The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   70

Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate

Unfashionable Essays

by Susan Haack

University of Chicago Press, 1998

Haack Philosophy, or Pseudodoxia Epidemica Academiæ

Susan Haack is the author of a survey of non-standard logics and any number of technical works in epistemology, of a more or less pragmatist-analytical tendency, i.e., she admires C. S. Peirce and loves to hate Richard Rorty. She has been driven to go public as an essayist by a motive which has probably inspired many more scholars than have confessed to it, viz., impatience with other scholars' rubbish. The objects of her ire ("wrath" is too strong) are a set of loosely connected themes currently popular in certain warrens of the (American) academy, some of which have slithered pages across these pages before, as the French Disease.
Some of the revolutionaries described themselves as neo-pragmatists; unsettling, to put it mildly, given how fruitful I had found the old pragmatists' reflections about the goal and conduct of inquiry. Some of these self-styled neo-pragmatists urged the ubiquity of metaphor and linguistic innovation as grounds for giving up evidence and argument and remaking philosophy as a genre of literature; unsettling, to put it mildly, given how useful I had found metaphors and neologisms myself. Other revolutionaries described themselves as feminists or multiculturalists; unsettling, to put it mildly, to hear that thinking about evidence and inquiry as I did revealed complicity with sexism or racism. Others maintained that admiration for the achievements of the natural sciences is foolish naïveté at best, reactionary conformism with the industrial-military [sic] complex at worst; unsettling, to put it mildly, to think that my understanding of the method of science might be so dangerously mistaken. [p. ix]
This gives us a fair survey of the targets Haack has in her sights in these essays; also of her prose. She hits, and the targets deserve it, but I can't help but think of the motto of Suck: "A fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun." Take, for instance, the idea of feminist epistemology. In a sane world, this would have been aborted nearly twenty years ago by Janet Radcliffe Richards's observation that "some men are quite as capable of logical thinking and scientific investigation as women." As it stands, feminists of sense like Haack are reduced to patiently explaining that there really isn't any tie between feminism and epistemology, pointing out that the "passes for" fallacy (e.g., "The Nazi cosmic ice theory has passed for a reliable scientific finding but is bunk, therefore reliable scientific findings are all bunk" --- not one of Haack's examples) is a fallacy, and insisting that making up congenial facts and findings isn't even politically expedient. It's depressing to think that there's anyone at all, sharper than a sack of wet mice, who needs to be taught such things; unfortunately, having read many of the authors Haack is chastising, I can testify that, in the words of the poet, she's not making this up.

It's fish in a barrel time again when we turn to Haack's " `We Pragmatists...': Peirce and Rorty in Conversation." This dialogue between the two men, assembled out of quotations from their works, is both very funny and quite explodes Rorty. (The next essay, explaining all the jokes, does spoil the effect somewhat.) Still, Rorty is one of those philosophers whose writings might as well wear a clown suit and a HIT ME sign; making a person who says conversation makes up the the world look ridiculous is almost superfluous. (I'm fond of the theory that there are really two writers named Richard Rorty, one a fine leftist political essayist, the other a rather absurd philosopher, and that they claim credit for each other's works as an extended and mutual practical joke.) One might almost as well occupy one's time slaying conspiracy theorists, creationists or Objectivists as feminist epistemologists and vulgar pragmatists. (There are almost certainly more of the former, but they're also less likely to be swayed by anything Haack might write.)

On more substantial topics, though nothing that Haack says is wrong, those she rebukes being richly deserving, she just puts the superficial-if-not-stupid in their place. This is regrettable, since (on the basis of my own anecdotal experience) many young (and even not so young) scholars in the humanities are tempted to buy into bad doctrines because they look like the only ones dealing with serious and interesting topics. To end this temptation, they need to see not only that those doctrines are whacked out of their skulls, but that there are sensible and substantial alternatives. Haack doesn't provide any of her own, and, worse, doesn't connect with or even point out the really sophisticated and attention-worthy scholarship on these issues. On metaphor, for instance, and its cognitive role (if any), she nicely shows that metaphors are neither so vicious nor so all-embracing as some have claimed, but her starting points are Aristotle and Cicero. They are fonts of good sense, but there's lots of recent, extremely interesting work, theoretical and experimental, by linguists and cognitive scientists which not only sheds light on these issues but itself could use philosophical clarification; none of this is within her field of vision. Similarly, two of the essays examine the sense in which science is "social," i.e., how the social organization of scientists helps (or hinders) the advancement of learning. Again, everything Haack says is sensible, but is, or ought to be, commonplace. The detailed work done by sociologists, historians, and even philosophers, over the last several decades, greatly advancing the our knowledge of this very important issue, appears only by the citation of a single (very good) book.

Perhaps I could sum this up by saying that I wish she'd written something more engaged (however combatively) with people and ideas worth the bother, and less like Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica, debunking vulgar errors. Vulgar errors need debunking, of course, and Manifesto may succeed in providing some prophylaxis, which is an eminently worthy goal. It is unlikely to cure many advanced cases, however, particularly the strains which Haack is most concerned to combat. All of them protect themselves by, so to speak, hijacking their hosts' intellectual immune systems, denying the legitimacy of the kind of arguments Haack employs. (They could, perhaps, make the same charge about people like Haack and myself.) These are people who have adopted epistemologies which, if taken seriously, would make cooking or changing a light bulb, maybe even getting dressed in the morning, impossible. This indicates a degree of assumed blindness that it is very hard to argue somebody out of... In such cases, as Mencken said, one horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. Alas: Haack is short on horse-laughs. She has excellent taste in curmudgeons --- David Stove, Stanislav Andreski --- but isn't, I am sorry to say, a very good one herself. Perhaps it is just a matter of practice; it took them decades to sharpen their tongues into the scalpels deployed in The Plato Cult and Social Sciences as Sorcery. It would be cruel to compare someone who was until recently a mild-mannered epistemologist with these toughs, or her Unfashionable Essays with Russell's Unpopular Essays; probably in a few years it won't be so unfair.

None of these criticisms really apply to the last two essays, on the present sorry state of philosophy, and of the academic humanities more generally. It's refreshing to see a professor (who I hope already has tenure) talk about the gross over-production of Ph.D.s, the gross over-production of learned paper, and the motives behind most hiring decisions ("fear and greed" --- in the larger-minded departments, "fear, greed and lust"). There is little here for a critic to do beyond say "Right on, sister!", and piously hope that the prescription of a useful course of therapy will swiftly follow this accurate diagnosis. (Well, that, and speculate, à la Lynch or Moretti, that the over-supply of people with doctorates is a necessary "ecological" condition for the proliferation of ever more strains of ever-gaudier nonsense, a sort of malign adaptive radiation. But another time.)

These essays were all written for separate occasions, and while they've been fixed up, there's lots of redundancy --- e.g., the notions of "sham reasoning" (where the conclusion is unshakably fixed in advance) and "fake reasoning" (where the reasoner doesn't really care about the truth of the conclusion) are explained in half the essays. Even whole phrases and jokes are repeated --- surely there was no need for her to call herself an old-fashioned prig more than thrice? (There's a self-congratulatory tone to things like that, and to labeling the essays "unfashionable," which I don't care for, though of course when it comes to self-approval Haack has nothing on her opponents.) Haack wants to relay the words of "the still small voice that whispers `bosh!' " and she does. I doubt this book will do much to open the ears of those deliberately deaf to that voice, but I recommend it to those who already heed it, as a source of aid and comfort at the very least.

Disclaimer: I asked for, and got, a review copy of this book from the publisher, but I have no stake in its success.
Erratum: p. 149, for "shceme" read "scheme".
x + 223 pp., endnotes after each chapter, no unified bibliography, extensive, analytical index of persons, titles and subjects
Debunking / Feminism / Philosophy / Philosophy of Science
Currently in print as a hardback, US$22.50, ISBN 0-226-31136-8 [buy from Powell's], LoC BD175 H28
26 January 1999