Becoming the Establishment

by Kieran Healy on October 26, 2004

In the continuing discussion around Jerry Fodor’s LRB piece about Analytic Philosophy, Jason Stanley makes the following observation in a discussion thread on Brian Leiter’s blog:

There is a certain kind of very influential academic who has a difficult time recognizing that they are no longer a rebellious figure courageously struggling against the tide of contemporary opinion, but rather have already successfully directed the tide along the path of their choice. Chomsky is one such academic, and Fodor is another.

This reminds me of a comment my advisor, Paul DiMaggio, made to me a few years ago. He’d just turned 50, and when asked how he felt about it, he said that, seeing as he couldn’t really be an enfant terrible any more, he would have to content himself with merely being terrible.

{ 12 comments }

1

jeet 10.26.04 at 4:50 am

Would this be the “traipses around campus wearing a black leather jacket and Jewfro looking like he’s the eighth Ramone” Jason Stanley?

2

Hogan 10.26.04 at 5:42 am

The American academy is really good at training and encouraging you to be Galileo. But nobody ever wants to be the pope.

3

Hogan 10.26.04 at 5:44 am

The American academy is really good at training and encouraging you to be Galileo. But nobody ever wants to be the pope.

4

Jackmormon 10.26.04 at 6:21 am

How old waS Kant when he published his first Kritik, again?

this statisitc helps corral the Rimbauldians and all their wannna-bes.

5

bad Jim 10.26.04 at 8:18 am

Actually, it’s kind of nice to be in your fifties, still bearded and long-haired, to realize that you’ve changed things in small ways, that specialists in your field are familiar with your work.

Having some money is definitely a nice thing, too. Not as good as being young, perhaps, but a decidedly less perishable commodity.

6

bad Jim 10.26.04 at 8:58 am

My nephew admired my hat and asked where I got it. “At the Tie Rack”, I replied. He nodded, thinking that resolved it.

“On the Boulevard Saint Germain”, I added, to undermine his confidence.

7

Shai 10.26.04 at 9:06 am

“There is a certain kind of very influential academic who has a difficult time recognizing that they are no longer a rebellious figure courageously struggling against the tide of contemporary opinion, but rather have already successfully directed the tide along the path of their choice.”

If you’re Hilary Putnam you can use this strategy every 5 to 10 years:

“my previous arguments for that position were completely wrong. I now believe these arguments which lead me to this new, radically different position”

apparently it only works if you’re Hilary Putnam.

I’m going to be a little bit more serious:

there are actually hundreds of (published) stories about the last 50 to 100 years of analytic philosophy, each written by an author with an axe to grind:

for example see Hilary Putnam’s here, and Rorty’s on his web page, and a bunch of others by googling or index searching for “history analytic philosophy” or something similar.

about Jason’s comment, false rebellion is funny; half the monographs I’ve read claim to be rebelling against mainstream ideas that are wrong, wrong wrong. Philosopy, or Science, or Literary Criticism. It doesn’t matter.

I don’t know why that narrative is appealing, but it isn’t the only way to look at it. There’s constant change in the discipline, so one can’t help being for and against a lot of things.

But back to definitions being an excuse to weave grand narratives. A lot of these pieces tend to be a mix of (a) look at past and present to derive a lesson or two for the future, (b) whiggish history with villains and heroes (or pessimism and villains and author as hero above the fray), (c) prediction of the future of the discipline based on semi educated guesses about major topics that (surprise!) the author is intensely interested in, (d) axe grinding turned into “the history of where this disciple went wrong” also titled “apparently my own little corner of philosophy is the key to understanding everything that’s wrong with philosophy”. (e) etc. but you can frame it any way you like.

8

Ginger Yellow 10.26.04 at 3:40 pm

At least as far as politics goes, I don’t think Chomsky cares about being “a rebellious figure courageously struggling against the tide of contemporary opinion”, or about having “successfully directed the tide”. I think he cares a lot more that mass opinion hasn’t turned, and that’s why he goes on about never being on news programmes. In the context of his idea of a consensual propaganda model, it matters little if the majority of academia or journalists know about, say, Iran Contra, if the majority of the public still think Reagan was a saint, and the media plays along with that in its publications. We’ve got several Iran Contra convicts back in power, for example, and there is still a widespread attitude that America only does good in the world.

On the linguistic front, the analogy might be more accurate – most current linguistic theories have developed from his early work, and nobody outside academia knows anything about the subject.

9

chun the unavoidable 10.26.04 at 3:42 pm

Jackmormon should know not to take the lord’s name in irrelevance.

10

Brian Weatherson 10.26.04 at 5:17 pm

Ginger, it’s pretty clear from the context that Jason is talking about Chomsky’s linguistic work and not his attempts at political persuasion.

11

Jason Stanley 10.26.04 at 7:14 pm

Ginger, as Brian points out, I was talking about Chomsky’s demeaner in teaching his linguistics classes. In my experience sitting in on his classes, he too had a hard time with the fact that he represented, at that point in linguistics, The Man.

We disenfrachised young rebels who are in the business of overthrowing the confused dominant paradigms in our fields are very sensitive to this kind of irrational behavior by the power elite.

12

Marcus Stanley 10.27.04 at 6:33 am

Jason, if you call Chomsky a “demeaner” people might get the wrong idea about his teaching style.

And Jeet: why yes, it *is* that Jason Stanley! And if you think he’s something now, you should have seen him back when he was your age :-)

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