Because I'm a regular reader of the print-edition of The New Republic, I read this article by Anne O'Donnell (subscription-only, unfortunately) long before I found it on-line. (In fact, this post encouraged me to find the web version in order to link to it.) I mention O'Donnell's article because it alerted me to the lecture that Helen Vendler recently gave as the 2004 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities.
Professor Vendler's lecture is available on-line. Her topic is the humanities, in particular the humanities as they are practiced at today's colleges and universities. Professor Vendler addresses various interesting questions throughout her lecture: What are the humanities to study? What value do they possess? How are they to influence students? And so on. She answers her questions via readings of several poems by Wallace Stevens.
Since I have devoted my adult life to the study of the humanities, I was glad that Professor Vendler discussed them in a public forum. (By the way, the Jefferson Lecture is sponsored by the NEH.) Prominent academics with a public profile don't do enough to defend and promote what they do for a living. So that's all to the good.
But Professor Vendler makes several remarks about philosophy (which is my discipline) that I find puzzling. I'll quote from her first three paragraphs and then say something about them.
Here are the first two paragraphs in their entirety:
When it became useful in educational circles in the United States to group various university disciplines under the name "The Humanities," it seems to have been tacitly decided that philosophy and history would be cast as the core of this grouping, and that other forms of learning--the study of languages, literatures, religion, and the arts--would be relegated to subordinate positions. Philosophy, conceived of as embodying truth, and history, conceived of as a factual record of the past, were proposed as the principal embodiments of Western culture, and given pride of place in general education programs.
Confidence in a reliable factual record, not to speak of faith in a reliable philosophical synthesis, has undergone considerable erosion. Historical and philosophical assertions issue, it seems, from particular vantage points, and are no less contestable than the assertions of other disciplines. The day of limiting cultural education to Western culture alone is over. There are losses here, of course--losses in depth of learning, losses in coherence--but these very changes have thrown open the question of how the humanities should now be conceived, and how the study of the humanities should, in this moment, be encouraged.
After these introductory remarks, she formulates her proposal in her third paragraph:
I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on.
I'm all for the study of the arts, which is why I repeatedly taught courses in aesthetics when I was still a professor. It's what Professor Vendler says about the status of philosophy that puzzles me so.
But I'll start with a couple of minor quibbles. First, to say that philosophy embodies truth doesn't really distinguish it from history or most of the other humanistic disciplines, since, presumably, like philosophy, they aim at producing truths rather than falsehoods. I guess, though, that she means something suitably high-minded: Truth with a capital 'T', as Richard Rorty might say.
Second, Professor Vendler's observation that historical and philosophical assertions are made from particular viewpoints is obviously true. No one has ever really argued otherwise, although many historians and philosophers have thought rightly, if you ask me that they could overcome their own particular particularity, if you will, in their efforts to produce knowledge claims of various sorts. The point is to work within the boundaries of our fallibility, individually or collectively, in such a way that we minimize the risk of error and maximize the possibility of arriving at the truth. All of us do this all the time.
The real problem here, though, is that Professor Vendler seems to be asserting that the particularity of the viewpoint from which a claim to knowledge issues is itself a sufficient ground for challenging the view. This is the sort of mediocre epistemology that one finds all too frequently outside of philosophy departments.
The finitude of the person making a claim to knowledge is never a sufficient ground for challenging what that person has said, because such finitude characterizes everyone who makes a claim to knowledge. A challenge has to be based on reasons that directly address what has been claimed. Airy observations of the post-modernist sort that we are all historical beings living in a particular place and time give us at best a motive to suspect what others say. By themselves, though, they aren't objections. Historical tales aren't sufficient for undermining someone else's claim or arguments. If they were, then nothing would be worthy of belief.
I'll get off my anti-postmodernist hobbyhorse Whoa! Steady there! and move on to what really bothers me about Professor Vendler's lecture. After all, what I've just discussed is found in her brief opening remarks, and so perhaps none of it was meant too earnestly. We might think of it as a bit of theoretical throat-clearing.
Therefore, let's look at her remarks about philosophy. Here's my question: Since when was philosophy one of the two central objects of humanistic study in our colleges and universities?
Professor Vendler wants to shift the focus from history and philosophy to "the products of aesthetic endeavor." Well, as regards philosophy, that ship sailed a long time ago. A philosophy department is typically much smaller than a history or an English department, and typically has fewer majors than either of these other two departments. There might be some schools where this is not the case, but I assure you that such places are the exception, not the rule. Just go to a good bookstore and look at the philosophy, history, and literature sections. You'll quickly see which of the three is the smallest section.
In some understandings of the humanities, yes, it's true, philosophy is accorded a central, foundational role, but the actual practice of institutions of higher education relegates philosophy to an increasingly minor role in the intellectual lives of their students (and has been doing so for a long time). The situation has became so bad in recent years that applied ethics has become the fastest growing area within philosophy, as philosophy departments struggle to demonstrate to their deans that they're usefully contributing to the careerist ambitions that today's administrators harbor for today's students.
If what I've just described isn't the case at your institution of higher learning, then I suspect that you're studying or teaching at the University of Paris and Thomas Aquinas is on the faculty.