Balkinization  

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On Being Dismissed by Your Peers

Brian Tamanaha

The tributes that have marked Richard Rorty’s recent death have duly noted that he was controversial among fellow philosophers; a few less polite (or more frank) remembrances disclose that many of his peers were dismissive of his ideas. As David details below, Rorty argued that contemporary analytical philosophy is preoccupied with illusory philosophical problems, much of it a wasted effort. He urged philosophers to instead focus their attention on social, cultural and political problems. Rorty observed that “what does not make a difference to practice should not make a difference to philosophers.” “When there is no longer an audience outside the discipline that displays interest in philosophical problems, that problem should be viewed with suspicion,” he wrote.

Another recently deceased philosopher of note who was dismissed by more than a few of his professional colleagues was Isaiah Berlin (though not as openly as in Rorty’s case). Like Rorty, Berlin began his career in analytical philosophy, but turned away from this pursuit (without trashing it) to dedicate his efforts to intellectual history and cultural commentary.

In a back-handed put down—tinged with envy—it has been said of both that they were more widely read and admired by non-philosophers than by fellow philosophers.

And so it may be. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is one of the most challenging, horizon-altering books I have ever read (more than once), and his several books on pragmatism are engaging, though-provoking, and sometimes even fun. Berlin’s books (collections of essays really) are beautiful, illuminating explorations of human thought and of the human spirit.

The phenomenon of a lack of professional respect accorded to a major figure reminds me of a parallel in the legal context: Roberto M. Unger. Unger is rarely mentioned by legal theorists. Although his best theoretical work is now a bit dated, it was not taken seriously by many legal theorists when it came out. His brilliant (in my estimation) pair of books, Knowledge and Politics and Law in Modern Society, prompted a memorably savage review, but for the most part they have been ignored by legal theorists and legal philosophers.

Now it might be the case that the work of Rorty, Berlin, and Unger deserves to be dismissed as philosophically lacking. But perhaps the negative reactions they elicited from peers can be explained by the fact that each raised fundamental challenges to the standard approaches and assumptions that dominated their fields, and when measured against these standards they could not but fail. Perhaps it is the inevitable fate of all those who threaten the collective enterprise to be dismissed or ignored by their peers who preserve it.

But, hey, what do I know;…I’m not a philosopher.

Comments:

In his day, Rorty was a major philosophical figure. I think, though, that philosophers by and large began to see him as a professional agitator without a terribly original research agenda. Much of his philosophical contribution can be found in John Dewey, for instance, without the overstatement.

I can't resist a quick anecdote: Rorty and Richard Bernstein were on a panel together once at the Hannah Arendt Memorial Symposium. Rorty and Bernstein had a lot in common philosophically, for all their differences, and they were on pretty friendly terms. Rorty would say something, and then Bernstein would respond, "But Dick,..." Rorty would respond in kind: "Dick, ..."

So Reiner Schurmann, never all that patient with American pragmatists of any description, raises his hand at the question-and-answer session and says, "I have a question for the two dicks."
 

My f-i-l, a retired philosopher, has nothing but contempt for most trends in modern philosophy. I have to agree with him, in so far as I've bothered to pay attention to the displays of intellectual posturing and hair-splitting.

The most trite and mind-numbingly dull set of lectures I've ever sat through, on the origin of the ancient idea of free will, were greeted by the philosophers in the audience as brilliant.

Socrates, whatever his faults, is said to have revolted from the idea that the practice of philosophy entailed empty displays of intellectual prowess and rhetorical flourishes, with little grounding in fact. He appears to have turned philosophy toward the question of how men should live.

Rorty at least recognized that that issue needs to be confronted anew, even if he was a showboat in his own regard.
 

There's a revised entry on Rorty at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rorty/
 

Well, I am a philosopher, and I hadn't noticed that Rorty was dismissed by people. The most common reaction was something like: on the one hand, boy is he smart and interesting and well-read; on the other, he seems to have concluded that the fact that a project that a lot of us never had cannot be realized in its entirety means that we should just toss out the idea of ideas or arguments being better than other ideas or arguments, except on pragmatic grounds, and that seemed both not justified by his actual arguments and wrong.

I really don't think the problem was that he raised challenges too fundamental for people to deal with. We don't actually have a problem with that just now (there have, of course, been times when we did, but this isn't one of them.)
 

I can't comment on Rorty with any objectivity - I learned his work through a very kooky professor. But as for Isaiah Berlin, the reason he isn't taken with a great deal of seriousness is that his work is more than a little superficial and slipshod. His most famous and persuasive work (on the difference between positive and negative liberty) is little more than warmed-over Jefferson with an anti-Communist bent.
 

Hilzoy, as a philosopher myself, I basically share your assessment, although it doesn't quite get at why so many philosophers found the guy so annoying, and why he was so annoyed by philosophers. For his part, I think that if you set yourself up as a kind of prophet foretelling the end of philosophy like he did, and yet philosophy just keeps on going, that feels like rejection.

On the philosophers' side, I think that many of us felt that there was a fundamental intellectual dishonesty in his work. If you think that philosophy is a sinking ship, it seems that you can just let it sink, or you can graciously help people find the lifeboats. (You can demonstrate what it's like to "change the subject," in his words.) Whether this is fair or not, I got the distinct impression that he took his greatest pleasure in staying on the boat holding people's heads under the water, even if it meant drowning himself.
 

But as for Isaiah Berlin, the reason he isn't taken with a great deal of seriousness is that his work is more than a little superficial and slipshod.

Can you point us to someone making that argument with examples, Arbitrista? Calling Berlin "warmed-over Jefferson" sounds a bit like saying there are no new ideas in political theory, which in a sense is true, but not a criticism.
 

Anderson:

I was referring specifically to Berlin's simplistic distinction between positive and negative liberty, with the former depicted as dangerous and the latter as good. Liberty can't be segmented so easily, and variants of negative liberty generate just as many difficulties as positive liberty. His tying of positive liberty to various forms of authoritarianism is also highly questionable. The abuse of a thing can't be conflated with the thing itself.
 

I am a philosophy professor. In my judgment, the reason why contemporary analytic philosophers didn't think Rorty was that great a philosopher is very simple if infuriating: although Rorty's views were fascinating, he gave us very little reason to think they were true. He told us an interesting story; many other creative philosophers have told us different interesting stories. When faced with the question, 'Why should we think Rorty's is the best or true one?', people just came up short. After hearing the nice story people asked Rorty: why should we believe you? The answer was never impressive, and so philosophers looked elsewhere.
 

I'm going to have to agree with people who dismissed Rorty as a philospher. His book "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" was overwrought. It didn't say anything that Quine hadn't aldready said.

The fact that non-philosphers celebrate him more than philosophers isn't really measure of the power of his ideas, after all non-philosophers loved the Da Vinci Code a lot more than philosophers, but that doens't make it more important than the discipline of philosophy. Indeed, Rorty admitted that he wasn't very good at analytic philosophy, and perhaps that's the clearest reason that he moved on to social commentary. Rorty would have liked this blog; he was a better pundit than he was a philosopher.
 

This brings up an issue that has bugged me for years: pundits and journalists never have any idea who any of the top philosophers are in the US or UK. By any measure, Saul Kripke and David Lewis and Jerry Fodor are the top philosophers of the last thirty years, and yet I would be surprised if any pundits or journalists were anymore than vaguely aware of them. This would NOT be a problem at all (how often does it matter, really?) except that the same pundits and journalists think they do know who the top philosophers are--and they tell people all this nonsense about Foucault, Derrida, etc!
 

Casarojo: ""Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" was overwrought. It didn't say anything that Quine hadn't aldready said."

And more pithily to boot.

Bryan, you're right about pundits not knowing squat about philosophers like Kripke or Lewis. However, I'm not really sure why one should be bugged by that; if pundits were in the habit of writing columns about the semantics of modal logic or counterfactuals, that would be one thing, but they aren't.

Perhaps the issue is that people like Kripke and Lewis were and are great philosophers, but not public intellectuals. (Fodor is a possible exception, although he, too, doesn't have a huge public profile.) Foucault and Derrida perhaps weren't great philosophers (although I've got a soft spot for Foucault), but they were public intellectuals, just as Rorty was.

What bugged me about Rorty was the notion that being a good philosopher meant that one had to be a good public intellectual, or at least striving to be. On his own story, I found it hard to see why he or anyone else would particularly want public intellectuals to be philosophers. Is it because Socrates was a public intellectual? Aside from the fact that ancient Athens was a very different place than 21st-century America, the notion that all philosophy should consist in emulation of Socrates is sophomoric.
 

Saul Kripke and David Lewis and Jerry Fodor are the top philosophers of the last thirty years, and yet I would be surprised if any pundits or journalists were anymore than vaguely aware of them.

Fodor at least writes for the LRB sometimes, right?

As for Kripke, I guess the question would be: what's he done that anyone not doing analytic philosophy needs to know of him?
 

Abstract logic is not philosophy it's simply a tool. To say that a tool is synonymous with wisdom is... illogical.

As far as the strengths and weakness of abstract reason are concerned the question can be put any numner of ways:
Who has a more profound understanding of the law, a professor of legal philosophy of a trial lawyer?
Who understands more the complexities of language, a linguist or a novelist?

An anthropologist is trained as an academic to understand these paradoxes of knowledge. Philosphers of the sort being discussed here have no interest in things that avoid categorization. denying as they do the constitutive role of action or performance or indeed of time in our understanding of events. They prefer perfection in error -autistic formalism- to imperfect observation.

I haven't read much Rorty, and what I've read recently didn't interest me, but he strikes me as defending the notion of worldliness as such as a goal. That in itself is enough to offend some people. Amazingly enough to me at least, similar arguments seems to offend a lot of economists too.
 

Who has a more profound understanding of the law, a professor of legal philosophy of a trial lawyer?

Isn't there an obvious semantic sting here?

sigh.
 

Well I think Kripke is pretty significant. I've read his theory of proper names twice. Even if he hasn't produced anything as provocative since that publication, proper names alone earned him a spot in philosophical history.

Maybe it's my personal bias but I beleive the greatest philosopher in recent history was Donald Davidson. His intellect is staggering and his essay on "The Three Varieties of Knowlegde" is fairly accesible and it superceedes Descarte and Kant's theories on epistemology in under twenty pages. Not bad.
 

All I know of Donald Davidson is that in On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme he seems to argue that translating Pushkin into English is a breeze: whatever nuances can't be translated must not exist.

Mortimer, please clarify your reference to a semantic sting.
 

Looking up the reference I realized how much my sense of language is a part of me. I've read Dworkin but not on Hart. And still I said 'profound' not 'true.' I try to avoid discussions of truth.
I culd just as well have said 'flexble' or 'dynamic.'
I think that takes of of sting out of your question.
 

sorry for the lousy spelling.
 

Well I think Kripke is pretty significant. I've read his theory of proper names twice. Even if he hasn't produced anything as provocative since that publication, proper names alone earned him a spot in philosophical history.

Okay, but is there anything he did that a non-philosopher would find useful or interesting, the way Plato, Aristotle, Kant, or Nietzsche did?
 

There's a "will to proper names" joke to be found here somewhere...
 

D. Ghirlandaio @ 6:36 pm: "All I know of Donald Davidson is that in On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme he seems to argue that translating Pushkin into English is a breeze: whatever nuances can't be translated must not exist."

You need to read him again, and more carefully. His idea isn't that translation is easy; it's that there's no way to render intelligible the claims of people like Quine, Thomas Kuhn, etc. that there are multiple irreconcilable conceptual schemes, such that translation between them is utterly impossible. Languages (Russian, English, the language of first-order logic, etc.) don't demarcate irreconcilable conceptual or logical domains, and if they did, there would be no (meta-)language available in which to argue for the claim.
 

Anderson @ 7:26 pm: "Okay, but is there anything he did that a non-philosopher would find useful or interesting, the way Plato, Aristotle, Kant, or Nietzsche did?"

Aren't you really asking whether Kripke ever produced anything noteworthy on ethics, political philosophy, or philosophy of religion? If so, the answer is "no," at least not to my knowledge.

Feel free to discount this as coming from an irredeemable pedant, but one of the benefits of being an academic philosopher is that you become aware of an awful lot of really interesting and diverse philosophical work that by all rights should have a wider audience outside of a narrow specialty. I think that a lot of work in philosophy of science besides Thomas Kuhn is well worth reading, and it speaks directly to issues that tons of people find interesting, judging from the length of the comment threads here and elsewhere when the creationism/evolution debate comes up. Critical race theory is another example; the work of people like Lewis Gordon and Charles Mills and the issues it raises deserve wider attention than they now receive, IMHO.
 

"Languages (Russian, English, the language of first-order logic, etc.) don't demarcate irreconcilable conceptual or logical domains, and if they did, there would be no (meta-)language available in which to argue for the claim."

Do yourself a favor: ask a translator.

Lived experience is full of "irreconcilable conceptual and logical domains."
That's why we invent formal -third party- systems as mediators, means of approximating one to the another. But what results is transliteration, not translation.
Philosophers these days seem more interested in categories than in the gaps between them. The gaps are both more interesting and more important.
A courtroom is a place of naming according to agreed-upon (and formal) rules. We use formalism and adversarialism only because reason is impossible. Courts are only used in times of crisis: when specific individual acts need for practical reasons to be defined by the state "beyond a reasonable doubt."
that's a lot of wiggle room.

I guess Davidson goes with Hart on these things.
Wishful thinking and mindblowing idiocy.

read a novel.
 

Thinking about this a bit more, there's a simple way to describe this.
In the terms of abstract logic one of us is the equivalent of another; but yet I am not you.
We communicate. But how well? And in how much detail?
Abstract logic is a vulgarization of human interaction, beginning with our lowest common denominator. In presupposing unity, it breeds atomization: so we get Posnerite economics politics and law.
If one presuppose the opposite, considering how much effort and energy we expend just to communicate then communication itself, the mechanism becomes much more interesting.
I always go back to Posner in this context, the US and law, but why not: Posner has no interest in language and philosophers have little respect for it.

The contempt for democracy [the culture of language in use] in Posner, and in Leiter and others who claim to be to his left, is striking.
 

D. Ghirlandaio, you're saddling Davidson, and me, and all philosophers with beliefs and attitudes that you have no way of knowing we share, and that in fact we do not all share. I can appreciate your problems with "Posnerite" attitudes towards economics, policy, and law; indeed, I share them. But I perhaps don't share them for the same reasons you do; nor do I quite see what "logic" per se has to do with any of it. Perhaps what you object to is not so much logic but formalization and ideal theory, neither of which necessarily turn on any particular attitude towards logic. If so, you haven't made an argument for how they fall short so much as heap presumption and abuse on people you presume disagree with you without taking the trouble to find out exactly what it is they do believe.

My advice: Get the chip off your shoulder and pay more attention to what other people really are saying and thinking. Until you do, I don't plan on wasting any more time reading what you have to say.
 

Feel free to discount this as coming from an irredeemable pedant, but one of the benefits of being an academic philosopher is that you become aware of an awful lot of really interesting and diverse philosophical work that by all rights should have a wider audience outside of a narrow specialty.

Well, I hear people keep *saying* that, but again -- did Kripke do anything I need to hear about?

The implicit notion that Plato, Aristotle, Kant, & Nietzsche are interesting solely for "ethics, political philosophy, or philosophy of religion" is almost nutty, btw.
 

Anderson: "The implicit notion that Plato, Aristotle, Kant, & Nietzsche are interesting solely for "ethics, political philosophy, or philosophy of religion" is almost nutty, btw."

You are the one who is operating with a substantive notion of what you care to hear about without telling anyone exactly what you want to hear about. I'm perfectly happy with letting Kripke just be an analytic philosopher of language; if you find that interesting, fine, if not, fine. (I don't specialize in analytic philosophy of language, by the way.) I don't quite recall telling anyone that they must read Kripke. However, if they don't expect him to be addressing questions he's not, he's incredibly insightful.
 

BTW, notice that when I was talking about work that I think merits a wider audience, I wasn't talking about Kripke, nor indeed about any analytic philosophy of language. The critical race theory stuff is about as far from that kind of philosophy as you can get!
 

I described democracy offhandedly as "the culture of language in use."
I'll leave it at that.
 

Oh, heavens. Here's what Bryan-with-a-"y" wrote:

This brings up an issue that has bugged me for years: pundits and journalists never have any idea who any of the top philosophers are in the US or UK. By any measure, Saul Kripke and David Lewis and Jerry Fodor are the top philosophers of the last thirty years, and yet I would be surprised if any pundits or journalists were anymore than vaguely aware of them.

So: what has Kripke done, of which I should be more than vaguely aware? I tried Wikipedia, & that famously uneven source leaves one at a loss as to why Kripke would be considered a great philosopher, rather than a gifted toiler in the vineyards of reference.

And of course, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche all made contributions to metaphysics and epistemology, not just the value-laden fru-fru stuff. (I leave the *value* of those contributions to one side, of course, but contributions they did make.)
 

Bryan-with-a-y will have to speak to his own sense of why we should think Kripke that important. I can say, though, that his theory of reference and meaning is thought, rightly or wrongly, to have potentially wide implications for questions in philosophy of mind, many of which seem to turn on questions regarding logical and metaphysical necessity. The verdict on post-Kripkean "two-dimensional" theories of meaning is definitely mixed; Scott Soames' recent book _Reference and Description_ makes that clear. But that's what he's known for, worthwhile or not.

None of that is to say that Kripke, Lewis, or Fodor deserves to be mentioned alongside Plato or Aristotle in the pantheon of philosophical greats. They probably are the most important philosophers of the past thirty years, but hey-- perhaps the last thirty years is a philosophical dry period.
 

This should interest you. That doesn't mean it will.

On his academic page Bryan has a quote from Kripke, whom he refers to as "the wise one": "I regard the mind-body problem as wide open and extremely confusing."
That might help explain why his name is not more well known.
The statement itself is also just stupid
 

"I regard the mind-body problem as wide open and extremely confusing."

Possibly Kripke was referring to his ex's novel of the same name?
 

D. Ghirlandaio doesn't know the first thing about philosophy. Often I wish I stuck with physics (I went to grad school in physics) because so few people who know nothing about physics think they know much about physics. But in philosophy, oh my goodness!

Kripke made huge advances in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind (in addition to the work he did in the philosophy of language). His comment on the mind-body problem simply reflects his awareness of the problem's difficulty.
 

Bryan, lay some of those non-logic advances on me, would you please?
 

There's about as much foundation for dualism as there is for god.

Again I'll ask: Am I identical to you? Is it logical for one of us to go to jail for the other's crimes?
Do you have my thoughts?

We're identical only as tokens. There's a whole hell of a lot of things that are nontransferable, and yet we communicate.
It's like I'm arguing from empirical data about the minimum wage and unemployment and you're saying the data doesn't matter. "But the science of economics shows..."
 

Some of Kripke's advances...

Sorry, but that would take a 1000 word essay to begin with. For instance, he showed that there might be contingent a priori knowledge. He also showed there might be necessary a posteriori knowledge. And, he gave one of the best arguments for mind-body dualism ever. That's just three things.

These arguments of his would take a lot of work to articulate. It's just not the type of thing that fits on a blog, as either an entry or a comment.

Frankly, the big advances are not just the arguments but how he approaches various topics.

D. Ghirlandaio says we are identical only as tokens. He doesn't understand how 'token' is used in philosophy; that's for certain. As to what relevance his last comment has, I have not the slightest idea. Is it supposed to have anything to do with mind-body dualism, as in the Kripke quote?
 

The various arguments for mind-body dualism have nothing to do with arguments for the existence of God. They former are also better than the latter. I think most philosophers would agree with that assessment.
 

"We're identical only as tokens."
We're type identical.
Is that better?
 

How are we type identical? Which types? And what does this have to do with Kripke or dualism?
 

"one of the three greatest philosophers of all time."

"but, hey, what do I know. . ."

Relative Rorty may suspend lawyerly folk in indeterminacy, spin jurists in the pragmatism of "useful," in the intentional fallacy of "orginalism," but there is absolutely no reason to believe so! Unless "all is relative" is not self-evidently self-refuting.

Apparently, such logic and language never occur to the legal-minded, and when cornered, they pull Skepticism out of the hat. Some of us might have preferred Cynicism.
 

Dualism is an argument for the existence of a substance without "substance." With that the damage is done: whether there is a God or not is secondary.

As to questions of philosophy as such, it seems to be interested only in the nature of types and not of tokens. In the context of academic philosophy I'm sure Davidson succeeded in 'proving' his point. The fact that it can be shown to be wrong seems to be irrelevant.
---
The only question worth working on is that of the relation of tokens to types.
Any and all questions of language, culture, and politics revolve around this one.

dear gayscience,
If wishes were horses.
Sorry but between idealism and cynicism lies something else. Ask a lawyer, not a college professor.
 

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