The Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy is an independent teaching and research organisation housed in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Below is an attempt by Cameron Shingleton, one of our founding members, to express the spirit in which the MSCP was conceived.
MSCP - Why and Wherefore? An Introduction
MSCP was set up in 2002 by a group of mildly disaffected postgrad students from the University of Melbourne philosophy department, whose ideas about university life, once formulated, drew support from well beyond the cloisters and compounds of unimelb.com – to the surprise of some and the pleasure of many. It was set up to resist the spirit of hidebound conventionality prevalent in the modern day Australian academy in general and in university philosophy departments in particular.
What is meant by conventionality here? The rough consensus (at times unspoken) four years ago was that large swathes of philosophy-related activity are in a state of ongoing low-level crisis, a state of crisis which current funding systems, grant allocations, research schemes, teaching and assessment regimes are all part of. The Humanities and Arts as a whole, philosophy included, have been set a formidable task – that of justifying themselves in strictly utilitarian, economically rational terms. And they have tended to do this by fairly uniform methods – by adopting a corporatist mentality; and by defining all activity in procedural, preferably quantifiable terms, from research output to teaching standards to levels of student ardour.
An ethos of fairly ruthless professionalism was and is to replace a free but dilettante spirit of intellectual enquiry. For aspiring philosophers considering making a fist of it within the university system this means thinking of a philosophical vocation in terms of single-minded career-building, productivity (preferably machine-like output of papers, journals and books), building profiles, professional development, applying for grants and submitting oneself to the full Kafkaesque rigors that involvement in university life beyond the graduate level requires. The impression of those who got things together in mid-2002 – Matt Sharpe, David Rathbone, Jon Roffe, Sean Ryan, Craig Barrie and myself – and I hope none of them would disagree with me too seriously on this – was that much of the above professional activity was and is bureaucratically self-serving, philosophically questionable and of marginal intellectual substance; further more that such bureaucratically self-serving, intellectually insubstantial marginalia were increasingly coming to dominate university life and the possibility of philosophising itself.
MSCP was set up in reaction to this and in the hope that a special sort of interest, from students and fellow philosophers, could be roused by circumventing the rigmarole of university procedure. In more positive terms, MSCP was set up in an informal and friendly spirit. It was set up, not quite in an anti-commercial spirit, but certainly in an anti-corporatist spirit, if anti-corporatist is understood to connote an organisation that doesn’t commit itself to the goal of indefinite economic growth or maximising profitability, doesn’t take on board elaborate accounting and budgetary procedures and swears off the term “resources”. In short the MSCP was set up in a spirit of non-conformity. The aim was to see how far we could go without narrowly defining ourselves as another arts organisation or academic subsection in that almost infinitely ramified arts-education system known to us all.
The result is that MSCP is certainly no easily recognisable Thinking Shop. Unlike other institutionally better defined entities, it certainly makes no endeavours to succeed by sticking as closely as possible to the university’s managerial rules of the game – a game I think most of those who run it and teach for it have some deep suspicions about.
Why was it hoped that such a grouping might work, in spite of its avowed or semi-avowed aim of swimming against the tide? How was it supposed to work? Largely I think by attracting to itself like-minded individuals, first and foremost talented students on the look-out for the sort of philosophical education that universities no longer even pretend to provide, perhaps those feeling alienated by university routine like ourselves. In short by presenting a program focussed, though not exclusively, around teaching – one of the great interests of the project was to see to what extent teaching could be brought into the foreground of MSCP’s life, in contrast to practice in the university at large, where teaching is often seen as an unglamorous slog of secondary importance in comparison to research, administration and generally blowing your own trumpet.
Summer School 2003 was the first MSCP event of them all and for a while Summer and Winter Schools were about all the group interested itself in. The School was set up without a doubt to counter the hollowing out of the philosophy curriculum and create a place where students, at undergrad level and beyond, could study unofficially but nonetheless in a spirit of seriousness, without feeling, as many do, that their studies, owing to the bureaucratically regimented feel of university life, have been transformed into an endless, costly series of hoops to jump through. As far as the first of these (the hollowing out of the philosophy curriculum) goes – it was increasingly felt that the subject was being taught in a narrow, anti-historical, socially naïve way, one which made of academic philosophy a bland pseudo-science, full of technical jargon and unable to address matters of much emotional depth or cultural breadth. As for the second point (the bureaucratic malaise of the university) – it was agreed that informally held classes with minimal fees and no assessment, taught with genuine verve, would be a small step in the right direction. Judicious operating within the postgrad community, loose affiliation with the university department, the sympathetic interest of a small number of staff within it and, above all, the time and energy of those who started it and keep it going have made of MSCP a viable proposition until now.
If any of our concerns speak to any of yours, as philosophers, students or both, I can only encourage you to join us. The best way to do which is – keep an eye on the website, come along to Summer or Winter School or any of the other events we send you news of and – experiment with the style of philosophical thinking on offer.
– Cameron Shingleton.