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Monday, October 16, 2006

Precision and Soul

Posted by John Holbo on 10/16/06 at 10:48 PM

John Emerson has a post up at the Weblog (and cross-posted to Idiocentrism), riding his good old analytic philosophy-bashing hobbyhorse. It seems to me the weakness of the post is that John does not pause to consider that his epigraph - from Charles Morris - might actually contain some truth: “The desire for precision has led for the moment to a restriction of the field covered; and in this sense the movement does not at present deal with certain significant humanistic and philosophic problems.”

Q: What was behind the rise of a particularly narrow, technical style of philosophy?
A: The desire for precision.

If there is a kernel of truth in that answer, then it’s a sizable wrench in the works of John’s post. “These books show how the combination of politically-motivated incentives both positive (fellowships and targeted grants) and negative (firings, threats of prosecution) moved philosophy and other academic disciplines in directions compatible with liberal interventionism and anti-populist administrative liberalism. Philosophy, in particular, moved in the direction of specialization, scientifism, value-neutrality, and political non-involvement - rather than toward of any substantive political view, whether liberal or conservative.”

But if there was a desire for precision, how can you be sure it was the combination of political sticks and institutional carrots we should be putting our fingers on? As Emerson himself notes, it isn’t as though there was dramatic pressure on philosophy departments in the form of any specific rash of firings and persecutions and such.  (What if Morris is onto something with this ‘precision’ stuff?)

Emerson: “The key development for early-fifties American philosophy was the suppression of public philosophy and of normative thinking, to be replaced by specialized value-neutral quasi-scientific thought.” But what if Morris is right about this ‘desire for precision’? How might that change the equation? If what people wanted was to be precise, and if they felt that public philosophy was regrettably wooly, then there would have been no suppression of public philosophy. Rather, intellectually free migration away from it. A certain sort of philosophy would have ceased to be attractive to a class of intelligent philosophers not because they wanted it suppressed; rather, because they were - to a rather lamentable extent (you may say) - exclusively enchanted by another intellectual value? (Or even by an aesthetic value, masquerading as an intellectual value. Mistaking a distinctive syntactic fussiness and rigorism for genuine scientific rigor.)

Next sentence: “The political goal of this transition, as I read it, was not a conservative philosophy, but a politically- and ethically-null philosophy which battled against more engaged philosophies, and Reisch in general confirms this opinion of mine. However, he complicated my understanding of how things happened historically.” Again, it seems to me we should consider, to the contrary, that Morris might be right. If ‘the desire for precision’ was paramount, then perhaps there was no political goal of this transition, merely political effects. The distinction is rather crucial for purposes of explaining the shift, even if the bad effects (if they are regarded as such) come to much the same.

A bit further on:

The positive markers of post-McCarthy philosophy were professionalization, scientism, and a tendency toward formalization; the negative markers (p. 345) were a withdrawal from politics (and public philosophy) and a “decline of debate over questions about values and the discipline’s responsibilities to these questions”.

Again, I would be inclined to argue, against this, that there is some truth to what Morris says. Positive markers of post-McCarthy philosophy included a desire for precision ( I could go on, but desire for precision will do for post purposes). This desire may have been deflected and deformed into empty professionalization, scientism and idle formalization. In general, if you want to list the positive features of an intellectual movement, it seems worthwhile to consider - if only hypothetically - that its intellectual ideals might number among those features. (If you only list its deformities you are, effectively, precluding the possibility of judgment about whether its positive positive features might outweigh its deformities.)

Obviously I’m making fun of John a bit, pretending he hasn’t read his own epigraph. What I am doing, in an intellectually serious sense, is highlighting a weakness of his polemical style, when he turns his hand to the history of analytic philosophy. John Emerson does not personally see much that is lovable about analytic philosophy. He is not positively attracted to it. But it is quite obvious that people have been positively attracted to it. The reason why many people prefered Quine to Dewey, for example, was that they thought Quine was a better philosopher. Why would a person do a crazy thing like that? Possibly because they value precision. (That’s only one possibility.)

A standard polemical move in these contexts is to more or less presuppose that attraction to analytic philosophy needs diagnosis: as weakness, as confusion, as fear of McCarthyite prosecution, as false intellectual consciousness, as a sign of a sad, sad, narrow soul. I love a bit of polemic, but it’s obvious intellectual nonsense to assume such things, and it makes a thorough mess of the history if you have gotten yourself worked up to such a pitch that you find it difficult to talk, in a plausible way, about why someone might think analytic philosophy is the right sort of philosophy to do. The above quote continues:

Reisch sums up Reichenbach thus: “There can be no scientific ethics, consequently, because ethical premises are essentially volitional and subjective” (Reisch’s summary, p. 356); according to Reisch, for Feigl ‘not only science, but all intellectual pursuits were fully independent of ethics and moral concerns” (Reisch’s summary, p. 361).

The losers of this game were not only the Deweyite pragmatists, but also many of the logical empiricists.

But it’s important not to forget that for Feigl, the status of ethics was a conclusion, not a premise. The ‘game’ was an argument - at any rate, that’s what Feigl took it for. In general, the conjunction of two conclusions - (1) philosophy ought to imitate science (in the hopes of enjoying similar, progressive successes); (2) ethics cannot be scientific - may be lamented as leading to the ‘suppression of public, ethically-engaged philosophy’. But it’s important to appreciate that those who were putting forth the arguments to these conclusions were not, as it were, performing a Kantian deduction of the possibility of a suppressed public, ethically-engaged philosophy. And probably Feigl wouldn’t have minded a bit if you told him you thought his conclusions were mistaken. (Unless he was a jerk.)

To put it very briefly: I certainly would never dream of arguing that analytic philosophy achieved institutional dominance because it won fair-and-square in some ideal intellectual competition. (Because that never happens.) But I do regard it as very unlikely that you can explain that dominance without considering the positive intellectual ideals of those who came to dominate - because surely, to some extent, it was the attractiveness of these ideals, to a great many people at the time, that led to the attractiveness of analytic philosophy to a great many people at the time. Looking backwards, it was a funny old dream of precision as the soul of philosophy. Frank Ramsey, of Russell’s Theory of Descriptions: “That paradigm of philosophy”. Still, here we are. No sense pretending it didn’t happen.


Comments

Why would a person do a crazy thing like that? Possibly because they value precision.

I feel like I should make some joke about hegemony and overdetermination, but you already brought up false consciousness, and I think I’ve used up my “always already” quota for the month.

It looks to me like what Emerson’s saying is that there was a selective pressure favoring those philosophers that were attracted to what could be addressed narrowly and precisely, and so favoring the reproduction (in a more or less Darwinian sense, or possibly a Dawkinsian sense, rather than a Marxist sense) of their ideas. Not so much that people were disproportionately or illegitimately attracted to analytic philosophy, but that people who weren’t (like young John Emerson in 1964) were disproportionately discouraged from pursuing philosophy at all.

Which on the face of it doesn’t sound totally implausible, but it doesn’t explain why the same selective pressures didn’t produce the same results in other disciplines (e.g., lit crit), and I don’t know enough about the history to know whether the facts back it up.

By David Moles on 10/17/06 at 04:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, Dave. I’m still working through your book. I’m quite enjoying it and shall presently write up a little review of sorts. In the meantime, yes you are right that Emerson is talking about selective pressure. But my point is that what is properly a good polemical jab is being mistaken for historical analysis. It’s AMUSING to say that analytic philosophy is the product of incidental negative reinforcements afforded by the McCarthy era. It’s not PLAUSIBLE to say that, as I think Emerson himself will grant, with an air of explanatory sufficiency - or even near-sufficiency. You just plain have to add that of course a much larger determinant of the character of analytic philosophy was the strong attraction of certain ideals and envisionings of what a glorious, crystalline precise thing formal philosophy could be. (Not that they weren’t quite mad. I grant you they were.) You get a few of those guys in the door and they infect a few students with these dreams of precision and soon you’ve got a whole nest. A kind of path-dependence. That’s the way it can go, apparently. I don’t deny that the sorts of McCarthy era factors Emerson indicates constitute significant jostles around the edges. But at the end of the day, if you want to knock analytic philosophy, you need to confront the fact that lots of pretty smart people were attracted to it because it seemed like it had good arguments and was technically attractive.

By John Holbo on 10/17/06 at 05:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Emerson’s description seems reasonable to me:

> Compared to Communist or fascist purges, the effects of McCarthyism were fairly mild—the number of actual firings and prosecutions was not terribly large. The transformation of philosophy was effected mostly at the level of hiring, promotion, grants, and fellowships (notably at the semi-military RAND Corp.). Furthermore, philosophers were not actively recruited into any political program, and few (or no) philosophers changed their philosophical teachings in response to external pressures. Philosophers who fit the new analytic mold found themselves prospering, while those whose work did not fit saw their careers faltering. Leftist philosophers who survived did so by directing their attentions mostly toward their nonpolitical, non-social interests.

I don’t think he is saying that the people who studied analytic philosophy in the 50’s were stupid or insincere. Emerson is just describing the payoff landscape.

>Still, here we are. No sense pretending it didn’t happen.

Bush made an argument like that in the 2004 debate.  I wasn’t persuaded.

By on 10/17/06 at 05:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t remember this subject coming up in the 2004 debate. And I really think I would remember if it had.

By John Holbo on 10/17/06 at 05:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s the opposite way of looking at this as well.  John Emerson complains about a “politically- and ethically-null philosophy”.  Well, in continental philosophy we have a politically and ethically non-null philosophy.  Is the politics any good?  I’d say that the politics is ludicrous—not in the sense that I’m a liberal and it opposes liberalism (because not all of it does), but because philosophers generally don’t know much about politics.  So their politics becomes a mixture of overapplication of some specialized theory about texts to all of political existence ("I have a hammer, so everything looks like a nail"), and the historically uninformed rediscovery of questionable solutions ("hey, let’s politically motivate people by using religion!").  And their political programs—well, I might as well include WBM in the mix since we’ve just talked about his work; you find a principle, you demand that the most prominent social example contra that principle among the people who will listen to you be changed, when you are asked what will replace it, you reply “changing the conversation”.  Yeah, that’s a really great way to approach political action that affects actual people.

John (Emerson), assuming that you’re going to comment in this thread soon, have you read Hirsch’s _Social Limits To Growth_?  If so, what did you think of it?  I think that a lot of the narrowing and specialization that you complain about is inevitable, and the root causes, if you want to look for them, are broader than any of the ones that you mentioned.

By on 10/17/06 at 07:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m still not convinced you are talking about something in the real world, Rich. Most of Continental philosophy doesn’t concern itself with politics in the way you are suggesting. At DePaul the only course that did was Figures and Texts: Marx, and so it makes sense when you’re doing political philosophy. You can’t talk about ethics as a philosophical discipline without both addressing figures and problems in the world. You’re confusing discussion of political problems with their action in the political realm, or their own attempt to construct thought and their attempt to participate in politics. Not that there is a hard distinction between these for some thinkers, they would obviously see them as relating to one another in some way, but I doubt any of them think “If only I were President of the French Republic, by golly, I’d show them that the only way to organize this country is through a respect for difference. I’m not sure how to do that… religion!!!” Badiou, whom you seem to be really familiar with, writes on ontology and participates in direct political action, he even writes popular articles for everyday people without a bunch of set theory in it. I don’t agree with his theoretical views, but I like his attempts at political action. It’s very much grassroots and in an ideal work he would add some weight to his action as a philosopher, much as in an ideal world politically active scientists would have the same effect (sadly, it really is a marketplace of ideas and both are badly funded when competing against, say, Exxon).

Most of Continental philosophy is concerned with doing philosophy. Political events often ‘inspire’ work outside of political philosophy (Husserl’s ‘Crisis’ or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness), but it is still an attempt to do philosophy. Someone in politics may come along and do something political-in-the-grand-sense with that since, in some of the tradition, the ideas are just tools. Whereas, I think, Emerson’s complaint is that analytic philosophy isn’t effected as a discipline from outside political and ethical events, it would get in the way of ‘precision’. Not sure if he’s right, don’t do analytic philosophy and not much interested in it, but there you have it.

Your complaint seems to be the same one I had with Adam R’s post, that they don’t actually know that much about what they’re trying to comment on. I’d say that’s true of some and not of others, but Continental philosophy isn’t really a monolith. I’m sure the same is true in analytic philosophy, Russell and Quine hardly seem on the same level regarding political knowledge, from what Wikipedia tells me. And, I think that a form of Holbo’s criticism of Emerson, which seems mostly right to me if it also allows for the outside pressure that Emerson is pointing to along with the simple desire for precision, applies to your view of much of Continental philosophy (which remands a really unhelpful way of discussing these issues, but whatever).

I eagerly await your evasion and redirection.

By on 10/17/06 at 07:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"John Emerson does not personally see much that is lovable about analytic philosophy. He is not positively attracted to it.”

Boo-hurrah, right?

Morris may have been right, but his career was destroyed by the transition —he was one of the public philosopher types.

I have not accused any individual of having done analytic philosophy insincerely—the ones who did analytic philosophy did so because they wanted to do analytic philosophy. No successful philosopher is guilty of misrepresenting his actual beliefs. I did not object in my piece to the actual philosophy produced, though I do so elsewhere.

I’m not talking about why a group of individual philosophers chose to do what they did and not do what they didn’t do. I’m talking about why a different group of individual philosophers found themselves not having careers.

What I’ve really objected to is the attainment of a hiring and promotion monopoly and the exclusion of a whole large category of topic described as “woolly”.

In McCumber, Reisch and in Mirowski there is quite a bit of factual documentation of the way philosophy and economics were both moved in the same direction during the fifties, and the way that outside non-philosophical non-intellectual influences (McCarthy, Rand Corp, etc.) played a role. Regardless of the sincerity of the actual analytic philosophers, there was an outside force helping give them control of the field.

If you read Brian Leiter’s Philosophy Gourmet report, his rankings of departments, his reports on hirings and promotions, what is that if not the report of the head of a cartel (or perhaps a guild). It’s especially noticable when you find that the non-analytic places have objectively been rated lower in quality than analytic places, so the conclusion becomes that less-capable philosophers gravitate toward non-analytic fields, the way that people who can’t get into med school become chiropractors.

I guess I should add here—the intuitively objectionable quality of “woolliness” is matched in analytic philosophy by a contrasting objectional quality: brains in vats, grue-bleen, runaway trolleys, million-mouse orgasms, and the various other hypotheticals of which analytics are so fond. I shall devote myself to finding a pejorative adjective for this analogous to “woolliness”.

More later.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 08:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

precisionliness?

By on 10/17/06 at 09:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You missed an important example, John, the text inscribed in the sand of a beach on a deserted island.

All these things are conceptual freaks of one sort or another. How about “freakiness” or “freakishness” or just plain old “freaky” (with “freaky-deaky” for a more intense version) for your adjective. Gives a whole new meaning to “get your freak on.” For an analytic philosopher that’s just another way of saying “I’m going to work, honey.”

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 09:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Brain in a vat at the wheel of a runaway trolley

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 09:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

APS: “Most of Continental philosophy doesn’t concern itself with politics in the way you are suggesting.”

APS, try the kind of “piety” analysis that you referred to with Goodchild for, say, Long Sunday.  What percentage of the posts are concerned with politics?  Or perhaps the reply will be that that’s just a blog, and you’re talking about professional philosophic work qua academics.  Well, who among the stars from Derrida or Foucault onwards does not have a strong political component to their philosophy?  I’m not talking about political action (which most people involved would score rather low on, comparatively), I’m talking about political ideas within philosophy, and philosophy in response to politics.

Of course individual philosophers know more or less about politics than others, as a result of their individual life situations.  What I’m saying is that, as a class, the group of philosophers doesn’t know more about politics than any other similarly educated group.  I’m arguing against the presumption that philosophy is a particular, informed road towards politics; that philosophers should consider themselves to be knowledgeable about politics in a way that entomologists, to take an example at random, should not.

As for Badiou, no I haven’t read much of him.  More on that later, when I next have time.  It involves an extended comparison between yourself and the people I more often deal with, who insist that people living next to their factory can not complain about the factory’s pollution because they have not educated themselves about toxicology.  Yes, they haven’t spent the years required; no, that doesn’t mean they should shut up.  You are right that I have long practise at redirecting these conversations.

By on 10/17/06 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Presumably there have been valuers of precision throughout the history of philosophy.  For instance, in the ancient world, there was Aristotle, but Neoplatonism appears to have been the hegemonic philosophy by the end of the classical period.  Under different conditions in the Islamic and then Christian Middle Ages, Aristotle made a huge comeback—even though all the while there were presumably people who were impatient with the high-flown speculation and rambling style of Neoplatonism.

It’s obvious that some people were attracted to analytic philosophy, but it’s improbable that such attraction was so overwhelming that it ended up excluding virtually all other forms of philosophical thought within such a short period.  Even if it really was this massive shift in intellectual opinion, then that has to be accounted for in some way other than “Well, analytic philosophy is just that good.”

When reading a lot of stuff from the first half of the twentieth century this summer, it was really brought home to me how diverse American philosophy used to be and how there was just this die-off.  Certainly one could use a hackneyed evolutionary metaphor here, with the caveat that the relevant environment to which analytic philosophy was adapting was not “free intellectual inquiry” as such, but the very specific forms that the American university had taken in the post-war political context.  An analysis that doesn’t take those conditions into account isn’t very useful.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/17/06 at 09:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Public philosophy is still being written. The only actual philosopher doing it I can think of is Daniel Dennett, and while I don’t especially like his stuff, I give him points for effort. He was supporting Dawkins against Stephen Jay Gould, and others (Simon Conway Morris, not a philosopher) have pitched in.

The other public philosophy I like is almost always by non-philosophers: Antonio Damasio, Pinker, J.H. Hexter, Ilya Prigogine, Jared Diamond, Franciso Varela, William McNeill, Charles Tilly.... the list could go on. Some of this stuff is moderately technical but it all has a philosophical edge and is readable as generalist writing.

Pinker is philosophically very sloppy. His book should be rewritten by a philosopher.

Peter Singer is an example of how not to do public philosophy, in my opinion, but give him points for effort too.

Some occasional philosopher’s attempts at public philosophy are ruined for the general reader by their ostentatious precision and meticulousness. There’s a rhetoric of analytic philosophy which says “I’m being very careful and precise!” which flatters insiders and annoys outsiders, especially because the precision is fake. It’s Potemkin philosophy—the front wall is beautifully done and the builder goes on and on about that, but the side and back walls have been stipulated out of the question on the assumption that maybe sometimes someone else will build them.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Aristotle for me is a nice middle between precision and comprehensiveness. Almost all philosophers up until about 1900 had that public-philosophy side, and only in the Anglosphere after about 1950 did it disappear.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 10:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now that I’ve read the comments, maybe John Emerson needs to make a bumper sticker:

“Analytic Philosophers: Mad Scientists, Except Without the Science”

By Adam Kotsko on 10/17/06 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: “I’m arguing against the presumption that philosophy is a particular, informed road towards politics; that philosophers should consider themselves to be knowledgeable about politics in a way that entomologists, to take an example at random, should not."

Public philosophy is a task which can be done well or badly, and which people need to prepare themselves for. Professional philosophy has renounced the task.

I think that professional philosophy’s renunciation of public philosophy is linked to the movement toward technocratic administrative government, where public opinion is expected to play a very minor role.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 11:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If Holbo is right about the precision argument—that a distinct desire for precision is one of the motives behind analytic philosophy - it still seems to me that the way in which analytic philosophy came to this country and what resulted is a little funny. It came to this country through people like Carnap and Neurath who were basically central European socialists, and conceived of their positivism as being consistent with the progressive quality of 19th century positivism. Yet this quality was pretty much stripped from the philosophy that became the norm in the fifties and sixties. If I am right about that last sentence, then (using precision as our tool) we should ask, precisely, whether this filtering process had something to do with the larger context in which philosophy operated. Did anybody in the Vienna Circle, or in the groups that were influenced by it, think of precision as an end in itself? I mean, we know how the process worked in physics - there, the stripping away of those with suspect ideologies was pretty public, with the Oppenheimer hearings being the most public manifestation of what was going on in a science connected at the hipbone to the Department of War. So it is plausible that a form of purge based on ideology could take place in academia.

By roger on 10/17/06 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"APS, try the kind of “piety” analysis that you referred to with Goodchild for, say, Long Sunday.  What percentage of the posts are concerned with politics?  Or perhaps the reply will be that that’s just a blog, and you’re talking about professional philosophic work qua academics.”

That’s not really the point of Goodchild’s work, which, you say, is really just rediscovering sociology (of course you haven’t read his book and are talking out your ass on this). I’m not really familiar with Long Sunday. I’ve rarely commented over there and I don’t get the impression any of them care for what I do much. That said, I always took what they did to be varied. To my knowledge, none of them are professional philosophers and I don’t think any of them are going through grad school for philosophy. Of the ones I know, two are sociologists, one is a political theorists, one is a construction worker, etc. They seem really interested in philosophy, but they aren’t necessarily philosophers. One can read and be interested in philosophy and not be philosophers. But, yes, they seem to be very interested in politics and outside of blogging I don’t know what they do with that. I’m not of the opinion that one has to do what you do to make a difference in politics. As usual, your elitism is nauseating.

“Well, who among the stars from Derrida or Foucault onwards does not have a strong political component to their philosophy?  I’m not talking about political action (which most people involved would score rather low on, comparatively), I’m talking about political ideas within philosophy, and philosophy in response to politics.”

Philosophy has a long history of engaging with politics and social issues. You may have heard of Plato? Continental philosophy, if by that you mean the French folks you are vaguely hinting at above, were very affected by WWII, Algiers, Vietnam, etc. Those whose interests were more in political philosophy and social philosophy (Foucault) wrote some pretty influential things. He brought to light certain practices that hadn’t been considered before and people acted on that knowledge. It sounds to me like you wanted him to lead a revolution or run for office before he can participate in politics, but I don’t see why your political elitist views should diminish anything he said or did. Derrida’s early work wasn’t very political in the everyday sense. In fact, that was largely an invention from his American reception. Later in his career he did some work in political philosophy as such, but his general commitment to liberalism and the enlightenment always had him participating in politics as a citizen (which, you may know, is every citizens right). Did Derrida have more authority to speak on political philosophy than say you or I? Yes, and his status as a pubic intellectual within the local context of France had an influence on politics. Much like Foucault, but maybe less so. Surely not everything they did was right, it is still politics even if you want us all to be pure, but to suggest it’s all pie in the sky mysticism suggests you don’t really know what you’re talking about.

“Of course individual philosophers know more or less about politics than others, as a result of their individual life situations.  What I’m saying is that, as a class, the group of philosophers doesn’t know more about politics than any other similarly educated group. I’m arguing against the presumption that philosophy is a particular, informed road towards politics; that philosophers should consider themselves to be knowledgeable about politics in a way that entomologists, to take an example at random, should not.”

What group of philosophers? All philosophers? You’re not being very precise here. Well, we can carry on despite that. To the second question: no, that’s wrong. Let me see if I can get to why. You’re of course right to say that philosophy is not a particularly informed road towards politics, if by that you mean one doesn’t have to be a philosopher to be politically intelligent. I would never say such a thing and I’ll gladly decry with you anyone who does. All roads can lead to political (or social action) and I would hope that you and I would have the wisdom to acknowledge our responsibility to listen to the entomologist who is political active and whose particular field of knowledge bears on a political problem (or social problem). Obviously, science has been made, under threat of censure and funding cuts, to be apolitical, but many scientists know their work should be taken seriously within politics. I don’t see how philosophy is any different.

You almost seem to be saying, well, I’ll just quote you: “It involves an extended comparison between yourself and the people I more often deal with, who insist that people living next to their factory can not complain about the factory’s pollution because they have not educated themselves about toxicology.” Now, that’s not really a valid analogy. You seem to think that it’s wrong for me to tell you, “Excuse me, you haven’t actually read Badiou, but you’re making these really grand, specific claims. You can’t do that.” The people next to the factory know first hand about the pollution. You’re suggesting that erudite philosophical and complex personal biographical aspects of certain figures (you’ve named four in the course of this thread: Zizek, Badiou, Derrida, Foucault) are like a polluting factory and you’re some poor person living next to them that has cancer caused by those four philosophers!. Now, we didn’t specialize in none of that fancy logic at DePaul, but I know a lame argument when I see one.

Maybe all these things that don’t actually exist in the world are pointing to a deeper problem that you have. I think what you hate, just maybe, is yourself. OK, I’m kidding. But, you still haven’t given any evidence for these blunt statements. You’re not making an argument (thanks John!).

I eagerly await your evasion and redirection, along with statements indicating your superiority.

By on 10/17/06 at 12:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

People should read Reisch’s book. There’s a lot of detail there. I didn’t really review the book—I just picked up some interesting points and ran with them.

Reisch is a co-author of the Monty Python Philosophy Book

And Rich, I’ve had the “Limits of Growth” book on my list for awhile. I’ll bump it up.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

APS, you’re a poor reader of these threads.  I don’t quite know which of your bits to address first, if any.

I’ll just stick with the ones relevant to this thread.  It’s a standard part of what John Emerson calls “technocratic administrative government” to inflate all matters of general opinion into erudite, technical questions that can only be answered by experts.  Thus, I can say something like Badiou is a staunch atheist, and a Marxist who doesn’t seem to have seriously worked in economics, and therefore in my opinion he has embraced a religious discourse.  And you can reply that I really need to read a good deal of Badiou rather than reading only a bit, plus making general conclusions from my knowledge or opinions about Marxism, economics, atheism, and religious discourse.  In this you are in some formal way correct.  Of course, this would mean that no one can engage in a public policy discussion that involves a reference to Badiou’s work—which is really what I was talking about in that thread—without the work required, which effectively excludes almost everyone.  It’s the same thing that you and Adam Kotsko tried to do to Adam Roberts; I’d paraphrase it as “don’t you dare complain before understanding the doctrine of transubstantiation or the sociology of religion”.

Now, I think that I understand why you and Adam do it.  You’re both grad students, and that goes along with a desire to inflate your apparent academic understanding whenever possible.  But of course, as a general principle, this excludes you from just as many discussions as you attempt to exclude others from.  If you’re really not interested in anything but your little corner of knowledge, maybe that’s fine for you.  But the general move, coupled with determinedly uncharitable reading, is the move of an asshole.  Maybe you don’t mean to be one, and don’t understand what you’re doing.

Now, getting back to the thread, you say that the people living next to the factory “know first hand about the pollution”.  But of course they don’t, any more than Adam R. knew about religion by living within a religious system.  It only requires a single toxicological expert to show up and tell them that they need to do the reading first to dismiss them.  I mean, yes, if they tried to publish in a toxicology journal, they’d be rightly shot down.  But that’s not what they’re trying to do.

Now, when John Emerson writes that “Public philosophy is a task which can be done well or badly, and which people need to prepare themselves for. Professional philosophy has renounced the task”, I can see why he thinks that’s linked to technocratic administrative government, but I think that presenting the problem in this way ensures a perverse effect.  Under the prevailing requirements of specialization, saying that speaking out on politics in a coherent way is “public philosophy”, and that it’s a task that needs to be prepared for, means that if that message is heard, public philosophy will be professionalized.  Which is really the opposite of what I think that John Emerson wants.

By on 10/17/06 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I can’t speak for Anthony, but you’ve got me totally pegged.  I surrender unconditionally.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/17/06 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I have defined philosophy as the most inclusive discourse—maximum inclusiveness with as much precision as can be attained under that condition, rather than maximum precision with as much inclusion as can be attained under than condition. As such it is defined as anti-specialist, but preparation is still required.

Public philosophy would be the communication of philosophy to a non-specialized educated audience. (In a sense this allows for philosophy as a specialization, I suppose. Maybe I made a booboo.)

Imagine a physics PhD talking to his non-physicist best friend, also a PhD, about physics, in an honest attempt to inform him.  Any specialist talking to a non-specialist is doing the public-science version of his specialty. Two specialists in two different fields talking about a third field will be talking entirely in the non-specialist public-science language. We’re all laymen in almost everything.

The renunciation of the public-science / public-philosophy role, in favor of whipping up a philosophy specialization, is what I’m talking about. Renouncing politics and ethics is a key part of it.

What I’m talking about has nothing especially to do with trying to teach philosophy to dumb people, which is what philosophers often assume I mean.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Drop your pants and turn around, Adam, or it’s not unconditional surrender. We suspect a ruse.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Imagine a physics PhD talking to his non-physicist best friend, also a PhD, about physics, in an honest attempt to inform him.  Any specialist talking to a non-specialist is doing the public-science version of his specialty.

If I made up the rules of the university world, you couldn’t become a Full Professor without demonstrating the ability to present your subject to intelligent and interested non-specialists. I figure there’s little to no likelihood that any university would adopt such a policy.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam:

When reading a lot of stuff from the first half of the twentieth century this summer, it was really brought home to me how diverse American philosophy used to be and how there was just this die-off.

I’m not sure what you mean here, largely because I’m not sure what’s meant by “philosophy” here.  I know that in my tiny slice of the 20th, I’m watching people discipline hop like mad: William James--who’s turned up a lot here recently--taught the same course on Spencer’s First Principles in the biology, psychology, sociology and philosophy departments.  I’m not certain that the death of Spencer’s reputation among biologists, psychologists and sociologists was a bad thing; by which I mean, James’ course was circumscribed by the routinization of certain branches of knowledge and all the better.

At least, in this gross scenario.  Such determinations are obviously more difficult to make in current “what’s proper to what” conversations, but you can’t begrudge early C20th “philosophy” for defining itself against that which had superceded it.  Criticize, certainly, but with an understanding that analytic philosophy would’ve died too were it not for drawing borders and planting flags.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/17/06 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, sorry in advance: this isn’t meant as any statement of nauseating superiority, nor is it meant to offend anyone, but I can’t help it:
...
“Yes, and his status as a pubic intellectual within the local context of France had an influence on politics.”
...

A pubic intellectual? My favourite kind.

By on 10/17/06 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, John, I think that Hirsch may be valuable to you, because one of his bits is how as soon as you define any task that requires preparation, it inevitably becomes a specialist task.  In terms of the “physics PhD talking to his non-physicist best friend”, this gets turned into a specialization in physics communication.  Can’t the typical physics prof talk about physics without any preparation?

By on 10/17/06 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Preparation for me means something like “doing a good job of it”. You were saying that philosophers per se have no particular insight into politics, while I was saying that, if they do their job right, they will. But that does require paying some attention to the specifically-political part of the generality, and not deriving politics lofgically from the Oneness of Being or something.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"APS, you’re a poor reader of these threads.  I don’t quite know which of your bits to address first, if any.”

Wouldn’t that make you a poor reader of these threads? I know what you really need is a friend to take you by the side and just say, “No, you’re really off base about this and you might want to stop.” But you don’t seem to have any friends willing to do that, and even though I know you won’t listen to me I will just have to keep replying to your evasion and redirection out of love. And, I’ll remind you, it was you who turned the thread into another “KILL ALL CONTINENTALISTS!”

Hmm… looking over your response I see you went with the “not responding to anything” route. Well, we solider on.

“I’ll just stick with the ones relevant to this thread.”

Again, you’re the one who brought in Continental philosophy. So, you’re the one who made the other points relevant.

“It’s a standard part of what John Emerson calls “technocratic administrative government” to inflate all matters of general opinion into erudite, technical questions that can only be answered by experts.”

Right. And, as I said before (did you read my last comment?), I’ll gladly join in denunciations of such actions. Looking through my favourite ‘continentalists’ I don’t see any of that. Hmm… what’s this? There seems to be a respect for work and practices outside philosophy! Even allowing that philosophy isn’t the end all discourse! Gee willikers! Perhaps it’s time to come on over, Rich! They will accept you and listen!

“Thus, I can say something like Badiou is a staunch atheist, and a Marxist who doesn’t seem to have seriously worked in economics, and therefore in my opinion he has embraced a religious discourse.  And you can reply that I really need to read a good deal of Badiou rather than reading only a bit, plus making general conclusions from my knowledge or opinions about Marxism, economics, atheism, and religious discourse.”

Actually, I’ll reply that you’re entitled to your opinion, but you shouldn’t be such a stubborn ass when someone with more knowledge on the subject points out that you have your facts wrong. And, if you look at one of those other threads that you commented on, you seemed to suggest that Badiou’s ‘religiousness’ was actually tied to him ‘getting people all political like through religion’. Which, you know I’ve said this before, is wrong. He’s actually quite harsh on theologians and religious folks, even as he writes a book on St Paul and supports religious freedom in France. And, in terms of his Marxism, it’s not just an economic theory. Or are all political stances not based on economics a form of religious discourse? I don’t think I follow, which I suspect you’ll forgive as I’m cluseless as usual. My guess is that he has just as much knowledge as you do on economics, or for that matter, most of us here posting.

“Of course, this would mean that no one can engage in a public policy discussion that involves a reference to Badiou’s work—which is really what I was talking about in that thread—without the work required, which effectively excludes almost everyone.”

Public policy discussion? Wouldn’t that apply to Badiou’s public audience works? Like his stuff on the head scarf law (A law crafted by a student of Derrida – seems these crazy continentalists have different views on politics)? Or his stuff on the sans-papiers in France? That is all pretty accessible and anyone who took the time to read it would be easily able to ‘reference’ it. As to his philosophy, well, that’s a bit more technical, but I’m sure he sees a connection and if others want to draw that out that seems like a good idea.

“It’s the same thing that you and Adam Kotsko tried to do to Adam Roberts; I’d paraphrase it as “don’t you dare complain before understanding the doctrine of transubstantiation or the sociology of religion”.”

Adam and I did that together? OK, it’s true, I’ll release our e-mails pertaining to the plan to systematically ‘do it’ to Adam R. Though, your paraphrase really missed what I was trying to do. Maybe I did it badly, but no. What I was trying to do, shortly, is suggest that his understanding of religion and religious people was wrong. I don’t think ‘religion’ is a false category, but it all depends on what it signifies. I said nothing about him complaining, that would be to express a personal opinion, he was wrong on some of the facts (ie. traditional theology, the centrality of beliefs in religion, etc). He can believe what he likes and he can be pissed at the Pope or some Imam or the flying spaghetti monster or me, whatever. Frankly, when I start talking about 19th century literature and culture of England and I’m really wrong, I’d like him to say something.

“Now, I think that I understand why you and Adam do it.”

Because we love each other. Isn’t that why people normally…

“You’re both grad students, and that goes along with a desire to inflate your apparent academic understanding whenever possible.”

Oh, ‘do’ that. No, I don’t think you quite got me there. I don’t consider myself an academic in the same way that Holbo or Berube is. I don’t even consider myself really preparing for such a position, what with the job market as it is and my own interests being less and less valued in academia. And I’m in grad school because I’ve always loved school. I love reading. I love asking questions. Sometimes I even like the discussions. Do you really think that every time someone disagrees with someone it’s to assert their dominance? That’s pretty cynical of you, and implicates you in your own criticism. I could say, “Rich, I know why you do this, it’s because you want to show how smart and principled you are even though you aren’t an academic. Or maybe you have something to prove, because you know you’re smarter than everyone else, but had to leave academia to do real political work.” Is that why? Would that be fair to say? I don’t think the group here would appreciate my saying it and, indeed, it would be rude.

“But of course, as a general principle, this excludes you from just as many discussions as you attempt to exclude others from.  If you’re really not interested in anything but your little corner of knowledge, maybe that’s fine for you.”

Yes, I do exclude myself from lots of conversations. Literature? Don’t talk about it outside of the ‘I like that book’ realm. Science? Well, I know a bit, but for the most part I keep quiet and just try to take what I can. Like Bill’s stuff, it’s all interesting, but I don’t have any context with which to say anything about it. I’m really interested in other areas of knowledge, but you can’t learn anything if you don’t shut the fuck up for a little bit and just listen. Maybe some people can skip that step, but I find it difficult.

“But the general move, coupled with determinedly uncharitable reading, is the move of an asshole.”

OH, thank God! You’ve seen the light! I’ve been trying to tell you that for ages… wait…

“Maybe you don’t mean to be one, and don’t understand what you’re doing.”

Oh, you still mean me. Well, I can only hope that I someday learn to read as charitably as you and to speak about things I have no knowledge of with the air knowledge. That’s true intelligence and as yet I’m a mere technician of knowledge.

“Now, getting back to the thread, you say that the people living next to the factory “know first hand about the pollution”.  But of course they don’t, any more than Adam R. knew about religion by living within a religious system.  It only requires a single toxicological expert to show up and tell them that they need to do the reading first to dismiss them.  I mean, yes, if they tried to publish in a toxicology journal, they’d be rightly shot down.  But that’s not what they’re trying to do.”

Adam R lives in England. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable by trying to lord my knowledge over you, but England is a secular state with a pretty hefty dose of religious tolerance. Even atheists can enjoy all the rights that Christians do! Still, I admire the attempt to salvage your really misguided analogy through further confusion regarding it. Because, that toxicologist would surely tell them, “Wow, your air quality is shit. And so is the ground water. Well it’s actually [insert sciencey stuff here], but yeah, in the vulgar - it’s complete shit.” Unless it weren’t, and then the people would be wrong and they’d likely have to find another cause for the increase in illness. Or, get a second opinion, because that guy has been paid off. I don’t know, but either way, it’s a bizarre analogy.

“Now, when John Emerson writes that “Public philosophy is a task which can be done well or badly, and which people need to prepare themselves for. Professional philosophy has renounced the task”, I can see why he thinks that’s linked to technocratic administrative government, but I think that presenting the problem in this way ensures a perverse effect.  Under the prevailing requirements of specialization, saying that speaking out on politics in a coherent way is “public philosophy”, and that it’s a task that needs to be prepared for, means that if that message is heard, public philosophy will be professionalized.  Which is really the opposite of what I think that John Emerson wants.”

So, are we done talking about how bad Continental philosophy is then? You want to get back to the original thread? OK, then. I assume I don’t have to eagerly await your evasion and redirection then.

By on 10/17/06 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Caveat:  I’m an undergrad.
Were it not for people in graduate departments constantly telling me that it were so, I would never have known that analytic philosophy was dominant.  You hear a lot more about continental philosopher types and Theory people from the outside than you do about analytic types.
I always thought that the initial rise in analytic philosophy was due to the influx of both math people and logical positivist types that in my opinion at least, generally reflected what was going on with modernity in the early decades of the century.  The 1900-50s were pretty exciting times for science and “progress” let us not forget, and I’ve always had the intuition that it carried over in a lot of aesthetic ways.  I’m willing to say that up until around the fifties a good deal of the rise in analytic philosophy could be attributed to people wanting to do analytic philosophy.  Maybe McCarthyism had something to do with it, I don’t know.
What I feel like happened after that is a little hard to explain.  Let’s take three factors:
- The general politics of the post sixties era especially the conservative turns of the 80s and right now.  (Granted, I’m not a historical politics person and I didn’t live through all of even the 80s so I know very little about this.)
- The esoteric dryness both actual and perceived in analytic philosophy, coupled with a general suspicion of its methods and goals fostered by
- The seeds of Theory in very politicized movements within academia particularly of the late 60s.
The impression I get of what happened was that the people who were more attracted to politically charged scholarship were drawn away from Philosophy per se and into the sort of related disciplines that Theory was happening in: english departments, anthropology, cultural studies and so on.  I heard almost exclusively about Theory people when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, and didn’t know that analytic philosophy was even really still around. As weird as it might seem, I see Foucault, Derrida and Zizek on a hell of a lot more undergrad bookshelves than any “proper” philosophy people, and I think public philosophy is actually located in the legacy of Theory right now.
As for analytic philosophy, I grew up really continental because everyone told me that analytic people were stuffy, obscure and missing the big picture.  Now that I’ve gotten further into philosophy, I’m rapidly finding that not quite true.  I appreciate “small picture“ people because I can put a lot of perspectives on specific issues together into a bigger picture, I don’t need everybody talking about epistemology and ethics and politics at the same time.  Though I do think that quite a bit of what has gone on in the tradition of analytic philosophy has not been entirely worthwhile, I think that’s a symptom of being in a dominant position and not of the character of analytic philosophy itself.  I do not think that any philosophy can be free of political repercussions but I do think that those political repercussions are best discussed by people who are doing political philosophy and not necessarily people who doing work in specifically, say, epistemology, and more importantly that they should be repercussions and not motivations.  From my perspective, even as someone who is pretty far to the left on the political spectrum, de-politicization in specialized fields is a sign of better scholarship.

By on 10/17/06 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with John H that “[a large] determinant of the character of analytic philosophy was the strong attraction of certain ideals and envisionings of what a glorious, crystalline precise thing formal philosophy could be” (as well as that this was, or devolved into, madness).  But it’s more than that.  As many (including John H) have complained, it is commonplace for critics to refer to the formalistic shortcomings of “analytic philosophy” with the epithet “positivism” (i.e., a Bad Thing).  However, a good deal of the appeal of Quine’s work, even in the 50s ("Two Dogmas” = 1951), was that its careful treatment of the relation between meaning and empirical observation (and thus belief) seemed to point the way past (Carnapian) positivism.  Later on, in fact, he was thought by other analytics to be a dangerous nihilist, what with his insistence on referential indeterminacy (Word and Object, 1960) and even ontological relativity (*gasp!*).  (Don’t tell you-know-who.)

In this context, just as for pragmatists like Peirce and Dewey (and indeed, some histories of pragmatism (and not just Rorty’s) extend the notion to Quine and Davidson as well), the Quinean turn to empirical science is a turn not (or not simply) to formalism, as John E implies, but a turn to engaged practice and away from disengaged “metaphysics".  Of course it shares this latter goal with positivism itself, and “engaged” here doesn’t mean politically engaged; but the terminology doesn’t seem to matter, if the point is to escape the dry formalism of “metaphysics,” whether the Quinean reforms reject “positivism” or simply make it viable — in any case, most people call Carnap the “positivist” and Quine his nemesis.

As it happens, I share John E’s antipathy with certain apparently constitutive features of “analytic philosophy”—even though I don’t care in the slightest about philosophers’ political engagement (I’m spread too thin as it is—do you really want me mouthing off about something I know nothing about?).  Yet this antipathy itself stems from my (somewhat idiosyncratic) readings of Davidson and Wittgenstein—and without Quine, no Davidson (and without Carnap, no Quine), and without the early Wittgenstein, no later Wittgenstein (and in each case, not simply as a father figure to kill but as a positive influence).  So even I am in no hurry to jump in the time machine and strangle Russell or Carnap in their cribs.

In any case, you have to admit that Million Mouse Orgasm is a great name for a band.

By Dave Maier on 10/17/06 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While cruising the web the other day I came across and interesting little piece by Mary Midgley, a philosopher without a Ph. D. The piece is entitled “Proud not to be a doctor" and the deck would warm the cockles of John Emerson’s heart: “A PhD may give you the skills of a lawyer, but it can also obscure the big issues in a mass of detail.” But that’s not why I bring it up. Near the end there is a passage that’s germane to the spasms of rancorous contention that afflict The Valve these days:

The core of the trouble about class discussions is not just gender. It arises from a wider educational problem: how it is possible to teach and learn philosophy in an atmosphere that is dominated by competition?

Institutions which have to examine people train their students in fighting mock battles, and that emphasis on competition has increased out of all measure. No doubt it produces good lawyers. But the philosophers of the past were not just lawyers. They were volcanic phenomena, eccentric thinkers who located new problems and grappled with the issues of their age. Many worked outside universities.

This place is getting long on lawyering and short on dialogue, Socratic and otherwise.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 04:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve linked that one already, Bill. Great piece.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Come to think of it, John, I must of gotten it from you. Thanks.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

I didn’t know Mary Midgley didn’t have a PhD. I really like her stuff, a friend in a science department turned me onto her, and I think she may be a good model for ‘public intellectual’ as well as being able to speak across disciplines to interested and intelligent members of each. Still, am I right in thinking she is part of academia? I thought she taught at Oxford or something? Not that working in academia is automatically a good; aside from Deleuze and Bergson, my other philosophical heros didn’t have university positions.

By on 10/17/06 at 05:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony—I hadn’t known it either until I read that piece. I’ve not read much of hers, but what little I’ve read, I like. I rather imagine that she’s held a university post, but I don’t know that for sure.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My Wikipedia addiction says that she has.

By on 10/17/06 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My memory is that Midgeley spent enough time at a high level in the system to have excellent connections, but that she bailed out of the career route at some point. But I can’t remember any details.

By John Emerson on 10/17/06 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John E.,

Do you think that the rise of analytic philosophy in the UK and Australia had a similar political component?  If not, this would seem to favor John H.’s view that its rise in the US had more to do with (perhaps undeserved) intellectual appeal than with political pressure from outside the field.

Also, I was hoping that you could explain your dissatisfaction with the *current* state of ethics and political philosophy in analytic departments.  You discuss the emotivism of the logical positivists, but I’m sure you know that this is not a prevalent view anymore.  There is plenty of discussion of ethics and a fair amount of political philosophy in today’s analytic departments, although I doubt it is the kind of discussion that you want.  What don’t you like about the current state of ethics and political philosophy?  If it has to do with the emphasis on meta-ethics and moral theory over concrete political issues, then this complaint would seem to extend to Kant, Hume, etc.  If it has to do with specialization, then this at least makes the constant jabs at emotivism seem pretty irrelevant.

I agree with you that the lack of public philosophy is unfortunate, although the relevance of this issue to the others you raise seems to me pretty indirect.

Finally, you don’t mean to say that the traditional Big Questions in metaphysics and epistemology are narrow and inconsequential, do you?  I find myself wondering this every time I hear a politically-minded philosopher like yourself bash analytic philosophy.

By on 10/18/06 at 03:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

David, what I’m primarily objecting to is the narrowing of philosophy and the relative absence of one thing and the dominance by the other. I’m not deploring the very existence of analytic philosophy. Metaphysics and epistemology are fine with me, as such, though I’d almost certainly disagree with analytic M&E if I were a metaphysician or an epistemologist.

The anti-Communist intimidation of the early 50s (it was not primarily McCarthy) can be documented to have played a role in thr narrowing in the US. I have no idea what happened in Australia or Britain. One of my points has been, though, that Sidney Hook for example, who was a majot player, was not a conservative at the time but a left-liberal or socialist(and Popper, a socialist of sorts scarcely mentioned in Reisch’s book, was also a player I think). This wasn’t primarily left vs. right, but center or even left-center vs. left. And something like that could have happened in Britain and Australia.

Again, I made it clear, as did Reisch, that the people who did analytic philosophy were doing it because that was what they wanted to do, not because they were being subservient or because they were willing to play a right-wing role. I’m talking about global effects, and not the motivations of individuals.

The current state of ethics is a whole another topic. I generally dislike the metaethical turn and the excessive reliance on farfetched thought experiments, in the absence of any attempt to inventory the actual important ethical problems we are facing today. 

I don’t like the term “bash” as I see it frequently used in this context, BTW. You guys aren’t victims. I’m just one guy out here all by my lonesome, throwing eggs at your impregnable stone wall in my abundant spare time.

By John Emerson on 10/18/06 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, there is a better answer. I think that Karl Popper is the key. It puzzled me that he was scarcely mentioned in Reisch’s book.

Popper was Viennese but not part of the Vienna circle, as I understand. He had similar scientific and political biases to the others, but he was more a “big picture” philosopher than they were ("World One, World Two, World Three"), and politics was more central to him ("The Open Society."). He also was less leftist than many or most of the Vienna Circle philosophers, and he worked in England and not the US, so McCarthyism didn’t affect him directly and he could develop his mildly socialist ideas in a congenial atmosphere.

There is a school of philosophy in England descended from Popper through Gellner, if I understand coreectly, and they rite a lot about politics from a moderate social-democratic point of view. Stephen Lukes is the only other name I remember at the moment, but I’ve read a fair amount of stuff from that school.

As I have said, and Reisch tells in detail, the targets of the American purges also included logical positivists and early analytic philosophers, many of who who were active leftists and some of whom wanted to write public philosophy. (Two of the most politically leftist of the group, in fact, were Copi and Carnap, but their philosophical interests were not political).

I have heard complaints from Popperians that his philosophy was not taught in the US. I don’t know the truth of this.

So anyway, what happened in the US was not only the triumph of “logical empiricism” and its successors, but also simply a suppression of political thinking in general, including logical empericist political thinking. McCarthyism did not gain control of philosophy, but administrative liberalism / liberal-interventionistism did. But what the administrative liberals wanted from philosophy was mostly nothing. And the politics that the logical empiricists could have given them would not have been to their liking.

By John Emerson on 10/18/06 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John,

For some reason this did not post.  It does not reflect your most recent comment:

I know that you’re not impugning the motives of particular analytic philosophers, but you are saying that outside political forces had a dramatic influence on their success in the US.  Maybe this is just grad student naivete on my part, but I wonder how significant the outside influence could have been.  This is where comparison to Britain and Australia might be helpful.  I guess I’ll have to put this book you’re discussing on my reading list.

I don’t see the current state of ethics as a separate topic, since I read your original post as giving the misleading impression that the analytic tradition is essentially non-normative.  But I guess that’s too big of an issue to get into here.  (Incidentally, I sympathize with your frustration with the current state of applied ethics in philosophy departments.  But for what it’s worth, I don’t see the emphasis on metaethics as misguided, or even as historically unusual.)

I also read (and appreciated) your post on the drawbacks of specialization.  But I do think it paints an especially bleak picture of the current state of affairs.  I’m at one of those super-analytic departments in the Leiter “cartel,” and while I do think you highlight some important problems with the current emphasis on specialization, I also can tell you that there is a lot of dialogue between specialists in related fields.  People are writing on small topics, but many of them are thinking about big ones.  Part of your point, however, is that people tend to take the established methodology too seriously, and I completely agree with you about that.

Anyway, thanks for an interesting and lively post.

By on 10/18/06 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think what Skotchko says about the greater diversity is right. But part of the reason for the increasing homogeneity was the need to train alot of people fast. There couldn’t have been more than a few hundred philosophy professors in 1925. They had to train thousands very quickly in the fifties and sixties. People would get out of grad school in three years and have tenure track jobs at 25. You can’t read Fitche or Aristotle with any sophistication at 25, but you can read Bertrand Russell. So analytic philosophy solved two problems, the problem of “rigor” and the problem of training. Something else which is interesting is that analytic philosophy displaced idealism, which had an explicitly educative function, ie we have to infuse these future leaders with some principles. When education got democratized, there was less of a sense of training an elite, and then and ethics becomes a specialty with its own problems like any other.

By on 10/29/06 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

They had to train thousands very quickly in the fifties and sixties. People would get out of grad school in three years and have tenure track jobs at 25.

And just in philosophy. I suspect this was pretty much academy-wide. All those GI-bill and “catch up to the Russians” students were streaming into the system on Federal money and they had to scale up quick. Lots of faculty had to be trained quickly.

And . . . it also made it easier for some new ideas to get established. Why? Because there was new money coming in. That meant that new ideas didn’t have to take resources from the old in order to happen. They could just attach themselves to this new money, leaving the old guard happy and relatively undesiturbed.

By Bill Benzon on 10/29/06 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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