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April 05, 2010

What Crisis of Philosophy?

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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...

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