The Famine

I am a professor of philosophy. I am also a great admirer of some of the things that are thought of as postmodern so, caveat, this is not about that.

One of the things that bothers me about the world I live my professional life in is that philosophers teach the founding texts, not just of western civilization, which almost sounds pretentious to insist on, but of modernity, and yet there is a perception that philosophers are at best teachers of some nebulous thing called “critical thinking” and at worst Middle Earth cartography (charting their own fantasies). But the impact of the Enlightenment figures on our culture is huge, pervasive, and basically we own those guys. “It’s a pity that no one has ever inquired into the notion of political legitimacy resting on popular sovereignty,” says someone reading an article about Arab Spring. “It’s a pity that no one has ever tried to really explain to anyone how all knowledge rests on the evidence of the senses,” says a New Atheist.

Sidenote: when I teach Hegel, I teach him as primarily engaged in cultural politics and not one thing he discusses isn’t relevant to us, even down to his trenchant critique of neurobollocks (i.e., “phrenology”).

And because no one outside the profession knows that we promote, and may be the only ones who promote, historical awareness of the conceptual basis of our culture, the tendency is to think that science and politics are just rooted in common sense which requires no discussion, or horrid ideology which requires dismantling. The critics say “but why does it go without saying that ___?” The answer is a resounding silence. Who does this leave the initiative with, by the way?

Oftentimes our students’ first and only exposure to explicit thought about the natural of rationality, or freedom, will be in a required course called “Gender and Photography” or something. That class will be required. “Modern Philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Hume” or “Modern Political Thought: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau” won’t be. And then when I look at the consequences, what I notice is that people who read, say, Andrew Sullivan as aggregator, are encountering shallow discussions of centuries old debates as if some blogger was the first to ask if there isn’t more to life than science… or not, etc. unaware that there was this thing called the Romantic Reaction in the 19th century… And I look at the students we’re churning out, and basically they either dismiss the humanities as a complete waste of time (they’re trying to learn how to program in “C” and have no time for “Gender and Photography”) or they think that what it is to think reflectively about their culture is to oppose it self-righteously based on some hazy impressions of what they’re opposing from classes about pop culture or something.

Everyone knows what Santayana said about being condemned to repeat history. But such repetitions need not be catastrophic. Sometimes they are just shallow chatter.

I’m absolutely staggered when I see people getting really agitated for or against ideas that are centuries old who show no awareness of this fact, people who are products of a system which itself shows no awareness of the fact that my discipline is (if nothing else) the custodian of that awareness. I’m not saying “when you criticize a farmer, don’t talk with your mouth full.” I’m just sad that I see so much intellectual starvation around me when a banquet has been laid, but no invitations sent.


One comment on “The Famine

  1. the1many says:

    When philosophy taught people they didn’t have minds capable of understanding the world, they eventually came to believe it.

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