Friday, April 10, 2009

Philosophical Bubbles

Nobody seems to know what the “real” cause of this time’s credit crunch was. Perhaps because there is no such thing as “the” cause. In any case there seems to be some agreement as to whether or not certain facts, certain behavior actually, is part of all this.

The usual story begins with an ordinary citizen who wants to buy his own home. His income: $30,000.00 per year. His dream home: $600,000.00. His work is not worth the house, but the bank wants to speculate: after some years, the house will be worth, say, $800,000.00 . So, let’s give him the mortgage. Then the little bank sells the mortgage certificate to a medium bank, who speculates that in a few years time the house will be worth, say, 1 million. Then the medium bank sells this to Bear Stearns, who speculates even more, hoping the house will be worth 1.2 mill.

Multiply that some (what?) 4 million times? Or, perhaps, 10 million times? What do you get? Answer: a huge amount of mortgage-based credits given to individuals who’s work is not worth the credit. Now picture all of them, all those millions, not paying a single penny. Immediate result: everyone, really everyone, sells. Indirect result: all house prices go done, all of them, dramatically. Dire result: what Bear Stearns bought for 1 mill is now worth $300,000.00. Substantial result: everyone is crunched!

Why do I even bother to describe this? Well, because I think something quite similar is going on in Academe or, at least, in Philosophy. There is a huge number of individuals eager to become the new genius. Let’s say, a few thousand. How do you measure a genius? Well, it’s difficult to say but, it used to be quite simple: you just wait a few centuries and find out whether her work was worth the years (and the genius title).

This traditional test, however, is simply worthless for an Academy that is so directly connected to the market: the latter simply cannot wait for centuries when it cannot even wait for a few years. So what do we do? Well, the same as the mortgage/credit market: you give genius-credit to whoever seems to be, under very speculative lights, worth the money.

Don’t let the magical term “genius” distract you. Genius-credits are just as good as any other credits: they allow some concrete individuals to buy flats in Paris, Manhattan or Chicago. Some, you might be surprised to know, earn as much as $300,000.00 a year. This, of course, is only possible in a market-based academic environment, where the value of an individual’s intellectual work is based not on its substance but on its surface: if other, previously speculated, granted-genius-credit loan owners guess, speculate, imagine, or bet that you might be worth the money then you get it. It doesn’t really matter how useful, relevant, or even mature you are. There are some genius-credit-holders that have literally just came out of grad school. That seems a bit far from Aristotle’s twenty four plus centuries rating.

Multiply this by ten, fifty and you get the top ten, top fifty, X departments (i.e., philosophy departments). Now let the years go by, see how time goes by and memories with it and how easily the old geniuses are forgotten (e.g., Chisholm, Ryle, Davidson?) and what do you get? A bunch of universities with a huge reserve of dry wood.

Just like financial banks in the credit crunch, these academic departments have created their own bubbles. Things are, I believe, a little bit worse in Academe, however, since it is one and the same individual who plays the role of the speculator and the credited. So it is not strange that one and the same individual offers and buys the same product, just to make it worth more. It is not strange, for example, that the genius-credited present themselves to the Intellectual world (i.e., his/her own group of friends) just to keep his/her job at a higher rate.

Could it happen that, at some point, everyone sells? That is, could it be that, at some point, everyone has some genius-worth offer out in the market? I believe so. As a matter of fact, I think this is already the case. Could this generate a genius-credit-crunch? I doubt so? Given how endemic this market is, where the credit-givers are the credit-takers, where those who offer the product are exactly those who value and purchase it, it seems difficult to imagine that such thing might at some point happen. It would take a huge amount of humility and honesty for academic bubblers to admit that their own speculative habits about the worth of their own work. And there’s reason to believe that this will not happen: it has never happened before!

So there might not be a genius-credit-crunch, but there’s certainly an idea-crunch: everyone is ready to do anything, they even go as far as defending incredibly ridiculous research methodologies, to earn a genius-grant. So the money might keep flowing, but it seems less and less likely that one will find some serious idea that’s worth its bill. That’s what happens when all you get is philosophical bubbles: dare to approach some idea and it disappears as soon as you touch it.