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12/19/2013

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Elisa Freschi

Very interesting quote, not just beacuse of the controversy about Kripke, but also because of the more general question regarding the significance of philosophical work. Personally (since I work in Europe and am paid by the State), I feel a moral obligation to be able to explain to a tax-payer why she has to pay (taxes so that the State can pay) me. Perhaps the situation is different for scholars who are paid through student-fees or who can survive out of writing books?

p.s. (Just a provocative question: Was not Kant enough to understand that a necessary truth is not tantamount to an analytic truth?)

Craig

Just on the heaps bit: Rorty implies we're interested in heaps because heaps are intrinsically interesting rather than because of what they might be able to tell us about the way our language connects with the world. Obviously this makes analytic philosophy look ridiculous but it's an unfair implication (and one I'd only expect from someone who's never studied philosophy). And the sorites is surely ancient enough that Rorty is wrong to cite it as a problem that analytic philosophers are peculiarly interested in.

As to what philosophy professors in France and Germany think or thought... who cares? What authority do they have? I've met too many continental European students in English universities who are delighted to have escaped the stultified, self-satisfied, elitist atmosphere in French and Italian (admittedly not so much German) universities to care much about the opinion of the professors there.

I do not think philosophy as practiced in Anglophone departments is beyond criticism by any means - there's tonnes wrong with it. But Rorty misses the mark.

Rob Gressis

Rorty's administrator says:

"I know that biology has not reached the stage of decadent scholasticism, she might say, if only because biological research links up with medical progress. The biology department, she continues, had no trouble explaining to me why the work of their squid-neurone specialist might eventually culminate in a cure for Parkinson’s Disease. I expect something similar from the philosophy department. I am told that many philosophy professors in France and Germany think that Anglophone philosophy has lost its way: that it no longer has any relevance to anything else in the intellectual world, and that its hyper-professionalism is a symptom of senescence rather than of robustness. I also hear that the undergraduates keep complaining that your department never gives courses on the philosophers whom they want to hear discussed. Before I ratify the proposed appointment, I need to be told why I should disregard such rumours..."

I'm wondering: what kind of answer would satisfy this administrator? Rorty gives two criteria that he thinks would -- or perhaps, should -- satisfy the administrator:

(1) Show the administrator that philosophy has relevance to something else in the intellectual world.

(2) Give courses on topics that undergraduates are interested in.

Regarding (2), first: why should this be a criterion that philosophers care about? Which kinds of philosophers are undergraduates interested in whom they don't usually get from analytic departments? My guesses would include: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, and Rand. I suspect that a lot of undergraduates don't know much about these philosophers, but are interested in them because they're somehow 'sexy'. But why are they sexy? And why should we cater to undergraduates' possibly ill-informed preferences on this score?

Regarding (1), I worry that it either threatens the relevance of just about any humanities, or it's arbitrary. First, imagine that the administrator asked she should care about work done on Derrida, and you tell her, "oh, people in the English department love Derrida. So my work on Derrida helps them make better use of Derrida to approach texts." Perhaps this would satisfy her. If it didn't, she might say, "great, but why should we care about these texts? How does reading Ulysses help find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease?" If it did satisfy her, why should it? Is there something good about interdisciplinarity for interdisciplinarity's sake? That seems arbitrary to me.

Moreover, what about this possibility: scientists -- I suppose they're the only people who matter? (A wrong-headed charge to make against Rorty himself, but not so wrong-headed to make it against the administrator?) -- often make rely on implicit philosophical theses, and these theses are often over-simplistic or simply wrong (I've known at least a couple physicists who endorse the verifiability criterion of meaning). When philosophers try to engage these scientists, they're often rebuffed, usually with a derisive snicker. If we're trying to engage scientists, but they don't care what we have to say -- even if it's clearly relevant to the interpretation of scientific results -- is this our fault?

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