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.