More haste, less speed: our pressured universities need ‘slow philosophy’

Modern universities do not always allow the necessary time for scholars’ intellectual pursuits, but slow philosophy can help address this unhappy situation, says Michelle Bolous Walker

November 3, 2017
Snail race
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Philosophy is traditionally a privileged mode of engaging with the complexities of our world; a slow and unhurried process of extending perceptions, deepening resonances and forging connections.

It therefore benefits from the university as an institutional space that safeguards time. The transformative potential of philosophy that this situation enables is, one could say (with a nod to Nietzsche), linked to its very untimeliness. And yet, as academic philosophers today, we are forced to make the claim for unhurried time against the university itself, against the excesses of a competitive, professional and overly specialist culture of research, defined by market-based imperatives of measurement, quantifiability and evaluation, where the “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) is reduced to something more like a knowledge economy.

The institutional practice of philosophy today is anything but unhurried, and this is why it’s important to talk about “slow philosophy”.

We can think of slow philosophy as a critical practice that urges us to resist the haste of the competitive environment framing our contemporary public research cultures. By drawing our focus back to the temporal dimension of the work that we do, slow philosophy helps us to reconstitute an attentive and open relation with the strangeness of the world through hesitation, deliberation and taking time. And it does so initially as a way of reorienting ourselves within the institutional spaces in which philosophy itself has become too familiar with efficiency and forms of bureaucratic reasoning or instrumental thought.

Such instrumental reason reduces thought to calculation and views knowledge as a commodification of facts; a mechanism for achieving a predetermined end, for containing and closing down thought. Slow philosophy, on the other hand, explores, contests, transforms and questions; it’s work that makes itself strange again.

And yet, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, we are forced in the current institutional context to make the case for slow philosophy – as a non-instrumental form of thinking and practice – instrumentally; for example, by promoting slow philosophy’s “use-value” as an antidote to instrumental thinking or thoughtlessness. Or, too, by offering slow philosophy as a “means” of engaging complexity, rather than reducing, denying, overlooking or ignoring it.

Here, slow philosophy comes up against the framework of the modern neoliberal university with its focus on impact variously defined. Perhaps the difficulty of defining the practice of slow philosophy is that it is, in part, a response to the tension inherent in arguing a case for slow philosophy instrumentally; it’s a kind of critical thinking designed to jam the machinery of what today we are increasingly referring to as “the metrics of value”, the largely unchallenged values that measure, quantify and evaluate our critical work today. 

How, then, to introduce slow practices within the university, to remain within the horizon of the university, while managing to produce difference and change?

If we can think of slow philosophy, provisionally, as something like the process of jamming the machinery or thwarting the pretensions of the metrics of value, then we begin to appreciate the important role that it plays in any revaluation of what it means to do critical work in the university today. This will allow us the opportunity to pause and really consider the policy implications of our current work practices, to make the case (intellectually and politically) for unhurried time to safeguard our contemporary public research cultures.

We need to provide spaces for our encounters with intensity and complexity and for open-ended enquiry. And we need to extend these encounters from our research to our teaching, offering the next generation the experience of slow and immersed thought.

To do this, we need to take the responsibility of revaluing the values that support our intellectual work, to challenge prevailing policies, orders and orthodoxies. We need to reject in clear and considered terms the imperatives of the market economy and the reduction of our critical thought to the knowledge economy. As such, slow philosophy offers us a space to begin the positive work of rethinking the future.

Michelle Boulous Walker lectures in philosophy in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her most recent book is Slow Philosophy: Reading against the Institution.

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