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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Burke on The Bérubé Moment; Holbo on Hinayana-style Ecological Critique - now with extra words!

Posted by John Holbo on 11/10/06 at 08:24 PM

Tim Burke has a long post up, part of our Bérubé event. He makes two main points:

The first issue that occurs to me concerns the mystery of what a conservative (or at any event, non-liberal) humanities might look like, and of the failure of most of the critics of academia who complain of groupthink, political bias and so on to describe in any kind of affirmative or realized terms the kinds of intellectual projects that they specifically see as excluded in the contemporary academy.

The second is that I think people who want to be accounted as professionals have to have a presumptive respect for other professionals.

Pardon me for wrenching this subject around in my own way, thereby making my own contribution: ‘bias’ is a term with handy rhetorical properties, in these contexts. It designates an institutional failing yet produces the impression that it designates an individual sin. To explain: if liberal academe is ‘biased’ it is surely because when you line up the faculty you find ten Foucaultians and nary a Hayekian in the bunch. But that is not actually any reason to think there is anything wrong with Foucault. Yet once you have labeled the faculty as ‘biased’, in this way, it sounds very much like you have grounds for dismissing - or at least presuming some degree of guilt - on the part of the individual faculty members. The groupthink suspicions are real. But ecological problems are not logical problems. That’s a fallacy. The fact that all my colleagues agree with me that Foucault is right may give me a reason to think a Hayekian should be hired, hardly a reason to think that Foucault is wrong. The conservative critique suffers from ecologocentrism, you might say. The term ‘bias’, which sounds as though it discovers individual intellectual faults, but really refers to institutional imbalances, papers over this limitation.

Burke’s professionalism concern parallels this concern of mine because of how the conservative critique tends to develop. Here we might distinguish between hinayana and mahayana styles of envisioned reform. If so, then there is a bait and switch, potentially. (Mahayana Buddhism = everyone gets saved. Hinayana = everyone gets saved? not so much. The analogy will be with getting to go to college. Everyone? Or just a few. ‘Hinayana’ is considered derogatory by those the term describes, by the by.)

Take this Paul Johnson review of Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters. It lodges two complaints:

First, there is a making do with “‘theory,’ which allows varieties of polysyllabic waffling to substitute for hard, detailed knowledge. To supply the need, this trend was imported into art history from literary criticism.” That is, the things these profs say don’t make sense. (I guess you could say that Johnson feels about ‘theory’ the way certain Hinayana Buddhists feel about the theory that you can just keep saying ’Amhitaba‘ over and over and that will do it for you. Critics of ‘Theory’ often feel that certain French words like ‘logocentrism’ have played a similar role in recent years.)

But what is the need that is allegedly hereby supplied? This brings us to point two:

The vast expansion of higher education in art, combined with the proliferation of museums and galleries, a huge increase in output from art publishers, made possible by the improvement in color photography and reproduction (and outsourcing of printing to Asia), and the impact of “blockbuster” exhibitions trumpeted by TV programs—all this has made it hard for art teaching of high quality to keep pace. As Kingsley Amis put it, 40 years ago, “More will mean worse."

Back to higher education. If ‘more will mean worse’ it’s very important to be clear about whether what you object to is, perhaps, the GI Bill, which allowed lots of returning soldiers to take art history classes, or whether what you object to is Foucault, because he makes no sense. Or some combination of the two. Are you building a broad platform of your own, or retreating into a lesser vehicle (i.e. a smaller, sleeker, swifter, more elite conveyance)? The MLA will always look ridiculous because it’s so big. So the conservatives can do a pretty potent ‘guilt by Modern Language Association’ thing. Plus conservatives have the dubious privilege of the permanent opposition. They don’t need to have a plan for actually governing. They don’t have to answer the Richard Scariest question: “what should 50,000 humanists do all day?’ I am quite sure that Bauerlein, for example, will say that we don’t want the elite option. But that actually needs some filling out, as Burke argues.

UPDATE: the post was sort of incomplete, as written. I left it ‘to be continued’ at this point. Now I’ve actually written the rest, under the fold.

What should the conservatives say? ‘Groupthink’ is a good softener of the defenses, because it primes us to consider the group is wrong, but it is unable to penetrate the defenses because it does nothing to show that what the group is thinking is, in fact, wrong.

Maybe I should try to involve Michael Bérubé in this conversation. I think one of the many smart things Bérubé says in his book is the bit about what’s smart about Ross Douthat’s book (which, I confess, I have not read).

“Not until May 2005 did a young conservative - Ross Douthat, the author of a biting memoir of undergraduate life at Harvard - step up and suggest that conservatives have only themselves to blame for the death of conservatives in academe” (p. 85). Bérubé quotes a long passage from Douthat that basically says “it’s the lack of serious conservative scholarship that’s the problem”. And prescribes (Douthat, that is): “what the right needs are numbers - not an Academic Bill of Rights but a slew of academic converts, a generation of likeminided graduate students who can integrate upwards into the higher echelons of the university, and eventually transform it.”

Bérubé amplifies: “Douthat draws an analogy between such a Young Conservative movement and the New Left of the 1960’s, but a more precise analogy would be to second-wave feminists, who had a deeply contentious relationships both to the New Lef and to the academic disciplines they tried, with substantial success, to transform.” More in that vein - slings and arrows. Then: “It is indeed possible to change the intellectual course of scholarly fields, and if conservatives are serious about doing so, they should expect it will take about a generation or so. If they are serious” (p. 86).

One of the reasons to suspect that - with sterling exceptions like Mark Bauerlein - conservative critics of academe are not serious is that, for them, the costs of being serious would be politically high. As it stands academia is politically useful. On the one hand, anything inconvenient emanating from it can be labeled as ‘biased’. On the other hand, it is a constant supplier of a trickle of Ward Churchill-types, who have their uses. Conservative animus towards academia is a play for populist appeal, and an attempt to appear as anti-elitist. It hasn’t worked half bad for the Republicans since William F. Buckley wrote Man And God At Yale. Getting back to Burke’s point: it’s true that a condition of aspiring to professional status in academia is taking the professionalism of academia seriously. But that would complicate these very great advantages that conservatives derive from not taking it seriously. And that is a reason to suspect a change in attitude is not forthcoming.

I was struck by a similar dynamic in the recent rather bizarre Hugh Hewitt/Mark Halperin ‘media bias’ interview and aftermath (If you happen to have been keeping an eye on that quarter.) For a liberal perspective on it, you can read - for example - Gleen Greenwald. (Start at the top of his October archive and work backwards.) There are links there to the interview itself and Halperin’s letter to Hewitt later. The thing that was odd about it was Halperin - presumably a savvy journalist - seemed not to see how COSTLY it would have been for Hewitt to take him at his word. Halperin wished to present himself as a moderate who understood conservative grievances aout MSM ‘bias’, who was willing to do his part to ensure balance. Hewitt accused him of being a liberal. Halperin grovelled and begged not to be called a liberal. Hewitt insisted he was a liberal, emprically implausible as this insistence was. But what was he going to do? Hugh Hewitt is a conservative pundit whose whole style of self-presentation only makes sense on the assumption that it is necessary and appropriate for him to posture as a polemical outsider - against liberal media elites. If Hewitt were required to be respectful of the likes of Halperin, even on the occasion of media elites coming begging for approval at his very feet, Hewitt’s whole rhetorical mode would be permanently undermined. Hewitt couldn’t be Hewitt if Halperin was Halperin. So it was necessary to deny him. (This isn’t to say that Halperin was wrong to say the things he said, although I think he is. Rather, it is striking that he did not anticipate that Hewitt would try to humiliate him for what he said. Which was obviously going to be the likeliest response, and in fact was the response.)

Likewise, it would be very costly - in rhetorical terms - for conservative critics of academe to shift gears to the point of adopting a tone of respectfulness to academic professionalism, for the sake of enhancing the prospects of conservative academic aspirants. This is admittedly complicated, because it isn’t exactly the case that the Second Wave feminists stormed the ramparts by being all nicey-nicey and respectful. You don’t win revolutions by saying sane stuff. You win them by saying insane stuff. And then the defenders say, wearily, ‘let’s split the difference’, and the result is - something half-way sane for a change. (Alternatively, the result may be a disaster. This is the best case scenario we are considering.) But speaking of ramparts, it’s quite clear that if Bérubé tried to do a Halperin with Horowitz, begging him to acknowledge the basic reasonableness of most academics like himself, the results would be ugly. We get an example of this with the National Review review of Bérubé’s book, by Maximilian Pakaluk, “Typical Lib”. I think Michael himself made a pretty strong response. But I would add two things. First, it is quite clear that Pakaluk is not going to be lightly muscled out of the comfortable rhetorical rut that Bérubé is a ‘typical lib’ - that is, narrow-minded, unreasonable, unwilling to brook dissent, thus easily outwitted by nimble, freethinking conservatives. And if showing that Bérubé is Stalin-lite means Pakaluk has to airbrush away most of the contents of the book he is reviewing - well, that is a small price to pay for preserving the integrity of the party line at National Review. (After all, if it isn’t right, why would it be the party line?)

That said, there is something ironic about the fact that I actually disagree with Bérubé’s Rortyan defense against Pakaluk, which turns out to hinge on this line from Bérubé’s book: “I do not understand how people like Harris, who are so stringently skeptical about religious belief, can insist on the existence of mind-independent concepts.” The context is this: Pakaluk has deplored Bérubé’s anti-realism: “Realists believe that there are truths about the world that may exceed our capacity to know about them; there are facts of the matter whether or not we can bring such facts into view.  To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them.”

Bérubé responds, basically, that he thinks anti-realism about ‘concepts’ is a sound position. But to me it looks like pretty serious epistemological and metaphysical confusion. If you are willing to admit - as Bérubé is - that things like rocks are mind-independent, in some sense; and if you admit that rock - the type, as opposed to any token - is a concept, then you can only keep the mind-independence of rocks by admitting the mind-independence of the concept rock. Otherwise the rocks - minus their being rocks, i.e. the concept rock - are just some sort of mysterioius Ding an sich stuff out there. In short, I think this view is a bad one. You end up being a sort of accidental transcendental idealist, when you were trying to be a shrewd social or linguistic constructivist of a promising sort. But Rorty is a serious thinker, and what I just sketched is only a sketch of an explanation of why severe allergy to mind-independent concepts is probably something for which you should seek treatment. I would prescribe: the later Wittgenstein. He’ll show you how, at the very moment when you thought you were slipping the noose of foundationalist failures, you were merely stumbling into the jaws of the bear-trap of dubious metaphysical commitments that are, collectively, this sort of anti-realism.

But that wasn’t what Pakaluk was saying. He just dismisses anti-realism (which is a serious position) as laughable (thereby exhibiting precisely the sort of unreflective narrowness he is in the process of deploring). “Bérubé is an English professor, not a philosopher, and his arguments are less than rigorous.” This is, to put it mildly, a very unrigorous critique of Bérubé’s position. So Pakaluk had a chance to catch Bérubé saying something confused (in my professional, philosophical opinion); but he frittered away the opportunity, playing ‘these stupid profs’ to the peanut gallery. Why not challenge Bérubé by getting serious about philosophy, instead? Because that would mean extending some respect to Bérubé. You’d have to say things like ‘Rorty is a serious thinker, but ...’ But that isn’t in the script. More’s the pity.

Burke has more good points to make about institutional history. “In the academic humanities, the confluence of Gramscian, Foucauldian and Frankfurt-School ideas about institutions produced a somewhat heedless willingness to see institutional life as politics, to pursue a kind of long march through civic institutions in general.” And “It’s not just a question of whether the professors in English or History are producing stuff that makes no sense, it’s a question of the powers and capacities that academics attempt to assume through expertise.”

Let me conclude this post by quoting a long passage from Richard Rorty, on “De Man and the American Cultural Left”. (I’ve got it in Essays on Heidegger and Others. The essay was originally published in 1989, just so we know when we are allegedly talking about.)

The contemporary American Cultural Left would like to recapture the drive and direction which the left of the 1930s thought it had gotten from Marxism. Like that older left, our cultural Left wants its own special talents and competences - the sorts of talents which suit one for philosophy, history or literary criticism, and the sort of competences which one acquires through advanced study in such disciplines - to be directly applicable to political purposes. (p. 133)

Then a bit further on:

Irving Howe has remarked, with some justice, that this Cultural Left is interested in taking over, not the government, but the English Department. But we should remember that in the 1920s and 1930s lots of Deweyan pragmatists were more interested in taking over the sociology and political science departments than in taking over the government. They had considerable success in doing so, and so students in social science courses were assigned books which made them more aware of the suffering caused by American institutions. The success of de Manians in taking over literature departments will have a similar effect. For the curricular ephases which they initiate wil, in the course of a generation or so, trickle down into the high schools, and the conventional wisdom inculcated into young Americans will be changed. (p. 137)

The conservatives will now chime together in outrage: Bérubé’s own mentor - Richard Rorty - admits it! It’s a plot to indoctrinate youth and take over the country!

Then, however, Rorty more or less retreats to the Douthat line:

The only sense in which we want unpolitical scholarship is that we do not want unpolitical scholars, or scholars of unpopular political persuasions, to be interfered with by those whose political views dominate their departments or their universities. But that is a matter of academic freedom and collegial good manners [professionalism might be a better term here], not a matter of keeping the academy separate from politicval struggle. Threats to freedom and civility are, obviously, as frequent from the left as from the right. Doubtless American literature departments wil, as the cultural leftists age from a band of Young Turks into an entrenched Old Guard, see many instances of injustice to junior faculty who have no taste for leftist politics, or who are dismissive of the political vocabulary of their elders. There are already indications that leftist political correctness is becoming a criterion for faculty hiri8ng. But, with luck, these injustices will be no worse than those which contemporary academic leftists endured from exponents of “traditional humanistic values” in the course of their own rise to power. (p. 139)

Now I fully expect conservatives will find this whole ‘with luck, no terrible injustice will be done’ to be suspiciously breezy and complacent, coming from a liberal who habitually wrings his hands over injustice. (Who is it who usually says: well, with luck this generation of immigrants will not be ground beneath the heel of the previous immigrants, who managed not to be ground beneath the heel of the previous generations of immigrants, and now are the social elite. Sounds pretty Republican to me. Very laissez faire.) This is what amuses Drezner about the whole business. Rorty ends up sounding like a Republican for once. But, again, the Republican he ends up sounding like is, specifically, Ross Douthat. And Ross Douthat takes basically the same line that Bérubé takes (apparently). So there is no deep hypocrisy on the liberal side, although there are serious tensions about the limits of the degree to which professors can serious attempt - or suppose it is their job to attempt - the shaping of the minds of youth. Ultimately the reason for taking the ‘conservative’ line and urging conservative scholars put their shoulders to the grindstone of merit and achievement, in hopes of victory a generation hence, is not that it stings extra hard to get the Republicans with their own talking points. Rather, this argument is, in the present case, correct. And its correctness has a lot to do with academia not making sense except as a competitive, meritocractic environment.

As a post-script, we might contrast Rorty’s view with Stanley Fish’s, just this week in the NY Times (I find his firewalled blog a very strange thing. But this week - election week - the gods of Times Select are letting us through):

In my post of October 22, I argued that college and university teachers should not take it upon themselves to cure the ills of the world, but should instead do the job they are trained and paid to do — the job, first, of introducing students to areas of knowledge they were not acquainted with before, and second, of equipping those same students with the analytic skills that will enable them to assess and evaluate the materials they are asked to read. I made the further point that the moment an instructor tries to do something more, he or she has crossed a line and ventured into territory that belongs properly to some other enterprise. It doesn’t matter whether the line is crossed by someone on the left who wants to enroll students in a progressive agenda dedicated to the redress of injustice, or by someone on the right who is concerned that students be taught to be patriotic, God-fearing, family oriented, and respectful of tradition. To be sure, the redress of injustice and the inculcation of patriotic and family values are worthy activities, but they are not academic activities, and they are not activities academics have the credentials to perform. Academics are not legislators, or political leaders or therapists or ministers; they are academics, and as academics they have contracted to do only one thing – to discuss whatever subject is introduced into the classroom in academic terms.

And what are academic terms? The list is long and includes looking into a history of a topic, studying and mastering the technical language that comes along with it, examining the controversies that have grown up around it and surveying the most significant contributions to its development. The list of academic terms would, however, not include coming to a resolution about a political or moral issue raised by the materials under discussion. This does not mean that political and moral questions are banned from the classroom, but that they should be regarded as objects of study – Where did they come from? How have they been answered at different times in different cultures? – rather than as invitations to take a vote (that’s what you do at the ballot box) or make a life decision (that’s what you do in the private recesses of your heart). No subject is out of bounds; what is out of bounds is using it as an occasion to move students in some political or ideological direction. The imperative, as I said in the earlier post, is to “academicize” the subject; that is, to remove it from whatever context of urgency it inhabits in the world and insert it into a context of academic urgency where the question being asked is not “What is the right thing to do?” but “Is this account of the matter attentive to the complexity of the issue?”

I have to say I think Rorty and Bérubé and Douthat make more sense than this Fish line. But I’ve said enough for one post.


Bauerlein, I thought, really had no answer to the questions like “OK, if you want conservative scholarship, what is it?” His only even broad specifications were about the idea that there should be a canon.  In Tim Burke’s comment thread, too, there’s a conservative who isn’t a conservative *about* anything except politics and a vague feeling that things used to be better in the good old days.  It’s conservatism as boundary-setting; if only we can exclude new works (to keep a canon) and most students (to preserve elitism), then we can have conservatism.  Why would anyone be interested in that?

“But to me it looks like pretty serious epistemological and metaphysical confusion.”

One thing that I didn’t understand from Berube’s book, which gives a clear idea of two types of individual courses, is why the same person is teaching both.  You move from the “Race, Class, Gender” chapter, in which Berube goes through literary criticism, to the “Postmodernism” chapter, in which he goes into epistemology, and a bit of philosophy in general.

To my sensibilities, formed in a bygone age (see, I can be a conservative too) this seems a little disconcerting.  Did someone remove the English department and the Philosophy department and replace the faculty with McHumanities profs?  Does the same thing happen with history and art as well?  (Actually, I’d guess that it does; John, you seem to teach classics and film courses.) There’s something about the blurring of disciplinary boundaries that seems, to my outsider’s eye, to have drawbacks as well as advantages—and the drawbacks are largely those you mention above (increase in groupthink, allowing “polysyllabic waffling to substitute for hard, detailed knowledge").  It’s not that the disciplinary boundaries of the various humanities are realist concepts set by nature and to be discovered by us, but that it seems like *some* kind of division has to occur, because no one person can really master all of this stuff.  Which is not a slam at Berube—I have no ability to judge his expertise, other than to say that he seems pretty good at what he does—but to say that many of the excesses of the Theory discussions seem to come in the cross-disciplinary cases.

By on 11/11/06 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I got a flyer once from a conservative book club (possibly “The Conservative Book Club”, I don’t remember).

What I remember is stuff from the Scottish Enlightenment and English authors of that era, from the American Founding Fathers including some obscure ones, from various conservative economists, some Catholic literature and Continental conservatives, some translations from Cicero and other seldom-read Latin writers, some classic historical works, and some XXc conservative authors.

There was very little junk except for PJ O’Rourke and a few other contemporaries. It did seem pretty thin because literature, social science, and philosophy were almost unrepresented. The list had a classicist past-orientation which is actually appropriate to conservativism.

By John Emerson on 11/11/06 at 09:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, you are sending me down memory lane. There was a long thread at this ... blog? Where was it? Oh, here it is. Asking why so many people were presumptively invading literary study’s turf. I took the reductio ad absurdum point to arrive when the author accused me of not understanding Wayne Booth (whom I had quoted, and who I actually knew slightly at the U of Chicago when I was an undergraduate, and whose books I have read with interest.)

From Booth, such criticisms are located in his career, decades of
rhetorical analysis and writing instruction. The Aristotelian Chicago
school folks are committed to a certain model of rhetorical inquiry
that he’s upholding here. Note his language of evidence, thesis, and

Your sentence (from the paragraph following your quote
of Booth) is really a different, and broader claim. And, coming from
someone outside the field of literary studies, it (and similar
sentences) cause me to question (as I did in my own blog post) why
people outside the field get so riled up about what they think they see
going on in literary studies.

The thing to note is that what is taken to mark Booth’s (the next word ought to be a clue) Aristotelianism as distinctively English department rather than phlosophy department material is the language of evidence, thesis and inquiry. In short, the author of the post adduces the fact that Booth is doing philosophy as proof that, in broaching this matter, as a philosopher, I was poaching on the proprietary terrain of literary studies. (I suppose she thinks the English department is the department of literature and philosophy, the philosophy department is the department of ... I dunno.) At the time, it didn’t seem worth belaboring, since everyone was feeling sore and riled and the point wouldn’t have been taken. And quite probably the comment was ill-written out of irritation. But I thought it underscored the degree of conceptual expansion of literary studies that even the memory had faded that, once upon a time - not so long ago - the fact that something was philosophical would not be taken as prima facie evidence that it was NOT the business of the philosophy department.

I don’t really think the expansion is a bad thing, so long as this sort of knee-jerk turf-defensiveness is therapized away in some way. Booth is a good example about how literary critics have always been at least somewhat philosophically-interested. (All those Chicago Aristotelians.) It seems to me natural for literary critics to be interested in philosophy. There’s plenty of room for everyone in philosophy, who has anything interesting to say; and clearly the styles of philosophy that attract English profs are different than those that tend to dominate in Anglo-American departments. So it is warranted for the English types to think they are working philosophy land the philosophers have left fallow. Also, I think one effect of the expansion has been to expand the set of objects literary critics can take for study. But it is an elementary point that, if you are doing philosophy, you have to be prepared to take criticism from phlosophers, potentially. The Chicago Aristotelians studied with Richard McKeon (the guy the Motorcycle Maintenance guy hates). But in general I don’t think there is so much guild protectiveness to overcome. (The post is an unusually pure specimen of border patrolling.)

Bérubé makes a version of this point at the start of his discussion of epistemology and metaphysics:

I am aware that many professional philosophers don’t see things this way, and I have noticed that some of them can get quite territorial on the subject; carrying on an intellectual rivalry that reaches all the way back to Plato’s Republic, they would prefer that the poets and the literary critics stay out of the polis altogether. (p. 262-3)

This is slightly misleading because there is a difference between philosopher’s imperialistically trying to drive literary studies out of existence (that would be analogous to Plato’s move); and objecting to literary studies’ dramatic expansion into regions that were traditionally the business of philosophers to study. To the extent that Bérubé is right that philosophers are guild-minded, that’s too bad. But I actually don’t think they are too bad about it. They don’t say ‘this argument must be bad because it’s the business of the philosophy department to handle this stuff’. That’s flagrantly invalid, and philosophers have been trained to wipe their noses to avoid that sort of thing. What is more likely is that they will be dismissive of the style of philosophy the English department favors.

I think the expansion is generally ok. Everyone can be in everyone’s business. But it creates problems and obligations. You just have to make sure those get addressed and met.

I should also emphasize that I don’t actually agree with the dismissal of Theory as ‘polysyllabic waffling’ in the linked review. Obviously I have my bone to pick with Theory. But I precisely don’t think that right wing journo snark that conflates an ecological objection with a logical objection is a good way to make the point.

By John Holbo on 11/11/06 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, can’t you say that rockish stuff exists out there without saying that the concept <rock> is mind-independent.  That stuff needn’t be Kantian stuff-in-itself.  It can be described according to, say, its molecular structure.  To say otherwise is like saying either a “snow flurry” is a mind-indepedent concept or a mysterious thing-in-itself.  Clearly, the idea of a “flurry” is cultural—who polices when flakes becomes flurries? 

This is Searle’s position in *The Construction of Social Reality*, anyway.

By on 11/11/06 at 10:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actualy, now that I think about it, a mountain is a better example, precisely because geographers have socially constructed the criteria for a pile of stuff to be a hill or a mountain.

By on 11/11/06 at 10:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I could have put that more briefly: setting up as an omni-competent pan-humanist requires, in addition to talent for that sort of thing, an admission of omni-susceptibility to criticism. Including amateur criticism. Because omni-competence is not a disciplinary achievement. Everyone who attempts this should, additionally, have some sort of disciplinary base of specialist operations, from which they venture forth, making these bold cross-disciplinary circuits.

By John Holbo on 11/11/06 at 10:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I don’t want to pretend that I have an adequate theory of concepts. So I’m not at all inclined to get all high and mighty just because I think I see problems with Bérubé’s view.

Speaking of which, I see two problems with what you say. First, molecular structure is a concept, so if you explain mind-external rock-ness in terms of molecular structure you are still stuck with mind-independent concepts.

Second, conceptual relativity should be conflated with the question of mind-independence. Put it this way: does the mountain absolutely exist independently of my mind? If that means ‘it exists, and there is no alternative to the concept mountain’ then it doesn’t exist independently. But mostly when we assert mind-independent existence, we needn’t be making some sort of ‘this is the only possible predicate’ claim. We might call that the ‘jealous god’ theory of predicates. (The jealous predicate theory.) Thou shalt predicate no other predicates before me. Often mind-independence is conflated with the jealous predicate view. But you can separate them.

It’s possible there is a tribe somewhere that has a concept we could only translate into English as ‘hill or mountain’. Or maybe there are two concepts that would have to be translated ‘bare mountain’ and ‘snow-covered mountain’. And no term for the common genus. If this alien conceptual scheme exists (and it does, for I just invented it) that is no argument against the mind-existence of mountains. Because I needn’t assert the mind-existence in such a way that it implies the non-existence of alternative conceptual schemes. (Presumably the entities named by that tribe’s language exist, too.)

There is a third complication: you may be making a point about what Scott Soame’s calls ‘grokking concepts’. Example: ‘roundish’. Something is roundish if it is likely to strike a human being as sort of round. So there is no way of defining the term, even though it is a shape term, without reference to human perceptual faculties. (A comment box isn’t really big enough for this issue, I’m afraidl.)

By John Holbo on 11/11/06 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson’s point is well taken about nice conservative reading lists that exist out there, and aren’t so commonly met with on university syllabi.

By John Holbo on 11/11/06 at 11:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I could have put that more briefly ...

(A comment box isn’t really big enough for this issue, I’m afraidl.)

You had me worried there for a minute.

By nnyhav on 11/11/06 at 11:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo against too-long posts will be my finest “only Nixon could go to China” moment.

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You may be making a point about what Scott Soame’s calls ‘grokking concepts’.

Ahem, uh, ahem.

Not that John’s not familiar with my corpus…

By on 11/12/06 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

TMB‘s new
favourite booklist (immediately after, elected Conservative MP).

By nnyhav on 11/12/06 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"setting up as an omni-competent pan-humanist requires, in addition to talent for that sort of thing, an admission of omni-susceptibility to criticism”

I guess that I’m sceptical about the possibility that there could be such a thing as an omni-competent pan-humanist.  It seems like there would be just too much material.

By on 11/12/06 at 01:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It was clever of Heinlein to rise from the grave, and even cleverer of him to use Scott K’s amazon associates account to sell his own books. (That way Scott gets a couple pennies. And who doesn’t think grad students need a few extra pennies? Not me.)

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 02:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and one other thing, taking off from Jodi Dean’s thread—it seems to me that the more that you reject the idea of a “realist” universal rationality, the more that you have to accept that what you’re doing in the humanities only makes sense within some kind of disciplinary framework.

The physical sciences don’t really have this problem, because they have this thing called “The Universe” and a basically invarying stance towards it (although even there, there are a few sciences like conservation biology that have varient basic positions embedded in them).  The social sciences are more iffy—as John Emerson says, perhaps economics are at the border.  But for the humanities, a pan-humanism seems like a grand narrative—something that takes the different traditions of the humanities and tries to rationalize / co-explain them.  If conservatives have a point of attack with regard to tradition, you’d think it’d be there.  I haven’t seen much of it from them, which could just be my ignorance, or that the point isn’t good, or (what I really believe) that conservatives don’t really care about substance.  (People like Jodi Dean, on the other hand, write about what I take to be a cognate of this kind of thing all the time.)

Perhaps Berube should write a companion book, something like “What’s Cultural About Cultural Studies?”.

By on 11/12/06 at 02:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, that’s fair enough. I should have just said ‘generalist’, which comes to the same. You don’t need to know everything about everything - not literally - but some thinkers are better than others at being capably omnivorous. I tend to think that generalists make good teachers, in particular. So I don’t tend to think that generalism in the classroom, in particular, is a problem. Philosophers who teach film. English profs who teach philosophy. If people take their teaching seriously, doing this sort of thing is probably nothing to worry about. People don’t usually want to teach something unless they’ve actually thought about it quite a bit.

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 02:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I certainly agree that there is some “pretty serious epistemological and metaphysical confusion” here, on all sides.  I also agree with your take on Pakaluk’s response (btw that’s Harris, not Pakaluk, saying “Realists believe that ...” (it’s on pp. 180-81 of The End of Faith); though it seems Pakaluk would agree).  But I find it hard to criticize non-philosophers for getting into a muddle.  I hate to sound like Emerson here (no offense, dude), but it is really philosophers who have dropped the ball here.  I agree that “it is warranted for the English types to think they are working ... land the philosophers have left fallow” – because we have indeed so left it – and that “if you are doing philosophy, you have to be prepared to take criticism from philosophers, potentially.” It’s just that philosophical criticism – at least from the analytic side – has nearly always been either dismissive or lame or both.  (I can’t criticize the response from continental philosophers – where they are distinct from literary scholars in the first place, that is – because I can’t understand it.) Even Rorty received nothing but abuse until 2000 (see Brandom, Rorty and his Critics for a vast improvement).

Unfortunately, unreflective realism is not at all limited to conservatives trying to score political points by playing the “those stupid profs” game.  Bérubé finds it odd that Harris of all people would press pragmatists here; but it is Harris and his ilk whose own unreflective realism goes unchallenged by (that subset of) liberals playing the “those stupid religious people with their unscientific metaphysics” game.  ("Reality-based community” anyone?) Harris isn’t a philosopher, of course, but Searle and Nagel are no better.  (On the other hand, since they are both excellent philosophers, their Cartesian confusion is well worked out and potentially enlightening, if also maddening in its incorrigibility.)

As it happens, the philosophical issues involved here are insanely difficult, and you have to steep in them for years and years before you can even begin to find your way around.  Your point about the size of comment boxes is well-taken, so here I’ll limit myself to one gripe.  The term “mind-independent” should be stricken from the language as irretrievably ambiguous.  (Does it mean “objective”?  What does that mean?  etc.) This is why I can agree with what I take to be your basic point (including, naturally, your prescription of heavy doses of later Wittgenstein, as well as your response to Luther B – although that should be “NOT conflated with the question of mind-independence,” right?), while preferring to put it in almost exactly opposite terms.  For example, “mind-independent concepts” always sounds to me like a straightforward oxymoron – I literally thought at first that there was a misprint in Bérubé’s book.  (And don’t get me started about “transcendental idealism.") And so on.  No wonder we confuse people.

But as always I may be overestimating the degree of our agreement on these matters.  It might help if you would at some point lay out explicitly why and especially *how* you think heavy doses of LW can help us here....

By Dave Maier on 11/12/06 at 03:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"If you are willing to admit - as Bérubé is - that things like rocks are mind-independent, in some sense; and if you admit that rock - the type, as opposed to any token - is a concept, then you can only keep the mind-independence of rocks by admitting the mind-independence of the concept rock.”

I don’t think I understand.  If every creature with a mind suddenly disappeared, then the concept [rock] would cease to exist, wouldn’t it?  Even if concepts aren’t just psychological things, they aren’t mind-independent in the same way that rocks are.

By on 11/12/06 at 03:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Unfortunately, it depends what ‘concept’ means, rock. (See Dave’s comment, above.)

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 04:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It was clever of Heinlein to rise from the grave, and even cleverer of him to use Scott K’s amazon associates account to sell his own books. (That way Scott gets a couple pennies. And who doesn’t think grad students need a few extra pennies? Not me.)

Foiled again!  You anti-Continentalists aren’t supposed to know German!

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/12/06 at 04:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, rascally kids and what-not…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/12/06 at 04:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I tend to think that generalists make good teachers, in particular.

More seriously—alright, alright, seriously—I think this point is too often neglected in these discussions.  There’s a gap between those who write and those who teach that’s almost never addressed in Culture War conversations; but it really ought to be.  Generalists make good teachers for the very reasons they make mediocre researchers—namely, they read widely instead of deeply, and are able to address almost any issue raised in a classroom instead of having to force their kids through narrow intellectual channels.  There’s a real sense in which what kind of academic you are doesn’t matter nearly so much as what kind of teacher you are, but this gets papered over in 99 percent of the conversations about canons and academic work.

P.S.  This Heinlein fellow writes great terrible novels.  You really ought to check them out before making your next purchase from Amazon…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/12/06 at 05:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

1. While I can see the outlines of a critique of Michael’s anti-ethical-realism, it needs to be stated much more carefully.  I see no difficulty maintaining a realist social-science ontology (one distinct from the Jodi Dean position) while giving ethical injunctions—this is how we should live—a different ontic status from concepts like rock or Aunt.  One of the Rich comments (y’all really need numbered comments) needlessly conflates anti-ethical-realism with anti-realism in general.  And what is all this about social sciences being “iffy” and economics being on some border?  Iffy how?  What border?  And while there are any number of visions of humanities, to the degree that human social existence entails meaning-making and meaning-exchange there are deep links between humanities and social-science knowledge-projects.

2. This is why we need interdisciplinarity, but of course reflective and *critical* interdisciplinarity.  To deal with Rich’s first critique, epistemology is not a minor subject to be left to trained epistemologists—it’s part of almost everything we do, and ignorance of it is costly.  You can’t read everything, but you can read a lot, engage in conversations, and submit your work to criticism by people who know more than you.  It should not take more than 30 seconds’ thinking to see that division into discrete, bounded literatures is *not* a necessary logical consequence of the fact that nobody can read everything.  It would be child’s play to make a long list of figures who read and thought intelligently across boundaries.  Rather, one large problem we face is that conventionalized disciplinary boundaries incorporate unexamined assumptions.

By on 11/12/06 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin, I did try to emphasize that what I was saying against Michael B was very sketchy and inadequate. But I don’t feel that it follows from that that we need interdisciplinarity. I think one reason why sketchy arguments about epistemology tend to predominate is that many folks sort of try to solve these huge problems en passant, on the way to some point about culture and society, which - whatever its interest - doesn’t decisively bear on these problems. And the result is that many people who talk about these things aren’t sufficiently focused on them to really have anything interesting to say. I think IF you really want to talk about what the nature of concepts are, you ought to really get down to it in a dedicated way. This doesn’t rule out interdisciplinarity and it doesn’t dictate which discipline is the best at figuring out what concepts are.

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John my remarks on interdisciplinarity weren’t aimed at your post; I think we’re in rough agreement there.

Are you prepared to admit a distinction between ethical injunctions and concepts in general?  I’m aiming precisely for a more dedicated discussion!

By on 11/12/06 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin Danby: “One of the Rich comments (y’all really need numbered comments) needlessly conflates anti-ethical-realism with anti-realism in general.”

Since there aren’t numbered comments, could you at least quote a sentence if you think it’s worth commenting about?  That way, I could use text search to find what you’re actually objecting to.

But in general, there’s no conflict between maintaining a realist ontology even in the physical sciences while giving ethical injunctions.  That’s why I mentioned conservation biology—a physical science in which the scientists who set it up made a deliberative decision that it was going to include a value judgement something like “biodiversity is good”, or phrased ethically, “biodiversity should not be destroyed”.

Colin: “And what is all this about social sciences being “iffy” and economics being on some border?  Iffy how?  What border?”

I mentioned John Emerson in connection with this, and it alludes to a long-running discussion.  The idea, as I understand it, is that economics is somewhere on the border between the social sciences and the humanities—in an area where method may or may not be determined by fashion rather than utility (at least, that’s how I’d put it).

For the second point, I’m sceptical that for people in the humanities, epistemology “is part of almost everything we do, and ignorance of it is costly”.  In general, it’s built into disciplinary norms so that people don’t have to think about it all the time.  The statement that they do sounds a lot like “biology depends on physics, so everyone has to know physics”.

colin: “It would be child’s play to make a long list of figures who read and thought intelligently across boundaries.”

It would also be child’s play to make an even longer list of figures who routinely tried to cross disciplinary boundaries—because the payoff in academia for attempting anything new is high—and failed miserably.  Actually, I think that your first list would not really be as long as you seem to imply.  But in any case, disciplines are for the large majority of ordinary workers, not the rare omnicompetents.  Saying that they aren’t needed because there are some people who don’t need them is like saying that there’s no need to write down notes because some people have eidetic memories.

Colin: “It should not take more than 30 seconds’ thinking to see that division into discrete, bounded literatures is *not* a necessary logical consequence of the fact that nobody can read everything.”

Well, think about it for a full minute then.  It’s not a division into literatures, it’s a division into disciplines—which are ways of working, sets of methods, as well as piles of specialized literature.  That’s why I used the word “material”.  Sure, there is a rare polymath who can do more than one.  But again, to steal a trope of John’s, there are 50,000 humanists out there who have to do something, and I’d guess the number of such polymaths is less than 100.

By on 11/12/06 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: “there’s no conflict between maintaining a realist ontology even in the physical sciences while giving ethical injunctions.”

CD: Sure but I’m making the opposite point—that one can be epistemologically realist about social phenomena while maintaining an anti-realist position about ethical imperatives.  Incidentally a split of this kind, even if only pragmatically observed, is essential if a procedural liberalism is to inform education, and we can avoid a reductionist mapping of every social-science conclusion onto a political or ethical result.

I don’t understand the John Emerson point about economics you allude to.  I don’t know what you mean by fashion or utility and it is not clear to me where the social sciences/humanities border is or why it’s more than a boring aspect of how higher ed is institutionalized. 

Rich: “For the second point, I’m sceptical that for people in the humanities, epistemology “is part of almost everything we do, and ignorance of it is costly”.”

CD: My graduate training is in economics, so I’m wasn’t speaking for humanists however defined.  My phrasing was clumsy, but I’m pointing both to the epistemological grounding *of* statements about society, and the “double hermeneutic” aspect that the people one is studying also face problems of knowledge in understanding the social world they inhabit.

Rich: “In general, it’s built into disciplinary norms so that people don’t have to think about it all the time.  The statement that they do sounds a lot like “biology depends on physics, so everyone has to know physics”.”

CD: My experience with economics is that people are not highly conscious of these issues, and “built into norms” is a dodge.  Norms don’t think.  (I don’t see how this relates to the line about Physics.) In terms of rigor, disciplinarity can cut both ways. 

I did not say anyone is “not needed.” I simply made a logical point that you cannot derive the discreteness of disciplines from the limitations on people’s time. 

Rich: “there are 50,000 humanists out there who have to do something, and I’d guess the number of such polymaths is less than 100”

CD: You would guess wrong.  I work in one broadly interdisciplinary program among several dozen colleagues who span disciplines; some of them have interdisciplinary graduate training, which is on the rise.  I belong to at least three interdisciplinary scholarly associations, and FWIW I’ve published in philosophy and anthro journals—and I am *not* a “rare polymath.” Rather, a great many of us are pursuing questions that give us no choice but to read and communicate outside “the discipline.”

You’re ending up with a banal, generic description of disciplinarity that achieves coherence only through opposition to an imagined extreme.

By on 11/13/06 at 02:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin, I believe that ethical imperatives, such as the one within conservation biology, are not realist (in the technical sense, not the casual sense of the word).  You are saying that you believe that “one can be epistemologically realist about social phenomena”.  Clearly it is possible to believe this, although I think that it’s more often been an intellectually bankrupt position than not.  Care to give any examples? 

In any case, it is not “essential if a procedural liberalism is to inform education, and we can avoid a reductionist mapping of every social-science conclusion onto a political or ethical result”.  That’s the same kind of thing that Charles Murray wrote in _The Bell Curve_.  First he started with social pseudoscience, which he bungled horribly in various technical ways.  Then he declared that since his science “proved” that black people were less intelligent than white people, that a number of political responses were necessary.  But of course they weren’t—even if his science had been well-done, we could choose to have any political or ethical response we cared to have to it.

And yes, there are many people who span disciplines, and such training is on the rise.  The question is, does it produce good work?  It’s easy to point to a good paper somewhere, but the question is how good is the median paper.

“You’re ending up with a banal, generic description of disciplinarity that achieves coherence only through opposition to an imagined extreme.”

Disciplines aren’t something new within academia.  Of course, individual disciplines are new, and their divisions are more or less arbitrary, but the organization of academic work into these forms is not.  Your banal, generic description of interdisciplinarity sounds like a great new plan from a management consultant—like the paperless office, say.

By on 11/13/06 at 09:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Norms don’t think”. Institutional and disciplinary norms channel thinking of individuals in the discipline, making some sorts of thoughts easy or automatic and others difficult or impossible. Economics is a big sinner in this regard, above all in the introductory levels.

Last I heard, interdisciplinary graduate training was not on the rise. People have been calling for it for about 100 years (For example, William James or Thorstein Veblen). Perhaps I’m out of touch.

Since Plato or before we’ve had the argument that for ethical principles to be authoritative, they must in some way be factual or true. Plato even went so far as to say that ethical principles (or Ideas) like Justice are (like the Idea of the Circle) ontological too—things, in a sense, which we can know the way we know things (except, of course, that we can really only know things through the Ideas they instantiate). To me the mix of ontology, epistomology, and ethic-politics here is too confused, and while Platonists as such are rather rare this kind of “Justice as a Truth which as Real” thinking seems to recur over and over again.

As far as I can tell, ethical-political priciples are imperatives— not true like facts and not real like things. And they aren’t universally-accepted conventions, either, and the outcome is that we’ve have lots of conflict all through history.

On the other hand, there seems to be no particular problem with suppressing anyone who says that law or ethics doesn’t have any authority, or that they don’t apply to him (or her). The non-ethical non-political society has never existed, and there’s good reason to believe that it can’t exist, and in any case it’s contradictory to say that it should exist.

It’s true that if ethical-political truths are real and true and universal, we’re going to have lot’s of conflict. I don’t think that conflict is avoidable or even that it should be avoided. It seems to be a necessary part of the pluralist creative destruction and proliferation-and-decimation of history (variation and selective retention).

By John Emerson on 11/13/06 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich it’s possible you just don’t understand what terms mean.  Realist epistemologies are hardly unusual in social science.  One economics-related variant that I think is smart is presented in Tony Lawson’s (1997) _Economics and Reality_ and (2003) _Reorienting Economics_.

What do you think you’re showing re Charles Murray?  If YOUR argument is that “even if his science had been well-done, we could choose to have any political or ethical response” then that would seem to agree with with my “avoid a reductionist mapping of every social-science conclusion onto a political or ethical result.” And yet you seem to believe that “avoid a reductionist mapping of every social-science conclusion onto a political or ethical result” is “the same kind of thing that Charles Murray wrote” when he argued from his crackpot science to “a number of political responses.” Huh?

I’ve had enough of trying to straighten this stuff out.


John, if you want one straw in the wind see http://www.clusters.wisc.edu/ which is connected both to research and teaching.  Other examples aren’t hard to find if you google interdiscipliary graduate education and so forth.  There’s a lot going on right now, though there’s always resistance, especially since institutionalized disciplines, as you are absolutely right in pointing out, can make things too easy.

By on 11/14/06 at 02:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"It’s true that if ethical-political truths are NOT real and true and universal, we’re going to have lots of conflict.”

By John Emerson on 11/14/06 at 08:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What I think about economics is in process at the moment. Most recently I’ve been thinking that:

1. Economics is a form of expert advocacy like law, and like law has its biases and blind spots;
2. Economics is mystified in presentation (like law), but some economists have come to take seriously aspects of economics which are only for show;
3. Many or most economists would have you believe (and probably themselves believe) that economics is far more predictive, rigorous, and systematic than it really is;
4. There’s an enormous gap between what the leaders in the field think and what the median or modal (in status and prestige) economists think, and another gap between what the latter think and what the generic economic B.S.-holders think.

By John Emerson on 11/14/06 at 08:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin, I think that you’d be less confused if you read more carefully.  In the case of the Murray example, the next two words after “a number of political responses” are “were necessary”; i.e., Murray said that his science required a particular set of political responses—not a choice between sets of responses.

And yes, on certain points I agree with you.  I don’t think that ethical injunctions are realist; I also think that it is possible to have realist epistemologies in social science, although I think that most statements of them, especially those from non-philosophers, are rather poorly worked out.

What I was arguing against with the Murray example was your statement:

“Incidentally a split of this kind, even if only pragmatically observed, is essential if a procedural liberalism is to inform education, and we can avoid a reductionist mapping of every social-science conclusion onto a political or ethical result.”

No, a split of this kind isn’t essential.  If you hold that ethical injunctions are not realist, then it doesn’t matter whether you believe that social science is realist or not.  And since there are some people, as you imply, who believe in ethical realism but who still hold to procedural liberalism on pragmatic grounds, I don’t see why it “is essential” to have any kind of split.  Mostly I think that you’re arguing for your conclusions by pointing out bad results if those conclusiosns were not held, but those bad results do not necessarily occur if people do not believe as you do.

By on 11/14/06 at 09:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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