We spoke with Nathan Eckstrand, Editor-in-Chief of the Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA)

Text translated from its original version in Spanish

Today we have the pleasure of speaking with Nathan Eckstrand, a prominent philosopher and Editor-in-Chief of the Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA). Nathan is currently a visiting assistant professor at Sam Houston State University and has had a remarkable academic career, having taught at various universities and defended a thesis on the relationship between the state and radical change.

His work focuses on the theory of revolution, political philosophy, and social theory, and he has published numerous articles on philosophical figures such as Deleuze, Foucault, Fanon, and Said. His book, Liberating Revolution, develops an innovative theory of revolutionary change. You can learn more about his work on his website. Today, we will delve into his work, his perspective on philosophy, and his role in the APA.

While I didn’t know the term “philosophy” yet, I remember getting a book as a present from my parents for my tenth birthday. It was called The Book of Think, and was about how insight can solve problems that previously seemed insurmountable. I vaguely recall being impressed with the idea that new theories could cut through entrenched problems. That, coupled with the fact that my family is generally well-educated, gave me an early appreciation for intellectual thought.

In High School, I was drawn to the humanities, especially writing and video. I considered becoming an author or a producer, but never wanted to limit the topics I dealt with. I found things of value in most disciplines and probably idolized the fantasy of being able to contribute to many projects (kind of like Da Vinci, who worked with science, engineering, art, and more). In college, I finally took a philosophy course, where we were able to discuss big questions that had been on my mind since elementary school (e.g., what’s the meaning of life?). I also learned that philosophy overlaps with many fields, which immediately drew my attention given my earlier desire.

I suppose I’ve kept going in philosophy for many reasons, but a key one is that I feel the field gives me a language for both understanding and interacting with the world. It has helped me answer the “big questions” that humans often wrestle with and oriented me towards the world such that I feel better able to deal with its challenges.

What did your parents make of your decision
to pursue philosophy?

They were always very supportive. Both of them got doctorates and worked alongside academics, though they studied physics and biology. I also have several aunts and uncles who studied philosophy or know a fair amount about the field. Philosophy has helped me to connect with them (which does not imply that we had bad relationships before I became a philosopher).

My development was also influenced by the educational environments I encountered. I was in a few gifted and talented programs growing up, and was often surrounded by high-achieving and competitive people. I’m sure it influenced my drive to succeed. That said, I really appreciate how, in my college experience, my professors emphasized that passion for learning is just as important as hard work. I began to love philosophy then.

Could you briefly explain the function of the APA and the APA blog?

The APA is a professional organization whose goal is to organize and advocate for those in the philosophical field. You don’t need to be a PhD or a teacher of philosophy to join. The ways it works for philosophers include:

a) Organizing professional conferences where people can share their research.

b) Creating committees that advocate for traditionally disadvantaged groups.

c) Spearheading new ways for philosophers to connect with each other.

d) Advocating for the interests of philosophers on campuses and in Washington, DC.

e) Maintaining the standards of the field.

The APA Blog was established as a way for philosophers to communicate with each other, especially APA members. It exists as a platform for people to share their views on topics like philosophical problems, how to teach, and difficulties balancing one’s work with one’s life. It operates, within the APA, as a separate committee, and has a small budget used to pay stipends to a few people managing the Blog. However, no one involved with the Blog does this for a full-time job (though some would like to).

The Blog has changed a lot since it first got started. Everyone at the Blog has either switched to a different position or left at one point or another. We’re working to increase our coverage of the philosophical field. For example, we’ve recently introduced some new series and hired series editors to run them. Yet, we’re aware that everyone who works with us is doing it for love of the field and as a volunteer, so we don’t want to push them too much.

What does being the
editor-in-chief of the APA blog entail?

There are a handful of things. First, I manage the Blog’s email and WordPress accounts. Second, I respond to all requests sent to us from outside parties (except for ideas for posts, which go to other editors). Third, I take charge of plans to expand or improve the Blog. Fourth, I correspond with the APA headquarters. Fifth, I do job searches when people step down from the Blog. Sixth, I run monthly meetings for the editorial board. Seventh, if any controversial or sensitive posts arise, I develop a plan to how to handle the reaction to them. Occasionally, I’ve also edited a few posts when they didn’t fit into the categories other editors handled or when the other editors were too busy to take on another post.

Most of my decisions are discussed with the other members of the Blog staff or APA headquarters, in part because my leadership style is more servant leadership than anything else. I want people at the Blog to feel some autonomy over their work and to have a say in how the Blog functions.

How has your work as editor-in-chief influenced
your perspective on philosophy?

The main way is by helping me realize the diversity of the field. There are so many fascinating questions being studied which I wouldn’t normally come across but for my work at the Blog. I’m encouraged by the level of thought that philosophers bring to so many aspects of our lives and society, and wish I could spend time learning about all of their work. Unfortunately, except for my area of specialization, I have to settle for learning about the other work via short summaries.

I’ve also learned just how contentious some debates are. The field being diverse, people have very different answers to the same questions. Occasionally, the Blog has published some debates which, while respectful, helped me to see points of disagreement that I would not have thought were controversial.

How do you see philosophy currently in its two branches:
dissemination and academic?

I suppose I see them as necessarily interconnected and dislike the division we create between them, useful though it can be. What I mean by this is that dissemination requires academic research and vice versa. To disseminate knowledge effectively requires us to know what knowledge is; that’s epistemology. Teachers need to think about how they relate themselves to their students, which is ethics. Philosophy professors should understand of the socio-political role of the university, which is politics.

By contrast, research inevitably has an educational aspect to it, as a concept that only one person can understand serves no useful social purpose. All scholarship is, in part, dissemination and education. Additionally, research often occurs in contexts where education also occurs, such as in conferences and the reading of books/articles. Without dissemination, scholarship would grind to a halt.

How much do you know about philosophy in Spanish and
how do you see its development and impact?

Unfortunately, I don’t know much, and I would love to learn more. Since I studied social and political philosophy and wrote my dissertation on revolution, any expertise I have in Spanish philosophy focuses on how revolutionaries in Latin America used Marxism, post-colonial theory, race theory, and similar branches of philosophy to advocate for change. The rest of my limited knowledge comes from the little sociological and anthropological reading I’ve done about Spanish-speaking countries.

I’m hoping to lead a study-abroad to Brazil and Uruguay, which would give me the opportunity to learn more. The trip would focus on race theory, in particular how races formed and the problems with trying to develop consistent racial categories. I put together the study abroad program about a year ago and pitched it to students this past year. Unfortunately, not enough students signed up to make the trip financially viable. I’m going to try again this coming year.

Would you kindly tell us about your
current work and research?

My current work involves bringing ideas from systems theory into the study of social and political philosophy. I’m intrigued by the idea of what a complexity-inspired theory of politics would look like. This means a theory that plans for phenomena like emergence, resilience, adaptation, interconnectivity, and unpredictability (all hallmarks of the study of complex systems). My working hypothesis is that systems thinking requires us to forego notions of simple political foundations because the world is too complex. Instead, we need to think about politics the way systems thinkers think about complex networks. This means incorporating holism, mapping out how networks operate in the political world, and then assessing what happens when you envision the system on a societal level. Studies prove that simple systems, when they occur on a large scale, rarely display the same patterns we observe when studying them on a small scale.

Of course, this is a difficult question to answer, and the scale of computer modeling already can only map out a fraction of the complexity we observe in society. Currently, I’m trying to define common patterns that occur in studies of complex systems, comparing those patterns to my knowledge of political theory, and thinking about how those patterns could become part of a new theory. The paper I’m working on currently focuses on adaptive mechanisms found in complex systems.

How does your current work relate to your doctoral thesis
on the relationship between the state and radical change?

It was in my dissertation that I first encountered systems theory. I remember the moment well, as I had just started chapter 4 of my dissertation (chapter 5 in my book). I was searching for a way to make the argument that change can be understood outside the lenses provided by continental philosophers like Badiou, Foucault, and Deleuze. Likewise, I liked all their theories, but didn’t think any of them captured the type of change revolution has. As I often do when I visit my parents, my mother and I went out for coffee to discuss what we were each thinking about. At the time, she was working on system’s theory as it applies to infectious diseases and reading some systems thinkers to inform her work. The way she described systems theory felt novel, and upon returning home I began exploring whether their understanding of change could, when put in dialogue with the other thinkers I was working with, help me describe what I was looking for.

I ended up citing many systems thinkers in my dissertation and book. The ideas I learned about have continued to inform my work since graduating. While I don’t focus on revolution exclusively anymore, I have continued to work with the idea that social and political philosophy needs to interact with systems theory, especially systems theory’s descriptions of complexity. I also maintain that all political theories should give up the idea that there is a perfect, or best, State (an idea also found in my work on revolution). States will continually change and transform themselves, as human society is too complex for a simple system to work flawlessly. That said, I do often find inspiration for my ideas in the work of anarchists, Marxists, postcolonial theorists, and radical theories of democracy (e.g., recently I’ve been reading about poly-centric democracy).

Could you explain your main research project
already and why it is important?

My current research project is covered above, so I’ll focus on its importance. All of us live in a complex world, and have to wrestle with complexity constantly. Unfortunately, we are not excellent at doing this. While I tend to agree more often than not with the left side of the political spectrum, I find leftists just as problematic as others when it comes to embracing complexity. Often, this ‘pushing away’ of complexity occurs when people use one-sentence rejoinders to “remind” themselves that the world, at its heart, is simple.

I’ll give you an example from the news. Recently, Joe Biden passed a debt ceiling bill that people on the Left are decrying because it doesn’t do enough to help those in need. True as this is, many attribute this to how the Democratic Party and Joe Biden are, in essence, only interested in helping the rich. I prefer to read this problem in systemic terms. I don’t know Biden, but I doubt he hates helping the poor. Not only that, but I think he’d prefer to do more for them, but he has to navigate the complex web of relationships in Washington, DC. Those arguing that “Democrat elites only want to help the rich” are ignoring the complex reality that is legislating at the national level. The Right, most of whom dislike this bill too, are doing the same thing by using the line that “government handouts will lead America to financial ruin,” when economists largely say that such a view is far too simplistic for something as complex as the economy. (That said, inasmuch as the bill is problematic, and inasmuch as both Biden and the Republicans are not being honest about the challenges they face, I support those criticizing the bill.)

In short, we all need to learn to recognize when our understanding is inadequate to explain what is actually happening, and this often is the case when we use short responses like those above.

How do you see the relationship between philosophy
and politics in today’s world?

Philosophy has an integral role to play in politics. As a former friend and colleague of mine once told me, the role of philosophy is to “bring thought.” This means challenging simplistic views and encouraging others to engage alternate perspectives by questioning assumptions, teaching skills like argumentation, and thinking through the reasonability of arguments. Too many people in society stick to dogma when they should openly engage with different ideas.

Of course, this could apply to any aspect of one’s life; not just politics. When it comes to politics specifically, I think philosophers need to use the above methods to help society to change itself for the better. What I mean by this is that by practicing the skills above, people will be better able to think differently and imagine new possibilities. If we define politics broadly as the study or practice of social organization, then the more people able to change themselves, the more we will be able to improve ourselves, our relationships to others, and society as a whole. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting everyone to agree (after all, philosophers have never thoroughly agreed about anything). Rather, the act of engaging with those different than you will improve you regardless of agreement.

The relationship should not be one-way, either. Politics should influence philosophy too. Deleuze once said that philosophy should “think in the now,” and many in the Frankfurt School argue that the main purpose of philosophy is not to develop theories but to practice critique. In this way, philosophy should never be carried out without attention being paid to current forms of social organization. Voices from outside philosophy should be listened to, as they will likely provide insight that philosophers cannot gain on their own.

How has your training at different universities
influenced your philosophical approach?

I was taught many of the same thinkers and philosophical schools at every school I went to. Most of my training was in the Continental tradition, though each school also had a strong program in the history of philosophy. Specific professors at each school had knowledge of thinkers that professors at my other schools didn’t, but content-wise, I don’t see much difference.

Instead, I would say that the differences I picked up came from the culture of each school. I attended a Quaker and liberal arts undergraduate institution, a Jesuit and medium-sized university for my MA, and a smaller sized university for my PhD. Each school and each department had different practices and different relationships defining how students related to each other and how professors related to students.

It’s hard to precisely describe the differences between the schools in an interview, so I’ll just say that I’ve learned important lessons about the value of community and the importance of mentors at each place. I try to play a similar role for my students and others in my life.

What challenges and opportunities do you
see in teaching philosophy today?

There are quite a few, but I can describe a key one of each. Opportunity-wise, we can see throughout the world a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. This is arguably a cause for both the resurgence of right-wing extremism and the rise of more progressive politics in some areas as well, since dissatisfaction gives rise to a search for alternatives to the dominant order. Philosophers are in a good place to point out new and different alternatives, discussing the arguments in favor of them. They can also remind people of the problems with previously tried alternatives (e.g., fascism).

A challenge I see comes from the rising levels of inequality in society. Fewer and fewer people can afford to focus on humanities disciplines like philosophy, given their lack of resources. Instead, they need to study vocational education so that they can get a job and pay their bills. Many people I’ve met are interested in the topics of higher-ed research, but their situation prevents them from pursuing that interest. It’s one reason I would like to see more public philosophy, as if people find themselves unable to seek philosophy themselves, I would like to see philosophers find them.

How do you keep up with new research
and trends in philosophy?

Often, when I have an idea for a project, I delve into research on the topic(s) I’m writing about. The research I do for my projects is how I become most acquainted with new theories and trends.

Other than that, I subscribe to some philosophical sites and listservs which share new research in philosophy. And occasionally, I’ll seek out a new article on a topic that interests me just to see what people are saying.

Finally, going to conferences helps, though due to the pandemic and some ongoing projects, I haven’t been to once in a while.

What advice would you give to young philosophers
who are starting their academic career?

I think the main thing is to read about how the field you’re going into works, and then decide whether you want to go into it with your eyes open. I recommend The Chronicle of Higher Education to learn about academia, and sites like the APA Blog, Daily Nous, and the APA’s own website to learn about philosophy.

I find the philosophical work I do rewarding, but the high levels of competition in academia can be stressful. I often need to purposefully take breaks from it to avoid becoming overwhelmed. I’m also continually frustrated by the hierarchies of academia that reward established thinkers while making it harder for younger scholars to start a career.

This does not imply that academia doesn’t have perks. I love the people I meet in the field, I enjoy my writing and teaching work, and I appreciate the freedom I get. I wouldn’t want to trade those things. Most of the problems I see have to do with the systems at work in academia and the ways money and opportunities circulate within them. I support anyone who wants to pursue a career in philosophy, but don’t want them to believe that the field is something it is not.

I’m hopeful that as more of my generation occupies the halls of academia, we’ll see some movement in the direction of lessening hierarchies and competition. The ‘quite quitting’ trend that many millennials advocate may be a sign that we’re ready to change the field to be more inclusive and emotionally enjoyable.

How do you see the future of philosophy,
especially in relation to current global challenges?

This is an important question, but one I don’t feel equipped to answer. Returning to my studies of complexity, one of the hallmarks of complex systems is that they are unpredictable. With this in mind, all I can say about the future is that I see many possibilities, some good and some bad. I hope the good ones come to pass, but I’m reluctant to make predictions that I don’t feel I can justify.

I hope that philosophy will continue to explore new territory and drive forward our ongoing attempts to understand the diverse and deeply moving experiences that life offers. I would like it to help us transcend the conditions producing our current challenges. And on a personal note, I’d like it to continue to surprise me with its insight into the nature of our existence.

What is your vision for the future of the APA blog
under your leadership?

We’re expanding our coverage continually by bringing on new series editors. We’re also hoping to make use of different social media platforms to attract new readers. There are plans to publish some videos. And as time allows, I’d like to see our content spread by making partnerships with other publications.

Since the Blog is a collective work by APA members, I hope they will help us to develop our vision too. It’s always fascinating to hear what ideas members have for articles and series.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

In general, I take things as they come and to continually check with myself to make sure I’m doing what I’m capable of, not too much or too little. That said, I have a couple of practical rules, which I change as necessary:

a) I only do the minimum necessary work on the weekends. I use the weekends to spend time with people I like doing activities that I enjoy.

b) I leave time at the end of the day to unwind. Usually, I do some cooking and TV watching. Sometimes I play board games on my computer.

c) If I’m feeling overly stressed at the end of the day, I meditate.

d) I talk to friends and family about what’s frustrating me, using what they say both as a stress reliever and as a source of advice.

Favorite books? Movies? TV shows?

These change on a yearly basis. I value the diversity of voices found in the media, and continually find new works that move to the top of my list.

That said, here are some media I’ve recently enjoyed:

Books: The Neuroscience of Memory by Sherrie All is a nonfiction I found useful, while Conversations on Violence: An Anthology by Brad Evans and Adrian Parr was the most recent philosophical work I read. Fiction-wise, I have enjoyed the work of Jasper Fforde and Dan Simmons, especially Thursday Next Chronicles and the Hyperion Cantos.

Movies: I liked the recent D&D movie and the horror film The Menu. Everything Everywhere All At Once was thought-provoking and fun.

TV Shows: I just finished Better Call Saul and recommend it. The next shows in my list—which I’ve watched all but the last seasons of—are Ted Lasso, Barry, and Succession.

By Nathan Eckstrand and Miguel Ángel García Calderón (Filosofía en la Red´s CEO).

Cite this article (APA): Eckstrand, N. & García, M. (2023, June 27th). We spoke with Nathan Eckstrand,  Editor-in-Chief of the Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA). Filosofía en la Red. https://filosofiaenlared.com/english/we-spoke-with-nathan-eckstrand

Images | Courtesy of Nathan Eckstrand

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