Does philosophy belong in the humanities?

In the old model of the liberal arts, the trivium was the ground floor of the “core curriculum” for students. It consisted in logic, rhetoric, and grammar, or the basic tools for scholarly reading, understanding, and writing. One then studied the quadrivium, or the four fundamental tools for researching nature’s design: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The humanities – or rather their distinguished ancestor, philology – grew from the trivium, with the addition of history. Philosophy, though, has been at odds with the art of rhetoric since the time of Plato, and has obstinately refused any association with the humanities – except for the purposes of university administration and applying for grants. James Turner makes the separation of philosophy from philology quite clear:

As we have seen, the modern humanities are cousins related by branching descent from common ancestors.  For most of this long revolutionary history, philosophers understood their studies as the opposite of philology, rhetoric, and antiquarianism.  Philosophy was logical, deductive, precise in conclusions, dismissive of change over time. Philology was interpretive, empirical, treating in probabilities, drenched in history. For much of the past two and a half millenia, starting with Plato, philosophers snickered at philology and rhetoric when not castigating them. Hostilities have cooled in recent centuries, but basic natures did not alter.” (Turner, Philology, 381)

The more philological humanities locate themselves at the intersections of several kinds of conversations – historical, political, cultural, and moral. The best writers in these humanities see all of these conversations taking place at once, in real time, and try to be sensitive to all of them. They see their own work as contributions to the subject they are surveying, and are circumspect in what they say because of the way it will affect, amplify, and distort the subject matter at hand. Their ultimate subject matter is the evolution of a conversation.

Philosophy, on the other hand, as Turner says, has tried to follow Socrates in having just one kind of conversation, the kind that aims at truth. Unlike the philological humanists, philosophers rarely see their own conversation as influencing what they study: the truth is one way, what we say about it does not affect it, and the aim is to get what we say to line up with what is true. This is Socrates’s way. Now the minute someone points out that this in fact was not Socrates’s way – that Plato, the literary genius, pays very close attention to the way conversation unfolds, to the gentle instructions about conversational manners and eloquence in speaking, to the occasions of conversations and where they take place and who is there and who does the speaking – as soon as someone begins to account for these things, many philosophers’ eyes glaze over as they realize they are in for one of those kinds of talks, the mushy smearing of rhetorical paste over the quite precise distinctions and arguments made by Socrates and his partners. We won’t get at truth except through the patient and careful analysis of arguments, say the philosophers – and logic is thus elevated over rhetoric.

A great many papers now presented at history of philosophy conferences are efforts in what I call “analytical exegesis.” That is, texts of philosophers are read with intense concern paid to the logical possibilities of interpretation – precisely what the text does and does not say – along with a philosopher’s distinctive ability to generate possible problems and objections. The goal is to come up with an interpretation that fits the letter of the text and that is most likely to hold up against possible objections. Ideally, the scholar constructs out of the text a philosophical position that may well be true – not just as an interpretation of a text, but really, honest to goodness true.

There are several virtues to analytical exegesis: it forces a very meticulous treatment of the text, and offers a glimpse of the logical space of possibilities that surrounds the text. More prosaically, it also allows for the sort of inquiry that lends itself to early publications for graduate students and junior faculty, since it requires mastery of only a small range of text and a cluster of secondary articles, along with inventiveness of mind.

But analytical exegesis has its shortcomings. By refusing to join up with the philological humanities, philosophers miss out on making the connections their texts have to historical context, to other authors, as well as to other kinds of questions – historical, political, cultural, and even economic – that might be raised even about passages that may seem purely metaphysical. Moreover, because of these missed connections, the analytical exegetes address a very narrow audience – really only one another – since the highly-polished gems they turn up don’t quite fit into any of the settings that are made available by historical and philological inquiries. One ends up with, say, a beautiful theory of free will that grows out of consideration of Locke’s text; but it is more relevant to contemporary action theory than to any other discussions that took place in the late 17th century. The result therefore is likely to be of interest only to future attempts at analytic exegesis. In this way, analytical exegesis begins to resemble a very peculiar form of fan fiction, albeit one carried out with strenuous intellectual effort and utmost seriousness.

As is probably obvious, I’d like to see philosophers shift toward a more interesting blend of both analytic exegesis and broader humanistic awareness. I’d like to see philosophy make peace with philology.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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