[This is a guest post by Joel Katzav.--ES]
In his 1956 presidential address to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, John Herman Randall Jr. worries about the growing sectarianism he identifies in American (academic) philosophy. More explicitly, he worries about the growing tendency in 1950s American philosophy to identify being a philosopher with having a certain approach to philosophy. This identification is still very much with us today. In order to be accepted as a philosopher one must by and large work with an approach to philosophy; though there is some leeway, mostly the approach is either analytic or continental. This choice is required in order to be given access to jobs, journal publications, conferences and more. Randall traces the beginnings of this kind of sectarianism, let us call it the beginnings of the development of guild philosophies, in American philosophy to the 1940s. He writes:
Then came the Logical Positivists, introducing a new note into what was rapidly becoming a scene of fruitful cooperation. They brought to this country the narrow sectarianism of the warring German schools. They were no longer fighting philosophical "error"; they merely dismissed it as "meaningless." Like the Epicurean school, they listed only their own writings in their bibliographies: "scientific philosophy" first arose with them. Next arrived what was at first called "Cambridge analysis"; because of the curricular set-up at Cambridge, this movement was at least interested in mathematics and mathematical logic. These logicians were soon swamped, however, in numbers and influence, by "Oxford analysis." With far greater suavity than the Viennese, the Oxford dons did not brush off what failed to interest them as "meaningless." It was just not "doing philosophy," that was all. And the next step, of course, was to insist not only that an interest in science or in history is not "philosophical," though only slightly discreditable: it was to claim such interests to be actually harmful to the philosopher, destroying the purity of his method. To "do" philosophy adequately you must definitely not "do" anything else (Talking and Looking, pp. 7-8).
Randall’s worry is striking. After all, we have lived through decades without much worry about the existence of guild philosophies. Yes, there have been worries about the analytic-continental divide, but these have not been widely shared by the mainstream, that is by analytic philosophers. More importantly, worries about the analytic-continental divide have not usually been about guild philosophy as such; most often, they have been worries about the distribution of power between guilds. Randall is, moreover, correct to worry about guild philosophy and his (admittedly somewhat exaggerated) description neatly juxtaposes guild philosophy and what may be some of its worrying effects, namely philosophical fashions and philosophers with too much confidence in their approaches to philosophy.
In a philosophical guild with a philosophy, guild and guild members are not well placed to evaluate philosophical approaches. The point here is partly that guild members are educated to favour their prospective guild’s approach and thus are less likely to be competent to fairly assess its relative merits, but also that the individual and collective material interests of guild members will counter attempts at fair evaluation. Worse, changing philosophical fashions – and Randall goes on to note a further wave from England, namely the wave of usage elucidators – may well partly be a side effect of having a guild philosophy. For when one’s guild has a philosophy, changing guild philosophy will be as easy as changing guild leadership, and changing guild leadership in a small guild controlled by the chosen ones is relatively easy. To be sure, Kuhn argued that paradigm acceptance is required for progress. I do not agree; one can, as is illustrated by the post-Einsteinian development of Newtonian physics, even work with a paradigm long after it is known to be off target. In any case, the quick changes of fashion Randall draws our attention to hardly look like the long-term commitment to puzzle solving which Kuhn promoted.
Of course, the gyrations Randall describes may have been perfectly reasonable, even if they took place in a context in which guild philosophy was strong. And even if Kuhn was wrong about the merits of paradigm acceptance, or his considerations in favour of paradigm acceptance do not apply to twentieth-century philosophy, having a guild philosophy is likely to have been useful for philosophy guilds. Randall recognises that the increasing sectarianism in America changed who was being discussed and cited; at most, one needed only to discuss the sufficiently important members of one’s guild. Since the job of the academic guild is to certify experts about some subject matter, it naturally involves differential treatment of those within and without the guild. This practice has at least two potential benefits for a guild. It might substantially ease the production of research that is taken to be novel since what counts as novel is what has not been proposed within the guild. In this way, for example, within the guild that was mid-twentieth-century analytic philosophy, it was possible to restart debates about, e.g., Kant, justice, knowledge while ignoring the bulk of what had already been said on these topics. Even metaphysics could be revived at a time when it was alive and well. Permission to ignore non-guild members’ work has the further advantage that it allows lowering the requirements for guild membership. Getting to grips with what guild members are saying is easier than getting to grips with the tradition beyond the guild, especially if we are considering a newly established guild such as that of analytic philosophy in the 1950s.
Randall does worry that American philosophy is increasingly disengaged from society and other academic disciplines. The future of teaching in American colleges, he claims, depends on being able to convince, among others, scientific colleagues and university deans that philosophers have a role in examining the foundations and methods of the sciences. For, without being able to do this, there is a risk that philosophers will be found redundant in academia. Randall seems to have been wrong about the prospects of the future of American academic philosophy, at least if he was thinking about its future in the immediate decades after his paper. The withdrawal he detected coincided with very substantial growth in the profession in America. Still, perhaps Randall is close to having his finger on another advantage that guild philosophy had for mid-twentieth-century analytic philosophy. For being allowed to work independently of other academic disciplines and of society’s concerns reduces the demands on guild certification even further than limiting one’s discussants to guild members only.
In sum, the identification of guild and philosophy may have distinct pragmatic advantages for a philosophy guild, including minimising the demands of guild philosophy and giving novices space to develop, even if these advantages may threaten to come at the cost of being able rationally to deal with choice between philosophical approaches.