My Philosophy: Mind and Manners post provoked good discussion but left certain things unsaid. Let me say something more that may help the discussion stay on a generally useful track. I mentioned in passing in that post that, while there were things that philosophers do, which they regard as conversation-starters, which others regard as conversation-stoppers, which causes confusion, the opposite is also true. There are things other humanists do that they think of as conversation-starters, that strike philosophers as rude and inappropriate, because, to the philosophers, they seem like conversation-stoppers – argument-stoppers. (In philosophy, there is hardly a distinction between conversation and argument, after all.)
But first let me back up a bit. What I was talking about in that post was a tendency for a certain style of ‘but it’s your central premise just false?’ question to be taken amiss by outsiders. Let’s be precise about this: the problem is that outsiders take these questions to express deep contempt – ‘I challenge you to prove you are not an idiot, and I very much doubt you will succeed. I am going to shame you in the eyes of everyone here today.’ But to philosophers themselves, this style of question is normal and perfectly consistent with mutual respectfulness (although, of course, it is also consistent with contempt – a thing unknown to the troglodytes of the philosophy cave by no means! yet it is not a dark fungal growth peculiarly indigenous to the philosophy cave. Am I making myself clear?)
It should be added that philosophers don’t just go around saying ‘but isn’t what you are saying just obviously false’ every minute of every day. In saying it’s normal I’m not saying it is ubiquitous. But that it’s normal does say something, and outsiders certainly take it to. People often get their first and lasting impressions of what philosophers are like from certain moments of seminar-style interaction.
I made an analogy with personal space. Philosophers don’t see these questions as getting unduly personal. They are not being rude any more than someone from India is being rude, standing closer to Europeans and Americans than they find comfortable. Because, to this person, this is a normal distance. In comments, various folks – dsquared, for example – have expressed some incredulity at this suggestion. Let me try to explain.
What outsiders miss, in part, is the way these sorts of moments fit with another feature of philosophy ethos – a well-known feature, in fact: namely, that philosophers cultivate a sense of philosophical issues as problems, indeed as puzzles that are substantially isolable in at least two ways. They are detachable from each other, so that philosophy as a whole becomes a piece-meal endeavor. (No grand speculative systems here, for the most part.) They are detachable from the philosophers. Your philosophy is not supposed to be an expression of your personal, authentic nature or anything like that. Your philosophy isn’t YOU.
Since this is not just what philosophers say you should think but actually what they do think (for better or worse) it should be clear why, for them, ‘isn’t your central premise just false’ is very like ‘isn’t this mate-in-three’. Namely, a perhaps frustrating but, in the grand scheme of life’s projects, isolated technical setback. (Obviously you can complain about this attitude, in itself. You can say it’s wrong to take philosophy to be such an impersonal affair of piecemeal puzzles. But it should at least be obvious why, if you do take it this way, it’s natural as well not to take frontal assaults on any given position so personally. It’s just par for the course.)
Now, it’s not that all the humanists outside of philosophy think differently, let alone oppositely, but sometimes they do. And when they do, interactions with philosophers tend to be highly fraught on both sides. On the philosophy side, the non-philosophers seem to be substituting ethos for argument, making it impossible to make the appropriate sorts of intellectual moves without getting entangled in personality. There is now no way for me to say ‘but your central premise is nonsense’ without also saying ‘but you are a contemptible person’. Philosophers can find the atmosphere in talks in other humanities departments not just disagreeable but overbearing and bullying (not always, but sometimes) because they feel the speaker has swaddled the whole environment in some heavy fug of ethos and self-assertion that excludes the possibility of asking clarifying questions, in a philosophy sort of way. From the non-philosophy side, philosopher’s attempts to do their usual thing can get read as attempts to say ‘you are an ethically inauthentic, contemptible person’. Which can then go various ways, but usually not very friendlily.
In case it isn’t obvious: I’m not saying that philosophy is itself a blessedly ethos-free zone. (I’m not naive, y’know.) But it is a relatively homogeneous zone, ethos-wise. Philosophers agree among themselves about how to proceed, how to argue. There isn’t a lot of belly-bucking to determine whose ethos is more authentic, as there often is in other humanities departments. Philosophers tend to find that sort of activity intensely disagreeable, because they see no way to convert it into proper sorts of arguments. A big fat belly of ethos just doesn’t convert into a twiddly little puzzle-piece, like it should. Nope.
I hope I’m being ecumenically hard on everyone, in saying so.
(By the way, I’m also not saying that philosophers never beat their chests and buck their bellies and act in domineering ways. But they don’t like to efface the intellectual distinction between ethos and argument in the intellectual material they present. Example: you may think Daniel Dennett is a bully. He will defend himself by saying his forceful manner is just rational clarity. He isn’t going to say: I’m performing my Dennettness, which is inseparable from my philosophy. It obviously follows that philosophers shouldn’t beat their chests and buck their bellies. Well, then they are hypocrites if they act the alpha male. By their own lights, they are not supposed to.)
In support of some of this, let me quote from a fairly recent book by Amanda Anderson, The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory [amazon]. Anderson is a professor of English., so ‘we’ refers mostly to literary studies folks, but to other humanists by extension. I am quoting Anderson for several reasons. First, she is not saying what I am saying but what she says supports me, I think. So if you think what I said, above, about ethos, is nonsense, a good place to start the argument would be here: you probably think what Anderson argues in her book is nonsense, too. But what makes you think so? Second, Anderson connects the ethos issue to the Theory/philosophy issue. Theory and ethos get entangled, and this is rather crucially connected (in my opinion) with the failure of Theory to penetrate philosophy departments. It is rejected because it seems, in part, an illegitimate entanglement of ethos and argument.
Here she is, talking about how natural it is that many humanists have lately turned to studying ‘ethos’, as a way to study the nature of Theory.
I am interested in exploring this turn toward the existential dimensions of theory, claiming it as a kind of dialectical advance, and using it to reconsider our understanding of those forms of political theory – rationalism and proceduralism – that have been framed as most ethos-deficient. But the story is somewhat more complicated and internally contested than this brief summary might lead one to expect. These complexities have largely to do with a point I raised at the outset: namely, that highly constrained sociological forms have governed the analysis of subjectivity and personal experience in literary and cultural studies after poststructuralism. In the late 1980’s, an interest in first-person perspective and the lived experiences of diverse social groups emerged among critics who felt that the high altitudes at which theory operated failed to capture the density and meaningfulness of individual and collective life. There were a series of famous “confessional writings” by critics, which often opposed themselves to theoretical approaches. Within theory itself, there was an increased attention to subjective effects and enactment, and a subsequent tendency to focus the lens on the middle distance and the close up, to relinquish the panorama and the aerial view. Thus, not only did a new subjectivism emerge in opposition to theory, it also began to affect theory itself as an internal pressure. (3-4)
It’s that internal pressure (among other things) that bugs philosophers and makes them resistant to Theory. They don’t like theorizing theory as self-performance, in effect. Theory should not be an armor of authenticity, an expression of identity politics. Not because philosophers want to go for the grand aerial view themselves. (It’s significant that ‘resistance to Theory’ is often mis-diagnosed as a compulsion to systematicity – as if analytic philosophers are craving 19th Century-style Systems.) Rather, it’s a case of competing middle distance and close-up views. Philosophers are, as I have said, miniaturists when it comes to problems. They do like to take larger views, but they generally don’t like the nose-bleed aerial System view.
And feel free to point out that, obviously, philosophy, in an academic sense, IS an entanglement of ethos and argument. (Yes, I’m not blind, you know.) Nevertheless, philosophers think you should work to disentangle them. That’s your regulative ideal.
UPDATE: in comments it is being objected that I am just making non-philosopher humanists look bad, from the perspective of a hyper-rational, dismissive philosopher. Well, that was sort of the thing I set out to do: articulate what non-philosophers do that rubs philosophers the wrong way, and why.