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The History of Philosophy Is Not Philosophy

June 10th, 2008 · 1 Comment

John Holbo bristles at a paragraph from Stanley Fish on bias and balance in academia:

Even in courses where the materials are politically and ideologically charged, the questions that arise are academic, not political. A classroom discussion of Herbert Marcuse and Leo Strauss, for example, does not (or at least should not) have the goal of determining whether the socialist or the conservative philosopher is right about how the body politic should be organized. Rather, the (academic) goal would be to describe the positions of the two theorists, compare them, note their place in the history of political thought, trace the influences that produced them and chart their own influence on subsequent thinkers in the tradition. And a discussion of this kind could be led and guided by an instructor of any political persuasion whatsoever, and it would make no difference given that the point of the exercise was not to decide a political question but to analyze it.

I think John overreacts a bit, parsing it as an attack on any academic who actually defends a particular position in her published work. The more intuitive way to read this, it seems to me, is simply as advancing the uncontroversial claim that—certainly at the undergraduate level, anyway—a professor’s job is to fairly present competing arguments in their best forms, and not simply foist her own views on impressionable students. Ideally, it should be hard to determine, from the initial presentation of the material, where the instructor’s sympathies lie.

That said, if what Fish is describing is all that goes on in the classroom, then what’s being taught is intellectual history, not philosophy or political theory.  The former is probably a prerequisite for the latter two, but they are not the same. If you want to prepare a student to do philosophy, as opposed to being able to name-check philosophers at cocktail parties, you’re going to have to be prepared to say something about whether Kant’s response to Hume, Stephen’s critique of Mill, and Nozick’s riposte to Rawls are, you know… any good. For that matter, the composition of the curriculum itself, to the extent you’re asking students to think about a philosopher’s arguments rather than simply measure their weight in the great chain of citations, implicitly certifies that they are saying something important or perceptive or (stop your ears, Mr Fish!) true—at any rate, more so than any large number of others who could be covered in the same finite class time.

Certainly there are reasons to teach Marx or Rawls or Nozick even if you think they mostly get it badly wrong, but it seems like a strange exercise to teach students what these titans had to say to or about each other, but not hazard any thoughts about what might make for a stronger or weaker response. Such an approach would arguably fail even as intellectual history, in that it would fail to see the arguments as arguments. On this model, teaching philosophy would look a little like teaching theological interpretation to atheists: They might be able to follow the interplay of arguments as moves within a system, and perhaps even judge their quality by the standards of literary interpretation. But insofar as they reject the fundamental premise of that system, they cannot join the thinkers they study in asking which interpretation is right, in the sense of revealing (say) what divine law really requires.

This is where the analogy breaks down, however. If you reject the premise that Jehovah or Allah exists, you can reasonably claim to be outside the structuring assumptions of Judeo-Christian or Islamic theology, though still studying either system from an external perspective. Philosophy—perhaps too ambitiously?—rejects this kind of restriction on its own domain.  That is, to posit that there is no right answer to the kind of ethical or metaphysical questions traditionally posed by philosophers is not a way of stepping outside philosophy. It is a way of taking a philosophical position. To the extent that Fish is making a claim stronger than the commonsensical one that undergraduate instructors should be “fair and balanced” (to coin a phrase), he’s actually saying that professors should implicitly adopt his particular answer to a central question of philosophy. Which seems like cheating. (Some of you are probably thinking that the same might be said, mutatis mutandis, of the ideal of liberal neutrality I’ve defended here in the past. I don’t think that quite goes across, but will pull a Fermat and defer that discussion, if anyone cares to have it, to another post.)

Tags: General Philosophy



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Ike // Jun 11, 2008 at 10:37 pm

    It might be considered nice – in some quarters at least – for a prof to take a stab at teaching how to think and reason, especially about political economy, philosophy, etc. Logic – with all its limits – deductive, inductive etc etc. Of course, that would make that female French prof’s complaints about her rebellious students who actually had the gall to disagree with her openly seem – hmmm – wrong, wouldn’t it?

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