Tuesday, July 14, 2009

All philosophy departments should be disbanded immediately.

This is, of course, simply a hyperbolic title meant to get your attention. Especially you readers that have a philosophy background. (Socrates would also likely avoid the critique I'm about to make, so the Jacques-Louis David painting above is merely meant to conjure up an allegorical point rather than to implicate the poor old man himself)

But in seriousness, I have been thinking lately about the disciplinary status of "philosophy". What led me down this road was some commentary on the National Endowment for the Humanities' "Enduring Questions" grant program (IHE has just published a good piece on it here). Ben Bradley of Pea Soup writes,
According to the announcement, questions such as “is there such a thing as right or wrong?” are “predisciplinary.” I have never seen this “word” outside of this grant announcement. OED turns up no results. They seem to mean that these questions arose before any academic discipline began studying them. Perhaps this is true. Nevertheless, an academic discipline arose to discuss them: philosophy. What is to be gained by pretending that this discipline does not exist?
The NEH is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help non-philosophers teach courses on philosophical questions.

I don't have a problem with Bradley's point that these enduring questions are philosophical (others raised by the grant include "What is beauty?"... "Is there a human nature, and, if so, what is it?"... "What is the relationship between humans and the natural world?"). But they are just as often considered in theology departments by theologians. Some of the questions are considered in political science departments, or art departments, or biology departments. There seems to be no reason why a philosopher should object to these "enduring questions" being characterized as predisciplinary, and no reason to think that a grant competition of this sort amounts to an affront against philosophy as a discipline.

I speak only from my very limited impressions, but I have encountered territory-marking commentary of this sort from philosophers in a way that just isn't seen on the same scale elsewhere. Michèle Lamont has spoken to this issue recently. Despite all the hub-bub, I think that philosophers might have the weakest claim to disciplinary coherence of all academics... though perhaps this is precisely why their temper tantrums on the matter can be the most prominent. A cornered rat and all that.

To make my point, it's worth looking at the etymologically similar discipline of philology. Consider the wonderful statement from Richard Strier, editor of the journal Modern Philology:
The question that immediately confronts any editor of Modern Philology is what the title of the journal means. In 1903, when the journal was founded, the idea of a modern philology might have seemed quite daring, since "philology" implied only or primarily the study of ancient and medieval languages and texts. Over a century later, the idea of a modern philology is foreign. The term has only the most limited circulation and has basically returned to its initial scholarly sense. My aim, in assuming the editorship of the journal, is to return the term to its etymological sense: love of words. Emily Dickinson saw the moment when a word is fully understood, fully realized in all its power and distinctiveness, as a kind of Incarnation, a moment when an idea truly becomes flesh and dwells among us. In a series of astonishingly rich puns, she called this miraculous "consent of language" a "loved Philology." I would like to bring this sense of awe and appreciation in the face of powerful and exact language to the journal that bears the name of Modern Philology.
You don't see many philology departments around anymore- the discipline as a discipline hasn't fared as well as philosophy. A google search for philology department turns up mostly ".ua" (Ukraine) and ".ru" (Russia) addresses; its subsistence as a discrete discipline is very much determined by regional variations and changing schools of thought in academia. And yet philology is certainly with us, in what the NEH might call a "predisciplinary" sense as well as in a scattered form amongst various departments of languages and literatures. Strier seems to understand the evolutionary changes in philological work very acutely, and his attention to this will surely be a benefit to Modern Philology under his editorship.

It seems that, while philosophy has enjoyed a much more sustained existence within the taxonomy of university departments, in actual philosophical work it shares many of the same characteristics as philology understood broadly as the "love of words". The questions that are asked in departments of philosophy are also asked elsewhere- sometimes overlapping a good deal with the work of professors in philosophy departments, and sometimes not so much.

Questions like "is there such a thing as right and wrong?" are simply not exhaustively or exclusively discussed by philosophy professors, and it's absurd that someone would be surprised or offended by the fact that these questions would be the basis of a solicitation for course syllabi from professors in other disciplines.

For a substantial chunk of the scholarly world, the terminal degree is a doctorate of philosophy. Granting that formalities are carried over from previous eras without the original meaning remaining, it isn't unhelpful to consider this nomenclature as an illustration for the status of philosophy as a mode of academic reflection. If anything, I think that the work done within philosophy departments has less rather than more claim to its own partitioned territory than other disciplines do. I find this essay, titled "What is Philosophy?" and posted on the Dartmouth philosophy department page, to be prototypical of the inadequacy I'm trying to point out. It begins by saying,

Philosophy, like all other fields, is unique. But the uniqueness of philosophy seems more impressive. Whereas historians, physicists, etc., generally agree about what constitutes their proper field of study, philosophers do not. Some philosophers have even maintained that there is no proper field of study for philosophers.

This extreme position fortunately is not held by too many philosophers, but it illustrates perhaps the most distinctive feature of philosophy, namely that it leaves nothing unquestioned. This explains why philosophers do not accept any authority but their own reason. Philosophers have even questioned whether it is possible to question everything.

So... the uniqueness of philosophy seems more impressive, even though some philosophers have even maintained that there is no proper field of study for philosophers, and the best description of the distinctiveness of the discipline that can be mustered is, that it leaves nothing unquestioned.

I'm sorry. That is just too much.

I get that philosophers are rigorous and want everyone to know it. It seems a bit pathological to need to assert that this rigor is a distinctive of philosophy in particular, but we'll leave the question of ugly hubris departmental pride to one side. I'm not denying that philosophers ask a lot of questions in a careful manner, or that their discipline turns out worthwhile scholarly results. But this tendency to insist upon a unique place in the disciplinary pantheon all while not being able to articulate a clear sense of what philosophers do besides saying that "we ask a lot of questions" (one wonders what they think the rest of us do!) strikes me as silly, and petty.

I'm not saying that all philosophers do this. But those who are engaged in the sort of gatekeeping that turns up its nose at any other scholars who appear to be encroaching upon philosophical territory strike me as misguided, especially given how poorly this territory's borders are demarcated by its nationalists and apologists.

That said, theologians should be careful that they don't do the same sort of thing. Anthony Paul Smith recently offered a good critique of this sort of disciplinary imperialism by theologians at An und für sich, and I'm inclined to agree with his basic point.


  1. Well, economics is the classic disciplinary imperialist so as a rampaging conquerer I suppose I don't have much sympathy for the philosophers. The fact is, scholars with the best tools for answering a question and the most useful or applicable insights are always going to win out - and they should win out. The "this is our turf" approach rings a little hollow to me if the ultimate goal is to find an answer to all these questions that philosophers are so proud of posing to themselves.

    Your initial mention of Socrates I think makes a very important point. A lot of philosophers don't look at what they do as a discipline so much as they look at it as a way of being. That's all well and good, but if that's primarily what it is to you, then "philosophy" turns into a lifestyle choice or an attitude - but not a serious scholarly pursuit.

    I agree with you - I DON'T think this is characteristic of the majority of philosophers. Obviously philosophy has an important place in the academy. But the critique of NEH that you highlight is simply insufficient. Put up or shut up.

  2. I’m hung up on this dubious neologism, ‘predisciplinary’. I have what seems a well-founded fear that the NEH might mean that the academy’s purpose is not standardly to address enduring questions. Maybe this is due, at least in part, to the very difficultly acquired nuance necessary to approach these questions adequately, skills difficult to acquire when you spend your time as, say, a history doctoral candidate learning about document analysis or ancient orthography and not on things like what it means to be human, how we can get along together, and how we should think about the things we value most, those deep-down things that we might find difficult to give expression to. No doubt historians and philosophers are very good at making distinctions, but they don’t often seem to know how to make the ones that are needed to gain fresh or clear insight into ‘enduring questions’. This, to me, is a disturbing deficiency.

    Take historianship as one example. Ask a historian what the object of her study is, and she is apt to say something like ‘Early Modern Europe’ or ‘Medieval folklife’. Maybe she’ll say ‘the past’, if she wants to open up with some subtlety. Whatever the answer, she is not likely to recognize how problematic those simple answers are, problematic precisely because they require, at some point, talking about things like right and wrong or about how society is or ought to be, or if there is a difference between how it is and how it ought to be. Unless she had something like a classic liberal arts education, it is hard to imagine her ever being prepared by her doctoral advisors, masters of French paleography and contemporary historiography that they might be, to tackle questions about the good life or about justice and mercy. The value of enduring questions, indeed their centrality as the goal of a liberal education properly speaking (which was to cultivate a certain type of person, not just to impart a set of techniques) must transmogrify in the face of an ideal of objectivity or neutrality, at least as it was construed by die-hard positivists, who neither themselves nor their descendents could ever seem to suffer the foolishness of questions that essentially involve first-person evaluation. Much easier (or more fecund or more impressive or less questionable or whatever) is it to learn how to analyze shipment records of early Renaissance Mediterranean merchants or take up handy distinctions among speech-acts.

    If the population is waning of persons who can recognize as essential and not incidental to a proper education the value of clear insight into questions of the good life, who else will take up posts at American universities? One gets a position precisely because she is suited to do little besides practice her scholarly trade in her campus niche; and if she doesn’t get a post, she might get hired by the NEH to write grants like this one.

    So I’m not really sympathetic with the philosopher, thinking that he and his colleagues take up these questions all the time, who finds the NEH’s wording troubling. Philosophers can be, often are just as parochial and uninterested in enduring questions as other academicians. But I should end by saying that, perhaps, philosophers in their various forms have overall been the sharpest interlocutors in debates about these sorts of questions, sharpest in the sense that they give the most helpful and manageable articulation to the impressions and intuitions given expression in a historical work or a piece of literature. I think maybe this is what Daniel is talking about in his first paragraph above (and I think there he’s right).

  3. Thanks for the great thoughts, Adam (you too, Daniel). I think your points about academic specialization and technical work are especially worth making, and I certainly think that criticism applies to myself. Not that the technicalities of any discipline are a bad thing to pursue, but the knowledge/wisdom distinction rears its head, and it's a symptom in itself that the question of wisdom strikes academics as an odd or misplaced one.

    My sense, being an observer with mixed feelings about philosophers (I recognize the value of philosophical work and I'm trying to pursue a better literacy of it, but I also often fall back into a theological partisanship that turns up its nose at the philosophers), is that the weakness of philosophical work can be its failure to communicate adequately with non-philosophers. Certain philosophers may be in conversation with other disciplines these days (cognitive science and physics come to mind) but there is also a good deal of jargon- analytical logic, continental theory, whatever- that can act as a barrier to understanding. Of course, this jargon is useful to clarify as well, and this is why it was constructed. But the specialization itself required to support such a grammar can cause a bit of disciplinary balkanization as much as it can lead to cross-disciplinary cooperation. On the other hand, some folks just don't bother to stop and try to understand what philosophers are saying; the difficulty of reading a philosophical work should not immediately be assumed to be the fault of the writer rather than the reader.