Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (8)

Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 346 pp. $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0199260168.

Part III: Professional Philosophy, 1912-2000
14. The Tribulations of Professional Philosophy, 1962-1999

Continuing, rather returning to the beginning of Chapter 14: Philosophy benefited from the huge expansion of higher education following World War II. Geographical mobility also increased the options for philosophers. Challenges to the hegemony of the Eastern Ivy League arose. Catholic universities, formerly ghettoized and focused on medieval or Thomist philosophy, emerged as recognized participants in the philosophical scene. Let me add that Catholic universities were and remain havens for specialists in “continental” philosophy while analytical philosophy continued to dominate elsewhere. (In my view, continental philosophy embraces the issues connected with Catholicism’s enemy, modernity, hence the interest.)

Coincident with broader social changes, Kuklick finds three structural changes within the philosophy discipline: (1) fragmentation of analytical philosophy, (2) challenges to analytical philosophy, (3) philosophy in other disciplines as challenging philosophy departments. To elaborate: (1) analytical philosophy gets spread among several departments, which become their own distinctive research centers.

(2)  The radical movements and student rebellions of the 1960s created demands for other kinds of philosophy. Existentialism was popular in this period, and related to student activism. Kuklick returns to Marcuse, highlighting One Dimensional Man (1964) and “Repressive Tolerance”.  (262) Kuklick judges in passing that Marcuse’s more philosophical work is almost unintelligible, and his works of this period difficult reading as well. While Marcuse was not much of an activist himself, but he became the theoretician of the student left in the USA and Europe, who embraced the romantic revolutionary aspect of his thought. There are some exaggerations here, e.g. the notion that Marcuse was the theoretician of the student radicals. Marcuse was so prominent that Ronald Reagan intervened to rid the University of California of him. Hence Kuklick’s final statement: “It was perhaps the greatest renown an American philosopher had achieved since Jonathan Edwards had led the Great Awakening almost 250 years before.”

Others took up the mantle of social issues. There is the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs (1969 – ). Most influential among liberal circles was John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971). His artificial scenario of the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” was divorced from the real world of history and political economy, as Kuklick rightly points out (263-4) and thus while Rawls’ theory became the  most influential political philosophy in mainstream academia, its unreality could not satisfy the burgeoning social criticism of the time.  So by the 1970s there was a battle on between the “pluralists” (including the older metaphysicians) and the analytical philosophers. The pluralists focused on “immediate grievances”, issues of bias in journals, hiring and tenure, positions in the American Philosophical Association (APA), these biases being both philosophical and demographic. A beachhead of sorts was established at Yale. The dissidents were also conduits of continental philosophy. (264) Often overlooked is the influence of Catholic institutions, inimical to the secularism associated with analytical philosophy. (265) The pluralists also stimulated a revival of classic American philosophy. Epistemology as practiced by analytical philosophers came under attack from Marxists, feminists, Black philosophers, and others, as well as Continental philosophers in general.

Kuklick mentions Paul A. Schilpp’s Library of Living Philosophers, which covered a variety of philosophers across the philosophical spectrum. (265-6)

Kuklick claims that the APA abetted an increasingly chaotic situation in 1994 by disavowing a ranking of philosophy departments. (266) Two volumes express the sense of crisis of the profession: Post-Analytic Philosophy (1985) and Portraits of American Continental Philosophers (1999).

(3) “Theory” outside Philosophy: Philosophy shrank from a public role when analytical philosophy came into dominance, and also gave the cold shoulder to other academic departments. But one of the same problems afflicted continental philosophy as well: it was as obscure and unintelligible as analytical philosophy and thus isolated as well. Only Marcuse was publicly prominent. (267) Given the isolation of philosophy departments, scholars in other humanities departments took up the slack in doing philosophy themselves. Political science, sociology, and economics revived logical empiricism, which was dying elsewhere. (This is obviously, I would say, due to the reactionary pseudoscientific roles promoted in said departments.)  (268) Applied philosophy in business, law, and medicine arose in professional schools, leading to complicated relationships with philosophy departments. English departments ended up doing the most significant philosophy outside of Philosophy departments, gravitating toward contemporary French thinkers and establishing themselves in a tradition.

In all this confusion, Kuklick singles out two thinkers of pervasive influence: Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty.

I have already mentioned Kuhn in my previous post. Kuklick finds affinities in many thinkers of the 1960s and thereabouts: Paul Feyerabend, Norwood Russell Hanson’s Patterns of Discovery, Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, Peter Burger & Thomas Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality, Clifford Geertz’s Interpretation of Cultures. The ’60s fostered subjectivist tendencies; the notion of paradigms also appealed to theologians. (271) Kuhn was not at that time anti-science at all. The Philosophy department at Berkeley spurned Kuhn; he went to Princeton for a position in History of Science. Kuklick describes Berkeley’s decision as “arguably the worst in the American academy in the twentieth century [underscoring] the constipated arrogance of analytical philosophy, and it suspicion of practice.” (272)

Kuklick then describes developments in “analytic metaphysics”. While there was a tendency among epistemologists to shy away from metaphysical commitments, there arose objections to Quine’s indeterminacy of reference, first in the person of Noam Chomsky, opposing behaviorism, and secondly, on the part of Ruth Barcan Marcus and Saul Kripke, contesting among themselves priority in refuting Quine via a new theory of reference. (Sellars was becoming respectable again.) Materialists or physicalists related the material world to the knowing mind. Varieties of materialism were eliminative materialism, reductive materialism, non-reductive materialism, functionalism, and apparently some sort of emergentism (my term). The notion of supervenience came back into vogue. There was also Hilary Putnam’s “internal realism”.

Rorty began as an analytical philosopher, but with Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) skewered the analytical program, concentrating on Sellars and Quine. Philosophy could no longer be the guarantor of science, was just one cognitive community. Rorty went through further stages, from dismissing the notion of a physical world to accepting eliminative materialism to abandonment of any remnant of religiosity. Rorty accepted Wilfrid Sellars’ naturalism but rejected the special status of the language of science. Philosophy should give up its futile quest for truth and admit it is only about discourses. He touted philosophy as “edification”, turning to Continental thinkers like Sartre while still maintaining an admiration for Dewey. Finally he turned to literary criticism as discipline of choice, and as a public philosopher turning against the left toward a mainstream liberalism.

What a godawful mess! And no surprise that the aprioristic empiricism of analytical philosophy should end up up in a conceptually nihilistic melange of irrationalism, as is the general fate of bourgeois thought when it loses confidence in its own reason. Kuklick suggests Rorty could be a mess though does not provide a diagnosis of the causes.

Reviewing the insubstantiality of the social thought of much of American philosophy–of Royce, James, and Dewey–Kuklick nonetheless praises Dewey as a socially engaged philosopher. C. I. Lewis was alarmed by both Stainism and McCarthyism, but he had nothing substantive to add to his concern over the fate of civilization. The one person who took up the cudgels as a public social critic was Noam Chomsky. Rorty, on the other hand, had not much to offer. (Thank you for that, Bruce!)


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