Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is Philosophy Responsible for the PoMocalypse in the Academy?

Myca and the Mystic disagree below about this question: to what extent is philosophy responsible for the fact that PoMo-y, Lit-Critty nonsense (exemplified, let's say, by the kind of thing that goes on in "cultural studies") infecting vast sectors of the academy? Here's a real quick something-or-other:

As usual, I don't know the answer.

But here's something I've heard people say:

Roughly analytic philosophers (or: roughly: Anglo-American philosophers (neither term is very good, for well-known reasons)) set out--early in the 20th century--to emulate the sciences. In part this was driven by a laudable desire to leave the allegedly progress-less swamp of the history of philosophy behind, and to acquire real knowledge and make real progress in the way that the sciences did. In part this was allegedly driven by baser desires: e.g the desire to stand to laypeople as the scientist stands to them. That is, roughly, as an intellectually respectable specialist who studies an obscure, abstract, and highly technical topic that the layperson cannot understand without considerable specialized training. According to this story, philosophers were tired of hearing (as we all, in fact, do hear) that "anybody can do philosophy;" they were tired of thought of as studying something that anyone can understand and speak on. They yearned to be viewed as scientists are viewed.

So they set out to specialize, to develop areas of specialization, specialized journals, and an esoteric vocabulary that would indicate to non-philosophers that philosophers were Doing Something Hard.

(Realize: I'm not endorsing this theory; I'm just passing on some philosophy lore...)

One consequence of all this: philosophers opted out of conversation with scholars in other disciplines (except, later, for the sciences), and with the culture at large.

The result: a philosophy vacuum.

People naturally wonder about philosophical questions, and are at least sometimes happy when there are philosophers around to help guide them through some of the well-explored terrain. When (roughly) analytic philosophers decided that it was not cool to talk to the hoi polloi, and when it became harder for said HP to understand WTF (roughly) analytic philosophers were talking about, a vacuum was created.

And, so goes the story: the vacuum was filled by the philosophy and quasi-philosophy that was left over--existentialism and its descendants, philosophically-oriented approaches that grew up in literature departments and some of the social sciences, politically-motivated philosophy that grew, for example, out of Marxism and more radical varieties of feminism.

These roughly philosophical theories and approaches did not emphasize logical rigor to the extent that (roughly) analytical philosophy did. It emphasized, for example, quasi-literary interpretive methods, hermeneutics, and politically motivated/oriented methods such as seeking to unearth privileged-based biases in order to undermine opposing positions.

Now, (roughly) analytic philosophy had and has it's problems. Oh yes. (Consider, for example, the shameful spectacle of "ordinary language philosophy"...) But that's a different story for a different time. From the perspective of folks who are more inclined to admire science and logical rigor, the PoMocalypse constitutes something like the triumph of misology. Vaguely literary, free-associative, squishy. Muddle-headed. Dilettantish. Sophomoric. Sophistical. Nonsense.

The best philosopher I ever knew--a historian, not a hard-core analytic type--also had an appointment as a professor of comparative lit. He told me once about going to a lit-crit conference which he described like this: he read his paper. The commenter commented on it, but he (my prof) couldn't understand a word the guy said, and wondered whether they were even talking about the same thing. Then someone stood up and asked a question that he (the prof) also couldn't understand, but which seemed to be about some third thing, completely unrelated to either the paper or the comments. Then the questioner, the commenter, and several other people conducted an hour-long conversation in which no one said anything intelligible, and they all seemed to be talking about different things, and yet they all seemed to think that they were communicating important things to each other. Let me emphasize that this professor was extraordinarly smart and almost preternaturally knowledgeable. He did just miss things with much regularity...

These same approaches have caught on in the culture at large. If you see a reference to philosophy in, say, The New Yorker, it's probably going to be about somebody like Derrida or that Zizek fellow--it's not going to be about, say, Tarski. (Though, come to think of it, it might be about Rawls...) Educated non-philosophers might know something about Foucault or Lyotard...but they are unlikely to know anything about Carnap or Quine (though just as well in the latter case if you ask me...).

So, is the PoMocalypse (roughly) analytic philosophy's fault? Well, according to the story I just told, the answer seems to be: a non-trivial extent, anyway. But it seems plausible to me that it would have happened anyway. The quasi-literary vocabulary of the Po-Mo types is catchy and seductive, and that's about half the battle right there, sadly. The slack intellectual standards make it a game the whole family can play. And the overly political orientation makes it alluring as well--it lets people prosecute their political cases while giving these pursuits the veneer of scholarship.

And don't forget that much of (roughly) analytic philosophy has been B.S., too. Think, again, about the debacle of ordinary language philosophy. (shudder) Think about the overtly mean and aggressive demeanor that analytic philosophy cultivates in its adherents. Think about the seemingly comical analytical excesses of, e.g., the cottage industry that sprang up in response to the Gettier problem. Think of the micro-miniaturized specializations students now take on early in grad school. And there's plenty of sophistry and dogmatism on our side of the aisle as well.

Besides, every time anyone on the outside listens to us, we tell them something false. Popperian falsificationism is still around--it used to be big in the social sciences, and it's still big among intelligence analysts. Think about Kuhn! Think about ethical emotivism! Our track record of influencing the culture is pretty shameful.

O.k., that's it. Remember: that's all speculative and of a food-for-thoughty nature, and nothing more.

[I should probably add: I think much analytic...or post-analytic...or whatever you want to call it...philosophy has approximately one foot planted in bullshit anyway. Although that's where my training is, and that's the kind of thinking that comes most natural to me, I'm currently inclining in the direction of thinking that analytic philosophy--perhaps only narrowly construed, though--was an unfortunate blip in the history of philosophy. (Though there's not really much reason to listen to me on this point.) Philosophers trained like I was have some tendency to be pretty pompous, largely because they're very proud of their reasoning abilities (which, to tell the truth, aren't really in general all that spectacular). Some of our pomposity comes from comparing ourselves to the shadier contemporary continental/cultural studies types...and since those folks pretty much have both feet planted in the BS, it's easy for us to convince ourselves that we're really somethin'. Or so I'd say.]


Blogger Protagoras said...

Another reason some analytic philosophy moved in the direction of pretending to be scientific at the expense of relevance is that the Logical Positivists in exile in the U.S. were generally pretty far left, so being foreigners during the McCarthy era many of them deliberately avoided politics and anything with possible political significance.

1:31 PM  

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