Posts filed under ‘Academia’

Editing and Knowledge

On the subject of Silvestre de Sacy’s three volume Chrestomathie arabe, a selection of writings from Middle Eastern and Northern African cultures, Edward Said has this (and much more) to say:

Sacy’s anthologies were used very widely in Europe for several generations. Although what they contain was claimed as typical, they submerge and cover the censorship of the Orient exercised by the Orientalist. Moreover, the internal order of their contents, the arrangement of their parts, the choice of fragments, never reveal their secret; one has the impression that if fragments were not chosen for their importance, or for their chronological development, or for their aesthetic beauty (as Sacy’s were not), they must nevertheless embody a certain Oriental naturalness, or typical inevitability. (Edward Said, Orentalism, p.129)

Much of what I am finding fascinating about Orientalism is that it is not just about the characterization and domination of the Orient by European intellectuals, but that it is about knowing. It is a different take on the production and dissemination of knowledge, one more informed by continental authors which I did not really acquaint myself with in the last few years. Said’s most frequent philosophical acknowledgements seem to go to Foucault, and then Marx, but as a philologist he also has interesting commentary on Schlegel and Nietzsche.

This excerpt grabbed my attention in particular because it is about editorship and the politics of pedagogical compilation. Most of the professors I have had in the last few years preferred not to use textbooks. A frequent complaint they voiced was that textbooks consist of information predigested by some panel of experts elsewhere. It also takes a long time for information to be so digested, so textbooks are frequently far behind the work being published in books and journals. The result was that most of what I have read for class in the last few years has been collections of excerpts from books and journal articles, selected by professors.

While it is good to know the editor directly, and be able to engage them in their editorial choices in discussion, I have a new feeling of unease brought about by this passage of Said’s. I would not say that I am suspicious of the sources that have been suggested to me by professors, but I am even more worried about my own range of texts. At the moment, I am my own editor with somewhat limited resources. I have a great deal of time, but not much in the way of money (at least not money I could spend on journal subscriptions). I need excerpts, anyway—I wouldn’t want to read every article in every issue of even one journal, unless it was a special issue on a particular topic of my interest. How can I make the most, though, of the sources available to me? I don’t want to read, and because of my limited memory, time, attention, or money, end up feeling as if I know things only with a certain philosophical naturalness or inevitability.

And maybe that is the real source of my unease: not the issue of editorial motives, but of attitudes towards knowledge. I feel this chiefly, selfishly, about my own attitude towards knowledge. I am worried because that feeling of naturalness or inevitability definitely crept over me while I worked on my senior thesis. Of course science was like this or that, of course religion has this or that attitude towards experience. I don’t think I spent enough time asking, “says who?”

June 10, 2009 at 11:48 pm Leave a comment

An Update?!

It’s been quite a long time since I updated this blog, so I figure it’s time to share some of what’s new. My Division III project at Hampshire College has been taking up most of my academic time. Instead of having this blog available as an outlet in which I can voice my thoughts that are unrelated to a particular class, I have no classes to which my thoughts are not related. My writing goes directly into my Div III, which is a fantastic situation. Unfortunately, it means that this blog sits neglected in some dark corner of my memory and attention.

I’m not sure what use I will have for this blog in the next few months, but it might experience a revitalization after my graduation. I tend to greatly increase the frequency and length of my posts over the summer, when I’m away from an academic setting.

Thinking over this post, I’m not sure if it actually says much of anything. I guess it’s closer to an indication that I just remembered that I have a blog, and that I haven’t been doing anything with it since August. In the meantime, I’ve been writing more in my comments over at sciencereligionnews.blogspot.com

March 23, 2009 at 9:02 pm Leave a comment

Why Philosophy Should Emphasize Interaction Over Specialization

In the last century, philosophy as it exists in academia has specialized itself heavily, sometimes to the detriment of its ability to interact with outside fields. Such specialization is a modern phenomenon, and it’s impact on debate in multi-disciplinary subjects like that of science and religion has been detrimental. A general philosophical background and thorough understanding of topics external to but considered by philosophy is necessary to advance debate in those subjects, but this is discouraged by specialization in philosophy.

Some might say that specialization has always existed in philosophy, and has helped rather than hindered debate. It is true that philosophers have long found rich patrons and been instated at the Academy. All the same, I would bet that increased professionalization in philosophy parallels professionalization in the sciences. The growth of Universities from the nineteenth century onward increased professional opportunities for philosophers as well as anyone else. And with this professionalization came increased specialization.

It is also true that there have been separate branches of philosophy ever since the field was formalized in Ancient Greece: metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology have long been distinct categories of philosophy. That said, there are more “philosophy of…” categories today than ever. Philosophy of science became a titled specialty through the research and Diaspora of logical positivists like Carnap and Hempel. Philosophy of action came about as a field largely through Wittgenstein and G.E.M. Anscombe. Philosophy of mind as a specialty has really taken off since behaviorist psychology imploded and neuroscience took its explanatory place.

As these specializations gained increasing recognition, schools began offering courses of study that focused on a particular philosophical segment and not others. Philosophical specialization as it exists today is a modern phenomenon.

I don’t mean to present a simplified view of modern philosophy. These different subjects I’ve introduced as my examples do not exist in a vacuum, and they are increasingly forming new and innovative combinations. But this hybridization seems only to increase the amount of specialties rather than emphasize a more universal philosophical standpoint. Bioethics, neuroethics, social studies of knowledge, and more all show that hallmark of increased specialization: graduate programs devoted to their study. These programs are certainly attractive; I’m aiming to head into one, myself. I’m just not convinced their impact on philosophy has been altogether positive.

Why am I writing this now? Where I’ve taken classes in plenty of “philosophy of…” categories, this semester I took a class on science and religion. In the class, I’ve focused on the topic of causation with a specific historical interest in the topic as it was discussed by figures that have philosophical taxonomists lying awake at night, asking their pillows, “Should I put Avicenna down as a physician? A philosopher? A theologian? Damn!” My research for the class has largely concerned itself with figures like Aristotle, Augustine, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, Averroes, and Aquinas… a formidable chronology of philosophers who blended (each in a distinct manner) philosophy, science, and theology in the examination of their world.

So I can’t help but wonder where the Avicenna of today might be found. In doing so, I’ve had the pessimistic thought that it’s unlikely that the current academic system could steer someone to a path similar to his. Interested in theology? Go to seminary! Interested in medicine? Go to medical school! Interested in metaphysics? Better head over to the Philosophical Gourmet to get a good idea of where the great metaphysicians of today are teaching! It could be that my finals-related stress is spilling over into angst regarding my future in the field, but philosophy as it has previously existed was not as easily classified as so many graduate programs. It was also not so easily classified as the philosophical want ads are these days: “WANTED: A Phd in Philosophy with a background in philosophical Logic, Philosophy of Science, and Philosophy of Language. Non-tenure track position with 3-year limited fellowship.”

Could it be that all this categorization is a bad influence on philosophy? The 20th century had did have its Renaissance figures, several of which were brilliant polymaths. This is not to mention that there are good reasons for specialization– not the least of which is the staggering increase of information that arrives each year. If I go to graduate school for philosophy of science, there is easily enough material to take up the rest of my life in debate. The same can be said for any of category of philosophy.

Where the specialization of philosophy seems to be the most damaging is where the specialization seems to pit philosophy against other disciplines. The conflict between science and religion has, at times throughout the year in my class, seemed to be transmuted to a conflict between philosophy and religion. This idea is not new. Augustine put theological knowledge over all other varieties, and there is a reason Al-Ghazali’s famous work is titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers.

Looking backwards, it seems that for every Augustine and Al-Ghazali there is an Averroes and Aquinas. There seems to be a component in the debate between the works of those authors, however, that is missing today. Aquinas and Augustine may have been theologians first, but their works also place them amongst the great philosophers. Averroes may likewise be considered more of a philosopher than anything else, but he was also a theologian, physician, and a lawyer. Their thought epitomizes the great work that can come from interdisciplinary scholarship. In considering any area where philosophy seems to conflict with another discipline, their example should be considered.

Philosophy is conducted better from a multi-disciplinary background. The most important thing to take away from such a background is the knowledge of how to take other viewpoints seriously in debate. Medieval conceptions of causation are not poorer because they came about in a theological framework, even though such a framework might not allow for the most complete explanation. Likewise, theologians should take philosophy concerning the possibility of miracles from the perspective of metaphysics seriously. Philosophy has benefited from interaction with other fields before, and the importance of this interaction cannot be overstated. In preparing students to participate in the historical debates of philosophy, academia as a whole should keep this in mind: specialization doesn’t always lead to the best explanation.

December 9, 2007 at 10:44 pm 2 comments


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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