April 05, 2010

What Crisis of Philosophy?

Writing about web page http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/04/05/stanley

Jason Stanley (I was going to say Alexander!) has produced an apologia for ‘philosophy’ – better known as ‘analytic philosophy’ -- in the US Chronicle of Higher Education that is so bad it’s good! Someone should give him a map of the history of philosophy facing the right way up and show him where he’s coming from and likely to end up. (Hint: Look for the sign marked ‘Scholasticism’.)

He presumes that there is no taste for the deep questions of metaphysics and epistemology in the humanities. Au contraire! In fact, German and, more to the point, French philosophy of the post-war period has been all about these matters – often dealing with the same figures that Stanley venerates, conducting arguments at the same abstract plane, and often in a prose style much less tractable than the analytic philosophers Stanley wishes to promote. (Deleuze comes most easily to mind here, given his sustaining interest in Spinoza and Hume.) These people have had enormous and quite diverse influence across the humanities, and – love it or hate it – the word ‘theory’ tracks the scope of that influence well.

This raises a puzzle. Few in the humanities doubt the virtues of abstractness and depth that Stanley champions for philosophy. So why is Stanley complaining – other than sheer narcissism (i.e. the humanists don’t like the philosophers he likes, or in whose footsteps he thinks he’s walking)? But let’s take narcissism off the table as an explanation -- for the moment. It may simply be that analytic philosophers like himself are not especially good at dealing with the deep and abstract issues, such that if they did not control the most powerful graduate programmes, their influence would gradually wither away.

The MacArthur Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies and other independent interdisciplinary awards bodies aren’t intimidated by the philosophy rankings in the Leiter Reports, which is probably the most visible indicator of the artificial stranglehold that analytic philosophy has on the discipline today. Indeed, Brian Leiter, self-appointed guardian of the profession, is notorious for issuing the diktat that the only relevant distinction in contemporary philosophy is not analytic-continental but good-bad. (Jason Stanley is probably best known to bloggers as a Joey Bishop figure in Leiter’s Rat Pack.) But history may prove Leiter remarkably prescient in this respect, except – as the cunning of reason would have it -- he got the valences reversed!

A relevant insight here comes courtesy of the sociologist Randall Collins, whose view of the history of philosophy in his magisterial Sociology of Philosophies corresponds to Stanley’s own metaphysics-and-epistemology-led view. Collins argues that what has kept generations of people intensely focused on philosophy’s deep and abstract issues, despite their prima facie removal from the stuff of normal living, is the emotional energy that they generate, which every so often spills over into the public sphere, resulting in cultural transformation, if not political revolt.

While I know from experience that analytic philosophers like Stanley feel quite passionately about what they do and how they do it, unfortunately the main operative passion appears to be self-regard: Everyone like me should see how wonderful I am because other people just like me have already done so. In contrast, as Hegel perhaps realized most clearly, philosophy proves its merit by its capacity to impose itself on a resistant world. To be sure, it’s a tough and dangerous standard. But in any case, it forces philosophy not only to regularly criticise its own foundations but also to break out of its own self-imposed institutional limitations – to preach beyond the easily converted. The continental, pragmatist and religious philosophers who Stanley implicitly dismisses do this much better than analytic philosophers, generally speaking.

When I read someone like Jason Stanley, I am reminded of a well-placed 18th century scholastic fretting about the corruption of philosophy in the hands of experimentalists and publicists, i.e. the agents of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment who eventually succeeded in changing and raising the discipline’s game. I'll see you on the other side of the Revolution...


- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Tom Milner-Gulland

    If metaphysicians were allowed to enjoy the status that they should have – being critics and proponents of theories that transcend, unify and enrich the core of the hard sciences – metaphysics would absolutely centre-stage. The fact that nobody except a a decidedly touchy priesthood – who, themselves, invented, promoted and/or developed highly suspect theories such as the messy constructs that characterise the sphere of modern astrophysics/cosmology (but we could also venture into such sensitive-to-criticism areas as Einsteinian theories of relativity, quantum theory and Darwinism) – is deemed fit to comment appears to have not so much as raised anybody’s eyebrow. I think it’s montrous.

    Now that in many arena (apparently not including academe) aether theory and steady-state-type theories are making a comeback (and I myself subscribe only to the notion of a metaphysical, not a physical aether), metaphysicians have a unique opportunity to be a driving force behind an intellectual revolution.

    05 Apr 2010, 20:28

  2. Dr. Akira Kanda

    Philosophers are supposed to be wise.

    The problem here seems to be related to the conflict with this required wisdom and academic survival in the simple minded Americanised environment of “publish or perish” anti culture nonsense to which even the most resilient British academia has succumb. When researchers publish 20 papers a year to survive the politically induced rat race of “academic competition”, what kind of standard should we expect. When I studied in UK many decades ago, my research advisor told me that in UK, one was allowed to publish only when he had something worthwhile to say. It was Albert Einstein who said that “Good ideas will not come up as often as general public think.” It appears that in these days average academic appears to come across with “worth while good idea” more than 20 times a year.

    Granting fellowship in the West is now just a political process which has little to do with academic activity we old timers know of. Thanks to the “globalisation” of academia. When I was young, it was always the case that prominent researchers crossed the Atlantic once in a decade to deal with the change of trend on both sides of the Atlantic. Now things are the same every where and there is no other place to go to continue research in healthier environment.

    After all, it appears that the real issue here is not on the hegemony of philosophy. It is more like the environment in which all research is conducted. As far as I can see, analytic philosophy or classical philosophy is not going to make any difference.

    08 Apr 2010, 03:54


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