Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

THERE IS LIT CRIT, AND THEN THERE IS BULLSHIT

Perhaps responding to the recent discussion on this blog of Alan Sokal and Stanley Fish, a reader alerted me to an epic put down of Fish by Russell Jacoby, which can be found here.  [I pause to await the plaudits of the cloud for my success in embedding a link in my blog.  If I live long enough, I may make it all the way into the twenty-first  century.]  Then today, I came upon this piece by Fish in the NY TIMES.  [Twice in one paragraph!]  As you will see if you read it, it is, for the most part, a gracefully written defense of the Humanities against the new emphasis on measurable educational outcomes and on-line education.

Buried in the middle of Fish's highly critical discussion of on-line education, keyed to some writings of William Bowen and Derek Bok, there appear these sentences:

"Years ago when the philosopher John Searle returned from a conference on Transformational Grammar, I asked him what had gone on. “They can’t get from the physics to the semantics,” he replied. Getting from the physics to the semantics — from counting things to knowing anything deeply important about them — is what the new digital techniques (like the old computational linguistics) have not yet been able to do, and neither Bowen nor Bok offer any argument, save for the argument of faith, that what Bowen calls “nirvana” will ever arrive."

As I read these lines, it suddenly became clear to me that Fish did not have the slightest idea what he was talking about.  It was Alan Sokal all over again.  Searle had offered a precise, pointed, and perfectly reasonable critique of the work at the conference, and Fish's gloss on that critique interpreted him as expressing a longing for the ineffable over the scientific.  I would imagine that Fish hadn't a clue what the words "syntax" and "semantics" actually mean in Linguistics, nor did he really understand the debate that Searle had been having within the field of Philosophy of Language.  Fish obviously just thought it was a catchy tagline to use in his animadversions against online education [which, by the way, I am sympathetic to.]

The truth is, Fish is not able to offer a reasoned defense of the Humanities that will withstand criticism.  With friends like that, the Humanities have no need of enemies.

6 comments:

Chris said...

At the university where I am a TA at, we just implemented a measurement program to justify philosophy. At the end of each semester, we are to take the students final paper and measure on a scale of 1-3, their ability to have critical reflexive thoughts. Since even the non humanities say critical thinking is a necessary component of college education, and important for the "real world", this is or saving grace/justification for existence.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The interesting thing would be to have the final papers blind measured by non-philosophers while the philosophers blind-measure papers by students in other more "practical" disciplines. I bet the philosophy students would score high.

You could even have all the students given the same set of questions to respond to, to even it off.

This is a fight to the death!

Chris said...

Well, I've only been TAing for 2 semesters (this is my third), but my general goal is just to break the incoming students out of their pure narcissism when it comes to reflexivity.

Studies show that in the industrialized world Americans often rank toward the bottom on education, and the very top on confidence.

Chris said...

Forgot to mention, I do think the philosophy BAs and MAs would outscore other departments hands down. But this evaluation is for first year, first semester, intro to philosophy students. It takes more than a semester to develop real critical thinking.

Magpie said...

Prof.

I think I can feel your frustration:

"I would imagine that Fish hadn't a clue what the words "syntax" and "semantics" actually mean in Linguistics, nor did he really understand the debate that Searle had been having within the field of Philosophy of Language. Fish obviously just thought it was a catchy tagline to use in his animadversions against online education [which, by the way, I am sympathetic to.]"

I can offer another example: this guy (who claims to be a young philosopher) is lambasting supply and demand analysis (which I am also sympathetic to):

"Actually there’s two ways of interpreting this graph [i.e supply and demand figure]. One way is what I call the 'teleological' interpretation. The teleological interpretation is essentially that the curves are set in stone and that the market will always tend in this direction. The outcome then is pre-determined and thus the graph contains ex-ante predictive power: it can tell you what will happen in a market."

Supply and demand, I am sure, can be criticized on many grounds. But on the grounds of it being teleological?


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good grief! Find that young man a real job!