U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (3-15-2012): Gretel Adorno, Richard Theodore Greener, Ontics, Defending First Principles, and Tony Judt via Jennifer Homans

1. Gretel Adorno: Just A Stenographer?

Martin Jay reviews Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Towards a New Manifesto, freshly translated by Rodney Livingstone, and hints at some interesting questions about Gretel Adorno’s role [right, 1] in the life her husband and his famous conversation partner. Here are some sample passages from the opening of the review (bolds mine):

Gretel Adorno was a remarkable woman about whom far too little is known.[1] Although the recent publication of her correspondence with Walter Benjamin has confirmed the impression that she was a formidable intellect in her own right, she remains largely a mystery.[2] What we do know for certain is that she was deeply devoted to her husband Theodor, whom she married in September, l937. Abandoning a career as a chemist to support his work unreservedly, she seems to have been resigned to his extra-marital affairs, and was so despondent after his death in August, l969 that she made a botched suicide attempt. Among the many services she rendered was the dutiful taking of minutes from the intellectual discussions he thought worth recording. Beginning in March of l938, shortly after his emigration to America and full integration into the life of the Institut für Sozialforschung (then resettled in New York), she wrote down a number of conversations he had with the director of the Institute, Max Horkheimer.[3] She continued to play this role well after they all returned to Frankfurt in the early l950s to reestablish the Institute.

It is worth remembering Gretel Adorno’s role in their preparation, and not only because it reminds us of the asymmetrical gender relations that prevailed at the Institute (which never had a major female presence in its ranks). Without a tape recorder, she was responsible for faithfully putting down a highly abstract conversation developing at breakneck speed — the editorial foreword rightly calls it “a careening flux of arguments, aphorisms, and asides, in which the trenchant alternates with the reckless, the playful with the ingenuous” — and it has to be accounted a minor miracle that anything coherent survived at all. If we add the tendentious title introduced by the publishers, which turn a relatively minor moment in the dialogue into its telos, it is clear that we have a text that cannot be understood as the polished reflections of authors who wanted these formulations to represent their considered opinions for public consumption. …

And yet, however gingerly we have to treat them as hasty and undercooked pronunciamentos, they do provide a fascinating snapshot of the concerns of the major Frankfurt School theoreticians at a critical moment in their development. For this, Gretel Adorno’s stenographic skills have to be acknowledged with gratitude.

And the final paragraph of the review [Theodor and Gretel right, 2]:

Collective political action is impossible at the present time, they conclude, and so are personal relations that try to avoid the gravitational pull of the bourgeois order. Even women’s desire to “acquire the right to dispose of their own bodies” is tied up with the idea that “human beings become their own property.” (28) The belief that love is a viable refuge or meaningful alternative is therefore sadly mistaken: “Love probably contains the false negation of bourgeois society,” Horkheimer avers. And Adorno responds, “it negates it in an impotent fashion, perpetuating it through its negation.” (28) What, we might wonder in conclusion, was Gretel Adorno thinking as she recorded these sour thoughts?

Indeed. So we are left to wonder: Was Gretel Adorno merely a stenographer? Did she transcribe literally, or did she translate for meaning? Are the conversations of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer “hasty and undercooked pronunciamentos” because or in spite of her best efforts to make sense of them?

Read the rest of Martin Jay’s intriguing review here. I would say this book and these conversations go toward our larger understand of how Marx and Critical Theory work in America.

2. Artifacts of Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922), Harvard Class of 1870, Discovered in Attic

The story is here. Here are some pertinent passages from the story (bolds and links mine):

Hidden in the attic that McDonald was contracted to clear before the home’s 2009 demolition was a trunk. Inside were the papers of Richard T. Greener [picture from Wikipedia], the first African American to graduate from Harvard.

“I didn’t know who he was,” said McDonald, 51. “But as soon as I found out, I knew this was a story that had to be told.”

Historians thought the documents were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake because Greener had passed through at the time. They were astonished to learn in the past week that Greener’s 1870 Harvard diploma — water-damaged but intact — his law license, photos and papers connected to his diplomatic role in Russia and his friendship with President Ulysses S. Grant have survived.

“It gives me gooseflesh,” said Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who leads Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African-American Research. “Greener was a leading intellectual of his time. It’s a remarkable discovery.”

His graduation blazed a trail for black Harvard intellectuals including Gates’ friend, President Barack Obama, the professor added. “He was the voice before DuBois and the president’s predecessor.”

As Ben Alpers noted on the USIH Facebook page, this passage from later in the story is amazing for its, um, lack of perspective: Gates — known for his 2009 “beer summit” on the White House lawn with President Obama and a Cambridge cop who arrested him on his own doorstep — says he would “love to bring the artifacts to Harvard.” …That’s ALL for which Gates is known?! 😉

But do read the rest of the story for what it reveals about Greener’s life: born in Philadelphia, son of a slave, enrolled in Harvard in 1865 as an experiment courtesy of white sponsors, appointed philosophy professor in 1873 at the University of South Carolina, survived assassination attempt, had six children, became Howard University Law School dean, friend and rival of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, Russian ambassador under President McKinley, and on and on.

3. NYT’s The Stone: Entry #1

In this post Colin McGinn [right, 3] argues that the term “philosophy” is outdated in relation to what current professional “philosophers” do. Because practitioners today no longer “love wisdom” in the way the ancients did, and because today’s “philosophers” do no study human culture, McGinn argues for “ontical science” or just “ontics.” And professional philosophers would become “onticists.”

For my part, I have often thought that today’s intellectual historians—especially those with a humanities view of the field—hew more closely to the traditional view of philosopher than today’s professional onticists. Think about the works of the best intellectual historians in relation to those most respected in analytic philosophy. Or, more empirically (when possible), try arguing or discussing anything with a rigorous analytic philosopher. They will quickly translate your words into incomprehensible symbolic logic that subverts natural speech—both conversational and narrative. Rather than discussing grey areas and ambiguity, your conversation will become a pissing contest of binary code: 1000100111010110001. The discussion will become a logic game rather than a dialectic about the human condition.

4. NYT’s The Stone: Entry #2

Michael P. Lynch [immediate right] and Alan Sokal [down and right] exchange thoughts on “Defending Science.” Apart from the epistemelogical contest between science and religion, I found these opening paragraphs fascinating in relation to discussions about foundational and antifoundational philosophy (bolds mine):

Debates over epistemic principles sound abstract, but they have enormous practical repercussions. For instance, in order to decide policy matters (like what to put in our textbooks and what to teach in science classrooms) we need to decide on the facts.

But in order to decide on the facts, we need to decide on the best ways for knowing about those facts. And to do that, we need to agree on our epistemic principles. If we can’t, stalemate ensues. Each side looks at the other as if they inhabit a completely different world — and in a sense, they do.

So it is perplexing, even worrying, that debates over really fundamental epistemic principles can seem irresolvable. The problem is that you can’t defend first principles without presupposing them — that is what makes them “first” principles. As a result, when debates reach this point, they can seem rationally irresolvable. We can’t defend our principles without arguing in a circle.

The problem of justifying first epistemic principles is very old. It led the ancient Greek skeptics to say that knowledge is an illusion. But over the centuries, it has been more common to draw a different conclusion, one concerning the relative value of reason itself. According to many people, what the problem of justifying first principles really shows is that because reasons always run out or end up just going in circles, our starting point must always be something more like faith.

This is a great discussion. Read the rest here.

5. More On Tony Judt

Read the reflections of Judt’s spouse, Jennifer Homans, on Judt’s last days and his last work of intellectual history, titled Thinking the Twentieth Century. Keep some tissue nearby. Even so, here are some passages I found most intriguing (bolds mine):

The book is a history of twentieth-century thought. It begins with his reflections on Jewish idealism and Jewish suffering in Europe and ends with a devastating account of the failure of American politics in the post–cold war world. It is also an intellectual autobiography—of sorts. “Of sorts” because Tony rarely wrote in the first person, and the autobiographical sections of the book were wedged in, almost reluctantly, between the ideas, the history, the politics, and the ethical dilemmas that were central to his life.

This doesn’t mean that the book is not personal. For Tony, ideas were a kind of emotion, something he felt and cared about in the way that most people do about feelings like sadness or love. …Ideas and the need for historical explanations ran deep, back then and right through to Thinking the Twentieth Century. [Judt family right, 4]

Of all of Tony’s writings, this book seems to me in need of some explanation: a backdrop or a scene, because the scene—the conditions under which it was written—was so dark and because the darkness shaped the book, in its form but also in its ideas.

So Thinking the Twentieth Century pours decades of thought and knowledge and days of illness into a lifelong idealism. It is an idealism that under the circumstances could be sustained only by a ferociously disciplined mind, and at great personal cost. I don’t mean that Tony believed in an ideal society. The only thing he was an idealist about was serious public debate. This was the one thing, along with love, that was always left standing no matter how much was felled by the disease, and so much was. Tony called it the core. To me it was a narrowing beam of light in the darkness that was separating Tony from us all. And if Thinking the Twentieth Century stands in the no-man’s-land between what is and what should be, as I think it does, this is in part because it was driven by the darkness but also part of the light. It was besieged, as he was.

The rest of Homans’ piece is here.

The more I learn about Tony Judt, the more I want to read all of his work. – TL

Picture credits

1. Gretel Adorno, here.

2. Gretel and Theodor Adorno, here.

3. Colin McGinn, here.

4. Judt family, here.

30 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “For my part, I have often thought that today’s intellectual historians—especially those with a humanities view of the field—hew more closely to the traditional view of philosopher than today’s professional onticists.”

    At best this means that if the “traditional view of philosopher” is the Sun, then today’s intellectual historians are Uranus and today’s professional onticists are Neptune. (We’ll ignore the fact that the two flip places every so often.) I think I’ll leave the analogy there, since pushing it farther would get us out near Pluto, and that’s a whole different can of worms.

    Anyway, I’d like to query this notion that intellectual historians are somehow like philosophers. How so? Because even by the traditional view of philosopher, philosophers dealt with metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Except in a rudimentary fashion, historians – intellectual or otherwise – don’t treat those subjects, if at all. It’d be a rare historian who knows what the difference between endurantism and perdurantism is, or could explain what a temporal part is, for example, or define modal realism. Or outline the main principles of virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology, and the grounds of their hostility.

    Moreover, the notion of a traditional view of philosopher implies that contemporary philosophers don’t deal with metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics. There was a time when it was true that “[t]he discussion will become a logic game rather than a dialectic about the human condition.” But when was that, the 1950s? Freddy Ayer went to his grave in 1979 having admitted that logical positivism was a complete failure. A glance at any philosophy department’s faculty listing, all of which are rife with metaphysicians, epistemologists, and ethicists is evidence of this.

    Anyway, the basic idea is about the “human condition.” If we agree that pre-analytic philosophers were concerned with it more than analytic philosophers, can we still say that intellectual historians are closer to that traditional view than contemporary philosophers? Are there any intellectual historians doing anything like what Plato does in Republic or Symposium, let alone Theaetetus? Who’s writing Nichomachean Ethics or the Metaphysics or De Anima? Who’s writing Essay Concerning Human Understanding or the Meditations or the Summa Theologiae. I won’t even mention Kant.

    I agree that intellectual historians address the human condition. So do all historians, after their own fashion. But we do so in our own way. We don’t do it as philosophers, nor do we need to. Our ways are just fine. Philosophers and philosophy got away from their traditional concerns for a while. That doesn’t mean we historians got any closer to them. Which is just fine. We have a damned enough time keeping straight what history is without picking up philosophy’s mantle while we’re at it.

  2. Excellent reading selections. Thanks for the post, Tim.

    On the question of intellectual historians as philosophers…

    One hopes that all historians are philosophers in the sense that they are lovers of wisdom. If there is no wisdom to be found in our work — in the doing of it as well as in the deed — then we really are royally wasting our own time and everyone else’s.

    The wisdom of history as a discipline is our practice of historicizing everything we can possibly manage, including “truth” and truth claims. Sometimes we even manage to historicize our own epistemic first principles. At the very least, we tend to recognize that they are historically conditioned.

    But when history veers into a discussion of what is true in a transhistorical or “timeless” sense, it ceases to be history.

  3. @Eric: I hadn’t seen that. I skimmed it just now, and was somewhat surprised at the final assessment:

    Judt lacked the most basic requirement for any student of intellectual history: the ability to grasp and reconstruct an idea with philological precision. His lack of interest in ideas is borne out in extenso throughout his copious writings on intellectuals: there were never any serious attempts to reconstruct a thinker’s position, so as to probe and question it. Even summaries of figures to whom he was well-disposed were slapdash; writers to whom he was hostile were regularly excoriated for views they did not hold. Judged as an intellectual historian, the verdict on Judt must be negative.

    Judt himself confessed in his final interview that at school he had been considered ‘better at literature than history’; also bragging, ‘I was—and knew I was—among the best speakers and writers of my age cohort. I don’t mean I was the best historian’. [86] In effect, it was his talent, limited but real, as a polemicist and a pamphleteer that disqualified Judt as a historian of ideas, much as he liked to claim the loftier calling.

    That’s powerful. I don’t know if I agree with Dylan Riley because, well, I can’t, not having read all of Judt’s stuff. But I have found myself looking for intellectual history in Postwar (my current s-l-o-w read in Judt) and coming up disappointed. What do you think, Eric? Do you agree? I’m not a true student of Judt, just an admirer—the way one admires writers and historians studied for one’s minor field exams.

    @LD: I think you are of two minds. Witness your post:

    (a) “If there is no wisdom to be found in our work — in the doing of it as well as in the deed — then we really are royally wasting our own time and everyone else’s.”

    (b) “But when history veers into a discussion of what is true in a transhistorical or “timeless” sense, it ceases to be history.”

    Insofar as it’s more than aphorism and elevated as knowledge, isn’t wisdom transhistorical? The wisdom of history, in part, lies in its ability to particularize. Even so, as Gaddis reminds us, we make “particular generalizations.” Is it not true that some of those generalizations, however fraught with imperfection, do apply to present situations? Isn’t that part of how we learn from history—learn to avoid the mistakes of the past? Or are you a postmodernist such that you see these applications as overwrought with hazards? How do you talk truth with those who come to history seeking SOME limited universal truths? How do you sell historical thinking if you disallow present applications?

    @Varad: As usual, there’s a lot in your comment. 🙂 I think you’re arguing more with Colin McGinn than me, but I’ll go ahead and pick and choose from your comment for the sake of furthering the conversation:

    1. Do even all philosophers know “what the difference between endurantism and perdurantism is, or could explain what a temporal part is, for example, or define modal realism”? Or can all of them “outline the main principles of virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology, and the grounds of their hostility”?

    2. What is the philosophy of history if it isn’t philosophizing?

    3. What do you make of writers like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre who sit on the border of history and philosophy? I’m sure you can think of other names.

    – TL

  4. I haven’t read Judt’s early work on French socialism, which I think is really the heart of Riley’s argument. *Postwar*, I think, is powerful synthetic history. As you say, not so much intellectual history. The bits and pieces of Judt’s memoirs that I’ve read (as they appeared in NYRB, mostly) I mostly enjoyed. I might give them to undergraduates, for instance (that is *not* meant, it should go without saying, to mean that I think they’re simplistic–just readable and useful). Similarly I’m sympathetic with some of the political engagements from the end of Judt’s life that Riley more or less dismisses.

    All that said, I was amazed by how simplistic and shallow his writings on Sartre (et al) were. Total failure of historicization–the kind, I think, that’s required to mount the serious moral critique Judt wanted. So…

    • Judt’s early work has a lot of problems – he’s always been very witty, but he often let witticisms (often scathing) do the work of argument. Thus, what you get (as Eric points out) is simplistic, not very useful history. Great polemics, not so great if you are trying to learn what French intellectuals were up to.

  5. Tim, against all wisdom, I have set myself the task of delivering a conference paper on the theme of “why history matters” — that is, why it matters that historians do what they do. The question you raise here — what’s the point of doing history if we can’t draw “lessons” from it — is a key question I am trying to answer. My short and cryptic answer is, no, we’re not supposed to be drawing lessons from history; how we do history is itself the lesson (at least in part).

    I might blog about it this weekend. Depends on where I am with this paper — hopefully some place better than I am with it right now.

  6. Tim:

    I’ll agree with you that the philosophy of history is philosophizing. Perhaps that’s where your assertion about intellectual historians being akin to philosophers is most telling. I think a strong case could be made that intellectual historians are the most “philosopher-like” historians in the sense that they tend to be more concerned with the philosophy of the discipline, philosophy here being defined in the hoary sense of “concern with first principles.” For historians those first principles are basics like how we know the past, what the past is, etc. And of course there’s the basic concern for ideas and thinking, both of which are crucial to the philosophical enterprise as well. As a lot of my work deals with how people think about the past, I’ve always been out there where the two intersect, and can be said to be doing some philosophizing, albeit perhaps not in the proper sense.

    I think the most interesting point you raise is the idea that intellectual historians, at least those who approach the field from a humanities perspective, are dealing with the human condition. As I said earlier, I think that’s true of all historians. Ideally it is, anyway. But I wonder if that really is true. Philosophers may not be dealing with the human condition, but historians aren’t so great with it, either. We here all sorts of explanations for why there’s such a disconnect between academic history and the public. I’d posit that one is that a lot of the humanity has been bled from this most essential of humanities. Academic history can be just as dry, narrow, pedantic, and solipsistic as academic philosophy. That’s not something to be proud of. That’s also a common complaint about what goes on in literature departments these days, that all notion of beauty and literature have been driven out by constricted academic and political agendas. Literature speaks to the human condition, but that doesn’t mean literature departments do. It’s not just philosophy that’s lost sight of the human condition; the humanities in general don’t always live up to their name.

    Getting back to the main point, I’ll concede that I’m probably arguing more with McGinn than you, at least when I oppose my notion of a philosopher to his. And I’ll agree that there are plenty of scholars who sit very comfortably on that boundary between history and philosophy. Comfortable for themselves, though perhaps not for those who would try to categorize them.

    I agree with LD that historians should love wisdom. That doesn’t mean we love it the same way philosophers do or for the same reasons. I freely admit that I’m a historian with considerable philosophical concerns. But having those philosophical concerns doesn’t make me a philosopher. It makes me a historian. I’m fine with that.

  7. Of course, according to Collingwood all history is the philosophy of history, which makes it philosophy. For the most part, I agree with Collingwood about the nature of history, especially his contention that it’s one of the transcendental categories of the mind. Which makes it even more a branch of philosophy. In which case my distinction between the two is wholly fallacious and should be ignored.

  8. Varad,

    I would take issue with a few of your comments:

    “Because even by the traditional view of philosopher, philosophers dealt with metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Except in a rudimentary fashion, historians – intellectual or otherwise – don’t treat those subjects, if at all”

    This simply isn’t the case. It is certainly true that there are intellectual historians without a knowledge of metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics, but it really depends on what you’re studying. Any close engagement with the thought of twentieth century philosophers like Richard Rorty, or John Rawls, for example, requires AT LEAST a “rudimentary” knowledge of these subjects. I think, for example, of Michael Sandel’s critique of the “self” of Rawl’s “original position” as suffering from a poor moral epistemology, and as being deontological. How could an intellectual historian writing of this debate not have any familiarity with these issues? How would one trying to contextualize Dewey’s frustration with traditional metaphysics understand the nature of this frustration without some understanding of the history of metaphysics, what was at stake with that history?

    “Moreover, the notion of a traditional view of philosopher implies that contemporary philosophers don’t deal with metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics.”

    This is true enough as it goes, but the fact that people still do philosophy called metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics, doesn’t mean that all three disciplines haven’t succumbed to trends that have swept through philosophy since the 1950s rendering them irrelevant to anything outside of themselves, specifically the linguistic turn. All three sub-fields still operate more like sciences than they do philosophy. Whereas ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology prior to at least the first part of the twentieth century all had real implications for understanding the human condition. Today, these implications (if they exist) remain wrapped up in the language games of philosophy as an academic discipline closer to math or science.

    And lastly, no, most intellectual historians don’t or shouldn’t consider themselves philosophers, but some are much closer than others-especially those writing in the Lovejoy tradition. To engage with ideas on more than a cursory level (which some intellectual historians do more than others), to critique those ideas, to enter the debates in which these ideas arise, is, in my mind, doing philosophy on a certain level, or at least on the level of searching for wisdom.

    So Tim, I think your comment, while it maybe doesn’t consider those philosophers working outside the Anglo-American tradition,(people like Cora Diamond, Stanley Cavell, Johnathan Lear) is right on.

  9. Do philosophers historicize their own epistemology? I’m not asking to be snarky; I’m asking because I know a lot more about history than I do about philosophy. But it seems to me that intellectual history is (presently?) committed at least in part to historicizing historical thinking.

    So I could see that intellectual history parallels those branches of philosophy whose focus is epistemology; among the ideas that we discuss is the history of the idea of history. Of course, historicizing the idea of history is an idea that has a history of its own — and I am not at present equipped to provide the pertinent historiography. Maybe somebody else can take that up.

  10. “Do philosophers historicize their own epistemology?”

    That’s an interesting question. Most philosophers are probably aware that epistemology as a branch of philosophy, and epistemology in the sense of how philosophy itself is conceived, its possibilities and limits, what it can and can’t do, have changed over the years. But that doesn’t necessarily imply they do what we mean by historicize. That’s probably why the history of philosophy is a discipline in its own right.

  11. McGinn vs. Lacy …

    The first indication that McGinn is wrong about the appropriateness of divorcing philosophy from the humanities is that if he were right, his proposal would be a couple of millennia overdue. His highly technical “ontic” approach to philosophy was already well underway in ancient Athens. If you doubt the truth of this, check out Plato’s Parmenides or Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Modern mathematical logic is not required for an “ontic” approach to philosophy — although it helps, and has been used to interpret any number of ancient philosophical texts, including the two just mentioned, as well as even the philosophical fragments of the presocratic Parmenides himself (an example, with WebCite archival).

    Unfortunately for McGinn’s scientizing project, a field can be highly technical (and as off-putting to outsiders as modern Anglo-American academic philosophy evidently is to Lacy) without coming even close to qualifying as a science in the strong sense that McGinn appears to intend. What is missing is the strong consensus on a substantial body of accepted results and methods that characterizes a true science. There can be a highly sophisticated (and arcane) consensus on what is and is not relevant to bring up in a discussion, without any consensus on the bottom line. David Lewis summed up the reason why philosophy cannot be scientized in the introduction to the first volume of his (highly technical) Philosophical Papers (1983):

    “The reader in search of knock-down arguments in favor of my theories will go away disappointed. Whether or not it would be nice to knock disagreeing philosophers down by sheer force of argument, it cannot be done. Philosophical theories are never refuted conclusively. (Or hardly ever. Gödel and Gettier may have done it.)”

    Mathematicians, physicists, and biologists do not talk like this; even an experimental psychologist would be unlikely to take such a perspective. And Gödel was more a mathematician than a philosopher. When philosophical theories do get refuted conclusively — and their rivals established — a science is born, budded off from philosophy that is the parent of the sciences. This happened with geometry in the ancient world, and with mathematical logic more recently. But the parent discipline remains behind, retaining its essential nature, even when it begins to use the techniques of the new science it has helped to create.

    “Physics envy” — even under that exact name — is decades old in philosophy. It will take more than arcane techniques to fulfill it.

  12. More on McGinn vs. Lacy – the interdisciplinary angle:

    Both sides of the McGinn-Lacy debate are seriously misguided. Lacy is thoroughly wrong to object to the “logic game” aspect of philosophy, and McGinn is thoroughly wrong to neglect philosophy’s connections with other academic disciplines and with lay concerns about the meaning of life and the pursuit of wisdom.

    Common sense is not a closed system. Attempts to trace out its implications can lead very quickly to arcane technical matters. The Liar Paradox is a good example. “This statement is not true” — just five simple words, all in common use, yet reams of books and articles, many dense with the notations of mathematical logic, have been written in the attempt to make sense of each one of those words, as well as the way they work together to create the paradox. Or if even the starting point here is felt to be too “ontic” already, consider how easily commonsense ethical notions like “justice” and “fairness” can lead to Bentham’s and Mill’s utility maximization, or to the original position and minimax principle of Rawls. And that is as it should be. Mathematical logic was invented because it was needed to understand mathematical reasoning, and modern philosophers are right to take advantage of its applicability to other forms of reasoning. Asking philosophers to engage in “a dialectic about the human condition” while always eschewing the technical vocabulary of logic is as absurd as asking civil engineers to build safe bridges without using differential equations. Yes, it can be done — the Romans managed it — but there’s no reason to avoid use of the technical tools we now have, when they can help us to do a better job more easily. And it’s even worse to create a false dichotomy between a “logic game” and a “dialectic about the human condition”. A given conversation can, and often should, be both at once.

    For that matter, intellectual history itself has its own technical vocabulary, which is not as natural to the lay public, or even to scholars in other disciplines, as its practitioners may suppose. Think back to the last time you had to explain to a student just what you meant by “dialectic”. Philosophers do not (usually) ask you to abandon use of your tools in order to stay in their comfort zone. Do not ask them to abandon use of their tools in order to stay in your comfort zone. A better approach to interdisciplinary interaction in such cases is to be prepared to explain technical vocabulary when needed, without in any way thinking less of one’s interlocutor for needing an explanation — and to try to learn something about the other side’s tools. General intellectual sophistication is one thing; knowledge of the technical vocabulary and apparatus of a particular intellectual discipline is quite another.

    That said, the academic discipline of philosophy has itself been among the worst offenders in refusing to lift a finger to ease the burdens of comprehension among those attempting to meet it halfway. Trying to scientize philosophy is a perverse mistake not only because philosophy doesn’t qualify as a science, but also (even more) because philosophy is needed to facilitate cross-pollination among other disciplines — a role for which the sciences are unsuited. Philosophy’s “logic game” can be fascinating in itself, but to the extent that it goes beyond the (separate and fully scientific) discipline of mathematical logic, the point of it is to yield enlightenment about cognition that is (at least to begin with) not itself couched in the vocabulary of logic. That includes cognition about the meaning of life and the pursuit of wisdom, and about intellectual history. Refusing to address these topics is an abdication of the role that provides the greatest part of philosophy’s specific contribution to human culture.

  13. [In my last comment, that should have been “maximin principle”, not “minimax principle”.]

    Hollinger on interdisciplinarity in reference to McGinn and Lacy:

    David A. Hollinger’s “What does it mean to be “balanced” in academia?” (WebCite archival), although principally concerned with the use of the concept of balance in defining academic freedom, offers a good model of interdisciplinary interaction; both McGinn and Lacy could benefit from applying its insights to the issue they have raised. Hollinger is highly critical of academic philosophy (rightly so, I believe) for its insularity, scientism, and abdication of its responsibilities toward other academic disciplines and toward human culture at large. He even recounts an amusing (pathetic?) incident in which a highly scientistic department of philosophy was asked by a dean to broaden its horizons. The philosophers responded by asking to have their department transferred from the humanities division to the natural sciences! (The provost denied their request.)

  14. Could we perhaps aim for a little bit of balance in this thread by acknowledging that Tim’s reflections and the ensuing discussion do not quite merit the moniker of “the McGinn-Lacy debate”? This is a blog post, not a manifesto. Tim has provided links to items that might be of interest to our readers, and he has offered what strike me as a few off-the-cuff remarks to prompt conversation — which is mostly what is happening on this thread.

    That said, I think your points about professional argot and the requirements and limitations of carrying on a truly interdisciplinary conversation are well worth considering. And I am very glad for the link to Hollinger’s article. But all your imperatives come across as just a little bit imperious.

    Now, back to my paper on William Lloyd Garrison, the great moral scold of the nineteenth century…

    • “incomprehensible symbolic logic that subverts natural speech—both conversational and narrative … your conversation will become a pissing contest of binary code: 1000100111010110001. The discussion will become a logic game rather than a dialectic about the human condition.”

      Despite its brevity, that’s a contribution to a Debate with a capital D. I don’t quote McGinn’s language here, but it’s just as blunt and vivid as Lacy’s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Quite the contrary. The relationship between academic philosophy and other disciplines has become thoroughly pathological. Nothing is gained by trying to minimize the extent of the problem, or the stakes involved in getting the answers right.

    • What is the heart of the problem, as you see it, and why does it matter?

      As far as “getting the answers right” — it strikes me that this way of framing/phrasing the point of this discussion is not how (most?) historians would tend to approach a problem. The contrast between “the right answer” and “the best answer” may seem to be a distinction without a difference, but I think it’s an important part of the disciplinary mindset with which historians approach their work. Though we may wade into Debates with a capital D, we Historians with a capital H are rather fond of (believing in) our humility.

    • “Getting the answers right” can indeed be a matter of degree, so in the sense in which I intended that expression, “getting the best answers” would be an equivalent paraphrase – and approximate success would be worth striving for if exact success cannot be obtained. But I don’t see what that has to do with humility, or why historians would think humility important, or even relevant at all. I’ve acknowledged the uncertainty and tentativeness of answers in philosophy (as in my quotation from David Lewis), but that’s just a matter of understanding the nature of one’s discipline, not of humility.

      As to the heart of the matter – there are four points:

      (1) For best results, academic philosophy needs to use highly technical vocabulary and methods.

      (2) Nevertheless, academic philosophy is not, and cannot be, a science.

      (3) Academic philosophy has largely abdicated its responsibility to facilitate interdisciplinary communication, which is a major part of what it has to offer the world.

      (4) Effective collaboration between two disciplines often requires serious effort at communicating in both directions about the technical vocabulary and methods of both disciplines.

  15. Why would historians think humility important? As luck would have it, I am at this very moment (practically) writing a conference paper on this very topic! If I can manage to shoehorn my argument about the importance of disciplinary humility into my overly-ambitious title, I will be proud indeed. And I might even post some highlights after the conference. (Super-short answer: humility makes room for irony, which is more practical and less harmful generally than absolutism.)

    Judging from your list above, it seems that what’s at stake for you is the nature/future of academic philosophy, which you see as essential to facilitating interdisciplinary communication. I’m not so sure that the audience here shares your sense of urgency. You might be able to convince people that academic philosophy (as it used to be practiced) was the gateway to interdisciplinary communication. Indeed, I’m not sure any of the commenters above would argue with that. But suggesting that it was/is the only viable doorway between disciplines might be a hard sell.

    • Not “only viable” – but critically important nonetheless. You can do interdisciplinary collaboration without bringing academic philosophy to the table, but when a number of distinct disciplines are involved, you’re generally not doing yourselves any favors by leaving the philosophers out. And given the close historical relationships between philosophy and other academic disciplines — which existed for good reason — in some cases you’ll wind up having to reinvent parts of philosophy for yourself in the process. Pointless, and quite possibly painful.

      On the other hand, watching philosophy pull up the drawbridge from its end is even more painful, especially considering how large a part interdisciplinarity plays in philosophy’s overall cultural role. McGinn’s post was grimace-inducing, as was the behavior of the scientistic philosophy department mentioned in Hollinger’s “balance” article. Seeing philosophy’s technical nature as a weakness rather than a strength for interdisciplinary communication (Lacy) is bad, but giving up altogether on interdisciplinary communication as a major part of philosophy’s mission (McGinn) is truly egregious.

      As a Nietzsche aficionado, I wouldn’t’ve thought that irony and humility had much to do with each other, considering his masterly aptitude for the one and (to say the least) comparative lack of the other. Perhaps fallibilism is the concept you really need. I do read Nietzsche as a fallibilist, but that had nothing to do with humility.

  16. Tim, you may be pleased to know that this blog post (well, actually, the comment thread) provided fodder for my conference paper. I even quote you.

    So I had to figure out how to cite a blog comment. Found this nifty “quick guide” online from the Chicago Manual of Style and thought I’d pass along the link, in case anyone could use it:

    Chicago-Style Quick Citation Guide

    And for those wishing to cite a tweet (I’m not that desperate yet!), here’s Chicago’s somewhat inelegant answer to that:

    Footnoting a tweet

    The MLA format for citing a tweet in a “Works Cited” list is here:

    Cite a Tweet in MLA Style

    I suppose I could have wrung a separate blog post out of this, but even I am not that tedious.

    Anyway, thanks for a fun discussion. Your ears will be burning when I give my paper next weekend.

  17. Colleagues, Friends, and Commenters:

    My apologies for letting this thread lie—perhaps to the point that this comment will be for the ethereal. Nevertheless, here goes (in a selective, abbreviated fashion) on what’s been added since I was last here:

    @LD: You wrote–“The question you raise here — what’s the point of doing history if we can’t draw “lessons” from it — is a key question I am trying to answer. My short and cryptic answer is, no, we’re not supposed to be drawing lessons from history; how we do history is itself the lesson (at least in part).”

    ME: I think this (your “no”) is stated too simply and too strongly. Yes, historical thinking (change over time, causation, contingency, context, and complexity) are part of the lessons. But we really do need to know if Keynesian policies helped bring us out of the Great Depression. And we need to know if copper is the best conductor of electricity. We can’t reinvent the wheel, in terms of technical things, every generation. That’s the usable past in its most fundamental form. But we also take ethical lessons forward. There is a reason why man has evolved as an “historical animal”—history helps us survive and evolve.

    @Douglas Edwards: Adding to LD’s defense of my post, your “McGinn v. Lacy” locution, especially as it evolved in your second comment above, miscommunicates my post. I am WITH McGinn. So it should be “McGinn-Lacy v. the Analytic Philosophers/Positivists/Logical Positivists.” I thought you got this in comment #1, but the subsequent entry caused me to doubt (or to think that you had forgotten my original point). There is a difference between logic, traditionally conceived, and the over-rigorous application of logic as practiced by many logical symbolists (my term). There is a point where the special terminology gets out of hand, and the reduction of all speech to logical symbol—and expecting real life applications after—is that point. I think you agree with me here, perhaps more than your comment lets on. Stepping back a bit, this is why, as a historian, I prefer the communicability of narrative in terms of moral, ethical, and other sorts of persuasion. Narrative demands that logic speak in traditional forms—sentences with nouns, verbs, and objects. …Otherwise, thanks a million for the Hollinger essay reference. I’ll get asap. And I agree with your four points given in response to LD.

    …Did I forget anything? Or is there something specific above about which we could converse more—to help LD complete her paper? Or just to cause trouble? 🙂 – TL

    • Actually, I did understand that you and McGinn agreed on certain things — and those were the ones that I mostly disagreed with. But I took you to be advancing a traditionalist conception of what philosophy should be, in rivalry with McGinn’s “ontic” conception. Are you saying that intellectual history should replace the traditional role of philosophy within the humanities, while philosophy becomes “ontic” and irrelevant to the humanities, as McGinn proposes — and good riddance? (I would disagree with that viewpoint even more strongly than with what I thought you were saying.)

      I cannot agree that “There is a difference between logic, traditionally conceived, and the over-rigorous application of logic as practiced by many logical symbolists”; nor that “Narrative demands that we speak in traditional forms” — at least, not exclusively. (And even if we do pursue narrative via traditional forms, technical logic can still shed light on how narrative works when we step back to analyze it.) There is an absolute continuity of purpose and method between traditional syllogistic logic and the most abstruse modern mathematical logic. I recommend a glance through William and Martha Kneale’s The Development of Logic (Oxford University Press, 1962; reprinted with corrections 1975) to see the continuity; it should be of interest from the viewpoint of intellectual history.

      Whether logic can help in understanding how we actually think (as opposed to which forms of inference would be valid, which is logic’s immediate subject matter) is itself a vexed question; but it does not become any more vexed when the logic in question is modern mathematical logic than when it is traditional syllogistic logic.

      Perhaps an analogy from medicine will help. Talk of receptor tyrosine kinases, nuclear factor kappa-B, and monosomy 7 may seem gratuitously technical, but physicians attempting to prevent and treat cancer know that it is not. In medicine, highly technical subdisciplines coexist and interact with more humanistic, clinical ones — and for good reason. And facilitation of communication between these two levels of discourse is a matter of vital importance. Medicine is not a science, but it uses scientific information extensively, because for best results it must. This pattern of close interaction with the sciences is common to many highly developed intellectual disciplines that are not themselves sciences, and occurs to varying degrees and extents. Philosophy is not as scientific as medicine, but it would be foolish to turn down the help that logic can provide. Ditto for, e.g., linguistics — and, to the extent that logic can be brought to bear, intellectual history. Hollinger’s critique of philosophy is more on target than McGinn’s because Hollinger never proposes that philosophy be less technical — only that it keep the lines of communication with the rest of the intellectual world open, which is a different matter altogether. Please reconsider your viewpoint, and encourage McGinn to let down the drawbridge!

    • Douglas,

      Thanks for returning to comment. I don’t have a lot of steam left for this thread, but I’ll respond to a few of your points.

      I was saying that if philosophers following McGinn’s advice (which is admittedly unlikely), that intellectual historians could pick up some of the slack. That was me underscoring the philosophy inherent in our PhDs. It’s there, but it’s not always recognized or discussed, even by historians.

      My preference is for analytic philosophers to step back from their hyper-professionalized specialization and learn to speak and persuade in a fashion that the larger public can understand. I understand the continuity between traditional logic and logic as it has developed since the 19th century. But, as you note, that development doesn’t track well with how people actually think or communicate. Think about that. That’s a damning admission. It means that 20th century logic is more concerned with how machines think (hence my cavil about machine language in the post) rather than how humans in a room arrive at conclusions and decisions.

      Humanism should matter more in philosophy. On that point I think we agree. So I’ll let this comment and this thread end on some common ground. – TL

    • “I don’t have a lot of steam left for this thread”

      Understandably; this doesn’t all have to be done at one time or in one place, and these are very deep and important issues. Perhaps I’ll post on this topic on my own blog once I get it up and running.

      “My preference is for analytic philosophers to step back from their hyper-professionalized specialization and learn to speak and persuade in a fashion that the larger public can understand.”

      I agree entirely with this part. Using mathematical logic is not an excuse for failing to connect it to discursive thought, or failing to meet one’s audience halfway. But McGinn does not agree; he is proposing precisely that the discipline of philosophy should withdraw into a shell of specialization and disavow any responsibility for addressing lay concerns about the love of wisdom and the meaning of life. This is why I thought you were disagreeing with him. I want to use logic and other technical tools of the philosophical trade in the process of addressing those concerns, just as physicians use knowledge about genetics and molecular biology to address the concerns of patients with cancer.

      “But, as you note, that development doesn’t track well with how people actually think or communicate. Think about that. That’s a damning admission. It means that 20th century logic is more concerned with how machines think (hence my cavil about machine language in the post) rather than how humans in a room arrive at conclusions and decisions.”

      I was merely acknowledging that the relevance of logic to actual human thought or communication is a matter of controversy (and, if it is relevant, the nature of the connection is even more controversial) — I didn’t want to give the impression that analytic philosophers were unanimous on this point (they’re seldom unanimous on anything). I remain convinced that logic is an essential tool in understanding human discourse, its superficial dissimilarity with natural language to the contrary notwithstanding. Gene maps and metabolic pathway diagrams look nothing like the human body, but are essential in understanding its functions.

      “Humanism should matter more in philosophy. On that point I think we agree.”

      Absolutely. The disagreements are only about how best to achieve that end.

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