“The danger of a single story” OR: are philosophers naive?

There’s quite a bit on the web about Franzenfreude, which is presumably the pleassure taken at Jonathan Franzen, his writing, and so on. He has, the NY Times maintains, written the Great American Novel, a masterpiece which captures our society; “its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.”

Some people are less than happy with this. They see him as the chronicler of the lives of people like the reviewers, who hardly represent “American life”. There is, some would say, really just a single story allowed.

On thinking about this, I thought back to the NY Times piece on experimental philosophy and our discussion of it. It was hard not to see some of the pieces in the Times as professionally conservative, but did any of us think of what was said in terms of professional gate-keeping? In terms of the insistence by (some of) a layered conglomeration of power sources that philosophy will not be too different from what they think it is?

Should we have raised such questions? Could such questions be connected to our long term concern about the dearth of women in the profession? Is there a gate keeping on the content of analytic philosophy that is preserving not just a power structure but also a single narrative.

It might be worth thinking about the practices of our discipline. If conferences and edited collections of essays are thought to need to have familiar faces with the familiar views in the leading positions, as we are sometimes told by distinguished visitors to this blog, then the maintenance of a power group and its narrative seems very clear.

So what’s being naive about it? I think the charge should be considered if we assess episodes of the sort I’ve mentioned in terms of the intellectual or practical merit, and leave out that we’re engaged in the construction and maintenance of a quite political practice. If nothing else, the popularity of it is on the wane with all sorts of funding sources.

The danger of a single story may vary with the kind or narrative in question, but this video might prompt us to find some analogies with fiction:

4 thoughts on ““The danger of a single story” OR: are philosophers naive?

  1. This would be a fascinating question for an ethnographic study. We really need to convince some anthropologists to study academic philosophy and tell us what they find. :-)

    I have an answer, but it’s not a simple one and I can’t give much support for it other than appeals to my own experience. Do feel free to skip this even-longer-than-usual comment!

    Academic philosophers and other academics who are familiar with academic philosophy often seem to think of contemporary philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind [LEMM] as identical with Analytic philosophy. The PhilPapers survey results suggest widespread agreement among LEMM philosophers on several issues: the possibility of a priori knowledge, the analytic-synthetic distinction, non-skeptical realism, atheism, non-Humean laws of nature, classical logic, moral realism, cognitivism about moral judgment, scientific realism, switching on the Trolley problem, and the correspondence account of truth. This agreement falls short of a consensus, though just how far short would require a more robust statistical analysis than I can produce right now. Some of these positions (a priori knowledge, non-Humean laws of nature) seem to point to a certain rationalist or reflective methodology. And if you dig further into the survey responses, almost every LEMM philosopher has an opinion on several other issues, even though they’re split on what to say about them, eg, the Parfit’s teletransporter, the possibility of zombies. That suggests certain problems are generally taken to be important.

    What we have, in short, isn’t a Kuhnian paradigm, even among LEMM philosophers. But there are probably strong social pressures that marginalize people with inconoclastic beliefs, methods, or views on what the important problems are. It’s not gate-keeping, but it could seem like it if you’re one of the `heterodox’ individuals and you don’t have similarly heterodox colleagues to make you feel connected. Then, if some of the x-phi research suggesting that women are likely to have different `intuitions’ on some major LEMM problems is accurate, women are both more likely to be heterodox and likely to be marginalized (both socially and professionally) as a result of underrepresentation. So, on that explanation, the general agreement among LEMM philosophers may exacerbate women’s marginalization. But it’s impossible to say how large this effect might be without much, much more study.

    However, as a philosopher of science and political philosopher, let me stress that LEMM is not identical with Analytic philosophy. Of the 1803 people respondents to the PhilPapers survey with PhDs, only about 36% listed a LEMM area as their primary specialization. And my analysis of the Philosophical Gourmet rankings suggest that LEMM fields, taken individually, are no more influential on a department’s rankings than most any other area in philosophy you can name (other than Continental). If the PhilPapers survey and Leiter’s rankings methodology overrepresents LEMM philosophers (I suspect this is the case, though I should stress that it’s nothing more than speculation on my part), then LEMM starts to look like just another branch of the Analytic family tree, not the main trunk.

    The survey results and my experience in other areas of Analytic philosophy suggest much less widespread agreement. Philosophers of science, for example, appear more likely to be empiricists, naturalists, and physicalists than metaphysicians; have a much more interdisciplinary methodology; and a very different sense of the important problems.

    This diversity across Analytic philosophy as a whole makes it possible for individuals who are heterodox in one area to move to another, where they are more orthodox — more marginalized individuals can jump to another area, where they are less marginalized. This is what happened to me: I would call myself an epistemologist, except what I do is much more at home among philosophers and sociologists of science than people who do call themselves epistemologists.

    Finally, this possibility of moving between areas with very different shared views, methodologies, and problems makes gatekeeping (and an study of it) much more complicated. Analytic philosophers certainly don’t tell a single story, but perhaps there are still too few to accommodate a reasonable diversity.

  2. Well, damn. Sorry I forgot to close that link tag. Note that `Philosophers of science’, at the end, is separate from the one that I accidentally left open.

  3. It seems right that there’s the diversity that you are pointing out. I do wonder, however, how much LEMM shows up as required basic training. The diversity in philosophy might be like the diversity in medicine in US medical schools and the graduates; there are huge differences, but there are very basic underlying assumptions that are typical of western medicine.

    Williamson sees philosophy as having its own methodology. His comments elsewhere about imagination leads one to think he sees it as typical of philosophers that we test hypotheses by imagining possible counter-examples. That a very distinctive methodology and contrasts very sharply with that of cognitive neuroscience, for example. Another feature: there is right now a very deep preoccupation with representation and truth, and taking truth to be important may mark western philosophy for centuries or millennia, with a few exceptions.

    If I remember correctly, the experimental work on how some women think differently about philosophy has them think about standard philosophical puzzles, like the Gettier case. So they seem to assume that philosophy requires a pretty good tolerance for thinking about such puzzles. Lorraine Code, for one, has acute criticisms of this approach to theories of knowledge. So philosophy as puzzle solving might be one other feature.

    I was just looking at logoskaieros’ blog, and it illustrates approaches to philosophy that seem to me nearly absent from official philosophy.

    One thing that makes this area so difficult is that I don’t come to it with any clear sense of what women would do otherwise. At the same time, and off the top of my hear, I can’t help but wonder whether much of philosophy’s methodology ends up taking concepts out of the human context that made them seem so important. As at least one women philosopher has been arguing recently, philosophy is interested in the line between what is vision and what isn’t, while vision science is interested in the line between well functioning vision and not-well-functioning vision. The problem with restricting one’s attention to the former is that the account ends up extremely exiguous. And ditto, then, for tons of other concepts, more or less.

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