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…