October 2014

Methodological Bashing as a Nihilistic Endeavor

Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind is one of my all-time favourites. The film, recounting (with some artistic license) the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial as a commentary on the McCarthy era, immediately struck a chord with me from the very first viewing. Having made some often unpopular and sometimes much-criticised choices in my life, owing to my moral beliefs and intellectual tendencies, means that it was very easy for the film’s take-home message on the importance of free and independent thinking to resonate with me. One line in particular has stuck with me so much that I keep going back to it when, every so often, my resolution is tested. This is the line spoken by Cates’ lawyer, Drummond (the magnificent Spencer Tracey), in response to his client’s increasing self-doubts:

“I know what Bert is going through. It's the loneliest feeling in the world. It's like walking down an empty street listening to your own footsteps. But all you have to do is to knock on any door and say: ‘if you'll let me in, I'll live the way you want me to live, and I'll think the way you want me to think.’ And all the blinds'll go up, all the doors'll open, and you'll never be lonely ever again.”

The importance of independent thinking, however, is not the only major point that Inherit the Wind sets out to make, even if it is the primary one. A much more subtle point, but no less significant in my eyes, is made in the very last scene, in the wake of the trial in which Cates – although found guilty – is sentenced to pay only a very small fine. With the liberal ‘right to think’ having won the trial, Drummond is finally having it with the smug and self-indulgent cynicism of the reporting journalist Hornbeck. “You know, Hornbeck, I'm getting damned sick of you” he says. “You never pushed a noun against a verb except to blow up something”. Hornbeck tries to deflect Drummond’s criticism, but is faced with the following question(s), which leaves him (temporary) out of his usual quick and witty retort:

“You're like a ghost pointing an empty sleeve, smirking at everything that people feel or want or struggle for. I Pity you […]. Isn't there anything? What touches you? What warms you? Every man has a dream. What do you dream about? What do you need? You don't need anything, do you? People, love, an idea just to cling to? You poor slob. You're all alone. When you go to your grave there won't be anybody to pull the grass over your head. Nobody to mourn you, nobody to give a damn.”

Free, independent thinking, in other words, is not synonymous or interchangeable with self-indulgent bashing for it’s own sake. A methodological shoot-down is not so much about seeking a better world as it is about advancing nihilism – the moral view according to which all values are baseless, that there exists nothing to believe in, and no loyalties or purposes other than the urge to destroy. The danger of ‘inheriting the wind’, that final and very insightful scene suggests, is not particular to any kind of belief system along anywhere on the ideological spectrum - religious, conservative, liberal or otherwise. This is one of the things that make this film so much more than an ideological pamphlet, and one of the reasons why it’s so great.

On Academic In-di

Interdisciplinarity (“in-di”*) is the multiculturalism of academia. That is, it is the kind of a diversity-related buzzword which has a significant rhetorical power that is in direct tension with its actual practices. In-di research, like multiculturalism, might be “celebrated” (whatever that means) in academia, but its realities are much trickier and often a lot less straightforward, comfortable or forgiving in comparison with research that is more wholly contained within the recognized borders of an existing traditional discipline.

This is the case, I think, because in-di research raises the same kind of identity issues generated by life in a multicultural reality: who am I, and where do I belong? In-di researchers are often faced with uneasy questions regarding the most basic building blocks of their work (e.g. what makes a good research question, and how are hypotheses to be tested?), intellectual community (which societies should I belong to? Which journals should I focus on? Where should I apply for funding?), employment options (which departments will understand the importance of what I do, without seeing me as an outsider?), and many others. This seems to be particularly the case in an age in which more simplistic metrics, such as disciplinary journal ranking and formal suitability to teach introductory undergraduate courses, are being increasingly used in hiring and promotion decisions.

In less general terms, my own case is a pretty good example of just that. I double-majored in political science and linguistics, specializing in political philosophy which was also the field of my DPhil. My postdoc institutions were (primarily) philosophy departments. My main work connects ethics, power and language in several different permutations which are not always easily or even properly identified as interconnected in any way (e.g. language policy and political epistemology). The upshot of this epistemic compound is that I do not fit too easily into existing institutionalized knowledge structures. Publishing in top journals in one of my disciplines is most often invisible or meaningless in the eyes of the others (ironically, my highest impact factor publication to date was in neither of my core disciplines**).

So, it means that I routinely move between intellectual communities (conferences, societies, journals) and epistemic frameworks - a wonderfully enriching and stimulating practice that is in fact much more conducive to creative and original work. But it also means that there are very few places where I feel at home, because life as what Burt called a “structural hole” means that it is harder for non in-di researchers to “get” who I am and what I do. I am sometimes perceived as not enough of a philosopher for some in philosophy, a pseudo political scientist for some in poli-sci, and a faux linguist in the eyes of some linguists My epistemic loyalties, in a sense, are often perceived as divided. This is not the kind of peer-perception that makes one’s life particularly easy in the current academic world, which is becoming increasingly reliant on formal standardized metrics that tend to disadvantage in-di research.

The problem with the kind of epistemic “Westphalian” thinking, however, is that it stifles important and groundbreaking work. Imagine a world in which it would be inconceivable to have fields such as economic history or biochemistry, simply because their intrinsic epistemic messiness is perceived as a threat to a static and institutionalized equilibrium of who’s doing what. A Westphalian approach to knowledge conflates the crucial distinction between an idea (or a thought, intuition, insight or observation) and the way(s) in which we are used to think about it. Ideas, of course, always come from somewhere, and disciplinary biographies certainly play an important role in that regard. But it does not mean, however, that they must always go (that is, be formulated and tested) in the same way. If they do, then we are no longer doing research, but rather simply playing out a script that has been written by others and upon which we have little influence. This practice may have many names, but “science” (in the sense of Wissenschaft, i.e. a systematic and dynamic inquiry) probably isn’t one of them.

* Having been “raised” in more than one academic discipline, most of my work is interdisciplinary by nature. However, having to use that word repeatedly in talks can be a true verbal torture. So, the solution that I found several years ago is to abbreviate “in-ter-di-scip-li-na-ri-ty” to “in-di”, which is much kinder on one’s productive flow of speech during oral presentations. It also makes a nice homophone with “indie” (e.g. in art, music, design) while sharing its spirit of independence and creativity, which is practically a prerequisite in good in-di research.

** IF 31.477, to be precise. The irony still makes me smile sometimes.

Special Issue Finally in Print

After almost two years in the making, our special issue of Language Policy, co-edited with Tom Ricento and Peter Ives, on language policy and political theory is finally out and in print (vol. 13:4). Contributors include Daniel Weinstock (“The Complex Foundations of Language Policy”), Stephen May (“Contesting Public Monolingualism and Diglossia: Rethinking Political Theory and Language Policy for a Multilingual World”), Ronald Schmidt Sr. (“Democratic Theory and the Challenge of Linguistic Diversity”), Tom Ricento (“Thinking about Language: What Political Theorists Need to Know about Language”), Peter Ives (“De-politicizing Language: Obstacles to Political Theory’s Engagement with Language Policy”) and myself (“Normative Language Policy: Interface and Interfences”). Also included are an introduction to the thematic issue and a book review of Van Parijs’ 2011 Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World. Overall, it is a very nice feeling seeing this project finally coming to fruition, and hoping that it will indeed achieve the intended impact on the field.

At the same time, however, it is still frustrating that despite recent progress made in the emerging area of normative language policy, and language ethics more generally (that is, ethical questions beyond the relatively narrow notion of linguistic justice), there still seems to be relatively little work in what is a topic of pivotal importance to most, if not all, contemporary political debates, such as nationalism, multiculturalism, immigration, democracy and difference etc. It has been over 10 years now since Kymlicka and Patten’s Language Rights and Political Theory, and 3 years since Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World. Encouragingly, many important, insightful and interesting contributions (workshops, articles, special issues, monographs) are now underway by an increasing number of researchers in widening circles, working to link normative political theory and language in a number of ways (e.g. normative language policy, intellectual history of language, cross-linguistic political epistemology). Let us hope that the picture will be sufficiently different when we next take stock 10 years from now.

Il va neiger and the Limits of Language

Since I work in political philosophy and linguistics, I get to think routinely and intensively about language - how it works (semantics, pragmatics, syntax, semiotics), how we make it work (policy, politics, ideology), and also, in a sense, how it ends up ‘working us’ in return (epistemology, ontology, ethics). This is the most fascinating field of research that I can think of, even if it can - and indeed does - generate instances of severe cognitive overload every so often.

In recent years, however, I have become more and more interested in the question of the limits of language; that is, those places, times and occurrences in which language breaks down, functions in a imperfect way, or is almost entirely absent. Extreme emotional states are a useful example of such breaking points – those very happy or very sad situations in which we feel that we have ‘no words’ to describe how we feel. It is usually then that we become much more aware of how fundamentally reliant we are on linguistic interactions in making sense of our world and our selves. Taking a closer look at those places in which language is not so obvious or even useable reveals many interesting insights about the linguistic/nonlinguistic interface that is so elemental to the human condition.

Francis Jammes’ il va neiger (‘It Is Going to Snow’) is one of the most incisive and thoughtful poems to trace, with great gentleness and care, that very delicate threshold between the linguistic and the nonlinguistic, and its connection with human relationality. Its tone of introspective sadness always resonates something very deep within me, so deep and primal that I’m not even sure what to call it. But, then again, that is precisely the point.

Il va neiger... (1893)

À Léopold Bauby

Il va neiger dans quelques jours. Je me souviens
de l’an dernier. Je me souviens de mes tristesses
au coin du feu. Si l’on m’avait demandé: qu’est-ce?
j’aurais dit: laissez-moi tranquille. Ce n’est rien.

J’ai bien réfléchi, l’année avant, dans ma chambre,
pendant que la neige lourde tombait dehors.
J’ai réfléchi pour rien. À présent comme alors
je fume une pipe en bois avec un bout d’ambre.

Ma vieille commode en chêne sent toujours bon.
Mais moi j’étais bête parce que tant de choses
ne pouvaient pas changer et que c’est une pose
de vouloir chasser les choses que nous savons.

Pourquoi donc pensons-nous et parlons-nous?
c’est drôle; nos larmes et nos baisers, eux, ne parlent pas,
et cependant nous les comprenons, et les pas
d’un ami sont plus doux que de douces paroles.

On a baptisé les étoiles sans penser
qu’elles n’avaient pas besoin de nom, et les nombres,
qui prouvent que les belles comètes dans l’ombre
passeront, ne les forceront pas à passer.

Et maintenant même, où sont mes vieilles tristesses
de l’an dernier? À peine si je m’en souviens.
Je dirais : Laissez-moi tranquille, ce n’est rien,
si dans ma chambre on venait me demander: qu’est-ce?

It Is Going to Snow... (1893)

(trans. hincentinde)

It shall snow in a few days. I remember
The previous year. I remember my sorrows
Beside the fire. If someone had asked me ”What is it?”
I’d have said, “Let me be. It’s nothing.”

I thought at length, last year, in my room,
While the heavy snow fell outside.
I thought for naught. Now, as then,
I smoke a wooden pipe with an amber mouthpiece.

My old oak chest-of-drawers still smells good.
But I myself was foolish, because so many things
Could not change, and it’s folly
To want to drive away the things we know.

Why then do we think and speak? It’s curious;
Our tears and our kisses, they don’t speak,
And yet we understand them, and the footsteps
Of a friend are sweeter than sweet words.

We’ve christened the stars without considering
That they had no need of a name, and the numbers,
Which prove that the beautiful comets will pass
On into the shadow, will not make them  pass on.

And even now, where are my old sorrows
Of last year? I scarcely remember them.
I’d say, “Let me be. It’s nothing,”
if someone came into my room to ask me, “What is it?”

Throw Momma under the Trolley?

The fact that philosophy is a men-dominated field often comes as a surprise during some conversations I sometimes have with non-philosophers and non-academics in general. While many are aware that women are underrepresented in the STEM subjects, it seems somehow to be presupposed that the social sciences and the humanities have reached at the very least a representative ratio as far as gender is considered. This is, however, very far from being the case, particularly in philosophy (which is sometimes referred to as “the academic equivalent of boxing”), as well as history and economics. To learn a bit more about women’s experiences in academic philosophy, have a look at this dedicated and very insightful blog.

The problem of gender underrepresentation in academic philosophy, however, is not reducible to issues of sexism in pedagogy and the workplace (which are of course very serious in themselves). It also seems to have a more direct and serious impact on the discipline itself and the work that it produces. In a relatively recent paper on gender and philosophical intuitions (which, among other things, raises important questions concerning philosophical pedagogy), Buckwalter and Stitch cite a 2009 paper in Philosophical Issues by Zamzow and Nichols reporting gender differences in response to the trolley problem. In Zamzow and Nichols‘ research, participants were asked the following question:

“You are taking your daily walk near the train tracks and you notice that the train that is approaching is out of control. You see what has happened: the driver of the train saw five people working on the tracks and slammed on the brakes, but the brakes failed and the driver fainted. The train is now rushing toward the five people. It is moving so fast that they will not be able to get off the track in time. You happen to be standing next to a switch, and you realize that the only way to save the five people on the tracks is to throw the switch, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby preventing it from killing the five people. However, there is a stranger [or, in the other vignette: a 12-year-old boy] standing on the side track with his back turned, and if you proceed to throw the switch, the five people will be saved, but the person [boy] on the sidetrack will be killed”.

Gender, Zamzow and Nichols found out, matters for moral intuitions in two ways: first, men and women responded differently to the question “is it morally acceptable for me to pull the switch”. Men judged the killing of a stranger as less morally acceptable that women did, but the picture was reversed when the person on the side track was a 12 year old boy. Second, men and women responded differently when the person on the side track was described as a (gendered) sibling: more men than women deemed the killing of one’s brother as morally acceptable, while more women than men deemed the killing of one’s sister as morally acceptable. Interestingly, however, there was no significant difference between men and women respondents when asked what they would do when presented with such a dilemma. The authors also cite further work in experimental philosophy suggesting that men are more likely than women to make utilitarian judgements, and that women tend to make more egalitarian moral judgements.

It is obviously risky to make any kind of hard and binding generalizations based on what still seems to be an overall limited number of studies. But the suggestion that gender has some kind of an effect on moral intuitions seems to necessitate at least some kind of a methodological humility, in the same way that mistaking Anglo English for the linguistic human norm (as Anna Wierzbicka notes in Understanding Cultures through Their Keywords) is a seriously methodologically-flawed conclusion. Throwing momma under the trolley, or making momma the decisionmaker on whom to throw under it, makes a non-insubstantial difference to what we eventually come to recognise - and promote - as a universal human intuition. The more mommas (and grandmothers, sisters, daughters and nieces) we include in the discussion, the better chance we have of eventually reaching at some point anything nearing that degree of universality.