Disciplinary Tribalism or Slice and Dice?


A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a historian suggests that on the whole thinkers like Hegel, Freud and Marx are no longer being taught, and if they are being taught it is only outside of each thinkers discipline.  So the broad claim is that Hegel, for the most part, is not taught in philosophy departments, Freud is barely spoken of in psychology departments and Marx won’t be found in any course offerings through the economics department. The author of the article, Russell Jacoby, suggests

The divorce between informed opinion and academic wisdom could not be more pointed. If educated individuals were asked to name leading historical thinkers in psychology, philosophy, and economics, surely Freud, Hegel, and Marx would figure high on the list. Yet they have vanished from their home disciplines. How can this be?  A single proposition can hardly explain the fate of several thinkers across several fields. However, general trends can inform separate disciplines. For starters, the ruthlessly anti- or nonhistorical orientation that informs contemporary academe encourages shelving past geniuses.

Jacoby muses on such non-historical orientations in economics and psychology, but I focus on his comments on philosophy:

Compared with economics, philosophy prizes the study of its past and generally offers courses on Greek, medieval, and modern thinkers. Frequently, however, those classes close with Kant, in the 18th century, and do not pick up again until the 20th century. The troubling 19th century, featuring Hegel (and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), is omitted or glossed over. General catalogs sometimes list a Hegel course in philosophy, but it is rarely offered. Very few philosophy departments at major universities teach Hegel or Hegelian thought.

Ok, maybe Hegel won’t always appear in a survey course, but come on, everybody knows this: undergrads love Nietzsche!  Or love to hate Nietzsche.  At least that’s my experience.  After slogging through Descartes, Hume, Kant, my students are pleasantly surprised to read the–on the face of it–more lively prose of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Jacoby makes some more comments about philosophy and tribalism:

In most colleges and universities, it is one of the smaller majors, while psychology is one of the largest. Yet, much like psychology, philosophy has proved unwelcoming for thinkers paddling against the mainstream. Not only did sharp critics like Richard Rorty, frustrated by its narrowness, quit philosophy for comparative literature, but a whole series of professors have departed for other fields, leaving philosophy itself intellectually parched.  That is the argument of John McCumber, a scholar of Hegel and Heidegger who himself decamped from philosophy to German. His book Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era (Northwestern University Press, 2001) savages the contemporary American philosophical profession and its flight from history. He notes, for instance, that 10 years after the 1987 “breakthrough anthology” Feminism as Critique, not one of its contributors, from Seyla Benhabib to Iris Marion Young, still taught in a philosophy department. The pressures that force — or tempt — big names such as Rorty and Martha Nussbaum to quit philosophy, McCumber observes, exert equal force on those outside the public eye. He charges, for instance, that senior editors dispense with peer review and run the major philosophy journals like private fiefdoms, and that a few established professors select papers for the discipline’s annual conferences. The authoritarianism and cronyism drive out mavericks.

Ricard Rorty, a maverick?  Really?  Jacoby goes onto talk about how those tribalists that love to protect disciplinary borders are pleased by all of this, it’s progress:

Psychology without Freud, economics without Marx, philosophy without Hegel: For disciplinary cheerleaders, this confirms intellectual progress. The cloudy old thinkers have made way for new scientific researchers. But at what cost? The past innovators shared a fealty to history. “We are what we are through history,” stated Hegel; and Freud, for all his biological determinism, believed that one must master the past to master the present. Yet today we lack the patience to dig too far, or perhaps we lack the patience to unravel the implications of discoveries into the past.

Jacoby claims philosophy, like psychology and economics, has little patience for it’s past:

Philosophy nods toward its past, but its devotion to language analysis and logic-chopping pushes aside as murky its great 19th-century thinkers. Polishing philosophical eyeglasses proves futile if they are rarely used to see.

Now, onto the conclusion, which at first pass seems somewhat uncontroversial, except when we get to the last sentence.  Um, have we actually consigned Marx, Freud and Hegel to the dustbin?

No doubt there has been progress in those fields, but is it possible to advance without any idea of where one has been? Without a guide to the past, the scholar, like the traveler, might move in circles. Moreover, should the giants of the past be dispatched so coolly and mechanically? Culture is not like an automobile that should be junked when old and decrepit. I don’t see how we can be educated — or consider ourselves educators — if we consign to the dustbin, say, Freud’s exchange with Einstein on war, Marx’s description of “the cheap price of commodities” that batters down national boundaries, or Hegel’s notion of the master/slave relationship.

Now onto the more reactionary sounding conclusion:

Those ideas should be addressed, not parried; taught, not dismissed.  To be sure, other fields adopt the thinkers that psychology, philosophy, and economics have sent packing. Yet that itself is a problem. Instead of confronting recalcitrant thinkers on their own terms, the new disciplines slice them up. Freud turns into an interpreter of texts, Hegel into a philosopher of art, and Marx into a cinema theorist. That saves them from oblivion, but at the price of domestication. Freud no longer excavates civilization and its discontents but merely unpacks words. Hegel no longer tracks the dialectic of freedom but consoles with the beautiful. Marx no longer outlines the movements of capital but only deconstructs the mass spectator.  Driven out of their original domains because they are too ungainly or too out of date, Hegel, Marx, and Freud succumb to an academic makeover. In the mall of education, they gain an afterlife as boutique thinkers.

Let’s just pretend for a minute that this is a completely accurate picture Jacoby has painted.  If this is the case, and in some circles it certainly is, what does it matter if their “afterlives” are as boutique thinkers?  Isn’t it good to read Freud, Marx, and Hegel?  Is every student that reads these thinkers in the way jacoby describes (slice and dice) simply a bunch of automatons that won’t find other interesting angles in the text?  I think for the most part, at least with Hegel, the case seems rather overstated.  Besides, any historian would know that things go in and out of favor, so while if we grant the case above regarding Hegel, it’s only a matter of time before someone in philosophy would “find” Hegel again.  For a while commentators thought it cool and edgy to read Hegel without the synthesis (is that like beer without alcohol?), but that’s not as popular anymore it seems.  These days, it seems like Zizek can’t open his mouth without saying Hegel at least once.  While this may be precisely what Jacoby is gesturing to, I can’t help but find the insistence on disciplinary borders somewhat reactionary and completely inaccurate.

Then again, maybe I should teach Hegel in my survey course next semester…

8 thoughts on “Disciplinary Tribalism or Slice and Dice?

  1. Where I just graduated, there is a Marx class taught in the economics department and a Hegel class taught in the philosophy department, though the Hegel class sneaks in as “19th Century Philosophy.” They’re pretty serious, let’s get down to business classes too. They read all of Das Kapital in the Marx class, plus extra readings, and it’s only billed as a 300-level class! We read all of the Phenomenology in the Hegel class, and that’s about it.

    The catch to it all is that Portland State University, like all state-schools in Oregon, is on a quarter system. So, these massive texts are to be done in 10-weeks or less, plus papers.

    Freud, as far as I can tell, isn’t a major part of any psychology course, except where professors/texts feel it necessary to mention him in order to gloss over him.

  2. Not that simply because Hegel, Marx and Freud are taught in their respective disciplines at Mikhail’s university or Joe’s college it serves to disprove Jacoby’s suggestions in the Chronicle article, but I would think that the Chronicle of Higher Education would have actually tried to find someone in–I don’t know–the fields of philosophy, economics or psychology to write the article! Shouldn’t historians know better than to base one’s argument on a single source and some observations? I’ll check out Leiter’s response, but isn’t McCumber a pretty serious Hegel scholar?

  3. McCumber is more of a “serious scholar” than Leiter himself, of course, but to pursue this line of thought would be to go all personal and all, and if the all-wise Anthony Paul Smith has taught me anything, it’s not to go personal…

  4. You’re right about all of it, Shahar, but Russell’s more slippery than this. I have some personal insight because he taught my grad Frankfurt School seminar (philosophy/history crosslist, I imagine) as a visiting scholar at UCSD in the late 80s. He knew his stuff and it was a good class; I got started with Lukacs as a result. Already at that time he was a homeless independent intellectual who was too big and smart to stay unemployed and too abrasive to stay employed. Making virtue of this necessity he hasn’t been pinnable downable in decades.

    To call him a ‘historian’ is a categorical convenience, but I don’t think he has any sort of disciplinary allegiance. He’s a pesky gadfly in the tradition of Voltaire, a reflexive critic of authority and complacency; a crank, in short, in one of the great traditions of Jewish intellection and surely a soulmate of Mikhail’s as well.

    He lives to stir things up, so, um, mission accomplished. His classic strategy is the big, provocative overgeneralization, well-informed but not qualified to death, which he takes to be the useful function of the vanishing breed of public intellectuals to stimulate public discussion.

    I’m not sure that’s the only or even the best way to go about it, and clearly his choice is conditioned by his own difficult character, but it sure does work.

  5. His classic strategy is the big, provocative overgeneralization, well-informed but not qualified to death, which he takes to be the useful function of the vanishing breed of public intellectuals to stimulate public discussion.

    Sounds about right as a descriptor of the Chronicle article, Carl.

    Thanks for the background information on Jacoby. Given the article he wrote for the Chronicle it’s rather unsurprising. Leiter’s response was as usual, overblown and whiny. One of his problems was with Jacoby’s suggestion that:

    senior editors dispense with peer review and run the major philosophy journals like private fiefdoms, and that a few established professors select papers for the discipline’s annual conferences. The authoritarianism and cronyism drive out mavericks.

    This is another issue. I actually didn’t find this to be such an outrageous claim. One does not have to spend a good deal of time hanging around in one discipline or another to realize that ultimately there are a handful of people that are “controlling” the field. This is not to say that there are not plenty of peer reviewed journals or open access journals that are cross-disciplinary or publish interesting work. However, I’ve often wondered if the growing proliferation of “academic” blogs written by academics is a reflection of the fiefdom Jacoby notes above. How many times have I read someone comment that he or she could actually write what they wanted to in this format. Indeed, “mavericks” and “trouble-makers” are generally flushed out of the academic system, blackballed or sent messages in other ways, (as in: a Sabbatical Dr. X, oh I don’t think so, maybe next year), rather quickly, at least in my experience.

  6. By the way, is The Last Intellectual worth reading? Or should I have learned from my last mistake when I read Posner’s rather jumbled (but generally correct) indictment of academic careerism and specialization in his Public Intellectuals? Posner’s argument ended up being far too pragmatic for me, and I don’t like reading Rorty. I think Posner ends up suggesting (like Rorty) that we should forget about any attempt towards philosophical depth and aim for the surface: for what he calls “philosophical superficiality and light-mindedness.” Why? Well, only such superficiality can “make the world’s inhabitants more pragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality.” Oy.

  7. I haven’t read it, because it’s one of those books where I feel confident I already know what it says. Russell always knows his stuff, so there’s always value added. He’s also highly selective and shamelessly plays favorites. Maybe a little like an outsider Stanley Fish? Or Paul Piccone – he was in with the Telos crowd in the beginning and shares that doomed-outsider-against-all-odds ethos, or obsession, or oedipal neurosis as the case may be that was fairly typical of the smart riffraff who got pulled into the fringes of the academy during the 60s. There’s nothing pragmatic or tolerant about him, so I’d bet his book sets up a nice continuum with Posner’s.

    My dad had two major journals next door at one time or another and they were pretty clearly fiefdoms. To complicate the story, this was largely because it was so frazzling and thankless to run them – it’s really a ‘service’ position where the upstatus wears off pretty quick and what’s left is the actual work of babysitting a lot of spoiled, cranky, clueless intellectuals and wannabes. With just a little disillusionment about that and general laziness you could see why they’d settle on a small number of congenial and reliable ‘peer’ reviewers to churn out easy and unobjectionable product.

    Of course once the field gets defined that way it’s then unremarkably self-reproducing. There’s always going to be something a little clueless, or lazy, or doormatty about journal editors, with more dynamic, adventurous ones quickly disillusioned or forced out by the consensus conservatism of the field. It all works like a flywheel, which keeps a lot of crap suppressed while also lengthening the adoption curve for innovation.

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