Disciplinary pecking order, what defines theory, what is a philosopher, and other musings

by Michèle Lamont on June 8, 2009

Thanks to Crooked Timber for this invitation to serve as guest blogger—it’s exciting.

To get us started, I  respond to the recent discussion here at Crooked Timber in response to Harry’s post   prompted by what I write about philosophers in How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment.

1) What is a philosopher? Since weed was evoked in the thread, here is a sociological definition, which builds on Howard Becker’s famous 1963 paper “On Becoming a Marijuana Smoker“: Is recognized as a philosopher someone who labels himself and is labeled by others as such. No essentialism here. Only a social process of definition of identity, which is bounded by institutional constraints (e.g. whether one is paid to be a lecturer in philosophy), and by cultural/cognitive constraints as well (i.e. one has to have some knowledge of the disciplinary cannon). No need to be an innovator in the field, as the term generally encompasses consumers and diffusers.

2) Many of the comments in response to Harry’s post about my book concerned disciplinary pecking order and dismissal: whether philosophers have intellectual/emotional dispositions that preclude free interdisciplinary exchange of ideas. Or whether they are too concerned with their own status or with making claims for philosophy as the queen of the disciplines (encompassing others) to be open to interchange (to be contrasted with top-down proselytizing). Instead of debating the true nature of philosophers, it may be helpful to think about disciplinary boundary work as a fundamental rhetorical/practical type of action in which all academics/intellectuals engage to boost their position.  Much of what we do besides producing knowledge is trying to influence the relative positioning place of this knowledge in pecking orders (that’s what intellectual legitimacy/centrality/truth is about). See Bourdieu’s Homo academicus. Note however than in How Professors Think, I argue contra Bourdieu that academia is not all about power. It is also about pleasure (lots of it), curiosity, relationships, finding meaning to one’s life. Surprisingly enough, as a breed, academics do have varied selves. And we do have self-concepts (generally ignored in the literature on this group, or by academics themselves).

3) The relationship between philosophy and the humanities—where is it going in substantive terms? Is philosophy truly so disciplinarily isolated? With the progressive importation of French structuralism and post-structuralism over the last thirty some years, “European theory” – which generally means French, but also German and sometimes British theory) has become lingua franca across a number of humanities disciplines and interpretive social sciences and has allowed English and comparative literature experts to converse with art historians, architects, musicologists, anthropologists, etc. In philosophy, the continental tradition remained marginal. The influence of analytical philosophy facilitated other forms of interdisciplinary exchanges with fields such as cognitive psychology, linguistics, legal theory, etc. We have many forms of interdisciplinary dialogues, which function on different kinds of shared cognitive platforms – different currencies.

Perhaps what I saw in the panels I observed in the context of my study (fellowship panels organized by the American Council for Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, a Society of Fellows, etc.)—the isolation of philosophy, the need for program officers to remind panelists to “be kind” toward the field (to exercise what I called “disciplinary affirmative action”)—is a function of the composition of the multidisciplinary panels I studied (which were made up of humanists and social scientists). Even if it were the case, it remains that philosophers are singled out by panelists for their inability to explain why their research is significant socially or intellectually. Conversely, historians are viewed as excelling at this, in part because they write particularly well and are in touch with (i.e. feeding and being fed by) broader interdisciplinary conversations. Unsurprisingly, history is also repeatedly identified as the discipline that receives the most awards in the competitions I studied. I describe it as “the other consensual discipline” after economics – but in the case of history, the consensus depends on a shared sense of what defines good craftsmanship, while in economics, it depends on a common “blackboxing” (a term borrowed from Bruno Latour) based on mathematical formalism. But this should be the topic of another post altogether.

4) Is philosophy practiced outside philosophy? Commenters have noted that theory is found across many fields, but with different meanings associated with it, and in some cases, it is equated with philosophy. Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” is useful here, as theory takes on a similar set of characteristics at its core (abstractness, reference to a historical cannon, and dialogue with the past) even if it varies enormously in its concrete manifestations (in political theory, ethics, sociological theory, literature theory, etc.).

{ 107 comments }

1

Neil 06.08.09 at 12:47 pm

Might the difficulty philosophers face in explaining the social and intellectual importance of their work be a product of the composition of the groups to whom they were attempting to explain it? I have a background in traditional humanities as well as philosophy, so I think I could overcome the barriers. But many of my colleagues are more at home talking to psychologists and neuroscientists rather than historians, and I think this would be reflected in the ease with which they could explain why their research matters.

It may be that part of the air oif superiority detected by some on the part of philosophers is also a function of the composition of the groups. We philosophers feel superior to theory types, because they are doing philosophy too; they’re just doing it badly. We don’t feel superior to historians or psychologists, because they’re doing what they do better than we could, and vice-versa.

2

Steve LaBonne 06.08.09 at 1:08 pm

As an outsider (applied scientist no longer in academia) I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on whether this phenomenon:

But many of my colleagues are more at home talking to psychologists and neuroscientists rather than historians…

might contribute to this one:

Even if it were the case, it remains that philosophers are singled out by panelists for their inability to explain why their research is significant socially or intellectually.

via the anti-science sentiments prevalent among a small but vocal minority of humanists and social scientists.

3

dsquared 06.08.09 at 1:09 pm

We philosophers feel superior to theory types, because they are doing philosophy too; they’re just doing it badly

by what criterion?

4

Walt 06.08.09 at 1:29 pm

The excellence in nitpickery criterion, of course.

5

Music of the Spherical Quotients 06.08.09 at 1:45 pm

I think this is a fascinating issue, and I’m really glad someone is taking it seriously.

As I see it, the root of the problem involves figuring out how to do humanities (or philosophy) in the modern science-saturated world: the (extreme) “theory types” reject science and its canons, and can sometimes produce vacuous gibberish (“the phallus is the square root of negative 1” and so on). Philosophers respect quasi-scientific standards of rational argument, but aren’t interested in performing experiments; as a result, they’re left arguing rationally about whatever minutiae are susceptible to pure thought. (In this sense, philosophers embrace only half the scientific project — despite their self-image as standing foursquare with the scientists against the unwashed.) On this side, the risk is finicky triviality rather than vacuous gibberish.

From the outside, it’s easy to think that there are intrinsic problems in both areas — problems that are as much substantive as sociological. At the same time, good work no doubt gets done in all disciplines: if you’re genuinely creative, and really trying hard to ask meaningful questions, it’s possible, no matter what your departmental affiliation is.

6

Steve LaBonne 06.08.09 at 1:50 pm

<blockquotePhilosophers respect quasi-scientific standards of rational argument…

Standards of rational argument vastly predate anything resembling modern science.

7

dsquared 06.08.09 at 1:56 pm

Philosophers respect quasi-scientific standards of rational argument

since the whole subject at issue is the sociology of knowledge, the phrase “scientific standards of rational argument” perhaps needs consideration here.

8

Chris Bertram 06.08.09 at 2:29 pm

I agree that “analytical” philosophers tend to make cross-disciplinary connections outside of the humanities, usually with the natural or social sciences or with law. Relations with the humanities haven’t been so good. I’m sure we don’t do ourselves any favours by being aloof, arrogant etc, but I think part of the reason is that colleagues in the humanities want philosophy (or “theory”) for purposes for which our style of philosophy is ill-suited.

Roughly speaking, people working in history, or classics, or French studies or whatever want theory to provide them with a hook or an angle which will enable them to generate the next round of research papers. Appropriating the work of continental theorist X for this purpose (even half-understood or distorted) tends to be pretty easy (cf film studies and Zizek). Appropriating Kripke or Timothy Williamson or Davidson or Lewis for such purposes is hard to impossible.

Incidentally, I don’t think the assimilation of analytical philosophy to some kind of scientism above is on-track at all. Sure, there are scientistic philosophers in the analytical tradition, but there are plenty of anti-naturalists too. And both sides are doing recognizably the same kind of thing to one another, which differs enormously from “theory”. I’d struggle, though, to set out exactly all the respects in which it does differ. One temptation is to say that analytical philosophers tend to be anti-relativists even if they can’t agree on what truth and knowledge amount to, whereas “theorists” in the humanities tend to be relativists (often in ways that APs think are obviously self-defeating). But I’d sure that doesn’t map exactly onto the boundary between the two camps.

9

John Protevi 06.08.09 at 2:31 pm

I’d just like to point out that the “continental philosophy is a ghetto for literary types not interested in and having nothing to say to analytic philosophy which concerns itself with science” trope ignores the whole 4EA (enactive, embodied, extended, embedded, affective) school of cognitive science, which dates back at least to Dreyfus. The continental figures drawn on my this school include Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty (at least — I’m trying to bring Deleuze into this picture), and the current practitioners include Dreyfus himself, Mike Wheeler, Andy Clark, Evan Thompson, Alva Noe, Shaun Gallagher, Dan Zahavi, Sean Kelly, and many, many others (apologies to those not named). The school also included, before their untimely deaths, Susan Hurley and Francisco Varela.

If you’ll forgive the self-promotion, I’d like to mention that I’m co-editor (along with Mike Wheeler) of a book series with Palgrave Macmillan devoted to this school: http://www.palgrave.com/philosophy/ndpcs.asp.

10

dsquared 06.08.09 at 2:48 pm

Appropriating Kripke or Timothy Williamson or Davidson or Lewis for such purposes is hard to impossible

so in other words, the reason why “philosophers are singled out by panelists for their inability to explain why their research is significant socially or intellectually” is that (to those panelists anyway), it isn’t?

Having said that, one wouldn’t necessarily expect everyone working in a field to have material which would be interesting to anyone outside that field, particularly given that every field is going to have a lot of people working in it who basically spend their time on reworking and improving the methodological toolkit. So for example lots of philosophers cite and talk to Amartya Sen or Ken Binmore, but that wouldn’t mean that that one would expect they’d find anything interesting or useful in the average journal article on intertemporal optimisation, even though Sen and/or Binore would. So the question’s not whether humanities types ought to be able to find anything useful in Kripke et al, but whether a) there is some sort of equivalent Sen figure who they would find useful? and b) whether it matters if there isn’t?

11

Chris Bertram 06.08.09 at 2:51 pm

_so in other words, the reason why “philosophers are singled out by panelists for their inability to explain why their research is significant socially or intellectually” is that (to those panelists anyway), it isn’t?_

No. That wasn’t what I said. I said that their work isn’t easily appropriable for the purposes for which scholars in the _humanities_ want theory. Something might be very significant socially or intellectually and yet be useless as a hook for film criticism etc.

12

Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 2:52 pm

3: And by what criterion is that criterion to be measured etc etc? Let’s proceed empirically: give a philosopher a bit of Theory-as-bad-philosophy to play with and see what happens to it. It’s considered a rather disreputable activity, like pulling the wings off flies, (and a forlorn one – perhaps biting the pseudopods off protozoa?) but in the interests of experimental vivisection, a dispensation could be made.

4: what a lousy remark.

The criterion ‘problem’ may be relevant to the canvassed difficulty in explaining why their research is significant socially or intellectually (I suspect that, e.g., the purest of pure mathematicians aren’t expected to do any such thing.) To hazard a bold assertion, philosophy (not to be confused with philosophers) is unique – which is not to say ‘special’ in some morally or axiologically loaded sense – because it doesn’t have a well-demarcated subject matter or indeed really any specialised methodology (everyone – usually in academia rightly – thinks they can do logic, clarity etc. well enough for ther own purposes). [just refreshed page and seen #5 which, subject to #6, is on similar lines]

Still boldly hazarding: surely relevant – and not much discussed on either thread – is the history of what has been called ‘philosophy’: one (stylised) view might be that philosophy is what’s left of general inquiry when all the specialised disciplines for which distinctive/canonical methods or presuppositions have so far been generated have been hived off into their own departments, with any philosophical advances useful to them being handed over for their use, the philosophical work done.

13

dsquared 06.08.09 at 3:16 pm

that was the point of the bit I put in brackets – the panelists Michele studied were in humanities and social sciences, and so presumably large chunks of analytical philosophy, Kripke etc weren’t significant to them, in the same way in which developments in stem cell therapy, while very socially and intellectually significant, aren’t particularly significant to somebody working on a thesis on Kripke. But the question remains – are there any other people doing (however defined) analytical philosophy whose work might be useful as a hook for film criticism or development economics, and if not, why do so many people who organise panels for a living think there ought to be?

14

dsquared 06.08.09 at 3:25 pm

#12: the canvassed difficulty in explaining why their research is significant socially or intellectually

As in my #13, if you closely read the sentence, it’s not a question of whether the research is intrinsically significant socially, intellectually etc, as to whether it’s sig. soc & int to a particular panel. You could put Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking together, and if they were put on a cross-disciplinary panel to explain the int.&soc.sig of their work to the field of sewage works management, they’d be out of luck (and vice versa for a sewage works engineer, who also does interesting work, explaining developments in his field to evolutionary psychologists and string theorists).

15

Chris Bertram 06.08.09 at 3:40 pm

#13, 14

But this strikes me as just odd. If I were on a cross-disciplinary panel invited to evaluate the worthiness of a proposal on 17th-century French poetry (or whatever) for funding, and I was asked about the social or intellectual significance of the work, I just wouldn’t take the question to be about its social or intellectual significance _for my own work_. I’d take the question to be broader than that. Hard to see why a specialist in French poetry shouldn’t take the same attitude (as I would have to her work) when considering a proposal to fund research on foundationalism in epistemology (for example).

16

Harry 06.08.09 at 3:49 pm

Except that there often are things in analytical philosophy that would be interesting to them (this was a point in my post). Suppose you are interested in “events”. You might find Barry Taylor’s work interesting, or some contemporary analytic work on causation (eg my soon-to-be former colleague, Carolina Sartiorio’s work, or my colleague Dan Hausman’s now not so recent book). It would be odd if you didn’t, frankly. Now, my guess is that neither of those colleagues of mine have thought much about how literary theorists think about events; and maybe it would help them to get funding if they did, though I doubt it would help them do the work that they are doing.

A lot of research proposals I have seen in the humanities do more than touch on ethics — they make normative claims about changes in human affairs within particular societies or within interpersonal relationships. Very often it is obvious to me what the flaws are in their sketchy arguments, and equally obvious that they have not consulted the work in ethics that would help them to make the arguments more rigourously (without thereby being drawn into doing analytic ethics). This is irritating, but it is also evidence (which you just have to trust me on, because I’m not going to name names) that philosophy could be more valuable to people than they perceive it to be.

All of that said, I’ll give an example where reading something that I think counts as cultural studies helped me enormously. I read Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood a few years ago (my wife read it for a class and made its central thesis sound so preposterous that I had to read it). I discovered by reading it that the claim that “X is socially constructed in some quite deep sense” is completely orthogonal to the claim that “there are no universal moral standards by which we can evaluate X”. I suppose that is obvious to most people, but because I had seen the two claims linked so often, I assumed they were related in some deeper way. Postman’s book doesn’t make any kind of argument to this effect; it shows, rather than tells. So, I learned something important (and a whole lot of other important things about the moral character of childhood) that maybe I could have learned some other way but didn’t. I guess that reading Postman changed a lot about the way that I frame some of my arguments about childhood, and certainly has made it easier for me to explain why the work matters.

The questions about Chris’s comment in #15 are whether other philosophers are as responsible as he is about this, and whether the level of responsibility varies by discipline. My guess is that the answers to both questions is no.

17

Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 3:55 pm

dsq: ##12-15 well, possibly some cross-talk going on there – perhaps we misinterpreted the parenthesis (to those panellists anyway) as a fall-back position rather than an outright proviso. Let’s take it as the latter and we can proceed along the lines of Chris’s #15 (and possibly the example @12 of the pure mathematician.)

18

Neel Krishnaswami 06.08.09 at 4:08 pm

But the question remains – are there any other people doing (however defined) analytical philosophy whose work might be useful as a hook for film criticism or development economics, and if not, why do so many people who organise panels for a living think there ought to be?

For development economics, the work of Peter Spirtes on the statistical analysis of causation is of fairly obvious importance. For film criticism, I don’t know of any off the top of my head — in fact, it seems like the influence ought to run in the other direction, as the visual arts seem like promising ground to find interesting challenges for the linguistic turn.

19

Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 4:09 pm

#15,16 – as an outsider to the administrative side of academia, I find it prima facie a bit odd (pace Chris?) that cross-discplinary panels (rather than specialists) are doing this at all. I can think of various lines of argument why it might be thought a good idea, I suppose, but wonder if there is anything approaching an official rationale?

And another thing- why is ‘social’, over and above intellectual, significance considered? Is it a consequence (as other comments e.g. dsqu @13,14 have perhaps suggested and as certainly seems plausible) of bracketing philosophy with the humanities and – especially – the social sciences? Or is social significance a standard criterion in other disciplines/schools?

20

dsquared 06.08.09 at 4:28 pm

If I were on a cross-disciplinary panel invited to evaluate the worthiness of a proposal on 17th-century French poetry (or whatever) for funding, and I was asked about the social or intellectual significance of the work, I just wouldn’t take the question to be about its social or intellectual significance for my own work. I’d take the question to be broader than that

But if it was an interdisciplinary panel, and a proposal came up on “Influences of early Provencal troubadours on Racine”, and it appeared to have absolutely nothing to do with philosophy at all, then wouldn’t you correctly respond something like “This isn’t an interdisciplinary paper; it might be a very good and interesting field, but it’s totally internal to C17 French literature, it doesn’t really have any signifiance outside that field”. That seems like a totally sensible reaction to me and suggests that the answer to the implict question in Michele’s work is that lots of these panels were set up on the basis of a presumed interdisciplinary interest that didn’t exist. It seems fairly trivial to me that it’s possible to create interdisciplinary panels which will never find anything interesting, so all I’m doing is advancing the suggestion that they’re actually a lot more common than people think, and this explains the observable social facts.

If I was going to prepare a case against philosophers, btw, it would be more on the grounds of their listening habits than their talking. The tiny, tiny non-economic literature on Granger causality seems to me to be a real example of Not Invented Here Syndrome having practical consequences.

21

Harry 06.08.09 at 4:28 pm

Well, lots of Noel Carroll’s work for film criticism (I mean his philosophical work, not his film criticism) obviously, some of David Lewis’s, some of Grice’s work (old, but none the worse for that)… Film criticism isn’t a great example, because lots of people who work in that area do know some of the philosophical resources they need (David Bordwell and Noel Carroll being influential on each other).

22

Music of the Spherical Quotients 06.08.09 at 4:40 pm

Went away for a bit, but wanted to respond to comments on my earlier #5.

My favorite approaches to defining “scientific inquiry” are books along the lines of “Uncommon Sense” and “The Unnatural Nature of Science,” both of which emphasize that science is a cooperative intellectual activity conducted in the context of *moderate* skepticism about the reliability of human intellectual abilities.

Rational inquiry of predated modern science. The picture is that philosophers are still, to some extent, engaged in old-style “pure” rational inquiry, while the scientific community started paying more and more attention to actual experiments. The issue becomes really pressing when experiments start undermining intuitions (particles have definite locations, animate/inanimate is a fundamental distinction) that are the basis for philosophical arguments.

Responding to Bertram’s #8, I also would emphasize the distinction between philosophy and genuine science. Nevertheless, philosophical anti-naturalists often arrive at their conclusions by way of rational argumentation — the idea is, if you think hard enough, you are forced to conclude .

23

dsquared 06.08.09 at 4:42 pm

#21 So if there is stuff in the philosophy literature that would be useful to people in film studies if they heard about it, then there is a valid critique of philosophers for not communicating it to the film studies faculty (except in as much as they have, as you note), or a reasonable ground for philosophers to regret having lost market share to cultural theorists etc. That was what I was wondering; although I’m not 100% sure I understood Chris right, I was trying to suggest to him that the problem Michele identified was not so much evidence of a problem of philosophers as evidence that philosophy and humanities/scosci didn’t actually have as much in common as people who organise panels thought they did.

24

Chris Bertram 06.08.09 at 4:45 pm

#20 Well no, not really. I think there are 2 distinct reasons why you might set up an interdisciplinary panel:

(1) Because you think there’s an interdisciplinary interest in the sense you’ve just identified.

(2) Because you want an range of great and good outsiders to ensure fair play, commensurability of standards etc. (In the same way that academic appointment and promotion panels often have multiple disiplines represented).

My responses above assume (2). So there I am, and I’ve read the referees reports by disciplinary specialists and they tell me that X is very important and there are no obvious warning signs etc. The person has done a good job of explaining to me (and extradisciplinary person) why X matters from an intradisciplinary perspective. I think I’m bound to give it a thumbs up. Ranking the stuff compared to other proposals from other disciplines is tough and a bit arbitrary, but unless you are going to ring-fence little micro-disciplinary pools of money forever, it has to happen.

25

dsquared 06.08.09 at 4:55 pm

So the troublesome sentence:

Even if it were the case, it remains that philosophers are singled out by panelists for their inability to explain why their research is significant socially or intellectually

ought to be glossed

“Philosophers systematically do a poor job of presenting their work in terms that other people can understand”

either because of the intrinsic nature of the work, or because they’re just no good at communicating, or because non-philosophers aren’t as collegiate and professional as philosophers and only judge stuff as worthwhile if they can see something to lift (is this last one what’s implied by #8 combined with #24?).

sorry – I’m still confused as to what the specific problem is here and whether it’s conceptual, managerial or social.

26

Chris Bertram 06.08.09 at 5:14 pm

#25 Well it may be a combination of all three. In fact I suspect that non-philosophers are frustrated because philosophers don’t do the things that they would find useful. It isn’t exactly that they are looking for stuff to lift, but rather that they have extradisciplinary expectations and beliefs about what philosophy is and how it relates to their work that most actual philosophy doesn’t match up to (but “theory” does). Philosophers, on our side of things, are often too impatient to explain things properly to people whom (they regard as) dumb enough to take “theory” seriously.

27

sleepy 06.08.09 at 5:36 pm

“No need to be an innovator in the field, as the term generally encompasses consumers and diffusers.”
Then why not choose the humbler term”professor of philosophy.”

Assuming that philosophy is the search for wisdom and that analytical philosophers equate wisdom with ‘hard’ ‘knowledge’:
How does a logician argue with a liar?

Simon Blackburn:

Davidson has also known for rejection of the idea of s conceptual scheme, thought of as something peculiar to one language or one way of looking at the world, arguing that where the possibility of translation stops so does the coherence of the idea that there is something to translate.

Shouldn’t the fact that you cannot translate Proust [“translation is compromise”] render Davidson’s argument Ptolemaic? If it has not, then why not?

28

Harry 06.08.09 at 5:38 pm

A lot of panels are not there for interdisciplinarity, but to fund good work within the disciplines which might, or might not, be interdisciplinary. As Chris says, unless each discipline is ring-fenced with its own pot of money, it is inevitable that people will be making decisions on disciplines that are not their own. Chris is right, too, that they ought to exercise judgment in a way that is not biased by their own interests and disciplines. My experience with division level tenure committees has been good (we are, sensibly, ejected from the room when our own departmental colleagues are being judged).

So I think three things are going on.

1) There is, indeed, a valid criticism of philosophers for not communicating what they know to the rest of the humanities (and not knowing what they need to know in order to communicate that).

2) Philosophers are losing market share (Leiter complains about this from time to time and I think it is a consequence in part of 1).

3) Others in the humanities are impatient with philosophers, and more impatient with them than they are with each other, because i) philosophers don’t communicate well, ii) non-philosophers have uncorrected predispositions about what philosophers are doing and why they should be doing something else and iii) philosophy is, indeed, more distant from the rest of the humanities intellectually than they are from each other, so it is just harder for them to see the significance of the work, even if it is reasonably well stated in its own terms.

I think that practitioners of most reasonably confident academic disciplines are pretty arrogant about their disciplines, and that philosophers aren’t really that much worse than others. They might seem much worse, but that might be because they share fewer assumptions and methods with other humanities disciplines than are shared within the rest of the humanities, so that someone in English, say, is more likely to have a point of contact with someone in History, and someone else in French, and someone in Spanish, than with someone in Philosophy. Even Linguistics, which is also an outlier, probably benefits from the distribution of linguists across many departments.

One last thing. In the calls for most of these competitions for grants/awards there is a clear statement that the panel will contain people from many disciplines, and that you may well not be assessed by someone familiar with your discipline, so you have to explain things in clear and accessible language. Not trying to do so is either lazy or arrogant, and is both stupid and rude, regardless of whether arrogance or laziness is the underlying trait. (That’s trying, I’m talking about, not succeeding — I think philosophers try and fail, because it is difficult, and there’s nothing wrong with that). My suspicion is that others in the humanities try harder, but also get away with not trying more readily than philosophers because of what I said in the previous paragraph.

29

Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 5:50 pm

Ranking the stuff compared to other proposals from other disciplines is tough and a bit arbitrary, but unless you are going to ring-fence little micro-disciplinary pools of money forever, it has to happen.

Looks like that’s the nub of it to me then.

To assume (perhaps wrongly) that we’re talking primarily about competition for funding from the AHRC, is the emerging consensus (or anyway line of argument) that a good deal of philosophical work doesn’t really fit there? Could/should philosophy be allowed to straddle multiple ‘schools’/research funding bodies? And without fragmenting departments which currently benefit(?) from a good deal of cross-subdiscipliniary dialogue? Or am I barking up a lamppost here?

30

Paul Gowder 06.08.09 at 5:51 pm

You can’t appropriate, say, Davidson to talk about film? Really? Surely some of the stuff about interpretation could be put to use in film criticism?

31

Daniel S. Goldberg 06.08.09 at 5:59 pm

A small plea that we vigorously attempt to avoid conflating cross-disciplinary work with interdisciplinary work. There is significant value in both, but there is also a fundamental distinction to be drawn between the two, primarily because the former is collaborative while the latter is integrative. As William Newell articulated in his 2001 essay on interdisciplinary theory, interdisciplinaries utilize a number of different disciplinary approaches into something emergent, an integrative way of approaching complex problems that is not reducible to the sum of its disciplinary parts.

Cross-disciplinary work could mean simply that philosophers, social scientists, and natural scientists get together to lend their particular approaches and modalities to a problem. I want to stress that there is nothing wrong with this at all; quite the contrary, I happen to think it is critical to knowledge production, especially of complex problems. But this is distinct from interdisciplinary work inasmuch as it does not rigorously require integration and emergence.

(For the record, it is generally well-recognized that attempts to build integrative knowledge using a number of different disciplinary tools is both promising and perilous, for the simple reason that mastery of one discipline is hard enough; mastery of multiple disciplines is darn near impossible, at least if mastery is taken to require depth as well as breadth).

32

The Fool 06.08.09 at 7:03 pm

Becker’s article is from 1953, not 1963

33

dsquared 06.08.09 at 7:39 pm

I do think it might also be indicative that we’re talking entirely about how philosophers talk to other disciplines and nobody except Harry, once, has suggested the likelihood at all that they might listen. (I think I’m going to have to do a whole post about Granger Causality and the very, very limited engagement with it by philosophers, which is also topical because Sir Clive recently died).

34

Harry 06.08.09 at 7:47 pm

To be fair, that is partly a function of the way the post is framed, and also the way you have framed your questions to the philosophers. Only partly, perhaps.

Philosophers do listen, quite a bit, to economists and scientists, and much less to other social scientists and to humanists. But it is worth remembering that a couple of years ago Chris himself nominated a book by an ethnographer as the only contemporary book that he could think of that all political philosophers have to read. I’d nominate Postman as one of the books that any political or moral philosopher thinking about children or the family has to read. In fact, I will, in a subsequent post.

35

Roger Mexico 06.08.09 at 7:49 pm

Roughly speaking, people working in history, or classics, or French studies or whatever want theory to provide them with a hook or an angle which will enable them to generate the next round of research papers. Appropriating the work of continental theorist X for this purpose (even half-understood or distorted) tends to be pretty easy (cf film studies and Zizek). Appropriating Kripke or Timothy Williamson or Davidson or Lewis for such purposes is hard to impossible.

Part of the problem with this discussion is that views like the above are completely ignorant of the actual work that goes on in Humanities departments. The idea that scholars in English and other lit.-crit. oriented departments (French or Spanish) simply apply Theory X to Text Y is a petty, tendentious view of the discipline. It’s the equivalent of characterizing philosophers (or “professors of philosophy” or whatever) as dusty logic-choppers more concerned with Quine’s critique of de re modality than the messy politics of the real world.

It’s simply not the case that Humanities types are bumbling thieves who can only manage to steal a few bucks of French thought from a sock drawer, while professional philosophers are busy developing security systems that are much too complex for their idiot colleagues to smash into.

While I’ll certainly grant that blindly and naively applying Theory X to Text Y goes on a bit at the undergrad level, this method is not a fair characterization of the actual work that goes on in Humanities departments. Such characterizations do more to derail these discussions than advance them. They’re somehow both sloppy and narrow. On the one hand, they ignore the more complicated reception of “French Theory” in the academy as well as the formalist thinking that preceded and in some ways allowed for that reception. On the other, they reduce the Humanities as a whole to self-serving assembly-line of bad academic prose; hence, the Humanities is only looking for “a hook or angle” which can then “generate the next round of research papers.”

36

Steve LaBonne 06.08.09 at 7:49 pm

(I think I’m going to have to do a whole post about Granger Causality and the very, very limited engagement with it by philosophers, which is also topical because Sir Clive recently died).

Especially odd because other non-economics disciplines- notably neuroscience and bioinformatics- certainly have noticed it and made pretty extensive use of it. So it’s not as though it’s not fairly widely known outside economics.

37

Chris Bertram 06.08.09 at 7:56 pm

It is a good question. What do philosophers read, other than philosophy? I doubt there’s a general answer, since it rather depends on what a philosopher’s subspecialism is. I doubt that many of them read much work in the humanities other than history (so virtually no lit crit), those on the social philosophy end will read quite a bit of social science, and then they’ll read a good deal of stuff on the evolutionary psych/neurosciency/Dennett sort of borderland.

I read a fair amount of French studies stuff, but that’s because of the Rousseau interest. And I read a good deal in the history of photography, but that’s a hobby.

38

Matt 06.08.09 at 8:20 pm

Daniel- I’d never heard of Granger (it’s not my area so I don’t feel bad about this) but looked it up to see what I could find. You’re right that he’s not mentioned in some books where you might think he would be. But in Nancy Cartwright’s book _Hunting Causes and Using Them_ it’s listed in the index as “Granger causality or Suppes causality”, where the “Suppes” is the philosopher Patrick Suppes. Suppes worked on probabilistic notions of causation from the 70’s, at least, on. At least one book on Suppes discusses Granger a fair amount. (I just looked in the indexes and searched inside a bit- I’m not competent to know whether the discussion is any good.) My guess is that if the two had similar accounts (and I don’t know at all), and a philosopher wanted to talk about probabilistic notions of causation, she’d look first at Suppes, if for no other reason that that since Suppes was a philosopher he was more likely to put the problem in familiar terms and to relate it to similar problems. But it may well be that there are important differences between the accounts and that philosophers should look at Granger more than they do.

39

ben 06.08.09 at 8:24 pm

I would turn to “What Metaphors Mean” before any of the stuff on radical interpretation were I trying to use Davidson on film, but I’d sooner turn to Carroll or Cavell (neither of whom I’ve actually read on film, though) were I interested in philosophical takes on it.

I also have to admit that I’m fairly uncertain how a historian, for instance, would really benefit by reading Taylor on events.

40

John L. Taylor 06.08.09 at 8:48 pm

Matt @ 37,

As an aside, I should note that Suppes is still alive and active in philosophy today. He has a remarkable body of work, which is well summarized by his book Representation and Invariance of Scientific Structures (free PDF of RaIoSS).

41

Matt 06.08.09 at 9:06 pm

Thanks John- I should have checked. (One of my former professors was a student of Suppes, and he, my professor, is pretty old, but I shouldn’t have assumed!)

42

sleepy 06.08.09 at 9:16 pm

It’s bloody amazing that people refer to Davidson at all in the context of art, art history, or history of any kind. The fixation of synchrony and the opposition to subtext is pathological. It’s like listening to a legal philosopher who’s never tried a case argue against rhetorical language.
“What Metaphors Mean” I looked it up.
“metaphors mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation mean, and nothing more”

Le Jaseroque
Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux
Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave,
Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux,
Et le mômerade horsgrave.
Garde-toi du Jaseroque, mon fils!
La gueule qui mord; la griffe qui prend!
Garde-toi de l’oiseau Jube, évite
Le frumieux Band-à-prend.

Son glaive vorpal en mail il va-
T-à la recherche du fauve manscant;
Puis arriveé à l’arbre Té-Té,
Il y reste, réfléchissant.

Tell me what and more importantly HOW that means.
This discussion isn’t bizarre, it’s obscene

43

Chris Stephens 06.08.09 at 9:38 pm

In addition to Suppes and Cartwright, philosophers of science such as Clark Glymour, Peter Spirtes, and Richard Scheines and also talk about and are aware of Granger causality – and it is generally known by mainstream philosophers of science. Even Harry’s colleague Dan Hausman mentions it in his book, Causal Asymmetries. James Woodward talks about it in a few of his publications, and so on.

Part of the explanation – but perhaps only a small part – is that there are a lot more scientists than philosophers of science (and that is probably a good thing!), and so there is always lots of interesting stuff that is getting ignored simply for that reason (in addition to the usual reasons that philosophers get stuck on trendy topics, are insulated, etc.)

Perhaps none of these people talk about Granger causality enough, or appreciate it fully, but it isn’t as though it is unknown or completely ignored. (Of course, if you ask whether the rest of philosophy knows enough about philosophy of science, I’d say “no” to that as well…). Still, I’d be very interested if DD would post about Granger causality.

That said, I think the main point is right – there is surely lots of stuff that philosophers do underappreciate about other disciplines – Harry’s post in 28 seems right to me.

Here in Canada, philosophers largely apply for grants to a body (SSHRC) where the competition is basically discipline specific – it is just philosophers evaluating philosophers’ proposals (pretty much). I wonder if/how things have changed – it used to be, for example, that philosophy, classics and religious studies were part of a single unit that applied for funding.

44

Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 9:39 pm

‘Granger causality’ looks potentially interesting (on a cursory internet search), but I’m not quite clear (on that same cursory search) why philosophers are supposed to be especially interested in it qua philosophers. It doesn’t look as though it constitutes a theory or conception of causation, or a special kind of causality – rather, a statistical method for discovering a certain kind of diachronic correlation. That may well be relevant to a given probabilistic account of causation, but not necessarily beyond that – and I’m afraid to say, perhaps more on the listening end than the talking. (Though those who need to get actual results tend I think to be a bit impatient with philosophical input, which I suspect is rarely straightforwardly helpful, and may often be rather bad news…)

I needn’t really bother pointing out that I could be quite wrong about some or all of this.

On listening in general: there is a ‘philosophy of..’ for most other disciplines (potentially all) – which involves philosophers doing a great deal of listening/reading. I like dsquared am still a bit unclear what the actual issue/problem is supposed to be – but then I should read the book I suppose!

45

Chris Stephens 06.08.09 at 9:51 pm

Tim-

Some read e.g., Granger’s 1969 paper “Investigating Causal Relations by Econometric Models…” as providing an interesting account of causality – the account is something like –
one calls A the cause of B if one can better predict B using all available information than if the information minus A was used. (or something like that, I might be misremembering).

The rough idea is one that philosophers of science have considered in various forms.

46

dsquared 06.08.09 at 10:47 pm

Granger-causation (which Granger always credited to Norbert Wiener – “Granger causation” is a folk term because people kept wanting to say that it wasn’t “proper” causation) is defined as: A Granger-causes B iff:

A is temporarily prior to B, and
A provides information about B which is not available from any other source.

Granger’s specific and unique contribution was to show that subject to fairly general conditions, if a linear combination of two stochastic processes is stationary, then it must be the case that one of them Granger-causes the other.

Granger’s challenge to philosophers was to say what there was over and above “mere” Granger-causation in “real” causation. I know from second and third hand anecdotal accounts that in later life he became rather frustrated that none of them seemed to be interested in taking this question seriously.

47

novakant 06.08.09 at 10:49 pm

Crikey, from the top of my head and relying only on the remnants of my rather eclectic university education, I could name Davidson, Goodman and Ricoeur as philosophers who have in one way or another successfully bridged the gap between analytic philosophy, hermeneutics and aesthetics. And there is no reason why a bright student shouldn’t use stuff he learned from reading Quine for the interpretation of literary works or why reading de Man or Derrida deconstructing Kant’s rhetoric shouldn’t be enlightening to a philosophy student.

48

ben 06.08.09 at 11:09 pm

there is no reason why a bright student shouldn’t use stuff he learned from reading Quine for the interpretation of literary works

Hilarity!

49

Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 11:56 pm

#42 Needless to say, my post was in ignorance of your near-simultaneous one. Thanks for the reference. You don’t seem to have misremembered (if ‘available’ means ‘extant’ or similar), though I’m not quite clear at present what the relata of causation are on that account – corresponding pairs of the members of a pair of time-series of measurements of two quantities? Anyway, certainly looks like a cursory internet search might not be the best way to find out!

Back on the actual topic, I notice Suppes’s book was published the following year, so it’s possible (if he replicated or incorporated by generalisation Granger’s account – I guess he didn’t report it) that he pre-empted any influence G might have had…

50

Tim Wilkinson 06.09.09 at 12:16 am

#45: Criticism might not be on grounds that G-causation is not always sufficient for causation. It might instead not always be necessary. Off the top of my head, and going on your presumably simplified rendering: assume A causes B, and A has a side-effect C which does not cause B, but is just as predictive of it (because correlated with A in a suitable way). Then A causes B but does not G-cause B (because C can provide the ‘same’ information). So if the envisaged scenario is possible, G-causation is not always necessary for causation. (But this, unless I have made some blunder, must have been observed before.)

#47: Shun the complete collection of properly-connected and jointly-frumious Bandersnatch parts!

51

Neil 06.09.09 at 12:49 am

Dsquared asks me:

by what criterion?

which strikes me as odd (why does he think there is only one).

By any set of reasonable criteria. Ignorance of fact and paucity of argumentative standards. I know whereof I speak: I was one of them. The problem with people doing philosophy outside philosophy departments is that they’re not trained in philosophy. Of course, self-training is sometimes good training – and it is false that everyone doing philosophy outside a philosophy department (even everyone who is not trained in philosophy) is bad at philosophy – but given that the general standards are so low, the self-training into which they are encouraged is pretty awful. Since they have a sufficient mass, they are able to exercise power and anoint particular people as stars from amongst themselves, but this ranking exercise is indifferent to actual quality.

Since only matters of fact will count in this context as non-question-begging, you might care to go look at discussions of Levinas by these people. When I did this stuff, I never came across a discussion of Levinas on infinity which made the remark – obvious to anyone who has ever studied history of philosophy – that he is committing a fallacy well-known from the contemporary discussion of Descartes. You might also look at these folk on analytic philosophy. Did you know that analytic philosophers are opposed to metaphysics? That is just one of the things that these people take themselves to know.

52

Neil 06.09.09 at 12:52 am

Dsquared, perhaps Granger causation wasn’t taken up by philosophers because they were more concerned with asking what is real causation over and above Humean causation? Since Humean causation is weaker than Granger causation, any answer to the first question would entail an answer to the second.

53

sleepy 06.09.09 at 2:05 am

How does a logician argue with a liar? If it’s ‘true’ that the person is a liar what technique must the logician apply to come to the proper conclusion?

I’m done.

54

dsquared 06.09.09 at 5:40 am

assume A causes B, and A has a side-effect C which does not cause B, but is just as predictive of it ((because correlated with A in a suitable way).

For this to work “a suitable way” would have to mean “always”. In which case every A is also a C and there are big problems in saying either that A and C are separate events, or that A causes B but C doesn’t. ( I think that the problem here is that you’re using “just as predictive” to mean “C alone can be used to predict B with just as much accuracy as A alone”, whereas the marginal information criterion would be “A alone or C alone can be used to predict B with just as much accuracy as A and C”)

Ignorance of fact and paucity of argumentative standards. I know whereof I speak: I was one of them

this is presumably intended as rhetoric, but the implied syllogism (I was an X; I was Y; All X are Y) is quite obviously invalid. So by the criteria of a literary theorist it might (might) be considered a good argument but by the criteria of a philosopher it isn’t. So we both recognise there’s a problem here.

perhaps Granger causation wasn’t taken up by philosophers because they were more concerned with asking what is real causation over and above Humean causation? Since Humean causation is weaker than Granger causation, any answer to the first question would entail an answer to the second

? Surely the point here is that Granger’s answer to the first question was “Granger causation” and his answer to the second was “nothing”. In which case your statement is trivially true but misses the point.

55

John Quiggin 06.09.09 at 5:52 am

One point that hasn’t come up so far (but is certainly not new) is that the Becker definition only works if there is a consensus, within some group, regarding who is a philosopher. Almost always there will be a boundary, and different views of who is within it and who is not (eg Leiter on Derrida). Sometimes, there will be two distinct (but maybe overlapping groups) each of whom regards its own members as philosophers and the others as interlopers.

As an example, the orthodox Marxist position is (stated more baldly at some times than others) that bourgeois ‘economists’ were mere apologists for the capitalist class. Neoclassical economists return the favor, with the description of Marx as a minor post-Ricardian, and the view that Marxism is not, if it ever was, a serious school of economics. Of course, the picture is less clear cut than that, with people like Jon Elster looking at neoclassical versions of Marxism and so on.

But it seems as if, at various times, the divide in philosophy has been almost as sharp as this.

56

John Quiggin 06.09.09 at 6:07 am

Not wishing to compare myself to the greats, but my limited experience in trying to interest philosophers (or at least philosophy journals) in ideas of causality derived from (an economists version of) decision theory had the same reception as Granger got. There are quite subtle differences in the approved disciplinary ways of thinking about problems that create big barriers to communication.

We saw this also in the Cohen seminar – even though philosophers, economists and others are concerned about broadly similar problems regarding justice and inequality, we couldn’t seem to agree about what constitutes a proper question, let alone what would constitute a satisfactory answer.

I’ve never seen a really satisfactory discussion of this. CT seems like a great place to have it, and it seems as if Michéle might have some very useful insights to get us started.

57

Neil 06.09.09 at 6:20 am

Dsquared wrote:

Surely the point here is that Granger’s answer to the first question was “Granger causation” and his answer to the second was “nothing”. In which case your statement is trivially true but misses the point.

But many philosophers have (implicitly) rejected Granger’s answer to the first question, since they have answered ‘nothing’ to it. So they can hardly be expected to take up the Granger question. Others, replying to the first group, instanced all kinds of properties which also entail that Granger’s answer is false.

58

browm 06.09.09 at 6:50 am

response about development economics and analytic philosophy: perhaps the most obvious recent example of the interaction between philosophers and development economists is nancy cartwright’s hunting causes book which was written partly while she visited Princeton’s Center for Health and Wellbeing (run by economists) and mentions discussions with angus deaton (a development economist) many times. more generally, any work on causality will have some audience in applied empirical economic work (cartwright is one contributor. but there are others). second, and this is obviously old hat, a lot of public finance and tax policy economists adopt utilitarian positions but other theories of welfare and justice often make an appearance.

59

notsneaky 06.09.09 at 7:07 am

““Influences of early Provencal troubadours on Racine”, and it appeared to have absolutely nothing to do with philosophy at all, then wouldn’t you correctly respond something like “This isn’t an interdisciplinary paper”

I’m not sure why it couldn’t be about philosophy. Couldn’t you go: Provencal troubadours –> Phillip the Fair beating up on Provencal culture and identity –> for economic reasons –> which could even come out of Marx –> using religion as an excuse to do it –> Cathars –> Gnosticism –> hop, skip, jump –> ethics and metaphysics –> philosophy

Don’t know Racine all that well but I’m sure it’s in there.

Maybe I’m missing your point though it seems like if some paper is not interdisciplinary it’s not interdisciplinary. But that’s the paper not the topic. Plenty to write about interdisciplinary in your example.

For Granger, Granger causality, and causality, there’s Kevin Hoover
http://books.google.com/books?id=4pGZLXO71jkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Kevin+Hoover+causality
(that’s the economics side, but he’s got quite a few papers in some philosophy journals … whose prestige I am not qualified to judge)

In fact Zbigniew Herbert did just that in Barbarian in the Garden
http://books.google.com/books?id=ZN2N7xwOZJoC&pg=PA125&lpg=PA125&dq=Zbigniew+Herbert+Cathars&source=bl&ots=RcV8hWYQIW&sig=nNjWiOqj0a7NsWEvSNI_2V8V8Jw&hl=en&ei=HgkuSsbhNZ60Ndam2YcK&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3

60

notsneaky 06.09.09 at 7:08 am

Last two paras got flipped. Herbert did not write about Granger causality (though he did have an economics degree), he wrote about Cathars and stuff. Where’s Emerson?

61

notsneaky 06.09.09 at 7:11 am

Ugh, horrible translation on the Herbert (and there are better)

62

agm 06.09.09 at 7:21 am

dsquared,

I read assume A causes B, and A has a side-effect C which does not cause B, but is just as predictive of it ((because correlated with A in a suitable way) as saying that A causes both B and C (C by way of side-effect, but that’s the law of unintended consequences for you), and that C provides the information for evaluating G-causality since both B and C correlate with A. I see where you get the “always correlates” part, but “always correlates” does not automatically lead to “every A is also a C”.

A physical example of this is entanglement. The properties of the unmeasured particle are correlated to the properties of the measured particle, not because you took measurements of the properties of C. Rather, the two particles have correlated properties because you entangled them beforehand. “A” is not a “C”, yet the correlation gives access to information about “B”. How would you posit that the entanglement is the measurement, and would the quantum information/encryption people agree with you?

63

agm 06.09.09 at 7:22 am

(Which is to say, I don’t think they would, but I’m certainly open to being wrong, as I like learning new things.)

64

dsquared 06.09.09 at 7:50 am

Unless I am missing something (and I am quite shaky on quantum probability), the cases where A and C provide exactly the same information about B because of entanglement are exactly those cases where people are very reluctant indeed to talk about causation.

65

Tim Wilkinson 06.09.09 at 8:34 am

dsquared @54 etc: ‘Well yes, but…’ and thus starts the long dialectic (this example or one like it) presumably rehearsed elsewhere. And each participant (especially if not a philosopher) may tend to regard each progressive revision as making explicit obvious things they didn’t think needed mentioning.

I should make quite clear that I’m not saying that’s what you are doing, but I think this may raise an example of a distinctive philosophical approach – to make and accept literally applicable objections even though they may seem stupid or obviously wrong, etc. I can see why this would be a ludicrous approach to take in the specialised disciplines, and why it might make philosophers appear a bit ridiculous too (and annoying when they intrude into, say, your economics thread…) Cf pure maths in which any objection is good and accepted as such – because there is nothing else ‘behind’ the numbers

But to make another iteration – aren’t we talking – indeed primarily – about stochastic processes here? OK STOP – if it’s not unfair to say so at this point (I made it vague to help with weaning off) – this is not the place for such a dialogue.

I am though, as no doubt are others, always up for such a discussion – say on your proposed thread. Though first – can anyone confirm whether Suppes did indeed cover a philosophically equivalent approach? And whether Cartwright etc have subsequently dealt extensively with one? I don’t want to have to do a lot of reading!

66

Tim Wilkinson 06.09.09 at 8:49 am

John Quiggin @56: that sounds very promising for making some serious progress – can you give more detail?

[BTW A post of mine’s just been selected for (random?) stop-and-moderate. For when it does show up, the first sentence should read: ‘Well yes, but…’ and thus starts the long dialectic (this example, or one like it, presumably rehearsed elsewhere).]

67

alex 06.09.09 at 11:26 am

You said ‘spec1alised’, without substituting out the i…

68

Matt 06.09.09 at 11:38 am

Notsneaky in 59- for what it’s worth, Hoover is now joint-appointed in the philosophy department at Duke, and was (perhaps still is, I’m not sure) co-editor of the well-respected (though pretty specialized) journal _Economics and Philosophy_, so he’s reasonably well-known and is well-respected among philosophers. (For some time he was deeply involved in an interdisciplinary group at UC Davis that included John Roemer and Jean Hampton, among others, but that at least became less prominent when Hampton and Roemer left Davis.)

69

magistra 06.09.09 at 12:30 pm

On the question of why people in the humanities don’t read philosophy, even when they perhaps should:

I’m a medieval historian and I’ve just been reading Mary Douglas’ ‘How institutions think’, which I’d class as anthroplogy. She mentions ideas developed by Quine on classifying similarities. Douglas’ stuff isn’t central enough to my current work to justify me following up on her references and reading Quine. But if I did, would I, as an educated non-specialist, be able to grasp Quine’s work on its own, or would it require me to read fifteen other books first and/or undertake a preliminary survey course on Western philosophy?

As a historian in the British tradition, I’m not expected to use ‘theory’ in my work – I will read up on particular theoretical topics to the extent they seem useful and relevant to me. And because I have limited amounts of time and energy to spend for outside reading, I find it easiest to work with other disciplines that are relatively modular in their thought, where I can take what I need without having to learn the whole subject.

Not all subjects are equally modular – I went from mathematics, in which there are many topics you cannot approach until you have already mastered X, Y, and Z, to history, where you can study medieval European history and never need to know anything about US history. To the extent that philosophy either is necessarily all one seamless robe, or is considered by philosophers to be so, then it becomes much harder for even interested outsiders to come to grips with it.

70

novakant 06.09.09 at 12:49 pm

The problem with people doing philosophy outside philosophy departments is that they’re not trained in philosophy. (…) Since they have a sufficient mass, they are able to exercise power and anoint particular people as stars from amongst themselves, but this ranking exercise is indifferent to actual quality.

Maybe it’s because I studied both philosophy and comparative literature, but I’ve met quite a few profs and also some students who were really good at both. Of course if somebody has been focused on reading Hegel, Quine or whatever from day one, he will be better at that than somebody who took a more comprehensive approach. And the students of comparative literature could generally be divided into those who read more philosophy/theory and those who focused on reading literary works, because doing both takes a lot of time. But you will have similar divisions within philosophy departments and I see no good reason why bright people should not be able to do both or why there should be a strict division between philosophy and the rest of the humanities.

71

sleepy 06.09.09 at 1:09 pm

The sociology of knowledge:
This has become a sausage-fest and the post has been forgotten. This whole thread is a record of a sort of male performance the performers of which refuse to see as more theater than logic.
If you can’t read for subtext you can’t read. If you can’t read yourself for subtext then calling yourself a philosopher as opposed to a tech would seem problematic.

72

harry b 06.09.09 at 1:28 pm

sleepy — I thought you were done. I also thought you were male, but that just shows how much I know.

73

JoB 06.09.09 at 1:29 pm

I don’t think male performance is an exclusively male phenomenon, nor that all males perform in a ‘male performance’ kind of way. Those bloody modifiers! Male performance is just current standard of performance in an environment still predominantly male. Don’t blame the sex, just improve that aspect of the environment. Less reward for muscles flexed and ‘hard’ work, more reward for inspiration and co-operation.

74

bianca steele 06.09.09 at 1:37 pm

Magistra’s comment at 69 is interesting to me in part because I’ve been reading Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, which is also anthropology, and which I picked up mostly out of an interest in “theory”–I think Mary Douglas’s books are usually classed as “theory.” I can see two ways of interpreting Goody, either as critiquing various strands in anthropology or as laying out a sampling of ways scholars in all fields might think about culture. These might correspond to two different approaches to philosophy per se. But though the book might count as theory, Goody is an anthropologist and does not fit the definition “philosopher”, and furthermore whether one or another of those two readings is available would seem to depend on whether anthropologists’ scholarly writings are assumed to be legible to non-anthropologists.

75

sleepy 06.09.09 at 2:15 pm

The sociology of knowledge: “I also thought you were male”
Does my gender change the facts?
I’m describing in terms you should be able to understand the function of language in literature, a courtroom, and daily life and the fact that it is much more wide ranging than the reductionism of analytic philosophy allows. Davidson, Quine et al. on language as opposed to formal logic are laughably indifferent to the facts. Language doesn’t even fucking exist outside its function.
This entire thread is an essay in Platonsim as irrationalism.

76

sleepy 06.09.09 at 2:29 pm

Philosophy is not a formal science.
Analytical philosophers are another branch of the the Chicago school that argues that facts are irrelevant.

77

Tim Wilkinson 06.09.09 at 2:45 pm

[sleepy: the same to you without knobs on. Still, you know how to provoke a response now. In my local one uses quite the opposite approach.]

Another call to John Quiggin @56: that sounds very promising for making some serious progress – can you give more detail? Or indeed has anyone got examples of this kind of transdisciplinary communication failure for discussion?

78

Matt Brown 06.09.09 at 2:51 pm

Roger @ 35: Could you give a positive characterization of what folks in literature are doing and the role of Theory in it (or some examples if it is too diverse to characterize a general method)? If they’re not applying Theory X to Text Y, what are they doing?

79

Harry 06.09.09 at 3:00 pm

Oh, I just thought you were male because you are (again) persistently practicing exactly the same kind of preening aggressive posturing that you are, with about 30% accuracy, accusing others of. No, someone’s sex has no bearing on the quality of what they say or my assessment of it, and I apologize if I suggested otherwise. Swearing at me, unless you do it in a way that provokes laughter, is not a way to engage me in any kind of intellectual discussion, by the way, but you probably know that.

80

sleepy 06.09.09 at 3:11 pm

I’ve tried to engage you and failed.
I asked questions. They received no answer. And I’m as qualified to ask them as anyone on this page. The relation of literature to philosophy is akin to the relation of the activity in a courtroom to legal philosophy. This discussion seems to ignore that distinction.
And by the way: can one translate Mallarme or not? It’s a simple yes or no question.
And its on point I think. If it’s not then please tell me why.

81

Steve LaBonne 06.09.09 at 3:29 pm

I think we need at least two different words for “translate” when it comes to literature- for now let’s call them T1 and T2. Where there is paraphrasable content (as in Poust but largely not in Mallarme), it can certainly be T1 translated just as a newspaper story or scientific paper could be. T2 translation- bringing over into the target language all the artistic aspects of language usage, other than the bare paraphrasable “meaning”- is never more than partially possible, is less so in poetry than in prose fiction (depending on how close to poetry the prose is), and is almost entirely defeated by a poet like Mallarme (God help anyone trying to “translate” Ashbery into French, as well- can’t imagine doing that.) The attempt to do T2 translation is itself an artistic performance rather than a workmanlike job.

No doubt all of the above has been said much better long ago by someone professionally qualified to expound it.

82

novakant 06.09.09 at 3:48 pm

Well, they do all sorts of funky stuff which is indeed impossible to summarize, but you might want to take a look at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_theory
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesthetics
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_Literature

The notion that they steal theory from philosophers or that they simply apply theory x to text y is totally laughable.

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dsquared 06.09.09 at 4:40 pm

I think we need at least two different words for “translate” when it comes to literature- for now let’s call them T1 and T2

I think we need to look at the unity of those two concepts – or indeed to identify “translation” precisely with the shift of parallax between them.

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novakant 06.09.09 at 4:59 pm

oops, the above was in response to Matt’s post

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sleepy 06.09.09 at 5:59 pm

My point is that as a model of the world as opposed to formal logic Davidson’s model is absurd on its face. It’s contradicted by the facts. The answer to the question is no. you cannot translate Mallarme without losing information. In fact you can’t re-create or re-produce anything without change if only in context.

The same absurdity holds for Quine and for naturalist epistemology as something running parallel to the hard sciences. His is not a model of the world but of an enclosed formal system.
“The continentals” on the other hand construct a model not of the world but of behavior in the world Attitudes are manners of conduct. And as I keep trying to point out, lawyers as opposed to legal philosophers do the same thing. John Mortimer’s philosophy as a jobbing lawyer was a model of behavior, of conduct and attitude, not of ideal.

Thinking in terms of models of behavior helps us to be aware of tendencies not towards rationality but rationalization, including rationalizing behavior such as excluding those who tread on your turf for the sole reason that they’ve done so. while finding ways to justify that exclusion by spurious logic.
That I think was the subject of the post.

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engels 06.09.09 at 6:16 pm

Quine: No statement is immune to revision..
Rousseau: Commençons donc par écarter tous les faits, car ils ne touchent point à la question. Il ne faut pas prendre les recherches, dans lesquelles on peut entrer sur ce sujet…

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engels 06.09.09 at 6:18 pm

Quine: No statement is immune to revision…
Rousseau: Commençons donc par écarter tous les faits, car ils ne touchent point à la question.

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sleepy 06.09.09 at 6:56 pm

“Mistakes were made.”
It makes sense that a logician wouldn’t be aware of the history of the passive voice and it think it meaningless.
Do I have to explain it to you too?

When you’re willing to revise any of your own statements let me know.

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Tom Hurka 06.09.09 at 9:45 pm

Late in the game, but about interdisciplinary panels:

The more prestigious the award, the more likely the panel is to have members from several disciplines. SSHRC in Canada gives out maybe 30-40 awards to philosophers each year, so it makes sense to have a panel with just philosophers. The ACLS (mentioned by Michele Lamont) gives out many fewer, so its panels cover more disciplines. Even more so the Guggenheim Foundation, etc. The proposals need not themselves be interdisciplinary — look at a list of successful ALCS or Guggenheim projects — but they need to be written for intelligent people outside the discipline.

I suspect it’s true that philosophers these days aren’t very good at doing this. We could (and should) be better.

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loren 06.09.09 at 10:12 pm

“The answer to the question is no. you cannot translate Mallarme without losing information.”

That isn’t obvious to me, but then, I’m not sure what you mean by “information” and “loss” here.

Should we draw a firm line between translation and exegesis and interpretation?

Is a densely annotated translation of Mallarme’s L’apres-midi … (along with some audio clips of Debussy, say) a violation of the spirit of Davidson’s argument about translatability? After all, the annotations are an ongoing effort to convey the richness of meanings from one setting to another, and that seems to be consonant with much of what Davidson says about translation and conceptual schemes.

I think Ian Hacking is on to something in distinguishing between the sorts of statements “that may be made in any language … and statements whose sense depends upon a style of reasoning” that lets us recognize an utterance or proposition as a candidate for truth or falsehood. This isn’t unrelated to LaBonne’s distinction between a sort of straightforward (but often-clumsy) mapping of meanings with utterances, T1, and a deeper conveyance of imagery, metaphor, pungent symbols, etc, T2. Along these lines George Lakoff spent a fair bit of time in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, laying out several plausible senses in which utterances might and might not be translateable. Or here, a better illustration of T1 translatability but a radical (but not permanent) failure of T2.

More pointedly, it is possible to argue with Davidson without dismissive and insulting assertions about the stupidity of analytic philosophers and the inscrutability of poets who had a clever way with sounds.

Uzani, his army at Lashmir.

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loren 06.09.09 at 10:14 pm

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novakant 06.09.09 at 10:34 pm

Loren, there’s a way to find out what gets lost in translation, namely trying to translate a literary or philosophical text from one language to another. It’s damn hard and every translator would concede that he had to make choices which change the meaning of the text, sometimes only slightly, sometimes quite significantly.

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John Quiggin 06.10.09 at 1:48 am

TIm @77, here in Oz, we tend to sleep a lot in winter, hence delay in reply :-)

I’ll toss in another example which might push things along. Psychologists seem quite happy to have lots of models of different aspects of human behavior, cognitive processes and so on. Economists, even behavioral economists, very strongly prefer a unitary model, at the (much-remarked on) cost of oversimplification. That affects what counts as an adequate explanation of observed outcomes.

If I can get some free time (hah!), I’ll try and work up a proper post on this while Michéle is visiting.

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loren 06.10.09 at 2:16 am

novakant, I’m certainly not disputing that. It just doesn’t persuade me that Davidson and other analytic sorts are morons simply because it’s a difficult, time-consuming, and inevitably incomplete process, explaining art and poetry across languages and cultures. And yet we still labour mightily to do so. I see that as partly a vindication of Davidson, not a refutation.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.10.09 at 2:47 am

@93 Yes, sorry. Overweeningly impatient to introduce something concrete for people to triangulate on…

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sleepy 06.10.09 at 3:16 am

I think in the last two I said just about all I ever wanted to say on this site.
I described what I’ve always assumed to be obvious, in a way that I think made that obviousness quite clear.
Thank you Engels for lobbing me that softball pitch that allowed me my coda.

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Matt 06.10.09 at 3:23 am

I think in the last two I said just about all I ever wanted to say on this site.

My god, I hope you mean it this time!

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sleepy 06.10.09 at 3:55 am

Dn’t tmpt m, sshl.

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hilzoy 06.10.09 at 5:20 am

sleepy (also useful for magistra): In analytic philosophy, ‘language’ often means, roughly, ‘conceptual scheme’, and ‘translation’ means translating something from one conceptual scheme to a different one, not translating something from, say, English to German.

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novakant 06.10.09 at 10:49 am

loren, Davidson is certainly not a moron, but I think his claim, that there are no conceptual schemes, or rather that there is only one conceptual scheme common to all of us, is too strong or maybe just too general. The problem with his approach is that he seems to jump straight from a refutation of incommensurability to the claim of universal translatability.

This is far too neat to be accurate and we need to examine the gray areas where translation is only partially successful and we are left with both a shift in meaning and elements that remain incommensurable. Literature as the highest form of human expression in language can serve as an extreme example, of what is actually very commonplace in ordinary communication. Whenever a poet tries to translate his feelings, experiences and thoughts into written language, a reader tries to translate a text into a something that he can connect with or a translator tries to translate a text from one language to another, something gets lost in the process and there are shifts in meaning.

These gray areas of only partially successful translation are pervasive, the norm rather than the exception, and they cannot be explained away by the notion of an imagined omniscient interpreter. And while hilzoy points out that “translation” in these debates has a wider meaning than that of our ordinary language use of the word, I would still hold that the act of translating a text from one language to another is the closest we can get to actually experiencing and really understanding how shifts in meaning occur and what incommensurability means.

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JoB 06.10.09 at 11:21 am

Cited from Davidson’s paper apparently in question:

It would be equally wrong to announce the glorious news that all mankind – all speakers of language, at least – share a common scheme and ontology. For if we cannot say that schemes are different, neither can we intelligibly say that they are one.

As far as I know, he didn’t think this position defeated the inscrutability theses.

I do think that he established that you can work at understanding each other and, in fact, that an extreme cultural relativism (or absolutism) is untenable. And if that would not be useful outside the field of philosophy, what would be useful outside of it? Certainly given the humanities are in many cases the field where culture relativism and absolutism are at the center of debate.

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novakant 06.10.09 at 12:43 pm

I think Davidson needs to posit at least in theory some sort of ueber-scheme to end all schemes, even if he wants to throw out the whole concept of scheme vs. world and doesn’t want to call it a scheme. Here he’s just conceding that we’re not quite there yet. In the next paragraph he talks about not giving up the notion of “objective truth”, if only “relative to language”, but within the realm of language there are, at least potentially, no incommensurable blind spots. I think that such blind spots exist, both on an individual and a cultural level and that we can only try to approximate, but never fully capture, their reality through language. That said, I’m certainly not denying that Davidson’s claim isn’t of interest to the humanities, it’s interesting and provocative.

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novakant 06.10.09 at 12:47 pm

oops, double negative in the last sentence, but I think you’ll get what I “meant”, lol

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bianca steele 06.10.09 at 1:19 pm

Re. novakant@100, as I understand it the “standard” interpretation of “we need to examine the gray areas” is something like “consilience”: although every science has its own information structure, and we are at present divided by the incommensurability between our various partial knowledges, we can and should work to merge sciences into an eventual whole–not philosophy, but one big science (including the social sciences and human sciences, usually). I’m not sure whether Davidson agrees (I’ve only read two articles of his).

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JoB 06.10.09 at 2:36 pm

102-104:

In giving up dependence on the concept of an uninterpreted reality, something outside of all schemes and science, we do not relinquish the notion of objective truth – quite the contrary. Given the dogma of a dualism of scheme and reality, we get conceptual relativity, and truth relative to a scheme. Without the dogma, this kind of relativity goes by the board.

I’m not going to argue for Davidson. Somehow, I don’t think I can improve on him ;-)

Nevertheless, ‘ueber-scheme’ and ‘one big science’ is exactly what he says he doesn’t need to be positing or assuming and why his point is so interesting to humanities (and, by the way, why the humanities should not accept the superiority of the ‘exact’ sciences).

His insistence on the concept of truth is not about language (I don’t think he’d say that truth is a notion relative to language) but on the possibility of having objective truth (against scepticism, solipsism) i.e. having an extralinguistic benchmark to separate true from false statements. ‘I am not a native speaker in English’ is objectively true regardless of the language in which it is stated (the reason being that my native language is Dutch).

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Stephen Frug 06.13.09 at 4:19 am

Can’t resist:

“What’s a philosopher?” said Brutha.
“Someone who’s bright enough to find a job with no heavy lifting,” said a voice in his head.

— Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

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engels 06.15.09 at 11:17 pm

Thank you Engels for lobbing me that softball pitch that allowed me my coda.

Je vous en prie!

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