"I'm just trying to be a modern day Socrates -- why did Plato have to go and ruin all the fun? It's time to take philosophy back to the streets."

- Roma Itaf

 

The Conversation

Martha Nussbaum's response to the film, MEDIUM:

"Dear Tes, I have now watched the film.  It is, I think, very powerful, at least in stretches, with images that are deeply evocative and many ideas.  Let me now talk a bit about your idea of doing your dissertation as film.

First of all, it is not a new idea that philosophy needs to be more interdisciplinary.  Even ignoring the great Rabindranath Tagore, who expressed his ideas in painting, music, dance, and fiction as well as in works of prose philosophy, there are closer to home quite a few Anglo-American philosophers who have expressed ideas in other media. 
Richard Wollheim wrote a fine philosphical novel, and later a commentary on its relationship to the rest of his work in aesthetics and philosophy of mind. Rebecca Goldestein wrote such a successful philosophical novel (after a more conventional dissertation) that she resigned her appointment at Barnard and wrote only novels after that, but novels that remain very philosophical.  Iris Murdoch wrote both philosophical essays and novels all through her long career.  I am failing to come up with any who wrote musical compositions, but Adrian Piper has successfully combined philosophical essays with feminist conceptual art. (Clearly the artwork has been relevant to hiring her, and she has sometimes held dual appointments ) A related example is Terence Mallick, who was starting a dissertation with Stanley Cavell and left it aside to become a filmmaker. So there are all sorts of ways of combining artistic expression with philosophy. But what is true of all of these cases is that they also wrote philosophical prose, and that was how they did their dissertations. (Piper wrote supervised by John Rawls, and it is a conventional dissertation.). There is, I think, a reason for this:
philosophy is a tradition or set of traditions with its own intellectual integrity, and it seems reasonable to ask that a dissertation work. (or at least partly work) within that tradition, though without denying that philosophical ideas exist in many media (as I have said of many musical works).

So the first reason I can't approve this all by itself as a dissertation proposal is the absence of that other element, such as Murdoch's THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOOD, that would make contact with the tradition and show respect for the other people who work in it.  (Don't forget that Nietzsche got his Ph.D. in Classics, not Philosophy, so that did not come up for him.)

But there is another reason: it is that I am not a competent judge of film or any type of visual art.  If you had written a novel, or an opera, I would be competent to evaluate it as part of a dissertation, though I would still demand the other part I have described. But as it is I am simply incompetent, so I could not serve on a committee where the film was a central element. To decide otherwise would be to treat film lightly and not to respect it as its own genre with its own standards and traditions.

Please tell me your reaction to this email, With my very best, Martha"

Brian Leiter's response to the film, MEDIUM:

"Dear Tes,

Just to echo Martha (happily we were able to confer via e-mail despite Martha being busy on the other side of the world):  I agree with what Martha says below.  There are several suggestive ideas in the film, but they cry out for the systematic, written exposition that would characterize a more typical prospectus and which would enrich the meaning of the film for informed viewers.

Yours,
Brian"

My response to Nussbaum and Leiter:

"Dear Martha and Brian,

My apologies for the delayed response. I have been mostly without cellular/wifi service this past week.

First, thank you both for taking the time to watch the film and for taking it seriously enough to be able to respond in such a considerate way. I really appreciate it more than you might realize!

Martha, thank you for pointing to all of these other philosophers who have felt the need to express their philosophical ideas through a variety of mediums. Of those you mentioned I am actually only familiar with Murdoch so I take this rather long list (relatively speaking) to be inspiring more than anything.

I understand and respect all of the points that you have both made regarding the idea of doing a dissertation that lies heavily in the realm of film. And let me just say that I am still very open to the idea of writing something that fits into the academic tradition - I think that at this point I am honestly just very uncertain about how to go about it. Part of the motivation behind Medium was to be able to express to you both (and to others I work with in the academic arena) the massive amounts of frustration that I am experiencing with my written work, and also with the historical focus of my previous dissertation topics. I don’t want it to seem like I am exaggerating when I say that it has been crippling. I am a workaholic and I am thinking and writing and filming, etc. all of the time… but I have found myself at a complete standstill when trying to put my philosophical thoughts into the systematic form that I know is required of me. The creation of this film has already been beneficial in helping me push myself into movement again. The question is what to do next.

I suppose it might be reasonable to simply request that I be allowed to come up with some sort of structure for a dissertation that allows me to work in multiple mediums. I cannot say that I know exactly the form that this would take as of yet but, if given permission, I think I could work with you both and a few others to come up with something that makes sense.

I think that I should be upfront with you both at this point regarding my plans in academia. Currently, I am not concerned to try to go on the job market to look for an academic position. That said, I would very much like to finish my PhD and I would very much like to continue my philosophical work. As I mentioned some months ago, I am able to support myself financially now through my real estate investments - essentially I am self-employed - which means I do not have to worry about getting a standard academic job right now. I might want one later, but I don’t think it is the best move for me at this point. When it comes to my philosophical work, I would like to be able to work independently - almost freelance, if you will - and because I have figured out how to pay my bills through other means, I think that this is possible. That’s just to say: while I am very concerned to do quality philosophical work, I am not very concerned right now to have a CV that lands me a traditional position at an academic institution, and this might free me up a little bit to do something a bit less traditional with my dissertation as well.

Let me know what you all think about this.

Thanks again for everything.

Best,

Tes"

Nussbaum's and Leiter's joint response:

"Dear Tes, We are glad to get your response.  It helps me to understand your situation and how you are placed.  At this point we want to explain to you -- and this is our shared view -- that we cannot hold the topical without a substantial piece of philosophical writing, presumably on Nietzsche.  We can at that point discuss the question of how film might be a part of the larger dissertation project.  As I said, I'm not competent to assess a film, so you need to think about that; for the topical you also need a third person, and that choice would presumably be made in connection with the piece of writing you would produce.  Do you think this is possible in the relatively near future?  When will you be able to show us something of that sort?

 All our very best, Martha"

My response:

"Dear Martha and Brian,

I hope that this finds you both well. I have thought long and hard about everything we have communicated about in our last emails. Having come to some conclusions I found myself having difficulty putting them into writing so I filmed myself having a rather straightforward dialogue with you both regarding my next steps in academia.

You can view the film as well as a short written thought here: www.teshash.com/theexit

Respectfully,

Tes"

THE EXIT:


In general, I do not believe it is very useful in life or in ethics to ask the question, “could things have been otherwise?” yet I do believe that there is a very similar question to this one that can be incredibly useful to ask, and that is: “can things be otherwise?” One can argue that there is a crucial difference between these two questions and it lies in their relationship to our concept of time. The first pertains to the past. The second pertains to the present and the future. Sometimes I do find myself wondering if I would feel differently about academia had I not spent years in the presence of the Dan’s, the Alex’s, the Jim’s, the Jason’s, the UCPD Sergeant’s, the unfamiliar men who caused me to run and hide behind locked doors in my own department, those who exposed themselves, masturbating at me, when I walked by, and the UChicago old male alumni who asked me why I have tattoos, because “tattoos are for the low-class…. For instance, tattoos are for black football players." The fact of the matter is that I can simply never know if I would feel differently now about academia "if things had been otherwise." To ask this question is not useful for living — yet it is the sort of question that philosophers in academia spend a great deal of time circling about nonetheless. We would be better off if we were to take the same set of experiences that lead us to this question and instead ask if things can be otherwise. To the first question, we cannot agree that it is possible to answer it in the affirmative. To the second question, I believe that in very many cases we can. We can say: yes! Things can be otherwise than they are!! We can work to change the environment so that the next generation of women coming into a PhD program in philosophy at an elite school do not have to sit in my shoes five years in and ask themselves, “would I stay if things had been otherwise..?” Let us change our perspective, let us change the question, so that together we can move forward to make things otherwise than they are.

- Tes Hash

_________________________________

 

Brian Leiter's and Martha Nussbaum's response to THE EXIT:

"Dear Tes,

Thank you for this.

I want to start by saying how much I regret the sexual harassment and abuse you suffered during your time here.   I am remote enough from the Philosophy Department and that side of the midway generally that I cannot know to what extent the problem is structural, but regardless of that, I want to say I’m so sorry.   It was an utterly unjust burden you bore.

I have no doubt, and I’m sure Martha agrees, that film is a medium (in which you have clear talent) in which philosophical ideas can be expressed, and expressed to a much wider audience than is possible with traditional prose.   I hope you will carry forth with cinemographic explorations of philosophical ideas, and I hope you will let us know about those endeavors.

 I don’t think Martha’s and my expectation about the form of a prospectus reflects a mindless commitment to “tradition,” a point you raise in your film.  My view (I imagine Martha would agree with some of this) is that the philosophical tradition has great value, that the written expression of views, and the written expression of the arguments supporting them, is a valuable intellectual tradition, and, moreover, it’s the one that the Department of Philosophy admits students to work in and that the faculty, including both of us, are most competent to evaluate.

 Please stay in touch and let us know about your future projects.

Yours,

Brian"

"Dear Tes,

I too appreciate your honesty.  And I regret all that you have suffered here.  I agree that it is an unfair burden.

My position is slightly different from Brian's in that I do believe a dissertation might have an art component, but then it has to have an analytic commentary along with it.  Otherwise it just is not in the discipline of philosophy, which, as Brian says, has a tradition that is not mindlessly valued but valued for good reasons, those Socrates offered.  My position would be that the philosophical dimensions of a film are best explored in a program on film studies, unless the person also writes an analytic set of chapters, whether historical or not.  I think that Mozart has immensely valuable philosophical ideas, but he could not have submitted his operas as a dissertation, although someone else can write about his philosophical contribution, as I am doing now.  The reason for this is partly the value we attach to an analytic tradition, and partly the type of expertise we have.  We just are not trained to be film scholars and we would offer poor guidance if the project were entirely a film, whereas a graduate program in film studies would offer good guidance.

But even if film were so to speak one major chapter of a dissertation I personally would have a competence problem. I would happily supervise a dissertation one section of which was an opera or a novel, but I just don't know much about film. So my mixed proposal is one that I would defend as valuable, but not one that personally I could supervise.

Please do think about all of this and stay in touch with us.

Best, Martha"

"I agree with Martha that a dissertation can involve mixed expressive forms.   But in every other respect, we are on the same page!   Here at least, a PhD in philosophy must involve a written, analytic component, whatever else it includes.

Brian"

My final ARGUMENT:

"Dear Martha and Brian,

First, thank you both for the kind and supportive words regarding some of my negative experiences in academia. I take myself to be very lucky to have been able to work with you both over the years – for many reasons.

I also want to thank you both for the encouraging words about my current direction and the potential of my future work. I would love nothing more than to keep you both in the loop about any future philosophical work that I produce – regardless of the medium!

Lastly, I want to say that I understand your reasoning and arguments against the idea of doing a dissertation on film rather than in writing, but I do have one more argument that I feel I should present before bowing out.

As far as I can tell, the strongest argument against my request to mostly cut out the traditional written analytic component of a dissertation is that neither of you have the competence in film that would be required to assess a work that were presented in film rather than in writing. This makes perfect sense to me.

So, I would ask again that we take seriously the question: what is so valuable about the written component of a philosophical dissertation? Martha, you make the point that a philosophical dissertation, even if it has an art component, must also have an analytic commentary with it. Now, this makes sense to me, but if it is the case that what gives the written component of a dissertation its value is the analytic commentary, I would argue that it is simply not necessary for the analytic commentary component to be presented in writing. For instance, an analytic commentary could be presented verbally and be evaluated in keeping with the academic philosophical tradition even if it is not written. It seems to me to be the case that writing was incorporated into the philosophical tradition first as a means of recording and transmitting information that was being verbally communicated. I argue, then, that perhaps it is the verbal, conversational, element that is most crucial to the academic philosophical tradition and not the writing itself. Though writing has certainly become an important part of the tradition for a great many reasons, we still might wonder if it is as crucial as we might think.

Thus, I propose that a graduate student be allowed to present their dissertation work in verbal form to their committee members. If this were to be allowed, I see no pertinent difference between the option of these philosophical conversations being recorded by a third party in writing, or recorded by a third party on film. I have a feeling that if Plato had the option of filming Socrates’ philosophical conversations, he would have taken it. Why? Because more of the conversation can be captured on film than in writing (even the emotions of the interlocutors can be better captured on film!) and it can be dispersed to a much wider audience as well. In much the same way, now that we have the option of taking a small recording device into a lecture hall to record a lecture rather than relying only on note-taking, we often do so.

Again, my argument is that the philosophical value of a work does not lie in the medium itself. If analytic commentary is what is required in order for a philosophical dissertation to count as such, and analytic commentary can be presented verbally rather than in writing, then one should be able to fulfill the analytic commentary component of the dissertation through conversation rather than through writing. Film is a perfect medium through which such conversations could be recorded and transmitted (the most important element here being the content of the conversations, not the quality of the filming). Therefore, one should be able to present an entire philosophical dissertation through the medium of film.

 I think that you both make great points about the fact that in academia an advisor is supposed to be competent in the medium that a student’s work is being presented in – and so at first blush it does seem as if I (or others) should not be allowed to use film as a primary medium. But film can be used in a great many ways. I should note that the first film that I turned into you all was not an analytic commentary but part documentary and part conceptual art. I think that up until this point I have left out some pertinent ideas and arguments pertaining to my request to present a dissertation on film. As I see things, if I were to use verbal communication as my primary ‘medium’ and were to use film as the means through which the traditional philosophical conversations and arguments are recorded, then I would be answering both the objection pertaining to the necessity of a traditional analytic commentary as well as the objection regarding the competency of the advisor in a particular medium.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this. 

Best,

Tes"

Martha Nussbaum's response to the ARGUMENT:

"Tes, I think both components have value, but there have to be both.  And, second point, the art component must have a committee that is competent to assess that and its relation to the analytical component.  I just could not assess a philosophical commentary on a film because I am ignorant of film. You can certainly find philosophers who aren't.  I hope this clarifies my position. 

Martha"

Brian Leiter's response to the ARGUMENT:

"I share Martha’s view, unsurprisingly.  Philosophy, at least in the traditions we are competent to deal with, has always been about arguments, and oral and written expression are the best at capturing the content and direction of arguments, even if the ideas that emerge from arguments can be expressed in many different ways.

Please do keep us apprised about your creative endeavors, philosophical or otherwise.

Yours,

Brian"

 

The end.