Department Seminar with Professor Gavin Kitching ‘Student Theorists': Undergraduate Understandings of
Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism
SpeakersProfessor Gavin Kitching (De Montfort University)
Organised byDepartment of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropoplogy, University of Exeter
VenueByrne House (Streatham campus)
"The questions 'What is length?' 'What is meaning?' 'What is the number one?' etc produce in us a mental cramp. We feel that we cannot point to anything in reply to them and yet ought to point to something. (We are up against one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment: a substantive makes us look for something that corresponds to it)." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books
The above is an oft-quoted passage, but it is not without its difficulties. Taken at its face value it seems to be asserting that great thinkers - such as Plato, Descartes, Kant, Hegel etc. - commit the elementary intellectual error of thinking that abstract nouns always name abstract 'objects' or 'things'. Or (to put it the other way round) that if 'length' or 'meaning' or 'the number one' did not 'exist' somehow then these nouns or noun phrases would have no meaning. I do not feel competent to say whether all of the great philosophers named above made such a mistake. But many social science students (including good students) do sometimes. And many teachers of social science do sometimes.
This paper is about these 'sometimes'. It is about the peculiar occasions and contexts in which intelligent people commit intellectual mistakes that they do not commit in their daily lives. I suggest that these occasions or contexts are peculiar in two respects:
- People are being required to be self-conscious about the abstract nouns they are using - about their meaning - while being given little or no explicit guidance about how to do this, and while having little previous experience of doing it.
- They are being encouraged to do this in abstraction from any particular (empirically particular) context - i.e. from any specific location in time or space.
In such peculiar settings students are left with little choice but to treat abstract nouns as the names of curious abstract objects, because they are being required to play a language game in which they are denied the conceptual resources to do anything else. This language game is called 'theorising', and it is distinguished by the invariable rule that concepts should be 'clarified' before empirical work begins. In this situation 'clarification' is bound to mean some form of stipulative definition, and this in turn is bound to be understood, Platonically, as the describing of abstract, intellectual 'objects'.
Based on my book The Trouble with Theory, this paper shows how good undergraduate students come to treat 'post-modernism' and 'post-structuralism' as the names of peculiar 'theoretical' entities, with generally disastrous consequences for their research work.