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  • The Disunity of Aesthetics:A Response to J. G. A. Pocock
  • Casey Haskins (bio)

In a recent lament on the state of the humanities, published in Common Knowledge, J.G.A. Pocock argues in favor of disinterested, specialized, and academically professionalized fields.1 He would prefer that disciplines be clearly marked off from one another, and that each be internally unified. Pocock presumes that academic life today is characterized by a debate between two kinds of intellectual. First, there are those who

inhabit the academy without serious discomfort and are professionalized as an association of practitioners of various highly specialized disciplines of inquiry. These do not much overlap, and the second-order conversation generated within each is concerned with what its practitioners already know to be going on among them.... though their methods of inquiry may be vehemently debated and rapidly changing, there remains an in-house expectation that they will continue in succession to their former state. Such professionals, in short, believe that they can challenge themselves without unpacking all their presuppositions: notably, the presupposition of scholarly disinterest.2 [End Page 326]

And then there are those—including, Pocock worries, many readers of and writers for Common Knowledge—who are

outside of, or uncomfortable in, the academy—writers who mistrust the idea of academic fields and question not just the possibility but the desirability of methodical scholarly inquiry. Intellectuals of this latter kind, even when working on what they term historical projects, resemble philosophers and philosophers of history more than they resemble historians. They are interested in history not so much as a multiplicity of experiences, some of which may be reconstructed, as a predicament; they ask what it is like to live in history, and what if anything can be said or done, or said to be, in that condition. They are interested in themselves, they are questioning themselves; and that is philosophy.3

This division of sensibilities, Pocock concludes, is cause for a continuing clash "between alienation and participation" in disciplinary life.4

But participation and alienation do not really exhaust the possibilities, as I suspect Pocock himself knows. In some disciplines, it would be difficult to say who is participating in what and who is alienated from it. Eventually, I will focus on one area of inquiry—the field of aesthetics, broadly construed—that exhibits a form of disunity that lends it a dynamic integrity not captured by the distinction between participation and alienation. But first, it will help to make explicit some general premises about what kinds of things (and how many kinds of things) disciplines are. Start with the negative: we can all agree now, at least, that one thing that disciplines are not are fixtures of nature. As for their more positive characterization, one promising point of departure for further discussion would be Ian Hacking's account of "interactive kinds."5 This rubric encompasses a variety of relational entities comprised of interactions between ideas, on the one hand, and "states, conditions, behavior, actions, and individuals," on the other hand.6 Unlike things that are insensible of the labels others apply to them, items in interactive kinds have a way of being affected behaviorally by (and thereby interact with) the classification. This reflexivity has a history that in turn becomes part of the history of the classification. If Hacking is right, it makes an ontologically significant difference in how someone acts and in the pattern of community life whether we ascribe or withhold a designation like "schizophrenic" or "heterosexual" (to cite two Hackingesque examples). And so too, by extension, when we call someone a historian, a philosopher, an artist, or, as in the story I will tell below, an aesthetician.

Thus, a discussion of the kind that Pocock has initiated must properly possess an "aesthetic" dimension: it must turn our critical attention to the metaphors [End Page 327] that tend to underlie and license our visions of intellectual order. For example, I hear in the methodologically internalist urgency of Pocock's distinction between participatory and alienated intellectuals an echo of Weber's seminal account of modern professional life as a plurality of autonomous spheres of expertise, each with its own internal argumentative protocols that...