Monday, February 28, 2005

Academic Instincts (I)

The first chapter of Marjorie Garber's recent book is about the amateur and the professional. One of its obvious charms is implicit self-reference, as for instance when Garber concurs with Gertrude Himmelfarb in lamenting the recent decline of footnotes in scholarly books (it's unprofessional!), two pages before presenting a string of uncited quotations about Shakespeare. Her books uses endnotes in any case.

It is hard to elicit a thesis from the chapter as a whole, which contains some fascinating anecdotes about the history of amateur and professional, in politics, sports and detective fiction – as well as intellectual life. Though she would never put it so crudely, Garber's theory may be this: the terms amateur and professional have a minimal or flexible descriptive content, and are principally used to express a certain sort of praise and abuse (though it is a quite unstable matter which one is used for praise and which abuse). This would fit with her otherwise curious reaction to the Sokal hoax, which she calls "risible" and "irritating" and which prompts her to observe that
humanists playing with scientific terms and concepts are often seen as less noble, and more ridiculous, than scientists playing with cubism and theology.
Her explanation of this asymmetry is that "the humanities […] are perceived as closer to 'love' than is science." Like the treatment of amateur and professional (on my tentative interpretation), these remarks – with their passing depiction of inquiry as "play" – suggest that questions of expertise are purely rhetorical. And so they obscure the real issue raised by Garber's contrast, which is about the idea of professionalism as the development of specialized knowledge or skills, the kind that are taught in a vocational school (towards the PhD), and that allow for systematic application.

I would have guessed that it is this conception of the professional that makes for anxiety about the profession of literary study of the sort that Garber describes – is there really a "profession" here? – and that fuels the worst kind of "theory".

Garber ends by examining the "so-called 'return to aesthetics'", attributing earlier fear of beauty to its apparent subjectivity:
[If] scholars could disagree about the aesthetic value of the work of art without one of them being right and the other wrong […] what then was the authority of the critic, or of the work of art?
But here the more cynical thought is that beauty has been absent from study, if it has, not because there is no way to know it, or to get it right, but because doing so cannot be seen as the application of professional knowledge or skills, and so it is hard to square with the self-image – or the training – of the literary academic. This strikes me as raising a real question, which Garber does not address: if our object is the refinement of taste, why suppose, as Garber does in the penultimate sentence of her chapter, and without argument, that "the professional makes the best amateur"?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Advice for a motivational speaker

I recommend the following passage, from Michael Stocker's "Desiring the Bad".
When I consider people who see no hope for themselves or those they care for, who lack physical and spiritual energy, I am not at all surprised that — as political and anthropological data suggest — they may not seek even what little good they do perceive. Life may be too much for them. We, on the contrary, see the world as open to us, and more importantly, open for us. We can progress. We can make it. We see ourselves out there to be won. We have self-confidence and hope. Indeed we have more than this: we have an optimistic certainty. We have energy. We know we are worthy. We know that, barring bad luck, our enterprise will be rewarded. And so on.
I might drop the beginning, which is a bit too evocative for comfort. And the final sentence rather spoils the effect. But otherwise: very uplifting.

The rest of the paper is good, too, but in a different way.

Monday, February 14, 2005


I have been reading Jonathan Glover's book, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Its epigraph is from Collingwood:
The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.
It is certainly my experience that non-philosophers are surprised by how little moral philosophers (at least: the ones I mainly read) have had to say about the moral tragedies of the last hundred years. Glover wants to set this right; and especially for those who share my shameful ignorance of the facts of our recent history, he has written a very useful and instructive book.

But is it philosophy?

Glover begins by writing of the post-Nietzschean demise of belief in a "moral law external to us". In its place, we must put what he calls "the moral resources": sympathy, respect, and moral identity. In his telling, the history of moral catastrophe is one in which sympathy is destroyed by isolation and mutual fear, respect by degradation and cold humour, and moral identity by the division of labour and the narrowing of attention (think of Eichmann).

Even as it draws on real psychological evidence (like Milgram on obedience to authority, and the Stanford prison experiment), Glover's theory of human nature is constructed from the armchair. In that respect it is like philosophy. And the book is a work of synthesis that a philosopher might be suited to write. But the actual engagement with philosophical ideas is slight. The idea of an "external moral law" is not explained. It is loosely connected by Glover with religious belief ("God is dead"); but this notoriously difficult connection receives no scrutiny at all. (Nor is there much argument that belief in God is in decline.) The opening chapters on the moral law seem mainly an excuse to switch gears, from philosophy to something else — the empirical psychology of morals. And so I am afraid the book argues against its own thesis: philosophy is not good for much in responding to the traumas of the last century. We need psychology instead.

This is not a criticism of the book. If you wanted to "teach ethics" (as opposed to moral philosophy) in, for instance, a high school classroom, you could do a lot worse than Humanity. (Glover makes the simple but hopeful suggestion that knowledge of moral risk — for instance, of the kinds of conformity and obedience his psychologists describe — will be helpful in fighting it.)

But the aspirations of philosophy are at stake. Iris Murdoch wrote (in The Sovereignty of Good):
How can we make ourselves better? is a question moral philosophers should attempt to answer.
I take it she means, as well, that they should answer it by doing moral philosophy. (Glover doesn't count.) My problem is: I am not sure that I have a conception of philosophy on which they might succeed.

Monday, February 07, 2005

"On Bullshit"

Harry Frankfurt's classic essay has now been published as a book. I was a bit confused by this, at first, assuming that Frankfurt must have extended the original article to make a monograph (of 80 pages). But no: it's the very same essay, printed with big letters on small pages, like one of those student assignments in which manipulations of font and margin are meant to hide a chronic lack of material.

The book makes a nice gift, I think. And although it is very short, the material is amazingly good. I particularly like the style, which is not only witty, but a comment on its own topic. Consider this passage from the beginning of "On Bullshit":
So far as I am aware, very little work has been done on this subject. I have not undertaken a survey of the literature, partly because I do not know how to go about it. To be sure, there is one quite obvious place to look — the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has an entry for bullshit in the supplementary volumes, and it also has entries for various pertinent uses of the word bull and for some related terms. I shall consider some of these entries in due course. I have not consulted dictionaries in languages other than English, because I do not know the words for bullshit or bull in any other language.
The message is: no bullshit here, no pretence, telling it like is. By the end of the essay, however, the style seems to have changed, the rhetoric has a different pitch:
But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
I don't see how it follows from Frankfurt's theory of bullshit — as talk that is unconcerned with truth, indifferent to how things really are — and the fact (if it is a fact) that our natures are insubstantial and hard to know, that sincerity is bullshit. You are still concerned with the truth if you mistakenly believe that your nature is in some respect determinate. Our natures are in some respects determinate, at least approximately so; and approximation is not bullshit. And you can be sincere in representing indeterminacy, even if you know you won't get it exactly right.

Frankfurt's paper begins with some modest and amusing remarks: no bullshit. And it ends with a passage that seems serious but is (I think) partly just bull. It is hard to deny, however, that the ending feels "deep". Is Frankfurt making a point on the sly, about the reasons, or one reason, why bullshit has such appeal?