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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David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

Of course no-one should scoff, subtly or otherwise, about their lack of knowledge of some serious field of enquiry. But I’m not quite sure what the positive response is supposed to be other than “regrettably, I don’t know anything about it”. Yes, I regret not knowing much about Indian philosophy, just as I have at various points regretted not knowing much about functional programming, supersymmetry, development economics, systems biology, general linguistics or the pre-Socratics. Realistically, I do not have time to rectify all or even most of these gaps, so I pick those that I think are most likely to fruitfully inform and illuminate my work, and I learn those. If, for another topic, someone makes the case as to why learning about is necessary for my projects (or, realistically: more important for my projects than my current marginal candidate for Things to Mug Up On), I’ll learn it. Of my ignorance of those topics I don’t have time to learn, I continue to be regretful; if asked, I’ll express that regret. Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Justin W. gets it perfectly. It’s about implicature, about how abstractly innocent turns of phrase can be used as ‘dog-whistles’ in certain contexts.

It looks to me symptomatic of exactly the superficiality lamented by Schliesser that David Wallace’s comment got so many ‘likes’ (or ‘thumbs-upses’ or whatever they are), though of course one cannot infer much from such scanty evidence. Philosophers are very good at making a banal (if in some professional sense virtuosic) observation or objection or puzzle such as Wallace does here (this no criticism of Wallace: he just wrote an internet comment; it probably took him a few seconds), and then congratulating ourselves for our excellent philosophical acumen. But we miss the implicature, the power relations, the dog-whistling, the cultural allusion, the playfulness, everything which comprises a proper understanding of what we’re talking about.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

No, I think the reason Wallace’s comment got so many likes is because people can relate to what he’s saying and cannot relate to the idea that “regrettably, I don’t know anything about that” is supposed to carry any particular implicature. Maybe some people use “regrettably, I don’t know anything about it” as a “dog-whistle” or “cultural allusion,” but to me that idea is completely foreign, and I take the number of likes Wallace has received to suggest that many people feel the same way.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

Trying to determine people’s secret thoughts through “dog whistles” is a pseudo-science. Condemning people on the basis of such judgements is witch-hunting.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

It is not about people’s intentions. It is about context in a very obvious way. What usually matters is what happens after one says “Regrettably, I don’t know anything about that.” It is a matter of the use of that sentence. One consequence can be that the conversation comes to a halt. Another consequence could be that the person who regrets their lack of knowledge tries to listen to the concerns of the student who is wondering about Indian philosophy in a context where none is taught in the department.

I am taking Wallace and his supports here to be defending the idea that it is ok to let the conversation end with “Regrettably, I don’t know anything about that.” That is supposed to be the whole point: there is limited time and knowledge, so one can’t get into a conversation about everything.

But if every faculty member in a department lets the conversation end with that, that is a problem. It ends up being a way of stone walling concerns about plurality. In my experience, usually when someone, say a student, asks about Indian philosophy, that is a preliminary move to open up a conversation about the general issue of pluralism in the department. People aren’t normally so dense as to say, “All I care about is Indian theories of logic, all other issues of pluralism be damned.” So the issue being broached is one of how to raise the conversation on this topic and how to sustain it. To turn the context of this kind of conversation into one of simply whether one has a certain type of knowledge is to miss, intentionally or not, the whole point of the conversation that is trying to be had. Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

This is so obtuse, and Bharath Vallabha’s and Alfred MacDonald’s points so obvious, that I can only think that you are also subject to the institutional blinders I have observed in the previous comment. (I don’t want to turn this into a mean-spirited slinging match, so I hasten to point out that I single you out only because you did me the honour of responding to my comment. I don’t like accusing you of obtusity, but it is important that we can make this sort of philosophical/political criticism, and I mean it in a spirit of respect.)

First, there is no one person accused of using that one phrase (i.e., “Regrettably…”) in a dog-whistling way. So whose mind can you be accusing the Smith of pseudo-scientifically reading? The Smith is *primarily* talking about dog-whistling, responsibility-shirking, etc., and doing so only through the *example* of that phrase. Surely you won’t deny that philosophers dog-whistle claims such as that Indian philosophy isn’t worthwhile? Then this mind-reading stuff is irrelevant. Of course, if you do deny this, then fine, that’s the discussion we should be having under this OP.

Second, discerning dog-whistles is not pseudo-science, it’s part of our standard utterance-interpretation repertoire. I mean seriously, have you ever had a conversation with someone? (A. MacDonald makes this point in his response to your response to him below.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

I’m happy that my comment has provoked such an interesting discussion, but JCM is correct that it’s something that took a few seconds to write and wasn’t intended to go very far beyond its face-value content.

That said:
i) As I’ve argued on other occasions, philosophical study of contemporary maths and science isn’t culturally specific, unless we want to take contemporary maths and science themselves as culturally specific. So at least part of Smith’s scepticism about the universality of philosophy (which is where this discussion began) seems overstated.
ii) I rather suspect that however few philosophers there are who know anything much about classical Indian logic, there are even fewer philosophers who know any supersymmetry. So I don’t think I feel I’m letting my department or profession down by my choice of what to learn! There is more than one dimension of pluralism.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

The point isn’t that you are letting your department down by your choice of what you learn. Definitely not. Inspiration surely cannot be guided by a sense of what one “ought” to be studying even if one is not internally moved to do so.

To take it away from making it personal, imagine there is a Godel level intellectual, call him “McGodel”, in a department which teaches only the standard Plato, Kant, fare. McGodel is brilliant at logic, a once in a century luminary; he only does modern logic and philosophy of math (as culturally neutral as imaginable). Suppose students generally come to McGodel, and ask him about what he thinks of Indian philosophy or feminism, etc. Students know this is not not McGodel’s speciality. But they ask him anyway because they respect him as a thinker. Suppose everytime McGodel simply says, “Sorry, I don’t know anything about those topics; I wish I did, but I don’t”, and the conversation ends there. This doesn’t mean McGodel’s interests are invalidated; or that he is wrong to not learn about Indian philosophy. But it does show what the cost of achieving those results are, namely, being less engaged in some of the pressing institutional issues in the department he resides in.

The cost isn’t McGodel’s not knowing Indian philosophy; it is him not using the chance with the students to engage in conversation about pressing issues where philosophy intersects with culture. And if McGodel avoids such conversations even when all his colleagues in the department as well avoid such conversations (following even McGodel’s lead), the cost of McGodel not pursuing the conversation with the students about pluralism only increases.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

But in the alternative scenario, where McGodel has instead put in the hours to learn something about Indian philosophy, he hasn’t learned category theory or functional programming. So that’s good news for the students in the department who want to do Indian philosophy, bad news for the ones who want to do categorical semantics and modern type theory. Any prioritising decision has a cost and I don’t expect there’s a systematic algorithm for comparing those costs.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I agree there is no algorithm for deciding between Indian philosophy and categorical semantics. In fact, there is no algorithm for deciding between Indian and Western philosophy either. Time spend on Kant could be time spent on Nagarjuna. That is the whole point of raising the issue at the level of the department. Given that there is no algorithm, what is the reasoning behind having a curriculum so skewed only towards some Western thinkers?

The student asking McGodel about Indian philosophy isn’t asking McGodel, “Why don’t you learn Indian philosophy?” as much as asking, “why is the department you are a part of ok not teaching anything beyond standard Western texts?” To answer this latter question, McGodel doesn’t have to read Indian philosophy, as much as engage with the conceptual issue of what a justified departmental curriculum can look like. In answering, McGodel isnt’ speaking on behalf of his department, but simply speaking to the fact that in viture of being part of the department he is committed, implicitly or not, to how the department represents what philosophy is. It is that commitment that the student is trying to talk about. And for McGodel to answer that, he doesn’t have to read up on anything per se, as much as just speak honestly and openly about what kind of a philosophy department he values and what his reasons are; and how he sees the department can balance the professors’ freedom to pursue what they want with addressing the students’ interests, varied as they are.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I’m sympathetic to lots of this – but of course, if the student does ask “Why is the department you are a part of ok not teaching anything beyond standard Western texts”, McGodel can reply, “Hardly anything I teach is a ‘standard Western text’ – my teaching, like my research, is all about contemporary mathematics and logic and their philosophical significance, and is culturally neutral insofar as modern maths and logic are culturally neutral”.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

A fair point. Though it seems to miss the thrust of the student’s question. The reason a student would ask McGodel about what he makes of the department’s curicculum is because the student wants to know what McGodel makes of the department’s offerings on “standard” philosophical topics like mind-body problem, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, history of philosophy, etc. That is, what the student wants to know is precisely what McGodel makes of the kind of philosophy in the department he doesn’t do, i.e. the kind of philosophy which is not obviously culturally neutral.

In effect McGodel’s response to the student seems to be: “Hey, don’t bother me, because what I do is already culturally neutral, and it is not concerned with standard Western texts. So don’t try to change the department so that people like me lose our spots.” Ok. But it leaves open unanswered the issue of how much of the rest of the philosophy taught in the department is in fact not culturally neutral, and how to go about thinking about that. Maybe McGodel doesn’t want to think about this topic. But by being a member of the department where most people are teaching “standard Western texts”, he has some responsibility to speak to how he sees philosophy more broadly and not only as a logician and mathematician.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Well, “standard” is interesting there. Isn’t the idea that these topics are standard, and McGodel’s interests non-standard, potentially a different form of parochialism?Report

Bharath Vallaba
Bharath Vallaba
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

The word “standard” can discarded. The relevant issue is that McGodel’s philosophy is clearly culturally neutral. Sure, someone might deny this and say Logic is western, but I don’t take this seriously. If McGodel was interested in philosophy of chemistry or philosophy of biology, that too would strike me as culturally neutral. But there is lots of stuff that happens in philosophy departments which is not culturally neutral – history of philosophy most obviously. And there there is a great deal of stuff which is unclear whether it is culturally neutral or not – ethics, phil mind, epistemology. I don’t deny they aim to be culturally neutral, but the question is whether they manage this. So when the student asks McGodel about Indian philosophy, what he is asking in effect is: “What do you make of the stuff which isn’t obviously culturally neutral? Do you think it is actually culturally neutral, or if not, how can things be changed?” Nothing in this question requires rigidifying any sense of standard.Report

Owen Schaefer
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I think a core problem of the statement “Regrettably, I don’t know anything about Indian philosophy” is that it’s a little disingenuous – it doesn’t really match what the speaker really means. “Regrettably”, in particular, seems to imply that one wishes one had done otherwise, or accepts that one should have acted differently – in this case, that one should have read more Indian philosophy. But per David’s analysis above, the intended meaning is the opposite. Due to time constraints and relevance, the speaker thinks it is *perfectly well justified* that the speaker didn’t read up on Indian philosophy.

A listener who is familiar with this real meaning could thus fairly interpret the “regrettably…” statement in a little more accurate a fashion: “*Justifiably*, I don’t know anything about Indian philosophy.” And maybe that interpretation is what Justin Smith objects to – the idea that Indian philosophy (and other neglected fields) is simply not so valuable to study as other subdomains.

The problem may become more acute in some contexts. Here’s one: after a talk on, say, contemporary moral philosophy, someone brings up a point about the talk’s intersection with Indian philosophy. The speaker then replies with the “regrettably…” The main problem isn’t that the speaker is ignorant of Indian philosophy, but (on the ‘justifiably…’ interpretation) that the speaker implicitly rejects the whole genre of response as not worth looking into. It shuts off further inquiry, and reinforces norms that certain fields just aren’t worth looking into.
Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Owen Schaefer
5 years ago

“Regrettably”, in particular, seems to imply that one wishes one had done otherwise, or accepts that one should have acted differently – in this case, that one should have read more Indian philosophy. But per David’s analysis above, the intended meaning is the opposite. Due to time constraints and relevance, the speaker thinks it is *perfectly well justified* that the speaker didn’t read up on Indian philosophy.

I don’t think that this implication usually holds. There are lots of things that (in some sense) I wish I had done, or learned about, even though I don’t think it was unjustified/wrong for me not to do those things and learn about those things. (For instance, I wish I knew German, but I think that I’m perfectly well justified in not knowing it. Ditto for vast areas of philosophy that I wish I knew more about.) Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Owen Schaefer
5 years ago

I’m always nervous about fine details of usage, because they’re not always constant between the US and the UK, but at least as I use it, “I regret that P” means “I would prefer things to be P rather than not-P” but doesn’t carry any implication of fault. I regret not being an immortal superbeing, but I don’t beat myself up about it.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

frankly I’d have suspected strong possibility of bullshit on the basis that the sentence starts with ‘regrettably’, a word you see in print but rarely in speech and does not come naturally to most people to say out loud. this applies not just to ‘regrettably’ but any word that’s used in essays but rarely spoken out loud.

my fiancee calls speech like this a Formality Blanket. certain ways of speaking are so contrived and/or autopilot that you can rapidly chain together a convincing-sounding sentence with little emotion and feel safe in how the formality frees you of any emotional commitment to your words. the everyday equivalent to this is when someone in customer service rattles off a rehearsed excuse that they know is company procedure because then they won’t have to be invested in what you’re saying. (which, to be fair, is immensely relieving so I understand the incentive to do it.)

“admittedly” is another one. granted, Eminem uses it in Not Afraid but that’s really just to get the rhyme. people tend to not say “admittedly” when they’re relaxed and saying what’s on their mind, they’ll say “but yeah” or something equally effortless.

obviously this is not sufficient to mean someone is bullshitting. people do speak this way, and if there’s any kind of person I’d expect to do it, it’d be a professor of a heavily verbal discipline. but when a fine alternative to that question is a concise “nope”, I suspect bullshit is likelier than normal.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

Regrettably, my way of speaking, and that of a lot of other people, is different to yours. Attempts to judge people’s intentions by such verbal clues is much more likely to result in projection than insight.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

doubt it. read “Regrettably, my way of speaking, and that of a lot of other people, is different to yours” out to me on vocaroo.com and make it sound natural. it will be hard.

but that’s just a game of ~Giiirl U Don’t Know Me~ and you might not need to do that since easily available evidence against your position exists. you just said that any way to infer likely intention from linguistic patterns is “much more likely to result in projection than insight.” but if this were true, forensic psych wouldn’t exist; some people do have inferences that are better in this respect, and not likely to be projection. I mean, even OKCupid has provided enough data to make reliable inferences from a person’s word choice.Report

Matt
5 years ago

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.”

I really wish that people wouldn’t engage in attempted mind-reading like this. There probably are some people for whom this characterization is true, but for many others, it’s an implausible and unfair conclusion. There are many, many things that are _closely related to my work_ that I don’t have enough time to learn well. There are lots of others that I would enjoy learning about, even though not closely related. I already spend less time on my personal interests than I would like, or is probably healthy. I am sure I am not alone in this. If that’s right, then Smith’s “diagnosis” is not one that should be a default. Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

In one sense of course David Wallace’s response is apt. There is only so much time, and also only so many interests a person can follow.

But in another sense, it is easy to see the problem with David’s response. Imagine a philosophy department with 15 faculty and in which no Indian philosophy is taught. A student who wants to learn Indian philosophy goes to faculty member 1 to ask about Indian philosophy, and faculty member 1 gives David’s response. Then the student goes to faculty member 2, who gives the same response… Same with all 15 faculty members. David’s response is plausible only when each faculty member is considered qua individual thinker. But when a faculty member is considered qua member of the department, and so responsible for the department’s knowledge and representation of philosophy, the situation is different.

The relevant issue regarding Indian philosophy (or Chinese or African philosophy or feminism, etc.) is most fundamentally posed at the level of the department as a whole, and not at individual thinkers. Normally when a faculty member is challenged to speak to their knowledge of or interest in Indian philosophy, they are being asked qua member of a philosophy department, not qua an individual thinker. To turn the issue into that of individual responsibility is either a cop out or presupposes the very implausible view that faculty members are only responsible qua individual thinkers and not qua department members.

I have often heard faculty members give David’s type of response pitched even at the departmental level: “There are only so many things a department can offer. Only so much time, resources, etc. If you want to study Indian philosophy, go to a different department.” (This said in the most sweet voice, the way a shop keeper says, “Sorry, we are closed.”) The problem with this is again obvious: what happens when the most visible, prestigious departments say this, and so do most departments? Where then is a student supposed to go? A department cannot speak just as an individual department but has a role qua member of the philosophy profession. Which raises the question: what is a department qua member of the philosophy profession responsible for? This is a big, complicated, unresolved issue. Ultimately the limitation of David’s response is that it sheds no light on this complicated issue. It substitutes mere biographical data for a discussion about what the profession or a department is responsible for.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

This is not a “problem with David’s response”, which was a reply to the OP regarding the psychology of others philosophers. It is entirely understandable that an individual philosopher might be ignorant on some subject, and so when questioned on that subject, might confess that regrettably, they know nothing about it. I’m sure there are subjects you that regrettably know nothing about.

But by all means let’s address the important issue of what to do about understudied areas of philosophy. There are, as your theoretical colleague points out above, only so many resources in a department. In fact, I don’t think this is an issue that can be addressed at the departmental level.unless the department is very large, because a lack of Indian philosophy is a relatively minor lack at the departmental level, and is one of many such lacks that any department is liable to have to put up with. It is a bigger and more serious problem for philosophy in general if, say, grad students who want to study Indian philosophy can’t because nobody is doing it. If action is to be taken, it would best be taken at the level of philosophers as a whole, perhaps by such actions as the APA offering a prizes in Indian Philosophy or helping to organize conferences where people interested in Indian philosophy can gather. Another thing that would help would be for philosophers of Indian Philosophy to produce lots of highly accessible work.Report

Paolo
Paolo
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

But David’s argument works for departments too. Suppose a student at University of Deep Pockets wants to learn Finnish language, Classical Indian logic, and Hungarian literature. He goes to the respective departments and finds no one..although the department of languages teaches 45 languages, philosophy has a person who works on Indian medieval ethics and literature people who work on Slavic and German literature’s if Central Europe…what is the student to do? One answer-head to the library… As countless others have done before… Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  Paolo
5 years ago

Wasn’t this the point of Hey Nonny Mouse’s second paragraph? If you’re worried about this problem, it’s probably best to address it at the level of the discipline, not the department, and certainly not the individual philosopher. Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Andrew
5 years ago

So the issue is either for the APA to solve, or for the student to deal with on her own? Interesting. Of course, the APA has no such magical power. And the whole point is about how the student can get help thinking about a topic; if she can get everything from the library, no point even taking philosophy classes.

It can’t be avoided: the department is responsible for the issue of plurality, and as a member of a department, a professor is implicated in, and responsible, for how much a department lives up to that responsibility.

This leaves completely open what the department’s responsibility is exactly. Maybe one thinks it should only teach standard Plato, Kant, etc. because Western philosophy is best. If you think that, fine: then say that to the student, and at least give them a sense for where you stand, and defend your belief accordingly. Maybe one concerned one can’t say this without getting vilified in the current climate. Understandable. But it is no help to hide one’s beliefs under the guise of not having enough time, etc.

Or maybe one thinks that there are so many issues at the department level to worry about (jobs for grad students, adjunt teaching, and so on), that one is going to focus on those issues. Well and good. Say that to the student. But simply saying “I don’t know anything other than the courses I took myself in college and grad school” is neither here nor there, and the only reason one usually gets away with such a statement is because of the power differential of the professor who says it and the student who has to listen to it.Report

paolo
paolo
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Bharath – you are building strawmen and refuse to acknowledge arguments. For example, I do not know any philosopher who is worth anything who knows nothing “other than the courses I took myself in college and grad school.” That is not a real human being. Philosophy is, in many ways, a learnt and habituated way of thinking and most philosophers are interested and willing to apply it across a wide range of issues and topics – though not infinite range. People who research Greek philosophy do not only read Greek philosophy. They read many other things in philosophy, literature, and so on. And often advise students outside their areas, even direct dissertations. Nobody is like this. As a student I always found somebody willing to help me understanding things (and that is how I learnt much about Indian and Chinese philosophy as an undergrad) – – but I did not demand that they help me – academy is not customer service.

Now – why is “plurality” something a department is responsible for? I would think that any department’s main objective is to give students foundations in a given field sufficient enough so that the students can, if she is interested, continued to explore on their own. This by no means means that it has to be “plural” and culturally varied. What is the argument for it? There is the political identity argument which already assumes that cultural plurality in philosophy is a really high value. But why is that so? Your reply to this is “it can’t be avoided” – no – give an argument for this. “Culturally varied” philosophy does imply more “universally valid” philosophy any way in which “culturally varied” medicine implies more universally effective medicine. If philosophy is a way of thinking about things – then, in principle, as long as you get a good “training” in thinking that way – you can apply it to other things – those that interest you. I learnt most philosophy from people working on things and teahciing me things I never touched again – reading Cohen and Natorp. In any case, for reasons many have pointed out, this is simply not possible – no department can teach even 10% of world philosophy unless you think departments should have 250 members to satisfy any random student request. BUt it is notable that many try to teach as many things as they can. And look at the APA program, say pacific, – there is plenty of Indian and Chinese philosophy.

Finally, there is such a thing as philosophers liking to talk to each other about their work in ways that can be profitable to them. For many philosophers this is not possible – there are many lonely philosophers of physics or Greek philosophy or what have you in many or most departments. In some very big departments, some people are lucky to have a few colleagues who work on the same issues and it makes all the difference in the world to them. If we go the “plurality” way – we are basically arguing for departmental loneliness for everybody – a place where we will mostly end up being polite with each other, praising how interesting things are and that will be it. The way CompLit departments went. Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Paolo – If you found professors in your department as a student who helped you understand Indian and Chinese philosophy, great. I didn’t. I was met constantly and repeatedly with the response of “Sorry, I don’t know that”, and the conversation ending awkwardly with that, and the professors seeming relieved to move on to another topic having nothing to do with issues of pluralism.

The issue at present is: what kind of an exchange is taking place when a student in a department which teaches only, or mainly, standard Western fare asks a professor about non-Western philosophy? The assumption you, Wallace and others seem to have is: it is a conversation about how the professor chooses to spend his intellectual energy. I am claiming this is not true most of the time, and that when a student raises the topic of non-Western philosophy, they are primarily raising the issue of the department’s responsibility, and treat the professor being talked to as a representative of the department. In this context, for the professor to talk about how he in particular allocates his time and resources is to change the topic; to in fact sidestep dealing openly with the issue of just what the department’s responsibilities are.

In your latest comment you defend one view of the department’s responsibilities. Fine. I disagree, but at least you are now giving your view at the level of what the department is responsible for. What is being at issue in this thread is when individual professors try to make the issue about their individual time commitments, and so turn the conversation away from that of the department’s responsibilities, and away from their own responsibilities as members of a department.Report

paolo
paolo
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Bharath – but you studied at Harvard. There are people at Harvard doing Indian philosophy and so there are some in the Boston area. So I find it surprising you could not find anybody. There are people in US, who would be happy to correspond and recommend things. So I do not find that argument plausible. I do not know why people did not want to work with you on Indian philosophy, but it cannot be that there was no one at all available to you. Btw. I had no one available to me either as an undergrad – so I learned Latin and French on my own, and read on my own. And discuss stuff with friends and some of the teachers, none of them were experts. I see our students organizing reading groups on things we do not have faculty experts. SO I do not think the situation is so hopeless as you portray it.Report

Bharath Vallaba
Bharath Vallaba
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Paolo – At my time at Harvard (eight year ago), there were no mention of Indian philosophy in the philosophy department; maybe changed to some extent since then. You are certainly right that I could have studied Indian philosophy, from accomplished scholars, in other departments at the university (Sanskrit studies, Divinity school…), and more broadly in the Boston area. Based on your comments, I surmise you probably know more about Indian philosophy in a scholarly way than I do, because you put in the time and effort to do so.

If I am so interested in issues of pluralism, why didn’t I study Indian philosophy in depth? Because when I was in classes in the philosophy department, saying taking a course of ethics or phil mind, I would want to ask the professor, “How is this related to Indian philosophy?” The professors usually had no answer. When I audited classes in other departments about Indian philosophy, I would want to ask that professor, “How is this related to African-American philosophy?” The people teaching Indian philosophy usually had no answer. When I audited classes in the Afro-American studies department, I would want to ask that professor, “How is this related to Chinese philosophy?” The professors seemed to have no answer. In each case, the professors would say something to the effect of, “Regrettably, I don’t know anything about that.” Their regret seemed genuine. But it also in each case ended the conversation cold.

This is my point in the comments on this thread: sometimes when a student asks a professor, “What do you think of Indian philosophy?”, they are not meaning to talk about Indian philosophy in particular, but using that as an opening to talk about what it means to have a globally inclusive philosophy; what that even could look like. They could be meaning to raise the issue of what a pluralistic philosophy can look like, not just focus on one strand of non-Western philosophy. Therefore the thing for the professor responding to that question isn’t, “I guess I need to learn Indian philosophy in particular, and well, here are the reasons why I don’t have time to do that”; because the question isn’t motivated by Indian philosophy in particular. It is about what it would mean to bring together different traditions at all – what a truly universal philosophy can look like. Whether it was a class taught by Korsgaard or Parimal Patil or Henry Louis Gates, there was a question hanging in the air of how those classes are connected to each other, of what it looks like for these smart, thoughtful scholars to seriously and substantially engage with each other; but normally there was no context in which they were even in the same room, or where they even really mentioned each other. To have this conversation, sure some at least preliminary understanding of each other’s traditions is needed, but what is not needed is that each has to be a scholar in each of the traditions equally. What is needed is a certain kind of imaginative, sympathetic, collaborative dialogue to reach out beyond their domains of expertise.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

I’m not so sure. I read the passage from Smith as involving a challenge to an individual logician: what do you know, not about Indian philosophy generally, but about Indian contributions to your area of specialization?Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

Two comments:
I would imagine that in many given departments with more than a few members, the AOS of one member might well be taken as a worthless area of inquiry to a different member and vice-versa. The mutuality of this feeling sometimes encourages a reluctant but healthy pluralism and tolerance which does not exclude snobbish dismissal at another level.
Regarding Indian Philosophy in particular, given its long history and internal diversity, there’s not much of a reasonable basis for snobbish dismissal to begin with (certainly not as much as there might be for more limited historical areas such as medieval European philosophy or German Idealism). Given the popularity of courses in Indian Philosophy among undergraduate students (at least in my experience), it’s hard to understand why more departments don’t hire in Indian Philosophy (at least as an AOC or on a part-time basis). Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

—“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.”

Leaving aside the particular example used the accusation of provincialism seems justified and it would be one of mine, and the final sentence is just how I would interpret the many lacunae that exist in academic studies. After all, do not most professionals consider themselves to be philosophers in a ‘western’ tradition, where ‘western’ has become a professional identity entailing a lack of interest in the rest of philosophy?

It seems a fair criticism if we follow Bharath Vallabha and aim it at the department and not the individual thinker, for whom it may be an unfair one. Report

TD
TD
5 years ago

We (not everybody, but me and most) ignore Arabic, Indian and Chinese philosophy because we all have to succeed in a profession where Arabic, Indian and Chinese philosophy are generally ignored while other stuff isn’t. Fine, not exactly our fault; the ignorance is obviously systemic. But individual actions can sometimes solve systemic problems. Here is a suggestion: just fake it.

There are fine anthologies of Chinese and Indian philosophy, Hackett has a nice, brief little volume on Arabic philosophy. Read one book. You won’t be an expert, but come on, you’re not an expert in 80% of the things you teach already. Most philosophers have no idea what’s going on in e.g. Greek philosophy, don’t know a lick of Greek, but still toss around the names Plato and Aristotle, assign them in 101s, and effectively signal to undergrads that Greek philosophy is a legitimate part of the discipline and an important part of a philosophical education. Very few people tell their students “regrettably, I don’t know the first thing about Aristotle,” even though in nearly every case that’s true. That philosophers openly regret their ignorance in the case of non-Western philosophy–rather than attempt to disguise it–is a signal too. At least pretend you think it matters! Without good bluffers for teachers, I doubt I would ever have put the effort into actually developing the knowledge they faked, knowledge I mistakenly took to be a condition of success in the discipline. By the time I knew enough X to realize they didn’t, that X was learnt!

In an hour of reading on the train you can fake your way to a knowing nod or a learned comment on Jaimini or Confucius, in just the same way you fake it with Aquinas or Hegel–the point isn’t that you develop an AOS in Chinese Political Thought, it’s that some kid who reads 20 pages of the Analects in your Intro to Ethics goes on to become the W.D. Ross or Gregory Vlastos of Chinese philosophy in the West. The investment is minimal, the pay-off to the discipline potentially great.Report

Paolo
Paolo
Reply to  TD
5 years ago

Actually, I am not sure it’s possible. I found Indian and Arabic philosophy very hard to get into. Esp. Indian philosophy presupposes knowledge of certain things in a way that one needs to spend considerable amount of time on to make sense of it. Some Chinese philosophy is easier, thanks to its format. You cannot fake certain things. You can fake Euthyphro and Nic Ethics, bug not Posterior Analytics or Timaeus. Or you can fake Anselm, but not Duns Scotus. Report

Thomas
Thomas
Reply to  Paolo
5 years ago

I agree. Having read a bit of Chinese and Korean philosophy, I`m inclined to say, that it really takes some effort to get somewhat comepetent in the field.
In addition to that, if you want to write about Chinese philosophy, sooner or later you will have to learn the language and you need to know a thing or two about Chinese
culture and history. The effort required, in order to be able to teach Chinese philosophy simply is much bigger, than what it takes, to become basically competent in a more traditional
field. If I would have to teach an undergraduate seminar on animal ethics, feminist epistemology or philosophy of education, I would happily do so, after a few weeks of reading some relevant anthologies
and SEP-articles. But if I would have to teach Chinese philosophy, I would just feel like a bluffer after the same amount of preparation.Report

TD
TD
Reply to  Thomas
5 years ago

Right, but my point is you don’t need to be an expert yourself to set a student on the path to becoming an expert. I’m advocating bluffing. Remember: for decades Greek philosophy was taught, if taught at all in departments of Philosophy, by non-experts who got everything wrong. Vlastos wrote his PhD under Whitehead. This was a necessary step towards the emergence of the field as it exists today: with genuine specialists in most PhD-granting departments. My suggestion is that some amateurs teaching some non-Western philosophy badly is likely to be better for the field, in the long run, than everyone regretfully preserving an incapacity to teach any at all.Report

paolo
paolo
Reply to  TD
5 years ago

TD – our point was that Indian or a lot of Chinese philosophy (or Duns Scotus) takes a lot to teach even badly. Vlastos was part of a tradition of philosophy which continually drew on Plato and Aristotle. He knew Greek and Latin. There were scholars before him going back to antiquity. There were established cannons. There was a lively scene in Germany, easily accessible. Very different situation. Some Arabic philosophy is more accessible insofar as it is close to Christian medieval/Ancient philosophy, but not all. I studied a lot of Indian philosophy and I would not want to teach it – I would be completely out of my depth. I remember, when I began to teach in my own area, I used to prepare 4-5 hours per class. And I was not teaching it as well as I wanted to. I cannot imagine what it would take for something totally unfamiliar. Report

TD
TD
Reply to  paolo
5 years ago

Thanks for your response, Paolo–it’s interesting to hear from someone with more knowledge of the traditions at issue. The tongue-in-cheek point of my first post was that the standards put forward for teaching Eastern philosophy are rarely applied to more typical Western fare. Texts like Descartes’ Meditations, Plato’s Republic, and so on, are taught without even a basic understanding of their tradition or context, without the relevant languages, without grounding in scholarship, and without a serious grasp on the argument of the works. Despite the glaring deficiencies of this approach, the process marks these corners of history as live contributors to the discipline of philosophy. Even inadequate treatment can stimulate undergraduate interest in more focused courses on Greek or Early Modern philosophy, courses in associated disciplines, and independent study.

Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy are not marked in this way, but it would presumably do the field some good if they could be. So I would earnestly appreciate hearing more about what, in your experience, makes Indian philosophy so resistant to study and effective teaching. Do you think that Indian philosophy is in some special way unsuited to this kind of Philosophy 101 treatment, or especially liable to be harmed by it (more than Descartes and Plato)?Report

paolo
paolo
Reply to  paolo
5 years ago

TD – Here is where I see the difference. “Descartes’ Meditations, Plato’s Republic, and so on” are taught actually with some pretty good understanding – and for a number of reasons. 1) most people had to take grad course in Ancient philosophy and often took undergrad courses with specialists as part of their majors. 2) Plato and Descartes are an integral part of the tradition of philosophy of which US universities are a part of – they were always alive within that tradition and certain works and arguments of theirs are now well understood by scholars who managed to successfully to transmit much of their knowledge to the philosophers at large. So they might be taught by non-specialists, but those non-specialists understand enough, have enough different translations, commentaries, and secondary literature to make this possible.

What makes, say, Indian philosophy resistant – first, the whole, vast conceptual systems in which different Ancient and later Indian (many) schools operate are not easily intelligible, even if they are (not all) translatable. When your translation says “action” or “mind” or “belief” or “matter,” they generally do not quite mean the same thing as we do. This is much more radical than similar terms in Greek philosophy. But just how much – I do not know – that is a very HARD question. There are so many different schools, going back thousands of years… second, the format of many of the most accessible works (like Bhagavad Gita) is not something one can just read and engage in as philosophy. For one thing, great Indian philosophy texts are primarily religious Hindu texts – as so not only they do not feel they need to argue certain things at all – so you do not know why they say certain things and the text will not help you to find the reasons, but they also often argue from a conclusion (which a lot of Christian philosophers do too). Third, one might think that arguments are identifiable in any case – but this is not always so. It often reminds of Presocratics (if we had their full texts, or popular Hellenistic works. This is Lord’s decription of the path of action from Gita:

The being does not become, one bereft of action,
Just because he does not begin an action,
And by renunciation of everything,
He does not reach the divine, perfect state.
None can remain for even for a fraction of time,
Without doing any action whatsoever,
For by fundamental laws of nature,
One is forced to indulge in some action or other.
He who claims control of the senses of action,
But mentally is a slave to the objects of these senses,
Is living in delusion and is a pretender.

You cannot just read this in a class without knowing how to interpret a text like this. Forget that you might not know what is meant by action, law of nature, or senses. It’s a serious challenge. In any case, there are now people working on it seriously and I expect in 20 years or so we will have accessible introductions and selections of texts that we will be able to use. But it all takes a lot of time and work. One thing I would dislike is to make Indian philosophers bad proto-versions of contemporary analytic philosophers. I see some people doing this – I think it’s a big mistake. Report

MrMister
MrMister
Reply to  TD
5 years ago

From my own experience, there seems to be a false presupposition here. I don’t fake a knowledge of Aquinas or Aristotle. What little history I’ve read has seemed too remote to my own concerns to justify acquiring any mastery over it and I don’t represent myself as having any such mastery.

Or, another way to put it: it seems to me that the question “why are you so provincial?” has force against those who take the history of (western) philosophy very seriously while at the same time ignoring non-western traditions entirely. It is much harder for me to see the force of the question as against those who, by contrast, treat the history of all traditions equally in terms of their benign neglect.Report

Diogenes of Sinope
5 years ago

My friend Glaucon composed these apt verses:

Philosophy be not proud, for some in the blogosphere have called thee
Provincial and superficial — thus thou art so.
From Paris and Ghent much hot air doth blow,
Which fuels, on cue, righteous sanctimony.

With an excess of alliteration and not a little condescension,
His purple highness bids all beware! lest these two faults show.
But in lecturing to others, don’t other faults then grow
In the self-appointed consciences of the profession?

O philosophy, thou poor captive of those who drain the new consensus cup,
Alas, with these finger-wagging ninnies dost thou dwell,
Who scoff at your professors as if that protects thee well —
Would that these bloviators just shut the f-bomb up.

One short blogpost past, I realize how little I know of classical Indian logic,
But it’s nowhere near my AOS, so this seems not catastrophic.Report

Schliesser, Eric
Schliesser, Eric
Reply to  Diogenes of Sinope
5 years ago

Oh, this is swell;
I am honored to provoke such comic doggerel.
Please pass on my compliments to Glaucon,
turning brass into Gold, like brother Plato(n),
defending philosophy by poetry
— even finding a rhyme on sanctimony —
haven’t you read it on Daily Nous,
the Ghent balloon-er sailed,
while alliterating at high altitude,
out of professional philosophy
–smiling at the multitude.
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PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

I love the idea of faking an understanding of Indian philosophy. This would be like faking an understanding of the Riemann Hypothesis. One wouldn’t even be able to get the language right. Why fake it anyway? Not many people understand it and when they do it is pretty obvious. To fake it would be to admit that one doesn’t see how difficult it is.

For me it would not be ‘Indian’ philosophy. It would be a global and perennial philosophy that normalises on ‘non-dualism’. A study of it would therefore kill a lot of birds with one stone. So many birds, in fact, that it could be said that the decision not to be interested in Indian philosophy is the defining characteristic of the ‘western’ or ‘rational’ approach to philosophy, or what it has become. Indian philosophy as it emerges in the late Vedas would be the only philosophical idea that this approach flatly rejects.

Yet unless one is a historian It would not be necessary to study Indian philosophy and then Chinese and then Tibetan and so forth, which would be an endless task. They would all be the same perennial philosophy at heart, the one we must reject for any chance of tenure.
.
Justin’s original article uses the example of ‘classical Indian logic’ and not ‘Indian philosophy’ and this seems an important distinction. It would be excusable if a philosopher has little knowledge of the former, I hope, because that would include me by any decent measure, but it seems to me that a student could reasonably ask his or her prof. why the latter is not a core curriculum subject and expect an informed answer from any philosopher.

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Raph
Raph
5 years ago

I think Smith’s point is not only about Indian (or Chinese, or Arabic) philosophy, though that is certainly part of it, and I am glad that so much of the discussion has focused on that. His point is that philosophy’s self-understanding as a universal and timeless discipline (a disguise, as he puts it), has led to provincialism, by which I think he implies a much larger provincialism than simply lack of interest in other (non-Western) philosophical forms of inquiry. There is a kind of philosopher (I know more than a few) who disparages and is fervently uninterested in anything that is not universal and timeless — including art and culture in general. The non-apriori character of these pursuits (and of politics) makes them non-philosophical. Of course, this leads many philosophers (in my experience) to live very strange lives, with very little interest in what is around them. And their philosophies mirror their absolute lack of interest in the “empirical.” This is a serious form of provincialism and anti-intellectualism, and I am sorry to say that yes, philosophers can be some of the worst anti-intellectuals — interested only in the limited (a priori) domain which they inhabit.
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paolo
paolo
Reply to  Raph
5 years ago

“There is a kind of philosopher (I know more than a few) who disparages and is fervently uninterested in anything that is not universal and timeless — including art and culture in general.” You cannot conclude from the (alleged) fact that there is such a type of philosophers that the whole discipline is like that! I know a bunch of philosophers who are active artists, cosmopolitan, and with deep knowledge and appreciation of history and the world. That does not make philosophy – as a discipline – any of those things. But even if there are such philosophers – so what? – who is to say that they are wrong in being like that? Is it necessary to judge their lives strange? As opposed to what lives?
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Raph
Raph
Reply to  paolo
5 years ago

Of course I don’t imply all philosophers, and clearly there are a number of philosophers who are interested in art, politics, etc. What I mean is that — following Smith’s main point about provincialism and the disguise of universal and timeless truths — there is a certain type of philosopher who puts that universal and timeless character of philosophy to use against culture, or more specifically, against a philosophical interest in culture and politics. This philosopher regards any philosopher who has an interest in those (empirical) aspects of reality as somehow a lesser philosopher. There is, in other words, a sense of hierarchy, an assumption of who a good philosopher is, and the ones who are interested in art and politics are regarded as being lesser philosophers for the specific reason that they are interested in those things. This to me is a real problem, and it is not unique to one department, or one region. And I think it is a clear case of anti-intellectualism: a rejection of intellectual pursuits that are deemed not worthy because they are not timeless and universal. Report

Five-alGhostUp
Five-alGhostUp
5 years ago

Until a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about anything that didn’t contain a ton of numbered sentences.

After a few years of shame about that, I proudly embraced my ignorance until I became ashamed of it again.

Now I know pretty much everything about pretty much everything.

But I aspire to be good enough at just one useful thing that I’ll be compelled to say that I don’t know anything about anything else one day.

I think that’s pretty normal and not that big of a deal.

But I dunno. I didn’t read the billions of comments above this one.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
5 years ago

People keep going on about having conversations about pluralism. There really isn’t much of a “conversation” to be had. Indian philosophy requires a technical background, and thus there is either someone in the department with the training to teach it at the graduate level, or there isn’t. If there isn’t, you can always meander into the religion department and see if the have any interested Indologists. My experience has been that Indologists are more than willing to work with philosophers if they’re willing to put the work in with the sanskrit or pali. But of course this is purely anecdotal. If that isn’t an option, then you can ask the department to hire someone with the right background. Other than that, there really is no further “conversation” to be had. At least not one that is actually going to help you study Indian philosophy.

At the broader level of the academy, yes, some of this is undoubtedly deliberate parochialism if not downright racism. But I suspect the majority of it nowadays is simply due to institutional and pedagogical inertia. Like I said, Indian philosophy requires a technical background. Since there aren’t that many philosophers with that background, they in turn can’t train that many people to have the requisite background. It really is a matter of resources more than anything else. I think many philosophers are genuinely regretful that they don’t know Indian philosophy, if for no other reason than the perpetual worry that someone else (in this case, an old Indian) has already solved the problem that they’ve been working on and they just don’t know it.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

YAAGS – I seem to share your view on this with the proviso that I do not believe that an understanding of Indian philosophy requires a knowledge of Sanskrit, Pali or any specialised tools. It is my belief that your worry is fully justified and yet I wouldn’t know Pali from Klingon. It would depend how one studies. If one wants just the the ideas, perhaps in order to check that your worry is not justified, then they have all been translated into and explained in English.

It is not specifically Indian philosophy that is ignored, it seems to me, for which language might be be excuse, but anything that might be called mysticism in any language, This impoverishes philosophy, some would say neuters it, and causes people to complain about the curriculum.

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Justin Smith
Justin Smith
5 years ago

It would be useful to recall that the original article is about philology, not philosophy (Schliesser, naturally, highlights the one passage where I do bring up philosophy), and in fact I explicitly say that I am not so interested in what academic philosophers today consider to be worth knowing about. I have detected over the years a sort of back-handedness, perhaps unconscious, to the term ‘erudite’, as a stock expression of praise coming from philosophers when they encounter someone talking about, say, Bedouin oral poetry or the impact of the discovery of mammoth fossils in 18th-century France. Academic historians perk up when they hear about these things, eager to find out what lessons they can extract from them; philosophers smirk or go blank, maintaining a sort of ‘not my problem’ look on their face. I personally believe, following somewhat the method and spirit of Leibniz, that one can extract a great deal that is of philosophical importance out of subjects such as these (out of anything, really). (Academic philosophers meanwhile in fact *are* extracting philosophical lessons out of things that in other times and places would have been completely off the radar of philosophical concern, such as their own family lives, which really ought to come with the lesson that everything is potentially relevant to philosophy, and that it just happens that oral epic and natural history are not among the things that are valued by the currently dominant philosophical culture in the Anglophone world.) There are very few philosophers working in the Leibnizian vein today or defending the philosophical value of attention to ‘res singulares’ (an archaic definition of the subject of history), and most suppose that the reason one would aim for ‘erudition’ is because one is lacking in rigour or native genius. I reject the implicit distinction between true philosophy and erudition. I understand that not everyone can become an expert on Bedouin oral poetry (I am not), but there is a difference between committing to becoming an expert in a given field and recognizing its potential relevance to one’s intellectual project. Philology has done a much better job of keeping this relevance in sight than has philosophy, at least in the etiolated bureaucratic form it has taken since the end of the 18th century. Report

jackie taylor
jackie taylor
5 years ago

Can Diogenes of Sinope have his own blog? Or does he already have one or two? I loved Glaucon’s verse.Report

George Gale
George Gale
5 years ago

Here’s one rather obvious, even simpleminded solution (sorry I can’t put it into iambic schmambic as the bards above have), we found at UMKC back in the day. When my dear friend Chen Weihang departed Wuhan University for the West, my department immediately grabbed him and scouted up enough money to keep him around for several years. Then, just as instantly we putting him to work, teaching Chinese philosophy, comparative philosophy, and anything else he/we could think of. We didn’t have a classroom big enough, basically.
We’ve done a similar thing with other world philosophies, Indian, Japanese, etc. Anytime we catch the scent of someone in the Kansas City area who can do such a class, we try to bring it off. It has been an enormously rewarding enterprise for everyone concerned–students, public at large, we faculty, and the visiting prof. No “regretably”s around there.Report