(by guest blogger Manuel Vargas)
UCR’s Peter Graham once mentioned to me that if you go to different departments, what you’ll find is that different figures will be really prominent in the local conception of a field. So, all the graduate students at School A read figure Y and all the grad students at School B read figure Z. What it takes a while to realize, he said, was that half of the time mostly the same views are in play, just filtered through whatever figures have local prominence. So, everyone is getting their dose of externalism, anti-realism, or whatever, but filtered through the concerns of whichever figures loom large in local graduate education. (Peter had a nice example of this, but I have since forgotten what it was. Go ask him yourself and see if he remembers what he had in mind.)
That picture seems mostly right to me. In different departments, different figures are more and less likely to be taught, even if there is widespread professional consensus outside the department about which figures are worth teaching and which issues are important. Local variation can be explained away in several ways: partly in terms who faculty members are reading or responding to in their own work at the time, partly in light of the literatures faculty members were trained in, and (without a doubt) whether any of the big cheeses in a field are members of the department in which one is getting trained. In many (most?) fields, the overlap is substantial enough so that if, for example, you study metaphysics at Notre Dame, right out the gate you are going to be able to have fruitful, meaningful conversations with people who study metaphysics at Princeton.
Still, there are cases where there are vast gulfs in the conception of fields, both in terms of what positions are worth serious engagement and in terms of what the assumptions are that are governing inquiry into the field. Some places take Wittgenstein seriously. Others don’t have more than the vaguest idea of who he is. Some places love them some Davidson. Other places haven’t had him on a syllabus in decades.
This year, I’ve been struck by some surprisingly deep fractures in philosophy of action. I’ve sat in on a couple of seminars in philosophy of action at my host institution this year and it has been incredibly fascinating to see how different the conception of the field looks in these courses than it did in my own graduate training, my own teaching, and my own work in related parts of the field. Even though all these accounts are in some sense concerned with agency, the will, and the relationship of agents to actions (that’s why it counts as philosophy of action) it seems to me that the local differences are manifestly not a case of the same basic positions, substantive concerns, and the like being presented through a different constellation of figures. (For those who are wondering, it seems to me less of a Causal Theory vs. non-causalists, and more of a divide between those-who-start-with-Davidson and those-who-start-with-Anscombe, where starting with either does not necessarily entail substantial agreement.)
Lest I be misunderstood, I don’t say any of this by way of criticism of anyone’s conception of their field—please, let those flowers bloom. Indeed, I feel fortunate to have gained a sharper sense of my own philosophical presuppositions as a result of the experience. And, I think we all benefit from a variety of conceptions of a field, from a range of philosophical concerns, and from a broad range of philosophical methods and approaches. (I take it that something like this phenomenon is common enough that at least some departments used to resist incestuous hiring precisely out of a concern for limiting the intellectual vision of their local ecosystem.)
Anyway, what I’m wondering is what other fields have gulfs internal to them that make challenging any substantive discussions across these splintered portions of the field. Maybe Nietzsche scholarship is one instance, with the Frenchified Nietzsche interpreters on one side and the broadly “analytic” Nietzsche scholars on the other side. I imagine that there would be lots of head scratching about how to talk to each other, if (assuming the unlikely) either group had any substantial interest in doing so. But surely there are other instances of a big divide in presuppositions that significantly hinders intelligibility across camps internal to the same subfields.
Any thoughts about good candidates for other deeply fractured fields? I’ve heard suggestions of something similar internal to ethics, with (broadly) sentimentalists on one side and a priorists (rationalists, contractualists, etc.) on the other, but I’m less confident that we’re at a very significant degree of head scratching puzzlement about what the other camp(s) are doing internal to ethics. Any of this going on in phil mind? Epistemology? Political phil? Elsewhere?
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
(by guest blogger Manuel Vargas)