Today’s New APPS interview is with Jack Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at La Trobe University.
Thanks, Jack, for doing this interview with us. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
In the context of being a head of department and doing the associated administrative duties, doing philosophy is very much a pleasurable interruption to such activities.
Yeah, there’s nothing like a stack of forms to fill out to make you long for locking yourself away with some books!
But it can’t be all pain! What about conferences? Aren’t they fun?
I very much enjoy conferences. I suppose they are distinct from the practice of philosophy itself, but not wholly distinct. While one doesn’t necessarily greatly improve one’s papers through the free and open marketplace of ideas (as Mill, and the practice of much contemporary analytic philosophy, arguably assumes), I do think that the friendships one forges at such conferences, perhaps outside of the conferences regular academic boundaries, is vital to one’s ability to reshape one’s philosophy. So I am not a Millian about academic discourse, but I do think that those who shun conferences and consider it not real philosophy are making a mistake that threatens their own philosophical practices. Of course, Deleuze seems to have been more inclined to this attitude towards conferences, whereas Derrida might have been more oriented to the public practice of philosophy. I suppose I am more on Derrida’s side in this respect, but like him, not believing in a progressivist ideal of philosophy as communal progress.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
I need to do philosophy for short periods of time (say an intense hour), then interrupt that with other tasks whether it be writing emails, organizing something practical (a conference, chatting with my students), before returning to philosophical labours. Somehow this helps refine my thinking. Good ideas often come when one is not deliberately reflecting on a given problem or idea.
Are you a night owl or a morning person?
In my student days, I did most of my philosophizing in the evening, perhaps till 2 or 3, and woke up late in the mornings. Necessities of academic life and parenthood have changed this…
In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your philosophy?
I am interested in the connections of philosophy with all of these other areas, perhaps especially science and politics. However, it could not be said that I integrate philosophy into these other truth procedures, to invoke Badiou. In fact, unlike most people working in contemporary continental philosophy, I am not particularly learned in regard to the arts in general.
Me neither. I do know a fair bit about sports, on the other hand. Anyway, what about other daily practices?
As a cook, I am perhaps best described as instrumental rather than artistic. Maybe this is a failure of imagination, but I am a minimalist in many ways and this is probably congruous with aspects of my philosophical practices too, which incorporates a certain Epicurean dimension.
How do you integrate teaching and research?
While those promoting teaching and learning in the university sector in Australia no longer believe in a research-teaching nexus, I remain a believer. Students get real pleasure, and have better learning outcomes, when they see and appreciate that a teacher is grappling with a problem that is current and live to them, so most of my teaching is oriented around problems that I am concerned with and often feeds into my publications.
How did you come to study philosophy?
I came from a small country town. In fact many Australian philosophers seem to have come from small country towns. To mention a few: Paul Patton, Robyn Ferrell, Marion and Alan Tapper, but there are many others. Given that Australians live predominantly in big cities, indeed much more so than in the USA as a percentage of overall population, it seems to me that perhaps there is something about boredom, space, that is conducive to philosophy. On the other hand, I don’t recall being bored in the country. I was mainly just interested in sports throughout most of my childhood, though I read quite a lot.
What about high school? Did you know philosophy existed?
I discovered existentialism in high school, mainly via the literature of Camus and Sartre. That was it for me, from about 16 I was pretty hooked.
That’s earlier than for many of us, I think. What then about undergraduate days: Did you major in philosophy right away?
I went to the University of Melbourne, majoring in philosophy from the start. I remember trying as a first year student to debunk Plato and rightly being put in my place by the lecturer. Marion Tapper was probably my main influence as an undergraduate student, since she taught existentialism and phenomenology. She was very thorough and gave me a good grounding. I still try to catch up with her when I can.
When did you decide on philosophy as a career?
I am not sure when, or if, I ever made a decision to pursue philosophy as a career. I got offered a scholarship, and took it up at the Australian National University with Penny Deutscher. I suppose it was always in the back of my mind that this would be a good thing to do workwise, but I was never attached to it, since the jobs prospects in Australia were, and still are, pretty dim. I was lucky at certain points in my career.
So you went to ANU for graduate school?
Yes. Penny Deutscher was a great supervisor, though she left half-way through my candidature. I then worked largely on my own for a year or so (before Fiona Jenkins came and helped finesse the thesis that was on Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, embodiment and alterity).
Who were your grad school friends?
It was my friends who kept me going for another couple of years – Jon Roffe, Matt Sharpe and Ashley Woodward in the main. I suppose it was competitive, but this didn’t preclude some strong friendships being formed and any acrimony may have helped sustain us – philosophy really was practiced by us as polemos. We used to bore our partners and friends by insisting on talking and arguing about philosophy at every social gathering, and we each took on the identity of one of our main philosophical influences (I became Maurice, and from memory Jon was Gilles, Matt was Max, and Ashley was Jean-Francois). There were some rather heated arguments from time to time.
It wouldn’t be philosophy if it weren’t worth being passionate about it! How about your transition out of grad school? What was your early professional life like?
My first philosophy job (beyond tutoring) was at the University of Tasmania, casually, to cover a subject called Philosophy of the Body. This was a foot in the door of an academic career and I subsequently got a couple of one-year contracts at UTas, then a permanent position. My time at UTas was positive in the main, and I still have several friendships there. One of my students wrote a long poem about Jon Roffe and me, something about “hatted Jon and rumpled Jack” after we co-taught a subject on Postmodernism together. I still have it. I think her name was Lucy.
That’s a fun story. What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece? How did your early research relate to your dissertation?
My thesis was published as a book, by Ohio University Press, so I am indebted to them and Steven Crowell, the series editor, for publishing this book. It made a difference to my career. One of my first publications was for a now defunct journal called Contretemps, it was on the work of Derrida and Vicki Kirby, and was a chapter from my PhD thesis. Interestingly, when Merleau-Ponty and Derrida (Ohio, 2004) came out as a book, Dorothea Olkowski reviewed it and lamented the lack of attention to Kirby, since the reviewers had recommended that I excise that particular chapter. Although I didn’t write any highly original chapters in this book that were breakout pieces in a research sense, I also co-edited a book with Jon Roffe, Understanding Derrida (Continuum, 2004), and I remember going to the book-launch for that book in Readings, Carlton. That was a big deal to our families and us.
What were your colleagues like? Did you feel supported?
My colleagues have generally been supportive, albeit without formal mentoring structures. The tenure process in Australia, at least in that time, was not as fraught is the case in the USA. If you were lucky enough to get one of the few ongoing positions (tenurable), then you were typically converted to tenured and permanent unless you had committed a felony or some such thing. Universities monitor it more carefully now.
Speaking of tenure, let’s consider the institutional and professional side of things. The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. You’ve written on the subject. What’s your approach?
James Chase and I recently co-wrote a book called Analytic Versus Continental: Arguments on the Methods and Value of Philosophy (Acumen. 2010). James is an analytic friend and ex-colleague from the University of Tasmania, and there is little doubt that our friendship was what enabled the trust necessary for this book to be completed. Despite the apparent performative contradiction of us being able to dialogue and co-write this book, we are actually a bit more pessimistic than some about the prospects for rapprochement.
At least we think that much of the evidence cited to support the idea that this rapprochement is currently taking place is unconvincing. There is not much evidence of mutual engagement with shared literatures and problems: yes, Wittgenstein is discussed by analytic philosophers, continental philosophers, and others, but often the associated secondary literature and problems being addressed are very different.
What’s holding things up?
We think there are some entrenched methodological and metaphilosophical differences that are too rarely examined. Attending to such differences may be one way of transforming our “divided house”, not necessarily so that philosophy can implausibly become one (since philosophy has always been divided – think of The Sophist, think of Derrida on the jewgreek greekjew), but to at least make it less insular, less confident in rendering that which is other than what is used to somehow non-philosophical.
How do you put this into practice?
I think we need to try to attend each other’s conferences as much as possible. Of course, this is hard, since one might find one’s views quickly dismissed. James and I organized a mini-conference on the ‘divide’ and very few analytic philosophers attended beyond the grant holders, whereas lots of ‘continental’ philosophers did. I remember James Chase and Ed Mares (the analytic philosophers on this research project, which also included James Williams) being dumbstruck when several philosophers present insisted that philosophy was essentially about critique, the problem of modernity, etc.
What’s the immediate future here in your view?
Even if such efforts are bound to fail in some sense – as is also the case with our too ambitious book, Analytic versus Continental – I think we need to do what we can to overcome the insularity of philosophy, such that it looks to Michael Dummett, and many others, like it is now two distinct disciplines.
Philosophy and other humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
In the 1970s La Trobe University had 30 odd staff in philosophy. We are now down to about 6. That is pretty drastic downsizing.
The whole Bachelor of Arts degree is in some trouble in Australia at the moment, as the government prioritises other more applied disciplines. The pressure at my university is currently intense, with restructures and potential redundancies the order of the day.
Current university admin practice is like some hideous PsyOps experiment on stress reactions.
We as a discipline need to find a way to preserve our distinctiveness, but also engage with other disciplines in collaborative teaching and the like, in order to survive. Contrary to John Armstrong, though, I think we must resist any idea that philosophy should just be left to be taught at elite universities, or to be read in potboiler fashion, such as Alain de Botton.
How has the falling percentage of tenure-track positions relative to graduate assistants, part-timers, postdocs, and permanent instructors affected the strategies your department uses in graduate student placement?
The Australasian Association of Philosophy and the Australasian Society of Continental Philosophy both conduct graduate career workshops at their annual conferences. Graduate placement in Australia is not very organized, partly because jobs here are so rare. We need to look at ways to make our students more competitive in the US and UK, since it is very rare for US institutions (or French, German, Italian, etc.) to appoint an Australasian philosopher straight out of a PhD, and yet we do typically appoint people from these countries to positions in Australasia.
The results of that asymmetry can’t be good.
This means there is a large body of PhD students without obvious career prospects here and we have a moral duty to seek to rectify this. How exactly to do so is not clear to me. Professors need to try to co-publish papers with their graduate students if they can, and facilitate their international connections. At the departmental level, we don't currently do much; it is rather left in the hands of individual supervisors.
Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now? Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
I think Heidegger and Bergson both differently suggest that every great philosopher has one central idea that is returned to in different ways. I don’t think myself great, of course, but in different ways I find this more plausible than it might seem. At least from my own admittedly biased perspective, there is a unity to the various particular contributions I have made over the years.
I suppose my various publications typically concern emphasizing the central and underestimated role of embodiment, which has been put to work in debates concerning both alterity and debates concerning time in my latest book, Chronopathologies: Time and Politics in Deleuze, Derrida, Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology (Lexington, 2011). I think many of my publications also focus on problems that afflict transcendental reasoning, and this also follows from my concern with embodiment. While aspects of bodily motility and perception are able to treated empirically, they are also the transcendental conditions that ensure that sensory experience has the form of a meaningful field rather than being a fragmented relation to raw sense data.
What would you say was the most rewarding experience of your professional life?
In some ways seeing graduate students complete their PhD is one of the most rewarding experiences, as well as when one’s students find work. This kind of experience is somehow more rewarding than personal successes to me.
The most frustrating?
On the other hand, probably my most frustrating professional experience was getting rejected a few years ago when I applied for promotion. I never did quite understand how that happened. So the most rewarding things have been about the recognition of other philosophers that I have helped, the most frustrating being the lack of recognition of myself, at least in this single case.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I am currently doing research on inter-subjectivity and the perception of others, drawing on the phenomenological tradition as well as findings in developmental psychology and the cognitive sciences. I’d like to offer an alternative to Simulation Theory and Theory Theory, which in their own way are both inferential and intellectualist and have difficulty in explaining certain emotive dimensions of neonatal life as well as the kind of perceptual understanding evinced prior to children being able to pass the false-belief tests. I am also editing a book called Sartre: Key Concepts with Steven Churchill.
Many thanks, Jack, for the interview!