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"Authorship(s)": An Essay by Moritz Gansen, Hannah Wallenfels, and Lilja Walliser (Keywords: The Philosophical Canon; Authority; Academia; Neutrality; Collectivity)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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This text was written collectively, in a foreign language, across many conversations, in various online word processors, in video calls, restaurants, and living rooms. It is the act and document of an improvisation, an experiment, consenting not to be a single being in thinking and writing.


In philosophy, authorship appears as a given. As we – less a given than a purposefully constituted author – began our work on this essay, it seemed perfectly evident, at least to us, that an entry on authorship would need to be part of the “Basics(be they New or Old). But as we looked around to see what had already been written and published across dictionaries and encyclopaedias of philosophy, we discovered mostly silence: where we might have expected to find lemmata on “author” and “authorship”, all we actually encountered was an invisible abyss, separating entries on, for instance, “authenticity” and “authority”. If authorship was explicitly addressed at all, it was often simply in relation to the authority of specific canonical authors; in one particular case, there was no entry for “author”, but one for “death of the author”, which consisted of a single line, referring the reader to an author, a dead one, of course: Roland Barthes.

Indeed, our own first sketch for this text began with a discussion of Barthes and his famous 1967 declaration that “[w]e are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer […]; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” We thus cited and repeated, once again, one of the essential gestures of a certain type of philosophy: the reference to an author, predominantly dead, supposed to be known or at least revered. Even if Barthes’s gesture was purportedly one of emancipation, an uprising against the authority of the Author writ large and a plea for the multiplication of minor readers and readings, its canonisation has also been the induction of just another Author, while readers, though supposedly freed, still struggle to lift their gaze from the portraits on display in a periodically rehung gallery of Great Minds.


Organised in a chronologically linear order, such a portrait gallery may serve to create a sense of history for philosophy and thus help define what it is (and should be). Within the (still influential) self-understanding of the discipline developed in nineteenth-century Europe, there is a moment following which the teaching of philosophy is almost exclusively concerned with a canonising historical narrative of great names, where a name is essentially shorthand for an idea or an argument, and the resulting stories almost always begin in Greece. There is indeed a sense that, as Alfred North Whitehead noted, “[t]he safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” – and footnotes almost always begin with the name of an author.




In dictionaries and encyclopaedias of philosophy, “authority” seems to be a much more popular concept than “authorship”. Both etymologically and conceptually, however, the two terms are closely related, as both derive from the Latin auctor. The auctor is the true originator, the source of a thing, an action, a thought; for René Descartes, the authorship of a thought is the ultimate proof of the existence of the self. But authorship in this sense also has legal implications: legitimate authorship entails a sense of belonging, of property, but also of authority. In this understanding, the author is the true owner of and the actual authority over a product, an idea, a thought.

For René Descartes, the authorship of a thought is the ultimate proof of the existence of the self.


And yet, the idea that authorship is not bounded by a single biologico-biographical unit, a person, for instance, is not particularly new. On the one hand, there are numerous examples of philosophically canonised works where the question of authorship is a matter of unresolvable dispute. Take, for instance, the (assumed) author known as “Aristotle”. What are we to make of the irreconcilable difference between the Aristotle of academic scholarship and the one presented in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers? Translated and channelled through various others, even one of the most prominent philosophers of the Western tradition is strangely multitudinous and elusive.


On the other hand, practices of collective study and writing have been developed across a variety of contexts. In the contemporary sciences, broadly speaking, co-authorship is quite normal; in the humanities, it is uncommon; in philosophy, it is a striking exception. And yet, philosophy too has its collection of famously co-authored texts, and the idea and practice of co-authorship has long been part of it – sometimes subversively, often invisibly.

Philosophy has its collection of famously co-authored texts, and the idea and practice of co-authorship has long been part of it


Think, for instance, of On Liberty, published in 1859, and still conventionally ascribed to John Stuart Mill, even though he himself variously acknowledged that “[l]ike all that I have written for many years, it belongs as much to her [Harriet Taylor Mill] as to me”. Although published under one name, On Liberty is the product of at least two authors, and it is clearly not the only text of this kind in the received history of philosophy. Think, also, of the so-called “Oldest Systematic Programme of German Idealism”, presumed to have been written around 1796/97 by an unknown author. As numerous discussions around this text reveal, there seems to be an almost instinctive reaction to a lack of a dedicated author: a quest for authentic authorship. Even if the surviving manuscript is apparently in Hegel’s handwriting, who is the real author? And, subverting the narrative of the pure solitary genius, might they, in fact, be a collective author?


Examples such as these indicate that the question of authorship in philosophy has always been problematic from at least two points of view – that of production as well as that of reception. Every attempt, it seems, to detach philosophical thinking from the brilliant individual is (at least within a certain European tradition) immediately followed by an impulse to retrospectively restore responsibility and authority to just that individual.


This same impulse may equally apply to more explicitly co-authored works such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectics of Enlightenment or the books and texts co-written by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The quest for identification continues even where there is an insistence that it doesn’t matter who wrote what, as in Deleuze and Guattari’s introduction to A Thousand Plateaus:


The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. […] Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel and think. […] To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.


But where authors had been “aided, inspired, multiplied” and became “unrecognizable in turn”, it was most often the work of women that was most quickly rendered “imperceptible”. In the case of Horkheimer and Adorno, it was Gretel Adorno who, having contributed to the making and shaping of the text, was reduced to an honourable mention in the introduction; and with Deleuze and Guattari, it was Fanny Deleuze whose share in the process remained barely visible.


Moreover, as, for instance, Sarah Hunt, Nadia Yala Kisukidi, and Zoe Todd have argued, across a variety of contexts, there are names that have disappeared completely. In the wake of the colonial destruction of social forms, attributions of authorship and authority have become part of a larger machine of dispossession. The problem of authorship is thus one site of the struggle against the the colonisation of knowledges, and it is, according to Jane Anderson and Kimberley Christian, underexplored “as both a site of colonial power and as one of settler colonialism’s flexible legal devices for maintaining control and possession of knowledge upon Indigenous lands”. Again and again, actors from outside local and indigenous communities have been enabled to claim authorship in the realm of knowledge production, contributing to the disenfranchisement of those communities in the sphere of cultural (and financial) capital.


Thus, while, in some domains of philosophy and theory, people are still (pretending to be) busy with the abolition of authorship and a limitation of the importance of saying “I”, in more political contexts it has become a crucial demand that people’s own voices be heard. The grand gesture of making oneself unrecognisable always already presupposes some kind of authority in authorship, a position of privilege that does not easily extend to those who still struggle for recognition. 




Authorship in philosophical texts is expressed not only by the pronoun “I” used by whoever writes the text: there is also the old habit of saying “we” instead of “I”. But who actually is this “I” or this “we”? A philosophical author, it seems, never only speaks for themself. As Stanley Cavell has put it, philosophy must always deal with a problematic “arrogation of voice” through which the author seeks to elevate themself beyond the necessarily finite and flawed individual with their private opinions to speak on behalf of a readership or a (linguistic) community, however ambiguous that community may be. Accordingly, the question of the exact relationship between the concrete biographical “I” of the author and the seemingly impersonal “I” or the generic “we” of the text is far from clear. Philosophical writing cannot abstract itself from the complexity of representation, of speaking in the place of or for others. Any attempt to reject or ignore this will ultimately amount to an evasion of the responsibility inherent in speaking and writing philosophically.

Philosophical writing cannot abstract itself from the complexity of representation, of speaking in the place of or for others. 


At the same time, an academic machine of recognition (perhaps mirroring more general societal tendencies) continues to encourage strong individualistic identities, especially in the sphere of artistic and scholarly production. Today, in neoliberal academia, the importance of publishing, of quantifiability and assignability, of monographs and individual publications in ranked journals, is of greater importance than ever before. The structure of education and career requirements vigorously demands the notion of an author, and hence it seems that the critique of the author in some domains may have gone hand in hand with a reaffirmation of the importance and authority of authorship elsewhere.




By this point, it should have become clear that the problems arising in discussions of authorship in philosophy are closely linked with a number of other complex concepts, including authority, biography, ownership, representation, and responsibility. In this final section, we will consider these conceptual relationships in greater detail and address some possible solutions to the problems they raise.


There was a brief moment in time when cyberspace and online media appeared to offer the utopia of a free and open sphere where certain forms of authorship and the entailed structures of power had been rendered obsolete. Think, for instance, of massively multi-author online encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia. While the collective and mostly anonymous or pseudonymous process of authorship may be meant to facilitate an open-ended process of peer-review and revision, it often just recreates and subliminally perpetuates old hegemonies based on unequal access and resources. It has emerged, for example, that 91% of contributors to Wikipedia are male, while of the 1.5 million English language biographies on Wikipedia, only 19% are of women. Thus, an erasure of attributable authorship appears to allow for the emergence of an increasingly purified form of knowledge and reason, presenting itself as a perspective of abstracted universality, whereas the actual authors behind the ghostly aliases are in fact very particular: predominantly western, male, and white.


In her critique of the hegemonic discourse of the modern natural sciences, Donna Haraway has called this creation of a perspective of abstract universality the “god trick”. For Haraway, the guise of neutrality, of a nowhere that encompasses all and everywhere, hides the specificity of a position that feigns a universal appeal. Drawing on this critique, a first strategy to tackle the problem of representation and responsibility would thus be the acknowledgement of the specificity and situatedness of forms of knowledge, a recognition of the position and perspective from which one thinks, speaks, and writes. This might present a more productive alternative to both the embrace of Great Names and the leaving-behind of visible authorship, since the latter has so far not led to an increase in diversity but only to the concealment of a lack thereof.


In all thinking and writing, authors depend on what went on before them, what is going on around them, and also on what might follow. All intellectual production ultimately relies on other beings who support and care, on more-than-humans, on computers, on concepts, and so on: in short, on an entire ecology of writing and thinking. Anti-colonial and feminist approaches in the humanities and beyond have, for several decades, more readily recognised the extent of such plural authorships and the entangled natures of writing environments. In this way, they have made space for previously silenced voices and for other forms and formats of narration. They have opened up a different understanding of authorship that includes oral histories, collective authorships, and so on.


If, in this sense, authorship is never quite individual, another seemingly minor but nonetheless important proposal is that of a politics of citation or referencing. As Max Liboiron and Rui Li note, “citation and reference practices are places where power is exercised”. Accordingly, to subvert the hegemonic exercise of such power, to practise citation in an oppositional or even emancipatory manner, is, as scholars like Katherine McKittrick have highlighted, hard work. Exemplified in various traditions of Black and feminist critique, this work of heterodox referencing is a way of keeping track of (at least some of) the material conditions of intellectual life and conceptual creation. References will always be incomplete, some things will always be forgotten, and one might always come to believe that certain ideas had originally been one’s own, thought up within the confines of one’s individual mind, when they had in fact been picked up elsewhere along the way. And yet, a form of referencing that takes into account its own relations to power can be part of a radical practice insofar as it affirms that knowledge or ideas are not something that can simply be owned and situates them as moments in an ongoing process of collaboration and conversation. “By observing how arranging, rearranging, and collecting ideas outside ourselves are processes that make our ideas our own”, McKittrick writes, “I think about how our ideas are bound up in stories, research, inquiries, that we do not (or should not claim we) own”. Can, then, an idea be ours without just being owned? Can the author survive the end of authorial authority?

Can an idea be ours without just being owned? Can the author survive the end of authorial authority?

Perhaps philosophical discourse has always implied a crisis of authorship, for all the above reasons and many more. So, what is to be done? At the very least, we can take responsibility and experiment. It might not be possible to escape the problems that come with the complex imbrication of authorship with related concepts like authority, biography, ownership, representation, and responsibility. But we can certainly foster practices that make space, within this problematic horizon, for a broader spectrum of voices and perspectives. As we try to understand how we got here, why we think the way we think, we situate ourselves amidst the mess of what is ours and what is not, of what we can claim and what claims us. Not everything that we say is ours, but that does not mean that nothing is. Some things, some thoughts, some ideas are made ours, at least in some sense – so why not share them?


In 2021, Moritz Gansen, Hannah Wallenfels, and Lilja Walliser collaborated on two online workshops: “Philosophy as a Collective Practice” and “The Future/s of Philosophy”. Having been summoned to write an essay on authorship for this issue, they became an author, alive and kicking, but at times somewhat complicated.

Moritz Gansen is an historian of philosophy, an editor and translator, an organiser, and a dramaturg. He is a member of diffrakt | centre for theoretical periphery, a researcher at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, a doctoral student at TU Darmstadt, and an associated researcher at Centre Marc Bloch. While academically telling stories about the receptions and transformations of North American pragmatism in France, he is more generally interested in the infrastructures of theoretical production.

Hannah Wallenfels is a philosopher interested in the history of philosophy, theory, resistance, science fiction, feminism and care work. She is a member of the collective and project space diffrakt | centre for theoretical periphery. While her academic work explores the path dependencies and rigidities of canons, archives, and institutions, she tries to avoid these processes of institutionalisation in the groups and series she co-curates.

Lilja Walliser is a researcher at the Department of Philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin. Specialising in philosophy of language, deconstruction, and critical theory, her dissertation focuses on Hegel’s understanding of language and alienation. While her academic life involves engagement in teaching scientific techniques and methods in the field of theoretical philosophy, she also works as a translator and is interested in doing philosophy in more collective formats.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

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