Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Whither The Metaphysicians?

Ross Douthat claims that American philosophy departments are bereft of "metaphysicians and moralists." What? Troy Cross, Shelley Kagan anybody?

After Matt Yglesias called him out, Ross explained that:
I was referencing what I think is the popular understanding of which it refers to a belief in the existence of immaterial beings, properties, etc. Aquinas's God, Plato's forms, Descartes's ghost-in-the-machine all fall into this category. But technically, metaphysics is a much much broader term, referring to "the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value." So one can be a staunchly materialist metaphysician, and indeed, there are many of these throughout academia. What there are not, I believe, are many philosophers in, say, the Platonist or Cartesian traditions, who entertain the possibility of souls, Gods, etc. And if I'm wrong about this -- and I am a layman, so I could be -- I'm more than happy to be corrected.
Err, right. It's sort of true, I suppose, that you're not going to find a ton of Cartesians or Platonists in major philosophy departments ---though you'll find some; the head of the Yale department, Michael Della Rocca, is a follower of Leibniz and Spinoza, and an upholder of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. (If you want to find a Thomist, there are a multiplicity of good Catholic universities.)

Ross seems to consider the lack of (let's just use this shorthand) anti-scientistic speculative metaphysicians to be a serious deficiency. Which is proof enough that he's a layman (sorry, Ross). Not many philosophers continue to believe in a Platonic realm of forms, in ontological hylomorphism, in perduring souls, in either classical or renaissance dualism, in analysis in terms of teleologies, etc., for the very good reason that these theses have fared very poorly on merit alone in the philosophical debates of the last several centuries. To put the matter abruptly: once Hume proved the non-rationality of induction, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Thomism, and the scholastic tradition in general were pretty much dead as general theories of both metaphysics and ethics. Two traditions took their place, the analytic tradition of Britain and America, following in the footsteps of Hume (I count the positivists in this group), and the Continental tradition stemming from Kant, which never really took hold in this country because 1) its interaction with science and math ranged from sloppy to gobsmackingly ignorant (cf. Heidegger attempting to quantify "nothingness" in terms of "noths"); and 2) because a shockingly large number of recent Continental philosophers have turned out to be Nazis.

It's certainly still possible to study classical and medieval philosophy---ask the DSers---and students who find them compelling are free to embrace them. Moreover, even if Ross doesn't know this, the same sorts of questions that Plato posed are still asked in contemporary metaphysics, albeit in highly altered form. As one of my professors put it, the purpose of philosophy remains "to discover the language God used in creating the universe."

But universities and philosophy department are under no obligation to arrive at the same answers that Plato and Aristotle arrived at. And they won't, because Platonism and Aristotelianism are unsatisfactory explanations for mostly everything, uninformed by millenia of scientific advances, and inelegant in terms of jagged theoretical complexity. The deeper issue in play here is just what the purpose of a philosophy department is. If it's the advancement of investigations into knowledge and being, then there's nothing surprising about the dearth of Ross's restricted notion of "metaphysicians" in major programs. If the purpose is the confirmation of pre-existing biases, perhaps say, using education in philosophy instrumentally in order to bolster arguments in favor of theological views, then (and only then) does Ross have a point. I don't want to attribute this crude sort of utilitarianism to Ross per se, but it is certainly the underlying assumption of a lot of the people who complain about the non-dominance of scholasticism in modern philosophy (ahem, Jonathan Berry).

UPDATE: In Matt Yglesias's comments section, Tad Brennan, formerly of Yale, makes the same point I was trying to make, only a lot more succinctly:
Years ago, "physic" was a common word for any kind of medical remedy. If Douthat had written a long piece on the decline of the university, complaining that these days you can't even get physics in a Physics department, would you excuse this ignorance by saying he must have meant old-time remedies? That's about how lame the "moralist in the old-time sense" excuse would be in Douthat's case.


At 3:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

im not sure if your reasons for continental philosophy not catching on in america are meant to be purely speculative description, or are meant to express agreement with the speculated reasons. oh well. this is an argument i guess is not that worth having. But let me just say another possible reason continental philosophy has not caught on is that americans have become poor readers, with little foreign language ability, and zero critical reading skills. The type of analysis required for anglo-american philosophy is absolutely valid and rigorous -- but it is a mode of thought that draws its formal qualities directly from the maths and sciences, hence its relative ease in aligning with those traditions. This is fine. But it means that the humanities, the traditional center of a nation's culture are almost entirely opaque to analytic philosophy (i know you personally have ideas about ameliorating this disjunction, and that's laudable). This estrangement of philosophy from culture is sad given that our culture is almost dead anyway, and we don't have a language to protest that or attempt to revitalize it. In Europe, in spite of or perhaps because of the evil legacy of nazism, philosophers are still to an extent public intellectuals who discuss the direction of their nations. Here, we have philosophers speaking in a language that not even the few artists left can appreciate, and ill-educated, over-capitalized pundits contributing to our spiritual and emotional decay. The american philosopher has bowed out of even attempting to be an intellectual force. In a way, although i know analytics don't want to do this, this retreat into technique is an acquiesensce to state power, mass ignorance, the proliferation of capital, and the devaluation of art.



At 3:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

an addendum -- clearly i was not agreeing with the guy with whom you were disagreeing -- he obiously wouldn't like continentals either. fuck him, the fascist.


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