[lit-ideas] Re: Shaming, Shocking Editorialising Etc.

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 29 Nov 2012 13:33:40 +0000 (GMT)

John, your contribution is a pleasure, not least because it dims fears I post 
merely to talk to myself (a waste of course, when I have the street to do that 
in). A host of important and somtimes inter-related issues are raised, too many 
to tackle en bloc.

So for now: as the tenor and substance of my post may indicate ["it seems to me 
 inevitably the case"], I am far from obviously opposed to Little's approach, 
or even the view that "why in the world one would expect anything different". 
Yet separating out the extent to which something rises to prominence through 
actual merit, from explanation that does not involve actual merit [albeit 
perhaps perceived merit], is not straightforward - obviously not, as deciding 
actual merit is not straightforward. So what is at stake is much more complex 
than might be gleaned from Little, as one comment says; and as another says - 
Little might be right as far that goes, but so? Taken too far, "It seems to be 
part of a trend in social thought to discount the power of ideas, despite the 
evidence of their power." For example, what is crucially missing from Little's 
approach is that, right or wrong, Wittgenstein was at least going to 
fundamentals or seeking to - even if (inevitably?) these would not be 
everyone's version of fundamentals, it is arguably
 the sense that Wittgenstein is going to fundamentals that sustains much of the 
interest in his work.

But turning to "universities": one might accept the setting of some kind of 
agenda is inevitable, and that it will be influenced by what the agenda-setters 
"regard highly"; but Little is also suggesting that what is highly regarded may 
be the result of, for example, self-perpetuating institutionalised biases 
rather than something more objective; and this becomes problematic at many 
levels - clearly, to me, something is wrong when what ensues is the kind of 
parochialism that Bryan Magee describes, a parochialism that might seem 
antithetical to the proper ethos of "universities". For example, a situation 
where Kant is 'optional' to modern philosophy but something dire like Jennifer 
Hornsby on the so-called 'philosophy of action' is on a reading list [she being 
a local prof. after all] is, to me, an unacceptable situation. And it surely 
has something to do with those in charge preferring to inflict minor work of 
little actual merit on students, when it is
 produced "locally" by "them", to giving for their students' consideration the 
best work that the best minds have so far produced. (I have little issue with 
Wittgenstein being on the agenda, it is why the likes of Jennifer Hornsby is on 
the agenda, or anywhere near it - and, of course, the likes of Popper was 
nowhere on the university's 'philosophy of mind' agenda, even though his major 
work 'The Self And Its Brain' was long published. Go figure.)

So while agenda-setting is inevitable, the actual merit of the agenda set is 
always questionable - and here we have situations where the result is not only 
questionable but perhaps untenable. And it is not merely the agenda-setting, it 
is the agenda-marking. This again might seem to go against the proper ethos of 
"universities". Several years ago a series of bitter spats developed between 
Oxbridge and London academics in so-called "Darwin Wars", including everything 
from the status of Darwinian explanation to its significance for social, 
political and philosophical issues. Now let us say there were persons of great 
intelligence on both sides, and indeed the issues are of such a character that 
they are not such that an intelligent person could only be on one side or the 
other: yet the suspicion I would harbour is that a student on 'the wrong side' 
from the point of view of their examination marker, no matter the intelligence 
of their response, would fare
 less well than a comparable student on 'the right side' from the POV of their 
marker. And I suspect the extent to which that may be the case is far more than 
the extent to which it might inevitably be the case, and far more than is 
tenable (e.g. with a less intelligent response, but on 'the right side', 
scoring more highly than a more intelligent response, but on 'the wrong 
side').(And the sometimes bad-tempered, biased and somewhat irrational 
character of the various academics published missives - on both sides - is 
perhaps evidence here.)

So while I might accept the view "why in the world one would expect anything 
different", it is accepted only up to a point and not with a shrug as it were. 
I suggest there may be much where we should "expect" better than what we have 
and have had.

Must dash


 From: John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
To: Lit-Ideas <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> 
Sent: Thursday, 29 November 2012, 5:39
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: Shaming, Shocking Editorialising Etc.

Further to what Donal says here,


One interesting question might be why in the world one would expect anything 
different from the situations that Donal and Daniel Little describe, given that 
professors teach and approve what they themselves regard highly and, in what 
Thomas Kuhn labeled pre-paradigmatic disciplines there is no overarching 
framework to which everyone subscribes.



On Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 9:58 PM, Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

>I have previously written of the editorialising and agenda-setting rife in 
>Oxford (as a Popperian of sorts, with Popper a persona non grata there, I 
>might be more alert to this aspect of undergraduate courses than some other 
>students): for example, if there was a topic to be studied in philosophy then 
>what some local professsor wrote on it recently would be on the reading-list 
>even if it was far from the best material available (Bryan Magee describes 
>this kind of endemic parochialism at more persuasive length in his 
>'Confessions of a Philosopher', and he should know as he was a tutor there; 
>and what was true here of Oxford was true in some other places); Kant was 
>merely optional, not essential, to the study of modern Western philosophy, 
>whereas a triple dose of British empiricists - Locke, Berkeley, Hume - was of 
>course essential etc. The choice of topic might itself be a reflection of 
>local academic concerns. In my time, Roman Law was compulsory to the
 undergraduate honours school of 'jurisprudence [Roman Law specialists abounded 
in the faculty]; but, staggerlingly, European Law (though essentially 
incorporated into domestic law and prevailing if they conflicted) was merely 
optional. But it is not just that the local professor, and local specialities 
of subject-matter, were the focus of study. It is that largely accepting a 
certain POV was the key to success in examinations. The suspicion is that to do 
well there you had parrot a clever version of some prevailing academic wisdom - 
just as you might aim to do so to prosper at the leading academic institutions 
in France or in communist Russia. A clever reservation about some minor aspect 
of HLA Hart's 'The Concept of Law' might score well but you would not do so 
well suggesting there was an underlying project to that book and that it was 
fundamentally misconceived (after all, you would be likely marked by a 
'Hartian' of some sort - for whom the dogma
 that there are concepts to be analysed, and 'law' is one them, would have been 
beyond successful challenge as it constituted the very raison d'etre of their 
academic approach). That is, clever disagreement over minor matters might be 
rewarded but not radical disagreement over fundamentals. In short, the 
fundamental and even covert biases of the marker would play a large part in 
some degree subjects - generally, the less science in the subject the greater 
the role of bias in marking. This is not something academics might want to 
publicly admit, but it seems to me almost inevitably the case. It is in this 
light that we might view the story urled: where choosing what belongs in the 
lexicographical 'canon' is not a matter of scientific judgment, inevitably 
biases and values colour the job - though the lack of objectivity may take time 
to become clear.

John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
Tel. +81-45-314-9324

Other related posts: