Speech-and-Debate vs. The Agon of Authenticity: How Least Badly To Fight, in Philosophy?

by John Holbo on December 2, 2013

Another follow-up on the philosophy styles and aggression issue, raised initially by Chris. I meant my first post to be a response, narrowly, not to Chris’ post but to the suggestion that sort of ate the comment thread: trolley problems are symptomatic of philosophers’ taste for intellectual bloodsport. (Not that tying people to tracks and running them over is sporting, mind you.) I didn’t mean to offer up the whimsical innocence of trolley tragedy as proof that philosophers don’t, otherwise, suffer from the sorts of problems that Jonathan Wolff alleges. But I actually do disagree, substantially, with the Wolff piece. Let me try to say how.

But first this needs to be said: the gender gap in philosophy departments is very bad and that can only be chalked up as a major failing of the discipline. I think some of this failure is due to the broader culture. A mode of personal presentation that is valued in philosophy – i.e. a kind of impersonal, argumentative self-confidence and brashness – codes as ‘bitchy’ when exhibited by women. So women are likely to have to strive harder, inwardly, to overcome cultural conditioning. And, outwardly, they will be rewarded by some – but not by philosophers! – regarding them as bitchy. But ‘it’s not our fault our discipline is failing, it’s the culture’ is not a defense I would care to make. That’s more an argument for shuttering the department until such a time as cultural conditions are more favorable for its operation. If we’re so smart, we ought to be able to make a little progress on this problem, in-house.

So far, so not so far from what Chris said, really. In part I’m just just rehashing diagnostic points my lovely wife made in this thread. Also, see this comment on stereotype threat. If the culture stayed the same, but the mix got closer to 50/50 overnight, the bad effect of the cultural mismatch would be reduced. A more healthy gender balance might just stabilize, once achieved – so I would hope.

Affirmative action, then? I would say so, yes. Ideally.

An alternative route would be, as Wolff suggests, for philosophers “to act, well, if not in more “ladylike” fashion, then at least with greater decorum?” I don’t think that makes sense. A symptom of things going wrong is this: Wolff, in effect, writes as if he is trying to come up with a better set of norms for teaching philosophy at its worst.

At its worst, philosophy is something you do against an opponent. Your job is to take the most mean-minded interpretation you can of the other person’s view and show its absurdity. And repeat until submission. Certainly the method has the merits of encouraging precision, but at the same time it is highly off-putting for those who do not overflow with self-confidence

But obviously we don’t want norms for how to do/teach philosophy like jerks. The relevant norm is: don’t.

But let’s think this through by pushing through: what is the best way to teach philosophy, on the assumption that it is to be taught more or less at its worst? That is, what is the least toxic way for people to philosophize, given that they are basically going to be using philosophy as an outlet for the irrepressible urge to be an asshole? I actually think that speech-and-debate is a not-half-bad holding option, if people have to be assholes. (It’s sort of like saying: if you are going to get in fights, you might as well put on a pair of gloves and study ‘the sweet science’.) There is something ‘decorous’ about speech-and-debate, after all. The note cards, the suits and ties. (No, wait, that’s a high school thing.) Academic philosophy is highly ‘decorous’, as fighting styles go. So ‘let’s fight about impersonal arguments’ is maybe the best way to teach philosophy, at its worst? What then is the worst of this worst, by contrast? In my experience, that happens when philosophy is treated more as an intimate problem of the self. In effect, you are saying that the problem with your opponent is not that her arguments are flawed but that she’s somehow inauthentic, as a person. When the impulse to be an asshole, through philosophy, gets loose during one of these agons of authenticity – that is philosophy at its worst, as philosophy of the worst sort goes.

That was confusing. Let me summarize: if you know someone is going to be an asshole about it, and it happens to be philosophy, then the least bad option may be to channel them into a life of finicky arguments about Russell’s theory of descriptions, rather than, say, getting them to read Being and Time closely. But this is a very strange and backwards way to recommend the study of Russell over Heidegger.

Let’s just start over and try to think more optimistically about it, but while acknowledging sad facts of life!

What is the best way to teach philosophy, assuming most people are not just going to be total jerks about it? But keeping in mind that some people are jerks, i.e. they are going to find a way to be maximize their opportunities for delivering beatdowns to anyone they can, to feed their amour propre (as Chris B. says) – even if they nominally conform to intellectual norms that are, other things equal, fairly sound?

This is relevant to the gender issue in the following way: what makes life hard for women in philosophy is a few assholes, plus the fact that a few assholes is all its takes. (You may disagree, but this is how it looks to me.) I tend to think that the only really viable strategy is simple affirmative action. If half the population were women, a few male assholes would no longer be all it took.

Because I don’t really think good philosophical norms can be jerk-proofed, in effect.

What is the best way to teach philosophy – and to practice it? I guess I think that there is no alternative to the ‘combat’ mode, insofar as philosophy consists of problems more than solutions. You have to stage ‘fights’, i.e. display disagreements about the basics. If you don’t do that, you aren’t providing a realistic picture.

I think most philosophers don’t stage fights, in this way, without maintaining a degree of intellectual distance from the fight, which is healthy. Philosophers aren’t like debaters who have been given one of those “resolved: abortion is murder” cards, and now they are arbitrarily determined to defend that, to win. But, all the same, once the thing is structured as ‘fights’, there is no way to prevent people from being aggressive in a bad way. That’s just how it goes.

{ 245 comments }

1

Belle Waring 12.02.13 at 5:04 am

OMG you know what would be so awesome! Let’s get into a huge argument! I kind of…agree with your claims though. How dispiriting. I will hoist my agreement from below, with some appropriate modifications [re norm-changing]:

It will be very difficult to say, “hey, why not stop being such an asshole, then” to sexist men who are convinced that what they are doing is not pointless dick-swinging but rather, very important truth-finding-outing. Because they will choose to hear that as “stop evaluating the truth or falsehood of claims because you’re giving girls a sad.” [Here I must note that precisely this is the content of the odious Stephenson quote. -10,000 points, Stephenson-quoter-kun!] However, they are about 30% right, so you can’t dismiss them altogether [On a final re-reading it appears Stephenson-quoter-kun should get +3,000 argumentative points back. Hmph.]. If we’re in a formal logic seminar and I think I’ve proven something successfully, then you’ve got to be free to say, “what about this fatal counter-example?” or “sorry, but there’s sort of something missing between these two sections.” And then I’ll be like…think think think… ‘nah, that’s a fatal counter-example. Fuck.’ But provided you’re not being a smug asshole about it, it’s fine. And obviously if various professors of philosophy are giving talks/asking questions, they need to be free to say, “what about this fatal counter-example.” It would be kind of cool of them not to be smug assholes, but sometimes you go to war with the philosophers you have, etc.

So, yes, arguments in philosophy seminars are already plenty decorous, they just may unfortunately chance to be mean-spirited when assholes are involved. There is not much more decorous for them to get, all things considered (although the ties might be an improvement. In some cases.) There isn’t any amount of norm-changing that will stop people from being mean-spirited assholes.

Hey John, maybe we could get into an argument about Russell’s theory of descriptions! No, prolly not, I guess you’re writing. Well, someone else could disagree with both of us then?! She said cheerfully, in a pleasant way ^_^ OK, fine, let’s have a non-agonistic friendly-type discussion, everyone.

2

TheSophist 12.02.13 at 5:05 am

Not sure if you’re serious about “the note-cards, the suits and ties” as being typical of high school debate, but if so, let me humbly suggest that you’re about three decades out of date. Top high school policy debaters (I’m differentiating policy from Lincoln-Douglas – for the uninitiated a policy resolution takes the form of “the United States federal government should do x…” an LD resolution is essentially “x should be valued over y”, and Public Forum (PFD), the one that comes closest to the “suits and note-cards” structure, is so intellectually vacuous as to not really be worth talking about IMHO) are intimately familiar with, oh, lets come up with a short list:
Benatar’s anti-natalism,
Most of what Butler said in Gender Trouble,
Way more Zizek than Prof Holbo would approve of,
Badiou’s theory of the Event (most will have read Ethics, very few will have gone on to Being and Event, but that’s true generally…),
various Lacanian/Stavrakian ideas
…and so on…

I’ve judged many, many top-level rounds over the years, and I frequently find mysel fat least slightly mind-boggled that these are hs students (it’s generally accepted in most of the country that a policy judge needs to know more about the material than the competitors, and judging is done purely on argumentative substance, not on who sounded (or looked) purtier.

There’s also a lot of discussion within the community, both in back rooms and in rounds themselves, about the extent to which switch-side debate in which the judge must pick a winner is a problematic paradigm, so I’d suggest that very similar discussions to the one in this (and the previous) post are already happening in hs debate, and even more so on the collegiate circuit.

…and before anyone jumps in to say “high school debate is nothing more than a chain of tenuous links leading to an absurd impact” I’d agree that yes, that does happen, but there’s been real movement away from that type of analysis, and condemning debate on those grounds would be akin to saying that Magnus Carlsen’s chess games are uninteresting because low-rated players make obvious blunders.

3

Belle Waring 12.02.13 at 5:10 am

I didn’t even know Pat Benatar had anti-natalist songs of any kind! More seriously I confess I am genuinely unconvinced that one team of high-schoolers could in any meaningful sense ‘beat’ another, nearly equally excellent [I'm even dubious about the quality metric but I am ignorant and I will accede to the judgment of judges] team of high-schoolers in a debate about Lacan. What are the positions going to be like?

ETA: I commented rather hastily as I see now the very concept of winning the debate has been problematized. OK Stephenson-quoter, if I start calling you “sempai” will you not troll me with such astounding and instantaneous effectiveness, such that I am pitched up on team Stephenson halfway through comment two? The “-kun” thing was overly familiar, huh. I’ve been reading too much shojo manga, because that’s how me and mcmanus roll.

4

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 5:12 am

“Not sure if you’re serious about “the note-cards, the suits and ties” as being typical of high school debate, but if so, let me humbly suggest that you’re about three decades out of date. Top high school policy debaters”

I did it a bit when I was about 15 so I think I am, almost precisely, 3 decades out of date. Now everyone knows how old I am!

What I did was quite preposterous, looking back. Very arbitrary stuff. And I didn’t do it long. I remember it being a case of flinging a lot of stuff to see what stuck, without much regard for overall logic.

Lacan? Seriously. Wow.

5

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 5:15 am

I agree with my wife that the presence of Pat Benatar on your list is practically the only thing that ties it to the speech and debate era I remember.

6

Anderson 12.02.13 at 5:16 am

I really hope [2] is making this shit up, just for my own sanity.

Name 3 of these top high schools for debate, please.

7

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 5:19 am

Let me be perfectly clear: I am probably just wrong about what high school debate is like these days, so I shouldn’t have made that comparison. The post is, obviously, more focused on what philosophy is like.

8

Ed Herdman 12.02.13 at 5:20 am

One debater’s absurd impact is another

@ TheSophist: How much focus has there been on allowing the debaters to actually grapple with the quality of information behind arguments, rather than just have to respond with a counter-piece, or trying to use the information behind the opposition’s argument to arrange a turn against them? I remember a lot of using material from large case files to try and arrange the arguments, with what seemed like relatively little latitude to be original with it. Do you know that old lawyer’s joke (perhaps I’ve mentioned it recently), about the lawyer who borrowed some garden tools?

To most observers, one of the striking things about this kind of debate (but perhaps not a reasonable criticism) is the apparent opportunism of the arguments. But that’s just the nature of the beast – you’re being asked to take up the tools of rhetoric in search of points, not to fulfill your inner desire to defend what you hold dear.

The other major thing that stuck me about higher-level debate (roughly 10 years ago) was the pace and the demands on the physical component of speaking quickly.

9

Ed Herdman 12.02.13 at 5:25 am

Open season on that abortive first sentence, people!

10

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 5:28 am

RESOLVED: Abortion is murder, therefore Ed is a murderer.

11

Anderson 12.02.13 at 5:28 am

8: can’t google up the garden-tools joke, and I am a lawyer, so allow me to entice you into quoting yourself.

… Not meaning to call out Sophist, sorry. I judged at best school in Miss. (faint praise), which I thought went to major competitions, and Judith Butler was inconspicuously absent from mention.

12

Belle Waring 12.02.13 at 5:35 am

OK, I’m going to be hegemonic and circumscribe the acceptable topics for this thread, which should be relevant to the OP, since it is important and interesting and was derailed by trolley ethics already, with the exception of my own comments, if I feel like and, maybe John’s, I guess, if he brings me some peeled clementines or something, they’re the fridge. So, just this one last SET OF DETAILED QUESTIONS SRSLY WTF DUDE:
1) Lacanian debate pro/con topics: sample?
2) Schools that habitually win these contests, and the contests themselves? One imagines we could rummage around and see whether the 6th graders start with easy topics like Russell’s theory of descriptions, for example.
3) Butler-style gender/sex discussions–what, precisely? Further, which side will…it can hardly be that the one asserts that there is, unproblematically, sexual identity and then the other is all, “–oh ho ho!”, because that wouldn’t really be fair, so they need to have gone into the weeds a bit and the sort of thing they might argue about is…is….can we play hangman? Oh, wait, I forbade you to say things like that. Oh, shit, I forbade you to answer me, too, that can’t work at all. That’s all right, I was only pretending to be hegemon before anyway (but that works oftener than you’d think!)

ETA NEVER MIND. cf. comment 7 supra.

13

TheSophist 12.02.13 at 5:45 am

That got busy fast… some answers, then off to bed for me.

#3: I’m actually not the Stephenson-quoter from the previous thread, so I’ll claim neither + nor – points for that. The way debaters use Lacan borrows from Stavrakakis and Ticklish Subject-era Zizek usually – nobody actually reads Lacan himself.

#4, 7: You and I are of the same generation, Prof. Holbo, and it’s definitely changed since then. I do agree that what I commented on was not the main thrust of the OP, I was just jumping to the defense of an activity that I coached for many years, and that I believe holds great intellectual value when done right.

#6: TX: Greenhill, St. Marks
IL: Glenbrooks North, Glenbrooks South, New Trier
GA: Pace, Woodward
NV: The Meadows, Sage Ridge
AZ: Brophy College Prep, Phoenix Country Day School (sometimes)
CA: Damien, Notre Dame, Long Beach Jordan (the LBJ team was very successful a few years ago critiquing the way that debate as an activity is classist and racist – it isn’t a coincidence that most teams on the list are private; it takes money to run a good program.) There is, however, an organisation called the Urban Debate League that attempts to start programs in inner-city schools in (eg) Atlanta and LA.

#8: Is there a word or two missing after “another…”?
Good teams can, and often do, take a long hard look at the assumptions behind others’ args. The Tetlock stuff about experts being no more accurate than dart-throwing monkeys, for example, was used a lot when it first came out. Many debates also end up as some form of “your args only make sense if you assume util is true/good, but it ain’t…”

If we start talking about the role of speed in debate, it’s going too be a really long discussion, so let me say both that it serves a purpose, and that it is problematic in many ways, and leave it there.

14

TheSophist 12.02.13 at 5:50 am

Anderson #11: There are essentially two competitive circuits, and what is called “Nationals” is a part of what is usually considered to be the less intellectually demanding circuit. You may well have seen students who qualified for Nationals, and even did reasonably well there, but weren’t a part of the “TOC” (Tournament of Champions”) circuit which is where most of the interesting stuff happens. I can’t recall any MS teams at the tournaments I went to.

15

TheSophist 12.02.13 at 5:55 am

Belle #12: I’m quite happy to answer your questions, but agree that it would be going to far afield from the OP to do so here. Is the email address for you in the sidebar still valid?

16

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 5:56 am

I’m feeling all nostalgic about Pat Benatar. Because, y’know, debate – like love, like philosophy – is a battlefield.

“We are young, notecard to notecard we stand
No promises, no demands
Debate Is A Battlefield
We are strong, no one can tell us we’re wrong
Searchin’ our cards for so long, both of us knowing
Debate Is A Battlefield”

17

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 5:57 am

But perhaps we should get back to the subject of the post.

18

TheSophist 12.02.13 at 6:02 am

It was actually on CT, and Prof. Holbo, you may in fact take the credit/blame for this yourself, that I first learned about Pat Benatar’s separated-at-birth twin, David. I believe (may be wrong on this) that my students were the first ever to use his argument in a round, and so therefore CT is partially responsible for letting that particular genie out of its bottle. :) Good night, all.

19

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 6:08 am

” Pat Benatar’s separated-at-birth twin, David. I believe (may be wrong on this) that my students were the first ever to use his argument in a round, and so therefore CT is partially responsible for letting that particular genie out of its bottle. “

What? (Checks archive.) Ok, so there’s a David Benatar and Harry wrote about him. (I didn’t really think it was Pat, of course.) You are, of course, pulling my leg about the twins thing. I think. Right?

20

TheSophist 12.02.13 at 6:10 am

Oh yes, absolutely not serious about DB being related to PB. Sorry for any confusion caused.

21

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 6:11 am

Wait, I’ve actually read him. “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence”. Parts of that book. I had forgotten his name.

22

Ed Herdman 12.02.13 at 6:14 am

@ John Holbo: Whoa, what’s with all the bloodthirstiness?
@ TheSophist: Thanks for those answers. Agreed about the speed of debate – it does serve a purpose, even if sometimes it’s easy to feel otherwise. At the same time I can’t feel that John Holbo’s impression is wrong – coming from a philosophical tradition that values original thought, rather than the highly quote-dependent and formalistic-seeming form of debate. (Not that I’m saying that’s what it is, as your comments about novel directions indicate to me; if a team says “experts are dart-throwers,” many debate watchers have to keep in mind that the other side has to research that issue and try to find a way to get around it, and the original side has to anticipate this development as well.)

@ Anderson:
I found something even better than my quote – the actual text of the ABA Journal article which includes the joke: http://www.cardozoaelj.com/wp-content/uploads/Journal%20Issues/Volume%2024/Issue%202/Manevitz.pdf

Is this relevant to the thread itself? Yes, if for highlighting a difference in purpose. I think there’s a big difference between lawyering – where, against the stereotype, the emphasis is on presenting a true and consistent story in addition to winning the argument – and getting involved with a philosophical argument.

In philosophy, it seems appropriate to me to try throwing everything at it. If something ends up being a stupid comment, it gets dropped – and from the standpoint of defending an issue, I think it would be maximal to get as many critiques as possible (just so long as there’s time allotted to consider each of them thoroughly enough, which implies not wasting time, and so long as the comments aren’t intended to confuse).

23

Belle Waring 12.02.13 at 7:29 am

TheSophist: I think you need to email me at firstname.lastname@gmail.com. But truthfully you have answered my questions already, so thank you. I know that you are not Stephenson-quoter-sempai from the thread below; I was merely joking that it would be a masterpiece of argument/trollery to pose as someone else and hit me so hard from the “maybe there are no winning or losing arguments, man–maybe there is no logic” side that I was pitched over onto Stephenson rock, where I was forced to stay with my fellow logic geeks, embarrassed by my company and irritated by my previous poor self-knowledge.

And actually this is a point relevant to the OP. I think that the kind of women who end up doing academic philosophy often tend to have a distinct ‘one of the guys’ self-image. When you are a girl with many or mostly male friends, this can be important to you. When I was in HS in D.C., where my friends and I had the keys to all the door in the National Cathedral (a huge ring of masters from which we would make selective copies as needed–sextant with inappropriate…um…relationship with both student body generally and students’ bodies in particular. There was a secret clubhouse/Batcave in the sub-sub crypt!), we once went up into the crane that was doing work…on the apse I think. It was the bleak mid-winter and frosty wind was making moan all over the damn place. I think it goes without saying we were totally wasted. Now, I am afraid of heights. This has naturally led me to do lots of things like…rock climbing. And bungee jumping. It’s, um, thrilling!

I climbed up into that fucking freezing tower of metal, hand over hand, about three stories worth of ice-cold ladder, and into the little cockpit where an operator could be. My two male friends then climbed out onto the section parallel to the ground, sat on it with their legs dangling off either side, and scooted all the way out to the end of the arm. I could not make myself do it. Could. Not. Do it. It was wide enough, damn! It was 20 stories down, too. While we climbed down afterwards I cried, actual hot tears, but silently, I was so angry at myself, that I wasn’t brave enough to do it. They weren’t supposed to be able to do things I couldn’t do. (In retrospect, obviously, it was the WORST IDEA ERVER, so.)

I could drink anyone under the table, damn, they did not want to have gotten into that fucking bet at all. I’m an excellent shot. All these things were important to me and my stupid self-image as a badass. But, one-of-the-boys-wise, so was going to math meets as a high-school student, probably the single most Nerdlinger Q. McDorkington activity of all time. Or playing RPGs. Collecting comics? Rare ska LPs? Check, check, geeky 87% boy activitaayyy aaand…check. So, remaining dispassionate when someone tipped my argument over, and then pulling all the Jenga blocks out from his the next day, was part and parcel of that. This can be positive for girls in school because it helps you do well in subjects that suffer from stereotype threat, like computer science (ooh, I could write tiny programs! There is no end to the amount of nerdy Belle activities. Of course, I did an equal number of anti-nerdy activities, which is not typical for my former fellow mathletes or whatever…) I went to an all-girl’s school, and it is an excellent model for girl’s education.

But as you get older you realize it’s just a way to get along in a sexist environment while pretending things are OK and maybe other girls don’t like this stuff because they’re lame. If you’re one of the women not put off by the people who are putting off all the other women, you can pat yourself on the back about it for quite a while and say it’s because you’re very smart. Unfortunately, it’s because you’re essentially a black Republican.”See? Look we’ve got Belle right here, we can’t be as sexist as all that, right? She’s a foxy geek–it’s win-win!” But when something shitty goes down and you need people to have your back…not so much with the back-having. And it’s a bit late to start going around expecting people to behave any differently than they have the whole 4 years you’ve known them.

24

Belle Waring 12.02.13 at 7:57 am

Hmm, I think that comment appears to indict all Phil. grad students and profs as sexist jerks, which is totally wrong and unfair. As John was saying, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the barrel. But there they are, and there’s the barrel, all full of rotten apples and such, due to the spread of rot. (I am mystified when people say, in defense of their organization when some members are accused of wrongdoing, ‘it was only a few bad apples.’ Dude, the entire point of the maxim is that it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the whole barrel! You just admitted your organization is fatally and thoroughly poisoned!?) And there is a meaningful sense in which the agonistic practice of philosophy as it stands could be described as ‘macho,’ whether we ascribe that to culture at large or not.

25

Farren 12.02.13 at 9:26 am

I couldn’t find a webmaster address so I’m putting this in a comment thread, although it has nothing to do with the topic:

There appears to be a problem with Crooked Timber’s DNS entries or the web server’s redirection. “www.crookedtimber.org” now takes me to a blank page every time. It took a while to figure out that “crookedtimber.org” still works.

26

QS 12.02.13 at 10:36 am

I hate hate hate the “few bad apples” meme. It’s a few quite overtly bad apples with a quiet supporting cast that does nothing to shame these people into decency. And this a product of an overdetermined mess of social factors not endemic to philosophy. Which is why the assumption that simply filling half a department with women is going to make the problem go away. Ever heard Ann Coulter talk about women? She’s the female equivalent of the asshole in your department. And behind her are millions of other women who quietly accept and practice decried gender stereotypes. ‘Cuz nobody likes a bitchy woman.

27

Rob 12.02.13 at 11:17 am

As the much-aforementioned Stephenson quoter, I feel I should probably apologise for the quote, especially since I could have snipped it about a third of the way through and kept everything much more on-topic.

The purpose of the quote was supposed to be refer to the supposed difference in discursive style between Randy, who is presented as believing that bullshit is bullshit and can be identified as such by anyone with a detailed grasp of the subject matter at hand, and Charlene’s friends who are presented as believing something different, viz. that there’s no such thing as bullshit, every opinion can contain some truth, and that anyone who wishes to arbitrate on the validity of opinions is likely doing so in an effort to protect a privileged position.

I quoted it because I felt it was relevant to the particular point in the comment thread where people were discussing the difference between “hard” subjects where there’s [supposedly] an objective right and wrong, and “soft” subjects where there isn’t, the notion being that argumentative behaviour is more acceptable when correctness can be objectively judged (“Randy was forever telling people, without rancor, that they were full of shit… No one took it personally”).

The scene asks us to judge who is being unfair – is Randy being unfair by dismissing a perspective that makes him uncomfortable, that comes from someone that he and his peer group regard as irrelevant? Is Dr. Kivistick being unfair by dismissing Randy’s claims to objective knowledge as a self-interested delusion? I think the overall conclusion is that they’re both wrong to some extent (Randy is being an over-assertive jerk, and Dr. Kivistick is playing to the crowd in an effort to win by acclamation), but neither wants to admit it, and the scene thus serves as a metaphor for Randy and Charlene’s marriage. When I first read that scene, in my early 20s, I strongly identified with Randy. Now in my early 30s, I find it much more ambiguous. I think to characterise it as an “odious” quote is to miss the point of it somewhat, but perhaps it is something that was written to be a meaningful lesson to someone like me and not to everyone.

The relevance to the original post still stands, I think: there is a difference in discursive styles between people who work in fields that have a self-image as being grounded in objective fact, where being right is about having the right knowledge of the facts, and those where the field has a self-image of subjectivity, where being right (to the extent that one can) is about having the right interpretation of the facts. In the former field, a disagreement carries the meaning “I think there is a fact that you are not aware of” and in the latter it carries the meaning “I think you are wrong about the meaning of these facts”, which is a much harsher thing to say, thus requiring much more etiquette in order to avoid causing genuine offence. People schooled in the latter might thus regard people schooled in the former as lacking in etiquette, but what they don’t realise is that that the etiquette just isn’t needed, as nobody “took it personally”.

My suspicion is that there are fairly few fields where such objectivity is non-illusory. I think that software engineering is an interesting example because there is a clear trend towards greater subjectivity as the physical constraints on computer technology have receded. Back in the age of the Randy Waterhouse-style hacker, computing power was a very scarce resource and if your code ran more efficiently that the other person’s, you were right and they were wrong. Nowadays, not so – we’ve gone from operating at a level of abstraction more like physics to something more akin to literature or architecture. Outside of a few limited domains, the fastest or most efficient code no longer wins automatically, and the awkward genius hacker is no longer automatically right. It makes people uncomfortable (including me!) but one would have to be quite thoughtless to remain in the belief that Randy Waterhouse was entirely right about everything.

p.s. I genuinely do appreciate getting the 3,000 points back! Disagreement doesn’t have to be about totally destroying the other person’s argument, so I’m glad to have not been totally wrong.

28

Collin Street 12.02.13 at 11:50 am

This is relevant to the gender issue in the following way: what makes life hard for women in philosophy is a few assholes, plus the fact that a few assholes is all its takes. (You may disagree, but this is how it looks to me.) I tend to think that the only really viable strategy is simple affirmative action. If half the population were women, a few male assholes would no longer be all it took.

Suppose you’ve got a litre of a mixture that was twenty-five percent orange juice, seventy percent apple juice, and five percent — one part in twenty, a minor component — horse shit. And you find that people are reluctant to drink from this mix, so you propose adding an extra half-litre of orange juice.

Do you think that you would find drinking this new mix a pleasant experience? I put it to you that you would not.

29

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 11:51 am

“I hate hate hate the “few bad apples” meme.”

For my part, I do not hate hate hate the use of ‘meme’, when the word you want is ‘idea’ – but it is slightly annoying, all the same.

I am not sure I get your overall point, unless it is simply that humans are so horrible that there’s hardly a point to them even having philosophy departments.

30

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 12:02 pm

“Do you think that you would find drinking this new mix a pleasant experience? I put it to you that you would not.”

Guy goes into a juicebar and sees various options

Apple and horseshit
Orange and horseshit
Orangeapple and horseshit
Wheatgrass and horseshit

(And on and on. You get the idea.)

Guy looks at the menu. Thinks about it.

Guy’s friend says. ‘You should try the wheatgrass. Wheatgrass is good for you. Shot of life!’

Guy thinks about it some more. ‘No. It’s got horseshit in it.’

Continues studying the menu.

Do you think this guy is kind of funny? I submit to you that he is. He is you, Collin.

31

QS 12.02.13 at 12:10 pm

It’s a meme to me, given that I see the idea spread from place to place without anyone really reflecting on whether it’s applied appropriately. Typically people who use it are obscuring some more fundamental problem. Of the class of persons I study, I find it come up frequently. Maybe it’s a meme/cliche hybrid.

My point is that the few bad apples have a large supporting cast, male and female, that makes philosophy departments (among other places) difficult environments for women to be participate as equals. If that supporting cast dries up, then you have recipe for change. I’m skeptical that the simple introduction of women is going to change how people battle in philosophy settings or whether women and men feel comfortable taking part. I’m also skeptical that the supporting cast is going anywhere, given the insularity and hierarchy of academic departments. My guess is that it’ll take some overt acts of policing, which perhaps is best done by the chair/head of the department, who can act from above to create a genial environment. S/he can try, anyway.

The first steps have already been taken, albeit in staggers, namely the recognition of the problem.

32

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 12:24 pm

“I see the idea spread from place to place without anyone really reflecting on whether it’s applied appropriately.”

All ideas spread from place to place. That is one of their primary functions. And humans – being human – seldom reflect on whether they are applied appropriately. We should reserve ‘meme’ for notably viral cases, I think.

“makes philosophy departments (among other places)”

So long as by ‘among other places’ you mean something like ‘and other groups of humans’ then I agree. Otherwise, I don’t see it.

Put it this way: is it your view that philosophy departments contain people who are just more malicious to other humans than is normal for the species? If so, I think that’s false. Or do you simply propose that proper philosophical methodology is, somehow, very different than philosophers think it is? If so – well, maybe you are right. But now it doesn’t have anything to do with how ‘genial’ people are, I take it.

33

Main Street Muse 12.02.13 at 12:25 pm

“This is relevant to the gender issue in the following way: what makes life hard for women in philosophy is a few assholes, plus the fact that a few assholes is all its takes.”

Really? Large numbers of women who dream of becoming philosophers are booted from the career of their dreams by “a few assholes”? Perhaps the ladies of philosophy are weaker than I had previously assumed. Perhaps those dainty ladies need to adopt the Tina Fey philosophy of life: bitches get stuff done…

34

Russell Arben Fox 12.02.13 at 12:33 pm

But this is a very strange and backwards way to recommend the study of Russell over Heidegger.

I think “strange and backward” is pretty much the only way a recommendation of Russell over Heidegger can be made plausible in the first place.

35

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 12:36 pm

“Large numbers of women who dream of becoming philosophers are booted from the career of their dreams by “a few assholes”?”

They aren’t booted. They walk down to the next place over, because it seems marginally less annoying.

36

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 12:37 pm

“I think “strange and backward” is pretty much the only way a recommendation of Russell over Heidegger can be made plausible in the first place.”

Well, for the record I strongly prefer Russell!

37

Mao Cheng Ji 12.02.13 at 12:52 pm

“If the culture stayed the same, but the mix got closer to 50/50 overnight, the bad effect of the cultural mismatch would be reduced.”

50/50 won’t do it. I’d go for 80/20. Maybe (especially during a war time) even for 85/15.

38

SoU 12.02.13 at 12:55 pm

thread is a bit disjointed right now, so please excuse the same disjointed-ness from myself

it is interesting how the explicit structure of HS debate as ‘go get ‘em tiger’ actually allows for the competitors, oftentimes but not always, to end the round very chummy. the structure builds in that level of distance in a way that is rare in the outside world. having the decision in the hands of a ‘neutral’ 3rd party ( the judge ) certainly helps this along as well. not sure how this translates to the discipline of philosophy – but my first stab is that designating a certain (finite) period as the time for withering critique could be useful – preserving it but trying to artificially sequester it at the same time.

when i majored in phil. in undergrad, i found that actually there were a lot of women in the intro classes. it was as things moved high up the course #’s that the imbalances became extreme. however – there were a few specific courses which bucked this trend – in particular, one class that sticks out was basically a feminist deconstruction of the philosophical canon. i feel that the problem at my university was that these sorts of classes, or the contemporary phil classes where authors of all genders were read, didn’t open for you until you had gone through the ‘foundational’ readings. in that sense, philosophy is like an english department stuck in the 1950′s – all of the important novelists are male – and after a while the women just get tired of what they see as the self-referential bullshit and leave.

In my opinion it is with the Moderns that things go south – i get the sense of a lot of nasty gender and race stuff lurking in the background of their work. Or maybe its just that a lot of what they say dovetails too easily with the generic rationalizations of sexism that people bandy about today, and that can be a turn off. obviously, there is an element of the ‘incentives to be an asshole’ involved in this attrition rate as well, but because most of the criticisms at this point are usually directed at dead people, im not sure this is a primary cause yet.

all this is to say: i think that there is a conversation to be had re- building a syllabus that doesn’t quietly whisper to women that they belong elsewhere.

i was once in a seminar where mid-way through the course the professor stopped everything and said (paraphrasing…) – ‘up until now, we have trained you to be critics and attack dogs. unfortunately, progress in the discipline does not come through criticism alone. therefore, for the rest of the semester, every criticism must be accompanied by a point of constructive engagement: a line of thought prompted by the argument, a new research question, or a recommendation to make the argument stronger.’ . suffice to say, it did a lot to the tenor of the discussion. not that you could run a philosophy conference in this way – but if we want to talk about ‘how to teach phil.’ this seems germane to that discussion.

39

matt 12.02.13 at 1:02 pm

Not sure if this would do anything for the gender imbalance, but it is possible to generate a norm against “debate” as such, in favor of “conversation” or even “dialectic.” As someone interested in Book I of the Republic, would you say that conversation takes place in “combat” mode? I think Thrasymachus *thinks* it’s combat, but his combative posture is depicted as an obstacle to real inquiry.

40

Collin Street 12.02.13 at 1:04 pm

Put it this way: is it your view that philosophy departments contain people who are just more malicious to other humans than is normal for the species? If so, I think that’s false.

They aren’t booted. They walk down to the next place over, because it seems marginally less annoying.

I’m having difficulty putting these two together.

41

SoU 12.02.13 at 1:05 pm

also – OT but kinda funny. regarding ‘HS debaters and Lacan’ – a lot of the larger teams would have a person or two who got really deep into post-structuralist thinker X or Y (the HS debate room will have just as much postmodernist literature lurking about as a 1990′s English department). their role is to teach the rest of the team enough about that thinker to deploy them in an argument, counting on the other side to not understand what is going and just get trumped by the sheer obscurantism of the prose. and ‘Lacan’ in debate is really just a generic critique of utopian thinking with some cool french words thrown in.

42

SoU 12.02.13 at 1:13 pm

Collin @ 40
I think he is just noting how philosophy does a poor job of welcoming certain students, and therefore those students leave the discipline for another rather quickly. this is especially easily because there are a number of other disciplines where one can do philosophy-like things, without dealing with the accompanying culture. a number of my female friends in college with a mind for philosophy ended up in the english department, for example.

philosophy can’t promise you a lot of $$ if you ‘stick it out’, nor does it grant you too much in terms of prestige – so it really can’t get away with being unwelcoming and have other factors compensate.

43

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 1:29 pm

” Put it this way: is it your view that philosophy departments contain people who are just more malicious to other humans than is normal for the species? If so, I think that’s false.

They aren’t booted. They walk down to the next place over, because it seems marginally less annoying.”

Well, some premises need filling in, but I guess we could sketch it out, like so, for comment box purposes. Start with this quote form the other thread: “In order for combative style in philosophy to hamper the progress of women, it need only be the case that combativeness increases the salience of stereotypically male traits.” Basically, it’s uncomfortable for a woman to be the only woman in a room otherwise full of men, and everyone is engaged in an activity that is stereotypically male – i.e. arguing in a certain way – and a few of the guys are assholes, even though the rest aren’t, to a noteworthy degree (sure, they’re all human).

Basically, certain features of the philosophy department produce an asshole multiplier effect, without there being an unusual concentration of them – there isn’t, on average – and without it being the case that the intellectual methods are essentially assholish. They aren’t, near as I an figure.

My view is that simply achieving gender balance would solve much of the problem. Of course, I could be wrong.

Something like that.

44

Collin Street 12.02.13 at 1:37 pm

No, that makes sense. Thanks.

45

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 1:46 pm

One thing I probably should have said – made clearer that I think – is that philosophers aren’t more aggressive or domineering than people in, say, the English department. That’s a common reading and it’s just a cultural misreading.

There are moves that are standardly pulled in English departments that would strike philosophers are rude and ad hominem accusatory. Lots of hermeneutics of suspicion stuff. I’ve been at talks for other humanities departments that, to me, seem rather uncomfortably confrontational, because the confrontation is staged in a style that isn’t considered polite in philosophy. By contrast, it’s normal in philosophy to say ‘I think the basic claim on which your whole paper rests is just false.’ In the English department, that sort of ‘sweep the leg’ bluntness reads as a clear attempt at personal demolition. It’s a pointedly rude thing to say. In philosophy, it’s just par for the course, so it actually just isn’t a very aggressive thing. It isn’t intended to be. It isn’t normally received so. It isn’t shaming to have such a thing said about your paper in public. The stakes aren’t terribly high when such a thing is said. It’s normal. Anyway, tomorrow we’ll all fight again anyway.

If you are playing chess and someone tries to take your king you don’t say ‘my god, what an aggressive bastard! He’s trying to destroy me!’ It’s ok in chess to go for the other guy’s king. It’s true that chess players can be very aggressive, but it would be wrong to infer that from the fact that they are always trying to kill each other’s kings.

46

Belle Waring 12.02.13 at 1:55 pm

Sorry “Rob”, I’m afraid you’re going to be “Stephenson-quoter-kun” forever now. I…just…reclaimed our equal status in a general atmosphere of goodwill. (In Japanese manga people always call their male fellow-students “-kun” and the older ones of both sexes -”sempai” and as it happens there is one title I am reading now with my daughters in which a moderately important character is named only for his psychic power, thus: “Mind-Reader-kun” (all the students have some power. It’s like…a cross between Harry Potter and “The Prisoner,” I’ve been meaning to post on it). We have been joking that eventually, someday, we will learn his name. Ever. But no. He’s even appeared on the cover of a volume! But no name. Just Mind-Reader-kun.) That means you can call me Belle-chan now, hmm, sounds slightly girly. In any case.

I do find the Stephenson somewhat odious because it’s the perfect ever geek sexism thing to say. Jock sexists who think that women aren’t as smart as men but value a certain sort of physical robustness over intelligence in any case are relatively easy to ignore. Setting aside the part where they control the world, I guess. Geek sexists are in an impenetrable globe of toxic white flakes, convinced that everything around them is ringing with cold logic. They would, in theory, let you in there. They will, in practice, maybe, let you in there, but they will make life very difficult for you. That wouldn’t even be so bad if they weren’t convinced that they were Vulcans. Fucking Vulcans would just not care whether people were male or female, is the thing. These guys care, a lot, but they have convinced themselves that they don’t, and that if you can crack the globe you are as welcome as anyone, on an equal footing, everyone making it on her own merits, etc. Battery acid, is what’s in there. I hate the Stephenson for that reason.

But why did I jokingly accuse our debate club judge of impersonating you and felling me with a single blow? Because when I consider the prospect of rooms full of earnest people discussing how it may, in fact, be impossible to determine who has truly won a debate between high school students, about Lacan, for who can say who has won, and who lost? And perforce I must consider what can possibly be the state of affairs in the students’ minds when they prepare for debates about Lacan, since there couldn’t really be much for it but to read Lacan, could there? And finally, when the man himself has said, in defense of the debates, that while some may argue high school debate is nothing more than a chain of tenuous links leading to an absurd impact, the truth of the matter is very different, I cannot help but note that he himself does not even propose that it is a chain of tenuous links leading to a conclusion!The prospect of a chain of links of any kind at all leading to a conclusion of any sort, is not even mooted?! Then I just…all right, fuck it. TEAM BATTERY ACID FTW!

Main Street Muse: have you ever considered becoming a professional blogger? They have this sort of “I am Andrew Brietbart” template you can use to set up one of the blogs even if you are not particularly computer-literate. I think it’s likely you have a lot to offer. However, if I had it all to do over again, I would change to a more gender-neutral “handle” or “online nick-name” as they are often called. Naturally women are every bit as capable of blogging as men are, but because of all the activism feminism has pushed down our throats in recent years, many readers are likely to think of you as an “affirmative action hire” to the net if you stick with this one. Just my two cents.

47

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 1:57 pm

Let me clarify: I’m not saying, with Stephenson, that the English department is allergic to ‘truth’. I’m saying that philosophers, just for example, like to make accusations of falsehood sound so simple and decisive that, to an outsider, it can seem (as Nietzsche says of Socrates) that you are being challenged to prove you aren’t an idiot. Which is uncomfortable. But philosophers themselves don’t take it that way. You ARE being challenged to prove you aren’t an idiot, in a sense. But, in another, more accurate sense: after the talk, it’s not as though the phlosophers are going to be whispering, ‘Did you hear that the whole premise of so-and-so’s talk was said to be false?’ As if that were something to tell the grandchildren about, years from now. Say what you will: it’s an ethos.

48

AcademicLurker 12.02.13 at 2:52 pm

By contrast, it’s normal in philosophy to say ‘I think the basic claim on which your whole paper rests is just false.’ In the English department, that sort of ‘sweep the leg’ bluntness reads as a clear attempt at personal demolition. It’s a pointedly rude thing to say. In philosophy, it’s just par for the course, so it actually just isn’t a very aggressive thing.

But surely there are more and less smarmy and dickish ways of saying “I think the basic claim on which your whole paper rests is just false.” That’s what confuses things. What do we mean when we say “vigorous debate” or some variant thereof? It can mean plainly pointing out the weaknesses in someone’s argument without apology but it can also mean being a hectoring belittling jerk. People who do the latter often excuse themselves by claiming that they’re simply doing the former.

I see that John Holbo’s claim is that people unaccustomed to the norms of philosophy tend to regard the mere act of saying “I think your entire premise is fatally flawed” as unconscionably rude, but I’m not sure that’s the whole story. I can imagine acceptable and unacceptable ways of saying “I think your entire premise is fatally flawed.”

Maybe we’d need to watch youtube videos of various philosophers telling other philosophers they’re wrong in order to sort things out. Non verbal signalling counts for a lot after all, even in a philosophy seminar.

49

bianca steele 12.02.13 at 2:57 pm

Back in the age of the Randy Waterhouse-style hacker

The what of the what? I thought everyone realized Randy’s supposed to be a poseur. The self-image as the awesome hacker based on a few scripts he wrote for a telescope? You didn’t catch that? But he recognizes that he’s a dwarf. Not an elf.

And I didn’t even notice that all of the people at the table were women.

50

bianca steele 12.02.13 at 2:58 pm

@48
Yes, “that’s self-hating,” or “male-identified,” or “middle-class,” are much less rude.

51

Stephenson-quoter-kun 12.02.13 at 2:59 pm

I do find the Stephenson somewhat odious because it’s the perfect ever geek sexism thing to say. Jock sexists who think that women aren’t as smart as men but value a certain sort of physical robustness over intelligence in any case are relatively easy to ignore. Setting aside the part where they control the world, I guess. Geek sexists are in an impenetrable globe of toxic white flakes, convinced that everything around them is ringing with cold logic.

I’m with you on the disagreeability of geek sexists*, but I don’t get this from the quote in quite the same way that you do. I don’t think Randy’s geek-supremacy is sexist, except insofar as we might say that his technocratic mindset is a masculine one and imposing it on others is therefore sexist, though this does raise the “but what about the female technocrats?” question. I’ve encountered that kind of idea before – that arguing forcefully about ‘facts’ and ‘right and wrong’ and trying to assert the primacy of technical knowledge is a ‘masculine’ mode of interaction, and openness to the validity of multiple perspectives is a ‘feminine’ mode, but I’ve never been convinced that it’s true, irrespective of the virtues of either approach. I might be totally misinterpreting you here by assuming that this is what you’re referring to! If it’s not that, what is it?

* I agree that it’s a thing, cf. “sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists”, from Snow Crash

52

AcademicLurker 12.02.13 at 3:11 pm

bianca steele @ 50:

Yes, “that’s self-hating,” or “male-identified,” or “middle-class,” are much less rude.

I assume this is a reference to how arguments are conducted in English and/or Cultural Studies departments. Certainly people in those disciplines can be jerks in their own distinctive ways. For this thread I was focusing on the distinctive ways in which philosophers are or are not jerks.

53

John Holbo 12.02.13 at 3:19 pm

“But surely there are more and less smarmy and dickish ways of saying “I think the basic claim on which your whole paper rests is just false.” That’s what confuses things.”

Yes, precisely. There are both more and less smarmy and dickish ways of saying this. That’s the whole point. Mostly it is said in a non-smarmy and non-dickish way. Philosophers are quite friendly among themselves, talking this way. It’s just collegial back-and-forth. Telling your colleague you think his major premise is false is about as threatening as one ape offering to groom another, mostly. We’ve all got bugs. This is philosophy. But add this to what I said @43 and it is quite understandable that women are made to feel uncomfortable.

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armando 12.02.13 at 3:26 pm

I don’t quite get the hate of the Stephenson quote, but then thats probably because I have experienced it from the geek sexist side. (And I like to think I’m not that sexist, but hey). And from that side, it can seem a bit much to be told that bald disagreement is too agressive when (especially if you are coming from a different culture/intellectual culture) bald disagreement with *you* is considered perfectly ok. It looks like a fairly obvious power move to me, where you can agressively attack unacceptabe opinions, but it is the height of rudeness to attack acceptable opinions – in a thouroughly question-begging manner. That said, I have also got very uncomfortable with the geeks on my side of the table who pretend not to be sexist and so obviously are.

Part of the solution, to my mind, is to accept that communication is really the goal here and if people require a particular collection of manners – for that is what they are, I think – then thats cool. So these days, I try to avoid the bald contradiction, and attempt to open statements with areas of agreement, and then explain what I would have explained anyway to justify my bald disagreement. It goes down much better, without substantially watering down what I would have said. It still feels a bit patronising still…..but I’ve come round to the idea that this is probably more a flaw of my own.

55

TheSophist 12.02.13 at 4:03 pm

Interesting, interesting…

SoU#38: You’re very much right about the round itself being the designated space for aggression, after which all are friends, and frequently very fast friends. (Many years ago I used to smoke slightly illegal substances after rounds with a debater from a rival school who is now a very high-ranked Obama administration official.) Maybe this is one of the places at which the debate sub-thread here can inform the questions of the OP. I also agree about Lacan, although I think some of the folks who are really into the argument can give it more depth.

Belle #46: You pushed one of my buttons here – let me explain why. The phrase “debate club” implies to many a certain dilletantish lack of seriousness – puts us on a level with the French club, or the “vinyl appreciation club” that meets in my classroom weekly and spends a lunchtime listening to vinyl. My debaters work just as hard as any athlete (and with a much longer season) and deserve to be called a team, with the implications of dedication that come with that word.

I would also suggest that the conclusion of a debate round comes when the judge renders her decision. If I may be so bold as to offer an example – a real round involving the work of David Benatar (mentioned above): Argument: The federal government doing x will prevent a war/environmental catastrophe/ other impact in which mass death occurs. Team B responds that (here’s the Benatar stuff) these deaths would prevent countless generations from being born, and that therefore over (enough) time net utility is increased. Team A responds with (inter alia) Frankl, arguing that every human life must have value (I think there was some Levinas in there too, but I don’t recall for sure). Note, by the way, that this was the first time Benatar had been run, and so these answers weren’t prepped, but created on the fly. Team B then argues that Frankl doesn’t take into consideration Benatar’s claim that we all systematically overvalue and overestimate the happiness in our lives. The judge then concludes that (based upon the arguments presented) either Frankl adequately answers Benatar (and so therefore the original plan proposed by the affirmative is desirable and they win), or that he does not. Re these arguments being presented in a completely polished form? No, of course not, these are, after all, high school students, but they are grappling reasonably well (IMHO) with some pretty heady philosophical/ethical questions.

And, in general, if folks are interested in checking out the type of ideas that high school debaters are talking about, I would encourage you to take a peek at the open evidence project at http://www.debatecoaches.org/resources/open-evidence-project/ (sorry, I’m a Luddite and don’t know how to embed links). This is a vast array of files made available free of charge to the debate community as a way to address the disparity of resources within that community. Follow the linkage to “kritiks” and “kritik answers” to see the veritable plethora of thinkers that top competitors are expected to have at least a passing acquaintance with.

Lastly, one similarity between the debate community and phil departments is the sex disparity. While fully aware that anecdotes do not constitute data I’d like to use my own program to suggest that there is something of a tipping point that needs to be reached. For years I had a very tough time getting girls to stick. They’d join, look around, see all the top folks were guys, and then quit. I finally got a girl to stay because she was a younger sib and was encouraged by her brother. She persuaded a friend to join. These two made the program seem like not such a male preserve, and now, five years later, we’re almost exactly 50-50.

56

Andrew F. 12.02.13 at 4:18 pm

I actually liked philosophy’s impersonal, direct approach to arguments, and there is a way in which a discussion can push one to find new arguments or approaches that one may not have otherwise uncovered.

So in some ways I agree with this:

By contrast, it’s normal in philosophy to say ‘I think the basic claim on which your whole paper rests is just false.’ In the English department, that sort of ‘sweep the leg’ bluntness reads as a clear attempt at personal demolition. It’s a pointedly rude thing to say. In philosophy, it’s just par for the course, so it actually just isn’t a very aggressive thing. It isn’t intended to be. It isn’t normally received so. It isn’t shaming to have such a thing said about your paper in public. The stakes aren’t terribly high when such a thing is said. It’s normal. Anyway, tomorrow we’ll all fight again anyway.

But… in the same spirit of argument… it may not always be the case that the stakes don’t feel terribly high to someone involved in the argument. A new graduate student uncertain as to whether she belongs, already noticing differences between her and many of the other students, might be more sensitive to having an idea shown as weaker than she had previously thought. The “wow, nice argument, that really does give my paper some difficulties! Thanks!” spirit requires confidence in one’s abilities and in one’s social position. Much easier to take a bad review as someone with tenure, or with an established reputation, than as someone without either and seeking to build a reputation.

By simply assuming that such a spirit is held by all the participants to a discussion, philosophy may be losing participants that feel more tentative about the enterprise for other reasons. I think that it’s essential to have that spirit to do philosophy, and to enjoy philosophy, but for participants it may be something that can vary with circumstances.

Perhaps, if that is in fact occurring, that might be ameliorated by emphasizing the role of discussion in philosophy, and making clear that it’s okay to put forward propositions that are exposed as weak, or that upon questioning turn out to not be as clear as one thought. If anyone holds to an irrational view that his or her standing requires only ultimately correct arguments be put forth, that view must be dissolved.

And, after all, it often requires more intellectual work to state a position clearly enough to be susceptible to questioning and counterarguments than it does to raise the questions and counterarguments once the position is stated. Often an obscurely stated position simply conceals intellectual laziness, wishful thinking, or outright error. No idea why the reference to Russell and Heidegger made me think of that.

57

Hector_St_Clare 12.02.13 at 4:22 pm

It’s highly amusing to see the cultural-liberal crowd chatter away about the terrible crisis of inadequate women in philosophy, without ever pausing to even consider the possibility that this is explainable by basic biological differences between men and women.

Would you people at least take a *moment* to consider all this cultural conditioning business might be missing the point, and that you just might be *wrong* that men and women are basically the same? Really, I’d strongly encourage you to open your minds, and learn something about biology.

58

roger gathman 12.02.13 at 4:22 pm

It is pretty simple to me: philosophy departments should take a suggestion from the National Assembly of 1791,;and at the end of every class or argument in the lounge, someone should be appointed to say, remember, we are all brothers and sisters! after which all present should embrace each other – fraternally and sororally. If French revolutionaries could do it at the height of the terror, so could grad philo students and their profs at the height of their mini-terrors. It would bring about universal amity.

59

AcademicLurker 12.02.13 at 4:25 pm

It is pretty simple to me: philosophy departments should take a suggestion from the National Assembly of 1791,;and at the end of every class or argument in the lounge, someone should be appointed to say, remember, we are all brothers and sisters! after which all present should embrace each other – fraternally and sororally.

And we know how that ended up, don’t we?

On the other hand, guillotines would make seminars more exciting, speaking of high stakes…

60

Hector_St_Clare 12.02.13 at 4:29 pm

Re: And behind her are millions of other women who quietly accept and practice decried gender stereotypes. ‘Cuz nobody likes a bitchy woman.

Yes, it couldn’t possibly be that most women are *happiest* with traditional or semitraditional gender rolles.

61

armando 12.02.13 at 4:36 pm

Hector: Unlikely as this is to have any impact, I would counter-urge you to consider that we have thought about your point about biological differences. Your point is so well known, so well-trodden, that it is hard to imagine that your question has anything approaching good faith about it.

That, and the history of the point you are making is so shameful, that anyone wanting to push that line really does need to do so with some humility. Its not just that it has been used to justify appalling sexism, it is also that it has proved an absolutely awful predictor of the future gender balances that now seem perfectly natural.

If you really believe that women are incapable of rational thought, then you are hopelessly adrift from reality. If you don’t, then you really need to consider that this argument has been made historically, with about the same attention to detail, fact and argument that you demonstrate here. Being a man, surely the irony that your point is laughably inadequate on a rational level has not escaped you?

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Stephenson-quoter-kun 12.02.13 at 4:36 pm

It’s highly amusing to see the cultural-liberal crowd chatter away about the terrible crisis of inadequate women in philosophy, without ever pausing to even consider the possibility that this is explainable by basic biological differences between men and women.

Once upon a time, this might have been a plausible – in the sense of unproven-but-not-necessarily-unlikely – thing to say. When there were very few female philosophers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, politicians and artists compared to men, it might have been reasonable to assume that, hey, centuries of history can’t be wrong! But to argue it now, against the evidence from other not-entirely-dissimilar intellectual activities, is just obtuse.

That doesn’t mean to say that the “cultural-liberal” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) explanations of inadequate female participation are necessarily right, of course. I’m not convinced that we really understand why women do or do not become academic philosophers, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people who claim to know are just arguing for their own personal preference whilst claiming that adopting this will lead to increased female participation as a consequence. The correct approach to bring here is one of, to borrow a recent meme, epistemic humility, in which we try to avoid assuming too much about how other people experience things, along with skepticism of those who claim to know for sure. We can try to come up with ground rules of basically decent behaviour that don’t rely too heavily on any one person or group’s perspective, after which point I think we can be happy that if people do divide across academic fields or industries in less than perfectly equal numbers, they’re doing so based on their own preferences and aptitudes.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.02.13 at 4:47 pm

Armando,

Actually, your point is precisely the reverse of the truth. The idea that men and women are basically the same, and have similar distributions of cognitive abilities, talents, interests, etc., was quite popular in the 1960s and 1970s, before we knew as much about evolutionary biology and endocrinology than we do today. It’s no longer that popular, because we actually know, today, about how much sex-related hormones influence our thought processes and behaviours. For example, men generally have more testosterone than women, which influences things like competitiveness, aggression, interest in social dominance, inclination to take risks, etc.. Men also have a larger variance in IQ than women, and greater openness to ideas, so a field like philosophy (which prizes extreme openness, ‘aggressive’ combat in the field of ideas, high cognitive ability, *and* where success in the field is a more risky endeavor than in, say, the hard sciences) is one where you would *expect* to see an overwhelming preponderance of men.

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armando 12.02.13 at 4:53 pm

And if you go back further than that, you get a much, much longer period of people espousing your opinion and claiming that women are incapable of performing in these fields at all. But you knew that and are, as above, being obtuse.

Sorry, I’m feeding at this point. Will stop now.

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John Holbo 12.02.13 at 4:54 pm

“Would you people at least take a *moment* to consider all this cultural conditioning business might be missing the point, and that you just might be *wrong* that men and women are basically the same? Really, I’d strongly encourage you to open your minds, and learn something about biology.”

Hector, I think you forgot to mention that Amanda Marcotte is, in your opinion, stupid.

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MPAVictoria 12.02.13 at 4:55 pm

Hey look! A Hectoring jerk has shown up to make the same argument he makes in every thread.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.02.13 at 5:05 pm

MPA Victoria,

The facts are the facts, even if they happen to make you uncomfortable. I happen to be more interested in facts and truth than in humoring political fads and fashions.

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MPAVictoria 12.02.13 at 5:07 pm

“The facts are the facts, even if they happen to make you uncomfortable. I happen to be more interested in facts and truth than in humoring political fads and fashions.”

In order to save time why don’t you just cut and paste your comments from any one of the past 100 or so comment threads where you have made the exact same points. Even your responses to our responses are getting dull.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.02.13 at 5:10 pm

MPA Victoria,

This isn’t a pointless game. I am trying to combat the propaganda that people on your side of the fence are trying to feed to women, and which could lead them to make bad decisions.

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John Holbo 12.02.13 at 5:13 pm

OK, I’m intervening in this one because Hector is actually threatening to derail the thread. Hector, if you have something to say which is different from what you have said in all the other threads, say it. If it is just the same thing, getting cut&pasted into the new thread, then skip it. I am happy for you to have the opinions you do, but every thread can’t be the same damn broken record. If you are right that men are more open to new ideas, then prove it by opening up to some new ideas, or offering some new ideas. Something. Fair enough?

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Tim May 12.02.13 at 5:22 pm

The thing with the Stephenson quote reminded me of another, earlier Stephenson quote, from Snow Crash (1992):

It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists.

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MPAVictoria 12.02.13 at 5:32 pm

Apologize for contributing to the derailing John.

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MPAVictoria 12.02.13 at 5:35 pm

Oops.
I mean I apologize.

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dbk 12.02.13 at 5:42 pm

I was one of those women driven off by academic philosophy teaching some 40 years ago. What I took away from the philosophy courses I completed before changing majors was that philosophy teaching was more sophistic than philosophic, more about making sure the other person failed to discover the truth than that you both moved a little closer to the truth/understanding of the source text. Honestly, the authentic and exciting competitive element in philosophy lies in pitting your own thought processes against those of a major thinker – the philosopher you’re studying – and to me it appeared that the benefit of an initial direct grappling with a truly great mind was forfeited by the agonistic method of undergraduate philosophy instruction.

I think undergrad philosophy instruction needs an overhaul if it is to attract alot more women to the major – the agonistic method may be fine when everyone knows the primary texts by heart in grad school, because then you can really start moving on beyond the core texts and into uncharted territory, but it’s not helpful to undergrads who’ve just been introduced to Aristotle or Kant or Hume or who[m]ever. This, because to get to John Holbo’s suggestion of a quota system, you need a substantial pool of applicants, and that means alot more undergrad women majors. As for PhD programs, I think quotas are not a bad idea – how did law and med schools get their acceptance/graduation rates up to nearly 50% in the past two decades?

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SoU 12.02.13 at 5:55 pm

dbk – “I think undergrad philosophy instruction needs an overhaul if it is to attract a lot more women to the major”
^ this.
if J Holbo is correct above in stating that getting some amount of gender parity is important to combating stereotype threat, etc, that process begins with the undergrad curriculum. absent a prior increase in female undergrad philosophy majors, any sort of affirmative action or quota approach to phd admissions will have some bad effects that are probably avoidable.

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Anon 12.02.13 at 6:11 pm

dbk @73

“philosophy teaching was more sophistic than philosophic, more about making sure the other person failed to discover the truth than that you both moved a little closer to the truth/understanding of the source text.”

This seems to be a key difference between productive and unproductive agonistic discussion. Consider how agonism is part of teaching: when a student’s argument is poor, I don’t say: bad argument, goodbye. I say: this doesn’t work, you could make it work by changing this or that part, you could make it work by adding this or that. I use criticism as a way to discover improvements, to save an idea that would have had to be thrown out.

In the profession, it’s often used in precisely the opposite way. Unlike teaching where I criticize to *save* and *improve* a flawed idea or argument, in the profession we often use criticism to dismiss or destroy them, to expose what we take to be stupidity or charlatanism. We see errors as shut doors that, by shutting, magically teleport us to truth, rather than seeing errors as clues to opening new doors, as the ground on which better ideas are built.

And in that respect, there reason to suspect that combatative argumentation as it’s usually practiced does not improve our chances at getting to the truth, and might even lessen them.

It’s not just that assholeness isn’t necessary to the pursuit of truth, it is, as it has been since Thrasymachus, a principal obstacle to it.

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mud man 12.02.13 at 7:01 pm

You think eg Daniel Dennett doesn’t code as bitchy??

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matt 12.02.13 at 7:07 pm

As a pedagogical question, which form of pretentiousness is more fruitful (or less toxic) to encourage among students: seeming to be “sharp”, or seeming to be “deep”?

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AcademicLurker 12.02.13 at 7:15 pm

As a pedagogical question, which form of pretentiousness is more fruitful (or less toxic) to encourage among students: seeming to be “sharp”, or seeming to be “deep”?

“Sheep” is the obvious answer.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.02.13 at 8:47 pm

Oh well. I don’t know about Hector, but most women in my life have been innate philosophers, in the colloquial sense. And had I had a dime for every time I heard the colloquial version of “I think your entire premise is fatally flawed”, I could’ve been comfortably retired by now.

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Francis Spufford 12.02.13 at 9:08 pm

Belle@23 – you in high school, in the bleak midwinter, wasted, twenty floors up on a crane overhanging the National Cathedral, and you stop after one paragraph? Have pity. Enough of delivering your life story in these individual droplets of terror and astonishment. Write the memoir! Do it now! I mean this most sincerely.

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GiT 12.02.13 at 9:31 pm

+1 to Francis Spufford’s comment.

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JanieM 12.02.13 at 10:06 pm

Missed this earlier: There appears to be a problem with Crooked Timber’s DNS entries or the web server’s redirection. “www.crookedtimber.org” now takes me to a blank page every time. It took a while to figure out that “crookedtimber.org” still works.

Seconding this, at least partially. For the last few days or maybe a week, sometimes I get nothing but a blank page. This hasn’t happened with the main page, just pages for specific threads or comments.

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Ed Herdman 12.02.13 at 10:21 pm

@ Belle Waring:

It’s also really common in manga to see the honorific “sempai,” (elder colleague, for example a person in a higher class than the speaker) which implies a lack of equality, but (if my perception is correct, which it might not be entirely) it is less common to read/hear “kouhai,” the paired term for a junior colleague, unless somebody is blatantly pulling rank. There’s also a reservation about failing to call somebody “sempei” even if they technically are lower rank – the implication being that there is prestige associated with being accorded the designation of “sempai” from one’s peers. At the other end of the spectrum, “-chan” and “-kyun” are more common when dealing with intimates; family, and those who you don’t have a guard up against seeming slightly infantile to – i.e., the kind of people we feel very comfortable with. (I’m all for less strict formalism for the sake of engendering rapport, but I don’t think it’s common to call professional colleagues “-kun,” let alone “-chan.”) It is interesting that there’s a bias towards focusing on the more polite term – or it would be, if we didn’t know about social pressures towards compromise.

If we can assume that there is a kind of polite detente among colleagues when they differ, John Holbo’s comment about how English departments work reflects that basically people want to get away with making devastating critiques – they just have to deal with the social consequences of it, which simple fact probably explains a lot of these dynamics. So maybe this means (in the Japanese context) using more formal terms – and maybe it means being very circumspect with criticisms (in both philosophy and the English department, and in making the choice of whether to join up for a women’s studies or Africana studies department, or whatever else might interest us).

In English criticism, quite often the party that might have an interest in pushing back on a criticism or reading isn’t present – the “so-and-so” of “would so-and-so really appreciate the reading of their work through the lens of some obscure or possibly controversial group of studies?” I also note that this comfortable distance might have some impact on rigor (via absent or present emotional motivation). Needing to respect the needs of “practical upshot” would, as well, but how often does philosophy promise immediate practical impacts? So philosophy also has rigor within an agreed-upon structure with broad compromises. And of course you still get that as well in English studies where failure to reflect the standards of that academic community may imply some out-of-bounds criticism of methods (I would be speaking from ignorance, however, and against my better guess if I said that I believed that any reasonably progressive English studies department would absolutely freeze out attempts to use the methods of other programs for the same purpose of pursuing English studies – as distinct from just saying “the entire program is flawed” and attempting to be an “anti-system party” within the department keen on destruction.)

Reading recently about the varied ways in which Steven Joyce constantly threw roadblocks up to scholars under the claim of “private family interests” (see “The Injustice Collector” online from The New Yorker), I found myself feeling surprisingly sympathetic to him. Instead of focusing solely on a viewpoint like “is Steven Joyce too picky and thin-skinned about his family?” looking at it through the viewpoint questioning “are Joyce studies really worth undue attention and latent criticism of one small group of people no longer able to defend their views and practices, as if important historical truths are to be discovered by personalizing every issue through a small window into that very particular sample?” seemed to push back against the legitimacy of essentially trying to hound truth out of a very small sample whose members the Joyce studies group will never know. Then again I can hear it – “endless studies and resources just to legitimize the process of who is going to win elections? How very doctrinaire, bourgeois and unflinchingly pro-system.”

The English criticism isn’t not worthless work by any stretch, we should all agree – I personally see it as more like historical application, due to the history-through-sampling issue Joyce Studies often raises. Besides resource scarcity and the aforementioned privacy issues* angle, that really just leaves a problem with how to try to fold that work back into other areas. John Holbo comment @ #47 is applicable also. I guess one of the nice things about being interested in philosophy is that the field has always claimed to reserve a space for consilience. Instead of being resentful of crazy people in other fields with their small interests, I would rather promote having that view and sharing views across academia.

As a matter of academic politics, I think this is important to defending important programs against budget cuts, too. It’s about preserving years of progress in some areas.

* For another angle into the issue of the rights of historical figures and their families, Cardozo AELJ recently published a paper (recently cited in a major textbook), which includes a summary of how some moral arguments inform the law on this matter:
http://www.cardozoaelj.com/2013/11/12/share-his-dream-getting-shared-in-callmanns-treatise/bloomgarden-share-his-dream/

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Hector_St_Clare 12.02.13 at 11:46 pm

Re: Oh well. I don’t know about Hector, but most women in my life have been innate philosophers, in the colloquial sense.

Yes. But, being a philosopher in a colloquial sense and the discipline of professional philosophy are two distinct things. (John Holbo, I believe this is a novel contribution, if not then feel free to let me know).

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godoggo 12.03.13 at 12:12 am

The one philosophy class I ever took was taught by a lady who was dying of cancer. I thought she was pretty funny, although she failed to instill in me much fascination with her specialty.

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Belle Waring 12.03.13 at 2:22 am

TheSophist: I didn’t intend to cast aspersions on the practice of HS debate in general, or your students and judgment in particular. I apologize, and I was genuinely interested by your contributions to the thread. I hate Lacan way more than I hate HS debate. Eh do I even actively hate him? I think he’s pointless. No, I probably hate him. I don’t hate Derrida, for example, but fuck a bunch of Lacan, for real. More specifically, I find it extremely difficult to imagine a) a large pool of HS students profitably reading Lacan and b) various teams constructing…valid arguments using elements of Lacanian thought as the building blocks. That the judges would then go so far as to problematize the very notion of winning the debate does seem like some 1991 Literary Theory icing on the cake of HS debate, which is actually a Hollywood Regency-style mirrored vanity, so great is its lack of resemblance to cake. There is none less cake.

Stephenson-quoter-kun! Everyone has misunderstood my objection to the quote. I think you have to read a lot more Stephenson than that to see why it’s objectionable. There is something 30% right enough about it that, when confronted with Lacan, I’m ready to defect to team Stephenson right away, as I said. Truly, as baldly stated, it’s more than 30% right; some things are true, and some false, and the world will become a bad place if everyone were to be by some mysterious means prohibited from assessing other people’s claims and saying, “true! False. False. Also, fuck you.”

Hey wait, where did the fuck you come from? Ah….see? Randy wants to call stuff “bullshit.” He wants to say to people “this is bullshit.” This is actually an impulse quite different from the desire to become…a difference engine or something. This is philosophy as will to power, no? And, again, that isn’t even the worst thing in the world! Do you know when white libertarian bloggers explain in a superior and tedious way how they got where they are now on pure merit? Do you know how you want to reach through the computer screen and stab them in the eye with a sharpened pencil? White libertarian lawyer-blogger guys are an adjacent clade of geek sexists. And Stephenson himself is a tedious, superior crypto-libertarian. So when I hear that quote, I don’t hear the thing with which I quite agree, and which I stated at the top, namely, the practice of philosophy is as decorous as it’s going to get from a certain angle. And that if someone says “the claim on which your whole article is based is false” they might be acting like a smug asshole but they very well also might not! If magically the split were made 50-50, but everyone just went on arguing in the same way…that would be fine!

What I hear when I read that quote is the totally wrong thing, namely: ‘getting into arguments of this kind is probably essentially masculine and women who would like philosophy to be a more welcoming discipline are trying to change the thing we are doing to a less useful thing, some kind of emotional sparkly cooperative thing where you get to braid ponies’ manes and tails, like they do in the English Department.’ No! It’s fine! Say my claims about Russell are false! We’re asking you to stop being sexist assholes, which is different, and attempts to muddy the waters by conflating modes of discourse with (for the most part, although you continue to claim it’s fine if there are 3 women) gender MAKES ME VERY ANGRY. The End.

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John Holbo 12.03.13 at 2:23 am

Let me clarify the grounds under which Hector’s contributions shall be deemed appropriate.

Upthread you stated that you are here to fight propaganda with facts. I think even you will admit that this is a highly implausible assessment of your psychological state. You are here to express generalized contempt, in high-handed terms. Which is, of all things, the least likely to be persuasive to your audience. Thus, as I have said before, I infer that you are mostly in it for the lulz. (The alternative is too terrible to contemplate: you are absolutely the world’s worst psychologist, which I don’t believe you are.)

Now far be it from me to deprive you of the small joys of expressively vast contemptmanship. Others might ban you for that, but not me. We’ve all been there, man. This is the internet. But it can’t be alpha and omega. You need to cut that stuff with something more nutritious, since you aren’t going to cut it out.

In this case you really need to focus on how the things that you want to be a straight shot to victory – testosterone and etc. – are obviously not. Surely you don’t maintain that there is no possible world in which biological humans have philosophy departments that look different from the ones we’ve got, because testosterone. You can’t really think that there is necessarily NO truth to the thought that there is some significant cultural, social path dependence, etc. etc. You also can’t be oblivious to the fact that this question has not just a descriptive aspect – i.e. what is the causal explanation – and a normative aspect – i.e. how do and should we want things to be? Given that a flutter of testosterone studies is patently not a sufficient answer even to the descriptive question, it is patently – on stilts! – not a sufficient answer to the normative question. So what is the point of acting like people are fools for not treating this thing that isn’t the answer as though it were the answer? We know better. Even you know better. Who’s left to fool?

Conclusion: if you really wanted to discuss the subject of the thread, you would naturally be drawn out of your testosterone study comfort zone, since it is obviously necessary to leave that zone to discuss this subject.

Second conclusion: If you don’t leave your comfort zone, people will conclude you aren’t interested in discussing the subject of the thread, i.e. you are just threadjacking.

Let me do my small part to bait you out from under your biological shell. You say it is natural for men to prosper disproportionately in philosophy because they are more aggressive because testosterone. Let it be so (about the testosterone). But how are you sure that I am not right that, in fact, philosophy departments are not especially aggressive places? The appearance that they are so is a cultural illusion – a misreading of norms that do not express aggression as if they did.

Do you see, then, how the biological questions are inevitably tangled up with cultural and social questions? (Yes, of course you do.)

So: you will be contributing helpfully if you engage some people on the other side as though they are being reasonable, not idiots. Since, in fact – I think you perfectly well know this – they are being reasonable; or at least you haven’t shown they are idiots. (And do not reply that some people on the other side are idiots. That’s a fallacy, and you know it.)

But by all means let your contempt show around the edges. We’re only human, after all.

Make sense?

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Belle Waring 12.03.13 at 2:55 am

Francis Spufford: See, I feel like that’s kind of a lame story because I didn’t go out to the end of the crane arm. Is that even definitely one of the top ten most harrowing things I’ve ever done? No, it has to be. That thing was tall as a motherfucker. Mmm (considers). Yes. I’m counting on John’s stolid Norwegian ancestry to keep our daughters alive. That and Singapore’s extraordinarily restrictive trespassing laws, I guess. Hey, do you guys know how steam comes out from underground in New York City randomly, from those huge orange temporary tubes? It’s an ancient central steam heat system linking various sections, like they have in cities in Siberia and stuff, that are now mostly empty but still all heated and lit, glowing in the waste. There’s a place sort of at the lower edge of Riverside Park where it goes eight stories down into the ground! With catwalks around the edges! And these big fucking…Cthulu-summoning engine-looking things in the middle, with dials and levers and…whatever you call the Frankenstein “monster-come-alive” switch. BUT LOTS. Yes, OK, well, me and my friends broke in the first time–not even, some lazy guy had left it propped with a brick so he could take smoke breaks. We reconnoitered, right? Then we a) took acid b) broke in again. It was connected to the IRT! And the reason I risked my life so often as a young person is that in the Environment of Early Adaptation, those of our proto-human ancestors who won arguments about Russell’s theory of descriptions…wait, what?

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mattski 12.03.13 at 3:04 am

@ 88

That was rather beautiful.

Can I just take a cheap, shamefully-inside-my-comfort-zone shot at HSC? A little side-by-side:

This thread: I happen to be more interested in facts and truth than in humoring political fads and fashions.

Earlier thread: I’ll just put out there that I take a rather dim view of Judaism, particularly their denial of the Trinity, and I am not a fan.

I don’t like to pick on believers as a rule, but believers who get high and mighty about facts and truth… That is another matter.

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Dr. Hilarius 12.03.13 at 3:27 am

My ignorance shames me. I had no idea philosophy was such a blood sport. Might I suggest some cage bouts on cable TV? They would provide an alternative to mixed-martial arts and give the profession an needed infusion of money and attention.

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Philosofatty 12.03.13 at 3:36 am

“If you are playing chess and someone tries to take your king you don’t say ‘my god, what an aggressive bastard! “

Hmm, but competitive chess is distinctly an arena of emotionally charged personalization, and, for that matter, macho posturing. It’s true that doesn’t normally make accomplished players forget basic rules, but it doesn’t exactly always not either. Kasparov arguably lost to Deep Blue because he got “psyched out.” It’s an interesting analogy though, in that one gestalt of chess is as of pure ratiocinative dances of Spockian equanimity, whereas the other is as of the brutal animal psychology of combat! :O

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Substance McGravitas 12.03.13 at 3:37 am

Bring on the chessboxers!

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John Holbo 12.03.13 at 3:46 am

https://files.nyu.edu/iav202/public/powers/powers.html

I suppose everyone has seen that one before. If not, you can now stage fearful bouts on your own bedroom floor.

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GiT 12.03.13 at 3:59 am

Matt @90 – You don’t even have to thread jump. Hector, in the same thread where he’s talking about believing in miracles and the truth of the Bible:

“I would demonstrate that you were wrong by using evidence from biology. This is a fairly clear cut example of how facts are better than identity politics.”

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John Holbo 12.03.13 at 4:35 am

“Hmm, but competitive chess is distinctly an arena of emotionally charged personalization, and, for that matter, macho posturing.”

This is true. What I was going for is this: friendly chess games are possible, even if often it gets pretty intense. It’s a bit mysterious HOW friendly chess is possible, given that, symbolically, you are killing each other. Nevertheless, we know it is possible. Because it is obviously actual. Now port the point over to philosophy: it sort of looks like everyone is trying to murder each other, logically. But that is consistent with this being quite friendly. Because it’s no worse than chess, if it comes to that.

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John Emerson 12.03.13 at 4:58 am

Meritocratic competition actually reinforces various sorts of category discrimination (Tilly). Academia is meritocratic and competitive to the max, philosophy above all. Thus, academia and philosophy reinforce category discrimination. QED.

We are approaching the best possible solution in this world, however. Soon all philosophers will be white antiracist feminist males.

People really should think more about the problems with meritocratic competition, but there is no possible world in which they will actually do so.

Also, I am widely regarded as a joker and a troll, but I am usually right.

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Belle Waring 12.03.13 at 5:01 am

Ha ha ha, I can’t learn to play chess because I hate losing so badly, even though it’s sheer necessity that I would lose for quite a while to, say, John, before I got good enough to beat him. Not even because he is an amazing chess player, but he’s much better than I am, and there’s no other way to learn. I can just about bear losing games that have an element of chance but something about chess makes me feel like “my brain fought your brain and my brain lost,” even though that’s not true. But it’s not entirely false either. I should overcome this dumb problem by learning to play with my children.

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Lee A. Arnold 12.03.13 at 5:05 am

I say, even if it goes off in another direction, just make sure it stays interesting and relevant. Entertainment and instruction, said Dr Johnson.

1. A bit of learning about rhetoric might help sort-out the discussion. Philosophers should be aware of the following list. The ways to keep readers interested, or an audience listening, are actually very few. The short list is something like: Humor, storytelling (of course, suspense), playing games or competition or gambling, sex (of course), music, thrills (like an amusement park ride), or an immediate question/problem.

An interesting thing is that, although these all work (as screenwriters know), they are quite different and somewhat mutually exclusive, considered as audience drivers. Not always entirely mutually exclusive, but somewhat. It is as if, they all vie to occupy the same immediate mood-attention space, — and at any one given moment, well, as you know, there is not a lot of room in your head.

Screenwriting teachers always say, “Plot and character!” But they always add: “except if you are writing a comedy.” You are allowed to stop the plot, and tell a joke. If the audience laughs, it works. You are gold!

2. I asked the owner of a used book store at the Venice/Santa Monica border (Angel City Books and Records), “Why do people come in to buy books? What is the list of reasons?” (Because I am interested in audience reasons; institutional directions; in some instances called marketing.) Fascinating, when all put together: Why do people come in to buy books? “Curiosity, something different. Comfort, familiarity, something the same. Shopping experience, reward, change of pace. Need to communicate. Concern, alarm, political impulse, sense of mission. Requirement (for education). Recommended by friend or authority. Spiritual quest, self-help. Aesthetic search. Replace something they don’t have any more. Feel guilty they are not improving themselves, getting soft, not developing their brain, be better in conversation. Need to be different, wear a badge, intellectual status symbol.”

3. The reason I don’t like trolley cases is Trolley cases follow the same logic as consumer choice.

Thus, some of this philosophical discussion is mirrored in the widespread sorry tale of microeconomic preferences.

As a remark out of order, I would expect to find that in times of economic plenty, people are generally are more mirthful. It would be interesting to find out, if utilitarianism spikes upward in public opinion, in the fat years.

But what I really want to point out is: Trolley choice = consumer choice. And they, in turn, are one with heated arguments in philosophical seminars. I want to say, Choice and competition are formally the same kind of thing, though at different systems-levels. “Choice” is a competition within your perception, as if your attention has split momentarily, and now two objects are in view, to choose from. This is the same triangular form as the competition between two business suppliers, who are vying for a contract with a third business, and only one is finally accepted. Same is true of you arguing in a philosophy seminar, in front of an audience that beholds its own group choice, its laudation to be made. To be made, for fun! Anyway competition is diagrammatically similar to choice.

I might call this an “Husserlian epistemological gestalt,” for want of a better crossblabber.

Anyway I think that the trolley problem comes out of a certain psychological habit and nexus which ALSO founds the combined idea of “choice/competition/agon” as the current economic virtue which, it is often said, we should all follow.

Now here is where my own preference comes in. I am historically contingent. I distrust this agonistic and antagonistic impulse strongly, because in a new current way, it is anti-ecological.

I understand the employment of the virtue of “choice and competition” for developing good economic products, and for finally getting rid of duplicative economic efforts that waste natural resources. And all the rest of it.

But I always tend to think also, that “choice/competition/agon” is psychologically childish. It’s fine for athletic contests, but in economic rhetoric it is already feeling a little too cutesy, and I am beginning to find it offensive.

Our current consumer choice-making is being manufactured under the guise of a false scarcity. It made sense when resources were indeed scarce, back in the good old lousy days gone by. “Scarcity” is a contingent condition; it occurred historically, but not at the present time. This scarcity, now, is not justifiable in late modernism, which could be plenty and copious.

And could be plenty and copious within ecological means: by relying upon restyling, softer energy and waste reduction.

If it looks like that restyling may not happen fast enough, then consumer choice may not be enough. Can consumers can become adequately educated about the ecosystemic risks?

Well then, can choice sometimes be dangerous? Choice and competition require a sudden, perhaps momentary, epistemological focus and splitting, but so focused as to be a very, very small part of an N-compartment system. Unfortunately the biggest such system, the biosphere, is now sending very large-scale decision-messages, in other words it is sending general, statistical signals of a pervasive ecological failure, a crash, that lies ahead. But those signals are not getting fractionated quickly enough into the choice mechanism, into all the little epistemological splittings, that are focused within our local living.

What is the real scarcity being economized by a competition, an argument, in a philosophical seminar?

The best philosophy must remain vitally relevant. I love Philly trolley cars, I just saw one. I hate the phony choices, the ridiculous competitions.

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Substance McGravitas 12.03.13 at 5:21 am

I can just about bear losing games that have an element of chance but something about chess makes me feel like “my brain fought your brain and my brain lost,” even though that’s not true.

It’s true! And that’s why I stick to Scrabble.

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Belle Waring 12.03.13 at 5:28 am

Hi John Emerson-sensei! It’s true, you are usually right.

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John Holbo 12.03.13 at 5:31 am

“I am usually right.”

As a philosopher, I get this a lot.

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TheSophist 12.03.13 at 5:46 am

Hmm…first debate, now chess…seems like this thread was set up for me.

Fischer famously said that his favorite moment of the game was not when his opponent resigned, but rather the moment when “his ego cracked” – when the opponent knew he was beaten. In a similar vein Saviely Tartakower, one of the best players of the between-the-wars generation, called chess “the art of struggle”.

Belle at 98 has hit upon a really important point – former World Champion Anatoly Karpov replied to the question “how did you get so good?” with “I had to lose hundreds of games.” Not “play”, but “lose.” I once knew a very successful teacher of young chessplayers who taught his charges that the game could have three results – win, draw, or learn.

I think philosofatty is only partially right in his(?) claim about macho posturing. In my experience (and I was a good enough player to have numerous Grandmaster and International Master scalps before I quit playing seriously) most very top players are rather modest. There’s something about chess wherein the more you know and the better you are the more you realize that you don’t know. The Scottish GM Jonathan Rowson makes this point in “Chess for Zebras” when he points out that the stronger a player is, the less likely s/he is to make definitive judgements about a position. There are a few who come off as genuinely unpleasant people (Gata Kamsky used to be one – don’t know if he’s changed over the last decade or so) and of course Fischer was notorious for his poor behavior (but I’ll contend that Fischer was seriously mentally ill for much of his life, and so should be thought of as sui generis.)

There’s actually a very specific reason that GK was “psyched out” by Deep Blue. In one of the early games of the match it made a move which appeared rather pointless, but then in postgame analysis one of Kasparov’s assistants discovered a “point” to the move waaay off in the future. This caused Kasparov to think “OMG, the beast sees everything” – not a happy frame of mind in which to play. It turned out that Deep Blue hadn’t “seen” the many moves off in the future point at all, so GK’s fear of its omniscience were unjustified.

Perhaps (in response to JH#96) a part of the reason friendly chess is possible is because of the aesthetic aspect of the game. I can remember one game I lost to Igor Ivanov in which he sent his knight on a four-move maneuver that ended with it exactly where it started, so his position was completely unchanged. I, however, had been forced to make a fatal weakening in my pawn chain by the wandering knight, and he then invaded and finished me off pretty quickly. Losing that game cost me a major tournament victory and (by my standards) a lot of money, but I distinctly remember afterwards just being awestruck by the beauty of Igor’s conception, and not at all angry at him for beating me.

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Belle Waring 12.03.13 at 6:15 am

Ed Herdman: why have you refused to read my explanation as to why Stephenson-Quoter-kun is so rightly called Stephenson-Quoter-kun, and instead gone on to explain it all back to me again, after I told you that, as you were new to our blog, it was only fair to warn you that I am unjustifiably irritable, and that a condescending explanation to me of things which previous words, written only inches above, or perhaps below, the ones you are typing, have already demonstrated that I am familiar, is the single thing most likely to cause me to suggest you have your mother give you an enema with used razorblades, even though that is not at all a nice thing to say and really there is no call for that type of thing at any time, especially on what purports to be an academic blog, honestly, Belle, have you no sense of decency? [That was a purely hypothetical insult such as I might, quite wrongly, employ were I to lose my temper, but I would be being a real jerk if I actually said that to you, bow howdy would I ever. Then afterwards I would apologize and feel badly.]

I am reading a manga set in a (terrifying, dystopian) Hogwarts-type school, in which we have failed, persistently, over the course of 186 chapters, to learn either the family or the given name of an elementary school student with the power to read minds who is known, simply, as…Mind-Reader-kun (his best friend is even more poorly served with the name “Fox-Eye-kun” since he appears never to open his slanted eyes, but he can fly, so why feel sorry for him?). All the male children in the class are called, by their fellow classmates “xxx-kun,” and all the female students, by classmates of both genders, “xxx-chan.” I had offered to call Stephenson-Quoter Stephenson-Quoter-sempai in acknowledgement of his master trollery, but in jest, because I knew all along that it was not he who posted comment #2; if he’d started to call me “Belle-kōhai” at that point and never stopped I would have felt kind of slighted but–hey, I would have been cold busted, BUT Stephenson-Quoter-kun is clearly a thoughtful person and so I have reverted to my fictive Crooked Timber Academy 6th grade classroom–HOWEVER by the rules of this tiny world he can now call me Belle-chan, despite this being rather early in our relationship for him to tutoyer me out of the blue like that, and we will have to hope that John is OK with this sudden intimacy. I am perfectly well aware that Philosophy professors in Japan do not call their colleagues -kun much less -chan. I AM PRETENDING SOMETHING PRETEND THAT ISN’T REAL. IT’S FAKE-BELIEVE LIKE A MADE-UP STORY IN MY MIND THAT I ONLY IMAGINED. I hope everything is completely clear now.

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Belle Waring 12.03.13 at 6:19 am

Wow, TheSophist, that is really impressive.

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John Holbo 12.03.13 at 6:55 am

Yes, Sophist, impressive. I’ll just bounce off that to a follow-up to a previous point. Philosophers like an elegant, simple combination, if they can pull it off. So ‘but doesn’t your paper rest on one simple premise, and isn’t it just obviously false?’ – while it may look passive-aggressive, is often simply an attempt to make an elegant, exciting move in the game. And is received by the target as such: as a possibly exciting challenge.

Now there are many problems with trying to construe philosophy as like chess – i.e. a bunch of formal gambits and defenses with tidy, brittle little edges. But the inevitability of an unusually high level of personal aggression is not necessarily the problem here.

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Philosofatty 12.03.13 at 7:17 am

Sophist, that’s amazing! With Kasparov, I especially meant to point to how ambient psychological features apparently drove his play after the misjudgment about how far Deep Blue could drill into the decision tree. My admittedly amateurish understanding is that Kasparov was thereafter pretty much overwhelmed by ramifying fear and paranoia, resigning prematurely, perversely attempting to play Karpov’s game, and so on. I’m sure it’s not right to think of this kind of thing as completely normal of chess (or either Bobby Fischer’s macho sociopathy) but I do suspect it’s more normal of both chess and philosophy than the completely antiseptic or “kabuki violence” view of either admits.

Ha those philosophy wrestlers are radical!

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.03.13 at 7:34 am

Damn chess. Saturday before the last one I lose two games in a row to my new beautiful blond Ukrainian girlfriend. Hate the stupid game. The next thing I know: our ski trip is cancelled, and to be with a man she REALLY has to be in love with him. And you have the nerve to blame men for machismo? Fuck y’all.

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Z 12.03.13 at 9:29 am

I’m with the be-nice-to-Hector crowd, so in a spirit of honest discussion.

Really, I’d strongly encourage you to open your minds, and learn something about biology.

OK, assume I have, you know, a passable acquaintance with evolutionary theory. Even assume that I totally subscribe to all the tropes of evolutionary psychology. Where does that get me? Women are supposed to be better at communicating, sharing ideas and participating in group projects whereas men should have higher spatial capabilities and more propension to competition. As an outsider from the field of philosophy, it is not obvious to me that rotating things in your mind and competing relentlessly are more favorable traits for a career in philosophy than the ability to clearly articulate your thoughts and take into accounts those of your interlocutor. If they are, could that be an indication that there might a problem not with the biology, but with how philosophy s organized?

Yes, it couldn’t possibly be that most women are *happiest* with traditional or semitraditional gender roles.

But see, the problem as I see it is that I’m not sure what the traditional roles are supposed to be anymore. In my country, the typical traditional male jobs up to the 1980s were doctors and lawyers, to the point that there existed many jokes about which sons was to become which. Nowadays, about 60% to 70% of the graduates in these fields are women. So which is it: are law and medicine typically masculine because they are highly competitive (literally in both cases, as a career in these fields depends on success or failure in a very demanding national contest) and require rational thinking or are there typically feminine because they play on the natural abilities of women to negotiate and nurture? More generally, again in my country, there is a higher proportion of women working than of men working (a combination of higher academic success for women and lowest prevalence of disabilities of various kinds). What am I to conclude, especially as the very same country is in the top three of fertility rate in the developed world (so is among the country most preserving that particular traditional role of women) ?

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Anders Widebrant 12.03.13 at 11:23 am

“I can just about bear losing games that have an element of chance but something about chess makes me feel like “my brain fought your brain and my brain lost,” even though that’s not true.”

Oh lord yes. I was conned into sitting in for a missing member of a friend’s chess team as a kid, obvs under the assumption that since I was smart I had to be good at chess, and got beaten in what felt like about five moves. My brother was watching me play and he said the veins on my forehead looked like they were about to burst.

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MPAVictoria 12.03.13 at 11:33 am

Every once in a while a thread reminds me that some REALLY impressive people post comments here. It is a little humbling but also really cool at the same time.
/Sorry about your girlfriend Mao. They can’t all work out.

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Andrew F. 12.03.13 at 12:08 pm

Well, of course there’s another angle to consider from the normative side:

Is it a GOOD thing that female students are (by whatever combination of cultural and institutional forces) discouraged by pursuing philosophy as a degree or career?

Is it a good thing to spend so many of life’s small number of allocated hours upon the tortured prose of cloistered professors from Konigsberg, until you finally realize that the works themselves are cruel metaphors used to illustrate the concepts of immanence and transcendence? To avoid becoming grist for the behavioralist mill while contemplating time-slices of rabbits (uncooked time-slices, I might add)? In that time you might become an expert violinist, a painter, a poet, an engineer, or an athlete. The story about Gertrude Stein’s masterful gamble on William James’s final exam surely must be apocryphal, but the spirit of it captures the point.

Or let me ask a different question: is it that women are disproportionately and wrongly discouraged from pursuing a degree in philosophy, or is it simply that women are disproportionately and rightly encouraged to make more rational decisions when it comes to the choice of an undergraduate degree?

Or a different question: why are a disproportionate number of males so dysfunctional as to choose philosophy as an undergraduate degree? How can we help them make better choices?

More seriously though, on the analogy between philosophy and competitive sports, I wonder if familiarity and comfort with the latter would predict (all else being equal) greater comfort with the former. I’ve sparred with (boxing and wrestling) and tackled some of my best friends, and there is something similar between those experiences and having a good argument in a seminar. Perhaps there’s an easier recognition among some participants that the “rules” of philosophy are somewhat analogous to that of a sport, which enables them to be seemingly more aggressive than others, but which also enables them to take the odd argumentative punch or tackle less seriously or personally. Perhaps our culture tends to, wrongly, familiarize males disproportionately with the norms of competitive sports. Perhaps then philosophy is simply the victim of a cultural sexism that plays out much earlier in our lives, long before we ever sit down in a philosophy class.

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Stephenson-quoter-kun 12.03.13 at 12:22 pm

Belle @87:

Stephenson-quoter-kun! Everyone has misunderstood my objection to the quote. I think you have to read a lot more Stephenson than that to see why it’s objectionable.

Of the reasons for my misunderstanding, not having read enough Stephenson is not my main problem.

He wants to say to people “this is bullshit.” This is actually an impulse quite different from the desire to become…a difference engine or something. This is philosophy as will to power, no?

OK – as I said, I think Randy is being a jerk in that scene. I think he’s being a jerk not because he wants to assert something, but because he’s over-reaching – he wants to assert knowledge of the consequences of technology based merely on his knowledge of technology itself. He doesn’t recognise the limits of his own knowledge and loses sight of the point at which he starts employing very bad arguments. Even with the narrative voice being basically sympathetic to him, he still makes an ass of himself, and his only real defence is that he was trying to defend someone else and that Kivistik started it.

That said, if you’ve worked in software development for any length of time, the experience of wanting to bluntly correct someone – often your boss – about the basic realities of the technological world is a common occurrence. You really are confronted with an endless stream of other people’s bullshit ideas about how technology works, and accommodating these ideas is actively harmful to one’s own career (they’ll have no compunction in blaming you when things go wrong). So there’s nothing wrong with having a finely-tuned bullshit detector and a willingness to confront the person who sets it off. The consequences of being wrong about technology, viz. expensive things that do not work properly, are serious enough that we probably want people to feel more entitled to call bullshit than less, even though the world rarely rewards one for it. There’s a temptation to just agree with Randy out of sheer identification for that predicament.

In terms of what’s objectionable about the scene, I think you’re making a mistake that is similar to the mistake I used to make when reading it. On my first reading, I thought that it was about how Randy was right – being, after all, the one who actually knew about technology, and that being the topic of discussion – and that Charlene’s friends were idiots whose fuzzy, relativistic, ‘academic’way of thinking prevented them from realising how ignorant they are. Ha, what a bunch of pointless pomo time-wasters!

But then I spent another six or so years talking to people like that, and they’re not imbeciles (well, not all of them, anyway). So on my second reading, it was all much more ambiguous. It becomes much more apparent that Randy is over-reaching, and that he cares more about making a point and staking out his territory than he does about finding the truth, and really he’s just trying to get at Charlene anyway. Dr. Kivistik is actually asking some decent questions and could be engaged with. Most of the people at the table are just decent people with valid intellectual concerns, and Randy’s dismissal of them is a sign of his immaturity. Randy’s still an avatar of patriarchal discourse, but now he looks like he might be wrong. In fact, he ends the debate looking like a complete tit. If you started out identifying with Randy, this makes you quite uncomfortable.

Then I read it again, and it becomes apparent that Kivistik is every bit as much an asshole as Randy is. Nobody in that discussion is practicing a “feminine” mode of discourse at all – it’s all in Randy’s head[1]; if Kivistik is implicitly laying claim to a more broad-minded approach to the matter at hand, he’s doing so falsely and for entirely self-serving reasons. His disagreements with Randy are almost entirely ad-hominem attacks on Randy’s background, dismissing his genuine technical knowledge as mumbo-jumbo designed to protect technocratic privilege; he plays for laughs, he mocks, he insinuates bad faith at every opportunity, and other people around the table happily join in. This is an asshole mode of discourse. The notion of patriarchal vs. feminine modes of discourse is actually bullshit, which both sides are using as cover to deploy specious arguments against each other. I think you might be reading it in such a way that you accept the patriarchal vs. feminine thing as a thing that Stephenson really believes in, which is what I believed the first time round but now seriously doubt. I think the lesson is that the distinction doesn’t really exist.

Of course, one can only spot that Kivistik is being an asshole after learning that there are good ways of arguing the kind of positions that he takes. One can talk about privilege without using it as a means of silencing people one dislikes, and one can ask awkward questions about the consequences of technology without being a reactionary or a troll. If you didn’t know that, you might assume that the arguments themselves are bad, that Kivistik’s entire intellectual project is bullshit, and so on. Of course, a lot of people don’t know that, especially if they’re doing their learning on the internet, where Randy and Kivistik would be among the more reasonable participants. Seriously, this explains a lot about online debates about sexism; the next time you read someone complaining about how feminism is just a project to undermine their perfectly rational ways of doing things, remember that their main experience of anti-male-supremacism is of the Dr. Kivistik variety. (Not that I’m pleading sympathy for them, really, but a non-trivial portion of these people just don’t know any better).

Here’s the thing, for me. From a distance, the libertarian lawyer guys all look the same, and look pretty damn similar to the geek sexists (adjacent clades and all that). But from that distance I am pretty hard to distinguish from the geek sexists (after all, it seems that my most notable feature is that I quote Neal Stephenson!); I share a massive amount of cultural DNA with them, have many of the same formative experiences and am generally only distinguished from them at all by the fact that when it came time to decide whether one should care about being sexist, I decided to care[2]. That’s (via a long and convoluted chain of events) why I’m here having this conversation rather than, say, posting snarky comments on Hacker News (though I do my fair share of that). But when you’re starting in my position, Neal Stephenson is one of the good guys, because his novels do actually question the premise that being a technical genius automatically qualifies one for anything else, or that technical genius entitles you to a greater say in matters outside of technology. This might not mean much if your life and self-image were not built around a specific kind of technical mastery, but it’s a pretty important lesson for people whose lives are. To put it another way, identifying with Randy Waterhouse is probably an improvement over identifying with, I dunno, Raistlin Majere or something.

[1] Ah, but all that stuff about patriarchy is in the narrative, not in Randy’s head, right? That’s not his voice telling us about these things, it’s Stephenson informing us about them as if they’re meant to be true. Having read a lot of Stephenson, I’d disagree with anyone who argues this: his narratives often follow the perspective of whoever happens to be the lead character at a given point, to encourage the reader to see things from that character’s perspective. I don’t think Stephenson is arguing that Randy-the-ignorant-geek-sexist has a correct grasp on the world, I think he’s doing a very good job of demonstrating how those people think. In fact, it’s an excellent portrayal of exactly that, and how those people can end up saying the kinds of things they do without realising what this makes them look like to others, or what it really means when applied to the world outside of their immediate knowledge.

[2] I’m not sure why. I think it does come from having debated with a lot of pretty smart feminists online, to be honest. I have a bit of Hirschman’s propensity to self-subversion too, and maybe that’s necessary.

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Anders Widebrant 12.03.13 at 12:25 pm

“+1 to Francis Spufford’s comment.”

Yeah, Belle, you keep dropping these jewels on us but when are you gonna drop an album?

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.03.13 at 12:50 pm

Thanks Victoria, but the personal anecdote was there just to illustrate the point. We all are affected by traditional gender roles; social being determines consciousness. If men are guilty of reenforcing stereotypes, women are just as guilty. Make sure nice guys don’t finish last, and you’ll see nicer guys.

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MPAVictoria 12.03.13 at 1:24 pm

“Make sure nice guys don’t finish last, and you’ll see nicer guys.”

Ah but who decides what attributes make a guy qualify as a “nice guy”?

Often I find that the people who claim the loudest that they are nice are actually the biggest assholes.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.03.13 at 1:32 pm

Whatever behavior women (in general) encourage is the behavior they are likely to see more of (in general). One of those ‘freakonomics’ things.

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MPAVictoria 12.03.13 at 1:46 pm

“Whatever behavior women (in general) encourage is the behavior they are likely to see more of (in general). One of those ‘freakonomics’ things.”

Hmmm, I doubt the connection is as direct as that.

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bill benzon 12.03.13 at 2:28 pm

Between an appearance by Emerson-sensai, Belle on a crane, and TheSophist revealing his chess bonafides, not to mention Holbo tossing buckets of cold water on HSC, this has got to be one of the most artistic CT discussions ever.

I hereby nominate it for the Artistic Thread of the Year Award and I appoint Michael Bérubé as competition judge. Why? Because no blog cranked out threads of beauty like ye olde American Airspace. Those were the days my friend, and dammit they came to an end!

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Anon 12.03.13 at 2:53 pm

Holbo @45,

“it’s normal in philosophy to say ‘I think the basic claim on which your whole paper rests is just false.’…It isn’t shaming to have such a thing said about your paper in public… It’s normal.”

I hear this argument often and it’s completely untrue of my experience in professional philosophy. In my experience, it’s rare that sweeping claims are made–more common are nitpicky detail criticisms.

When such sweeping claims are made, they are usually implied rather than stated, and with the intent and effect of shaming. They aren’t cheerfully made over a beer in a debate that will resume tomorrow. On the contrary, they’re made to draw a line between real philosophers and charlatans, between insiders and outsiders, between who deserves to be in the conversation and who doesn’t. They end discussion and attempt to end careers. Read any philosophy blog’s glee over a takedown review–it will always discuss the status of the work as philosophy, not the just the status of the argument. It’s gatekeeping who’s in the game, not just a rule of the game.

Philosophical viciousness is not a style of argumentation but a way of excluding people from argumentation. It’s not a tough but fair way of communicating but a refusal to communicate. Its forefather is not Socrates but Thrasymachus.

Now, why do my experiences differ so dramatically from some others? It should be no surprise that the norms of philosophical practice inside certain charmed circles don’t mirror experience outside of it. Within philosophical cliques, individuals may treat each other the way you describe, but they don’t treat people outside that way, and the cliqueless don’t treat each other that way. These cliques cross prestige lines, incidentally. Sure, there’s the Leiter top 10 department club and the top ten journals club. But there’s also the historians’ club and the party line continentals club and the tiny obscure subfield clubs.

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TheSophist 12.03.13 at 3:50 pm

Some thoughts about philosophy and chess:
One big difference is that in chess there are certain positions (and certain classes of positions) which are soluble, and the advent of computer analysis has greatly increased the size of that set. Imagine how philosophy would be impacted if (eg) Kantian deontology was proven irrefutably to be the best way to think about ethics. Chess is perhaps scientific in a way that philosophy isn’t, in that knowledge does actually advance.

I think that chess is currently going through a postmodern moment in that many of the claims that were being made about philosophy in the 60s (“there are no meta-narratives”) are being made about chess now; the best authors writing about chess today (the American John Watson and the Dutchman Willy Hendricks are two examples) have dedicated excellent books to essentially deconstructing the rules (not rules as in “this is how the knight moves”, but rules such as “make your king safe by castling early”) that we all grew up with. Instead they advocate a “rule-independent” way of thinking in which the concrete (and contingent) characteristics of a position far outweigh any “rules” that might apply to the position. A favorite example of this is a Shirov-Kramnik game (both are world-class Grandmasters) in which Kramnik made 13 of his first 14 moves with pawns (develop your pieces and avoid unnecessary pawn moves in the opening” is one of the very first rules a beginner learns) and won in less than 30 moves (a very quick win by GM standards.) I once played a game against Yasser Seirawan (the top US player of the mid-80s through mid-90s) in which I moved the same pawn twice in the first three moves. (1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.e4 e5, if anyone is interested.) When we were analysing after the game (Yasser is a good example of what I said before about top players being kind and modest – he is always extraordinarily generous with his time and energy looking at games with lesser players) he didn’t condemn this at all – it would have been easy just to say “you shouldn’t move the same guy twice in the opening”, but instead he weighed the concrete plusses and minuses of the move (which, by the way, probably isn’t very good, but was tried by a few Grandmasters in later games.)

Also interesting, I think, is that both went through crises of a sort in the 1920s. At about the same time that Wittgenstein was declaring philosophy (kinda sorta) solved Capablanca (who once went nine years without losing a game) was saying the same thing about chess.

A great Capablanca anecdote, by the way: He was sitting in a cafe in Paris doing some analysis on a board. A patron of the cafe saw this and challenged him to a game. Capa accepted, set up the board and then removed his own queen (“odds-giving” was then an accepted way of equalizing the chances between mismatched opponents. Today time odds – I get 3 minutes on my clock, you get 7 – are used instead.) This perturbed his opponent. “Sir, you do not know who I am. Why, I might beat you.” “Sir”, responded the Cuban genius, “If you might beat me, I would know who you were.” :)

A problem that chess and philosophy share is the over-representation of men at the top. There is exactly one woman (Hungarian Judit Polgar) in the world’s top 100 players. Lots of ink has been spilled on why this is so, but definitely a part of the answer is that it’s hard (for many of the reasons stated about philosophy by Belle and others throughout this thread) for women to stay around. One solution to this (which I’ve never been comfortable with – it reeks of patriarchal condescension to me) has been the creation of women-only tournaments. Interestingly, the strongest female student I ever had back in the days when I was teaching chess absolutely refused to play in such things with the one exception of when she was representing the US at the world youth championships and got a free trip to Spain out of the deal. I’d be interested in feedback from folks about this – are women’s tournaments a justifiable attempt to create a safe space, or are they a little too “well, you’re not really good enough to compete with us, so here’s your own little sandbox to go play in”?

Thanks for giving me a chance to put out some thoughts that have been floating around my head for a while, and thanks for some of the kind words various folks have had for my contributions to the thread. ’tis appreciated.

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John Holbo 12.03.13 at 3:56 pm

Anon, with all due respect, it seems to me that you are conflating things.

But first: you are right that my example is perhaps a bit extreme “I think the basic claim on which your whole paper rests is just false.” Mostly it’s less sweeping than that, and when it is that sweeping – while still being friendly – people make sure to telegraph the friendliness, either by saying it to a friend, so there’s history, or otherwise making the general respectfulness of the challenge clear.

We could argue about the frequency with which such-and-such things happen. But, honestly, from our respective armchairs there isn’t much to do except report our personal impressions, which aren’t automatically representative of the profession. Apparently we have had different experiences. That there is disagreement like this isn’t surprising, and there isn’t a good way to resolve it by argument.

But – here we get to the conflation – you are crossing this issue with disciplinary policing and harsh criticism, which is something else. Stuff gets ruled out because people, rightly or wrongly, judge it to be of such poor quality, or inappropriate somehow, that out it goes. This happens in all disciplines and has nothing to do with the style of philosophy, per se. Or with viciousness, although that may be present. All styles of philosophy do it, just in different ways. And non-philosophers do when they think they detect charlatans in their midst. In philosophy I would say it’s forefather is Socrates maybe more than Thrasymachus. Because Socrates is extremely concerned to divide the philosophers from the charlatans. For better or worse.

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bianca steele 12.03.13 at 5:27 pm

I just re-read the scene in Cryptonomicon. I’m not as sure as Rob-sempei about whose point of view the scene is (ultimately) written from–it has to be written from a point of view, right? Otherwise why have novels? We could instead just have lyrical meditations on metaphysics and morals. Or you could just read the Bible. (Here. “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” That’s about this year’s undergraduate superstar, no?) Anyway, I’m sure we’re all agreed that Neal Stephenson isn’t writing Scripture, so . . .

So there’s Jon, “another faculty spouse.” Jon tries to have a conversation with Kivistik, and Randy (who thinks Kivistik is trying to steal his fiance) wakes up from a daydream to hear what he thinks is Kivistik pounding on Jon. Randy jumps in to defend Jon and attracts withering attention in his own right, which he can’t answer and doesn’t know how to deflect. This really doesn’t show Randy in a good light. First, he misunderstands what’s going on between Kivistik and Jon. Second, his comment–”It’s a metaphor, dammit!”–is as dismissive of Jon as it is to Kivistik, and Kivistik rightly argues that it is not a metaphor, and Randy has shown from the beginning that he’s not worth (in Kivistik’s opinion) Kivistik’s time to argue with. Finally, Randy is shown to be (1) privileged as the scion of an academic family, (2) born into a genealogical clan of scientists and mathematicians and with no right to talk about social questions except by pretending to be a technocrat, and (3) born into a declining</b clan of scientists (mathematician begets engineer begets untenured astronomer become hacker). Everything that happens shows reality trying to beat Randy down, or to beat some sense into him. But because this is a novel (not a tract for leading a monk or nun through the steps of repentance), the reader should feel some empathy for Randy and wonder whether this is all quite fair.

(My bit about Randy being a poser isn't quite fair. Stephenson is very clear that the character recognizes the existence of more accomplished people than himself and doesn't expect the reader to idealize Randy just because he's the main character. And he is also very careful, especially in later books, to try to be aware of gender issues, whether or not I agree with how he does it. If you're looking for squick in Cryptonomicon, the scenes with Randy's grandfather where he's kind of being led on by Alan Turing are a teeny bit hard to read, IMHO, for example.)

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bianca steele 12.03.13 at 5:32 pm

Sorry, boldface should have ended after “declining.” Also, the point of the scene is arguably that Randy is misled by his resentment (“much fear I sense in him”), which caused him to see everything and everyone as trying to beat him down, and as a result he misunderstood everything, then lost his temper for no reason.

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Anon 12.03.13 at 5:59 pm

John,

“from our respective armchairs there isn’t much to do except report our personal impressions, which aren’t automatically representative of the profession.”

True, I can’t claim that my experience is representative, but you’re cheating a bit here by implying our respective positions are symmetrical. I made a weaker claim: I simply rejected your strong claim about what’s normal across the profession, while acknowledging that your experience may apply in some places and cases, not all. Personal experience is perfectly support for a counterexample to a generalization–it’s only in favor of such generalizations that it becomes inadequate.

“But – here we get to the conflation – you are crossing this issue with disciplinary policing and harsh criticism, which is something else…This happens in all disciplines and has nothing to do with the style of philosophy, per se.”

Okay, but I think my claim is precisely that philosophy often conflates or confuses the two: that philosophers seem to do more policing than others, and, more importantly, that they often claim they’re critiquing when they’re really boundary policing.

And while it happens in all disciplines, I think it happens more in philosophy. My interdisciplinary research means frequent contact with art, English and poli sci people, and I don’t find it comparable in other fields. Philosophical style seems harsher, seems to intend to be harsher and, more often seems to be received that way. More importantly, in other fields they seem to know better when they’re trying to be harsh and when they’re not, when they’re policing the boundaries of the game and when they’re playing the game within those boundaries.

Of course, I can’t argue for these generalizations on the grounds of my personal experience, I can only ask others to recheck their own and try to see it in a new light or notice what they may have overlooked. And, by speaking up for the alternate experience, encourage those who’ve had it to speak up too.

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Brendan Taylor 12.03.13 at 6:03 pm

The chapter in question is available online.

I don’t see a lot of the things you point out, bianca – Randy misunderstands the Jon/Kivistik interaction? “Information Superhighway” isn’t a metaphor? Randy is pretending to be a technocrat? – but I’m just a lowly computer programmer, and I don’t have the vocabulary to converse well in an environment like this.

(That said, the thoughts expressed in #113 are quite true to my experience of the novel (and how that experience has changed over time), and of “technocrat”/humanities interactions.)

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bianca steele 12.03.13 at 6:15 pm

Brendan,
I should say that my first reading was a lot like yours and Rob’s (or would have been if I’d read the book ten years earlier), though my second and third thoughts moved in a slightly different definition than Rob’s did. (I hope there’s room for more than one interpretation, otherwise I’d find it as annoying as Belle does “white libertarian bloggers [who] explain in a superior and tedious way how they got where they are now on pure merit.”)

I meant that Kivistik does not see “information superhighway” as metaphor and that’s why he jumps on what Randy says (when Randy interrupts Jon to “help” him see that he didn’t want to make polite objections like “you don’t really believe there are onramps that are causing the destruction of slums where people live,” but what Jon really wanted was to see that Kivistik was using a metaphor–tho I could be persuaded that I need to read the passage again) and why the conversation then focuses on Randy’s beliefs about qualifications and Randy’s self-image.

I’m not sure what your point is wrt “technocrat.”

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AcademicLurker 12.03.13 at 6:38 pm

The only Stephenson I’ve read is Snow Crash, and I recall passages where he gets obscenely self-congratulatory about how awesomely creative and creatively awesome programmers are compared with the unthinking sheeple that make up the rest of humanity.

I read it back in 93 or 94, so maybe my memories have been influenced by the many obnoxious techno-libertarians I’ve encountered since then.

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Ronan(rf) 12.03.13 at 6:40 pm

Mao

Are you implying she left you because of the chess loss?

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MPAVictoria 12.03.13 at 7:06 pm

“The only Stephenson I’ve read is Snow Crash, and I recall passages where he gets obscenely self-congratulatory about how awesomely creative and creatively awesome programmers are compared with the unthinking sheeple that make up the rest of humanity.

I read it back in 93 or 94, so maybe my memories have been influenced by the many obnoxious techno-libertarians I’ve encountered since then.”

Snow Crash is a fun book that shows that people are willing to forgive a lot when it is packaged along with kick ass things like katanas and virtual reality sword fights.

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MPAVictoria 12.03.13 at 7:10 pm

“Are you implying she left you because of the chess loss?”

That was my understanding.

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Brendan Taylor 12.03.13 at 7:16 pm

It’s not that Jon doesn’t know that it’s a metaphor, it’s that the group dynamic doesn’t allow him to to say that Kivistik is full of shit. As an outsider Randy doesn’t have that limitation.

Of course, Randy is immature and overconfident, and he’s wrong to think that telling the professor he’s full of shit is a good conversational tactic.

Ultimately this gambit fails because Randy is outmaneuvered. “The word fork is a metaphor”, “Who decides what is bad” and “Of course that’s what a technocrat would say” are attempts to totally derail the conversation into territory where Randy is weak. They succeed because Kivistik is playing to his audience (and has higher social status in this group).

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bianca steele 12.03.13 at 7:19 pm

Someday I’ll read Snow Crash but right now all I know is what Richard Rorty wrote about it (together with Silko’s Almanac of the Dead):

In Achieving Rorty makes a distinction between an earlier generation of socialist novels–The Jungle, An American Tragedy, and The Grapes of Wrath–and a second generation, Snow Crash and Almanac of the Dead. The earlier generation represent hope based on the possibility of transformation “necessary because the rise of industrial capitalism had made the individualist rhetoric of America’s first century obsolete” (Achieving 8). The second generation are “descriptions of what America will be like in the twenty-first century… written in tones of either self-mockery or of self-disgust” (Achieving 4) and symptomatic of the critical immobility of the late-twentieth-century intellectual. In Snow Crash, Rorty’s example of “self-mockery,” government gives way to business in an America in which the market has become all-powerful. Rorty notes that this novel capitalizes on the belief that corporations and government “now make all the important decisions” (5). In Almanac of the Dead, a work of “self-disgust,” racial-ethnic identities become the focus rather than consumer society. The white race is seen as a plague whose destiny is to be squelched by the descendants of the America’s native peoples in the riotous chaos of the collapse of the US government.

In other words, Rorty complains, Stephenson isn’t writing from a Left perspective, because the Left doesn’t–or didn’t in the early 1990s–believe that corporations and government make all the important decisions.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.03.13 at 7:35 pm

@129, hey, why not, it could’ve been a factor. Like the guy says in that movie: “be excellent in their presence”. No matter how much ink you spill denouncing male aggressiveness, competitiveness, machismo – as long as machismo works, it’ll stay with us. That’s the point.

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John Emerson 12.03.13 at 8:31 pm

Most humane, civilized people in the US spend a fair amount of attention on finding ways to ameliorate the ill effects of the competitiveness of American society, but this is nickel and dime stuff. Until the society is structured on a less competitive basis, these ill effects will always be there to some degree.

Complaining about how bloodthirsty competitors rise to the top in philosophy, few of them women, is only slightly less silly than complaining about how football players and boxers all seem to be brutes.

Women actually do far better in philosophy than they do in pro football! So it’s not as bad as people are saying. But nonetheless, the people who rise to the top will normally be brutes there too, albeit with less upper body strength. Mark Gastineaus of the mind (look him up). It’s still the law of the jungle, devil take the hindmost, root hog or die, just differently configured.

As a non-competitive or anti-competitive male I do pick up on that trait in others, and more than once I’ve sniffed out the same high-testosterone quality in academics that I have previously encountered among small businessmen, salesmen, athletes,petty criminals, and the like.

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John Emerson 12.03.13 at 8:33 pm

By “will always be there to some degree” I meant “will always be overwhelmingly present”.

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TheSophist 12.03.13 at 9:09 pm

Would it be terrible of me to point out that Ukrainian women are by far the best female players in the world? (They won the women’s world team championships by a ridiculous margin a few months ago.)

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Ronan(rf) 12.03.13 at 10:22 pm

I hear you Mao.
Are you still going on the skiing trip?

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PGD 12.04.13 at 12:03 am

I came here to post what Andrew did @112 but since he already did I won’t.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.04.13 at 1:46 am

John Holbo,

Thank you for your polite criticisms, and I will do my best to abide by them.

Re: But how are you sure that I am not right that, in fact, philosophy departments are not especially aggressive places? The appearance that they are so is a cultural illusion – a misreading of norms that do not express aggression as if they did.

It sounds like you’re saying that philosophy departments would be more welcoming to women if philosophical debates were not tinged with aggression and were more collegial in nature. I think that’s true. However, another factor is that I’m told it’s very hard to make a living as a professor of philosophy (more so than in the hard sciences) and women tend to be more risk-averse than men.

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 1:55 am

“Personal experience is perfectly support for a counterexample to a generalization–it’s only in favor of such generalizations that it becomes inadequate.”

Unfortunately, this is not really true. Personal experience-ness may be close to counter-example-ness. And counter-examples are great for knocking down strict ‘all F’s are G’ claims. But obviously we are dealing only with squishier claims like ‘mostly F’s are rather G-ish.’ Even worse: psychologically, people who think they have experienced the opposite of what I say are more likely to be provoked to bother to leave a comment than are people who think they have experiences the same. (‘Yeah, I knew a guy who was just like you say lots of people mostly are!’ That’s a less likely comment than ‘No, I knew a guy who wasn’t anything like what you say most people are like.’) So we’re back to dueling armchair impressions, I’m afraid.

“And while it happens in all disciplines, I think it happens more in philosophy. My interdisciplinary research means frequent contact with art, English and poli sci people, and I don’t find it comparable in other fields. Philosophical style seems harsher, seems to intend to be harsher”

But you see this is a function of your work, I presume, not the fields. I do interdisciplinary stuff in philosophy and literature, and my stuff on the literature side has sometimes been deemed unwelcome in lit studies. It’s not regarded as ‘the right sort of thing’ so I have collected a lot of cold shoulder rejections from that quarter – utterly unsurprisingly. I wouldn’t have asked for anything less under the circumstances. If you tell people they are doing it wrong, expect a few knocks from the disciplinary police. (I’m not complaining. I have a very comfortable perch from which to endure, painlessly, such knocks.)

Fun fact: everyone is always in favor of interdisciplinarity. But ever discipline always has its own, in-house sense of what interdisciplinarity should be. So if anyone from another discipline tries to horn in, suggesting a different flavor of interdisciplinarity … well, you see what I mean.

I really doubt that there is any sense in which any discipline is better or worse than any other about this, in a general way. There’s just nothing to be done about the fact that if you want the paradigm to be different, you tend to be on the outside, looking in. By definition. With a little luck, you’ll win in the long run and your pain will, retroactively, have meaning.

“More importantly, in other fields they seem to know better when they’re trying to be harsh…”

Here I would draw a corollary of my main point: philosophers know when they are being harsh and when they aren’t. And English professors know when English professors are being harsh and when they aren’t. And philosophers, I think, tend to know when English professors are being harsh and when the aren’t. But English professors often don’t know when philosophers are being harsh and when they aren’t. That is, there isn’t some thing that English professors do that seems mild and non-aggressive to them, but aggressive to outsiders. But there is some thing that philosophy professors do that seems mild to them, but aggressive to outsiders. So, yes, there is a failure of knowledge, but it is not the one you think – I think. Philosophers seem to outsiders more aggressive than they are. It’s probably sort of their fault that they have failed to get the word out about this. But the failure isn’t on their side; at most the fault for the failure.

“As a non-competitive or anti-competitive male …”

What have you done with the real John Emerson?

The one who wrote, just a few comments further up, “I am usually right” – as a result of which several timid lurkers were induced to stay lurkers, lest they be on the receiving end of a righteous sacking from that fearsome Gastineau of the comment box, John Emerson. (Don’t deny it! And don’t say you are just playing defense, or just ‘following through’.)

OK, ok, I love a good gotcha, but seriously, John, what DO you think about the fact that your online persona is at odds with your own ideals in this regard? You are a brash, verbally aggressive, intellectually competitive, no-holds-barred antiracist, feminist white male? (I’m pretty sure you are, anyway. I’m sure about everything up to the ‘white male’.) But you yourself regard that as problematic. So how do you resolve the tension – of which I am quite sure you are aware. I give you credit for self-awareness that you smell more of testosterone than you give off a whiff of shrinking violet, most days. The solution is social, you say. Fair enough. But what does that entail, in the meantime, at the individual level duties to do better. Would you say? (This is intended as a friendly challenge. I genuinely am curious what you think about this problem. Obviously I’m just as guilty of aggression as you are, and I see the same problems you do, broadly.)

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 2:11 am

“Thank you for your polite criticisms”

You are quite welcome, Hector. (So long as you can take it, I will never forbid you from dishing it out. A bit.)

“However, another factor is that I’m told it’s very hard to make a living as a professor of philosophy (more so than in the hard sciences) and women tend to be more risk-averse than men.”

In my experience there is a terrible irony on this score. Most professional philosophers, in my experience, are rather risk-averse. We are not, by temperament, Nietzschean supermen, staring fearlessly into abysses and all that jazz. We ended up here in part through a failure to leave school, rather than a powerful drive to stay in school. (You understand how school works, so you stick around. The outside world looks a bit threatening, after all.) Of course, at the end of it all there is an awful sword of damocles hangs over your head. Do I get tenure or don’t I? But most people – men and women – don’t think that far ahead when they sign up for grad school. And then you are in and (sunk cost fallacy) it’s hard to admit maybe you made an overly risky call. So I wouldn’t chalk up the fact that philosophers end up in perilous career positions to some kind of moral courage in the face of peril.

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 2:17 am

I am hostile and abusive when require, which is often, but not competitive. A close look at my resume will show neither success nor failure, just hostility and abuse.

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 2:22 am

But wouldn’t you say that you have achieved some outstanding excellence – ergo success – in the field of hostility and abuse? (When required, to be sure.)

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 2:25 am

That is to say, are you so sure a sense of success did not taint your sense that this stuff is required. You have fun, right? (When ‘someone in wrong on the internet’ your heart sings a little song, doesn’t it?)

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 2:32 am

Competition is for goals, for example, careers. Look at the Leiter report. it’s got the goals listed and ranked, and everyone knows who is who and what is what. People will say “my school is ranked #13 by now, but we hope to be Top Ten soon. And those aren’t empty words, because new PhDs from top 10 schools have major advantages, caeerwise. Leiter has spent a decade or more rationalizing the cartel. And everybody knows how things work, and everyone in the game is going for the brass ring. And they’ll trample their grandmothers on the way, if they have to. In that special, cool,butter-won’t-melt-in-their-mouth, philosophical way.

The solution would be, in this actual world, for women to learn to be hostile and abusive as required. Not my style, which actually doesn’t work, but in some viable, coolly philosophical way. Though if some ladies want coaching in how to tell men to go fuck themselves, I’d be glad to oblige.

These things work better in England. Joan Robinson (econ), Mary Douglas (anthro) and several female philosophers learned to play that way. And Margaret Thatcher. Not totally nice people, but niceness is a deficiency in a competetive society (“Miss Congeniality” is a big loser)..

This may not be tolerated in the present US of A, though, the way uppity blacks were not tolerated in the Old US of A.

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 2:33 am

Competition is zero-sum, and philosophy is competitive, and anything good anyone gets is something someone else doesn’t get.

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 2:37 am

But don’t you take pleasure in winning arguments? You can’t seriously tell me that you take a pure ‘I take no pleasure in winning, but this argument has to be won for the sake of society’ attitude. That’s just not how humans think and feel. You’re not fundamentally unlike other people, John. I don’t believe that.

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 2:45 am

I’m not a careerist.

There’s a joke in Zhuangzi. A phoenix, a legendarily pure bird, encounters a owl flying along with a decomposing rat in its claws. The owl hisses fiercely at the phoenix, who says “Don’t worry, I’m not trying to steal your dead rat.”

This isn’t really about niceness and personal character, but about a competitive zero-sum system where everyone wants the same thing. (“We both wanted the same thing — Paris”, from French history). Every winner creates losers. Women need to know that that’s the game their in, no matter how nice everyone seems to be. I am not claiming niceness for myself.

Besides ruthless aggression and conniving, of course, careful networking and stroking are required.

If not Nozick, who is the Gastineau of professional philosophy? I am, of course, porrly informed on the topic.

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 2:52 am

“I’m not a careerist.”

All philosophers are ruthless careerist climbers in the profession? Sorry, if that’s the thesis then I mistook it for the more usual thesis that philosophers are aggressive, interpersonally. Are you really saying that the thing that distinguishes you from philosophers is that they are all Becky Sharp, and you are not? That really is puzzling because it isn’t even a stereotype about philosophers that they are all Becky Sharp, in effect.

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Belle Waring 12.04.13 at 2:54 am

Hey John, you lured Emerson-sensei back onto our blog. Don’t fuck this up, man! Stephenson-Quoter-kun: my original exclamation point there was merely one of happiness and joy that you had changed your nym because that’s killer, and also it made my children happy. Usually they just come in the room and look at me somewhat dubiously and say, “mommy, why are you arguing with someone on the internet?” Unfortunately, the times when I am able to say, “silly child, I’m not arguing with anyone!” are few. I am aware that you must, of course, have read loads of Stephenson, because otherwise your handle would be ridiculous, and anyway you wouldn’t have a favorite Stephenson quote. The “you have to have read more Stephenson was directed at other people who seemed to be thinking the wrong thing about braiding ponies’ manes in the English Department. I am…willing to consider your interpretation of the scene. Truthfully, I read the book quite a while ago, so maybe I have a wrong impression of Randy generally. I can also well believe that Stephenson is, relatively speaking, one of the good guys, while still seeming to me like an annoying crypto-libertarian. And, as I say, I largely agree with Randy sensu stricto, it’s just that my view of both Stephenson and (sorry dudes, I still love y’all) programmers that talk smack about how they’re the only ones making the world work colors my interpretation of the quote.

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 2:56 am

“Hey John, you lured Emerson-sensei back onto our blog. Don’t fuck this up, man! “

You have a point, dear wife. John, welcome back! I forgot to say that, man! (I’m just messing with you, man, but I know you can take it. Besides, it’s morally improving.)

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 2:57 am

In short, what is required is carefully calibrated niceness and not-niceness as the situation demands, disciplined by the ultimate goal of tenure. And you are correct that I have adequate not-niceness but am deficient in the niceness component. But my point is institutional, structural, and sociological, and not about personal character.

And my general point, that it isn’t just philosophy but the whole goddamn way of life, stands. I’m just saying that philosophy doesn’t affirm the way of life, but it damn well is part of it and not at all without its dark side.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.04.13 at 3:00 am

Belle Waring,

Are you a philosopher too?

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 3:07 am

Competitive careerism is damn near the law of life in these parts. Do women in philosophy think “we’re all in this together”, seeking truth or whatever.,. Because that’s not true. People care who gets the A and who gets the recommendation and who gets into the #1 school and who gets tenure. And every philosophy student is competing with every other philosophy student. And if you can eliminate a competitor by bullying, or ridicule, or subtle intimidation, or not listening, or condescension, or “psych”, you will. It’s not even calculated, it’s just how that kind of thing works. Zero-sum. It’s not specifically about philosophy, or academia. It’s just about success. Few in grad school went there in order to become “that intersting street person with a PhD”, or that interesting middle management guy with a PhD.

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 3:09 am

“But my point is institutional, structural, and sociological, and not about personal character. “

I get that. I was just wondering what you had to say about personal character, given that your point doesn’t touch that. You seem to want BOTH to make an institutional point AND to blame people for bad character. But if it’s really the former, then you should cut it out with the latter. The way I was attempting to show this was by bringing out that, plausibly, your character is the same. You like to win arguments. You aren’t a careerist, in philosophy, but that seems comparatively inessential.

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 3:22 am

Now at least I get it that it really is the Becky Sharp point. That seems to me, frankly, an opportunistic misreading. You are, temperamentally, a lot like a professional philosopher, John. You like to argue. And read books. And you’re good at both, and rather proud of your skills, being good at both. You aren’t easily intimidated. You enjoy a good scrap. That’s pretty much it. The only thing you lack is a career in philosophy, but most philosophers aren’t careerists. They’re happy to get any job and, mostly, stick it out wherever they can stick. The profession isn’t very fluid, when it comes to changing jobs, except for a few high fliers. And most people in the profession know they aren’t going to be those.

In Chuang Tzu terms, you are misreading a lot of humble little birds and cicadas as though they are Great P’eng, preparing to fly 90,000 li. The truth is that they are lucky if they can get as far as that sapanwood tree over there. Often not even that far.

(For those unfamiliar, Great P’eng is sort of like Becky Sharp, but bigger.)

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JW Mason 12.04.13 at 4:41 am

Few in grad school went there in order to become “that intersting street person with a PhD”

Speak for yourself, dude.

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Nine 12.04.13 at 5:21 am

Rob@27 – “I think that software engineering is an interesting example because there is a clear trend towards greater subjectivity as the physical constraints on computer technology have receded. Back in the age of the Randy Waterhouse-style hacker, computing power was a very scarce resource and if your code ran more efficiently that the other person’s, you were right and they were wrong.”

I truly doubt the existence of any such golden age of programming except in people’s memories given the evidence of terabytes of unuseable legacy code that needs rescue – the authors were resource constrained, but so what ? One thing that’s conspicuous in all this talk of Randy Waterhouse style prowess is the absence of an actual example to substantiate it and instead this appeal to mystical abilities of objectivity that were apparently prevalent in the old days. In fact, it reminds of the Asimov quip – “Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”

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Belle Waring 12.04.13 at 6:01 am

Hector, I think you will probably be extremely pleased to know that, due to a variety of factors, I did not complete my PhD, which would have been one of the first two awarded in a new Classics/Philosophy joint degree at Berkeley, and decided instead to be a stay at home mother for both our two daughters until they became old enough to go to school, at which point I started a business totally unrelated to my MA or incomplete PhD (You can see our stuff here. And thus though we had petitioned for it together, me perhaps more vehemently, a male friend was the first to earn the degree.).

John got his PhD first and got offered a tenure-track job when I was done with a truly insane amount of exams (competition with Harvard over who punishes the students worse) but had not written my dissertation. (I think this is an interesting factor considering that most women still marry someone who is at least a few years older than they AFAIK. All things being equal, and both of them working equally fast and well, he will still finish first and (God willing and the creek don’t rise) get offered a job first and…?) Exams: Greek and Latin 3 hours each, “seen,” i.e., you are meant to have read them before and do a better job, based on your own selection of 2500 pages of Oxford Classics Text; Greek and Latin “sight,” same but–self-explanatory; Greek prose composition, Latin prose composition; French and German exams were pretty easy, you had like one or two hours to translate a relatively short article; then 3-hour oral ‘defense’ of both my main subject (Plato) and my minor (Proto-Indo-European Linguistics. So. Many. Laryngeals.). In Singapore there is no Classics department, so no books in the library and, being a polis, it cannot do inter-library loans from elsewhere. Additionally, I am a slacker absent actual deadlines. Singapore does have, however, maids whom you can employ for relatively little money, and the prospect of having live-in help while you have a newborn is so appealing that nearly every heterosexual expat couple who moves here gets knocked up right away. I guess we waited six months? Yep. I’m still a philosopher though. You, yourself, have seen me philosophize all over the place. I mean, you’ve also seen me make mean-spirited, vindictive, ad hominem attacks on people when I lose my temper, and unnecessary insistence that people listen to Cameo, but there is some philosophical debate going on as well.

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Belle Waring 12.04.13 at 6:19 am

John Emerson-sensei, and indeed everyone: it’s obvious I like academic philosophy precisely because I like getting in fights with people. It cuts against the “non-personal, un-attatched to the argument, purely a game” point a little, I think?

Stephenson-Quoter-kun: the funny thing is that I love The Diamond Age the best in the world, it’s seriously one of my like top 20 favorite SF books, although it has one of the most FAIL endings ever. But everything else…meh. I liked Zodiac more than Snow Crash. I read the first two of his billion-page trilogy and then I was just like, whatever this pirate dude, I have literally zero fucks to give. Also, dude, don’t write about either childbirth or breastfeeding. Especially breastfeeding. I mean I guess a guy could, theoretically, and there’s one part he gets right so it’s touching but then he also gets things wrong and you’re like, “why don’t you stick to irrational markets in cowrie shells or something, and in return I’ll read the next quadrillion pages. Deal?”

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novakant 12.04.13 at 10:07 am

John Holbo: people can and do take pleasure in winning an argument because it strokes their ego – but people also like to win arguments, because they actually believe in the importance of what is being discussed and feel satisfaction if the, in their opinion, correct view regarding the matter at hand is promoted rather than the opposite. The former is generally tedious and might be one factor that drives people away from academic philosophy (or blogs for that matter), while the latter can be inspiring: a genuine passion for the subject matter tends to be contagious.

Btw, I’ve known people who got PhDs for all sorts of reasons – if they all did it in pursuit of an academic career there would be a lot of delusional PhD candidates around, given the scarcity of academic positions.

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GiT 12.04.13 at 10:16 am

“there would be a lot of delusional PhD candidates around”

Sounds about right.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.04.13 at 11:01 am

“but people also like to win arguments, because they actually believe in the importance of what is being discussed and feel satisfaction if the, in their opinion, correct view regarding the matter at hand is promoted rather than the opposite.”

Sounds to me exactly like “it strokes their ego”, only phrased differently.

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 11:20 am

“people can and do take pleasure in winning an argument because it strokes their ego – but people also like to win arguments, because they actually believe in the importance of what is being discussed and feel satisfaction if the, in their opinion, correct view regarding the matter at hand is promoted rather than the opposite.”

I would assume so, yes. But if you think these two flavors of satisfaction are easily separable – or tend to occur separably – I would have to disagree.

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MPAVictoria 12.04.13 at 11:26 am

You are even more cynical than usual in this thread Mao. I think your break up has had an effect on you.

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novakant 12.04.13 at 12:14 pm

I think it’s pretty easy to detect if someone makes an argument driven by competitiveness, vanity or job prospects and such motivators generally are detrimental to the quality of discourse. I’m not saying that people who argue a point motivated by a genuine interest in the subject matter have to be ego-less saints, but they will display a different way of communicating with others and the discourse will be helped by that.

I don’t know how one can expect to motivate undergraduates to study philosophy if the assumption underlying academic discourse is that it is driven by secondary factors wholly unrelated to the actual subject matter – how can they trust their teachers and their field?

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 12:35 pm

“I think it’s pretty easy to detect if someone makes an argument driven by competitiveness, vanity or job prospects and such motivators generally are detrimental to the quality of discourse.”

I think motivated reasoning is the norm with human reasoning. Naturally this is detrimental to the quality of discourse – but it does spice it up!

“I don’t know how one can expect to motivate undergraduates to study philosophy if the assumption underlying academic discourse is that it is driven by secondary factors wholly unrelated to the actual subject matter”

Fortunately that, at least, is a problem solved by the human penchant for motivated reasoning! (Also, this makes Nietzsche interesting because that stuff is probably true, man!)

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.04.13 at 12:40 pm

I don’t think genuine interest is, by itself, a motive to argue points. I think any argument is ego-driven; some of the ego-driven debaters have more intelligence and genuine interest, others less. That makes a difference. But the humble ones, they don’t argue. They read, they listen.

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Z 12.04.13 at 12:45 pm

Yeah, me too, I want a gentler, more optimistic Mao Chen Ji. How about we set you up with a nice woman who likes nice men?

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.04.13 at 12:50 pm

I’m sure she’s too old and/or not good-looking enough.

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novakant 12.04.13 at 1:06 pm

If you guys want to be all nonchalant and jaded about it, fine (and I’ve read David Lodge, thx). But if that stance is pervasive in the humanities, then that’s a big problem: people sorting out their ego problems, career anxieties and arguing in bad faith is not what I associate with academic inquiry and from my experience other, more collaborative forms of discourse are simply more fruitful – and it doesn’t mean group hug.

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MPAVictoria 12.04.13 at 1:07 pm

“I’m sure she’s too old and/or not good-looking enough.”

How can we be sure until we try?

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John Holbo 12.04.13 at 1:39 pm

“If you guys want to be all nonchalant and jaded about it”

I prefer the terms ‘realistic’ and ‘true’ in this connection. Because I think inquiry should aim at reality and truth, even if, paradoxically, inquiring into reality and truth reveals that, as a rule, we higher primates are invariably semi-distracted from that. Seriously, I don’t think that conclusion is ‘nonchalant’ or even ‘jaded’. I think it’s just correct. Also, interesting.

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AcademicLurker 12.04.13 at 3:18 pm

This is coming a bit late but in reply to John Emerson (welcome back!) and echoing John Holbo, I think that relatively few people who enter PhD programs are canny enough to be very careerist about it at first. We tend to be just very into a particular subject and also attracted by an idealized and mostly nonexistent picture of what academic life is like.

In my own case, for instance, the cutthroat devil take the hindmost nature of the profession sort of snuck up on me while I was busy running simulations and doing experiments. By the time you find yourself in the thunderdome style competition for TT positions, grants & etc., sunk costs (and a good dose of either determination or stupidity, depending on how you look at it) keep you going. And of course (speaking as someone who recently got tenure) the job of tenured professor is a nice gig indeed if you can get it.

I did my PhD back in the 90s. Given that the high stakes hunger games type competitiveness in every aspect of life has increased since then, maybe current PhD students are more realistic/cynical about things.

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JanieM 12.04.13 at 3:26 pm

I think that relatively few people who enter PhD programs are canny enough to be very careerist about it at first. We tend to be just very into a particular subject and also attracted by an idealized and mostly nonexistent picture of what academic life is like.

This was certainly true of me back in the seventies. I took a different path (not into academia) when I’d finished — on the surface because of the job market, but beneath the surface to a great degree because I could barely recognize that the academic politics were there, much less handle them effectively.

Thirty years later, studying linguistics as a lark, I was having so much fun that I contemplated going to grad school again. One of my professors sat me down and said, “Look. Grad school is the beginning of a ten-year slog in search of tenure. Do you really want that?”

No, I didn’t, especially at the age I was by then. But also, I was still as naive as ever. I still thought it was about loving the subject matter……

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bill benzon 12.04.13 at 3:34 pm

@John Holbo: “… most philosophers aren’t careerists. They’re happy to get any job and, mostly, stick it out wherever they can stick. The profession isn’t very fluid, when it comes to changing jobs, except for a few high fliers. And most people in the profession know they aren’t going to be those.”

I’m guessing that’s pretty much true of most academics. Getting “any” job can be brutal, and I really don’t know what life is like for PhD’s stuck in permatemp positions. Trying to get to the bottom of the tenure-track pole is brutal for those who are still trying (I don’t know how many are simply resigned to permatemping), and getting tenure may be brutal for those who make it to the bottom of some pole somewhere. Once you’ve got tenure, things can change. Unless you’ve been anointed a high flier or aspire to such.

That’s a brutal cut-throat game. Which is why you keep hearing about this or that person at a good place (e.g. Mark Hauser at Harvard, a real high-flier) fudging and faking data) and any number of folks publishing more or less the same paper three or four times a year for several years running. And now that there’s such a thing as experiment philosophy, I guess philosophical high-fliers can get in on the data faking action.

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bill benzon 12.04.13 at 3:43 pm

I did grad school back in the middle 1970s in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo. It was a large department (75 faculty or so) and one of the best in the nation at the time. This piece by Bruce Jackson captures it pretty well:

http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/englishdept.htm

It was a big department and had a lot of graduate students. I think a good number of us more or less drifted into graduate school. They didn’t particularly want a job, didn’t mind student life, and liked thinking and writing – though there wasn’t much debating in those graduate seminars, which were mostly faculty lecturing to a captive audience. So, they drifted into the graduate program, which had plenty of fellowships to give out in those days. Even if you came in from out-of-state, which I did, you could easily qualify for state residency and thereby get the low in-state tuition rate. And that was easily covered by your graduate student stipend, which also allowed you to live in gentile poverty.

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bill benzon 12.04.13 at 4:27 pm

That is to say, under what circumstances, if any, is the pursuit of knowledge in an academic institution merely a means to the end of racking up career points? When a researcher fakes data, is that what they’ve done? Or could it be that they really believe the idea that is being advanced with the fake data? That is, it’s one thing to fake the data without giving a crap, it’s another thing to fake data in favor of an idea you really believe. I have no idea how many data fakers fall into those two bins. And, it’s not obviously the case that not faking data is a sure index of pure intent.

And then we have those of us in fields where there’s really no data to fake. But there’s always plagiarism.

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geo 12.04.13 at 6:16 pm

Emerson (Ralph Waldo): “Argument burns up perception.”

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 8:28 pm

Hey, my connection was lost last night.

Gastineau was a red herring, actually. Shouldn’t have mentioned him, though I think that Nozick was a pretty good comparison (ask Brad DeLong). He was an outlier even in football.

Imagine, then that David Brooks endows a chair in Niceness and Consideration at Harvard which pays whatever is a good salary at that level. There would be many seeking the position. Some would be lifelong nice considerate people with a deep commitment to niceness and consideration. Others would be less nice or not nice people who though that they’d be able to work up the topic in a hurry (after all, this would be a pioneering field).

But then suppose that the application was put in tournament form, with say 64 applicants competing one on one in ingeniously-designed niceness contests (written test and driving test) and going through the rounds to 32, 16, 8, 4, 2, and then finally the niceness champion.

My guess is that whoever won would be someone who had enough non-niceness to stick the knife in when necessary, and that some of the losers would be whining that the winner was not really very nice at all.*

So anyway, however nice the philosophers-to-be in the pool originally were, the competitive process tends to reward all kinds of things, and competitive people are capable of sabotaging competitors with all kinds of little tricks even if they don’t do it quite consciously.

* Or maybe a round-robin tournament, this is all just in the early planning stages. And probably the chair should be at the University of South Carolina, where ante-bellum courtesy sill reigns. Or maybe Iowa.

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 8:31 pm

It’s funny, before the trolley car problem was lifeboat ethics, the only philosophical problem which ever spawned a whole genre of junk TV. So beginning PhD candidates should look around at the rest of the cohort and ask “Who’s going to go off the island first” and determine not to be that person.

It’s surprising that philosophers of all people don’t think of that. But of course, entering students are still raw, green, and innocent.

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John Emerson 12.04.13 at 8:53 pm

And i was going to say: Leiter Report. Looks like it’s for career planning.

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MPAVictoria 12.04.13 at 9:31 pm

“It’s funny, before the trolley car problem was lifeboat ethics, the only philosophical problem which ever spawned a whole genre of junk TV. So beginning PhD candidates should look around at the rest of the cohort and ask “Who’s going to go off the island first” and determine not to be that person.”

So kinda like Donner Party: The University Game?

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AcademicLurker 12.04.13 at 9:58 pm

“Everyone look to your left and then to your right. By the end of the program, one of you will be run over by a trolley car.”

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Stephenson-quoter-kun 12.04.13 at 10:44 pm

Nine @ 159:

I truly doubt the existence of any such golden age of programming except in people’s memories given the evidence of terabytes of unuseable legacy code that needs rescue – the authors were resource constrained, but so what ?

I’m not really calling it a golden age. The modern age is actually much more interesting, in the sense that you get to deal with many more problems and work at more varied levels of abstraction. Sure, at some level most programming problems are still resource management problems, but it seems that the most interesting work these days is about making code easier to understand and reason about, which is a somewhat subjective aim, rather than efficient, which is definitely objective. If I had to pick individuals who I think have made a difference to me as a programmer, I’d pick Yukihiro Matsumoto or Rich Hickey over, say, a John Carmack uber-hacker. Matz is probably more successful for the community he built around Ruby than for any actual code he wrote, and while Rich Hickey writes plenty of code, he’s not really trying to prove that his code is faster than anyone else’s, or that it uses less memory, but that it’s easier for people to use.

Back when I was starting out, the people I looked up to were those like Michael Abrash, who wrote books like this about how to write code that is objectively faster/more efficient than the next person’s. Nowadays, I think such knowledge is becoming less relevant and is very much a secondary concern behind writing code that can be easily understood, and I think we’re just starting to learn about how to build effective communities around shared software. I’m not saying that the present is better, just that it’s different and this is relevant from a purely sociological perspective because the change throws a bunch of people together who have quite different ideas about what they’re all doing in the same industry.

Belle, glad I could make your children happy! (A rare thing to result from commenting on the internet, I must say).

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Main Street Muse 12.05.13 at 1:06 am

“Main Street Muse: have you ever considered becoming a professional blogger? They have this sort of “I am Andrew Brietbart” template you can use to set up one of the blogs even if you are not particularly computer-literate. I think it’s likely you have a lot to offer. However, if I had it all to do over again, I would change to a more gender-neutral “handle” or “online nick-name” as they are often called. Naturally women are every bit as capable of blogging as men are, but because of all the activism feminism has pushed down our throats in recent years, many readers are likely to think of you as an “affirmative action hire” to the net if you stick with this one. Just my two cents.”

To Belle Waring – wow – you are one self-satisfied woman! I am indeed computer literate, though you assume otherwise (gender-bias is ugly when women trash other women.)

And if I, as “Main Street Muse” is an “affirmative action hire” – what does that make you? Wife of man who thinks women need affirmative action to be philosophers? Spare me the bullshit, please…

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Main Street Muse 12.05.13 at 1:13 am

“One thing I probably should have said – made clearer that I think – is that philosophers aren’t more aggressive or domineering than people in, say, the English department.”

Seriously, you academics have no idea what “aggressive or domineering” really means. Try working in the private sector. But perhaps the aggression of English and philosophy profs is all you can handle.

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John Holbo 12.05.13 at 2:21 am

John Emerson: “And i was going to say: Leiter Report. Looks like it’s for career planning.”

So your overall argument goes like so.

P1 Brian Leiter is a careerist.
P2 All philosophers are like Brian Leiter
C All philosophers are careerists.

Is that it?

A bit more seriously.

“So anyway, however nice the philosophers-to-be in the pool originally were, the competitive process tends to reward all kinds of things, and competitive people are capable of sabotaging competitors with all kinds of little tricks even if they don’t do it quite consciously.”

This is fine. But you seem to be inferring something much stronger from it. From the fact that this is an inevitable dynamic, it follows that the distinguishing characteristic of philosophers is that they are all (or near enough that the ‘all’ will do) aggressive careerist climbers? Also, that mostly the professional pecking order that emerges is a function of tricks and backstabbing? This obviously doesn’t follow from what you say, but you seem to think it is true. And, to you, this dynamic is the crucial thing?

Main Street Muse: “Spare me the bullshit”. Until such time as you look ready to uphold ‘no bullshit’ as a reciprocal norm, I doubt that anyone will take you up on that offer.

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Main Street Muse 12.05.13 at 2:51 am

“Main Street Muse: “Spare me the bullshit”. Until such time as you look ready to uphold ‘no bullshit’ as a reciprocal norm, I doubt that anyone will take you up on that offer.”

John – how nice of you to speak for your wife….

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John Holbo 12.05.13 at 2:56 am

“how nice of you to speak for your wife”

Oh, I was just making an empirical hypothesis.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.05.13 at 3:02 am

Re: Hector, I think you will probably be extremely pleased to know that, due to a variety of factors, I did not complete my PhD, which would have been one of the first two awarded in a new Classics/Philosophy joint degree at Berkeley, and decided instead to be a stay at home mother for both our two daughters until they became old enough to go to school, at which point I started a business totally unrelated to my MA or incomplete PhD (You can see our stuff here. And thus though we had petitioned for it together, me perhaps more vehemently, a male friend was the first to earn the degree.).

Belle Waring,

I’m glad things worked out so well for you. Just to clarify, though, my beliefs about gender roles are only about statistical averages, and don’t apply in every specific case. I don’t have any objections to women being philosophers, and I would never make recommendations to individual women about lifestyle/career choices without knowing more about their specific situations. It sounds like you have a happy situation, though I don’t envy you folks living in Singapore.

That being said, I think you point to some inherent problems in the situation of two academics dating/marrying each other (especially in a field like Philosophy, where I would imagine jobs within your field are harder to come by than for biologists or economists).

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Hector_St_Clare 12.05.13 at 3:05 am

Re: I’m sure she’s too old and/or not good-looking enough.

Confidence is important in improving your success in the dating market, Mao.

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John Emerson 12.05.13 at 3:17 am

Come on, John. You were right about Gastineau, but Leiter is a force in the philosophy biz (not so much in philosophy itself). The US NEws and World Report of philosophy. He has quite a large readership and seems to be a clearinghouse for phil- biz topics. He’s not just one guy.

On Gastineau, the valid part of my mention of him was just to give an example of how tolerant meritocratic systems are of sociopathy. He was not a typical football player, far from it, and still less was he a typical philosopher.

I do not think that philosophers as a group are more awful than other successful, entitled meritocrats, and philosophy students are not worse than other highly competitive aspirants to high status. But it IS a zero-sum competitive game, and some players WILL lose, and (some) people DO do whatever they need to to win, and people in the game need to know that.

I really do not believe that most philosophers in the top-twenty departments are pure searchers for truth, indifferent to status etc. They’re like other successful competitors, and some of the indifferent ones were just lucky enough to establish themselves without great struggle, and these take their status as their due and remain serenely oblivious to the situations of others.

Not specifically about philosophers. Just about human beings in a meritocratic world, especially in today’s deflationary academy, where new people are at a terrible disadvantage compared to their predecessors.

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John Emerson 12.05.13 at 3:49 am

Lord Chesterfield, Guicciardini, Machiavelli, Francis Bacon. Seriously. How to survive in a snake pit. How to end up on the island.

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John Holbo 12.05.13 at 4:11 am

“I do not think that philosophers as a group are more awful than other successful, entitled meritocrats”

OK, that’s good to know. Because I thought part of your argument was that they were, in some way, marginally more awful, in a careerist way, than other meritocrats.

“But it IS a zero-sum competitive game, and some players WILL lose, and (some) people DO do whatever they need to to win, and people in the game need to know that.”

Would it be fair to say that you are basically channeling Chris Hayes at this point? That’s your point. (I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think Hayes’ book is good in a lot of ways.)

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John Emerson 12.05.13 at 4:18 am

I could have said this 20 years ago. I welcome Chris’s support. It happens to be true, and a lot of people are in denial.

Chris Hayes has an unfortunate physical resemblance to a Nazi movie villain, specifically the poetry-quoting SS man.

“I do not think that philosophers as a group are more awful than other successful, entitled meritocrats”

But successful entitled meritocrats have an unfortunate propensity to awfulness.

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John Holbo 12.05.13 at 4:18 am

OK, another way to put it. Here’s where you started, John.

“Soon all philosophers will be white antiracist feminist males.”

By which you meant, I took it, argumentatively aggressive white antiracist feminist males.

Which I took to be odd because: that’s you! (So are you objecting to yourself.) But then it turns out that it’s rampant careerism that is the problem (which gets you off the hook of being psychically indistinguishable from the enemy). But now how do you combine the careerism with the antiracist feminism? Why do those things have to go together, according to you? I don’t think you really meant to say that they have some pernicious, mutually entailing quality. But then I think some wires must be getting crossed somewhere in your complaints. You have at least two complaints. One about careerism. Another about … something else? Particular to philosophy? (Because, as I now see, the careerism point really has nothing to do with philosophy.)

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John Holbo 12.05.13 at 4:19 am

Sorry, our comments crossed. I meant to double-post!

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John Emerson 12.05.13 at 4:26 am

White anti-racist feminist males are OK, but their dominance in a profession is questionable. There really is a sore-thumb problem here.

The careerism / competition / meritocracy point has nothing specifically or uniquely to do with philosophy. It is a pervasive problem, hegemonic perhaps, essentially definitive of our way of life, and philosophy despite its avowed values is a sore-thumb example of the problem and is right square in the middle of the problem. Which is why this thread was started, without any help from me.

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John Holbo 12.05.13 at 4:28 am

“a sore-thumb example of the problem and is right square in the middle of the problem.”

Hmmm, I guess that’s why I thought you were saying it was somehow worse. In what sense ‘sore-thumb’? Just that philosophy has higher ideals of such-and-such than, say, a shark-tank of a law firm. So if it turns out there is careerism, it’s more embarrassing in philosophy?

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John Emerson 12.05.13 at 4:40 am

Sore thumb because a.) philosophy is one of the departments which is most white-male-dominated*, and b.) philosophers as a rule are anti-racist feminists. It’s not like, e.g., Alabama police departments being dominated by white males. So there’s an striking and rather disturbing phenomenon there that needs explanation, and frankly I think that my explanation (careerism / meritocracy /competition) is the best.

So if it turns out there is careerism, it’s more embarrassing in philosophy?
Yes. Don’t you think so?

* East Asians and subcontinentals are honorary whites in the American context. You know what I mean.

One thing: I have never said that I am systematically presenting an integrated argument, and some of the things I have said are peripheral to or weakly related to some of the others. Topic and comments. The Gastineau excursus was a distraction, for example, but in fact meritocracies tend to be unnecessarily accepting of sociopaths.

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John Emerson 12.05.13 at 4:42 am

Well, time is expiring. Later. I am actually planning a more systematic development, using Tilly and others.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.05.13 at 4:47 am

Re: I really do not believe that most philosophers in the top-twenty departments are pure searchers for truth, indifferent to status etc.

John Holbo and Belle Waring,

How much do you think professional philosophers are pure searchers for truth, versus being passive absorbers of the ideas in their milieu?

Like, how many of your contemporaries do you think would be Communists if they lived in the old Soviet Union, or Islamists if they lived in Iran?

Re: East Asians and subcontinentals

Haha, I like that term ‘subcontinental’. And I definititely prefer it to the idiotic Census Bureau term ‘Asian’. (East Asians and subcontinentals have very little resemblance, racially speaking).

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Belle Waring 12.05.13 at 5:00 am

Main Street Muse: I was only being sarcastic and semi-literate in jest because I so strongly disagreed with you that my initial instinct was to say something very angry when I wrote that last bit there. I aver complete faith in your ability to set up a blog without any stupid right-wing assistance at all.

Hector: I actually like Singapore quite well, saving that it is so far from my family. And this is a huge thing because I love my family a lot and hate not seeing them all the time. I’m certain it would drive John crazy (because my family is crazy, also, how not?) but I would be perfectly happy to buy the house next to my mom’s in Takoma Park, MD and live there permanently, stipulating that we had the money. (Although, if we’re going to stipulate we have the money we might as well live next to my Uncle Jon and Aunt Candy in both NYC and East Hampton and then just have my mom and sister come live with us. If we’re getting hypothetical about our house-purchasing abilities.) Needless to say, I have already broken into, defaced, etc. quite a sufficiency of buildings, likewise broken (does not bother to count but I never killed anybody you guys. I might of thought about it but that was totally. Legit.) a sufficient number of laws to last me a good while, and I have no desire or need to form a political party that Singapore’s government might feel exacerbated racial or religious tensions in any way, and I am able to vote in U.S. elections, so Singapore’s relatively restrictive laws are not having any impact on me that is negative. In fact, I get all the upsides: it’s perfectly clean, there’s almost no street crime, there’s amazing public transit–I live in Sim City, basically, but a Sim City in which there is the best South Indian cooking in the world. BECAUSE in South India there is the tiny problem that many or all of the raw things (like in raitas or chopped salads or whatever) are likely to make you very ill indeed but by contrast, in Singapore, even the smallest food stall has a government food safety inspector coming around at random to say–”hey, when did you last clean that chopping block!?” and then slapping a rating on the front. And certainly there are many South Indian immigrants in Europe or the US who have lovely inspected restaurants, but they don’t have instant access to every fresh ingredient that is called for. “Are you sure your neighbor, who serves meat, has never borrowed that thing ever?” “Is that reeally halal, really? We’re calling our inspector-imam right now to check, you know.*” *actual thing.

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John Holbo 12.05.13 at 5:15 am

“How much do you think professional philosophers are pure searchers for truth, versus being passive absorbers of the ideas in their milieu?

Like, how many of your contemporaries do you think would be Communists if they lived in the old Soviet Union, or Islamists if they lived in Iran?”

I think that professional philosophers are neither pure searchers for truth or passive absorbers of ideas in their milieu. I think they are active absorbers of ideas in the milieu.

As to the counter-factual about what everyone would be like if it were all so different, I don’t think that’s a clear enough question to answer. There has never been any such thing as a philosophical community that was immune to significant influence by the larger society/culture, merely in virtue of being philosophical. If that is half an answer.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.05.13 at 5:19 am

Belle Waring,

I’m South Indian by ethnicity (minus about 3% Scottish heritage). what are your favourite dishes?

You might be surprised, what with the influx of subcontinentals one has access to most Indian spices and such nowadays in the US. though not fresh fruits and vegetables of course.

What was your dissertation going to be on, before you moved to Singapore?

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Belle Waring 12.05.13 at 5:19 am

Hector, that is actually kind of an interesting question. I think we should all pause and have a special moment here. If it were the Soviet Union, I’d be allowed to be doing this thing too, whatever it was. If it were Iran, no; likewise John could in principle be a famous commenter on the Torah, but not me. If people are literally going to cut your head off if you say the wrong thing it ceases to be an interesting question, obviously, because you will get uniform results, with some brave outliers. Like, if this were Romania under Cheuşescu I think we would be like the scribes in an ancient scriptorium, being read aloud to, our elbows more or less chained to one anothers. Some structures of thought will allow for more truth-seeking within them and others less, surely? Obviously Jewish and Christian and Islamic religious philosophers all pushed it pretty close to the limit case at various times and ended up with the chop, or kept it in the sweet spot, and were Maimonides. As a question of: to what degree are there influential thinkers/teachers/writers and then whole schools of thought more or less based on them I would say, to a reasonably great degree, with the caveat that there are always competitors with totally non-consonant empistemologies floating around. Also: this thing is as true of Linguistics as Philosophy. If you go to a school that has one really big-name prof in the field in their department, are you likely to come out studying that aspect of philosophy, and advancing those claims? Reasonably likely, yes. Is that because you are a boot-licking toady? No, it’s because the reason this person is a big-name philosopher is that s/he is very intelligent and convincing, and you will be repeatedly exposed to this effect live, in person, where it is much more impressive than on the page, and are reasonably likely to be convinced. However, 1) this person will have deadly, snake-like opponents, and you may be the advisee of Professor Snape! God, I love Professor Snape. 2) You may be ornery and single-minded and only care about Schopenhauer. Then everyone will be like: go to the library, and go with God, because ain’t none of us gives two shits about Shopenhauer.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.05.13 at 5:22 am

Well, I was more referring to the late Soviet Union (like 1980s) where it was possible in theory to be a non-communist, though you would pay a social and professional price for doing so.

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Peter T 12.05.13 at 5:29 am

“Islamists if they lived in Iran”. The “Islamists” – the people who actively proselytize fundamentalist forms of Islam – live in Pakistan and Saudi. The Iranian lot are deeply learned in a version of the Aristotelian tradition (trivia and quadrivia), and so very much philosophers. Might be worth asking a ruhollah if the debates in Qom or Meshhad are as vigorously conducted as in Cambridge.

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Nine 12.05.13 at 5:34 am

Stephenson-quoter-kun@186 – “Back when I was starting out, the people I looked up to were those like Michael Abrash, who wrote books like this about how to write code that is objectively faster/more efficient than the next person’s. Nowadays, I think such knowledge is becoming less relevant”

I’d say it’s still as relevant as ever, it’s just that the Abrash/Henry Warren stuff represents a corpus of solved problems – nowadays one expects the VM or the compiler or the firmware, utility library, the cloud, whatever to do all (ok, not all) that sort of optimisation and that’s not even taking into account improved processor speeds, memory, graphics cards, dedicated asic’s and on and on. It does not mean that “more efficient” is irrelevant or subjective because people worry less about word boundary alignment and all that. It’s a very objectively measurable state of affairs when the Obamacare website crashes. It’s not just noumenal when the VP engineering demands to know why the ATM network is running slow.
Anyhoo, i’d better stop now before a thread derail.

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John Holbo 12.05.13 at 5:34 am

In any situation in which you pay a heavy professional price for doing something, you can be reasonably sure that many professionals – philosophers are no exception – will be duly discouraged.

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BBloom 12.05.13 at 6:58 am

Belle @208,
Pardon my OT quibbling, but am I right to assume that you meant that *historically* “John could in principle be a famous commenter on the Torah, but not me”? As an across-the-board statement about contemporary Judaism this is inaccurate. This untrue of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements certainly, but even to a (admittedly much lesser) degree of *some* Orthodox communities, where women have become recognized scholars despite being barred from formal Rabbinic training.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.05.13 at 2:06 pm

Peter T,

I take your point, by ‘Islamist’ I meant more generally a believer in Shariah as the foundation of law, morals and politics, and I realise Islamic thought is much more developed in Iran than in the Gulf Arab states. I think ‘ruhollah’ is a proper name though (I believe it means Spirit of God).

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Belle Waring 12.05.13 at 2:32 pm

BBloom, I meant historically, yes. Like in Poland in the 1800s or something.

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Belle Waring 12.05.13 at 2:45 pm

I mean, if you look at a giant Torah that’s got like one line of text in the middle of 14 colors of commentary bracketed around it, I think you’re generally safe in saying, some Rabbi (i.e. a man) wrote all those things. Same with a Quran, they’re laid out exactly the same way. Prettier calligraphy, though. Actually, one of the best calligraphers in Persia in the 1200s or something was a woman, they have some of her work in the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore. She for shit sure didn’t write any commentary though; it was very exciting that she was allowed to copy down any words from the Quran whatsoever.

Hector: I like idlis a lot, and they have a good dosa place by our new apartment, but my favorite is to just go get set lunch where you pay a fixed price and extra for chapati or whatever if you want it in addition to rice and then they give you whatever they cooked that day, maybe 8 dishes + daal + homemade yogurt + pickle + dessert. My favorite place always makes this sweet noodle dessert though, which is OK, but I prefer kheer. They do very nice bitter gourd, they bake it I think, it’s almost crisp and dry. I always hope there will be bitter gourd but it’s the luck of the draw. My diss. was going to be on Plato’s Gorgias. Hey I studied Sanskrit, did you know that? Obviously your original family pre-immigration probably spoke Tamil or Bengali some other non-related to Hindi language, but anyway. I used to could read the Ramayana but have actually totally forgotten how now.

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John Emerson 12.05.13 at 6:34 pm

I want to partly retract my earlier concession that philosophers are not especially prone to careerist meritocratic misbehavior. The argumentative nature of philosophy tends to make it more tournament-like. Other specialties do argue, among other things, but argument isn’t the very core of the discipline. (Rorty called analytic philosophers “technicians of argument” or something like that). And philosophy has a very high sense of its own worth, and a very strong commitment to a kind of purism, and I think that its exclusionary tendencies might make the field somewhat more vicious than most. However, I still concede that not all philosophers are Mark Gastineaus, and not even most.

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John Emerson 12.05.13 at 6:36 pm

Belle, if you just started hating your family things would get a lot better for you.

I’m a pragmatist, see?

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John Holbo 12.06.13 at 1:22 am

OK, John, here’s the clear problem with what you are saying (looks to me).

Philosophy is not tournament-like, in the way its career rewards are disbursed. Philosophy arguments, after the guest speaker has stopped speaking and the q&a starts, has a sparring quality to them – more than other disciplines. But you don’t get tenure for taking down the guest speakers with a zinger of a question during q&a. You get tenure for publishing. Publishing in philosophy is like publishing in other fields. You submit pieces and they are accepted or rejected. Published academic philosophy isn’t especially agonistic in tone and content. In fact, it’s quite subdued. Just between you and me, many people have complained that academic philosophy journal articles tend to be on the boring side. Well-mannered and polite and impersonal. No victory dances in the endzone, to say the least. (Shocking, I know, that such a proudly vicious tribe would sink so low. But there you have it.)

So if by ‘careerist meritocratic misbehavior’ you just mean the tendency of philosophers to say things like ‘but isn’t your central premise just false?’ during q&a, then I admit that philosophers are more ‘careerist’ than, say English professors. But it also follows that you, John Emerson, are more ‘careerist’, in this sense, than most philosophers. Because you are a more aggressive person than most of them, when it comes to the good old cut n’ thrust (such as a blog comment box.) Not that there’s anything wrong with this sort of ‘careerism’, in a moral sense. I think it’s ok, between consenting adults. But, semantically, I think this is a rather absurd use of ‘careerist’, as it decouples the concept from anything to do with careers or how the career-track works.

Now you may want to say that it’s really a matter of driving people out of the department earlier than that. Making them feel unwelcome, because the cut n’ thrust of seminar debate seems aggressive to them (whether it truly is so or not.) I quite agree that this is a serious problem. But, here again, it really has little to do with careerism. It’s an issue of how initiation is handled, in effect. Careers in academic philosophy are long-term things. The culture shock of first-contact, and whether that leads to early exits for lots of people – particularly women – is a short-term thing. You can’t extrapolate the dynamics of the former as just being a series of bumps, on the model of the latter.

Per Harry’s thread, evidence suggests that women tend to leave right at the start. It isn’t the case that there is a tournament and more and more women are winnowed, disproportionately, Survivor-style, as we get more and more vicious nearer the top.

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John Holbo 12.06.13 at 1:39 am

OK, fun story, since I think I can feel this thread nearing its end.

Many of my colleagues (not just philosophers in my department, but other departments) read blogs – this blog, for example – but don’t comment on them. Some of them have told me, personally, it’s because they are uncomfortable with the viciousness of blog comments, particular when the subject is philosophy. They would like to defend their discipline but they don’t want to do it to people who are basically saying that what they are doing is stupid, and done with bad motives. They don’t want to have to dig themselves out from under a ton of angry accusations. And – this will make John Emerson’s heart warm – one philosopher once complimented me on my ability to withstand especial abuse from ‘some guy named John Emerson, I think’. (No, this really happened. It was some years ago, but I remember it.) This philosopher told me he liked to stick with the philosophy department, thank you very much, where everyone is well-mannered and collegial, the attacks never personal. People aren’t just trying to tear each other down every second of the day.

I, of course, know that John Emerson is basically good willed, underneath that somewhat spiky and orgulous exterior (as am I). So a lot of this is eye-of-the-beholder stuff. But perfectly understandable. You just have to make allowances for how things are going to look to people, given where they are coming from.

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Bill Benzon 12.06.13 at 1:54 am

@S-q-kun: “…and I think we’re just starting to learn about how to build effective communities around shared software. ” I’m mostly doing this to fix it in my mind. But the idea of building communities around shared software is something I find intrinsically interesting.

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Belle Waring 12.06.13 at 2:53 am

Hmmm, Emerson-sensei, I had forgotten that your anti-relationship philosophy extended so far as to suggest we discard familial bonds as well.

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John Holbo 12.06.13 at 3:06 am

OK, one last last point in response to John, until such time as he awakens and responds properly.

It’s important to keep in mind that academia is still structured like a guild – it’s almost medieval. True, that doesn’t make it comfortable, because of the wretched many semi-guild members desperately clinging to their hopes of getting in. But it does make it the case that the arc of academic careerism, in the having-a-long-term-job sense, is different from the arc of ‘careerism’, in the Emerson sense; that is, ever-eagerness to take others down a few pegs with a well-targeted objection. What John calls its ‘tournament-like’ quality. Academia doesn’t really fit the Chris Hayes model of how meritocracies go bad, which I think is basically John’s. You don’t have an ever-more-painful ratchet. Rather, you have a kind of punctuated equilibrium. Grad school is pretty comfortable, if you don’t want to buy anything; and tenure is very comfortable; but there’s an awful extinction event die-off between grad school and tenure these days. That, and the reasons for that, don’t map onto styles of argument, such that the latter explain the former – or vice versa. It seems to me John implies otherwise.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.06.13 at 4:29 am

Re: but there’s an awful extinction event die-off between grad school and tenure these days

I mean, you do make substantially more money as a post-doc than as a graduate student. If you’re lucky enough to get a job.

Re: Hey I studied Sanskrit, did you know that? Obviously your original family pre-immigration probably spoke Tamil or Bengali some other non-related to Hindi language, but anyway.

Thanks for your comment. Minor pedantic point: Tamil is not related to Hindi at all (though it has Sanskrit loanwords, more in the past than today), but Bengali is in the same language family as Hindi and I’m told they’re pretty close. The Indian national anthem is in a Sanskritized register of Bengali and is apparently intelligible to Hindi speakers.

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Helen 12.06.13 at 5:48 am

This thread reminds me of another fun story about a family member I shall call Philosopher Dude.
As a non philosopher, I had sat in on a few of Philosopher Dude’s lectures, which was all very fine and unremarkable. One day he was giving a seminar in a little room at Trades Hall of all places, which was advertised, and I thought it would be fun to come along and listen.
After Philosopher Dude had made his introductory remarks a middle-aged man with a European accent piped up with “That’s really such a load of horseshit!” or something similar.
As someone employed in an IT department where big egos often went head to head, this seemed a little extreme even by my standards. Afterwards I said “wasn’t that guy a little OTT?” “Oh,” he said sunnily, “Not unusual in philosophy seminars.”

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Belle Waring 12.06.13 at 12:57 pm

Hector: Yes I was sort of wondering about Bengali but didn’t check…but what are the other non-IE Dravidian languages? Kannada obviously. Mmmm. I guess I was thinking of Telugu. I sort of thought that in Kolkata people speak Bengali, but that whole bit of India was marked Telugu on the “Belle’s dartboard of Indian languages.” Nevermind.

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Hector_St_Clare 12.06.13 at 3:03 pm

Re: Yes I was sort of wondering about Bengali but didn’t check…but what are the other non-IE Dravidian languages?

Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam in that order, are the main ones (the four that are big enough to have official status at the state level). Tulu along the Mangalore coast, and the languages of the Gonds in central India have a couple million speakers each, and then there are a lot of small tribal languages scattered mostly through southern and eastern India. Brahui in Pakistan is a Dravidian exclave, with another two million or so speakers.

About 2-3% of the Indian population, mostly tribal peoples in the east or northeast, speaks neither IE nor Dravidian languages, they speak either languages related to Vietnamese and Cambodian (e.g. Khasi, in the northeast) or to Tibetan (e.g. Tripuri in the northeast).

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John Emerson 12.06.13 at 7:16 pm

“But it also follows that you, John Emerson, are more ‘careerist’, in this sense, than most philosophers.”

Careerism means that there’s something at stake, i.e. a tenured position. That’s where the zero-sum part comes in, and that’s why grad students should look around the room and ask who’s going to be the first one voted off the island.

It is possible that I am wrong, and that the weeding process is more like court intrigue than a tournament. But grad school is a weeding process, as is much of American life. A little unfairness or bias shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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John Emerson 12.06.13 at 7:35 pm

Or to put it differently, people in grad school should be thinking of the extinction die-off from the beginning, and some of them probably are.

Actually, medical students are famously competitive in a bad way, things like sabotaging research projects and cutting key sections out of library books. I doubt that philosophers are that bad. College Republicans are famous for ratfucking one another, and I feel confident that philsophers are not as bad as College Republicans. Nonetheless, zero sum.

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John Emerson 12.07.13 at 2:48 am

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John Holbo 12.07.13 at 3:13 am

“Or to put it differently, people in grad school should be thinking of the extinction die-off from the beginning, and some of them probably are.”

In advising students about grad school, I regard it as my first duty to give them a grisly vision of that. To do anything else would be malpractice.

“Careerism means that there’s something at stake, i.e. a tenured position.”

Well, I think , for consistency, you need to change it to ‘e.g.’, and that’s how it becomes possible for you, John Emerson, to be a careerist, without having a career. You like taking people down a peg, when you can – when you feel justified in doing so – and you’ve been around for a while, and will (we hope) continue to be. That’s a sort of stake-holding, and a sort of social climbing (over the bodies of the blogfallen, as it were.) Maybe we could modify ‘careerism’ so that it was ambiguous between the two senses of ‘career’, i.e. “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress”; and “move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way”. Surely you don’t deny being a careerist in at least the second sense, at least, John? When you are indulging your inner impulses.

More seriously, I believe you deserve tenure in the realm of spirit for this line: “The Platonic understanding of eros has something to displease almost everyone but Allan Bloom.” That is so true! (If anyone is still reading, besides John: I’m responding to stuff said on the other side of that last link.)

Isn’t the second horse, the well-behaved one – careerism? – that is, the honor-loving part of the soul? And isn’t the job of reason to keep the superficially orderly desire for honors from becoming, at bottom, just swift and essentially uncontrolled fight for social dominance? (I’m speaking as Plato here.)

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John Holbo 12.07.13 at 3:18 am

“the weeding process is more like court intrigue than a tournament.”

The weeding process seems to me quite clearly neither like court intrigue nor a tournanment. As I said, it’s punctuated equilibrium, so your explanation needs to predict/explain that, which yours doesn’t. There are sudden die-offs in the population. Lots of women leave, very soon after first arriving. And lots of people can’t get tenure-track jobs at a later stage. These dynamics are what need explaining, and they are not a matter of court intrigue or a steady, ongoing tournament.

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John Emerson 12.07.13 at 6:34 pm

Please, John. I’m donating my time. I’m like a lifer intern. That’s not a career.

And it’s a zero-sum competition with stakes, with winners and losers, and in our society people understand competition and they compete. I had a friend in graduate phil at Texas (which was a top ten school at the time), a guy. He said people in his program could tell pretty much from the beginning who the winners and losers would be, just by watching interactions with faculty, and the winners tended to be well-connected (i.e., undergrad students of people with connections).

One of the problems with trying to get any kind of equality (gender, racial, any kind) in employment is that people compete for the good jobs, and if one person gets a job, everyone else doesn’t get it. So while every single male philosophy grad student might be 100% in favor of gender equality in principle, when it comes down to him personally vs. some “her” he’s unlikely to fold up and let her have the job.

I sort of agree that I am not able to predict/explain the sore thumb question: why does a strongly feminist discipline have so few women working in it? But I think I’m in the ball park, and I think that competitive “psyche” (intimidation) is a part of it.

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John Emerson 12.07.13 at 6:43 pm

Yeah, that probably explains the second horse, but why is it described as the “obedient” horse? Honor was pretty bloodthirsty and impetuous back in those days. More evidence of Socrates’ militarism, i suppose.

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Main Street Muse 12.08.13 at 3:02 pm

To Belle – I find it difficult to understand how you could be become “very angry” at the idea that it really should take more than “a few assholes” to drive women out of a field. I myself have not worked with ladies so laden with fear of “a few assholes” that they stopped pursuing their dream. The rules of academia remain a mystery to me…

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John Emerson 12.08.13 at 11:14 pm

Man, MSM, you sound like a nasty piece of work, and no fun either. Why did you show up? What do you have to offer? What is your value-added?

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Ronan(rf) 12.09.13 at 12:12 am

I’m at a loss what’s offended you so much John Emerson

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GiT 12.09.13 at 1:57 am

You’re at a loss to why someone might be offended by bullshit about how sissy women in philosophy must be if they’re being repelled by aggressive practices?

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John Holbo 12.09.13 at 2:54 am

Sorry, dropped out of this thread for a day. Didn’t notice it was still inching along. “That’s not a career.” Obviously I’m being snarky about that, but my serious point really was that thing you were talking about – certain modes of personal interaction – don’t map onto careerism. And the short way to prove that is to highlight the absurdity of talking about the ‘careerism’ of people who patently don’t have careers in philosophy. Such as yourself.

“but why is it described as the “obedient” horse? Honor was pretty bloodthirsty and impetuous back in those days.”

Yes and no. Honor is a matter of being bloodthirsty and impetuous in a conventional way. Being a soldier, most notably. If you are the sort of person who is temperamentally cut out for army life, you are a highly trainable combination of aggression and obedience. (Think about the image of the honor-loving puppies, in Book III, I think it is.) Even if you are a leader or politician, that’s still a very ‘conventional’ model of honor, in Athenian society. You want to be Pericles, on a pedestal.

I wouldn’t say that Plato is militaristic, per se. I think, quite the contrary, there’s nothing ‘ideal’ about war for him. He’s immune to that. War is not glory but stupid failure. But he is a great one for scheming bank-shots – making the rational best of irrational human material.

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John Holbo 12.09.13 at 3:00 am

Main Street Muse, I think you may just be missing the point, so I will presume to explain it. If someone says that bullying is a problem in schools, it really isn’t a relevant objection that ‘kids should be able to stand up to a bully’. Yes, of course. I’m sure we would all agree. But it doesn’t follow that bullying can’t be a problem, after all, much less that bullying isn’t wrong, after all. We don’t always just blame the victim, even if, in a perfect world, victims would be able to self-help themselves out of the state of becoming victims.

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Ronan(rf) 12.09.13 at 12:10 pm

“You’re at a loss to why someone might be offended by bullshit about how sissy women in philosophy must be if they’re being repelled by aggressive practices?”

Well, from my reading, MSM was simply saying that the idea women would be put of ‘that easily’ doesn’t really match his/her experience of women in the workplace, and to argue they would comes quite close to reinforcing sexist tropes. (? I might be reading to much into that ?)
That would have been my experience as well, I have to say, from any workplace I’ve been in. I mean, a lot of *people* don’t like aggressive workplaces (I could do without them) so has there been any evidence that this falls overwhelmingly along gender lines?
If not then what’s the problem with MSM’s point?

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John Emerson 12.10.13 at 4:03 am

Socrates seems militaristic, though. His standard for hot men is soldiers.

I suppose that there’s some possible world where men of honor are “obedient”, but to my knowledge it doesn’t show up in the historical data.

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John Holbo 12.10.13 at 5:32 am

Not ‘obedient’. Socially conformist, broadly speaking. If you want to win the game, you have to play the game. This makes ambitious people socially conformist, in a certain sense, even if they are climbers, in another sense. Becky Sharpe, for example.

I could cite historical instances but, seriously. Just throw a rock at history. I’m willing to bet you hit one.

“His standard for hot men is soldiers.”

Alcibiades was just plain hawt, by all accounts. Also, I don’t think that ‘militaristic’ is adequate shorthand for ‘I like a man in uniform’, even if that were the attraction dynamic.

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John Emerson 12.10.13 at 8:32 pm

You do have Duty, but if you look at Russian or Hungarian or Austrian or Confederate officers in the 19th c., they are not much like the obedient horse. Prussian officers, maybe.

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John Emerson 12.10.13 at 8:38 pm

And it’s not just Alcibiades, in two different places he makes military service his criterion. Manly young men are good soldiers and really attractive, sissies are terrible soldiers and only attractive to decadents. Manly couples make the best soldiers of all (The Theban Band).

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