On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects
for its Renewal
by Eugene Halton
Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1995,
Chapter 1: The Codification of Social Theory
speech? Yeah, tell me another one.
Fish, Literary Theorist
Why Theory Now?
theories and `ideas' be the rules of your being. The Führer himself
and he alone is German reality and its law, today and for the future.
only in terror, but in the confessed terror of going mad.
to having a perfect horror of a dictatorship of theorists.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May used to have a routine going back to their
days with the Second City Comedy Club in Chicago, in which they would toss
words back and forth which would qualify as "cleans" and "dirties." For
example, the term "Lake Michigan" is a clean, while "Lake Titicaca"--enunciated
very slowly--is a dirty. "Sword" is a clean, while "rapier" is a dirty.
Are you with me, dear reader? We can apply the same method to a number
of terms in intellectual life today.
In this general
mindset, contingency, pluralism, and social constructionism are cleans,
while essences, foundations, experience, and universals are all dirties.
"Reality" is a dirty while "fiction" is a clean. The "I" is a dirty, and
so is "we." An "author" is a dirty, while a "text" is a clean. "The
body," formerly a dirty, can be redefined as a text, and made into a clean.
Local cultures are clean, while "humanity" is a dirty. "Privileging" and
"valorizing" something is a dirty, while using the terms "privilege" and
"valorize" as verbs is a clean. Postmodernism is a clean, while modernism
is a dirty. Non-hierarchical multiculturalism is a clean, while a canon
is a dirty. Both those who characterize certain people as "politically
correct" and those who are so characterized agree that it is a dirty.
John Dewey used to be a dirty for most post-world war II academic philosophers,
but now that "the public intellectual" has become a clean, Dewey has become
a clean. Even more remarkably, Dewey, the philosopher who lamented what
he termed "the eclipse of community," has become a clean for many who also
regard "communitarianism" as a dirty. Figure that one out!
contemporary intellectual life is the assumption that "the big picture"
traditionally sought by philosophy is a dirty, while "little pictures"
are clean. I wish to claim that fallible big pictures are not only still
possible but are requisite for comprehending the modern and postmodern
world. Also central to intellectual life today, although more problematically,
is the assumption that organic nature is a dirty, while culture is a clean.
When the term
nature is used in the context of ecology it can be put safely within a
political context, and then regarded as a clean. But the idea that organic
biology may have some direct and inward influence on persons, institutions,
societies and civilizations, that human conduct cannot be completely reduced
to socio-historical cultural constructions categorically distinct from
nature--such an idea is a dirty, even if John Dewey, the newly reconstructed
clean public intellectual, might have sought such a naturalistic basis
for human conduct. That side of Dewey is declared a dirty, and consigned
to the dungheap of history.
The term "public
intellectual" is clearly a clean, while for many, the term "tenured radical"
is a dirty. Philosophy is regarded by many today as a dirty, while social
theory is a clean. There is, of course, a long tradition, going back at
least to Marx's last thesis on Feuerbach, to call for the end of philosophy.
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