Pundit makes stuff up, is refuted
Stanley Fish has recently asserted that “the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical […], and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them”. This is at best a gross overgeneralization; it can be refuted by five minutes’ research online.*
No doubt lots of people will step up to defend the relevance of philosophical conclusions. I want to consider a different issue. Once upon a time when a poobah like Fish issued pronouncements like this, it would have taken time to gather the evidence to refute him. Now it takes almost no time or expense. It seems that by and large the poobahs have yet to catch on, perhaps because for poobahs research is optional. When they pontificate on the day’s events, they mostly rely on their general knowledge. This is owing no doubt to deadline pressures; but it is also characteristic of the role. A well-furnished mind has been, since the days of Cicero at least, a prerequisite of the orator; but even the most well-furnished have lacunæ and lapses, and one suspects that some of our poobahs’ furnishings are sparse.
When I lecture I sometimes find myself veering into topics I haven’t prepared and don’t know much about. I too have to fall back on my general knowledge. I used to be able to count on knowing more than my students on most of the subjects I was likely to veer into. But now they have computers and iPads. If I don’t get a date or name right they can catch it almost immediately. They sometimes do, and sometimes they tell me. I’ve learned two things: one is not to fake it, the other is to take advantage of those computers and iPads—have them do some fact-checking for me. It’s instructive for both of us.
The issue I want to raise is: what becomes of “general knowledge”, or rather the social value of having lots of it, now that anyone with a phone or tablet can simulate the possession of a well-furnished mind? Is the orator’s storehouse obsolete? And if poobah discourse, like the extemporaneous public oratory of Chautauqua days, depends for its effect partly on the impressive marshalling of general knowledge, will it now gradually fade away?
*The issue Fish raises is real enough, and has a long history: for one case, see Miles Burnyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live his Scepticism?”, in Richard Rorty et al (eds.), Philosophy in History (1980) and the subsequent literature.