Monday, March 28, 2005

Academic Instincts (III)

Although she begins with "bad writing" in general – a New York Times article about the infamous Bad Writing Contest, not the thing itself – Garber's final chapter is meant to have a narrower topic: jargon, or "terms of art". Philosophers are often accused of going in for such things in a bad way, and so I read the chapter for thoughts on a defence or critique of the practice, which would have to turn, I think, on the question: what philosophy (or Garber's métier, literary criticism) is for. Are its purposes undermined by technicality, and the kind of obscurity it brings in train?

Garber's answer to this question has a shifting quality, perhaps deliberately so. It is apt that her chapter on jargon and difficulty is notably harder to read than the others. And it is built around what she calls a "paradox":
The concept of jargon can be used to describe two equal and opposite tendencies in language: the overwrought, compact and highly technical (or "foreign"), and the overly familiar, flabby and banal. These are two radically opposing forms.
She thus proposes to contrast bad, lazy, jargon with the precise creativeness to which she and her colleagues aspire. But critics of jargon in literary studies are not confusing these things; they are accusing critics and "theorists" of pretending to employ as crisp technical terms, "invented to suit the particularity of the moment and the needs of thought", what are in fact no more than intellectual shells.

So, at any rate, I imagine the charge. Garber does not address it, in part because she takes it for granted that the technical terms of "theory" have been given a clear sense. As she nicely puts it,
Jargon marks the place where thinking has been. It becomes a kind of macro, to use a computer term: a way of storing a complicated sequence of thinking operations under a unique name.
Or, of course, a way of hiding one's failure to have gone through a necessary sequence of thought. I have no idea whether, or how often, this sort of charge is just, but I wished Garber had been sensitive to it.

On a second glance, perhaps she is. For beside her predominant picture of "theory" as demanding but precise, there runs a series of disingenuously disavowed comparisons with poetry.
It is not my purpose to compare the philosophical writing of Judith Butler [...] or Homi Bhahbha [...] with the plays of Shakespeare.
But you did! Or consider this mildly petulant aside:
We might note that when poets engage in such coinages and rearrangements of syntax, what they are said to produce is not "jargon" but "difficulty," something often valued rather than disparaged.
Or this:
A coiner of critical words can no more control the meanings and inflections those terms acquire elsewhere than the author of a poem can control the reader's interpretations.
I don't mind reading "theory" as poetry, which can sometimes make it more likeable. But it might be the real paradox of jargon that Garber (perhaps like other critics and theorists) wants to have it both ways: she wants to see neologism as the shocking and metaphorical expansion of thought, and as the mere reminder of an argument already worked through. That is a recipe for becoming clear about nothing.

Monday, March 21, 2005

On the Shoulders of Giants

In my previous post, I remarked on the surprising self-confidence of contemporary philosophy. I was thinking of the question, how much we should worry about the apparently dismal history of the subject. At least most philosophers, at most times, have been confused and mostly mistaken. It is hard not to be moved by this, at least at first. Probably we are all confused and mistaken, too.

This argument is similar in structure to the "pessimistic meta-induction" in the philosophy of science:
All previous scientific theories have been false.
So, in all likelihood, our own scientific theories are false.
The details are no doubt complicated, but there is something obviously fishy about this argument. After all, even if science were progressing steadily towards the truth – (meaning what?) – which is just around the corner, we would still predict a history of getting it wrong. Conceived as an inference to the best explanation (i.e. that science is hopeless) the pessimistic meta-induction fails because it ignores a competing explanation of the data that is, at least, just as good.

The case of philosophy is rather different, both for superficial reasons – there is more present disagreement than in science, I suppose, and not all of us reject the past (some of us are Kantians!) – and for deeper ones. It is hard to tell the story of philosophy as one of conjecture and refutation, leading steadily to the truth. But we have to say something, don't we?

The great modern philosophers have had quite a lot to say: Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein give phrophylactic theories of past philosophy, designed to expose and guard against fundamental mistakes. They take their own epistemic position to be radically different from that of their predecessors, and so believe that progress (of sorts) can now be made. (A more amusing example: van Inwagen deduces that he must be granted a power of philosophical intuition denied to David Lewis, since, without being able to argue for it, he knows that Lewis is wrong.)

I think it is true that most contemporary philosophers do not accept this sort of view. So I am led to wonder: how do they respond to meta-philosophical scepticism?

Some suggestions are not reassuring. It does not help to argue (as some do) that the questions of philosophy have changed throughout its history, so that we are not faced after all with a persistent failure to get the same questions right. Unless we add that the questions changed because the old ones were successfully answered, what comfort is that? Nor would it please many of us to learn that philosophy is "logical embroidery on a given design", meant to give intellectual satisfaction by working out the details of a historically determined worldview it cannot pretend to justify. (I take this picture from Edward Craig.)

I suspect – or speculate – that many philosophers would answer that philosophy is parasitic on science, and so its progress will flow from the general improvement of our worldview away from superstition and towards the truth. Philosophy may be "logical embroidery on a given design" but the design is one in which we can trust. Thus, if we can solve the pessimistic meta-induction for science more generally, philosophy comes for free.

If it works, this argument this would make the prevalent deference to science in philosophy more intelligible and more defensible. It would help to vindicate "scientism". Unfortunately, I don't see how it would help philosophers like me, who work primarily in ethics. Nor can I find it in myself to share Parfit's optimism, at the end of Reasons and Persons:
Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Academic Instincts (II)

Garber's second topic, "Discipline Envy" has a special resonance for me, since the writing that appears in this space might be seen as an exercise in it. I liked this chapter much more than the first.

The essay contains some discussion of philosophy, and while it would be boring to criticize Garber's account of the origin of philosophy in an always-problematic differentiation from sophistry (as in Derrida), I do take issue with the following remark:

Virtually everyone in the humanities envies the philosophers, but the philosophers, some of them at least, aspire to the condition of law. Or, alternatively, to the condition of cognitive science.

This description of philosophers is both peculiar and false. Some aspire to the condition of law? I don't follow. Does she mean that they want to be lawyers – a remark on adversarial style? Or that they wish they could legislate the world to fit their image of it? In any case, what is striking about philosophers, for the most part, is rather their peculiar self-confidence: their lack of envious insecurity. (I'll come back to this in another post.)

Garber's defence of discipline envy would actually explain why this is so. She argues that discipline envy is of a piece with the more general aspiration to tackle deeper questions, to have a broader vision, to be synoptic. Garber wants to praise, and not lament, this tendency. And it is one that philosophers can share without pining for something other than philosophy itself.

The most perceptive remarks in "Discipline Envy" are about the aspiration to depth as a longing for genius.
Genius is original; it steps off the beaten path, but inevitably to open up a new one which will be trodden and paved by disciples. What it produces must be "models, i.e., exemplary," capable of serving as a standard for other (lesser) minds.
That seems to fit quite well the early influence of Wittgenstein, the presiding genius of 20th century philosophy. And it helps to explain why hostility to genius is not just "ressentiment" but a matter of dismay at the formulaic work that genius ironically inspires.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Moral Experts

My last post raised unsubstantiated doubts about the aesthetic expertise of professional literary critics. They were not very seriously meant. While some of what goes in in literary studies seems irrelevant or inimical to the perception of beauty, there is also quite a bit of reading, which surely is not.

My sniping has more to do with anxiety about the parallel question for philosophical ethics. In an introduction to the subject published in 1954, when the logical positivists' injunction against the practical application of ethics had begun to fade, P. H. Nowell-Smith called for a return to its historical ambition:
A philosopher is not a parish priest or Universal Aunt or Citizens' Advice Bureau. [But while] different philosophers have held very different views as to the way in which moral philosophy can help you to answer practical questions[, ...] they all agreed that the goal of moral philosophy is practical knowledge, not that we should know what goodness is but that we should become good.
Moral confusion is sometimes the product of empirical mistakes, or ignorance, or lack of proper acquaintance with the facts, or lack of time to reflect on them, or self-contradiction – and academic philosophers may be well placed to improve on this. But does their professional education equip them to go beyond that, to what really matters: good moral judgement?

It is hard to see why it should. Moral judgement is in an exercise of character, and moral philosophers are not notably more virtuous than anyone else.

The philosopher's claim to moral expertise may be at issue in the recently popular debate between "particularists" and "generalists", about whether morality can be codified in a set of finite principles. If it can, one might expect the philosopher to be of use in finding them; if not, then not. But our issue is better framed not in metaphysical terms (about the structure of the moral realm) but in epistemic ones. Are the intellectual virtues fostered by doctoral study in philosophy – a sense of coherence, simplicity, logical order – the primary virtues of moral reflection? Is morality in this respect so much like science? The suggestion that it is can be found not only in the utilitarian tradition – for instance, in Shelly Kagan's The Limits of Morality – but in some Rawls-inspired Kantianism, and in the "virtue ethics" of Michael Slote. But I am sceptical.

The general question, how our moral-philosophical studies, or our methods, reflect on our moral character is one that is rarely asked. I am fond of Simon Blackburn's purportedly disparaging remark, that
[often] nothing is conveyed [by apologies for objectivity and fact in moral philosophy] except that their authors are very well-brought-up and serious people.
It ought to be more surprising than it is that opponents of objectivity and fact in moral philosophy, like Blackburn, are not at all chastened by this.