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
20th century, Bill Clinton, Canada, Communism, conservatism, Edmund Burke, French Revolution, Front Porch Republic, Jane Jacobs, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King Jr., Mike Harris, natural environment, Pol Pot, Rod Dreher, Ronald Reagan, United States
A flip side of the previous post: while I am not a right-winger and would never want to be called one, I have far less antipathy to the term “conservative,” and sometimes even describe myself that way. For at least to some extent, I see myself as a conservative in the literal sense of that word.
Literal conservatism is a view I have found increasingly appealing after the radical political transformations of the ’80s and (in the US) the ’00s – this not despite, but because of, my left-wing convictions on many particular issues. The literal meaning of the word “conservative” should be fairly obvious: it is about conserving, preserving, existing states of affairs. That’s what it would have meant in the time of Edmund Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism. The problem with the word is that in the ensuing two centuries, the world has changed drastically in ways that Burke would have wished it hadn’t. And that means that if one wants the kind of society that Burke tended to advocate – especially if one wishes “small government” – one will need to change society in quite drastic ways from what it has become. Which, in turn, means not being conservative – not in the literal sense of the world.
In his talk at the conference this year, SACP president Peimin Ni pushed further on the claim he made last year: the idea of philosophy as a technique. I was fortunate to spend a long and enjoyable lunch discussing the talk and its ideas with him further. (I love the SACP conferences because their format is designed to encourage the emergence of mealtime conversations like this; last year I enjoyed a similarly thoughtful discussion with Ted Slingerland.) The present post recounts the ideas expressed at the lunch, naturally from my own side; I hope I am being fair to Ni’s arguments in what follows.
Ni’s talk focused on the Chinese concept of gongfu 功夫, dating from the early centuries CE and meaning any practical art – it could include calligraphy, sports, cooking, good judgement or statecraft. (Although the word gongfu has long ago passed into English with an alternate spelling, it is probably best to keep using the Pinyin spelling rather than confuse people with a term most associate with goofy movies about roundhouse kicks.)
Gongfu as Ni understands it then bears some resemblance to the Greek concept of technē, or Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of practice, with one crucial difference. Aristotle’s technē involves a telos; it is embedded within a larger determinate framework of human flourishing. With gongfu, on the other hand, Ni agreed with my earlier characterization of the process as a technique. It is open to us to choose our aims; gongfu merely allows us to achieve those aims. There is a gongfu of killing as well as a gongfu of saving. Continue reading
Ayatollah Khomeini, Graham Priest, J.L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, John Caputo, Martin Luther King Jr., Michel Foucault, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Paul Feyerabend, Plato, postmodernism, relativism, Socrates, Stanley Fish, Thrasymachus
The term “postmodernism” (or “poststructuralism”) is notoriously elusive; it’s sometimes said that if you think you know what it is, you don’t. But that doesn’t stop its practitioners from talking about it, and I don’t think it should stop anyone else either. I will use “postmodernism” to refer to a set of ideas, widely held among academics in the past 30 years, which takes inspiration from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and denies the worth of claims to truth. One will frequently find postmodernists (John Caputo is one of the more explicit about this) claiming that “the truth is that there is no truth.”
The claim that there is no truth is false. It contains a contradiction that cannot be resolved unless one takes it to mean something very different from what it appears to mean. Nor is this one of that narrow group of paradoxes which could be taken as true on the grounds of Graham Priest’s dialetheism. Priest tries to argue that most of the problems with contradiction stem not from accepting some contradictions, but from accepting all; but if one accepts “there is no truth,” one comes much closer to allowing all contradictions in. Indeed postmodernists often approvingly quote the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend in telling us that “anything goes.”
It is not true that there is no truth. What is crucial about this and other postmodern claims, however, is that its truth value is not the point. Like Stanley Fish, postmodernists shift our attention away from contradiction and truth entirely, claiming they’re not the important thing. (Caputo at one point approves one of his opponent’s moves because “it drops the stuff about contradiction and actually addresses the issues.”) Drawing on J.L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, postmodernists will argue that the reason to make such a claim against truth is its performative dimension. The point, that is, is not what the sentence says, but what it does.
It is on this last point, however, that the evidence against postmodernism seems strongest. What, exactly, has postmodernism accomplished? I have previously mentioned cognitive dissonance and spiritual transformation as reason to be concerned about contradictions. But these are typically not at the forefront of postmodern concern. Rather, most postmodern writers express some sort of concern for marginalized political groups – women, gays, transgendered people, the poorer or working classes, people in nonwhite racial groups, people from colonized societies. But what has postmodernism actually done to improve their situation?