Recent Analytic Philosophy II

As I suggested in the last post, by the end of the 80s, there were at least four groups in analytic philosophy. There were the 80s status quo, who were working on the debates and texts central to analytic philosophy at the time, and who seemed content with just that. There were the culture radicals, who were working on the same debates and texts as the 80s status quo, but who sought to change the culture of analytic philosophy, its background habits and norms. There were the outside radicals, who sought to change the debates and texts of analytic philosophy by rejecting the core assumptions and methods of analytic philosophy. And there were the inside radicals, who sought to change the debates and texts but through the methods of analytic philosophy.

If I were to put them in order of influence at the end of the 80s, I would say in descending order: the 80s status quo, the culture radicals, the outside radicals and the inside radicals. Now, 25 years later, the landscape is different: the culture radicals are merging with the inside radicals, the 80s status quo is on the defensive and waning, and the outside radicals are almost out of the game. What happened? How did this change come about?

It helps to see how the 80s status quo come into existence. The analytic philosophers of that generation got their PhDs in the 50s and 60s. The main thing this meant is that they caught the expansion of the American higher educational system; at the time new universities and departments were popping up. This gave the feeling that society valued academic philosophy, and that the debates of the time were perfectly fine in terms of their relation to the public. It also gave the sense that the drastic social changes of the time were perhaps enabled by the expanding academic philosophy; not that the changes were caused directly by academic philosophy, but that, at any rate, they were in lock step with those social changes.

Both of these assumptions were misleading. Academic philosophy was expanding not because somehow society suddenly started appreciating it. It was expanding because, due to economic and political changes and the new influx of students, more universities were needed, and so new philosophy departments were created as well. In fact, this was the time when America as a society actually started paying less attention to academic philosophers. There was no way that a philosophical tradition motivated in part by German emigres could speak to the cultural condition of Americans. The kind of cultural reflection that Dewey sought for philosophy in America, and that even Carnap and Schlick had sought for philosophy when they were in Europe was no more.

Naturally enough therefore, the philosophical debates in academia became disconnected from cultural issues and onto more abstract, and supposedly, universal concerns. In analytic philosophy this was the height of the philosophy as meta-science movement, and so the main debates were between broadly Quineans and Wittgensteinians (setting aside people like Dreben who reconciled the two sides in a particular form of quietism). The sense of getting carried along with the social changes gave the 80s status quo a feeling that nothing more needed to be done as philosophers beyond the debates internal to their discipline.

By the 90s and 00s, this feeling was harder to sustain. For one thing, by now the social euphoria of change in society decreased, and there was the grim reality to face that 30 years after the civil rights movement and feminism, African-Americans and women were still faced with systemic inequality (as Stanley recounts in his book of how he came to awareness in the 90s of the mass incarceration of African-Americans). For another thing, the expansion of American higher education was now in doubt, as conservatives sought to cut back on funding for the humanities. What in the 60s might have seemed like an ever-upward trajectory of academic growth started to seem by the 90s as if the peak had already happened.

This turned more academic philosophers into culture radicals. When one feels that academic philosophy is already under attack it is very hard to push for changing the debates and texts in the tradition. What is more likely is that one becomes more guarded of the status quo. But add to that the feeling that something has to change to create push back against the educational cut backs and to contribute to social justice, and you have the conditions for culture radicalism: the view that the texts and debates don’t have to change, but the culture and norms of academic philosophy have to change.

Thus culture radicalism gave rise to, what I have called here, the veneer of friendship. The 80s status quo weren’t perturbed if academic philosophy was mainly white; they assumed that in time it would all work out. But this optimism was harder to sustain by the 90s, and so culture radicals in analytic philosophy started to exhibit a kind of “we are all in this together, and let’s work to change things” attitude even as the explicit philosophy being done was unchanged.

In the 90s a change of guard was happening in analytic philosophy. I caught this at Cornell when I arrived there in 1995 as an undergraduate. On the one hand, there were the 80s status quo of Shoemaker, Ginet, Boyd, Sturgeon, Irwin, Fine and so on. On the other hand, there were culture radicals like Stanley, Gendler, Szabo, and graduate students Siegel, Wilson, Zimmerman and others. The two groups were talking about the same texts and debates, but there was a change in their mode of being academics. The latter gave a sense that change was on the horizon, that academic philosophy was becoming open to minorities and the under-privileged. That what academic philosophy needed was not a change in its texts or debates, but rather a change in how we talked, acted and generally were as people with each other.

When I went to Harvard in 1999, I caught there something similar. At the time there was still in the air a distinction between what some graduate students called Harvard philosophy and MIT philosophy. This was not so much a difference in ideas and texts (though some of that was present), but it was mainly a sense of the departmental culture. Harvard grad students were still routinely taking more than 10 years to get their PhD, while MIT grad students seemed to be done in 5 or 6 years. Harvard seemed to encourage its students to think big and long, where the thesis was more like an initial magnum opus; MIT accepted the three paper option. Harvard grad students seemed in awe of their professors; MIT grad students seemed to relate to theirs as friends and equals.

At the time I earnestly, and naively, believed that Harvard philosophy was deeper, better. But I couldn’t shake the sense that the culture of the department, when compared to MIT, seemed more conservative, more traditional, had more of the air of the status quo which had grown too contented. There was something tangibly different about even the hallways and common spaces between Harvard and MIT, as if even the modes of interaction, movements, patterns of eye contact, shades of lighting were different in the physical spaces of the two departments.

The culture at Harvard then was behind the times. This changed amazingly in just a few years. Even just between 1999 and 2005, it seemed as if the kind of culture at MIT had become the norm in most “elite” departments, and had even migrated to Harvard. After rarely, if ever, tenuring its own junior faculty, Harvard tenured in a row Heck, Pryor, Simmons, Siegel. There was, at least to me (and I imagine to others) a sense of a new ethos in the department; that change was afoot. It was all to the good, and sorely needed. And yet none of this change was accompanied by any change in the texts or debates. The change seemed to be in how philosophy was done, not in terms necessarily of methodology even, but in terms of its background social habits and patterns.

By this point outside radicals like Rorty, and even old school Wittgensteinians like Cavell and Hacker, seemed passe. Not in the sense that their positions were debated and shown to be wrong. But rather in the sense that their work seemed like a non-starter in times when academic philosophy was financially threatened. At a time when conservatives were seeking to cut back on the humanities, debating whether philosophy is a confusion, or whether analytic philosophy lost its way, seemed institutionally impossible.

While Wittgensteinian or Austinian bemoaning of traditional philosophy seemed profound, or atleast cute, in the 50s, by the 90s it seemed downright self-destructive. A certain kind of self-critical, meta-philosophical debate which was so central to the history of analytic philosophy suddenly seemed supplanted by a peppy, happy sense that of course philosophy is good and fine. The refrain seemed to be: no more dour beating up on each other’s work; let’s embrace every form of philosophy, and realize we are all in it together. It was not made clear how one might be open to every form of philosophy when most traditions were defined in contrast to others. Nonetheless, one could almost hear the caption: hey, the trigger-happy administrators are looking; now everyone drop your scowls and smile! 

Ultimately this was the main difficulty for the culture radicals. Their aim was to change the modes of interaction so that academic philosophy as an institution would become more open and welcoming to everyone. But trying to change the background habits while leaving the texts and debates the same raised a troublesome possibility: that without explicit debate about what philosophy should, or can, be, it can reenforce biases and hierachical structures even while it appears as if all biases and structural advantages had been discarded. In other words, the worry was that culture radicalism might foster not equality as such but only an illusion of equality.

One way this worry came to the surface was through high profile cases of harassment such as those of McGinn and Ludlow. From the perspective of this post, the most relevant feature of those cases is that neither McGinn nor Ludlow are old school in the sense of belonging to, say, the 80s status quo. These were not traditional cases of harassment (assuming they were cases of harrassment).

For instance, McGinn didn’t demand sexual favors because he was higher up on the totem pole. Rather, he saw himself as a culture radical who had moved beyond such habits and could engage with a graduate student as an equal, just as a friend. Hence McGinn’s defense that he had done nothing wrong; as he saw it, these were just two adults engaging just as adults, seemingly outside of any institutional context. The question hangs in the air: Did McGinn in fact change his background habits such that he was completely free of any institutional power differential in the interaction, or did McGinn fall to a kind of illusion that he could be free of such power differential?

The kind of illusion McGinn and Ludlow seemed to have was not something that they on their own could have cultivated. What made their illusion possible was the general illusion fostered by culture radicals that everyone in academic philosophy could engage just as friends, as if just through earnestness and good will, or even a shared interest in philosophy, colleagues could interact as equals. Obviously this doesn’t mean that anyone other than McGinn or Ludlow are responsible for what happened (assuming it did). But it does mean it is misleading to treat them as just rotten apples in the bunch, rather than seeing that their individual illusions were fostered within the context of broader illusions of informality as equality within academic philosophy.

So, what then is the option for culture radicals?

They can’t rest content with culture radicalism, because the tension was too much between changing the background habits while leaving the texts and debates the same. It was a strange mix of radicalism regarding habits but conservatism regarding texts and debates; a combination which could only be reconciled through an illusion of equality. They can’t embrace the 80s status quo, since that doesn’t involve any change, either regarding background habits or content. And they can’t embrace the external radicals, since that is implausible in the current financial climate.

The only option is to merge with the internal radicals. To move beyond trying to only change the background habits to changing the texts and debates as well of analytic philosophy. This is the task of Stanley’s book, and of some of the contemporary philosophers he discusses.

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