E. John Winner
This essay is a response generally to an article Dan Kaufman posted here at EA [https://theelectricagora.com/2021/10/14/some-cranky-thoughts-on-philosophers/], and in some ways also to some implications embedded in comments on that article by Robert Gressis, which extend the problems Dan noted beyond philosophy departments to include the whole of the Humanities and even the Social, or Human sciences. I can’t speak to the Human Sciences, because their core missions seem to remain intact, despite the exhaustion and narrowing of their research and practices. But I think the Humanities have simply lost their way and probably without hope of recovery. My doctorate is actually in English, but what does that mean, to have a discipline called “English?” Is it the study of the language and its history? The study of the many uses of English over the centuries and especially literary texts? The study of the values English speaking peoples have expressed through their language? Perhaps, at a bare minimum, the study of the proper usage of the language, grammatically and in writing? When I first went to school we had answers to these questions, and the answers dovetailed into each other and supported each other. Now, not so much.
The knee-jerk response to this phenomenon is usually to blame one or another party for introducing ideological conflict into the discipline. But anyone aware of the many political quarrels in the discipline dating back to the initiation of contemporary language studies in the 17th Century knows that this cannot be the whole story. Another part certainly has to do with the development of mass media in the 19th Century and electronic media in the 20th. But television achieved media dominance in the 1960’s, at the same time as America realized its greatest expansion of sophisticated literacy, so that’s only part of the picture as well. Yet undeniably the arrival of the internet and similar technology has had an enormous negative impact on the study — even the public practices — of what we broadly call “English.” The internet is populated with people who have no interest in traditional literacy, and even the most conservative among them have no interest in the history of the language or the texts produced therein. At most, cultural savvy, which should be the basis of reflection and shared conversation, is used as a battering ram for opposing points of view on topics having nothing to do with the traditions manifest in the archives of the English language. We often debate the value of different archival texts and the dangers of revising them to supplicate short-term political interests, and this is certainly an argument worth having for those of us comfortable with these texts; but one worries, what is the point in a post-literate culture, where cultural references are really only used as cudgels, to be screamed about rather than discussed? How do we clear away the miasma of self-appointed “influencers,” untrained by anything other than their personal preferences and their preferred social or political bubble, in order to renew the conversations wherein we can civilly disagree, yet also learn and perhaps change our minds?
But let’s also be honest. The decision to establish publication as the standard measure of academic success has always been problematic. It puts an awful lot of pressure on individual scholars and teachers, but it also puts pressure on the discipline itself. Just how many essays on Wordworth’s Tintern Abbey did the world ever need? How many books about Jane Austen can we endure? And I love that poem, and I love Jane Austen, and I even find myself occasionally entertained by BBC documentaries on Austen that get posted on YouTube. But there you go: it is not just my age — the fact that I find it more and more difficult to commit myself to reading longer texts about texts — but the age itself, where questions concerning archival texts and their authors can be quickly and painlessly answered by a visit to a social media platform and a few views of videos, some professionally made, but others: “In My Basement channel: Jack Sprat reviews Pride and Prejudice; 39 views.”
So the academic text-mill had already said pretty much all it had to say about the archival texts, just within a couple decades before the development of a media that would make that text-mill socially superfluous. Of course the initial response was to expand the archive, broader and broader, until its boundaries simply disappeared. It was no longer the archive, it was simply whatever texts might cause a social buzz among English teachers and their students. But doesn’t that clearly fit well into contemporary web/”social media?” Of course a case should be made that the teachers could still instruct their students in English literacy, but one doesn’t need to be truly literate to navigate the web. And given how profoundly dependent good English usage is on writing, on print, the loss of literacy strips an expression like “good English usage” of any necessary reference. How about “good emoji usage'”? Or “proper trolling grammar”? “Self-expression thru sexting”?
So the study of English, as an academic discipline, effectively lost its core mission (partially dissolved, partially exhausted) just in time to enter a social environment populated for the most part by those who no longer had any interest in whatever that core mission had once been, and little interest in rebuilding a new core mission beyond the evident inertia of academic professionalism as a financed institution. (In other words, English departments exist simply because they have existed, and some people and agencies are willing to pay for their continued existence.) People fret over the political conflicts that still erupt in English departments, but can we not see that without these there would be nothing happening in them at all? Controversies excite interest and excitement produces texts; publications, which remain the standard by which professors are hired or receive tenure.
It is my suggestion that this situation obtains across the Humanities disciplines in the academy; in different ways in the somewhat more practical humanities of, say, art or music, but in very similar ways in the study of philosophy. Because of his rather journalistic prose, enriched with a kind of smug irony, I think a lot of people (among those who cared) didn’t really understand the broad picture of the history of philosophy that Richard Rorty was painting in his later career. Traditional philosophy (first playing follow-up to theology and then playing catch-up to science) had exhausted itself; the culture that had once valorized that philosophy was itself exhausted, replaced by a culture committed to self-definition through the reading of novels, poetry, and other literary texts; in which culture philosophy could only be recognized as itself simply another literary genre. It was itself an irony of history that Rorty began elaborating this narrative at precisely the time when the kind of literature Rorty held to be paradigmatic of contemporary culture was itself becoming outdated, by the now all pervasive connectivity of the internet.
But there is still much truth to learn from Rorty, especially in the loss of a core mission for the disciplined study of philosophy. For quite some time, it has been assumed that philosophy is a continuing, highly trained study into some perennial set of stupefying questions about the very nature of human life and the ontology involved in that; a set of questions initially set up by Plato and Aristotle, and then revised through the framework of theology. But eventually, theology was effectively undone during the Reformation and discarded as a source of practical wisdom or insight into humans and their ontology, so philosophy could really only continue as a kind of mulling over of ancient texts from the Mediterranean. But then, Modern thinkers began to create elaborate systems in response to the new world that was opening up through discoveries coming from the new sciences, and the texts they wrote began gathering into an archive — a canon of important texts that researchers in various fields needed to study, to accommodate, or, if in disagreement, to criticize and correct — or even attempt to replace, either through development of superior systems, or through effective deconstruction of the impulse to systematization itself. One can see the many, many discussions, debates, controversies and innovations this might initiate. But one can also see the inevitable limitations. Whatever could be said of a canonical text and its ideas would be said, after which speaking of it would prove simply repetitious, avoiding redundancy through inventive jargon. And eventually, the jargon itself would become the very object of the study and its debates and controversies. And eventually, whatever could be said about the jargon would itself be said. And so on. Meanwhile, the supposed “perennial” questions began to shimmer and blur like streetlights left on during a hot sunny day. Taught in the schools, these would be perceived as the core mission of philosophy, but as the study of the archive gave way to debates about the jargon, I think it would become obvious to many professional philosophers that the perennial questions really weren’t so interesting and perhaps had never been perennial to begin with.
Some might think that philosophy can survive the dissolution or exhaustion of much of its previously held core mission, by at least teaching the clarity of thinking and the proper formation of questions to think about, ‘”perennial” or not. But that move didn’t work for English, and it’s not working for philosophy, and much the same problems beset it in the age of the internet: the rise, for instance, of the amateur philosophers flooding the net with their assurances that difficult questions can be levelled with the easy adoption of principles advanced by some obscure book or website rant. And of course there’s the host of “philosophy made easy” sites and regurgitated essays-for-sale, similar to the Cliffs-Notes that took the place of actual study in English for students long ago. Except now there are no standards by which the use of such sites can be held accountable. Back in the day, a teacher could call out a student for plagiarism or for expounding bad ideas. Now plagiarism is hard to recognize — there’s so much of it — and criticism of bad ideas risks “triggering” a sensitive student.
Again, similar trends are sweeping across the Humanities spectrum. I suspect it somewhat different in the practical Humanities like art and music, because there are real jobs to be had outside of academia in these disciplines. After all, get a degree in music, and one could get a job in an orchestra — or one could skip school entirely and join a band, hire a good manager, work playing studio sessions – well, that’s part of the problem. There are trends and phenomena beyond the ivied walls of the academy that academics must play against, whether they like it or not. Speaking of music, think of all the “viral” music ‘stars’ that acquired their audiences (and their careers) thanks to YouTube. And if getting a job is really what the disciplined study of music comes down to — its “bottom line,” so to speak — then what was its core mission to begin with? This is what’s been lost.
The only Humanities discipline that still seems to hold onto a core mission, and it’s a study that many in it would prefer be considered a human science, is History. The reason for this is worth considering, if rather odd, because, it is so simple (and simplistic). However one approaches the study of the past and its artifacts, whatever perspective through which one wishes to interpret the past, in order to develop a credible narrative concerning it, one is committed to the study of history. In other words, the goal generates the motivation and determines the resources with which the practice must work, in a way unseen in other disciplines. One cannot study the Reformation by simply looking at Queen Elizabeth and recognizing she is the head of the Church of England. “Oh, now we understand Protestantism!” There’s no denying that such remarks can be found on the internet; but these are rather like beans spat at a tank. Those who really want a deeper understanding of Protestantism as a social phenomenon — or more generally, of the place of Christianity in the world today — will have to study the history of the Reformation and its lasting effects. And once committed to that, one is committed to the study of history whether one likes it or not. Otherwise, one might, as all too many do, simply forego any understanding of the world deeper than a Tweet or a post on Facebook. One can study history outside of the academy — and I wish more would — but one cannot study History in the academy without studying history. QED. Of course, there will be bad scholars, poor teachers, useless research publications, even repetitious research vaguely renewed through clever jargon. I fear this is all in the nature of the academy. And there will be ideologically driven narratives and controversies, that’s just in the nature of the world we live in currently. But the core mission of History just is the study of history, and that’s actually something one cannot say of English or Philosophy.
Which is why, some time ago, while weighing one of the endless conflicts between Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology (or as its often called, “Continental Philosophy”), I realized that both of these schools of thought were pretty much exhausted; that no news ideas were getting developed, but a whole host of old ideas were getting regurgitated in their inevitable (and predictable) permutations; that this very regurgitation suggested that no new ideas would be developing for some time to come (since the discipline was stuck in ‘rinse-repeat’ mode on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean); and that given this, the immediate future of Philosophy would actually be a renewed study of the History of Philosophy, a preservation through narratives of different perspectives in the human endeavor to find wisdom, which is really only a sense of security that “I know what I know.” And this study would not be elaborated through research based publication (for we surely saw enough “History of Philosophy” texts published in the 20th Century), and what does publication really amount to in web-based post-literate society anyway? No, the principle practice of this study would be teaching and shared conversation between those trained to it and those who really want to learn it.
Well, that would be my suggestion; but of course I’m no longer in the academy, so no one there is going to pay attention to it. That’s frustrating, not because I feel ignored (because, really, what do I care?), but because no such suggestion is going to change the awful inertia of the academy’s chosen processes of self-mutilation and enervated uselessness. When outsiders ask for the core missions of the Humanities, the usual responses are self-righteous bluster about the preservation of the values of Western Civilization; or equally self-righteous bluster about the need to transform society; or middle-of-the-road pap about literacy and clear thinking, citizenship and well-rounded personhood for students, blah blah blah. Hundreds of millions in financing (and student loans) to make students feel more comfortable attending the opera? Wiser in their selection of politicians? Healthier social relationships in their leisure hours? Of course not; the structure of most colleges and universities was determined long ago: they are research facilities — publication mills — not teaching institutions. University teaching was conceived as a kind of noblesse oblige gift to potential future colleagues. Most students figure that out by their junior year. In their first two years they try to decide what career they’d like, to be manifested in their major; by junior year, now caught in the net, they worry about what job they can get with their earned degree. Once they graduate, jobs are scarce and the joke’s not funny anymore. For many, it actually gets worse if they think they can salvage their personal and intellectual integrity by entering graduate school. For the lucky few, however, the graduate degree may get them a niche in the academy itself, where they can be profoundly bored with administrative nonsense; or profoundly boring if they cannot find new interests to pursue in their chosen discipline; or fascinated by some exciting controversy that also generates new jargon with which to achieve publication. Until they are at last ready to retire. And I have never met any of my former professors who, having retired, were sorry they did.
But that doesn’t mean that going to college is entirely a waste of time. College is a great place to get drunk and have sex. There’s also sport, and the fun of political activism. Musicians form rock bands, fratboys play Risk, and debates about celebrities or even about “perennial” questions can carry on ’till the early morning hours. And for students who really wish to learn, who wish exposure to new ideas and difficult to acquire facts and theories, there’s no better environment. Graduate school is even better for that. During my years earning the doctorate, I could spend all day in the library, reading texts from the archives, with which I would never have become familiar otherwise. And I actually did have a number of excellent teaching professors who would challenge me and demand greater clarity of thought, pushing and prodding me to developing skills in research, writing, and critical thinking. (I was also lucky, living on a stipend; I took my degree without any student loans, more than I can say for some friends of mine.) None of this should be laughed at or denigrated. There are worse wastes of one’s time than reading Aquinas or Hegel, Joyce or Laurence Sterne. One could join an obscure church or become hooked on a conspiracy theory, fretting away the hours worried about saving souls or nations; at the end of that day, people and world look pretty much the same as they ever have. I’d rather read a good book.
These days, I generally only read histories and mystery novels. The only “classic” literature I return to is Shakespeare, Austen, Whitman, Melville, and Twain. I just no longer find that the old voices sing to me the way they once did, and I attribute that to my age and to my jaded sensibilities. I still gnaw on Kant and Hegel, Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, on occasion; but I confess I no longer have the sense that I once had of discovering new worlds or new perspectives on the current world. To most philosophic questions that I once found puzzling, I have discovered answers that satisfy me, and of those that remain, I have given them up as probably unanswerable.
But I confess that my days attending college and university, while lying in a now-distant past, loaded with disappointments and failed expectations, remain the happiest and most fulfilling of my life and in some ways, the most meaningful. It is just in the nature of things that life, which begins as a run across an open field in sunlight, inevitably ends as a meditation by a still pool in a dark forest. The academy was once that open field, for me at least; now, by many reports it’s become a dark forest, and the still pool comes alive only with the breaking of swamp gas to the stagnant surface. If true, than we really have lost something from this culture; and it’s doubtful that we can ever get it back.
Often from a word or a surviving image I could recognize what the work had been.When I found, in time, other copies of those books, I studied them with love, as if destiny had left me this bequest, as if having identified the destroyed copy were a clear sign from heaven that said to me: Tolle et lege. At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books. The more I reread this list the more I am convinced it is the result of chance and contains no message. (…) stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.
–UmbertoEco, The Name of the Rose