When historians of philosophy look back on our age they may be surprised by the tolerance analytic philosophers have displayed toward cultural studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, LGBT studies, women’s studies, gender studies, African-American/black studies, disability studies, and those sections of slightly more traditional disciplines (for example, anthropology, sociology, and English) that have also been dominated by Theory. After all, it is well-known that these disciplines—henceforth, I shall refer to them as studies—exhibit only an infinitesimal fraction of the discipline which analytic philosophers expect from their colleagues (in nonpolitical contexts). Recall, for example, that Crispin Wright publicly criticized John McDowell for not being rigorous enough, even to the point of questioning his status as an analytic philosopher; and that Timothy Williamson publicly criticized a large part of analytic philosophy for the same reason:
Much contemporary analytic philosophy … seems to be written in the tacit hope of discursively muddling through, uncontrolled by any clear methodological constraints… All too often it produces only eddies in academic fashion, without any advance in our understanding of the subject matter. Although we can make progress in philosophy, we cannot expect to do so when we are not working at the highest available level of intellectual discipline (Williamson, ‘Must Do Better’).
Williamson adds to this complaint that much work in analytic philosophy is “obscure”, and, as far as the use of arguments is concerned, barely better than most continental philosophy.
Wright and Williamson may well be right that many analytic philosophers are insufficiently rigorous, but one has to keep in mind what their standards are. Wright expects “the clearest possible… formulation of assumptions, targets, and goals”, and Williamson expects “the highest available level of intellectual discipline”. If these are standards of intellectual inquiry to be adopted in the humanities, then what to think of the aforementioned (cultural, queer,…) studies, where the highest level of rigor seems to be reached as soon as one is able to quote Badiou, Deleuze, Foucault, or Lacan without typos?
True, analytic philosophers occasionally express denigrating comments about the studies in private, but, in public, they are strikingly reserved, and even on the defensive. This seems to be truer than ever. In 1999, Martha Nussbaum still questioned whether Judith Butler “belongs to the philosophical tradition at all, rather than to the closely related but adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric”. Today, prominent analytic philosophers are happy to regard her as a great thinker. For example, Jason Stanley calls Butler “one of the great philosophers of our time”. Perhaps more surprisingly, David Chalmers praises Butler’s treatment of gender as “groundbreaking”, and as part of one of the “most exciting” trends in philosophy. Note that Butler is the American gender theorist par excellence. In 1998, she was awarded the first prize in Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contest for the following sentence:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
(When Nussbaum quoted this sentence in her critique of Butler, she was careful enough to add that such bad writing is “by no means ubiquitous in the “queer theory” group of theorists with which Butler is associated”.)
Also in a defensive mode, Brian Leiter—not much of an analytic philosopher himself, but at least a reference point in the analytic blogosphere—repeatedly criticized Naomi Schaefer Riley, calling her a “moron”, a “malevolent empty vessel”, and a “brainless non-entity”, among several other things, for her criticism of black studies in the Chronicle of Higher Education (for which she was promptly fired). More generally, it is quasi-impossible to find a prominent analytic philosopher criticizing the aforementioned studies on a blog, in an opinion piece, or in an interview. Instead, one reads in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that analytic feminists “draw on feminist critical race theory, queer theory, and disability studies to enrich their understanding of the ways in which various axes of oppression and privilege intermesh”.
The only notable exception within analytic philosophy—assuming a broader notion of this movement than Wright’s—appears to be the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who continues to lambaste the studies for their poor scholarship at the service of political conformity (see, for example, this video and this interview). Apart from him, analytic philosophers seem to be happy to let the studies benefit from philosophy’s culture of silence. Perhaps it is not a coincidence, then, that the famous Sokal hoax, which struck at the heart of the studies, was perpetrated by physicists instead of analytic philosophers.
What is more worrying, quite a few analytic philosophers seem to be eager to go down the path of the aforementioned studies, and turn analytic philosophy, too, into an ideological bulwark centered on the notions of race, class, and gender (albeit one that may generate less nonsense). For example, analytic philosophy now has summer schools for women only (here and here), grants for promoting diversity in respect of race and gender, reading lists that have been screened for their inclusion of certain “underrepresented groups” (here and here), and, last but not least, an increasing number of jobs that can only be taught by those who have the right—that means, leftist—opinions about race, class, and gender. All of this seems to be part of the trend toward “socially driven philosophy” that Chalmers embraces in the interview from which I quoted. And what this suggests is that the public tolerance of analytic philosophers toward the studies is to be explained, not by the live-and-let-live rule adopted by academics across the political spectrum, but rather by a let-the-Left-live rule adopted by academics on one side of that spectrum. In other words, it does not matter if you produce nonsense, as long as it is left-wing nonsense.
- Live and Let Live, or Let the Left Live? - March 31, 2017
- Philosophy’s Culture of Silence - March 1, 2017
- Against Open Borders - February 8, 2017
- Implicit Bias: From Early Death to Failed Resurrection - January 17, 2017
- On What Doesn’t Seem to Matter - December 28, 2016
- Closet Conservatives - December 12, 2016