In my view, one of the most boorish behaviors of academics in the humanities (at least among many of the Continentalists I encounter) is the tendency to transform every disagreement into misinterpretation. The move is ubiquitous. Person X says thinker Y is mistaken for reason Z. Respondent R then says X just hasn’t understood Y. What follows is then a long, patronizing lecture on what Y really meant that loses the stakes of the discussion altogether and which instead becomes a discussion about Y rather than about the issue. It is likely that this is one of the behaviors that partially accounts for the general disrespect theorists in the humanities receive, and indeed is perhaps one of the reasons humanities funding is drying up. It is not texts or thinkers that are important, but what texts are about that’s important. Too many of us, however, behave in exactly the opposite way. We lose the issue for the text and master.
Descartes is an exemplary model of what we should instead strive for. One might retort that Descartes was himself steeped in the history of philosophy as a result of his Jesuit training, and this would indeed be true. However, this makes my point. A commentary on that tradition doesn’t appear in his texts. Descartes assumes his audience is educated, that they are familiar with this tradition, and gets down to work. He forthrightly makes claims and it’s possible to directly argue against those claims.
In this ways Descartes proceeds like a scientist or engineer. He doesn’t give us a commentary on the works of great scientists or engineers, but simply proceeds to get down to work. In this regard it is perfectly legitimate to cite the work of others and to critically engage with that work, but the work itself shouldn’t be about these other thinkers. Instead, too many of us in the humanities behave as if the interesting project lies in showing how the fuel injected engine was made possible by the aerosol spray apparatus of the perfume bottle. We delight in showing how everything can be traced back to some previous thinker. For example, rather than addressing Descartes’ project we instead talk about how Augustine said “I think therefore I am” as if this is somehow relevant (hint, many recipes use the ingredients used in other recipes, but the recipes nonetheless produce very different things). For the engineer, by contrast, the interesting question is wether perfume aerosol sprays allow us to build good fuel injected engines. We’re all guilty of this sort of boorishness, myself included, but does it come as any surprise that so many are loath to talk to us when we’re continuously changing the subject by demanding extended exegesis only to conclude this detour to discover that the extended exegesis confirms the pithy summary we began with? If we’re to be relevant we need to stop this.