"In the preface to “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James said that it was his belief that “a large acquaintance with particulars makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas, however deep.” This was [philosophy professor Frank Cioffi]’s pedagogical credo and his teaching moved from particular to particular, often working from the quotations written on small slips of paper and stuck into his pockets, to be pulled out with great dramatic effect. He hated big theories and any kind of metaphysical pretention and he would use little quotations to pick away relentlessly at grand explanations. He used the particular to scratch away at the general, like picking at a scab.
Frank’s special loathing was reserved for Freud, whom he thought a writer of great perceptiveness and expressive power but completely deluded about the theoretical consequences of his views. “Imagine a world in which, like ours,” Frank wrote in “Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer,” “people laughed at jokes, but unlike ours did not know what they were laughing at until they discovered the unconscious energic processes hypothesized by Freud.” For Frank, such was the world that Freud beguiled himself and us into believing he was living in. He compared the 20th-century fascination with psychoanalysis to the 19th-century fascination with phrenology, the “science” of bumps on the head. I think he would have come to very similar conclusions about the early 21st-century fad for neuroscience and our insatiable obsession with the brain.
Despite the astonishing breadth of his interests, Frank’s core obsession in teaching turned on the relation between science and the humanities. More particularly, his concern was with the relation between the causal explanations offered by science and the kinds of humanistic description we find, say, in the novels of Dickens or Dostoevsky, or in the sociological writings of Erving Goffman and David Riesman. His quest was to try and clarify the occasions when a scientific explanation was appropriate and when it was not, and we need instead a humanistic remark. His conviction was that our confusions about science and the humanities had wide-ranging and malign societal consequences.
Let me give an example. Imagine that you depressed, because of the death of a loved one, heartbreak or just too much hard and seemingly pointless work. You go to see a doctor. After trying to explain what ails you, with the doctor fidgeting and looking at his watch, he exclaims: “Ah, I see the problem. Take this blue pill and you will be cured.” However efficacious the blue pill might be, in this instance the doctor’s causal diagnosis is the wrong one. What is required is for you to be able to talk, to feel that someone understands your problems and perhaps can offer some insight or even suggestions on how you might move forward in your life. This, one imagines, is why people go into therapy.
But let’s flip it around. Let’s imagine that you are on a ferry crossing the English Channel during a terrible winter storm. Your nausea is uncontrollable and you run out onto the deck to vomit the contents of your lunch, breakfast and the remains of the previous evening’s dinner. You feel so wretched that you no longer fear death — you wish you were dead. Suddenly, on the storm-tossed deck, appears R.D. Laing, the most skilled, charismatic and rhetorically gifted existential psychiatrist of his generation, in a blue velvet suit. He proceeds to give you an intense phenomenological description of how your guts feel, the sense of disorientation, the corpselike coldness of your flesh, the sudden loss of the will to live. This is also an error. On a ferry you want a blue pill that is going to alleviate the symptoms of seasickness and make you feel better.
Frank’s point is that our society is deeply confused by the occasions when a blue pill is required and not required, or when we need a causal explanation and when we need a further description, clarification or elucidation. We tend to get muddled and imagine that one kind of explanation (usually the causal one) is appropriate in all occasions when it is not.
What is in play here is the classical distinction made by Max Weber between explanation and clarification, between causal or causal-sounding hypotheses and interpretation. Weber’s idea is that natural phenomena require causal explanation, of the kind given by physics, say, whereas social phenomena require elucidation — richer, more expressive descriptions. In Frank’s view, one major task of philosophy is help us get clear on this distinction and to provide the right response at the right time. This, of course, requires judgment, which is no easy thing to teach."