Jerry Fodor And Philosophical Practice

I wrote a short post on Facebook today, making note of the passing away of Jerry Fodor:

Much as I admired Fodor’s writing chops, I deplored the way he did philosophy. The stories of his ‘put-downs’ and sarcastic, ironic, ‘devastating’ objections, questions, or responses in seminars always left me feeling like this was not how I understood philosophy as a practice. The admiration all those around me extended to Fodor was a significant component in me feeling alienated from philosophy during graduate school. (It didn’t help that in the one and only paper I wrote on Fodor–in refuting his supposed critique of Quine‘s inscrutability of reference claim–I found him begging the question rather spectacularly.) I had no personal contact with him, so I cannot address that component of him; all I can say is that from a distance, he resembled too many other academic philosophers: very smart folk, but not people I felt I could work with or for, or converse with to figure out things together.

In response, a fellow philosopher wrote to me:

[H]onestly that was my impression of Fodor also….while I too didn’t ever even meet him in person, I thought much of his rhetoric was nasty and unfair, that he routinely caricatured positions of others and then sort of pranced around about how he had totally refuted them, and that he basically ignored criticism…he was very far from what I would take to be a model for the profession….I got the impression that pretty much every other philosopher he mentioned was just a foil – produce a sort of comic book version of them to show how much better his view was.

There has been plenty of praise for Fodor on social media, much of which made note of precisely the style I pointed out above, albeit in admiring tones. In their obit for FodorThe London Review of Books paid attention to similar issues:

Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB….Many of them were on philosophy of mind…more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong….His literary criticism included a withering review of a pair of ‘amply unsuccessful’ novels about apes; and he had this to say of Steven Pinker’s view of Hamlet in his demolition of psychological Darwinism:

And here [Pinker] is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Unsurprisingly, this quote from Fodor was cited as a ‘sick burn’ on Twitter–as an example of his ‘genteel trash talk.’ But a second’s reading of Pinker, and of the response above by Fodor, shows that Fodor is again operating at his worst here. The paragraph cited is a deliberately obtuse and highly superficial reading of Pinker’s claim. Do we have to think about the specific events in Hamlet in order to ponder the ethical dilemmas that the play showcases for us? Is this why people have the emotional responses they do to Hamlet? Or is it because they are able to recognize and internalize the intractability of the issues that Hamlet raises? Do we need to specifically think about rings, dwarfs, and giants in order to specifically ponder the abstract problems that lie at the heart of the tale Fodor cites? Indeed, the many folks who have read these stories over the years seem–in their emotional responses–to have been perfectly capable of separating their concrete particulars from the concepts they traffic in. Fodor does not bother to offer a charitable reading of Pinker; he sets off immediately to scorn and ridicule. This kind of philosophy, and this kind of writing, earns plenty of applause from those who imagine philosophy to be a contact sport. But it does little to advance philosophical thinking on the issues at play.

The Academic’s Peculiar Dissonance

The academic state of mind is distinguished, I think, by a peculiar kind of dissonance; the academic is able to entertain two conflicting states of being simultaneously; each informs the other and brings to it its peculiar intensity and torment.

At one end of its affective and emotional spectrum lies the well-known impostor syndrome: the academic worries that he or she is a fraud, unsuited to the rigorous demands of the profession that their life’s choices have brought them to; they are besides themselves with anxiety that one day they will be ‘found out’ or worse, that they will go through the rest of their lives living out this charade, one in which they have managed to somehow convince others–by a toxic combination of lies and artifice and outright dishonesty–that they are purveyors of knowledge, skilled and educated beyond the imaginings of most. They are shocked and surprised and intimidated by the blustering displays of knowledge that their fellow academics subject them to; they examine their own achievements and find them wanting in every dimension when compared with those of their colleagues and other contemporaries; they find that academic life, rather than providing for occasions in which their knowledge will be on display instead provides one forum after the other in which they find out just how much they don’t know; they enter a bookstore and retreat, intimidated by the talents on display; they are convinced their ability will never match up to all those who seem to effortlessly master domains of knowledge they themselves can only nibble at.

At the other end of the spectrum lies what I will call the ‘frustrated and unrecognized genius syndrome’: the academic is convinced that the world has failed to adequately recognize his unique and distinctive talents and knowledge, all the while paying obeisance and elevating to the highest reaches of their profession charlatans of all stripes. They look on with barely contained frustration and anger as accolades and recognition are funneled and channeled to those they consider unworthy; they consider themselves cheated by the vagaries of the fortunes of the academic world; their books and articles are unread, unremarked, uncited, falling stillborn from the press to be embalmed on the dusty shelves of libraries, while those of utter nincompoops are elevated to the status of icons; they look back on their intellectual careers and remark on its many contingent occurrences that could have, with a slight twist or two, catapulted them into those very zones whose air they yearn to breathe. They are always on the cusp of ‘making it’; but they never do; and they remain convinced that if only the chips had fallen in the right way, they would be where those they consider unworthy reside instead. Fate and fortune have been cruel; accursed is this world and its ways. A prophet is never recognized in his day and age.

This is an uncomfortable state of affairs at best; it afflicts students and professors alike. It infects the life of the mind with its own distinctive anxieties and neuroses; it may account for some of the depressing statistics pertaining to mental health in the profession.

Hug an academic today. Or not.

Critical Theory And The Supposed Post-Truth Era: The Ideological Reaction

The tools that critical theory provides enable the undermining and subversion of established structures of power–political, cultural, discursive, technical, material, governmental, architectural, scientific, moral. They expose ideological pretensions and foundations, thus making it possible to see that all that is seemingly permanent and absolute may rest on evanescence. on historical contingency and accident and luck; they enable a corrosively suspicious response to any claims to political virtue. Critical theory is subversive; it should induce a kind of vertigo of possibility, one tinged with both fear and excitement; moreover, if the kind of critical position it points to is available for all dominant systems of cultural and political and intellectual formations, then it should also induce a fierce counter-reaction to its ‘revolutionary’ possibility, a co-opting of its ‘tools’ to be used against it. That is the least you would examine of any sophisticated ideology with a track record of survival; the ability to utilize the features of its opponents to undermine it.

The current brouhaha about how postmodernism made the Donald Trump presidency possible, by clearing the decks for fake news and alternative facts and truth-free daily briefings for the White House Press Corps and Pinocchio-inspired press spokespersons, by inspiring disrespect for ‘truth’ and ‘justification,’ is part of this counter-reaction. It is perfectly predictable; when those in power are subjected to the critique that their claims carry with them their pretensions to power, that they are invested with their own selfish material interests, that their philosophies are but their autobiographies, they will use those critical tools against the critique itself.

The suggestion that tools of critical analysis, the ones used to unmask pretensions of power, are the ones used to prop up an authoritarian regime that plays fast and loose with ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ and all of the other components of a realist, respectable, scientific, naturalistic epistemology is a reactionary one; and a predictable one too. It is of a piece with all those claims that point out problems with the form and content of protests; never the right time, never making its points in the right way, or speaking at the right volume. When directed at critical theory, this reaction says that your kind of protesting, its form, its methods, its techniques have resulted in the creation of a new and deadlier political and cultural monster; cease and desist with your critical analysis at once. It suggests that our tools are being used against us; we should lay them down at once; we should exert no other form of critical analysis to help us make political, cultural, or epistemic judgments. We should have known all along what was coming at the terminus of this ‘critique’: the claim that power in place should not be criticized, that critique has gone bad.

The perfect predictability of this ideological maneuver makes its deployment unsurprising; the personnel recruited for it–philosophers and journalists–are also the expected ones. Their easy acquiescence might be a little worrisome, of course, but all kinds of resistance breaks down when power comes calling.

Brave Analytic Philosophers Use Trump Regime To Settle Old Academic Scores

Recently, Daniel Dennett took the opportunity to, as John Protevi put it, “settle some old academic scores.” He did this by making the following observation in an interview with The Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.””

Roughly, postmodernism brought you Donald Trump. If only Trump voters hadn’t read so much Deleuze or Derrida or Spivak, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Dennett has now been joined in this valiant enterprise of Defending Truth and Knowledge by Timothy Williamson who makes the following remarks in an interview with The Irish Times:

No philosophical manoeuvre can stop politicians telling lies. But some philosophical manoeuvres do help politicians obscure the distinction between truth and falsity.

When I visited Lima, a woman interviewed me for YouTube. She had recently interviewed a ‘postmodernist’ philosopher. When she pointed at a black chair and asked ‘Is that chair black or white?’ he replied ‘Things are not so simple’.

The more philosophers take up such obscurantist lines, the more spurious intellectual respectability they give to those who try to confuse the issues in public debate when they are caught out in lies. Of course, many things in public affairs are genuinely very complicated, but that’s all the more reason not to bring in bogus complexity….

Obviously it wasn’t mainly postmodernism or relativism that won it for Trump, indeed those philosophical views are presumably more widespread amongst his liberal opponents than amongst his supporters, perhaps most of whom have never heard of them. Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.

In the course of an informal Facebook discussion, I made the following responses to Dennett’s remarks (which I described as ‘very silly’):

[We] could just as well lay the blame on the very idea of truth. Perhaps if truth wasn’t so exalted so much, we wouldn’t have so many people claiming that they should be followed just because what they said was the truth. Especially because many lies really are better for us than some truths. Perhaps we would have been better off seeing what worked for us, rather than obsessing about naming things as true or false.

Fascist insurgencies like the ones here in our country are not relying on post-modern critiques of truth and fact to prop up their claims; they need only rely on something far simpler: the fact that talking of truth and facts grants them an aura of respectability. The elevation (or demotion) of this political debate to a matter of metaphysics and epistemology is to play their game because we will find these pillars of ours to actually rest on sand. Far better to point out to proponents of ‘alternative facts’ that these facts will not help them send their kids to school or cure their illnesses. Let us not forget that these ‘facts’ help them in many ways now: it finds them a community, makes them secure, gives vent to their anger and so on. I’ve never liked the way everyone is jumping up and down about how some great methodological crisis is upon us in this new era, which is entirely ab initio. People have been using ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ all through history and using them to achieve political ends.

On a related note, Ali Minai responds to another set of claims against ‘relativism’ made in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Jay Levinovitz:

In fact, it is non-relativism that has generally been the weapon of choice for authoritarians. The weaponization of “alternative facts” may be aided by relativism but its efficacy still relies on the opposite attitude. It works only when its targets accept “alternative facts” as actually true.

What these responses to the Defenders of Truth Against Relativism make quite clear are the following propositions:

  1. So-called ‘postmodern’ critiques are more often than not, the political weapons of choice for those critiquing authoritarian regimes: they serve as a theoretical grounding for claims against ‘dominant’ or ‘totalizing’ narratives that issue from such regimes.
  2. Non-relativism or absolutism about truth is the preferred theoretical, argumentative, and rhetorical platform for authoritarians. Let us not forget that science was a challenge to the absolutism about truth that revealed religions claimed to profess; the Enlightenment brought many ‘alternative facts’ in its wake. Those worked; their ‘truth’ was established by their working. All the mathematical proofs and telescope gazings would have been useless had the science and technology built on them not ‘worked.’
  3. When fascists and authoritarians present ‘alternative facts’ and reject established knowledge claims, they do not present their alternative claims as ‘false’ because ‘truth’ is to be disdained; rather, they take an explicitly orthodox line in claiming ‘truth’ for their claims. ‘Truth’ is still valuable; it is still ‘correspondence’ to facts that matters.

The target of the critiques above then, is misplaced several times over. (Moreover, Willamson’s invocation of the philosopher who could not give a ‘straightforward’ answer to his interlocutor is disingenous at best. What if the ‘postmodernist’ philosopher wanted to make a point about colorblindness, or primary or secondary qualities? I presume Williamson would have no trouble with an analytic philosopher ‘complicating’ matters in such fashion. What would Williamson say to Wilfrid Sellars who might, as part of his answer, say, “To call that chair ‘black’ would be to show mastery of the linguistic concept ‘black’ in the space of reasons.” Another perfectly respectable philosophical answer, which Williamson would not find objectionable. Willamson’s glib answer to the question of whether the definition of truth offered by Aristotle correct is just that; surely, he would not begrudge the reams of scholarship produced in exploring the adequacy of the ‘correspondence theory of truth,’ what it leaves out, and indeed, the many devastating critiques leveled at it? The bogus invocation of ‘bogus complexity’ serves no one here.)

Critiques like Williamson and Dennett’s are exercises in systematic, dishonest misunderstandings of the claims made by their supposed targets. They refuse to note that it is the valorization of truth that does all the work for the political regimes they critique, that it is the disagreement about political ends that leads to the retrospective hunt for the ‘right, true, facts’ that will enable the desired political end. There is not a whiff of relativism in the air.

But such a confusion is only to be expected when the epistemology that Williamson and Dennett take themselves to be defending rests on a fundamental confusion itself: an incoherent notion of ‘correspondence to the facts’ and a refusal to acknowledge that beliefs are just rules for actions–directed to some end.

Cioran on Academic Writing’s ‘Forms of Vulgarity’

In ‘The Addict of Memoirs’ (from Drawn and Quartered, Arcade Publishing, New York, 1983/2012), E. M. Cioran writes:

Is there a better sign of “civilization” than laconism? To stress, to explain, to prove–so many forms of vulgarity.

Bergson is said to have said–somewhere–that time spent in refutation is time wasted¹. There is, evidently, a sympathy between these pronouncements that I make note of. Cioran suggests laconic forms of expression avoid three undignified sins that burden our writing. For in stressing, in explaining, in striving to prove–requirements placed upon us by the need to persuade, to change minds, to engage dialectically–we may go far afield of our original intentions were in writing. We write to communicate but only secondarily to persuade; what matter if we don’t?

Cioran’s assessment of the dialectical aspects of writing are harsh but rare is the academic writer who would not heave a sigh of relief were he or she to be spared their burdens. Consider, for instance, the trappings of academic writings: the elaborate piling on of references in opening sections to indicate–to referees, almost never to readers–that adequate scholarship is on display, the careful invocation of select objections and their refutation to shore up the central thesis presented. the footnoting to account for shades of meaning or to point to subsidiary debates, the careful setting of the stage for the presentation of the thesis, and so on. Such is  the overhead these place on any piece of academic writing that a common complaint made by readers–even if not always verbally articulated–is that a little too much fluff obscured the author’s central points. (I’m not discounting the importance of the references the author-researcher provides to future scholars in the field; merely that these accouterments are, at one level,  entirely peripheral to the points made by the writer and are only present because of the location of the writing within a particular social structure of inquiry. And as my nod to referees above indicates, within the context of a system of peer-review these considerations can quickly fade into insignificance.)

These ‘forms of vulgarity’ may too, force writers into forms of expression they are not competent at. Not everyone can explain or refute or prove as well as they can state a bold or original thesis; to indulge in these can weaken the work presented, which is both the writer’s and the reader’s loss. The provision of a claim or thesis in splendid isolation may be as productive–if not more–of thought as the provision of an elaborate package of arguments, objections, counter-objections, refutations, and so on; if we are to suggest further avenues of inquiry or to cut to the heart of the matter, a concise, powerful, and laconic statement may work best. Perhaps the reader can construct objections and see if the thesis presented stands up to them. Perhaps the writer and the reader–together–may then bring the writer’s work to fruition. Which is how it normally goes, in any case.

Note #1: I would appreciate a reference so I can reassure myself I’ve not made up this line.

The Acknowledgments Section As Venue For Disgruntlement

In The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre  (University of Chicago Press, 1985) David P. Jordan writes in the ‘Acknowledgments’ section:

With the exception of the Humanities Institute of the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose fellowship gave me the leisure to rethink and rewrite, no fund or foundation, agency or institution, whether public or private local or national, thought a book on Robespierre worthy of support. [pp xi-xii; citation added]

Shortly after I had defended my doctoral dissertation, I got down to the pleasant–even if at times irritatingly bureaucratic–process of depositing a copy with the CUNY Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library. The official deposited copy of the dissertation required the usual accouterments: a title page, a page for the signatures of the dissertation committee, an abstract page, an optional page for a dedication, and lastly, the acknowledgements. The first four of these were easily composed–I dedicated my dissertation to my parents–but the fifth one, the acknowledgements, took a little work.

In part, this was because I did not want to be ungracious and not make note of those who had tendered me considerable assistance in my long and tortuous journey through the dissertation. I thanked the usual suspects–my dissertation adviser, various members of the faculty, many friends, and of course, family. I restricted myself to a page–I continue to think multi-page acknowledgments are a tad self-indulgent–and did not try to hard to be witty or too effusive in the thanks I expressed.

And then, I thought of sneaking in a snarky line that went as follows:

Many thanks to the City University of New York which taught me how to make do with very little.

I was still disgruntled by the lack of adequate financial support through my graduate studies: fellowships and assistantships had been hard to come by; occasional tuition remissions had somewhat sweetened the deal, but I had often had to pay full resident tuition for a semester; and like many other CUNY graduate students, I had found myself teaching too many classes as an underpaid adjunct over the years. I was disgruntled too, by the poor infrastructure that my cohort contended with: inadequate library and computing resources were foremost among these. (During the last two years of my dissertation, I taught at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and so had access to the Bobst Library and NYU’s computing facilities; these made my life much easier.)

In the end, I decided against it; my dissertation was over and done with, and I wanted to move on. A parting shot like the one above would have made felt like I still harbored resentments, unresolved business of a kind. More to the point, the Graduate Center, by generously allowing to me enroll as a non-matriculate student eight years previously, had taken a chance on me, and kickstarted my academic career. For that, I was still grateful.

I deleted the line, and deposited the dissertation.

Note #1: An academic colleague who finished his dissertation around the time I did dedicated his dissertation to his three-year old son as follows:

Dedicated to ‘T’ without whom this dissertation would have been finished much earlier.

Fair enough.

A Most Irritating Affectation

The most irritating affectation of the modern intellectual is to pretend to be technically incompetent. I exaggerate, of course, but I hope you catch my drift. Especially if you’ve encountered the specimen of humanity that I have in mind. (Mostly on social media, but often in person too.)

The type is clearly identified: a clearly intellectually accomplished individual–perhaps by dint of academic pedigree, perhaps by a body of public work, or just plain old clearly visible ‘smarts’–claims that they are incompetent in modern technology, that they simply cannot master it, that their puny minds cannot wrap their heads around the tools that so many of their friends and colleagues seem to have so effortlessly mastered. (‘Oh, I have no idea how to print double-sided’; ‘Oh, I have no idea what you mean by hypertext’). They are just a little too busy, you see, with their reading–good ol’ dead-tree books, no Kindles or Nooks here!–and writing–well, not on typewriters sadly, but word processors, for some change really cannot be resisted. Rest assured though, that they have to call for help every time they need to change the margins or fonts or underline some text.

This absorption in old-fashioned methodologies and materials of learning thus marks them as gloriously archaic holdovers from an era which we all know to have been characterized by a greater intellectual rectitude than ours. While the rest of us are slaves to fashion, scurrying around after technology, desperately trying to keep up with the technical Joneses, our hero is occupied with the life of the mind. So noble; such a pristine life, marked by utter devotion to the intellect and free of grubby mucking around with mere craft.

Why do I find this claim of incompetence to be an irritating affectation? My suspicion is easily provoked because I do find posturing in all too many places–as I did above in expressions of faux modesty, sometimes called humblebrags in the modern vernacular, but here, I think, is the rub. Those who profess such incompetence merely outsource the work of learning the tools we all learn to do our work to us. They are unwilling to put in the time to learn; they are too busy with their important work; we are not for we have, after all, shown that we have time to spare to learn. We should help–it is now our duty to aid their intellectual adventures.

A claim to incompetence should not be occasion for cheer, but it is. We are, after all, ambivalent about the technology that so dominates, regulates, and permeates our life; we are, all too often, willing to cheer on evidence that not all is well in this picture of utter and complete absorption in technique. We applaud this disdain; we wish we were so serene, so securely devoted to our pursuit of knowledge. We are also, of course, clapping wildly for a rebellion of sorts, a push-back against the creeping march of technology into every corner of our lives.

I think we can find better heroes.

Note: I’m willing to make some concessions for those over the age of fifty, but anyone younger than that bragging about their technical klutziness needs a rhetorical kneecapping.