Disciplinary Life: A Defense

The Interdisciplinary Fantasy

by Jonathan Kramnick

The essay begins:

The desire to overcome boundaries between disciplines of knowledge and to integrate fields of study is nothing new. Specialization has always had its discontents, and programs for interdisciplinary cooperation or the creation of new disciplines out of the synthesis of old ones are a perennial feature of academic life. In recent years, however, the idea of bringing together fields of study has made a turn to an argument against the very existence of disciplines and departments in the first place. Faced with the task of reforming academic institutions and the work that goes on inside them, many advocates for interdisciplinary approaches have come to maintain that a carved-up institution gets in the way of understanding and fails to serve students. I will argue in this essay that this strong version of interdisciplinarity rests on a mistake: namely, that the separate disciplines have a common object to which they can be reduced or oriented. I will further argue that this mistake extends even to the weaker forms of interdisciplinarity with which we have been long familiar and which have independently compelling virtues. Clarifying this mistake would begin with the recognition that a pluralistic array of disciplines matches up with a pluralistic vision of the world: endocrine cells for the biologists, tectonic plates for the geologists, librettos for the musicologists, and so on. Fixing it would begin with the recognition that the best way to be interdisciplinary is to inhabit one’s discipline fully.

The present-day quarrel with disciplines has several varieties: from ostensibly scientific reductionism, to the management theory popular in some corporations, to a historicism that overlaps with both. In what follows, I’ll describe these movements one at a time, point to their overlapping premises, and provide some account of what I believe to be their origins and goals. What I have to say would apply, in principle, to the full range of study from art history to zoology. And yet no accounting for such things occurs in the abstract. There is a reason literary scholars so often feel that calls for them to be interdisciplinary are attacks on what they do. Arguments that undercut the rationale for separate disciplines of study apply unevenly to those with depleted capital. Departments of English are far more often called to explain the reason for their existence and far more often encouraged to coordinate their work with what’s going on elsewhere in the academy or the world than departments of electrical engineering. That this is so is hardly surprising, but is worth some thought.

Let me begin with some propositions.

  1. A discipline is an academic unit. It is neither a natural kind nor an arbitrary relic of the history of higher learning. Rather, any given discipline is a body of skills, methods, and norms able to sustain internal discussions and perform explanations in a way subject to its own consensus acts of judgment.
  2. The world does not have a single order that is reducible to biology or physics. Some things are known only at their own level of explanation. These things are equally real. I will call this a principle of ontological pluralism.
  3. Following from the first and second propositions, disciplines explain the part of the world to which they are directed and with respect to which they are organized. I will call this a principle of explanatory pluralism.
  4. Following from the third proposition, no one discipline should be reducible to another because such reduction would eliminate the method and norms adequate to any particular level of explanation.

These propositions add up to an apology for the disciplines and to a way of modeling relations among them. Such modeling would be interactive not reductive, even when relations go very deep. It would take as its premise that each discipline has something to contribute to matters of shared concern in virtue of its own methods and objects. For reasons that will become clear, we might consider this model to propose a horizontal relation among the disciplines. For now it is perhaps enough to say that the interdisciplinary fallacy tells us not only about intellectual history and the political economy of the university but also about the nature and organization of what we do. Continue reading …

This essay examines various arguments against the existence of disciplines, from scientific reductionism to the new corporate university to historicism, and proposes in their place a defense of disciplinary life as an epistemic and ethical ideal.

JONATHAN KRAMNICK is Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale University. His new book, Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness, will be published this year by the University of Chicago Press .

Circular Thinking

How to Think a Figure; or, Hegel’s Circles

by Andrew Cole 

The essay begins:

No philosopher better epitomizes circular reasoning, nor more fittingly embodies the logical fallacy of circulus in probando, than G. W. F. Hegel, because he loves talking about circles and his points often go in circles. This essay isn’t about Hegel’s endearing oral delivery, about which plenty has been said since the man himself was alive. Rather, this is an attempt to think philosophically about circles and rethink so-called Hegelian circularity.

Why we would even bother thinking about circles is on account of their “eternal” symbolism within philosophy and theory—the fact that the circle always stands for something, ever the symbol of this or that thing you don’t really like. Invariably, that something is Hegel, on the grounds that he typifies the circularity of thought. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach writes: “The circle is the symbol and the coat of arms of speculative philosophy, of the thought that rests on itself. Hegel’s philosophy, too, as is well known, is a circle of circles.” This is indeed one of those long-standing clichés about Hegel. So it’s no surprise that Louis Althusser—whose anti-Hegelianism can be forgiven in the knowledge that he’s really not a deep reader of Hegel—draws a circle around himself in order to step out of it, striding from ideology to science:

The whole history of the “theory of knowledge” in Western philosophy from the famous “Cartesian circle” to the circle of the Hegelian or Husserlian teleology of Reason, shows us that this “problem of knowledge” is a closed space, i.e., a vicious circle (the vicious circle of the mirror relation of ideological recognition). 

That’s a lot of circles, a lot of symbols. What do they mean? What do they really “show”?

These symbolic circles mean too much and not enough: call something a circle and the point about it is somehow immediately clear, but wait, how is something that’s not actually a circle like a circle or identical to a circle? Such symbolic circles mean what you want them to mean, which is exactly why all symbols are hopelessly bound up with the proverbial problem of meaning—tokens of the human need to line things up, to know where things go, ever since we first took soil for filth and polluted it accordingly. All the more reason, then, to think dialectically about our problem in an essay that both defends and extends Hegel’s thinking on this question of circularity and figures.

Our problem is this: Hegel rates figures below concepts but he needn’t always do so. In his mind, figures are just a bunch of numbers and lines annoyingly uncommitted to either Thought or Being. He also dislikes figures because they aren’t language, or are a lesser language. Hegel has his reasons for these positions. But those reasons may not be good enough, judging by the way he seems to equivocate about figures. Sometimes figures are so perfect as to figurate the very significance of his philosophy (and that’s no small feat!). And sometimes they are pretenders to proper conceptuality, conceptual thinking by other means. Hegel is all over the place on this question, as we’ll soon see. But if one applies even a modicum of mathematical wit to the figures Hegel does offer us—and most of them are circles, with triangles as a close runner-up—then we discover some rather interesting spaces in which dialectics might wander.

Here I propose that figuration (in my renewed Hegelian sense) is what Walter Benjamin tried to describe a century later as “dialectical images”—only Hegel’s figures are already in motion, are already an action, and already an “image of thought” that’s not static but dynamic. Figures are figures of thought because they move, just as thinking and the dialectic itself must move, according to Hegel. Figures both initiate and image the movement of thought. Figures are for thinking, whereas symbols are for reading and interpretation. Figures are dialectical. As such, they supply a way of practicing Hegel’s abiding ambition, as laid out in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, “to bring fixed thoughts into a fluid state [festen Gedanken in Flüssigkeit zubringen],” so that we can apprehend “dialectical form [dialektische Form],” which is the representation of philosophical, critical thinking: in other words, Darstellung. Just what this thought process involves, the circle may help us grasp … and think. Continue reading …

In this essay Andrew Cole suggests that Hegel’s philosophy of the concept is also a philosophy of the figure, a demonstration of conceptuality by other means. Neither images nor symbols, Hegel’s figures—primarily, circles—initiate and image the movement of thought.

ANDREW COLE is Director of the Gauss Seminars in Criticism and Professor of English at Princeton University. Forthcoming works include Foundations of the Dialectic and Unmodernism.

Aesthetic Feelings

Reading for Mood

by Jonathan Flatley

The essay begins:

We all know that we have feelings when we encounter works of art. We laugh, we cry. We feel pity and fear. We like and we dislike. We shudder and shiver and tingle. We are amused, delighted, thrilled, teary, bored, relaxed, turned on, horrified, enraged, surprised, depressed, embarrassed, shocked, and fascinated. We know that these “aesthetic” feelings constitute one of the primary values of art as such, and that the problem of how to analyze and evaluate these feelings is one of the basic problems of aesthetic theory, at least since Plato worried about the way poets affected their audiences in The Republic. Many of our fundamental aesthetic categories—tragedy and comedy, the beautiful and the sublime—have become fundamental because they offer ways to think about how art affects its audiences.

Yet it is not always clear how to translate the insights from this theoretical tradition into the reading of specific works of art or literature. It can be hard to shake the sense that the discussion of “how art makes us feel” is necessarily subjective or anecdotal. Doesn’t the affective response produced by a given text depend on the reader and the reader’s particular situation? Don’t observations about aesthetic experience say more about the reader or viewer than the work? This, of course, is the concern voiced in W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s essay on the “Affective Fallacy,” where they warn that evaluating a poem in terms of the feelings it produces “is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does).” Such a project, they write, “begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism.” As a result, “the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.” Even if critics are no longer as compelled as they once were by the New Critical devotion to the poem as an autonomous “verbal icon,” doubts remain about how critics can or should account for the particular affective or emotional impact of a given text on the readers who encounter it. The suspicion of “impressionism and relativism” lingers. At best, mustn’t such a claim be a specific  sociological account of a particular audience and a particular situated encounter? Don’t we risk universalizing our own subjective responses when we try to talk about the aesthetic experience of a particular work? Continue reading …

Beginning with a consideration of the distinct places of affect in aesthetic theory and in critical reading practices, this essay makes a case for mood as a critical concept that helps us to read for the historicity and potentially political effects of aesthetic practices.

Walter Benn Michaels has responded to the essay in his January 1, 2018, post at nonsite.org: Grimstad on Experience, Flatley on Affect.

JONATHAN FLATLEY is Professor in the English Department at Wayne State University, where he was the editor of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts from 2007 to 2012.  He is the author of Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Harvard, 2008) and Like Andy Warhol (University of Chicago, Fall 2017).