Mere Featherless Bipeds

This article by Carlin Romano raises a lot of very interesting issues. I don’t know nearly enough (by which I mean I know nothing at all) about the subject to judge how fair or accurate any of it is – but the issues raised are interesting in any case, and I propose to mumble over them, so there.

The desire to portray great thinkers as disembodied argument machines remains a powerful force in analytic philosophy. Think of it as a slice of amour-propre, part of the arrogant wish to be seen as timelessly, noncontingently right about everything. It can move acolytes to depict thinker-heroes as dynamos of pure intellect rather than peers: mere featherless bipeds whose thoughts bear clear markings from their beliefs, fears, and weaknesses.

See, that’s an interesting idea whether it’s true or not. The idea of people wanting to be seen as timelessly, noncontingently right about everything – there’s something fascinating about that (as well as very funny, of course). I suppose I’m interested in various forms of déformation professionelle, and especially in academic ones, so the thought of a special need or desire to be a disembodied argument machine makes me sit up and take notice.

It also interests me because it seems to me not altogether mistaken to want to separate the thoughts from the biography. I can think of other reasons philosophers (among other people) would want to do that that aren’t mere vanity – so Romano’s article partly goes against the grain of my thinking, which is to say it challenges some of my assumptions. I don’t always like having my assumptions challenged – when the students at Patrick Henry college (no, I’m not going to stop mentioning that place any time soon, why do you ask?) babble about the joys of subordinating women I don’t find it particularly interesting or thought-provoking – but sometimes I do.

It seems reasonable to want to try to do that, at least, for reasons to do with clarity. As part of an effort to strip away extraneous details in order to get at the thoughts as – in themselves they really are. That may be an absurd, hopeless, impossible, even risky wish, but still I can see why people would want to try – at least I think I can. But the idea that it’s pretty much just presentation of self is…interesting.

I keep thinking of Lydgate. In Middlemarch, you know. Eliot does a brilliant job on him: he’s the classic case of a would-be impersonal, dedicated, above it all scientist who in fact is riddled with unaware vanity.

Like many of his colleagues, Hart largely avoided anecdotes, biography, and detailed sociological evidence because it didn’t fit with proper Oxford philosophical method. Clear, precise, and commonsensical, he kept his personal life out of his books. Lacey’s study consequently hit the jurisprudence community like a Kitty Kelley exposé implanted in a Festschrift.

Not all bad, the keeping the personal life out business. One can get weary of the anecdotes about evenings wandering around Jakarta or Rangoon. I’m just saying.

But Lacey’s achievement triggered an attack on her this year by New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel, author of – unsurprisingly – The View From Nowhere. Complained Nagel in the London Review of Books, “I felt that I was learning too much that was none of my business…Nagel also maintains that despite Lacey’s distinguished academic position, she is “not equipped … to deal with the philosophical background. When she talks about the ‘paradox of analysis’ or about the differences between J.L. Austin and Wittgenstein, she is lost.” Upping the insult quotient, Nagel maintains that Lacey “seems to have a weak grasp of what philosophy is,” a claim he repeats several times. False in every respect. Lacey, far more industriously than Nagel, backs her statements throughout.

Now, that interests me because I happen to have read just a couple of days ago a letter from Simon Blackburn and Jeremy Waldron to the LRB protesting exactly the same thing.

We were puzzled and depressed to read Thomas Nagel’s patronising review of Nicola Lacey’s biography of Herbert Hart. In particular, his sweeping claim that the author is ‘lost’ when it comes to philosophical issues is both ungenerous and unsupported.

So the context and explanation Romano gives seems to make sense of something puzzling.

Indeed, Lacey utterly foresees Nagel’s line of insult. She specifically anticipates his assertion that Wittgenstein thought understanding “has to be pursued primarily by reasoning rather than by empirical observation,” noting “Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the embeddedness of language games within social practices.” In her view, Hart, like Nagel, never adopted an approach to reality as reportorial as Wittgenstein’s because it “undermines the pretensions of philosophy as the ‘master discipline’ which illuminates our access to knowledge about the world.”

Now that really interests me, because it’s something I’ve heard before, from people I know who have a somewhat disrespectful view of philosophy – who say it likes to see itself as ‘the queen of the sciences’ and that that self-vision can make philosophers a tad grandiose. I have no idea, myself. I don’t know any philosophers. I live in a tiny fishing village on the edge of an ice shelf in the far far north, and philosophers don’t get up here much. But I have heard people (who do know some philosophers) say so. Thus it’s interesting.

The sad upshot of this latest sighting of the disembodied thinker is that a champion of “philosophy” thinks truth matters less than keeping up appearances.


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