Todd Altschuler is a former lecturer-turned-'philosophical investigator' based in New York City.
The Public Life of the Mind spoke to Todd to learn about his experience of engaging in consultation work outside of academia from a distinctly philosophical angle.
Todd Altschuler. Image by Stephan SagMiller
PLM: Hi Todd, so could you start by giving a bit of your philosophical and wider background?
Todd: I received my PhD from the New School for Social Research in Philosophy. My Areas of Specialisation and Areas of Competence were Aesthetics and German Idealism; I worked on Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, so some post-Idealism. More generally, in terms of background, I was a somewhat disgruntled, somewhat happy graduate student in philosophy for many years at the New School and I took quite a long time to finish as I had no desire to move to the Midwest, or whatever region of the Earth they might send you to if you actually managed to get a job! So, I've been living in New York for about 15 years.
While I was in graduate school I was doing a lot of what might be considered, I don't know if entrepreneurial would be the right word but, different projects -- organising talks and panels and just all sorts of different things that were not directly through the department. That was something that had gone on the whole time so, for example, I organised a two-day Žižek event with Adrian Johnston and Martin Hägglund. I was running a group called The Psychoanalytic Workshop, which was basically monthly lectures on philosophy and psychoanalysis, I was running this journal called Political Concepts which is an interdisciplinary political journal started by some people from The New School and Brown and NYU, a sort of collective research project. The reason I mention all this is that all through grad school I had this impulse to see what the limits were in terms of what projects could be organised. A lot of New School people do this because it's a very engaged place and people are always creating there little projects and reading groups and all sorts.
So, when I defended [my thesis], I think it was in December 2015, that next semester I was teaching in the humanities department at The Pratt Institute, which is an art school in Brooklyn, so I was teaching philosophy and aesthetics, and I was teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I was driving back-and-forth between these two places teaching, which was a complete and total nightmare; in the winter dodging storms, getting stuck, missing things. While I was doing that I was listening to the audiobook of Karen Kelsky's The Professor Is In, which is this book that most graduate students in philosophy are reading now as it's sort of an introduction to the job market and all the things your department probably never told you.
She does an entire critique of the way graduate schools are being run and students are being prepared for the job market and no one knows what you're doing and no one is doing advising work, and as part of that critique she was pointing out the statistics of just how bad the academic system in the United States has become, where you have something like 70% of the classes being taught by adjuncts with no healthcare, with no job guarantees, the small percentage of jobs that are opening up, the limited number of people that are retiring, the numbers of people that have gone back to grad school have exponentially risen. So it's generated this absolutely impossible business model where it's absolutely guaranteed that 99% of people aren't going to get jobs in the thing they trained for, and there's this warning in the book kind of saying, "I would recommend not going into academia, but if you'd like to do it, here's what you need to do".
Right around this time I had a friend from undergrad that had been working in Silicon Valley for 6 or 7 years, working with Google and Airbnb and Yahoo! and all these companies, doing things like leadership development and team-building stuff, who'd been encouraging me to leave the abstract world of philosophy and do something that, as he saw it, was "real". I was continually saying "no" because I was finishing my degree and I always planned to go tenure-track and all of that.
But what ended up happening was I just decided, in the midst of looking at the job market, going through that experience, looking at the statistics - just really wondering whether or not there was another way to do philosophy - and just thinking about the fact that there's gonna be an entire generation of people who can't use directly what they were trained for because the numbers just objectively demonstrated that it's not possible, there just aren't enough jobs, not even close. And then there's this filtering system where you've got more and more people from the Ivy's getting jobs at community colleges, which are pushing out everyone who didn't go to an Ivy, and the whole thing is in this downward spiral. So I was just curious whether it would be possible to do philosophy in a different domain.
I started working with this person and we started developing content and bringing in philosophical ideas into this training and, he was doing a lot of coaching, so I was using philosophy and psychoanalysis to try to, in some sense, rewrite what's out there currently because there's a lot of self-help, ego psychology kind of nonsense, a lot of kind of mystical... Just, there's whole stuff on presence and meditation and I'm perfectly fine with meditation, I think it's great, but the ideology is so thick and they're paying these people so much money to feed them stuff. A lot of the consultants are simply picking up a book of Daniel Kahneman, or some famous psychologist, and just picking a choosing and then presenting it as expertise and they have absolutely no training whatsoever in the history of these ideas when a lot of them have got MBAs.
So I just figured, the worst that could happen would be that we'd be coming up with more rigorous material. The way that I decided to do this was to not explain where the ideas were coming from and to simply use the ideas in a way that I thought might be helpful. So I was just pulling from Heidegger on angst and Nietzsche and Freud on drives, and just kind of doing some, let's say synthetic version of the people that I was interested in and doing research on. So, a lot on Kant and Hegel and Nietzsche, but organising it in such a way that it would give maybe some insight into what these people were looking for. So some ideas about how to deal with anxiety in the workplace, and creativity, presence, these kinds of topics.
As we began to introduce more and more of these ideas people were very, very curious and started asking where they came from, and we'd be like, "that's Heidegger and that's Freud and that's Nietzsche" and they started to say, "well, can you teach us that stuff?" And I was really, really baffled at how quickly that happened, where there was - especially in the tech industry - a genuine curiosity about different ways of looking at things, they want the history of all these ideas and they sort of had this impression of, "Oh, we didn't realise that was philosophy, we thought philosophy was that boring thing in the books on a professor's shelves" and we realised that what they're asking for is for us to teach them philosophy. It was extremely exciting because for a long time I was wondering, "Okay, well how can this be presented and packaged and sold - how can you get people interested in these ideas?". It turns out the answer is, you just simply talk about the ideas because they were already interested.
What my plan was all along working with this other person was to move more and more in the direction of actually teaching philosophy in those contexts, because from my point of view there are the whole issues of, you know, being a kind of left-wing, intellectual, New School person, entering into the capitalist economy and all of this. But at the same time thinking, you know what, first of all, all the philosophy classes that everyone's taking, 90% of people are ending up at companies like this, so it's okay to teach them when they're a bit younger but not now? It makes no sense. Also, that the university system itself was basically operating like a corporation now.
And, at a lot of these tech companies, I found it actually the perfect place to teach philosophy because most of these people are extremely successful, extremely intelligent, and they have the luxury of the money and time to begin to reflect on what it is they are doing, and then they're curious, and they want to know, and they want more. So I thought it was a great opportunity to introduce people to a lot of these ideas that they had absolutely never heard of. I think sometimes in graduate school people have this impression of "Ah! No one cares about philosophy" or it's rejected, or something like that. It's far more simple. People simply had no idea that this was even out there; it's not some sort of active rejection, it's just a lack of awareness in many cases, but people wanna learn about it.
"People have this impression of 'Ah! No one cares about philosophy' or it's rejected, or something like that. It's far more simple. People simply had no idea that this was even out there [...] people wanna learn about it."
That was one thing that we were doing. This stylistically distinct version of these practical training things - leadership development, how do you communicate with people - and just trying to bring in also a little bit of the empirical psychology, a little bit of the neuroscience - just because people think that's extremely authoritative. The other thing we were doing was working with some directors at Google and people like that on strategies of speechwriting. This was something that completely changed my perspective. I've worked a lot as a professional editor, so that's just a skill set that I have, and we were looking at this material, I'm not really allowed to talk in too much detail about what it was because of NDAs, but effectively what was going on was they had to make a certain argument, which this director at Google would give in a speech to a group of people, and they had a team putting together the research and making the argument.
Originally they came to us more on the speech side, like, help us with storytelling and speech, and then I sat down and looked at the text as if it was a philosophical text, or a student paper, or anything that an editor or philosopher would look at, and I was just like, "Okay, that's a logical fallacy and that's irrelevant and you're making two different arguments that go in two different directions". I just half-jokingly tore it apart in the normal way that, you know, this is one of the things that you're taught to do in grad school philosophy, just tear apart arguments and put them back to together and so forth. I just did the normal thing and we sent it back and their just jaws dropped and they asked, "What did you do? We're so excited!" And I thought, "Oh, okay, I guess these skills might actually be relevant in the real world, 'haha' to all those people that were laughing at me when I chose to do philosophy".
This really shifted my perspective because what I realised was that, even when you have exceptionally smart people like the people working at Google, they're not necessarily trained in making good arguments, or analysing arguments, or making compelling arguments, or even writing styles, all of these things that you implicitly pick up going through to graduate school. I realised that activity of helping clarify argumentation is extremely powerful for them, because they ended up rewriting the strategy, and what was really kind of bizarre to me was they were trying to convince a group of people that a billion dollars was being left on the table in a certain sort of industry, so we rewrote the strategy about how they were going to approach getting a billion dollars back.
It was amusing and fun and it paid really well and I thought, "Well, what if that's actually the primary business model for me?" Because we'd been thinking about doing different kinds of trainings and different ways this could be applied, and I thought the simplest thing would be... What about a philosophical approach or attitude or way of thinking about things in which, you know, what's the first thing we do, we look at terminology, we look at the argument being made, we begin to clarify, and whether still there are contradictions being made. Just that stuff - it's almost like being a lawyer, but it's not law. Just the kind of logical, clear thinking that one must do in order to do most things in philosophy. What if I was doing that? And this turned out to be something that - without any explanation whatsoever about philosophy - people already find useful. And then once I begin doing that they begin to ask more about philosophy and so this is my approach.
What I'm offering is... I kind of jokingly called it on my website, 'idea therapy'. It's not so much about helping people like a therapist would with their emotions, but it's about helping them look at what they're thinking, clarifying what they're thinking, figure out if there's contradictions in what they're thinking. So, to kind of go through and look at their ideas and make things more explicit, and work with them in that way.
The other thing we were doing was working on a creativity seminar, 'cus creativity and innovation is such a big thing right now for tech companies, and I was completely naive about this but I was wondering whether I could use some of my previous research for designing some sort of training. I thought, "What about creativity because my background is aesthetics" and then I found, actually, it's the most desired thing right now, because all the tech companies are terrified about not being relevant.
So creativity and innovation is 'the' thing, and there's a lot of design-based companies, like IDEO, who are approaching creativity from the perspective of designers and deconstructing design process, which is great, I just think it's in some ways limited because philosophy can have a broader kind of aesthetic perspective that is less... To use Kantian terminology, less 'purposive'; less teleological. There's aesthetic conceptual apparata that deal with these kinds of issues and deal with play - because play is such a big issue right now - and it's so much there in Kant, and absolutely no one is talking about Kant in this context. So, I just figured this is a radically different perspective and I began to design something between Nietzsche and Kant, between drives and play. What ended up happening, and this was for a team at Yahoo! - the company's actually now Oath - was I got into a bit of an argument with my business partner and we're no longer working together.
At this point, I decided to rebrand what I was doing in terms of an absolutely bold and direct... Like, "I'm doing philosophy!" I was doing the exact same thing before but I simply decided to present it this way, and this was the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Philosophical Investigation Agency. I just figured, if this is what I really wanna do, I should just put it out there as bold as possible. I anticipated massive, aggressive backlash from all my academic friends and all my left-wing friends just going "this is god awful", but actually I was completely shocked - there's been almost complete enthusiasm and support. I think people are extremely aware of the problems of the job market structure and the problems with the way academic positions are becoming more and more committee work and more and more bureaucracy, less time to work on your teaching and research, so it's gonna be much, much more like a company.
I think there's a certain quiet... I hesitate to say it but I'll say it anyway: there's a quiet desire for some other place for philosophy to exist in the world. I think even people who... I have a lot of extremely successful academic friends and they all kind of whisper it to me. So I think there's an enthusiasm and a lot of support and a hope that maybe there is something like this that could work in a broader way. I mean, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to make it work for myself and make it sustainable and profitable and all of that, but my secret desire is to kind of have a department. There's so many good people I know that don't have jobs and they have all of this training, all this intellectual labour power. And there's so many grad students that I see that are literally either depressed or alcoholics, they're unhappy because they know that when they finish that this is what they're going out into, this disaster.
I just simply figured why not figure out a way to try and allow people to make reasonable livings doing philosophy? Is that such a horrible, anti-Marxist idea!? Are we supposed to be poor and miserable and depressed? There's been so many articles in the last year that are like... There was this one about this adjunct who was turning to prostitution. Obviously a very extreme example but, like, people can't pay their medical bills? I just sort of reached the point where I was going, "I've had enough of seeing this" and maybe it's possible to do something else, maybe it's possible to create something that will function differently, maybe it will fail miserably and I'll have to go and sit behind a desk somewhere. But, my hope is that I can create a proof of concept, step-by-step, which is what I'm trying to do, so that I get more requests and I can begin bringing in more people that are, say, finishing grad school, that would be a good place because I think they'll make a lot more money then they'll make anywhere else but it will still function in terms of a business model.
But since I've been thinking about that, I've had a number of faculty jokingly say, "So, are you hiring?". This is a tonne of faculty who are absolutely successful in all possible ways - tenured, doing all kinds of stuff - but nevertheless, they like the idea of somehow escaping this. So, that part is exciting and I'm hoping that the whole thing works out and I can begin. Last night I was out for dinner with some faculty from the New School and I was coming up for titles for positions at my company, and we came up with 'Vice President of the Division of Imagination', which will be Chiara Bottici's position. I'm also close to a lot of psychoanalysts and Jamieson Webster is going to be the 'Vice President of the Psychoanalytic Interrogation Division' or 'Section', I haven't quite decided yet!
The goal is also to bring in psychoanalysts because I think the way they think could also be quite helpful in a lot of contexts. There are some psychoanalysts out in San Francisco who have already started to do some of this work, that I've been talking to over the last year, who have already started a company. It's two women and both are psychoanalysts and both of their husbands work in the tech industry and they were seeing a lot of these problems, especially problems with gender and women in the workplace. So they started a company Cohear that's attempting to address some of this stuff from a psychoanalytic perspective.
PLM: Thanks Todd, that's given a really good picture of your situation. So, one thing that is interesting is how people's metaphilosophical assumptions - their ideas about what philosophy is, what a philosopher's roles are, and so on - how they change as a result of engaging in public philosophy. In a recent interview here someone said for them what it brought out was the role philosophers can play as facilitators, for example.
In your own case, in such a concrete way, what stands out is how you were approaching this speechwriting work with the editing skills you have from your prior training. From an outside perspective, it might just be viewed as general editing skill set, but you realised it's much more applicable, and there's something more particular about it yet you're using it in a context that's completely different to where that might normally be used. So, through the earlier iteration of what you're doing now and then with the Philosophical Investigation Agency, have your metaphilosophical ideas been challenged? (Or not at all - it might, of course, be quite continuous for you.)
Todd: It has really changed my perspective. Actually, on the issue of facilitation, I just had a meeting with someone who runs a business school in London to start working with them, and we're gonna be working on strategy. One of the things that came out of the conversation - because this is still new, I've been doing this for about a year and a half so I'm still learning something every single time I have these conversations - was that I said, "Look, I'm not a typical expert on strategy. You have all the MBA people but what I consider myself an expert in is, basically, thinking; the history of different modes of thinking, the history of ideas". So what that might offer - this is actually what she was suggesting - was that often when you bring in a consultant there's a bit of resistance because you have a bunch of experts in the room going, "Who is this other person who says they're an expert?" She thought it might work really well that I am literally coming and saying, "I'm not an expert on any of these topics, but I am more an expert in the facilitation of talking about them".
What I'm going to demand from a group is that we try to eliminate jargon and we try to communicate clearly, and we don't assume that our expertise is sufficient to get us where we wanna go. Rather, we use that expertise to try to figure out what we're saying. I think she was really excited by the idea of doing that because it's less likely to raise resistances to having someone come in and facilitate. That's something, I think, that's quite similar to when you start teaching at undergraduate class and some people don't want to be there and some people do, and there's different levels of expertise in the room, and trying to get everyone on the same page. So that did kind of come out of teaching but I think it would be quite applicable in the context of consulting. I kind of think of it as 'anti-consulting', because I'm not coming and giving people the answers, I'm coming in and trying to help clarify what possible answers might be based on their expertise.
I guess the other side of it is that sense when you start teaching that you realise you have to approach things differently, because even if you intuitively get something or you can write about it, being able to explain certain kinds of ideas to people who've no experience in the field is a really difficult task that forces you to begin reading and speaking differently. I've experienced something like that with this work, and especially on a topic that I didn't expect, which is literally, what is philosophy? Because in doing a couple of interviews I've been thinking about how do I present philosophy to the general public, what's a plausible way to do that? And I realised I had no idea, I have no idea how to do that!
It's a philosophical question that I realised I really hadn't been asking for the last 15 years: what is philosophy? So I've been trying to speak to a number of different people in different areas of philosophy to see what they have to say, doing some interviews, and I'm thinking of writing some of these up because I realised I'm gonna get a thousand different answers. So maybe there's an infinite number of ways to present philosophy, but when put in a position of having to represent what philosophy is to people who are interested but don't know what it is, then how do you speak to that in a way that is accurate and exciting in way that brings people in (rather than the Ivory Tower problem of academia)?
This is currently what I'm thinking about: what do I think philosophy is and how to speak about it more generally. I think my answer right now - acknowledging that if there's a group of philosophers in a room, someone would attack this - I'm thinking about philosophy in terms of a certain kind of methodology. There's this company that Simon Critchley told me about called ReD Associates, that are explicitly very Heideggerian and they hire academic anthropologists who go in and do anthropology field work for companies to explain, for example, why men in Texas buy trucks. They've been extremely successful - they were bought for, like, $100,000,000 - because they're actually finding out answers that people didn't have before. There was an ideological screen for these companies as to why people were doing things, and so their approach was, "Why don't we ask them and observe them?"
So, I was thinking about how this is probably the most similar thing to what I'm doing, but then philosophy doesn't have the same kind of standardised fieldwork methodology that other disciplines have. So what would a methodology for philosophy look like? Is there any kind of generally shareable methodology between different areas, between analytic and continental, or is that just an unbridgeable gap? Or, are there areas within, say continental philosophy - some of the people that I grew up philosophically with or within the New School, a certain kind of approach to thinking, certain shared concepts - can that be broadened? Is there an implicit thing that everyone's doing without everyone talking about it? I'm not sure how general one can get with it but I realised it's a really interesting philosophical question, relevant to the project that I'm doing, that might actually be the starting point.
So this really has changed my perspective, it's really forced me to think about philosophy more broadly, and wonder whether there is 'a' philosophy or is there just different microcosms that we generally group together but that don't actually belong together? I was talking to a professor from CUNY last night at dinner also and she said something that struck me as being very true, which was that people might hesitate to answer the question, to be put on the spot in that way. And I thought, "wouldn't that be great?" If [philosophers] were just refusing to say what philosophy is!
This is all with an eye still on the question of being able to talk about what philosophy is, or how I see what philosophy is, and then how it might be useful to, again, people who have no experience whatsoever with it. I'm doing that obviously for my own purposes but also because my motivation is also to position philosophy differently so, again, different possibilities open up. So that people see it differently and maybe have a little more access to it.
PLM: So before moving onto the final questions, let's focus on the question of whether there are aspects of the world of academic philosophy - not so much the philosophising itself, but everything around it - that you've felt have transferred over. Perhaps your community, the resources you use, your goals and so on, or have these changed quite radically as well, do you think?
Todd: I guess socially it hasn't changed that much but there is a certain terror of excommunication that - I don't know how it is in other fields but I think is especially bad in philosophy - if you are not in a tenure-track job, or a high-level post-doc, there's a sense in which, "Oh, you know, he or she failed". And that was quite difficult to accept that that was gonna be in the back of people's minds, 'cus I know that it would be, but once I did that and decided, well, "fuck it", there's a tremendous freedom because you're no longer asking for a job, or money, or recognition, and then you can begin to think how you'd like to think and take serious areas of philosophy that you didn't get to take seriously.
Coming from a continental philosophy background, I no longer care whether or not analytic philosophers think continental philosophy's rubbish. Who cares? At the same time, I can look at analytic philosophy that I find interesting and that is actually quite helpful for what I'm doing. So it completely changed the frame back to an intellectual position of freedom, actually. You're then in some ways dependent on the market and all that, but you're philosophically extremely free because you're not gonna not get a job because you've a certain philosophical position, or you're infighting about some minor issue. No one in the corporate world is going to be like, "Wait a second, that is not what Wittgenstein thought!"
I was worried about the whole issue of how I'd have to water philosophy down or I would lose the intellectual freedom, but I've actually found the opposite. It really opens things up. And I am saying that with a background of having spent a lot of time in an extremely rigorous setting, so I have philosophical sensibilities at this point; I know how to look at materials and see what I think is pretty good. And I have at this point a trained perspective - I'm not saying, "Whatever goes, abolish all philosophical education". What I'm saying is that there's a certain kind of oppressive ideology that seeps in academic training - especially in the United States right now, a kind of professionalisation - where things have to be a certain way or they're not serious, or who's a philosopher and who's not a philosopher.
You no longer have to deal with any of that and you can begin to just work with the history of ideas. So, that's one piece that's been really important to me. So, instead of a concern that this would somehow ruin philosophy for me, it really has done the opposite where I can approach these issues from philosophical perspectives, and people wanna hear about it, and then I can choose which philosophical background I want to work with. In some ways with every single person I work with, it's like being able to design your own course material. I no longer have to teach whatever's prescribed. Each time I can make that decision and in a way that people find helpful, hopefully.
In terms of the resources of academia, it's only really the academic network I'm using still. When I'm thinking about how to get my name out there and so who do I know, well, I know lots of philosophers. So I am trying to utilise that. But in terms of the academic, institutional infrastructure, I can pretty much say I'm not relying on it at all. Except for - I have to go to the New School library to use Adobe Photoshop Designer! But for the most part, I feel completely free. I don't know if there's any other way that I'd be utilising the institutional structures. I do have a friend who teaches at The New School for Public Engagement who suggested I teach something looking at philosophy and entrepreneurship, and that might be interesting and maybe I'll do something like that, but no longer as anything I'm really depending on for income.
I don't want to live that life anymore, that a lot my friends are living, which is teaching in five different places and bringing in wages below the poverty line, and just being miserable and stressed out. I don't see a reason to do it if there are other possibilities, other than that you just love teaching, but it's just unfortunate that that is now treated as if it's some sort of self-sacrifice. Sure, imagine how expensive it is living in somewhere like New York City, but then imagine also... The way that graduate departments in the USA now are charging students $30, $40, $50,000 a year or whatever they're charging them so that they can fund the PhD programmes? I mean, the whole thing is such a Ponzi scheme. I'm sorry, but it's horrible, and then there's supposed to be some nobility in the suffering? I've just had enough of that nonsense ideology.
I think it's far more Marxist of me to make enough money working with companies that then I can then help other graduate students help pay for their healthcare and, like, eat! I find that more left-wing actually then just acting as if none of this is going on. I can kind of understand it as there's a desire to preserve a certain intellectual lifestyle in departments, and I think that's in and of itself a great thing and should exist, and intellectual freedom should exist. But there's a practice right now of ignoring the reality in order to allow the departments to continue to function as they function.
I'm not really totally sure what individual faculty could do about it, or even individual departments could do about it, so it's not as if I see it as if they're just 'evil'. But there's something a little bit evil about the way the system is currently functioning. The students don't seem to be able to change it, even with all the organisation and labour protests that have been going on. I don't really think that's going to revolutionise the way the system is functioning, I don't really think the faculty at these institutions are going to do anything. Most of them are extremely overworked themselves. So I'm just wondering if there's some kind of alternative. I'm more and more seeing the Ivory Tower as being locked from both the inside and the outside at the same time!
"In some ways with every single person I work with, it's like being able to design your own course material. I no longer have to teach whatever's prescribed. Each time I can make that decision and in a way that people find helpful, hopefully."
PLM: So, let's shift the questions slightly now. What led to these interviews was a recognition of two developments which are really getting going now. One is the recent push for greater engagement by academic philosophers with the public, which is really coming to a head now in a good way. The other development is in response to the despair people have had about the public sphere, and the decline of traditional forums - decreased trust in the press, people being more atomised - and the hope that was invested in the internet and social media as public fora which has been dashed.
There's starting to be real efforts to rejuvenate the public sphere in various ways despite all of this. So, if it is true that these two things are happening, it's important to understand the experience of people at the fore of this. There's this desire for the public sphere to improve, and at the same time there's this whole area of academia that's going, "We're kind of suited to that, and we wanna do it, and we're gonna try and do it now". So it's interesting to know the experiences of people in the midst of this, right now. So, with that in mind, how do these two developments play a role (if they do at all) in how you've thought about the public philosophy projects that you've engaged in?
Todd: I certainly think that not only are more people trying to do something in public philosophy now, but there's also more desire for it. For example, the [New York] Night of Philosophy, it's become so big that they had to move it to the Brooklyn Museum because, like, 10,000 people were showing up. I think there is this desire, in a place like New York, for some engagement with philosophy; some more lived experience, some more active experience, getting people out there.
The thing that I've been thinking about a lot is that there's companies like Google that will host talks and will have public intellectuals come in and give talks. But I'm trying to think of a way to do something more than 'the philosopher comes and gives a talk and then goes away'. The difficulty of that in the United States is that, not so much in these liberal or neoliberal tech companies, but in general there's a real desire to burn people who come in as intellectuals or experts. There's a distrust, there's a real sense that being an expert is some form of elitism. You really see this populist, anti-intellectual thing going on.
I think one has to be very, very careful in the United States to come in saying, "I'm the philosopher who's going to tell you how the world is" because it would be immediately rejected. Whereas I think in France, Germany and maybe a little bit in Great Britain, there's more of a mix of the intellectual history in public culture. For example, Markus Gabriel is a good friend of mine in Germany, and there's a real desire there by the public to read a publicly-oriented philosophy book by Markus Gabriel. It doesn't really exist in the same way in the United States, not directly; my parents aren't going to be reading the book by the latest philosopher in the United States. Whereas, there's much more of a kind of integration between newspapers and magazines and philosophy in a place like Germany.
So then how do you begin to change that? One temptation - and I'm kind of thinking in Arendtian terms - is that what a philosopher can offer is something like good judgement. But then you get back in the territory of coming in as some sort of a master or expert. So the way that I'm trying to solve this problem is from a much more modest position of just clear, sound thinking that provides a practical service that people can trust in. You're not going in and doing magic tricks, or invoking authority, you're saying let's have that organised conversation where people can get their thoughts out, which then opens up the idea of a kind of rigorous, philosophical style of thinking and communicating which doesn't require you being the master or the expert. That's the starting point for me because I think one has to actually build trust that there's something to philosophy, that it's not just another form of charlatanism, that there's something intuitively recognisable as valuable before you start on enigmatic claims.
That's the way that I'm trying to engage, to change the terms a little bit, because if you're someone like Simon Critchley you can kind of go and give the talk and that's extremely valuable, but I don't think that by itself is going to change the culture of the relationship between philosophy and the public. Although, when he's doing things like 'The Stone' in The New York Times, which I think has been really, incredibly successful, so many people are reading that and engaging with it and I think that's a wonderful way to actually change the stakes a bit, but I also wonder if there's another side that's less immediately like, 'the ethicist comes and weighs in on the ethical problem'.
So I'm coming at it from this other angle of, like, the very minimal conditions of doing philosophy and trying to establish some form of trust on the basis of people seeing there's a useful practice here, before you talk about the nature of reality or metaphysics or anything like that, that might sound like some of this other more questionable self-help guru kind of mysticism. I find myself as kind of shocked at coming to that conclusion because I was working on people like Adorno and his aesthetics and art for the sake of art kind of topics about the purity of thinking, but I really found that the best way to get there is to actually practise it rather than lecture to people about it and show instead that it can be quite useful.
PLM: So, quite apart from you as a philosopher, you doing the Philosophical Investigation Agency, how have the two developments aforementioned - this resurgence in public philosophy and the desire for rejuvenation of the public sphere - how have they impacted on just yourself? For some interviewed this has made them a better listener, for example, but it can lead to all sorts of changes.
Todd: This is a difficult question! One of the issues for me that I've been raising is how this will be perceived by the sort of world I use to live in of left-wing intellectuals, and coming up with nice philosophical rejoinders to the criticism as a philosopher would do! One of the things I'm thinking about more politically is the obviously the issue that all uses of ideas and introductions of ways of thinking can be easily appropriated and repurposed for making more money, this is the basic nature of capitalism in Žižek's interpretation, right? It all falls back in. Of course, that's true, but I think to myself, "Well, would it be better if people just didn't know about these ideas at all? To somehow protect them from being appropriated?" But that doesn't seem to make any sense either.
So what I'm wondering is, okay, to be realistic about it I'm sure that trying to teach people about Critical Theory in the tech industry, there will be a certain kind of reappropriation to justify certain ideological positions; a misuse of this stuff. But I felt also that by introducing these ways of thinking that it might also kind of poison them in a good way, so they can go elsewhere when thinking about these things. So it kind of works both ways: when they go to make their decisions, well then they're aware of these critical issues. As long as there's a certain amount of desire to make the world a better place, which I think there generally is in Silicon Valley, given that there's all kind of ideologies, and there is a certain kind of progressive worldview that could be probably helped by something like Critical Theory, or some of these philosophers, and my gamble is that there will be a certain excess of the positive effect over the ways in which it might be appropriated for bad reasons.
I guess the way that doing all this has affected me is that I constantly feel like I'm in a position of risk and uncertainty, in which I admit that I could be wrong about it. I want the result to be that people are more critical and they have more of an awareness of critical ideas about, let's say, the unconscious, or the structural inequalities of capitalism, I want that to have an effect, but also I can't claim that I know what the result will be - it could make it worse. I'm in this position of stepping out and taking a risk that hopefully will somehow make things better for lots of different groups of people, maybe people coming out of philosophy programmes, maybe some of the people working in these companies that could have more of an enriched intellectual life, maybe they make certain decisions that are informed by, I don't know, Marcuse? We don't really know. But I also don't think that the world is a simple place right now and that traditional forms of protest are simply changing things.
The United States is in a crazy state right now and I feel like the traditional forms of protest, while they're good and should continue, it also requires some experimentation, because you're getting lots of experimentation by the people who don't care so much about changing things for the better but more about making money. So I think that position of being a risk-taker that is trying to experiment in a certain direction is really exciting to me - and it's a nice narcissistic position! But it's also very bizarrely uncertain and I can understand why people might criticise it, so I am prepared for that. But it's being in this state of excited, anxious uncertainty constantly because I wake up going, "What did I just do? Wait, what am I doing? Is this completely insane?!" So then I'm like, "Well, too late, I have to figure this out".
It's changed me by... I don't know. It's very, very strange. Instead of being on the academic structure - where you're teaching certain material, syllabi have to be designed, grades have to be sent in - there's a certain structure of reminding myself when I wake up that I'm trying to get the world, in general, to engage with philosophy. Okay, how am I going to do that? Every single day I'm thinking, "What does that even mean?" It's something very metaphilosophical, thinking, "What in God's name does any of this mean?" It's exciting but anxiety-provoking. I remind myself, what else would I rather be doing besides this? Nothing. This is exactly what I would like to do.
I guess the way that I'm now thinking about it just talking to you is, I'm realising that I'm my first client. My company, my speciality, is taking on odd, unusual problems from odd, unusual angles, so my first issue for the company is, how do you bring philosophy to the more general public in a completely different way? So I then have to sit there, kind of talking to myself, saying - and I've actually done this - "How would I talk to a client that came in wanting to solve this problem, from my own resources?" And then I think, "I really need to have conversations with other people, I'm going insane!"
One other thing - touching on what you were saying about others' experiences of becoming better listeners - is that because people don't generally know what this thing is that I've started to do because it hasn't really existed, I don't know, since ancient Greece? I've had to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing exactly how to approach it or what to say and I've had to listen to find out what might be helpful because I'm really getting an education in how this might work. In many ways that's wonderful but it's also scary. I mean, I'm not threatened, but there's this sense of continually bubbling anxiety of going to talk to a client and what could they possibly want from a philosophy company? And then I'm kind of listening psychoanalytically for that unconscious thing of, well, maybe they're asking for something other than what they're explicitly saying and they can't quite articulate it, and then my job is to help them kind of get there and articulate it. So it's a strange position to be in but one that I've definitely chosen and I'm definitely happy that I've chosen. It flips back-and-forth between anxiety and acceptance, just continually every day.
PLM: That sounds like a lot of philosophers anyway, so maybe these things don't change!
Todd: Yeah... That sense of the daily grind. I mean, I really liked teaching, I really liked it, but there was that sense of the daily grind whereas this is so different. Part of the problem is there is no daily grind because there's no roadmap to do this. So sometimes I long for... If I just knew I had to go to this office and do this, I think it might be much easier!
Something I'd reiterate is that I have no idea where this might take me, I have no idea what this is going to look like, what kinds of clients... I'm kind of surprised by the clients that come in sometimes. There was this one person after [The Telegraph] article came out that asked to come in and do some philosophy and I was like, "That's the one thing I didn't actually think of!" I didn't expect anyone would want to come in and do philosophy. I expected they would want me to apply some philosophical thinking to some problem they have, but someone was really interested in decision theory and they really wanted to go talk to some people publishing on it, so they thought maybe we could have a couple sessions going through their ideas about decision theory. I was just completely shocked! It's so obvious that someone might do that I just didn't think of it.
PLM: Very true! Well, thank you for your time, Todd, it's been really interesting hearing your thoughts.