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.


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