The Best Possible Us: Talking to Jonny Thakkar

How might conducting, reading, and writing dialogues train us in the role of philosopher-citizen? Where amid the seemingly rigid social hierarchies of Plato’s Republic, for example, might we find room to test out a progressive politics of the present? When I want to ask such questions to one of the most formally intricate and inventive of Platonic theorists, I pose them to Jonny Thakkar. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Thakkar’s Plato as Critical Theorist. Thakkar is a founding editor of The Point, and teaches political theory at Swarthmore College. Plato as Critical Theorist brings together a kaleidoscopic array of perspectives in impressively fluid fashion, and Thakkar’s answers here do the same.

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ANDY FITCH: Could we start with you providing a working definition for ideal theory as it plays out in this book, and could we do so by addressing one abstracted formulation frequently referenced yet never exhaustively articulated here — that of “the division of labor”? Further foregrounding this particular concept might, following Marx, help us to grasp potentially liberatory (yet typically untapped, dimly cognized) aspects of our acutely differentiated yet collectively co-dependent labors, and might offer a point of clarifying contrast to what you describe as capitalist culture’s dysfunctional (in terms of not fulfilling its own purported aims, purpose, function) emphasis upon commodifiable exchange value, over society-enhancing use value. But concerted attention to “the division of labor” also carries fraught connotations no doubt, here particularly regarding a recuperation of Platonic thought, regarding the place of slavery and patriarchal inequity in Plato’s own time and beyond, regarding more recent trajectories of industrialized alienation. So could you outline your most dialectically (again in the Platonic sense) comprehensive account for the role that the division of labor plays in Plato as Critical Theorist — stretching from concrete particulars of workers’ daily lives to macrocosmic conceptions of how “division” emblematizes and administers a society’s ever-refounded (embodied, enacted, not just legally codified) constitution? Along the way, hopefully we can introduce Plato as Critical Theorist’s engagement with the Republic’s city/soul isomorphisms (fusing civic harmony and individual psychic integration): with the Republic’s socio-hermeneutics (in which communities’ cultural-economic-environmental production shapes the experiential-conceptual parameters shaping its citizens); with the Republic’s forms-derived prescriptions for not just maximizing personal profits or talents, but directing the latter towards constructive social (even cosmic) ends; and with the Republic’s political/pedagogical vision of rulers turning whole societies into schools for their citizens. Hopefully you can address Plato as Critical Theorist’s intertwining of Platonic and Marxist social identities according to the “one man one job” principle, which definitely raised questions for me (couldn’t we provide some higher-level conception of the individual, along the lines of Henry David Thoreau’s “I am a man who does X” formulations, and does your eventual citation of Plato’s own ambivalence on the topic confound attempts to assert this principle’s central importance?). And hopefully addressing divisions of labor will allow us to start tracking some daylight between Plato’s positions and your own, say in terms of whether one’s labor gets specialized according to supposed natural capacities or to (potentially) elective training. Or to refound my own opening question in more concise terms: how might ideal theory, how might a progressively inflected Platonic project in our present, help a society both aspire and learn to govern the division of labor “from below”?

JONNY THAKKAR: I can begin by saying something about ideal theory. To my way of thinking, an ideal theory goes beyond a conception of justice in that it envisions a coherent, self-sustaining society that realizes various different values. But there is an additional wrinkle, which is that often when we engage in ideal theory, we think about the best possible us, rather than the best possible anyone. We envision the best possible version of our present society, rather than the best possible human order more generally. In my scheme both local and global visions can count as ideal theories.

Plato conceives of the division of labor as defining a given society. Note that “labor” becomes a pretty broad category here. It doesn’t just describe the process of making artifacts like tables and chairs. It really describes all of the actions that generate and constitute society. The division of labor determines the roles that we take on in our social interactions, and through these interactions we end up producing a social world.

The thought that excites Plato is that the world we have produced then influences us in return. In shaping our world, we shape ourselves. I find that thought very powerful. It certainly does speak to the process you referred to by which our thoughts and characters get permeated by the cities or societies we live in. And Plato’s ideas here also anticipate Marx’s remarks in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Both Plato and Marx seem to think it would be best if the processes by which we shape the world (and so ourselves), in other words the division of labor, were consciously controlled with an eye to the good life. On my interpretation, this is what leads Plato to say that philosophers should rule: they are the ones who ask what the good life is and how society’s various parts and wholes might best fit together in order to foster it. And in asking these questions they construct ideals, in the sense of visions of best possibilities. So on Plato’s view there is a role for ideal theory within the ideal society itself.

Politically speaking, Plato’s conclusion is that in an ideal society ordinary citizens would carry out roles assigned to them by the philosophical class, sticking to these jobs through thick and thin. But as you point out, there are a number of critiques of the division of labor associated with both Marxist and feminist thought. One has to do with domination and exploitation by people who essentially direct others’ labors to their own gain. But another critique says that specialization can be narrow and stultifying. Now, to begin with the second of those critiques, it’s worth saying that even in Marx, this critique of specialization can get confusing. It comes ultimately from Adam Smith’s argument that factory workers restricted to simple, repetitive tasks would not be able to lead  full human lives. But Marx does not oppose the division of labor per se. Nor does Smith. We can barely conceive of a good society in which we wouldn’t divide any labor. The social division of labor provides the source of productivity that enables us to lead good lives, and Marx would never have wanted to imply otherwise. His real objection was to the failure of the capitalist societies of his time to give people rewarding work, in particular because of the way these societies divided intellectual and manual labor. But if, say, somebody had a job that combined intellectual and manual labor, perhaps as a craftsman making artifacts intended to be useful, and that person consciously chose to continue on this path for his whole life, it’s hard to see what the objection could be. It would be different, of course, if you were forced to stick to one job. So this brings us back to the way the division of labor can reflect relations of domination.

In Plato’s ideal city, philosophical elites will direct society’s division of labor. People might very well get stuck in jobs they don’t like, or that don’t fulfill them. Their desire to change jobs or do varied jobs might not get taken into account. Two ways of responding to this concern come to mind. First, if stimulation or variety in our work is part of the good life, then philosophical elites should take that into account even when making decisions from on high. Second, we could imagine a non-hierarchical version of Plato’s underlying ideal. This is the direction I take. Just as, in Plato’s system, a philosophical elite determines how the division of labor can cohere, so I suggest that as individual citizens we can strive to make sure our work fits into a coherent scheme aimed at the good life. We can be philosopher-citizens, exercising what Plato would consider the virtue of wisdom (reflecting on the good of the whole, and the relationship between the whole and its parts), and the virtue of justice (doing our own work within the division of labor suggested by that reflection). So I retain from Plato the thoughts that the division of labor is crucial and that ideal theory has a role to play in directing it. But the relation of domination gets cut out of the picture. I’m arguing that each and every one of us faces the responsibility to think through the best possible society, in the sense of the best possible us, and then to tailor one’s work life in relationship with that conception.

Plato as Critical Theorist’s introduction asserts that constructive dialogue in fact pushes us towards a reflective equilibrium from which critical judgment coherently aligns our understanding of parts to our understanding of wholes. Dialogue again exemplifies isomorphic, ecosystemic relations through which citizens produce the environment in which they find themselves, and which shapes them in turn. Dialogue also presents even its most universalizing pronouncements as claims made by particular people in particular situations, as propositions picking up perspectival value amid the ongoing project of an examined life. So in terms of ideal models and concrete enactments, does it make sense to consider dialogue as a rhetorical form alongside dialectic as a philosophical method, and to extrapolate from certain dialogues (perhaps more from their overall arrangements, rather than from any individual speaker’s statements) an abstracted representation of Platonic dialectic’s sound and stable macrocosmic decision-making? Does dialogue frequently seek to align, say, two different vantages on a shared world, rather than dramatizing some zero-sum clash between two irreconcilable worldviews? Or even amid its more dramatic scenes, does Platonic dialogue prioritize a suprasensible vantage available to intellect alone — as the reader seeks to synthesize a polyvocal conversation’s concrete pluralities? Or might reading such dialogues provoke sight-lovers to witness an embodied spectacle, and provoke spirited audiences to stoke their competitive projections, even while coaxing more rational readers to contemplate abstracted, typically occluded scales of dialectical value? Or to pick up one additional idiom from your book: in contrast to the often quite selfish epic hero (often on some questing personal trajectory), does Platonic dialogue deliberately push us to cognize the spatial, social, immanent reality of interlocutors operating (whether they recognize it or not) more like a team? How and where might your own macrocosmic readings of Platonic dialectic and Platonic allegory situate dialogue? And here, to foreground one other valence from your division of labor concept, how does Socrates adopting the role (picking up the profession) of the dialogic midwife, coaxing his interlocutor to take part, perform its own constructive divisions of “labor”?

First I think you’re right that Socrates does actually personify this figure. As a philosopher-citizen, he thinks about what role he, with his specific talents and capabilities, can play in the Athens of his day, with all of the particular needs of his day. He sees becoming a midwife as how he can best contribute to the good of society. In so doing, he creates a society of his own, a society of thinkers in which he plays a certain role as the teacher, basically, but the type of teacher who tries to allow others to achieve a certain kind of self-knowledge, including knowledge of their own ignorance and also knowledge of their own roles within the wider whole.

Likewise, my book makes the claim that this notion of “philosophical citizenship” applies to Plato himself — that he sees his dialogues as contributing to the good of the society within which he finds himself. I follow Danielle Allen in arguing that even when Plato’s dialogues don’t seem directly related to politics, they do make some attempt to change the political landscape. They allow Plato to contribute the best way he can — again, given, on the one hand, his own gifts, and on the other, the needs of the present situation.

Of course the Republic operates differently from many of the Socratic dialogues, in the sense that it offers a much more constructive project. The instinct to say that the Republic doesn’t contain real dialogue comes, I think, from the fact that, after Book One, Socrates’s interlocutors are very deferential towards him. But I don’t think the frequent acquiescence of Glaucon and Adeimantus necessarily prevents a genuine dialogue from taking place. We can distinguish different kinds of conversational forms. Book One offers more of a conflictual conversation, whereas in the rest of the Republic the interlocutors agree on a more cooperative mode. Socrates as the teacher possesses an obvious superiority over his pupils Glaucon and Adeimantus, but this is not to say that he has nothing to learn from them. They contribute to the argument and to the collective endeavor more generally, from the initial challenge onwards. Socrates watches when they make a false move, or when they forget, for example, that there could be female philosopher-rulers. In so doing he plays the part of philosopher-king within their mini-community. But he’s trying to deploy their resources, their own understandings, in order to weave together a construct that actually gets produced by all of them — which is one reason why it’s so misleading to just assume that everything Socrates says in the dialogue is what Plato believes. The dialogue emerges as a communal product, midwifed by Socrates. It clearly requires more participants than him alone.

So I agree with you that Platonic dialogue presents even the most universalizing arguments as claims made by particular people in particular situations. And I think this sketching of figures actually having a conversation is why readers find Plato so exciting. Of course we also might detect a tension between the kind of circling or spiraling quality that real conversations tend to have, given human cognitive processes, and the rational order of Platonic argument. The joy of Plato occurs, as you put it, in the dialectic between these planes. I think of Plato as obsessed with notions of cosmic harmony, but also human harmony, and you can see that ideal showing up in the Republic’s structure, for example in the relationship between the Republic’s opening and closing scenes, but also in the relationships between Socrates and his interlocutors.

You also mentioned the possibility that Plato’s texts might address different types of readers. I definitely agree that a text always comes alive in relationship to a particular reader, so that the real communication is between the Republic as a whole and each of us as individual readers. And I also agree that this complicates our understanding of what really happens at any given moment in the Republic. The Republic might communicate via its characters’ voices, but, just as with any work of art, you can ask questions about the dynamic relationship between the work and its various voices. Complexities come in as elements of a dialogue’s macrostructure cut against what a given character says. And even if Plato didn’t intend every aspect of this, the fact remains that the communication of the work as a whole exceeds the communication of any given character.

To pick up your question in a different register, we can see that Plato stays very attuned to psychology, again from Book One onwards. Cephalus and Thrasymachus get finely drawn psychological portraits, and the difficulty that Socrates has in persuading them does suggest something about the difficulty of persuading people who have different psychological makeups. When Plato wants to do this kind of relational thinking, he can do it very, very well. This raises much more general questions about how philosophers can and should communicate with people of different psychological makeups. We all read differently. We’re differently located. We have different interests. But we also have different psychologies. People with one kind of personality formation might have a very different understanding of what these dialogues do than people of another type. And those different types of readers help to explain why Plato gives us his famous images and myths.

Yeah, if I had to offer one critique for how certain Platonic dialogues play out, it has less to do with a lack of equal participants, and more to do with the apparent presence of a prescripted destination for the conversation. So I very much appreciate you pointing to the reader as a potentially more generative double for those interlocutors, offering his/her own contributive presence that prevents any such prescripted trajectory from simply running its course. And so turning now to our personalized, polyvalent response to Platonic images and myths makes good sense to me — in particular to delineate your own measured engagement with Platonic principles, your efforts to illustrate how one might maintain foundational commitments to Western liberalism even while promoting a more proactive, less avowedly neutral civic paradigm (not just preventing bad outcomes, but fostering good outcomes). So could we continue to sketch a continuum stretching from paternalistic tendencies in Plato’s Republic to your own present conception of citizen-rulers? Here perhaps we could borrow a classic Platonic tactic, and flesh out mythic constructs in order to help clarify an abstracted cluster of related propositions. To take one extreme case, would Kallipolis fail to prepare citizens for their ultimate test, as rendered in the myth of Er, of rationally selecting one’s own reincarnated fate? Does the infantilizing dependence apparently built into Kallipolis’s division of labor doom a large majority of citizens forever to construct their own hells? Or does such dependency, in your own more subdued critique, preclude possibilities for individual autonomy to provide one’s life with existential value? And even if Kallipolis claims simply to habituate impulsive citizens towards their best possible selves, hadn’t the preceding myth of a primordial City for Pigs in fact provided far greater diffusion of self-rule and sustainable social harmony? Which social needs (in terms of necessity, rather than capricious desire) had that City for Pigs failed to satisfy? And then returning to present-day, real-world concerns: where might, say, John Rawls’s proposition of all citizens acting as rational agents, capable of understanding and advocating the principles of liberal tolerance, philosophizing their way to daily democratic norms, situate itself between the arcadian City for Pigs’s (modest, intuitive, perhaps fortuitously discovered) social good, and Kallipolis’s technocratic, top-down stewardship? And how might each of these three thought-experiments, again placed within a context of ideal theory, help us to push beyond current hegemonic stases in which the seemingly obvious, widely appealing project of citizen-rule still remains almost impossible to conceive, let alone to implement?

I’ll start by saying that, when you teach Plato, you realize that although the text has a prescripted end and direction, one’s own dialogue with the text does not have that kind of prescripted end. One’s own dialogue goes in every direction, and this remains one of the most exciting things about teaching the Republic — the different conversations it provokes each and every time.

The myth of Er obviously presents a very complicated part of this text. Some people simply can’t understand why Plato put it there. Julia Annas calls it a “painful shock” to reach the myth of Er. My own temptation is to see it as trying to shock us in the ways you’ve just described. Along the lines of a drafting lottery in American sports, we get assigned a number in the pecking order, and then when it’s our turn we have to pick our next lives and maybe even our next deaths. Some of us pick well, while others pick badly — and those who pick badly end up leading deeply disturbed and hellish lives, as you say.

Now it seems to me that this myth’s primary function is to illustrate something about our present lives. We are always picking a life, and those of us who pick badly (specifically those of us who don’t support the right kind of social order) do end up making a hell for ourselves. Plato assumes that, left to our own devices, many of us will actually lead such hellish existences — in this current life, not even to mention the next life. So this implies that most of us need help. We need people who can make sure we never sink down into the deepest hells. Or maybe, even more importantly, we need to pick the right kind of community or culture to build, a culture that can push us towards a life that isn’t hellish. I think Plato believes that the best most people can do for themselves, given what they desire in this life, is to become what he calls “oligarchic souls.” A good city and a scary myth can help persuade appetitive people in this direction.

You’re right that the City for Pigs provides a different myth or model, where everybody does the right thing so that we don’t face the need for certain people to tell us what to do. But my feeling is that Plato envisions this particular city as essentially utopian. I don’t think the City for Pigs really accords with what we know about human psychology, because as soon as you admit that we all have our own conceptions of good, then you have to admit that some people will not realize that cooperation works best for them, and so you’ll end up needing a more hierarchically structured city that enforces cooperation. That said, it is interesting to think about what would happen, on Plato’s own understanding, if you did have a city made up entirely of philosophers. Athens could send out a colony, for example, that only has philosophically minded citizens. Donald Morrison suggests this possibility. If we had a city solely made up of individuals capable of governing themselves, oriented towards the good, then a more anarchistic utopia might succeed. But it does remain an extremely unlikely possibility.

And as you suggest, this all relates to Plato as Critical Theorist’s treatment of Rawls. I offer an interpretation (only an interpretation, but it does feel right to me) of Rawls describing an ideal society in which we each exercise philosophical reason, at least to some degree, as a condition of possibility for making liberal institutions truly stable. So Rawls pictures citizens as ideally possessing some philosophical capacity — except the scope of philosophical reasoning is much narrower than in Plato’s conception, since it aims at an understanding of the legitimacy of liberal institutions, rather than at broader reflection on a whole way of life. Here I try to push beyond Rawls’s more narrow frame, arguing that we actually need a Platonic conception of philosophical citizenship. Of course the question then emerges, given our various complicated psychologies, of how such philosophical citizenship ever could arise. Rawls, like most modern political philosophers, would probably agree with Rousseau that we ought to take men as they are, and laws as they should be. That makes sense to me as well. I don’t think we can simply decide to all become philosopher-citizens. For both me and Rawls, the notion of philosopher-citizens operates as an ideal.

That said, I do recognize an underlying question which I think you’ve pointed to: if we accept Plato’s picture of human psychology, then we face the problem that not all of us will respond to rational argument all of the time, no matter how persuasive the arguments are in and of themselves. That’s why Plato thought philosophers ought to construct myths and images as well as arguments — and it’s worth asking whether this might still apply today. Of course the term “myth” can sound dystopian, and indeed it does feel that way in the case of Plato’s Noble Falsehood. But consider the way Rawls handles the issue of differing psychologies and aptitudes by introducing what he calls “the political conception of the person.” For the purposes of coming to agreement on our fundamental political institutions, Rawls suggests, we should conceive of one another as free and equal, reasonable and rational. This is not an empirical claim awaiting verification from social scientists. The thought is that an idealized image of ourselves can serve as an orienting myth that directs us towards a better political world. A political transformation can occur as a result of changing our conceptual horizons, and our horizons can change when we envision what a good political community might look like. Now I would never claim that social change will immediately come about once we have different ideas in our heads. I don’t hold that view at all, and in fact I’m sympathetic to Marxian historical materialism as regards political change. But I do think, nonetheless, that some kind of work can be done by changing what some people call the “social imaginary,” the way we understand ourselves as a society, and that this potential points to a role for political philosophy.

Well still on the topic of something like persuasive literary form, but here looking at your own ambitious efforts to coordinate ideal theory’s illuminating analytic contrasts and critical theory’s cogent civic interventions, could we address the fact that Plato as Critical Theorist’s own argumentative structure constructs fractal, micro-/macrocosmic scalar shifts, all directing us to perceive contemporary particulars (professional standards for journalistic integrity, for instance) in light of cosmic goodness? Ideal theory posits perennial aspirational prospects never fully realized but providing positive orientation, sharpening our sense of agency by providing practicable (even if, at present, impossible-seeming) alternatives. Critical theory harnesses the liberatory political/cultural potentialities that capitalism ceaselessly both produces and closes off in pursuit of its less prosocial ends. And your quasi-aphoristic, single-paragraph entries spark one’s sense of much broader philosophical stakes at play, so that the reader continually must refound the composite whole of Plato as Critical Theorist’s dialectical considerations — so that one recommits to an ongoing pursuit of wisdom, rather than seeking to possess or consume the instrumentalist knowledge that such a thoughtful book could provide. So what has protracted consideration of Platonic guardians not as authoritarian lawgivers so much as prophylactic culture-preservers, as providers of homeopathic prompt in the face of our ever-present temptations and tendencies towards psychic/social corruption/dissolution, taught you about the dialectic of dialogue, about how rulers of various sorts might best conjure untimely, regenerative, galvanizing perspectives coaxing forth not just rational reflection but concerted action by contemporary audiences? Or alternately, what room exists within professional philosophical practices for this book’s methodological emphasis upon a type of argumentative harmony? Your approach does demand a synthesizing aspect on the reader’s part. I mean, it’s harder for me to cite your structure in my own peer-reviewed article than it would be to quote somebody else’s explicit statement. And if, for such reasons, Plato as Critical Theorist doesn’t fit precisely into contemporary academic discourse, Jonny, please know that it does point me towards the ideal academy in which I’d like to take part.

Thanks for saying that — it means a lot to me. The book definitely does try to offer a distinctive style at both micro and macro levels. Like Plato, I have a strong desire for harmony, for thinking in terms of how parts and wholes can fit together into a coherent structure, and that has certainly shaped the project.

At the macro level, the book does, as you say, attempt to harmonize ideal theory and critical theory — and it does so in the face of those who assume that you either deal with the non-ideal realities (like the ways in which neoliberalism shapes our world) or you engage in a scholastic project of thinking through how the best possible society would work. In my view it’s possible to produce a theory in which the ideal and the critical are two sides of the same coin. Both ideal theory and critical theory can help to excavate new possibilities. So the question then becomes: how can these sets of possibilities work together? How can contemporary social structures actualize our potential to lead lives as philosophical citizens, so that we can conceive of our work (in the broadest sense of “work”) in connection with ideas about the good life and the common good, and try to direct our talents to that common good as best we can? That possibility seems to me very much endogenous to the system in which we live, just closed off by current institutions in too many cases. My last chapter discusses Marx’s theory of capitalism in this regard, and the book as a whole makes the case for seeing Platonic ideal theory as a cogent form of critical theory. So it’s fair to say that the argument aims at demonstrating the possibility of a certain kind of harmony between ideal and critical theory. In that respect I hope it’s consistent with the ideas and ideals of Plato.

It’s harder to discuss my stylistic choices at the micro level, since they tend to happen intuitively. I like your suggestion that the numbered-paragraph mode constantly requires that readers decide whether to move onto the next passage, or to recommit to getting the whole process started again — this wasn’t on my mind while writing, but now that I think about it, it’s true that this raises questions about the relationship between parts and wholes.

To return to your question about how this book fits into the landscape of professional philosophy, I agree that it’s something of an outlier. As you say, this book invites a kind of synthesizing activity from the reader, to tie everything together, and that does seem to run counter to the norm right now. Another way of putting it is that the book form seems to be dying in philosophy. People tend to write articles now. In certain graduate programs you don’t write a genuine dissertation anymore, just three or four independent articles clustered around a given topic. And when you go to the bookstore you often pick up something that’s being sold as a book but actually offers a bunch of independent pieces shoehorned together. But I did want to create an overarching narrative stretching across the whole, along the lines of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where chapter two doesn’t make sense if you haven’t read chapter one, the introduction doesn’t just summarize, and so on. It’s hard to say how that style will affect the book’s reception. It might make it a little harder to excerpt for graduate classes, and in that sense the book might not fit naturally into the ecosystem of contemporary academic practice. But at the same time I wouldn’t want to underplay the extent to which this book does present explicit arguments that can stand by themselves on the micro level amid the macro structure — the first four chapters, for example, consist of a self-standing interpretation of the Republic.

Still I take it that at the deepest level your question is not about how well this particular book will be received in academia (after all, that probably depends on networks, fashions, tastemakers, etcetera), but rather about what kind of work political philosophers should ideally produce. I take it that’s why you mention the ideal academy in which you’d like to take part. I’m a pluralist about methodology, in the sense that I think there are many different kinds of valuable work. But I also believe that in contemporary philosophy we’ve lost sight of one way in which political philosophy can be valuable, namely through the big picture as opposed to (or alongside, I probably should say) the micro-argumentation. When you think about authors like Plato, Hobbes, or Nietzsche, for all their impressive arguments, what stays with you is mostly their overall way of looking at the world and their overall patterns of thought — just as we remember how novelists like Tolstoy and Flaubert look at the world, independent of any particular narrative or story. I think I might actually say the same about Rawls, and probably many others. In any case, advancing a distinctive way of looking at the world may be the most important thing that political philosophy can achieve. And to come back to earlier parts of your question, it does seem to me that a way of thinking can come across through the architecture and style of a book as well as through the argumentation.

As for how all of this relates to present realities of academic life: there is a sense of idealism that I don’t dwell on in the book but which is relevant to what you’ve asked — namely, resolutely acting as if the world were already as it should be. My doctoral advisor Jonathan Lear once told me: “Don’t waste your time fighting methodological battles. Just do a different kind of work, do it well, and see if people take it up.” This relates back to the idea of philosophical citizenship. You make the first move towards the world you would like to see, because all of your actions can be construed as invitations for others. It’s as if you’re saying, “I’ll build this room — if you want to come and join me, you could build the roof.” More concretely, we can complain all we like about how academic incentive-structures generate a certain kind of work, but we could also just try and produce a different kind of work — as Jonathan did with Radical Hope, which I consider a perfect example of a book that brought into being a new academic world by acting as if that world already existed. Obviously this approach doesn’t always work. You have to acknowledge that possibility. But Jonathan’s point to me was that at the end of the day you also have to decide how to live, and viewing the world in terms of its positive potential gives you energy.

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