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more on neil gross and richard rorty

N+1 magazine has a lengthy response by Gideon-Lewis Kraus to Neil Gross’ book on Rorty.  Here’s the previous orgtheory review of Gross. Choice clips – Kraus’ thinks Gross’ focus on self-concept is lame:

Gross ends up trying to turn Bourdieu on his head. He has replaced a story about obedience to an all-encompassing environmental force with a story about the dictates of an adamantine inner one. What he has taken over from Rorty is the idea that a teleology of social status may say more about the self-importance of sociologists than it does about the behavior of actual people. But Gross cannot untether himself from teleology.

Kraus trashes Rorty (and Gross) for too much introspection and professional “knowingness”:

In the late sixties, Rorty began to refashion himself as a participant in wider communities because American philosophy was, even to the most casual observer, irrelevant to the rest of American cultural life. But it was a moment where sociology had yet to succumb to the pressure to professionalize. (Gross’s book is fine on the causes of disciplinary professionalization: vast increases in postwar university enrollment due to the GI Bill and a general rise in affluence, coupled with Cold War interest in university science and a new, post-Hiroshima admiration for the structure of scientific inquiry, among other factors, led to a need for bureaucratic entrenchment designed to credential more efficiently the growing middle class and to gain funding by aping the guys over in the physics building.) While philosophers were writing articles in Zapf Dingbats for a select conspiracy of moon-men, sociologists were still happy to write books like The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and The Triumph of the Therapeutic.

In light of what has happened to sociology since then, I suspect it is no accident that Gross has written a book in which attentive fidelity to disciplinary objectives is characterized as “strategic,” and in which a thinker becomes interesting and broadly relevant once he’s decided to inquire, in a mood of expansiveness and curiosity, about what other thinkers see as the centers of human life. I’d like to imagine, then, that the secret furious wish of Gross’s book is the idea that he might, in unsettling the reliance on ideas of status and strategy by gesturing toward a more robust way to talk about academic decision-making, assist in the rehabilitation of his field. He might help his colleagues in sociology withdraw from the suicidal intoxication of professional knowingness. Even if he only succeeded in part—if he clings to an obverted relic of the old piety—he has still chosen a subject notorious enough to get his book read by people outside his department, and even outside of the academy. And he has chosen a model whose own career might encourage his colleagues within the department to embark upon more variegated exchanges with odder partners.

But Rorty is instructive if you want to leave a discipline, not if you want to save one. Rorty’s last year in the Princeton philosophy department was 1981. For the next sixteen years he was University Professor of the Humanities at the University of Virginia. He retired out of Stanford’s Comparative Literature department, though his initial hope in moving west was that he might be named Transitory Professor of Trendy Studies. Philosophy, for its part, is less relevant than ever; its graduate programs continue to attract students drawn to haughty ascetic ideals of purification rather than aspirations to the enlargement of the self. Rorty, from time to time, seemed genuinely sad about this. The publication of Richard Rorty got Gross tenure. With the strategic portion of his career thus concluded, one wonders what Gross’s own intellectual self-concept might do for the sociological project.

Check it out.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2009 at 6:06 pm

3 Responses

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  1. The philosophical conversation had gotten so bad precisely because the analytic philosophers had been so successful in convincing themselves that only they had a clue about what was really going on, that everything done in any other discipline was frivolous and epiphenomenal and not worth worrying about. This is the peril of hermetic rigorism and abject professionalization: if you believe that whatever it is you have chosen to hypostasize—truth in epistemology, the class structure in economics, the drive for status in social relations—is the only thing ultimately worthy of discussion, you stand a good chance of finding yourself on the defensive, with fewer and fewer people to talk to and increasingly occult things to talk about. … I’d like to imagine, then, that the secret furious wish of Gross’s book is the idea that he might, in unsettling the reliance on ideas of status and strategy by gesturing toward a more robust way to talk about academic decision-making, assist in the rehabilitation of his field. He might help his colleagues in sociology withdraw from the suicidal intoxication of professional knowingness … Philosophy, for its part, is less relevant than ever; its graduate programs continue to attract students drawn to haughty ascetic ideals of purification rather than aspirations to the enlargement of the self.

    Hm, maybe. Everyone occupies a position. Given Kraus’s, it’s unsurprising that he runs the fairly familiar humanist line that the True Philosophy addressing the Real Questions of Life is not to be found in Philosophy Departments, but perhaps instead in English Departments or the pages of of Literary Magazines. (No doubt my reaction would seem equally predictable to him.) That view is the main defense available to those unable or unwilling to demonstrate the technical chops demanded as an admission test to conversation in the more professionally successful field. Rorty’s claims appealed to the segment of the Humanities that wanted to see itself as Philosophical but didn’t want to learn all that boring logic. They wanted instead to substitute a finely-developed literary sensibility whose admission test was evidence of wide reading and a more traditional cultural or literary competence, in an effort to resist professional philosophy’s claim that it could be a technical discipline independent of the field of literary studies.

    From a Bourdieuian point of view it’s not surprising that Rorty parlayed his own boredom with analytical philosophy — which coincided, unsurprisingly, with his failure to win over his Princeton colleagues to his views — into a general Humanities professorship. It’s similar to semi-apostate high-status economists who win a more general audience by renouncing some professional shibboleths, at the cost of becoming peripheral to their own field.

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    Kieran

    February 16, 2009 at 6:40 pm

  2. […] Rorty and the Giant Pool of Status By way of OrgTheory, I see that Gideon Lewis-Kraus has a nice little essay on Neil Gross’s recent book on Richard […]

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  3. Unrelated, but interesting, here’s Gross, with Solon Simmons, (building on Lazarsfeld’s study) on the social and political views of american professors: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~ngross/lounsbery_9-25.pdf

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    tf

    February 16, 2009 at 7:24 pm


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