Sunday, February 3, 2013

Postmodern Pedagogy and Texts

On a recent on-campus interview, I had met with what constituted the humanities departments on campus for lunch. Even on the Search Committee, there were no philosophers. Instead, at lunch, I had been flanked by three postmodernists, and the most repeated questions of the day were not about my research, as a Historian and two English faculty were not interested in Scheler or phenomenology. They were interested in my approach to texts when I teach.

An elderly man with a beard asked "Is it necessary to read the history of philosophy when teaching philosophy?"

Emphatically, I replied "Yes."

He shook his head in disagreement. I delineated two approaches to the standard Intro to Philosophy program. From my perspective, these are not exhaustive but just typical. Either we teach philosophy with readings from the history of philosophy or we teach someone's synthesized version of those concepts, e.g. James Rachel's Elements of Morality. Then, it was suggested there is a third way. You can have them read the newspaper.

Later, I learned at the faculty dinner what at that time made no sense. I am firmly committed to the teaching of the history of philosophy. In fact, if anything, this approach gives me an "edge over the competition" as many job ads indicate knowledge of history advantageous. As a teacher I am dedicated to the belief in  a philosophical canon. Put more succinctly, if one researches Merleau-Ponty, then philosophizing about Merleau-Ponty requires that you have knowledge about Plato. Strange? Couldn't one just continue on for years only specializing in French phenomenology without specific reference to Plato? Well, yes. Yet, the appreciation for the very horizon of history is a very big motivator for understanding these authors, including Merleau-Ponty. The canon is small historically and undoubtedly, Merleau-Ponty has responded to Plato in some fashion even if I do not know what structures that encounter. But what about teaching?

I take the treatment of any historical text in philosophy as a moment of brilliance when the constellation of ideas shines brightest. The reason we read and teach Hobbes is that nobody has ever manifested such brilliance in trying to justify the state's political authority as resting solely on the collective self-interest of everybody else. To be sure, there are contemporary philosophers that feel Hobbes is closest to their own answer and develop insights either inspired by or framed within Hobbesian thought (David Gauthier in analytic political philosophy), yet I would never teach contemporary thought to an introductory course.

The postmodern approach to texts is more open and indeterminate on purpose. There is no distinction between what counts as literature and what does not count. As Derrida insisted, there is no distinction between philosophy and literature. Instead, all texts are permitted the same status. This openness is why one could read the newspaper at the same time teaching philosophy. They are all valid approaches to the ideas we want to teach. In philosophy, I am be closed to what counts since I believe in a philosophical canon. The field is smaller. According to the English faculty, I was playing with a smaller deck of cards than I should have and this small deck obviously has an effect on how I teach.

We can resist the postmodern approach to texts. Consider the following analogy. A theoretical physicist develops a framework for experimental physicists to situate their study of physics. There are some ideas that experimental physicists cannot directly test and so the status of string theory is constantly uncertain. Consider also that while not an empirical science, the philosopher is in the position of developing theories and frameworks that become appropriated by humanistic inquiry in general. In this sense, the philosopher is a "physicist of the humanities." Media studies, English departments and sociology may all appropriate from the constellation of philosophical ideas. Media studies might apply Habermas to interpreting some body of work done by Director X. English departments will apply Levinas or Foucault to their texts, and sociologists may appropriate Marx. All these approaches will always distort or use what is relevant immediately to their studies and discard the rest, even if in that dismissive want for appropriation they understand Habermas, Levinas and Marx poorly. They do not need to respect the historical horizon that engenders these authors or appreciate Hegel's influence one Marx, Levinas's response to Husserl and Heidegger, or Foucault's genealogical method derived from Nietzsche. As the theoretician that synthesizes these philosophical frameworks and develops new works to be appropriated, it is my job to know that history. Therefore, we can resist the postmodernist on the grounds that not all texts inspire in the same way; philosophical texts are those that inspire the search for truth. Plato has had more direct effect on history than Chaucer ever did.

The search for truth surfaced in our conversation. A member of the English department told me that the text does not just contain information, the text is an aesthetic object as well. According to her, I was dedicated to the view of the text-as-information. In some ways, yes. However, the aesthetic I appreciate in philosophical texts is simply different. I view Hobbes's search for the truth and his presentation of it as encompassing, rational and highly problematic. Still, it's a wonderful attempt at the search for truth, and this reverence for past thinkers to represent the search for truth is an aesthetic of the universal, a holdover of the Hellenic influence felt even today in philosophizing. Whereas other disciplines may be decidedly postmodern, permitting the self-consciousness and identity to situate and determine the limits of thinking, e.g. LGBT studies, Chicano studies, or African-American studies just to name a few, the philosopher may be guilty of allowing the universal to creep back into the classroom where others would deny its presence. The universal can be reason or truth -- perhaps it's best to use the untranslated Greek here, logos. 

Husserl wanted to re-appropriate the ideals of ancient philosophy and the logos to be a guiding force for the culture of European humanity. He diagnosed the crisis of spirit within the contours of Europe and he was very much aware of that limitation in mind. The ideals of ancient thought were expressed in dedication to philosophy as a task for universal truth, and maybe it is not so important about how these attempts are made. In fact, these attempts may always fall short, yet the expressive moments in the history of philosophy are the spaces to which we permit the search for truth to be made, and in that space are produced texts containing the inspirational residuum of truth that those that deny the logos nevertheless appropriate its texts to express their own limited vision. A fact of irony not lost on the only philosopher in the room being interviewed for the philosophy position!

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