Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Philosophy among the humanities

I usually try to avoid commenting on these sorts of things, but I'm feeling surly this morning...

Jason Stanley, a philosopher at Rutgers, has an article in Inside Higher Ed bemoaning the fact that philosophy is alienated from the rest of the humanities. This is a distillation of various complaints Stanley has aired in recent years on Brian Leiter's blog (which writings can be perused here). He forwards three bits of evidence for this sorry state of affairs:
  1. Philosophers don't win the big prizes in the humanities -- MacArthur grants, Guggenheim fellowships, ACLS New Faculty fellowships -- at the same rate as historians and other humanists. (The numbers with which he backs this up are questionable.)
  2. "Most American humanists are unclear about how the debates of philosophers are supposed to fit into the overall project of the humanities. We are ignored at dinner parties, and considered arrogant and perhaps uncouth." (I'm not sure why Mr. Stanley's unpopularity at dinner parties is an interesting topic for IHE.)
  3. "To add insult to injury, the name of our profession is liberally bestowed on those teaching in completely different departments." (By which he means, horror of horrors, that "Many academics use the term "philosopher" not as a description of the people working on the set of problems that occupy our time [i.e., the time of academic philosophers like Mr. Stanley], but rather as a certain kind of honorific [for anyone] who constructs some kind of admirable general theory about a discipline.")
As is clear from these rather odd complaints, the title of Stanley's piece ("The Crisis of Philosophy") is misleading. The crisis of philosophy is not a crisis in philosophy. Professional philosophy in the Anglo-American world is doing just great, thank you very much. The crisis of philosophy is rather a crisis in the humanities. As Stanley makes clear by his insistence that Nietzsche and Zizek are the outside of a line of continuity running from Aristotle through Spinoza and Kant and up to Saul Kripke and David Lewis, and his further contention that the six MacArthur fellows in philosophy (Rorty, Scanlon, Cavell, P. Churchland, Kolakowski, and Shklar -- he ignores the six philosophers who have won MacArthurs under other headings [Vlastos, Cartwright, Kristeller, Fox Keller, Hawkins, and Moses]) are "an odd group," the real complaint is that humanists don't pay attention to or honor the sort of philosophy that Stanley considers central to the profession.

That may be. But I think it is weird for Stanley to complain about it, or to think that this is a defect in the humanities. Does the work of Lewis or Kripke or Frege have any relevance for your average humanist? As Stanley admits elsewhere, the philosophers he knows tend not to be humanists themselves, or to have "wisdom and insight about the human condition." He explicitly includes moral philosophers in this judgment. As he writes:
It's clear to me why (say) someone working in metaphysics is not likely to have more insight into the human condition than the average mortal. It's because many people working in metaphysics are captured principally by the problem of working out the consistencies of an abstract problem space with only dubious connections to how we live our lives. Moral philosophers tend as a whole to be exactly the same as metaphysicians, except they have chosen a somewhat different problem space to explore the logical relations between theses.
What is there for a humanist to take interest in here? Why should the logical relations among theses in a problem space be of any concern to a historian, anthropologist, or student of literature?

My own feeling is that the way in which many philosophers -- and, in particular, your run-of-the-mill, mainstream, analytic philosophers -- pose their problems and lay out the theses to be examined is utterly disconnected from anything that is a recognizable part of my day to day life. The problems defined by previous generations of (mainstream academic) philosophers have spawned partial solutions which have given rise to sub-problems which have been formalized in various ways and this continuous process has resulted in a rather arid and extremely technical set of "problem spaces" that do not seem to an outsider to hold any potential for yielding "wisdom and insight about the human condition." Now I don't necessarily have a problem with that; taking anything seriously for very long is bound to give rise to technical and obscure issues. But it is truly bizarre to complain that humanists don't appreciate the inner workings of professionalized philosophy.

Less bizarre but more problematic is Stanley's penchant for speaking on behalf of "we" philosophers. (Leiter does this all the time, too.) On the one hand, Stanley wants to insist that mainstream analytic philosophy is absolutely open and diverse because, for example, it "clearly does not place any limits upon the conclusions that can be defended in its journals." On the other hand, this very formulation maintains the substantive notion that philosophy is all about a neutral and universal methodology (a set of logical and argumentative tools) that is merely applied to different ends. I look at the history of philosophy, and at the current crop of professional academic philosophers, and I don't see a "we." I see a host of fundamental disagreements, not so much about conclusions as about what sort of activity philosophy is in the first place. Aristotle and Hobbes did not agree about a neutral methodology while disagreeing about conclusions. Same goes for Heidegger and Lewis. That's what I like about philosophy -- nothing can be taken for granted, it's open conflict on all possible fronts, including meta-fronts and meta-meta-fronts.

In other posts, Stanley is much more open to these sorts of issues. What he seems consistently to elide is the difference between philosophy as a profession -- as an academic specialization or "discipline" -- and philosophy as this possibility of open conflict on all fronts. Despite his claim, philosophy is not the oldest discipline, because it is not a discipline at all. Philosophy has only very intermittently been captured by the academy. It happened for a while in Medieval Europe. It happened for a while in Enlightenment Germany. It has been the rule during the 20th century. There is no reason to expect that it will remain the rule for very long.

Stanley and Leiter systematically confuse the academic profession of philosophy (within which they, unlike me, occupy elite positions within the mainstream) with philosophy as such (within which they are, like me, just johnny-come-lately epigones and amateurs). When they say "we philosophers" they are speaking as elite academic professionals but think they are speaking as philosophers as such. And when Stanley complains about humanists lack of concern for the former, he has no one to blame but himself.

9 comments:

Hasana said...

Whereas philosophers of the past had to fear hemlock and the gallows, today we must suffer lesser lights being called "philosophers"!

bjk said...

"Humans organize themselves into societies, cultures, nations, religions, genders, and races, and employ art and literature to represent their character. According to one view, the humanities should explain the nature of these formations – how the cultural artifacts the groups produce represent their respective identities."

Examining how societies "represent their character" and "represent their . . . identities" is probably not how humanists understand their activity. Does anyone read Faust looking for insight into the Teutonic folk mind? I get the sense that Stanley has no familiarity with anything outside of his narrow specialization of putting the finishing touches on a generative grammar that linguists abandoned about thirty years ago.

Jacob T. Levy said...

This post is in a nice and interesting tension with the Meier quote that appears in the next post down. TOf the political philosophy that is not merely a particular problem space for the working out of the logical relations among theses, moral indignation most certainly is a part-- as it is a part of daily life.

Jason Stanley said...

Thanks for the comment. I don't disagree with much of it. I had to write a piece in a max of 1800 words. My goal was to adopt the caricature of philosophy you find in much of the humanities, for the sake of argument, and show that it still can play an important political (as in Spinoza and the positivists) and pedagogical role (as in the last two paragraphs). I don't accept the caricature, however, and in a longer piece I would expand on that. People should bear in mind that's it's very difficult to attend to nuance when limited to 1800 words.

My foil was not so much some caricature derived from contemporary humanities, but the supposed conflict between the thinker and the actor present in Arendt's work. The example of the positivists shows that even the most abstract "thinker" in Arendt's sense can be motivated by their supposedly political thought towards action. There are clear Arendt paraphrases at various points in the piece - I thought this would be utterly obvious.

@bjk - Faust is an interesting example, since of course Goethe is striving for universal themes. I don't deny that there is a literature of the enlightenment that self-consciously resists being identified with a people. Obviously, I'm not giving an unbiased uncritical description of the focus in the humanities.

Jason Stanley said...

Oops - I meant "The example of the positivists shows that even the most abstract "thinker" in Arendt's sense can be motivated by their supposedly purely philosophical thought towards action."

Jason Stanley said...

To respond to the substance of the complaint in your post - this piece is trying to explain how working out the abstract problem space of relations between properties such as truth, goodness, representation, etc. can be politically and pedagogically useful. The sentence about Descartes and the Pope is very important, as is the point about how the positivist's metaphysical views interacted with the political stance. That's the point of the piece. I don't at all care about ACLS and MacArthurs, but I had to add that in to make the piece seem timely and relevant.

Jason Stanley said...

You write:

"Philosophy has only very intermittently been captured by the academy. It happened for a while in Medieval Europe. It happened for a while in Enlightenment Germany. It has been the rule during the 20th century. There is no reason to expect that it will remain the rule for very long."

This is incorrect. Philosophy has been consistently captured by the academy since the 19th century, with no breaks. Dating well back more than 100 years, the greatest philosophers in every tradition in the West have been university professors (both Nietzsche and Frege were professional academics, as were Wittgenstein, Marcuse, and David Lewis). Contrary to what you say, there is no reason whatever to think we will revert back to pre-enlightenment times in which philosophers have to resort to other occupations to support themselves. I don't see the university system disappearing anytime soon.

Jason Stanley said...

(In short -the age of philosophers outside the academy is over and has been over for a very long time.)

Will Roberts said...

Thank you for stopping by, Prof. Stanley. I appreciate your response.

I'll only say a few brief things in rebuttal:

1. Your Arendtian point is worth making. I did not really get it from your IHE piece, but maybe that was my problem. Nor am I sure I agree with it, but I'll think that over for a bit.

2. I think "philosophical reason" is an abstraction too abstract for me. I mistrust people like Israel who go on and on about reason, saying many wonderful and superlative things about it, but seem mostly to resort to name-calling when they have identified the enemies of reason. Reason is like freedom -- everyone's for it, so long as it's given no content, at which point it is denounced as tyranny (or unreason).

3. I don't believe that you don't care about the MacArthur, etc. Otherwise, why devote blog posts to it and the Guggenheim?

4. I think you're confusing matters when you disagree with me about the place of philosophy in the academy. Nietzsche was an academic, but not in a department of philosophy. Same goes for many of the 19th century's enduring figures: Feuerbach, Mill, Marx, Kierkegaard. I admit that the philosophy department has been the home of 20th century philosophy, by and large, but I see no particular reason to suspect that world-historical philosophy will forever hence spring from the matrix of philosophy departments. It is not a question of whether the university system will survive. The question is whether professional philosophy as one discipline among others will remain the rule.