Philosophy and its hope (2)

In my previous post, I wrote on the question of whether philosophy per se, but especially professional philosophy, needed to address the concerns of the communities in which it appears.  Here I will more specifically address the historical problems professional philosophy has experienced by not addressing such concerns.  This includes the infamous fracture between what is known as ‘Anglo-American’ or Analytic, philosophy, and what known as ‘Continental’ (more accurately, Phenomenological) philosophy. *

I attended graduate philosophy courses at the University of New Mexico back in the early ’90s. At the time, the department there was dominated by hard Analytics; a couple aging professors were kept on to teach “history of” courses, regardless of their own expertise. (My favorite professor, Fred Gillette Sturm, who taught me Peirce, was one of these; but his expertise was in Liberation Theology and South American philosophy – which of course were not considered ‘real philosophy’ among Analytics.) But the department was having problems. First, the interests of the Analytic tradition were still determined by the Logico-Positivist agenda; and as such were particularly narrow. The problem with such narrow interests is that they’re not text-productive. There’s not only little innovation one can do in ‘P)Q’ language analysis, but there isn’t much commentary one can write on the texts that did achieve innovation. Thus not only did UNM have difficulty placing its doctoral students, but it also had to release younger assistant profs having difficulty getting published. Embarrassingly, the courses that attracted the most students at the undergraduate level were those the department heads wished would just go away – courses taught by the ‘historians,’ in aesthetics and culture, in Latin American, Asian, or German philosophy.

In returning to UNM Philosophy’s web-site occasionally over the years, what I’ve found is that the Department resolved this problem by, first, handing over the department to moderate (post)Analytics (particularly Wittgensteinians and Austinians), who turned to the ‘historians’ for advice. The department is now notable as ‘eclectic,’ including Phenomenologists, specialists in ‘environmental philosophy,’ and in regional culture and the arts, feminists – as well as the post-positivist Analytics (who apparently continue to hold administrative responsibility and the power that implies).

But we should remember that the dominant voices of the Analytic tradition never really cared about what happened in State universities like UNM. They were entrenched in the IVY League. Quine, for instance, was happily situated at Harvard, and I know of no evidence that he cared a whit about what happened outside the Ivy League thinkers who were his principle interlocutors. The Positivists and their immediate inheritors were content with a narrow philosophy of language, because they had no concern for the professional survival of those outside their immediate community.

This left that community, and the Analytic tradition inheriting those concerns, utterly isolated, not only from basic professional interests, including survival of programs (and of students) outside that community, but cut-off from other fields of research as well.

The point I was trying to make in my previous post is that non-philosophers in many fields, and even outside the academy, have a real interest in what philosophy has to say to us, in terms of the basic interests motivating our understandings of the world. The logical-positivists denied the validity of such interest; the political-institutional fall-out of that has been, in part the reduction of interest – and funding – for philosophy departments.

At SUNY Albany for my Doctorate in English, I’d already found the other possibility for dealing with the publication-impoverishment of the Analytic tradition. In the Philosophy Department at Albany, the ‘historians’ were effectively ‘ghettoized’ (largely restricted to teaching undergraduate courses), and the way the Department dealt with the lack-of-publication problem was by re-designing its program to emphasize the newer, publication-richer ‘Cognitive Science.’ That turn, promising a ‘boom,’ would later prove a ‘bust’ for many departments, as Cognitive Science integrated with the Computer Sciences or the neuro-sciences. Many young Cognitive Science philosophers drifted away from philosophy, into AI studies, or neurology, or mathematics. Why not? Cognitive Science was never about anything philosophical – with wisdom – to begin with. Why waste time with epistemology if the algorithms of neurological responses to stimuli could be measured for AI duplication, instead? – and with much richer grants than philosophy could ever attract.

Around then, a number of conservative Analytics came out to slam the influence of Continentalism in the Humanities. I was rather perturbed that these philosophers had missed an important point. In Literary studies, no precise criticism can be practiced without some theoretical sophistication; indeed every text of criticism comes embedded with some theory, however crude. The New Critics had run a long ways on presumptions drawn from classical rhetoric, Kant, and Coleridges’ misreading of Kant (supplemented by Hegel and, most recently, T. S. Eliot). By the late ’70s, criticism based on these theoretic resources had been pretty much exhausted.

This opened a theoretical void in Literary studies; had the Analytic tradition a rich reading of literature or other cultural concerns, its proponents could have filled that void. Instead, they had virtually nothing to say on such matters. The French post-Structuralists did. Who were young Literaturists to drawn on for text-productive, publishable, theoretically informed criticism?

I’m trying to indicate that there are important extrinsic reasons for maintaining study of the history of philosophy. The Enlightenment philosophers had interesting things to say on a wide range of topics, and various fields drew on them for theoretical support for a long time. But once that resource grew stale, a healthy philosophy should have been able to fill that void. The Analytic tradition couldn’t do that. But such voids will be filled. The Continental tradition is much better informed in the history of philosophy, and thus was able to transmute the Enlightenment philosophies into new, text-productive forms of thought. Before condemning the Continental tradition, remember that it provided a great many young academics in various fields with the source material for publication – and thus jobs and security. If the Analytic tradition could have done better – it should have. It didn’t.

The situation has improved somewhat. Analytic philosophers now seem to write comfortably in conversational tones (important to opening access to their texts to a wider audience), and seem to be reaching out beyond their discipline. But the damage has been done. It is unclear whether professional philosophy in America can fully recover from it.

I have no problems with there being an academic field/ discipline of philosophy. Of course; for one thing there is no other way to preserve the history of philosophic thought; and for another, there’s no other way to advance it authoritatively.

But for philosophy to survive in the academy, it needs to address at least these four issues:

1) It needs to be text-productive, and directed toward expanding the publication possibilities (as much as to say, opportunities for employment and tenure) for graduating doctorates.

2) It must be able to address the needs of other fields of study that are theory-dependent – and I’m not talking about the sciences.

3) It must develop tolerance for variant grammars and rhetorics of text productive discourse (yes, I’m talking about Continentalists and non-Analytic English or American philosophers).  It needs to be ‘eclectic’.

4) And, yes, it must reach out beyond the Academy, and be willing to include the writing and thought, not only of Academics in other fields, but thinkers outside of the Academy all together.

I’m not in the Academy, so I couldn’t begin to say how this would be accomplished.

But during the Reagan era and it’s immediate aftermath, quite a number of colleges got rid of their philosophy departments all together. Addressing the four issues above won’t necessarily ward off the budget-choppers, but may help in arguing against them.

Again, I’ll emphasize this point, because I was there, and I know how important it is. When Literature studies needed theoretical renewal, The Analytics were not there – the French Post-Structuralists were. If Analytics don’t like that, they shouldn’t bother ridiculing it – Let them give professional Literaturists an alternative theory of literature. (Remember, we’re talking about people’s livelihood, not some esoteric ‘principle of truth’ or whatever – I’m a Pragmatist; I don’t have much time for ‘Justified True Belief,’ ‘P)Q,’ ‘thought-experiment’ wheel-spinning. Certainly the future employees at various non-Ivy-League colleges across the country don’t.)


* Just as historical side-note, both the Analytic tradition and the Phenomenological tradition originated in Germany.  The only strong stream of American philosophy is Pragmatism – which, admittedly, also arose as a response to German philosophy.  Meanwhile, English philosophy uncontaminated by German thought, comes to an end with Mill’s later turn toward what we would call progressive politics.


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