Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an interesting interview (for the moment at least available online to non-subscribers) with the Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont, whose new book How Do Professors Think examines multidisciplinary peer-review panels and compares the different ways in which the various American academic disciplines understand themselves and what constitutes quality work.
At the end of the interview, Lamont briefly summarizes some of her conclusions, beginning with two disciplines of interest to this blog’s
small exclusive readership:
In history there is a high degree of consensus among scholars about what is good. But it is not based so much on a common theory, or method, or whether people think the discipline is part of the humanities or social sciences. It’s a shared sense of craftsmanship. People care about whether the work is careful. They believe they can identify careful work. And that they can convince others about it. The degree of consensus has varied over the years. In the 1960s, for example, the discipline was polarized politically. But it has found consensus in the practice of scholarship.
Historians believe that contrasts sharply with English literature. As one told me, “The disciplinary center holds.” That sense of consensus makes history proposals and applicants very successful in multidisciplinary competitions like the national fellowship and grant programs.
Philosophy is a problem discipline, and it’s defined as such by program officers. Philosophers do not believe that nonphilosophers are qualified to evaluate their work. Perhaps that comes out of the dominance of analytic philosophy, with its stress on logic and rigor. Philosophers think their discipline is more demanding than other fields. Even its practitioners define the discipline as contentious. They don’t see that as a problem; argument and dispute are the discipline’s defining characteristics.
All that conflict makes it difficult to get consensus on the value of a philosophy proposal — or to convince people from other disciplines of its merits. The panels I studied are multidisciplinary. Nonphilosophers are often frustrated with the philosophers. They often discounted what philosophers had to say as misplaced intellectual superiority.
The Lamont interview has sparked an interesting discussion of philosophers (inside and outside of philosophy departments) and their relationship to their discipline and other disciplines over on Crooked Timber, a site which has always featured a robust philosophy presence among its posters and commentariat.* Much of the discussion focuses on Lamont’s contention that philosophers don’t get along with other scholars and that there is an unusual lack of mutual understanding between philosophy and other disciplines.
I’m always interested in the relationship between intellectual historians and philosophers (and philosophy). Many, if not most of us, spend much of our time reading philosophers from the past. Certainly any intellectual historian has spent a lot of time thinking about philosophy. However the level of actual engagement between contemporary philosophers and U.S. intellectual historians seems rather limited to me. Among the more analytically inclined philosophers, there’s still a strong “history of philosophy, just say ‘no'” strain that makes them disinclined to be interested not only in historical accounts of philosophical thought, but also in older philosophy even taken out of its historical context.**
At last year’s USIH Conference, David Marshall of Kettering University gave an interesting talk on the methodological lessons that intellectual historians might take from the work of the philosopher Robert Brandom. I was struck by how unusual it is to hear an intellectual historian–especially, it must be said, a U.S. intellectual historian–explicitly draw on the work of a contemporary philosopher in this way (my purely anecdotal sense is that European intellectual historians have a more lively interface with contemporary Continental philosophers).
How would you describe the current relationship between U.S. intellectual history as a (sub) discipline and philosophy? Do you find yourself turning to contemporary philosophy in your own work (and do you do so as an object of study or for some other reason)? If you work on philosophy/philosophers, do you share your work with actually existing philosophers? Are they helpful readers?***
* I assume most readers of this blog already read CT. If you don’t, you should. It is an excellent multidisciplinary group academic blog which more often than not features not only interesting posts but also interesting comment threads. You really learn stuff over there.
** Princeton philosopher Gil Harman used to have a sign on his office door that read “History of Philosophy: Just Say ‘No'” It was intended as a protest against philosophers being required to study the history of philosophy. Harman believed that philosophers needn’t study the history of philosophy for the same reason that physicists needn’t study the history of physics: today’s philosophers were often asking different questions and almost by definition had better answers than philosophers from the past. In a 2005 volume entitled Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy, which he coedited with G.A.J. Rogers, Tom Sorrell uses Gil Harman’s sign as a starting point for his reflections on the place of history of philosophy in analytic philosophical practice.
*** Upon reflection, I fear that the conclusion of this post reflects the fact that I’ve spent most of the past two weeks giving and grading exams! Please consider outlining your answers before posting them 😉