Prestige is as Prestige Does

Part two of this review of Simon Blackburn’s Truth says some peculiar and rather ill-natured things, and also some silly ones. Some of the things are all three at once.

In Truth, the hostility to the unnamed relativist so overflows at points as to make her sound more like a solipsist, a nihilist, or even a willful and demented child. I spent a number of years in and around English departments and certainly met plenty of nudniks and witnessed my share of bizarre seminar discussions. But never once did I meet the shameless knave that Blackburn describes.

Well – bully for you, one feels like saying. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, does it. (Black swans! Dingdingding!) We don’t know what ‘a number of years in and around English departments’ means, do we. Nor do we know what ‘plenty of nudniks’ or ‘bizarre seminar discussions’ means. We don’t really even know what ‘in and around English departments’ means. But we do know that your not encountering X does not mean that X does not exist. So the snotty, de haut en bas tone of your review might be a tad out of place.

Anyone currently in academia in any capacity knows that the prestige of hard and semihard disciplines (notably economics) has never been higher, while the prestige of soft disciplines—those aided over the previous 25 years by the allure of “theory,” such as English, Comp Lit, Art History—has never been lower.

Well, pal, that depends what you mean by ‘prestige.’

Blackburn’s Truth Wars would pit right-brain adepts of the math and sciences against the left-brain adepts of the humanities, but this is a tendentious morality play meant to fret the public imagination without taking into account the actual intellectual or institutional history of the American university.

The right-brain adepts of math and science?? And for that matter, the left-brain adepts of the humanities?? And then…um…why is Blackburn supposed to take into account the actual intellectual or institutional history of the American university? Why the American university? (This is very like my writing a comment on a problem in democracy and being told by way of reply that the American people distrust powerful institutions. Hello? As Coriolanus said, there is a world elsewhere.) Blackburn is at Cambridge – the one up the M11, not the one across from MIT – so why is he expected to concentrate on the American university? Who knows.

One philosopher above all has chronicled the decline in prestige of analytic philosophy and the corresponding rise in interest in literary theory; and not coincidentally, this is the one enemy Blackburn troubles to identify by name. This is a review-essay, and any attempt to justify the American philosopher Richard Rorty’s conclusion, that truth is human-centered and consensual and not alien and extrinsically imposed, would require at least a book. But it is possible to identify, merely by quoting Rorty, the wound to the ego that seems to have motivated Blackburn to write a screed in response to him.

The wound to the ego. That seems to have motivated Blackburn. Seems? Seems to whom? On what basis? On what evidence? You mean ‘seems’ because you don’t like the book and so cast about for a concealed motivation? I’ve said it before, and no doubt will again – that one little word ‘seems’ can do a lot of work. Dirty work, often.

Being told that you are ill-read, or better yet, a “time-serving bore,” as Rorty has dubbed analytic philosophers, would fuel anyone’s bafflement and annoyance, and these are the twin engines behind Truth. As a helpless rejoinder to Rorty that only serves to prove his case, the book would be harmless if it didn’t also take energy from a trend darkening the culture at large.

Ho yus. Baffled, helpless, annoyed – fuming with irritation at the superior ‘prestige’ of Rorty – is the Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, holder of Wittgenstein’s chair, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, best-seller, frequent radio commenter – yes indeed, that’s a plausible account, Mr Metcalf.

How vast the bad faith, and the hoodoo powers of left-wing conspiracy! To which one can only reply: Physician, heal thyself. As in his beef with Rorty, Blackburn has let a personal distaste overwhelm a basic respect for the facts. To have been lectured to at length by this man, on just this score, and in a book so clumsily soldered together, lies beyond even poor taste; it is perverse. It requires reminding, then, that “Philosopher” isn’t a job description, but an honorific. And in this instance, it might better be revoked.

The guy’s clueless. He thinks Blackburn is right-wing! That’s downright funny. Basic respect for the facts, dude? Physician – oh never mind.

Anyway. Not an impressive review, frankly. Reminiscent of Vollman on Nietzsche.

Slate has a history of this kind of thing. It published a lame two-person dialogue review of an earlier Blackburn book, Being Good, four years ago. It’s a supremely irrelevant review. If you read it and go to the bottom you’ll see a reader comment on the review followed by a comment on the comment by Blackburn. Here’s an amusing factino: I wrote that comment. ‘Kassandra’ c’est moi. That was a long long time ago – way before B&W.

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