I have often commented on what I take to be the insufferable figure of the scholar, but never seem to tire of doing so as I encounter them everywhere. By the “scholar” I have in mind the person who has devoted their entire life to work on a single figure in the history of philosophy. Allow me to be clear. When I describe the scholar as insufferable, I am not referring to scholarship. I have benefited tremendously from the work of scholars that have devoted all their work to understanding particular thinkers. I have engaged in this sort of work myself when it comes to Lacan and Deleuze. Nor does every engagement with figures in the history of philosophy count as what I would characterize as “scholarship”. Derrida’s Speech of Philosophy, despite being devoted exclusively to Husserl and a close reading of certain key moments in Husserl’s thought is not a work of scholarship but a genuine work of philosophy in its own right. Derrida does not set out to represent Husserl, but produces something new in and through Husserl. Heidegger’s Sophist lectures or his massive four volumes on Nietzsche, while engaging with a particular thinker, are not scholarship but genuine works of philosophy. Iain Hamilton Grant’s book on Schelling is not scholarship, though it is very scholarly, but is a genuine work of philosophy. Although the dividing line is fuzzy, the difference between a scholarly work on a philosopher and a philosophical engagement with a philosopher seems to revolve around whether the work seeks to represent the philosopher or whether it is engaging with the philosopher to produce a new work of philosophy. In this respect, my Difference and Givenness is a work of scholarship insofar as it seeks to represent Deleuze and explain his transcendental empiricism and how it is working with the rationalist tradition and the tradition of transcendental idealism, whereas DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy is a genuine work of philosophy in that it takes up Deleuze’s thought to produce a philosophical work of its own. Both types of work are valuable and make their own contributions.

When I describe the scholar as an insufferable figure I am speaking of the manner in which a certain breed of scholars engages with others in discourse. The problem endemic to so many scholars is that they seem to have a very difficult time engaging in dialogue with others that does not end up trying to trace everything back to a discussion about their favored figure. Rather than approaching the discussion as a discussion about the issue at hand, these discussions instead become discussions about the figure. Often the scholar understands himself as “setting the record straight”. The philosopher criticizes some thesis of a particular thinker in the process of developing his argument, concepts, and position. For example, Kant criticizes Hume’s empiricism, arguing that impressions and associations are insufficient grounds to account for how we are capable of making judgments about causality. “How”, Kant asks, “do humans ever arrive at the concept of necessity at all entirely on the basis of impressions and associations, both of which are contingent or subject to the structure of subalternation in Aristotle’s square of opposition?” Kant answers that you cannot. He has made a philosophical argument against the root claim made by Hume and uses this as his launching point.

Enter the insufferable scholar. Noting that in the Critique and the Prolegomena Kant never gives a detailed discussion of Hume’s Treatise Concerning Human Nature or Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the insufferable scholar– who I’ve elsewhere referred to as the “minotaur” in a slight misrepresentation of the original myth –smiles wickedly and immediately brings out his knife. Of course, Kant never gets criticized in this way because he is coded or marked as a “master-thinker” and therefore the very same “sloppy” scholarly work that the scholar would charge another contemporary thinker with is off limits in the case of Kant. Not only does Kant not give a sustained analysis of Hume’s Treatise or Enquiry, he doesn’t even reference them! The first charge is that Kant is misrepresenting Hume or misinterpreting him. “If only, Herr Kant, you understood Hume you would assent to his position!” The second charge leveled by the insufferable scholar is that Kant is ignorant of what Hume is claiming. If this kind of scholar is insufferable– and certainly not all scholars are like this –if they are obnoxious, if they are disrespectful and lacking in civility, if they are the last person you want to invite to a party, then this is because they relate to others in such a way that they deny 1) that in most cases, philosophers make very basic arguments that can be addressed without engaging in the activity of the collector that turns over every corner of the philosopher’s text, and, more fundamentally 2) they are perpetually accusing others either explicitly or implicitly of being ignorant or poor readers. In other words, the insufferable scholar or the minotaur is a poor participant at the party (in the Greek sense of a “symposium”) because they rudely wish to talk only about themselves (they make every issue an issue about their fetishized thinker rather than engaging in a broader discussion capable of including others), and because they constantly condescend to all of those about them suggesting that they don’t know what they are talking about or that they are unfamiliar with the works to which they refer. Everywhere they seek to occupy the position of the teacher and to situate their interlocutors as students.

There seems to be a very peculiar will to power behind these figures. What they seem to enjoy is policing or “making the record straight”. When others criticize those who police, the police officers often respond by claiming that these critics want “anything to go” and to evade all rigor. That is, the police figure interprets those disgruntled by policing as wanting to play without any constraints. But this isn’t the issue at all. The issue is that the police mentality, not unlike Nietzsche’s priest, seems to be psychologically organized in such a way that they perpetually aim to correct others as a way of maintaining their power and mastery. Because there is this underlying will to power behind such figures, they interpret others in such a way as to maximize their opportunity to correct others. In other words, there’s a systematic distortion in how they read others that approaches their interlocutor in such a way as to treat them as a priori ignorant, guilty of absurd claims that no reasonable person would make, and guilty of misinterpretation precisely so that they might have the opportunity to correct the other. They will note, for example, that their interlocutor does not express another philosopher’s concepts using the same language, or will argue that everything hinges on some occasional, obscure piece written by the philosopher. The mechanism is not unlike that of Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live:

Just as Debbie finds every opportunity to locate the insufficiency of every thing and every event, the insufferable scholar situates discussion in such a way as to perpetually make it about their figure, how others have misinterpreted their pet figure, or how their figure has already done what others are trying to do. It seems to me that this figure of consciousness, to use Hegel’s expression, is a sort of habitus produced through graduate training. Those of us in the humanities already suffer a great deal of insecurity– especially in the United States –feeling usurped by other disciplines and having a rather small voice in the general social order. Despite the countless hours we devote to our work and the sacrifices we make in pursuing this sort of life, many of us feel as if we go unrecognized. On the one hand, the game of playing the scholar in social interactions functions as a way of establishing social hierarchy among graduate students or professors attempting to assert their superiority over others in their discipline. On the other hand, it functions as a mechanism for insuring one’s superiority over others outside of academia. If one is capable of situating others as always being mistaken, as being ignorant, and so on, then they can think themselves as having a secret truth to which the others are not privy.

In a very real sense this activity resembles Plato’s cave where the philosopher thinks of the rabble there in the cave as engaged in all sorts of idle talk and thinks of the philosopher as swooping down to rescue them with his superior knowledge of the forms. In this case, however, it is not knowledge of the forms that the scholar possesses but knowledge of the master-thinker that he and he alone understands and that everyone else, despite their own careful studies and training, have somehow missed. What this scholar seems to misrecognize is that far from practicing intellectual rigor by “correcting the record”, the scholar has changed the subject and is no longer discussing the issue at hand. I have often been guilty myself of behaving this way in discussions surrounding Deleuze and Lacan. It is an ugly posture and one best abandoned both professionally and intellectually, though one difficult to overcome.

It will be said that I condescend, attack, police and all the rest. Like the recent rightwing “protests” at the town hall meetings regarding healthcare, this is the way it always is in these discussions: a whole lot of attempts to prevent the discussion from taking place at all. What the insufferable scholar seems to forget is that he was the one that condescended by suggesting that a genuine philosophical disagreement is a matter of misinterpretation, that my criticism is the result of ignorance rather than already having worked through these things myself, that I am so stupid and idiotic that I would advocate positions that no reasonable person would advocate. Somehow the trollish insufferable scholar always seems to miss the way in which his own mode of engagement resonates or speaks, or what it says at the level of subtext. And above all, these speakers rudely attempt to change the subject of discussion by making it a discussion about the figure, rather than attending to the issue and the argument. Were the Hume scholar able to simply make the issue about whether or not association can account for how we are capable of making causal judgments a discussion could take place. Yet when the Hume scholar suggests that somehow I haven’t understood Hume’s arguments, that I can’t simply cite these arguments, outline why I believe them to be problematic, and move on to my own project… Well such a person is just a prick that seems unable to recognize their own condescension or what a philosophical discussion is about.

No doubt this is the reason that those doing genuine work so often flee from the scholar. What are such figures but ephemera that contribute nothing and that fail to recognize all constraints and norms governing discourse? How do they differ from the protesters that are attempting to silence all discussion? How is dialogue possible with someone who doesn’t first practice charity in their interpretation of what you’re claiming and who doesn’t begin from an egalitarian stance that both of you are on equal footing in your understanding of the basic contours of the issues being discussed. And then when you point out that the insufferable scholar has been rude and condescending, that they changed the subject, that they situated you in a position of ignorance and idiocy, they have the gall to accuse you of behaving like a prick even as they lecture you and shift the entire issue being discussed. What a wretched species we are. But this is exactly how the insufferable scholar proceeds: uncharitably in their interpretation of your claims, rudely in shifting the issue to their own figure of which they are fanboys, lecturing like the petty professor that can brook no discussion and that is accustomed to filling student papers with red ink (and no doubt arguing with their relatives about the importance of what they do), and inegalitarian in their views your understanding of the figure you’re criticizing. Nothing is ever a genuine difference in positions. Rather, it is perpetually a failure to read to the corners.