Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Grad student days

My previous posting gave some details of my experience as a translator in the sixties, when I undertook such work in order to finance my graduate studies. I turn now to the substance of those studies.

I had come to New York City in 1956 to begin work on a Ph.D. in art history. I enrolled at the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU, then the leading institution in this field. Its standing was assured by a superb faculty, mostly formed by scholars of the Transatlantic Migration, driven from their posts in Europe by Hitler. Heirs to generations of philological excellence, these figures were, of course, formed in the ebullience of Weimar Germany. Yet they generally eschewed discussing this experience, and we students were reduced to forming some idea of it from the Three Penny Opera and other epiphenomena.

To this day I am grateful for the training in precision I obtained from my NYU professors. Still, when I got to London in 1963 on a Fulbright grant, I was determined to obtain a broader education for myself. In English universities in those days supervision was lax, if not nonexistent. I could do whatever I wanted to. Of course I went to plenty of plays and opera performances (so cheap in the British capital then). But I spent my days in Bloomsbury, at the British Library (then housed in the British Museum) and the Warburg Institute. The latter was described by a fellow student as the place where one didn’t learn the ABC of culture, but instead the XYZ. Nonetheless, it was there that I first acquired one of my abiding interests: the history of science.

My boyfriend at the time was pursuing a D.Phil. in English history at Oxford, so for a time I threw myself into the theory of history. England had a strong classical tradition, so I read a lot of Greek and Latin classics. I did this mostly in translation, not feeling the need to expand my undergraduate Latin (something I now see as a mistake). For a time I focused on German literature, especially of the Goethe-Schiller period. Not to be left behind, I looked at the works of the nascent French structuralist school. At the London School of Economics I attended some classes by Karl Popper, and read all of his works, together with some writings by pupils and opponents.

Well, I won’t go on. Suffice it to say that I acquired at least a veneer of learning in many subjects. This erudition has earned me, from time to time, the not-too-pleasant sobriquet of “know it all.”

In later life some academics have come to look upon their graduate years as a kind of hell. They had to take courses they hated. and to toady up to capricious professors, whose mission seemed to be to make them miserable. That was not my experience. For me, those Lehrjahre were instead a kind of paradise. One of the reasons I read so voraciously was that I knew that that era would never come again.

For some who had a favorable experience of graduate school there is a tendency to linger in the values and learning inculcated in that era. Ancora imparo, “I am still learning,” is a wonderful motto. But many feel that it is time to apply what they learned. That is a reasonable plan, but it means that what one learned in graduate school becomes fixed in aspic.

Recently I have been sparring on the Internet with Frank Kameny, the noted pioneer of the gay movement. About ten years older than me, Kameny had earned a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard in the years immediately after World War II. As a result he assumed a lordly supremacy in all matters scientific. Eventually, I learned though that he had never heard of Thomas Kuhn, who was beginning to make his mark at Harvard in the very days that Frank had studied there. I am not an unreserved admirer of Kuhn, but anyone who doesn’t have at least some acquaintance with his contributions to the history and theory of science is just not a player in this field today. Similarly, Frank had no views about string theory.

Frank Kameny’s case is perhaps extreme. After he was fired from his government job in Washington DC some forty-five years ago, he understood that he must devote all of his energies to the gay movement. This choice is commendable, but it did mean that he ceased keeping up with advances in his original profession.

There is one other formative influence of the sixties that I failed to mention. My best friend Charles McCracken was pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley. On several occasions I visited him and his wife there, attending some lectures and parties given by graduate students in his field. This was a good way to “test the pulse” of the then nascent analytical tradition in philosophy. On my return to NYC I ordered some books from Blackwell’s, and dutifully read them.

One British philosopher who impressed me at the time was J.L. Austin ((1911-1960), a professor at Oxford. How to Do Things With Words was the first book of his I read. It remains the most influential. In this book he rejects the conventional wisdom that the chief purpose of sentences is to state facts, and thus to be true or false based on the truth or falsity of these facts. By contrast Austin holds that truth-evaluable sentences form only a small part of the range of human utterances. After noting several types of these “nonfactual” sentences, he turns to one particular class f these these sentences, which he terms “performative utterances.” These have two characteristics. First, to utter one of these sentences is not just to “say” something, but rather to perform a certain kind of action. Secondly, these sentences are not to be judged true or false. Instead, when something goes wrong in connection with the utterance then the utterance is, as he puts it, “infelicitous” or “unhappy” He later assigned these sentences to a category he called speech acts.

Today, Austin is read mainly by professional philosophers of the analytic tradition. He did, however, experience a posthumous breakout when the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida briefly took him up. This led in turn to Austin’s adoption by that high priestess of postmodernism, Judith Butler.

The work of Austin and some of his Anglo-American contemporaries was sometimes termed “ordinary language philosophy.” Others began to write of the “linguistic turn.” In my delvings at the British Library I gained some understanding of the field of linguistics. I quickly ascertained that the “ordinary language” philosophers knew very little about the field that they had supposedly entered. Ask them what epochal discovery in linguistics was due to Sir William Jones or what contribution had been made by Walter von Wartburg and they would probably be stumped. All too often, their observations about grammar and semantics were often puerile and misinformed. They had simply not been doing their homework.

I will leave for another time what I gleaned from such analytic philosophers as 
Gilbert Ryle, Willard Van Orman Quine, and Sir Peter Strawson. Suffice it to say that my learned friend of Gayspecies retains a much higher opinion of these figures than I do. For me they are very much old news, and not of much use in confronting the intellectual challenges of the 21st century. To his credit, Gayspecies writes about many subjects, being scarcely limited by the horizons of his philosophical training. Nonetheless, I find that his not infrequent references to these fading stars of analyticity has a nostalgic element, one that I do not share. This is the syndrome of graduate-student formation, one to which many (including probably myself) are subject. (Full disclosure: I get more ideas for blogging from Gayspecies than any other source.)


Anonymous AB said...

Actually, you have just shown why most humanities people are pot bellied stool pigeons who mumble gibberish. You accuse a person with a PhD in astronomy of "not having ideas on string theory". The joke is not on him, its on YOU, for thinking that a person with a PhD in a physics realted field SHOULD have a view on string theory! Your ignorance is further highlighted when you say "science related". The problem is: in the sciences, you need to ACTUALLY KNOW something before you comment on it. And its not like the arts, where you explain the "philosophy of a doodle" and the other members of the kangaroo court pat your back.

2:50 PM  

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