Philosophy: Mind and Manners

by John Holbo on June 9, 2009

Welcome to our guest, Michèle Lamont, whose book I have been intending to read because it sounds damned interesting. The topic of her first guest post (philosophy vs. theory) has been an abiding research and reading interest of mine. A quick point about pecking orders, in response to her post, then I’ll just plug my own stuff, what hey! (But first: Squid and Owl was good today, and highly relevant to the theme of this very post. Right, that’s out of the way.)

Lamont says there’s a question as to “whether philosophers [inhabitants of that cave known as the department of philosophy, that is] have intellectual/emotional dispositions that preclude free interdisciplinary exchange of ideas. Or whether they are too concerned with their own status or with making claims for philosophy as the queen of the disciplines (encompassing others) to be open to interchange (to be contrasted with top-down proselytizing).” Yes, that one does get asked, and her asking it has provoked the usual range of responses in comments. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) But let me articulate what seems to me a fairly important sociological component to this ongoing interdisciplinary failure to communicate that actually tends to be overlooked – and is almost always funny. (So that’s two reasons not to overlook it.) Philosophers (by which I shall mean: typical inhabitants of the philosophy department) seem hyper-aggressive and bent on world domination because there is a style of debate in the philosophy department that is typically received as friendly and (personally) non-threatening by philosophers but typically received by non-philosophers in the humanities as the very opposite: namely, as unfriendly, an attempt to destroy, to humiliate, to silence, to cause the opponent to lose face in an intolerably grind-your-claims-into-sand fashion. (By the way, please note that I said ‘typical’. Yes, I know there will be counter-examples.) Who’s right? The question is ill-formed. It’s a cultural miscommunication. Maybe it’s easier to illustrate with a likely hypothetical.

In philosophy, after the speaker is done, it is fine for someone to raise his hand and say: ‘but it seems that your central premise – the claim from which all these other things follow – is actually ambiguous between four different claims, two of which are logically false, one of which is obviously empirically false, and one of which is a tautology that won’t support your conclusions at all …’ (When I was going to grad school there was one faculty member who always asked this one, although usually it turned out that the ambiguity was more like eight-fold.) Now this isn’t a rude thing to say, in philosophy. Because it is actually not perceived as an attempt to force the speaker to prove that he is not a complete idiot. (To paraphrase Nietzsche on Socrates.) To be knocked around in this way is par for the course, so if you give a talk and you really get your premise kicked out from under you, it isn’t much worse that getting clobbered in some game. It’s not fun, but it’s normal. And – most important – because it’s normal, there isn’t any extra psychic baggage of a ‘why the hell is this perfect stranger trying to deprive me of every last vestige of my intellectual dignity?’ sort. Philosophers asking each other these sorts of apparently mock-innocent ‘but isn’t your position just obviously false?’ questions actually are innocent. They are competitive but no more aggressive or intellectually sadistic than anyone else around the university. It’s just a style. It may be perceived as an annoying, brittle, trivial, mildly juvenile, thumb-twiddling, precious, mincing sort of scholastic gamesmanship. (Go ahead and say all that if you must.) But it isn’t, per se, particularly aggressive or intellectually imperialistic. Again, this is so because the only way for it to be all that would be for it to be intended to be all that, and to be perceived by those present to be intended to be all that. And, within the philosophy department, it actually isn’t. It would have to be an attempt to completely overturn the pecking order, to return to our guest’s term. But since it goes on all the time, it obviously isn’t that. Should one of these ‘but isn’t your premise just obviously false’ missiles finds its target, the victim doesn’t wallow in shame and disgrace. Next time it may go differently. Eh, you go out for drinks.

To put it another way, these aggressive-seeming questions are not intended as conversation-stoppers but as conversation-starters. But it’s really only in the philosophy department that it’s intellectually conventional to start conversations the way academic philosophers do, so outside the department, these things are received as conversation-stoppers – that is, as rude and domineering. (I think this is rather obvious, but I’ve never seen anyone say this in so many words, so I’m saying it. Please feel free to tell me you knew it all along.) Inhabitants of other areas of the humanities have their own outlets for their own aggressions and will-to-power, and many performances that might seem fairly normal elsewhere around campus would be perceived, in philosophy, as rude and domineering – because, one way or another, these performances would be perceived as conversation-stoppers, as attempts to foreclose the legitimate normal (analytic, twiddling) modes of pushing the point around.

None of this is to say that all ways are equal, or that the philosophy is better or worse. For post purposes, I’m being agnostic about all that. All I’m saying is that the perception that philosophers are unusually aggressive is just a (rather understandable, given cultural differences) misreading of their manners. In philosophy it’s not rude to invade people’s personal intellectual space in a certain way. Doing so is not a way of saying: I’m threatening you.

And there you have it!

Now, my stuff. If you don’t know, I edited and contributed to a book that is substantially about the whole philosophy/theory thing. It’s called Framing Theory’s Empire [amazon]. It was a book event, centered on Theory’s Empire, and then it became a plain old book. But you can download it as a free PDF! Good stuff!

{ 116 comments }

1

james williams 06.09.09 at 2:42 pm

That all sounds pretty much correct to me. I wonder how the norms in philosophy compare to those in other parts of the academe, especially the sciences; I’ve seen a lot of talks in cog-sci settings where the contours were pretty similar to how you’ve described philosophy talks, except that you don’t even wait for the speaker to finish before you start to assault them.

2

Jed Harris 06.09.09 at 2:50 pm

Helpful observations on the analytic culture and norms — and ones I have not seen elsewhere. They do pretty much fit my limited experience with these events…

Your throw away line “many performances that might seem fairly normal elsewhere around campus would be perceived, in philosophy, as rude and domineering” suggests fascinating possibilities for elaboration.

Could you list a few examples of the normal “conversation stopper” performances from other tribes? And even better, if you are in the mood, provide a bit of a taxonomy?

3

jdkbrown 06.09.09 at 2:50 pm

Heartily seconded. The other disciplinary tic that we philosophers have is to explicitly state obvious truths in the course of making our arguments. In my experience, non-philosophers tend to take this as a sign that you think they’re stupid.

4

jdkbrown 06.09.09 at 2:50 pm

(And, of course, by “philosophers,” I just mean denizens of philosophy departments!)

5

qb 06.09.09 at 3:08 pm

Philosophers don’t wallow in shame and disgrace when they get the proverbial beat-down? That’s just obviously false!

6

dsquared 06.09.09 at 3:28 pm

Hmmmm, this excuse also used in great measure by inhabitants of economics departments and IMO not desperately convincing there.

7

Kathleen Lowrey 06.09.09 at 3:29 pm

I just don’t think this is true — my doctorate is in anthropology, but in my degree-granting department this kind of questioning (here are the several ways you are wrong) was par for the course and if visiting speakers received only polite softballs at the end of their talks the audience was embarrassed for them because it was understood to indicate “your talk has demonstrated you will not be capable of participating in a truly interesting conversation of the kind we might otherwise have”.

I think in fact that the self-perception by philosophers that they are the only ones who have tough intellectual conversations might annoy non-philosophers rather more than any philosophical provocations to engage in such conversation.

Finally, isn’t all of this irrelevant to the context of Lamont’s work, which has to do with peer-review of grant proposals? The discursive style of real-time face to face debate is not relevant there; what is relevant is being able to put down in dead letters what is lively and interesting about one’s research.

8

matthew smith 06.09.09 at 3:32 pm

I have friends in the humanities disciplines other than philosophy and have found that they are perfectly willing to engage in the smashmouth argumentation that is typical of philosophy departments. In fact, many of these friends in the humanities – perhaps because we’re all in our 30’s or perhaps it’s because of shared background – seem to relish a good argument as much as anyone else in the academy.

My suspicion is that it is not nearly as simple as has been portrayed.

First, I think that a lot of older humanities folk – older than, um, 45 or so – see their academic work as political work – they see their political commitments and dreams as entirely at home in their academic lives – and so they find the intense intellectual discussion found in philosophy departments to be politically threatening – not just intellectually fascistic but in fact an expression of right wing sensibilities (it’s pretty much always people on the left who are sensitive to philosophy department conversational intensity – oh and I am as on the left as you would want me to be so don’t get in my face about that). The problem, in short, is that a lot of the humanities folks who are easily offended just cannot see any distinction between academic discussion and political activism. That is the source of a lot worse problems that analytic philosophy’s supposedly bad reputation.

Second, I think that analytic philosophy is a seriously sexist discipline – see Sally Haslanger’s work on this – and I suspect pretty racist too (at least in comparison to other humanities disciplines). There has been very little institutional effort to deal with that. Other disciplines have tried to deal with this issue and part of the way it has been dealt with is to challenge the norms of discourse. Sexist exclusion of women can go under the heading of “tough questioning.” Maybe – I am not sure about this – maybe other disciplines in the process of dealing with this institutional sexism and racism have erred on the side of ruling out all tough questioning so as to avoid the racist and sexist “tough questioning” that is really just troglodyte white men expressing their frustration at the presence of the other in their world.

Let me stress that what I just wrote is pretty off-the-cuff and undertheorized. So, I am not super committed to it. But, it seems correct to me.

Third, I run a small annual cross-disciplinary workshop that brings lawyers, psychologists, social scientists and the like together with philosophers and I have found that so long as there is a sense of mutual respect amongst the participants tough questioning of the analytic sort is very welcome. Maybe I need to get some cultural theorists in there but I gotta say: if you ask tough questions that kneecap someone but it’s taken as an expression of respect for your commitment to getting at something deep or interesting, then everyone seems to be okay with it.

Finally, if there is one thing in the humanities I cannot stand it’s the totally obnoxious way in which faculty use the Q&A session to blather on and on about their own work that is barely tangentially related to the topic at hand. That, blogreaders, strikes me as far more disrespectful, juvenile and self-involved than analytic philosophers really going after an argument.

9

Salient 06.09.09 at 3:32 pm

I think this is rather obvious, but I’ve never seen anyone say this in so many words, so I’m saying it.

Thanks for this post. Sometimes it’s very useful to see known things well and thoroughly stated.

I hazard the suggestion that (some) mathematicians adopt much the same conversational norm, as do (some) researchers in the physical-biological sciences (I’m specifically thinking of theoretical researchers working in cladistics and in ecological modeling, and mathematicians who do crossover numerical analysis work with the CS dept). I don’t have enough data points in my anecdata to be confident; maybe someone else can support or refute this…

10

Chris Bertram 06.09.09 at 3:39 pm

You know, I’m not all that convinced by all of this “perfectly harmless”, “move along”, “just local quirkiness” stuff re philosophy. It doesn’t sit well with other observations we’ve made in other threads. I’m thinking especially of Kieran’s “comment”:http://crookedtimber.org/2009/01/27/should-you-delay-parenthood-till-tenure/#comment-264354

_Moreover, to a greater degree than most academic disciplines, Philosophy is on the look-out for the next Boy Genius. One expects, indeed requires, the typical BG personality to come leavened with various eccentricities. Evidence of interpersonal weirdness or incipient nuttiness will, in male candidates, tend to be forgiven in proportion to the expected level of BG-hood the candidate has been typed by the market as possessing._

There is, unfortunately, a somewhat, ahem, gendered aspect to the style that typically obtains in philosophy seminars. I like the kind of robust and snarky discussion we sometimes have, but it can also be alienating and destructive and often gets in the way of the speaker explaining what they mean.

11

Steve LaBonne 06.09.09 at 3:41 pm

It’s the same in science as in philosophy; that kind of questioning is normal (in fact, what Kathleen said- if you give a talk and don’t get pointed questions it makes you think you put everybody to sleep because either you gave a shitty talk or your work is of no interest), and anyone thin-skinned enough to resent it would have a problem making a career in science.

I am suspicious of disciplines (if there really be such) where people think their precious pontifications are immune to sharp questioning. Sounds to me like absence of a capacity for self-criticism. (But then it would sound that way to me because my scientific training socialized me that way…)

12

Salient 06.09.09 at 3:41 pm

Given the last three comments I’m beginning to wonder in what department a thoroughly-devastating-category line of inquiry is not generally seen as polite and acceptable discourse. In what department is “It seems the work you’ve presented today relies on these X assumptions, each of which is obviously, shall we say, problematic: 1, 2, 3…” not a standard, well-recognized invitation to begin an engaging conversation?

13

StevenAttewell 06.09.09 at 3:44 pm

Thinking of “Inhabitants of other areas of the humanities have their own outlets for their own aggressions and will-to-power, and many performances that might seem fairly normal elsewhere around campus would be perceived, in philosophy, as rude and domineering,” and tossing in the social sciences as well, I know that economists have a disciplinary culture of interrupting people as they’re giving a talk and challenging them on the grounds of “you’re doing the math wrong!” or “your model is wrong!” This often throws people for a loop, because in other social science and humanities disciplinary traditions, the very act of interrupting people in mid-talk would be beyond the pale of accepted behavior.

In other humanities, my guess would be the political stance is what might come off as conversation-ending. Arguing that such-and-such is empowering hegemony or silencing the voices of women, blacks, the poor, etc. might shock other disciplines – and my guess is that philosophers might see that as ad hominem, whereas the questioner is probably thinking of it as a methodological question.

14

Steve LaBonne 06.09.09 at 3:44 pm

In what department is “It seems the work you’ve presented today relies on these X assumptions, each of which is obviously, shall we say, problematic: 1, 2, 3…” not a standard, well-recognized invitation to begin an engaging conversation?

Not to mention, how did people who don’t see it that way survive their dissertation defense?

15

Steve LaBonne 06.09.09 at 3:46 pm

Interrupting people is assholic (unless the speaker sees your raised hand and recognizes you). Probably only economists would do that. ;)

16

Salient 06.09.09 at 3:53 pm

I am suspicious of disciplines (if there really be such) where people think their precious pontifications are immune to sharp questioning.

My preliminary guess is, there exist many disciplines in which this line of foundational questioning is not-as-frequently the most useful or insightful line of inquiry. For example, I recently attended a presentation of new harmonic analysis techniques for reconstructing rock density deep underground from fragmented and partial hard data. Neat stuff. It would have been absurd for anyone present to lay in with this kind of foundational “your entire work seems to be based on faulty theoretical premises” question.

That doesn’t mean there was a lack of sharp, incisive questions, or that the speaker couldn’t handle such questions if posed; it means questioning the theoretical premises beyond a certain point would be taken to be idle wankery on the part of the questioner. If there really was a theoretical problem with the underlying premises, I suppose someone could have brought it up, but in that case it would be exactly pointing out that the speaker was an idiot for not having noticed the glaring problem. It would be far more likely for a questioner to hedge, “I’m not seeing how you resolved this theoretical problem of X.”

17

Muttley 06.09.09 at 4:08 pm

I think your examples of philosophy department argumentation are too friendly. What I remember was the faux “I don’t understand what you mean” question, where the questioner really *does* understand, they just disagree with something in particular the speaker has said. The purpose of this kind of questioning seems to be to force the speaker to wrack his or her brain about what the questioner didn’t understand and it puts the speaker on the defensive.

I once went to a talk where a questioner used this on the speaker, and the speaker did a backatcha “I don’t understand”. There was an impasse. I wanted to crack their heads together.

18

Tim O'Keefe 06.09.09 at 4:19 pm

I think that John’s basic point is right, but–as some of the posters above point out–there is also a heavy strain in many philosophy departments of alpha-male aggressive dickishness, where the point really is to humiliate your intellectual opponent and win, rather than just to advance the discussion by subjecting your interlocutor to sharp interrogation.

19

John Holbo 06.09.09 at 4:19 pm

dsquared: “Hmmmm, this excuse also used in great measure by inhabitants of economics departments and IMO not desperately convincing there.”

Ah, that’s because it wasn’t intended as an excuse! (If you are saying it’s a false statement, that’s something else, I suppose.)

Katherine: “I just don’t think this is true—my doctorate is in anthropology, but in my degree-granting department this kind of questioning (here are the several ways you are wrong) was par for the course”

I should have been clearer about this in the post. I don’t mean that everyone else throws softballs. Everyone says ‘here are several ways you seem wrong’. It’s just that philosophers have a way of saying it that is read by outsiders as ‘here are several ways you are stupidly wrong’, but it (at least often) really isn’t meant that way. (I used to hang out in the anthro department at the University of Chicago as an undergrad and they were sharks, many of them, seemed to me. But the style was different.)

20

John Holbo 06.09.09 at 4:28 pm

Tim O’Keefe” “a heavy strain in many philosophy departments of alpha-male aggressive dickishness, where the point really is to humiliate your intellectual opponent and win.” Well, yes, but I don’t think there’s more of it than in any other department. Every department has this, to some degree. It’s just gone about in different styles. I think philosophy seems to have more because it has it’s share of alpha-male aggression PLUS a certain set of intellectual table manners that gets misread by outsiders.

As to the question of what sorts of humanities performances rub philosophers the wrong way: that’s really another post in itself. Maybe tomorrow.

21

dsquared 06.09.09 at 4:39 pm

#19: what I’m saying is that the observational facts could support either:

1) as you hypothesise, philosophers behave in a manner which appears to everyone else to be hostile and rude, but which to them, is just a normal and friendly way to start a conversation about fundamental issues

or

2) philosophy departments (and, as I say, economics departments) do, in fact, tolerate lots of behaviour which is just rude.

There’s plenty of ways one could distinguish between the two, such as:

1) how do they react when someone from outside the field comes in and behaves in the same way? (ie, to someone like John Emerson, whose view of the entirety of philosophy is “you’re wrong and wasting your time in ten separate ways”?)

2) is this kind of questioning something that anyone can engage in, or is it socially structured? (how senior and established was the faculty member in your example? Was he male? Would a new and uncredentialled female philosopher be able to act the same way without damging her career or social relations?)

3) do philosophers actually enjoy this behaviour per se, or do they enjoy it in the way in which football hooligans enjoy fighting, or internet trolls like me enjoy comments section flamewars (ie, they enjoy the adrenalin rush of anticipating it, and enjoy it a lot if they’re the ones doing the humiliating and crushing, but really rather dislike it if they are on the receiving end).

4) do the same people who use this argumentative technique also engage in the sort of behaviour Muttley describes in #17, which clearly isn’t designed to start any conversation?

5) do they practice it all the time and to everyone, or do they form cliques?

As I was saying, my observation in economics departments of the sort of people who like to interrupt five minutes in and tell a speaker that his whole theoretical framework is misconceived, means that I’m going to take a lot of convincing that it’s “intellectual table manners” rather than simply the sort of thing that corporate human resources departments correctly call “grounds for dismissal”.

22

Tim Wilkinson 06.09.09 at 4:53 pm

Quite a few people take JH to be referring to question-and-answer sessions, or vivas, or similar formal situations which are of their nature supposed to involve challenges. I took him to be describing informal conversation, and pointing out the far greater prevalence of the iterative method of counterexamples in philosophical chats.

Chris @9, you may be right, but I’ve generally found that those involved in point-scoring are pretty easily distinguished from the collaborative dialecticians, by experienced participants anyway, and receive the brutal raised eyebrow treatment they deserve from the assembled testosterone-charged bruisers.

This, and the following post, might be a relevant case?

I don’t know, perhaps there is after all a particular prevalence of masculine-style combativeness in philosophy departments (excuse my sniggers, I’m just thinking of all the jobs I’ve had in the commercial sector). Can we get some meaningful data on the question, and whether there are, say, geographical differences? At the moment we have anecdotes – which given that we are specifically contemplating the possibility of misperceptions are of particularly questionable value (that’s not directed at anyone in particular…)

It really would be too frightfully boring if this were to become the third thread to drift in the direction of demanding that philosophers (or philosophy-book-stackers or whatever) explain: what is wrong with them, what the causes are, why they won’t explain themselves, why their explanations are so insufferably arrogant and why they insist on behaving in such a way as to make people ask such questions.

23

Matt McGrattan 06.09.09 at 4:58 pm

I think the people who say that ‘all humanities disciplines are like this and use the same style of argument’ are overstating the similarities. I have degree level education in more than one humanities subject, and because of the nature of my philosophical specialty (which is somewhat inter-disciplinary) I’ve been in groups/seminars/conferences with many non-philosophers and they don’t interact in the same way. It’s possibly more a difference of degree than kind but the difference is real.

24

Sam C 06.09.09 at 5:18 pm

A distinction: there’s the normal culture of philosophy departments, with its particular style of conversation; and then there’s the particular kind of arseholery which that culture allows – its distinctive form of corruption, which tends to resemble teenage boys arguing over AD&D rules (see: pretty much every seminar I attended as a postgrad in Oxford). Other disciplines have both their own, distinctive styles of conversation and their own, distinctive styles of parasitic arseholery.

25

Steve LaBonne 06.09.09 at 5:23 pm

Salient- I may have misunderstood the nature of the questioning being talked about. My experience in life science is that you don’t hear the kind of questions you called “foundational” (i.e. “your whole premise is crap from the getgo” phrased with a question mark at the end) except in unusual, pathological circumstances (i.e. the speaker really is that full of shit); I was just talking about “normal” pointed questions like “Have you considered whether X could have affected the result of experiment Y and if so, what effect would that have on your interpretation?”

26

engels 06.09.09 at 5:42 pm

I think Sam’s distinction is important but I’d like to expand it out to a three-fold one:

1) a kind of arseholery distinctive to the present dominant style of Angl0-American academic philosophy, but not essential to it
2) characteristics of this style itself
3) characteristics which are inherent in philosophy as an intellectual enterprise (roughly conceived as something like the rational interrogation and possible rejection of basic assumptions widely held and unquestioned in society at large or particular sections of it)

Without playing down the importance of (1) and (2) I think it’s probably safe to say that there are nevertheless a large number of people who are offended and/or angry and/or bent on revenge on account of (3), and they appear to be disproportionately well-represented on the internet.

27

dsquared 06.09.09 at 6:17 pm

Also, if you just happened, contingently, to be an arsehole, then you’d surely find an environment in which behaviour of the sort described was common to be a congenial one, simply because it would offer so many opportunities for behaving like an arsehole and getting away with it, and your work colleagues would be much more likely to make excuses for or ignore your behaviour when they weren’t on the receiving end of it. So I’d add a sixth criterion to my list from #21: are there lots of formal and informal sanctions, and is everyone on the lookout, to make sure that the convention of robust intellectual inquiry isn’t exploited and abused by arseholes and bullies? I think we’ve rehashed on a couple of “women in the academy” threads that the score on this criterion is a long way below 100%.

28

Kathleen Lowrey 06.09.09 at 6:35 pm

Again — Lamont is not talking about talking (nor blogwars), but about writing. It may be that philosophers value (and hence cultivate) a particular kind of social ineptness and macho posturing (I don’t say that they do, just that they *might*) in person. But Lamont’s discussion has to do with how they come across on paper, when the reader can only read and can’t supplement argumentative back and forth (let alone persona). If philosophers do aim for relentless clarity, one would think their writing would be particularly lucid and thus particularly amenable to the grant proposal format. It doesn’t seem to me a discussion of the standard average philosophical persona helps to explain that – *unless* the kind of behavior that comes across as “persuasive” in person for philosophers is providing much of the necessary context for why philosophers find one versus another talk or argument convincing; the same argument, on paper, looks flat and uninspired. Which suggests (racism, sexism, and rudeness aside) philosophers might approach Truth a little more closely if they were to give up some chest-pounding and poo-flinging along the way.

29

Sam C 06.09.09 at 6:37 pm

dsquared: you’re right, the sanctions are weak, and philosophy is probably still excessively arsehole-friendly*. I do my best not to contribute to that culture, and my own department – for whatever the anecdote is worth – is pretty good at being intellectually rigorous without being ugly; longer-term strategies which may be starting to work include hiring more women; what else can the profession do? (Genuine question.)

* I’m beginning to regret picking this terminology.

30

Jim 06.09.09 at 6:59 pm

I was initially going to rush on here to confess to a “holy crap” moment, as in “Holy crap! that’s exactly how people have been perceiving me my whole life, and exactly the way I would have described my predicament: my “conversation starters” are perceived as “rude conversation enders!!!” But I was going to ask Holbo to clarify how exactly other department engage in dialogue with each other, and I was going to confess too that my experience within philosophy departments has been that I’ve generally been regarded as combative and rude even when I went out of my way to be considerate of the value in everyone’s participation.

I see that, more or less, these complaints have already be leveled by others. So I guess we’re left with the notion that the reason that other disciplines hate to be thought of as sub-disciplines of philosophy is that it hurts to admit the obvious.

I jest a little. But in regard to the relationship between theory and philosophy and the very nature of constructing theory at all, isn’t the method of consistent argument-building the work of philosophy? You can certainly be a good thinker in a sociology department or in political science, but the people who sit around all day thinking of ways to think about stuff are philosophers by nature. They are better equipped to see holes in arguments regardless of genre. Isn’t that what the entire field of the philosophy of science taught us–that even in regard to constructing scientific theories there were philosophical elements at play that should be studied by philosophers so that scientists could 1) attend to their areas of specialty but still 2) create better theories (e.g., by being more conscious of that process)? So to steal the metaphor from Plato’s pen, isn’t philosophy still the master art that governs the progress of the rest.

Note: I’m not trying to bait anyone here. I have a BA in Philosophy but I’m trying to get into graduate school in political science, so the bait offered here would just force me to admit that I’m aiming for an inferior course of study myself–a line of argument I wouldn’t be happy to admit to.

31

Tim Wilkinson 06.09.09 at 7:00 pm

@24 that sounds a plausible account. Would you say such arsolery is likely to be much less prevalent when dealing with outsiders?

@25 I think the same largely applies in philosophy – very few conversations are going to involve thrashing out really foundational topics – and often an interlocutor will be willing to assume a lot of ground which they don’t necessarily share, in order to dicuss the merits of the specific position.

Maybe the thing is that ‘normal’ (not even pointed) questions in philosophy might take the form of ‘but if X then Y [clearly contradicting your account]’ – which may sound like an attempted putdown but is (in favourable and not uncommon cases) just an artefact of

1. the jettisoning of ‘sensitive’ circumlocutions arising from the prevalent use of counterexamples/objections (which may in turn be a consequence of the relative lack of uncertainty about things like methods, sources, measurement etc?) and

2. The fact that few objections/counterexamples are likely to be decisively crushing. The expectation is that a ready answer or easily achieved tweak is likely to be forthcoming, so it may sound like ‘you’re totally wrong’ but actually means – but have you thought of/what do you think of this? A clearly crushing objection might be more sensitively phrased (though that might only worsen its impact)

and just thought of 3:
The fact is that a philosophical objection/counterexample often can’t really be finessed anyway: not sure how much this differs from other disciplines, but I can imagine that people might agree to differ on, say interpretation of a French phrase, or the relative importance of a historical source, whereas that isn’t really an option when they are pretty obviously flatly contradicting one another.

In fact, I would conjecture that a more ‘constructive’ approach might be seen as more offensive, or at least presumptious: ‘here’s a counterexample, and here’s where you went wrong, and here’s how to fix it’ is much more likely to get up someone’s nose, and would probably be more tentatively phrased…

32

engels 06.09.09 at 7:19 pm

It also might be borne in mind that an overly punctilious enforcement of standards of politeness, patience and moderated tone can in its own way be alienating and exclusionary — not always but sometimes to people who happen to care about the subject under discussion.

33

Harry 06.09.09 at 8:03 pm

Well, the sort of humanities performances that rub me the wrong way are the clever-clever-evasive-of-actually-saying-anything-that-can-be-pinned-down-and accusing-anyone-who-does-say-such-a-thing-as-being-sort-of-oppressive ones. Not just in the humanities.

34

JSE 06.09.09 at 8:21 pm

I usually attend math seminars but have occasionally attended philosophy seminars, and on one occasion organized a seminar in which a particularly mathy philosopher spoke to a mixed-discipline audience, and I can attest that the norms of seminar behavior are strikingly different. In math it is not particularly rude to interrupt a speaker without being called on. On the other hand, one would almost never hear an audience member disputing the truth of an assertion made by the speaker. Even if you do think the speaker has said something wrong, you interrupt and ask a question of the form, “You seem to be saying X, but this contradicts Y, so how have I misunderstood you?” And in almost all cases the audience member HAS in fact misunderstood the speaker, or the speaker has made a “typo” on the board or been imprecise in a definition, and the end result of the interruption is generally that everyone in the room understands a bit better what’s going on.

The philosophical style does come off to me as quite aggressive and adversarial. But my philosopher friends assure me it’s just a difference in seminar style, and it’s good to see that confirmed here.

35

Matt 06.09.09 at 8:31 pm

My first semester in grad school, many years ago, at the first department talk I went to, Josh Cohen gave a paper. John Kekes, whose accent probably in fact isn’t as sinisterly Eastern European as I like to remember it being, asked the first question. He started out, “Yeess, I vonder vhy you have incluuuded a false preemissse in your argumeeent?” Before he could say what the “false premise” was supposed to be, Cohen replied, “Well, of course, because I need it to make my conclusion come out true.” Everyone laughed. The real question was asked eventually but the bite was taken out of it. (Kekes usually seemed to have “three logically independent objections” to each paper, but this time it was just the one, if I recall correctly.)

36

D.R. Foster 06.09.09 at 8:59 pm

Dr. Smith, this is unfair to you – I don’t know you, and your thoughts I’m sure are constrained by the medium – but this is exactly the kind of casual conspiratorial mudslinging that contributed not a little to my decision to leave grad school:

“Second, I think that analytic philosophy is a seriously sexist discipline – see Sally Haslanger’s work on this – and I suspect pretty racist too (at least in comparison to other humanities disciplines). There has been very little institutional effort to deal with that. Other disciplines have tried to deal with this issue and part of the way it has been dealt with is to challenge the norms of discourse. Sexist exclusion of women can go under the heading of “tough questioning.” Maybe – I am not sure about this – maybe other disciplines in the process of dealing with this institutional sexism and racism have erred on the side of ruling out all tough questioning so as to avoid the racist and sexist “tough questioning” that is really just troglodyte white men expressing their frustration at the presence of the other in their world.

Let me stress that what I just wrote is pretty off-the-cuff and undertheorized. So, I am not super committed to it. But, it seems correct to me.”

Off-the-cuff and undertheorized?! Have you offered even the barest outline of an argument, besides a half-formed gesture toward an unnamed paper? If you have I’ve missed it. It also strikes me that your worry about “older” philosophers seeing their professional work as political might not jibe with your apparent desire (?) to see the norms of argument changed to fix perceived prejudices endemic to the institution (the institution!) of analytic philosophy. Or else, you’d better at least say something about the criterion of demarcation between legitimate “tough questioning” and the projected frustrations of “white troglodytes” terrified of the other in their midst.

37

matthew smith 06.09.09 at 10:28 pm

D.R. Foster:

Here’s sally haslanger’s paper:

http://www.mit.edu/~shaslang/papers/HaslangerCICP.pdf

Here is the post on that paper from this blog:

http://crookedtimber.org/2007/09/06/sally-haslanger-on-women-in-philosophy/

See also the discussion at Inside Higher Ed:

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/09/10/philos

Happy? A little googling and you would have found the material.

I said nothing about the norms of argument changing. In fact, I noted that I run workshops at which those norms are exemplified and spoke of that approvingly.

I never mentioned older philosophers seeing the work as political – I mentioned older humanities profs as seeing their work as the only outlet for their political commitments. Finally, I took it that the distinction between questioning analytic-philosophy-style and the other modes of questioning was well-discussed in the main post and then further articulated in other posts. So, I was just relying on readers being attentive to what others had said before me.

Maybe you dropped out of grad school you prefer not to attend with any care to what others say. If so, you made the right choice.

38

Dave Maier 06.10.09 at 12:19 am

I generally agree with John here, but that doesn’t mean I’m not annoyed by questions of that sort (directed at me, that is). Like Wittgenstein (or not; let’s not get into it), I tend to think of what I’m doing less as establishing the truth of philosophical doctrines than as suggesting different ways of thinking about those things we already know. In this context, to respond with a purportedly knockdown argument of some doctrine or other is often (but not always) to misunderstand what is being said. So that’s annoying; but again, for most philosophers this isn’t a problem (and I don’t object when it’s appropriate).

39

John Holbo 06.10.09 at 12:59 am

“It may be that philosophers value (and hence cultivate) a particular kind of social ineptness and macho posturing …”

I would just like to clarify, in case it’s not obvious, that I take myself to be arguing against this view. It’s not ineptness, any more than people standing too close to you because they come from a culture where that distance is normal are socially inept. It is certainly not true that philosophers especially value things that seem to them like macho posturing. (Yes, to some degree, but no more than the anthropologists, say, whose ranks boast their fair share of macho posturers, in my experience. In all this I am taking as a baseline assumption that in all departments there tends to be a great deal of status jostling and personal assertiveness.)

The main point I’m making is that debates/conversations in the philosophy department are no more personally high-stakes than in other departments. There are not, so far as I can tell, a higher number of people out to crush their opponents, as opposed to simply asking some challenging questions in Q&A.

As to women in philosophy: first, obviously the issue of sexism and gender imbalance is larger than this question about intellectual style, so nothing you can say about philosophy ‘house style’ will be a sufficient address to all that. But, insofar as the style question seems to bear on the sexism and gender question, which it certainly does, I would say that it may be (probably is) the case that women in the culture at large are strongly discouraged from exhibiting anything like the sort of superfine bluntness (call it what you will: pseudo-Asberger’s Syndrome, because it doesn’t actually indicate insensitivity, but it is read by outsider’s as indicating such) that is the philosophy ‘house style’. So women who pick up the house style find themselves exhibiting an ethos that, in philosophy, is normal, and outside philosophy, will make them be perceived as un-feminine bitches or as something else generally unflattering. Male philosophers, on the other hand, who are perceived within the department as not especially aggressive (because they are not, in fact, especially given to aggression) will be perceived by outsiders as aggressive, bordering on alpha male domineering. Which, for a guy who actually isn’t that aggressive, can be kind of a cultural bonus. Even though it can also make you seen like an asshole. So, for males, it’s a mixed bag, maybe positively mixed on the whole (to the extent that emitting false alpha male positives is going to make your life go well, by your lights). For women it’s much more negative overall. I suspect it’s harder for women to hit on a balance point that seems to them to feel right. They may resort to code-switching, but that won’t work because the department contains both ‘professional’ and ‘personal’ situations and relationships. There are lots of occasions when you are in both modes at once.

40

Kathleen Lowrey 06.10.09 at 2:08 am

still nothing on how all this bears on writing style, which is what is at issue in evaluating grant proposals.

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John Holbo 06.10.09 at 2:25 am

“which is what is at issue in evaluating grant proposals.”

That is fair enough, Kathleen. I was sort of changing the subject with my post.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.10.09 at 2:34 am

## 32 & 33 – hear hear.
and #40.

JH @39 – but is this (purported) phenomenon determined by some salient factor, like the nature of the subject?

By the way, may I beat my chest and roar that an ‘alpha male’ is not the same thing as an aggressive, loud etc male, or indeed one with any particular intrinsic characteristic (a bit like ‘the fittest’ as in ‘survival of’). It’s just one that currently dominates the particular group it’s currently in. I imagine in most cases that amounts mainly to getting first refusal of food etc., and of course exclusive access to chosen female(s) (or so he thinks – ‘sneaky fucker’* behaviours persist in humans and other animals.)

I wouldn’t insist, but I want your harem it does manifest a confusion about the (externalist-essentialist?) ‘alpha male’ concept, which in turn I think has some subtle implications for mores which I won’t even try to tease out.

_*a term actually used in zoology I understand…

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Michele Lamont 06.10.09 at 3:31 am

Going on a limb here: in fields that are made of a small but high status community (say philosophy as compared to education), performance and self presentation in public settings is even more crucial to the creation of one’s reputation than it is in larger fields. Thus the importance of giving good talks and mastering the art of asking brilliant questions in seminars, and of attending seminars. That’s the context described by John Holbo in his comment. In larger fields, reputations are more dependent on the ability to publish in high visibility journals where double-blind peer review is practiced. And the face-to-face (whether you think well on your feet, are articulate or handsome and charming) simply does not count for much, as less personal mechanisms are at work in the making of reputations. And these smaller high status fields are often those where display of cultural capital is important to reputation building. I would venture that these fields also attract people for whom being an academic is not a means to upward mobility. On the conditions that lead to the building of reputation in philosophy and comparative literature, some of you will be interested in my old paper
“How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida.” http://www.jstor.org/pss/2780292
Incidentally, in the context of the panels I have studied, having a “good” presentation of self means being able to listen to the other panelists and learn from them.

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John Holbo 06.10.09 at 3:34 am

“He started out, “Yeess, I vonder vhy you have incluuuded a false preemissse in your argumeeent?” Before he could say what the “false premise” was supposed to be, Cohen replied, “Well, of course, because I need it to make my conclusion come out true.”

It’s important to realize (as I think you do) that this sort of thing can be fairly collegial. Likewise: in order to know whether ‘I can’t help wondering why you’ve arranged the food so as to attract so many ants into our kitchen’ is whimsical ribbing or passive-aggressive bitchery you actually need to know what the relationship is. Are Kekes and Cohen bitter enemies, or do they get along despite their total political differences? It’s quite likely that a lot of philosophy talk that is really on the whimsical side – because it really is intended to be recieved that way, and really is received that way – appears to outsiders as unaccountable bitchiness.

I think there is a specific whimsy/passive-aggressive bitchery ambiguity that is important to the understanding/misunderstanding of philosophy department manners.

45

Matt 06.10.09 at 3:53 am

It was certainly whimsical on Josh Cohen’s side, and Kekes seemed to take it well enough, though I think he’s pretty serious about everything, or at least that’s my impression. I didn’t mean it as a counter-example, but rather as an example of the sort of thing you have in mind.

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Mike 06.10.09 at 5:03 am

During the years I have noted that there is a certain way in which many non-political scientists feel entitled to discuss politics that, say, non-engineers usually do not feel about engineering. That is, I would assert that an engineer could, in quite explicit detail, point out why someone is wrong concerning a particular engineering problem without this being perceived as being hostile in any way. If, on the other hand, a political scientist in exactly the same manner were to point out why someone is wrong about a certain political issue it would be perceived as being just that: a direct attack on something which (for one reason or another) should not be attacked. That the political scientist in question might have spent a decade or more on this particular issue is in general of little to no consequence to the holder of a particular view, which is a relationship which that same holder of a particular view would be likely to find absurd were the political scientist an engineer discussing an engineering problem.

I would suggest that the relationship between philosophers and non-philosophers is extremely similar to that of political scientists and non-political scientists. In general I don’t really think the style of argument as such matters a whole deal as long as we are discussing the relationship between academic fields (which obviously does not mean that academe-speak cannot be exclusionary), but rather that it is the topic as such that is the problem. As many have already mentioned, most participants of a field are engaged in various kinds of critical dialogue with other participants of that field, and an entirely non-critical engagement is often a sign that whatever is being discussed isn’t really deemed worthy of discussion (which, I think, most presenters of ideas would find insulting). But this does not mean that a philosopher is critical in the same sense that an anthropologist is critical, and the tendency of some to reduce this difference to a particular kind of arseholery vs. non-arseholery in my view misses the point entirely, which is: why does this reduction occur? And I think engels already provided the best explanation for it in #26.

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hilzoy 06.10.09 at 5:41 am

I don’t think there are more sexists in philosophy than elsewhere, though of course this is based on my own experience, which is necessarily limited. I do think that the style under discussion is one that women are often discouraged from adopting more generally, and probably screens women out, to some extent. But I think that’s changing.

When I took my first philosophy class, it had never occurred to me that anyone would hold my gender against me. (My family and friends would never have done such a thing, and as far as other people went, I was generally unpopular and regarded as too weird for words, and so I imagine I must have lumped a lot of what was actually sexism in with the rest of people not liking me. Sexism was absolutely wasted on me until I was in my early 20s.) Also, I loved this style of argument, and did well at it. (Not noticing sexism meant that I also didn’t notice any gendered disapproval of my argumentative style.)

I have encountered sexism in the discipline, though not more than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and less than a lot of places. (But then, I once worked in a biker bar …) But I’ve never encountered it in this kind of argument — it has involved different things, like some of my colleagues at a previous job being a bit apprehensive about having their first female tenure-track colleague. And I am a lot better at spotting it now.

I will say this, though: it’s excellent preparation for blogging. ;)

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jholbo 06.10.09 at 6:15 am

“Sexism was absolutely wasted on me until I was in my early 20s.”

Hilzoy wins the thread!

“Thus the importance of giving good talks and mastering the art of asking brilliant questions in seminars, and of attending seminars. That’s the context described by John Holbo in his comment. In larger fields, reputations are more dependent on the ability to publish in high visibility journals where double-blind peer review is practiced.”

I didn’t make this clear in post – because, now that I think about it, I was conflating several potentially distinct points – but I was actually sort of half-thinking about the apprenticeship process. When you are a student, you get your impression of things from seminars, and you have to present to your fellow students and so forth. It is also true that many people in other fields derive their sense of philosophy from their recollection of philosophy classes taken as undergraduates/seminars they have attended where philosophers made themselves loudly heard. Within philosophy, reputation is publication-driven, as elsewhere, but philosophy’s reputation, elsewhere – and among the young – may be rather seminar-style driven.

I should have been clearer about how I’m changing the subject from Michéle’s focus on grants and peer review (as Kathleen points out, upthread). My points only carry over to the degree that those who sit and review grants and so forth have carried over, in their heads, some such adverse sense of what philosophy is like. If, when they read proposals by philosophers, they think: this sounds like the sort of jerk who would ask those sorts of ‘but aren’t you just obviously wrong, and isn’t that potentially a problem for your position?’-style questions, then maybe that wouldn’t serve the applying philosophers very well. Obviously I have no basis for judging how likely that sort of dynamic is. (And, as I said, I haven’t read Michéle’s book, although I have been meaning to.)

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dsquared 06.10.09 at 6:21 am

It’s not ineptness, any more than people standing too close to you because they come from a culture where that distance is normal are socially inept.

what if they continued to do that after being asked not to, and when it was pointed out that this damaged their relationships with other people they just said “it’s my culture, deal with it”. Or even better if they said “you may perceive my behaviour as aggressive and annoying, but actually you’re wrong, I’m just behaving how I like without considering others”.

Also, as I noted above, I’d be a lot more impressed with “this sort of thing can be fairly collegial” if I was seeing loads of examples of visiting junior graduate students pulling this sort of stunt with established and powerful local faculty, but they all actually seem to be the other way round, or at most between rough status equals.

This still very much reminds me of the excuses that Michael Lewis makes for the bond traders in Liar’s Poker. On some dealing floors, you still get a lot of “banter” based on crude sexual epithets, bullying and faux-aggression. I’m sure that in the minds of the people who do it, it’s perfectly matey and not meant nastily at all. But it was a massive step forward in the culture of dealing floors when the human resources department finally got it through our thick skulls that this sort of behaviour actually isn’t OK.

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jholbo 06.10.09 at 6:39 am

“what if they continued to do that after being asked not to, and when it was pointed out that this damaged their relationships with other people they just said “it’s my culture, deal with it”. Or even better if they said “you may perceive my behaviour as aggressive and annoying, but actually you’re wrong, I’m just behaving how I like without considering others”.”

Well they wouldn’t want to say that they are ‘just behaving how they like without considering others’ because that would be a false self-accusation, if my argument is right. They are as considerate of others as other academics are (which isn’t a terribly high standard, probably, but not an especially low one.) The reason why they continue to do it even when others ask them not to is that they believe it’s the most efficient, clear, hence appropriate way to engage these problems, intellectually. Not whimsically, but in a kind of blunt ‘but isn’t your main premise just obviously false for reason x’ way. (The whimsy is extra.) They may be quite wrong about this, but they are sincere about it. They won’t adopt what they take to be an inferior intellectual mode just to insulate someone’s feelings, particularly in light of the fact that they will feel the proper way to stop the hurt feelings is to explain – as I do in the post – that it is due to a genuine misunderstanding of social dynamics in the philosophy department. The person with the hurt feelings has just wrongly (but understandably) inferred that people are thinking and feeling hostile, contemptuous things that they actually are not thinking and feeling.

As to the Liar’s Poker case. I think the problem is that these sorts of environments actually are (or were, but probably still are) insanely testosterone-soaked and fratboyish and laddish. (I have no personal experience, but I’ve read Michael Lewis.) But it’s just a misreading of the philosophy department to suppose it’s actually like that. It’s just plain a gentler place, on the whole. People aren’t aggressively trying to tear each other down in this way.

As to the junior/senior point: the need for junior folks to tiptoe around/flatter/not say anything the least bit irritating to those who hold the power of professional life and death over them is quite separate. This is nothing unique to philosophy, or academia. In any work environment it may be ok for, say, the managers to attack each other in certain ways while really only kidding around. But that doesn’t mean that the new guy you hired to make the coffee and photocopies has the privilege of twitting the boss in exactly the same way that his fellow corner-office dwellers have. (I’m not saying this is just. But it’s a separate point.)

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jholbo 06.10.09 at 6:49 am

“But it was a massive step forward in the culture of dealing floors when the human resources department finally got it through our thick skulls that this sort of behaviour actually isn’t OK.”

I will grant that there is a strict intellectual pointlessness to a lot of it. It’s obvious that people could cut it out and still make their points, minus the arch self-amusement of these gestures. But as to whether they therefore should? Well, there is something to that, but also something to the whole ‘when in Rome’ thing. I’m only really insisting on the bit about there being, to some degree, a misunderstanding by outsiders of what it’s like inside the philosophers’ heads when they say this sort of stuff.

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jholbo 06.10.09 at 6:51 am

The fact that more women would feel welcome is clearly the big ticket item, when considering the advantages of changing the culture.

53

Daniel 06.10.09 at 7:17 am

The person with the hurt feelings has just wrongly (but understandably) inferred that people are thinking and feeling hostile, contemptuous things that they actually are not thinking and feeling.

But after decades of philosophy departments having a reputation for being assholes, wouldn’t you think that normal people would change their behaviour, just for that sake alone? Most of these people are perfectly capable of being nice and friendly in their personal life and it really isn’t that much effort to do it at work. I think there’s an awful lot of self-mythologising here – that this sort of behaviour is crucial to preserving a self-image as being much much cleverer than other humanities people, in the face of decidedly mixed results in terms of preserving status in other dimensions.

also

As to the junior/senior point: the need for junior folks to tiptoe around/flatter/not say anything the least bit irritating to those who hold the power of professional life and death over them is quite separate. This is nothing unique to philosophy, or academia.

I would agree with this if we were agreed that the way philosophers talk to one another does in fact constitute teasing, twitting or being at least a little bit irritating, but your argument seems to require that it doesn’t. Do we need a separate theory of how philosophers kiss up versus how they kick down? I have to say that a theory that “senior high-status philosophers don’t mean anything nasty or contemptuous when they tear juniors to shreds, but don’t you dare say anything less than perfectly respectful to them in return”, while potentially true as a theory of the contents of philosophers’ heads, is a pretty diluted version of the original “strong” non-asshole theory.

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John Holbo 06.10.09 at 8:24 am

“I think there’s an awful lot of self-mythologising here – that this sort of behaviour is crucial to preserving a self-image as being much much cleverer than other humanities people”

I guess I think that all humanists do this. I’m not convinced philosophers are worse, though obviously they are not an unusually humble lot. (I don’t know how to settle such a question. We may just have dueling impressions of how things are.)

“I would agree with this if we were agreed that the way philosophers talk to one another does in fact constitute teasing, twitting or being at least a little bit irritating”

But my point was never that the philosophers aren’t, in fact, teasing or twitting each other mildly, with this stuff. My point was that people sometimes read these as ad jugulum attacks (‘you are a contemptible idiot!’) when really it was just a relatively mild case of ribbing and cajoling, nothing more. Admitting that philosophers sometimes use mildly aggressive rhetoric for incidental advantage will hardly set them apart from the English professors or historians or any other humanists. What I am saying is that what seems extreme, in certain ways, is really relatively mild.

The point about the juniors and seniors still stands because the situation is often this: when juniors don’t feel free to criticize seniors, they don’t feel free to criticize seniors even mildly. So the fact that sometimes juniors in philosophy don’t feel free to criticize seniors is perfectly consistent with what I’m claiming. I do admit that these problems arise in philosophy – as everywhere in life: how not? I actually think, that, relatively speaking, philosophy departments are pretty good along the senior/junior axis, compared to other humanities departments. Maybe it’s because, as Chris says, people are hoping for a Boy Wonder. I think it’s more that there are these rather impersonal norms that allow for sharp questioning, and they are more or less evenly applied. Because they are genuinely understood to be impersonal. If you can play the game, young or old, you are allowed to play the game. (It may be an annoying game, but the admissions policy, for those willing to play in ‘house style’, is quite open and democratic.)

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Chris Bertram 06.10.09 at 8:38 am

Yes, I think that’s right John. My experience is also that philosophy departments are pretty egalitarian and tolerant and that senior people are quite accepting (indeed encouraging) of harsh critique from junior people (including grad students). The macho thing is a different dimension.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.10.09 at 9:14 am

JH I think you might be (or be being taken as) conceding too much. I don’t recognise the picture that is suddenly emerging at all. Are we now using Wittgenstein and Popper – both of whom were clearly massive wankers – as our point of reference? Have we abandoned the possibility that perceptions (or the not-entirely-passive taking of umbrage) are affected by factors to do with the nature of the subject? Or that they might be affecting some of the comments? Why has the thread just now taken this turn?

-ah, just refreshed the page before a delayed posting, and see that some sanity has returned in the last couple of posts…so, where were we?

57

Z 06.10.09 at 10:18 am

“You seem to be saying X, but this contradicts Y, so how have I misunderstood you?”

Ah, but Jordan, surely you have heard of some math seminars where the questions where a little ruder. And perhaps you know of some where even the “you are totally wrong, give me this chalk so that I can explain your mistake” or the “this question is very ill-formulated, you should have considered (insert some math term) instead” were not totally unheard of (though that seems to be a thing of the past even in SAGA). Of course, what is talked about in a math seminar should be demonstrably correct, so the speaker should be able to easily prevail, but in practice, even with a perfect command of the material, it is not so easy to produce an intelligible one hour talk in which no technical hypothesis is a bit glossed over or in which a bit of extra-generality is omitted, and that is enough for a sharp-witted and confrontational listener to react.

In general, though, I agree with your remark that math seminars are rather welcoming places.

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Daniel 06.10.09 at 10:47 am

My point was that people sometimes read these as ad jugulum attacks (‘you are a contemptible idiot!’) when really it was just a relatively mild case of ribbing and cajoling, nothing more.

yes this is why I used the word “excuse” above. “It was just mild ribbing, you’re reading far too much into it” is so very frequently used as an excuse for utterly unacceptable behaviour (particularly, such behaviour when embedded into subcultures of people who think it’s alright) that I think philosophers will have a hell of a job in convincing anybody that philosophy departments are the very very rare exception. If I was at a philosophy seminar now, I think I’d add a sarcastic analogy here to the small minority of genuine naked-dusting accidents which end up with a man getting a ketchup bottle stuck up his bottom for entirely innocent reasons.

I end up returning to the example of our numerous “John Emerson vs Philosophers” threads (and indeed the various similar ones involving me). John basically adopts this mode of address when addressing analytical philosophers of their many failings, and infallibly they hate it, and tend to react very angrily indeed.

This doesn’t strike me as the natural reaction of people who are used to being bluntly and sarcastically criticised in the spirit of efficient progress and who regard this sort of thing as good natured ribbing. It looks much more like the natural reaction of people who have to put up with a whole load of shit in their daily life because it’s considered normal in their workplace, and who are damned if they’re going to tolerate more of the same on the Internet.

I’d also add that this style of behaviour does show up in the other humanities from time to time (cf: Leavis and his followers, also various bits of the cultural studies movement who are always having a go at Michael B and, canonically, neoclassical economists) and it seems to be invariably correlated with intellectual cliqueishness. Which is as you’d expect; if people behave in a way that’s all cool and dandy to an in-group, but looks really nasty to anyone who doesn’t understand the code, then their external contacts are going to be limited to people who are willing to make the effort.

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Chris Bertram 06.10.09 at 10:59 am

Hmm D2. I think Emerson is representative of a crowd of people who have a certain idea in their heads of what analytical philosophy is (typically they characterize it as a sort of incoherent amalgam of logical positivism and ordinary-language philosophy). It really is kind of annoying when said people get corrected over and over again but still come back with the same stuff. Emerson can’t be bothered to update his picture of the discipline (by, say, doing some actual reading) but feels entitled to trot out the same old crap regardless. He deserves what he gets.

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Matt 06.10.09 at 11:49 am

As someone who has just finished grad school I’ll agree with John and Chris that in philosophy it’s encouraged for the junior to take this sort of attitude in seminars and at talks, too- to aggressively question those talking- and that this is often how reputations are made. (I’d once read a claim that this was even more so in the UK, but I don’t know that that is true.) Of course there are sometimes senior people who cannot stand questioning or criticisms, and if one of those is your adviser or seminar instructor you’d better know it, but for the most part senior philosophers encourage and welcome the same sort of aggressive (seeming) and full-on questioning style from students and young philosophers, and learning to do it well is seen as part of being socialized.

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jholbo 06.10.09 at 12:20 pm

“and infallibly they hate it, and tend to react very angrily indeed.”

I would like to point out that I have personally failed to act infallibly in this way. John Emerson and I get along just fine, and I am very patient with the dear fellow. But look at it this way.

Suppose for the sake of the argument that John Emerson’s view of the state of the discipline is (as indeed I say it is) highly inaccurate. Now suppose that it’s the umpteenth time he’s expressed this view. Am I not allowed to get even a little tired of it? I say I am allowed. So the fact that I seem just a little tired of it, if I ever do, is hardly evidence that I know (secretly in my heart) that he is right, rather than that I think (openly and frankly) that he is still wrong. Just as he was the previous umpteen-minus-one times he said the same damn thing. (In my view.)

62

magistra 06.10.09 at 12:27 pm

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned (I think) in either of these threads is the possibility that it’s not the brusqueness of the argument that’s different between disciplines, but the grounds for attacking a paper. If philosophers very much have an agreed method for doing philosophy, (as mathematicians have for doing mathematics), then the argument is going to be concentrated on methodological weaknesses.

In history, particularly medieval history, which is my specialism, a variety of methodological approaches is common. So I quite often hear a paper and think, well that’s not how I would have approached the question, but the results are interesting. The really devastating question in history, in contrast (even if it tends to be reserved for post-seminar private asides), is ‘so what?’ Now that I know women were involved in the French Revolution or whatever, what difference does it make?

As a result, historians tend to become practised at providing a brief explanation of why their topic matters to non-specialists in their field. (I have several elevator pitches on my own work, for example). In contrast, if philosophers have a culture in which they share agreed important questions and agreed methods, they’re not going to get practiced in explaining a) why their topic matters and b) why they’ve taken this approach, and they’re going to come out badly in interdisciplinary panels.

What would be interesting to hear (perhaps paging Michael Berube?), is the most frequent grounds for arguing in literature seminars (or in other humanities subjects). Thehn we can get more of an idea of how philosophy is distinctive.

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Matt 06.10.09 at 1:09 pm

I think there’s certainly something to magistra’s point. I expect this is so of most fields, but I do know that there’s a tendency in philosophy to see other fields as poorly done philosophy. (Sometimes these other fields do involve poorly done philosophy, as noted, for example, by Harry- there are often clearly normative ethical questions that are badly done in a way philosophers can help with in many fields.) But, I think the tendency of philosophers (myself included) to see, say, literary criticism or political science, or history of science, or whatever, as just poorly done philosophy rather than a distinct and independently valuable approach.

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Sam C 06.10.09 at 1:38 pm

I think Matt’s right that there’s a tendency of philosophers to see other disciplines as badly-done philosophy, but let me also note that there’s a tendency of at least some other disciplines to see philosophy as badly done history, lit. crit., sociology, etc. This happens to me often enough that I have standard replies ready to go when, e.g., someone responds to my claim that self-expression is part of the good life by referring to survey data which indicates that some group (it might be ‘people from Eastern cultures’ or ‘women’ or…) don’t value self-expression.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.10.09 at 1:51 pm

I still think that DD seems a bit of an outlier here and that he may be leading rather more out of (or reading rather more into) JH in the way of concessions than is quite merited – framing, salience, ‘have you ever, even once, come across…?’ and all that.
And since that’s the second or third time I’ve heard DD mention (neoclassical) economists as a roughly-equivalent-comparator, I also wonder if there could be any conflation going on?

And separately (JH), if there is indeed a distinctive ‘house style’, isn’t it at all related to the nature of the subject (as canvassed above, muchly), rather than only some unexplained deviant subculture? I think you think so, but I’m not sure DD thinks you do. But anyway if so, in what proportions are the two mixed? I think it’s quite-a-lot:not-very-much (and the overall magnitude is not-very-much, too.)

(And an aside, it occurs that if there is a flippancy culture, might it be because the subject is often quite dry, so there’s gallons of slack in which to overlay some leavening – a bit like using silly or exotic exemplars just because you may as well – kangaroos on crutches etc, – though there’s also a mnemonic function there)

-----------------------------Caveats------------------------------
Not saying any leading/misreading is intentional or culpable or discreditable. And not saying JH is susceptible to any kind of suggestion, etc - just that there may be a slight case of cross-purposes, or parallax error. And not suggesting that any particular view of (nc) economists is correct...

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dsquared 06.10.09 at 1:55 pm

Well if you assume yourself to be in the right, then you’re in the right. But this is not a very general-purpose reply; should I go and dig up a bunch of examples of philosophers, big and small, losing their tempers in CT comments threads?

Or perhaps let’s look at the (slightly old but still I think relevant) fiasco of the Cambridge University philosophy faculty’s reaction to the proposal to give Derrida an honorary degree. That certainly looked like red-faced, spluttering, cliquish, utterly embarrassing status rage; was it not?

I’m not particularly interested in arguing (because I have no real empirical evidence that it’s the case) that philosophers are better or worse at mean or rude behaviour to non-clique members than anyone else. But I think that any defence has got to rest on “actually we don’t do this any more than anyone else” rather than “ahhhh, but when we do it, it’s charming!”. If we’re going to accept the premis that philosophers have a tradition of behaving rudely and aggressively, then it’s not really much of a qualification to that to say “but since people in the in-group don’t mind”, since what we’re specifically interested in is relations between the in group and the rest of the world.

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John Holbo 06.10.09 at 2:43 pm

“Well if you assume yourself to be in the right, then you’re in the right.”

Sorry, I wasn’t very clear about that. My point was: the fact that people who think Emerson is wrong get a bit tired of hearing the same thing over and over again is not very good evidence that they secretly think he is right. Very likely, they just think he’s wrong. And they might be right. It’s not that no one has ever given full replies to Emerson. He just doesn’t accept them. So here we are. The existence of Emerson is not evidence either way.

The Cambridge snubbing of Derrida was a bit pointless, I grant. (I happen to have a very low opinion of Derrida, but who cares, really? Give him a piece of paper if the people in charge of giving the piece of paper want to give him the piece of paper.) But none of this has anything to do with the issue at hand, so far as I can see. It’s not as though other academics are immune to the satisfactions of giving someone the high hand of contempt. Other academics are cliquish, heaven knows, and Derrida himself often got a bit spluttery and high-handed in responses to his critics. We have wandered away from consideration of any bad characteristics that could plausibly be considered peculiar to the philosophy department.

“But I think that any defence has got to rest on “actually we don’t do this any more than anyone else” rather than “ahhhh, but when we do it, it’s charming!””

But I’m not saying THAT. I’m not saying that philosophers viciously rip people apart in a charming way. (Leaving me to account for the source of the charmingness.) I’m saying that they don’t actually do it at all. Look, if you visit a culture in which it is considered acceptable to stand closer than Europeans and Americans find comfortable, the ‘invader’ – if challenged – does not justify him or herself on the grounds that he is indeed standing much too close for comfort, but it’s charming when he invades your personal space. It isn’t right to describe his culture as one in which it’s acceptable to invade others’ personal space rudely. Rather, they don’t tend to assume that IS your personal space, so they don’t think it’s rude, so – in an important sense – he isn’t being rude, particularly not if you are in his country at the time. This is a quite a close analogy because philosophers, in the sorts of cases I’m discussing, genuinely don’t think of themselves as attacking the person, as opposed to the position. You can disagree and say you don’t believe this, but do see that this IS what I’m saying, rightly or wrongly.

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Margaret Atherton 06.10.09 at 2:45 pm

I’d like to pick up on the philosophy-and-sexism remarks particularly, except for Hilzoy, they have been in the mode of “women, they”. It is undeniable that philosophy as a discipline has a shockingly low percent of women participants, the percent of women hired in tenured and tenure track job hovers around 21%. But the percentage of women who get BAs in philosophy is almost as low, I’m sorry I can remember the lastest figure but I think it is in the mid 20’s. So the problem of women in philosophy is I think really a pipeline problem and it is most acute at the undergraduate level and not at the level at which colleagues or fellow members of seminars are being arseholes. That is, I think people for a long time have been looking in the wrong places to explain why so few women become professional philosophers, particularly since as Hilzoy says I think quite correctly, most undergraduates just don’t see sexism or sexist behavior addressed to them. I have no idea what it is about the teaching of undergraduate philosophy that fails to attract women (particularly since it obviously failed to apply in my case) but I don’t think that the way professional philosophers behave to one another at talks has much to do with it.

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Phil 06.10.09 at 2:47 pm

This doesn’t strike me as the natural reaction of people who are used to being bluntly and sarcastically criticised in the spirit of efficient progress and who regard this sort of thing as good natured ribbing. It looks much more like the natural reaction of people who have to put up with a whole load of shit in their daily life because it’s considered normal in their workplace, and who are damned if they’re going to tolerate more of the same on the Internet.

See also my comment back here:

“Why so many votes for Russell? Who the hell is David K. Lewis? And where, O where, is Husserl? (If I had two votes Wittgenstein would get #2, I have to admit.)”

The second question, in particular, was rather emphatically not treated as good-natured anything.

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burritoboy 06.10.09 at 3:13 pm

“Now suppose that it’s the umpteenth time he’s expressed this view. Am I not allowed to get even a little tired of it? I say I am allowed. “

And I would say the anger of the analytics (and yes, it’s anger and yes, Holbo is angry) tells us precisely who they are (hint: is anger a philosophic emotion? does anger lead to wisdom?)

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engels 06.10.09 at 3:26 pm

Burritoboy, I think you may have misidentified philosophy and stoicism.

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H. E. Baber 06.10.09 at 3:29 pm

I like the aggressive, adversarial style. It liberates women like me who, in the outside world are constrained by the expectation that one will be nice. This was one of the things that attracted me about philosophy as an undergraduate. After dipping in my toe a little I realized that in philosophy classes I could let go, fight, enjoy myself–and be rewarded for it

Why so few women majoring in philosophy? Maybe it’s plain economics. In choosing a major you may not be entirely set on a career path but looking at a wide range of options including not only grad school in the discipline but professional programs (like law) that don’t require a specific major, K-12 teaching (getting a teaching credential when you’re firmed up your plans), or just competing in the market for decent white-collar jobs in business that only take a BA–no particular major required.

Men have a much better shot at those decent white-collar jobs. A man with a “useless humanities degree” like philosophy has a much better shot of getting a job in sales or whatever with a career ladder to management. A comparably qualified woman is more likely to end up in a dead-end secretarial job–though of course these jobs aren’t called secretarial any more. So an undergraduate philosophy degree is much riskier for women than for men.

Why fewer women in philosophy than in other equally “useless” humanities disciplines? Because these are a possible career path to high school teaching as a fallback position whereas philosophy isn’t.

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Belle Waring 06.10.09 at 3:32 pm

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I do basically agree with John. I find academic philosophy perfectly congenial, and I agree that it has its own mores. There is a sense in which taking offense at a blunt critique of your argument is to misunderstand the motives of your interlocutor. There is a reasonable case to be made that the philosophers are victims of the patriarchy: women are strongly discouraged from being ‘argumentative’ in this way by general social pressures unrelated to philosophy per se, so by the time the university professors come to turn on the tap, only a few women trickle out, and are then welcomed happily. But then, whatever it is that keeps large numbers of women from philosophy seminars seems to be the same sort of thing that confines them to squishy subfields like Ancient Phil. or Ethics, or that keeps them out of math seminars, or physics labs, and maybe it bears a passing resemblance to the cock-swinging guys on the trading floor with their “good-natured” taunting, and whatever that thing is, it does look a little sinister. It has always been my experience that people regard me as being more stereotypically male than female along certain axes, and this is maybe the main one. But is this evidence that other people should butch up and learn to love the cut and thrust of academic philosophy? Not obviously. But then, it is actually fun! And to its practitioners it seems to offer the chance of an honest victory, while the marshier terrain of other humanities disputes makes it seem like people might be winning arguments much more by force of personality, a good choice of allies, and some more-authentic-than-thou legerdemain. Philosophical arguments seem more out in the open. And I’m not attributing this to others; I really feel that they are more out in the open, and may the smartest person win. But I am reflective enough to see that this has an unpleasant aspect of sniffing mathematician’s jock straps, nu?

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dsquared 06.10.09 at 4:03 pm

This is a quite a close analogy because philosophers, in the sorts of cases I’m discussing, genuinely don’t think of themselves as attacking the person, as opposed to the position

You do keep on saying this, but this is why I keep calling it an excuse. Phil at #69 gives a fantastic example of an instance when a clear half-dozen philosophers were very obviously both attacking the person, and considering themselves to be attacked as people. There are also numerous cases of philosophical controversies between philosophers (Dennett against Searle in the 1990s, for example, or Colin McGinn against everyone) where it became parodically obvious that it was, in fact, a personal fight and both sides ended up admitting it. On secondhand evidence, it doesn’t seem all that unusual for a philosophy seminar to degenerate into a pointless timewasting shouting match – it’s considered an occupational hazard, and the fact that this sometimes happens suggests to me that it’s always potentially about to happen.

I also don’t accept (if this is the claim you’re making, which I’m not sure)[1] that philosophers making comments which have the outward appearance of bluntly phrased logical comments are in fact doing that. Bruno Latour’s work is very good on the way in which natural scientists use presentations of data as rhetorical devices in political struggles with one another, and it would seem odd to me if philosophers didn’t do things the same way.

[1] a short formule de politesse much avoided by some of the philosophers who comment on CT, and the efficiency gain of saving a passage of 11 words is always more than offset by the tendency toward 1000 word diatribes about someone else’s “reading comprehension”.

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Phil 06.10.09 at 4:21 pm

to its practitioners it seems to offer the chance of an honest victory, while the marshier terrain of other humanities disputes makes it seem like people might be winning arguments much more by force of personality, a good choice of allies, and some more-authentic-than-thou legerdemain

And yet from the outside this honest, rigorous, unsparing shtick looks deeply rhetorical – choose your premises carefully, define away the exceptions as you go along, serve up with a ladleful of sarcasm and a dash of false humility, and you’re away. One thing the squishy humanities (English and Sociology) have taught me is that you can prove anything.

On second thoughts, scrub that last – if I learned that lesson anywhere it was from phenomenology, or possibly Pragmatism. Maybe I’m imagining a difference that isn’t really there – maybe Dewey used to go around nailing his opponents to the wall; I can’t see it, though. Whatever happened to the “let’s proceed as if this were a useful way of thinking” school of philosophy?

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Tim Wilkinson 06.10.09 at 4:35 pm

Somehow the vague impression that there is generally some degree and kind of sly, wry sardonic mindgaming going on in philosophical discussions seems to have crept in. Maybe it’s because the only example given in detail was Kekes, which I wouln’t have regard as typical, and in fact read as a rather supercilious gambit, with humour used either as a diffuser of tension or a deserved putdown.

I thought we were discussing the blunt and earnest, and yes, enjoyable and even exhilarating pursuit of philosophical discussion. Instead there seems now to have arisen the idea that philosophers are on the same spectrum as Bernard Manning and other vicious wielders of (faux-)humour. I don’t get it.

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Kathleen 06.10.09 at 4:36 pm

Belle — but your point is very similar to John’s, and explains nothing about why, if philosophy is all about getting efficiently to the best kind of argumentation, slicing away squishyness in search of the hard bone (hee hee, sorry the gender stuff just gets to me that way) of logic and truth…. philosophers have such poor outcomes in competitions that revolve around written documents. One would *think*, given all these descriptions by philosophers of what their style is all about, the reverse would be the case. I think John’s suggestion that maybe reviewers look at a philosophy grant proposal and think, “ahh, philosophers, whattabunchajerks, I’m sticking this one at the bottom of the pile” is quite unlikely. Instead, it seems to me possible that some aspects of some kinds of philosophy training produce scholars who unconsciously use persona as a part of their overall persuasive technique, and minus that persona (the dead letter of a stack of paper that comes out of a manila envelope) their logic and argument is at a real disadvantage because it is in fact less thorough and complete than it might be if they weren’t unconsciously relying on persona in its formulation/articulation in live contexts.

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Kathleen Lowrey 06.10.09 at 4:37 pm

I recently switched to using my full name here, but my first name still pops up by default when I comment and I sometimes forget to correct it. “Kathleen = Kathleen Lowrey”.

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burritoboy 06.10.09 at 4:37 pm

“Burritoboy, I think you may have misidentified philosophy and stoicism.”

Again, the anger of the analytics tells us what we need to know about them – one gets angry precisely when one’s most precious prejudices are undermined.

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Sam C 06.10.09 at 4:47 pm

Burritoboy, I don’t think I understand what you’re getting at (or what you were getting at in the earlier thread where you were similarly contemptuous about philosophy lecturers/professors). The word ‘philosopher’ has several meanings. Do you really think the one you favour is the only legitimate meaning? Why, if so? Do you really think – I’m even less sure about this as a sketch of your views – that no-one who works in a university philosophy department (me, for instance) is a philosopher in your favoured sense? Again, why, if so?

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engels 06.10.09 at 4:47 pm

one gets angry precisely when one’s most precious prejudices are undermined

Either then, or when one has just been called a ‘motherfucker’ or something similar six or seven times in row. Which of the two is closer to the typical blog exchange with John Emerson is for you to judge.

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Sam C 06.10.09 at 4:50 pm

Oh, if we’re just talking about reactions to John Emerson, I’m with John Holbo: Emerson doesn’t know what he’s talking about, has been corrected many times, but still repeats the same old crap. I wouldn’t call myself ‘angry’ about this; ‘irritated’ would cover it.

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engels 06.10.09 at 4:55 pm

(Before John or anyone else jumps on me, please consider that not as a criticism of John’s mode of critique, merely a recognition of what I think ought to be obvious: that success in making someone angry, especially via the internet, really doesn’t have a necessary connection of the intellectual merits of what you are saying.)

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burritoboy 06.10.09 at 6:26 pm

“(Before John or anyone else jumps on me, please consider that not as a criticism of John’s mode of critique, merely a recognition of what I think ought to be obvious: that success in making someone angry, especially via the internet, really doesn’t have a necessary connection of the intellectual merits of what you are saying.)”

The analytics seem very easy to anger – and anger is the emotion of the hero (angry Achilles, etc) rather than the philosopher.

“Either then, or when one has just been called a ‘motherfucker’ or something similar six or seven times in row. Which of the two is closer to the typical blog exchange with John Emerson is for you to judge.”

Apparently, the honor of the analytics is very important to them. Again, whether honor is something that philosophers should value greatly seems a dubious proposition.

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Steve LaBonne 06.10.09 at 6:28 pm

burritoboy, I’m not any kind of philosopher, and I’m angry that you’re repeatedly crapping on this thread with your substance-free jackassery.

86

peli grietzer 06.10.09 at 6:30 pm

Ah, but there are reasons! Analytic philosophers would have no job, or be bored on the job, if people wouldn’t get in their face: 2-D semanticist want to argue about whether 2-D Semantics is right, not write 2-D dictionaries detailing primary and secondary intensions for every word in the OED. Clashing each-other from across opposite sides of a border is the ideal condition for analytic philosophers to do their work in. Now contrast that with a Lacanian literary theorist who’s facing attempted-refutations of psychoanalysis, and just wants to go back to writing his/her history of objet petit a in Anglo-American Modernism, but now has to put aside actual work to go fight about background assumptions and whether the work is legit. Not fun. Just like chemist prefer to spend their time doing chemistry than arguing about whether science is a dogma.

Methodological attacks are unpleasant (almost always and almost only, I think) when they question not the correctness of your assertions but the legitimacy/relevance of busying yourself with making such assertions. And, hey, when Timothy Williamson and P. S. Hacker fight over whose life’s work is a huge twaste of time dragging philosophy into pseudo-concerns it *does* get ugly. It gets ugly pretty much whenever there’s a Wittgensteinian and a ‘let’s outgrow the linguistic turn’-er in the same room.

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burritoboy 06.10.09 at 6:37 pm

“burritoboy, I’m not any kind of philosopher, and I’m angry that you’re repeatedly crapping on this thread with your substance-free jackassery.”

The lover of (certain) philosophers is angry that people are calling his beloved ugly and foolish. How charming! One would have thought that nearly impossible nowadays.

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Steve LaBonne 06.10.09 at 6:48 pm

Lover? I’m a scientist. I’m genetically programmed to disdain philosophers and their quaint notion that they can uncover the secrets of the universe whilst sitting in their armchairs.. ;) I just happen to dislike thread-crappers more.

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belle le triste 06.10.09 at 10:02 pm

For a pitch-perfect example of what I imagine riles Emerson — and mild unflappable me, apparently — go see Brian Leiter’s de-haut-en-bas performance on Henry’s Apologies thread.

(I saw A.C.Grayling pull the exact same stunt re pseudonym use on some blogthread discussing him a couple of years ago — vast sneering condescension designed, apparently, to bully his critic into respecting Grayling’s superior qualifications. It’s a fairly foolish — not to mention unattractive — move on the part of anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a public intellectual.) (To be minimally fair to Grayling, it afterwards occurred to me that it might be someone pretending to be him: the blog in question has since gone shuttered and dark, I think…)

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dsquared 06.10.09 at 11:02 pm

Ahhh Brian Leiter. Whenever I start wondering if I might be wrong about this, up he pops, demonstrating whatever intellectual and social vice we’re talking about, in spades. And the terrible thing is that it’s very hard to say “yes well, but Brian Leiter doesn’t really define the standards of modern philosophy”, because he does, actually, define the standards of modern philosophy and publishes a guidebook to prove it.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.10.09 at 11:13 pm

(Oh good it’s stopped then.)

So DD not an outlier any more then, BB? Any more alliterative provocateurs lurking? #74 was several cuts above your contributions though – the silly blog thread! The legendary private duels! The ‘always potentially’! And best – the ‘philosophers are especially bad – stands to reason ‘cos scientists are’!

#77 – but this thread was supposed to be dedicated to the topic the other threads swiftly gravitated to: the spoken and interpersonal side of analytic philosophers’ mooted moral leprosy. But OK, back to the central topic of the previous thread, viz. getting proposals passed.

I think magistra @62’s temperate and generally pertinent remarks were relevant to that: the generalised ‘so what’ question tends not I suspect to be one that philosophers are very used to arguing explicitly, or addressing comprehensively in published work. Though, that reminds me, they are of course used to putting their arguments on paper!

And, if this is relevant, raising that question in discussion probably would be considered more confrontational than minor-objection-number-362. It’s certainly been slightly awkward – and not at all sadistically gratifying – when I’ve raised it once or twice in the past in an earnest, though for all I know somehow insufficiently ktenic, way.

A philosopher’s answer to it might be the indefinitely iterable – ‘it resolves a question raised by…’ or might amount to: ‘I don’t know yet – just clearing some undergrowth’. Neither is likely I imagine to be very compelling to the humanities and social sciences panel, quite apart from any cross-disciplinary relevance. And so back to the ‘philosophical interestingness – what good is it?’ question from two threads back. And a parallel with pure maths (if you don’t mind the whiff of second-hand jockstrap there #73?) still seems potentially useful, as least as a first-pass heuristic.

#88 I’m saying nothing about Grayling, but should that be: ‘wants to be taken seriously as an intellectual as well as be a public intellectual’?

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Righteous Bubba 06.10.09 at 11:28 pm

Tim: your comments require a ridiculous amount of scrolling to be comprehensible, consequently I do not make the effort to comprehend them.

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lemuel pitkin 06.10.09 at 11:35 pm

So the starting point of this conversation is that lots of people find analytic philosophy less useful/interesting/relevant than work in other academic fields, right?

Seems to me folks in philosophy departments could respond to this claim in one of several ways:

1. It’s not true — there are plenty of useful exchanges between people in philosophy departments and people in other fields. They read us, we read them. No problem.

2. It is true, but it doesn’t matter. Academic philosophy sets its own goals and standards and no one outside can judge the value of philosophical work.

3. It’s true, and it is a problem. Philosophy departments are losing space in public discourse, research funding, etc., to other fields. We need to present our work more effectively (or change the kind of work we do) if we want to preserve the status/viability of our field.

Any of these positions seems defensible to me. But there’s another position that seems less defensible:

4. It’s true, and it’s a problem, but it’s not the responsibility of people in philosophy departments to solve it. Rather, the rest of the world has a moral obligation to take a more favorable view of analytic philosophy.

I’m not saying that this post is taking that last position — but if it isn’t, what exactly is it saying?

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burritoboy 06.10.09 at 11:52 pm

“Lover? I’m a scientist. I’m genetically programmed to disdain philosophers and their quaint notion that they can uncover the secrets of the universe whilst sitting in their armchairs.. ;) I just happen to dislike thread-crappers more.”

Like I said, you’re a fierce, war-like lover of (certain) philosophers – glorious in your anger that others have assailed the beauty of your beloved. And the angry heroic lover is extremely beautiful, but a human type very different from the philosopher.

95

Tim Wilkinson 06.11.09 at 12:05 am

#90 Fair nuff, though it looks OK (layout wise) on my screen resolution. I suppose I would prefer my tappings to be read so better cut them down I suppose.
#91 Starting point is assumed, and is basically as you say, but more specifically as relating to to the reactions from academic assessors with humanities and social science backgrounds. I guess I’m supposing the answers lie somewhere between versions (m. mutanda) of 3 & 4. But since the restricted version of 4 might become: ‘in some cases, humanities specialists are not best placed to judge/appreciate’, it wouldn’t be totally indefensible and stays inside the solution space for now.
Beyond that I have no idea – just groping. But if the comment had anything to do with moving the conversation in the direction you are taking (and away from its previous bearing) I am glad.

96

Tim Wilkinson 06.11.09 at 12:07 am

#90 Fair nuff, though it looks OK (layout wise) on my screen resolution. I suppose I would prefer my tappings to be read so better cut them down I suppose.

#91 Starting point is assumed, and is basically as you say, but more specifically as relating to to the reactions from academic assessors with humanities and social science backgrounds. I guess I’m supposing the answers lie somewhere between versions (m. mutanda) of 3 & 4. But since the restricted version of 4 might become: ‘in some cases, humanities etc spec1alists are not best placed to judge/appreciate’, it wouldn’t be totally indefensible and stays inside the solution space for now.
Beyond that I have no idea – just groping. But if the comment had anything to do with moving the conversation in the direction you are taking (and away from its previous bearing) I am glad.

97

Salient 06.11.09 at 12:15 am

Fair nuff, though it looks OK (layout wise) on my screen resolution.

I think the problem’s the quoting of posts by number instead of copying and pasting a sentence from them like I did here, requiring one to scroll up to see which post was #90? And then back down, and up, and down…

98

Tim Wilkinson 06.11.09 at 12:34 am

Ah yes of course – thanks.

99

John Holbo 06.11.09 at 12:52 am

dsquared: “On secondhand evidence, it doesn’t seem all that unusual for a philosophy seminar to degenerate into a pointless timewasting shouting match”

I have actually never seen this happen. I’ve seen it happen in anthropology and in English, rarely, but never in philosophy. So I would say that evidence that it is not all that unusual is not very good. (I was obviously not in the office that usual day, if it was one.)

“I also don’t accept (if this is the claim you’re making, which I’m not sure)[1] that philosophers making comments which have the outward appearance of bluntly phrased logical comments are in fact doing that. Bruno Latour’s work is very good on the way in which natural scientists use presentations of data as rhetorical devices in political struggles with one another, and it would seem odd to me if philosophers didn’t do things the same way.”

But I have already admitted that it is a rhetorical device. We are only disputing about what kind of device it is.

In general, your argument seems to be this: some philosophers are jerks/get into personal fights, so isn’t it reasonable to assume that philosophy is a jerky sort of business/makes people into jerks. I don’t think it’s a good argument. It fails to consider that some philosophers might be jerks because some people are jerks.

Kathleen: “some aspects of some kinds of philosophy training produce scholars who unconsciously use persona as a part of their overall persuasive technique, and minus that persona (the dead letter of a stack of paper that comes out of a manila envelope) their logic and argument is at a real disadvantage because it is in fact less thorough and complete than it might be if they weren’t unconsciously relying on persona in its formulation/articulation in live contexts.”

I think this is actually very close to the opposite of the likely truth. Philosophy is an ethos – no question – but philosophers are disinclined to let insertions of persona, little blurts of charisma, plug argumentative gaps. (Which is not the same as forebearing to exhibit a persona, heavens no.) There is a much stronger taboo against that in philosophy than in, say, English or anthropology, where ethos-for-argument is a more common substitution, to the point of being explicitly acceptable to many people. I think the reason people put philosophers to the bottom of the stack (if they do) is that most humanists regard philosophers’ general puzzle-and-problem stylings as preposterous and laughable. People take it to be obvious that these issues just can’t possibly be amenable to the sorts of sharp conceptual puzzle-piece approachs that philosophers seem to assume MUST work, if anything will. I’ll bet that sinks more grant proposals than anything else (obviously I am guessing.) And, even though I’m a philosopher, I’m actually inclined to say: fair enough. Sometimes I think one way, sometimes the other. But both views have their merits, and if you have the bad luck to be proposing something to a row of people who are inclined to find your whole intellectual style to be one big presupposition of confusion, you are going to have to work extra hard to get through to them.

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Salient 06.11.09 at 1:19 am

if you have the bad luck to be proposing something to a row of people who are inclined to find your whole intellectual style to be one big presupposition of confusion, you are going to have to work extra hard to get through to them.

Coincidentally, this summarizes a problem in teaching breathtakingly succinctly.

And in both the intended and the unintended cases, the extra work you are going to have to do is some form of conscientious indoctrination:“This is how you should think about this.” And in both cases, it’s not done explicitly and it’s not especially easy to convince the audience they should comply.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.11.09 at 1:25 am

@98:
“…Bruno Latour’s work is very good on the way in which natural scientists use presentations of data as rhetorical devices in political struggles with one another, and it would seem odd to me if philosophers didn’t do things the same way.”

You could also point out that it is odd to suggest that a supposedly distinctive fault of philosophers should be inferred from the premise that they can be expected to behave like some other (larger) bunch of people.


But I have already admitted that it is a rhetorical device. We are only disputing about what kind of device it is.

But should you have admitted that, if and insofar as it implies a way of gaining advantage from something other than the intrinsic philosophical force* of the point being made? I think something like that’s (at least widely taken to be) an implication of the term ‘rhetorical device’, so if that’s not what you mean to concede, would ‘dialectical technique’ or something be less amenable to misreading?

. * maybe roughly: the relative force it would have if the philosophical essentials of the whole discussion were translated into some canonically neutral language and written down?

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John Holbo 06.11.09 at 2:55 am

“But should you have admitted that?”

Yes, I should have, and did. It’s clear that these are dual-use technologies: they are tools of analysis and also work as a pair of modestly sharp elbows, in social settings.

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dsquared 06.11.09 at 7:05 am

some philosophers are jerks/get into personal fights, so isn’t it reasonable to assume that philosophy is a jerky sort of business/makes people into jerks

The argument I was trying to make is:

“You claim that philosophers don’t generally take statements of the form X to be jerky (where statements of the form X are generally regarded as jerky by the non-philosopher population). But here are a few cases when philosophers definitely seem to have taken statements of the form X to be jerky. So I continue to believe that philosophers resemble the genuine population in this respect, and to prefer the alternative hypothesis that they are just more inclined to accept jerky behaviour”

#101: I certainly do believe that both philosophers and scientists do adopt roughly the same intellectual standards, but I’m working off John’s sociological statement about the behaviour of philosophers. If John is right that philosophers work off a different standard of intellectual inquiry from Latour’s picture of natural scientists, then there’s a reason for them behaving in a way which is commonly seen as impolite and “jerky” (cf, by the way, your#91, which was simply a series of unprovoked jabs; please don’t). If, on the other hand, I’m right that the two groups behave according to the same standards, then it’s at elast sociologically interesting that one group and not the other appears to be able to get along without being jerks about it.

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notsneaky 06.11.09 at 8:30 am

“I end up returning to the example of our numerous “John Emerson vs Philosophers” threads (and indeed the various similar ones involving me). John basically adopts this mode of address when addressing analytical philosophers of their many failings, and infallibly they hate it, and tend to react very angrily indeed.”

I don’t know about JEvsPh but I generally find John Emerson vs. Economics pretty interesting and occasionally insightful (which isn’t the same thing as correct). Per Chris’ point in the next post, though, it’s true that Emerson is a stubborn curmudgeon who doesn’t adjust his views even when stuff is explained to him. But then again, neither does Daniel. Much.

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magistra 06.11.09 at 9:43 am

On disciplinary issues again, is it the case that analytical philosophy as a discipline is more resistant to outside influence than other humanities disciplines? I mean this in the sense that the question ‘Can non-philosophers make a useful contribution to the development of philosophy?’ would be more frequently answered ‘No’ by philosophers, than ‘Can non-philologists/historians/literary scholars/theologians make a useful contribution to philology/history/literary studies/theology?’ is by members of relevant disciplines.

In that sense, historians are very open to outside influence. There have been a lot of influential works on history written by philosophers, anthropologists, literary scholars, scientists etc, and after some ritual trashing of their historical failings, we normally accept at least that even if their answers are wrong, they have raised some very important questions. On the other hand, in some more technically based disciplines (such as philology), it might be perfectly reasonable to say that outsiders cannot contribute very much if at all.

If philosophers are in a field that can contribute to other humanitiess, but not usefully receive much from them, then perhaps it’s not surprising that they might unconsciously find themself talking but not listening to people in other humainities disciplines.

As for the view that Cambridge philosophers being petulant suggests something about philosophers, there is the alternative view that it suggests something about Cambridge academics.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.11.09 at 12:00 pm

JH @99: most humanists regard philosophers’ general puzzle-and-problem stylings as preposterous and laughable. People take it to be obvious that these issues just can’t possibly be amenable to the sorts of sharp conceptual puzzle-piece approachs that philosophers seem to assume MUST work, if anything will

Or is it more the relevance of the issues themselves? The ‘puzzle-and-problem’ surely defines the issue pretty well, and if that is accepted, the way it’s framed/defined would seem to make the analytical approach entirely appropriate. Maybe this is just a question of what counts as the ‘issue’ – I think (here as elsewhere) an example that could be agreed on (by all concerned) as a central case would probably be very helpful. Say – this: David Miller: Overcoming the Justificationist Addiction (picked arbitrarily from links in wikipedia and not one I’m familiar with).

So in this case (or another), what is the issue, what is the problem/puzzle that’s potentially a poor way to approach the issue, what are the alternative ways the issue might (according to the humanist panel members) have been approached?

Salient @100:
[re: if you have the bad luck to be proposing something to a row of people who are inclined to find your whole intellectual style to be one big presupposition of confusion, you are going to have to work extra hard to get through to them]

the extra work you are going to have to do is some form of conscientious indoctrination:“This is how you should think about this.’

But following on from above, if it’s not so a much a problem of the style/method as the overall relevance or interestingness, so our imaginary generic humanists think ‘so what’? rather than ‘analytic philosophy is not the way to approach this admittedly interesting problem’, the task may be effectively to recommend what is basically a piece of pure research with no clear application (outside the discipline/domain/research prorgamme). It’s possible that our imaginary panel just tend to think, of basically any philosophical issue you care to raise, however general and however well the analytical approach to it is advocated, that it just isn’t worth doing. That would be awkward.

In either case, might it be an idea for philosophers to compile a portfolio of cases in which a philosophical advance or insight has actually led to some particular identifiable but initially unobvious ‘downstream’ theoretical benefit? And (gulp) how feasible would that be? If it could be done, should/could a suitably analogous example be chosen to go into the intro of each research proposal? Sounds a bit ridiculous really, but…

Or is some more general campaign of ‘education’ or publicity needed? Or do analytic philosophers just have to hunker down and hope for a change in trends/attitudes in the humanities? And is there anything in the possibility that at least in some cases, humanists are not the best (or most sympathetic anyway) people to judge a philosophical proposal? Do (other) humanities have less use for/acceptance of ‘pure’ research?

[And why do my ref. numbers to other posts keep going wrong? I can only suppose previous posts are passing moderation and being inserted into the list. They should really be assigned a number when they reserve a place in the posting order. An occasional gap in the numbers wouldn’t matter. Tut.]

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hilzoy 06.11.09 at 3:19 pm

Magistra: “On disciplinary issues again, is it the case that analytical philosophy as a discipline is more resistant to outside influence than other humanities disciplines? I mean this in the sense that the question ‘Can non-philosophers make a useful contribution to the development of philosophy?’ would be more frequently answered ‘No’ by philosophers, than ‘Can non-philologists/historians/literary scholars/theologians make a useful contribution to philology/history/literary studies/theology?’ is by members of relevant disciplines.”

I think that analytic philosophy is much more open than it was in, say, the 60s. That said, it almost has to be less open than, say, history. History has a relatively accessible subject matter. If I, a non-historian, want to read through a whole lot of medieval chronicles, town records, etc., I can; and if I then want to start thinking them through and wondering about particular aspects of them, I can do that too. It is, of course, especially useful if I have training in some different but related discipline, like philology, which I can bring to bear.

In analytic philosophy, by contrast, the subject-matter is sometimes right in front of your nose — questions like ‘how do I know anything?’ — but one needs to somehow see this philosophically, which not everyone does off the top of his or her head; and sometimes it’s something much more recondite, like Quine’s indeterminacy of translation, which is very hard even to see, let alone to understand, without a bunch of training. It’s much less accessible, I would think.

This is compounded by the fact that a lot of people have ideas about what philosophy is that do not describe philosophy as presently practiced in philosophy departments, which leads them, sometimes, either to think that we do things that we don’t, and at other times to neglect the possibility that we might have done something that we did. It makes for a lot of miscommunication.

(I work with a number of scientists. When I encounter new ones, they often assume that philosophy, as one of the humanities, is just a lot of emoting, expressing “my point of view” without arguments, etc.; and they often assume that ‘interdisciplinary work’ will consist in them teaching us stuff, because, of course, we don’t have any stuff to teach them. I work on moral responsibility, a topic that scientists routinely say dumb things about. I’m sure I say lots of dumb things about science, but I normally know that there’s something out there that I don’t know. That they often do not make the corresponding assumption about philosophy sometimes leads to miscommunication.)

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hilzoy 06.11.09 at 3:22 pm

To be clear: in my last comment (107), I did not mean to slight the role of, say, historical training in e.g. reading historical documents, let alone to say something like: ‘anyone can do it!’ I just meant: in all cases, I assume, training helps you to do work in a given discipline better than you would otherwise. In philosophy, though, there is the additional problem that sometimes training is needed to enable you to locate the subject-matter itself.

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engels 06.11.09 at 10:35 pm

I think Hilzoy puts it nicely.

My flawed effort would be something like the following. Philosophical questions tend to have the following features, which set them apart from questions in other academic fields.
(1) they are — to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s celebrated phrasing — ‘unknown unknowns’: until you attend carefully to the question you don’t realise that you didn’t know the answer
(2) they have a fundamental place in your system of beliefs (or an important bit of it) and worrying about them can threaten your confidence in other things you know (or knew), possibly things you know in a professional capacity
(3) the difficulty in answering them can present itself as a difficulty in knowing how to go about answering them.

The natural upshot of 1 and 2 is that many people find philosophy extremely annoying. The upshot of 3 is that many people conclude that there is no right or wrong way of doing it, and so anyone’s opinion on these things must be as good as anyone else’s. Somebody who suggests, contrariwise, that mine might not actually hold up every bit as well as hers must be out to insult me and is obviously a first-order jerk.

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rich 06.12.09 at 2:33 pm

While John Holbo identifies the behavior at issue, he misconstrues its meaning and intent.

Holbo offers a good post whose central premise is not so much flawed as it is entirely incorrect, and ultimately Holbo’s willingness to deploy what amounts to a rationalization undermines any productive ends he hopes to accomplish.

To engage one’s peers in a willfully disingenuous and decidedly lazy manner is not “normal,” it is common. That it is common hardly makes it appropriate or acceptable. Such an approach is also quite commonly intellectually barren of any insight into the impact of linguistic functioning, or the social rules that dominate in other disciplines or in the world in general. Few people abide someone who starts with the assumption that you must be wrong; most people have great respect for open-minded folks. Folks who convey that they know they are dealing with peers and equals and behave accordingly.

Folks who start by trying to understand what you are saying, engage respectfully based on the facts at hand, and assume that you might be right until proven otherwise. And proving otherwise — in healthy conversations — is not the point: arriving at a mutually held and superior understanding is the goal. To reduce ‘being right’, to possessing —to owning the Truth at the expense of those around you is a defeat, not moral or interpersonal one, but an intellectual defeat. This is verified by the fact that this issue remains in contention. To the extent philosphers express contempt for, well, anyone else, rather than doing the easy work of treating others with respect and rather than doing the hard work of understanding the concept and issue at hand before presuming to knock it down — to that same extent they will be challenged or ignored or critiqued.

For that reason, philosophers have found themselves increasingly alone. The discipline’s lack of insight or discpline regarding the behavior of its practitioners has hurt the profession.

Philosophy has become it’s own disciplinary solipsism.

The only arguments it can win are those that it holds with itself.

Here’s the thing: Holbo identifies ‘rules’ or a disciplinary ‘culture’ in which cutting down various arguments (as opposed to engaging with them in good faith) is ‘ok’, because it is “normal.” Holbo’s premise is false: it is—it may be common, but it is not normal. (Note: I’ll give due and detailed attention to Holbo’s nuances … either a) soon, or b) when he extends the same intellectual agility to those who may disagree with him.)

Standard linguistic scholarship points out that groups, cultures, various social situations — and academic disciplines — all have their own social and linguistic rules that hold sway within the group or unit.

So obviously in any inter-disciplinary discussion, the social rules of philosophy do not prevail. Operant behavior is going to be governed by common courtesy generally, prevailing academic rules of engagement, or some negotiated set of social rules either generated on the fly by capable human beings or set down formally by the less socially ept. Establishing a sort of a philoso-botanical understanding of what constitutes valid evidence, legal ‘moves’ in the game, and standards of respect for one’s peers.

The degree of dissatisfaction among philosophers may stem from the inability of philosphy assert itself as arbiter of those very rules. The degree to which philosophy has tried to deploy its own rules in these discussions accounts, I think, for the loss of respect among other disciplines.

The central issue though is not respect, nor anyone’s hurt feelings; it is the reliance on a refusal to adequately understand what the other person is saying, before presuming to be in a position to knock down their premise or argument or conclusion. The open disrespect and attack standard violates the rules of engagement in the social realm, in any other academic discpline, in the social realm generally—and in philosophy departments where any non-dysfuctional rules, at least, prevail. And it really displays a lack of integrity.

There is a big difference between being a jerk and being a philosopher; the obvious distinction being jerks can tell the difference between the two, and philosphers cannot.

Now, make no mistake: when Holbo states that To be knocked around in this way is par for the course, so if you give a talk and you really get your premise kicked out from under you, it isn’t much worse that getting clobbered in some game. It’s not fun… he mistakes the dynamic in play in both philosophical and interdisciplinary settings. (Papering over power relationships, willfully disingenuous ‘moves’, and overt hostility, among others…) Here’s the key: I enjoy getting clobbered in tackle football and I enjoy a rough-&-tumble intellectual argument/debate. What is objectionable is setting one set of rules and then operating by a different set of rules. Setting up a framework and then objecting to students taking issue with that framework of analysis. Or asserting that it is ‘normal’ to attack one’s peers premise/conclusion in wholly dishonest terms.

The assertion that this is ‘normal’ is not a defense. Further, Holbo displaces on whom the onus lies in saying that “[a]nd– most important – because it’s normal, there isn’t any extra psychic baggage of a ‘why the hell is this perfect stranger trying to deprive me of every last vestige of my intellectual dignity?’ sort.” The psychic baggage belongs to the philosopher: some students are psychologically predisposed to play by those rules, others adapt or are indoctrinated into the culture. But within the discipline, widespread behavior does not in and of itself qualify as evidence of healthy, respectful or even valid interaction.

Most important, Holbo’s surreally self-serving idea that anyone unfamiliar or uncomfortable with philosophy’s self-defeating debating style must somehow carry “extra psychic baggage” is plainly, openly false. What IS true is that any normal person confronted with someone who clearly IS “trying to deprive me of every last vestige of my intellectual dignity?”—Holbo’s words, not mine—is obviously naturally going to react with signs of dissastifaction ranging from open irritation to verbalized objection regarding content and behavior to walking away from the conversation and from philosophy as a discipline. —

Holbo is half right/half wrong in noting that “Philosophers asking each other these sorts of apparently mock-innocent ‘but isn’t your position just obviously false?’ questions actually are innocent.” Three points go to the core here: a) other disciplines question the positions of their peers all the time without using loaded language or highly personalized constructions or such an arrogant demeanor (so no points there); b) “just obviously”? Really? No basis is offered for the “but,” the “obviously” or for the “false.” Had the interlocutor or Holbo’s sentence started off with the question, the alternative interpretation, or even offered added data, it would be another thing entirely. But here, we have a flat assertion in which wielding power relations comes before any valid contribution to the discussion. One that not only assumes truth not in evidence yet, but does so first at the expense of one’s colleague, and only secondarily bulldozes the proposition at hand (rather than engaging it with integrity, I might add). Granted it was a mere example—but it is one of Holbo’s choosing.

And abstracting a proposition from real-world data/cases/interactions is step one in avoiding the obligation to grapple with actual situations in the actual real world. Which is another reason some philosophers-cum-‘environmental ethicists’ have so much trouble with the course material: divorcing discussion from the real world renders philosophers less able to handle interdisciplinary debate or achieve understandings or insights that contribute meaninfully to authentic debates relevant to our lives.

So when Holbo says, “Philosophers asking each other … . questions actually are innocent,” it is not so innocent. It’s a way of policing the discipline, for starters, rather than thinking with clarity or doing the hard work of extending one’s intellect and rules framework in the service of a more constructive and respectful discussion.

Granted, Holbo appears to get the discipline-specific culture: “Now this isn’t a rude thing to say, in philosophy. Because it is actually not perceived as an attempt to force the speaker to prove that he is not a complete idiot.” But does Holbo get the obvious conclusion? That outside of philosophy, “attempt[s] to force the speaker to prove that he is not a complete idiot” will be perceived, accurately and rightly, as the hostile work of a total a$$hole. I deploy the technical term here to make a point. The onus is on the questioner, not the speaker.

And Holbo’s construction reveals the slip in the rules governing the circumstance that is at issue in this whole debate: initially we have two colleagues discussing a topic distinct from the two discussants. Closer inspection indicates that the goal of the challenger is not to understand his/her colleague, but rather to shoe that “the speaker [cannot] prove that he is not a complete idiot.” There is a dual agenda at work here; that it is common practice and viewed much as a fish views water is of no relevance to whether it has utility or integrity or whether it displays minimal respect for students, peers or colleages. Or anyone else.

Holbo has explained what philosphers do to each other—and says it is not disrespectful.

That lends considerable cover for teachers/philosophers who are quite willing to behave in a hostile manner. It provides a wide-ranging excuse for philosopher who dont’ want to alter their behavior when they know they’re in a different social/disciplinary situation—and thus consciously display a hostile or arrogant demeanor towards perfectly valid and perfectly clear statements and propositions.

Just as there are plenty of folks who don’t know the difference between normal and hostile debate — plenty do. Many notice philosophers’ pattern — accurately identify it as hostile — and turn away. We aren’t the folks with baggage.

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Brad DeLong 06.14.09 at 1:31 am

Brad DeLong: ‘Time to help the people of Iran overthrow their corrupt regime…”

Daniel Davies: “Help” appears to be a verb in the “superman conditional” tense here; as in, to simply have “help the people of Iran overthrow their corrupt regime” on your “to do” list would make a lot of sense if you were Superman, or God Almighty, but anyone else probably ought to make it a bit more specific than that. Care to make any slightly more concrete suggestions?

Is Daniel Davies’s reply a conversation-stopper or a conversation-starter?

I took it to be a conversation starter because it made me laugh. But I think the authorial persona that is Daniel Davies in this thread might well claim that it is just undersocialized rudeness…

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Brad DeLong 06.14.09 at 1:33 am

rich writes: “While John Holbo identifies the behavior at issue, he misconstrues its meaning and intent. Holbo offers a good post whose central premise is not so much flawed as it is entirely incorrect, and ultimately Holbo’s willingness to deploy what amounts to a rationalization undermines any productive ends he hopes to accomplish…”

This is a perfect meta-example of the type of behavior that Holbo is trying to analyze! rich wins the thread…

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Pogonisby 06.14.09 at 4:00 am

In philosophy reason is a bullied awl.

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John Holbo 06.14.09 at 4:23 am

I have to agree with Brad on this one. rich’s comment is a peach.

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ejh 06.14.09 at 7:28 am

Is Daniel Davies’s reply a conversation-stopper or a conversation-starter?

Well, it’s a conversation-starter if you have an answer, and a conversation-stopper if you don’t.

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Uncle Silly, Dental Gidget 06.14.09 at 8:49 am

“…there is also a heavy strain in many philosophy departments of alpha-male aggressive dickishness…”

I’m straining to remember my phil. professors, but one sticks out in my mind. I had posed a question that perplexed him in class. Class ends and I head to the restroom. He follows me in and stands right next to me at the porcelain. I go to wash my hands and there he is beside me again, washing too. I turn to walk out and he shoots a balled up paper towel across my bow into the trash then cuts me off and exits the room first.

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