Thursday, May 22, 2003

Political Philosophy and the Cool Name Theory


I'm sure I've heard this theory somewhere before, but Micah Schwartzman (welcome back Micah!--how were finals?) has brought it up here (permalinks bloggered; it's the first post on May 20th). Basically, he writes, "to make it into the canon of great political philsophers, your name has to be amenable to a suffix like "ism," "ist," "ian," "ite," "an," etc. Consider: Plato(nic), Hobbes(ian), Locke(an), Hume(an), Kant(ian), Hegel(ian), Burke(an), Marx(ist/ism), Mill(ian), and Rawls(ian)." I think that's basically right, though I'm not sure I've ever heard of any theoretical camp taking on an "ite" suffix. (Does "Luddite" count? I don't think so.) He correctly observes that--especially in what is, as the Invisible Adjunct constantly reminds us, an academic world increasingly driven by market values and commodification--making it into the canon is going to depend upon more than just one's ideas: you've got to be able to sell yourself. And that means philosophers and theorists who have less than easily manageable names (MacIntyre, or Kymlicka, for example) are probably at a disadvantage in the competition for Intro to Political Theory immortality (MacIntyrian? Kymlickanian? I guess they work, but they just doesn't, you know, flow). He posits a couple of corollaries: the "common-name" problem (under which he says Charles Taylor--Taylorism?--won't make it), and the "already-taken" problem (i.e., Smith has already been taken). I'm not sure that the common-name issue is that big a deal; I mean, if you've got an interesting or influencial enough set of ideas, undergraduate students and scholars alike will make allowances for the dull label (I mean, John Stuart Mill?). An additional corollary which he doesn't mention, but related to one of the objections to the CNT which he mentions, is the difficulty English-speakers have with turning names which end with vowels (except silent ones, of course) into nouns. Consider Jean-Jacque Rousseau. I have seen in journals and books over the years, "Roussean," "Rousseauan," "Rousseauian," "Rousseauesque," and "Rousseauist," and probably some others. Not as ugly as what is usually done with Aristotle (most commonly, in my experience, "Aristotelian," reflecting a perverse demand that the name be re-written so the preferred suffix will work), but you get the idea.


Micah also asks how things are handled in Continental philosophy, and whether the CNT is "Anglocentric." Well, obviously since were talking about English suffixes here, it is unavoidably Anglocentric in that sense. But generally speaking, I don't know: I think the same dynamics of appropriation apply. "Nietzschean" and "Gadamerian" both clearly pass the test (though I think "Heideggerian" or "Levinasian" might as well; perhaps it's just a matter of taste). But then there's those pesking vowels again. Derrida? "Derridean"? "Derridanian"? It's a problem.