Thursday, June 26, 2008

Disciplinary Hierarchies, Intellectual Kung Fu

Here's Leiter's take
, but then again he betrays an obvious bias towards philosophy. (For the record, I did very well as an English lit/Poli Sci major.)

But over at OrgTheory, guestblogger Michael Sauder has a most awesome allegory for disciplinary hierarchies, insecurity complexes, and intellectual kung fu (go there to read the whole thing, plus comments):

There is a great, funny story in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground that has been on my mind lately (bear with me—there is a point to this, although maybe not a good one). In the story, the narrator of the book—an unnamed, isolated, and self-loathing man—becomes enraged with a large military officer who, in a crowded bar, physically moves the narrator out of the way as he (the officer) negotiates the crowd, doing so without in any way acknowledging the narrator. The narrator, unable to work up the courage to confront the officer at the time, fixates on the officer: he watches for him around the city (“staring at him with hate and malice”), figures out his routines, and starts following him from a distance; he writes a satirical essay about him but doesn’t publish it; he contemplates challenging the officer to a duel—tellingly imagining how this might lead the two to become good friends in the end—but shrinks from doing so. This goes on for several years.

At last he decides upon the perfect solution. He has noticed that on his daily walks the officer never steps aside when those of lower social status meet him on the path—he just bulls ahead, pretending like they don’t exist, and they invariably move aside. The narrator’s plan is that he will walk towards the officer on the path and will hold his ground; the officer, then, will be forced to acknowledge him and recognize his worth. The narrator plans for a long time. He decides that he will have to be well dressed in case there is a scandal afterwards, so he gets an advance on his salary to buy a new hat and new gloves; resolving that this is not enough, he begrudgingly borrows a large sum of money—several months worth of salary—from a colleague he doesn’t like so to replace his beaver overcoat collar with one made of raccoon. (I can relate!)

Thus attired, he attempts to carry out his plan several times, but on each occasion moves out of the way at the last instant. Hating himself, he finally works up the nerve to hold his ground, and the two run into each other, shoulder against shoulder: “[The officer] did not even glance back and pretended he hadn’t noticed anything; but he was only pretending, I am convinced of that! I am convinced of it to this day. Naturally, I got the worst of the collision, for he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had achieved my goal, I had sustained my dignity, I had not yielded a step and had publicly set myself on equal footing with him. I came home fully avenged for everything. I was jubilant. I was ecstatic and sang Italian arias.”

The story has been on my mind because I realized a few months ago that I think of it often when people start discussing sociology’s relationship to economics. Admittedly, this may just be a quirk on my part and no one else may see it—and I should also say that I make the comparison in a self-deprecating spirit. Even so, the fact that it keeps coming to mind makes me think that, however unflattering, such a comparison (not being noticed by a high status counterpart, dwelling on what they think of us when we are far from their mind, putting on our best models in an attempt to be acknowledged, celebrating victories in battles that they didn’t even know took place) must have some truth to it. It must represent one real position, even if an extreme one, that sociology has taken toward economics.

Though TD doesn't know it, he is a Wittgensteinian who thinks that most of philosophy is useless. I do too. But I gotta say, between my long lost love for jurisprudence and my other long lost love for critical theory/philosophy of language, I have to admit that I will always be intellectually body checked by philosophy. Sure, I suck at math, belying my Asianness. But I am occasionally capable at theory, and yet I can struggle mightily to understand the basic stuff. It is one of those areas where there's potential, and yet such difficulty that I want to give up reading something that is just not that enjoyable, and that I am so clearly not naturally talented at. I envy those who can make/deconstruct brilliant arguments.

But economics? Nah. Though in theory I should, as a former political scientist, and as a current sociology of law person, feel methodologically inferior to economics--no really, I don't. I think we're talking about the same things, and at the same level of meso theory, and really, none of the social sciences will every give a persuasive meta theory for ___ phenomenon. Philosophy is your best bet, but then again it doesn't have any evidence, and it's even less grounded in real world experience. Vicious circle. This is why disciplinary hierarchies are dumb. Again, intellectual kung fu.