Monday, April 5, 2010

Commentary on Jason Stanley's "Crisis in Philosophy"

Below are my comments to Stanley and others, awaiting approval from His post is revealing of the deeply entrenched idea that philosophy can only be about inquiries from the perspective of a epistemically-centered subject. 
I want to address the weird interpretation of Positivism from Stanley's post. I earlier commented with an ambiguous phrase, the politics of reading, and now wish to give that phrase a little more bite. First, I explain how it is that positivism is still exclusionary implicitly, and secondly, this can be found within the "story" Stanley provides.

It should be noted that positivism has internal to its own texts a disavowal of metaphysically queer properties like values of right, wrong, beautiful. In essence, anything not corroborated by the principle of verificationism at that time was deemed to consist of poetry. Any philosophy not in line with the principle of verificationism and compositionality is utterly worthless, ambiguous and vague. For these opposite philosophers that oppose this attempt at clarity and rigor exemplify the worst of those they were fighting against, those that " played the role that philosophers are supposed to be play in society – challenging powerful social forces that appeal to mysticism and faith for support." This further excludes any philosophy that would elevate either mysticism, faith or areas not easily confirmed by positivism's scientistic commitments. In this way, it is still exclusionary of what experiences we can talk about that do not conform. If it cannot be stated clearly and, studied scientifically, then one should not even think it can be talked about, let alone philosophized about. Thus, one can already see this commitment makes one suspicious of what one can even read that is philosophical.

Moreover, what makes positivism and largely Analytic philosophy its best and worst IS the continual belief that all modes of inquiry assume the centrality of an epistemically-centred subject. It is not surprising that Stanley sees Zizek and Nietzsche as deviating from the modern tradition of being in line with Descartes and Spinoza. The modern period can be identified as the emergence of the impersonal subject that must justify its epistemological and metaphysical commitments. 

One can do philosophy in other ways not in accord with this overall implicit story of how philosophy must be about the epistemically-centred subject. For instance, there are types of experiences that do not easily conform to this epistemically-centred subjectivity. I am not only a philosopher, but I am a historically mediated subject. I live in a lifeworld that has been sedimented to think in terms of the natural attitude in such and such a way. I am connected to others through communal rituals, religion and politics. In this way, there are strands of philosophy that analyze our lived-experience in ways that attend directly to these experiences while not construing these as problems ahistoricized to an impersonal epistemically-centred subject. That's where the real disconnect with the other humanities is (and speaks to the success of Continental philosophy outside analytic circles in other humanities).

Stanley's pedagogical philosophy also follow this strange line of reasoning--construing the identities of students as holistic worldviews (however incomplete they are to the university student freshman in the intro course), and these belief systems are further rendered along the same line of tradition he reads positivism into, a preserving the continuity from Descartes onward. He offers them another belief to replace their own, to put them into cognitive tension with the self-reflection hopefully modeled on the manner he implicitly assumes is at issue philosophically, so much in fact that once again, the inevitable elevation of science and reason commences. Stanley writes, 

"Logical Positivism, in its embrace of the transformational power of science and reason, does not mark a break with traditional philosophy. Rather it is a continuation of it."

Membership, being part of a tradition, is no means to justify that tradition over others as exemplary. Traditions themselves give no warrant for their own beliefs anymore than my insight that philosophy should pay attention to lived-experience of our concrete human life (if this indeed constitutes a separate tradition). This is why I read Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas personally. It is rather strange that we should be so ingrained and socialized into a tradition, that our preference and even how we read ourselves into the tradition of philosophy is, at this point, revealed as a politics of reading, a cultural outgrowth of methodology. This is revealed also in a certain Brian calling continental figures as anti-philosophical theorists. Is it anti-philosophical to question long-held assumptions in the history of Western thought, and to expose these long-held assumptions? 

I think not. If that held as well, then when Putnam's Twin Earth thought experiment denounced that "meaning ain't in the head" as the tradition of philosophy had held, then semantic externalism would never gotten off the ground. It's just that this mode of questioning didn't abandon the story of the epistemically-centred subject that drives much of Anglophone philosophy currently. As such, Heidegger and Derrida can be read as questioning long-held assumptions in Western philosophy. That's very philosophical to do, and that is NOT DEGENERATE by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone that thinks otherwise cannot stand to interrogate the very foundations they appropriate when engaging in philosophy. Philosophy is always a questioning of itself and its limits while also addressing basic concerns that repeat throughout its history. 

So let's be clear what I have claimed. Stanley's construal of what counts as philosophy is itself a historical bias of placing first and foremost the concerns of the epistemic subject. This can also explain how he identifies Positivism within continuing from Descartes onward. Thus, it can be seen that it is a legitimate concern contrary to Stanley's claim (and other supporters) that there is something anti-philosophical about philosophers that a) question this leitmotif of an entire tradition and b) look to other forms of experience outside thinking that philosophy should always be continuous with the natural sciences. The refusal to assent to either a) and/or b) is the result of a historical and methodological priority that is at best an uncritical "politics of reading." 

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