Sunday, 28 June 2009

Philosophy and Cultural Criticism

Baroness Onora O'Neill began a book review in yesterdays' Financial Times by declaring that: "Philosophers don't do cultural criticism". She added that what philosophers do is "write about arguments and categories, about truth and validity but not about how ideas are preserved or distorted or how they travel or vanish".  Whilst the point of the review was to recommend to us a book that she argues is an  exception to this rule it is a pretty strange statement and one that struck me as extraordinary enough to be worth examining.

The first thing about the statement that is peculiar is that Baroness O'Neill should be the one to make it. This is odd given that she was the BBC Reith Lecturer in 2002 (as is Michael Sandel this year), a position that, one might think, was all about cultural criticism, especially defined as a concern with how ideas are "preserved or distorted or how they travel or vanish". Not only does the evidence of Baroness O'Neill's own practice tell against her statement, her statement is also at variance with many of the central projects of contemporary philosophy.

How well does it describe, for example, the works of Charles Taylor or those of Robert Pippin, Martha Nussbaum or Alasdair McIntyre, John McDowell or Alain Badiou? Further, what about the fact that amongst the works of Jacques Derrida are included such titles as Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, Spectres of Marx and The Politics of Friendship

If we look to the more recent past it is evident that engaging in cultural criticism that was philosophically based was the whole point of the activities of the members of the Frankfurt School in addition to forming the central horizon of the works of such varied thinkers as Karl Popper, Bernard Williams and Maurice Blanchot. That such a varied set of names can be summoned shows, in fact, that the problem with Baroness O'Neill's statement is not that it is based purely on a conception of philosophy formed by Anglo-American thinkers in opposition to European ones. It is obvious that a practice of cultural criticism was as important for John Rawls as for Jean-Paul Sartre even though the differences between the way it was thought best to carry out such criticism certainly was related to very different views of the role of philosophy.

The distinction between philosophy and cultural criticism is further not one that would have met with any approval from thinkers of the past. An obvious counter-example to the claim can be found in the works of Kant. Does not Kant, after all, declare in the preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that: "Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit" (Axln)? And was he not also the thinker who wrote such an array of critical reflections on culture as What Is Enlightenment?, the essay on the relation of theory and practice, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone and Perpetual Peace, amongst others? And is not the good Baroness herself most renowned precisely as a contemporary exponent of a Kantian view of moral philosophy? 

When we put together contemporary reference with that from the history of philosophy it becomes clearly apparent that philosophy certainly does do cultural criticism including analysis of how ideas are "preserved or distorted and how they travel or vanish". Not only does it do this but such analysis has, if anything, been a constant element of philosophy. The attempt to suggest otherwise, to convey a sense of it as a subject concerned only with "arguments" and "categories", "truth" and "validity" is not sensitive either to the history of the subject or its contemporary practice. 

Given the multiple ways in which the good Baroness' statement is obviously false it remains to be asked how she could possibly ever have ventured it to be the case. There are, it seems to me, two reasons why she may have done so. On the one hand, in making this statement, she is suggesting the need for philosophers to engage in a cultural combat that she takes it that they tend to shy away from. On the other hand, she is also indicating some caution about the practice of philosophy and its possible difficulty in engaging in such activity. Since analysis of the practice of philosophy does not support the view that philosophers are shy of such combat it also does not lead to a conservative sense of its ability to engage. Rather it is perhaps time for philosophers to be clearer about the often revolutionary nature of their discipline and to embrace the challenges it offers to engage with the general culture in ways not evidently open to those trained and based in other disciplines.


Nick said...

I'm sure it's not just me that quite often tries to skirt around the fact that I study philosophy, when asked by a friend's mum, a work colleague etc. The inevitable 'do you think about the meaning life?', 'does a tree falling in an empty forest make a sound?' or 'what on earth are you going to do with a degree in that?' really does sum up the common consensus on philosophy's content. I whole heartedly agree that Anglo American definitions are proliferating dangerously but it seems to be a risk that has been present from the start, for example Aristophanes' accusation of airiness.

Watching Badiou discussing communism on BBC news I realised how incredibly vacuous the discussion sounded because of the necessary dumbing down of the highly esoteric thoughts. I mean the TV viewing public aren't going to get references to the retreat of politics or the unsurpassable horizon of our time. What I do find strange though is that the same thing naturally happens in most academic disciplines, and yet the public seem to trust the physicist implicitly that the LHC isn't just a very very expensive toy.

Maybe philosophy is a victim of its own success, like the old addage that if you get something right people won't think you've done anything at all.

Stendhal said...

Criticism? Of course. Culture? Can of worms.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for the comments Nick and Stendhal. Nick: I wasn't suggesting the problem was Anglo-American views of philosophy. Rather, I was arguing that both Anglo-American and European philosophers engage in cultural criticism and that suggestions to the contrary are due to certain conservative assessments that are disputable. Stendhal: its true that the notion of culture opens all kinds of possible questions up but that may well be a good thing! Please comment further if you meant something else!

Nick said...

Ah I'm with you, think I was doing too much reading my own thoughts into what you'd written!