Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Armchair Sociology of the Profession IV: Splintered Fields

(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?


Mariana Soffer said...

It might be intresting to give scholarships to people that join fields, (the ones that are not necesarily excluyent, which are many), for example you can extend one philosopher's work with another's work, and create something new.

Badda Being said...

Thus Manuel produces yet another provocative mind-jab. Somewhat tangentially to the subject (being that I am neither a philosopher nor an academic of any sort and therefore not qualified to speak on it directly) but also somewhat related to the idea of cross-fertilization between fractures, I wonder how common it is for graduate students to include among their advisors members of the faculty whose specializations are (seemingly or initially) remote from the thesis under consideration, and whether such inclusions are even recommended with the expectation of some form of special chemistry of ideas. I mean, might someone like Peter Graham ever be found on the committee of someone who is writing on, say, Paul Ricoeur? Actually, I think that would make for an interesting combination, knowing what I know of both of their works. But let's say one had not even a hunch of the aleatory possibilities lurking between these two figures, but foresaw only extra work in store in order to contrive some modicum of relevance on Graham's part to the project at hand. Seems risky. But really, how common is it for philosophers to take such risks?

Badda Being said...

(Obviously I don't know very much about how thesis committees work. Someone please educate me.)

Neil said...

Anywhere there is an empirically oriented side, I think you're seeing fracturing. I don't want to name names, but one example occurs to me. Someone working in, broadly mind (and who publishes in top five journals as measured by Leiter) recently was surprised that I described another person who publishes in some of the same journals as a philosopher of mind. The difference is that the first one employs a strictly armchair methodology and the second is as likely to read J. Neuroscience as J. Phil. I think you see this in ethics, too: a lot of moral philosophers think it is deeply misguided to think that empirical psychology could help us to understand ethics.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

One area where I think you see a splintering of the sort Neil mentions is philosophy of perception. On the one side are people who talk about disjunctivism, direct realism, etc.; on the other are people who talk about empirical work on embodied cognition, inattentional blindness, etc. Of course there are a few people who straddle the divide and others who maintain interest in both sides even if they publish work mainly of one sort. Contrary to what seems implied by Neil's remark, my impression (of this divide in particular) is that the apriorists keep a more careful eye on, and evince more respect for, the empirically-driven philosophers of perception than the other way around.

Badda Being said...

And I wonder if some fields might be split between an activist contingent and those who are content to stay planted in their armchairs, and if so, whether this might count as the kind of fracture you have in mind. I keep thinking of Butler versus Nussbaum in feminist philosophy, but actually their differences might lie more in the kind of activism they advocate, which they or may not participate in directly, I don't know. How might we pitch that distinction? Foucaultian versus human rights feminism? But it seems to me that this type runs through other fields as well -- race theory, political theory, etc.

Brad C said...

Along the lines of your davidson/anscombe example, there seems to be at least two different people to read as a response to British empiricists like Ayer: Sellars vs. Austin?

Manuel Vargas said...

Mariana- Well, since most incoming graduate students aren't yet in a position to definitively know what they are going to write about, this might be a bit hard. And, at the dissertation stage it seems like the wrong incentive to drive how people go about dissertating. That said, there is some sense in which people who join fields typically stand to benefit a great deal: they can generate whole new fields of research, or at least, they get citations from more folks. My own sense, though, is that there is already a fair amount of people pursuing projects that integrate otherwise unintegrated fields. It is one very natural way to have something "new" to say in a dissertation.

Badda- I'm going to have cards made up that describe my occupation as "provocative mind-jabber." Thanks for that! I'm not sure how common it is to have people with committees diverse in the way you suggested. I know it happens (and indeed, if one can pull it off there can be benefits to be gained, as I noted above in my reply to Mariana), but I don't know how often this actually occurs. Partly it will depend on the constitution of the local department, the ethos of department and whether committee members are willing to work together, and whether the student has a project that grabs faculty members with otherwise disconnected interests. The upside can be big if everyone is impressed with the work (being weird and very good is usually a plus). The downsides can be huge if no one is impressed, because hiring committees will think you are both weird and not very good at the stuff that matters to them.

Manuel Vargas said...

Neil- yeah, I think the empirical work cleavage is pretty strong across various fields right now, but I suspect that there are subfields where the situation looks more like Eric describes. Just not enough!

Badda- the activist/theorist division is an interesting one. I think there is something like this in the fields you mention, but there are complicated cases (like Peter Singer) where the work is sometimes driven by just one concern (whether activist or theorist) and other works where the concerns seem mixed. So, at least in many cases, I suspect what you have going on is less splintering of the sort I had in mind and more work that is done under a variety of regulative ideals.

Brad C- I'm terribly unsophisticated at mid-century responses to positivism, so I can't say. Is your sense that people that operate out of the Sellarsian camp have trouble conversing with the Austinians? (But didn't the ordinary language folks go away, anyway, with Sellarsians persisting in various ways, especially recently?)

Brad said...

Yeah I am no expert either, but in the US, I think the Austin "common sense" camp persists via Cavell, Travis, and recent Putnam (e.g. in The Threefold Cord).

Badda Being said...

Manuel, I think we can table the activist/theorist distinction, but I would like to push a bit more the distinction between human rights versus power-centered discourses, where it seems to me that the former is more likely to invoke the activist/theorist distinction. An example, again, would be Nussbaum versus Butler, where Nussbaum sees Butler's theoretical constructs as basically ineffectual toward the advancement of human rights, while Butler sees Nussbaum's humanitarian project as just another power trip. Yet they both see themselves as feminists. On the other hand, I'm not sure whether it's more common to situate them both within feminist field or to parse them between the fields of law and rhetoric or, more broadly -- or loosely -- between the analytic and continental, er, styles?

Anonymous said...

One way to tell what side of a divide you're on (for some fields): do you take McDowell seriously? I'm in a department where a few faculty will have multiple McDowell articles on a syllabus, while other faculty won't touch him.

Mariana Soffer said...

Manuel Vargas:
Txs for the answer manuel vargas, do you have a blog of you own. friendfeed?twine?
So I can check your stuff that It sounds intresting to me
Take care

Manuel Vargas said...

Badda- I don't have a strong sense of how the profession(s) at large think of Nussbaum and Butler. I still think of Nussbaum as a historian of philosophy who works on some issues in contemporary political philosophy. And I think of Butler as a gender theorist. Both are feminists, of course, but I don't think of that as their primary disciplinary categories, though in both cases it is obviously a crucial part of their projects. Of course, I can think about their work through the lens of gender, and when I do so I think the dueling characterizations of each other's work seems plausible to me.

Anonymous- Yeah, McDowell is definitely one of those figures who some folks always read and other folks never read him. At least a decade or so ago, though, I think it would have been rare to have many metaethics classes where his work wouldn't have been taught. Now, though, I can't say.

Mariana- Thanks for the kind words. I don't have my own blog or any place for regular postings. I do sometimes participate at the Garden of Forking Paths, but that stuff tends to be pretty specific to the blog's subject matter (philosophy of action). I've been having fun here at Eric's blog in part because he's okayed me posting about stuff I'd never try to post at the Garden of Forking Paths. At some point maybe I'll start or join a blog on more general issues but I don't think I could sustain posting on a regular basis by myself— it is too much work!