Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pluralism in Philosophy: Academics vs. Politics

A former colleague of mine asked for advice about navigating the analytic/continental divide and about being a pluralist.  His primary specialty is East-Asian philosophy, especially Japanese aesthetics.  Here I will share my advice.

Just be a pluralist.

For me, what is at stake is what counts as a pluralist, which brings in all the nasty politics. Let me distinguish two issues, one academic and one political. I have said this stuff before, but I am attempting to be more clear since I have not previously made this crucial distinction between the academic/scholarly and political.

First, there are traditions of philosophy that generate texts and maintain the community of interpretation that establishes hermeneutic standards within that tradition. We can be pluralists about this and be members of as many communities as we can handle, which comes down to ability, persistence, and opportunities. However, being a member of a community of interpretation is more than just reading "those other guys' books." I think you know what I mean, especially since you do this on a daily basis.  [My colleague and I often talk about the difficulty of cross-tradition conversation, especially when we know both traditions and our interlocutor does not.]

Second, there are the political divides in western philosophy that tend to track the traditional boundaries. Too often, the political divides are conflated with the traditional boundaries, and my recent encounters lead me to believe--to say it again--that many in the analytic tradition do no see "traditions of philosophy" as a real division and believe it should be abolished. You know how I feel about this.

In conclusion, be a pluralist and call yourself a pluralist publicly. However, beware of invoking the traditional boundaries that I mention, because many analytics will only hear an offhand rejection of their philosophy regardless of whether that was intended or true. Continentals often play a variant of that game.  In both cases you are mostly having a political discussion, not a scholarly one, that sometimes masquerades as the latter. You will have a hard time coming back from a bad impression with axe-grinding interlocutors of either camp, and you NEVER want that to come up in an interview, especially since you can play the "I'm an Asianist" card and attempt to sidestep the whole ugly feud. Of course, that has its own pitfalls as you know.

Bottom line, make the tradition/political distinction and know that many others will not.

1 comment:

  1. For those who do not know, neither of us are primary specialists in analytic or continental and get caught in that whirlpool. Anyone who thinks I'm taking a side has misunderstood me, because they've pulled me into the politics that I'd prefer to stay away from. As a point of disclosure, I began my career in analytic, gained a secondary specialty as a historian and in continental, and lastly came into a primary specialty in pragmatism. I've also cultivated some competence in Asian traditions. I want to be able to speak philosophy to as many people as possible, which as I've said, is about more than just "reading those other guys' books," and includes all the conceptual frameworks, history, sociology, material/economic standpoint of the discourses, etc

    Leon of After Nature has also posted of the issues of dual-specialties. (