In the past we have not had guests posts at UP@NIGHT. I would like to change this. We welcome guest posts. We begin with comments by Bill Martin (DePaul University) regarding graduate school and the state of the profession. A few introductory words before turning to Bill’s remarks:
Professors of philosophy are often faced with bright-eyed undergraduates asking: where should I apply to graduate school in philosophy (and is it a good idea)? In most cases, no simple answer. To complicate matters, word has spread among astute undergrads that their “parents” may be on different sides of an earthshaking dispute—the analytic/continental divide—and there is serious controversy about something called the Philosophical Gourmet Report. I certainly hope that this dinosaur of a divide can be put to rest, as soon as possible, especially for the sake of future generations.
Readers of UP@NIGHT will have differing views on Bill’s assessment of the current situation in philosophy. I invite readers to weigh in, either in the comments or in a guest post, perhaps using Bill’s remarks as a point of departure. It’s worth noting that although Bill is associated with the continental tradition, he tells us that he has been an active reader of analytic philosophy for years. We need to hear more about how philosophers actually engage different traditions, as opposed to the rhetoric surrounding them. This too would be a good thing for future generations.
The background for Bill’s comments: He was recently interviewed by his alma mater, Furman University. One of the questions that he received: What advice would you give to a Furman philosophy major? Although not directly a question about graduate school, Bill took the opportunity to address issues that the profession faces and how they might relate to majors and graduate studies. (The complete interview can be found here.)
BM: It was probably never such an easy thing to major in philosophy; I would imagine that, now, it is harder than ever. So, first, I just offer a salute to all the philosophy majors.
There is a bit of a battle going on in academic philosophy as I write this, between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy, though on the side of the latter is a good deal of other kinds of philosophy that are not specifically “analytic” (for example, American philosophy, Catholic philosophy, Asian philosophy, etc., to say nothing of feminist, critical race, and Marxist philosophy). At the same time, the humanities in general are under attack, and philosophy probably as much as any of the humanities, for being quite “useless” in terms of the narrowly pragmatic imperatives of our society. The analytic/continental thing has been going on for many years, of course, but it seems to be heating up at the moment over some things said in the last couple of years by Brian Leiter–the founder and main force behind the “Philosophy Gourmet Report” (an informal rating system for philosophy programs)–in the blogosphere and on the interwebs. The “Gourmet Report” has a good deal of influence on undergraduate students who are looking for graduate programs. I don’t know that undergraduates need to get wrapped up in the issues around the “PGR” so much, but it is an interesting case of the functioning of the “institutions of philosophy,” in sociological terms, and in terms of what Michel Foucault called the matrix of “power/knowledge”–a good deal of which seems to run counter to what one would hope is the true spirit of philosophical inquiry.
One of the things I benefited from a great deal when I was a philosophy major at Furman, again in the time when there were only three professors in the department, was a more pluralistic approach to the history of philosophy and to more recent philosophy, and the avoidance of what could be called a “narrowly-sectarian approach.” I’m very grateful for that, and my sense is that this broad and non-sectarian approach remains the norm in the Furman department. If anything, I imagine that things are even better now, because the department is so much larger and so many other approaches are included.
If I may, I’d like to say something about Brian Leiter and the PGR, since it potentially bears on current Furman students as they investigate graduate school. In general Prof. Leiter (who, at present, is in the Law faculty at the University of Chicago) and the PGR tends to reinforce the power and prestige of the already powerful and prestigious programs. Now, of course, it is not for nothing that Harvard or Princeton or Stanford, etc., are what they are, but they also have interests in holding or advancing their positions that go beyond, to say this again, the pure spirit of philosophical and intellectual inquiry. That is a reality that one has to deal with, and that some of us hope to address, but the question is whether one can deal with this reality without selling one’s soul to it. I don’t always disagree with what Brian Leiter says about certain kinds of continental philosophy, but I have some issues with his position that, again, might be worth thinking about for undergraduate philosophy majors who are thinking about graduate school. There are certainly forms of continental philosophy that go perhaps too far from having some kind of foundation in an argumentative structure. But if Heidegger and Derrida go too far, in Leiter’s view, then why not Wittgenstein? Where is the line, exactly? And why can’t at least some of the work that is supposedly on the other side of the line be considered something like “meta-logic,” even if with a hermeneutic spin? At the same time, isn’t there some analytic philosophy that is something like the equal and opposite reaction to what might in fact be truly flaky continental philosophy? Basically I mean analytic philosophy that is still stuck in a very narrow, and often trivial, neo-positivist paradigm. And doesn’t this kind of philosophy get promoted quite a bit in analytic circles, seemingly more because of its pedigree than anything else? As far as I can tell, not that I spend all that much time checking up on Brian Leiter, he doesn’t seem to expend nearly the effort denouncing the analytic side of this equation as he does the continental side. Most of the analytic people at elite schools don’t seem to see this issue, either, and meanwhile they are silent while Leiter trashes the more continentally-oriented schools (mine among them). Also, under the idea that at least some philosophy ought to be creative and experimental and even a bit wild, in other words that there might be good reasons to take risks in philosophy, then might not some of the philosophy done in this spirit turn out to be “fraudulent”?
This to me is again sort of a “Wittgenstein” point. In analytic philosophy, sometimes it is very hard to distinguish between a truly important argument and mere cleverness, perhaps akin to being good at the Rubik’s Cube. In continental philosophy sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a truly important argument, or perhaps a truly illuminating reading or description of a situation, and mere literary artifice. Sometimes in either case the very person making the argument doesn’t know the difference, he or she doesn’t know if they are simply getting carried away with some logical or literary facility or if they are in fact taking what might be called a creative philosophical risk. (I had an essay published a few years ago in a book on chess and philosophy where I argued for undecidability in the case of a risky chess move, even on the part of the person making the move and even when the outcome is the one desired.) Should we encourage “philosophical risk,” especially in going into places “where no philosopher has gone before,” even if the outcome might turn out to be flaky? I don’t see where this question is so different from the “equal and opposite” one about how what analytic philosophers call “rigor” (how this fits with the versions of analytic philosophy that are supposedly based in “intuition,” I’ve never understood) can lead to triviality and a refusal to consider questions of the human condition, or rather to denounce such questions as non-philosophical. And I don’t see where the institutions of analytic philosophy have shown a basis for letting this distinction, and judgments of flakiness, rest with one person–except insomuch as this situation serves their material interests.
I like a lot of analytic philosophy, I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to study a good bit of it in graduate school, especially some of the major figures of analytic metaphysics and epistemology. I continue to have warm feelings toward, and to learn from, the work of the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein, Quine, Michael Dummett, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, and, especially Donald Davidson. (Davidson is never far away from any philosophical problem that I am trying to think through.) To me, the whole divide between analytic and continental philosophy is no harder and no easier to bridge than the gap (or gaps) between the “hard” sciences and the humanities, what C.P. Snow called “the two cultures.” Science is great, which goes without saying, so if we have some philosophy that is modeled on science, that could be great too. The humanities and literature and the arts are great, too–which, unfortunately, does need saying these days–so, if we have some philosophy modeled on literature and the other arts, and on the writing of history, and on the study of ideas in religion, and so on, that could be great as well. How these “two philosophical cultures” communicate with each other is a difficult question, though I would suggest that Richard Rorty provides one model (developed in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, among other of his works, and encapsulated in the title of one of his essays, “Philosophy as a kind of writing”), and Alain Badiou another, one predicated upon Truth and the idea of “conditions of philosophy.” I’m sure there are other models, but it might be fruitful to compare these two, especially if this were done in a constructive spirit. None of this means we shouldn’t be critical and make judgments, however. Some stuff truly is either flaky or just plain trivial. But there’s no getting beyond the role that institutions and places of power and privilege play in this discussion.
None of this is meant to speak to what undergraduates ought to be doing, I think the best thing for undergraduates is to get a good grounding in the Western canon, along with a good selection of figures and themes that are not necessarily in the core of this canon, and a good selection of contemporary work in both the analytic and continental traditions. Again, it looks like the Furman department is doing a great job in just this way. So, as Jacques Lacan said (and as Badiou likes to repeat) as an ethical injunction, Keep going! All that matters of this for undergraduate philosophy majors who are considering graduate school is to be mindful of the fact that what we used to call “the doing of philosophy” (and of course the teaching of philosophy) is done in institutional settings.
At the same time, and perhaps this is what I would most like to say, the fact that career prospects for academic positions are so tenuous at this moment, and are likely to be for some time to come, could also be taken as a moment of great freedom. Anyone so brave at this moment to follow the path of studying and working in philosophy (I mean “doing philosophy”) will have to do so out of a passion for philosophy and philosophical questions. And anyone who does feel such as passion should, I think, follow one’s heart, and work hard, study hard, think hard (which includes taking a break and clearing one’s mind from time to time, just as good athletic activity includes proper rest). Set yourself the goal of doing good things and important things. Feel both proud and humbled to be a part of a tradition that goes back for millennia.
Perhaps if more students will approach philosophy in this way, some of the sillier forms of institutional politics will start to clear away. Obviously, we will also need some administrators who are mindful of the value of the humanities and of philosophy and who will back that up with institutional support. In our own capacity as philosophers, though, at least let us go forward with a sense of mission and hope that others will see the importance of this. As a philosophy major, even if you do not choose to attempt an academic career, or if you do attempt such a career but do not obtain a position in academia, I think you will be alright, as alright as anyone might be in the uncertain times that are already here and that will most likely continue for a good while. If you are working to be a philosopher, or perhaps something like a “philosophical person,” you will most likely want to be ever-more literate, and to be well-informed about what is going on in the world and in the sciences and in culture (and different cultures). In intellectual terms, what else would one want to be? If you pursue these things, I think you will find good things to do in the world.