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A critique of critique: a restatement

June 25, 2011 4 comments

I have been feeling somewhat bothered by the fact that my post with the same name from a few days ago was not especially clear–one might even say, badly written.  I confess, I wrote it in haste!  But there is an idea in it which I wanted to express, so I’m going to try it again.  This time more straightforwardly.

After now ten years spent in the context of higher education (particularly in the fields of continental philosophy, theology, and religion), I am left with the impression–and it is at this stage only an impression, not something which I have researched and am prepared to demonstrate, but nevertheless a persistent impression–that a certain kind of critical thinking has become hegemonic.

The particular sort of critical thinking that I have in mind exhibits a complicated relationship with Kant’s Critiques and what they represent: namely, a very sophisticated form of modern skepticism, objectification, or suspension (epoche), for which he is obviously not the only representative.  This bracketing procedure can approximate a certain kind of nihilism.  Because everything would seem to be, as far as we know it, determined by the conditions of transcendental consciousness, everything has, to some significant extent, lost its gravity, its credibility, its affirmability (for lack of a better word).  However, many thinkers who have come after Kant have subjected his own critical work to a further critique.  His transcendental approach was too naive, precisely because it neglected or concealed many of the conditions for its own possibility: history, culture, power, language, flesh, environment, etc.  But if Kant’s critique destabilizes a positive and meaningful sense of the whole, the mode of critique which has sought to move beyond Kant (a mode which one might call “meta-transcendental” or “postmodern”) has seemed, at times, only to increase the threat of some sort of implicit nihilism.  I acknowledge that this tradition can be interpreted in another way, as seeking to retrieve or rediscover sources of meaning which modern transcendental reason excludes.  But what I am concerned with here is its critical aspect, which is often salient, and which departs from Kant only while amplifying the intellectually elite negation of the whole which is expressed powerfully in his work.

My point is that much contemporary critique gives me the impression that we are still embedded in a kind of Kantian danger.  The message of academic discourse is still, basically, that everything is suspect, unreliable, already invalidated by a critical awareness of the conditions for its possibility.

Given this state of affairs, I would not want to advocate an end of critique but rather a more concerted effort to articulate a positive context which is larger and more powerful than the critique itself.  It seems to me that, without this effort, the intellectual life becomes a kind of badly infinite “gotcha” game, in which the goal is to pull the rug out from one another, to reveal with ever greater acuity the depths of another’s unacknowledged naivete and implicit culpability.  To put the point more positively, we need to try to answer questions like: What is not illusory?  What is it that we are attempting to protect by means of critique?  What ultimately warrants our allegiance, our fidelity, our affirmation, our praise?  It is for this reason that I want to suggest precisely theological praise as a point of departure for reflection concerning the bases for saying “yes” definitively and, therefore, for saying “no” in a localized and meaningful way.  Even Qoheleth, who sees the world and declares “vanity of vanities!” does not make this critique in the absence of God but rather in recognition of God’s glory.

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A critique of critique, or what may be wrong with academia

June 24, 2011 1 comment

Kant exemplifies, and thereby verifies, the following claim: modernity is an age of critique.  In what sense is “critique” characteristic of this age?  There can be no doubt that negation is not a modern invention.  To say “no” and, moreover, to show or explain why “no” must be said in this or that circumstance is an act for which humanity has had the competence since time immemorial.  But to say “no” to the whole, to all things, and with reasons for doing so?  Even this radical negation finds a certain kind of precedent in the ancient words of Qoheleth.  And yet, it is the modern epoch that one calls “critical.”

Why?  Because there are hardly grounds any longer on which to say “yes” and, therefore, to say “no” in a believable, trustworthy way.  These grounds have been invalidated by a style of critique which one recognizes as “transcendental,” i.e., as implicating consciousness as such.  Because they must be doubted (Descartes), or at least objectified (Kant and, maybe, Husserl), the bases for our thought and action have been thoroughly jeopardized as bases.  The explicitly transcendental project was, of course, far too naive.  It, too, has been invalidated by a sense that every act of consciousness–if one can even speak this way anymore–is localized in history, culture, language, power, flesh, environment, etc.  The now prevalent judgment against transcendental reason of the Kantian type exhibits a meta-transcendental character.  One is obliged to hold that the conditions for the possibility of thinking (like Kant) about the conditions for the possibility of consciousness are universally and necessarily history, culture, language, power, flesh, environment, etc. and, simultaneously, their concealment.  In short, to attempt what Kant attempts, one must suffer from illusion or be engaged in some kind of self-deception.  Such is the central tenet of critical theory and postmodernity, of various sorts.  Its elaboration is always almost (but perhaps not quite) a performative contradiction.  In other words, one may very quickly find oneself accused of something very much like the sort of illusion which one imputes to another.

Now, the following analysis may seem exaggerated, but I think there is some truth in it.  Having been deeply informed by these traditions, the academy currently finds itself in what might be called “critical condition.”  As soon as one begins to speak positively about something; begins to propose an idea; begins to invest in a particular form of life; begins thereby to shift power in this or that direction; begins, in all these ways, to cultivate a philosophy, a theology, a culture, a people, a vision for the future–there are immediately countless meta-transcendental critiques which can and must be made.  Implicit in any position will be an infinite debt to a particularizing, destabilizing, and delegitimizing background of uncertainty, violence, chaos, oppression, absurdity, vanity.

The problem is that, when one points this out, or constantly feels the need to point it out, or makes only this sort of remark lest someone else make it about one’s own work (which might happen in any case), all that is empowered is the meta-transcendental critique itself.  Everyone is made to circulate its power and to wield it, with the result that everything comes to seem already negated as though by an a priori collective judgment.  Everything is potentially illusory.  But this means, paradoxically, that everything is affirmed weakly, surreptitiously, obscurely, inconsistently.  At least, this is the practical consequence.  After all, life must go on; people will believe this or that about the whole of reality and actually seek to live by it; no words of a critical academic will deter this natural mode of human being; and, in any case, the suspension demanded by the current form of the postmodern epoche is not sustainable even for the thinkers themselves, in their own lives.  And so everyone is left without anything positive to contemplate and, therefore, with a (perhaps highly cultured) sense of indifference or apathy.  Because no one will have the courage to say “yes” to a course of thought which seems promising, fruitful, or edifying, the effective message will be that it matters little what one thinks.  Meta-transcendental critique, having become all-powerful, will empower nothing and no one.  Worst of all, many will not have been empowered to stand their ground when it is really necessary, precisely at the decisive moment when “no” must be said with one’s full heart, with everything on the line, in order to defend something which we have forgotten how to articulate and which we no longer even attempt to specify.

Hope lies in the attempt to offer something positive, a genuine possibility, to others, however troubled may be its already and inevitably grave preconditions.  It seems that the intellectual life, in order to remain worthy of the name, must seek to shed light in this direction.  If one can, perhaps, begin to praise God even in the world’s distress, one can perhaps begin to think also through the implications of this praise.

Has this been an argument for uncritical thinking (if there is such a thing)?  Let me say, in conclusion: no.

Reflections on academic obscurity

March 4, 2011 1 comment

I’ve been working on a paper on William of Saint-Amour lately, who is an interesting but almost completely unknown figure from the mid-13th century. Where he is known, it is only as a thwarted critic of mendicant orders. He had the unfortunate fate, at his first appearance on the public stage, of coming up against Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas in debate—and in a few short years, ending up excommunicated and in exile.

I happen to genuinely enjoy William as a writer and thinker, and I honestly think he gets the better of his more famous debate-partners on more than one occasion. I even think that he has a counter-proposal about the place of poverty and property in society that deserves a hearing on its own merit (which is the immediate subject of my paper).

But I’m under no delusions that William is actually very important. He did live on for a while as a kind of anti-mendicant icon, but his thinking had no real lasting influence. The fact that on purely intellectual terms he ‘won’ some of his debates with the mendicants means almost nothing, because those debates were largely decided by non-intellectual factors. And he’s not a strong enough thinker that I would recommend to anyone without an independent historical interest in this period that they read him.

So it’s been hard to avoid asking myself, what’s the point in writing on him? The answer I’ve come up with for myself has three main interrelated elements.

  1. The first is a conviction about the importance of historical or comparative study to philosophical and theological thinking. Cliché is one of the greatest enemies of thought, and the only way to avoid it is by approaching a problem in part through the perspective of someone outside your own cultural/intellectual horizon. I like to do that by studying the past; the same thing can be accomplished by studying other cultures or communities in the present.
  2. The second is a standard sociology of knowledge type claim that theological and philosophical thinking have to happen from the ground up, so to speak; that the meaning of texts is only discernible within the meaning of broader social situations. That includes immediate polemical contexts and social position. So studying the past can’t only mean studying past canonical thinkers (though that’s often a first and nonetheless important step); understanding those figures has to involve a deeper engagement with their world.
  3. And third is a growing belief in the importance of minor characters and themes in the overall understanding of a period or a person. For one thing, focusing on minor characters pushes one even further from one’s own intellectual horizon, since canonical figures usually already have a thick overlay of rationales for their “relevance.” (The relevance of any of this, insofar as there is any, is just perspective) For another, minor characters qua minor characters—i.e., without pretending to elevate them to a status of major ones—are usually just as determinative of broader currents of thought and life as are the major characters.

These conditions lead inexorably to a concern for certain kinds of historical or intellectual minutiae, but on the condition that it ultimately loop around to illumine ‘the bigger picture’ (and that is, at least for the philosopher/theologian, an absolutely necessary condition) that concern isn’t the same as obscurantism or navel-gazing. On the contrary, it’s a necessary part of good thinking.

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Learning a Foreign Language

July 21, 2010 8 comments

Learning to read a foreign language is often one of the more frustrating parts of graduate school, particularly for those who do not come in with a great language background or who are simply not gifted with languages. The fact that crash-courses and reading exams make sophisticated texts only slightly accessible adds to this frustration. I remember trying to read Balthasar after passing my German exam and having trouble understanding even the basics of the text; not exactly an encouraging experience. What is the best way to become more proficient in reading another language?  For the past few years I have been fairly diligent about working on German. I have tried many different strategies and, even though they may not be novel, I want to point to number that I have found helpful:

  • The most common advice I have heard is simply to make a regular schedule of reading whatever language you are working on. Everyday or a few times a week, read something in that language whether it is theological or just a newspaper article. This is, of course, absolutely true but the fact is that most of us know this and very few people end up maintaining it is the midst of  coursework/exams/dissertation. Therefore:
  • Find a few books that you would actually enjoy reading. For me, this meant getting some of the Harry Potter books in German. This has given me something easy to read when I get tired of academic German but want to keep to my reading schedule. Another great book for me has been Ich bin dann mal wegthe best-selling journal of a comedian/actor about his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The particular works aren’t important. Just find a few that you can move in and out of when you feel like it.
  • Find an article or book that you absolutely need (I assume that if you are trying to move beyond the beginning level of a language there will be such texts). I have started many articles/books which I thought might be helpful or be good practice but unless the piece is really necessary, I have found it hard to keep with it when it gets difficult.
  • Learn to speak the language at a basic level. I am by no means advanced in my German (I have gotten myself to somewhere around the intermediate level in speaking), but learning to produce German at even a basic level has given me a much better feel for the language and helped my speed and comprehension when reading. Of course, learning to actively produce a language takes even more time and usually means taking classes or a trip abroad. 
  • Find a reading group. However, I have found that unless the text being read is either enjoyable or necessary, groups oftentimes fall apart as quickly as an individual stop reading on his/her own.

Any other practices that people have found helpful?

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The danger of speaking from somewhere

June 1, 2010 Leave a comment

We all speak from somewhere, right?  It’s not enough to speak.  Speech must be located; it must be named in terms of its historical, social, geographical, biographical, institutional, etc. location.  Among academics in the humanities, this has become a moral necessity.  To locate one’s words is to avoid the dangerous pretense of universality.  Even when I say “I,” for instance, I’ve got to be cautious about the history and the context of this utterance.  Perhaps I must, in order to be responsible, have some knowledge of Descartes in mind.  But this is just another way of saying that identity–expressed in terms of a manifold location–is at a high premium.  We’ve got to have our identities ready-at-hand, in order to be able to specify, as we ought, where we are coming from.  All of the prospects of dialogue and cross-cultural exchange seem to depend on it.

But who are we, really?  Who am I?  Have we forgotten the importance of continually asking this question?  My concern is that, in hopes of avoiding absolutisms and encouraging a deeper respect for the other in a plural world–goals which I emphatically endorse–we will lose a sense of the fundamental incompleteness, strangeness, and malleability which lies at the root of human existence.  Identifying some factors that have contributed to my current sense of self, and even perhaps to the modern genealogy of the “self” which conditions this exercise, seems necessary, as I have said.  But it’s also dangerous.  All too quickly, the responsible act of “locating” falls prey to various sorts of determinism and banality.  Conversations go nowhere because everyone has convinced themselves, beforehand, that they really know wherefrom they are speaking.  Discourse becomes the mere playing out of roles which are assigned according to a set of possible or likely identity-markers.  Where’s the future in this?  Where’s the possibility of deepening our wisdom regarding the greatest mysteries of human life?  Where’s the hope of venturing, together, into hitherto unexplored terrain? 

An overly located humanity has no new frontiers.

Murphy and Betz to Notre Dame

May 24, 2010 7 comments

The systematic theology area here at Notre Dame has been conducting some new faculty searches this spring, and it’s just been announced that Francesca Murphy and John Betz have accepted offers to begin in the 2010-11 academic year. Murphy is best known for God Is Not a Story, which she published in 2007, though her main interest is in theological aesthetics. Betz has become known recently for his role in the analogia entis debate—especially his two-part essay in Modern Theology, “Beyond the Sublime: The Aesthetics of the Analogy of Being” (Part 1, Part 2).

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Again into the light of day

Well, the semester is over. The dark clouds of pressing deadlines have passed for now, so I can finally leave the lonely hiding place of obsessive reading and writing. It feels wonderful. And I can also blog again without feeling guilty for neglecting my more urgent obligations. A few links, to get us started afresh:

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