Is the knowledge of the world found in Anglo-American academic philosophy cumulative or contingent? I think that's the best way to phrase the question.
Knowledge in science is cumulative, it's not worth quibbling.
Knowledge in American constitutional theory, like catholic legal theory -like legal philosophy in general- is cumulative within its history but contingent outside it. Nonetheless it's of the highest moral value, containing the arguments over how we define ourselves; but it isn't absolute.
I thought of phrasing the terms this way after rereading this post at Crooked Timber. [someone followed it here this week.] And from there searching for a discussion of "technical" philosophy, I ended up as I thought I would, with Brian Leiter.
How much of technical philosophy will be studied in the future not by technicians but by humanists, as contingent knowledge concerning the mid to late 20th century: noted by those interested in the history of sensibility and less as knowledge producing instrument than artifact? And how interesting will it be as artifact? The study of American constitutionalism by scholars 500 years from now will have much more to work with.
How do we study the works of those whose preoccupations we do not share? How do we study the preoccupations of those who lived 1000 years ago? "A passion for quarks is not a quark." In the humanities what's left to study is the passion. The "quarks" of the past are often recognized as fictions, mythical holy grails, that we no longer have an interest in outside of an interest in learning why they were sought after. Science collapses time: we're able to study both the passion for the actual -non fictional-particles called quarks and the things themselves. There may be doctrines concerning quarks, but quarks are not doctrines. But there are doctrines in which quarks are caught up.
It seems logical to think of life itself as absurd, and there is no need to see absurdity and science as being opposed to one another. But this understanding seems rare among scientists. They sense a glow in the thing that they pursue and they value it as pointing towards an absolute. The still secret knowledge of rocks on Mars and the mysterious sexual life of mollusks give scientists a very pleasurable heartache. But obsessions concerning unknown facts result in cumulative knowledge. What's contingent is the choice of object for that obsession: rocks or mollusks. And the pursuit of unknown facts is poeticized as the search for Truth.
The question remains concerning philosophy as it's often engaged with these days: is there any there, there? Are there even any rocks to discover? In constitutional theory the constitution itself is the "contingent rock." And in arguing over the contingent meaning of that contingent rock we come to an understanding of ourselves and of our perceptions of ourselves. I consider these noble questions and debates even in an absurd world, more noble to me than an obsession with mollusks. But if academic philosophy has no rocks what does it have left? It's profound neither as cumulative nor contingent knowledge: it teaches us little about the world and no more about ourselves. The attempt to construct a non-contradictory structure of morality and social relations is about as absurd as the search for the grail. And the texts that result if read as texts, as intellectual portrait and self-portrait, are arid.
Harry Brighouse gives me permission to cry over my mother's death, if I want to, while not feeling obliged to cry over the death of a child in Burkina Faso or Wyoming. From the last paragraph of "Legitimate Parental Partiality"
We have attempted to identify the distinctive goods realized by the family and thereby to provide the basis for a distinction between legitimate and excessive parental partiality, deriving, in a way that we have not seen attempted before, the content of particular reasons for action from the goods realized by a particular kind of relationship.I think I'm going to write an article too I'll call it: The Dangers of Intimacy. There are plenty. If he thought about it Brighouse would realize that partiality begins with proximity. Proximity precedes partiality. And even before that what exists is the tension between ourselves and others. But tension is a perception and science is interested in objects, so Brighouse wants to find the rule that resolves the mere perception. He wants to find "the truth."
Henry Farrell on "Partisanship, Ideology and Loyalty"; also here. It's a discussion of partisanship as theory, rather than fact: is partisanship good? or is it bad? Partisanship is inevitable. The better question is how to deal with it: how to respect it. As luck would have it his friend Eric Rauchway asks a related question about the legacy of the New Deal.
And in the end -- and here I've borrowed John Kenneth Galbraith's concept of "countervailing power" -- the New Deal produced a state that, rather than trying to arrogate decisionmaking power to itself, worked to make sure that individuals and associations had greater bargaining power for themselves than they otherwise would have. As Robert Wagner said, you make sure the unions have power so the government doesn't; "[W]e intend to rely upon democratic self-help by industry and labor instead of courting the pitfalls of an arbitrary or totalitarian state."Short answer: No.
So the question one might ask here is, what happened to the principle of countervailing power after the New Deal? Did it remain a core concept of American politics, and if so, for how long?
The longer one, a bit sloppy, is in the comments
Countervailing power or in other terms: institutionalized adversarialism. And that as opposed to the enlightened leadership of a technocratic elite. But both Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich grew up dreaming of being Hari Seldon, the intellectual hero of Isaac Asimov's 1950's intellectual trash fiction Foundation novels. Celebrations of academic rationalism, dreams of technocratic utopia and the fire under the ass of Sputnik all moved us away from adversarialism.The partisanship of lawyers in a courtroom is the the partisanship of gamesmanship not destruction. As I wrote a while ago in a related context "What holds the relationship together is not laws but trust. Trust is a sphere or a zone of ambiguity, not a rule. When rules are all that’s left it’s over."
All that was left by the late 50's was a fetishizing of rebellion. But adversarialism is gamesmanship, and gamesmanship seems noncommittal and unserious. There was a real disconnect between the lower middle class rank and file of the black civil rights movement and its middle class white fanbase. As there was a disconnect, a break, between the early and late 60's.
Read George Santayana on the Genteel Tradition in American culture. The liberal elite tends to be more well intentioned than interested in democracy.
Enlightened reason is still their model, and the recent victory over idiocy has given the "enlightened" more authority than ever. Who's their countervailing power now?
The discussions linked above are attempts to find ways to obviate the necessity for individualized -personalized, idiosyncratic- expressions of communication and trust among people; to be replaced by clear and open regulation, all in the name of rationality and reason; all based on unobservant assumption; illogical, and unreasonable.
If I'm studying Masaccio I'm studying his techniques not as they relate to my own but as they relate to those before him and after. I'm studying his commitments not as one who shares them but as one who doesn't or indeed cannot, as they were the commitments of someone 500 years ago. I can understand them in detail not in response to the ardor of his belief, in religion, in art or in himself, but in his ability to describe that ardor in such a way that a foreigner, in time or place, can begin to comprehend.