Philosophy as Integration in Academia — Or Not

 Posted by on 4 October 2005 at 5:45 am  Academia
Oct 042005

Via Boing Boing, I found this list of the fifty most cited texts in the humanities from 1976-1983. Although those dates are pretty musty by now, the dominance of philosophy texts on the list is noteworthy — even though so many of the philosophers are the postmodernist freaks beloved by fashionable academics outside philosophy. (Postmodernism, a.k.a. Continental Philosophy, is quite rare in American philosophy departments, as it’s generally not regarded with much if any respect.) Here’s the list:

1. T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1962
2. J. Joyce, Ulysses. 1922
3. N. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957
4. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
5. N. Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. 1965
6. M. Foucault, The Order of Things. 1966
7. J. Derrida, Of Grammatology
8. R. Barthes, S/Z. 1970
9. M. Heidegger, Being and Time. 1927
10. E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. 1948
11. H-G Gardmer, Truth and Method. 1960
12. J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice. 1971
13. J. Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake. 1939
14. J.R. Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. 1969
15. J. Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. 1975
16. G. Genette, Figures. 1966
17. N. Chomsky & M. Halle, The Sound Pattern of English. 1968
18. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land. 1922
19. J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words. 1962
20. W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object. 1960
21. M. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. 1914
22. L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. 1922
23. J. Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916
24. W.C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction. 1961
25. C. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology. 1958
26. S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams. 1900
27. V.Y. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale. 1928
28. F.D. Saussure, Course in General Linguistics. 1915
29. J-P, Sartre, Being and Nothingness. 1943
30. S.A. Kripke, “Naming and Necessity” 1972
31. E. Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics. 1966
32. K.R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. 1963
33. J. Lacan, Lacan Ecrits
34. J. Derrida, Writing and Difference. 1967
35. N. Chomsky, Chomsky Syntactic Structures. 1957
36. R. Jacobson, “Linguistics and Poetics” 1960
37. E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation. 1967
38. C. Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind. 1962
39. E. Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound. 1925
40. P.L. Berger & T. Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. 1966
41. M.M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. 1965
42. M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. 1945
43. W. Iser, The Act of Reading. 1976
44. K.R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. 1972
45. U.A. Eco, Theory of Semiotics. 1976
46. E. Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 1946
47. E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. 1960
48. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. 1964
49. J. Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interest. 1968
50. K.R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery. 1935

The dominance of even these mostly awful philosophical texts in the list reflects the unique position of philosophy as the fundamental integrator of all human knowledge, particularly in the humanities. At its best, philosophy identifies the basic principles to guide all specialized inquiries and check all further conclusions. So with Objectivism, the axioms preclude certain supposedly scientific theories, like behaviorism in psychology. The purpose of art establishes basic standards for the objective judgment of literature to be further developed and applied by scholars. The nature of concepts forbids the use of package-deals like “Stalinism” and “McCarthyism” in politics. The metaphysical value of sex suggests an important subject of psychological study. The historical study of Soviet Russia shows the particular ways in which collectivism in theory results in mass slaughter in practice. And so on. Obviously, other philosophies have other kinds of effects upon specialized fields of study, many of them deeply pernicious.

To be clear, my point here is not that all roads go to and from philosophy. Rather, philosophy is the central nexus point in a web of related domains of knowledge. So although psychology, history, and economics will be directly related to each other in various ways, the strongest ties between the major disciplines will all run through philosophy.

Of course, that’s not really the current state of affairs. The fragmentation of the humanities over the last century or so is both widely-known and often-lamented. Professors and graduate students have almost no contact with people working outside their own discipline. At this point, productive conversation is almost impossible, as scholarly interests are too narrowly specialized in both content and method to be of much interest to anyone else, including those in the same discipline. In fact, a person could lead a totally normal life as a graduate student and professor of philosophy without ever conversing with anyone outside philosophy about any topic of intellectual substance. By current standards, that person would not even be remiss if he never read a book on any topic other than philosophy! I suspect the same is true of other disciplines, albeit perhaps to varying degrees.

The intellectual world wasn’t always so fractured. During the Enlightenment, philosophers, historians, chemists, physicians, industrialists, economists, physicists, artists, and the like actively gathered together to discuss topics of mutual interest. (For a nice example, see Andy Bernstein’s discussion of the Lunar Society in The Capitalist Manifesto, pages 88-92.) In light of that community, it’s hardly surprising that so many accomplished intellectuals were accomplished in multiple fields. So although Hume is almost exclusively known today as a philosopher, he also wrote an excellent and popular history of England. Adam Smith is studied almost exclusively as an economist today, even though he wrote treatises on ethics. Voltaire was not merely a popular essayist on philosophical topics; he also wrote volumes of plays and poetry, not to mention highly influential popularizations of Newton’s new physics. In those days, the boundaries between disciplines were simply not the impenetrable walls that they are today.

From what I’ve read on the ills of academia, few if any academics realize that philosophers are almost entirely to blame for the absurd compartmentalization of our universities. The analytic philosophy dominant in the twentieth century rejected the ideal of the systematic integration of knowledge, even within the domain of philosophy itself. The old goal of constructing a philosophical system was deemed naive and futile. Instead, philosophers were supposed to engage in detailed analyses of narrow slivers of topics totally isolated from any surrounding context or general principles. Unsurprisingly, philosophers have discovered that they cannot prove anything in that manner, so they now often resort to offering pathetic rationalizations for their prior beliefs under the guise of Rawls’ “reflective equilibrium” or Nozick’s rejection of “coercive philosophy.”

As an aside, Tom Regan’s arguments for animal rights are a perfect example of rationalization as philosophic method. When he openly admits (in “The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights”) that “if it were possible to show that only human beings are included within [the] scope [of the rights view], then a person like myself, who believes in animal rights, would be obliged to look elsewhere,” any self-respecting philosopher should refuse to seriously consider his views any further. Instead, philosophers treat them seriously, as if the reams of tangential technical discussion render his work rigorous. In particular, Regan steadfastly refuses to offer any substantive argument for his claim that subjects-of-a-life have that ever-so-mysterious property of equal inherent value. Consequently, it cannot be refuted. That’s quite convenient for Regan, of course. The only proper response is to reject the whole enterprise as arbitrary.

Although analytic philosophy has lost much of its strength in recent years, its basic policy of disintegration is still very much in force in philosophy departments. (Certainly, my graduate papers are still supposed to analyze some narrow, out-of-context issue to death!)

The widespread opposition to the integration of knowledge in philosophy over the past century or so has substantially affected the standard practices of other disciplines. By routinely engaging in hyper-specialized nit-picking irrelevant to life, philosophers largely removed themselves from that central location in the nexus of human knowledge. Since they defended intellectual disintegration on philosophic grounds, they also encouraged scholars in other disciplines to engage in their own form of compartmentalization. That they did, apparently while also turning to the crazed continental philosophers for the required philosophic foundation to varying degrees. The current fractured state of academia is the end result of that process. It won’t change until philosophers seriously commit themselves — in both theory and practice — to cognitive integration.

From what I’ve seen, today’s only intellectual community seriously committed to integration across the various domains of knowledge is that of Objectivists — as made possible largely by the Ayn Rand Institute and the Anthem Foundation. That community is still in a nascent form: some disciplines aren’t adequately represented yet, if at all. (Personally, I’d much prefer to add more historians, psychologists, economists, and the like to the mix, rather than more philosophers, as I’ll learn more that way!) Nonetheless, the lively discussions and thoughtful debates amongst well-grounded Objectivist intellectuals and scholars seem to be quite stimulative. I certainly experienced that for myself at ARI’s fantastic Teaching Workshop, held after OCON this past summer. I’ve also seen/read the excellent fruit of others scholarly workshops, such as Tara Smith’s fascinating talk on judicial activism at OCON.

That’s perhaps the only good news for the future of academia, I think.

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