Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gone, and Being Forgotten

The trend of teaching masters of Western thought, like Freud, Hegel, and Marx, outside their home disciplines represents a flight from history, writes Russell Jacoby.
The Chronicle Review] <>  
From the issue dated  July 25, 2008 
Why are some of the greatest thinkers being expelled from their disciplines?


How is it that Freud is not taught in psychology departments, Marx is not
taught in economics, and Hegel is hardly taught in philosophy? Instead these
masters of Western thought are taught in fields far from their own. Nowadays
Freud is found in literature departments, Marx in film studies, and Hegel in
German. But have they migrated, or have they been expelled? Perhaps the home
fields of Freud, Marx, and Hegel have turned arid. Perhaps those disciplines
have come to prize a scientistic ethos that drives away unruly thinkers. Or
maybe they simply progress by sloughing off the past.

A completely unscientific survey of three randomly chosen universities
confirms the exodus. A search through the philosophy-course descriptions at
the University of Kansas yields a single 19th-century-survey lecture that
mentions Hegel. Marx receives a passing citation in an economics class on
income inequality. Freud scores zero in psychology. At the University of
Arizona, Hegel again pops up in a survey course on 19th-century philosophy;
Marx is shut out of economics; and, as usual, Freud has disappeared. And at
the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Hegel does not appear in philosophy
courses, Marx does not turn up in economics, and Freud is bypassed in

The divorce between informed opinion and academic wisdom could not be more
pointed. If educated individuals were asked to name leading historical
thinkers in psychology, philosophy, and economics, surely Freud, Hegel, and
Marx would figure high on the list. Yet they have vanished from their home
disciplines. How can this be?

A single proposition can hardly explain the fate of several thinkers across
several fields. However, general trends can inform separate disciplines. For
starters, the ruthlessly anti- or nonhistorical orientation that informs
contemporary academe encourages shelving past geniuses. This mind-set
evidently affects psychology. The American Psychological Association's own
task force on "learning goals" for undergraduate majors makes a nod toward
teaching the history of psychology, but it relegates the subject to an
optional subfield, equivalent to "group dynamics." "We are not advocating
that separate courses in the history of psychology or group dynamics must be
included in the undergraduate curriculum," the savants counsel, "but leave
it to the ingenuity of departments to determine contexts in which students
can learn those relevant skills and perspectives." The ingenious departments
apparently have dumped Freud as antiquated. A study by the American
Psychoanalytic Association of "teaching about psychoanalytic ideas in the
undergraduate curricula of 150 highly ranked colleges and universities"
concludes that Freudian ideas thrive outside of psychology departments.

The same antihistorical imperatives operate effectively, if with less force,
in economics and philosophy. Again, generalizations can be made only with
qualifications, but economics departments, like psychology departments, tend
to be fiercely present-minded. Their basic fare consists of principles of
economics, macroeconomics, microeconomics, finance, game theory, and
statistics. To be sure, often the departments offer lecture classes on the
history of economic thought, which survey economic thinking from the Greeks
to the present. But in this sprint through the past, Marx shows up as little
more than a blur. At the University of California at Los Angeles, for
instance, students devote less than a week to Marx in a course on the
history of economic theories. One scholar of Marx estimates that in more
than 2,000 economics departments in the United States, only four offer even
one class on the German revolutionary. In 1936, Wassily Leontief, who later
won a Nobel in economic science, gave a seminar on Marx in Harvard's
economics department. No such seminar is given now.

Compared with economics, philosophy prizes the study of its past and
generally offers courses on Greek, medieval, and modern thinkers.
Frequently, however, those classes close with Kant, in the 18th century, and
do not pick up again until the 20th century. The troubling 19th century,
featuring Hegel (and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), is omitted or glossed over.
General catalogs sometimes list a Hegel course in philosophy, but it is
rarely offered. Very few philosophy departments at major universities teach
Hegel or Hegelian thought.

Philosophy stands at the opposite pole from psychology in at least one
respect. In most colleges and universities, it is one of the smaller majors,
while psychology is one of the largest. Yet, much like psychology,
philosophy has proved unwelcoming for thinkers paddling against the
mainstream. Not only did sharp critics like Richard Rorty, frustrated by its
narrowness, quit philosophy for comparative literature, but a whole series
of professors have departed for other fields, leaving philosophy itself
intellectually parched.

That is the argument of John McCumber, a scholar of Hegel and Heidegger who
himself decamped from philosophy to German. His book *Time in the Ditch:
American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era* (Northwestern University Press,
2001) savages the contemporary American philosophical profession and its
flight from history. He notes, for instance, that 10 years after the 1987
"breakthrough anthology" *Feminism as Critique,* not one of its
contributors, from Seyla Benhabib to Iris Marion Young, still taught in a
philosophy department. The pressures that force — or tempt — big names such
as Rorty and Martha Nussbaum to quit philosophy, McCumber observes, exert
equal force on those outside the public eye. He charges, for instance, that
senior editors dispense with peer review and run the major philosophy
journals like private fiefdoms, and that a few established professors select
papers for the discipline's annual conferences. The authoritarianism and
cronyism drive out mavericks.

Psychology without Freud, economics without Marx, philosophy without Hegel:
For disciplinary cheerleaders, this confirms intellectual progress. The
cloudy old thinkers have made way for new scientific researchers. But at
what cost? The past innovators shared a fealty to history. "We are what we
are through history," stated Hegel; and Freud, for all his biological
determinism, believed that one must master the past to master the present.
Yet today we lack the patience to dig too far, or perhaps we lack the
patience to unravel the implications of discoveries into the past. We want
to find the exact pill or the exact gene that provides an instant solution.
Psychology transmutes into biology. To the degree that a chemical imbalance
results in depression, or a gene gives rise to obesity, the effort to
restore health by drugs or surgery cannot be faulted. Yet an individual's
own history may play a decisive role in those disharmonies. We triumphantly
treat the effect as the cause. As a practical measure, that approach can be
justified, but it avoids a deeper search.

The flight from history marks economics and philosophy as well. Economics
looks more and more like mathematics, in which the past vanishes. Sometimes
it even looks like biopsychology. A recent issue of the *American Economic
Review* includes numerous papers under the rubrics of "Neuroscientific
Foundations of Economic Decision-Making" and "Cognitive Neuroscientific
Foundations of Economic Behavior." But can we really figure out today's
economic problems without considering whence they came? Philosophy nods
toward its past, but its devotion to language analysis and logic-chopping
pushes aside as murky its great 19th-century thinkers. Polishing
philosophical eyeglasses proves futile if they are rarely used to see.

No doubt there has been progress in those fields, but is it possible to
advance without any idea of where one has been? Without a guide to the past,
the scholar, like the traveler, might move in circles. Moreover, should the
giants of the past be dispatched so coolly and mechanically? Culture is not
like an automobile that should be junked when old and decrepit. I don't see
how we can be educated — or consider ourselves educators — if we consign to
the dustbin, say, Freud's exchange with Einstein on war, Marx's description
of "the cheap price of commodities" that batters down national boundaries,
or Hegel's notion of the master/slave relationship. Those ideas should be
addressed, not parried; taught, not dismissed.

To be sure, other fields adopt the thinkers that psychology, philosophy, and
economics have sent packing. Yet that itself is a problem. Instead of
confronting recalcitrant thinkers on their own terms, the new disciplines
slice them up. Freud turns into an interpreter of texts, Hegel into a
philosopher of art, and Marx into a cinema theorist. That saves them from
oblivion, but at the price of domestication. Freud no longer excavates
civilization and its discontents but merely unpacks words. Hegel no longer
tracks the dialectic of freedom but consoles with the beautiful. Marx no
longer outlines the movements of capital but only deconstructs the mass

Driven out of their original domains because they are too ungainly or too
out of date, Hegel, Marx, and Freud succumb to an academic makeover. In the
mall of education, they gain an afterlife as boutique thinkers.

Russell Jacoby is a professor in residence in the history department at the
University of California at Los Angeles. He is author, most recently,
of*Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, Columbia University Press, 2005).

No comments: