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.

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Philosophy Departments, Nihilism, Psychic Research, and the Continental / Analytic Divide. And a few other things you didn't think were related. Part i

University philosophy has produced some crucial work, given livelihood to thinkers "important" and garden-variety, and fostered the awakening of generations of students. But we all know it's fucked up; that careerism and the interests of institutions are at best -- and the best is rare -- strange bedfellows with the love of wisdom. Of late this critique got a little bit of publicity in the New York Times' The Stone with an article by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, and then a rejoinder recently by Scott Soames. Frodeman and Briggle write:
Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were “serious” thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university.... Philosophers needed to embrace the structure of the modern research university, which consists of various specialties demarcated from one another. That was the only way to secure the survival of their newly demarcated, newly purified discipline. “Real” or “serious” philosophers had to be identified, trained and credentialed. Disciplinary philosophy became the reigning standard for what would count as proper philosophy. This was the act of purification that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today. As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda.
They see a deeper and more pernicious effect of all this:
The implicit democracy of the disciplines ushered in an age of “the moral equivalence of the scientist” to everyone else. The scientist’s privileged role was to provide the morally neutral knowledge needed to achieve our goals, whether good or evil. This put an end to any notion that there was something uplifting about knowledge. The purification made it no longer sensible to speak of nature, including human nature, in terms of purposes and functions. ...Once knowledge and goodness were divorced, scientists could be regarded as experts, but there are no morals or lessons to be drawn from their work. Science derives its authority from impersonal structures and methods, not the superior character of the scientist. ...
Their conclusion is dire:
Philosophy should never have been purified. Rather than being seen as a problem, “dirty hands” should have been understood as the native condition of philosophic thought — present everywhere, often interstitial, essentially interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature. Philosophy is a mangle. The philosopher’s hands were never clean and were never meant to be.....Having become specialists, we have lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.
Soames wants to contest all of this -- a far too dreary assessment. He sums up Frodeman and Briggle as having claimed:
that it was philosophy’s institutionalization in the university in the late 19th century that separated it from the study of humanity and nature, now the province of social and natural sciences. This institutionalization... led [philosophy] to betray its central aim of articulating the knowledge needed to live virtuous and rewarding lives.
Soames rejects both contentions.
I have a different view: Philosophy isn’t separated from the social, natural or mathematical sciences, nor is it neglecting the study of goodness, justice and virtue, which was never its central aim.
I wish Soames would address the first part of this argument -- that philosophy is "not separated" from the sciences -- to Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, or even Bill Nye, or any of the growing cadre of scientists who keep saying silly things like "philosophy is dead." As for the claim that philosophy was never "centrally" about goodness, justice and virtue -- this is to my mind a flabbergasting thing to say. Perhaps we have reached a differend here, but this assertion is, to my mind, a part -- a very large part -- of the problem.

The ever-engaging Brandon Watson at Siris rightly objects that
"Never" is an oddly strong word here -- the claim is certainly false (for instance) of very large portions of ancient philosophy. (Try to imagine a Plato who did not regard goodness, justice, and virtue as the central aim of philosophy. Or what in the world were Hellenistic philosophers mostly talking about if not primarily about "goodness, justice and virtue"?) But you don't have to go back so far. While one can argue about whether it's quite correct to call it "the" central aim, "the study of goodness, justice and virtue" was certainly far more central in the nineteenth century than you ever find it in the twentieth century.
I do not know exactly where Soames, Frodeman, and Briggle fall on the Analytic / Continental spectrum, but it isn't hard to discern the rough outlines of this split in their contentions, or in their curricula vitae. Soames has authored not one but two multi-volume histories of Analytic philosophy; every twentieth-century thinker he names to make his case is arguably from this "tradition," as he calls it, and the easy rapprochement with science which he commends is very much of a piece with Carnap and Quine, Sellars and Armstrong. There are any number of moral philosophers who one could call Analytical, e.g. Anscombe, Rawls, Midgley (who incidentally is a good example of an anti-scientistic Analytic thinker); nonetheless, Frodeman and Briggle's concern with "how shall we live?" -- and they are both very engaged with this question on (or even under) the ground, so to speak -- it is clearly flavored Continental (Frodeman studied under Stanley Rosen and Alphonso Lingis). All of which is meant to suggest that the A/C split may actually have something to do not just with reactions to the "departmentalization" of philosophy, but even perhaps with its origins. We'll come back to this.

Soames thinks he can argue cogently that Frodeman and Briggle have their genealogy wrong, and that "scientific progress" did not
rob philosophy of its former scientific subject matter, leaving it to concentrate on the broadly moral. In fact, philosophy thrives when enough is known to make progress conceivable, but it remains unachieved because of methodological confusion. Philosophy helps break the impasse by articulating new questions, posing possible solutions and forging new conceptual tools. Sometimes it does so when sciences are born, as with 17th-century physics and 19th-century biology. But it also does so as they mature. As science advances, there is more, not less, for it to do.
But the point is not whether philosophers have found material in the sciences, nor even whether they have contributed to scientific discourse (as has arguably been the case). The question is whether this is a good model for philosophy. Socrates clearly believed it was not, and it is worth quoting Plato at some length here:
When I was young, Cebes, I had an extraordinary passion for that branch of learning which is called natural science. I thought it would be marvelous to know the causes for which each thing comes and ceases and continues to be. I thought it would be marvelous to know the causes for which each thing comes and ceases and continues to be. nd I was always unsettling myself with such questions as these: Do heat and cold, by a sort of fermentation, bring about the organization of animals, as some people say? Is it the blood, or air, or fire by which we think? Or is it none of these, and does the brain furnish the sensations of hearing and sight and smell, and do memory and opinion arise from these, and does knowledge come from memory and opinion in a state of rest? And again I tried to find out how these things perish, and I investigated the phenomena of heaven and earth until finally I made up my mind that I was by nature totally unfitted for this kind of investigation....Then I heard some one reading, as he said, from a book of Anaxagoras.... I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired, and I imagined that he would tell me first whether the earth is flat or round; and whichever was true, he would proceed to explain the cause and the necessity of this being so, and then he would teach me the nature of the best and show that this was best; and if he said that the earth was in the centre, he would further explain that this position was the best, and I should be satisfied with the explanation given, and not want any other sort of cause. And I thought that I would then go on and ask him about the sun and moon and stars, and that he would explain to me their comparative swiftness, and their returnings and various states, active and passive, and how all of them were for the best.... How grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavoured to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and sinews; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the sinews are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the sinews, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture—that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these sinews and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part. (Phaedo 96a-99a)
Watson does not think much of Soames' case, and he musters some evidence in support of the claim that philosophy was aping the sciences, and psychology in particular:
The first clear, definite philosophy departments arose in response to the formation of psychology departments. The first clear, definite philosophy journals, associated with subject matter studied in departments devoted specifically to what was called philosophy, arose in the same way and for the same reason. It is not an accident that one of the first such philosophy journals, formed in 1876, is called Mind
Watson aptly points out that a bit over a century ago, every academic degree was in philosophy if it was not in medicine, theology, or law. This is, by the way, what Kant's The Conflict of the Faculties is about, and of course, it is why to this day you can get an M.D. as "doctor of medicine" from the university's medical department or a Ph.D as "doctor of philosophy" from just about any other department you care to name -- though there remain equivalent degrees -- ofttimes honorary -- in Law and Divinity.

Why then, did "philosophy" become its own separate academic department? Watson cites the intellectual history traced in Edward Reed's work, From Soul to Mind, a work tracing the development psychology. Watson first pointed me to this book in a discussion on philosophical diversity. Chapter 10 in particular lays out some of this history:
Both modern psychology and modern philosophy – as academic disciplines comprising professional scientists or scholars – began to emerge toward the end of the nineteenth century. Psychology in this sense preceded philosophy by about ten years, although it tended to be housed within philosophy departments. Obviously a great deal of jockeying for position power, prestige, and influence took place. In the United States it was only in the 1890s that philosophers sought to organize specialized journals and started to think about founding a professional society (which did not begin functioning until 1901). In these activities they lagged at least a few years behind the psychologists, and many of the founding documents of ‘strictly philosophical’ institutions explicitly refer to the successes in psychology as one of the reasons for establishing such distinctively philosophical entities. Small wonder that the new professional philosophers latched onto the most provocative antipsychological methodologies available, phenomenology and logic, as defining the activity of members of their emerging discipline. (p 200)
Some may want to push back here by asking, Wait, What about William James? Founder of "Pragmatism," the quintessentially American philosophy, and also author of Principles of Psychology? Even Reed confesses that James is an anomalous figure for his account. James never "took" to the new psychology. He also never approved of the way the "institutional imperative of the university ha[d] come to drive the theoretical agenda" of the humanities, even by his day. (See his "The Ph.D. Octopus," though it is occasioned by an objection to the English department in this case.)

We'll return to James -- in particular, his energetic and now completely neglected enthusiasm for psychic research -- in the next post; for now, there are a couple of things to note about the general picture Reed sketches. The first is historical. The advent of philosophy departments was the part and parcel of the aforementioned infamous Continental / Analytic "split" which followed less than a generation later. A few years ago another student of both Lingis and Rosen, Graham Harman, saw the roots of this divide in Brentano's 1894 lecture on "The Four Phases of Philosophy," which you can read in translation in this book, along with some uneven commentary. Brentano writes:
The history of philosophy is a history of scientific efforts, and it is thus similar in some respects to the history of the other sciences. On the other hand, it is different from the latter and seems rather to be analogous to the history of the fine arts. Other sciences, as long as scientists pursue them, show a constant development which may sometimes be interrupted by periods of stagnation. Philosophy, however, like the history of the fine arts, has always had periods of ascending development and, on the other hand, periods of decadence.
This is of course not just a pair of analogies. The investigations of experimenters and theorists like Newton, Boscovich, Faraday, and Maxwell all fell under the rubric of "Natural Philosophy;" even as recently as 1949, Einstein (at least) could be described, in an echo of archaic usage, as "philosopher-scientist" and there was still a chance that this would be understood.

A propos Brenato's characterization, Harman remarks that: "the entire analytic/continental rift is foreshadowed and explained in this passage." It plays out on the level of process, arguably, even more than it does on the level of doctrines promulgated. The usual argument is that analytic philosophy tries to apply the hard sciences' methods to philosophical problems, or that it tries to back up and do meta-science. But Harman thinks the problem is, rather, that Analytic philosophy tries to model itself upon what it sees as the history of science; while Continental philosophy is animated by a particular myth of the arts:
The difference between the two currents... isn’t so much one of content as of professional mission and self-understanding. Analytic philosophy is deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cumulative enterprise, and that the adding up of small discoveries will lead to a general professional advance.... By contrast, it seems pretty clear that continental philosophy follows the “fine arts” model of the history of philosophy…. The progress of philosophy is made not of cumulative argumentation but by the vision of towering geniuses.
Now, it is easy to see how this analysis resonates with Reed's case, and Watson's revisionary use of the case, that philosophy as academic discipline was responding to the rise of the "new psychology." If Brentano's lecture points to an apparent tension in philosophy, the crisis pressed upon academic philosophy by departmentalization turned this tension into a schizoid structure. Not only would philosophers now decide "what would count as proper philosophy" by virtue of who was in or outside of institutional circles, they would wind up squabbling within the institution as well, until Analytic philosophers would deny that Continental philosophy was philosophy at all, and we got things like Quine signing a letter protesting Derrida's receiving an honorary degree, claiming that "In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour."

So much, then, for the historical question.

But a deeper and more unsettling question also arises. If we play this history forward, perhaps we are now living through the endgame of this untenable arrangement? That will be the starting point for Part 2.

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