Monday, March 23, 2015

Philosophers are Different (5 Dec. 2013)

             Philosophers are different from the rest of us, even "the rest of us" when they're mostly graduate students and non-philosopher intellectuals. Or, anyway, a lot of the philosophers and "philosophically inflected" people I've encountered have been, well, different.

            I got the first inkling of this factoid in the very late 1960s when an instructor I knew and liked from my time in the University of Illinois Microbiology Department told me about preparing to teach a "science-and-society" type honors seminar for advanced students in Micro. His premise was that the life sciences moving into the 1970s was like physics moving into the 1930s: workers in the life science were about to run into some major ethical quandaries, and he thought it important to get budding biologists to start discussing the sort of questions scientists of earlier generations hadn't resolved until too late (if at all): questions about the social, political, and ethical implications of their work.

            So the Micro. man called the U of I Philosophy Department and asked to be put in touch with a philosopher who could talk to his class. The Head of the department said, more or less, "Well, we could send over Harry Tiebout. You know Harry?" And the Micro. prof responded that of course he knew Harry; everyone knew Harry; Harry Tiebout taught a highly popular course in comparative religions and was chairman of the Champaign County Democratic Central Committee. Harry would be fine for one session, but, he asked, how about an ethicist?

            I only got the microbiologist's side of the story, and I'm reconstructing it from memory — but what I remember is that the microbiologist said the Head of Philo. said, "We don't study those aspects of the field; we're an analytic department" — which I'd write as movie dialog as, «We don't do ethics, sir; we, sir, are a philosophy department!»

            My real introduction to the issue, though, came shortly after that when I went to conferences of Danforth Graduate Fellows, or just Danforth Fellows, as we were called at the time.

            (I received mail from the Danforth Foundation at my department office addressed to "Richard D. Erlich, DF," which got me kidded by colleagues since at the time "DF" meant "dumb fuck," and my colleagues complimented me for using that designation with my name, or the Danforth Foundation's knowing me that well. I passed that story on to the Foundation staff because I thought it was funny — and they changed the initials. But I digress.)

            If you own a pet or a herd of mammals or run a lab, you've contributed to the Danforth family fortune — they're the Ralston-Purina people and make "NAME OF TYPE OF ANIMAL Chow," including, if Futurama got its prediction right, "Bachelor Chow" in the 31st century. And Danforth folk used to give really nice fellowships that would support graduate Fellows in all manner of fields through the Ph.D. And in the late 1960s and early 1970s they'd have conferences, bringing us DF's together.

            So I got to meet bright young people from across a broad spectrum of disciplines: usually guys at the time, but a few gals, fairly consistently not jockish enough or quite top-drawer enough to get a Rhodes Fellowship or a Marshall, and/but with a good record, good potential, strong interest in teaching — beyond its keeping a guy out of the Army — and at least some interest in religion (William H. Danforth, our Founder, was big on Christianity).

            At the conferences we'd break into groups and do little projects requiring cooperation and compromise, and, for the most part, we did this efficiently and pretty easily. A LitCrit type such as I could communicate and work with an engineer or a zoologist or whatever … or almost "whatever."

            After one particularly frustrating session, someone suggested, "Look, why don't we divide up into just two groups: those who've taken more then thirty hours of philosophy, and those who haven't." It was a good suggestion.

            For whatever reasons, these young philosophers just seemed to think differently from the rest of us. More exactly, they undoubtedly thought human thoughts of the mid-20th-century, educated-American variety, but with enough differences that they had trouble communicating and cooperating with the rest of us, and vice-versa; and those philosophy students seemed convinced that the rest of us just had thinking wrong.

            Moving into the late 20th century and early 21st, the LitCrit field got far more philosophically respectable, and I got increasingly uncomfortable as literary criticism — criticism in the arts generally — decreased in status, and scholarship along with it; for a book or article to earn prestige, it had to have capital "T" Theoretical significance. One had to think Theory.

            Even with Theory that denied certainty and insisted on ambiguities and celebrated fuzziness — even then one needed firm definition of terms and explicit statement of method and self-conscious examination of one's process(es) and, in general, rigor in dealing with ideas. And one needed to deal with ideas.

            What one mostly didn't need was what most of us peasants in other fields thought of as data: evidence from either nature observed or experimented with, from examination of a text or other work of art. Indeed, one of my colleagues only half joked that he rather resented getting to the portion of an article in a literature journal where he was expected to say a word or two about a story or poem, or a play, film, or whatever: "Texts get in the way of my Theorizing." And in one case, I pointed out a place in an excellent feminist discussion of Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987) where the author could cite a shot in the movie that would cinch her point. She thanked me politely and ignored the suggestion: she did what she wanted to do — what I saw as a philosophical disquisition — without needing much about what audiences would see and hear in a theater.

            (She was talking about masculinity in RoboCop. There's a shot in that film where a criminal kicks Robo in the crotch, and the criminal goes down in pain. "Hey, what a man that Robo is! He's got balls of …. Oh …." Indeed. RoboCop only has a crotch: no testicles, no penis. What you see is what he's got: Robo has the biggest, baddest gun on the firing range, and, the ultimate macho body, but he's a eunuch: a fighter only, not a lover. The same point is made in Jim Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's The Terminator [1984], except more so: there the ultimate Schwarzeneggerian fighting-machine, macho-man isn't a man at all, just the literal ultimate fighting-machine of a Terminator hunter/killer-robot.)

            The times have probably changed already; intellectual fashions move more slowly than fashions in, say, clothes or hair styles, but, by definition, all fashions change — and Theory had had a long run by the time I retired in 2006. Plus, I only encountered a small sample of philosophers, and, more important, the "philosophically-inflected" in my fields were subject to some degree of disdain from a fair number of their philosophy-department colleagues.

            Still, most of us most of the time when we're trying to think seriously are still pretty vulgar empiricists: we like to check our ideas against the world as it can be directly perceived or at least encountered through lab instruments. For most of my professional career, there were robust and influential schools of thought that were pretty solidly sure facts were a myth — and that relying overmuch on evidence was no way to think.

            You may find yourself dealing with students brought up in those schools and now out in the world. For several recent academic generations, the Philosophy Department may've been very small, but Philosophy reigned in many of the big humanities departments. And for good and for ill, such semi-pro philosophers can be really, really different. 

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