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February 22, 2010

stop problematizing--say something

In the humanities today, a pervasive rhetorical style is to raise questions or "problematize." A humanist will describe his or her work as "putting into question" technology, or marriage, or Jane Austen. I think this style is problematic (irony intended) for the following reasons ...

It's usually a way of expressing an opinion. You put technology in question (for instance) because you're against some aspect of it. But vague question-raising allows you to duck accountability for your own views. If you said, "Technology is harmful," people would be able to test your thesis, cite difficult examples, and put alternative opinions on the table. If all you say is that you want to raise questions about technology, the accountability falls on your interlocutors and you avoid having to defend your position (even to yourself).

This style also allows you to avoid specifying the degree of certainty or generality of your views. Are you just vaguely uncomfortable about a popular enthusiasm, or do you have reasons and evidence in favor of a critical view? If all you do is "problematize," you don't have to say.

Perhaps scholars adopt this style in modesty, but it comes across as insufferably arrogant. Picture a literary critic or a philosopher who is talking to students or other citizens who have marriages in their families. The humanist says that he or she wishes to "problematize" marriage. Well, marriage is subject to criticism. But the style of simply raising questions implies that you're smart and sophisticated because you see problems with other people's deep commitments. Yet you don't have solutions or alternatives. The clear implication is that other people are stupid. In contrast, if you said that there were reasons to scrap marriage in favor of free contracts between consenting adults, you'd be putting your own views on the line, subjecting them to debate. That would come across as much less arrogant, because you would risk losing the argument. (If all you do is raise questions, you can't lose.)

As a pedagogy or as a way of intervening in public debates, merely raising questions seems to imply that our problem is credulity, or prejudice, or a failure to grasp difficulties. In fact, when it comes to moral matters, I think skepticism comes all too quickly and conveniently, justifying self-interest and complacency. As Bernard Williams wrote, "Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can." (More on that here.)

I suspect that the questioning style reflects a deep skepticism about normative judgments. The reasons for this skepticism include cultural relativism and a cult of expertise (which implies that scholars should only address what they are trained to address; and no one but a moral philosopher is trained to make moral claims.) If such skepticism is appropriate, then there really isn't much social value to the humanities, and it's not surprising that those disciplines are under-funded and under-appreciated. But if we can make valid ethical/normative statements, we should do so.

Note that you can make an explicit moral claim with due humility. You can propose it for argument, noting that there are valid alternatives and that even you aren't sold on it. But I think responsible participation in the public sphere requires making explicit statements about what you value, and why. As long as the prevailing style is to problematize, the humanities will continue to hold a marginal role in public life.

February 22, 2010 7:21 AM | category: none



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