Tiger, Tea, Political Economy

by Henry Farrell on November 28, 2013


The “BBC”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25027090 has a short article on the background to Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It quotes another children’s author, who suggests that some of the imagery stems from Kerr’s experience as a little girl whose family fled from the Nazis (tigers, like Nazis, are dangerous). This seems to me improbable – the tiger is hungry, but genial, and little Sophie embraces him. But what I’ve always liked about the book when reading it to my children is the ordinary world into which the tiger irrupts. You can tell a lot about the political economy of 1950s or 1960s middle class life in a London flat from reading it. It’s a world where the milkman still comes around every day, and the grocer has a delivery boy. But it’s also a world where a moderately hungry tiger can quickly consume all the food in the flat (the pictures suggest that the cupboard shelves are rather bare) – the grocery’s delivery boy can carry everything that he needs to in the basket mounted on the front of his bicycle, because there isn’t much to carry. Perhaps most strange from the perspective of a modern American child, there’s a limited supply of water – the tiger has drunk so much from the tap that Sophie cannot have a bath.

This isn’t nearly as strange to me, or Irish people of my generation, as I suspect it is to most middle class Americans. I grew up in a professional family, but many of the things that Americans take for granted (and, as best as I can tell from TV, novels etc, took for granted back then too) would have seemed like the most sybaritic of luxuries. Britain was somewhat better off, obviously, but not by much. David Lodge’s comic novel, Changing Places plays up some of the differences between the material standards of living in the US and Britain for comic effect, but he really doesn’t have to exaggerate much (when I was a child, we lived for a year in a flat in Darlington – much of what he describes is familiar). The life I have today would have been unimaginable to me as a child, or even a teenager. Which is all a roundabout way of getting towards saying that ordinary life in the US today, for people who are middle class or higher is a life of extraordinary material abundance, even from the perspective of other Western nations in recent memory. If you’re one of the people enjoying this life, you likely have a great deal to be grateful for. So happy Thanksgiving.

Against (most) aggression in philosophy

by Chris Bertram on November 28, 2013

Yesterday, Jo Wolff tackled the question of women in philosophy in his column at the Guardian, writing:

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.

Brian Leiter thinks Jo Wolff is making a mistake:

At the end of the column, he runs together two issues that should be kept separate: the combative nature of philosophy and how one should treat students. Professor Ishiguro’s approach [see the Wolff column] on the latter seems the right one, but that is independent of whether philosophy as practiced among peers should, or should not be, combative. Insofar as truth is at stake, combat seems the right posture!

I disagree, unless there’s some good reason to believe that combat leads to truth more reliably than some alternative, more co-operative approach. (Does the adversarial system of the US and English courts lead to the truth more reliably than the inquisitorial system?) Sometimes combat might be the right stance, but seeing that as the default mode for philosophical discussion leads far too often to destructive Q&A sessions that aim at destroying the opponent and bolstering the amour propre of the aggressor. Where the aim is victory, then all kinds of rhetorical moves can prove effective: there’s no reason to think that truth will emerge as a by-product. I think a relatively common occurrence is that people on the receiving end of an aggressive battering lose confidence (in themselves, or in a good idea). Sometimes people should defer to criticism, of course, and sometimes people should make criticism in forthright terms and Brian is right to value that. But frankly, a lot of the stuff that goes on in philosophy seminars is just damaging.

What I’ve said so far is independent of the gender issue. I realize that some women in philosophy are uncomfortable with the link between gender and philosophical style and there’s certainly no reason to think that merely being robust and forthright in argument is specially male. But a lot of conduct in philosophy goes well beyond the robust and forthright and tips into the straightforwardly arseholish, and there may be a selection effect in favour of women in the profession who are able (though not willing) to endure that. A lot of people in the academy – both men and women – suffer from “imposter syndrome”. But it turns out that women are more likely than men to suffer from this and there is no correlation with actual ability. An atmosphere where there is systematic reinforcement of such a widespread anxiety is not a good one, and it might be, because of its uneven distribution by gender, just one of the several mechanisms that exclude women.