Sunday, September 23, 2018


I've been reading an academic book on poetry by William Logan, Dickinson's Nerves, Frost's Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past. Logan discusses particular poems both in technical terms and in contextual terms, referencing the lives of the authors and what a poem might have meant to them. This is more or less how I look at poems, so I like the way Logan goes about his job, but, unfortunately, there aren't many poems in the book that register much with me. I have had the same approach with poems such as "A Woman Meets an Old Lover," by Denise Levertov. Taken literally, that poem is about Levertov meeting a former lover, one who got her pregnant. They did not marry, she had an abortion, and they each married someone else, continuing their affair for decades. The poem is about seeing him late in life, when he is ill. It is hard to know how far one ought to go contextualizing poems this way, but to some extent it is necessary if you want to understand a poem fully. The risk of this approach is that you might strip a poem of its artistic effectiveness, thus there are limits to the usefulness of this kind of deconstruction. I will keep the book on hand and peruse it occasionally, but I won't write a full commentary on it.

I've ordered Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, by Sabine Hossenfelder. I think this book will be relevant to one of my favorite topics, namely, the sociology of academia. So far on this blog, I've written about the sociology of American literary culture, but the same concepts can be applied to all areas of academia. Ever since I read Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty, I've been thinking about why economists have focused on exotic mathematical models while often eschewing basic empirical research such as that conducted by Piketty. When I was a philosophy student, I wondered what formal logic had to do with philosophy, and when I was in graduate school, I saw little connection between mathematical logic and philosophy. I now think that there are multiple reasons for the insertion of mathematics into other disciplines, some valid and some not. Most of the valid ones are obvious: you can't do engineering without math, and statistical models are useful in many fields. The problems arise, I think, when the perception of precision becomes paramount. Thus, in philosophy, in Principia Mathematica (1910), Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell attempted to create a basis in formal logic for mathematics. This work was largely ignored by mathematicians and later disproven by mathematician Kurt Gödel. I'm not sure what purpose, if any, Principia served in philosophy, yet formal logic is still considered an important component in the field. Generally, I think that the perception of precision has driven the ascent of mathematics in many disciplines, which would not be a problem in itself were it not for the fact that mathematics alone is insufficient to advance many of those fields. In a sociological sense, my theory is that the members of various professions actively protect their jobs by becoming the gatekeepers with respect to the requirements for entering their fields. Even if knowledge of advanced mathematics plays little or no role in being a productive member of a field, it can become a useful screening tool for those who are already established and part of the status quo. Moreover, a focus on higher mathematics might disguise the fact that other difficult conceptual problems aren't being addressed at all. There is also the inappropriate attribution of prestige to fields that are mathematics-intensive, with the presumption that only the most intellectually talented people can do that sort of work. My view is that different people have different intellectual skills, and that mathematical skill doesn't preempt the others, though it may be necessary in many fields. I have no idea what Hossenfelder will have to say about this, but I have no prima facie reason to doubt that even physics may have become too mathematical.

The more I think about it, the more the idea of the sociology of academia seems interesting to me. It seems fairly clear that the stakeholders in American literary culture have set themselves up as the gatekeepers who determine what is good and what is bad writing; they entrench themselves in various ways, which makes their removal problematic. In economics, universities seem to favor mathematically proficient PhDs who eschew empirical research and favor economic models that are agreeable to outside sponsors. Economists as a group show little or no interest in the welfare of the public and are wedded to philosophical ideas dating from Adam Smith that seem increasingly obsolete as we enter late-stage capitalism, with a systemic reduction in the number of jobs available due to technological advances. My point here is that what is often presented as pure research in one form or another, one discipline to the next, is not at all exempt from various prejudices, individual or organizational, which reflect, ultimately, our biological provenance. Being in a field which requires clear thinking does not necessarily imply that the organizations that engage in it are pursuing their objectives in an entirely rational manner. If you compared English departments to economics departments and other departments, there is no reason to think that you wouldn't find something like oligopolies at work. In retrospect, I find it odd how the selection of faculty in various academic departments at my undergraduate college occurred. There was a religious leaning in the Philosophy Department that I wasn't able to comprehend fully until later; in a sense, the emphasis was on theology, not philosophy, and no explanation was ever given. And in that department, as in many others, the instruction suffered as a result of the backgrounds of the faculty: for the most part, they were good students who liked the academic environment but had no particular training or talent in teaching. The sociology of academia is a wide-open field that might one day answer broad, challenging questions such as how universities came to become bastions of political correctness.

We're getting some really cool weather, and the vegetable garden barely escaped a frost this morning. The temperature was 35 degrees in the yard, and there was frost on the field below us.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated in order to remove spam.