histories, problems, and periodizations . . .

As someone who spends a lot of time talking to people in other departments, I often find myself having to explain what I do to people who have no clue about what “research” in literature would consist of.   Are there grants for that kind of thing?  If not, then why bother?  Or, as a friend once told me over drinks, “With all due respect, Dave, whar the fuck is your expertise located?”

–In a body of texts and traditions , I said, though precisely which texts and which traditions were always matters of fierce contention.

And he, poor soul, couldn’t imagine a world in which anyone could get a fellowship to study a twentieth-century poet.  “Well, cheers, then, and good luck to ’em,” he concluded.

At times, it’s not much easier in my own department, because creative writers and rhet/comp people can be as casual about our working categories as people outside literature departments.  In the meantime, newer specialties like ethnic lit or area studies cut across the period grid quite differently than the specialties defined by chronological, national, and linguistic boundaries.

So I’ve often wondered why the basis for so much of our literature curriculum, at both the graduate and undergraduate level, remains this linear model of a succession of dominant styles (medievalism, renaissance, classicism, romanticism, realism, modernism, post-modernism, etc. etc.).  Was it imported into literature from architecture and the visual arts?  And is there some other, more general framework available, if the linear model of periodization is no longer considered the most “general” framework?

Which is why I was really interested in this post from Siris, who writes a history of philosophy blog, when he described this online taxonomy of philosophy being produced by David Chalmers and David Bourget.  Siris, I think, asks the right question when he asks: “how best to organize information in History of Philosophy?”  And we could use Siris’s reflections to help us learn how best to organize information in literary or cultural history, especially when we feel that periods and periodization are not adequate to the research tasks we’re defining for ourselves right now.  So what if periodization is nothing more than the most convenient way for us to group and store information?

What Siris notes is that the Chalmers/Bourget taxonomy is specifically unsuited for the history of philosophy, because philosophical inquiry seems to be organized along two very different axes, a set of interlocking or nested synchronic individual “problems” and a linear, diachronic “history of philosophy.”  Individual writers like Hume or Locke can be classified on the basis of the problems they have tackled or their actual historical or personal relations with other philosophers.  And the history of philosophy seems to appear in the C/B taxonomy twice, in two apparently unrelated domains.

The field of inquiry for HoP [history of philosophy] naturally organizes itself along two completely different lines, each of them important and essential to the field. On the one hand, what historians of philosophy study is naturally seen as a complicated historical system of networks: networks of influence, networks of institutions, networks of oppositions, networks of personal interaction, along with the individual thinkers at the nodes of these networks. On the other hand, they study not only networks but themes, which we usually call, somewhat misleadingly, problems. Thus historians of philosophy do philosophy by tracing both the history of networks of various kinds and the internal structures of problems discussed and investigated within those networks; and what is more, they do so simultaneously, and doing so simultaneously is essential to the approach.

Siris points out a number of interesting effects of this kind of taxonomy, which relate to the fact that the core of philosophy is usually felt to be on the “problem” axis, because these problems are the focus of individual inquiries, meaning high profile articles and books, etc.  Yet individual philosophers have no way to communicate with one another except through these ad hoc and unrecognized “infrastructures” for their field, which are the kind of thing people construct for undergraduates, but rarely take seriously for themselves, unless they really are professional historians of philosophy.  But the history of philosophy is still considered something of a lesser endeavor compared to really “doing” philosophy, probably because it’s considered a preliminary, information-gathering step preparatory to the real work of inquiry.

After looking over the C/B taxonomy, my question would be: what kinds of persistent, collectively pursued issues would literary or cultural studies offer as counterparts to the “problem” in philosophy?  And to what extent are these conceived within or apart from our periodizations?   How should we be organizing the information for our inquiries?


3 responses to “histories, problems, and periodizations . . .

  1. amazing resources. thank you.

  2. Thanks, Chris.