Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, May 28, 2011

They cough in ink

Earlier this month, James Ladyman published an article on the appropriateness of specialization, jargon, and professionalization in philosophy.

Here I am concerned not with Ladyman's contentions about accessibility (whether or not philosophy is "for the masses"), nor with which sorts of specialization are good and which are bad. I am interested in the spirit in which one specializes.

I once worked in a magazine shop, which sold, aside from quite a lot of pornography, publications devoted to a quite bewildering array of specialties. (Now that I think of it, the porn dealt with a bit of a bewildering array too.) I spent many hours perusing magazines on lapidary arts, fingerings for classical guitar, geopolitics in Asia, Civil War re-enactments, hydraulic systems for lowrider cars, Tibetan Buddhism, and stereophonics, among other matters. Of course I did not become a master jeweler, a grandmaster in chess, or a Zen master, but I acquired the ability to ask intelligent questions across an array of disciplines and to think about the answers, and what's more, a keen interest in asking them.

All of this did me much good, but the best good was in knowing that all these worlds were there; it was possible to get lost in any of them, and possible to traverse from one to another.

Many of Ladyman's observations are on-target.
It is all too easy to mock and dismiss the recondite work of academics and question its value. When people claim that professional philosophers are producing work of little or no value because it is jargon-ridden and otherwise inaccessible, this may be telling people what they want to hear.
This is a very fair point, and anyone who wants to deride the fashions of academia had better pay heed, for such derision is itself a fashion. Nor is Ladyman far off-target when he says,
There would be something badly wrong if work in the philosophy of physics were as accessible to a linguist as to a physicist, or if work in the philosophy of language were as accessible to a physicist as to a linguist....Most academic work in all subjects is dry and dull to the outsider and contributes only a minute increment to the sum of knowledge. I expect there are people out there whose appetites for the details of snail morphology or monastic life in seventeenth century France is immeasurably greater than mine. I don’t expect them to be interested in the status of the principle of the identity of indiscernibles in the light of contemporary physics.
But the false note has crept in at the word "expect." Ladyman is quite right to point out that not everyone is a natural popularizer and that "civilisation needs people whose curiosity about obscure matters is abnormal;" and my own pedagogical commitments forbid me from prescribing an obligation to be interested in anything at all. But I believe that philosophy is (among other things) the art of inciting interest, and that this art is practiced by example and love. No one can compel me to be interested in baseball statistics or Korean confucianism or mitochondrial chemiosmosis; but anyone I love may entice me, by their interest, into a new world, and in so doing show me how that world was always open upon my own.

This does not mean adopting the same enthusiasm they have--one must find one's own way in; some very pertinent thoughts on this are offered in Amod's post here, e.g.:
To stay entirely in one’s comfort zone and never let one’s choice of pleasures be guided by those whose judgement one respects – this is a vice. It’s a sure way to remain mired in the situation...in which virtue does not become pleasurable and pleasure does not become virtuous. At the same time, to ignore one’s own preferences and passions in the hopes of reaching an unrealistic ideal of what one should like – this too is a vice, one that sacrifices one’s happiness and likely one’s virtue as well. How does one negotiate the middle ground?
If I am right, this Aristotelian question of moderation is bound up with the good old Platonic questions of love and of vision. This is a matter of some paradox, but really it just means that one's love is always for something concrete, and yet one love always has in it a feeling of reaching beyond what (who) one loves. Žižek likes to spin a Lacanian take on this point: the lover is always implicitly saying, "I love you, but inexplicably I love something in you more than you." For Plato this "something" is the Beautiful, but even this, as soon as it has been reified, becomes just one more thing. The Lacanian slogan does not stop where I have put the period. It goes on, "...and therefore I destroy you." This conclusion is the overstated but right enough summary of failing to find the via media Amod speaks of (and which Žižek so disdains). One's loves are themselves a dialectic; one goes beyond and returns to one's occasions, because what one loves in ones beloved (and it is obvious here I am speaking of not just the people one loves but every icon in one's life) is their inexhaustibility; the way they open up the whole world; the light they cast on it, that shines through them; and above all, who one is when one loves, when that light shines on and through us.

Philosophy doubtless must needs specialize, but if it any specialty loses its orientation towards the whole (a question not of what one says but of why), then it has become just another hobby, another distraction, a place to hide-- a bit of antiquarianism, a passion for beekeeping, or an obsession with hi-fi audio. To philosophize is to aspire to be more than an ear, even if one were the greatest ear in Europe. Indeed it is to be more than a "lover" even if one were Don Juan--precisely because what happens with Don Juan is that "lover" becomes what "Beauty" becomes in our Platonic example above--reified, and so impoverished. As technocrats move into every last department and philosophers are either shown the door or pressured to provide results, the specialists who Ladyman welcomes are no doubt the penultimate wave of the Kali Yuga. But what would they say, did their Socrates walk that way?


  1. The sort of 'impact' that Ladyman would make would be that of being repeatedly struck by a large down bolster. Why should the level of detail that he as a philosopher of science engages in be more accessible to a physics prof. than any other intelligent reader or interlocutor with some philosophical wit. It's the old false idea that you can't know anything until you know everything and as the volume of that everything becomes greater each year the pansophist manque is driven back into the redoubt of extreme specialism.

    Take Wittgenstein for example who wasn't even that well up on the history of philosophy. He turned that ignorance into a fresh approach which the well trained, being so schooled, would be unable to manage. Of course it helps being a genius too. He said one thing in his TPM essay which seems quite wrong. "Most professional philosophers study tiny issues because it is only through the details that the bigger picture is revealed." Who are the generalists that put us in the picture?


  2. I really like this and other recent posts.