Wednesday, 25 April 2012

One Discipline to Rule Them All, and in the Academy Bind Them

(My title does not have the same ring that the original does.)
In “On Disciplinary Cultures,” a chapter in her book How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgement, Michéle Lamont, a sociologist of knowledge, considers the way in which humanities and social science professors conceive of their own disciplines and other disciplines (since one’s own discipline is in part defined by how it compares to others). She is particularly interested in the ways in which each field approaches the production and evaluation of knowledge, so she looks in this chapter at the ways in which professors discuss applications on interdisciplinary grant panels. I found the chapter an interesting read, but deeply problematic in a lot of ways. For instance, Lamont takes the interview statements as self-evident; she does not interpret the data, or at least she does not acknowledge that what she is doing is interpretation. This can make her rather dull, but it also leaves me wondering whether there isn’t more to say. However, I want to talk less about Lamont and more about some of the interviewed statements and things it got me thinking about.

One of the things that struck me was how arrogant the philosophy professors seemed to be. This might well be oversensitivity on my part, and it might be an issue of presentation, but they sounded rather pompous. In particular, some philosophers have a conception of their field which could come off as a bit patronizing to other fields: “Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas notes that American philosophers think of their field as a ‘second order discipline,’ superordinate to all other disciplines, because it investigates the claims made by other fields.” (Another reason might be that analytic philosophers sometimes conclude that while they are qualified to assess history or anthropology proposals, historians and anthropologists are not qualified to assess philosopher proposals. This might be true in a certain sense, but not everyone considers being incomprehensible a good thing.)

My first reaction to philosophy's supposed superordinate status was to remember how I once considered English a superordinate discipline, though I would not have used that term. One thing we do in English is look at ways meaning is conveyed through language; specifically, we tend to look for ways in which more meaning was conveyed than appears on an explicit level, and usually more than was intended to be conveyed. (There is a lot more going on in the discipline than this, but it is one thing we are trained to do.) Thanks to the ingestion of deconstruction into the department, we also tend to look for internal contradictions and paradoxes ("instability") in the language that is used. I have since learned about discourse analysis and the digital humanities, which use an impressive array of quantitative analyses to look at how particular discourses are conducted, what kinds of responses are necessary in light of the situation, and what new responses are made necessary by those. (I know very little about this field, so I cannot say much more.) In my department, we have assembled a set of tools that are applicable to any text; discourse analysis is usually used to look at media on politics, for instance. We (can) do much more than read literature these days. And so it seems that if a literary scholar had enough background in philosophy to know what the philosophers are talking about, she could use her literary analytical tools on their discourse and understand what it is doing—and where it is going wrong, where it is blind to itself. My discipline was superordinate to all other disciplines because all disciplines communicated in text, and we were the ones who knew text.

I am no longer quite so cocky, of course. Among other things, I am more aware of the anthropologists, who know culture. All disciplines have cultures, and all disciplines exist in a culture. The anthropologists also have a claim to superordinate status. Lamont, a sociologist, seems to be silently positioning her field’s superordinateness in this chapter, first by omitting sociology from her analysis, and second by subjecting other fields to her scrutiny, to try to come to understand their inter- and intradynamics. Particular historians work in the history of ideas, which seems sort of like philosophy and anthropology swallowed up by history, but I am not worried about disciplinary boundaries; historians of ideas (I don’t know what they use as nouns for themselves) might also want to claim superordinate status. I can even see evolutionary psychologists making such a pitch (but ... no, I shouldn’t even start, because I’ve been having a hard time being nice about ev psych lately).

Once the claim to superordinate status begins to proliferate so wildly, no claim looks very valid. Anthropologists use reasoning in their texts and discourses to convey ideas in a particular historical moment within a particular society. Philosophers write in language to convey ideas to particular people, within a particular society and a particular culture in a particular moment in history. No one can say to another field, “You use the thing we study, so we are of a higher order than you,” without that field replying, “But you use the thing we study, so we are instead of an even higher order than you.” And everyone could use their tools to study that argument, too. (By "no one" and "everyone," I mean within the humanities and maybe the social sciences. Engineers and mathematicians and chemists, you are out of luck. Sure, you made the pencils we use to write, but the pencils do not impact the content.)

 Most of these claims are based on slightly different epistemologies. Usually an interdisciplinary scholar can pick and choose between tools without worry, but some topics make this less feasible. A self-aware scholar finds that his selection of tools is strategic, and that in order to do what he wants to do, he needs to cover over the fact that his synthetic (patchwork) method hides contradictory epistemologies. Analytic philosophers believe that language can be used transparently, or at least that logical reasoning can be done in spite of language’s limitations; literary analysts do not agree, believing that language always shapes the ideas it is used to convey. Literary analysts tend to be too widely dispersed methodologically to be subject to the same attacks as a whole, but I am sure that most positions a literary analyst might hold are subject to some analytical-philosophical attack.

Ordinarily this does not matter very much, but what I have been thinking is that, when you are engaged in a conversation with someone, it is not enough to find out what premises they are working from. You also need to figure out what tools they think they are using, and what those tools’ epistemological grounding is. You should figure out what sorts of methods they think are superordinate. And you should probably concede that if they differ from you on this, you will not convince them unless you can use their own methods to show them that their methods are wrong. That can get a bit conceptually hairy. But I am not yet done thinking this through.
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