The Return of the Guilds

When institutions fail, we must take collective action

I was talking with Johannes Niederhauser a few weeks ago about the state of academia today, and the many reasons one might seek an exit from this rather Byzantine system of economic and bureaucratic capture. To his credit, Johannes is not only contemplating exit strategies, he’s creating them. He is the founder of Halkyon: The Thinker’s Guild, through which he offers courses, tutorials, symposia, publications, and a community forum. That word guild is in the air these days, and it’s not hard to see why. The original guilds date back to 13th and 14th century Europe, and the older Roman collegia (from which comes our word college) date back to at least the second century BCE. Collegia were a type of guild held together for a common purpose, sometimes for people with a shared profession or craft, as a form of community organization for social groups that offered mutual aid, or as a way of preserving religious rites, creating a form of collective power for the people involved.

Guilds and collegia alike responded to a critical need of their time, that of creating forms of social organization for the lower and working classes (who in time would use their corporation to transmit their craft and improve their lot ). Both systems offered mutual aid, knowledge transfer, and group solidarity. Today, we’re living through a great contraction of the humanities in the university system—of English, history, philosophy, the classics, and more—and this is cause for concern. At the same time, a closer look at history will show you that “the humanities” have often had an ambiguous relation to the mainstream institutions of their day, to say nothing of their often tenuous relation to state power. Indeed, our current system of accreditation, financialization, and professionalization, while playing a key role in education, is only incidentally related to the mandates issued within the great traditions of thought that contemporary humanities departments aspire to (or fail to aspire to, in some cases).

My current view is that the internet will play an important role in the reformation of guild societies (Halkyon being one early example). My other intuition is that while the 2010s were mainly the era of autodidacts and individual creators (the most successful of whom often came out of the university system), the 2020s will be the era of guilds, meeting places, and alternative systems of affiliation. (It’s hard not to think of Peter Limberg’s efforts with The Stoa in this regard.) My point is, the guild system needs to be resuscitated so that we can move beyond simply communicating and distributing the ideas of already developed thinkers, and into the space of developing those thinkers through our own system of apprenticeship and transmission of craft. To be sure, the idea of online learning communities isn’t original to me or this essay, but I feel we are reaching a turning point in the variety and number of communities that are currently emerging and will continue to emerge over the next decade.

The idea of the guild is on people’s tongues because we, like the medieval people before us, are clearly living through a transition period in our major legacy institutions, but also an especially complex time wherein competing systems of power—primarily nation states, old corporations, oil and gas industries, financial institutions, and technology, energy, and logistics companies—compete and trade places for control of the future. We are in a state of sovereign flux, and the idea that one of these non-state actors will achieve escape velocity and form its own system of sovereign control, perhaps an order of magnitude larger than their already outsized influence supposes, isn’t out of the question. In fact, I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t happen at least a few times over the next hundred years. Perhaps on their way to Mars.

This is why the guilds will be so important.

In the Old English etymology for gegyld, the prefix ge- connotes collective action. The root of guild is, then, something like collective-action-association-with-purpose. What is that purpose? Halkyon for its part “aspires to carry on the torch of wisdom,” and this fits well for any program that seeks to return to the ideal of philosophy as a way of life, as The Side View does. This ideal, which involves rooting philosophy back into the practice (askēsis) that delivers philosophical insight, requires not only certain ways of being and doing philosophy, but also a recovery of the places that enable philosophical training to begin with. The guild model, rooted in the transmission of practical craft and existential transformation, is especially suited for this task, as those ancient Greek schools associated with the gymnasia and the Stoa, and of course with the Academy and the Lyceum, may have more in common with the nascent forms of philosophical organization seen online than with the modern university system.

We cannot do without this university system, as we are still dependent on it as the primary vehicle for certain kinds of knowledge transmission, but we should not feel limited to it. Nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that the humanities writ large are best served by their current formation. Instead, we should use our collective resources and skills to create an alternative set of institutions rooted in craft, apprenticeship, and existential commitment. These alternative institutions, as Johannes noted in our talk, could in the end create a forcing function that leads the older systems to redefine their goals and values in response to our own collective action and organization. It is a lofty vision—to imagine an alternative network of practice—but as the guilds teach us, it is not a vision without historical precedent.

That future is ours to make, if we so choose.