A pomo incursion; and the perennial Continentals
At any rate, the theme of the presentation was the invasion of the field of law by postmodernism. Clearly I was not up to speed in these matters, because I was incredulous at the revelation. As I have great respect for the law and hardly any for postmodernism, I could not understand how the one could fall prey to the other. What could the law, with its dedication to precision and the continuity principle incarnated in stare decisis—what could the law have to do with this relativistic nihilism? Alas, Mohr’s account proved accurate, and postmodernism—in the guise of “critical legal studies”—continued to ravage law schools.
During the question period after the talk I asked Professor Mohr what could be done to counter a development that he and I both deplored. “Don’t worry,” I recall him saying. “The Analytic school of philosophy will demolish the monster.” Well, the Analytic school may be good for many things, but slaying pomo dragons doesn’t seem to be one of them. Critical legal studies rumbled on, until at length it began to run out of steam of its own accord. As far as I can tell, Analytic philosophy had nothing to do with the matter.
A few days after this discussion my mind flashed back to my undergraduate days at UCLA in the fifties. I did not major in philosophy, but my closest friend did. He very kindly filled me on the latest trends in those days. (If my memory falters in some details now, it is probably because I was insufficiently attentive to the valuable lessons my friend gave.)
At any rate the UCLA philosophy department was dominated by a latter-day version of the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. In its way, this approach was the godfather--or one of them--of today’s dominant Analytic trend. At all events, the logical positivists in California applied a severe Occam’s razor to flense away preoccupations they deemed obsolete and dysfunctional. This useless bric-à-brac included metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. To the extent that any value resided in these pursuits it lay, at best, in their “poetry.”
By this standard all modern Continental philosophy, especially that of such figures as Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger, was rubbish. These thinkers were hopelessly muddled and imprecise, and in consequence were already reposing on the ash heap of history. Alas, for the logical positivists and their Analytic successors, these gentlemen did not stay put on their midden. Today, many regard Heidegger as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. Some would say that we are witnessing the return of the repressed.
On a personal note, during the last few weeks I have plunged back into the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche, who has detained me intermittently since high-school days. To be sure, the German philosopher’s show-boating grandiosity and village-atheist fulminations quickly become tiresome. Steering clear of these excesses, though, one can concentrate on the serious questions he poses. These, or some of them, will be the subject of a future piece on this blog.
By contrast I have not reverted to Hans Reichenbach or Rudolf Carnap, the guiding lights of the UCLA group in former days. I feel no such temptation. Nor have I taken up once more the writings of such Analytic founders as Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin. Indeed, the latter seems to be read nowadays mainly for his influence on Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler.
Were the UCLA professors and their students completely wrong? Isn’t there, after all, still something woolly and imprecise about Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger-—not to mention Derrida? Well, maybe so. But it looks as if the general educated public (as distinct from professional philosophers) has voted with its feet. And those feet take them in the camp of the dreaded Continental imprecisionists.
PS. After reading the above my old friend commented as follows: “If one wandered into the UCLA Philosophy Department today, needless to say, one would find a very different climate from fifty years ago. The domination of the department by David Kaplan (who was an undergraduate when we were) and others who do 'possible-worlds semantics' has taken it far away from where it was in our day. Some of the possible-worlds semanticists--Saul Kripke, Alvin Plantinga, David Lewis--are unabashedly metaphysical. Indeed when David Lewis died, a few years ago, the NY Times obituary called him "the greatest metaphysician since Leibniz." Well, that's unlikely to be history's judgment of him, but that metaphysics (of a kind also far removed from Continental Philosophy) is alive (and ironically practiced by some of Reichenbach and Carnap's students, like David Kaplan and Hilary Putnam) shows that is can't be buried as easily as the Positivists hoped (bless them, for they did seek to banish a lot of cant, along with a lot of Kant).”