Thursday, July 10, 2008

The ‘Fashionable’ Thinker and Returning to the ‘Unfashionable’ Thinker (Part 1)...

Philosophy, like most other social things, is susceptible to trends and fads. A philosopher, or a philosophy, emerges onto the scene capturing the attention of various scholars, publishers, and academic disciplines. During this period we have the ‘fashionable’ thinker. Literature is produced on understanding, acclaiming, defending, dismissing, and critiquing the ‘fashionable’ thinker. Predictably, philosophy moves on and finds another ‘fashionable’ thinker and the last ‘fashionable’ thinker is less of an influence in the press machine and our thoughts. This discarding and removal of the popularity suggests, or at least implies, that we have learnt, critiqued, and understood the entire corpus the thinker had to offer (or the philosopher has been proved wrong). In other words, in order to move on to the next fashionable, the last ‘fashionable’ thinker s laid to rest (the gift of death?). Of course, the work and thoughts of the thinker is never truly dead and it would be more accurate to propose it has a zombie existence as the living dead.

When a fashionable thinker becomes unfashionable, does this provide an opportunity to return to their work, focusing on what they have offered away from the limelight and gaze of fashion? The problem of the limelight of fashion is people rush to accept, defend, dismiss, adore, hate, (mis)understand, love, and critique the fashionable thinker. In short, a pressure is forced upon members of the philosophy community to have a view, or stance, directed towards the fashionable thinker. It is almost not acceptable to not have a view on them. We cannot remain silent on them. (Maybe remaining silent on them could provide a form of resistance against the fashion markets of philosophy?). During this fashion fad (forced) views are produced and a lot of misunderstanding and ill-informed opinions are disseminated. Critiques and dismissals of the fashionable thinker come across as reactionary, failing to have engaged (in-depth) with the work. This stance is the stance where people know they do not like the thinker, but cannot really explain (in depth) why they do not like the thinker. Followers and defenders of the fashionable thinker are also too quick to adore and defend. Their work misses out on the warnings and carefully argued points made from the fashionable thinker. These followers tend to produce a dogmatic type of thought that is never present in the philosopher themselves (e.g. Marxists become worse than Marx).


The Brooks Blog said...

The view you present is that philosopher/philosophy X is fashionable at time T1 to be replaced by philosopher/philosophy Y at T2, then Z at T3 (or perhaps X again at T3). Why think this?

It strikes me that today many things are "fashionable" all at once. In history of political thought, British Idealism hasn't been this popular for many decades. Likewise, the study of Hegel and Nietzsche.

Instead of one "fashion" we are faced with many fashions -- raising the questions of (a) is there anything not fashionable? and (b) how could one tell with any assurance that the view they upheld was not linked solely to its fashionability?

On (a) I think it is easy to say what is or is not mainstream --- so that "postmodernism" and its many variants are clearly not mainstream when looking at the disciplines of, say, philosophy and politics and their main journals (e.g., Ethics, Mind, P&PA, APSR, AJPS, JoP, etc.). But what serves as fashionable seems a different category, relating to what "group" within a field/fields you referred to and their views on what is in fashion (which may differ dramatically from what is mainstream). On (b) this seems far more tricky -- but we must be able to tell, if your views are to be upheld.

Mark202 said...

I would tend to favour view b) and agree that identifying what is fashionable is a complex issue, but, at the same time, is possible. I will encounter this problem in the next post on the topic of the 'fashionable thinker.'

At present I would suggest that we think about it in terms of a network theory (e.g. Castells, Latours, Urry, and DeLanda), which would allow for multiple fashionable thinkers at the same time. What would be important is the density of the network for a thinker, which could be used to identify their popularity. As they become less popular the density would become less. I'll try to outline this mode of thought in the next post.

The Brooks Blog said...

...or you could see this in view of Larry Laudan's work on scientific programmes: it sounds like Castells, etc. are taking a similar idea.