What Counts as Philosophy?

Apart from the question of “Who has the rights to the lands of Palestine?” little can be more contentious than the question, “What counts as philosophy?” What are the bounds of this discipline of ours? I like to think that there aren’t any clear and proper boundaries but that there is a roughly common approach (but don’t ask me to define it) and, delightfully, a common canon (at least for what is understood as pre-20th century western philosophy, though lamentably white, male philosophy). Anyone of any persuasion teaching an intro to philosophy class is likely to include some of the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bentham, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Rousseau, and maybe some selection from Marx, Nietsche, and James. With texts of the twentieth century all bets are off. But what’s one century in a discipline that goes back 25? Given our long history, we’ve had nothing like the canon wars that tore apart English departments in the 1980s. The common canon saves us, but it doesn’t give us a way to define or set bounds to what philosophy is. Philosophy has a way of undermining boundaries, like the boundary between what is properly philosophical and what is not. Just try to set up a fence and see how long it stands.

Even to the extent that we have a common canon, the question of what counts as philosophy is desperately unclear, at least once one strays from a “view-from-nowhere” approach to metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, or any of the many philosophy-of-x arenas. Once the approach becomes more specific and situated, the border wars arise. And the lines are usually drawn between what is hegemonically understood as proper philosophy and what is not. Philosophy that is not in fashion in “the best” schools, not “prestigious,” not hard and clear and rigorous, not properly erected — including today American pragmatism, critical theory, post-Kantian European philosophy, and, oh, certainly feminist philosophy — doesn’t seem to count as philosophy at all, at least by those who are counting and protecting a certain definition of proper philosophy.

Just look (and you’ll have to scroll down and then scan the rigt-hand column) at the specialities of the list of evaluators who were invited to rank graduate programs in philosophy for the 2006 Philosophical Gourmet Report. I am told by a defender of the report that this is a “remarkably diverse” group of good philosophers and so it is truly able to gauge what are, objectively, the outstanding graduate programs in philosophy. Any program that doesn’t end up on the list, I’m told, simply isn’t a good program.


Who defines what counts as good philosophy and hence who counts as the good philosophers? Isn’t this kind of counting tantamount to defining philosophy itself, to saying that M&E (metaphysics and epistemology) counts, but feminist philosophy doesn’t? Or if it’s feminist, it isn’t M&E? Or if it’s concerned with Derrida and not Tarski, or the late Wittgenstein but not the early Wittgenstein, it just ain’t philosophy?

Is that very philosophical?

Rorty and the way things “really are”

The New York Times book review ran a very nice essay by James Ryerson on the recently departed philosopher Richard Rorty. It largely confirmed much of what I wrote in a recent post commenting on Rorty’s reputation as the “bad boy” of philosophy, the one who dared to call into question so many of the presuppositions of mainstream philosophy today, including the presupposition that there is a truth “out there,” waiting to be discovered. As Ryerson puts it, Rorty was willing to do without the idea of The Way Things Really Are. (That’s a great way to put it for those uninitiated in the hubris of contemporary theories of reference.) For Ryerson, this willingness to let go of this idea was the source of Rorty’s countenance in person, a countenance that defied his cheerfulness on the written page. In person, he was gloomy. I too noticed this the one afternoon I spent with him. He did indeed seem weary and beaten down. But was it because, as Ryerson suggests, that he had given up on the idea of The Way Things Really Are?

Ryerson’s essay is terrific, but I think he has a different take on Rorty’s attitude toward metaphysics. I think for Rorty, as for other pragmatists, it’s not a matter of there being no reality. It’s that reality is always shaped and given a meaning in accordance with the perceiver’s own particular purposes, perspective, and experience. Truth is not nothing. It’s what works. And in fact, and for sure, a given view of “what things really are” will work in some situations and not in others. Truth may be relative, but it’s not willy nilly. It’s not arbitrary. There’s no reason in the world to think that pragmatism leads to nihilism.

Rorty certainly got that. But I don’t think Ryerson has. Yet, anyway. He was certainly a friend of Rorty’s, and that makes him a friend of mine.

David Brooks on Interconnectedness

The New York Times columnist David Brooks today sounds a little Hegelian. Commenting on Douglas Hofstadter’s account (in his recent book, I Am A Strange Loop) of his connection to his late wife Carol, Brooks is taken by the interconnection that Hofstadter continues to feel with her. Looking at a picture of Carol, Hofstadter recounts, “I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me!'”

And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit…. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.

Clearly moved by Hofstadter’s account, Brooks writes that “Carol’s death brought home that when people communicate, they send out little flares into each other’s brains. Friends and lovers create feedback loops of ideas and habits and ways of seeing the world.” Though Carol was dead, her self lived on in her widow’s mind. Anyone who experiences or understands this phenomenon has to profoundly rethink the meaning of a self. A self is not an individual, isolated unit but something that “emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others.”

Brooks lays out the political effects of this alternative conception of the self:

  • “it emphasizes how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others”
  • “it exposes the errors of those Ayn Rand individualists who think that success is something they achieve thorugh their own genius and willpower”
  • “it exposes the fallacy of the New Age narcissists who believe they can find their true, authentic self by burrowing down into their inner being”
  • “it explains why it’s so hard to tackle concentrated poverty” because, given that people are permeable, “the habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there”
  • “it illuminates the dangers of believing that there is a universal hunger for liberty” because as “embedded creatures” the way we perceive such a value depends on the context”

As Brooks notes: “There is no self that exists before society.”

Spoken like a true Hegelian! And of that group, count me in.

What I find so interesting about this is that Brooks’s understanding is as compatible with his own neoconservatism as it is with my poststructuralist pragmatism. The usual distinction of liberal versus conservative just doesn’t make sense here. Many conservatives today are free-market individualists who barely heed our indebtedness and obligations to others. But free-marketeering is quintessentially a liberal (as in Lockean) phenomenon. Other conservatives, like Brooks as well as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, lament the modern era’s renunciation of ties of community and tradition — just as most avant-gard thinkers understand that there is no self prior to community.

We’re interconnected, and in a global society, more interconnected than ever. If you’re reading this blog, and you’ve never met me, Roger that one. This interconnection is not just due to new digital technologies. It goes all the way down. What scientists and scholars are finding, Brooks notes, “is a vast web of information — some contained in genes, some in brain structure, some in the flow of dinner conversation — that joins us to our ancestors and reminds the living of the presence of the dead.”

The Bad Boy of Philosophy

Last Friday, at age 75, Richard Rorty died. Yesterday both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran nice obituaries, highlighting his youth in a socialist family and his adulthood as a renegade philosopher who’d splashily divorced analytic philosophy in order to embrace American pragmatism. The break-up began in the 60s. “He was a restless intellectual for much of his career,” the Washington Post‘s Adam Bernstein wrote. “While editing the 1967 book ‘The Linguistic Turn,’ he expressed doubts about the idea that analytic philosophy had made great progress by recasting traditional questons about the relation between thought and reality as questions about how language manages to represent the world.”

By the late 70s, with the publication of his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the divorce was complete. As the Post’s obit aptly notes, “The book sought to dispense with what he considered the grandiose and fruitless attempts to seek out the foundations of knowledge and ethics—presented over the years as timeless truths. Instead he wanted to focus on what was often called a nonfoundationalist philosophy that combined teachings of Dewey, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.”

As someone who’d helped renew interest in the works of the American pragmatist tradition, he could have been a hero for contemporary pragmatist philosophers toiling away in colleges and universities throughout the states. But this was never the case. For nearly a decade now I’ve been a member of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and more often than not, when his name is mentioned there, it is to discredit his views on pragmatism. It’s true that he nearly invited the epithets slung at him: relativist, provacateur, flat-footed, cynical, irresponsible, nihilistic, denier of scientific truths. He did overstate things, often it seemed just to get a rise out of people. At the same time, though, he was a central figure, especially in the 90s, in developments in political thought. Just read Habermas’s book Between Facts and Norms, and Rawls’s book, Political Liberalism, to see how he was a major interlocutor in thinking through democratic self-government.

When I was finishing up my dissertation, I had a side job as an occasional guest host for a public affairs program for the public TV station in Austin, Texas. I scheduled an interview with Richard Rorty. At the appointed hour he walked into the darkened studio, put out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Dick Rorty”— as if I’d respond, “Hi, Dick, I’m Noelle McAfee.” I did nothing of the kind, much too in awe of this world-renowned philosopher who had already profoundly affected my own thinking to call him by his first name. I loved his essay, “Solidarity or Objectivity,” which showed why solidarity was a much better ideal than the impossible ideal of having a view from nowhere. But I was still concerned about the political implication of his work, that there may be no basis for talking across cultural divides. If there’s no foundation for our own thinking apart from the way we are raised and the tastes we cultivate, how could we ever appeal to people from different orientations? If our own beliefs are the result of our own upbringing, and little more, how do we come to reflexively criticize and improve our own culture? In the interview, I asked him these questions, and he didn’t seem to have an answer. That might be okay for “gotcha” journalism, but I sincerely wanted to know how to answer those questions. Today they seem more pressing than ever.

Karl Rove’s Links

Full disclosure: I have two immediate links to Karl Rove. First, I sat next to him at a meeting in Austin, Texas, in the late 1990s when he was the political mastermind behind Dubya’s governership of Texas. There were about eight people in the room. I don’t remember saying anything but “hello” to him. Second, there was once a small item in the Austin American Statesman noting that Karl and I were two new occasional guest hosts of a public affairs program on the local public television station. My interviewees included Richard Rorty and Ernie Cortes.  I don’t think Karl ever interviewed any pragmatist philosophers or community organizers.

But enough about me. What about Karl? This morning’s New York Times has him linked to an “early query over dismissals” of U.S. attorneys. Yes, even before Alberto R. Gonzales showed up to take over the justice department, Karl Rove dropped by the office of a white house lawyer asking if it would be possible to start replacing some “underperforming” prosecutors. As Kyle Samson (a White House lawyer who later became Gonzales’ chief of staff and this week resigned), recounted in an email, “If Karl thinks there’s the political will to do it, then so do I.” In that email, Sampson also wrote, “The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc.”

Get it? Doing a good job as a U.S. attorney, in their minds, equals being a “loyal Bushy.”

I’m hoping that, contra Rorty (see his “Solidarity or Objectivity” article in his collected papers), there’s got to be more to “doing a great job” than solidarity. Or perhaps, with Rorty, solidarity can be more than narrow factionalism. A measure for even political performance should be more than does it promote the values of me and mine, of my partisan faction, but whether it promotes something a little bigger than that. Maybe a U.S. attorney should be looking out for the larger aspirations of the U.S. (and I’m hoping these are something better than what we’ve seen lately) and not just the Bush clan?

Rove so far has deflected fall out from the Valerie Plame scandal. How’s he going to fare here?


See also today’s Daily Kos