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.


Letting The Feminists Know What Time It Is

A couple of years ago, in a post commenting on Virginia Held‘s Sprague and Taylor Lecture at Brooklyn College, I wrote:

My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center [in the fall of 1992]. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. [During our first class meeting] on her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors.

I want to add a little more detail to this story–as well as a little follow-up; your mileage may vary with regards to your assessment of the topicality or relevance of these embellishments.

That evening, during our first class meeting, there were some twenty students in class. Most were men, a few were women. One male professor from Israel was sitting in on the class. After Virginia handed out the syllabus, the questioning began. It was unrelentingly querulous and hostile, outraged by the outlier syllabus we had just been handed. No Hobbes? The horror! So many feminists? Why? I was taken aback by the edgy conversation, the in-your-face style the male graduate students adopted in confrontation with Virginia. The visiting academic, for his part, did his bit, by adding his two skeptical, teetering-on-the-edge-of-sneering cents: Surely, this material was more suited for a feminist philosophy class?

As I noted above, Virginia handled these responses with grace and tact and intellectual aplomb. (For instance, she had paired John Locke and Carole Pateman for good reason.) My respect for her grew. And I, so used to being marginalized in conversational spaces, someone who had read Native Son only a year before, when I read Marx and feminism a little later in the semester, came to realize where I could find solidarity.

But I digress.

News of this new ‘radical’ syllabus was not slow in spreading; I heard many graduate students express the verbal equivalent of the modern SMH: fucking feminists, they’re really out of control; imagine, putting all these out-there readings on the reading list of a ‘Core’ class!

A semester later, Virginia was teaching a class that I had not registered for, but in which some of my friends were enrolled.  All too soon, news of a delightful incident spread. A male graduate student–a good friend of mine, indeed, perhaps, my best friend in graduate school–had given Virginia her comeuppance. Apparently, she had assigned one of her papers as reading. During class discussion, while discussing its claims about the displacement of emotion or empathy in moral reasoning, my friend–without having done the reading and not knowing who the author was–had jumped into the fray and described her paper as ‘an ignorant parody of Western philosophy.’ Snickering in class; backslapping and applause later.

A few days later, while drinking beers with my friend in his apartment, I asked him if he knew he had become such an anti-feminist icon, the brave defender of the right of all to study philosophy in peace, without the ignorant provocations of feminist philosophers constantly badgering them.  To his eternal credit, my friend was in turns alarmed and then shame-faced; he did not desire such a status; he had fancied himself an enlightened progressive. (He was, and is.) But that verbal style, that cut-and-thrust, that parry, that jab and hook, perhaps they were all just a little too deeply ingrained. We talked a bit more, a little deeper into the night, before turning in. A semester or so later, when female graduate students in our department began to revitalize student government, bringing some of their concerns to the fore, he was deeply involved with their work.

That story had a ‘happy’ ending.  But elsewhere, I don’t think so.