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Straussian
July 30, 2004 3:56 PM   Subscribe

Straussian.
posted by hama7 (58 comments total)

 
Guassian
posted by Peter H at 4:13 PM on July 30, 2004


Halicarnassian.
posted by the fire you left me at 4:38 PM on July 30, 2004


Seussian
posted by tss at 4:45 PM on July 30, 2004


Maussian.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 4:51 PM on July 30, 2004


Machiavellian
posted by jozxyqk at 5:30 PM on July 30, 2004


Brickhaussian!
posted by Peter H at 5:47 PM on July 30, 2004


Brickskellerian.
posted by Wet Spot at 6:13 PM on July 30, 2004


Weenieroastian
posted by y2karl at 6:31 PM on July 30, 2004


Weinerdoggian
posted by y2karl at 6:38 PM on July 30, 2004


Weinermobilatarianism
posted by y2karl at 6:42 PM on July 30, 2004


Note that some of the people in the "teachers in the Straussian tradition" are not necessarily Straussians. The author of the site is making some assumptions. Particularly in the case of some St. John's College tutors, there are several listed I know personally and do not think are Straussians.

Strauss was a "tutor emeritus" of SJC later in his life but he never (formally) taught there. An important figure at SJC was Jacob Klein, Strauss's lifelong friend. Both were very influenced by Heidegger. This relationship is one of the many ways in which Chicago and St. John's have long been associated.

However, the St. John's ethos is, in my opinion, fundamentally opposed to Strauss's esotericism, although it should be said that there are definitely some Straussians at the college. A story I heard about Strauss and Klein—and one which I think exemplifies the difference both between Chicago and SJC and Strauss and Klein—was that while Strauss had and encouraged "disciples", Klein most certainly did not.

I'd like to disavow Leon Kass, but, alas, I cannot. He did teach at SJC.

I'm sensitive on this subject, of course, as a liberal and a johnnie. It would be dishonest of me to claim that there is not a strong contingent of cultural chauvinists at SJC for whom Straussianism plays a role. However, it is also the case that, unlike Chicago, SJC has a strong opposing tradition that does not validate the "canon" on the basis of cultural chauvinism (explicit or implicit) and, more to the point, recoils in horror at the implicit intellectual fascism of Straussian esotericism. This is exactly why, in my opinion, cultural warriors like Strauss and Alan Bloom et al are from Chicago and not St. Johns.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:45 PM on July 30, 2004


that doesn't rhyme at all, Ethereal. ;-)
posted by Peter H at 6:48 PM on July 30, 2004


Landocalrissian.
posted by chicobangs at 7:04 PM on July 30, 2004


Trillian.
posted by interrobang at 7:10 PM on July 30, 2004


As much as I can see that all of this humour is ultimately a derail of hama's post, the end result is that Ethereal Bligh has come off as tremendously pompous...

I did enjoy the humour though....
posted by Richat at 7:13 PM on July 30, 2004


Faustian
posted by y2karl at 7:15 PM on July 30, 2004


Proustian.
posted by interrobang at 7:19 PM on July 30, 2004


Bloussian.
posted by interrobang at 7:20 PM on July 30, 2004


James Redfield told me & some other students a funny story about Strauss and his rather explicit cultivation of disciples once. Actually I guess it's not really that funny. And I can't remember most of the details.

Oh, nevermind.
posted by kenko at 7:24 PM on July 30, 2004


LousyAnn
posted by Wet Spot at 7:31 PM on July 30, 2004


Orwellian Farwellian
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:26 PM on July 30, 2004


Kausian
(even he likes Kerry now! In spite of himself!)
posted by octobersurprise at 8:55 PM on July 30, 2004


Ethereal Bligh: by "Chicago," do you mean the Committee on Social Thought? Philosophy? Poli Sci? Granted that many of Chicago's faculty hold positions in two, three, four, or even five different departments, but, overall, the university doesn't present the kind of unified front commonly associated w/St. John's (even if you count the Core).

(Yes, I'm a U of C alum.)
posted by thomas j wise at 9:01 PM on July 30, 2004


I hate to ruin the fun here, but I linked that site nearly a year ago in this neo-con thread.
posted by tapeguy at 9:23 PM on July 30, 2004


Maussian -- YES!, and
posted by Peter H at 10:42 PM on July 30, 2004


in other words,

Mausian
posted by y2karl at 11:25 PM on July 30, 2004


Hammaseven.
posted by interrobang at 12:08 AM on July 31, 2004


Godwinian?
posted by matteo at 12:53 AM on July 31, 2004


ian.
posted by Blue Stone at 4:29 AM on July 31, 2004


thomas: yes, I only meant the people strongly associated with the "core". I'm only slightly familiar with UofC's history, but I do know that the creation of core there and the New Program at SJC was contemporaneous and involved many of the same people. This was a wave of "great books" reform around that time, and SJC and Chicago were the heart of it. There's a lot of overlap between SJC and Chicago, even now. But you'll find that some of the biggest names associated with this movement, like Adler, had an association with both schools.

In the context of this discussion, however, with the Straussians, I believe we're also talking about Committee on Social Thought, aren't we? But, as you're aware, there was a whole generation of scholars that went to Chicago and were influenced by Strauss.

Anyway, my point in distinguishing SJC and Chicago was that Chicago's pedagogy is more traditional and authoritarian. You have "professors" and they instruct. Someone can be a Straussian at Chicago, and instruct his/her students in this view of the canon. At SJC, this is very difficult or impossible, as that's not the role of tutors. Thus the differences in personality between Klein and Strauss, and the differences between those students who were attracted to Chicago and those attracted to SJC. This is also why, I believe, the people associated with the Core at Chicago at much more culturally conservative than are the SJC folks. This is why, for example, Alan Bloom took a swipe at SJC in "Closing of the American Mind"—for him, the presentation of the canon bare, without instruction as to how to understand it, is worse than useless.

The Straussians are really sort of the kabalists of the canon. Where, in contrast, johnnies are more like evangelicals who take a naive view. These are fundamentally distinct viewpoints, with very different philosophical implications. It's hard for me to imagine a group of johnnies being the crusading Straussian neocons that have been the architects of the Iraq invasion. Johnnies are filled with doubt; Straussians (and the neocons) are filled with profound certainty.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:07 AM on July 31, 2004


EB, you're a Straussian for this list if you were a grad student of Strauss or of one of his students. There's no requirement that you impose your secret wisdom on anyone or run a dictatorial classroom.

The sorts of students who'd be attracted to SJC over Chicago just isn't relevant here, since SJC isn't producing PhD's.

I've known and continue to know Straussians. None of them were wandering the halls filled with profound certainty, or filled with doubt, or filled with anything except maybe lunch. To the extent that I'm aware of their teaching, none of them were driven to some sort of authoritarian instruction in the True Secrets underlying the blah-de-blah. None were insistent on any one interpretation of any particular work. None of them, as far as I can tell, are Bushite neoconservatives, though I suppose on average they're at least a little bit more conservative / less leftish than your average poli-sci type.

(in the eternal derail, I won't speak to fields I know beans about, but the political-science and economic sections of the SJC reading list are laughably inadequate and seem to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of what the "canon" in those fields might consist of)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:15 PM on July 31, 2004


Rovian
posted by nofundy at 12:58 PM on July 31, 2004


A "Straussian" isn't merely someone who was a student of Strauss. That's silly. Straussianism is an approach to the western canon built around an esoteric reading of the texts. As such, it does require a certain worldview and a pedagogical style. There's a great many more people who were students of Strauss than are/were Straussians, as well as a good number of people who consider then Straussians who never met him. A bunch of the neocons did study under and were strongly influenced by Strauss, including Wolfowitz.

As to your swipe at SJC, perhaps the misunderstanding is yours? And it involves the misperception that it would have anything whatsoever to do with the "canons" of poli-science or economics? As opposed to the so-called "western canon"? Or political philosophy, distinct from political science and, incidentally, Strauss's specialty?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:00 PM on July 31, 2004


Also, looking at this list (the list of "teachers in the Straussian tradition) more closely, which, you know, is from the linked site and is ontopic; I note that a full 10% of the people listed there are or were associated with St. John's College in some form (either as graduates or teachers). And that's a lower estimate, as there are certainly more like Klein and Kass, whom I recognize and know to have been SJC tutors, though the list doesn't mention it. Of the SJC people on that list, at least half were, in fact, students of Strauss at one point or another. Others were students of other Straussians (such as Bloom). Others have no apparent connection.

I'm a bit at a loss as to how to respond to you, ROU_Xenophobe, because while I assume you have a graduate degree in poli-sci or economics, you seem to be utterly ignorant of the context in which "Straussianism" has entered into the public discourse. Not only is the whole history of moral and political philosophy contentious (which I know you are well aware) but "Straussianism" is a particular approach to the subject—particularly the canonical readings—that itself has an especial political import. Christ, man, these people are would-be social architects. They are not merely diligent and thoughtful scholars—the Straussians have a long history of being public intellectuals, writing popular works, and influencing public policy. They are often zealots.

In that their philosophy is deeply bound in the political and moral philosophy portions of the so-called "western canon"; that they believe the canon is of a piece, coherent, and almost an inevitable product of history; that Strauss and his cohorts were a product and prime-movers of a time and place in American higher education that involved a renaissance of the "canon"; that this cohort was spread between St. John's College and University of Chicago; that this movement found significantly different expressions in the two institutions; that there continues to this day to be an association (as we can see from this link) between Strauss and SJC; that one can speak of the "Straussian teaching tradition"...all this together makes it highly relevant whether or not one could fairly characterize St. John's as a bastion of Straussian thought. A lot of people seem to think this is the case. I do not. It matters to me not just parochially, but because this conversation on the canon and political and moral philosophy, due to people like Wolfowitz, has made the front page of the New York Times.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:40 PM on July 31, 2004


A "Straussian" isn't merely someone who was a student of Strauss. That's silly.

I don't disagree, but it seems plain that that's all that's required for membership on the list they gave.

Straussianism is an approach to the western canon built around an esoteric reading of the texts. As such, it does require a certain worldview and a pedagogical style.

I think that most of the Straussians I know -- people who have, to my face, described themselves as Straussians -- would be astonished to discover that they could be kicked out of the club for being insufficiently dictatorial or esoteric in the classroom. Maybe this means they're not really Straussians, but I can't think of any good reason why I should use your definition over their self-definition.

If people at SJC want to read Smith and Marx instead of works that are intellectually and substantively more influential and, well, canonical -- works by Marshall and Walras and Pareto and Coase and Nash and Arrow, or, in a different direction, Lenin, that's entirely their business. The project just seems a bit silly to me, but projects that seem silly to at least one person abound in higher ed.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:43 PM on July 31, 2004


I'm a bit at a loss as to how to respond to you, ROU_Xenophobe, because while I assume you have a graduate degree in poli-sci or economics

Polisci.

you seem to be utterly ignorant of the context in which "Straussianism" has entered into the public discourse

Oh, I know that if you say "Straussian!" to the New York Times, that means people like Wolfowitz or Bloom.

But it doesn't jibe with my impressions of real-life, breathing, working, Straussians. Normal or garden-variety Straussians don't go around all day doing "Straussian" stuff, nor are their lives, by and large, dedicated to "Straussian" goals or causes.

Basically, it bugs me to see people I know and work or have worked with tarred with this brush. The ones I know are neither zealots nor would-be social architects. You should respond to me as someone who sees friends and colleagues being insulted as being somehow unsafe or unsavory.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:06 PM on July 31, 2004


It seems to me that if you yourself haven't read Strauss, you ought to. I haven't. But I'm hard pressed to understand what "Straussian" would mean other than how it's been presented in various secondary sources I have read, many of which are available from the linked site.

Merely having been a student of Strauss seems insufficient to me as determinative because this appellation clearly indicates a school of thought. In any discipline this would be the case, but most especially so for political philosophy.

These secondary sources indicate that this school of thought is built around a particular esoteric reading of the canonical texts of political and moral philosophy. (Not political science!) If you think this isn't true of your colleagues, I'd be very interested in knowing why they self-describe as "Straussian". Perhaps you could ask them and let me know what they say?

Now, I can easily understand that someone's thinking might be "Straussian inflected" without accepting the entire Straussian program, whatever it is. And maybe this is the case with your colleagues. But the degree to which it deviates from the Straussian view is the degree to which such a self-description is misleading, is it not?

Finally, it seems to me that "Straussianism" is only glancingly relevant to the field of political science. It is here, perhaps, that our friction arises—both in regards to Strauss and in regards to the Program at SJC. I have no doubt whatsoever that Straussians, at least, would find Marx and Smith more "canonical" than Pareto or Nash. This is because we're not talking about a polisci canon, we're talking about a branch of philosophy and/or cultural studies. This is the realm in which Straussianism is an intellectual force, and this is why Straussians are culture warriors, and this is also why many of them are actually involved in policy.

...as opposed to political scientists, who are utterly irrelevant to policy, at least in the US. (I say that with good humor and the wish that it weren't so.)

As to the vitality and relevancy of the SJC Program (and the "Core" at Chicago, and others), of course I will defend it. Like many johnnies, the Program and the college have played a large role in my life. I will only say that it is valuable in the way in which it's valuable and is not valuable in the way in which it's not. There are eight semesters of mathematics at St. John's. That doesn't mean it's an education in mathematics. There are probably 80 or more credit hours in pure philosophy—that doesn't mean it's a philosophy degree. It's certainly not a political science degree. Compared to every speciality degree offered in the US, it's inadequate in each of those areas. Of course it is. But this other thing it does, it does very well.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:47 PM on July 31, 2004


Prussian.
posted by semmi at 5:31 PM on July 31, 2004


It seems to me that if you yourself haven't read Strauss, you ought to. I haven't

Nor I. I gave up on political philosophy a long time ago when it started to become clear that an awful lot of it rests on empirical claims and assertions and tests these claims and assertions badly if at all.

But the degree to which it deviates from the Straussian view is the degree to which such a self-description is misleading, is it not?

What I mean is that I could take what the New York Times says "Straussian" means, or I could take what the a random web page says it means, or I could take what actual real no-shit political philosophers who call themselves "Straussians" seem to think it means. I'll pick the latter, for now, even if it includes people that the Times or the web-page author or even some Straussians think aren't Straussian.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Straussians, at least, would find Marx and Smith more "canonical" than Pareto or Nash.

But if "canonical" is going to mean anything, it's an empirical claim about the intellectual and substantive importance of the works in question, and in this case the Straussians would be just plain-old wrong, factually incorrect, as far as I care. The giants on which economics stands aren't Smith, they're people like Marshall, and what happens in the world today is far more reliant on Coase's work than Smith's. If "canonical" just means "What I was taught back when education was good," which is my maximally-cynical interpretation, it doesn't mean much of anything.

(if I had to guess, I'd think that the value of an education like St. John's is more from the method of study and education (and the self-selection of students) than the works selected, but I've not been there)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:52 PM on July 31, 2004


I was serious, by the way, about my request that you ask your colleagues what they mean when they self-identify as "Straussians". Please do ask.

I did write, a couple of years ago, to one of the SJC tutors listed on that page as being a Straussian. This was one man I am quite fond of, and of whom I had no indication of a Strauss affiliation. Anyway, I emailed, but didn't hear back from him. He's very disabled, however, so it may not have been practical to attempt to communicate with my via email. What I should do is write a few of the others that I know (or know of) from that list and see if they self-identify as "Straussians" and if they do, what they think that means.

However, I know for a fact that some of the SJC affiliated people are exactly (well, not "exactly", but close) the sort of people that, for example, the NYT thinks of as "Straussians". That is, of the Alan Bloom mold. Cultural conservatives—cultural chauvinists, really—who see in the canon a coherent blueprint for the proper organization of society. In a few cases, such as Robert Goldwin, we have cases of SJC people that are Straussians and neocons and in that little cabal of people with access to current and former Republican administrations. They wouldn't help my argument. :) But my argument, really, is not unlike yours: everyone associated with Strauss in any way is not the boogeyman. I'm arguing that the Straussian affiliation can be (and is in some cases) in error; you're arguing that the affiliation doesn't mean what it's claimed to mean. Either way, both of us are trying to protect the reputations of people we think have been unfairly targeted.

But we do fundamentally disagree on what "Straussian" means. Neither of us has first-hand experience. As I've said, everything I've read has indicated that Strauss's approach to these texts was esoteric; and that from his esoteric reading of these texts he believed is revealed a coherent political philosophy. And, for the onlookers, I'm using "esoteric" in its most literal sense. It's my understanding that Strauss believed that these writers—from, presumably, Aristotle to Heidegger—had a message to convey that they dare not deliver explicitly, in plain words. That, below the superficial meaning of the texts, there is a common theme to be found in these writers where they are saying what they really are trying to say. No doubt, that's a very vulgar view of Straussianism, but that's what I've seen from many sources.

Now, as someone deeply familiar with these same texts, I find this theory disturbing for a whole host of reasons. Not only do I think it's plain wrong, the social/political context within which someone would make such a claim, well, frightens me. This is why I've thought that Straussianism matters, and particularly why it matters to me—someone for whom these texts are equally important, as is political philosophy in general.

Your parenthetical: the pedagogy and self-selection are, I agree, the greater part of the value of an SJC education. That's my view, but it's a minority view. Even so, the curriculum itself has much more value than I think you realize it does—I can say this with a (very moderate) amount of authority as it applies to math and the sciences. There is a lot of foundational stuff that people think they fully comprehend because they are, for example, physicists or mathematicians, yet don't. I can't help but believe that this is almost certainly true, to a limited degree, where it touches upon your field of expertise as well. At any rate, the value of a facility with such foundational things, though significant, should not be overstated. Neither, however, should the value of much highly technical and arcane expertise, for that matter. The bottom line is that we're all far more ignorant than we like to believe.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:39 PM on July 31, 2004


I'm arguing that the Straussian affiliation can be (and is in some cases) in error; you're arguing that the affiliation doesn't mean what it's claimed to mean

I suppose. I think those two are actually damn close to congruent with each other.

But we do fundamentally disagree on what "Straussian" means

I have no objection to your characterization of the content of Straussian readings, knowing only about that much myself. Only to the claim that there's a really strong link between that actually being a danger. In practice, Straussians seem to be by and large about as harmless as Platonists (though that might be different if a bunch of neoplatonists found themselves in positions of power), and I suspect that a lot of the current crop of neocons identified as "Straussians" would have the same beliefs in a world where Strauss was never born.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:06 PM on July 31, 2004


Ebbinghausian
posted by LimePi at 9:45 PM on July 31, 2004


If people at SJC want to read Smith and Marx instead of works that are intellectually and substantively more influential and, well, canonical

I agree with some of your arguments, ROU, but I am at a loss as to how to respond to this. The 'canon' is by and large a product of the particular institutional environment in question, not an artifact etched in stone. But by any historical standard, Smith and Marx are more influential than, say, Marshall or Arrow. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the entire tradition of political economy and (sadly) displays a degree of provincialism I have come to expect from American economics and political science in the late 20th/early 21st century.
posted by amauck at 5:26 AM on August 1, 2004


This is because we're not talking about a polisci canon, we're talking about a branch of philosophy and/or cultural studies

Whatever else Straussianism is, it is not a branch of cultural studies (thank heavens). You did better with the apellation political philosophy. This is in line with Strauss' own position, and that of Bloom.
posted by amauck at 5:30 AM on August 1, 2004


I gave up on political philosophy a long time ago when it started to become clear that an awful lot of it rests on empirical claims and assertions and tests these claims and assertions badly if at all

Now this position is just stupid. No wonder you think Arrow is more influential than Marx. To somehow imagine that empiricism can exist without a philosophical foundation, or that philosophy is somehow useless without some sort of empirical backing, is to return to the sort of naive realism that has made the current paradigm of political science in the U.S. so Dogmatic. Stop spouting off and pick up a freakin' book (and I don't mean a textbook).
posted by amauck at 5:36 AM on August 1, 2004


by any historical standard, Smith and Marx are more influential than, say, Marshall or Arrow

I think you can only arrive at this conclusion by giving the credit for works by Marshall and Walras and Pareto etc to Smith, which doesn't entirely make sense because they're dealing with things that Smith doesn't really deal with (IIRC. I haven't read Smith in a month of Sundays and may be forgetting part).

displays a degree of provincialism I have come to expect from American economics and political science in the late 20th/early 21st century

How is it provincial? That would normally imply inattention to any sources that weren't American, but neither Marshall nor Pareto nor Walras nor Arrow nor Coase were American (or at least, were born American; I don't know if Coase ever took citizenship).

Now this position is just stupid.

But lots of the stuff does have empirical arguments.

For example, one of the themes of Machiavelli's Discourses is that one of the weaknesses of European kings is that because they're Christian, they're excessively compassionate and nice, and therefore what we need is to re-envision Christianity in a more muscular form. But that's an empirical proposition -- that Christian kings are significantly less ruthless than muslim or pagan kings. And one that, I suspect, if you examined you would find false. But that sort of discussion is usually barred as irrelevant in a political-philosophy course.

Similarly, state-of-nature theories have within them, to varying degrees of explicitness, a theory of human psychology, as do some of its ancient predecessors and some of its successors, like Rawls' veil of ignorance. Figuring out which might be right, or most applicable to our world, would be primarily an exercise in seeing which theory of psychology is closest to correct (as far as we can tell now) in the salient ways. But, again, in a course you're not really allowed to suggest applying modern psychological research on cognition, value-formation, etc, to get at these problems.

I gave it up because the sorts of questions I was led to ask weren't in the same universe as the ones being considered, not because the works aren't interesting.

current paradigm of political science in the U.S. so Dogmatic

I assume you mean rat-choice work, but it's awfully hard for that to be "the current paradigm," much less dogmatic about it, when most of the people in the discipline do something else and when it's subjected to regular and intense criticism.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:02 PM on August 1, 2004


Last issue first: Explicit use of RAT is, of course, the whipping boy of political science, but is the meat and potatoes of economics (of course in the form of homo oeconomicus, but isn't RAT simply an extension of this point?). This doesn't mean that a number of the implicit assumptions embedded in RAT haven't achieved a degree of professional dominance, especially as political science has recently developed in the U.S. It is simply a question of the measure of reflexivity the discipline chooses to undertake, and (frankly) American political science appears to have chosen a course that takes it away from methodological and theoretical reflexivity, rather than towards it. Hence RAT is roundly abused at the same time many of the assumptions it makes about personal choice, as well as its reliance of methodological individualism, creep in through the back door.

onto the issue of provincialism: The position is provincial because it only reflects the current American paradigm of economics and political science, ignoring other traditions and work (Even if this position has foreign roots. American neoconservativism was inspired in part by Hayek but that hardly makes it Austrian). Lets stick with two biggies to illustrate the point. I am willing to accept the idea that Pareto is currently more influential than Smith within economics or political science, in so far as people tend to get exposed to him to some degree, while Smith tends to be more or less ignored. However, Smith was instrumental in the transformation of the European economies away from mercantilistic policies and towards the free market. This, of course, is the foundation of all modern economics: the seed out of which the current paradigm grew. To therefore suggest that 20th century sources are more influential is to take economics as a preconstructed object, not a school of thought that experienced struggle in its emergence. A similar argument can be made for political science: both emerged, to some degree, from the tradition of political economy in which Smith and Marx worked.

Even ignoring the issue of history, one could argue that both Marx and Smith are instrumental to contemporary sociology (and the former to virtually every modern discipline in the social sciences and humanities), which tends to indicate their overall importance for the canon.

One other point:

doesn't entirely make sense because they're dealing with things that Smith doesn't really deal with

Smith deals with almost everythig, so you would probably have to justify this to me. Wealth of Nations is a hell of a lot more than the Invisible Hand, to say nothing of his Theory of Moral Sentiments.
posted by amauck at 1:47 PM on August 1, 2004


American political science appears to have chosen a course that takes it away from methodological and theoretical reflexivity, rather than towards it

By that you mean that it mostly just sort of grabs tools as seems useful from other disciplines and uses them all at the same time instead of in a single, organized fashion? Sure, but I think that mostly reflects the disorganized nature of poli-sci, which is a field that's sort of the rump end of lots of other fields as applied to a particular area.

This, of course, is the foundation of all modern economics: the seed out of which the current paradigm grew

I wouldn't disagree, exactly. But which is more important, the seed or the gardener -- or, rather, shouldn't the gardener get some credit? If it helps, think of it this way: lots of people might recognize names like Maxwell or DeBroglie or Boyle, but it seems to me that people like Marshall and Pareto and even Ricardo -- kilometer-tall giants in the field -- don't get the props they deserve, because for too many people it boils down to "Economics? That's Smith vs. Marx, right?" And that bugs me, especially since it deprecates the actual development of (micro)econ as the study of choice under constraint.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:30 PM on August 1, 2004


Both the seeds and the gardener should get credit. The approach popularized by people like Strauss and Bloom was in response to just such an issue. For them, the problem was that the gardeners were getting all the credit, and the seed was getting ignored. The problem with this, according to their perspective, is that the seed can tell you a lot about the plant. While canonical works often seem old fashioned and not particularly useful to the current paradigm (witness the fact that they have in the past read Lavoiser in their unit on science at Saint John's. I'm not sure if this is still the case, but it does seem a bit silly), they often represent its implicit foundations: both epistemologically (the ways in which we know or choose to approach some subject matter), as well as ontologically (does a thing actually exist, or is it simply a valuable methodological shorthand- witness here some of the debates that have surrounded RAT, or the debate in sociology over whether or not society is a 'real thing'). If we buy this position, it still makes sense to read people like Plato or Machiavelli. If we don't, we can comfortably stick to 20th century sources, as they are the most immediately relevant. I don't think it is an either/or choice, but I do think that there is good reason to pay some attention to the seeds, if only to avoid the easy pitfalls of naive realism (in terms of ontology) and naive scientism (in terms of methodology). This is what I mean by the loss of reflexivity. It is more an omnipresent threat than 'the thin end of the wedge,' but such simplistic epistemological positions do come into vogue from time to time.
posted by amauck at 3:25 PM on August 1, 2004


"...witness the fact that they have in the past read Lavoiser in their unit on science at Saint John's. I'm not sure if this is still the case, but it does seem a bit silly..."

Yes, we read Lavoisier. As well as Ptolemy. This isn't "silly". Both are important. (And the "unit" on science is three years of laboratory science.)

I was a physics major before I went to SJC, and as I've said elsewhere, I have many friends who are physicists and scientists. I can tell you that actually doing the science (and math, and philosophy) that has evolved in the western world gives one a much different perspective than, certainly, getting a contemporary specialized education and, importantly, also something quite a bit different from either a "history of science" or "philosophy of science" education. Probably the most crucial sense in which this is true is that scientists, with the very narrow and specialized educations, don't learn a great many foundational things, don't realize they didn't learn them, and are deeply naive about both the process of science, its history, and its current status. On the other hand, typical history of science or phil of science people are usually from the humanities and have very limited facility with the actual tools and techniques of math and science, as well as being (in my opinion) overly influenced by analytical approaches current elsewhere in the humanities.

Of what value is whatever a johnnie understands about science (or math, or political philosophy, or music) relative to what the specialists know? I think it can have great value in certain contexts. There are a large and surprising number of johnnies that go on to grad school and become very successful scientists, and they do so without the very specialized technical education that most grad students had as undergrads.

Here's an anecdote: my best friend thought it'd be fun to take some upper-level math major calc courses here at UT a few years ago. He knew calculus even prior to going to SJC, but at SJC you learn calculus from Newton and Leibniz. Anyway, he had a considerable amount of trouble, to his suprise. It didn't surprise me. Most of what he was being taught on those classes were specific problem-solving techniques—most of what it was assumed he already had been taught were such techniques. Of course he struggled. On the other hand, had he taken an upper-level number theory class, I'm sure he would have breezed through it.

Having a strong, deep familiarity with the seminal texts in our intellectual tradition can and usually does enable some deep comprehension that one would otherwise lack. On the other hand, the price one pays is poor comprehension of a great deal that is taken for granted elsewhere.

Johnnies don't read Ptolemy in order to become astronomers, Leibniz to become mathematicians, Smith to become economists, or Aristotle to become philosophers. They read them because there is both a historical and an intellectual thread that connects these writers. ROU is essentially trumpeting modern empiricism in the context of polisci and economics. Well good. So do I. But I daresay I understand what that means better than he does.

I usually find myself caught in the middle of this debate. Because I was a math/science person both before and after SJC, I tend to argue to johnnies the limits of what they understand and comprehend and the depth and intensity of what the specialists understand that they do not. To the scientists, I argue a similar but different set of limits and capacities. These are different varieties of comprehension, and they are useful for different purposes. Make no mistake—both are useful.

Finally, for whatever it's worth (and it may not be worth much, and its relevance limited), but there is a trend among the very best thinkers in most fields to at some point or another concern themselves with foundational texts and thought. Ignore their example at your own peril.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:08 PM on August 1, 2004


typical history of science or phil of science people are usually from the humanities and have very limited facility with the actual tools and techniques of math and science, as well as being (in my opinion) overly influenced by analytical approaches current elsewhere in the humanities

As an historian of science (and a physics major), I can comfortably call this false. The vast majority of those working in both history and philosophy of science have a background in the sciences, despite what you might have heard from Alan Sokal. What historians and philosophers of science are you talking about?? I can think of NO major philosopher of science without at least a degree in a science (if not a fulll Ph.D.), and very few historians of science without at least some scientific training.

I myself went to Reed as an undergraduate (which features a similar approach to calculus), so I am willing to acknowledge the value of this approach, but I insist you might be better off at SJC working on contemporary techniques, rather than relying so extensively on scientific foundationalism. 'tacit' understanding of scientific technique over time is worthwhile, but hardly central to scientific education.
posted by amauck at 7:06 PM on August 1, 2004


"The vast majority of those working in both history and philosophy of science have a background in the sciences, despite what you might have heard from Alan Sokal."

You know, you're right. That's an impression I've had that I really have no strong basis for. I apologize.

"...but hardly central to scientific education."

I don't think it is and I don't mean to have implied that.

The SJC education in science and math, as well as everything else in the program (philosophy, literature, music, greek and french, etc.) is not, in my opinion, adequate preparation for a career in any of these subjects. Of course it isn't. Furthermore, a graduate education and professional career in any of these subjects is not necessarily well served in many or even most cases by an undergrad SJC education.

But I think for some purposes—for being a certain kind of scientist, philospher, whatever—it is.

As to being a historian of science—that's an interesting example. Surely you admit that an undergrad education tailored to producing a physicist or a chemist or whatever has large portions which are essentially superfluous for the purposes of being a historian (or philosopher) of science? Alternatively, it's hard to imagine anyone being a competent historian or philosopher of science without a strong grasp of the fundamentals and direct experience with science.

Let's look at another discipline that may be less sensitive to discuss (as you're a historian of science): science journalism. Any of us with even a remotely strong background in science can agree that most science journalism is very, very poor, can't we? Obviously, a science journalist needs a certain competency in science that they often lack. But also, a typical undergrad education in one of the sciences is not very good preparation for being a science journalist because, frankly, one can be a very competent chemist, say, and know next to nothing about everything else these days. A good education in science journalism requires something distinct from either a specific science degree, or a general j-school degree.

Let me approach this from another direction—because you're a historian of science. I can't imagine not being deeply familiar with Ptolemy, for example. The ways in which Ptolemy was wrong, what it meant for Ptolemy to be "wrong", and what Ptolemy was right about, all work together to tell me a lot about the enterprise of western science. Specifically, I often explain to people that Ptolemy mentions at the beginning of the Almagest that he recognizes that the math of a heliocentric system is simpler and more elegant. But the Earth in motion (along with the other problem of the implications of the lack of apparent parallax) were unthinkable assumptions. A contemporary view of Ptolemaic astronomy tend to be very simpleminded, dismissive of Ptolemy's epicycles (and especially the equant) because to us it so clearly looks like a kludge. Well, yeah. But what unshakable, unquestioned assumptions underlie unnecessary complications of contemporary scientific theories?

The other problem I encounter with many scientists is a very naive, triumphal positivism—all those earlier folks were pretty foolish and wrong, we've got it mostly figured out. As I am saying above, an important benefit to me of my SJC education—as someone who already had a science education—was coming to understand how truly sensible and clever most of those "stupid" theories were.

There's a certain portion of any science that greatly benefits from this understanding. And, of course, there's a larger portion where it's irrelevant.

To my mind, it's really very odd that you would regard the teaching of Lavoisier as "silly" yet defend to a political scientist the relevancy of Smith and Marx. Of course to him Smith and Marx are irrelevant.

By the way, your reference to Sokal is interesting and provocative. I think what he did was a cheap shot and unfair—but that his essential complaint has merit.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:28 PM on August 1, 2004


Well, I'll tackle the Sokal thing first, even though it is a minor point. The problem with Sokal was his choice of targets and his choice of audience. As I am sure you know, Social Text was not a journal devoted to the study of science, but was simply running a special issue on science at that time. Andrew Ross had written a bit in the 'science studies' genre, but was seen pretty much as a dabbler, and was by no means representative of broader work in the field. Moreover, the journal itself was devoted to publishing the work of graduate students and other young academics: hardly representative of core work in science studies. The fact that Sokal was able to find the weakest link in a very long chain and effectively exploit it is hardly surprising. The fact that he crowed about it and rhetorically reduced all research on the sciences to this level was disingenuous and typical of the somewhat childish attitude with which scientists tend to approach other disciplines (regardless of whether or not they study the sciences). His complaint has merit in so far as applied to some limited examples. I have not been particularly happy about the attempted appropriation of science studies for the pomo/cultural studies crowd either, and can sympathize with Sokal in this regard (even though the attempt appears to have been a failure, since both pomo and cultural studies appear to be falling out of fashion), but it is a bit like complaining about Berkley because the Unabomber once worked there.

Now for the more substantive issues. I absolutely recognize the merit of SJC for imbuing students with a sense of the ways in which earlier scientific systems were made to work in a rational manner. the 'triumphal positivism' scientists exhibit often reaches the point of being a creation myth: our slow progression out of darkness and irrationality. For socializing would-be scientists out of this, SJC should be praised.

Of course to him Smith and Marx are irrelevant.

Here, I think, we are running into my own positivistic tendencies. To me, the difference is that while Lavoisier's own perspective on chemistry was rational and elegant, it is empirically outmoded. Good to think about and practice perhaps, less relevant for the current state of chemistry. I do not think that either Marx or Smith are empirically outmoded, but this may be in part because I don't believe they are dealing with positive sciences. This may be, I freely admit, an inconsistency on my part, and in this respect illegitimate. Ostensibly supporting the study of one as a 'seed' means supporting the study of all as 'seeds,' regardless of the methodological or disciplinary framework they employ. Therefore I duly retract the "silly" claim.

Nonethelsss, scientific undergraduate education is often rather different from other undergraduate education, isn't it? For one thing, there is a much greater overlap between other majors, while scientific education can be relatively self-contained. In this respect, it does have a different status within undergraduate education than other disciplines. One can be a competent scientist without studying anything but maths and science. One probably cannot be a competent anthropologist just studying anthropology. (I don't think this is a 'good thing' by any means, but it is nonetheless the case). SJC does a service by trying to produce scientists who are not mere drones, but I would gather that a would-be biologist might be better served by going to UC San Diego, where they would likely get a paltry general education but lots of up-to-date laboratory work.
posted by amauck at 6:51 AM on August 2, 2004


Raus!ian!

MetaFilter: two guys arguing over an author neither has read.

EB: I think what he did was a cheap shot and unfair—but that his essential complaint has merit.

I don't get this. If you think his complaint has merit (which I do as well), why on earth was his tactic a cheap shot? It seems to me an efficient and deeply pleasing way of making his point. I feel kind of sorry for the well-meaning theory types who got burned, but hey, they could always go learn some actual science.
posted by languagehat at 7:01 AM on August 2, 2004


I feel kind of sorry for the well-meaning theory types who got burned, but hey, they could always go learn some actual science.

Did you read what just wrote about the Sokal affair, or are you just taking the piss? How many historians or philosophers of science do you actually know? Or are you presuming that Sokal must simply be spot on because he is a scientist and they must know what they are talking about. I happen to be a 'well meaning theory type' who does have a degree in the natural sciences. Most of the 'well meaning theory types' who I know who study the natural sciences have some training in them (Kuhn, so regularly lambasted by scientists, was working on his Ph.D. in Physics. Both Peter Galison and David Kaiser have Ph.D's in Physics). So while you might think it is 'efficient and deeply pleasing,' most of us feel that it was yet another slap in the face by scientists who can't actually be bothered to read what we write, but rather go along pretending to be intellectuals because they do laboratory sciences or know maths. Many scientists I know personally are among the most poorly read people I have ever encountered in Academia, yet feel that they can legitimately pronounce on anything they get their hands on.

And yet we're the ones accused of being at the vanguard of 'the flight from reason.'
posted by amauck at 8:29 AM on August 2, 2004


Of course to him Smith and Marx are irrelevant

s/irrelevant/less relevant/ (than Ricardo and Marshall and Lenin (though that's far weaker than my beef wrt Smith))
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:32 AM on August 2, 2004


ROU, I think you missed his point here. Irrelevant wrt Lavoisier, which is probably true. Not irrelevant wrt the social sciences.
posted by amauck at 8:45 AM on August 2, 2004


Don't mind me. Kodos and Kang hit me with the Stoopid Ray.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:53 AM on August 2, 2004


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