Rebecca Goldstein wastes no time berating the discipline of English for its latest wanderings into theory. In a sarcastic if wordy rebuttal of cultural studies fandom, Goldstein lays it down to her English department colleagues: we [in philosophy] look to these colleagues to explain a poem to us, not tell us our epistemology.
It's true, of course, that Theory has become an almost universal pursuit across disciplines in recent years, authorizing a horrendous and none-too-rigorous series of philosophical ponderings whose insularity breeds error and illiteracy. Yet it would seem disingenuous to stick it to cultural studies, or English. First, my own discipline of international politics has become overrun with Theory jocks (I, ashamedly, one such). It is true we are not good philosophers. We are not even always decent logicians. But we do it anyway. Second, this is because the postie revolution has convinced us that the production of knowledge, its contexts and influences, is the premiere site of power. No one likes a snobbish colleague to point out the fundamental error in their epistemology or methodology, so we all went about fixing the cracks in our own ships as seemed best, with none of those doting philosophers looking over our shoulders.
Much the worse for us, unfortunately. In conversation with a doctoral student friend he confessed, "my dissertation is poor philosophy, and it's weak minded theology. But it's way better than what I've found in my area." My own dissertation, on The Politics of Imagination: Reconstituting the Boundaries of Religion and Ethics in International Relations is an equally ridiculous project to bring insights from philosophy and theology to bear on traditional disciplinary problems. Folks call it international relations theory. It's not really. It's more like international political theory—or, if I'm honest, I'd just call it international political philosophy.
And this is a serious problem for a doctoral student in the modern academy. That phrase, "international political philosophy" just took three disciplines and lumped them together. Of course, it was not always so easily parsed. The old internationalist luminaries weaved together historical, theological and philosophical narrative into a coherent argument about international politics with some regularity. But regardless of how it was in the golden days we're stuck today with irate philosophers watching third rate theory swallowing neighboring departments whole. Theologians, in my tradition, often lament the same problem (though which of the two indeed "watches the watchers" still seems a pretty live toss up in most institutions).
Goldstein has a good laugh at the tom foolery in the discipline of English. But English's shortcomings are philosophies failures. If simple minded nonsense is a cardinal academic sin, then surely disinterested ignorance is a greater one still. What's missing is a conversation, rather than condescension. What's missing is a foundation's orientation to service, rather than smug insular satisfaction. People looking to provide honest, sincere and creative alternatives, not frustrated intellectual brow beating. I am more convinced than ever that the first building block of a brilliant intellectual culture is charity and empathy, where relationships are characterized by not only tolerance but respect. I'd work at a University like that.