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35 responses to “The Enlightenment is in danger! (from its false friends)”

  1. MH

    I don’t get Kitching’s argument at all. He seems to be saying the exact opposite of what I consider the “post-modern” (better, post-structuralist) critique of language to be. My favourite take is Michael Shapiro’s Language and Political Understanding (1981), which is a critique of Austin and logical positivism using Foucault. Kitching seems to arguing on behalf of logical positivism and yet calling it postmodernism.

  2. Mark

    Yes, it’s very confused, which is why I decided I wouldn’t bother trying to tackle whatever substance there is in Kitching’s argument, being more concerned with his cavalier attitude to the appropriation of the work of students at his university. Frow points out that what he thinks the people he thinks are postmodernists think about language is exactly contrary to what they do think. As I said, his use of Wittgenstein is also pretty odd.

    Incidentally, Derrida’s arguably done more to make Austin’s insights relevant than people like John Searle, as some analytic philosophers are beginning to recognise. The debates and the work – as opposed to the silly polemics – have moved on a lot further and a lot more constructively than you’d ever know from Kitching’s philosophy.

  3. Paulus

    I must admit I didn’t find Kitching’s piece very convincing.

    But I don’t see that there’s anything wrong ethically with using honours theses as data for a study, as long as you don’t name their writers.

    Is it ethically different from, say, taking scores in uni maths exams and analysing them, anonymously of course, for trends in maths abilities?

    And incidentally, my honours thesis is in the Uni of Adelaide library. The introduction was scanned and put on the web as a PDF, without asking my permission (not that I object). It can be read, cited, critiqued by anyone.

  4. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Is it ethically different from, say, taking scores in uni maths exams and analysing them, anonymously of course, for trends in maths abilities?

    Depends on whether Kitching mentioned the thesii by name, or quote whole passages. If he did, then he could have made the students responsible feel like a right shit, even if he remains anonymous. Having your work blasted in the broadsheets is not good professional development. (Disclosure – two honours thesis from UQ.)

    I don’t know if he did, of course. I was going to buy the Oz yesterday, but not after seeing “Paralysed by Postmodernism” blasted across the letterhead. I felt insulted. Do they think stale ten-year cliches would be enough to get this consumer buying?

  5. Paulus

    Depends on whether Kitching mentioned the thesii by name, or quote whole passages.

    He didn’t do either in yesterday’s article in the ALR.

    Don’t know what will be in his forthcoming book.

    But I do find it a little odd that a Prof would write a entire book based, apparently, to a large extent, on an analysis of 27 honours theses. Aren’t there more, um, fruitful topics of research out there?

    Fortunately, you and I won’t need to read this magnum opus. That’s Mark B’s job, and he can then give us a post on what the book says. 🙂

  6. klaus k

    This won’t be the last senior academic who is happy to score points off of those who can’t fight back. It’s one of the reasons why this semester will be my last in the tertiary sector. Selling out your own students and junior colleagues, bullying, ‘public’ humiliation, are all par for the course in certain institutions. I wonder, is it better in the sciences? It does seem to be, but maybe it’s a case of the grass being greener on the other side of campus. Perhaps I’ll retrain as a biologist.

  7. Patrick B

    But what does this say about the Oz? It is the height of culture warrior zealotry to publish, in the news section of the paper, a large article about postmodernism. I mean if postmodernism had been run over by a bus or postmodernism had been caught with large amounts of MDA at Brisbane airport then it might be news, but a report of a polemic on an obscure branch of literary theory demonstrates that the Oz’s editors have become psychotic.
    I conclude that the Oz is now contructing its audience as Liberal voting climate sceptics who are practicing christians. Must be plenty of them out there.

  8. Katz

    Nice post Mark.

    Kitching begs the question: “Is postmodernism evil?” Preferring the eclat that he expects to receive through answering the question: “Why is postmodernism evil?” Kitching thus committed an elementary and embarrassing logical error.

    Then Kitching answers his own loaded question with the answer that some students appear to have misinterpreted aspects of postmodernist thought and methodology. This says nothing about postmodernism itself. These students would possibly misinterpret concepts of orthodox Christian theology as well if they had been inappropriately selected as honours candidates and/or inadquately tutored. Kitching has therefore committed a fallacy of causation, another elementary and embarrassing logical error.

    I have no ethical objection to Kitching’s use of those theses in this particular article. His references to them are so vague that there is no proof that he didn’t make them up. Moreover, Kitching has made no effort at all to quantify his impressions. Kitching has therefore committed a fallacy of evidence selection and identification, yet another elementary and embarrassing logical error.

  9. patrickg

    Oh man, when is this “postmodernism!!! O Tempora! O mores!” Shit going to end? Is it going to take some other equally vague and widely interpreted term to topple it?

    The thing I hate about these people, all of them, is that they never seem to understand that postmodernism – Lacan, Derrida, whoever – is just a tool, nothing more nothing less. It’s like blaming a hammer for the house it built.

    And, they’re generally also a cultural and observational theories, not necessarily a moral ones (though interestingly, the postmodernist they seem to hate so much are often quite ‘moral’, see Baudrillard, Barthe, is Gramsci considered postmodernist??).

    Furthermore, they get their knickers in such a twist about this whole empirical jazz. Is it so hard to understand that these theories are simply lenses through which we can view the world in a different way?? Is anyone really arguing that the Gulf War didn’t happen or whatever? Sheesh.

  10. V. I. Lenin

    I wouldn’t mind the Oz and its journalists being so adulatory of Ayaan Hirsi Ali if they would give as much prominence to her view that governments should not fund religious schools as they give to her positions on other issues.

  11. Paul Norton

    Is the term “postmodernism” the ultimate floating signifier?

  12. Terry

    I would have to say that Gavin Kitching is not exactly a Keith Windschuttle or Mervyn Bendle. His 1983 book ‘Rethinking Socialism’ was making a lot of telling point about economic thinking on the left well before it was fashionable. His Wikipedia entry can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gavin_Kitching

    I also have some sympathy with the proposition that a half-understood version of poststructuralism has led to some pretty half-baked arguments, particularly when the terms ‘power’ or ‘ideology’ are used. The ‘power is everywhere’ variant of Foucault is particularly annoying in this regard.

    That said, Honours theses are a dubious means of constructing an argument. The Honours year has an odd status in Australian universities, sitting at one level as something of an add-on to the undergraduate curriculum (it been pointed out that no AUQA review of an Australian university has ever examined the teaching of the Honours year – I can provide a reference on this if anyone wants one), yet First-Class Honours remains the most privileged route to an APA scholarship for PhD study.

    The result is that there is sometimes considerable pressure in Australian universities to give a First-Class Honours to work that is still pretty half-cooked intellectually, on the premise that the student is demonstrating potential for PhD study, and the reality that Schools, Faculties and universities are competing for the privileged APA scholarships.

    The answer would be to treat a Masters thesis as a higher demonstration of scholarship than an Honours thesis, but there are a lot of vested interests attached to maintaining privilege for the Honours year, not lest because Honours student tend to do their PhDs in the same department/school as they did their undergraduate study, and often with the same supervisor as they had for Honours.

  13. SRK

    Wow. That’s a terrible reading of Wittgenstein and philosophy.

    1. Analytic philosophy did not cease to dominate academic philosophy around 30 years ago. It is true that more history of philosophy is being done now, but the general methodology of the discipline is still clearly “analytic”.

    2. It’s implausible that the distinction between language (the abstract object) and the use of language comes from Wittgenstein’s later work. Arguably, Wittgenstein’s later work is in large part dedicated to repudiating that distinction.

    3. Wittgenstein is not the “towering genius” of 20th century philosophy.

    4. In one sense it is true that the tradition Wittgenstein helped to found has fallen out of favour – Vienna circle logical positivism has been regarded as bankrupt for forty years. In other senses, that claim is false. The influence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is felt in contemporary model-theoretic semantics, and metaphysical theories of propositions. The influence of Wittgenstein’s Investigations is felt in current work at the semantics/pragmatics interface.

    5. To some extent it is true that philosophy departments are shrinking; however, leading departments are flourishing, and philosophers are also making important interdisciplinary contributions.

    As an aside, I also dispute Mark’s claim that Derrida has done more to make Austin’s work relevant than, say, Searle. Certainly, Derrida has not done more to make Austin’s work relevant than Austin himself – I can’t recall ever reading a text on pragmatics or semantics/pragmatics which took Derrida seriously.

  14. klaus k

    I think Mark may mean the introduction of Austin to those outside of philosophy departments, or to those working within the continental tradition. I was introduced to Austin through Derrida’s critique, but my engagement with his work hasn’t ended there. I’m aware of several others working in a broadly continental tradition who have moved to Austin after Derrida, often coming to favour Austin.

  15. The present King of France

    Am I bald or hairy?

  16. SRK

    Klaus: Right. My mistake.

  17. Mark

    Yep, that’s what I was saying.

  18. Ambigulous

    The limitations of Kitching’s “methodology” are so glaring, that it makes me wonder how the argument proceeded through editorial processes. Would it be reasonable to judge Quantum Mechanics on the basis of a 3rd year physics student’s assignment? No???!! What about her Hons thesis? No again??

    Do you mean I’d have to thoroughly understand the assumptions, methods, predictions and experimental tests of Quantum Mechanics? Oh, bugger that! Haven’t got time.

    Now if it’s really a question of sensing that a Dept has poor teaching, or doesn’t edit and assess Honours theses very rigorously: as others have said, that’s a matter to be dealt with inside the Dept, not paraded for public ridicule. University Depts are still supposed to be self-governing in academic matters and the taxpayer would expect intelligent persons to have devised methods that suit the particular discipline, to achieve fair and defendable outcomes.

    Klaus wrote: “Selling out your own students and junior colleagues, bullying, ‘public’ humiliation, are all par for the course in certain institutions. I wonder, is it better in the sciences? It does seem to be, but maybe it’s a case of the grass being greener on the other side of campus. Perhaps I’ll retrain as a biologist.”

    Klaus, I’ve observed a number of science Depts, and a poor first or second draft of an Hons thesis would generally come under heavy scrutiny I think. Partly because standards need to be maintained. Partly because everyone recognises that an Honours grade is crucial for a student applying for postgrad scholarships. In many science Depts at least one Hons examiner is external to the Dept.

    Not sure if that helps you in deciding whether to pursue biology? It’s not always the case that biology is destiny, Klaus 😉

  19. Petering Time

    Just how many sherbets do you think Janet had sunk when she typed that piece of self-indulgence she laughingly titled “Enlightened spirit of inquiry”?
    I liked another Pete’s comment on Janet’s blog:
    “pete down south Wed 06 Aug 08 (04:41am)
    Janet Albrechtsen and Enlightenment = Oxymoron”

  20. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Fortunately, you and I won’t need to read this magnum opus. That’s Mark B’s job, and he can then give us a post on what the book says.

    Cool, Paulus. Unfortutately, I have a hankering to read Frow’s riposte, if it as good as Mark says. Does it mean I have to fork out the dosh to do so? The Horror.

    I conclude that the Oz is now contructing its audience as Liberal voting climate sceptics who are practicing christians. Must be plenty of them out there.

    Perhaps, but I’m not one of them, and I don’t feel like being patronised by the Oz’s stable of flying monkeys, and most of the good stuff is available online. So I bought the AFR instead.

  21. Gummo Trotsky

    Panel member Frank Furedi also knows something about our pusillanimous surrender of Enlightenment values. Debate is closed down by claiming that words, ideas and arguments cause offence to people… His young son was told recently not to use the word retard because it had offensive connotations. His son knew that, which is why he used the term. “But words are now viewed as psychological weapons,” Furedi said.

    Pure. Comedy. Gold.

  22. Thus Sprach Materazzi (to Zizou)

    “But words are now viewed as psychological weapons,” Furedi said.

    Heh, Gummo.

  23. klaus k

    “Not sure if that helps you in deciding whether to pursue biology? It’s not always the case that biology is destiny, Klaus”

    Indeed. Although I’m less concerned with ‘standards’ – my experience of an honours year in cultural studies was that I had to work very hard – harder then I’ve worked before or since – to get a first class, and the thesis was seen by both internal and external markers. It was a process that rewarded rigour, albeit of an interdisciplinary sort.

    My real interest is in the culture of the different areas of study. The humanities and social sciences in some Australian universities, seems to have a certain inescapable ugliness in how staff behave towards each other and towards students (except sometimes for their particular pets, who are then attacked by other staff members). Hence it came as little surprise to me that Kitching would use students in this way.

  24. Paul Burns

    Hadn’t these guys at the OZ heard that old adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Of course words ate bloody weapons. Das Kapital, Mein Kampf, Wealth of Nations … the list is bloody endless. (Hope I haven’t onvoked Godwin’s Law accidentally.)

  25. Lines penned for Troy Buswell

    yep words are bloody weapons; and words can be unbloody and deftly used (very sly) weapons, just as effective – not bludgeons I mean.

    It doesn’t take Frank Furedi’s son to tell us that, via his Dad. You wonder if these people ever get out and about. Some news-hacks seem even more closeted and “ivory tower” than the most insular of the fabled “professors”.

  26. Ambigulous

    Klaus, that’s an interesting question.

    I recall a heated discussion about a current academic/management issue, decades ago. The Law lecturer suggested the staff union should sue the Director; the sociologist said, “you have to understand the social background of the Council members”; the accountant said we should examine the costs; on it went. Now you could say this was a useful cross-disciplinary discussion, each bringing her own skills and knowledge.

    I have to say (as an ousider) that disputes within Arts Depts seem to reach a level of vindictiveness, shrillness, fury, etc not seen in most other Depts. An Arts participant in some furore told me, “That’s because language and rhetoric are our stock in trade!”.

    I’m not so sure that the explanation is adequate. But I could be wrong. Was it US President Wilson who said, “Disputes in Universities are all the more bitter, because the stakes are so low.” ??

  27. klaus k

    I’m not sure who said that, but I’ve always liked it.

    The problem is, for students and those who are just starting teaching or doing research, the stakes of departmental disputes are sometimes very high – it can be about their livelihood. A couple of badly-timed attacks by irresponsible – and basically unaccountable – senior staff and it can be a huge setback in terms of future prospects or employment.

    I suppose it could be institution-specific, but I hear about far worse things than I’ve seen personally, going on elsewhere.

  28. Jobby

    Was it US President Wilson who said, “Disputes in Universities are all the more bitter, because the stakes are so low.” ??

    Often attributed to Henry Kissinger, but actually first stated by Columbia University political-science professor, Wallace S. Sayre, who coined a somewhat more elaborate version: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

    University politics are infinitely more bitter and vengeful than ‘intellectual’ disputes, except for the inevitable instances when political vendettas start becoming pursued upon the academic battleground.

  29. Ambigulous

    Thanks Jobby!

  30. j_p_z

    SRK: “3. Wittgenstein is not the “towering genius” of 20th century philosophy.”

    In a philosophical century full of bungalows, yes indeed, one would be rather hard-pressed to find any such ‘towering’ figure.

  31. klaus k

    “except for the inevitable instances when political vendettas start becoming pursued upon the academic battleground.”

    Which happens often enough. It’s amazing how many scholarly points of disagreement can be found when you don’t like somebody personally.

  32. David

    I read somewhere (a recent biography of Goedel, I think) that Wittgenstein basically ruined Bertrand Russell as a philosopher. Russell reckoned he couldn’t understand Wittgenstein, but that it all sounded profound. (The little I’ve read struck me as being incoherent rather than profound, but that might just be me.)

  33. Ambigulous

    David,

    there was a letter in “Nature” a few years ago which argued that Wittgenstein was seriously unhinged, and that his “profundities” arose from a mental illness: his inability to speak clearly (or write?) was a symptom of major illness rather than brilliance. With some of these blokes, how would you know??

  34. professor rat

    As the Right likes to attack democratic socialism by conflating it with a) Marxism and b) post-modernism may I suggest one response be for some be to caricature them as a ‘Lunar Right’ which is virtually a) Pauline Hanson style National Socialism and/or b) lunatic Libertarianism trying to bring back slavery – and both of these racist colonialist ideologies that would take us all back to the Dark Ages.

    Turn about is fair play…

    Also , though I would agree PoMo is now thankfully dead or dying, it was still alive and kicking around five years ago. I have the attacks on anarchism and anarchists on disk to prove it. Available by request.

  35. Dave Bath

    (1) I’d argue that it’s the folk at Planet Janet et al who are anti-enlightenment. After all, she and her ilk have been deriding the near-unanimous empirical observations and conclusions of the scientific community, and supportive of populist politicians who’ve been turning independent academia into businesses that sign certificates like pre-Lutheran indulgences. If that ain’t anti-enlightenment, what is?

    (2) On postmodernism
    As a skeptic of much “postmodernism”, I point to the http://xkcd.com/451/ entitled “Imposter”

    Here’s the text version (courtesy http://www.ohnorobot.com/archive.pl?comic=56&show=2&page=15)

    My Hobby: Sitting down with grad students and timing how long it takes them to figure out that I’m not actually an expert in their field.
    Engineering: / Students: Our big problem is heat dissipation / Me: Have you tried logarithms? / 48 seconds
    Linguistics: / Me: Ah, so does this Finno-ugric family include, say, Klingon? / 63 Seconds
    Sociology: / Me: Yeah, my latest work is on ranking people from best to worst. / 4 Minutes
    Literary Criticism: / Me: You see, the deconstruction is inextricable from not only the text, but also the self. / Eight papers and two books and they haven’t caught on.
    {{Alt/title text: If you think this is too hard on literary criticism, read the Wikipedia article on deconstruction.}}