The Contingency Of Academic, ‘Disciplinary’ Classification

The textbook I use for my Social Philosophy class, Social Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Present (ed. Alan Sica, Pearson, 2005) is a standard anthology featuring selections from a wide range of historical periods and schools of thought (and the theorists identified with them). This collection may not only serve as ‘a textbook of social philosophy’ in a philosophy department. The following alternative uses for it–in various domains of pedagogy and academic learning–are also possible.

  1. As a textbook in a sociology department for an introductory class in social theory. This might have been Social Thought’s original intended use. The table of contents makes explicit reference to ‘social theory’ and refers to periods and movements using descriptors of interest to social theorists: ‘modern social theory,’ ‘revolution and romanticism,’ the classical period of modern social thought,’ ‘social theory between the great wars,’ and ‘post-modernism, globalization, and the new century.’
  2. As a textbook in a history department for a class in the history of ideas. The schools of thought represented in this collection are impressively diverse: pragmatism, feminism, anarchism, psychoanalysis, linguistics, conservatism, neo-pragmatism, liberalism, positivism etc. Such a class could showcase their historical location and their relationship to other theoretical formations of the same time period.
  3. As a sourcebook for a composition or writing class showing examples of writing styles as deployed in social theory, critique, and analysis (or as samples of styles deployed in particular historical periods.) These samples could be analyzed for their idiosyncratic or standard deployment of particular literary tropes, their use of classical and non-standard figures of speech, their use of rhetoric etc.
  4. As a sourcebook for studying the quality of translations (many of the original sources were originally written in French, German, Spanish, Latin, Italian etc.) By comparing these with different translations of the same material students could evaluate the resultant differences in tone, meaning, and literary style.
  5. As a portion of a syllabus in history of a particular period–for instance, ‘European History Between The Great Wars’–which addresses the evolution in social thought during the period in question.
  6. As a sourcebook for studying social thought as indexed by region of origin – ‘English social thought’, ‘American social thought’, ‘French social thought’ etc.

And so on.

My use of this anthology in a class titled ‘Social Philosophy’ is, at least on one reckoning, a slightly non-standard one. The syllabus for this particular offering of the department has been, historically, what would have been called ‘Classical Social and Political Philosophy.’ That is, I would have covered figures and themes considered to lie in the so-called ‘classical canon’: Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Machiavelli, and so on. (The ‘contemporary’ version of this class would have concentrated on ‘twentieth-century social and political philosophy.) Instead, by taking the ‘social’ in the title seriously–and not just as a shortening of ‘social and political’–I chose to cover material that would have been within the purvey of a traditional ‘social theory’ class in a sociology department. This decision–if the discussions with my students has provided any indication–was a good one; the resultant focus on the relationship between society and individual was one distinct from the kind usually achieved in a more standard treatment (in large part due to the fact that members of the ‘social theory’ canon often do not find inclusion in philosophy reading lists.)

The point, of course, is that the disciplinary or departmental classification of a textbook–the material it contains–is not a definitive matter. That material can be pressed into the service of many different kinds of intellectual or pedagogical objectives. As such, the question of whether the reading is ‘philosophy’ or ‘sociology’ or ‘history’ becomes a question of its location in a particular interpretive framework of study.


2 comments on “The Contingency Of Academic, ‘Disciplinary’ Classification

  1. patricksodonnell says:

    In reading this, I immediately thought of some academics whose formal academic positions or titles does (or did) not do their published work justice: Nadia Urbinati, Hélène Landemore, Robert E. Goodin, Jon Elster, W.E.B. Du Bois, Erich Fromm, Noam Chomsky, and Amartya Sen, to name just an idiosyncratic handful of exemplars that came quickly to mind. Think too of individuals like Jürgen Habermas or Martha Nussbaum, both of whom routinely crosses academic disciplinary boundaries with considerable ease and facility.

    It also reminded me of something said by a former teacher (and friend), Ninian Smart, in a fine book with an awful title: Religion and the Western Mind (State University of New York Press, 1987). Ninian wrote that the often “false division between religion and philosophy (or rather an aspect of philosophy” is but

    “one of a number of absurdities in the way in which we carve up the academic world. A student who wishes to study Sartre probably has to go to French Studies; Mao, and it is Chinese Studies; Vivekananda or Tillich, to Religious Studies; Wittgenstein, Kant or Chomsky, to Philosophy; Marx, to Political Science; the worldview of the Masai, to Anthropology; and Theodore Herzl, to Jewish Studies. Yet all those people and [their] ideas are expressing worldviews—overlapping, sometimes in conflict, often presenting themselves for choice. It does not make sense that academic studies are in this respect so fragmented.”

    Of course, things have changed a bit in parts of the academic world since Smart wrote this (thus, for example, one can find Sartre in more than a few philosophy departments and Indian and Chinese philosophy is increasingly found there as well, although progress on this score has been inexcusably slow), and so one might come up with a number of contemporary and different examples that sharpen his point. It is therefore helpful to remind ourselves of the actual and possible negative (if unintended) effects of the contingent—and unavoidable—nature of disciplinary classification and boundaries. Academic training is hyper-specialized (consider the topics or ‘theses’ of many doctoral dissertations in the Social Sciences and Philosophy), and however necessary or desirable, truly transdisciplinary work is rare and often found only among those with the security of tenure. I suspect there will always be both academics and administrators irritated or threatened by such recognition, particularly when a course such as yours is tangible evidence of the intellectual and pedagogical value of (at least) occasional boundary crossing.

    • Samir Chopra says:


      As always, some very wise insights from you. I’m often struck by how much philosophy I find being done in departments not named as such: English, History, Political Science, Classics, Sociology. Or even anthropology; I remain convinced that one of the best papers in the philosophy of law I’ve read was written by a gentleman named Clifford Geertz, who never shows up on philosophy reading lists, but whose works are as philosophical as you can get. I think one of the worst effects of disciplinary boundary policing and classification is that it sets up a rigidity in thinking about ‘subject’ and ‘method’ that can only be inimical to unrestrained inquiry.

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