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.).