Monday, August 08, 2005

Bloodless scholasticism ahoy!

Camille Paglia is pissed off that women were absent in what Will Wilkinson calls the "BBC's ridiculous philosopher popularity contest" that some of you may have noticed a few weeks ago. I was fairly pissed off myself to see Karl Marx top the poll, but the selection from which to choose wasn't too great.

"I feel women in general are less comfortable than men in inhabiting a highly austere, cold, analytical space, such as the one which philosophy involves," argues Paglia, before taking wing:
Today's lack of major female philosophers is not due to lack of talent but to the collapse of philosophy. Philosophy as traditionally practised may be a dead genre. This is the age of the internet in which we are constantly flooded by information in fragments. Each person at the computer is embarked on a quest for and fabrication of his or her identity. The web mimics human neurology, and it is fundamentally altering young people's brains. The web, for good or ill, is instantaneous. Philosophy belongs to a vanished age of much slower and rhetorically formal inquiry. Today's philosophers are now antiquarians.
Wilkinson contends contra Paglia that, far from collapsing, "philosophy as traditionally practiced is at its high water mark." However, he says,
I agree that academic philosophy is insufficiently engaged with the public, and could hold a more privileged place in the fragmented popular consciousness. And I think this is due to straightforward institutional reasons. Academia as it is presently constituted does reward a kind of bloodless scholasticism. One reason I decided to drop out of academia was that I thought direct engagement with current policy debates and cultural concerns would make me a better philosopher. Greats like Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill, Marx were not academics, but men involved in thinking through the practical political matters of their day.
Quite true. In the words of poll winner Karl Marx, "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it" (a great pity however that he himself had so misinterpreted the world before he attempted to have it changed.) Ralph Waldo Emerson made a related point many decades ago in an address which got him banned from Harvard in which he castigated the chattering classes of the day, those second-handed ivory tower-dwellers
who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books. Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm ... who values[s] books as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul.
What meek young men will find in their libraries today is rather different to the great men to which Emerson referred however. What they will find instead is moral and intellectual pygmies of the likes of "radical pragmatist" and ethical relativist Richard Rorty. Tibor Machan takes Rorty and his ilk to task over at SOLO:
The greatest minds in the Western philosophical tradition, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Spinoza all held that, while it is difficult, human beings can learn of some basic truths. At the very least they held out hope that this could be done, especially in the realms of ethics and politics. The American Founders shared a similar perspective, which is why they declared themselves in support of the inalienable individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But today, probably more so than ever before, the dominant idea in most universities is that no basic truths about ethics and politics can be identified...

The practical implication of the view that Richard Rorty (and other relativists) expound is that the positions of the terrorists and of the victims of terrorism are basically indistinguishable as to their merit or worth. In the grand scheme of things, as best as we can tell, the two are on the same footing—or, to put it another way, neither has any better footing.

Machan suggests that in these troubled times it is little wonder philosophers such as Rorty spend so little time writing op-eds and engaging with the world, and so much time talking nonsense to each other. "They ought to remain silent in less troubling times as well," contends Tibor.

Amen to that.

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Blogger Richard said...

"the dominant idea in most universities is that no basic truths about ethics and politics can be identified."

That may be true of, say, English departments. So far as philosophy is concerned, it couldn't be further from the truth. Rorty is a long way out of the philosophical mainstream. (Most philosophers think as lowly of relativists as they do of Randians.)

You'd also be hard-pressed to find many real philosophers who would vote for Marx in such a poll. (My guess is that Plato, Kant, and Hume would top the list. I really can't see Marx as being even in the top 20.)

8/08/2005 05:42:00 pm  

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