New APPS Interview: Todd May
John Protevi: Greetings, Todd! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with us. How did you get into philosophy?
Todd May: I got into philosophy through the back door, or perhaps through two back doors. I never meant to be a philosopher. Looking back, though, that may be what I have always been, even when my life seemed elsewhere. I was always, in one way or another, connecting philosophy to what I was doing.
JP: OK, what are those “two back doors”?
TM: The first one was literature. I went to high school in the early 1970’s, at that very last moment when everything still seemed possible. The high school I attended was a private, all-boys school with a marked intellectual atmosphere. If you hadn’t read Dostoyevsky, Mann, Melville, and Tolstoy (Faulkner was optional, although recommended), you just weren’t in the conversation. The conversation, though, was not about literature but about life. We wondered what these authors could teach us about how we should navigate through a world where nothing had been decided for us, where the limits to what we could make of ourselves seemed distant enough that we felt ourselves to inhabit a space that was at once exhilarating and frightening. We asked of these writers to tell us about life so that we could construct our own, not knowing then how much the world had already been constructed for us.
JP: And the other?
TM: The other was psychology. I often refer to myself as a recovering psychologist. I had always thought that I would be a psychologist or a counselor, but was repelled by much of what was practiced under the name of psychological therapy. I decided to go to an existential psychology program, and so have most of a Ph.D in psychology from Duquesne University.
JP: But you didn’t finish that program.
TM: Yes. That was before I started reading Foucault and then Deleuze. My reading of them raised questions. Not about what approach to psychology should be taken, but about whether psychology itself was not part of the problem. Apparently those questions did not sit well with the psychology program at Duquesne; I was subtly encouraged to pursue my studies elsewhere when the program withdraw my assistantship.
JP: Did the door hit you on the way out?
TM: It didn’t have enough time.
JP: But this was the break you needed in a sense, right?
TM: Upon reflection (this is what we do, is it not?), I realized that it was time to do formally what I had always done in practice. I would study philosophy, first to hone my critique of psychology and then to understand who I was and how I should live. And that is what I have done. The first task was accomplished early in my career; the second task holds the prospect of lasting the rest of my life.
JP: So philosophy is a practice of life for you?
TM: Yes, I would say my approach to philosophy is a practical one. I easily tire of philosophical games, and philosophical jargon. Who are we? How should we live? How might we live? These are the questions that have animated my philosophical life, and have drawn me to the particular philosophers who are at the core of my writing.
JP: You’re noted for your political philosophy.
TM: In my reflections, these questions about living have often taken on a political flavor. This is because Foucault and others have convinced me that we live in a deeply political world. Sometimes the questions have led me further into abstract thought than I had intended to go. I think, however, that my virtue and my limitation as a philosopher lies in wanting always to bind the questions I ask to the lives that are and can be lived. I have neither the patience nor the intelligence to dig more deeply than that.
JP: How do you see the state of philosophy today? How do you negotiate the continental – analytic divide?
TM: I’ve always believed there is no fundamental split between the two. This is not to say that there hasn’t been a divide in practice. Of course there has. And it is not to say that there aren’t local differences. But on the fundamental question—do the writings in each tradition have anything to say to the other? Can there be a conversation?–the answer has to be yes. There’s enough intersection that there is no reason that the two have constructed a border between them. And, having made the mistake of constructing it, there is no reason to maintain it.
JP: How did you start to work across the divide, once you realized it was a mistake?
TM: My friend Mark Lance and I started to teach each other the traditions we were immersed in, and I realized that some of the epistemological and normative questions that were being raised by Foucault could be answered with assistance from the Anglo-American philosophers he studied, especially Sellars and Brandom. And, as my writings evidence, although my primary touchstone is continental philosophy I am never very far from the Anglo-Americans.
JP: That’s not always the way to win friends!
TM: Indeed, in my early years in the profession, this approach was received coldly in continental strongholds like SPEP. The last two decades, however, have seen a welcome thaw, from both sides. In the end, the most significant distinction in philosophy is not between continentalists and Anglo-Americans, but between those who are struggling with important questions and those who are not.
JP: As you know, I’m in complete agreement with you on that point! But just at the moment when philosophers seem to be awakening from this decades-long mistake, our institutional support in universities is under attack. How do you see philosophy’s contemporary institutional state?
TM: I am worried for the future of philosophy practiced in universities. In a world dominated not only by neoliberal economics, but also by a neoliberalism that has become our very ether, philosophy becomes marginal. It does not seem to pay for its keep. Some of this is our own doing as philosophers. Although our task is to ask some of the most urgent and necessary questions, we too often demur, preferring instead to whittle in our own little corner or to make pronouncements in language nobody understands, least of all ourselves. But there is more than self-imposed irrelevance in our marginalization. Philosophy is a reflective discipline. Because of this it has the potential for critique. The powers that be, everywhere and always, would rather not be subject to critique. Critique in turn raises the specter of alternatives to the current order. While so many people are obviously unfulfilled in the neoliberal order, as long as it presents itself as the only game in town it is in no danger. Philosophy can be a danger to it. Therefore it is declared inefficient and shown the door.
JP: But not all universities are the same.
TM: Yes, philosophy could become, particularly at public universities, little more than a general education requirement, a nod to its historical importance that in the same gesture denies its current relevance. It will likely continue to be taught in the elite universities, since most of the students who attend them have the connections and the wherewithal to ensure that they need not only strive for immediate returns from their vocational training. And, in the end, they are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them. There may be little we can do about to prevent such an outcome. Perhaps only this: we can say what it is important to think in such a way that people both inside and outside philosophy might understand us and be moved. It would not be the first time in the history of our field that this has happened.