Sunday, May 20, 2007

Philosophia perennis

My learned friend at Gayspecies has indiputably derived great benefit from his extensive course work in philoophy. Unlike many with a college education he has not allowed this talent to lie fallow, but has instead continually refereshed and invigorated it. Sometimes, though I wonder if he does not go a bit overboard. In a recent posting on problems in our universities he has set forth the the following program

"If I could structure the "ideal" liberal education for undergraduates at our colleges and universities, I'd divide all studies into four broad areas of general focus, and require all students to apportion their coursework equally among each of the four (e.g., 30 semester units in each group):

"Creative Philosophy (Arts, Literature, Music, Theater, Film, etc.)
Practical Philosophy (Ethics, Politics, Sociology, History, Economics, etc.)
Speculative Philosophy (Metaphysics, Psychology, Epistemology, Literary Theory, etc.)
Natural Philosophy (Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Mathematics)

"In addition, the trivuum of grammar, rhetoric, and logic would be mandatory, first courses. They are indispensable to a liberal education (and to a good life)."

This idea of subsuming most worthwhile subjects under the rubric of philosophy ignores--it seems to me--the wariness that many now feel with regard to philosophy as it is commonly pursued in English-speaking universities.

To be sure, virtually every academic field evokes dislike, even hatred from some quarter or other. Rudolf Wittkower, my boss during my brief time teaching at Columbia Universiity, once vouchsafed to me the following: "As to sociologists, they should all be killed!" This savage recommendation occurred, mind you, at Columbia University, the homebase of the brilliant sociologist Robert Merton. Every word he wrote is golden, to be read and read, and pondered.

So I am not concerned with the common-variety form of academic backbiting, but with the hostility that phlosophy generates sui generis. The first reason for this dislike stems from the pride that those equipped with philosophical training often affect. Sometimes they seem to think that they are inherently smarter than anyone else; at other times they seem to believe that it is the study of philosophy that has made them such. Perhaps it is both. To this, I suppose, the vulgar response is "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" From what I can gather Gayspecies is fairly well off, but I doubt that he got that way from studying philosophy. There are too many philosophical cabdrivers driving around.

A more serious problem arises from the definition of philosophy itself. One view is that philosopby addresses, with great acumen and insight, a limited number of topics that are intrinsic to itself. Over the centuries, philosophy has seen the emigration of a number of fields formerly within its purview, starting with the natural sciences in the 17th century and culminating (possibly) with the emancipation of psychology a little over a hundred years ago. In my day, a half century ago, philosophy seemed to have reached a limit in this shedding process, for (within the limiis of the proto-analytic trend then hegemonic) it rejected not only the fields mentioned, but saw fit to cast into the outer darkness metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. These fields were redesignated "poetry," possibly charming, but affording no access to truth.

At the same time, there survived the older notion that philosophy is the Queen of the Sciences. As such, it is entitled to intervene at any point in any field in order to dispell confusions and set the practitioners of the right path. Well, in my own realm of art history I have seen nothing but mischiief in the effort of professional philsophers to intervene and set us on the right path. Colleagues in other disciplines have told me the same.

The universalizing concept of philosophy seems to me quite simply a product of arrogance.

Thus there are two forms of arrogance. First, is the notion, cited above, that individuals with philosophical training are per se smarter than everyone else. Secondly, there is the idea that philosophy and its practitioners constitute a kind of Herrenvolk, with a sublime mission to govern and regulate everyone else. In practice their efforts in the latter realm are regularly ignored and rebuffed, but hope springs eternal, as seen in the above-cited utopian proposal to herd most areas of study into the great corral of academic philosophy.

Ne sutor ultra crepidam. Let us all look to the health of our own discipline before we seek to offer therepy to another.

By the way, the Ph.D. degree (I have one) is a mere conventional title. It carries no further implications than does, say, the term "bachelor" underlying the B.A. degree; there is no understanding that the married--or for that matter women--are not
eligible to obtain it. Similarly, few would accept that possessors of the M.A. degree are entitlted, ipso facto, to be our masters.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The use of "creative, practical, theoretical, and natural philosophy" merely hearkens back to the way it was 150-200 years ago, before the interminable division of disciplines. Prior to the endless division and subdivision of disciplines, only two availed: Philosophy and Theology, and anything not theological was by default philosophical. The use of the older nomenclature for breadth requirements -- to stress the sense of breadth -- seems eminently sensible, but one could use just as easily other divisions, e.g., Science, Praxeology, Humanities, or whatever. No hubristic pride of place is given philosophy any more than one would give "knowledge."

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your characterization of "academic philosophy" is bordering on a stereotype that simply is untrue. Axiology (ethics, morality, aesthetics, theory of value) is the dominant interest of most philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition, while cognitive science, natural science, philosophy of language, political-social-economic theories, epistemology, decision theory, probability theory, Boolean logic, phenomenology, etc. are still robustly studied and examined. And, yes, metaphysics, if taught, is circumscribed to "time, space, freewill, ontology," and not the labyrinths of angels, demons, and deities -- which philosophy gladly surrenders to theology and religious studies.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

It was not my intention to comment on the substance of conemporary philosophy, but merely to merely to explore why some, indeed many, are today resistant to its claims.

Both poetry and philosophy command few readers nowadays. While regrettable, this neglect is, in both cases, a reality. The problems with poetry would require a different sort of discussion.

There are a number of reasons why even eduated persons do not read philosophy nowadays. Perhaps they are not as educated as they would like to think. Yet much of contemporary philosophy seems abstruse and not worth the effort. By contrast, some grandstanding figures like Singer and Nussbaum are ittitating because they appear to be cloaking personal preferences with an aura of philosophical certainty.

However, the matter is aggravated by the defensiveness of those with philosophical training.
If contemporary philosophy were as valuable as Gayspecies seems to think it should suffice to demonstrate the results with concrete instances of problem solving using this method. And indeed Gayspecies often does this. In other instances, however, the reader is confronted with manifestoes that seem to reflect defensiveness. At times this tendency takes the form of a gnoseological imperialism. It is not helpful to equate philosophy with "knowledge:" tout court. Indeed, that conflation is inherent in the approach that I was criticizing.

In my professional life I have been involved with two fields, art history and gay studies. In my view the value of both is self-evident, and requires no defence to the outside world. To be sure, gay studies has suffered grave injury from the follies of Queer Theory, but I am confident that the field will survive.

A further point is that at no time that I am aware of could European universities be characterized as accepting only two fields, philosophy and theology. Most universities also had faculties of law and medicine, which could not be subsumed under either of the rubrics noted.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your concerns are not without merit. One of the reasons philosophical claims seem "contentious" is that it takes the form of "argument," not in the sense of "fighting and bickering," as you know, but by asserting premises, substantiating with evidence (which is why metaphysics has been largely abandoned), and then "defending" one's argument against attack. Outside the philosopher's sphere, this "methodology" appears somewhat different than from inside, because "argument" literally is the force of philosophy's domain, but is "tendentious" or "defensive" from outside.

Technically, philosophy is the "love of wisdom," not all knowledge outside of theology. But etymology and use are different, which, as a philologist, you know as well as anyone. The medieval universities made this distinction, which persisted until the "division of knowledge" that has dominated our academies since the 1850s. Newton, for example, was not a "scientist" in our sense, but a "natural philosopher." In what sense a scientist can claim "wisdom" is precisely your point, and mine. But philosophy is not "limited" to knowledge per se, as you know, but includes the "art of living." Ethos, ethics, arete, eudaimonia, politics, etc., are terms of that art, and continue to dominate many philosophy courses. While axiology often includes "aesthetics," this German Idealism of the 19th century has never set well within philosophy, inasmuch as "beauty" -- not merely "making" and not merely aesthetics ("perceiving"), both of which are subsumed under phenomenology -- is its own sui generis. But we try to accommodate the "cultivated" in their tastes, or at least try to understand why it is that the unquestionably "ugly" is "art," much less "aesthetic." And why "cultivated, discriminating" eyes alone claim to differentiate or divine the difference.

Finally, I'll readily concede that analytic philosophy often seems, if not actually is, obtuse, arcane, and atomistic. It's a hazard of scrupulous examination, not unlike looking at a microbe under a microscope seems obtuse to the casual non-specialist. Part of the problem lies with particular philosophers, who do not have particularly fine exposition skills who report not only what he sees, but does so badly. And like so many specialized "language games," philosophy has its "charged" terms of special significance that often elude on first read. But against those reasonable charges, I offer the alternative: French intellectual psycho-babble.

But if Karl Popper impressed you, as you wrote, then some of us can write with eloquence, forcefulness, and incision that is the hallmark of philosophizing. He was not well-received at the outset, but today his views have almost become commonplace. His attacks on scientism, historicism, and psychologism still cause consternation in some spheres, his defense of an "open society" maligned as naive, his embrace of nominalism went against the grain, his insistence of the problem of induction being inescapable, that all knowledge is "provisional" yet still "objective," and only falsifiable claims have a claim to scientific knowledge still ire some scientists and probability theorists. Alas, his "wisdom" has rarely been found wanting, just not agreeable to some. I've listened to his protege Paul Feyerabend diss his mentor, but it is Popper's arguments that still stand the test of time (and Paul's reactions continue to be circulated among the counter-culturalists who pray Popper is wrong). That's the nature of dialectic.

I have no problem with gay men searching for answers in their Queer Theories, with Saint Foucault as their inspiration, but Michel may be a perspicacious historian of penology and the therapeutic, but his twisted misuse of Greek words in the domain of philosophy will still be challenged. The Man may be the Uber-Homosexual, his mind sharp as a tact, but his philosophizing is borderline, if not simply absurd. Whether it is due to his Cartesian influences, or his split-personality, he asserts then denies, he misstates and misquotes, and then we hail him as a saint? Maybe S.F.'s leather queens into S&M found him a kindred spirit, but what about his Parisian lover Daniel Defert? So, when Queer Theorists resurrect "gay essence," we need to disabuse those theorists of Platonic epistemology and the Eternal Forms, take them out of Plato's Cave, show them the light that those very same "essences" have been used against them by other Metaphysicians.

Polemics is not my shtick, but, and I mean but, sometimes some heads are so "thick," only the force of reason couched in the polemic gets through those thick heads. My own mentor, John Searle, has resorted to the same "method," not because he's disposed to the polemical, but because some heads, even those who teach our youth, need a strong dose of reason with added emphasis of the polemic to get through those thick skulls. When Searle was the lone warrior railing against Derrida, calling him a fraud, he clearly was going against the grain -- not unlike Popper in his day. Pontificating in obtuse, indecipherable language the Rhetoric of Indeterminacy (such as Derrida's Of Grammatology) may appeal to the indeterminate, but some determinacy is needed to shake the fool who fails to see that the Rhetoric of Indeterminacy is itself NOT indeterminate. Obvious to most of us, but then, why does it still reign in our Humanities? Some heads are just "thick."

Lastly, I lament immensely the loss of the art of civility, the reduction of a collegiate education to a diploma mill, the shrill as the means of communication, the loss of a liberal education, the dire statistics Louis Menand cites, the crass politics of destruction, the loss of courage and its convictions, the commodification of human beings as objects and products for disposal, the justified cynicism of today -- but, and again a big but, if those of us with some insights (not necessarily any answers) fail to shine some light, to advocate for a better tomorrow starting today, to call a spade a spade with consistency, what is our legacy? Withdrawing into the world of words and the imagination would be just fine by me, but provoked to remove the scales from all our eyes (mine included) seems like a reasonable cause celebre. And, as one of your posts attempts to affirm, it must occur through education, which itself is predicated on the arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. We preach, not teach. We are being "fitted," not making well-being its own justification for living. If my little world of philosophizing and polemic makes a difference, which I daresay I doubt, at least I'm capturing someone's imagination to THINK, even, especially, if it disagrees. That satisfied Socrates. It made Jesus a household name. I don't want the fame or the flame, but the fire of thought set ablaze would be a great Humanistic legacy we can all enjoy, because we examined our lives, gave thought to others, and embraced the Wave that Rides to the Shores of the next generation. Planting seeds of doubt is precisely what springs to life. Otherwise, we're just fixing our "frames" of indifference because it does not require any thought!

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Postscript: By "knowledge," I am referring to the knowledge within the liberal arts, not the technical arts, such as medicine, law, alchemy, business, etc.

Perhaps Adam Smith illustrates that, as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, he would write the Wealth of Nations, which we today would likely regard as an economic ("household management") treatise subsumed under a normative moral program, a prescriptive theory of the means of exchange, a tool of decision theory and allocation, in a manner of how the "Invisible Hand" orders the affairs of Man according to reason. After all, he never beheld a "factory" or "industry" in our sense, but wrote of "human commerce" rather than "commercial industry" as his subject.

5:07 AM  

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