Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Death of Philosophers

Since we've been thinking about the end of philosophy (and the end of the university), it might be appropriate to note a book about the end of philosophers: Simon Critchley's The Book of Dead Philosophers--a compendium of the deaths (and lives) of 190 philosophers, from the Pre-Socratics to relative contemporaries like Jacques Derrida and Dominique Janicaud.

It's one of those books that just about any adequate philosopher could pull off, given the concept--any philosopher, that is, with a year off at the Getty, granting the leisure to browse Wikipedia and an array of philosophical biographies. There's nothing particularly profound or brilliant about Critchley's execution of the concept. And given that it's appearing from Vintage, I was expecting some kind of literary heft, some sort of creative punch. But that never materialized. Indeed, I think the book is a bit like a Will Ferrell movie: the trailer is much better than the movie. In this case, the book's project (and dark humor) is better appreciated in the brief visual distillation that appeared in the February issue of The Believer.

And yet we have the book. So I suppose, in addition to the concept and the leisure to do a bunch of legwork, you'd need a third element: to be a philosopher in Manhattan who cleary has friends in New York literary circles.

That said, it is also undeniably just the sort of book that you can't put down: the plethora of brief entries grants immediate satisfaction. Curious little tidbits show up on each page in an easy-to-digest format. I don't deny that Critchley has done his homework, and I could see this book making for entertaining reading in an Intro to Philosophy class. But when Critchley does get down to being somewhat philosophical, I find he is a bit sloppy. His rejection of Christian conceptions of death (and afterlife), for instance, are simplistic, naive, and rejected with such animated disdain that methinks he doth protest too much. Or consider his plea at the end of the book for a recovery of "creatureliness"--though he wants "a less theistic variant of this thought," which simply amounts to saying "human existence is limited." Well, first, I'm not sure what "less" theistic could mean. Is there a sliding scale of "theistic-ness?" Is there a similar one for pregancy? Second, why invoke the theological capital loaded in the term "creatureliness" if all you're after is "limits?" Is that the best Critchley's non-theistic imagination can come up with? If you don't want the theology, then get your own lexicon. Otherwise, own up to the fact that you're living on borrowed capital.

Finally, while I have no interest in stoking the fires of animosity between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy, I do find myself sympathetic to a diagnosis and claim that Critchley offers near the end of the book, in an entry on A.J. Ayer:

When one considers influential analytic philosophers like Quine, Donald Davidson or John Rawls, it is clear that they led wonderfully successful and influential professional lives and died in an undramatic manner which has absolutely no bearing on their philosophical views. By contrast, if one considers Continental philosophers like Arendt, Foucault or Derrida, it's not so much the case that they led more complex and interesting lives and had more dramatic deaths, but rather that the line between philosophy and life is much harder to draw.

I often--at least lately--find myself disenchanted with my "profession," which tends to reduce philosophy to puzzle-solving. Then--even worse--it convinces some of our best and brightest that philosophy is puzzle-solving, a game we play which has little bearing on either wisdom or a way of life. As a result, "serious" students of philosophy retreat into narrow logical enclaves to parse the Getttier problem and then pride themselves on their syllogisms.

So I find myself sympathetic when Critchley writes:
The idea that philosophy is something transformative or disruptive of a self is...a commonplace in and after antiquity. To this extent, sentences of death, exile or punishment imposed on philosophers seem to respond to a deep need that philosophy and life should fit together, but that its transformative power can come at the cost of one's life. To this extent, Alasdair MacIntyre is surely justified when he writes, "Imprisoning philosophy within the professionalizations and specializations of an institutionalized curriculum, after the manner of our contemporary European and North American culture, is arguably a good deal more effective in neutralizing its effects than either religious censorship or political terror." The effect of the professionalization of philosophy is the sense that it does not and should not matter to the conduct of one's life.

While teaching Plato's Apology this semester--which recounts Socrates' (unsuccessful) defense of his vocation--I was uncomfortably reminded that nobody is going to be executed for improperly exegeting Husserl's Krisis texts or for failures in modal logic. Despite my quibbles with Critchley's book, it has got me thinking that any philosophy worth pursuing should be one worth dying for--and that should be especially true of that scandalous notion of a Christian philosophy, a cruciform philosophy for which martyrdom should, ironically, "make sense."

Monday, April 27, 2009

The End of the University?

The New York Times op-ed page is becoming rather apocalyptic. First we had David Brooks' pontificating on the "End of Philosophy;" now the NYT offers an op-ed from Mark C. Taylor on "The End of the University As We Know It." Any undergraduate contemplating graduate education shouldn't be surprised by Taylor's sobering take on the state of graduate education--unless your undergraduate professors have had their head in the sand. (My default stance is to generally discourage students from going to grad school.) As Taylor rightly notes,
The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.
But Taylor's prescription for re-tooled graduate training also spills over into a prescribed reconfiguration of undergraduate education as well. His first agenda item for reform is to:
Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.
I'm very sympathetic to trying to move beyond the department-as-fortress model which currently dominates higher education, despite all of our talk of interdisciplinarity. While we might have a veneer of cross-disciplinary collaboration, the department-as-fortress rears its ugly head whenever we start talking about curricular reform (say, revising the core curriculum of a college)--very quickly principled discussion of what constitutes a good education devolves into a matter of protecting faculty "lines" in "our" department. Thus Taylor recognizes that such a revision of the curriculum would also require his second prescription:
Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.
This all sounds well and good and provocative and intriguing and exciting (indeed, something like this is exactly what Derrida was trying to encourage at the College Internationale de Philosophie in Paris). However, when you start poking this idea just a bit, some questions emerge.

Let's say we have a cross-disciplinary faculty group that constitutes "the Water Program." We've brought these faculty together from a range of disciplines in order to tackle this "problem" from a number of different perspectives, yet collaboratively (rather than holed up in different corners of the university). So one scholar will be considering biological issues, another political issues, another aesthetic questions, another ethical and philosophical issues and so. Sounds fabulous. But where did these scholars receive their training in biology, political science, and philosophy? In the "Drought" program that existed seven years ago? Or the "Oil" program from 14 years ago? Or that ancient program in "Security" from 21 years ago? While Taylor's vision of collaboration is welcomed, it still remains parasitic: it needs and presumes some kind of rigorous disciplinary formation that will produce the scholars who can then bring such expertise to the "problem" at hand.

I'm very sympathetic to Taylor's re-imagining of the shape of the university, but I don't think abolishing (something like) disciplinary departments will solve the problem. We're going to have to get just a little more creative than that.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The End of Which Philosophy? On David Brooks

David Brooks' column today, "The End of Philosophy," is a tad over-billed. I think he's right to highlight that recent work in neuroscience, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology has increasingly made us appreciate that we human animals make our way in the world not primarily as "thinking things;" rather, our conscious, intentional choices and actions are just the tip of an unconscious iceberg of pre-cognitive intentionality of a different sort. (In fact, it's more like a snowball on the tip of the iceberg.) As Timothy Wilson, John Bargh and others have noted, we are oriented to the world in all sorts of ways that are pre-conscious--what Bargh and Chartrand refer to as the "unbearable automaticity of being." Indeed, Brooks himself is familiar with this literature as seen in an old column on baseball. I think this is right on the money.

But Brooks over-reaches when he bills this as "the end of philosophy." Whose philosophy? Which ethics? Brooks is absolutely right that this comes as a challenge to overly "intellectualist" models of the human person and human action--pictures of our being-in-the-world that construe us as always and only thinking, deliberating machines. But that is an increasingly small school of philosophy. Indeed, it's philosophers (from Heidegger to Merleau-Ponty) who have challenged just such an "intellectualist," cognitivist, top-heavy picture of the human person. In fact, one can find philosopher Charles Taylor articulate just such a critique of "intellectualism" in an important essay on Pierre Bourdieu, "To Follow a Rule."

So Brooks eulogy for philosophy is a little premature. And the philosophy that "ends" with these insights is well lost.