Friday, 2 July 2010

Philosophy and Authority

In an article in the New York Times'  philosophy blog The Stone Nancy Bauer opens the question of the authority of philosophy. The reason Bauer is prompted to do this is due to an earlier piece she contributed to the same blog in which she discussed Lady Gaga. The problem seems to be that, in discussing questions concerning Lady Gaga, Bauer was viewed by a number of readers as having crossed the line concerning questions that philosophers had any right to adjudicate.

I am not going to here attempt to either defend Bauer or venture any view in this posting on Lady Gaga. However, it is worth looking at the general question of what type of authority is supposed to accrue to the views of philosophers and on what occasions. The column to which Bauer is a contributor has not been without controversy from the start. Brian Leiter, in response to the launching of The Stone, argued against the way it had been established, on the grounds that the chosen moderator of it, Professor Simon Critchley,
Simon CritchleyImage via Wikipedia
 is someone with limited professional standing (on Leiter's view). Leiter also got considerable support for this view from some other philosophers.

Both the problem with Bauer's column and the controversy concerning Critchley's moderation of it indicate the precarious nature of philosophical authority. In Bauer's case the problems with her original column, in the view of some readers, seem to have been two-fold, namely, that it concerned pop culture and that it lacked social scientific structure, the latter meaning lack of reference to ascertainable "facts" over which there could be dispute. The argument concerning Critchley's moderation, by contrast, concerned whether he had sufficient standing within philosophy to occupy such a high profile role. When the two controversies are put together it becomes evident that the challenges to philosophical authority occur on two levels, one level being against philosophy from something that deems itself "external" to philosophy and the other from within philosophy aiming at preserving, in some sense, the integrity of the discipline.

The second set of questions are themselves philosophically interesting even if the interest of them is often diminished by the polemical way they are framed. Gillian Rose, in her book, The Broken Middle, focused closely on the difficulty of philosophical authority, using the example of Kierkegaard in particular as exemplary of this. Whilst it would be peculiar to compare Critchley to Kierkegaard it would be correct to say that part of the problem with his work for the likes of Leiter is that it invokes in its own style a difficulty with its own mode of operation. 

If philosophical authority was easily established and clearly won then there would surely be something lost for philosophy. It must be preferable for philosophers to remain open to further questioning, including self-questioning, if there is to be a case for philosophy itself. The respondents to Bauer were right to think that philosophy cannot establish its right to be heard in the manner of a social science. This is not because philosophers aren't capable, like anyone else, of paying attention to empirical data. It is rather because the nature of such data seems to philosophers, qua philosophers, to require an interrogation that cannot itself be confined to arguments concerning different measurements of data or only on evaluations that have been pre-decided. The nature of evaluation itself and the meaning of what it is to mean are central to philosophy. Perhaps in allowing the probing of these topics to be so clearly and manifestly fronted The Stone is performing a service?

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