I’ve devoted a lot of attention lately to a writing project focused on Alasdair MacIntyre‘s thought, one I first mentioned in my interview with Skholiast. It began critical of MacIntyre and then turned more sympathetic to him, but has become much bigger than that – because it has become a project articulating my own method for cross-cultural philosophy. The idea started off as a potential blog post (I was going to call it “MacIntyre vs. MacIntyre”) and then grew to the size of an article, but it may well become multiple articles, a book, or even multiple books. I’ve articulated some elements of this methodological position in previous posts and given my current thoughts in a paper for the Prosblogion’s virtual colloquium, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that.
As I come to engage more deeply with MacIntyre, though, I find myself faced with an important distinction: the methodological MacIntyre is not the substantive MacIntyre. I draw a great deal of inspiration from the former, with some modifications; I am more in agreement with him than not. But in the latter I find a great deal to reject – and to reject, moreover, on methodologically MacIntyrean grounds. Continue reading
In the early 1960s, my father finished his PhD in political science from Cornell. Under the restrictive and racialized American immigration rules of the day, he needed to work in a neighbouring country for two years before he could come to the US. So he applied for six tenure-track faculty jobs in Canada. He was offered five of them. The sixth, at the relatively low-prestige Memorial University of Newfoundland, turned him down with a curt letter that said “In our competition, you failed to qualify.” He found it amusing that such a lower-tier school would say such a dismissive thing when he had offers from so many places higher in the hierarchy.
This story ceased to amuse me when I received my PhD from Harvard in the late 2000s and began applying for faculty teaching jobs myself. I sent out nearly two hundred job applications, most of them for tenure-track jobs, across Canada and the United States, and a few off the continent. I received not one tenure-track offer anywhere. If Memorial University of Newfoundland had offered me a position, I would have taken it without hesitation and been grateful to have the opportunity. The same applies to most of my generation in academia. To those coming of age in the 21st-century university, my father’s story sounds as implausible as if he had wandered into the White House, said “I’d like a job as President of the United States”, and been offered it on the spot. But it was and is true. His experience was in Canada, but as far as I know, those faculty of his generation with a similarly prestigious degree who could apply for jobs in the United States had a comparably wide range of opportunities.
This intergenerational experience should highlight how the story in the academic humanities and social sciences from the 1960s to the 2010s has been above all a story of decline. Many North American leftists look at the real accomplishments made in areas of race, gender and sexuality and see this period as a time of unalloyed progress. I cannot. Continue reading
The assault on the academic humanities in the United States continues apace, and not only the humanities. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory is putting into practice his previous assertion that the government should only subsidize those fields useful to capitalism: the North Carolina government is eliminating 46 degree programs in the state, including even human biology at its flagship institution.
McCrory is far from isolated in this. Continue reading
Readers may have noticed my expressing a certain ambiguity with respect to the new Buddhist movements I call Yavanayāna. I have often defended their value as legitimate traditions in their own right, but I have also repeatedly criticized them for their political activism, their embrace of “interdependence”, their reluctance to admit the significance of sectarian differences. Moreover, my ground for criticism in these cases is that they misrepresent traditional and especially early Buddhism. Some readers might well wonder whether there is a problem here: whether I am criticizing their innovation only when it is convenient to do so, which is to say only when I agree with it.
In response I would stress that I am not against innovation as such. Continue reading
If one follows current conversations about technological changes in higher education — which it is a major part of my job to do — one quickly encounters a great deal of praise given to “disruption” and “disruptive innovation”. Massive online open courses and various other online innovations, we’re told, will overthrow the tired old models of education and usher in a marvelous new world far better for students than the sclerotic old habits of the deadwood professorial class.
So far, none of these technological trends has yet made big changes in the way higher education is done. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been only two trends in higher education that were genuinely disruptive innovations in a literal sense – that is, innovations that have genuinely disrupted the lives of the people who make up higher education. The first of these is adjunctification; the second is tuition increase. Continue reading
Goenka, born in Burma, was a pioneer – really the pioneer – of what is now known as vipassanā meditation. This term vipassanā (usually translated “insight”) is found in the classical Pali texts, and so is the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta from which Goenka originally drew the meditation technique. Notably, though, the term vipassanā does not show up in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta itself. And that detail, I think, is telling about Goenka’s whole project.
I recall Goenka claiming, like many other contemporary Buddhist teachers, that what he was teaching was not new; it was just the teaching of the Buddha. That statement is not false exactly, but it’s not the whole truth. Continue reading
For those of us who think at length about universities and the changes they may undergo, it’s a commonplace to refer to the medieval origins of the modern university system. These origins are typically taken to be a bad thing. For example, lecture-based pedagogy is said to date to a time before printing, when that was the only way students would have access to a text. So, the argument goes, it’s an obsolete atavism; there is no reason to keep it around.
I have become increasingly nervous around this line of argument. For it seems to me that a fully modernized university will be one that has no place for the humanities. Continue reading
It can feel pedantic to insist on the distinction between modernity and modernism (as I do in my tag cloud). I’ve seen eyes roll when I do it, and understandably so. Two nouns both deriving from the word modern: surely between them is the ultimate example of a trivial distinction, a hair-splitting, a difference that does not make a difference?
In fact the difference between modernity and modernism can make all the difference in the world. The importance of the distinction may become a little bit clearer when we move from the nouns to their corresponding adjectives. Modernity is simply the noun form of “modern”, as we might expect. But modernism is not. Modernity is merely the state of being modern. Modernism is the state of being modernist. And that is a difference that makes a huge difference. Continue reading
Last time I discussed the relationship between the concepts of Ascent and of transcendence. I think there’s more to say about the latter. Last time I had noted two forms of transcendence: an Ascent beyond the physical world, and the “transcendence by descent” endorsed by Martha Nussbaum in which one transcends one’s own limits. But I think there’s also a third type found between them, one which I’ve spoken of before in other terms.
A key feature of any kind of transcendence, it seems to me, is dissatisfaction: something appears wrong with that which one is trying to transcend. In Nussbaum’s transcendence-by-descent, one is dissatisfied with one’s own weaknesses and flaws. In an Ascent, one is in some sense dissatisfied with the whole world. But what if one is dissatisfied with the whole world in a way that motivates one not to step outside the world, but to change it? Continue reading