Monday, August 09, 2010

The regress argument against understanding philosophers

Via Brian Leiter. The argument proceeds from the premise that to understand any philosopher, you have to understand the philosophers who influenced him/her. This pushes you back down the history of philosophy until there's nothing you can write a good dissertation on after Aristotle. (People in well-funded doctoral programs might be able to make it up to Epicurus.)

Obviously things aren't that bad. The big point to be made here is that it's impossible to produce work that comes from a perfect knowledge of everything. You pick the things you're going to be really good on, and you're going to be mediocre at some other stuff. Some of us are going to know Montaigne and we'll be able to understand what Nietzsche is saying about him, and what that means about Nietzsche. Others are going to know metaethics and we'll be able to characterize Nietzsche's metaethical position in more precise terms. Maybe imperfect knowledge of the areas we're not expert in will impair our efforts. That's why we talk to each other.

Also: I admire philosophers who do interdisciplinary work that engages with the humanities and social sciences. There's lots of bad philosophy out there, and the world seriously needs philosophers who have the intellectual ability, patience, and academic social skills to help people there see that their (often very worthwhile) projects shouldn't be shaped by bad theories.


Anonymous said...

Cool post.
Out of curiosity, what are some of the bad philosophies out there?
Also, which bad philosophers have had an unfortunate influence on people?


- Diego

Neil Sinhababu said...

What I have in mind most are versions of reader-response theory that say that the meaning of a text is determined by the interpretive community. (I took a graduate seminar with Al Martinich at Texas where this stuff came up.)

If you're doing a Ph.D in literature or something and you love Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf or whoever and you've built up an interesting interpretation using lots of textual detail, you actually don't want to end up saying... "oh, yeah, and what makes an interpretation correct, at bottom, is that the community of interpreters likes it." There's such a thing as a correct interpretation that nobody else accepts because they're mistaken, or because they haven't looked at it as hard as you.

Anonymous said...

That characterization of 'reader-response theory' sounds a bit like a straw man to me... It seems to me the controversy is not so much about whether there can be 'a correct interpretation' that nobody else accepts because they are mistaken (would anyone really dispute that?), but whether there must always be 'the correct interpretation', where the standard of correctness is some unique 'original intention' on the part of the author.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Well, it can't just be that -- formalists and New Critics and lots of other people disagreed with the original intention stuff, and reader-response theory is supposed to be distinct from them.

Though, yeah, it's been a while since I read Fish and my understanding of reader-response theory was more shaped by ways that English grad students who were Fish fans spelled out the view in the seminar. Which may make it more relevant to the main topic -- whether or not it's a good reading of Fish, it's what's going around in English departments.

The Atheist Missionary said...

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