Saturday, July 26, 2008

"Reactionary Nostalgia"

A colleague recently drew my attention to this 2006 essay by Levitt on Steve Fuller. Levitt assails Fuller for his sympathies with Intelligent Design (ID) and concludes by trying to link social constructivism with the reactionary politics of the advocates of ID:
I want to explore the possibility that their deepest guiding impulses don't derive from an intellectual conversion to social constructivist theory, but rather from a profound and rather frantic discontent with the world-view science forces them to confront. Most of the visitors to this site have accepted that view to a great degree, regarding the knowledge of the natural world that science affords and the consistency of its knowable laws as adequate consolation for the eclipse of a vision of the universe as governed by a divine purpose, moral equality, and ultimate justice ... ... I think that the persistent popularity of the notion that science is a historically contingent social construct, a narrative not necessarily superior to other accounts of the world, a kind of cognitive imperialism devised by the western ruling caste to humble and demoralize subaltern cultures, stems not from the philosophical plausibility of social constructivism as such, but rather from the deep discontent with the death of teleology to which I have alluded.
It would be interesting to try to trace out of this line of thinking more generally, although hopefully with not such a polemical aim. For it seems that much of the resistance to the rise of analytic philosophy in the 1960s also stemmed from the desire to retain a central role for philosophy in spiritual and political arenas. If such a pattern could be uncovered through more sustained historical research, we might finally see how misguided some alternative histories of analytic philosophy, like McCumber's, really are.


Steve Fuller said...

Three points on this post. The first is that Levitt is completely unreliable as to my views, let alone their motivations. The fact that he seems to like to 'criticize' me is best left for him to explain. The second point, and probably more interesting for your purposes, is that there is a book that begins to do a history of what Levitt is gesturing towards, which does say a bit about the rise of analytic philosophy: 'Value Free Science?' by Robert Proctor (Harvard 1990). The third point is that this sense of philosophy's loss of value-orientation is quite compatible with McCumber's thesis about the COld War being responsible for the ascendancy of analytic philosophy in the US. George Reisch's 'How the Cold War transformed the philosophy of science' (Cambridge 2006) is a good bridging text here.

Chris Pincock said...

Thanks for your comment, which has the honor of being the first on this blog! Thanks also for the references -- I am familiar with the Reisch book, but have not gone through the Proctor book. Another recent history of analytic philosophy is Preston's.

On McCumber, I think there is something right about his perception of analytic philosophy in the 1960s as being apolitical, but I do not think he has assembled enough evidence for the links to conservative political attacks on academics.

Steve Fuller said...

One problem I think you'll find in trying to piece together the relevant history is that the people who write about the history of 'American philosophy' -- e.g. Bruce Kucklick and David Hollinger -- tend to be pragmatists who perhaps became historians because they disapproved of the axiological decline within the analytic establishment that professionalised the discipline starting in the 1950s. So you basically have two sorts of disconnected histories: on the one hand, the pragmatists who stop more or less before dealing with the issue you raise and analytic philosophers who do their own history basically by denying that anything has changed, except that standards have been raised. (I mean here the Brian Leiter school that says 'analytic philosophy' is a pejorative for good philosophy simpliciter.) You might find some interesting stuff in Neil Gross's new book on Richard Rorty (Harvard), which focuses on his early career and his own personal attempt to bring the big value issues of his metaphysical training into Princeton's analytic environment.

Steve Fuller said...

Error: Gross's book is published by Chicago. I'm looking at it now.

Chris Pincock said...

I am a bit more optimistic about analytic philosophers eventually being able to write their own history that places it in its broader intellectual context. We can compare the reaction to Sluga's book on Frege in 1980 with the reaction to Soames' books in 2003. While Sluga's contextual history was criticized for being too contextual, Soames' non-contextual history was criticized for being not contextual enough! This has led to some further methodological debates on the history of analytic philosophy that I think are quite useful.

On Leiter, I think his current view is that the analytic/continental distinction no longer exists (see end of review). I am not sure this is true, but there certainly seems to be more engagement with traditionally continental thinkers, like Merleau-Ponty.

Steve Fuller said...

I note from your CV that you’re about 15 years younger than me. I don’t think things have changed as much as I would have expected when people like Rorty, Taylor, and Dreyfus were first bridging the analytic-continental divide now over a quarter-century ago. Opinion leaders like Leiter still call Derrida ‘that charlatan’, and there is still the migration of people to disciplines outside philosophy who are seeking to address ‘big questions’. In this respect, ‘social theory’ has replaced ‘literary theory’ as the favourite escape route.

What has changed is now there is a solid generation of analytically trained people (e.g. Leiter) who have moved into traditionally continental terrain. It’s still hard to say what difference this will make to how the history of analytic – or for that matter 20th century – philosophy is told. Perhaps Leiter will succeed in turning Nietzsche into Hume’s bastard lovechild, just as it was quite popular when I was a graduate student (courtesy of both Rorty and Dreyfus) to make Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein sound like they were speaking the same language. Together these moves might heal the analytic-continental rift by providing a sense of a common history. But I don’t think it will be easy. Even before Rorty and Dreyfus, there were already people trying to put Frege and Husserl back together.

But going back to your original question, if I had to name an analytically trained philosopher who has consistently kept up a substantive concern for values in the recent period, I guess I’d point to Martha Nussbaum, but note her curious career trajectory and the way she chooses to articulate her philosophy – basically as a kind of humanistic commentary.