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Author Information: Arianna Falbo, Brown University, Arianna_Falbo@brown.edu.

Falbo, Arianna. “Spitting Out the Kool-Aid: A Review of Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 12-17.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40A

The years of far-right rhetoric about Hillary Clinton have formed a real-time theatre of misogyny, climaxing at the 2016 Presidential election.
Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Kate Manne’s Down Girl breathes new life into an underexplored yet urgently important topic. Using a diverse mixture of current events, empirical findings, and literary illustrations, Manne guides her reader through the underbelly of misogyny: its nature, how it relates to and differs from sexism, and why, in supposedly post-patriarchal societies, it’s “still a thing.”[1]

Chapter 1 challenges the standard dictionary-definition or “naïve conception” of misogyny, as Manne calls it. This view understands misogyny primarily as a psychological phenomenon, operative in the minds of men. Accordingly, misogynists are disposed to hate all or most women because they are women.

The naïve conception fails because it renders misogyny virtually non-existent and, as a result, politically inert. Misogynists need not feel hatred towards all or even most women. A misogynist may love his mother or other women with whom he shares close personal relationships. Manne insists that this should not detract from his being an outright misogynist. For example, the naïve view fails to make sense of how Donald Trump could both love his daughter while simultaneously being misogyny’s poster boy. A different analysis is needed.

Following Haslanger (2012), Manne outlines her “ameliorative” project in chapter 2. She aims to offer an analysis of misogyny that is politically and theoretically useful; an analysis that will help to reveal the stealthy ways misogyny operates upon its perpetrators, targets, and victims. Manne argues that misogyny should be understood in terms of its social function: what it does to women and girls.

On her view misogyny functions to uphold patriarchal order, it punishes women who transgress and rewards those who abide.[2] Misogyny is thus selective: it does not target all women wholesale, but prioritizes for those who protest against patriarchal prescriptions. In Manne’s words: “misogyny primarily targets women because they are women in a man’s world…rather than because they are women in a man’s mind.[3]

Chapter 3 outlines, what I take to be, one of the most original and illuminating insights of the book, a conceptual contrast between sexism and misogyny. Manne dubs sexism the “justificatory” branch of patriarchal order: it has the job of legitimizing patriarchal norms and gender roles. Misogyny, on the other hand, is the “law enforcement” branch: it patrols and upholds patriarchal order. Both misogyny and sexism are unified by a common goal “to maintain or restore a patriarchal social order.”[4]

In Chapter 4, Manne discusses the gender coded give/take economy that she takes to be at the heart of misogyny’s operation.[5] Patriarchal order dictates that women have an obligation to be givers of certain feminine-coded goods and services such as affection, sex, and reproductive labour.

Correspondingly, men are the entitled recipients of these goods and services in addition to being the takers of certain masculine-coded privileges, including public influence, honour, power, money, and leadership. When men fail to receive these feminine-coded goods, which patriarchal order deems they are entitled to, backlash may ensue. What’s more, women who seek masculine-coded privileges, for example, leadership positions or other forms of power and prestige, are in effect violating a patriarchal prohibition. Such goods are not theirs for the taking—women are not entitled takers, but obligated givers.

In chapter 5, Manne considers a popular “humanist” kind of view according to which misogyny involves thinking of women as sub-human, non-persons, lifeless objects, or mere things. She turns this view on its head. She argues that: “her personhood is held to be owed to others in the form of service labour, love, and loyalty.”[6] As per the previous chapter, women are socially positioned as human givers. Manne’s contends that misogyny is not about dehumanization, but about men feeling entitled to the human service of women. She pushes this even further by noting that in some cases, when feminine-coded human goods and services are denied, it is men who may face feelings of dehumanization.[7]

Chapter 6, in my opinion, is where a lot of the action happens. In this chapter Manne presents the much-needed concept of himpathy: the undue sympathy that is misdirected away from victims and towards perpetrators of misogynistic violence.[8] She explains how certain exonerating narratives, such as the “the golden boy”, function to benefit highly privileged (normally: white, non-disabled, cis, heterosexual, etc.) men who commit violent acts against women.[9]

In this chapter Manne also draws upon and adds to the growing literature on testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice occurs when a speaker receives either a deficit or surplus of creditability owing to a prejudice on the part of the hearer.[10] Manne discusses how in cases of he said/she said testimony involving accusations of sexual assault, privileged men may be afforded excess creditability, thereby undermining the creditability of victims – there is only so much creditability to go around.[11]

This, she notes, may lead to the complete erasure, or “herasure” as Manne calls it, of the victim’s story altogether.[12] Creditability surpluses and deficits, she says: “often serve the function of buttressing dominant group members’ current social position, and protecting them from downfall in the existing social hierarchy.”[13] Exonerating narratives puff up privileged men and, as a result, deflate the creditability of women who speak out against them. These unjust distributions of creditability safeguarding dominate men against downward social mobility. In a slogan: “testimonial injustice as hierarchy preservation.”[14]

In Chapter 7, Manne discusses why victims of misogynistic violence who seek moral support and attention are regularly met with suspicion, threats, and outright disbelief. Patriarchy dictates that women are human givers of moral support and attention, not recipients (as per the arguments of chapter 4). Drawing moral attention towards women who are victimized by misogyny attempts to disrupt patriarchy’s divisions of moral labour. Manne says that this is “tantamount to the server asking for service, the giver expecting to receive…it is withholding a resource and simultaneously demanding it.”[15]

In chapter 8, Manne explores how misogyny contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss of the 2016 US presidential election. She claims that misogyny routinely targets women who infringe upon man’s historical turf; women who try to take what patriarchal order decrees as the jobs and privileges reserved for men. Overstepping or trespassing upon his territory often results in misogynistic retaliation. Such women are seen as “greedy, grasping, and domineering; shrill and abrasive; corrupt and untrustworthy”[16] or, in the words of the current President of the United States, “nasty.”[17]

Down Girl ends by discussing the prospects of overcoming misogyny. At one point Manne says, as if to shrug her shoulders and throw up her arms in despair: “I give up.”[18] Later, in a subsequent interview, Manne claims she did not intend for this to be a discouraging statement, but a “liberating declaration.”[19] It is an expression of her entitlement to bow out of this discussion (for now), after having said her piece and making conversational space for others to continue.

In my opinion, Down Girl is essential reading for any serious feminist, moral, or political scholar. The proposed analysis of misogyny is lucid and accessible while at the same time remaining acutely critical and rigorous. The text does not get bogged down in philosophical jargon or tedious digressions. As such, this book would be fairly congenial to even the philosophically uninitiated reader. I highly recommend it to both academics and non-academic alike. Moreover, Manne’s addition of “himpathy” and “herasure” to the philosophical lexicon helps to push the dialectic forward in innovative and insightful ways.

Despite being on such a sombre and depressing topic, I found this book to be engrossing and, for the most part, enjoyable to read. Manne has an inviting writing style and the book is scattered with a number of brilliant quips, clever examples, and gripping case studies.  Though, be warned, there are certainly sections that might reasonably be difficult, uncomfortable, and potentially triggering. Down Girl examines some of the most fraught and downright chilling aspects of our current social and political atmosphere; including real life depictions of horrific violence against women, as well as the attendant sympathy (himpathy) that is often given to those who perpetrate it. This is to be expected in a book on the logic of misogyny, but it is nonetheless important for readers to be extra cognisant.

After finishing the book, I have one main concern regarding the explanatory reach of the analysis. Recall that on Manne’s account: “misogyny’s primary function and constitutive manifestation is the punishment of “bad” women, and policing of women’s behavior.”[20] Misogyny’s operation consist in a number of “down girl moves” designed to keep women in line when they fail to “know their place” in a man’s world.[21] She emphasizes the retaliatory nature of misogyny; how it functions analogously to a shock collar: fail to do as patriarchy demands as and risk being shocked.[22]

I worry, though, that this emphasis on punishing patriarchy’s rebels fails to draw adequate attention to how misogyny can target women for what appears to be nothing more than the simple reason that he is dominant over her. It is not only rebels who are misogyny’s targets and victims, but also patriarchy’s cheerleaders and “good” girls. (Though, those who protest are presumably more vulnerable and have greater targets on their backs.)

Perhaps the analogy is better thought of not in terms of him shocking her when she fails to obey patriarchal order, but him administering shocks whenever he sees fit, be it for a perceived failure of obedience or simply because he is the one with the controller. Or, to use another analogy that picks up on Manne’s “policing” and “law enforcement” language, maybe misogyny is characterized best as a crooked cop, one who will pull you over for a traffic violation, but also one who will stop you simply because he feels he can, for he is the one with the badge and gun.

A woman might play her role in a man’s world to a tee; she may be happily complacent, she may give him all of her feminine-coded goods, in the right manner, in the right amount, at the right time, and so on. She may never threaten to overstep historical gender roles, nor does she attempt to cultivate masculine-coded privileges. She may even add fuel to patriarchy’s fire by policing other women who disobey. Even still, despite being on her very best behaviour, she too can be victimized by misogynistic violence. Why? It remains unclear to me how Manne’s analysis could offer a satisfying answer. While I deeply admire the proposal, I am curious of how it captures non-corrective cases of misogyny that don’t aim to punish for (apparent) violations of patriarchal order.

Manne notes that a major motivation for her writing is “to challenge some of the false moral conclusions we swallow with the Kool-Aid of patriarchal ideology.”[23] I came away from this book having learned a great deal about the insidious ways misogyny operates to put women and girls down; many a Kool-Aid has been spit out. Down Girl also plants fertile seeds for future research on misogyny, a topic desperately in need of more careful attention and intelligent investigation.

In the preface Manne says that: “ultimately, it will take a village of theorists to gain a full understanding of the phenomena.”[24] This book makes headway in offering theorists a myriad of conceptual tools and resources needed to facilitate and push the discussion forward. I anticipate that Down Girl will be a notable benchmark for many fruitful discussions to come.

Contact details: Arianna_Falbo@brown.edu

References

Berenson, Tessa. “Presidential Debate: Trump Calls Clinton ‘Nasty Woman’.” Time, 20 Oct. 2016, time.com/4537960/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-nasty-woman-debate/.

Bullock, Penn. “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Taped Comments About Women.” The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2016, nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html.

Cleary, Skye C. “It Takes Many Kinds to Dismantle a Patriarchal Village.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 Mar. 2018, lareviewofbooks.org/article/takes-many-kinds-dismantle-patriarchal-village/.

Davis, Emmalon. “Typecasts, Tokens, and Spokespersons: A Case for Credibility Excess as Testimonial Injustice” Hypatia, 2016.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice Power and the Ethics of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Haslanger, Sally. Resisting Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Medina, José. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary” Social Epistemology, 2011.

Penaula, Regan. “Kate Manne: The Shock Collar That Is Misogyny” Guernica, 7 Feb. 2018, https://www.guernicamag.com/kate-manne-why-misogyny-isnt-really-about-hating-women/.

Yap, Audre. “Creditability Excess and the Social Imaginary in Cases of Sexual Assault.” Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, 2017.

[1] Manne (2017): xxi.

[2] Manne (2017): 72.

[3] Ibid: 69.

[4] Ibid: 80.

[5] At least as it is manifests in the cultures of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, these are the focus of Manne’s analysis. Cf. ibid: fn. 3.

[6] Ibid: 173.

[7] Ibid: 173.

[8] Ibid: 197.

[9] Ibid: 197.

[10] Cf. Fricker (2007), though, Fricker focuses primarily upon creditability deficits. See, Davis (2016), Medina (2011, 2012), and Yap (2017), among others, for discussions of how creditability surpluses can also constitute testimonial injustice.

[11] See Manne’s discussion of Medina (2011) who stresses this point, 190.

[12] Ibid: 209-14.

[13] Manne (2017): 194.

[14] Ibid: 185.

[15] Ibid: 304.

[16] Ibid: 303.

[17] Berenson (2016).

[18] Manne (2017): 300.

[19] Cleary (2018).

[20] Manne (2017): 192.

[21] Ibid: 68.

[22] Cf. Penaluna (2018).

[23] This is from an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books; see Cleary (2018).

[24] Manne (2017): xiii.

Author Information: Claus-Christian Carbon, University of Bamberg, ccc@experimental-psychology.com

Carbon, Claus-Christian. “A Conspiracy Theory is Not a Theory About a Conspiracy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 22-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yb

See also:

  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Expertise and Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology 32, no. 3 (2018), 196-208.

The power, creation, imagery, and proliferation of conspiracy theories are fascinating avenues to explore in the construction of public knowledge and the manipulation of the public for nefarious purposes. Their role in constituting our pop cultural imaginary and as central images in political propaganda are fertile ground for research.
Image by Neil Moralee via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The simplest and most natural definition of a conspiracy theory is a theory about a conspiracy. Although this definition seems appealing due to its simplicity and straightforwardness, the problem is that most narratives about conspiracies do not fulfill the necessary requirements of being a theory. In everyday speech, mere descriptions, explanations, or even beliefs are often termed as “theories”—such repeated usage of this technical term is not useful in the context of scientific activities.

Here, a theory does not aim to explain one specific event in time, e.g. the moon landing of 1969 or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, but aims at explaining a phenomenon on a very general level; e.g. that things with mass as such gravitate toward one another—independently of the specific natures of such entities. Such an epistemological status is rarely achieved by conspiracy theories, especially the ones about specific events in time. Even more general claims that so-called chemtrails (i.e. long-lasting condensation trails) are initiated by omnipotent organizations across the planet, across time zones and altitudes, is at most a hypothesis – a rather narrow one – that specifically addresses one phenomenon but lacks the capability to make predictions about other phenomena.

Narratives that Shape Our Minds

So-called conspiracy theories have had a great impact on human history, on the social interaction between groups, the attitude towards minorities, and the trust in state institutions. There is very good reason to include “conspiracy theories” into the canon of influential narratives and so it is just logical to direct a lot of scientific effort into explaining and understand how they operate, how people believe in them and how humans pile up knowledge on the basis of these narratives.

A short view on publications registered by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science documents 605 records with “conspiracy theories” as the topic (effective date 7 May 2018). These contributions were mostly covered by psychological (n=91) and political (n=70) science articles, with a steep increase in recent years from about 2013 on, probably due to a special issue (“Research Topic”) in the journal Frontiers of Psychology organized in the years 2012 and 2013 by Viren Swami and Christopher Charles French.

As we have repeatedly argued (e.g., Raab, Carbon, & Muth, 2017), conspiracy theories are a very common phenomenon. Most people believe in at least some of them (Goertzel, 1994), which already indicates that believers in them do not belong to a minority group, but that it is more or less the conditio humana to include such narratives in the everyday belief system.

So first of all, we can state that most of such beliefs are neither pathological nor rare (see Raab, Ortlieb, Guthmann, Auer, & Carbon, 2013), but are largely caused by “good”[1] narratives triggered by context factors (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) such as a distrusted society. The wide acceptance of many conspiracy theories can further explained by adaptation effects that bias the standard beliefs (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, & Carbon, 2013). This view is not undisputed, as many authors identify specific pathological personality traits such as paranoia (Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont, 2008; Pipes, 1997) which cause, enable or at least proliferate the belief in conspiracy theories.

In fact, in science we mostly encounter the pathological and pejorative view on conspiracy theories and their believers. This negative connotation, and hence the prejudice toward conspiracy theories, makes it hard to solidly test the stated facts, ideas or relationships proposed by such explanatory structures (Rankin, 2017). As especially conspiracy theories of so-called “type I” – where authorities (“the system”) are blamed of conspiracies (Wagner-Egger & Bangerter, 2007)—, such a prejudice can potentially jeopardize the democratic system (Bale, 2007).

Some of the conspiracies which are described in conspiracy theories that are taking place at top state levels could indeed be threatening people’s freedom, democracy and even people’s lives, especially if they turned out to be “true” (e.g. the case of the whistleblower and previously alleged conspiracist Edward Snowden, see Van Puyvelde, Coulthart, & Hossain, 2017).

Understanding What a Theory Genuinely Is

In the present paper, I will focus on another, yet highly important, point which is hardly addressed at all: Is the term “conspiracy theories” an adequate term at all? In fact, the suggestion of a conspiracy theory being a “theory about a conspiracy” (Dentith, 2014, p.30) is indeed the simplest and seemingly most straightforward definition of “conspiracy theory”. Although appealing and allegedly logical, the term conspiracy theory as such is ill-defined. Actually a “conspiracy theory” refers to a narrative which attributes an event to a group of conspirators. As such it is clear that it is justified to associate such a narrative with the term “conspiracy”, but does a conspiracy theory has the epistemological status of a theory?

The simplest definition of a “theory” is that it represents a bundle of hypotheses which can explain a wide range of phenomena. Theories have to integrate the contained hypotheses is a concise, coherent, and systematic way. They have to go beyond the mere piling up of several statements or unlinked hypotheses. The application of theories allows events or entities which are not explicitly described in the sum of the hypotheses to be generalized and hence to be predicted.

For instance, one of the most influential physical theories, the theory of special relativity (German original description “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”), contains two hypotheses (Einstein, 1905) on whose basis in addition to already existing theories, we can predict important issues which are not explicitly stated in the theory. Most are well aware that mass and energy are equivalent. Whether we are analyzing the energy of a tossed ball or a static car, we can use the very same theory. Whether the ball is red or whether it is a blue ball thrown by Napoleon Bonaparte does not matter—we just need to refer to the mass of the ball, in fact we are only interested in the mass as such; the ball does not play a role anymore. Other theories show similar predictive power: for instance, they can predict (more or less precisely) events in the future, the location of various types of material in a magnetic field or the trajectory of objects of different speed due to gravitational power.

Most conspiracy theories, however, refer to one single historical event. Looking through the “most enduring conspiracy theories” compiled in 2009 by TIME magazine on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it is instantly clear that they have explanatory power for just the specific events on which they are based, e.g. the “JFK assassination” in 1963, the “9/11 cover-up” in 2001, the “moon landings were faked” idea from 1969 or the “Paul is dead” storyline about Paul McCartney’s alleged secret death in 1966. In fact, such theories are just singular explanations, mostly ignoring counter-facts, alternative explanations and already given replies (Votsis, 2004).

But what, then, is the epistemological status of such narratives? Clearly, they aim to explain – and sometimes the explanations are indeed compelling, even coherent. What they mostly cannot demonstrate, though, is the ability to predict other events in other contexts. If these narratives belong to this class of explanatory stories, we should be less liberal in calling them “theories”. Unfortunately, it was Karl Popper himself who coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s (Popper, 1949)—the same Popper who was advocating very strict criteria for scientific theories and in so became one of the most influential philosophers of science (Suppe, 1977). This imprecise terminology diluted the genuine meaning of (scientific) theories.

Stay Rigorous

From a language pragmatics perspective, it seems odd to abandon the term conspiracy theory as it is a widely introduced and frequently used term in everyday language around the globe. Substitutions like conspiracy narratives, conspiracy stories or conspiracy explanations would fit much better, but acceptance of such terms might be quite low. Nevertheless, we should at least bear in mind that most narratives of this kind cannot qualify as theories and so cannot lead to a wider research program; although their contents and implications are often far-reaching, potentially important for society and hence, in some cases, also worthy of checking.

Contact details: ccc@experimental-psychology.com

References

Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45-60. doi:10.1080/00313220601118751

Dentith, M. R. X. (2014). The philosophy of conspiracy theories. New York: Palgrave.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper [On the electrodynamics of moving bodies]. Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 17, 891-921.

Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731-742.

Grzesiak-Feldman, M., & Ejsmont, A. (2008). Paranoia and conspiracy thinking of Jews, Arabs, Germans and russians in a Polish sample. Psychological Reports, 102(3), 884.

Pipes, D. (1997). Conspiracy: How the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Popper, K. R. (1949). Prediction and prophecy and their significance for social theory. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy, Amsterdam.

Raab, M. H., Auer, N., Ortlieb, S. A., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). The Sarrazin effect: The presence of absurd statements in conspiracy theories makes canonical information less plausible. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(453), 1-8.

Raab, M. H., Carbon, C. C., & Muth, C. (2017). Am Anfang war die Verschwörungstheorie [In the beginning, there was the conspiracy theory]. Berlin: Springer.

Raab, M. H., Ortlieb, S. A., Guthmann, K., Auer, N., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). Thirty shades of truth: conspiracy theories as stories of individuation, not of pathological delusion. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(406).

Rankin, J. E. (2017). The conspiracy theory meme as a tool of cultural hegemony: A critical discourse analysis. (PhD), Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sapountzis, A., & Condor, S. (2013). Conspiracy accounts as intergroup theories: Challenging dominant understandings of social power and political legitimacy. Political Psychology. doi:10.1111/pops.12015

Suppe, F. (Ed.) (1977). The structure of scientific theories (2nd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Van Puyvelde, D., Coulthart, S., & Hossain, M. S. (2017). Beyond the buzzword: Big data and national security decision-making. International Affairs, 93(6), 1397-1416. doi:10.1093/ia/iix184

Votsis, I. (2004). The epistemological status of scientific theories: An investigation of the structural realist account. (PhD), London School of Economics and Political Science, London. Retrieved from Z:\PAPER\Votsis2004.pdf

Wagner-Egger, P., & Bangerter, A. (2007). The truth lies elsewhere: Correlates of belief in conspiracy theories. Revue Internationale De Psychologie Sociale-International Review of Social Psychology, 20(4), 31-61.

[1] It is important to stress that a “good narrative” in this context means “an appealing story” in which people are interested; by no means does the author want to allow confusion by suggesting the meaning as being “positive”, “proper”, “adequate” or “true”.

Author Information: Robert Piercey, Campion College at the University of Regina, robert.piercey@uregina.ca

Piercey, Robert. “Faraway, So Close: Further Thoughts on Kanonbildung.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 33-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xg

Please refer to:

In the courtyard of Humboldt University, where Georg Hegel taught at the apex of his institutional career.
Image by Joan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I’d like to thank Maxim Demin and Alexei Kouprianov for their probing study of Kanonbildung in 19th century Germany. As I understand it, the study has two goals. The first is substantive: to gather and present facts about how a particular philosophical canon emerged in 19th century Germany. The other is methodological: “to develop formalised methods of studying Kanonbildung as a process,” methods which “may turn out to be useful beyond the original scope of our project, in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history and mechanics of cultural memory formation” (113).

It’s this second goal that I find particularly interesting. So in what follows, I won’t quarrel with the substantive conclusions Demin and Kouprianov draw about the formation of the 19th century German philosophical canon—in part because their conclusions strike me as plausible, and in part because I lack the expertise to challenge their findings. Instead, I’d like to reflect broadly on the methods they use to study Kanonbildung, especially the notion of distant reading which they borrow from Franco Moretti (113). More specifically, I’d like to raise some questions about whether, how, and to what extent their strategy of distant reading must be supplemented by a form of close reading: namely, a form that treats histories of philosophy as literary artifacts whose contents are to be studied by many of the same techniques brought to bear on fictional narratives.

I raise these questions as a philosopher interested in the philosophy of history and in the intersections between philosophy and literature. To be clear, I don’t reject the methods developed by Demin and Kouprianov. On the contrary, I suspect that distant reading has an important role to play in the history of philosophy in general, and in the study of canon formation in particular. But I’d like to suggest that this method becomes more useful when it is supplemented by others—as well as to raise some questions about what this supplementing might look like.

Canon: An Institution of Thought

Let me start by highlighting what I take to be the key points of Demin’s and Kouprianov’s  analysis. They describe themselves as contributing to an institutional history of philosophy: that is, a history that downplays the “conceptual reconstruction” of past views in favour of a “study of practices” (113). The practices that interest them most are the “implicit rules and patterns” (113, emphasis added) that shape philosophers’ understandings of what their activity is and how it should proceed—practices typically not noticed by philosophers themselves. And the epoch that interests them is the 19th century, since it was during this period “that the history of philosophy began its transformation from a generalised body of knowledge into an academic discipline” (112).

A crucial part of this transformation is the development of philosophical canons. Demin and Kouprianov say relatively little about what they think canons are. Very roughly, I take them to be groups of thinkers who are seen as representing the highest and most important achievements of philosophy as a practice, thinkers with whom one should be familiar if one wishes to understand or contribute to philosophy at all.

Furthermore, a canon consists of not just a list of thinkers, but some sort of ranking, some sense—perhaps not fully explicit—of each thinker’s relative importance. In the canon Demin and Kouprianov study, for instance, philosophers are variously described as “primary,” “secondary,” or “tertiary” (116). Understood in this way, canons perform several important functions. They perform sociological functions of “indoctrination and identity formation” (113). By the end of the 19th century in Germany, a familiarity with Kant, Hegel, and others had come to shape philosophers’ understandings of their enterprise to such an extent that it was probably a necessary condition of being considered a philosopher at all.

Canons presumably perform other functions as well—for instance, inspiring philosophers by providing “mountains peaks to look up towards,” in Richard Rorty’s phrase.[1] Canons can change dramatically over time. So if one wants to understand a particular period in the history of philosophy well, it is important to know not just which figures it considered canonical, but how and when its particular canon was formed. That is what Demin and Kouprianov set out to discover about 19th century Germany.

What Is Distant Reading?

As mentioned above, the methods they use to do so go by the name of distant reading. This term was coined by Franco Moretti to designate a particular way of studying literary texts. It is to be opposed to close reading, which privileges the contents of particular texts and engages in “the analysis of ideas and the reconstruction of conceptual schemata” (113). Distant reading focuses instead on the practices “standing behind” these texts, using “formal analytic methods” to uncover “objective characteristics of large amounts of digitised texts” (113).

I take it that the authors see distant reading not as intrinsically superior to all other approaches, but as a way of correcting an imbalance. Their suggestion seems to be that the study of the history of philosophy heretofore has been so dominated by close reading that it has overlooked “implicit rules and patterns” (113). Distant reading nudges the pendulum in the other direction by encouraging historians to pay “closer attention” (113, emphasis added) to previously overlooked practices.

With this goal in mind, Demin and Kouprianov examine a large number of 19th century German works in the history of philosophy, constructing a data set that reveals how often particular philosophers were mentioned and at what length they were discussed. Examining “845 [table of contents] entries for 151 philosophers’ names,” they compile data about the “number of pages devoted to each philosopher” in these works, the “share of the 19th century section devoted to him,” and the “start and end pages of the paragraph and those of the 19th century section” (114).

The result is a very precise snapshot of how much discussion was devoted to certain philosophers at various points in the 19th century—one that allows us to trace the ways in which interest in these figures increased, peaked, and in some cases declined as the century unfolded. It lets us see precisely how and when certain figures came to be seen as more canonical than others.

This approach bears several sorts of fruit. One—in keeping with the authors’ second, methodological goal—is that it spurs the invention of new concepts helpful for making sense of the data. The undertheorized concept of a “philosophical bestseller” (115), for instance, announces itself as important, and can be defined quite precisely as a work published three times or more. Likewise, their approach allows Demin and Kouprianov to develop precise markers of the perceived greatness of philosophers, in terms of “the frequency that a particular name appears across tables of contents” (117). A primary thinker, for instance, can be defined as one “mentioned in more than 80% of treatises” (117).

Other gains are substantive. We learn that the reputations of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were cemented between 1831 and 1855, as the rate at which they were mentioned outpaced that of other thinkers. And we learn that a common view of Schopenhauer—that he was underappreciated in his lifetime and scorned by the philosophical establishment—is false, “with his views being included in three textbooks by 1855” (118). These are important discoveries, and they demonstrate the value of the authors’ strategy of distant reading.

The new museum at Humbolt University.
Image by Bartek Kuzia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shifting Fortunes of Fame

Of course, as Demin and Kouprianov acknowledge, “presence in the canonic history does not tell us much about the part a philosopher played within it” (119). In order to bring this dimension into view, they use several additional techniques. The one I find most intriguing is their examination of where certain philosophers appear in various histories of philosophy, and more specifically, their study of how often various philosophers appear at the end of a history.

The authors focus on three philosophers—Herbart, Schleiermacher, and Fries—who are often discussed in conjunction with Hegel. Then they see how often the figures in question are discussed before Hegel, and how often they are discussed after. “This relative position,” they explain, “is an indirect but a most meaningful criterion which allows to assess the degree of perceived recency and relevancy of a given philosopher. The closer a philosopher stays to the end of the list, the more ‘recent’ and ‘relevant’ to the current debate he is” (123).

This view seems plausible, and in the authors’ hands, it sheds important new light on how these four thinkers were viewed at various points in the 19th century. But we should note that it makes a crucial assumption. In order to move from the premise that a history discusses a given philosopher last to the conclusion that it sees him as most relevant to current debates, we must assume that it tells a particular kind of story: roughly speaking, a progressive story.

We must assume that the historian has organized her data in a very particular way, with the episodes of her story becoming more and more germane to contemporary readers’ concerns as they get closer and closer to them in time. No doubt many, if not most, histories of philosophy actually are stories of this kind. But is a philosopher’s position in a given history a good general clue to her perceived relevance? Is it such a reliable indicator of perceived importance that it should be built into a method intended for use “in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history” (113)?

Philosophy as a Tradition

I linger over this matter because it raises an important issue in the history of philosophy: the issue of genre. Histories of philosophy, I take it, are narratives, and every narrative belongs to some genre or other.[2] Narratives in different genres may describe the same events in the same order, but assign them different meanings by shaping these events into different sorts of plots. The philosopher who has contributed most to our understanding of this process is Hayden White. In his seminal essay “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” White asks us to consider several different ways in which a single series of events might be emplotted. We can imagine a pure chronicle in which the series is “simply recorded in which the events originally occurred” (93); it might be represented in the following way:

  • a, b, c, d, e, …, n[3]

But this series “can be emplotted in a number of different ways and thereby endowed with different meanings without violating the imperatives of the chronological arrangement at all” (92). The following series are all equally possible:

  • A, b, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, B, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, C, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, c, D, e, …, n[4]

In each of these series, one event is symbolized with a capital letter to indicate that it is being assigned “explanatory force,”[5] or some other special significance, with respect to the others. Privileging one event rather than another yields stories in different genres. Series (2) would be a “deterministic” history which endows a “putatively original event (a) with the status of a decisive factor (A) in the structuration of the whole series of events following after it.”[6] Were we to privilege the last event in the series, we would have a story in the genre of “eschatological or apocalyptical histories” such as “St. Augustine’s City of God” and “Hegel’s Philosophy of History.”[7]

Many other permutations, and thus many other genres, are possible. In some genres, it is plausible to suppose that the last figure discussed is seen by the author as most relevant to current concerns. But in other genres, this assumption cannot be made. In a history of decline or forgetting, the last figure discussed might well be seen by the author as the least relevant to these concerns. Consider a Heideggerian history of philosophy, in which the last figure discussed is Nietzsche, but the figure most relevant to the contemporary situation is one or another pre-Socratic thinker.

The point is that knowing that a philosopher appears last in a given history—even in a large number of histories—does not tell us much about how the author understood his significance for current concerns. To draw conclusions about significance, we must know the genre (or genres) of the history (or histories) in question. And that is something we can discover only through careful attention to a history’s “literary” features—precisely the features identified through traditional close readings. So while the data Demin and Kouprianov uncover, and the methods they use to do so, are indispensable, I suspect they do not give a full picture of Kanonbildung on their own. They will be most useful when pursued in tandem with certain types of close reading.

Merging Historical Paths

I have no reason to think that Demin and Kouprianov would deny any of this. But I would like to know more about whether, and how, they think it complicates their project. What is the relation between distant reading and close reading? Do these types of analysis simply complement each other, or are they also in tension? I’ve already speculated that the authors see distant reading as a way of correcting an imbalance—that “formal analytic methods” directed at the “objective characteristics… of digitised texts” (113) are called for today because a longstanding bias toward close reading has left historians oblivious to implicit rules and patterns.

If that is the case, is there a danger that performing close reading in conjunction with distant reading will overshadow the distinctive value of the latter? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that it will be important to answer them if the methods of this study are to be extended to other areas.

I hasten to add that I am not “for” close reading or “against” distant reading. Distant reading, as the authors describe it, is clearly an important tool. But I would like to know more about how it relates to the other tools at the disposal of historians of philosophy. Whatever their view of this matter, I’d like to thank Demin and Kouprianov again for making a promising new contribution to our conceptual toolbox.

Contact details: robert.piercey@uregina.ca

References

Demin, Maxim, and Alexei Kouprianov, “Studying Kanonbildung: An Exercise in a Distant Reading of Contemporary Self-descriptions of the 19th Century German Philosophy.” Social Epistemology, 32, no. 2: 112-127.

Kuukkanen, Jouni-Matti. Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Rorty, Richard “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

[1] Richard Rorty, “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 23.

[2] Not everyone agrees that all histories are narratives, but space does not permit me to broach this issue here. For an important recent discussion of it, see Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), especially Chapter 5.

[3] Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 92.

[4] White, 92.

[5] White, 92.

[6] White, 93.

[7] White, 93.