Proud Provincialism, Superficial Sophistication


Among the humanities, philosophy is the field in which provincialism has most successfully disguised itself as a universal and timeless form of inquiry. It’s not at all uncommon to hear philosophy professors demur, when the subject of, say, classical Indian logic comes up, that they “regrettably don’t know anything about that.” What they really mean is: “My professional identity is wrapped up with my not knowing anything about that.” This is something we learn as graduate students: not only how to display our knowledge of, and commitment to, a given circumscribed domain, but also how to scoff, subtly, at whatever falls even slightly beyond that domain. This is an acquired syndrome, transmitted from faculty to graduate students in the course of their own professional reproduction.

That’s Justin E.H. Smith (University of Paris, Diderot), in an unnecessary but irresistible passage in “A Forgotten Field Could Save the Humanities,” a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education on philology (which I had put in the heap of links the other day).

Kinda sorta not quite rushing to the defense of philosophy, yesterday, was Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam) at Digressions & Impressions:

My sense is that Smith’s diagnosis is an apt characterization of our teacher’s generation (although we both know exemplars that displayed different attitudes). The new generation of professional philosophers is embracing a different ethic; one in which any topic or puzzle is a legitimate opportunity to display technical virtuosity. Such technical sophistication is, of course, compatible with (although need not entail it) a thin understanding of the topic (and its historicity, etc.)

So, two things to watch out for in yourselves, philosophers: proud provincialism, and superficial sophistication.

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