Sunday, March 16, 2014

Do People Still Think That Way?

Reading John Wilwol's review of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philisophy Won't Go Away by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, I was less interested in what she had to say about Plato and more struck by one of her introductory sentences:
I was trained as a philosopher never to put philosophers and their ideas into historical context, since historical context has nothing to do with the validity of the philosopher's positions.
I see from Goldstein's Wikipedia page that her academic background includes the City College of New York, UCLA, and Barnard College; and I have to say that, in the context (word deliberately chosen) of such academic diversity, I was a little surprised to encounter such a strong doctrinal position so entrenched. I am no stranger to it, since I have encountered it in my studies of literature and even music. Arguments between those extremists who believe that "context is everything" and those who hold that "all context is harmful distraction" continue to rage, although they are probably less entertaining than they used to be.

Still, it is probably disconcerting to think that one can devote one's entire academic career to the study of philosophy without considering, even if only in passing, the key ideas behind Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. For that matter, it would seem to me that anyone who cannot tell the difference between the validity of a position and the consistency of argumentative reasoning has never bothered to pay very much attention to Bertrand Russell. My guess is that Goldstein simply decided that coming up with the sort of sentence that would grab the reader's attention is more important whether or not that sentence actually makes any useful sense. In writing that sentence, she has thus reinforced that general dismay I seem to always take over how MacArthur Fellowships get awarded!

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