Academic follies

My friend Duane copied an article out of his current issue of American Political Science Quarterly for me.  The article’s argument, by a political scientist and philosopher from Duke, suggested that incentives should be more properly viewed as an exercise in power politics (and hence subject to close ethical scrutiny) and not, as is traditional, as a purely economic matter — a voluntary transaction — that is thereby presumed to be morally appropriate.

Interesting stuff.  The argument itself was quite clever, although ultimately unpersuasive.  And it was unpersuasive not becuase of a defect of reasoning, but rather because of the conceptual framework in which the author boxed herself.  She was imprisoned by her own assumptions.

There is no point in dissecting an APSQ article here, and anyway, such a critique would be superficial and beside the larger point.  Which is this: As “thought” becomes increasingly rarified and abstract and technical, two problems become increasing apparent.  First, that practicality and common sense are more and more marginalized in the public square of intellectualism; second, that the complexity of today’s original thought — especially as practiced in the social sciences — seems to increase the rate of argumentative failure resulting from assumptions of worldview.

Many have commented ad nauseum about the first problem; there’s not much original to add, except perhaps to note that contemporary thought (in sociology, philosophy, political science, literature … et cetera) is leading more and more to outcomes that border on inadvertent self-parody.  The fine arts are the most obvious example of this trend, but the social sciences aren’t far behind, as Alan Sokal’s Social Text experiment demonstrated. 

The second problem hasn’t had as much discussion, perhaps because the only ones who “get it” are those who have an intimate relationship with the Ivory Tower and hence may be reluctant to air its dirty laundry.  But the evidence abounds.  My own discipline, philosophy, presents a depressingly forthright case study in this.

It is not a secret that one of the biggest movements in 20th-century academic philosophy was the “linguistic turn.”  In a nutshell, this refers to the growing emphasis on philosophy of language, and the logical underpinnings of langauge, as a sort of grand unifying theory of the whole of traditional philosophy.  Everything — from metaphysics to epistemology to aesthetics — could be cast as a language problem, with philosophy of language omnipresent to explain how language constructs reality.

But along the way, philosophy lost its soul.  The discipline, under the linguistic turn, became increasingly the province of technical philosophers who were well-versed in linguistic theory and formal logic.  Concurrently, the accessibility of philosophy to the layman declined — contemporary philosophy in the analytic mode is sufficintly abstruse that even grad students are routinely incapable of understanding today’s academic philosophers.  Any grad student who “gets” Quine, for example, is probably lying.

Legal theory provides us with something by way of explanation for this trend: the idea of a ladder of precedent.  Sometimes, constitutional decisions by the courts seem quite at odds with the literal meaning of the Constitution, but the decision quotes a series of prior decisions and other relevant acts, each of which incrementally supports the most recent rung of the ladder.  Insofar as the previous decision is accepted as sound, so also is the next.  And so on.

Likewise, I think, with most of today’s social sciences.  And so also with the APSQ journal article.  The deeper the chain of reasoning, the more that fundamental assumptions are required to support the final argument.  This proliferates the potential avenues of attack against a theory or argument, and the natural defense against those attacks is to become increasingly “technically abstract.”

Thus, although I found a serious bone of contention in the second graf of the APSQ article such that the entire argument was open to criticism, the overall argument the author presented was — in its way — coherent (or so I thought). 

The author reasoned from a closed system of her own devising, which was logically sound yet based on a series of assumptions, each of which is open to debate.  By employing hidden premises that are, themselves, little more than assumed positions on controversial issues, the illusion of complex and original thinking is presented.  But it is merely facade; any monkey with sufficient talent can string together a series of dubious assumptions that will justify something intellectual-sounding.

I am, of course, not equating the professor from Duke with a monkey.  I’m just using the article as a jumping-off point for my observations.

Closed systems, hidden assumptions, unnecessary technical complexity, vague abstraction, and the need to sound smart … these things are feeding the academic monster, much to the detriment of a proper and rigorous intellectual environment.

A course correction is needed in today’s academy.  Let’s hope it happens before too much more nonsense is placed in the public domain.

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