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American Philosophy: R.I.P.; Crossing the Channel; The Astrological Scene

News, Comment and Letters
AMERICAN ?HILOSOPHY: R.I.P.

The latest 0984-85) series of lectures sponsored by the
Royal Institute of Philosophy was on ‘American Philosophy’.

Given the history of this prestigious series (now in its nineteenth year), this was anunusual choice. The Institute has
never been radical in its deployment of this interesting
piece of intellectual patronage, but in choosing (for the
first time) a national tradition in philosophy and this one in
particular they ran the risk of reinforcing rather than critically exposing a stereotypical and sadly deficient’ view of
the history of philosophy.

A well-planned street poll of Western humanists would
give you almost without error the outlines of the RIP programme. In order of chronological coverage, although not
delivery, the 15 lectures offered the following: an introduction to the thought of Jonathan Edwards 0703-58),
pre-revolutionary America’s most powerful and original
philosopher – who took on board Newton’s cosmology,
Locke’s psychology, and the moral-sense theories of
Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, and turned them into an amazing defence of puritan (Congregationalist) fundamentals; a
detour through the liberal constitutionalism of the Founding
Fathers (Franklin, Jefferson and Madison), as well as a
related retrospective survey of American legal philosophy;
two lectures on the apparently outstanding figures of midnineteenth century America’s cultural ‘renaissance’ (as it
was termed by F. O. Matthiesson, without ever being entirely clear about what was being re-born) – Ralph Waldo
Emerson 0803-82) and Henry David Thoreau 0817-62); four
separate lectures on key figures in the so-called ‘Golden
Age’ of ‘American’ (more exactly ‘Harvard’) philosophy between the 1870s and the first World War – Charles Sanders
Peirce (1839-1914), William James 0842-1910), Josiah
Royce 0855-1916) and George Santayana 0863-1952); expositions of John Dewey 0859-1952), twentieth-century
Amer ica’ s most recognisable public philosopher, – his close
colleague at Chicago, George Herbert Mead 0863-1931), and Clarence Irving Lewis 0883-1964), the epitome of
twentieth-century institutional ‘professionalism’ in philosophy; and finally two minor but nonetheless rewarding figures selected by the Chairman and organiser of the series Morris Raphael Cohen 0880-1947), naturalist logician and
source of inspiration to an important generation (almost
exclusively immigrants) who went through City College of
New York between 1912 and 1938, and Arthur Edward
Murphy 0901-62), author of a briefly influential doctrine
called ‘objective relativism’.

The canonical selectivity, the dangers of whiggish
celebration, the omission of key figures who would be recognisable today as American philosophers (Saul Kripke,
Donald Davidson, John Searie, Willard von Orme Quine),
were all defects pricked but not punctured from the centre
by Bruce Kuklick, author of the most rounded overall account of Harvard’s· Golden Age, The Rise of American Philosophy. Kuklick in particular poured scorn on ‘American
philosophy’ as a cautionary tale; the progressive discovery
of twe,ntieth-century naturalism and experimentalism, summed up in the every-day image of ‘pragmatism’, where the

actions of self-interested politicians are justified by reference to the ghost of Benjamin Franklin. In exposing the
hidden curriculum associated with this traditional canon,
Kuklick suggested that asking questions about American
philosophy from such a base is ‘at best not very interesting
and at worst silly’. The constructive part of his lecture
offered an alternative, less heralded, canonical tradition
through Congregationalist and Presbyterian theology, that
provides in his view a more secure thread from Jonathan
Edwards to John Dewey {this is shortly. to be published in
book form as Churchmen and Philosophers.

The search for a spirit of American philosophy, implied in the RIP enterprise, is in fact an ideal type of the
general investigation of American exceptionalism. The
quest for American distinctiveness or exceptionalism is, in
turn, a heuristic device for academic inquiry which shades
uneasily into cultural propaganda. Put crudely, this is what
the ‘American Studies’ programme is all about. American
philosophy, like American Art, Literature and even Science,
are all seen as aspects of American national character.

In American American Studies, unlike the subject in
Great Britain (which generally depends upon a rather loose
historico-literary synthesis), ‘American philosophy’ plays
quite a central role; certainly a more central role than
that which you would find played by philosophy in most
undergraduate European Studies courses in Europe or the
United States. Various reasons are suggested for this. Positively it is claimed that it reflects an enduring aspect of
American culture: the distinctive interpenetration of popular and professional ideas shown, for example, in the prominent role afforded theologians, philosophers, literary heroes like Emerson, and other intellectuals. Apologists as
well as cynics also point to the didactic value of the history of American philosophy as a moral lesson: the puritan
conquest of the wilderness; the liberal ideals of the revolution and constitution; and the twentieth-century triumph of
secular science. Cynics alone point to the accessibility (a
euphemism for ‘easiness’) of the main texts, and the resulting circularity of a curriculum based on simple progressive
ideas which excludes texts either contradicting those ideas
or proving more difficult for undergraduates. {The chief
victim of this process is Peirce whose presentation to
undergraduates is usually confined to four early essays
from the Popular Science Monthly.

A longer paper could be written on the ‘essences’ of
American philosophising found by cultural critics. Most
however settle on arguments of one of two types: the argument from thematic continuity or the argument from unresolved tension.

Each type captures works from a variety of per’spectives. Thematic continuity can, for example, be found frequently expressed by philosophers. One of the most popular
such work is John E. Smith’s Spirit of American Philosophy,
with its discovery of three ‘dominant or focal beliefs’: that
‘thinking is an activity in response to a concrete situation’,
‘that ideas make a difference in the conduct of people who
hold them’, and that ‘the earth can be civilized by the
applications of knowledge’. What these three beliefs do for
Smith is to stitch American philosophy together from its
‘classic’ background (Edwards), through the ‘golden period’

39

(James, Royce and Peirce) to modern, optimistic, Deweyite
instrumentalism. There are also grand cultural syntheses in
this genre such as Louis Hartz i The Liberal Tradition in
America and, now even more dusty, Ralph Gabriel’s The
Course of American Democratic Thought. Gabriel set out,
in 1940, ‘a pattern of ideals providing standards with which
the accomplishments of realistic democracy may be judged
••• a philosophy of the mean’. Then there are the products
of the hard-nosed textual critics of contemporary American
civilisation departments such as Sacvan Bercovitch’s Puritan Origins of the American Self, with its discovery of the
enduring visionary and symbolic myth of the representative
American self. From a great height what is interesting is
how easily all of these ideas dissolve into the two simple
notions of American mission or destiny and American practical will.

Analogous works can be found for all of these under
the heading of unresolved tension. Smith’s analogue is Morton White’s Science and Sentiment in America: Philosophical Thought from Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey, which,
with its companion volume of documents, has probably
proved the most successful of the undergraduate textbooks.

White posits an oscillation between the inspiration of the
heart and the rationality of scientific evidence (similar to
that described by William James as ‘tender-minded’ and
‘tough-minded’) beginning with the opposition of Edwards
and Locke on the senses and eventually dissolved, again in
Deweyite naturalism. Parallel themes inform influential
works of historical synthesis such as Michael Kammen’s
prize-winning People of Paradox,and his revealingly titled
anthology The Contrapuntal Civilization which collects
together essays viewing ‘ ••• the American experience in
terms of its paradoxes, its contradictory tendencies, its
dual isms and its polarities’. This approach is echoed in a
most of modern titles such as Peter Conn’s recent book on
‘ideology and imagination’ in America between 1898 and
1917 (a sort of transatlantic ~ersion of George Dangerfield’s Stran e Death of Liberal En land called The Divided
Mind (1983. Occasionally the .manichean view shades into
policy prescription. The late Richard Hofstadter’s famous
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was really a plea for
America’s best self to rescue her from a worst self, and in
particular to make use of the author and similarly-qualified
contemporaries. ‘Once the intellectual was ridiculed because he was not needed; now he is fiercely resented because he is needed too much.’ These words were written in
the warm glow of John Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’, but also
in painful recollection of McCarthyism.

Kuklick’s criticism of this enterprise – the search for
essences – is not new. He is still respectfully regarded
within the American Studies movement for a trenchant criticism of ‘Myth and Symbol in American Studies’ published
in the American Quarterly (of which he is now editor) in
1972. Assauiting such central figures as Henry Nash Smith
and Leo Marx, Kuklick objected strongly to the ‘platonic
strain’ in their intellectual history:

If myth-symbol generalizations have any substance, they must be subject to falsification by
the conclusion of ‘lower-level’ historical research. If we do not know how to establish links
between the two levels, the humanists will not
have achieved viable explanations of any behaviour; what we would have instead is a series of
ruminations with little empirical content, and
not history.

During the past decade, which could also be said to have
enjoyed the ‘prQfessionalisation’ of the history of ideas (at
least in American university departments), this critique has
broadened and gained adherents in wider fields of intellectual history.

Contemporary American intellectual historians, of the
type who banded together to produce the excellent volume
edited by John Higham and Paul Conkin, New Directions in
American Intellectual History, can be sharply distinguished
from their predecessors in a number of ways. Collectively
40

.yhat separates historians like Kuklick, David Hollinger,
Mary Furner, Dorothy Ross, Thomas Haskell and David
Noble from White, Merle Curti, Rush Welter, Gabriel or
Hartz is a greater focus on institutional factors (such as
the professionalisation of disciplines), the discovery of alternatives to the traditional canon (like Kuklick’s churchmen), precise identification of communities of discourse
(the feminist perspective is important here with, for example, the work on nineteenth-century women’s support
systems by Caroll Smith-Rosenberg), and careful theses
about the interpenetration of professional ideas and public
policy (of which easily the most influential was first published as an undergraduate textbook in 1967: Robert
Wiebe’s The Search for Order).

Nor has professional philosophy escaped the influence
of these pressures to retreat from the fundamentally uncritical high ground fr:om which something called ‘American
philosophy’ can be viewed. Murray Murphey (like Kuklick at
the University of Pennsylvania, although in a different department) is joint author of a two-volume History of Philosophy in America (a careful title), published in 1977 and
explicitly designed to supersede Herbert Schneider’S History
of American Philosophy (first published in 1946). Murphey
concludes the work with a tentative endorsement of at
least the aims of the search for’ American Philosophy’:

(further work) should look for – and we may
hazard the suspicion that it will find – some
features of the human spirit that are distinctively emphasized on the American scene and
which may still be maintaining a pattern that is
consistent with the American cultural traditions.

I suspect that the tentative tone betrays some serious
misgivings. In an article in the Transactions of the Charles
S. Peirce Society in 1979 Murphey sets out a prospectus
for an approach to the problem significantly undercutting
his substantial work. Traditional history of philosophy is
defined as presentist and evaluative.

That is, it’ continues
a dialogue within the discipline as we understand it today.

An ‘historicist’ alternative attempts ‘to interpret historical
phenomena in terms of the historical cultural context in
which they were produced and of which they were a part’.

This may sound simplistic and old hat to the historian of
ideas, but as a principle it is profoundly destructive to the
identification of anything as redolent of a ‘usable past’ as
the Royal Institute’s search for the spirit of American
philosophy.

David Watson

Are relations between French and English intellectuals improving, or at any rate changing in significant ways? The
question is of obvious importance and fascination, and the
more immediate ways of trying to answer it (by scanning
Rorty’s author index or noting mention of speech acts in
Lyotard) liable to be deceptive.

Two conferences have recently taken place with this
subject as their avowed theme. The expectation that a conference should actually effect a rapprochement, or establish the existence of an intraversable distance, makes in
present circumstances too high a demand. Nevertheless, the
event of physical and institutional confrontation can not
fail to be revealing, and each of the conferences has – in
very different ways – provided some sort of index of the
state of play.

In December the Institute of Contemporary Arts organised an ambitious weekend conference inn London, under
the description, ‘Crossing the Channel’. Several disciplines,
including philosophy, were each allocated a cluster of famous names and about two hours in which to make their differences seen, felt and, if possible, reapprehended. As the
title suggests, an element of challenge was acknowledged

i,.

from the outset. The French speakers, with one glaring
exception, had visibly succeeded in making the physical
crossing, but what was to be done on their arrival often
seemed far from clear, both to them and to the audience:

it was implicit that the occasion demanded more than self-description, but that more seemed hard to get. If the
French rarely made a crossing in any less literal sense due
to lack of orientation, the English speakers failed to do so
wit·hout that excuse.

The session devoted to Anglo-French philosophy
showed this more strikingly than any of the others. It was
originally and tantalisingly billed as a juxtaposition of A.J.

Ayer and Derrida, but the latter never appeared, and was
replaced by the philosopher Deschamps, who writes in Le
Figaro.

Their session, even allowing for difficulties of translation and for shortage of time, amounted to nothing describable as a discussion or exchange, but provided for, on the
English side, something more like a caricature of national
intellectual temperament. Ayer opened with a ten-minute
recapitulation of the achievements of analytic philosophy
since its inauguration with Principia 1athematica, which he
delivered with charm and urbanity. He then relaxed further
into a sense of his tradition’s achievement by barely
attending to his French respondent. Deschamps, rather than
attempting an analogous counter-tale of progress by trialand-error, took pains to emphasise the difficulty of defining a current French orthodoxy, and, with an eye to the
future and more assiduous attention to the purpose of the
occasion, tried to explain that constructing concepts might
best characterise his contemporaries’ endeavours.

The question and answer session that followed ended
when Ayer, with frightening predictability, made a Johnsonian stone-kicking gesture and uttered a sentence in a
natural language expressing the (true) proposition that
there was before him on the table a tumbler of water.

The audience were therefore certainly made aware of
some sort of contrast. But a contrast of what, exactly?

GIven his written declaration that Continental philosophy
(xiginates in psychopathology, Ayer ought clearly not to
have been invited. From a reflective point of view, the
choice was excellent for what it revealed about how
‘”) .;lo-French relations were being desired to be seen. At
:iume thoroughly institutionalised level, these relations are,
when under the aspect of ‘public’ perception, a saleable
item, without there being anything more in the presented
contrast than a contrast of ‘styles’, for want of a better
term. Perhaps ‘the current state of literary theory’, a p~b­
lisher’s dream, is evidence enough of this. Somewliere down
the line, the intellectual content and the desire to locate
it have been eradicated, and in their place there is instead
an image that effectively homogenises the two parties,
blocks the appreciation of internal differences, and offers
instead the gratification of a spectacle.

What was of vatue in the conference lay scattered,
often unpredictably, in the other sessions; French novelists
discussed their work in a relaxed and revealing way, and intriguingly – avowed an indifference and an invulnerability to literary theory. The ICA should also be given credit
for having created the occasion for a stimulating breadth
of exposure; the weekend conference had been preceded by
weekly seminars on Barthes, Foucault and Althusser.

The second conference, attended by few, and of a
very different order of seriousness, took place early in
January. ‘Philosophie et Pratique’ occurred at the Maison
franc;;aise in Oxford, organised by the Services Culturels of
the French Embassy, and lasted three days. Nearly all the
papers were dense and concentrated attempts to answer
th~ question that formed the conference’s sub-title: ‘Is
there anything essential in the nature of philosophical
research that bears specifically on problems of politics,
)sychoanalysis and literature?’. Unlike the ICA’s event,
there was a sufficiently determinate theme, and provision
for home ground on both sides and therefore a genuine
chance for lines of convergence and demarcations of distance to be defined.

If the upshot can be summarised at all, a task repeatedly attempted throughout the conference itself, it can
only be put by way of a series of negations: there is as yet
no way of stating either a thematic or a methodological
difference, nor complete agreement on the possibility or
desirability of doing so. If this sounds like a failure, it
should not be attributed to the conference itself; and it
must further be qualified by the important fact that the
perception of the other side as ‘other’ is not accompanied
by reactive contempt or by any sense of having to belong
to a denomination that need view the other as a threat.

The model of the Searle/Derrida exchange in Glyph, a
common textual emblem of the Anglo:-French non-connection, has, on the basis of this conference, no application to
Anglo-French philosophical relations, however it may func:tion with regard to literary theory. (Derrida, physically
absent from the ICA, had n~greater linguistic presence at
Oxford, Deleuze if anyone being the most frequently cited
French philosopher, and never in the manner of an authority.)
Does this signal apathy, or a refusal to acknowledge
existing orthodoxies? Some traces of indifference could be
detected among even those few analytic philosophers who
had taken the trouble to attend; and the French, who opened the session with one of the most lucid characterisations
of ‘analytical philosophy’ to date (by Franc;;ois Recanati),
expressed no enthusiastic convictiOfl that there was much
to be learnt from current writings in England or America.

A less than sufficient knowledge of one anothers’ texts
emerged as an obvious and damaging hindrance to discussion, (an astonishing instance of which took the form of an
attribution to Sartre of a theory with not one, but two,
substantival selves).

Despite the tentativeness with which the conference
found it had to characterise itself, some salient and revealing areas of convergence and of disagreement emerged.

Mary Tiles argued through theory of meaning to the necessity of granting a level of grasp of sense where metaphor
could be located, and this dovetailed with a Deleuze-based
exposition of the nature of figuration and concept-creation
by Jean-Jacques Lecercle. A second point of contact was
established between David Archard, arguing against the
assimilation Of Freud to some schools of contemporary analytic philosophy of mind, and Roustang, rejecting the intrusion of the Lacanian philosophical a priori into psychoanalytic theory.

Of those moments where incompatibility assumed a
definite form, the most dramatic was initiated by Jonathan
Glover, frustrated by the absence of common propositions
to contest, who complained that etiquettes of politeness
had been hampering discussion, and ch~llenged Macherey on
the question in the title of the conference. What then ~
the French commitment to practice, if it is not to take the
form of applied ethics? (An example of which being that of
surrogate-motherhood, Glover explained) Macherey replied
that it was necessary for theory to think beyond its own
distinctness from practice, and recognise the need for it to
think analytically-defined problems back into the context
of a political whole from which they had been ideologically
excised, and of which philosophy was already a part.

The longest ~ and least useful paper in relation to the
conference’s ends – was given by Hacker, who deployed a
series of Wittgensteinian arguments against various epistemological and scientific claims. Hacker’s arguments revealed the analytic understanding to be fixated by epistemological interests, and to be entirely conservative in intent thereby failing to arouse any interest in Wittgenstein that
the French could share.

It is hard to see hwo future Anglo-French conferences
could go much further, without delimiting their scope more
sharply than was done at ‘Philosophie et Pratique’, so as to
take single salient issues (such as figuration in philosophical language, or philosophy’s relation to its own history).

Ae.sthetics, which appeared in the sub-title of the Oxford
conference but was not really discussed, has surely to be
one area capable of yielding most room for dialogue.

41
I
j –

But even given this and many other preconditions – of
which the careful reading of one anothers’ texts must be
the most important – it may be that there is a limit soon
reached where nothing more can be yielded, and nothing
more defined; and it would be plausible to conjecture that
those very reasons that made the ICA’s event a pleasure
and a commodity are not independent from those that set
the boundaries to rnetaphilosophy. Of the attempt at metaphilosophy, it must be asked whether it is not misguided to
attempt to produce a perspective from which both analytic
and Continental philosophy can be reviewed, and what kind
of will to adjudication might be disguised in it. Pluralism
must also defend itself against the charge of failing to be
dialectical.

However, ‘Philosophie et Pr a tique’ gave some small
but heartening indication that the absence hitherto of
metaphilosophical discussion between French and English
would not necessarily be continued out of professional
self-confinement, and if it is not, it can avoid taking certain forms that stultify it in the process of providing its
appeal.

THE ASTROLOGICAL SCENE
During the 20th century there has been a resurgence of
astrology in the West. Popularisation in the media is one
factor here, but there are also now several thousand practising astrologers (full or part time) who distance themselves from ‘pop’ astrology. This ‘serious’ astrology still
follows traditional principles with the addition of several
recent techniques. Astrologers today often use astrology in
the context of counselling, linking it with Jungian or
humanistic psychotherapies. There has also been a great
deal of empirical – usually empiricist – research following
the work of the Gauquelins.

The existence of various types of astrological activity,
coupled with the lack of a clear and agreed definition of
the discipline compared to others, means that it can be put
into a number of diverse categories convenient to various
discourses: ‘scientific phenomenon’; ‘pseudo-science’; ‘model
of the psyche’; ‘entertainment’; ‘system of personality description’; ‘stupefying ideology’; etc. In each case the discourse maintains its own mythical ‘astrology’, each with
many unexamined assumptions. With the lack of clearly formulated alternatives from the world of astrologers, nonastrologers approaching the subject tend to pick upon only
these mythical definitions. Thus the few writings by radical
thinkers, while correct in their critiques of astrology’s’

A NOTE ON ‘ORTHODOX LINGUISTICS’

BoL.. l30rsley

In her contribution to the recent debate on sexist language,
Deborah Cameron makes the quite reasonable point that the
way speech is understood is dependent on context and
hence that sexist interpretations are likely in a sexist culture. However, she embeds this point in a tirade against
prevailing ideas about language, and, in particular, against
mainstream linguistics, or ‘orthodox linguistics’, as she prefers to call it. It would be unfortunate if this were allowed
to pass without comment. In this note, therefore, I will
take up the main points that Cameron appears to be making
and try to set the record straight .

Cameron presents a string of assertions whose precise
:neaning is often far from clear. It seems, however, that
her main claim is that linguists assume a conception of
communication which leads them to a view of language

42

ideological role in media discourse, paradoxically accept
the discourse of scientism in rejecting all astrology as
‘pseudo-science’ .

A study or practice of astrology brings one to the classic issues of philosophy: free will, causation, time, mind,
knowledge, human subjectivity .•. ; and these have been
focal points in the debates between astrology and rival systems of thought. But astrology today lacks a comprehensive
and developing theoretical side of its own which would help
astrologers think out these issues, defend and define their
practice, and lead to more productive interaction with
other fields.

The Radical Astrology Group
Through our publications, meetings and lectures, we have
tried to introduce recent developments in theory and philosophy, including those of structuralism, post-structuralism,
semiotics, and feminism, to the rather insular world of
astrologers, and provoke discussion on them. We do not
hold any unified position but we share a belief that a critical approach and more awareness of these developments
are needed.

Astrology itself, conceived in such theoretical terms,
has much to say to those in other disciplines, particularly
those studying philosophy or systems of thought in a social
context. Even if one sets aside the question of validity,
astrology is a field where diverse discourses come into play
and can be comparatively observed, both now and at key
points in its history, such as the late 17th century. Much
of modern astrological practice would appear to offer a
direct challenge to notions of empiricism, universal causation, and the distinctions subject/object, science/art.

Our first main project was writing our book: Discussion
Papers: Astrology and Theory. This summarised the relevant
theoretical developments such as semiotics and presented
some new contexts for thinking about astrology. It also
examined the implicit philosophies of the various astrological groups in Britain, and included an- outline of astrological methods for the benefit of non-astrological readers.

We are now reworking the Discussion Papers with a
view to republishing them as two books: one on theory/philosophy; the second on astrology, semiotics and interpretation. In addition we are publishing a book of intervie:vs with astrologers which will have a wider appeal than
the academic content of the others.

We hold regular meetings in London, plus occasional
workshops, and are interested in hearing from anyone with
ideas/feelings on the above topics. To obtain more details
and be added to our mailing list, .~)lease write to Radical
Astrology Group, 17 Granville Road, London SW 18 5SB

which precludes any dependence of meaning on context.

She suggests that linguists assume that communication is a
matter of ‘telementation’, the transfer of ideas from one
mind to another, and that perfect communication is the
norm. This conception of communication leads them to view
language as a fixed code of form-meaning correspondences
and this is incompatible with any dependence of meaning on
context.

Do mainstream linguists in fact hold these views? It
would, I think, be quite hard to show that they subscribe to
the crucial conception of communication for the simple
reason that they say very little about communication. If
one looks at the recent writings of Noam Chomsky, who
remains the dominant figure in mainstream linguistics, one
finds that the only references to communication are where
he takes issue with the idea that communication is the purpose of language and the key to an understanding of its
structure . It may well be that many linguists think that
communication is in part a matter of the transfer of ideas
from one mind to another. (It’s hard to see what’s wrong

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