Sunday, October 21, 2007

Analytic vs. Inspirational Philosophy

More from Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country:

A humanistic discipline is in good shape only when it produces both inspiring works and works which contextualize, and thereby deromanticize and debunk, those inspiring works. So I think philosophy, as an academic discipline, was in better shape when it had room for admirers of Whitehead as well as admirers of Ayer. I think that literature departments were in better shape when people of [Harold] Bloom's and [Dorothy] Allison's sort had a better chance than, I am told, they now have of being allowed to spend their teaching lives reiterating their idiosyncratic enthusiasms for their favorite prophets and demiurges. People of that sort are the ones [Frederic] Jameson thinks outdated, because they are still preoccupied with what he calls the "bourgeois ego." They are people whose motto is Wordsworth's "What we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how." This kind of teaching is different from the kind that produces knowingness, or technique, or professionalism.

Of course, if such connoisseurs of charisma were the only sort of teacher available, students would be short-changed. But they will also be short-changed if they only sort of teacher available is the knowing, debunking, nil admirari kind. We shall always need people in every discipline whose talents suit them for understanding rather than for hope, for placing a text in a context rather than celebrating its originality, and for detecting nonsense rather than producing it. But the natural tendency of professionalization and academicization is to favor a talent for analysis and problem-solving overt imagination, to replace enthusiasm with dry, sardonic knowingness. The dismalness of a lot of social science, and of a lot of analytic philosophy, is evidence of what happens when this replacement is complete.

Within the academy, the humanities have been a refuge for enthusiasts. If there is no longer a place for them within either philosophy or literature departments, it is not clear where they will find shelter in the future. People like Bloom and Allison---people who began devouring books as soon as they learned to read, whose lives were saved by books---may get frozen out of those departments. If they are, the study of the humanities will continue to produce knowledge, but it may no longer produce hope. Humanistic education may become what it was in Oxbridge before the reforms of the 1870s: merely a turnstile for admission to the overclass. (pp. 134-5)

Of course, this is Rorty at his best: sweeping, broad, visionary... and maybe a little overgeneralizing and incautious. The context of this is a chapter entitled "The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature," in which Rorty bemoans the trend in Literature towards cultural studies and "theory" and away from the appreciation of the Western canon. Now, on the one hand, the passage was published in 1998, and, on the other hand, I have no way to evaluate his claims about the trends in Lit, either then or since. But I feel a little more comfortable assessing his claims about philosophy, and I find both sets of claims interesting and inspiring.

As background, Rorty has been in the chapter getting some mileage out of comparing the current trend to the history of sociology departments, which according to Rorty "started out as movements for social reform [and] ended up training students to clothe statistics in jargon." In comparison,

If literature departments turn into departments of cultural studies, Bloom fears, they will start off hoping to do some badly needded political work, but will end up training their students to clothe resentment in jargon. (p. 127)

The second comparison that guides Rorty is the state of academic philosophy in the 1930s, in which he saw two paradigmatic figures. On the one hand, there was A.N. Whitehead, who "stood for charisma, genius, romance, and Wordsworth. Like Bloom, he agreed with Goethe that the ability to shudder with awe is the best feature of human beings." On the other hand, there was A.J. Ayer, who

stood for logic, debunking, and knowingness. He wanted philosophy to be a matter of scientific teamwork, rather than of imaginative breakthroughs by heroic figures. He saw theology, metaphysics, and literature as devoid of what he called "cognitive significance," and Whitehead as a good logician who had been ruined by poetry. Ayer regarded shudders of awe as neurotic symptoms. He helped create the philosophical tone which Iris Murdoch criticized in her celebrated essay "Against Dryness." (pp. 128-9)

Now, we are far removed from the '50s, in which positivism was arguably at its zenith, and it's been a decade since Rorty's essay. I'm a little more optimistic than he about the possibility for what we might call "inspirational philosophy," bringing his comparison full-circle. Feyerabend's imaginative late work, Conquest of Abundance, was published a year afterwards, and in recent years, the appreciation of imaginative figures like Whitehead, Dewey, Feyerabend, the German Romantics, and others like them seems to be on the rise in academic departments, and there were even when he was writing more imaginative and inspirational figures than Rorty probably appreciated (I would count Paul Churchland as one such). Still, we obviously have a long way to go towards being a humanistic discipline that is in "good shape," if Rorty is right.

What do you think?

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