January 15, 2015

Institutional Understanding

Consider an academic philosophy book, say John McDowell's Mind and World. What is it to understand this book? Here are three kinds of understanding:

1) Biographical: We learn about McDowell's life and how he came to write the book. We understand the book by seeing how it came to be written in the course of his life.

2) Conceptual: We think about the arguments and reasons McDowell gives in the book (about conceptual content, second nature, etc.). We understand the book by tracing his ideas in the book to ideas of other authors, evaluating his ideas, trying to improve on those ideas, etc.

3) Institutional: We consider the institutional forces which shaped McDowell's writing of the book, such as who he sees as his interlocutors, which philosophers and philosophies he is able to ignore and still be taken seriously, how the book fits into his standing in the profession, and so on. We understand the book here by seeing it as shaped by broad institutional structures, many of which McDowell as the author might himself never have thought about.

Conceptual understanding is a standard way of understanding philosophical texts; standard at least in the kind of departments I was educated in and taught at. The skills concerning this kind of understanding are what I was taught in my classes, and which I was supposed to exhibit in articles I was to publish.

What was also standard in my education is the idea that biographical understanding is irrelevant to conceptual understanding. Just as the biography of a mathematician is irrelevant to evaluating her proofs, so too the biography of a philosopher is supposed to be irrelevant to evaluating her ideas and arguments. This view is plausible only if we take the product of philosophical thinking to be ideas independent of how one lives one's life. For if how a philosopher lives her life can be evaluated, then certainly knowing something about her biography, the trajectory of her life, would be relevant.


But even if we focus just on the ideas and arguments, it is amazing that in my education we never explored institutional understanding. As a student I was presented with essays and books as if the forms of production of those texts - the networks within which they were written, the role the texts played in considerations of tenure or promotion, etc. - were altogether irrelevant. As if there were thinkers independent of any institutional pressures who were thinking pure thoughts; as if the essays I held in my hands merely put me in touch with those thinkers' thoughts; and as if my task as a fellow thinker is to free myself of any institutional concerns I might have and engage with those pure thoughts.
Often when reading a book like Mind and World, I wondered to myself, "What is this collection of pages, and how come institutionally they have such power over my mind, and over my formation as a thinker? How does this book get such institutional power?" The blurbs on the back or the preface of the book sometimes gave some clue to how the book came to exist, but beyond that, there were no clues to be found. The more the book seemed important, and the less there was any institutional understanding of the book, the more the ideas in the book seemed to glow and shine, as if whatever halo surrounded the book was just due to the power of the ideas within it. And yet, the prestige of the book or the author suggested that clearly institutional forces were at play.
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What kind of questions are relevant to an institutional understanding of, say, Mind and World? Here are some examples.

1. From within what networks did the text arise? In the book McDowell engages with the work of Strawson, Davidson, Evans, Sellars, Gadamer and so on. Strikingly, most of these thinkers, perhaps with the exceptions of Sellars and Gadamer, are people whom McDowell knows and with whom McDowell must have had quite a few, ongoing conversations. Here there is a big difference between McDowell's situation as an academic, and that of most academics: in writing the text McDowell is engaging with some of his close peers, and making sense for himself of where he is similar to them and where he is different. Here is a luxury McDowell has that most academics cannot have: he can think about the people he engaged with closely in the course of his career, never think beyond those interactions, and yet produce a text which is widely influential. Why? Because the circles in which McDowell moved, and moves, set the stage for many of the debates in analytic philosophy in the past forty years.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions: Can one produce better work when one personally knows top thinkers and so one is able to understand those thinkers' ideas within the context of human interactions? For example, one might ask, "Does McDowell properly understand Strawson or Evans' work?" In practice this question is hard to take seriously (though certainly possible), if one knows that McDowell was a close student of Strawson's, and that Evans and McDowell were great friends. Here the awareness of the human relationships affects the amount of leeway one gives McDowell in thinking about whether he is getting things right. With a marginal thinker the reader might be quick to dismiss the author's interpretation. But when we are aware that the author personally knows the thinkers he is engaging with, one reads with greater patience, holding oneself back from being critical as quickly. This is one kind of advantage one gains by going to top schools and getting to know, however minimally, the famous thinkers. One thereby acquires a certain cache which people who went to less well known schools don't acquire as much.

None of these kinds of institutional facts show that McDowell's views in the book are wrong or flawed. Of course not. But institutionally what is more basic than whether a given view is right or wrong, justified or unjustified, is whether that view or debate is seen to be pertinent or interesting. Naturally nothing of these institutional facts settles the issue of whether perception has conceptual content, or what kind of naturalism is right. But is our sense of the most pressing questions prior to, or are they themselves dependent on, our sense of who are the most important thinkers? Which comes first?

2. Are some ideas only taken seriously if they are articulated by someone well known and/or tenured? One of McDowell's key claims in Mind and World is that many questions taken seriously by contemporary philosophers are in fact confused; they have to be not answered, but in fact overcome, or dissolved. This Wittgensteinian claim was part of what drew me to the text. But as with Wittgenstein, this kind of claim is taken seriously in top departments only if it is articulated by somebody from the inside. That is, if the thinker has already proven themselves from within that they are a capable thinker. This raises all sorts of interesting questions. What does it say about the profession if there is a distinction between possible pre-tenure views and post-tenure views? Could it be that institutional momentum precludes raising certain kinds of questions and views before one has tenure? If so, are there other views which cannot be raised not only pre-tenure, but even post-tenure? If there are such views, could they be invisible from within professional philosophy, and would require being out of academia to articulate and think through properly?

3. To what extent must a thinker lay out the institutional implications of his views? Given that McDowell endorses a form of quietism in Mind and World, according to which the aim of philosophy is the dissolution of questions, in what ways can he be a traditional philosophy professor? McDowell argues that the Cartesian understanding of nature is confused, and that there is a mode of naturalness (second nature) which is missed by Descartes and many subsequent thinkers. Given that he believes this, and given that most introductory classes in philosophy teach Descartes in the traditional way which McDowell opposes, is it incumbent on McDowell as a professional philosopher to outline what can be an alternate and better way of introducing philosophy to students? Intuitively, it seems like McDowell has such a responsibility. After all, if you think X is confused, and you are a teacher, then you would want to do whatever you can to make sure that X isn't taught to students. Which leads to yet other questions: If McDowell as a thinker does not commit to changing professional philosophy in this way, is he guilty of a kind of practical contradiction? Furthermore, what kind of alternate modes of teaching philosophy can McDowell foster? Is there some sense in which the institutional momentum makes it hard to make such changes? If so, is professional philosophy a space in which all philosophical views and their implications can be equally and dispassionately considered, or do institutional structures always themselves favor some philosophical views over others?

These kind of questions, which concern institutional understanding, aren't more important than questions which concern conceptual understanding. Of course one can read Mind and World to think just about the myth of the Given or how to interpret Davidson's views. Those are important, and they aren't secondary to issues of institutional understanding. But to engage with philosophical texts only to gain conceptual understanding seems to me to vastly underestimate the potential of those texts. Many more interesting philosophical questions can be raised by going beyond the questions raised in the text to thinking about the text itself and how it functions within various institutional contexts. Insofar as my education was silent about questions concerning institutional understanding, it failed to introduce me to many ways of doing philosophy.

12 comments:

  1. "it is amazing that in my education we never explored institutional understanding" shouldn't be so amazing as Heidegger pointed out about tools (and Dewey about habits) we generally only consider the means when they break down and fail, part of why the humanities are doomed in the current neo-lib times we are in, they won't lose faith til the thing is pulled out from under them. Really I can't think of a field of human endeavor that isn't largely under the tyranny of their means...
    -dmf

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    1. Good point. What you say captures part of why it is still amazing to me, because to some extent it has hard to wrap my mind around the extent to which the current academic structures are breaking down, and will break down. As you say, it is going to happen, and I fully believe this; and yet through habit I find it impossible to consciously accept. It is like watching a great cathedral crumble stone by stone. The neo-lib stuff is an indication that academia no longer has reflective distance from most of society, and is itself a central part of society. So this breakdown of academia is inevitable and good as new structures of reflective distance get organically constructed.

      Though I think the neo-lib stuff is just the proximate cause, not the deeper cause. How much did Kant or Hegel contribute to what I am calling institutional understanding of academic philosophy? Or Russell or Quine? Not much, at least that I am aware of. This is because these thinkers going back hundreds of years took it for granted that academic philosophy is the space of, in a sense, the greatest reflection in society, as if there is no vantage point beyond academic philosophy to understand it; that it is the space of maximal self-reflection. We are now at the tipping point where it is becoming harder and harder to believe this.

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    2. not sure when the modern academy is supposed to have been at a distance from the politics/economics of the surrounding environs or if there will be new structures that arise worth noting (what could be the funding?) but yes there will be little to nothing under the formal umbrella of Philosophy to help people figure out how to be more reflexive in their future efforts at co-operations, there is some light to be found in sub-branches like ANT:
      http://heterogeneities.net/
      I think you and others are making new spaces beyond the hothouses as to what they will amount to if folks can get over their mourning of the academic pipedream time will tell I suppose...
      syntheticzero.net

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  2. "What was also standard in my education is the idea that biographical understanding is irrelevant to conceptual understanding. Just as the biography of a mathematician is irrelevant to evaluating her proofs, so too the biography of a philosopher is supposed to be irrelevant to evaluating her ideas and arguments. This view is plausible only if we take the product of philosophical thinking to be ideas independent of how one lives one's life. For if how a philosopher lives her life can be evaluated, then certainly knowing something about her biography, the trajectory of her life, would be relevant."

    Bharath, I'd want to be careful here, especially with regard to moral and practical philosophy. Many philosophers fall short of the standards that they propose for how to live. They are after all human, the the world of ideas would be greatly impoverished if the standard for being taken seriously was for one’s lifestyle to be consonant with the ideas one puts out. Indeed, one can study ethics or morality, without being particularly ethical or moral. While it is important to examine moral and ethical philosophical work for its pragmatic implications in general, and its ability to be adopted by people in particular, to look at the life of the specific philosopher might be problematic. (I’m thinking of Rousseau, Sartre, Heidegger, etc. Even Hume held some pretty racist views, which no doubt manifested themselves in how he lived.)

    "But institutionally what is more basic than whether a given view is right or wrong, justified or unjustified, is whether that view or debate is seen to be pertinent or interesting. Naturally nothing of these institutional facts settles the issue of whether perception has conceptual content, or what kind of naturalism is right. But is our sense of the most pressing questions prior to, or are they themselves dependent on, our sense of who are the most important thinkers? Which comes first?"

    This is an issue that is prevalent in other disciplines as well, i.e., the kind of questions/problems/AOS that are considered central are those that the stars in the field are working on. For most of us, the research questions we work on are largely determined by the thinkers we have access to, particularly in graduate school (there are rare exceptions, of course). So going to a department where, say, analytical metaphysics is the strong suit, and there is only one critical race theorist, makes it unlikely that graduate students in that department will study critical race theory. Similarly, if one is in a department whose the strong suit is an area X that is not regarded as central or legitimate by the stars of the field in big-name departments, then this has consequences for how seriously the research on X produced by the graduate students (and even more senior researchers in the department on area X) is taken. Now, is this a bad thing? To my mind yes, because we can’t typically count on the good judgment of these gatekeepers of what ideas are important. The importance of a field is notoriously hard to predict; stuff that seemed totally pointless yesterday can be of central importance in ten years (consider philosophy of race, for example). This has certainly been the case in mathematics: G. H. Hardy (a great early 20th century Cambridge mathematician) said that what he loved about number theory was its beauty, but he saw it as practically useless. And was he wrong! Computing, coding theory and cryptography, the list goes on and on.

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    1. Re the first point: I am not saying that for every form of philosophy, a philosopher has to live up to the ideas she argues for. I agree that in some cases what matters are the arguments for the views, not whether the philosophers live an exemplary life. What I was saying was that for some other forms of philosophy how a philosopher lives her life is more directly relevant.

      Re the second point: I agree with much of what you say. My sense is that for the most part who are considered the important philosophers creates the sense of what are the important topics. If this is the case, it raises for me the question: what are for me the most important philosophical questions? Is it the case that the trend setting philosophers are articulating the questions that concern me the most? Sometimes one has to struggle to keep alive for oneself the questions that most matter to one.

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  3. "Are some ideas only taken seriously if they are articulated by someone well known and/or tenured? ... this kind of claim is taken seriously in top departments only if it is articulated by somebody from the inside. That is, if the thinker has already proven himself or herself from within that they are a capable thinker. This raises all sorts of interesting questions. What does it say about the profession if there is a distinction between possible pre-tenure views and post-tenure views?"

    This is a great question. Perhaps it depend on the kind of question that is being tackled.
    (1) As an example, let’s say that a young and relatively unknown researcher in the philosophy of mathematics challenges a view held by more senior people in the field, and he/she writes a technical paper X challenging the arguments (in a paper Y) of a very senior person in the field. Given the technical difficult of the field, it is not unreasonable to think that it takes a great deal of expertise to understand paper Y, and so one approaches paper X with some skepticism unless one has reason to believe in the competence of the person writing paper X. The justification for believing in the competence of the author of X may, quite reasonably be, is this person in a position to understand paper Y, like being in a department where research the philosophy of math is very active.
    (2) But there can be political questions that one is not likely to be able to tackle, either pre-tenure (because of consequences to one’s career prospects) or unless one is in a big-name department (because otherwise the work may be dismissed). As an example, take Peter Unger’s recent book Empty Ideas, in which he severely critiques analytic philosophy. Would a tenure-track philosopher in a major analytic department write that book? Unfortunately, I think it’s unlikely. Would the book be taken seriously if it were written by an obscure philosopher at some unknown school? Again, I think it’s unlikely, though in this case one might say this individual is out of the loop (not a convincing excuse to dismiss the work, in my view).
    So I think it depends on the question. BTW, Miranda Fricker has written a great book on Epistemic Injustice.

    "Many more interesting philosophical questions can be raised by going beyond the questions raised in the text to thinking about the text itself and how it functions within various institutional contexts. Insofar as my education was silent about questions concerning institutional understanding, it failed to introduce me to many ways of doing philosophy."

    There has been a lot of this type of work done by feminist philosophers (see Miranda Fricker’s work above), philosophers of race, continental philosophers, and literary theorists, who are all trained to consider the *importance of context.* This approach is exactly what is denigrated in many analytic philosophy departments (though not all).

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    1. Yes, Unger's book is another good example in this context. In academia perhaps a hierarchy that matters a lot is how much mental gymnastics one has to do in order to express one's interests in a way that other people will take seriously. Some people, those at the top of this hierarchy, don't have to do much gymnastics at all; they can take conversations they have with their friends, or just write out their thoughts in monologue form, and they are able to find a ready audience, and even be seen as pushing the limits of knowledge. Others, those further down this hierarchy, have to constantly hide or camaflouge or otherwise rephrase their inner thoughts, and expend a lot of energy putting their thoughts into a form and language that might not be really their own, but which they feel they have to adhere to in order to be taken seriously.

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  4. I think it's worth considering Peter Unger's book in connection with Bharath's first question (about how these things come to be written about at all) as well as with the second question (about whether they can only said by certain people).

    One striking thing about Unger's book is the narrow range of writers he considers, even among analytic philosophers: Davidson, Putnam, Kripke, Lewis and a few others. His general critique of analytic philosophy is focused on a few issues in post-war philosophy of language and metaphysics. It would be interesting historical and philosophical task to think about how Unger's own networks (personal, professional, generational, institutional etc) made these issues seem the pressing ones.

    Another thing is the emphasis on how 'smart' these people are. Not deep, not original, not inventive, interesting, creative, but smart. This strikes me as an another parochial feature of recent analytic philosophy, this emphasis on smartness.

    (I accept that some people may use the word 'smart' as shorthand for 'deep, original, inventive, interesting, etc.' -- but many don't!)

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    1. Just as with Wittgenstein, it is striking that Unger's analysis of the emptiness of analytic philosophy involves no attempt at gaining institutional understanding of analytic philosophy. Unger seems to take for granted he is one of the best philosophers, he has hob-nobbed with the best, and so deserves the institutional standing he has. But if such standing can't be justified through doing productive work, how can it be justified? Because he is one of the smart ones, smarter even than most in his department.

      There is a whole institutional framework to academic philosophy, just as with any institution. This framework is normally justified by the claim that academic philosophy produces knowledge. If Unger thinks that it isn't producing such knowledge, that would be a great way to highlight and think through the institutional framework and contribute to institutional understanding. The focus on smartness is a way to say: "yes, most analytic philosophy sucks, but no, we don't have to rethink the institutional structures. In fact, see the institutional structures are fine, because they are allowing for serious dissent from within. The structures are fine. What is needed are more smart people like me to look through the illusion." Wittgenstein's similar obsession with being a genius (super, super smart) made him miss how his critique of philosophy can be used to shed light on institutional understanding. To put it another way: for Wittgenstein, and perhaps for Unger, all the meta-philosophical critique is interesting theory, but doesn't translate into action and institutional change.

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  5. I appreciated an earlier post of yours, about how Wittgenstein and many of his followers seem to entirely lack a historical perspective on philosophy, or not think that one was needed -- as if it is enough to pursue a merely 'grammatical' investigation to show the sources of philosophical problems.

    Your point that Wittgenstein lacks any interest in gaining an institutional understanding of philosophy is similarly plausible, it seems to me.

    What you are calling an institutional perspective is not the same as a historical perspective, but I think there are some similarities: both involve trying to take a view of your activity from the outside, from a perspective that is not trying to answer philosophical questions in their own terms, but trying to understand their sources in a culture, an institution and in history.

    It's tempting to speculate that this lack of interest in history and institutions is not surprising given Wittgenstein's own self-absorption and self-centredness... ('What has history to do with me?')

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    1. Tim, I agree very much. It might be helpful to distinguish an "internal" perspective where one takes some traditional questions, and the institutional framework, within which they are raised at face value, and an "external" perspective where one seeks to reframe, dissolve or otherwise recast the questions.

      There are different ways of taking an external perspective: grammatical (Wittgenstein), historical (Nietzsche on morality), institutional (Foucault on "madness"), neurobiological (Churchlands), etc. I think reductivism regarding any of these external perspectives is wrong: for example, if ordinary language philosophy is illuminating, it doesn't have to mean traditional questions are bogus, anymore than taking neuroscience seriously has to mean mental discourse is outdated.

      In this light, I think Wittgenstein made two wrong reductive moves. First, he assumed a reductive view about traditional philosophy, thinking that if grammatical inquiry is right, traditional phil must be confused (as if the external perspective of grammatical inquiry renders the internal perspective of, say, the mind-body problem an illusion). Second, he had a reductive view of external perspectives, as if the grammatical perspective was somehow deeper, or shed more light than, historical or institutional outer perspectives.

      I would trace the root of these reductivisms to Wittgenstein's, as you put it, self-absorption. This is partly due to his personality, but not just that. It is the self-absorption that can happen when one is at the top (or what are socially seen to be the top) of the institutional structures. In this regard, he doesn't seem to me that different from Russell or Moore, neither of whom did much in the way of an external perspective in terms of institutional understanding of academic philosophy.

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  6. I agree with you completely about the compatibility of taking a question seriously in its own terms, as well as being able to take an 'external' perspective on it.

    I also like this point about the self-absorption that can come from being at the top of an institutional structure -- I hope you write something more about this sometime.

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