what I consider doing an adequate job:
  • In presenting Soren Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, I thought I could shoot two or three hour-long lectures. It ended up requiring seven.
  • I created shorter (10-25 minute) Core Concept videos covering Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It took over ninety of them.
  • Over the last three and a half years, I’ve been working through G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, paragraph by paragraph. I’m now more than halfway done, and I’ve shot over 180 half hour videos

So that takes a lot of time – just for doing one text well. And that time has to come from somewhere. Then there’s the wider field of philosophy, where there still exist a multitude of gaps of coverage when it comes to quality online resources.

Precisely because I can and do talk coherently about a wide range of philosophical figures – mainly because I have some interest in and appreciation for them – I’m always planning, or at least hoping, that I’ll get around to creating video content about them. Ideally, all of them. Optimistically, a good portion of them. Realistically, the ones I’m able to get to, working at them one thinker and one text at a time.

I just finished producing a set of 30 or so core concept videos on Aristotle’s Categories – a work many students (including myself when I was an undergrad) find infuriatingly baffling in parts. Now it’s on to shooting a short sequence of 8 videos on Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes. After that, I’m hoping to shoot a long-overdue video on Sartre’s play, the Flies, and then some videos on Descartes’ Meditations. All the while, I’ll still be working on Hegel videos, and some other content that needs to be done.

Even working at this pace, there’s quite literally no time left at the end of each day to pack in more video work going into more critical examinations. There’s always a vast amount of work left undone, a giant field of philosophers yet to reread and comment upon. But I’m learning how to be all right with that.