Could “Slow Philosophy” Offer An Antidote to Modern Academia?

Michelle Boulous Walker on the difficulty of practicing philosophy in modern institutions, and an alternative approach that might encourage a more careful and attentive relation with the world
Michelle Boulous Walker, Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michelle Boulous Walker, Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what inspired you to write Slow Philosophy?

I’m a philosopher who works in the European tradition. I have a background in political theory and an ongoing commitment to feminist politics. I’ve been teaching for some years now, and this has provided me with the opportunity to re-read key texts with my students.

For example, I’ve read Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus countless times with both undergraduate and graduate students. The joy of re-reading is what first alerted me to the power of slow reading because for me slow philosophy is partly about the quality of attention that comes through repeated engagements with a work or text. Each time I’d return to Plato’s dialogues I’d uncover new possibilities – new meanings that were possible partly because of the new frames I was bringing to his work.

“I found that an attentive re-reading was incredibly beneficial for a host of other more contemporary and less obviously philosophical works…”

Of course, it’s easy to think of Plato’s dialogues as worthy of such a repeated and ongoing engagement, but I found that an attentive re-reading was incredibly beneficial for a host of other more contemporary and less obviously philosophical works. For example, Marguerite Duras’s slim novel The Lover is a text that one can literally fall into. The practice of re-reading this work with students over the years has been a revelation.

Marguerite Duras
Marguerite Duras

So, over time, it occurred to me that an ongoing relation with a complex work of philosophy or literature provides us with a model of slowness or attention that can really benefit the way we approach philosophy more generally.

Thinking about slow philosophy has also helped me to think more carefully about the institutional frame of our reading, thinking, and writing. For example, all too often, given time restraints, we find ourselves in a rather instrumental relation with what we read. (There’s always an infinite list of works to read!) What I refer to as an institutional reading is one that – to summon the spectre of Virginia Woolf – reads without the time required to allow the dust to settle, or for impressions to be received; it means reading for information and for information extraction, reading to mine a resource; it means reading systematically where thought is reduced to the requirements or needs of a closed system. It’s the kind of reading that’s a means subservient to an end, i.e. the writing and publication of a peer-reviewed academic article in an (often) obscure journal, or an academic book that is priced so high that only libraries can afford to buy it.

“Ultimately, this kind of instrumental reading produces immediate and often hasty judgments that interpret without engaging. In such readings, we fail to open to the strangeness and otherness of the world.”

Ultimately, this kind of instrumental reading produces immediate and often hasty judgments that interpret without engaging. In such readings, we fail to open to the strangeness and otherness of the world. On the other hand, the kind of slow reading that slow philosophy enables, involves more of an exploration than a policing; it may be an attentive re-reading, an open or open-ended reading, an unprofessional reading, an exploration of ambiguity and contradiction, an experimental gesture, a suspended judgment, an essayistic reading, a meandering, a rumination, an intense encounter, or an extreme proximity.

In all cases, slow reading involves an ethical engagement and, as such, it can help us to think through the ethics of reading. It’s important, though, not to think of slow reading as being opposed to fast reading. It’s not. What it challenges, rather, is the institutional frame of our reading. In terms of slow philosophy, more generally, it’s also important to reiterate that slowness is not necessarily, and in all cases, opposed to speed. Rather, it’s haste that is the problem. Haste undoes a simple opposition between fast and slow.

We tend to think of philosophy as a branch of Western thought that requires patient meditation and deliberation. Where do you see the place of philosophy in twenty-first century Western culture?

It’s encouraging that you characterise philosophy in terms of patient meditation and deliberation, but I’m afraid that if we still retain this image of philosophy in the West (and I’m not certain that we do), the institutional practice of philosophy has become quite another matter. The demands of philosophy within the institution have become the demands of a largely corporate culture, rather than an educational or critical experience. The corporate nature of the institution limits our possibilities for attentive reflection – both in terms of our own research and in our pedagogical relations with those we teach. If philosophy is to help us engage the increasing complexity of the world around us, then our current institutional practices seem short-sighted to me. Encounters with complexity take time and can best be encouraged within environments that support attentive reflection and critical engagement. The corporate nature of the institution (what we used to think of as the university, or the academy), restricts time and rewards efficiency in ways that arguably work against establishing a community of philosophers or scholars. An equation is established between efficiency and haste, and increasingly we fail to challenge the suitability of this equation for the kind of work we do. Slow Philosophy is about reminding ourselves that we should always question the institutional framework within which we carry out our work. It is not an argument against the institution as such, but rather against the restrictive and short-sighted frame that the institution, over time, can become. Slow Philosophy is a call to renew the institution, to return to the innovative moment – or instituting processes that precede the instituted structure of philosophy. In the West, these instituting processes can be linked with the love of wisdom (philo–sophia), and today we can think of this wisdom in terms of our ability to engage the complex world we inhabit.

Your book offers a critique of the way that we practice philosophy today, but it also suggests a solution. Could you say a little bit more about this?

Slow Philosophy explores the importance of unhurried time in establishing our institutional encounters with complex and demanding works; it offers a critique of the corporatisation of the institution and the implications this has for the way we practice philosophy today.

However, I’m not certain it suggests a solution.

In fact, the term “solution” might arguably belong to corporate-speak. The book explores a much more modest proposal for change, one that returns time and time again to attentive and reflective modes of thought, reading, and interpersonal relations. Again, I stress the importance of philosophy as a mode of encountering complexity, and because of this my proposals explore how slowness, and the contemplation it cultivates, can help us to re-think and re-engage the complexity we encounter.

Slow Philosophy makes a case for countering our instrumental relations with thinking, and with our world more broadly. By sitting patiently with complexity, we undertake the work of transformation that slows our habitual modes of haste. We suspend our too often hurried judgments in favour of a discerning quality of attention that remains with the complexity we engage. We become, ourselves, the site of a receptive and intense relation with the things of the world.

Could you tell me a little bit about the writers and thinkers that have guided your perspective on this subject? For example, how can the work of figures like Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Luce Irigaray, or Hélène Cixous guide us towards the practice of ‘slow philosophy’?

7f54e-friedrich_nietzsche_dipinto_munchFriedrich Nietzsche‘s words frame the exploration carried out in Slow Philosophy: “That venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow… it is more necessary than ever today… in the midst of an age of ‘work’, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get ‘everything done’ at once… this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers.”

While the writers I’ve gathered in the book are quite different in their approaches, what unites them for me is the novel ways in which they undertake their philosophy with delicate eyes and fingers. Another way of thinking about this is to say that each of the philosophers I discuss offers something along the lines of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s slow cure. In an age of work narrowly defined, each philosopher avoids the lure of indecent and perspiring haste so as to read well. Reading well establishes a place for thinking well and writing well, and this is what I find in their work.

ludwig-wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Theodor W. Adorno’s work on the essay is particularly influential as it reminds me of a way of writing philosophy that remains open-ended and incomplete. I’ve revised his work on writing to make the case for a slow mode of reading – which I refer to as essayistic reading – and I use this to characterise slow philosophy as a form of work that pursues paths largely undetermined; an open-ended rumination that meanders in non-systematic ways.

From Levinas, I’m reminded of the importance of patience and the central role it plays in any ethical relation. Without this patience, philosophy risks closing itself off from the strangeness of the other and the world.

The work of Luiz Costa Lima (on criticity), Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (on reading for Stimmung), and Robert Musil (on the essay’s links with both ethics and aesthetics) provide ways of thinking through the ethical relation in temporal terms, a patient opening to intensity that can be transformative.

Michèle Le Dœuff’s approach to philosophy as the kind of “work” that shifts thinking from one stage to another helps me to explore the transformative potential of slow philosophy. Her identification of the dual aspects of the institution – those that close down our engagement with complexity and those that open to engage it – provide me with ways of identifying new habits that intensify our reading and our thought. What I refer to as Le Dœuff’s new habits, point toward a future philosophy, a slow philosophy that takes it time.

luce-irigaray
Luce Irigaray

Luce Irigaray’s transformative work on love, wonder, and listening helps me to explore the potential of this slowing. Wonder initiates us into the realm of the other, providing us with a heightened awareness of what is rare and new. It’s the passion of moving towards, though it’s not yet a relation. Love, on the other hand, is an enveloping; it’s the passion that connects us and places us in relation with the other. Both love and wonder, in their own ways, provide us with models for open and generous encounters with the other and the world. Attentive listening provides another way of thinking about the ethical relation and the patience involved in opening to the strangeness of the other. Irigaray’s practices of listening-to and listening-with provide me with ways of rethinking our pedagogical practices. This, in turn, helps me to rethink the philosophical relation between teacher and student, opening the existing institution to a philosophy that can act in new and provocative ways.

helene-cixous
Hélène Cixous

Hélène Cixous’s work offers me ways of thinking of slow philosophy in terms of an approach of intimacy and tenderness. Once again, the focus here is on the transformative potential of work, a potential that transforms us from one existential state to another. I develop Cixous’s work on the approach to explore grace and discernment as elements of the patient work of ethics that opens us to the other and to the world. In effect, the thread that meanders throughout this work, creating bridges between the various philosophers I engage, is the quality of attention each brings to the practice of philosophy. I think it’s this quality of attention that transforms our approach to philosophy, offering us ways of thinking about what slow philosophy might mean.

What are the implications of a ‘slow philosophy’ to the way we might perceive the broader world around us?

Slow philosophy reminds us of the importance of a careful and attentive relation with the world. In an age of internet scrolling and skimming, fast Tweeting and Newspeak, slow philosophy provides an antidote to the malaise of thoughtlessness that pervades our broader cultural context. It challenges the dangers inherent in a political world dominated by haste and calculation. It challenges, too, the reduction of thought – to system, rule, and limit. Instrumental thought is thought reduced to an empty, technical application of knowledge as mere fact. It is thought incapable of engaging complexity. Though in the current political climate it most certainly has its work cut out for it, slow philosophy is the work of engaging this complexity. By drawing our attention to the world, slow philosophy concentrates our relation with the world in ways that transform our experience of it. Slow philosophy enables an intense relation with the things of the world, and in this sense it approaches the work of aesthetic experience.

“In an age of internet scrolling and skimming, fast Tweeting and Newspeak, slow philosophy provides an antidote to the malaise of thoughtlessness that pervades our broader cultural context.”

What role can literature play in changing the way we read, think, and act?

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

It’s good that you’ve asked me about this because my non-professional reading of literature played an important role in the formation of Slow Philosophy. For example, each chapter is prefaced by a passage from Richard Flanagan’s remarkable book, Gould’s Book of Fish (2001). I did this for a number of reasons, one of which was to import something of my recreational reading into my professional work in order to restore the aesthetic experience of reading slowly, attentively, and wholeheartedly, to the institutional domain. In the Introduction to Slow Philosophy, I explore Virginia Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”, where she urges us to read slowly and unprofessionally, “reading for the love of reading”. Woolf’s unprofessional reader reads outside of, and possibly even despite, the institution. The gesture of importing the intensity of this attentive experience back into the context of the institution is, I think, an important one. Literature reminds us of the importance of an intense and often life-long relation with the experience of a book. In its best moments, it reminds us that we are never really finished with what we read.

“Literature reminds us of the importance of an intense and often life-long relation with the experience of a book. In its best moments, it reminds us that we are never really finished with what we read.”

Contemporary academic life is increasingly financially driven, and there are often pressures to produce research that conforms to standardised models. Do you think ‘slow philosophy’ can help us to reconfigure the way people learn, teach, and research at academic institutions?

I link your description of contemporary academic life with what I’ve been referring to as the corporate nature of the academic institution. The cult of speed and haste that we experience in Western culture more broadly has its moment in the institution as well, and this creates a problem for philosophy and for philosophers – indeed for scholars generally. If we understand our work as at least in part the critical process of engaging with complexity (in whatever form), then speed and “efficiency” represent real dangers for reflective or attentive work.

Paul Cilliers has talked about this, reminding us that speed is not a virtue in itself, and that efficiency is not necessarily helpful in our attempts to engage complexity in meaningful and creative ways. Perhaps the simplest way of thinking about the speed/efficiency nexus is to consider the ubiquity of the culture of “publish or perish” in Western academic institutions. Encounters with complexity are rarely the result of an environment dominated by high-pressure time demands. And while the mantra of publish or perish is increasingly being modified today by the new mantra of “impact”, there is a discernible thread linking the two. Impact is not impact unless it can be determined (calculated) within a ridiculously short time-frame. In a certain sense, it seems literally sense-less to explore slow philosophy in the current political environment. And yet, this is why I think it is all the more important to do so.

“Perhaps the simplest way of thinking about the speed/efficiency nexus is to consider the ubiquity of the culture of ‘publish or perish’ in Western academic institutions. […] And while the mantra of publish or perish is increasingly being modified today by the new mantra of ‘impact’, there is a discernible thread linking the two. Impact is not impact unless it can be determined (calculated) within a ridiculously short time-frame.”

In the work I mentioned earlier, Adorno refers to the essay as anachronistic – a philosophical practice or idea that is misplaced in time. And yet, it is this very untimeliness (an idea we can trace back to Nietzsche) that provides the essay with its subversive potential. Slow philosophy partakes of this untimeliness, or heresy Adorno would say: “By transgressing the orthodoxy of thought, something becomes visible in the object which it is orthodoxy’s secret purpose to keep invisible.” Slow philosophy makes visible the sense in which thought no longer has its day. In an age of increasing technocracy we need slow philosophy and its anti-systematic resistance. We need the respect that slow philosophy demonstrates toward thought. And while it may be utopian to consider how slow philosophy may help to reconfigure the way we teach, learn, and research, it is nonetheless important that we try. I’ve already suggested how we can realign our teaching (and the ethical relation between teacher and student) through the figure of an attentive listening. Challenging our perceptions of what it means to teach and what our responsibilities as teachers are is an important first step in changing our institutional relations – relations that all too often become instrumental, calculating, and inhuman. Changing our relations with our colleagues is equally as important.

41cdb-theodor-adorno
Theodor W. Adorno

At present, the institution is dominated by destructively instrumental and competitive relations – relations that benefit the institution and damage the individual. We need to think carefully about the dangers of uncritically adopting a corporate mentality where “output” and “production” place unrealistic and unhealthy time restrictions on the work of thought that we each undertake. Simon Critchley has written intelligently on this subject. By reclaiming the pleasures of a collaborative teaching, learning, and thinking we can, to some extent, resist the pressures of the modern institution.

Or at least we can try.

What’s next for you?

Well, my larger works to date have explored philosophy in terms of the maternal body, silence, and slowness. I’m ready now to approach the question of laughter. I’m interested to undertake a political and philosophical investigation of the subversive potential of laughter. It’s such a broad topic and I look forward to the long, slow process of immersing myself in the work.

Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Author

Michelle Boulous Walker is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Queensland, Australia.

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  1. A satisfying read in which I was able to consider my teaching and reading style as a virtue and not an obstacle. Thanks!

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