Links added lately…
- “Our democracies are already gamified. Our goal should be to do it better” — we can go “beyond gamification’s traditionally thoughtless application of points and badges” and use “game design principles put the oft-dashed ideals of digital democracy into practice,” argues Adrian Hon
- “Agency appears to be an occasional, remarkable property of matter, and one we should feel comfortable invoking when offering causal explanations of what we’re observing” — an attempt to provide a scientifically respectable explanation of agency that doesn’t explain it away, from Philip Ball
- “The value of the humanities is, upon exposure to real humanistic practice, self-evident… a society that acts as if this were not true, that threatens artists and philosophers and poets with oblivion or obscurity if they cannot justify their existence, is a profoundly sick culture” — John Michael Colón on the confusions of the “canon wars”
- “Decades of research have revealed a deeper truth [about protons], one that’s too bizarre to fully capture with words or images” — but it doesn’t stop this writer and graphics editor from trying. One example of the weirdness: “the proton contains traces of particles… that are heavier than the proton itself”
- Now Open Access: 7 articles by Kripke and 12 articles and book chapters by others about Kripke’s work — “The Legacy of Saul Kripke” is a memorial collection put together by Wiley (via Eric Piper)
- “Ask your kids questions and question their answers. Really get them thinking about issues. Don’t be afraid of these conversations with your kids. You don’t know all the answers. But you don’t have to know the answers” — Scott Hershovitz (Michigan) interviewed about kids and philosophy
- “Instead of supposing that physics must be queen of all we survey, I recommend we construct our image of what an ultimate science might be like on the basis of what current science is like when it is most successful. Physics does not act as queen in these cases” — “Rather,” says Nancy Cartwright (Durham), “she does her bit as part of a motley assembly of scientific… and engineering disciplines”
Mini-Heap posts usually appear when 7 or so new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, a collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers. The Heap of Links consists partly of suggestions from readers; if you find something online that you think would be of interest to the philosophical community, please send it in for consideration for the Heap. Thanks!
In response to the Colon piece:
While the basic claim being made here about the role of the humanities/liberal arts is no doubt acceptable to many, if a bit banal, the narrative of the “postmodern” “deconstruction” of the canon is both lazy and largely inaccurate.
The anxiety resulting in seemingly endless justifications of the humanities/liberal arts stems not from the loss of some shared yet imagined cultural knowledge, but rather from economic factors.
The humanists are fighting for their jobs and many are underpaid, lack research support, and do not have stable positions. Many, perhaps the wisest of this group, leave the work of education for exactly these reasons.
The students of the humanists, or at least those who might have been in another era, pay tremendous amounts for their educations, often accrue life-altering debt, and find an economy in which the undergraduate degree has more or less the same value a high school diploma did decades ago–expected but not really necessary to do the great majority of white collar jobs.
“Stop being defensive about the humanities” sounds like a rallying call at first, but in fact it’s simply a misunderstanding. The defensiveness results from real, material in the Marxian sense, circumstances. Of course political matters and cultural changes are reflected (or perhaps stem from) these circumstances, but they are more or less the surplus here, not the real issue.Report
Colon agrees with those who criticize “the Western canon” for its parochialism; what he faults them for is their failure, in his view, to construct “a truly global canon” to take its place.
I think he’d agree that the “defensiveness” about the humanities is mostly driven by economic forces/realities, but he seems to think, among other things, that the “instrumental” defenses are not really working. If they were, then people wouldn’t have to keep churning them out. He doesn’t say that explicitly, but I think it’s probably implicit in the piece.Report
I think you miss my point. The claim “if we had only replaced the prior canon with something similar but more inclusive, then we wouldn’t be on the defensive” is, I think, wrong. The burden is not, and should not be, on the canonizers or de-canonizers. I admit this is a counterintuitive position, but if it is the case that the humanities have been essentially starved for the past 30 years or so, blaming the issue on internal conflicts or a wrong turn along the way is a classic example of the kind of so-called idealism Marx critiques.
It is all well and good to say that the humanities have in many cases done self-defeating things. I don’t disagree–although of course postmodernism (and analytic philosophy!) have produced a great many academics. At the same time, the problem is not that postmodernism killed the golden goose and didn’t replace it, but that austerity and contingent labor hamper the humanities writ large. There will be no revolution, no paradigm shift, at least not the in way we’ve seen before. This is because humanistic study is simply dying on the vine. The tenured are a tiny and shrinking minority speaking to a deteriorating field of peers. The humanities are simply a bad investment by students unless those students are economically comfortable enough not to worry about six figure debt with no real chance of a career.Report
Put more concisely, Colon argues that if we build a global canon, they will come.
I argue that due to a number of economic circumstances, they won’t come no matter how sexy we make our fields.Report
If students won’t come, for economic/material
reasons, regardless of what humanists do with their fields, then there’s no point in continuing to issue instrumental defenses, e.g., “studying the humanities will help you get a job by making you a better thinker and communicator, etc.”
And if there’s no point in continuing to make instrumental defenses, then one ends up — even if one disagrees with Colon’s analysis — agreeing with one of his prescriptions, namely: stop making instrumental defenses.Report
Indeed. I agree with the conclusion Colon makes. I disagree with his reasoning for that conclusion.Report
That Colón piece makes a couple of good observations, but then it undercuts those very points in cliched, slapdash passages like this:
“The kind [of liberal education] I got was of an extremely old-fogey variety, a parade of dead white guys held to be the apex of human culture. This view rightfully came in for a drubbing from poststructuralists, postcolonialists, feminists and other critical theorists.”
This dismissal of the old canon as ‘a parade of dead white guys’ is so familiar that I think most people don’t give any thought to what it implies when they say it. Presumably, Colón is expressing one of these ideas, roughly:
1. The ‘dead white guys’ in the ‘parade’ were indeed great, but some other neglected figures who were at least as great, though they *happen* not to have been ‘dead white guys’; or
2. Those ‘dead white guys’ were great, but because they are white and guys (and maybe because they’re dead?), their insights, arguments, and observations about the human condition and the best society are seriously limited. To make their canon worthy of respect, we need to include a large number of works from non-white non-‘guys’, because one’s demographic features meaningfully limit or determine what one can see and think; or
3. The ignorant professors of the ’80s and ’90s who defended their laughable ‘parade of dead white guys’ failed to see that there was in fact nothing special or worthy about the members of that ‘parade’. Those dead white guys on parade were really nothing more than privileged elites in an oppressive system, puffed up by equally privileged bigots into something they never were, and unworthy of devoted study or perhaps even of serious consideration when there are so many better things to read.
Whichever of the three it is meant to be in this case, Colón undercuts his own point by saying this.
1. In the first case, the complaint is just that there are some neglected figures who deserve to be canonical, or perhaps that there are so many great figures that there is no point having a canon. If there are some neglected greats who belong in the canon, then great, let’s hear about their great insights and include them. But if the point is that these other figures are great enough to be canonical, and the fact that they are non-white guys is incidental, then why mention (especially disparagingly) the demographic features of the more traditional canonical figures at all?
Think of how strange it would have sounded if the case for adding Freud or Hume to the canon had been that what existed without them was culpable for excluding Jews or Scots. It would have suggested that those demographic features were among the main reasons in favor of inclusion. But very, very few figures in the history of thought are so great that their works deserve the attention of any educated person: the bar for inclusion must be very high. The little jabs at the ‘parade of dead white guys’ suggests that the case for including the new figures must not be all that strong. It would be far better just to explain why their works are so great that no serious thinker can afford to neglect them.
Also, if the justification for adding to the canon were merely that these new figures deserve to be read on their merits, how would it follow that “poststructuralists, postcolonialists, feminists, and other critical theorists” made a good case? All those critics (except perhaps feminists, which Colón oddly implies must be a subsret of critical theorists) hold highly controversial views that cannot be vindicated merely by the fact that some neglected figures rightly belong to the canon.
This interpretation does not seem consistent with Colón’s overall position.
2. If the idea is, instead, that some unspecified neglected figures deserve to be in the canon because they are not white guys, and hence are possessed of insights that white guys (especially dead ones) can never have, then the specter of identitarian essentialism looms. If, say, writers of color properly belong in the canon precisely because we need perspectives that only members of that demographic can have, then it apparently follows that there is a perspective (or, somewhat less implausibly, a variety of perspectives) that we need writers of color to bring to the canon. But that not only trivializes the individual contributions of particular writers in that broad category: it also compels members of those same demographics to stand in as fungible tokens of the perspective their demographics constrain them to.
And what a dehumanizing, disrespectful thing to imply about non-‘white guy’ thinkers! It would be particularly odd for Colón to mean such a thing, considering his excellent lament that we are living “[i]n an age when writers of color feel pressured to become human chatbots performing the same fashionable talking points in response to the same discursive input.”
It is just the ideas of the poststructuralists, critical theorists, etc. that have created such a situation.
3. Finally, the implication could be that there is nothing so great about the old canonical figures, really — they are ‘problematic’, or their views are blinkered, or they present just one perspective among many, etc.
It is hard to see why such suggestions would not lead people to feel more doubtful about the merits of reading the great books — any ‘great books’, perhaps. These books demand much from us. Just to prepare to read them, we need a sizable background in the issues, and perhaps even an understanding of the biographical or historical circumstances under which the book came to be written. Then, we have to slow down in ways most people never do with written material or even their own private ideas, and think twice, and then think again, about everything we read. Some passages will be difficult, and they will require our patience.
It is natural for people to ask why they should devote their limited time and attention to that. If the answer is that the writers of these works were just a bunch of privileged ‘dead white guys’ who used to be paraded in front of students when social power relations were different, well, really, why bother reading difficult books and thinking difficult thoughts at all?
Colón may say that it is “profoundly sick” to put artists, philosophers and poets in the position of having to justify their existence; but in fact the noxious developments that made people think it was clever, insightful, or even relevant to criticize canonical figures for their demographic features is a significant part of what’s causing the problem. By normalizing that particularly bigoted sort of ad hominem fallacy as a legitimate form of criticism, we also give would-be readers an easy out when the going gets tough. Why put in the years of careful study needed to think about difficult but influential books when one already has all the sophistication and understanding one needs (i.e. none) to smear the target for belonging to a certain race, sex, or time period?Report
I will admit that in my grad studies I heard folks who go on to be successful academics say things that amount to dismissal based on X objectively bad moral position, e.g. Hegel is not worth studying b/c he wrote racist things. I’ll also grant that there are some quote-unquote theoretical approaches that “smear (a) target for belonging to a certain race, sex, or time period.” Finally, I’ll grant that such smearing is all too common in the simplistic thought of jejune progressive left thinkers, although this lack of nuance is common to more or less all converts it seems to me (Cf. “cage stage Calvinism”).
All of that said, these kinds of pronouncements were the exception not the rule and I do think that Justin K. misrepresents what I want to call the acanonical position of capital c capital t critical theory and poststructuralism. The best of that work will show the contradictions or failures of past thinkers to think through crucial issues of their own thought. Sure, there’s the early Derridian model of dismissal based on some often arch and generally overarticulated analysis. The point though, to return to my earlier example, is to show that Hegel’s racism is in spite of his thought not the result of it. Certainly there are more complex cases (see Heidegger), but I think to conflate poststructural thought with the urge to dismiss or cancel X historical figures is itself ahistorical. The Adornos, Benjamins, Derridas, Deleuzes, de Mans, Baudrillards, Barthes, and so forth didn’t seek to “cancel.” They sought to query. And even if Latour was right in his essay on the degradation of so-called critical theory into conspiritorialist thinking it was, in my view, not the fault of poststructural thought per se but of the, shall we say, poststructural industry (see my comments above on the production of academics).Report