My kids and their friends know the world of Japanese animation in the way my generation can sing the Looney Tunes libretto to “What’s Opera, Doc?” But their involvement in this world goes much further. They regularly convene with their fellow fans, in crazy costumes, and celebrate their common love for a world of warriors with huge swords and neon hairstyles, demons spawned from friendlier zones of hell, bikini-clad princesses with eight-foot long sniper rifles, and a wide assortment of crazed scientists and military types.
Entering this fanzone is entering another world, a world far more accepting and supportive than any other produced thus far by our species. As we stood in a long line for tickets, enthusiasts clicked pictures of one another, always with expressions of admiration and love. It is a lot like a gay pride event – indeed, a lot like one – in which everyone supports one another’s celebration of individuality. A pick-up truck drives by, and a girl in the back shouts out “You all are wonderful!” and everyone cheerily waves back to her.
Once we get inside, we have our fake weapons checked for nonlethality and buy our tickets. I let the kids go off to find their own adventures. I wander the halls for a few minutes, feeling a bit like a weirdo since I am dressed for the mundane world. I am also self-conscious because there are a lot of half-naked young women running about, and I still don’t know where to put my eyes in order to strike the right balance that should be there somewhere between “rude indifference” and “sexual objectification”.
After a bit, I wander off the premises. The convention hall is surrounded by land being developed into commercial structures, which exist as small islands in a sea of parking lots. I navigate myself over weedy mounds of excavated dirt before reaching the shores of the wine-dark asphalt. I spy in the distance strange characters making their way to the con, carrying flags and enormous scythes and grease-stained bags of food from Carl’s Jr. Jets soar loudly overhead because we’re only a few miles from an Air Force base. Would this world be explicable to anyone not in it? As I trudge along, I think about writing a new version of the Canterbury Tales in which a set of cosplayers set out from a convention across a wasteland to fetch lunch at Quizno’s. Nah – too real, too bleak, no point.
I finally shore up at Target and buy some juice and a snack, standing in the checkout line beside a young man in white labcoat and wild white hair, with a huge bolt penetrating his head. I then set out again for the return voyage, one pilgrim among many trekking over the parking lots and mounds of dirt. I return to the car to take shelter in it and type up these reflections. Next to me is a small troop of half-naked ninjas. I smile at them, give a thumbs-up, and say, “You all look great!” They react with uncertain wariness and then ignore me, which is understandable. I want to tell them, “I’m a geek, too! I go crazy over 18th-century automata!” but I suspect they won’t see the similarity.
I rendezvous with the kids for lunch and they are in a sort of happy, over-stimulated daze. Their eyes scan the crowds, identifying characters and assessing the quality of the costumes. I suddenly realize how they must feel when mom and dad take them to foreign cities. I’m asking very basic questions about genres and cultures which they can’t fully answer because, like national and ethnic identities, they don’t make a lot of sense, and you really don’t need to know the details in order to find your way around. Eventually I stop asking.
Back to the con for them, and back to the car for me. Sitting in my car, typing away, makes me feel like a cosplay hermit, like some Obi-Wan in the deserts of Tatooine, waiting for Luke to mature – with the beard, no less, but minus any cool Jedi robe. (This at least is a genre I know well.) Soon enough it is time for me to cross the trackless wastes and scare off the sandpeople.
The three kids – two of them mine, plus a friend of theirs – are supposed to meet me at the Designated Place. #1 and #2 are there; #3 is not in sight. #2 goes off to attend something; #3 shows up; #2 goes off to find #1; #1 returns, but now #3 wanders off to another adventure; it’s just #1 and me; now #2 returns, and we are back to wondering where #3 is. But it takes only a half hour or so for all four of us to gather in the same spot, and they are weary with the intense visual processing of the day. We return slowly but happily to our trusty landspeeder, and away we go.
(Warning: here comes a rant)
I recently had the joy of meeting with colleagues from around the state, but unfortunately most of our meeting was focused on one of the least interesting topics with which academics can interact: outcome assessments, or essential learning outcomes, or “learning how to measure what we value”. Everything that can be said under this heading can easily be articulated within your own brain with a few minutes’ thought. Academic programs need to articulate what knowledge and skills they are imparting to their students; along with this, they need objective measurements of how successful they are at doing this; and the loop must be closed – meaning, programs need to use the results of these measurements to modify or reform what they are doing.
What, pray tell, are the skills and knowledge to be taught? Well, the principles, terms, and theories that are fundamental to the discipline, of course; and the skills are critical reading, thinking, writing, and the ability to work constructively with others. Even (!!!) in humanistic programs like philosophy or literature or languages, programs can boast that they are giving students the critical skills they will need to combat the difficult problems they are sure to face in their multiply-careered lives. (Another way of putting this point: even though what humanists teach is crap, the skills students gain by learning that crap are useful.) And on and on and on. All too predictable.
But in this eager race to the lowest (but easily measured) intellectual denominator, the “most essential” learning outcome of all is seldom noticed. What do students expect from college? What do professors like to see as they watch students proceed through the ranks? What do employers want to see emerging at the other end? Interesting minds. While it is said that students want college to give them jobs, I very much doubt that it is true. Students want to have their worlds rocked by ideas and insights, and they want to become intelligent and interesting. Professors love nothing more than to see the lost and naive freshman become a thinker alive to ideas and objections and concepts. Employers want college grads who are interesting (meaning: smart and creative) – people who can diagnose problems in fresh ways and brainstorm solutions into being. That is exactly the sort of thing you can’t reliably obtain from someone who hasn’t spent months or years grappling with treatises, fictions, heterodoxies, and paradoxes.
Indeed, most of the discussions regarding “assessment” are fine examples of exactly what we do not want to see college producing: vague and uniform truisms, hooked up with measures so meaningless as to guarantee that nothing will ever change. It is the deadened life of the bureaucratic mind. But imagine, as an alternative, academics charting the careers of students who have turned out to be really interesting, and trying to figure out what really happened, and to what extent their own courses or programs can take any credit for it. Undoubtedly, there never will be any sure-fire formula. But we might be able to collect a range of good practices, interesting ideas, experiments to try, as well as some solid critiques of what can stultify a college career.
There would be in-house benefits as well. It may turn out that each discipline needs something outside itself in order to improve the chances of its students gaining interesting minds. An accounting major might be lit afire by an art history course, as a philosophy major might develop new approaches by spending a semester in computer science. Professors, to the extent they wanted to make their students interesting, would have to get out in the wide world of the college campus and see what was on offer, just so that they could better advise their students. Who knows? In the end, they might end up having interesting minds as well.
- “All history is history of thought.”
- “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.”
- “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought incapsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.”
I must admit to knowing very little about Collingwood’s philosophy of history. A bright and motivated student and I are planning to read through his Idea of History after plunging through some Hegel this semester. So I hope to know more in a few months. Meanwhile, the principles above come from RGC’s Autobiography, which is very short, witty, and interesting. He traces his own course through schools, academic politics, intellectual interests, and world events.
I have been thinking about RGC’s principles with reference to the history of philosophy, of course. (It probably fits better there anyway; many friends of mine are professional historians and I think they would place severe qualifications upon the claim that history is first and foremost about ideas.) There has been a lot of discussion among historians of philosophy about the nature of what they do, and there has emerged something of a divide between the “philosophy” historians of philosophy and the “history” historians of philosophy. (Please, bear with me.) Those in the “philosophy” camp read historical philosophical texts as attempts to get at the philosophical truth, just as contemporary articles in metaphysics or ethics or epistemology are attempts to get at the truth. Those in the “history” camp set this concern aside, and are more interested in getting at what the historical author had in mind, given the author’s historical circumstance – more like what RCG says history is all about.
There is something to be said for each camp. Jonathan Bennett has been the most forceful proponent of the “philosophy” camp. He reported that he found wrestling with texts of Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, and Spinoza is the best way for him to think through the underlying philosophical issues. He never spared the Great Dead from his extremely analytical mind, calling spades spades and flagging every lapse. He would lend whatever aid he could to help get a philosopher’s system working, and he found several of the old systems to be not only salvageable but powerfully right in some of their claims. He couldn’t see why any philosopher (qua philosopher!) would read old philosophical texts in any other way.
(I am writing about Bennett in the past tense, but only because he has retired from active academic publication. He is very much alive, though recently suffered the loss of his wife Gillian, whose death was itself a testament to her nobility, her integrity, and her concern for enlightened social policy. The story can be read here.)
The “history” camp has greater interest in placing philosophical texts in their historical context, though very often the “historical context” comes to mean other philosophy texts from the same period. Seldom is any attention paid to the wars being waged or the political disturbances and factions of the day, let alone the actual living and working circumstances of the authors. That’s just historical “noise.” The thinkers are treated as if they live in bubbles of cogitation, insulated from the contingencies of existence.
RGC would have us employ historical knowledge and imagination to draw closer to the thinkers as they think their thoughts. This would require us to not just closely read the works of Hobbes and Spinoza – even in Latin! – and pay close analytical attention to every jot and tittle in the texts. We would have to start thinking about the issues of their days, the audiences they were writing to, and perhaps even their own political ambitions for status and readership. They weren’t interested solely in philosophical truth – indeed, no one is. They were interested in controversies and careers, and many of them lived in times where misplaced publications would have very dire consequences. “Re-enacting” the philosopher’s thoughts in our own mind requires knowing quite a bit more about the philosopher’s lived reality.
But why would a philosopher (qua philosopher!) be interested in this? I think the answer can emerge by thinking through RGC’s third principle. As we strive to understand historical thought, we can’t do so without underscoring the relevant differences between our circumstance and theirs. We “incapsulate” the thoughts within our own times, which just means: we know we are doing history, and not contemporary philosophy. We pay attention to the differences. But this also means paying attention to the sameness. We don’t live in those historical times, but some of the concerns those thinkers had should be familiar to us. We know death, sickness, and the comfort of friendship. We are familiar with the fear of mobs and the ideals of a well-functioning state. Many things change, but these do not. When we see how thoughtful human beings responded to their times, we see human beings responding to time; and that is relevant to us. RGC is right that, by doing history, we in a sense “contradict” the historical thoughts with present thoughts, and so put them on a different plane. But we find familiar human beings on every such plane. And from them, we learn.
A potted history:
I believe Peter Sloterdijk is right that the Enlightenment has been followed by philosophical cynicism, or an impressive array of natural knowledge unaccompanied by any faith in providence. The U.S., which became the dominant intellectual and cultural force in the course of the 20th century, was well-suited to put this cynicism to work: for America was built upon a pragmatic, “can do” attitude, and seemed ready to let expediency drive ideology . (There are probably interesting connections here to Protestantism and Holland of the 17th century.) And so there arose on American shores the fulfillment of the German idea of a research university, with its faculty as a specialized workforce and its students as Model-Ts rumbling down an assembly line on which three credits of this and three credits of that are bolted on to each chassis.
Each academic discipline became a guild or union, where membership is tightly controlled and guild members insist on their indispensability to the general curriculum. New disciplines created their own means of controlling membership and making cases for their newfound indispensability.
As unions generally lost power and new models of management were developed in the last third of the 20th century, the university also experienced a shift in authority from the faculty to the administration. In the names of efficiency and accountability, administrators deployed numerous measures for evaluating faculty “productivity”; and the nature of these measures encouraged faculty to entrench themselves more firmly in their respective guilds.
In the case of philosophy, this meant (1) more attention devoted to narrow problem-solving activity rather then efforts to deepen philosophical wonder; (2) increasingly narrow specialization and less general knowledge of the discipline itself and its history; (3) less engagement with anyone outside the professional guild; and (4) development of various cants and shibboleths to patrol membership in the guild.
What to do? (Provided, that is, that one is inclined to see these results as problems!)
Most academic philosophy departments see themselves primarily as housing a specialized academic discipline, and contributing only incidentally here or there to a university’s general education curriculum. The priority needs to be reversed. Frankly, there is little or no need for specialized academic philosophy; if it disappeared overnight, the only ones who would notice would be the practitioners themselves. But on the other hand, despite the occasional iconoclastic polemic saying otherwise, there is a widespread recognition that philosophy provides a valuable contribution to the mind of an educated person, even if the person is not working toward a degree in the field. Philosophy professors need to see their primary job as enriching the mental lives, values, and discourses of non-philosophers. For almost everyone, we should be a side dish rather than the main course. That is where our societal value lies.
Now it can be argued that in order to do this well, philosophers also need opportunities to continue to learn and grow: they too need the chance to “geek out” with fellow philosophers through publications and conferences. And, where there is both talent and motivation, some philosophers will manage to advance our very old and rich discipline. But genuine advances in philosophy will not happen with the frequency of advances in younger and more technological disciplines, like computer science and chemistry. Genuine advances in philosophy are as few and far between as are the geniuses of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. For most of us most of the time, our primary job is to enlighten masses.
If philosophy reconceived itself along these lines, graduate training in philosophy would look very different. Right now, the usual aim is to equip each student for intensely critical interaction with a vanishingly narrow band of specialists. (Typically, these PhDs are then hired to teach very broad undergraduate classes – an assignment for which, of course, they are wholly unprepared.) But if my proposal were adopted, these candidates would be trained to engage meaningfully, fruitfully, and philosophically with a wide range of people lacking expertise in philosophy. They would be required to write not dissertations, but books that could meaningfully inform the lives of their fellow citizens. This would be the norm rather than the now-celebrated exception. Philosophy would move out of the tower and back into the agora.
I can hear the complaint: “But there are many really smart people who are now attracted to philosophy’s narrow and difficult questions, and wouldn’t go into the discipline at all if they instead had to ‘dumb down’ their efforts for bigger audiences.” I grant the objection, and have three responses:
- First, it seems to me that these smart people might be able to find as much enjoyment working through equally difficult abstract problems in other fields – fields in which solving the problems would have more impact on more people. Smart problem-solvers are in demand all over the place.
- Second, there would still be room in the discipline for some really smart, narrow specialists, even if most of the room were given over to the broader task I’m recommending. Right now, of course, all of the room is reserved for narrow specialists – and that just doesn’t seem sensible, especially given the nature of the great majority of teaching jobs that exist.
- And third, I bet that for every person who is drawn into philosophy because of an inordinate enthusiasm for tight and narrow problems, there are ten really smart people who turn away from the discipline because there is no current opportunity for tackling broad and deep questions, and bringing them to the attention of wider audiences.
It would take some courage for philosophy as a discipline to make this move and “demean itself” by talking to broader audiences. It might seem like some sort of admission of defeat. But in reality, I think this move would be greeted very enthusiastically by a lot of educated people who have become increasingly disappointed in academic philosophers’ refusal to connect with people other than themselves. Moreover, it might encourage other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences to follow our lead, and recall their original purpose: to enlighten, deepen, enrich, and complicate the minds of human beings from all walks of life.
I went for a long bike ride yesterday. At the start I was just rolling along, letting my mind wander, and taking in the sights:
• kids selling lemonade,
• a well-kept garden,
• a Rat Patrol-style jeep with a gatling gun perched on top and three guys wrapping it in plastic,
• an interesting older red pick up for sale, …
Wait….. whaaaaa? So I had to turn the bike around to investigate.
Sure, enough, the jeep was painted drab, army green, with faux motor pool numbers stenciled on the side. It was on a transport trailer, and looked to be in near-new condition, so it was probably being sent off to a customer somewhere. On the passenger side, just outside the vehicle, was a rifle holster, with a nasty black armament in the holster. And hard at work were three guys wrapping the jeep in plastic (I suppose to protect it against kicked up stones on the road).
I learned recently that the idea of bolting a machine gun to the top of a moving vehicle was the idea of George S. Patton, he of pearl-handled revolver fame. He first used the weapon in the Pancho Villa Expedition, strapping a gun atop a 1915 Dodge, racing up behind the enemy, and blasting away.
“So…,” I said to the guys, “what’s going on up top there?” I gestured toward the gatling gun. It had six long round barrels, two pistol-grip handles, and a big red button.
They kept wrapping. Their leader eventually explained, “It’s for crowd control.”
“It’ll do that,” I agreed. “But is it real? I mean, it isn’t, right? It has a big red button on it, and nothing real has a big red button on it.” I was rapidly reaching the end of my knowledge of weaponry.
“It’s real. I added the big red button myself; it didn’t come with that. It delivers (x hundred? y thousand?) rounds per minute, something, something, something.” He added, “It shoots CO2 pellets.” So it was in fact a very badass BB gun. It wouldn’t kill, but it would definitely disperse a crowd. The other two guys kept wrapping and did not acknowledge my presence.
Now I’ve lived in the rural west long enough to know not to ask questions to which you don’t want to know the answers. So I said, “Well, it sure looks cool. You guys have a good day,” and pedaled off. The encounter gave me plenty of material for thinking over my ride. My guess is that this guy, out of his home, equips vehicles with weaponry, under contract with – well, with whom? Probably not with municipal police units, since the jeep was done up to look federal, and those agencies like to keep it clear who is doing the shooting. Possibly with paramilitary groups, of which there seem to be increasing numbers. Or possibly a low-GDP foreign government? Mexico? Puzzling, the things one sees from time to time. I’ve got to admit, though, that thing was cool.
Burton Dreben (1927-1999) was a Harvard professor whose influence upon academic philosophers has been great, despite a paucity of publications. Indeed, his influence has been so strong that some people refer to his students as being “Drebenized”, or molded in the form of the master. His main area of interest was logic, and the thought of Wittgenstein, Quine, Frege, and Carnap.
I heard Dreben lecture once – it was on Frege’s notes on Witggenstein’s Tractatus – and found him to be funny, smart, and captivating. He lectured simply, with only the texts before him, and he shared his unscripted thoughts with force and clarity. He easily defended himself against acute criticisms raised by my professors, whom I held in a kind of terrified reverence. An anecdote shared by another philosopher pretty much captures my recollection of Dreben’s style of repartee:
[Michael Dummett] had just delivered a lecture on Wittgenstein on logical necessity. Dreben arose excitedly to disagree with the interpretation. “But Burt,” Dummett said, ”you think all this stuff is nonsense.” To which Dreben replied, “No, no, no, no, no! . . . Well, yes.”
I can easily see the allure of being Drebenized. What fun it must have been to learn from such a clever and funny man!
There has been a larger discussion of Dreben’s thought and influence some years ago on Leiter’s blog *here*, and I am certainly in no position to add to it. But I would like to reflect for my own purposes on the meaning and truth in one of Dreben’s more notorious declamations: “Philosophy is garbage. But the history of garbage is scholarship.”
Philosophy is ridiculously hubristic. It is an attempt to get at the deepest meanings of things, to grasp that which ultimately and finally is, to comprehend not just what happens to be but what must be, and to draw from these grand truths a vision of how human life should proceed. Anyone trying to do this has to begin by presuming that there is some final account of things, and also that the human mind is capable of coming to know it. Both presumptions are unwarranted; and the implausibility of the second presumption undercuts any justification for believing the first one. Who are humans to presume to know such things? While we are so very clever at manipulating objects and forging tools and constructing strategies, there is little reason to think our brains have evolved for the purpose of understanding Ultimate Truth. Our brains have evolved for the simply purpose of getting by well enough to reproduce. That salutary end can be achieved with minds that are good only for small and local things. Even the notion that there is some Ultimate Truth could be completely misguided. There is no guarantee that the universe must obey what we convince ourselves to be logically necessary.
Even if I am wrong about this – if it turns out there is an Ultimate Truth, and humans in principle can come to know it – then it must be admitted at the very least that it is really, REALLY hard to get to that truth. Given our propensity to mess up in comparatively lower-level cognitive tasks (consider the reliability of operating systems, and the multitudinous failures of bureaucratic institutions), it should be no surprise that so far no one has really come up with a thoroughly compelling philosophy. David Hume provides a just observation:
It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its contradiction to popular opinion. (Enquiry, sec. 1)
Any confidence that, with careful enough thought, we can attain a vision of the True must be weighed against our track record of making the most elementary conceptual mistakes at the outset of any theorizing. We can place on top of that the ingenuity of other philosophers in coming up with compelling objections and devastating counterexamples to claims that might very well have been true. Even if we came across the truth, it would be a miracle if that genuine insight survived our very clever criticality. In the end, if in fact we have buried within us what philosophy would require, then that capacity is so tenuous and frail that the smart money is on humanity’s persistent failure in coming to know anything of metaphysical significance.
(I know I’m not presenting much of an argument here. It’s really only an expression of what Mickey’s father, in Hannah and her Sisters, says in fewer words: “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”)
But – for all that – I must confess that it is fun and instructive to read attempts by other philosophers to get at big truths. All right: it’s not fun and instructive for everyone. It’s a genre of literature (fiction? nonfiction?) that has its following. And these followers are improved in several ways by their enthusiasm. The literature of philosophy provides ample material for training critical reading and interpretation. Reading Carnap, and reading Quine, and tracing exactly how they talked past one another (as Dreben did) requires extraordinary care in reading, in forming apt diagnoses, in testing interpretations against one another, and in expressing with precision what is going on.
Moreover, as we try to place great historical philosophers in their times and cultures, we can learn in a general way how efforts at philosophy are shaped by circumstance. No one writes in a vacuum, of course, though Descartes and Spinoza tried. As we come to understand how each philosopher is rooted in some historical period, we come to understand how the philosophy that is generated is an existential reflection on that period. We see, that is, how humans have wrapped their minds around the universe in specific times and places. This in turn gives us more to think about as we craft our own responses to our own times and places. It is really the same insight one gains through travel: seeing how strange other places are helps us to see how strange our own place is. There is some self-knowledge in this, a kind of philosophical humbling, which I believe contributes to a deeper sympathy toward the thoughts of those with whom you disagree.
So, yes, philosophy is garbage. But the history of this garbage is something worth pursuing with scholastic intensity.
Émile Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, translated by Joseph Thomas (UChicago, 1958)
The history of philosophy does not reveal to us ideas existing in themselves, but only the men who think. Its method, like every historical method, is nominalistic. Ideas do not, strictly speaking, exist for it. It is only concrete and active thoughts that exist. The problems which philosophers pose and the solutions they offer are the reactions of original thought operating under given historical circumstances and in a given environment. It is permissible, no doubt, to consider ideas or the representations of reality which result from these reactions in isolation. But thus isolated, they are like effects without causes. We may indeed classify systems under general titles. But classifying them is not giving their history (182).
A true philosophical reform, such as that of a Socrates or of a Descartes, always takes for its point of departure a confrontation of the needs of human nature with the representation the mind forms of reality. It is the sense of a lack of correspondence between these needs and the representation which, in exceptionally endowed minds, awakens the philosophical vocation. Thus, little by little, philosophy reveals man to himself. It is the reality of his own needs, of his own inclinations, which forms the basis of living philosophical thought. A philosophy which does not give the impression of being indispensable to the period in which it appears is merely a vain and futile curiosity (pp. 183-4).
A recent post on the internet has outed Neil deGrasse Tyson (or “NdGT,” as he’s been dubbed by the blogosphere) as a philistine in matters of philosophy. True enough: as charismatic as he is, and as beneficial as his public service has been in bringing the wonders of modern science to a big audience, he does appear to be one of those scientists who imperiously dismiss philosophy as a pointless endeavor without appearing to have any clear idea of what philosophy actually is.
(For background, the relevant discussion comes up between minutes 20 and 24 in the Nerdist interview between NdGT and Chris Hardwick. Now, in defense of the Nerdist, the interview is meant only as light entertainment, and it just happened to wander into a dead-end topic. Arguably, they aren’t talking as much about real philosophy as they are talking about pointless verbal activity. But it is also true that the distinction seems lost on all involved – and hence the fitting charge of philistinism.)
I heartily applaud NdGT’s general efforts at popularizing science. My family and I have watched the entire Cosmos series, and while I think the older series had the distinct advantage of Carl Sagan’s masterful prose, this newer series has its own kind of charm (and much better effects). I confess that early on I bristled at the show’s dumbed-down and misleading accounts of the history of science. (The Renaissance Mathematicus cheerfully dishes up the necessary criticisms and correctives on Giordano Bruno and on Robert Hooke.) But after some reflection I realized that the producers put these segments in simplistic cartoon form for good reason: namely, to advertise up front that they were providing only a cartoon version of history. And if the series’ objective is to get kids interested in science, then maybe it’s okay to sacrifice truth for the sake of a good story. So far as that goes, the scientific accounts they tell are also oversimplified, and that’s okay too. First get the kids interested, and let the details get sorted out later. As somebody once said, teaching is strategic lying. If you tell a full and accurate story up front, you’ll only have an audience that didn’t need to be reached in the first place.
So: good on you, NdGT (and producers of Cosmos), and I hope many kids feel wonder for nature as a result of your efforts. But one also wonders whether these laudable ends might be achieved without ignorantly dismissing other ways of understanding the fascinating and wonderful elements of human experience.
We expect that causal laws will be the same across all experience. Hume famously claims that this expectation is grounded neither in pure reason nor in experience. Not pure reason: for one can posit a cause and deny the effect without being contradictory. And not in experience: for all experience can ever show is what we have observed in the past, and that information does not by itself tell us how to generalize upon it. We could generalize that causal laws will remain uniform; or we could generalize that the universe will go completely wonky from this date forward. Neither inference follows validly from what we have observed, and so they are in this sense equally nonstarters. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as the saying goes.
Hume tries to find a way to explain why it is that, despite all that, we end up expecting causal laws to be constant. Strange as it sounds, the explanation he advances is itself causal. We become used to the causal patterns of the world, or conditioned by them through repeated associations, and so we come to subjectively expect causal patterns to continue. (This isn’t as paradoxical as it sounds. The salient fact about us, that we make causal generalizations, is also itself a generalization, and we expect to continue to generalize in the future as we have in the past. We are conditioned to expect continued conditioning.) We might well call Hume’s explanation the “Pavlovian” account of causality. It is meant precisely not to show that causal claims are grounded in any respectable, defensible process. It is only meant to explain the psychology behind our causal expectations.
Lord Kames, countryman and kinsman of David Hume, did not think this psychological account was good enough, and he raised a counterexample to the claim that constant connections breed causal associations:
In a garrison, the soldiers constantly turn out at a certain beat of the drum. The gates of the town are opened and shut regularly, as the clock points at a certain hour. These facts are observed by a child, grow up with him, and turn habitual during a long life. In this instance, there is a constant connection betwixt objects, which is attended with a similar connection in the imagination: yet the person above supposed, if not a changeling, never imagined, the beat of the drum to be the cause of the motion of the soldiers; nor the pointing of the clock to a certain hour, to be the cause of the opening or shutting of the gates. He perceives the cause of these operations to be very different; and is not led into any mistake by the above circumstances, however closely connected. (Kames 1751)
The child ends up smarter than his experience would suggest. How is he able to sort out the correlations from the causations? In reply to Kames, Hume could claim that the child is able to make the distinction because – once or twice – he has perhaps witnessed the drums beating without the troops mustering, or the gates opening or shutting at odd hours. And what if he hasn’t? Still, he might be able to see the events as only correlated because he has explored the barracks, the drum, the clock, and the gates, and he has found no mechanical links among them. This matters, because he has become otherwise accustomed to expect there to be spatially proximate, mechanical links between causes and effects, at least in events of this kind (“this kind” being correlations among bodies’ behaviors that are not alleged to be explicable through magnetism or gravity or (for us today) quantum spookiness). Indeed, in the Treatise, Hume insists that when we take ourselves to find a causal connection between events, we observe that the events “are contiguous in time and place, and that the object we call cause precedes the other we call effect” (1.3.14). The boy, perhaps, has found the correlated events to be spatially isolated – no links bridging them – and let’s throw in for good measure that perhaps he has also observed that the temporal relations are not as constant as one would otherwise expect among events that are really causally related.
But Kames, I expect, would have further complaints. Don’t we occasionally experience what sure seem like failures in mechanical explanation? We set up a perfect Rube-Goldberg contraption, push the first domino, and then what we believed must surely ensue does not. Indeed, don’t we encounter such causal disappointments just as frequently as we encounter correlated events that we are not supposed to think of as causal? The common course of life certainly suggests so. But if this is so, how on Hume’s account could we ever come to reliably sort out one kind from another? Why aren’t we far more confused than we are?
The upshot of this line of objection is that we end up knowing more about the world than we would if our knowledge were just a result of passive observation. Somehow, out of our experience, including our language and culture and education, we are able to form inner models of the world. In those models there are representations of what kinds of events are causally linked and which are not. Models can be mistaken, of course, and we can get causal explanations very wrong. But these models are not made automatically upon successive viewings of the passing show. Experience does not carve a model into our mind in the way a stream of water carves a canyon into rock. A model is an act of creative invention on our part, and it contains much more information than experience itself provides.
(Both Kant and Popper recognized this, by the way. But while Kant held that some components of the model are fixed, imparted to the model by the structure of the human mind, Popper regarded everything as negotiable.)
I wonder, though, why Hume was so attracted to such a simplistic view of our understanding. It may be that he could not see a way to contribute anything more complicated to the mind without bringing on the worry that he was making the mind supernatural. Nature as he knew it could produce an organism that is rudely shaped by experience in the way he describes. But how can nature produce a model-creating mechanism? Today we don’t worry about that question – not as much as we should, I think – but perhaps in Hume’s day the ability to create complex inner models that went beyond the elements of sensory experience had to be seen as something supernatural. Before you know it, there would be talk of souls, and Hume did not want to see talk drifting in that direction. Better an overly simple mechanism that nature can produce than a fancy one nature can’t, if what you’re trying to do is build a broadly nature-bound epistemology. Then you can hope that custom, habit, and culture will fill in any missing structure.
Or maybe I’m wrong to think that individual minds generate models, and Hume is right to look to larger cultural entities and traditions as the generators of models. When Hume claims that custom or habit is what leads us to expect causal regularities, he might be saying that our expectations – our models – are results of training and education and not results of individuals’ abilities. A humean Adam, with no one around to teach him, would have no expectations for the future. It takes a society for there to be individuals with some kind of shared model of the world that goes beyond each individual’s own experience. That’s an interesting idea.
I’m just ending my second foray into academic administration. The first one was serving as department head over a department including philosophy, communications studies, and all of our foreign language programs. It was a terrific exercise in mental and emotional flexibility – at one point I was adjudicating a dispute between a faculty member and a staff assistant while also trying to plan the curricular offerings in French while also teaching early modern philosophy while also …. Luckily, my colleagues were very supportive and forgiving of my mistakes. Still, at the end of my service, I posed myself the question, “What if the dean gave you the choice of (a) staying on for one more year or (b) sticking your hand in a garbage disposal?” and I found myself trying to estimate just how much damage a garbage disposal would do to a hand and how long recovery would take (less than a year? would I get good drugs?). Happily, the choice was never presented to me.
Now I’m finishing up foray #2, having served as an associate dean. This assignment was loads easier. No personnel issues. Mainly, my job has been to go to meetings, answer emails, serve on committees, go to meetings, put people on committees, answer emails, go to meetings…. A lot of my work has focused on academic issues like the structure of general education, the overall shape of the college’s curricula, procedures for fairly and meaningfully evaluating faculty, and so on. This is all interesting stuff (to me), and I’ve learned a lot, and I think we made some real contributions. But now, as I transition back to teaching & scholarship, I’m realizing that one’s mind can be wholly dedicated in different ways. In administration, the whole mind is dedicated to organization, procedural justice, political strategy – I think of this as a broad multilateral engagement. In teaching and scholarship, the mind is wholly dedicated to bringing order and significance to a range of questions that go far deeper – I think of it as deep multilateral engagement.
The deep engagement is a LOT harder and and more exhausting than the broad engagement. When it goes well, it is also more fulfilling; and when it doesn’t, it occasions utter despair. I’m guessing this is because more of one’s self is being put on the line – in the classroom, or on the page in one’s writings. Failure reflects, somehow, on the depth and structure of one’s own soul (to dramatize just a bit). If I assemble and present something I take to be important, and it brings only yawns or silence, then (unless I know I was only faking it) I can only conclude that either I or my audience has failed in taking proper measure. Neither conclusion is a happy one. On the other hand, if what I present in a class is greeted with enthusiasm, then at least everyone involved is failing in a similar direction, and that’s not half-bad (indeed, as good as it gets, in my experience). Companionship softens the self-loathing of incompetents.
(Hmm; I didn’t know this tour was going to stop at that spot.) Anyway, I wanted to make a brief listing of some observations made during this second foray. In no particular order:
1. When administrators take any action, they are almost always in a very tight spot. Generally, seasoned administrators try to change as little as possible, under the reasonable suspicion that any change to a system brings all manner of unintended consequences. (Greener administrators, alas, have yet to learn this, and in their ambition can cause great problems.) This means that when there is a change, one should always look for the deeper and more compelling story – the one that makes you say “Ah! That makes sense” – and not just follow convenient rumors.
2. The further up the ladder you go, the less connection there is to anything of academic interest. Maybe this is just what you’d expect. But it is startling sometimes to listen to high-level discussions by people who seem only dimly aware that there are classes being taught, and that items on CVs might refer to intrinsically interesting things. Our university president, who is a decent man, seems only dimly aware of the academic side of campus, as he spends almost all of his days dealing with legislators, donors, and lawyers.
3. Rarely, one finds an academic administrator living an active life of the mind while also administrating – these creatures are valuable beyond any telling, and should be treasured.
4. Vice-presidents very often see the university centered around them, and expend great energy trying to get everyone to adopt their concerns. I guess it’s their job, but it leads to a lot of rear-guard, defensive maneuvering by deans and associate deans to try to maintain resources that will otherwise get sucked up into the building of little kingdoms. In sum: beware the ambitions of vice-presidents.
5. It is also startling to see the consequences of over-specialization in our disciplines, especially in the humanities. This is what makes general education such a difficult and thankless task. I don’t regard myself as well-educated, but out of guilt I have been working to become well-educated for several decades now (a work still very much in progress). But now I encounter junior colleagues who not only do not have this guilt, but sometimes do not seem to be aware of missing anything – “I’m not supposed to know anything about that, am I?”. But I’ll leave it at that lest I give over to excessive old man grumping.
6. I believe it is good for academics to take a turn in administration. It helps them to see how institutions function, and to befriend the people in the offices; it helps them to gain a broader picture of how universities operate, and where they fail; it helps them as individuals work more efficiently, given firmer pressures on schedules. And I think it is good for those turns to be limited. Granted, from deans on up, it is good to have people with more extensive experience. But there are plenty of posts, like the ones I’ve had, that can be entered into and then left again, and from which much can be learned. It’s been a good turn for me; and I’m happy it’s over.
Reading Schelling, or even only about Schelling, helps us understand Hegel’s frustration when he called the philosophy of the Absolute “the night in which all cows are black.” The Absolute covers everything under the sky, and rather than illuminating anything, it portrays everything as the same and allows no difference. You can say what you like about it without worrying that someone will point out any exception to what you have said. It is an easy way to sound profound without actually having to say anything.
But let’s try to think with Schelling for a bit. That there is for us a possibility of even trying to refer to “the Absolute” is interesting. What do we try to refer to? It; all of it, and everything. The Absolute is the domain we want to hear about when we ask why there is something rather than nothing. For it is hard for us to think there is no final foundation for explanations; or if we manage to think that, then we feel we are thinking a nonfinality that is itself absolute. But who are we when we think the Absolute? Do we stand apart from it, or within it? Or do we contain it within our thinking?
Schelling says it is all these things at once. He thinks Spinoza does not grasp the full truth when he claims our understanding is an object fully within an Absolute order. He thinks Fichte is similarly wrong to insist that everything is contained within an Absolute subject. Instead, they both are right: the understanding, the absolute truth, the inner well of subjectivity, and the objective world order are all the same, and the great animus of the cosmos is to wrap our heads around that identity.
Our noblest human endeavors – science, art, and religion – are how we set about doing it. In science we try to capture nature as an object. But in that nature we find beautiful symmetries and harmonies that present to us the order of a divine soul. In art we strive to present the glorious sweep of our feelings, but in doing so we must resort to symbols, and the laws and relations governing symbols are not of our own invention, but exhibit an objective structure like what we find in nature. Just as a trip outside returns us inside, the trip inside sends us out again. And in religion, which Schelling either by circumstance or by his own predilection had to place on top of it all, we recapture the unity of the Absolute by finding the personal within the impersonal. At first through myths, and then through Christianity, we find that the cold and terrifying world is in fact someone we know and have known all along.
Perhaps more basic than the unity of the Absolute in Schelling’s thought is the stubborn opposition – and yet ultimate unity – of opposites. It is hard for me not to think of the German Idealists as Kantian versions of the pre-Socratics, and if Fichte is Parmenides (“All is One”), then Schelling is Heraclitus. Heraclitus may have held that what we know as reality is always in a state of flux between opposing forces. Everything is always on its way to something else; and yet “the road up and the road down are one and the same”, meaning that there is some deeper unity in this tension between opposites. In Schelling’s thought, the oppositions of objectivity and subjectivity, and dogmatism and criticism, animate his thinking and provide the power behind science, art, and religion. We strive for unity amid opposition – and that, in a single slogan, is what we do whenever we try to understand and represent. We try to capture in a snapshot what is essentially on the move. Yet this does not occasion despair in Schelling; it instead fuels the romantic endeavor to grasp what transcends our grasp.
An idle self-scolding:
1. Everyone – not all the time, but every once in a while, acknowledge the fact that human beings occasionally produce something noble, beautiful, or virtuous without oppressing anyone. Writing like Eeyore is not doing us any favors.
2. English faculty – it’s okay to get excited once in a while about silly things (Archie comics, zombie movies, Happy Meal toys), but it’s gotten out of hand; try to spend more time with grown-up material.
3. Philosophers – if you are working on problems that only interest people with PhDs in philosophy, there’s a decent chance you are spinning your wheels. Get real.
4. Historians – just because it hasn’t been studied before doesn’t automatically mean it’s worth studying. You’ve got to make the case that it’s worth someone’s time.
5. Classicists – You’re doing a great job; keep up the good work!
6. Everyone again – bitching about not getting enough respect is a losing strategy for getting respect. Write about something important in a way that lots of people can understand. If you get it right, you’ll get respect. (That’s right, by the way: we can get things right, and we can get them wrong – if, that is, we are actually saying anything. It’s not all just interpretation. What? You think I’m wrong about that? Good. Point made.)
Recently I sat in on a debate about gay marriage. It failed in the noble end of giving everyone in the audience a more complete picture of the arguments and concerns surrounding the issue, but it did at any rate give me the chance to organize my own thoughts on the issue.
It seems to me that, as an institution, marriage has three goods attached to it. First, it recognizes the value we place on a loving, meaningful bond between people who declare their lifelong commitment to one another. Second, it recognizes the value we place on creating stable home environments in which children can be raised to become good people and good citizens. I’ll call these two goods the social goods of marriage, and I think rational people must agree that these goods can be met by gay couples as well as by straight couples. Clearly, gay couples long to have their loving, meaningful commitment to one another recognized through the institution of marriage. And while some people argue that the homes of gay couples are not the best place in which children can be raised, the evidence is very far from clear. Moreover, even if there were child-rearing disadvantages to gay marriage, those disadvantages could well result from the general resentment or resistance toward gay marriage that’s found throughout our society. And if this is so, then such evidence should only spur our efforts to ease that resistance, just as we are spurred to ease the resistance to mixed-race couples or single-parent households.
So the first two goods of marriage provide no reason against gay marriage; indeed, there is every reason to think that these goods can be promoted by allowing gay marriage. But the third good of marriage is different. Many people in our society view marriage as providing a religious good. In their view, God has instituted a holy bond between members of the opposite sex: man and woman complete one another in a profoundly important way that members of the same sex couples cannot. The fundamental, biological difference between the sexes exists because of a purpose God has for human beings, which is to wed, complete one another, and produce more human beings. Marriage is the societal recognition of this religious good, in addition to the two social goods, and from this perspective, making marriage available to same-sex couples in fact repudiates any societal recognition of this particular religious good.
I’m going to argue that religious people need to give way on this good, but first I want to stress that this religious good is in fact a very important to a great many of our fellow citizens, and demanding that they give way on it is asking them to give up on something they value quite highly. This needs to be more widely appreciated, I think. It is not at all like asking an atheist to give way on prayers at school assemblies, or saying “so help me God” at the end of an oath. Having to kowtow to such religious observances are fairly small potatoes; they are very minor concessions in comparison to demanding that religious folks give way on their view of a divinely-instituted bond between human beings. In fact, I can’t think of any other institution that has such a great and equal mix of social and religious significance. It is uniquely a big deal.
Okay; so why do I think that, despite this cost, the religious folks need to give way on this issue? I think they need to for two reasons. First, the cost of denying the social goods of marriage to gay couples is an even greater cost than is the cost to religious folks of giving way. This is becoming more and more obvious to a lot of people. As gay couples out themselves, and as there is greater public understanding of their love and commitment to one another, and their familiar humanity, it feels increasingly wrong to refuse to recognize their bonds through marriage. I’m taking this as a social fact. Second, if gay marriage is generally made available and legal, religious folks can still find a lesser way of saving some of the religious good they see in marriage. This lesser way is that religious institutions can always make a distinction between a secular marriage and one that is recognized in the church and through their ceremonies. (In fact, some religions do this already when they refuse to recognize the marriages, baptisms, and rituals performed in other religions or denominations.) This is not an easy fix; there are many complex ramifications that would need to be sorted out, just as there are between religious hospitals and insurance programs and the Affordable Care Act. But though tricky, this is the only way to go. There can no longer be any denial of the social goods of marriage to same sex couples, and allowing religious institutions to preserve their own sense of marriage is about the best we can do in preserving the good they find in marriage.
When I started as an Assistant Professor, people started calling my kind of academic reading and writing “RESEARCH”, and they encouraged me to do the same. At least, this is how I remember it. It seemed to me strange and awkward, because in my mind “RESEARCH” required surveys at the very minimum, and perhaps also processing numbers and running statistics and boiling liquids and writing on clipboards. But I did (and do) none of these things. I read and read and read; and then I walk around in a daze for a while; and then I write; and read some more; and walk around some more; and write; and so on, until somehow someone publishes something. Repeat. That’s been my method; twenty years ago it seemed bizarre to call it “RESEARCH”.
Time erodes most opinions, and now I can only barely remember how bizarre it seemed to me so long ago. In fact, “RESEARCH” has become for me so watered down as to mean “those activities academics can document in such ways as to duly impress, or fail to unimpress, university administrators.” But recently I came across someone who insisted on making some distinction between “RESEARCH” and “SCHOLARSHIP” on some university form or other, and it got me thinking about whether there is indeed a distinction between the two.
I think there is. In my mind, and apart from my own professional cynicism, “RESEARCH” means finding out new stuff (mainly facts). Scientists do this as they run experiments and find hitherto unknown correlations or causal connections; social scientists, same; archival historians do this as they search through records and piece together what must have happened. But it seems to me that for the most part philosophers, and some historians, and scholars of literature – “humanists” – are not in this kind of business. I have seen plenty of cases where someone claims that their area of research is (say) virtue ethics, or late Renaissance literature, or how some people get relegated to the margins in canonical works. But for the most part this does not require discovering new stuff. It mainly requires looking at the stuff we have in new and (hopefully) interesting and revealing ways.
The ideal for such humanists is not research, but “SCHOLARSHIP”. To be a humanist scholar, one needs to read a great deal, think deeply and humanely about it, and pick up on interesting patterns or glaring exceptions to patterns commonly thought to exist. It is rare to find such scholars (the rarity I’ll try to explain next). Lately I have been finding lectures on YouTube by scholars like Robert Brandom, Peter Brown, and Anthony Grafton, and they are scholarly exemplars. They possess a synoptic knowledge across broad domains, and they have the intelligence to sort the significant from the insignificant and issue meaningful opinions about important matters, with fairness and grace.
Usually I listen to these lectures as I am doing my exercises. It’s maybe this association that leads me identify to a third kind of activity, in addition to research and scholarship, which I am calling “PUSH-UPS”. Of course, we do push-ups or sit-ups not because they are in themselves valuable (duh!), but because they improve our strength in some way. This presents the most charitable description I can think of for what many scholars are engaged in prior to embarking on either research or scholarship. I’m sure that many scientists are not really discovering new facts; they engage in the outward form of research activity, but what they discover is either spurious or too trivial to be dignified by the designation “new stuff”. Also, many humanists perform the outward activities of scholarship, but what they discover and write up is hardly interesting, compelling, or general. But what can be said favorably of such academics is that they are young. Hopefully, with time and confidence, they will become scholars or researchers. Right now, they are in some kind of disciplinary training, like push-ups, that will yield valuable results down the road.
That’s optimistic, of course. There is every likelihood that academics will get caught up in the illusion that their push-ups are in fact ends in themselves and they may forget or never come to know that there is genuine scholarship and research. Universities as institutions demand quick return on investment in their faculty, and that certainly promotes a lot of push-ups, and what we do repeatedly becomes habitual. If it weren’t for tenure we’d have practically no researchers or scholars, as no one would ever have the chance of advancing from training to the real thing. As it is, with tenure, some push-up skills mature into genuinely valuable work. The price we pay is that sometimes it doesn’t happen. But I can’t see any more effective way to promote scholarship and research.
I confess that I write this as someone who has done his fair share of push-ups. I can’t say I have become anything more than a rudimentary scholar. But I’m glad to see now the merit in a distinction I was encouraged to forget some time ago.