Sunday, 31 October 2010

Habermas on Leadership

Jurgen HabermasImage via Wikipedia
Jurgen Habermas has published a piece in the New York Times on the topic of the controversy in Germany over the nature of multi-culturalism and it can be accessed here. The piece responds to recent interventions into the public debate in Germany over immigration from Thilo Sarrazin, a politician from the Social Democratic Party and member of the board of the Bundesbank, who encouraged a somewhat eugenicist attitude to said immigrants. Given that Angela Merkel appears to have also joined in the general attitude of finding immigrants a problem this intervention from Habermas has to be regarded as welcome.

Philosophy and Its History

The recent dispute that unfolded on this blog with Brian Leiter concerning his spoof posting on Derrida seems to have produced some considerable interest though, arguably, Leiter's own responses to my reply to his spoof produced more heat than light. Behind this spat, however, lies a more considered dispute concerning views one might have about the nature of the history of philosophy and what kinds of thinking are worth engaging with. In relation to this, Leiter published a view of what he terms "party-line Continentalists" (or PLC) over at his Nietzsche blog.

The discussion of the phenomena of PLC is, not entirely surprisingly, painted as a thoroughly "bad thing" and is even identified as occurring in some very specific philosophy departments. The basic essence of this phenomena of PLC is that it views the history of philosophy from the vantage point of phenomenology and, in particular, from the works of Heidegger and post-Heideggerian French philosophy (including, but not limited, to Derrida). The problem with PLC, on Leiter's view, is that it obscures other historical traditions and somewhat randomly makes its preferred conception of 20th century European philosophy the depositary for reading previous elements of the history of philosophy, specifically those identified as belonging to the "post-Kantian" tradition. In opposition to PLC Leiter sets his own view of "post-Kantian" philosophy which is one that sets out to distinguish the variant strands that have emerged from German Idealism to the tendencies variously identified in somewhat sweeping terms as "post-structuralist" or "post-modernist". In fairness to Leiter, a fairness he is far from generally showing to his critics, the main aim of his opposition to PLC is to give a more differentiated view of the history of European philosophy as it has developed in the last 200 years and to suggest that it is simply false to subsume all its developments into an orthodoxy that proceeds from assumptions of a broadly Heideggerian order.

In some respects these views of Leiter's are well-known and his statement of them in this posting, whilst unusually economical and largely - though not entirely - presented without his usual lacing of insult is less notable itself than in terms of having received a thoughtful response. It is to this response and its interaction with Leiter's conception of the history of philosophy that I will now turn with the intention of adding my own general view of the way in which this decidedly important debate might profitably be advanced. Prior to turning to the reply to Leiter, however, it is worth adding that his posting on this topic was prompted by a comment an earlier posting of his had received which enunciated a view that he took to be paradigmatic for PLC. Leaving aside the scholarly issue that was involved in this exchange (which concerned the legitimacy of appeal to Nietzsche's Nachlass in interpreting his work) the cardinal point for Leiter was the accusation that his own reading of Nietzsche manifested an "analytic" tendency. It was this claim that his hermeneutic preferences were "analytic" rather than "European" that led Leiter to present his view of PLC.

It is this division of responses to the history of philosophy between "analytic" and PLC that has led David Allen to respond to Leiter over at his blog Speculative Humbug. Allen argues that whilst the division between "analytic" and "Continental" might well not be the best way to view different interpretative strategies when it comes to the history of philosophy that there is, nonetheless, something captured by these terms that Leiter is in danger of simply not grasping. In place of the division between "analytic" and "Continental" Allen argues for one between what he terms "situated" and "open" kinds of scholarly reading. "Situated" readings, on Allen's view, present the thinking of figures in relation to some specified pre-existent conception of a topic as, for example, when Heidegger is related to AI rather than being read in terms of his own specific and original philosophical contribution. This "situated" reading is what, on Allen's view, leads to a response to the history of European philosophy that is broadly concerned to view its development as part of on-going conversations that don't include the possibility of conceptual ruptures. By contrast, "open" readings are focused on trying to see what the question of the thinker one is interested in interpreting was concerned with in its own terms and remain "open" to the view that what could emerge from this will be a way of thinking that is not capable of being assimilated to pre-existent ways.

Allen has further contributions to make in his response to Leiter and his posting is certainly worth reading in full (as is Leiter's original posting). However, I want to stop at this point in order to draw some lessons from the distinctions as Leiter and Allen have provided them and think through ways in which I can suggest this argument could be used as an occasion for advance of understanding rather than being - as is so often the case, particularly when disputes concern the status of the work of Derrida - merely a basis for mud-slinging. Allen's distinction does seem to me to capture something significant even though - as he notes himself - it is something of an abstraction.

Focus on a thinker's own works to try to figure out the nature of their contribution in its own terms is surely something worthwhile even it may be - as Kant remarked of Plato - that it is subsequently possible to understand a thinker's contribution better than they understood it themselves. Further, part of the point of any scholarly work on figures from the history of philosophy, is to uncover the multiple levels at which terms and concepts may be working in texts, levels that may well only partially be assimilable to the apparent general logic of the text. In some senses, this recognition is surely shared between scholars of different schools which is why, in many Anglo-American works, you meet expressions such as "this is Locke's 'official' view" which one can contrast with other "views" expressed even within the same text. When put like this it becomes apparent, in fact, that even if you do think the first requirement is to understand a thinker in their own terms it may well not be as evident as you may have first thought what those terms are. This is the basic reason why there is a problem of interpretation at all.

When we see this I think we can note a problem with viewing the focus on the original work of the thinker, as opposed to that of "situating" them in some subsequent debate, as a clear difference between a conception that is most concerned with the thinker's original contribution as opposed to an appropriation of their work for a different project. It is not that this doesn't describe something. It surely does since, for example, to work through a "Kantian" view of punishment, something on which a few philosophers have been engaged, is to elaborate quite a bit more than what Kant himself wrote on the topic (which turns out to be precious little). So, in such a case the "Kantian" conception turns out to be one that requires engagement with a set of distinctions and problems that Kant himself had no evident interest in (even, as it were, "un" officially). So clearly there is something different going on in this case than in the one were we think instead about the pattern of Kant's comprehension of time (a rather difficult and involved topic on which Kant wrote a great deal but which is not obviously coherently collectable into a single kind of doctrine).

When these relations are set out it becomes less clear that Allen's distinction between "situated" and "open" readings really catches the difference between "analytic" and "PLC" in such a way as to restore its importance in the light of Leiter's criticism. Leiter is right to suggest that there are traditions of reading the history of European philosophy and that, within these traditions, there is room for disagreement about what, if anything, is "central" to European philosophy and, further, whether there is, coherently, any such thing as "European" or, come to that, "analytic" philosophy. But Allen is also right to think that the view that some texts can be viewed as opening up entirely new developments in the history of philosophy is part of what motivates one conception of its history and that this is opposed to a more subliminal view that regards that history through the prism of a continuum.

In a broad sense, unless there is some sense of continuity within the history of philosophy then there is a problem about saying what it is that marks a philosophical debate as being specifically one that belongs within the history of philosophy. And it is here I think that we can begin to get at what is at issue between PLC and its opponent Leiter. PLC inherits a view that Leiter's original posting referred to, the view, enunciated clearly by Marx but also emergent in the general reaction to German Idealism, of thinking that there needs to be some engagement between philosophy and "its (possibly several) others". It is not that some sense of this is entirely lacking in those who oppose PLC but the sense of it that they might possess - particularly if, like Leiter, they work on Nietzsche - is one that still has a tendency to assimilate this "otherness" to a notion that is perhaps too ready-to-hand (as Heidegger would say). So Nietzsche, for example, appeals in a broad way to notions such as "life" and "nature" as ways of gesturing at something that does not fit a "logic of the concept" and, somewhat generally put, this resistance to a logic founded on the supremacy of the concept tends to reverberate within phenomenology (even in Husserl with notions like the "life-world") and its inheritance in French philosophy. The problem the latter tradition has, however, is that it wishes to register this resistance without falling back into the "obvious" character of what it is that might be thought to resist the concept (and which is the basis of an uncomfortable engagement with Nietzsche).

So I don't take this division to really rest where Allen takes it to be and nor do I, unlike Leiter, think that PLC is simply a mis-reading of the history of philosophy. It is, though, true that there is something very odd for a Kantian such as myself engaging in debate concerning views about the history of "post-Kantian" philosophy. This is evidently because the various proponents of the view that there is something that is "post-Kantian" philosophy clearly want to distinguish this from whatever "Kantian" philosophy might be. And yet there is, as Leiter again acknowledged, from the neo-Kantians of the late nineteenth century onwards, a revival of conceptions of philosophy that are thought by their proponents to be, in various ways, broadly "Kantian". This does not mean that there are not, within these trends, divisions like that between PLC and their proponents on the one hand and those who wish for different, perhaps more assimilatory readers, on the other. Clearly, since philosophers as different as Wilfrid Sellars  and Lyotard have given extended responses to Kant there is scope within quite different kinds of philosophy for views of what his work consists in and how it might be engaged with. Amongst them, however, it might well be helpful to define even more clearly than has been done in recent years, what the "Kantian" conception of philosophy really consists in and how it relates to  the quite different views that are at work for the adherents of PLC and their opponents.

In conclusion, I do think the phenomena of PLC that Leiter refers to does exist but, unlike Leiter, I don't lament it. It requires a different practice of philosophy and this different practice motivates a different response to the history of philosophy. That does not, or should not, rule out the view that there are many other responses to the history of philosophy available. But the more differentiated conception of such history that Leiter apparently wishes to push is, as Allen states, vitiated by Leiter's fairly partisan commitment to the view that there does exist an "analytic method" that is always superior to any other one (and which he apparently thinks exists even though "analytic philosophy" itself does not!). This commitment ensures that there remains an insuperable obstacle to serious argument with others and produces a peculiar strain in Leiter's commentary. It echoes, in fact, the commitment of the most devoted adherents of PLC, that Heidegger always has the last word on any topic, the basic facet of PLC to which different conceptions of philosophy do need to continue to object. Finding a place for a view of the practice of philosophy and its history that is serious about historical engagement and yet does also think that the centre of philosophical achievement may not be Heideggerian (might even be Kantian!) is something that I would prefer to engage in. This might yet also enable a reading of Derrida that does not produce the reflexive dismissive response of Leiter.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

SUNY Albany Campaign Site

As I have previously posted news about the general attack on humanities and specifically about the attempt to destroy a large number of subjects at SUNY Albany it is worth drawing attention to the web-site of the campaign based at the latter: which is here. Amongst other things the site contains a petition that I urge people internationally to sign protesting the decision to close this wide swathe of courses.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Justice As Fairness

At present, here in the UK, we are being governed by a coalition that makes plenty of reference to the notion of "fairness" and does so in a justificatory manner with regard to both its general thrust of policy and with special effect to certain discussions around welfare rights. The use made of this notion of "fairness" has been productive of some dispute though a number of the critics of the government have stated that the problem with the concept of "fairness" is that it is subjective, thus effectively preventing themselves from judging the claim to "fairness" that the government has invoked. I am not, here, going to reply to the government's use of this concept. Instead, what I want to begin doing is looking at the most comprehensive attempt to relate the concept of justice to that of fairness, the attempt undertaken by John Rawls.

Rawls first discusses justice in relation to fairness in his paper "Justice As Fairness" dating from 1958 and published in his Collected Papers. In this paper Rawls describes fairness as the "fundamental idea in the concept of justice" and uses this to argue first for a correction in the idea of utilitarianism and secondly to argue for a certain problem in the general sense of utilitarianism. But in this posting I am going to leave aside the discussion of utilitarianism entirely to just concentrate on the sense of "fairness" here and how it is connected to justice.

Firstly, following the earlier paper on rules, Rawls describes justice as a "virtue of social institutions" or of practices. So justice cannot be rendered according to what he earlier described as a "summary" view of rules. Justice relates to a set of practices concerned with positions and offices and relates to these powers and liabilities, rights and duties. This first step is important in following on the work of the earlier paper and defining thus the types of rules that can count as rules of justice.

The second point is the development of two principles that define just practices, namely that those engaging in them have equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty to all (so a principle of equal liberty) and that inequalities are disallowed unless it is reasonable to suppose that they will work for everyone's advantage. We can see these two principles as ancestors of the eventual principles of A Theory of Justice. (A proviso is also added to the first principle to the effect that nations, firms, churches etc could, in addition to human individuals, be counted as "persons".)

The first principle has a ceteris paribus qualification added to it. There has to be a justification for departure from the basic given of equal liberty and similar cases, as defined by the practice, should be treated in a similar way. The view of inequality expressed in the second principle is attached to the "benefits and burdens" attaching either directly or indirectly to practices and it is required that inequalities be to the advantage of all parties. This principle thus moves away from utilitarian considerations.

After the statement of the two principles Rawls also now gives a first resort to a scenario like that specified later in the "original position" and which indicates, as that would, that people placed in the appropriate situation would select the two principles already specified. It is after the discussion of this device that Rawls begins to turn to the understanding of "fairness". The first point is the following one:

The question of fairness arises when free persons, who have no authority over one another, are engaging in a joint activity and among themselves settling or acknowledging the rules which define it and which determine the respective shares in its benefits and burdens. A practice will strike the parties as fair if none feels that, by participating in it, they or any of the others are taken advantage of, or forced to give in to claims which they do not regard as legitimate.

There are quite a few points in these couple of sentences. The first point to note that is that questions of fairness are here understood to be connected to the relations between free persons in which there is no established hierarchy required. So if I have no special authority over you and vice versa we encounter each other roughly in a position of equality and then we first speak to each other about what will count as "fair". So fairness does not, at least originally, have to concern situations of hierarchy. It instead concerns arrangements between persons who are presumptively equal to each other.

This presumptive equality is only the first part of the situation of fairness. There is also a need to see participants as engaged with each other and as being involved in practices in common. It is with these practices in common that the question of what "benefits and burdens" arise comes out and it is in connection with the share of these amongst those engaged commonly together that we speak of "fairness". If the practice in which we are engaged leads some to be taken advantage of by others they will declare it "unfair" so the notion of "fairness" then is bound up with the sense of the distribution of these benefits and burdens. So "fairness" is a matter of public distribution of "benefits and burdens" in a shared practice. What follows from this is a general sense is at issue of what claims are legitimate within the context of this practice. These legitimate claims require to be understood as ones that others could reasonably be expected to accept. Rawls sums up:

It is this notion of the possibility of mutual acknowledgement of principles by free persons who have no authority over one another which makes the concept of fairness fundamental to justice. Only if such acknowledgement is possible can there be true community between persons in their common practices; otherwise their relations will appear to them as founded to some extent on force.

So "fairness" requires this "mutual acknowledgement of principles", or, in other words, it requires publicity. It is necessary, for a practice to meet the standard of "fairness", that we each can freely acknowledge the basis of the principles underpinning it. If we cannot freely acknowledge them then we are being coerced.

Rawls goes on to mention the distinction, taken from "ordinary speech" of the difference between institutions that manifest "fairness" and those to which we think questions of "justice" arise. So business competition includes rules of fair trading and breaking these rules is to engage in certain kinds of crime because, as Adam Smith once put, we thereby engage in conspiracy against the public. By contrast, practices in which people are compelled in certain ways in a direct sense (as e.g. in apartheid regimes) we speak of as being in situations of  injustice and we have a notion of justice to hand that requires arriving at practices that avoid such direct compulsion being applied. What this shows is that fairness is generally understood as a criteria within a practice whilst justice is often a notion applied to the ways certain types of practices run in general.

The rules of the practice in general set the standards for what is "fair" and given acceptance of these rules there exists a prima facie duty to act in accord with the rules and Rawls terms this the duty of "fair play". Evidently failure to accord with this duty has a range of ways of being manifested. There can be "cheating" which involves deliberate infractions of the rules but there can also be exploitation of loopholes, making use of special circumstances to avoid the rules, making exceptions that suit one's own case and generally acting, as we put it, in violation of the "spirit" of the practice. This is the basis for Rawls' use of the term "virtue" in relation to justice since the notion of this "fair play" involves a sense of acknowledgement of the constraint of fairness on one's conduct, an acknowledgement that we can term its internalisation and which leads us to speak of someone as being fair (or fair-minded). Those who lack this sense of the practice are understood as "free riders" and they pose certain special problems. Chief amongst these problems is the basic sense that accepting the constraint involved in fairness is part of what we understand engaging with others as persons to involve (so "free riders" are engaging in conduct of a kind that crosses the boundary of acceptance of them as behaving in a way befitting a person).

One of the benefits of this discussion is the sense it gives to thinking of justice as part of a view of morality though it is less obvious how it maintains the understanding of law as still something different from a moral rule. However, in leading to a conception of "fairness" as part of a sense of recognition of personhood it does embody a view of institutions that whilst tending to the ideal still gives a standard for participation in them which has critical edge.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Philosophy Events

Given all the understandable gloom here in the UK following the publication of the Browne report and the following week's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) which confirmed everyone's fears it is with some relief that it is possible to note that some people at least do think philosophy makes a valuable contribution to the general culture. So, for example, Malmesbury, birthplace of Thomas Hobbes, has declared itself a "philosophy town", even promoting this by means of a special website. Similarly, Liverpool has recently been hosting a "philosophy in the city" festival featuring talks and discussions and is helping to connect the philosophy department in Liverpool with the general town: details here.

For non-UK readers unsure of the response to the Browne report or its implications for UK higher education see this letter signed by a host of professors, including my colleague, Joanna Hodge.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Rawls and Rules

In one of his very early articles "Two Concepts of Rules" Rawls describes the problem, common both to utilitarians and their critics, of mixing up two quite distinct conceptions of rules. On one view of rules, which Rawls termed the "summary" view, rules are looked at as summaries of past decisions arrived at by direct application of a general principle (such as the principle of utility). If you take this conception as an accurate account of rules then you view them as arising from inductive generalisation from particular cases and take general rules then as merely something that sums up the cases. If this view is right then it also follows that each one of us can keep interrogating the correctness of rules and whether it is right to follow them in a given instance. The rule is really applied case by case; although you do get general rules you never take them as settled but as in constant need of possible revision.

Utilitarians themselves often speak of rules in accord with the summary conception and critics of utilitarianism standardly assume that this conception is the right way of seeing the utilitarian view of rules. However, Rawls suggests in this paper a different way of viewing rules, one to which utilitarians would be as capable of appealing as anyone else. This alternative view of rules is termed the "practice conception". On this view rules define a practice and only make sense within the scope of the said practice. For a practice to exist there must be public acknowledgement of the rules in question and general understanding of the mode of application of them. It would be the practice itself that would be the basis of appraisal (utilitarian or otherwise) and not the rules internal to it. On this basis it would be false to say that utilitarian criteria allow one to, for example, break a promise if this is viewed as having the best overall outcome since to take such an attitude is to violate the basic standards internal to the practice. It may be that promising, as a practice, is not good for furthering overall welfare but then it is the practice as such that would be subject to such evaluation and not some instance or particular case.

On the practice conception the rules are prior to the cases that fall under them and so are not inductive generalisations. Further, individuals don't have general authority to continually question the practices and appeal to ways of reforming them. Particular cases wouldn't be exceptions to the rules of the practice but, instead, means of qualifying or specifying the rule.

It is true that if utilitarians are viewed as having a practice conception rather than a summary one then the response to them will have to be much more subtle than is common. Leaving utilitarians aside, however, it is worth asking whether this distinction is not required for other ethical theories. It is clear that a lot of objections to the categorical imperative are similar to objections to utilitarianism in viewing Kant as holding a summary conception that requires the direct application of the moral law to the particular case. Hegel's notorious "empty formalism" objection is certainly of this type since it assumes that Kant has no right to think through the internal features of a practice. However the practice conception fits the actual use Kant makes of the categorical imperative much better than the summary conception. 

Nor is it just the case that the distinction Rawls proposes here can be extended beyond the particular example of utilitarianism to other moral theories. It also seems a better example of how philosophical reflection generally should go on the nature of rules. If rules are viewed as arising from a process of inductive generalisation then one is stuck with a simple empiricist account of laws. It is central to the objection to such a view that laws create objects rather than simply "mirroring" them. It is through seeing objects as the product of establishment that we can view them as altering through the formation of understanding of principles. Reform would not be of particulars but of the manner of grasping and ordering them. 

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The New York Times and the Defence of Humanities

Stanley Fish's recent defence of the modern languages in the face of the threatened cuts at SUNY Albany has led to on-going discussions at The New York Times. This has occurred in two ways. Firstly, Fish himself has written a follow-up piece that responds to some of the comment generated by the first one. This piece specifically replies to the view that humanities departments generally subsidise other departments, pointing out that such arguments are not the best form of response giving the problems of calculating cross-departmental subsidy. Secondly, it points out that the real problem concerns the cutting of state subsidy, exactly the same problem as is being faced in the UK with the proposal of the Browne report that the teaching block grant should be removed from the universities. This second point also makes clear the need for those defending higher education in the face of cuts to make common cause across national divides since it is essentially the same kind of attack that is being made in many places. Thirdly, Fish rightly argues that the defence of the humanities generally should not mainly consist in generic appeals with regard to the outside culture. The problem with appeals of the latter kind is that they can be met by emphasising a sizeable presence of things such as theatre in the wider culture. It is true, as Fish states, that theatre studies does not offer the same return to ordinary citizens as watching live theatre performances. Similarly, university provision of study in modern languages or in philosophy does not provide some clear and evident pay-back for the ordinary guy. The "value" of the humanities, if we must speak of the matter in these terms, is more nebulous than that. Fish emphasizes the basic self-sustaining character of the study of humanities and this is certainly one way to go, one that has more in its favour than just trying to reach for external justifications.

The second way the New York Times has responded to the situation is by organising a panel discussion on the topic of whether colleges need French departments. Stating it like this has something of the flavour of the BBC panel discussion earlier this year which asked whether homosexuals should be executed when faced with the prospect of a law requiring this being passed in Uganda. It is not, shall we say, the most supportive way of framing the question. And nor do all of the respondents do as well as Fish has in arguing the case for the humanities. In light of the fact that Martha Nussbaum has recently written a book in defence of the humanities we might expect that she could do better than open by making a "business case" for them. Her general case is that we require critical thinking, history and imagination in order to make democracy work but this kind of defence has a number of problems. Firstly, "critical thinking" as practiced in many places has a tendency simply to replace elementary logic and be a poor substitute for it at that. Secondly, whilst history is certainly valuable for much we shouldn't be resting our claim for humanities only on an historical value as if there were nothing they could teach us today. Thirdly, whilst the stress on imagination is better it would be good to connect that to an investigation of reason and thought, which are as much under attack as values of imagination and rather more core to the academic activity of humanities research and teaching.

John McWhorter, in his contribution, makes clearer the limits of Nussbaum's approach as he argues that there is no special need for the amount of humanities teaching on offer and no evidence of a general literacy in the culture due to its present prevalence. McWhorter's analysis sees little specific point in humanities study and Nussbaum's view is unlikely to convince him otherwise. In reply to this kind of position it is necessary to point out that it is far from evident what any intellectual endeavour that is not very applied indeed can offer to the general culture and that, in any case, certain kinds of humanities studies can be very applied indeed (but not that all should become so).

Mark Bauerlein also brings out the problems with Nussbaum's emphasis on history as he takes this to its logical conclusion and argues for curbing the "pretensions" of humanities theory (a la the "jokes" of Brian Leiter) and focussing instead on the historical values of such writers as Plutarch. This suggestion that there is a fall-off in student numbers and that such a fall-off is the result of humanities departments own concentration on the "wrong" subjects plays right into the hands of the bureaucrats. Rather than assess the question from the standpoint of "market-share" as Bauerlein does we need instead to look at the pattern of cuts in the humanities. There is not a general fall-off in students studying in these areas as Bauerlein suggests and, even if there were, there is certainly no specific fall-off in places where there is an emphasis on "theory" at the expense of the "classics". The experience, earlier this year, of Middlesex University, was rather that a thriving programme was cut. It was cut, despite the lack of evidence of student fall-out and the cuts in humanities generally are not based on some claim of lack of student satisfaction as these departments often have higher satisfaction ratings than others (not that such surveys in themselves are the best means of measuring anything).

Ellen Schrecker makes the better point that cutting the humanities out of institutions that are not at the top of the Ivory League will simply exacerbate general social inequality. Humanities graduates at the top institutions land good jobs even though they study subjects that are apparently not "vocational" and reduction in humanities departments outside these institutions will simply turn the latter towards being only trade schools aimed at particular kinds of outcomes, which will inevitably lower the status of the latter. Gaye Tuchman correctly adds that the emphasis on such outcomes is, in fact, part of the same outlook that led economies to look primarily at fast means of garnering wealth, something that created the crisis that is now being used to justify the current cuts.

The fact that open debate is happening in this area is itself broadly encouraging though the need for it to be focused more specifically on the right kinds of justifications of the humanities is apparent from reviewing the New York Times discussion. Academic study and research in the humanities does contribute to the wider culture in a number of ways but to focus on this as the primary justification of this as an area of study is problematic since this contribution is not one that is open to either simple statement or clear presentation (not least to those who insist on quantification). The university itself is imperilled if there is not humanities in it since without the humanities you either have institutions focused on science (itself less instrumental than policy-makers seem to think) or on simple vocational emphasis. Whilst the former can be excellent it is notable that serious institutions of scientific research incorporate humanities since without it they cannot look at the discipline, philosophy and language of their own areas of study. If the latter proliferate at the cost of universities then there is no doubt the result of this will be a general closure of access to the areas of thought that are some of the most creative. The time for a general campaign for the humanities and against cuts in higher education is clearly now.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Need to Resist Browne

The urgent need to resist the implementation of the Browne report and the way it will impact even on the most favoured UK universities has been eloquently set out by Martin McQuillan in his blog. The analysis he gives is substantially in line with the one presented on this blog and the link to it is here.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Demonstrate Against the Education Cuts

University and College UnionImage via Wikipedia
On 10th November in London the University and College Union are holding a joint demonstration with the National Union of Students to put pressure on the coalition government concerning the cuts in higher education: details here. Given the publication of the Browne report last week and the up-coming Comprehensive Spending Review this coming week it is essential that there is as large a turnout as possible for this march. Only by means of a show of strength such as a big march can we signal that we do not accept the positions of Browne and that we wish to defend higher education. The threats to higher education set out in Browne are real enough but when the figures currently being indicated as forthcoming from the spending review are added we are looking at the worse possible outcome. Higher education is threatened in a manner not seen even during the years of Thatcher: please come along and persuade others to do so also.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Real Crisis of the Humanities

There is a problem discussing the idea of a "crisis" of the humanities and this is not merely because of the tired nature of the phrase. It is also due to the way in which such "crisis" tends to get understood. Primarily, when discussing this notion, philosophers and cultural theorists have in mind a problem with some tendency or other within the humanities itself. So, to take the classic case, Husserl, the thinker of "crisis" par excellence in his late unfinished work The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology presents the nature of the "crisis" that produced such phenomena as Nazism as residing in the spread of a false form of objectivism that ensured the true spirit of scientificity was lost.

Husserl's specific form of analysis has not been followed but the type of it has tended to spread. Other classic forms of analysis that take "crisis" to reside in some deep general cultural tendency include the late, fairly awful work of Lukacs The Destruction of Reason and Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. At least the analysis of Adorno and Horkheimer, following a certain Heideggerian root, takes the problem of their title to reside in the spread of an instrumental form of rationality, a notion that does make a lot of sense. All the same there is much about their analysis that is rightly contentious.

At present the split within philosophy between analytic and "Continental" philosophers has furthered the tendency to produce analyses that tend to take the diagnosed cultural malaise to have a more proximate cause than any of the above mentioned classic works of cultural analysis. On the analytic side, in particular, there has been for some time now a stress that the difference in philosophical approach is indicative of something very deep. It has been elevated by many to a difference between those who really believe in the "values" underpinning humanistic study as such and those (engaged in an "assault on reason") who do not. The suggestion then spontaneously emerges that the reason why policy makers and politicians can engage in cuts of the humanities is due to the way humanistic study has made itself ridiculous.

The latest manifestation of such thinking can be seen in the attitude of Brian Leiter to being challenged for publishing, on his blog, a fairly childish spoof of Derrida that some others were foolish enough to assume was an accurate finding of a manuscript. I blogged about this a couple of days ago and those interested will find, under the comments section at the close of the posting, a reply from Leiter that shows he was considerably irritated by my response but, not only does it show this, but it also reveals the reasoning behind his original posting well. As he says in this comment, the rise of such figures as Derrida, may well be the reason why there is a "crisis" in the humanities. In other words, it is due to certain kinds of philosophy and literary theory that managers, policy makers and politicians think it is alright to close humanities departments, slash budgets and generally make it difficult for such study to continue.

When such reasoning is put in such bold form its transparent absurdity really becomes apparent. It should be pretty obvious to anyone that the real "crisis" in the humanities is not one that is based on the rise or dispersal of any specific philosophy or literary theory but is rather due to a managerial culture that has little time for the activities of philosophers and cultural theorists. The fact is that these figures will see little to choose between the works of Leiter and the works of Derrida as neither of them produce anything they can see as needed. This is due to the emphasis on education having an intrinsically vocational character as it should contribute primarily to the core activities of wealth creation. This emphatic dismissal of the general point of humanistic study is the real crisis of the humanities and it does no one any service to muddle the situation by suggesting it has anything to do with one's favourite hated theory or thinker. It has nothing to do with any such theories or thinkers but with a hostility to philosophy as such and a hostility to the kinds of theorising that occur in the humanities as such. In response it would be useful if those of us in the humanities could think of ways of uniting in reply rather than giving our opponents an easier time through manifesting all the tendencies that cause us to appear divided. The attack on Middlesex earlier this year was an attack on a "Continental" dept, one that takes the work of figures such as Derrida very seriously whereas the attack on King's College London was an attack on some very analytic figures. In both cases philosophers generally responded by defending the subject. Let's try and keep that spirit rather than fostering division and suggesting that it is primarily philosophers themselves who have created the situation in which philosophy is under attack.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Stanley Fish and the Cuts at SUNY Albany

Whilst Brian Leiter is spending time messing around publishing caricatures of Derrida, Stanley Fish has got on with the business of responding to the threats to humanities via a New York Times article in which he reports on the cuts at SUNY Albany that I mentioned a couple of days ago. His piece is a very good general response not just to the cuts at SUNY Albany but also to the general mind-set of hostility to the humanities and it can be read here.

Leiter Reports A "Derrida Manuscript"

In what must surely count as a low-point in blogging Brian Leiter reported yesterday on Leiter Reports a "discovered" manuscript of Derrida's on Paul De Man which he apparently had forwarded to him by Professor Edward Engelmann of Merrimack College. Now I don't know the work of Professor Engelmann or have any idea what his general view is of Derrida's work but to pass off this idiotic paragraph as a "fragment" of Derrida's is worse than dishonest. The fact that Leiter saw fit to publish it on his blog as a "discovery" led others yesterday to forward it on Twitter as a "genuine" article. Leiter and Engelmann should be ashamed of themselves for this "joke" and perhaps, at a time when humanities generally is under threat, they could find better ways of spending their time.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Browne Report: A Critical Review

The report on student finance and the organisation of the university sector that was established by the last Labour government here in the UK has reported today. At the general election earlier this year here both the Labour and Conservative parties abdicated formulation of policy in this area stating in their manifestoes they were awaiting the publication of this report. Only the Liberal Democrats appeared to suggest a specific policy apparently favouring free higher education and the abolition of tuition fees. Since this time positions have "developed" with the Liberal Democrats initially moving to a graduate tax and now likely to move significantly in the direction of the report's conclusions. Regardless, for now, of the specific moves of the political parties, I have undertaken here to present a critical appraisal of the report in question, produced by a committee of people who include the ex-head of BP, a former chief advisor to Tony Blair, an economics consultant, the former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), a scientist who specialises in structural materials, an expert on charities and a bank chief executive. The composition of the panel does not inspire confidence that we are faced with people who have the welfare of the higher education system foremost amongst their priorities and, unfortunately, on reading the report, this is confirmed. The report is, as I will seek to show, a fundamentally dishonest piece of work that reeks of intellectual fraud and moral bankruptcy.

The report is entitled Securing A Sustainable Future for Higher Education and its' sub-title makes clear that the mandate of the group who compiled it was drawn up to tie together questions of student finance with the general funding of higher education. Six principles are listed at the opening of the report:  1) making available greater investment for higher education; 2) increasing student choice; 3) safeguarding the right of everyone to a place in higher education; 4) ensuring no one should pay for higher education whilst actually studying but only on entry into paid employment; 5) that payments should be set at a rate that is affordable; 6) that part-time students should be treated the same way as full-time students.

Noticeably the principles listed simply take it as axiomatic that it should be the prime responsibility of those studying to pay for the major cost of higher education. As will be seen later, there are some cases where this is off-set but it is a general claim that is only briefly justified in the report itself. The justification basically consists in the claim that whilst there are benefits not just to those studying but also to the wider society in people participating in higher education as students that, nonetheless, the benefit to the individuals concerned is much greater than to the public as a whole. This claim is, as would always be the case with such a response to the very varied nature of student and graduate experience, one justified on average. It takes no account of the experience of those who do not move into higher paid jobs on exiting higher education and nor does it indicate how it can be quantified what the benefit for the public as a whole is or how it possibly could be quantified. This is the first problem with the report's response to data: it is cavalier and tailored to suit a pre-given case.

The second argument in favour of fees is that access to higher education is not universal or compulsory and in this respect is different to school education the cost of which is broadly taken from general taxation. It is true that school education is universal and compulsory but it is news to claim that this is the reason for its being funded from general taxation since it is generally claimed it is because of the evident public need for a set level of numeracy, literacy et al to be attained that we require to finance this out of general taxation. A similar case can be made that there is a general need for people with the level of education, skills and competence that comes from higher education. The fact that not all can enter it, due to requiring to meet a standard to be able to participate in higher education does not off-set this general public good requirement and nor does the fact that some choose not to avail themselves of higher education when they could. These are the only two arguments given as to why there cannot be free higher education though the implied third is the cost this would involve. The costs of not doing so have to be off-set against this and the two compared which is not done.

So the argument for the cost of higher education depending largely on increased student contributions goes largely by the board and sets the framework for the whole report. The general argument that develops is set within the terms of a "voucher system" where students are related to as financial units that the university attracts as its main source of income. This would lead to the cost of courses being met through the contributions students make. However, there is a big exception to this general market model made. This is in the areas of "priority subjects" identified as medicine, science and engineering and some (unspecified) modern languages. These areas are thought to either involve higher costs or to have some general public importance so that they can depend on greater support than other subjects.

Most reaction to the report has failed to grasp this point concerning the "priority subjects" and the basis of the argument concerning their funding. The report attacks the general principle of university financial support that has existed  until now. This principle was that universities are supported primarily by large block grants from the state. The report argues that these grants should be removed and the "voucher system" of student support should replace them. However, the need for the discussion of "priority subjects" arises due to the fact that these subjects will retain specific state support for their existence and support of the sort the university as a whole used to have through the block grant system. Effectively this means that the selected subjects are related to as having a basis in the "national interest" that other subjects do not have and hence are treated as being worthy of subsidy. Other subjects (including everything in the arts and humanities) will sink or swim according to their ability to attract a sufficient student support base.

The element of social engineering added to the market model by the selection of "priority subjects" is added to by the way in which the number of students allowed per annum is treated. The report consistently attacks the way that currently governments can cap the number of students particular universities can take. It further implies that it would be preferable if there was no such cap. However, this is not in accord with what specifically gets recommended. Firstly, it has an interim view of the situation suggesting that what should happen now is that there should be a 10% increase in student places. In relation to this increase however it further suggests that this should not be an across the board increase in student places but should "follow trends in student demand" though it is unspecified how the current demand is to be understood. So, should the great demand in some institutions for philosophy degrees continue to be met even if, in some instances this is greater than demands for courses in bio-chemistry? Somehow I think not and this indicates a second source of intellectual dishonesty in the report.

This interim situation is problematic enough but to it is added a further problem when we have gone past it. After this has occurred there should be an introduction of a system where the government would annually relate to the student numbers on offer by raising or lowering the general tariff required to enter the university system in accord with the government's view of what could be afforded in relation to finance that year. For those don't believe this please see Sec1: 33 of the report. This would fundamentally distort the supposed introduction of a student market and show it to be rigged by the government.

The report further recommends lifting the bar on fees that students are charged. The result of this is that different universities could charge different amounts.  However, on the one hand, this divergence would have to be publicly justified by the university including some kind of set of targets it would meet, an interference in their running. And, on the other hand, the greater the level of fee set, the smaller the proportion of the total fee would belong directly to the university itself. These two points added together detract visibly from any apparent "benefit" of the higher fees.

A number of different bodies are also recommended to be merged with the Higher Education Funding Councils, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Office for Fair Access et al all merged into a new Higher Education Council. The effect of such mergers would be greater centralisation of government response to some crucial aspects of oversight of the higher education system. This is indicated directly in the report which refers to a "more targeted" approach to regulation, effectively meaning lighter regulation than exists now for the most prestigious universities, greater concentration of research income on such universities and more varied ways of assessing their commitment to increasing access. All in all, a real loser of a proposal and another way of rigging the market system.

The specific proposals for student finance set out in the report are for an increase in fees with such fees related to ability to pay. The general proposals around these will doubtless be the main political battlefield for the future between the UK political parties and there are certainly central issues there, principally for the Liberal Democrats given that they were the only party committed to free education. However, academics generally should realise that the result of these proposals is a fundamental change in the running and financing of universities and that this change is one fronted dishonestly as based on market principles. It is, in fact, a programme for a rigged and distorted market that will produce (as is frankly acknowledged in the report) the consequence of the destruction and closure of many universities for the alleged benefit of a privileged few who will be largely set free from regulation and given all the "benefits" of this rigged market. 

Purporting to present a good deal for all this report in fact is the herald of a new kind of government run and rigged "competition" that will certainly hurt universities in general and humanities subjects (outside a privileged circle of institutions) in particular. 

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Humanity and Contradiction in the Will

Recently I mentioned looking at the way the "examples" of the second part of the Groundwork are treated in relation to the formula of the universal law of nature. When expounding the two examples of contradiction in the will I suggested that the way Kant's argument there worked was not as might be expected. In this posting I want to look, by contrast, at how the two examples of contradiction in the will look in the second part of the Groundwork when the formula of humanity is introduced.

The formula of humanity is stated as: "So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means" (Ak. 4: 429). One of the immediately interesting points to note about this formula is how it effects the sense we have of means-ends relationships. In what Kant had earlier described as "hypothetical imperatives" there are two basic things at issue, either "skill" in terms of devising means to a given "technical" end or "prudence" through thinking about how to devise means to the pre-given end of happiness. In both situations the means-ends nexus is as we normally tend to think it. An end is given and we work out the best means to achieve it. Here, with the formula of humanity, we realise the import of the difference between such hypothetical imperatives and what is occurring in the case of the moral imperative. In the case of the latter we are working with a sense of end that cannot be distinguished from means as we do in hypothetical cases. Here "humanity" is treated as something that cannot be treated as a means to some further end but rather as an end-in-itself and this notion of an end-in-itself is one that we might term an "eschatological" sense of end. The normal instrumental notion of end is not strictly, as is often assumed, a "teleological" one since teleology as the generic name for purposes is not equivalent to instrumentality or at least need not be equivalent. The usual sense of ends is, however, clearly instrumental. By contrast with this notion if we think of an end as something that exists and not something we are aiming to bring about and assume that this end is one that we relate to as requiring modification of all notions of means then we have a radical conception. Since this is an "end-in-itself" it makes sense to me to think of it as an eschatological sense of end.

Now, after giving this formula, Kant looks again at the same four examples that were given to the formula of the universal law of nature. Again, the first two examples are cases of contradiction in conception and I don't want to consider these (suicide and false promising). But the second two were shown to have some odd characteristics in relation to the universal law of nature so now I want to consider them in relation to the formula of humanity. They are again given in the same order with cultivation of talents first. When presented in relation to the formula of humanity Kant adds an additional characterisation of the cases treated as involving contradiction in the will. They are now described as "meritorious" duties suggesting, correctly I think, that there is something about such duties that appears additional to the most minimal sense of duty.

In the case of cultivation of talents Kant mentions that "it is not enough that the action does not conflict with humanity in our person as an end in itself; it must also harmonize with it" (Ak. 4: 430). This requirement is like the shift, in Perpetual Peace, from the negative to the affirmative sense, of publicity. It would appear that the negative notion of lack of conflict with humanity in oneself is sufficient to rule out suicide but we require bringing in, when considering the case of "meritorious" duty, the additional notion of harmonization of the action with the sense of humanity as an end-in-itself. And it is by means of this move from a negative to a positive sense of relation to the formula that Kant justifies the need for cultivation of one's talents for, as he puts it, there are "predispositions" to "greater perfection" and to neglect these is not consistent with the "furtherance" of humanity.

The second example, concerning beneficence, makes the same basic move of invoking the distinction between negative and positive forms of relation to humanity and indicates that when we make this move we can see the need to act beneficently. Given that this example of beneficence has been studied at some length in contemporary writings on Kant's ethics I don't want to say too much more here. But what is apparent is that the extension of humanity to the positive harmonizing sense to include the ends of others is not exactly parallel to what is happening in the case of cultivation of talents. In the case of cultivation of talents I am considering a duty I owe to myself and hence the question concerns the status of humanity in my self. With the example of beneficence I have a duty to others and this requires thinking about the status of humanity in others and how it relates to humanity in myself. So in the case of beneficence Kant focuses on this relation and how it connects to the sense of furtherance of humanity: "the ends of a subject who is an end in itself must as far as possible be also my ends, if that representation is to have its full effect in me" (Ak. 4: 430).So the case of beneficence adds the question of how the representation of others as ends in themselves is to have its full effect and if we consider that we are led to endorse the need for beneficence whereas without such consideration we would be led to neglect the need for it.

If we now compare the treatment of the cases of contradiction in the will given when we are working with the formula of humanity to that given when we have the universal law of nature formula we can note some important differences. In the case of cultivation of talents the argument given from the universal law of nature seemed to in fact convert the moral imperative into a kind of prudential one. The treatment of this case with regard to the formula of humanity, by contrast, does not do this. The latter treatment does, however, still appear to invoke something from the earlier formula's treatment as Kant refers to predispositions to perfection and says that they "belong to the end of nature with respect to humanity in our subject" (Ak. 4: 430). This "end of nature" is not here made fuller so it is not clear from this text alone what Kant means but it does suggest that we are still, when we connect the formula of humanity to the example of cultivation of talents, thinking about nature as an important part of our considerations. It is not, though, a prudential reference that emerges but the need to think of how to go farther than preserving humanity and to the need to work out how to further it as well.

The case of beneficence again seemed to involve prudential considerations when considered in relation to the universal law of nature formula and such considerations are, once more, not present when the example of beneficence is considered in relation to the formula of humanity. Instead, a kind of imaginative extension of the relation I have to the sense of humanity in myself is required and this might point to the need to think about the role of such imaginative work in ethics but there is not here any kind of prudential consideration given as rather the question is how to ensure the understanding of others as ends-in-themselves is to have its full effect on me.

As was the case when these cases were treated in relation to the universal law of nature formula so also here when we are considering the formula of humanity we clearly get a sense of the importance of understanding purposes when we look at the cases of contradiction in the will. If willing, though, requires a conception at work not just of the world one would create in universalizing the maxim of my will but also a relation to what is capable of so willing then questions do appear to arise about the status of this reference to "humanity". The other point to note though is that the formulas of humanity do seem to have enabled a more consistent focus on moral imperatives than seems possible from the universal law of nature alone.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Cuts at SUNY Albany

The fights earlier this year concerning philosophy programmes here in the UK have likely heightened awareness of the problem of closures of entire departments and areas of study. Here's one that came to my attention courtesy of John Protevi, where French, Russian, Italian, Classics and Theatre have already been deemed dispensable after a laughable "consultation" process that is detailed here.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Existential Fiction

There is a lovely posting listing 20 works of existential fiction here which Tim Handorf gave us a shout-out for. Some fun comments and advice concerning these works are listed.