Normativity, Social Science and Secularism: Reply to @rightscholar

(see here for context)

Thanks for the thoughtful response and apologies for what seems to have been a slightly shrill note to my comments in retrospect. I wasn’t consciously commenting with a sociological hat on (so to speak) but I take the point nonetheless – the implication of MacIntyre’s work for sociology is, I would argue at least, an attentiveness to the normative dimension of everyday life, as opposed to the material and/or the meanings. That is the sense in which things matter to individuals in an non-reductive way, as well as the cultural and structural properties of the world (things like dominant conceptions of social science, esoteric political philosophy, online publishing platforms and organisations which employ people with particular views) which constitute the environment within which moral subjects find themselves and are faced with the challenge of making sense of circumstances they did not choose but are nonetheless capable of making choices within. It’s in this sense that i think i did slip into talking sociologically when I accused you of simplifying a complex amalgamation of circumstances. So I guess I was saying two things really and i stand by both of them:

  1. I was questioning the empirical basis for your claims in a straight forward lay sense. I just don’t think what you’re saying is true. You slip into making empirical claims in your second to last paragraph and I think they’re straight forwardly inaccurate on an empirical level – if you look at sociology, economics, political science, geography and anthropology in an anglo-american context the degree of truth or falsity is different. Foucault’s work (and that of his adherents) doesn’t represent a ‘radical deviation’ from the norm – he’s been cited almost 400,000 times.  He’s practically institutionalised in some parts of the academy. The Foucauldian whose work I’m most familiar with, Nik Rose, has been cited over 30,000 times and is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the most highly cited British sociologists currently writing. What you believe to be the dominant conception of the social sciences does not, as far as I’m aware, exist outside of political science, economics and certain aspects of US sociology: in each case it is something very different despite the superficial commonality. There’s simply too much heterogeneity for the Straussian analysis to look like anything other than an (extremely interesting) anachronism orientated towards a post-war confluence of circumstances which hasn’t existed in the US for decades.
  2. Which brings me to the sociological point about simplification. To be frank I think you have a much stronger case when talking about the cultural politics of academia than you do when invoking the “implied politics of much of the research being conducted”. I also assumed this was what you were talking about in the first place i.e. the “why are professors liberal?” paradigm. My objection to what I took you to be arguing and the basis of my ‘narcissism’ comment was the sense in which it might be that they seem left-wing to you because of your own oppositional orientation to them i.e. they seem homogenous because of your own intense experience of heterogeneity within the academy. My frustration with what I took to be your simplification stemmed from the degree to which, as someone happily on the non-aligned far left for much of my life, it’s obvious to me that there’s a whole range of views which often get subsumed under the portmanteau term ‘leftism’. I realise now this wasn’t what you were actually arguing but I thought it would be helpful to explain where I was coming from. The other aspect to my frustration, which certainly is relevant, stems from what seems (to me at least) to be areas of near hegemonic social attitudes within the academy[*] concerning things like religion and secularism – spoken as a life long atheist whose most significant intellectual influences have nonetheless all been catholic philosophers. I’m sure there are others which I don’t notice, probably because I unthinkingly reproduce them. I would have assumed, looking at this from a sociological perspective, that these were the sorts of cultural tendencies which had provoked your ire. So when I accused you of simplification, it was on the (mistaken?) assumption that you were, in part at least, reacting to convergences of viewpoint which I accept exist but nonetheless over generalising from the existence to posit an ‘open conspiracy’ –  which I do accept as a possibility, in the sense of networks operating towards certain shared purposes without explicit organisation, but not in the sense you’re advocating, which suggested an unwillingness to accept the reasoned disagreement of others.

*It occurs when writing a statement like “within the academy” that I’m speaking generally and experientially, without any empirical basis that I can easily point to for substantiation, in precisely the way I was criticising you for doing. I remain entirely open to being persuaded otherwise though and the truncated empiricism I’d endorse is one which sees empirical data as adjudicating rather than prohibiting propositions which are not immediately substantiated.

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