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.