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Stanford Report, February 3, 1999

Vitality, impurity and the war for philosophy's soul


Must the discipline of philosophy remain "pure" in order to survive? No, it doesn't, according to at least two speakers at a two-day symposium Jan. 29-30 titled "Philosophy and the Other Humanities." In fact, while Richard Rorty, professor of comparative literature at Stanford, and Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric at the University of California-Berkeley, acknowledge the value of philosophy as a quest for objective knowledge, both insist that a more comprehensive view of the discipline is a good thing.

Rorty and Butler were the first to take the podium Jan. 29 at the second symposium of a three-part series called "The Shape of the Humanities," a yearlong examination sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center. The symposia are designed to coincide with the yearlong 50th anniversary celebration of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

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Rorty, who assumed a five-year teaching post last fall, devoted his remarks to the differences between analytic philosophy and the more humanistic or historical approach. "The split between analytic and non-analytic philosophy is tediously familiar to all of us who teach philosophy. But references to this split often puzzle people in other disciplines, who have no idea what the fuss is about," said Rorty, describing analytic philosophy as an attempt to "professionalize the discipline by making it more scientific."

The schism dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, when analytic philosophy took over at American universities, Rorty said. Before then, anglophone philosophy departments -- those in the United States, Britain and Scandinavia -- and non-anglophone schools -- in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and other European countries -- both focused on the study of philosophy from a historical perspective. "Anybody who taught philosophy was expected to be able to talk about the relative merits of Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Spinoza, Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche and Mill," Rorty said, adding that scholars also were expected to take part in the journal debates of the times.

During the first half of the century there was little doubt that philosophy was one of the humanities, Rorty said. Graduate students "read canonical texts, developed views about their relative merits and tried to stitch them together in interesting new patterns. Up through the forties, university teachers of literature and history usually had some idea of the interests and views of their colleagues in the philosophy department, and conversely. This had ceased to be the case by 1965," he said.

As a graduate student in the early 1950s, Rorty recalled that some of his professors expected him to examine the contributions of the great philosophers, while others insisted that he familiarize himself with journal articles, many of which tested scientific theories. By the time he earned his degree and completed his military service in 1958, it was clear that in order to be an attractive candidate on the job market, one needed a firm grounding in the more scientific approach.

"Looking like a promising young philosopher at Princeton, where I got a job in 1961, was almost exclusively a matter of talking the new talk -- of keeping up with the current journals and getting on the right preprint circuits. For we who were bucking for tenure, there was little percentage in being historically minded," he said.

By 1980 the gap between anglophone departments like those at Harvard and Princeton and the non-anglophone departments had grown wide. Princeton even abolished its foreign language requirement for graduate students in philosophy. Although he has not taught in a philosophy department since 1982, Rorty said he suspects that the focus on the scientific approach persists. In analytic philosophy departments, historical studies are considered marginal and "wimpy" -- not part of the "hard core" of the discipline -- he said. These departments place more value on work that offers hope of "achieving definitive, quasi-scientific results -- of knowledge as opposed to mere opinion," he said. "You will get more points in my profession for having a novel argument relevant to these topics than, for example, you would get from publishing a comprehensive history of moral philosophy in Europe from Montaigne to Kant."

Rorty said that because he tends to dissolve philosophical puzzles rather than solve them he is often described as an "end-of-philosophy philosopher," a characterization he disputes. "Philosophy cannot possibly end unless cultural change ends, and, like everyone else, I hope that such change will continue. There will always be people trying to put the old and the new together."

What Rorty would like to see is an end to the effort to confine philosophy to a scientific definition. Analytic philosophy departments do not provide graduate students with a set of methods or tools, he said; instead, they familiarize students with the various "language-games" played by the faculty of that department. He characterized the contention by analytic philosophers that their greater professionalism has helped them achieve greater clarity and rigor than their predecessors as "pathetic," adding that "when a discipline is driven to defend itself by appeal to form rather than content, one may begin to wonder whether it has the self-confidence it claims to have."

Rorty concluded his remarks, however, by acknowledging the value of analytic philosophy. "For all its pseudo-scientistic pretensions, and despite the countless dead ends it has backed itself into, twentieth-century analytic philosophy will also have transformative effects, and so will put our descendants in its debt. It may not have solved any interesting puzzles, but it will have earned itself an important place in the history of ideas. That is more than many past philosophical movements have managed to do," he said.

In her presentation, Butler also lamented the tendency for philosophy departments to isolate themselves from other disciplines in the humanities. The result is that philosophy has "doubled itself," she said. "When standards of clarity become part of a hermetic discipline, they no longer become communicable, and what one gets as a result is, paradoxically, a non-communicable clarity."

She talked about her own experiences teaching feminist philosophy at Yale, much to the consternation of the purists. "It was not a question of whether I was teaching bad philosophy or was not teaching philosophy well, but whether my classes were philosophy at all," Butler said.

She cited as another example Harvard's Cornel West, a philosopher by training, who teaches in the divinity school and in Afro-American studies. She said he uses utopian pragmatism to address race issues. "Does it say something about the limitations of institutional philosophy that he finds no home there?" she asked. "In some ways, his work shows the continuing relevance of the tradition of American pragmatism for contemporary struggles for racial equality and dignity. Is it the transposition of that tradition onto the context of race relations that renders the philosophical dimension of that work impure?"

Butler added that almost every feminist philosopher she knows is no longer working in a philosophy department, but in other areas such as law, political science, education, comparative literature and English. Although philosophical purists may view this as "scandalous," Butler sees it as a hopeful development. "Indeed, I would suggest that as philosophy has lost its purity, it has accordingly gained its vitality throughout the humanities," she said.

Other symposium speakers included Stanford philosophy Professors John Perry, Lanier Anderson and Kenneth Taylor; French and Italian Professors Robert Harrison and Hans Gumbrecht, who also teaches comparative literature; and law Professor Thomas Grey. Speakers from other institutions included Laurence Dickey, a professor of history from the University of Wisconsin; Allen Wood, a Yale philosophy professor; and Princeton professors John Cooper, philosophy, and Josiah Ober, classics. The next symposium, titled "Have the Humanistic Disciplines Collapsed?" is scheduled for April 23-24. SR