MAPH Week 11: One-third done!

The last week of every quarter in University of Chicago’s system is–not surprisingly–exam week.  For most MAPH students in their first quarter this means one or two exams or one or two seminar papers.  For me it was two seminar papers, one on the fundamental paradox in Hilary Putnam’s semantic internalism and another on Hume’s Standard of Taste as a “Reign” of Taste rather than a “Rule.”  I won’t bore all of you with either, but suffice it to say that I am very satisfied with both–at least until I get my grade report in a few days or weeks.

The eleventh week is also a time for reflection on the MAPH program as a whole and my time in it.  This last week Bill and I discussed and contrasted our experiences of the Foundations of Interpretive Theory (Core) course and I think it safe to say that both of us were very pleased with the result–I hope that all of you were too.  However, in this post it’s just me and you and one-quarter at the U of C.  I doubt that I’ll say anything terribly new–or at least anything that you wouldn’t expect me to say based on the posts that have come before.  But, I would like this to be a resource for those who would like to have a summary of the program up to this point so I’m going to revisit some of my older posts and make some comments, revisions, and perhaps rebuttals to the things I wrote in the earlier weeks of this program.

Maph Colloquium:

During the colloquium–the first two weeks before class actually begins for everyone else–I wrote a series called “You Oughta Know” calling out the skills that I thought would be helpful for aspiring academics to master–or at least attempt–during undergrad.  I wrote that,

“Generous readings show a certain amount of respect for their creator as a member of his or her guild, the work as a contribution to its discipline, and the knowledge and wisdom of the past.  They can be grueling to construct because they demand a thorough understanding of the text, its contributions, and the conversation to which it belongs.  However, only a generous reading actually attempts to understand what a creator was trying to communicate.”

One argument that was–perhaps justifiably–made against generous readings as I defined them was that such a reading was pragmatically unnecessary or as the one of my friends put it that such a post required his attempt to “problematize both the persistent relevance of the question of generosity across many pragmatically oriented hermeneutics.”  However, after a quarter at U of C churning out analytic expositions under the extreme scrutiny of preceptor, writing adviser, and all of you, I am as committed as ever to the idea that understanding a text–really grasping what it means–demands something more than pillaging it for what one can use it for.  In fact U of C’s analytic expositions would be impossible to write with anything less than a generous posture.  That is, pragmatic hermeneutics–focused on how one might exploit a text in the service of one’s program–are doomed to remain as distortions of the text rather than readings.  Now, I’ve got a ton to say about authors, intentions and interpretations but those arguments will come out in time.  At this point, suffice it to say that while analytic expositions’ explicit goal of providing the “plain meaning” of texts remains an impossibility in my opinion, I would argue that the more transparent a reading is to its original text and the harder it works to place the text within its context, render a plausible intentional scheme, and provide a historical conversation into which that text speaks the more likely that reading is reading–rather than a misreading.

While this first series’ musings came when I was still in the very earliest stages of interacting with grad school expectations at U of C, I would stand behind them still today.

MAPH Week 1-3:

October began classes proper and the inauguration of the weekly round-ups: “MAPH Week__“, the whiny “Academic Autopsy” series, and its more constructive cousin “Anal-ytic Exposition Dump.”  These weeks were all about the adjustment to the University of Chicago’s expectations and methodology summarized in the post  “MAPH Week 2: Gotch-U” in which I wrote:

“This could be read as a rant or a gripe session—and perhaps it is. However, it is also a warning to future MAPHers and a plea for real pedagogical reform. I’m going to return to the topic of just what exactly is expected of an analytic exposition in future days and weeks, but for the time being let it be known that the U of C seems to have nasty habit of preferring that students fumble about in the dark basements of their ivory tower before they turn on the lights.”

Now, as I suggested in this past weeks’ “Core Sample” I’m not entirely sure that the MAPH program doesn’t intend the analytic expositions to function as a particularly egregious–but perhaps necessary–form of slash-and-burn-farming in which students convinced of their own self-value are razed to the ground in order for U of C to plant her own seed in their decimated egos.  I’m not as angry about the way that analytical expositions function within the MAPH program as I was when–one month into the program–I penned the passage above.  However, it is only because I have given up on the idea that I will achieve any “evaluative success” in the form of a high GPA and have learned to make due with the success of actually learning to read and write better.

MAPH Week 4-8:

The key features of this time period orbited around the question of coercion–being pressed into a particular mold by the extreme market forces of the academic job prospectus.  That theme came out especially clearly in “Continental Drift” and “Rockstar Profs and Coerced Groupies” posts that struggled to come to grips with the fact that whatever womb-like bliss we had enjoyed in under grad, MAPHers were now having to address the possibility of making concessions in their studies to the realities of the job market.   I’ve taken a lot of heat for using the labels “analytic” and “continental” to mean anything more than the imaginary “us” and “them” of Ivies v. state schools or Ivy Pluses v. up and coming private liberal arts schools.  Yet, for all the crap I’ve taken for suggesting that there are some real differences between the approaches of strongly analytic schools (like U of C) v. my own experience of the approaches of strongly continental undergrad programs (private liberal arts), I still find that my–somewhat–tongue in cheek post: “The REAL Difference between Analytic and Continental” still gets an average of ten hits a day most weeks from Google searchers and re-posts in far-flung corners of cyberspace.  I would maintain my position in that post, that foundationally analytic and continental monikers are merely sociological descriptions for academic pedigrees with more in common than in contrast with the following caveat: analytical and continental writing styles are truly distinct and legitimate the use of the monikers–at least in that limited capacity.

The question of to what extent any young philosopher should allow themselves to be manipulated by the demands of an unfavorable job market and a disproportionately anti-continental bias in top-shelf schools remains open–as does the question of to what extent a young philosopher should allow themselves to be taken in by the mythos of Rock star profs.  However, I believe that–given time–more definite answers will make themselves known–at least by way of anecdote.

MAPH Week 9-11:

These past three weeks have been chock full of “Lexicon” posts calculated to do a bit of “undercover philosophy.”  To a certain extent these posts were designed to test the theory that by problematizing certain common language expressions, I could hook an audience into reading a post on a (rigorously?) philosophical topic that they never would have otherwise.  Now, it is always difficult to gauge how successful such strategies are, but judging by some of the comments that were OK’d for general consumption–and some others that were not–I feel like the Lexicon was a useful pedagogical tool for introducing and sustaining some remarkably complex and fiddly distinctions and theories about common language usage.  With some further polishing, I can imagine some of these topics returning in the class room at some later date–and I hope that everyone had as much time reading them as I did writing them.

Fact is, the Lexicon was one part pedagogical experiment and one part necessary self-deception: with the series going on I could craft a post every day while still managing to focus on my final papers without the need for liberal amounts of time spent in reflection and research that usually characterize normal posts to this site.

Conclusions:

This past weekend has included a trip back to my undergrad institution to stump for a job and the results suggest that cautious optimism is a real possibility–but the real take-away from the experience has been the sense that I really have grown as a philosopher and an academic as a result of these thirteen short weeks spent in the MAPH program.  Not that I have all the answers now and I can come riding in on a white charger to correct my former professors mistaken understandings, but a sense of just how much better equipped I am now to learn from these folks that I thought I’d somehow come to the end of.  I had the sense in undergrad that I was very fortunate to have these mentors available to me among the corn-fields and cow-patties, but after a quarter in U of C I feel even more indebted to the people who got me here and that continue to support my growth–not just because they’ve helped me professionally or personally, but because I still have so much to learn from them.  So, thank you, my dear professors and thank you to my dear readers–I hope that I can be worthy of you both.

Tomorrow: The promised H. G. Wells themed essay from Bill Hutchison!

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3 comments on “MAPH Week 11: One-third done!

  1. Robert Minto says:

    Not be an ass and bring an old argument back up, but I was a bit disconcerted by your summary of our earlier discussion of hermeneutics:

    One argument that was–perhaps justifiably–made against generous readings as I defined them was that such a reading was pragmatically unnecessary or as the one of my friends put it that such a post required his attempt to “problematize both the persistent relevance of the question of generosity across many pragmatically oriented hermeneutics.” However, after a quarter at U of C churning out analytic expositions under the extreme scrutiny of preceptor, writing adviser, and all of you, I am as committed as ever to the idea that understanding a text–really grasping what it means–demands something more than pillaging it for what one can use it for. In fact U of C’s analytic expositions would be impossible to write with anything less than a generous posture. That is, pragmatic hermeneutics–focused on how one might exploit a text in the service of one’s program–are doomed to remain as distortions of the text rather than readings. Now, I’ve got a ton to say about authors, intentions and interpretations but those arguments will come out in time. At this point, suffice it to say that while analytic expositions’ explicit goal of providing the “plain meaning” of texts remains an impossibility in my opinion, I would argue that the more transparent a reading is to its original text and the harder it works to place the text within its context, render a plausible intentional scheme, and provide a historical conversation into which that text speaks the more likely that reading is reading–rather than a misreading.

    I’d just like to reconstruct in briefer terms than I did before what I was actually trying to get across in my comments.

    I was critiquing your use of the word “generosity,” — somewhat similarly to the way you’ve been critiquing meaningless words.

    In your last sentence above you talk about how a proper reading renders “a plausible intentional scheme” and provides “a historical conversation into which that text speaks.” That is precisely what I meant by a pragmatic orientation. Not some simple (and simplistic) notion of “pillaging” a text for what one can “use if for”. Instead, as I tried to demonstrate in my example about Kuyper, whether one is trying to read Kuyper as an historian of political thought, as a dutiful Dutch Calvinist, or as an anarchist looking for a strong theory of governance to use as a sounding board, one’s pragmatic orientation will change insofar as one’s reconstruction of intention and of historical conversation will change. Surely you see what I mean here. There is no reading a text into a single conversation or limiting an author to a single intention, but various conversations and intentions will seem more plausible to you depending on your perspective and project. If you’re the historian of political thought, you might read Kuyper into the tradition started by Hobbes; if a dutiful Dutch Calvinist, into the tradition started by Calvin. And Kuyper may actually be a part of both conversations.

    Consequently the question of “generosity” seems to me to be completely wrong. What would a generous reading of Mein Kampf look like? A generous reading of a book of the Bible? A generous reading of an essay by Danto? A generous reading of an advertisement?

    You defined generosity as a kind of respect. A respect for the author, the text, etc. But that’s obviously so subjective as to be completely useless if it means that you’re going to try to try interpret these things as “good” by your lights. (And I presume you are, because we respect things that we think are good.) There’s much more danger of ripping things out of context from that orientation than from my “pragmatic orientations.” What one person or another is going to think is “respectable” is vastly different than what one historian of political philosophy or another is going to think Kuyper actually said. The latter is an example of a pragmatic orientation, while your “generous readings” seem to be an orientation that will vary wildly and unpredictably from person to person. I, personally, would rather be read perceptively than “generously,” rather be read consistently from my reader’s pragmatic orientation than absurdly from their individual prejudices. The pragmatic orienation asks “what does the text do in such and such a context?” — to which the answer should be identical for any reader putting it in such and such a context — while the “generous reading,” as far as I can make out, asks “what would the text mean if everything it said were respectable to me?”

    Having watched you — just on this blog, for example — conduct various readings, I know and your readers can see that you yourself engage in the better practice of pragmatic readings. And so I think you should abandon the language of “generous readings”; it’s beneath the sophistication of your actual practice.

    I just wanted to recast that argument, as it didn’t seem quite fairly represented in your summary.

  2. maphman says:

    My apologies to you, Robert, if I failed to charitably reconstruct your argument. I promise that if mistakes were made, it was due to my attempt at brevity, or my misunderstanding of your argument, rather than any attempt to set up a straw man for the purposes of easy demolition. The distinction between “generous” and “pragmatic” seems to be the bone of contention, so I’ll start there.

    In your example of Kuyper readings formulated by the political theoritician, anarchist or the dutiful Kuyperian (presumably engaged in some evangelistic presentation of Reformed thought) all three are–perhaps–endeavoring to create a “plausible intentional scheme.” However, it is also plausible that one could intend to create a plausible intentional scheme that was as close as possible to the that intentional scheme that Kuyper originally had. Now, I’m neither so foolish or so “Modern” as to suggest that one could ever recreate perfectly Kuyper’s actual thought-life, historical context, etc. but, I think you would agree that there could be a difference between:

    1) intending to read Kuyper for the purposes of extracting a political theory
    2) intending to read Kuyper for the purposes of using him as emblematic of all power structures
    3) intending to read Kuyper for the purposes of extracting those insights amenable to “selling” his thought to others

    AND

    4) intending to read Kuyper as a he might plausibly have wished himself to be read–according to the intentional scheme that he himself might plausibly have used NOT the intentional scheme that the reader might wish that Kuyper would have had for the reader’s purposes.

    So, perhaps, that distinction helps to bring our difference of opinion into clearer light.

    The “generosity” of a generous reading, then, is attempting as much as it is possible to understand the author’s intentions, the author’s purposes, and the author’s conversational partners. I would deny that “generosity” is meaningless word in the way that you have suggested because it is entirely plausible that one could read Mein Kampf as Hitler intended it to be read, from his perspective in as much as such a thing could be possible–and to read it imagining oneself to be a member of Mein Kampf’s preferred audience. This would constitute a certain kind of “respect”–a respect for the interpretive distance that exists between a modern reader and the order author and readers of any particular text.

    Now, you claim that I use–pragmatically–texts to accomplish my goals which is certainly true. I would argue, however, that in such cases I am still attempting to use the reading first created before I came to the text with certain pragmatic intentions. Now, I think there is some room for mis-reading texts, by asking “what would this text do in a situation or for a purpose for which it was not originally intended?” However, I would argue that, in those occasions, we have strayed from reading proper into the fabrication of “a reading.” Both are valuable, and both can be good, but the distinction between “reading” and “a reading” is one that must be maintained.

    I think your characterization of my “generous position” as “what would the text mean if everything it said were respectable to me?” is unduly conflating respect as approbation and respect as a posture of subservience toward the author and text.

  3. Robert Minto says:

    Just to be clear, I have no interest in asking “what would this text do in a situation or for a purpose for which it was not originally intended?” (With the caveat that it is legitimate to ask what a text has done in such contexts, but that this is reception history not reading.)

    Here’s the thing, the “intentional scheme” a given pragmatic orientation encourages one to find in Kuyper is not necessarily distinct from Kuyper’s intention. In fact, the study of Kuyperianism, and the enlargement of our understanding of what Kuyper himself meant to do, would only be aided by specialists in the various conversations his texts participate in. And this is because he himself also had the orientation of a political philosopher, of a Dutch Calvinist, of someone opposed to anarchy. It’s never as simple, with any text, as finding “the intention,” as if an author intended one thing for one audience. This is why good commentaries — say,Pocock’s multi-volume commentary on Gibbon’s great history — are vastly longer than the text they comment upon, because commentators are trying to find as many as they can of the spheres of thinking, affect, and power that the book was intended to touch. But it is simply absurd to believe that you can operate with an explicit and adequate understanding of an author’s whole intention in any short paper you are writing in grad school. You necessarily will approach a part of the author’s intention from the pragmatic orientation of your specific project.

    Don’t be mislead by the word pragmatic, which I think is part of what’s happening in your restatements of my critique. You seem to be taking it in the popular sense: someone is “pragmatic” if they are ruthlessly committed to using everything as a tool for their own purposes. That’s not at all what I mean by a “pragmatic orientation.” Espousing such an orientation does not involve eschewing all consideration of an author’s intention; it means admitting that you’re only dealing with that part of his intention which has to do with your project.

    Even your list reveals, I think, that you take the word pragmatic in the popular sense. I would alter the list in the following way:

    1) reading Kuyper to understand his political theory
    2) reading Kuyper to understand his view on and uses of power
    3) reading Kuyper to understand his calvinism

    to which 4) is in no way contradictory.

    My argument could be summed up like this: (1. everyone always has a pragmatic orientation and this in no way jeopardizes the pure scholarly value of their interpretations; (2. using a word like “generosity,” which connotes moral evaluation as an epistemological ideal, is wrongheaded because it does jeopardize the pure scholarly value of interpretations.

    I can accept it if you’re redefining generosity to mean respect for the distance between a reader and the author and the text, or being bound by the rule of the text (“subservient” to it). But that’s a stretch, and it seems a better word could be found. How about, not generous, but honest?

    Let’s be clear about what we’re doing here: you’re playing on an old dichotomy introduced by Ricoeur between “suspicious” and “generous” readings (or at least how Ricoeur’s dichotomy is generally understood). That’s how I understood you at least. And I think my criticisms (about smuggling moral evaluations into epistemological ideals) are quite appropriate to this dichotomy. But if you actually meant the alternative to “generous” no longer to be “suspicious,” but something like “dishonest” or “completely fabricated out of thin air” then we have moved into a new world altogether and generosity is looking very strange to me… In that case I no longer object to what you mean by a generous reading, but I still object to the word by which you try to mean what you mean. =)

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