Theory and Practice

by Mark English

____

Disruptions to business as usual, such as we have been experiencing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, inevitably raise questions regarding which activities are essential or important for a good or fulfilling life, and which may be happily dispensed with. Answers to such questions will, of course, often be very subjective, influenced by personal histories and circumstances and driven by implicit assumptions and deeply-held values.

My focus here is mainly on activities associated with education and research, but I also touch on the arts. I readily admit that what I say is based in part on certain assumptions about the nature and value of knowledge, assumptions which are less widely shared today than they once were – at least amongst academics and intellectuals working within the arts and humanities.

As I see it, skepticism about the possibility of objective knowledge is all too often taken to extremes. This can be motivated by a desire to undermine the claims or status of the sciences and to defend the status of non-scientific disciplines. But it is not an effective strategy, in my opinion, and is ultimately self-defeating.

I am always a bit uneasy talking about academic disciplines and discipline boundaries. For one thing, it feels a bit redundant. Disciplines are what they are, and practitioners and observers make their own judgments about where to draw boundaries and about the extrinsic or intrinsic value of particular fields. But a live-and-let-live approach becomes problematic in times of change, in times of crisis: in times like these, in fact, when the future is in the balance and business as usual is just no longer an option.

I see our educational and cultural infrastructure as having lost its legitimacy and being in desperate need of reshaping and radical reform. The early years of education are particularly crucial but universities find themselves having to do remedial work and teach basic skills. I won’t go into detail. Most people know the situation and everyone has their own ideas about possible solutions.

What is clear is that much more needs to be done in the earlier years, both in terms of imparting practical skills and knowledge, and in terms of broader goals associated with education’s socializing – or civilizing – function. It is beyond dispute that the K-12 system in America and many equivalent systems elsewhere have been failing badly for years.

Universities are also struggling and the value of higher education is increasingly being called into question. College enrollments in the United States have declined by more than 10 percent over the last eight years. NPR reports that the current crisis may be an existential one for many colleges. But what is being taught in many of these colleges may be part of the problem.

All intellectual disciplines – be they scientific or scholarly – can be seen as adding to a shared knowledge base and having knowledge as their reason for being. Other possible raisons d’être for academic and intellectual disciplines could be given, of course. And are. My point is just that I don’t find other justifications for classing activities as serious intellectual disciplines particularly convincing.

The fields in question may well be intellectual, but where is the theoretical rigor, where is the discipline, if anything goes on the knowledge front? Theory must be constrained somehow, and knowledge-seeking or knowledge-building activities typically have certain constraints built in, in the form of methodologies developed over time.

Besides, what is the point of theory if it is not a means to some end? It must derive its value from something. It has no intrinsic value (as I see it). And that something, historically speaking, has virtually always been shared knowledge. Theory arises quite naturally in knowledge-seeking and pedagogical contexts.

Of course, high levels of rigor and discipline are often in evidence in activities which involve various kinds of practical knowledge. Some such activities are dependent on or associated with a body of theory. Some are not.

Explicit claims about the world always need to be assessed regarding their plausibility. This need not be – and normally isn’t – done in a rigorous or systematic way. In day-to-day life and politics, all kinds of claims are made and assessed on the run within dynamic social contexts. I am not complaining about this.

What’s more, in ordinary life the truth of a claim is often less important than its social function, its role in modifying behavior for example. Or think of politeness phenomena like white lies which are primarily designed to spare the feelings of others. Courtesy and truth don’t go together well!

Within the strict confines of intellectual and technical disciplines, however, the truth or otherwise of the claims being made or assessed is (I am claiming) quite central. Unfortunately many academic disciplines have lost sight of this simple and obvious fact and have become, wholly or in part, self-perpetuating talking shops, jargon-ridden and superfluous extensions of the jousting and jostling of ordinary social and professional life.

Knowledge and truth relate not just to propositions and theories but also, in a sense, to artistic representations. I have recently been thinking about the concept of art and, particularly, about problems of definition. The term ‘art’ is intrinsically vague and ill-defined and a comprehensive theory of art seems quite unnecessary. At any rate, the lack of such a theory will hardly prevent us from discussing in clear and cogent terms the aesthetic qualities and features of particular kinds of object or product (novels or films, say) or of individual works.

Imaginative literature and cinema can be seen as making claims about the world (and so, possibly, as conveying knowledge). But the claims are necessarily implicit and indirect and typically engage the emotions as much as or more than the intellect.

Even apparently explicit claims within such works are indirect. For example, explicit statements in the dialogue or narration of a novel or film are embedded within an imaginative construction and cannot be taken at face value. The statements are actions within a world which is not our world, at least in a literal sense.

Literary and cinematic works seek to engage us in imagined worlds. These worlds may or may not be plausible representations of recognizable aspects of the world we know, or of the patterns and concerns of our personal and social lives.

Truth in literature or cinema means something like “true to some aspect of life as we experience or envisage it.” We respond: Yes, that rings true; that’s how it works, that’s how it feels. (Or not, as the case may be.)

30 Comments »

  1. Mark: As you know, these sorts of drive-by shooting essays of yours are my least favorite among your repertoire. I can never quite figure out what the point is. It’s not to inform us of something new, as you’ve expressed these sorts of thoughts scores of times. It’s not to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you, as there are no arguments to be found anywhere. I doubt it’s to annoy or irritate, as this doesn’t seem to be your temperament. So, I am at a loss.

    There is a certain irony in bemoaning a lack of rigor in one’s targets in an argument-free scatter-shooting session. Where is the intellectual rigor in your piece?

    It also bothers me that you continue writing essentially the same essay over and over again, completely ignoring everything that has been said in response or otherwise published here. I have written extensively on the university, characterizing it as having a number of functions, of which knowledge-accumulation of the sort you describe here is just one. But you would never know it from these periodic recitals of yours. Understand that as far as I am concerned, unless you have some argument against my characterization — which happens to have the advantage of being historically true — I view the sort of thing you say here as having been decisively refuted. I guess you can keep on saying it over and over again, but I’m not sure what the point is in advancing a thesis that has already been refuted, said refutation to which you have never responded.

    Your own view, of course, is ahistorical, which is odd given that you are prone to criticize others for ahistoricism in other contexts. Science and engineering were not a part of university education for the majority of its history, and only become so in the wake of the industrial revolution. This, indeed, is what the whole Snow/Leavis kerfuffle was about, discussion of which has also occurred in numerous essays in this magazine.

    Sadly, you are likely to get your wish and the university will very likely be purged of its humanistic and literary studies. The coronavirus may hasten this, but the economic forces pushing in this direction have been building since the Second World War. Of course, I wrote extensively on this too — see my essay “Destroying the University” — and of course, you ignore that as well.

    Your first paragraph astonishes for its combination of breeziness and cluelessness. That a “good and fulfilling life” will be more likely, once we’ve turned our universities into philistine vo-techs is bizarre and counter-intuitive and needs to be given a substantial argument. But then again, I have always thought the sort of scientism you routinely espouse to be a close sibling of the shallow philistinism exhibited by Snow in his (in)famous essay. What puzzles me is that you otherwise seem to be the sort of person for whom the significance of arts and letters and their relationship to culture are evident. That they should be purged from an institution, one of whose primary functions has always since its inception been the study, preservation, and advancement of high culture, may be inevitable, but it is a bizarre thing either to wish for or to celebrate, unless that is, one has no understanding whatsoever of what makes a civilization worth its salt.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One more thing. You repeatedly allege that humanistic teaching and research is “unrigorous.” Of course, humanistic teaching and research is what I do for a living. So, I’d appreciate it if you can tell me — specifically — what is un-rigorous about the following:

    1. A recent video lecture I did for the students in my upper division Aesthetics course on Danto’s theory of Deep and Surface Interpretation.

    2. This essay I published in Philosophy (Cambridge UP) on the relative places of knowledge and wisdom, within philosophy.

    Click to access KAUKWA.pdf

    3. This discussion I had with Massimo, on purpose, nature, and morality.

    https://meaningoflife.tv/videos/38638

    Like

  3. Dan

    “It … bothers me that you continue writing essentially the same essay over and over again, completely ignoring everything that has been said in response or otherwise published here.”

    I read everything that is published here, and take it into account. I feel myself in no way obliged, however, to reframe my own thinking to conform to your or anyone else’s framing of the issues; or to mount refutations of every published argument with which I disagree.

    “I have written extensively on the university, characterizing it as having a number of functions, of which knowledge-accumulation of the sort you describe here is just one… Understand that as far as I am concerned, unless you have some argument against my characterization — which happens to have the advantage of being historically true — I view the sort of thing you say here as having been decisively refuted.”

    Nowhere did I limit the function of the university to “knowledge-accumulation” (as you disparagingly put it). If you want an essay specifically on “the function(s) of the university”, or a specific response to your stated views, I could do those things. (From memory, I agree with some of the things you say and disagree with others.)

    Please note that I mention the socializing and civilizing roles of education which I consider extremely important. The civilizing role applies to university education, of course, but even more so to the earlier years. I could outline exactly how I see universities contributing to this if you like.

    “Your own view, of course, is ahistorical, which is odd given that you are prone to criticize others for ahistoricism in other contexts. Science and engineering were not a part of university education for the majority of its history, and only become so in the wake of the industrial revolution. This, indeed, is what the whole Snow/Leavis kerfuffle was about, discussion of which has also occurred in numerous essays in this magazine.”

    Again, if you want to talk about the history of the university we could do that. We could also talk about the Snow/Leavis debate. (In respect of the latter, I tried very hard to side with Leavis. I like his rhetoric and style. He was a much more attractive person than Snow. But in terms of the issues raised — which were very much tied to a particular time and place — I believe that Snow, stodgy and (perhaps) pompous as he was, had the better case.)

    “That [arts and letters] should be purged from an institution, one of whose primary functions has always since its inception been the study, preservation, and advancement of high culture, may be inevitable, but it is a bizarre thing either to wish for or to celebrate, unless that is, one has no understanding whatsoever of what makes a civilization worth its salt… Sadly, you are likely to get your wish and the university will very likely be purged of its humanistic and literary studies.”

    Again, this is a total misrepresentation (I don’t say it is deliberate) of my views. If you wanted me to spell out exactly how and why I value various kinds of humanistic and literary studies, and how I envisage them fitting into the framework of formal education (including universities), I could do that. But that is not what I set out to do here.

    Like

    • “I read everything that is published here, and take it into account. I feel myself in no way obliged, however, to reframe my own thinking to conform to your or anyone else’s framing of the issues; or to mount refutations of every published argument with which I disagree.”

      = = = =

      Every published argument? One might be nice. Unless you enjoy just shouting the same thing over and over again into the atmosphere with zero chance of persuading anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

      = = = =

      Nowhere did I limit the function of the university to “knowledge-accumulation”

      = = = = = =

      You needn’t say it explicitly. But any reader who isn’t asleep and has two brain cells to rub together can see that it is implicit in this:

      “Universities are also struggling and the value of higher education is increasingly being called into question. College enrollments in the United States have declined by more than 10 percent over the last eight years. NPR reports that the current crisis may be an existential one for many colleges. But what is being taught in many of these colleges may be part of the problem.

      All intellectual disciplines – be they scientific or scholarly – can be seen as adding to a shared knowledge base and having knowledge as their reason for being. Other possible raisons d’être for academic and intellectual disciplines could be given, of course. And are. My point is just that I don’t find other justifications for classing activities as serious intellectual disciplines particularly convincing.

      The fields in question may well be intellectual, but where is the theoretical rigor, where is the discipline, if anything goes on the knowledge front? Theory must be constrained somehow, and knowledge-seeking or knowledge-building activities typically have certain constraints built in, in the form of methodologies developed over time.”

      = = = = =

      The rest of your reply goes on to allege more misrepresentation. I don’t think so. Or perhaps, you wrote something that is far too easily and plausibly interpreted in the way I have.

      Like

  4. Mark (written before reading your reply, which I have just begun, but still, hopefully, pertinent),
    I’m not so antagonistic to this article, but I certainly see where Dan’s frustration with it is coming from, and why Carol Bensick finds it “unfinished.”

    The essay seems to be moving toward making an argument; the 3 paragraphs beginning with “I see our educational and cultural infrastructure as having lost its legitimacy and being in desperate need of reshaping and radical reform” certainly seem headed in this direction. But the force of these paragraphs soon loose their focus, and we end up with oddly aphoristic remarks on the arts. “Imaginative literature and cinema can be seen as making claims about the world (and so, possibly, as conveying knowledge). But the claims are necessarily implicit and indirect and typically engage the emotions as much as or more than the intellect.” There is truth in this ‘thesis on literature and cinema,’ but it is maddeningly generalized. And it’s unclear how this connects with claims about the need to over-haul the educational system.

    Without that linkage, there can be no conclusion to the argument the earlier paragraphs seem to be building toward. This is accidently exposed by an error of ommision: “The fields in question may well be intellectual” – huh, which fields? You haven’t specified the fields you have a difficulty with. In previous essays, you have remarked skepticism concerning the study of history, and concerning philosophy; I think you may have slighted sociology as well, once. However, having such a history does not relieve the present essay of its rhetorical burden of specificity and clarity. The reader can neither agree nor disagree with this claim without being informed of which fields are “in question.” Yet somehow the essay begins to turn its heel towards the arts, especially literature and cinema. Why? Are these the studies that need reformation or even purgation?

    Well, let’s talk about theory taught in a university discipline – music theory. Now, I’m an old punk-rocker, I can barely play a guitar. When I hear people talk music theory, they may as well be speaking Swahili for all I can make of it. But I do know that no one will ever conduct a symphonic orchestra in America unless they have the credentials demonstrating upper-level familiarity with it. And certainly it is part of the training in learning to play certain instruments in a certain musical career path – a training that arguably requires every bit the rigor and dscipline of mathematics; indeed, it was only a few hundred years ago that the study of music was required for the study of mathematics.

    Music is a practical knowledge, but it is also an art, and at the university level is taught in the Arts and Humanities. As such it is a potential victim of any attack on the Arts and Humanities. Indeed, the drummer in my old punk band was the last student at SUNY Brockport allowed to take a Bachelor’s in Music, before they closed the department down, since he had completed everything but his thesis. They later reopened it, but it only provides a minor, no degree.

    Well, but why did they re-open it? Why do parents request, sometimes demand, the available option of learning music from our schools? I won’t speculate on that; the only important point is that they do. Academic music training only forwards career goals within a very limited set of careers. Yet it is something that we value. Should we tell parents not to value it? (You once came close to saying something like that about the study of history, when you cited Rosenberg’s argument that we should abandon narrative as a means of knowledge making or transmittal.) How a society develops values, how these are transmitted over time, how they may ultimately change, be discarded, be replaced – these are the most complex questions open to us (and clearly in need of a sense of historical continuity and the processes of historical disruption). They cannot be decided by fiat. I find it odd that an avowed conservative such as yourself has difficulty with that. In any event, such questions, and the possible answers to them that we come up with collectively, form the context of any continuance or change in our educational systems. Indeed, if our educational systems seem to be failing us – and I agree they have been – it may be largely due to the fact that we don’t or won’t face these questions directly, and thus end up with patch-work solutions to various ‘crises,’ pitting values against one another rather than determining viable priorities. After all, what does it mean to say an educational systems ‘fails?’ It means precisely that it doesn’t deliver the values that we demand of it.

    The ‘picture theory’ of music is dead as a door nail. Except in musical theater, or other explicitly imagistic musical works, music cannot be said to generate an imaginary world for us. And it must be taken at face value. I can provide a number of semiotic and behavioral interpretations of music (and it is simply wrong to say it never make statements about the world); but none of these can efface the intimacy or emotional power of music, let alone its undeniable wit and charm. Rex Stout has his super-detective, Nero Wolfe, deride music as a “vestige of barbarism,” and he’s probably right. But I don’t see us ever out-growing it.

    Music is a value about which we wish to know; and it is the knowledge itself. Study and performance are both required. Music works the emotions and challenges the intellect. There is nothing more true, and nothing more real, that we can share.

    Liked by 3 people

    • EJ: My daughter will be starting as an undergraduate Classical Voice major, at the Jacobs’ School of Music at Indiana University. (The best music program in the country after Julliard, I am proud to say.) She started taking music theory, already, in High School, to get ahead of the game for college.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Congratulations for your daughter!

        My grandson, Gabriel, will begin college at the University of Miami this fall (if there are classes) and he plans to major in music.

        My son, Sebastian (not Gabriel’s father), also majored in music, got an MA in musical composition and completed part of a doctorate in the same subject until he became a father himself and had to begin to work full-time in real estate to support his family.

        Like

  5. Mark: You might like this essay by Donald Kagan and the story with which it concludes. The context is the demise of intellectual diversity in the modern university. The whole essay is discussing your topic. It argues for a curriculum that has philosophy and history at its core.

    Alan

    Once, my late student and friend Alvin Bernstein was teaching a course in the history of Western civilization the same semester that Allan Bloom was teaching his famous course in political philosophy. Al was discussing Plato’s Republic when the subject of some of Socrates’ less pleasant recommendations came to hand. A student objected that Al’s presentation was incorrect, that Plato did not mean for these to be taken at face value, that there was a deeper, ironical, in fact opposite meaning to the dialogue that was not for the ordinary reader but for the more intelligent and worthy people. Al asked, “Who told you that?” “Professor Bloom,” the student answered. “Ah,” said Al without missing a beat. “That is what he told you, but his deeper ironic meaning is not for the ordinary reader but for the more intelligent and worthy people.”

    https://newcriterion.com/issues/2013/6/ave-atque-vale

    Like

  6. [More responses to come]

    ejwinner

    “You haven’t specified the fields you have a difficulty with. In previous essays, you have remarked skepticism concerning the study of history, and concerning philosophy; I think you may have slighted sociology as well, once. However, having such a history does not relieve the present essay of its rhetorical burden of specificity and clarity. The reader can neither agree nor disagree with this claim without being informed of which fields are “in question.” ”

    I am merely suggesting a rationale or criterion for making judgments. I am not suggesting that there are cut and dried answers, but obviously some disciplines and ways of pursuing disciplines fit this rationale better than others.

    Let me clarify a couple of things. Various kinds of historical and literary research are clearly prototypical examples of disciplines which are all about discovering and communicating and adding to or modifying our shared body of knowledge. The various sciences, of course, are also prototypical examples.

    Sociology I have little experience of but it is (like other social sciences) sometimes practised and taught in a politically biased way. Some more recently developed disciplines are little more than vehicles for political activism. Everyone knows this. Students know that they must toe the line politically or ideologically speaking to get a good grade.

    Philosophy held out longer than many other humanities disciplines against this sort of crude politicization, but has succumbed to a certain extent. Dan himself has highlighted and bemoaned these unfortunate developments.

    Philosophy is different things to different people. I tend to see it as a loose amalgam of very different intellectual activities or kinds of activity, so no general judgment is possible. It would be frivolous and absurd to make some kind of blanket condemnation (or endorsement, for that matter).

    Dan was talking about the history of the university and the humanities. I may have more to say about how central Latin and Greek were in that context — right up to the 19th century. But I just want to mention theology/divinity. It lay at the centre of the curriculum and was the precursor of philosophy as we know it. The point I want to make here is that theology was all about knowledge. The religion classes at my (Jesuit) high school were basic theology and the subject was known as Religious Knowledge (“RK”). I don’t think that theology provides real knowledge, but it certainly purported to. (It was Queen of the Sciences, no less! And philosophy was its handmaid.)

    On music… I had music in the back of my mind when talking about some rigorous forms of practice requiring a body of theory. And when you have a body of theory like this it needs the support of formal, institutional structures.

    Obviously it would be stretching things to say that music makes claims about the world in the way some art-forms may be seen to. I explicitly made the point that I don’t see much use in lumping the arts together in a theoretical way. The disadvantages of doing this seem to outweigh any possible advantage. As I pointed out, you can talk cogently about specific forms without addressing questions about ‘art’ at all.

    Like

    • Mark,
      much of your reply is cogent and does clarify the essay – although you might stop to consider what it means to write an essay that requires additional clarification.

      However, you open by *not* responding to, I think, a crucial point – simply as a reader, I ask for specification of the “fields in question,” and you don’t yet provides this. “I am merely suggesting a rationale or criterion for making judgments.” No, that doesn’t wash. At least from my perspective, such judgments must be made on a case-by-case basis, and that requires reference to specific disciplines. That’s important for a number of reasons. First, there are specific studies that I would love to see defunded – Evolutionary Psychology or Bio-Criminology, for instance; Cognitive Science (Latinate for the Greek: Epistemology) was always something of a fraud. On the other hand, there are some fields of study that are probably made up of jargonistic babbling that for the time being have some claim to a just allotment of funding until some injustice has been redressed – Queer Studies, for instance, might contribute to the greater inclusion of a large demographic’s story in the general history of the culture. There are of coursefields of study that have been vacated by further acquisition of more complete knowledge – you reference theology, but one could also remark phrenology or eugenics – pseudo-science and jargonistic babble have been the curse of academia for many centuries. And I don’t see your proffered “rationale or criterion for making judgments” as putting an end to that! The problems you complain of are simply endemic to the effort to institutionalize knowledge for the sake of education, and no social quake like the current pandemic will change that.

      But there are dangers in over-generalization here. When the colleges of the SUNY system decided that Modern Languages were no longer worth funding, they made no distinction between French and German, they simply closed down the Modern Language departments all together. Those that still had language requirements for graduation tried to arrange training in private agencies, but ultimately just got rid of the requirement. It disrupted the lives of students who chose to go on to graduate school – to get my doctorate, I had to take undergraduate courses in German at my graduate school.

      When the funding ax comes down, it does so non-selectively. You agree that music may require the rigor and discipline that a university training may offer. But you try to distinguish it from other ‘arts,’ remarking the difficulty of defining all arts the same, which is quite right, But funding agencies do not make such distinctions. As I remarked, the music department at SUNY Brockport was closed down as among the least necessary Humanities programs (along with Modern Languages). If a broad argument against the Humanities is made (and remembering that we are talking about funding – we have always been talking about funding here ) – music will get cut despite your nuances, unless you make such nuance clear, plain, and as blunt as you can, and with a real argument, and not ‘mere suggestion.’

      You remark Dan’s complaints against the politicization of philosophy, but I’m not sure you grasp the implications of his efforts. Politicization within various disciplines has been a problem, again, for many centuries. That’s because the stakes – the transmittal of cultural knowledge – are the highest imaginable in a social context. But we can’t get rid of that by getting rid of the disciplines! I can’t be rid of Evolutionary Psychology by getting rid of psychology, that would be absurd! Again, you have to deal with such problems case by case. I would love to shred texts by silly Afro-centrist Molefi Kete Asante, but my world would be made smaller without those by Henry Louis Gates.

      To be honest, and with all due respect, I think you cripple your cases with undue over-generalization. Not every liberal is a neo-Platonist. Not every literaturist is overly skeptical of ‘objective knowledge.’ And not every neo-Platonism is a danger, and not every skeptical criticism is a threat. Collective antagonisms and biases are exactly what must be deconstructed into their component parts. But that is in the nature of intellectual argument – that’s what intellectual argument is all about.

      There is always the monistic dream that intelligent men and women will at last arrive at a base set of principles that will eradicate substantial disagreement – all arguments henceforth will concern mere details.

      HAH! Dream on! Try being a different animal – one from a different planet. Naked apes with over-sized brains come up with the most absurdly contrarian ideas..

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Dan

    I read the 2006 essay on knowledge, wisdom and philosophy (which you linked to in a comment). To a large extent, I agree with your criticism of what you call “mainline philosophy” for applying a science-like, knowledge-based approach to values-related questions. Bernard Williams made a similar point in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, I think.

    As you do, I find wisdom a useful notion. But I do not see it as providing a potential focus or basis for an academic discipline in today’s world. Wisdom is to do with life as lived; and with literature. Of course, literature may be taught in an academic context. And wisdom and related ideas can be studied in the context of intellectual history.

    As you know, I take a different approach to intellectual history than you. I am more interested than you are in trying to see thinkers in the context of their lives and times (in historical terms, in other words). You, on the other hand, tend to take certain ideas as emblematic of what they stand for and fit these into a narrative upon which arguments are based. This can be useful as a pedagogical tool, but I have reservations about this approach. Countless alternative narratives fit the (known, or a selection of the known) facts equally well. In this sense, such narratives are relatively unconstrained.

    Descartes features prominently in your story. Many of his published writings fit well into the narrative you present, and these writings were very influential. But Descartes was morally and politically conservative in a very deep and thorough way. I find this interesting and possibly instructive.

    It was his intellectual influence that matters, you might say. His personal views on politics and so on don’t matter at all, are irrelevant.

    But the question arises in my mind at least (and I recall Aldous Huxley raising a similar question about Aristotle): were his personal and political views inconsistent with his philosophical views? I won’t try to answer this question here. You may think it irrelevant anyway.

    But, Descartes aside, this is the real point I want to make: you can quite reasonably and consistently take a radical scientific approach to intellectual matters and, at the same time, a conservative and prudence- or wisdom-based approach to personal and practical matters and politics. (And I don’t see the latter areas (including ethics/morality) as primarily intellectual or as needing intellectual or academic validation.)

    One final point which I want to emphasize. When I talk about a knowledge-based approach, I am giving due weight to practical knowledge. Though a theory/practice distinction is often useful, it is seldom clear-cut, and never absolute.

    Like

    • I appreciate this substantial comment, but my aim was for you to explain what is “unrigorous” about the paper, as you seem to suggest that while teaching and research in the natural sciences is rigorous, teaching and research in arts and letters is not. Also suggested was that in these tough times we need to determine what is essential and cut out what isn’t, which you also suggested cuts along the science/arts and letters divide.

      As for your characterization of my approach and your discomfort with it, surely you must understand that each is appropriate to different endeavors. If the aim is to discover what’s true or apt with regard to a subject, what an historical figure actually thought is irrelevant. In that regard, Modified-Sellars may be better than Sellars. If one’s aim is to provide an accurate history of ideas, then obviously this is not the case. The point is relatively obvious, begginers-level stuff, but as you have raised this issue several times, It seemed apropos.

      Like

      • Dan

        “If the aim is to discover what’s true or apt with regard to a subject, what an historical figure actually thought is irrelevant.”

        Of course. But the “subject” you speak of is not a simple or given thing in many instances. My point is that the thing that a thinker operating in a different time/cultural environment is talking about is all too often different from the thing that commentators on those thinkers are talking about.

        General philosophy has an historical/cultural dimension. You can’t get away from this.

        In the linked essay, for example, you are not just talking (directly) about a subject, you are also spinning a narrative. What is this narrative about if it is not purporting to be historical in some sense?

        “Modified-Sellars may be better than Sellars.”

        Sure. Except that modified-Sellars is merely a convenient fiction and as such should not be (but inevitably is, at least by readers) confused with the actual thinker. I am saying modified-Sellars is a free creation which must be built by you step by step in an explicit way.

        Like

        • General philosophy has an historical/cultural dimension. You can’t get away from this.

          = = = =

          this is untrue. what i am doing here is contemporary, original philosophical investigation into a series of topics. certainly, i will draw from philosophers working prior to me, but i will do so for my purposes.

          this is commonly understood within the discipline. there is a difference between doing the history of ideas and drawing from it, in pursuing contemporary, original work.

          Like

        • “Modified-Sellars may be better than Sellars.”
          Sure. Except that modified-Sellars is merely a convenient fiction and as such should not be (but inevitably is, at least by readers) confused with the actual thinker. I am saying modified-Sellars is a free creation which must be built by you step by step in an explicit way.
          = = = =
          it’s not a free creation. it is based on elements from the text. your characterization of how contemporary scholarship is done, with respect to the use of classic texts, is just incorrect, i’m afraid.

          Like

          • Dan

            “it’s not a free creation. it is based on elements from the text. your characterization of how contemporary scholarship is done, with respect to the use of classic texts, is just incorrect, i’m afraid.”

            In saying “free creation” I do not mean to say it is completely free. You draw on his work, sure.

            The issues are not as clear-cut as you make out. And I am quite aware that my views are out of line with the way many academic philosophers think and operate.

            Like

          • I just don’t see what the problem is supposed to be. I am doing contemporary work and finding the best supporting ideas where I can find them and however I might tweak them. How else would one do such work?

            Like

          • Why not engage with — and criticize — the actual substance of the two essays, rather than go on about sellars interpretation? I’d love to hear your substantive criticisms, as I know you don’t favor the approach I take to these topics.

            Like

        • “understanding the manifest/scientific image in the following way provides a good framework from which to examine a number of seemingly intractable problems in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of action. that is what i am essentially doing. it is contemporary, original work. it makes no difference whatsoever, whether sellars would agree with my way of understanding the manifest/scientific image.

          All contemporary scholarship in philosophy — aside from the history of ideas — works this way.

          Like

        • and part of the reason for emphasizing this is so as not to get into endless wrangling over sellars interpretation. understand, i will defend my interpretation of sellars as true to sellars. the point just is that for my current project, what matters is if my interpretation does the work it needs to do, not whether it is true to sellars.

          Like

  8. There’s a serious problem with university. There are too many there who shouldn’t be there and teachers who want to be researchers and write great papers and impress on the soft wax of the students’ souls correct thinking. At a certain point in the history of the West becoming what Scott Fitzgerald called a ‘college man’ became vital for the self esteem of the aspiring middle class. It didn’t matter whether you had the slightest interest in literature or philosophy the wearing of a coonskin coat and swallowing goldfish was the place to be. In any case the man who comes to university to read literature shouldn’t because he ought to be reading it anyway. Philosophy is different because there are parts of it which you have to be put to it to read, boring parts, which are nevertheless vital to know about. Then there are the teachers who are mostly drawn from the ranks of the good dutiful student who did not fall into the trap of reading too widely or against their own mentors. There’s a saying that the best students get second class degrees.

    Do we even need a university for the study of the humanities these days when the libraries of the world are out on the internet? The rational choice is to get a good trade and be independent and debt free and read whatever you are interested in. If that’s ‘gender studies’ at least you’re not getting into debt to do it.

    Like

  9. Dan

    “Why not engage with — and criticize — the actual substance of the two essays, rather than go on about sellars interpretation? I’d love to hear your substantive criticisms, as I know you don’t favor the approach I take to these topics.”

    Well, it’s difficult when one has different ideas on fundamental questions. You seem to want me to engage *on your terms* (which would entail accepting to a large extent your way of framing the issues).

    I have taken — and will take — each piece as it comes, however, and try to engage in as direct a way as possible.

    Like

    • I find your reaction strange. “On my terms”? I have advanced a number of positions on a number of issues. It’s accepting things on my terms to engage with those positions and the arguments I’ve given for them? I don’t get it.

      Like