U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (12/17/2009)

1. What Today’s Philosophers Think: Although I understand some of the questions given here by The PhilPapers Surveys, another subset are beyond me—at least as of today. The authors of the quiz concede that they framed many of the questions within the analytic tradition, and my strengths (the few I possess) do not lie in the history of that era, or in its terminology, so my ignorance should not have surprised me. Still, I’m intrigued by what I do know of the issues. The demographics portion of the survey included a question (at the bottom) about the non-living philosophers with which today’s group identified. Notice Foucault garnered only 11 votes, and Adorno only 6. I was shocked to see Hume at the top, as well as Aristotle—one of my favorites—still holding at #2. My other favorite is Aquinas, who came in at #24 with 69 votes. Dewey, Sellars, and Peirce came in at 29, 30, and 31 with 31, 30, and 28 votes, respectively. James entered at 34 with 22 votes. Based on my more recent, less historical observations of Catholic thought and the analytical framework of the questions, I’m somewhat surprised to see neither this guy nor this movement on the lists. I figured one or the other would get the 5 minimum nods to be counted.

2. Livingston At HNN: Here’s a partial reprise of James Livingston’s USIH address, which is also an excerpt from his new book, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century. And here’s his new blog address. There he takes on the criticisms of Eric Alterman given during the conference, and reveals—at the end of the post—that he told a (white) lie to Alterman and the rest of us during Q&A.

3. Culture Wars at “The Great Books College of Chicago”: As an observer and student of trends in the history of the great books idea, I can’t resist bringing to your attention a story out of Chicago. The gist is this: Some faculty and and students at Shimer College are worried that the administration, headed by President Thomas K. Lindsay, is engineering a conservative take over of the institution. A bit of background is necessary. Shimer began as a small liberal arts college in Illinois, originally located in Mount Carroll, that took on a great books curriculum in the 1950s. That curriculum derived from the thinking of Robert Maynard Hutchins, former University of Chicago president, and probably Mortimer J. Adler, Hutchins’s friend and intellectual advisor. The college’s great books list originally looked a lot like the one comprising Britannica’s 1952 Great Books set, but evolved to something more liberal and inclusive as time passed. With regard to its staff, faculty, and students, Shimer became known, especially in the 1970s, for its liberal social and cultural atmosphere. This was evident not just in behavior (which hearsay has probably amplified) during the “Me Decade,” but also—and more importantly—in Shimer’s radically democratic shared governance scheme, the “Assembly,” discussed in the first link above. While some comments to the article express dismay at the culture wars overlay in the piece, saying this is an administrative issue only, there does appear to be a right-ward trend in relation to new Board of Trustees members. This weblog is documenting student, faculty, and staff resistance to the changes. There’s a lot to say about this story, but my biggest surprise is that this political-social tug-of-war is only just now hitting Shimer. I’m shocked it didn’t happen in the 1980s or 1990s, well before its move to Chicago.

4. The Great Books College of C.S. Lewis: Thanks to John Fea, I have learned that a C.S. Lewis-inspired, ecumenically Christian college is opening in Northfield, MA. The curriculum is, of course, to be based on the great books idea. John didn’t say which version of the great books idea they’d be utilizing, but I can imagine a Britannica connection. I’d have to explore their website to learn more. I’ll wait on that project, however, until they actually open and host a first class.

5. So you read the Encyclopedia Britannica?: Continuing the great books/Britannica subtheme of today’s entries, A.J. Jacobs reflects on the proportion of things-remembered to things-learned after having read the Encyclopedia Britannica near the beginning of this decade. He recorded much of that endeavor in his 2004 book, The Know-It-All. Two parts from the Youtube clip caught my attention. Jacobs emphatically declares that he’s forgotten “a huge amount” right off the bat– about 97-98 percent he thinks. But he also reflects, around the 55 second mark, on the fact that he’s gained a deeper, more useful-than-trivia kind of knowledge from that reading. For instance, he cited a justified, affirming optimism about humanity’s ability to adapt and grow (my words) that has resulted from his survey of the accomplishments of human civilization.

6. Midsouth Philosophy Conference: I bring this to your attention because of the openness of the call—meaning historians of the Lovejovian variety might be welcome: “The thirty-fourth annual Midsouth Philosophy Conference is scheduled for Friday afternoon and Saturday, March 5-6, at The University of Memphis. Papers in any area are welcome. There will be a $25 registration fee, payable by cash or check at the conference (but not by credit or debit card). Alastair Norcross (University of Colorado at Boulder) will deliver the keynote address.”

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim: Thank you for bringing this very interesting poll to my attention. To address first your point about the absence of Haldane, it is worth noting that G. E. M. Anscombe is ranked relatively high up on the list, just two spots below Aquinas. Although I have little familiarity with analytical Thomism except through the writings of Aladair MacIntyre (who is also conspicuously absent), my understanding is that Anscombe was like Haldane one of the founders of this tradition in Anglo-American philosophy. Perhaps Haldane’s absence is attributable to the fact that only 8 out of 3226 respondants listed Thomism as their primary philosophical tradition.

    Of greater interest to me is the extraordinary skew towards analytical philosophy in the poll, and the implications of this fact for the possibility of meaningful dialogue between contemporary philosophers and intellectual historians. Unfortunately, the results of the poll suggest that the possibility of such a dialogue remains unlikely. Generally speaking, American intellectual historians seem as little interested in analytical philosophy as the majority of contemporary philosophers are in historicism and historical analysis. Hence the surprisingly low regard for Hegel in the list of identifications. This fact alone suggests that a commensurability gap of considerable width still exists between the American philosophical and historical communities, as Hegel stands more or less at the starting point of all, or nearly all, of the metahistorical philosophies of interest to historians. From my philosophical perspective, which is a hybrid of Continental philosophy as read through Gadamer, critical theory as read through Habermas and Gramscii, and pragmatism as read through Rorty, the continued interest in and importance of Frege, Russell and Carnap, is disappointing. Having followed Rorty down his idiosyncratic rabbit hole, where analytical philosophy and the linguistic turn are read through Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dewey, as well as through Darwinian theory, subjects like the philosophy of mind and metaphysics, in my opinion, are not only uninteresting, they come very close to being “zombie ideas,” or “wordplay” as Rorty describes it in the quote I posted last week.

    The relative importance of Quine and Davidson on the list of identifications with non-living philosophers, however, offers a more interesting possibility for dialogue between philosophers and intellectual historians. Although the issue of incommensurability may still render such a dialogue difficult or impossible, the emergence of a “post-positivistic” school of analytical philosophy opens up the tradition to historical analysis. At the very least, it is interesting that Rorty repeatedly claimed both philosophers as fellow neopragmatists, despite Davidson’s objections.

  2. I apologize for my poor spelling. The correct references in my comment are to Alasdair MacIntyre, and Antonio Gramsci.

  3. My apology as well to Alasdair MacIntyre, who presumably is glad to be “conspicuously missing” from a list of non-living philosophers.

  4. Leo Strauss is nowhere in sight on the philosophers list, though that is entirely unsurprising (Straussian presence among political philosophers in philosophy departments is, as far as I can tell, nearly zero).

    That was Eric Alterman at the back of the room at Livingston’s talk? I had arrived late from LaGuardia, and remember thinking that he looked and sounded familiar but was unable to place him.

  5. Neil: Good point on living/non-living in relation to my Haldane reference. But that doesn’t explain the “analytic Thomism” absence. I’ll have to think more about the rest of your post.

    Ben: ‘Twas! I introduced myself to him. It didn’t hit me, however, ~who~ he was until later.

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