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- 4 07 2002 - 18:43 - katatonik

A little bit of Augenauswischerei

... When trying for such tiny enlargements of our current horizon, there is little point in dividing it up into segments labeled “literature,” “science,” “theology,” “politics,” and “philosophy.” Except when coping with foundations and deans (who still, alas, insist on the misleading packaging of grant applications), we should not divide up the people who read puzzling books in exotic languages into those who do “comparative literature,” “comparative religion,” “comparative politics,” “history of science,” and “comparative philosophy.”
Instead, we should think of such people as occasionally and unpredictably coming up with suggestions about how to renew our sense of wonder and novelty. Enough such renewals, and even foundations and deans may stop using the old labels and start using some new ones. Enough such renewals, and we might stop reaching for skyhooks, and stop formulating systematic research programs. We might come to see that the point of seeking out strangers is not to attain a more comprehensive view of something we have already identified —something like “the world” or “the human condition.” Instead, it is to acquire slightly different needs, and thus to put together (perhaps in cooperation with those strangers) a way of being human which never existed before. Whether that form of life will contain anything recognizable as “philosophy” is up for grabs.”

Richard Rorty, in a review of Gerald Larson/Eliot Deutsch (eds), “Interpreting Across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy” (Princeton University Press 1988), which appeared in Philosophy East and West 39/3, 1989, pp.332-337.

Fair enough, cutting down human knowledge into morsels of disciplines is neither pleasant nor particularly interesting.
But isn’t the – underlying – assumption that meeting strangers must produce something new just as condescending as assuming that they will only tell us what we already know? Isn’t this the same trap stumbled into from the other side?
And, no, as one of the people addressed in this passage, I do not consider it my task to come up with “suggestions about how to renew our sense of wonder and novelty”. Confirming our sense of boredom, I think, is just as important.

Academic disciplines per se are not interesting. People are interesting.

gHack (Jul 4, 19:58) #

In a sense that's true, though it slightly misses the point I was trying to get across (ahem, by the way, there was a point I was trying to get across).

katatonik (Jul 5, 01:33) #

*nudge* So you mean, implicitely, that it would be better for scientists to face other cultures, disciplines etc. with a mental "clean slate" instead of projecting our positive or negative expectations on them. That's desirable, but I think that the problem lies in us having to formulate assumptions and theories beforehand as mental tools with which we go into the field. So in determining the perspective, you already go out there with a set of expectations in your mind.

gHack (Jul 5, 09:31) #

*wink**wink* As I understood Rorty - and this is also where I formulated my questions -, he talks here not so much about the process whereby people arrive at knowledge about other cultures, but about the evaluation and conceptualization of the results. It's not about methods, but about goals, purposes, and tasks.
Now, there *is* a need to justify my enterprise when, for instance, I embark on critically editing ancient texts from India. On a larger scale, there is also a demand for justifying the existence of university departments focusing on non-European areas - India, Japan, China, Tibet, Senegal, you name it. The discussion of goals, purposes, and tasks, is intricately bound up with such demands for justification,
I have seen various strategies of how to deal with this issue, either in the context of justifying the existence of research institutions or in that of justifying individual research projects, or even smaller research articles.
There's the "the study of other cultures is a value in itself"-strategy, which I like, but which is usually too weak to convince grant-giving personnel, unless you can buttress it with conventional evaluation results in academic life (publication lists, external referrals, and so on), or have other assets in your favour. I also believe that some form of evaluation of ancient philosophical theories must be a legitimate research interest, while the proponents of the "value in itself"-strategy often go for a mere documentation of what these theories proposed (if that's even possible, but that's a different debate).
Then there's the "the study of other cultures is valuable because it ultimately makes us learn something about ourself"-strategy. Rorty's claim that people who work on "exotic" cultures "renew our sense of wonder and novelty" belongs to this category, though as a somewhat distant relative. The point here is not that we learn about ourself (he doesn't talk about identiy issues), but that something is done for us in our current position, or that we *now* create a kind of new human existence. (I have already bitten my tongue here and suppressed a more malicious interpretation of his statement, like "yea, right, all we do is cater to postmodern needs for further exotic entertainment resources").
If I were to follow this strategy, I would publish and finance only that which in fact "renews our sense of wonder" - at the expense of arriving at a more complex, more differentiated picture of other cultures which of course also includes things we already know. There's always selection criteria you have to employ when doing research, financing research, or publishing its result, but this "sense of wonder" and the creation of a "new human existence" strikes me, the more I think about it, as entirely inappropriate in this context.

katatonik (Jul 5, 10:55) #

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