Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Jason Stanley on philosophy & the humanities in the US

Over at the Leiter Reports, Jason Stanley has an interesting post:

***"In my last few posts, I have been raising a contentious issue. Consider the CVs of philosophers in the United States working in the 1970s and 1980s publishing on core metaphysical and epistemological issues of the sort discussed by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, or issues in philosophical logic and philosophy of language of the sort discussed by Aristotle, Abelard, Ockham, Frege, Husserl, Brentano, and Russell. You will see that they had good success rates in national competitions for humanities fellowships. And why not? After all, philosophy is a distinctive human intellectual pursuit, and a core humanities subject. But if you look at, say, the past ten years, you will find that philosophers working on such issues have been particularly unsuccessful in similar competitions. The philosophers who do achieve some success have been those working primarily in ethics related topics, historians of philosophy, or philosophers who have related their work to art or literature. The latter are subjects which, since Plato’s time, have been traditionally opposing kinds of humanities disciplines to philosophy. Yet the only way for a philosopher working on skepticism or the nature of universals to obtain funding from an American humanities institute is to link her work with literary criticism, painting, or French cultural anthropology.

This is just an indication of a broader problem in the humanities in the United States. The problem is that we have a generation of humanities academics in this country who have no sense at all of what the discipline of philosophy is. They have no sense of what kinds of considerations have been advanced for and against skepticism, no sense of the traditional problem of universals, and no sense of the development of logic beyond the syllogism. Not only do they have no conception of what is happening now with such discussions, they have no understanding of the detailed intellectual work done by the great philosophers of the past; they simply don’t know how to read philosophy. Spending two months trying to figure out the argument in, say, Hume’s “Of Skepticism with Regard to the Senses”, or Kant’s Second Analogy, is a completely foreign pursuit. Far from being ashamed of this lack of knowledge, they seem to revel in it. One might wonder how a successful academic who has worked on T.S. Eliot could boast of their complete ignorance of (say) Bradley’s regress problem, when Eliot wrote his dissertation on Bradley (under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell, among others), but I have met in fact met such a person.

Ignorance breeds contempt. When I meet a philosopher who boasts of her ignorance of (say) Roman history, Wallace Stevens, or Emily Dickinson, I’m embarrassed for her. I’m similarly embarrassed for the professor of comparative literature who boasts of her ignorance of G.E. Moore or is proud that she has no idea what contributions Gottlob Frege has made to philosophy. Of course, it’s perfectly fine for a philosopher to confess that she doesn’t enjoy poetry, and it’s equally in order for a literary critic to confess that she doesn’t enjoy the topics discussed in Aristotle’s metaphysics, or Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic. What would not be acceptable is for a philosopher who doesn’t enjoy poetry to mount a campaign against poetry. But that is exactly what is happening in the United States today; academics with no detailed knowledge or interest in the humanities discipline of philosophy are using whatever resources are at their disposal to delegitimize it. Just as it is embarrassing to be confronted by an American academic who scoffs at the study of Shakespeare or Chinese history, it’s equally embarrassing to be confronted by an American academic who scoffs at the study of vagueness, skepticism, or the problem of intentionality. Ignorance or disinterest in a subject is not something one should seek to legitimize by eliminating the study of the subject matter."

These posts have all been largely complaints that large humanities funding bodies are giving money to historians, historians of philosophy, ethicists/political philosophers, but not "analytical philosophers." I had something to say to this:

"I have found these posts both interesting and informative, but can't help but point out a worry with them all: is "analytic philosophy" no more than metaphysics & epistemology, mind & language?

We are told in all posts that there is a division between the "analytic philosophers" and those who do the following:

1. Philosophy of art & literature
2. History of philosophy
3. Ethics/political philosophy

By this score, Ralph [Wedgwood]'s fears are realized: analytic philosophy is not about hsitory of philosophy (apparently). In addition, if any of us do political philosophy, we're strangely *not* analytic philosophers.

I think rather than adhere to this fairly crazy understanding of what analytic philosophy is, we would be better off talking about "analytic philosophers working in mind and language" instead. It is crazy to say you can't be an analytic philosopher and work in the history of our field or in ethics, etc.

In any event, the problems of "analytic philosophers working in mind and language" earning grants may be a simple one (although it would be interesting to see some data on this). From the previous posts, it seems fairly clear that all successful applicants had projects that were interdisciplinary in some sense. It is certainly true that more interdisciplinary grant applications in the UK seem to be assessed more positively than not. Perhaps analytic metaphysicians don't do this? I don't know. Again, we'd need to see the data...

One final thought: it is most certainly the case that we probably all could "sell" (for want of a better word) our discipline better. Philosophy in general had a different feel and character in journals, such as Mind and the Int'l Journal of Ethics, before the first World War than our journals now. I miss this primarily because I am interested in British Idealism, however, I don't see how the field has been damaged by the clear changes in direction that come with every new generation."

Whilst I applaud Stanley's insistence we all should know our canon, I do share the suspicion that perhaps a fair number in analytical mind & language have a relatively less complete knowledge of the history of philosophy than others. Of course, I have met many people whose knowledge far exceeded my own, but this has been relatively rare. For one thing, as a Hegel scholar, it is never persons working in law, philosophy of law, politics, ethics/political philosophy, nor history/history of philosophy (nor philosophy of history) that are ignorant of Hegel. If ignorance breeds contempt, is this why I get funny looks from metaphysicians when I claim to enjoy the German and British Idealists....

NOTE: I am off Thursday to see two dear friends earn their Ph.D.'s from the University of Sheffield---friends who work in analytical mind & language. I certainly have nothing against this field of philosophy. I simply question Stanley's views that these scholars are at least as well read --- and perhaps the only ones able to claim "analytic philosophy" for themselves.

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