Welcome to our guest, Michèle Lamont, whose book I have been intending to read because it sounds damned interesting. The topic of her first guest post (philosophy vs. theory) has been an abiding research and reading interest of mine. A quick point about pecking orders, in response to her post, then I’ll just plug my own stuff, what hey! (But first: Squid and Owl was good today, and highly relevant to the theme of this very post. Right, that’s out of the way.)
Lamont says there’s a question as to “whether philosophers [inhabitants of that cave known as the department of philosophy, that is] 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).” Yes, that one does get asked, and her asking it has provoked the usual range of responses in comments. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) But let me articulate what seems to me a fairly important sociological component to this ongoing interdisciplinary failure to communicate that actually tends to be overlooked – and is almost always funny. (So that’s two reasons not to overlook it.) Philosophers (by which I shall mean: typical inhabitants of the philosophy department) seem hyper-aggressive and bent on world domination because there is a style of debate in the philosophy department that is typically received as friendly and (personally) non-threatening by philosophers but typically received by non-philosophers in the humanities as the very opposite: namely, as unfriendly, an attempt to destroy, to humiliate, to silence, to cause the opponent to lose face in an intolerably grind-your-claims-into-sand fashion. (By the way, please note that I said ‘typical’. Yes, I know there will be counter-examples.) Who’s right? The question is ill-formed. It’s a cultural miscommunication. Maybe it’s easier to illustrate with a likely hypothetical.
In philosophy, after the speaker is done, it is fine for someone to raise his hand and say: ‘but it seems that your central premise – the claim from which all these other things follow – is actually ambiguous between four different claims, two of which are logically false, one of which is obviously empirically false, and one of which is a tautology that won’t support your conclusions at all …’ (When I was going to grad school there was one faculty member who always asked this one, although usually it turned out that the ambiguity was more like eight-fold.) Now this isn’t a rude thing to say, in philosophy. Because it is actually not perceived as an attempt to force the speaker to prove that he is not a complete idiot. (To paraphrase Nietzsche on Socrates.) To be knocked around in this way is par for the course, so if you give a talk and you really get your premise kicked out from under you, it isn’t much worse that getting clobbered in some game. It’s not fun, but it’s normal. And – most important – because it’s normal, there isn’t any extra psychic baggage of a ‘why the hell is this perfect stranger trying to deprive me of every last vestige of my intellectual dignity?’ sort. Philosophers asking each other these sorts of apparently mock-innocent ‘but isn’t your position just obviously false?’ questions actually are innocent. They are competitive but no more aggressive or intellectually sadistic than anyone else around the university. It’s just a style. It may be perceived as an annoying, brittle, trivial, mildly juvenile, thumb-twiddling, precious, mincing sort of scholastic gamesmanship. (Go ahead and say all that if you must.) But it isn’t, per se, particularly aggressive or intellectually imperialistic. Again, this is so because the only way for it to be all that would be for it to be intended to be all that, and to be perceived by those present to be intended to be all that. And, within the philosophy department, it actually isn’t. It would have to be an attempt to completely overturn the pecking order, to return to our guest’s term. But since it goes on all the time, it obviously isn’t that. Should one of these ‘but isn’t your premise just obviously false’ missiles finds its target, the victim doesn’t wallow in shame and disgrace. Next time it may go differently. Eh, you go out for drinks.
To put it another way, these aggressive-seeming questions are not intended as conversation-stoppers but as conversation-starters. But it’s really only in the philosophy department that it’s intellectually conventional to start conversations the way academic philosophers do, so outside the department, these things are received as conversation-stoppers – that is, as rude and domineering. (I think this is rather obvious, but I’ve never seen anyone say this in so many words, so I’m saying it. Please feel free to tell me you knew it all along.) Inhabitants of other areas of the humanities have their own outlets for their own aggressions and will-to-power, and many performances that might seem fairly normal elsewhere around campus would be perceived, in philosophy, as rude and domineering – because, one way or another, these performances would be perceived as conversation-stoppers, as attempts to foreclose the legitimate normal (analytic, twiddling) modes of pushing the point around.
None of this is to say that all ways are equal, or that the philosophy is better or worse. For post purposes, I’m being agnostic about all that. All I’m saying is that the perception that philosophers are unusually aggressive is just a (rather understandable, given cultural differences) misreading of their manners. In philosophy it’s not rude to invade people’s personal intellectual space in a certain way. Doing so is not a way of saying: I’m threatening you.
And there you have it!
Now, my stuff. If you don’t know, I edited and contributed to a book that is substantially about the whole philosophy/theory thing. It’s called Framing Theory’s Empire [amazon]. It was a book event, centered on Theory’s Empire, and then it became a plain old book. But you can download it as a free PDF! Good stuff!