Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Stuhr on American Philosophers

I've been reading John Stuhr's Pragmatism, Postmodernism and the Future of Philosophy, thinking about assigning it for a class. So far it's an interesting read.

One passage early on grabbed my attention, and struck a nerve. Stuhr writes:

At this point you know the routine, I know the routine, we all know the routine. You do know the routine: A writer steeped in pragmatism calls attention to, and bemoans, current educational problems [or, I'd add, philosophical problems]; trots out favorite, familiar quotations; refers to favorite pragmatist authors as resources for dealing with these problems; concludes by urging that we make use of these resources, apply pragmatic theory to practice, render practice more intelligent and meaningful; and everybody (with a home) goes home, happy that another chapter is done. (10)
I'm certainly guilty of doing that; in fact, I'm guilty of doing it last week. That's why this passage struck a nerve.

Stuhr really has a point. Those of us who are fans of American Philosophy, and of the great American philosophers, aren't necessarily doing this tradition a favor by trotting out the same story lines. Then it just becomes a self-congratulatory echo-chamber, and that doesn't do philosophy, American philosophy, or those who might benefit from philosophy, much good.


Blogger Khadimir said...

It is not clear to me to what you are objecting.

Are you objecting to those that extoll the virtues of American philosophy yet who do not contribute to American philosophy as an academic corpus? Or, are you objecting to a lack of non-theoretical "work" being done through the embrace of the American tradition.

Concerning the former, I have seen many invocations of American philosophy to save the day without subsequently seeing any salvation occurring. Perhaps I have yet to stumble across that work (I do linger long in the history of philosophy), or perhaps my intuitions are correct. Is there not substantive work being done *in* American philosophy, which is a distinct question from asking if there is not much being done *with* American philosophy. I would answer affirmatively in the latter.

American philosophy would prosper if work were done within it rather than against it as a tool or background for thought. While it is good that Quine, Goodman, Rorty, etc. may turn to American philosophy for fresh ideas, I believe that American philosophy is good for more than dumpster-diving.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Evelyn Brister said...

I agree with Jason, that it's not clear that this 'routine' is useless, or any more useless than comparable routines. If anything, this is just the trope for doing historically conscious philosophy. American philosophy, analytic philosophy, Humean philosophy, Gadamerian philosophy, any of it.

One hopes that in the fourth step, "concluding by urging that we make use of these resources...," something positive is suggested. Or that, eventually, some action is taken that is causally related to the bemoaning and trotting and resourcing.

I think it often is. I can speak more to feminist philosophy than to American philosophy (maybe you guys do have an inaction or originality problem--but I have my doubts). We have papers with titles like "Towards a feminist theory of power," "Towards a feminist philosophy of science" etc. etc. And in addition, feminist theorists do get involved with deployments of power, improving scientific methodology etc. (E.g., Sandra Harding is a consultant to United Nations organizations).

The problem is only that if there is too much distance between the first three steps and the fourth, then the connection may not be recognized. The more practical recommendation may not be recognized AS American philosophy, etc. But that's a different problem.

3:49 PM  
Blogger hilde said...

I think there have been a number of significant contributions by American philosophers. Recent pragmatists have affected the animal rights movement, the bioethics and end of life areas, environmental ethics, economic method and theory of the economic actor, legal theory (Posner!), and other areas as well. These areas have direct connection with political and ethical action. Just because one is not involved directly in these connections does not prove they're not happening nor that American philosophy is not relevant. The notion that "salvation" is any kind of a test runs counter to the repeated historical fact that most social and ethical progress is gradual and piecemeal. Everyone wants quick validation, today, even philosophers. Doesn't happen that way.

If American philosophy has a problem, it is inherent in the careerism encouraged in the professiorate by the system and in the consumerism encouraged in the students by the culture and the universities vying for their tuition dollar. Careerism, however, is a systemic problem for all fields of philosophy and indeed all fields in academia. Can academe change this? Well, it has a marginalized voice in a culture running at full tilt toward money and status. What do you think the chances are?

Not too good.

12:28 AM  

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