A Story of a Philosophical Outsider

In 2013, I helped with a small student society, the Ockham Society, which organised talks by and for graduate students at Oxford. Our only real aim was to put up a talk every week, and to get a decently sized, interested audience. This proved hard enough; we sometimes had vacancies which needed to be filled on short notice, in which case we would put out a call for papers. It is a reply to one of these which gets this story started.

The reply was by someone called AR (not his real initials), who appeared to be a graduate student in philosophy at Cambridge, and wanted to present on Newton and Heidegger. One of my co-organisers had already accepted AR as a speaker, and left me the work of updating his details on the Ockham website. The abstract which AR sent me for the website, however, struck me as gibberish—and not merely as the gibberish stemming from a topic outside my area of knowledge. It gave me the impression of someone who had strung together some academic-sounding words without much thought. The abstract also contained grave grammatical errors, and mangled up the Latin name of Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

I also found that AR didn’t send his emails from a Cambridge email account, nor was there any suggestion on the Cambridge Philosophy website that he was a student there. When I emailed AR about the issue, he dodged it. He sent me a link to an email distribution list hosted on a Cambridge-affiliated website on which he was named, but nothing in this list proved that he was in fact a student at Cambridge.

Googling AR’s name quickly brought up his academia.edu page which had various papers he had authored. They were atrocious. Most of them traced the ideas of some combination of famous philosophers—interestingly, across the philosophical spectrum, from Williamson to Zizek to Newton—and combined them with pseudo-science, conspiracy theories, and long biographical digressions into an incoherent mess. It was the work, in short, of someone who tried to imitate the grandiose sound and profound feel of academic philosophy, but badly missed their target. Our decision was easy: AR had misled us about his credentials, and his work was beyond the pale; a day after inviting him, we disinvited him.

For a long time, I forgot about AR. I continued to help running the Ockham Society. As part of this role, I received an email in early 2015 by a student at another university. He had come across a YouTube video of AR, who there claimed to have presented at the Ockham Society, at the date he had been originally invited for. There was also a paper on academia.edu to the same effect. The paper was clearly nonsense, however, riddled with the same incoherence as his abstract suggested. The observant graduate smelled a rat: could this really have been presented at Oxford?

Of course it wasn’t, but the YouTube video was genuine nonetheless (as was the paper). It is a strange video, which one might easily mistake for a parody of academic philosophy at Oxbridge. It starts by briefly showing AR standing in the opulent entrance hall of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (it isn’t made clear why this location is chosen), where he tells the viewer that the Ockham Society invited him to give a talk. The video then cuts to AR, dressed smartly, reading out his paper in a generic, empty seminar room (claimed to be at a Cambridge college in the video description). Further compounding the strangeness of the video, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is played in the background of his talk. Early on, AR tells us that while he was invited to the Ockham Society, his paper was “too long” to be read out—though one should note that the video itself is only around five minutes. He also claims that unnamed philosophers have “demanded” that he be allocated more time to present his views, in the form of giving him the highly prestigious Locke lectures at Oxford.

It is technically true that he was invited at some point, but can you say you were invited if you were disinvited the next day? At any rate, the reason AR gives why he couldn’t present is entirely bogus, as the length of his talk was never an issue. Again, AR also fudges the issue of his affiliation with Cambridge. While the video strongly suggests that AR presented his talk in some formal context if not at Oxford, then at Cambridge, it seems more likely that he let himself into one of the colleges to film a video of himself giving the presentation. (A local student newspaper warns students of someone with AR’s name of doing precisely that.)

I emailed AR and asked him to retract the claim that he had presented at the Ockham Society, given that it had already perplexed one third party. AR replied politely, but avoided the central issue—he made no commitment to change his paper or video, claiming irrelevantly that it was his “intellectual property”.

At this point, my curiosity of AR was piqued. AR has a scattered internet presence, but one which suggests a decently clear picture of AR if pieced together. (I have decided not to use AR’s real name, and to stay away from anything which would make him easily googlable.) First, it turns out, AR has shown a tremendous commitment to his philosophical pursuits: he has founded his own vanity press, which has published his own book which you can readily order via Amazon. What’s more, he has published in some obscure academic online journals (though ones which have, as far as I can see, little editorial filter).

Moreover, his press has even started its own online journal, of which AR is the chief editor. Two volumes of the journal already exist, though there seems to be little recent activity. The people who have published in AR’s journal appear to be real people, and I have found people who put this publication on their online CVs. The journal also boasts an editorial board with academic names from various institutions, well-known and obscure, though whether they are aware they’re on it is questionable.

AR’s publishing house also advertised its own conference, though it is less clear whether it actually happened, given that a conference requires more commitment and funding then running an online journal. Problematically, AR tends to advertise legitimate conferences and events on his websites, strongly suggesting but rarely outright claiming, that his organisation is somehow involved in them—essentially the same strategy as filming yourself in a Cambridge seminar room. There are, however, pictures of AR joining academics at various talks and events around Cambridge. They smile awkwardly at the camera, the polite face you make to a stranger’s request for a photograph.

Other details about AR’s life can be obtained via Google. AR seems to be daylighting as a DJ and entertainer, and you can readily listen to some of his techno online. (It’s rather generic stuff.) Nothing suggests that AR has completed, or is in the process of completing, a philosophy degree. There is a biographical sketch of AR one can find —from an unreliable source, but perhaps written by himself—which suggests that he studied English literature, not at Cambridge but at Anglia Ruskin University.

I have found my emotional reaction to AR’s story to be mixed, and evolving over time. At first I was angry and annoyed—that he had misled us about his affiliation, and then lied about having presented at our society, however unimportant it might be. The more I found out about AR, however, this gave way to curiosity. Here was someone who had clearly put great efforts into putting up a façade of professional academic respectability. AR had published his own book and his own journal, perhaps involved other academics in these efforts, and maybe even organised his own conference. Sure, some of AR’s activities bordered on the creepy, and nothing very nice can be said about the intellectual quality of the output. But AR certainly put lots of time and effort into building up this façade.

There wasn’t any sense that AR didn’t mean his efforts completely seriously. In his videos—there are more videos which follow the same formula as the Ockham video, pretending he gave a talk somewhere in Cambridge—it is clear that he is intent on giving the image of the serious academic. He dresses smartly; he reads out his paper in a somewhat stilted mannerism, pronouncing his words overly clearly and as if something of grave importance was at stake in every sentence. AR’s papers have all the “big” academic words an academic reader expects (“materialism”, “semantics”, etc.). They promise striking intellectual insights, and are extremely ambitious in their scope, ranging from Derrida to quantum physics to history, to claims about the government’s attempts to mind-control Oxbridge academics.

What seems clear is that AR desperately craves the trappings of intellectual achievement, particulary in the ostentatious forms that he seems to associate (correctly) with Oxford and Cambridge. One of my Facebook friends put it as a joke—if you could pretend to be anything, why pretend to be an analytic philosopher? But I do not find this especially puzzling. AR has simply decided that other status symbols—cars, money, and so on—are not to his liking, but intellectual achievement, paired with the upper-class aura of Oxbridge, is. In this respect, his taste is sophisticated, and not altogether unique.

We easily forget, sitting in awesome rooms in richly historic colleges with renowned professors, that the academic world has its own flair and cultural capital, one that some outsiders looking in desperately crave. AR will never get past the gatekeepers of the discipline, unless he (literally) sneaks himself in illegally—even the lowly graduate society will reject him otherwise. This put in stark contrast, for me, that there are outsiders and insiders to the academic game. Now, drawing these boundaries is not wrong—with the kind of work AR produces, he probably shouldn’t be taken seriously—but they are boundaries nonetheless.

There are other, less easily visible lines of insiders and outsiders. Later in my graduate studies, I organised the reviews for Oxford’s graduate conference. Authors came from several types of institutions—roughly, Anglo-Saxon elite (“Leiter-ranked”) universities, the Anglo-Saxon periphery, the bigger continental European universities, and the rest. What I find in retrospect is that the category which an author belonged to predicted well my own, and our reviewer’s, response. The more you belonged to an outsider institution, the more likely the topic, style and argument of your paper were likely to be rejected or criticised, dismissed as irrelevant or misguided, and so on. Whatever the real differences in quality between institutions—and I do not deny that there are some—the reviewing process sometimes felt like adjudicating between (relative) insiders and (relative) outsiders.

Despite a lack of a language or culture barrier, AR’s position is in many respects worse than that of (say) Polish graduate students trying to convince Oxford reviewers of the quality of their papers. AR has no formal background in philosophy (as I surmise), so he is truly an amateur when it comes to philosophy. I think professional philosophers have always been uneasy about the idea of the amateur producer of philosophy. Consumers of philosophy, of course, are welcome, especially in the form of undergraduates or book readers. But if you look closely, the tightly guarded island of professional philosophy is surrounded by a unwieldy sea of amateur philosophy. For every peer-reviewed article there are a hundred online forum threads about freedom of speech, a thousand nightly conversations about God, hundreds of thousands of diary entries about the meaning of life.

This makes it always a bit difficult to confess that you’re a philosopher at a party. It’s likely that people will think that you do a more high-powered version of those activities, a difference in degree but not kind. Generally, however, that isn’t true, especially for analytic philosophers in highly technical fields. Outsider philosophy is not only different in tone or sophistication; it’s also different in its concerns and social context. That might well be the fate of a scientific, academic discipline—after all, astronomers shouldn’t listen to the astrologers. But the story of AR brought home, to me, an uneasiness about the harsh and avidly policed boundary between amateur, outsider philosophy, and academic, insider philosophy; or at least the lack of any meaningful communication between the two.

AR, of course, doesn’t see himself as an amateur. AR has committed what feels like a much more serious transgression: he is an amateur, but he tries to emulate being an insider. He precisely tries to cross the boundary, surrounding himself with the signs of professional philosophy (monographs, articles, conferences, editorial boards), which he clearly doesn’t understand or realises well. I think this explains the particular anger I initially felt: not so much at his rambling philosophy, which isn’t much worse than much else, but at his attempt to pretend that he belonged on the inside. A response, then, which has as much to do with myself as with AR.

To repeat, there are good reasons to separate serious, professional philosophy from muddled, incoherent thought, like AR’s. There are reasons to shun and warn against AR’s journal (though a look at the website alone should convince any careful reader that something is amiss). If academic philosophy is to retain its sanity, it must draw boundaries, sometimes harsh ones, between serious subjects and types of philosophy and those that aren’t. Studying Ayn Rand, for example, should probably fall outside. Some of the boundaries, however, might need to be rethought, or at least their existence must be clearer to ourselves.

I have found that I have no recipe, no strategy, to engage with someone like AR, and I suspect most philosopher have neither. The two obvious, immediate responses—anger at AR’s dissemblance, and poking fun at his misguided pretensions—now strike me as inadequate. Meanwhile, AR has put out another call for papers for the third iteration of his journal. He will not get many responses: some of the first Google results for his journal’s name now warn that it’s fake. So the only people who are likely to respond to him are other outsiders, those who cannot easily discern that the journal isn’t respectable, or who are so desperate that they don’t mind. They could almost form a club.

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