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Thursday, August 20, 2015


My ruminative post, "Old Men Forget," has elicited two interesting comments of a very different sort, and I should like to respond to each of them in turn.  Here is the first, by Jack Samuel:

"Recently I've come across two different articles in which the author speculates about the effect of McCarthyism on the development of analytic philosophy in the latter half of the 20th century, in particular the hegemony of Rawlsian liberalism in political philosophy and more generally on the ``scientistic'' or ``realist'' pretensions of M&E, language, and mind. As a radical who went on to read Marx, wrote against liberalism and in defense of socialism and anarchism, and eventually left philosophy for Africana Studies, I would be interested in your thoughts on the matter."

This reply to Samuel will combine some story-telling [as you would by now expect of me] with a smidgen of actual DATA  -- real live facts, a rarity on this blog.  Data first:  In 1961, I took up an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago [see, even when I try to cite facts, I have trouble doing it without telling a story.]  One of the many fascinating people I met there was an engaging little man who was a very big deal in the field of Anthropology -- Sol Tax.  Tax had been awarded a grant from the Wenner-Gren foundation [which apparently was the go-to source of money  for anthropologists] to study the political leanings of American academics.  He hired me to make up and send out the actual questionnaires, and then to tabulate the results [these are the DATA.]  The results were fascinating, albeit pretty much what one would have predicted.  The Humanities were more liberal than the Social Sciences, which in turn were more liberal than the Natural Sciences.   Within the Social Sciences, Sociologists were more liberal than Political Scientists.  Within the Natural Scientists, pure Mathematicians were more liberal than experimental Physicists.  The most conservative scientists were the Engineers.  Philosophers, within the Humanities, were pretty liberal.

At about this time, a fascinating series of disciplinary splits were emerging across the Humanities and the Social Sciences, and if you stood back a bit from the detail of the fights, you could see quite striking cross-disciplinary similarities.  In Literary Criticism, the New Criticism, focused on the details of the text, was feuding with older, broader approaches to literature that -- in the eyes of the New Critics -- lacked rigor.  [Fair warning:  this account is subjective and impressionistic, and is offered for what interest it may hold with no claim to scholarly soundness.]  In Sociology, new rigorous studies based on questionnaires carefully tabulated and subjected to multiple regressions feuded with the older scholarly traditions of Weber, Mannheim, Sombart and their American acolytes [such as the famous father of my graduate school apartment mate, Talcott Parsons.]  In Political Science, the split between the new and the old actually led to formal divisions at some universities between Political Science and Political Theory.  In Economics, of course, the mathematicians all but took over the field, although here and there Institutionalists and even Political Economists clung to their Chairs.  And in Philosophy, sure enough, Analytic Philosophy, in its marriage with Mathematical Logic, engaged in a running battle with Metaphysicians, Ontologists, and -- as the sixties turned into the Seventies, Existentialists and Phenomenologists.

Once the Viet Name War was in full flower, and the campuses were erupting in protest, the annual meetings of the several professional associations [The Modern Language Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Political Science Association, and the American Philosophical Association] became battlegrounds on which the national fight over the war was fought.  Motions were introduced condemning the war and supporting students who chose to resist the draft.

The fascinating thing was that in association after association, the methodological split between the old, broader, more humane approach to the discipline and the new rigorous approach paralleled the political division between those attacking the government and those supporting it.  T o put it as simply and formulaically as possible, the loosey-goosy oldtimers were antiwar, and the tight-assed new breed were pro-government.

Except in Philosophy!  The same methodological split could be seen, but people on one side or the other did not line up in any predictable way when it came to the war.  One of the most rigorous of the logicians and analytic philosophers, Hillary Putnam, was even said to have lived for a while in a Maoist commune.

Why this deviation from a national tendency?  I have no idea.  [Notice that this is an old story  in Philosophy.  Plato as a flaming reactionary, ideological speaking, and the Sophists, reviled for two and a half millennia thanks to the bad-mouthing they got in Plato's Dialogues, were actually the4 liberals of ancient Greece, as Eric Havelock demonstrated in his classic work, The Liberal Temper min Greek Politics.  There did not seem to be anything inherently conservative in the methodology of Analytic Philosophy.

This is a very large subject , to which I have in one way or another devoted a great  deal of my life.  I have always conceived myself as an analytic philosopher, if for no other reason because I was introduced to philosophy as a sixteen year old Freshman by Willard Van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman.  My lifetime goal, starting with my first book on the Critique of Pure Reason, has been to demonstrate that the deepest and most complex insights of thinkers like Kant and Marx can be expounded with a blinding clarity that achieves total rigor while losing not a smidgeon of the depth of those insights.  I view the work of so-called Analytic Marxists like Gerald Cohen and Jan Elster as failed attempts to do something of that sort, in which surface neatness of ideas is mistaken for genuine rigor of reasoning.

As for Rawls, that is another matter, on which I have written an article, a book, and too many blog posts.

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