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.



Ben Saunders 11.28.13 at 11:03 am

I agree that an adversarial style is not obviously best, but Leiter is right to suggest that there may be a difference in appropriate style to adopt with peers and with students.


Anca Gheaus 11.28.13 at 11:43 am

I read Jo’s article as saying this:
1. women have less encouragement to excel in philosophy
2. hence they have less self-confidence when practicing philosophy
3. a belligerent style deters non-confident persons from doing philosophy
4. hence women are more deterred than men from doing philosophy by a belligerent style.

This doesn’t mean women cannot be belligerent, or even that they find it more distasteful than men do. It only means that it’s psychologically more costly to do so. There is an additional, social cost that Jo’s article doesn’t discuss: belligerent women are more disliked than belligerent men.

The fact that some women in philosophy are uncomfortable with the link between gender and an aggressive philosophical style shouldn’t obscure the fact that the costs of practicing this style as a woman are higher than the costs of practicing this style as a man.


Pierre Corneille 11.28.13 at 12:53 pm

Thanks for this OP. The way philosophers talk and write has wrong bothered me (a non-philosopher). However, I think the problem is also generalizable to academia, or at least to my discipline (history). I’m not exactly sure what cause(s) is(are). But it seems to me that a lot of opportunities for learning from each other are lost in the beggar thy interlocutor approach many academics adopt toward their peers.

As for the other question about approaching conversations with students and with peers differently. I haven’t much of a well-informed opinion (and haven’t read the links), but at a gut level, it feels right.


John Protevi 11.28.13 at 2:18 pm

Regarding blood-on-the-floor seminar rooms, I wonder to what extent the practice of awarding individual grades creates the impression among students of a zero-sum game in grades, exacerbating the combativeness aspect: “if I tear down Jones, that’s one less person in the top grade cohort I have to worry about.”


SoU 11.28.13 at 2:29 pm

back in the day when i was on the high school debate circuit, this was a big meta-conversation. due to the combative style of the game, female debaters were concerned that being a successful competitor necessarily implied being ‘bitchy’, and thus there was a trade-off between social and competitive success. the conversation in the debate community has strong parallels with the one linked to above.

my personal feeling on all of this is that the combative style of argument can actually be a very productive mode of engagement, but only within certain spaces and with certain people. adversarial modes of dialogue test theories and push peoples’ thinking in ways that i do not see a more cooperative form of engagement doing. that being said, i can totally understand how certain social pressures – whether they are gender or status based – can make this form of dialogue quite pernicious in practice, especially when it is this dominant that it pushes out other modes.

i think Anka @2 is right on. certainly some toning down of the aggressive style would be nice (despite my faith in that style in the abstract, i feel there is far too much ego-stuff involved in that style for it to be at all defensible in the present form). but some reshaping of the social norms here seems even more crucial. I would rather have an adversarial style continue to predominate with women taking equal part, than a shifting to a more cooperative style of dialogue without addressing the issues women face at the under- and grad- level regarding confidence.


Belle Waring 11.28.13 at 2:45 pm

Nerd sexism that thinks it runs on the fumes given off by logic is REALLY HORRIBLE. Separately, so long as women continue to be so small a minority among Philosophy PhD students, there is rather a great likelihood that in a given seminar only one student will be female. Whether her fellow-students are overly-solicitous or take turns whacking her on the head with a stick, she’s almost certainly going to be singled out. I know all of you will find this totally unbelievable, but I would find the former so maddening I would just start attacking people until it changed, should it arise. Who would ever think, right? There was the knock-on effect that my male fellow-students in Classics seminars were much more inclined to get into arguments with me because I didn’t for the most part really care. Well except about winning. I do recall distinctly having some female fellow-students ask me, during the break halfway through 3 hours of seminar in which I had presented in the first half, why so-and-so was ‘being mean to me’ which I was like, eh, he’s not, really? It was more like, he wanted to ask pointed questions about literary theory and he wasn’t going to get another chance anytime soon, since his male fellow-students hadn’t written on precisely that kind of topic, prolly because it’s for sparkly pink French literary theorists or something, and the remaining students would have felt it was rude to ask questions about methodology, and the nature of their claims.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 11.28.13 at 2:59 pm

I agree with Chris.

It might prove interesting to place this discussion in an historical and civilizational or cultural context (in the latter, with the presumption that there exists ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosophers’ outside the ‘Western’ tradition). With regard to history, Dena Goodman notes in her book, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994) that formal education in the West, going all the way back to ancient Greece (keep in mind that Socrates and his interlocutors in the agora engaged in dialogue and dialectic was and is an exemplary example of ‘informal’ philosophical education) has been largely “agonistic.” Quoting Walter Ong, she writes that
“Students ‘learned subjects largely by fighting over them.’ The primary form the agon took in the education of boys and young men from the Middle Ages on was disputation, a form of ceremonial combat. Ong contends that male insecurity, although it may not have been the ‘cause’ of the agonistic structure of pedagogical and scholarly practice, was certainly fundamentally related to it.”

The literal and figurative notion of learning in French schools since Abelard had “been steeped in the language of battle” and up until the “the end of the Old Regime” pedagogical practice was “overwhelmingly oral,” despite the focus on texts and exegesis: “Listening and memorizing were always oral and generally disputatious in form.” With roots in the sixteenth century, the reform of secondary education in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France placed emphasis on the art of rhetoric or eloquence as “the art of thinking and speaking well.” As Goodman explains, this went hand-in-hand with the Jesuits’ renewal of “militancy” in pedagogical practice. In this model, the agonistic spirit is canalized in the form of a “competition among students” believed to “foster” the kind of individual ambition that led to educational excellence. We find here the pedagogical analogue of the duel, which represents the “merger of personal human relations with militancy.”

Perhaps needless to say, the social base of the Republic of Letters provided by the French salon offered an alternative model of intellectual learning and philosophical discourse for the philosophes. And this alternative pedagogical model, if you will, was a deliberate product of the salonnière. The women who governed these salons (e.g., Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, Julie de Lespinasse, and Suzanne Necker) enforced rules of polite conversation among the guests, transforming the salon “from a leisure institution of the nobility into an institution of the Enlightenment,” one in which the philosophes were compelled to learn a new style of philosophical argument, a new mode of intellectual disputation not fundamentally agonstic in style, thus without the victors and victims of combat. This too was a rhetorical practice of sorts, but one subordinate to the broader and normative art of conversation. Here the “mastery of word” was not synonymous with, or at least reduced the risk of degenerating into, a “mastery over persons.” Unlike agonstic philosophical argumentation, this art is far less prone to the dangers of descent into abusive and circumstantial ad hominen arguments, and is structurally better suited to the intellectual virtues of what today is termed “regulative epistemology,” including, noticeably, intellectual humility and generosity. Indeed, I think it is an auspicious forum for the flourishing of the well-known principle of philosophical charity, as well as conductive to ascertaining the relative truths on all sides of a philosophical debate or argument (which does not preclude assessing their respective strengths and weaknesses).

We might also examine the various modes of philosophical writing as vehicles of philosophical arguments in the history of philosophy and consider what this might teach us about philosophical pedagogy in general.

It would also help, I think, to examine, modes of philosophy in Chinese and Indic philosophical traditions. While philosophical disputations between schools could be “heated” and philosophical debate occasionally combative (consider for instance the monastic style of debate in Tibetan Buddhism!), we find here different styles and modes that suggest philosophical practice need not be analogous to the adversary legal model for the discovery of truth(s). Debate in Indian philosophy appears to have begun along the lines of a conversation between friends but over time not infrequently degenerated into quarrelsome forms that relied on tricks and clever devices designed to confound and defeat one’s opponents, individuals no longer viewed as equal partners engaged in the pursuit of truth (cf. the two types of debate found in the Meno). Even the intellectually combative Cārvāka appreciated that form of debate Socrates said took place between “friendly people,” referring to such debate as sandhāya sambhāsā, “debate among fellow scholars who are friends” (B.K. Matilal), by way of contrast to debate conducted in “the spirit of opposition and hostility.” A fourfold classification of forms of debate by a Nyāya philosopher, finds two forms characteristic of “seekers after truth,” and the other two forms employed by “proud people” who merely intend to defeat others, and thus “tricky devices” are permissible in the latter two forms. I would go so far as to say that Jain epistemology and philosophy* more widely (anekāntavāda, syādvāda, and nayavāda) rules out the notion of an agonistic or combative mode of philosophizing wherein one imagines the goal is merely to refute or defeat the arguments of one’s opponents. I have elsewhere described their model of truth as “para-propositional,” because its “standpoint” epistemology and perspectival rationalism emphasizes the relative truths of all genuine philosophical arguments insofar as they are all beholden to sundry presuppositions (the hidden parameters of belief and assertion) that preclude our absolutizing their truths and encourage us to appreciate their respective degrees of partial or relative truths.

(Of course much more could be said by way of filling out ideas only introduced or sketched here, and by way of anticipating counter-arguments, but as this is just a blog post and today is Thanksgiving in the States, it will have to suffice for now.)

* I have an introduction (that I hope one day to improve upon) here:


Gary Williams 11.28.13 at 3:20 pm

As Lakoff and Johnson have shown convincingly, a dominant if not THE dominant metaphor for argumentation is “ARGUMENT IS WAR”:

“Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.”

This metaphor seems to be a “deep” conceptual metaphor that is not going away anytime soon. Thus, what seems more important is not the use of the war-like or aggressive terminology but rather the emotional tone in which you use such metaphors i.e. whether one’s voice is raised, eyebrows furrowed, taking things personally, getting breathless, excited, etc.

Also, Wolf writes:

“Your job is to take the most mean-minded interpretation you can of the other person’s view and show its absurdity.”

This seems to violate an important principle in philosophy, namely, the “principle of charity”. I admit that in practice many philosophers don’t live up to this ideal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an explicitly acknowledged ideal in philosophy. Like most humans, we rarely live up to our own ideals. But this is a human-problem, not a problem unique to philosophers.


Lynne 11.28.13 at 3:29 pm

@5 ” I would rather have an adversarial style continue to predominate with women taking equal part, than a shifting to a more cooperative style of dialogue without addressing the issues women face at the under- and grad- level regarding confidence.”

As someone who is not a philosopher or academic but who was a grad student once upon a time, I can say that I have always just loathed the adversarial style of discussion, whether it was in university or in really any aspect of my life. I am reasonably articulate, and luckily quick on my feet in an argument, but I find the psychological cost very, very high. It might be worth it if it got at the truth, but in my experience a co-operative method does that just as reliably, and it is much more fun.

Belle, I envy you your comfort in the seminar. If it had been me, I could have handled it, and would have, but I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it. (Which isn’t to say I couldn’t enjoy rapid-fire verbal sword-crossing, ever—I can enjoy it when it’s playful and good-humoured.)

So, to get back to the comment at 5, sure there are reasons women’s confidence is eroded everywhere, but the adversarial style of debate is just one method of discussion, and not one worth preserving as the dominant style. It’s just the one handed down by the patriarchy and so has the stamp of legitimacy. Should it be banned forever? Of course not. But to make it mandatory naturally favours those patriarchy generally favours.


Hector_St_Clare 11.28.13 at 4:22 pm

Women are naturally less competitive than males. This is due, not to socialization, but to biology. Testosterone makes you more competitive. Fact.


Pat 11.28.13 at 4:40 pm

Does the adversarial system of the US and English courts lead to the truth more reliably than the inquisitorial system?

Nope. I regret I can’t provide a citation off-hand, but I recall a survey that found that, among decisions that later can be definitively confirmed or contradicted, the failure rate of both the common and civil law systems is the same, at about 30-35%.


SoU 11.28.13 at 4:44 pm

Lynne @9
I agree with most of what you say here, but i am nervous to point the finger at the adversarial style as the primary reason for the broader issues re: women in philosophy. This is because i think that would suggest, implicitly, that women are somehow less capable of this mode of engagement, which is against my experience. Just my 0.02

O’Donnell’s point up there about the French salons is very interesting – and i wonder if you/others who know more about this could elaborate?
Also interested to know if anyone has had an experience at a conference/etc. where the presenter did their thing, opened for questions (which were really just attacks), and then said something to the effect of ‘ i would prefer if this discussion proceeded in a less combative style ‘ . And the response. ??


Hector_St_Clare 11.28.13 at 5:29 pm

Re: that women are somehow less capable of this mode of engagement, which is against my experience

I’m not particularly interested in your experience, as the evidence from evolutionary biology seems to disagree with you.


John Protevi 11.28.13 at 5:36 pm

HSC at 10 and 13 is hard at work on his Frank Noland “Talk Back!” act.


Chris Bertram 11.28.13 at 5:42 pm

HSC: that’s enough from you in this thread.


SoU 11.28.13 at 5:51 pm

My experience, which you want to discount, involves 2 hour long debates with hundreds of individuals from all over the continental US. I would be willing to bet good money that i have lost competitive debates to more women than are willing to sit through 5 minutes of your evo-bio schtick. Twice as many.

Call me crazy, but somehow i just dont see how the anatomical and behavioral adaptations that were forged in a hunter gatherer lifestyle have any bearing on one’s capacity to invoke deductive logic.


SoU 11.28.13 at 5:52 pm

@15. My bad. Missed your comment, will stop now.


engels 11.28.13 at 6:28 pm

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?)

Maybe there isn’t a good reason to prefer one system over the other in the abstract (I dunno), but here in UK with the legal culture and institutions we have, combat seems like the only way to go. A High Court judge sitting down and declaring ‘Okay, boys and girls, today we’re not going pick holes in each other but talk things out collaboratively, mmm’kay?’ seems unlikely to bring out the best in the people at his disposal…


The Dark Avenger 11.28.13 at 6:53 pm

Testosterone makes you more competitive. Fact.

Women have testosterone circulating in their blood streams. Fact.


adam.smith 11.28.13 at 7:07 pm

@engels – that’s a misunderstanding of the various forms of the inquisitorial system — a relevant misunderstanding, because it speaks to the misconceptions that people in disciplines that use the argumentative warfare model of discourse (I know economics much better than philosophy).

There are two main differences between the adversarial system and the various versions of inquisitorial systems as they exist in continental Europe:
1. In criminal trials the government’s side has a broader responsibility to advance justice, including to actively search for and produce exculpatory evidence.
2. The judge(s) have a more active role in asking questions of witnesses and contribute to the fact/truth finding rather than functioning principally as an umpire between the two adversaries.

It does not mean that all sides get together, sing Kumbaya and find a mutually agreeable solution.

And that’s also true for a less aggressive form of argumentation in academia: Abstaining from argumentative warfare does not mean that you probe arguments less rigorously. It just means that, for example, you can ask simple questions of clarification without being accusatory or that a critique can have a constructive component.


engels 11.28.13 at 7:30 pm

a.s – Sorry, my point wasn’t addressed to the nature of the inquisitorial system. I appreciate I wasn’t clear.


Zoe 11.28.13 at 7:39 pm

Citing combative style as a reason for some of the problems women encounter in philosophy does not entail that women are less capable of this form of engagement. The issue here is one of stereotype threat: data from social psychology shows that black students underperform on intelligence tests only when told they are being tested against white students, and women underperform on maths exams only when required to state their gender on the exam paper. 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. We can allow that women can participate combatively and even that they enjoy or excel at it, while agreeing that the combative style in philosophy hinders women’s progress. More on stereotype threat here:


engels 11.28.13 at 7:45 pm

I take your point about academic discussion but are clarifying questions or constructive criticism out of bounds in the combative mode? I don’t think so, it’s just that the organising principle is competition. You can have friendly game of football, but it’s still a game of football.


bob mcmanus 11.28.13 at 7:58 pm

Well, unlike HSC, I do believe that women are just as competitive, hierarchical, and aggressive as men, and are only at at a disadvantage in certain social situations because of rules and conventions established based on advantages, usually acquired through generations of asymmetrical conditioning, that privilege characteristics fostered in men by male-dominated societies.

A change in those rules, assuming as I do equal competitiveness and aggression, in a form so as to disadvantage men (oh stipulate a certain kind of under-assimilated man) and advantage what was previously strategies and tactics used by the oppressed segment of society, would pretty obviously be intended to reverse and create new privilege and achieve a new hegemony, rather than intend any kind of equality.

And duh.


Tom Slee 11.28.13 at 7:59 pm

Chris Bertram @15: Thank you Thank you Thank you.


bob mcmanus 11.28.13 at 8:01 pm

22: And that is part of the point. Who will be the ones to decide what kinds and forms of discourse are hostile, over-aggressive, and out-of-bounds? When you see that, see who makes the rules of discourse, you will find who has (ore seeks) the social power.


Collin Street 11.28.13 at 8:17 pm

Nerd sexism that thinks it runs on the fumes given off by logic is REALLY HORRIBLE.

Slightly off-topic, but… if you’re a programmer, if you’re a programmer whose work is worth shit, you’re going to spend most of your professional life trying to work out which exactly of the numerous assumptions you didn’t realise you were making is the one that’s stopping your damned program from doing what it’s supposed to.

This requires a certain self-reflection and openness to criticism that I would expect to see reflected in other aspects of your life. If you are a programmer, and you’re told that you’re making sexist assumptions, and your reaction isn’t, “hem” but “no no I’m not sexist never no way and besides the bitch deserved it”, then to put it bluntly you do not have the technical aptitude to write real-world useful programs efficiently.


Lynne 11.28.13 at 8:48 pm

SoU @12. “I agree with most of what you say here, but i am nervous to point the finger at the adversarial style as the primary reason for the broader issues re: women in philosophy. This is because i think that would suggest, implicitly, that women are somehow less capable of this mode of engagement, which is against my experience.”

I’m in no position to have an opinion on the state of philosophy, I was just throwing out my experience with aggressive debate. I’m certain women can do this kind of debate. I kind of suspect not as many women as men enjoy it, but that’s pure hunch.

It occurs to me that the term “adversarial style” could refer to different things. It could mean lively points being made, none of them personal or intended to make the other speaker feel and look like an idiot, which sounds like the kind of experience Belle was talking about. Or it could mean the latter, which the OP talked about. When people want to talk to me using the latter, when they are just listening long enough to make a point against me or to make me look like a fool, I wonder why I would want to talk to them at all. Why would I want to talk to someone who doesn’t want to hear and understand what I am saying? Short answer: I don’t.


Sean Matthews 11.28.13 at 9:43 pm

I think Leiter has a point: my standard example of philosopher culture, which I have quoted as an illustrative example any number of times, is of a friend (female, now professor of analytic ethics) leaning forward across a breakfast table to ask/demand indignantly of me ‘you cannot seriously believe that?’

These things are important – maybe not the philosophy of mathematics and the like (but most of us grow out of that sort of stuff as we grow out of video games) – but ethics and politics, and people who have invested a lot of thought in them are going to get indignant about them.

I think it is perfectly reasonable. My friend, by the way, was, and still is, a hardcore utilitarian and yes, we did disagree right down to the metal, but it was a good argument.

My wife – I have to admit – cannot deal with this sort of stuff: she most definitely does not regard ‘you cannot seriously believe that?’ as an acceptable conversational gambit over dinner.

Having said that, I also think that, under the skin, philosophy and computer science have a lot in common in terms of the sort of minds they attract. Judith Shklar, Barbara Liskov, Martha Nussbaum, Grace Hopper, and lots of Sheldons.


bianca steele 11.28.13 at 10:25 pm

I’m on my phone and have to be brief but I suspect pace Collin programmers generally hate verbal BS too much to engage it and what passes for an adversarial style there is a bit different.


SusanC 11.28.13 at 10:28 pm

I’m not a philosopher (or, at least, I am not based in a philosophy department), but I do quite often work with people who are, and I find the style of argumentation typically used to be a bit obnoxious/problematic. The same subject matter could surely be dealt with in a different style.I find philosophers to be the worst for this; there’s some element of it in (e.g.) computer science, but not nearly as bad.

[I’ve probably been guilty of talking in that style here a few times in some of my exchanges with John Holbo; I always mean it kindly, even if I’m imitating some Nietzsche-inflected postmodernist at the time. Oh, and I’m not objecting to any of John’s posts.. it’s more of an observation on the traditional style in which philosophy is done]


bob mcmanus 11.28.13 at 10:36 pm

1) If forced to choose a style, I suppose I would choose essentialized femininity over essentialized masculinity, but actually have mostly withdrawn in order to avoid choosing.

2) I am not super comfortable with male bloggers jumping up to protect womankind from other aggressive men. Perhaps women can’t protect themselves, perhaps we should all co-operate in protecting women, but this feels like just another variant of patriarchy, and I’ll stand aside

3) Oh, collecting some adjectives Brian McVeigh uses in describing the gendered oppressive and subverted “cuteness” culture of Japan:submissiveness, gentleness, meekness, receptiveness, compliance or co-operativeness, open-minded, nonresistant, truthful, naive, natural, simple and mild…and of course, empathetic. Those are values and virtues that have merit on their own, but are also promulgated to underclasses as means of social control.

4) It is interesting as the aggressive, brutal, and oppressive oligarchy of the 1% locks itself into permanent dominance and control, and as women are accorded more positions of power and responsibility, the “virtues” in 3 above are being asserted by the managerial and culture classes as to be universally preferred.

5) I really didn’t want to bother with Nietzsche again. Too old for his style.


Bruce Baugh 11.28.13 at 10:42 pm

Patrick S. O’Donnell, that was fascinating, and gives me leads for more. Thank you!

Collin Street: That’s an interesting model, and plausible, but fails catastrophically in the face of so many people who are both very talented programmers (scientists, etc.) and disgustingly sexist, racist, homophobic, and otherwise discriminatory. So the evidence suggests that whatever potential virtue there may in the necessity for re-scrutiny in debugging, nothing about it necessarily translate into any other kind of self-examination. That seems to take prior values on a larger scale.


dsquared 11.28.13 at 11:19 pm

This seems to violate an important principle in philosophy, namely, the “principle of charity”.

I think that the Principle of Charity is usually applied on a maximin basis is, you choose the most plausible interpretation of your interlocutor’s weakest point, having first established to your own satisfaction that you can destroy it anyway. In professional wrestling terms, the analogy would be that if you have challenged a midget, it is the convention that you first have to spend a few minutes explaining to the audience that the midget is actually a supervillain. Otherwise it looks a bit unedifying. At least seven times out of ten, if a philosopher tells you he is using the principle of charity in interpreting what you have said, you should be reaching for your revolver, because you’re going to want it pretty soon one way or the other.


Brendan Taylor 11.28.13 at 11:55 pm

Collin, Bruce: In fact we usually see the opposite effect. The usual quote is from Neal Stephenson:

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.


john c. halasz 11.29.13 at 12:26 am

Well, Merleau-Ponty did speak notably of philosophical arrogance. And, more generally, as has been often noted, the reason academic disputes can be so vicious is that so little is at stake. That probably applies to academic philosophy most of all. What exactly is its subject matter, again?


engels 11.29.13 at 12:46 am

Daniel’s right: the point is to interpret the position in the most sympathetic way that you can still destroy.


Armando 11.29.13 at 1:01 am

I have mixed feelings about this, in the sense that I realise an overly combative argumentative style can be off-putting (to say the least), but I am wary of the alternatives I have encountered.

That is, I am suspicious of debating norms that try to use consensus, rather than destructive attack, as the more used mode because I think that very easily becomes coercive. A argumentative style that frowns upon outright hostility can too easily drift into one where constructive engagement becomes an exercise in agreeing (to varying degrees) with the most powerful person in the room. Thats less threatening all round, but not in a good way. I’m thinking of the way that Blair used to debate, or modern management styles where a nebulous “consensus” is really just an exercise of power.

Fair warning: I am a mathematician, and therefore used to an argumentative style that seems hugely hostile to an outsider. If I say to another mathematician something like “that all sounds very interesting and you have lots of good ideas there” I probably mean “I simply don’t respect you enough to tell you where you are wrong”. It is quite hard for me to process the idea of non-hostility in arguments as anything other than patronising infantilisation. I realise that may be an extreme (and I do work well with others) so take that as you will.

Having said that, gender balance is something that concerns me greatly in my discipline as well as philosophy. I tentatively suspect it is (now, not in the past) largely a structural issue to do with expected career paths rather than anything else (the stats support this interpretation better than others, imo).


Medrawt 11.29.13 at 1:37 am

I only studied philosophy as an undergrad, and didn’t have as much exposure to the kind of seminar-savaging that seems to be taken as commonplace. But the tendency for many to be very aggressive in philosophical conversation was one of several aspects in which I felt like I was naturally aligned about 20 degrees off-axis from what I should’ve been to really fit the mold of academic philosophy. Under more and more aggressive scrutiny I tended to either sidestep to verbal glibness (which, at the undergrad level, I often had enough facility to survive with) or just withdraw, even if I felt I had a good argument that was being misunderstood or misrepresented. I’ve never learned to keep up – or combat – an aggressive posture without just getting angry and losing my temper, and when I lose my temper I get pretty ugly (which is why I go to lengths to avoid doing so). I’m not sure whether my disinclination to indulge my more aggressive side is just a personal quirk or an instance where I fail to display stereotypically masculine behavioral traits.


Collin Street 11.29.13 at 1:47 am

Collin Street: That’s an interesting model, and plausible, but fails catastrophically in the face of so many people who are both very talented programmers (scientists, etc.) and disgustingly sexist, racist, homophobic, and otherwise discriminatory. So the evidence suggests that whatever potential virtue there may in the necessity for re-scrutiny in debugging, nothing about it necessarily translate into any other kind of self-examination. That seems to take prior values on a larger scale.

The ability to be a successful programmer requires the ability to see and accept your own false assumptions when they’re pointed out [it actually requires that you proactively seek out your false assumptions, but whatever].

The fact that you have the ability, mind, doesn’t mean you’ll use it. But if you genuinely cannot accept criticism of your assumptions without getting offended and angry, and/or if you need your dubious assumptions pointed out to you explicitly, then you’re not going to be a very good programmer.

So. Either they aren’t as shit-hot as they think they are — all too common, actually — or they can comprehend and accept criticism of their actions but chose not to. For whatever reason, but not a damned one of the possibilities speak well of the person to hand.

[and in any case all the reasons are disqualifications, anyway: programming is a very socially-oriented/structured profession.]

[I’m guessing that all the above applies to philosophers as well, but I can only speak for programming.]

There’s a tipping point, I think: if there are too many obnoxious arseholes in a field reasonable people tend to leave/avoid said field, leaving the field differentially enriched in arseholes and exacerbating the “reasonable people leave” problem. Vicious cycle.


oldster 11.29.13 at 2:06 am

As a programmer, I expect objects to deliver certain outputs when fed certain inputs.

When they respond as I assumed they would, then I have no reason to think I made any false assumptions.

As a programmer, when I treat women the way I normally do, I expect them to make a lot of noises like “sexist asshole!” and “fuck you!” and “you have no ability to accept criticism of your assumptions!”

Those are the noises that they always make.

And when they make those noises, I have no reason to think I have made any false assumptions. I assumed that they would make those noises, and they did.

Of course, since I’m a really shit-hot programmer, I would, of course, examine my assumptions if I had reason to think that they were false.

But if I am incapable of even seeing that I am making any false assumptions in this area–if objects keep acting exactly the way that I assumed that they would act–then it will be hard for me to invoke my bug-checking routines.

In other words, Collin, I think you’re a bit too complacent about programmers’ ability to understand themselves or other people around them. You sound like a nice guy, though.


Tony Lynch 11.29.13 at 2:18 am

There would be even less chance of truth if we decided to go the route of Nietzsche’s “Last Man”. (We recently spoke here of Plato’s dialogues. He offended people, and a lot of them.)


JanieM 11.29.13 at 2:30 am

In other words, Collin, I think you’re a bit too complacent about programmers’ ability to understand themselves or other people around them.

This is putting it very politely.


oldster 11.29.13 at 3:17 am

But not too aggressively, I hope?

(Yes, passive-aggressive. But I can’t imagine Philosophy is innocent of that form, either.)


Dean 11.29.13 at 3:45 am

I was lucky enough to avoid philosophy when I was in school, but as a cognitive psychologist in a subfield that philosophers think that they “own”, I’ve looked at enough philosophical argumentation to see the argumentation style as yet more evidence of the emptiness of the remnants of philosophy that are left behind as most of its content is taken over by physicists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and computer scientists. If your field is incoherent, then there’s no basis for establishing prominence other than exploitation of trivial lapses in any way possible, on-topic or off-topic. Casual or extreme sexism is just another means to establish dominance. The fact that the victim is female is nothing more than an additional channel for its expression. If philosophers actually had something substantive to discuss and agreed on criteria for progress, they could have constructive discussions rather than destructive ones. But it’s job security, I suppose — there are an infinitely greater number of wrong answers to destroy than there are right answers to promote.


Lee A. Arnold 11.29.13 at 4:24 am

Programmers ought to be good at ratiocination, or calculative rationality, which is not a well-defined category although philosophers from Plotinus and Hobbes to Horkheimer and Adorno have trotted it out now and then.

But calculative rationality, or the IQ kind, is not all of rationality. And it is not a decisive influence over various emotional disorders and various pathological sociocultural institutions.

There are plenty of good scientists who can be simply wrong on matters of greater emotional or social import. So you can be a good programmer yet a complete jerk, as some indeed are found to be, upon inspection.

If you find someone claiming to be rational who writes, “Women are naturally less competitive than males,” then you can most likely assume that this is another instance of the horseblinders of that same calculative rationality.

Some of its character is further illustrated: it decides in vanity that, to judge the machinations of an N-compartment complex system, it is sufficient to take one connection or relation, and only one connection or relation, to be indicative of the answer. It is the method of physics, wrongly applied to complex systems. The method of physics is: e.g., gravity applies everywhere in the vicinity of a mass (a covering law). But complex systems scientists, such as social scientists and even biologists, cannot always say, “some tendency [such as competitiveness or risk-taking] applies in this system.”

In addition to the misplaced concreteness of an intellectually rather dull variable such as “competitiveness”, there is the added danger of trying to transform it into a covering law, i.e. make it explanatorily useful among N other explanations. It’s even worse if they’ve found a hint of a statistical correlation.

Philosophy of science discarded this nonsense decades ago, though I don’t know how many egos were bruised by the aggression — not enough, apparently, insofar as some social scientists still fall prey, most especially economists.


otpup 11.29.13 at 4:43 am

Philosophy leads to truth? It can provide to critique but the idea that philosophy can derive truth bit the big one with Godel.


otpup 11.29.13 at 4:44 am

doh, lead to critique


Belle Waring 11.29.13 at 5:01 am

Mmmm, now we actually have too charitable a representation of the situations I described above. And the nerd sexism problem I alluded to in passing is more a programmer/philosopher problem than it is a mathematician problem, or a physicist problem (IIRC the m/f ratios are worse in the former two than the enviable latter). Armando: mathematicians can get into arguments with one another that are annoyingly dick-swinging and accusatory in form, but at the end usually everyone ends up saying, ‘oh shit, yeah, she was right’ if it turns out that the woman in the argument was in fact right, even if she doesn’t present her argument with the most vehemence possible, on account of the, for the most part, reasonably manifest rightness of the claim (I’m qualifying this obviously, but you get my point.)

In philosophy, by contrast, nobody knows what the fuck is going on, so it’s not at all impossible to win arguments you should by all rights have lost just in virtue of being a really clever asshole whose arguments are in every part analogous to logical and formally true arguments, only with all the actual bits left open and something like the philosophical Mad Libs of your choice stuck in there. That’s not to say a well-organized objection can’t demolish someone’s paper in the very satisfactory way normally reserved for the destruction of buildings in big-budget Hollywood films, or that no one can come up with some deadly thought-experiment that will have people’s heads swiveling back and forth after a talk as if they were watching a duo play badminton with a grenade, but on the whole it’s a good 75% delivery.

So, my fellow Classicists weren’t attacking me in a mean-spirited way, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t attacking me in the ordinary “let’s take off and nuke the consequent from space…it’s the only way to be sure” way. And in saying they knew I didn’t care about the arguments I mean sort of the reverse of the ordinary–namely I care for arguments a great deal! “Good ol’arguments.Where have y’all been! Why, land’s sakes, you were waiting for me on the internet right along!” I didn’t care in the sense that I wasn’t going to have hurt feelings or, if I did, I would sensibly sooth them with vicious counterattacks. There’s clearly something somewhat farcical about the idea of saying, to the True and the False Ideas as they tumble around on the floor pulling one another’s hair, and biting each other on their fat, dimpled arms despite express contraindications, “let’s all play nicely together!” At the same time, it’s bullshit to pretend that the kind of argument Hector St. Clare imagines smart people have with one another–and to be fair, this is a lucky shot on his part–has anything to do with finding things out. Rather, it involves getting the chance to run around and say “I am winner! I am big winner! I am wiener dog!”

(This is our nine-year-old’s favorite expression of victory, and one which she frequently busts out with irrational, sudden satisfaction, even though she has not won any argument or contest of any kind. This drives her more sober sister, who does win arguments and contests, mad. How can you win a fight with a person who will get up from her chair mid-argument and begin dancing around the room magnificently, shaking her golden curls, and shouting “I am wiener! I am wiener dog!” A: you cannot. Perhaps someone may employ this in a seminar and let us know how she fares.)


Scott P. 11.29.13 at 5:15 am

Western philosophy has been based on dialectic since its origin. And I do feel that it is the best way to approach the truth. It’s the foundation of the scientific method,


Belle Waring 11.29.13 at 6:00 am

Oh, Hector. If you wouldn’t be so provocatively sexist like that all time time I wouldn’t always be lured into making overly-unpleasant comments about you. We’re both at fault. I retract my suggestion that it was pure chance which led you to an accurate characterization of arguments between smart people.


Chris Bertram 11.29.13 at 7:14 am

Thanks to Zoe upthread for explaining stereotype threat (comment lingered in moderation because I was out, but deserves to be noticed.)


Mao Cheng Ji 11.29.13 at 7:25 am

I don’t know Merleau-Ponty, but otherwise what jsh 35, said, to the letter. The deadly sin of arrogance. Arrogance lives in men and women (and a few people around here, I might add, including, regrettably, myself), and it has various unpleasant manifestations. All there is to it.


Mao Cheng Ji 11.29.13 at 8:00 am

…it’s interesting also that a lack of arrogance is declared a ‘syndrome’, as if it’s a mental disorder.


John Quiggin 11.29.13 at 8:56 am

Repeating a point I’ve made many times before, the use of gratuitously bloodthirsty and violent examples in philosophy seems like a major part of the problem. The whole discipline seems to hover on the edge of a Godwin’s Law violation a lot of the time.


Belle Waring 11.29.13 at 9:36 am

Well I’ll be, JQ. You can lash me to the third rail of a northbound IRT line south of Madison Square Garden, and then douse me in ammonia, and then hand out unlabeled bottles to people on the platform at random, half of which contain very concentrated bleach, and the other liquid sarin, and then offer a drug-addicted signalman a free tenth of a gram of heroin in exchange for switching the rails so that the southbound express train is shunted onto the northbound line, and then set me on fire, and then lie to the people on the platform about what their bottles contain, and then switch the heroin for a fatal dose of cyanide, but only tell the signalman after administering the drugs, but before he’s thrown the switch, if I have slightest idea what you mean. Because I don’t, I’m quite sure. Know what you’re on about, vis-a-vis bloodthirstiness, is where I am headed, if you follow me. It’s all jolly fat people and lovely rides on trams and rustic trolleys and things as far as I recall.


Z 11.29.13 at 9:38 am

Personally, I quite dislike the combative style that is apparently the norm in some fields (and some comment threads) and my professional experience makes me extremely skeptical of the claim that a combative mode of argumentation is the best way to find the truth. Especially, like Belle, but apparently unlike Armando, I find mathematicians extremely non-aggressive. In the rare occasions where one can find a glaring error or counter-example on the spot during a seminar or conference talk, the scene mostly goes like this “A: But how about example X? B: Oh right, now that’s embarrassing! Let us discuss this later” and though I have received referee reports pointing out serious errors in my work, the actual content of the report is “Line 17: it is claimed that X satisfies property Y but this is not true” not “It is a wonder that anyone in his right mind could believe that X satisfies property Y!” or worse.


Rob 11.29.13 at 9:57 am

Collin @40:

The ability to be a successful programmer requires the ability to see and accept your own false assumptions when they’re pointed out [it actually requires that you proactively seek out your false assumptions, but whatever].

Sadly (?), labour shortages being what they are, plenty of people can make successful careers as programmers without having those particular skills.


SoU 11.29.13 at 10:02 am

how much is the combative style an outgrowth of
a) being in a field where there is no recourse to objectivity – like in math or physics, ex. – and thus relying on your own rhetorical feats (of dominance) to convince others and get your argument out there. If i think that world is matter, and someone else thinks it made of spirit, well, you really can’t do much but attempt to show how the other is wrong. – Granted, there may be some analytic philosophers who conceive of the enterprise as doing ‘normal science’, and yet still get in each others’ faces.
b) being in a field where there is intense competition for elite postings, resulting in a strong perception of 0-sum-games and etc. etc. you can fill in the blanks.

more generally tho – none of the comparisons with math, physics, etc. hold any weight imho, because the nature of the truth that these disciplines are pursuing is not comparable. it is no surprise to me that mathematicians are less confrontational than philosophers because philosophy is about arguments, math is proofs. for math (and other disciplines) there is both clarity and an element of ‘working towards the same goal’ that just does not exist in philosophy. And that doesn’t even get into the issue of the stakes involved – while both math and philosophy can get very esoteric, the latter can also touch down on matters of great spiritual/political/ethical importance in ways that math usually cannot (and never in as selfevident of a fashion).

its like – 5 people sit down and have to determine what the limit of an equation is – it isn’t hard to see them working together amiably to the solution. now take those 5 people and ask them to decide whether we have an ethical obligation to not eat meat. 2 are vegetarians…


QS 11.29.13 at 10:26 am

There seems to be some assumption here that those who don’t like belligerent argumentation must lack self-confidence. I’m more put off by the fact that philosophy PhDs have belligerent conversations about the most trivial BS.


Ed Herdman 11.29.13 at 10:30 am

I wanted to comment on the topic directly, but before that I would like to break in with another comment, which is to say that in various places (I think) I’ve seen bandied about the idea of “steelmanning” your opponent’s view (if you permit yourself to think in those terms, which I agree is of questionable merit as a routine practice) to strengthen the conversation in all its phases.

If I can make a sweeping generalization, it’d be that the professional philosopher who does not take their opponents criticisms seriously is basically letting years (if not lifetimes) of productive work slip through their fingers. Life’s short – don’t waste it on what are essentially feel-good moments (and the chest pains when you get the wrong end of the stick).

But here I have to say – generally I have not seen this attitude in philosophy at my chosen institution of higher learning. It can creep in now and then, but here I think we have to distinguish (always more distinguishing factors!) between methods of discourse and small-group politics (of course, the small group may well be the people in your larger professional circle, the blogosphere, twitterverse, or just the group of grad students).

About the original topic more directly – maybe it is worth mentioning here that males in professional philosophy also trade off competitive vs. social success. I don’t think there’s any insinuation that the tradeoff is reproductive vs. competitive success (i.e., issues of direct sociobiological import), so perhaps the issue is mainly educating people who hand out the prizes.

Personally, I’ve made a concerted effort, over my last decade online, to try to really keep things on an even keel and be strictly focused on facts, and not on making personal criticisms of fellow seekers after the truth. However, small (sometimes truly innocuous) comments still provoke amazing amounts of ire (and that’s not speaking as somebody totally unable to gauge emotional intent from readings).

At the same time, having a lot of output appears to be a problem, and not merely because it is hard to read when it’s truly out of control.

There definitely are a lot of professional male bores in academia, and many bores generally in humanity; I think that human emotions are tuned somewhat to discount masses of information having a purely additive effect on our reception to the idea.

In other words, you can be rude (continually breaking into conversations by clearing your throat) and hurt your standing. You can also be merely thorough or loquacious, and again hurt your standing – even though our “moral intuition” is that only one person provokes condemnation. The difference here, I note, is of course based on social mores.

I don’t have enough experience to comment on whether the feminist critique here has any weight, but I assume it does – but I view this as an area to flag so that you can drill down when there are symptoms; otherwise, I have to say that to me the idea of trying to harm another student’s standing (for example) instead of investing the time questioning an instructor – what a colossal waste of time. Still I do realize that’s how things have worked, too, for countless ages, in small-group politics.

I really like Z’s comment about mathematicians. It’s probably that mathematicians can feel some loyalty to math – it’s just math, not a matter of perspective, and always true, for everyone, everywhere! good stuff – and typically also a bit of distance from the topic. All the same it would be nice to adopt the same view in other fields; forcefully if necessary. It probably wouldn’t just “spontaneously” happen in philosophy but I think that changing the culture wouldn’t really be that bad. I believe there’s been a huge amount of progress in academia about these and other cultural issues that thwart “a welcoming and productive learning environment” even over the last twenty years.


Ed Herdman 11.29.13 at 10:52 am

A followup to John Quiggin and Belle Waring:

That’s a really funny, but of course as actually representing the trolley problem, it’s too convoluted to be useful in the way the classic trolley problem is. A note of interest here: Philippa Foot introduced the problem, but Judith Jarvis Thompson is probably the most associated with it.

In the case of the trolley problem, I assume it’s bloodthirsty (insofar as it can be) because it’s trying to get a point about what our intuition is in cases with real consequences. Since tragedy is a part of the human condition, considering the possibility and outcomes of tragedy is necessary.

If you tried to change the problem so that only squirrels wearing tea cozies were imperiled, what would actually be damaged is any claim to represent the moral intuitions of people in cases of tragedy. If you took the squirrels back to their trees, and the worst decision you had to make was pushing a particularly frayed tea cozy off a bridge to save five other tea cozies from a scalding, the problem would no longer be interesting to philosophers interested in moral intuitions. It wouldn’t be interesting to economists, either, or anybody else.

From here it’s really not too far to go after violent video games, movies, cable news, and Shakespeare. How many times has Macbeth failed to get the blood out now? I don’t think anybody can, after consideration, view these areas as being entirely out-of-bounds; we often consider alternate possible states of the universe without any harm happening to people within them.

That a philosopher considering the trolley problem does so from the comfort of an armchair (or at least one of those creaky plastic-and-metal relics from the 70s), and that they are creating fictional victims! – does not make them morally repugnant or less worthy of freedom than somebody else, like an EMT whose mind flashes through the trolley problem when they are responding to the scene of an accident – their interest is not “what is the right way to pull the lever” or “did the fat man get pushed off the bridge” but rather “what likely happened?”

I also hope it’s clear that I don’t see the connection between trolley problems and the state of academic politics. I think that the necessity of considering trolley problems can be demonstrated by the state of the world beyond philosophy. Haven’t you often gone outside and noticed gangs of men with earplugs standing like dominoes right in the middle of trolley tracks? Well, to be serious again: The world is often somewhat random; a bit part of philosophy’s value is hopefully in considering bad outcomes before they happen so we can make the right choices.


John Quiggin 11.29.13 at 10:58 am

Belle. Yes, you’re on the platform looking at the jolly fat man, thinking he ought to lose some weight and maybe stand back from the tracks a bit when suddenly the soundtrack starts with ominous philosopher music and you realise you’re in a horror movie and all the other would0be passengers are (philosophical) zombies, except for those who are zombie vampire violinists, and then you hear the little black train a coming down the track …


magistra 11.29.13 at 11:16 am

SoU@59: it’s not simply a matter of competition for jobs and a lack of objective criteria. I’m a medieval historian, which is a ludicrously competitive field and one where there is no definite proof of anything. Some of the historians I’ve met are very aggressive and competitive (both in seminars and in their written work), but not all are. And some series of seminars have a reputation either for being encouraging or else for being vicious and unpleasant, often with feuds or factions developing. It very much depends on the tone set by the organisers and senior scholars of a seminar – if the emphasis is on working together to learn more or showing off your own superior knowledge.

It sounds more as if the problem is that too many philosophers have decided that the aggressive way is the one true way to do philosophy than anything intrinsic to the humanities/academic life.


Chris Bertram 11.29.13 at 11:19 am

QS: “There seems to be some assumption here that those who don’t like belligerent argumentation must lack self-confidence.”

No, but there’s an assumption that belligerent argumentation is often inhibits people who lack self-confidence from expressing their ideas, and the further claim that some of those non-expressed ideas will be be good ones. (Just as many of the ideas belligerently expressed by the overconfident will be BS.)


Ed Herdman 11.29.13 at 11:43 am

I think we can go a bit further than that and reject the rather lukewarm description of bad behavior as opposing a lack of self-confidence.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to characterize belligerence as a kind of intimidation and even a kind of force – if political, rather than physically violent – which can and has been abused to forbid others from taking part in the discussion.

Again, I see value in pushing all the way to the other side and promoting “steelmanning” (i.e., developing your intellectual foil’s arguments, when you are fortunate enough to have an interlocutor, as you should always hopefully have cause to be grateful).

A couple random thoughts:
I think the trolley’s come right on time. Sometimes what philosophers ought to be interested in are the viewpoints of the meek.

There’s recently been a paper with the title “Moral intuitions: Are philosophers experts?” (Tobia, Buckwalter, and Stich). Clearly not, if expertise means conformance to some readily defined standard – it just appears that the philosophers just have come to different conclusions (the process by which this happens, and why philosophers reach the conclusions they tend to, is still mysterious).

Or you could take Lawrence Kohlberg’s Kantian stages of moral development, which are unfortunately (and unaccountably) biased towards men – who attain the higher stages of development more often than women under the theory.


dax 11.29.13 at 11:57 am

Surely the problem isn’t limited to philosophy. In economics a major economist can stand up at a conference and diss someone else’s work by saying, “… stupid … stupid.” And *then* get quoted approvingly by a blogger in the NYT.

Are people really any more polite elsewhere?


QS 11.29.13 at 11:58 am

“belligerent argumentation is often inhibits people who lack self-confidence from expressing their ideas”

I’ve met quite a few academics who lack self-confidence but mask it through some form of verbal show(wo)manship. Plus, there are those who build self-confidence by tearing others down. Without such a setting, they’d have no way to build their own esteem. So again, I suggest this relationship is a bit more complicated.


bill benzon 11.29.13 at 12:11 pm

&, following on some earlier remarks, sometimes extreme belligerence is a mask for a deep lack of confidence.

I wonder about linguistics as a discipline. Not too many women there: Barbara Partee, Joan Bybee, Eve Sweetser, and a some others. I bring it up because Chomsky could be very combative. Pieter Seuren recently posted a series of 5 posts on Chomsky in retrospect. The lengthy comments to his posts tell tales of extreme combat with and around Chomsky; it’s not for nothing that a book about linguistics from the 70s through the 90s is called The Linguistics Wars. Seuren thinks that Chomsky’s days as King of the Linguistics Hill are rapidly fading, and I think he’s right. He also seems to believe that he maintained his dominance for so long by fighting dirty. As I have no direct knowledge I’m in no position to judge. But his interlocutors have a lot to say on that point, and they say it with proper decorum I might add. Anyhow, I link to all five of his posts in this one of my own, which is not itself about the Chomsky Combat Zone:


bill benzon 11.29.13 at 12:15 pm

“But his interlocutors have a lot to say …” That is, Seuren’s interlocutors have a lot to say about combat in linguistics.


Ed Herdman 11.29.13 at 12:16 pm

@ QS (and a bit for dax also, and others questioning whether there is a difference in different academic areas)
Agreed, which is why I noted a ways above that it’s naive to think you can just get rid of those troublesome emotions. There will always be spikes of pique at the worst possible times. That said, I think Z’s comment above (and my own limited experience with fairly productive undergrad and graduate philosophy settings) gives anecdotal reasons to doubt that the problem being severe is just a universal fact.

That said, from what I’ve read many people consider E.W. Dijkstra (the computer programming guru with a background in theoretical mathematics, famous for the misnamed “GOTO considered harmful”) one of the premier trolls of the pre-Internet programming academics, despite what I think could be fairly convincing protestations on his part that he (like myself) tried to keep things above board at all times. But maybe that’s just because he got outside of pure mathematics.

What I sense in some of his papers (i.e., “On a Somewhat Disappointing Correspondence”) is perhaps instructive – a sometimes explicitly grudging acceptance of Duty, but perhaps not so much detail into some of the theory of finding one’s way out of certain problems as could be liked.

When he wrote comments like:
“The whole correspondence was carried out at a level that vividly reminded me of the intellectual climate of twenty years ago (e.g., 1967), as if stagnation were the major characteristic of the computing profession, and that was a disappointment.”
– some people take that as a dismissive comment and irrelevant to the task at hand (and perhaps encompassing an unrealistic view of human development), while others took it to be a helpful call to sense. Where I do think he perhaps went wrong was in generalizing about sources of decay or “stagnation,” and perhaps even in using such a term – everybody has to start out at a low level of understanding with respect to the ever-accumulating “literature.”

If there’s any answers, I’ll take them “off the air” for now.

Bill Benzon’s link looks quite interesting, thanks!


Rob 11.29.13 at 12:35 pm

This discussion reminds me of one of my (for my sins) favourite scenes in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon:

Randy was forever telling people, without rancor, that they were full of shit. That was the only way to get anything done in hacking. No one took it personally.

Charlene’s crowd most definitely did take it personally. It wasn’t being told that they were wrong that offended them, though, it was the underlying assumption that a person could be right or wrong about anything. So on the Night in Question, the night of Avi’s fateful call, Randy had done what he usually did, which was to withdraw from the conversation. In the Tolkien, not the endocrinological or Snow White sense, Randy is a Dwarf. Tolkien’s Dwarves were stout, taciturn, vaguely magical characters who spent a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power. Thinking of himself as a Dwarf who had hung up his war ax for a while to go sojourning in the Shire, where he was surrounded by squabbling Hobbits (i.e., Charlene’s friends), had actually done a lot for Randy’s peace of mind over the years. He knew perfectly well that if he were stuck in academia, these people, and the things they said, would seem momentous to him. But where he came from, nobody had been taking these people seriously for years. So he just withdrew from the conversation and drank his wine and looked out over the Pacific surf and tried not to do anything really obvious like shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

Actually, these days programming tends to operate on higher levels of abstraction than it used to, and I wonder if this makes programming much more susceptible to bullshit* than it used to be – in other words, more like philosophy and less like mathematics. Back when hardware constraints were much tighter, the difference between right and wrong was bigger and person with a weaker rhetorical position could ‘beat’ a stronger one by virtue of a better algorithm or deeper knowledge of the problem at hand, whereas nowadays it’s becoming easier to dismiss things as “well, that’s just your opinion, man”.

Plenty of people (I’d count myself here) are nostalgic for the days when telling people without rancour that they were full of shit was acceptable, because you could always settle a dispute by reference to the objective properties of the code you produced. However, it’s starting to become seen as impolite or unprofessional to do so now. The dynamics are interesting though – by not calling bullshit on things, we allow bullshit to proliferate to the point where the bullshit becomes harmful and calling bullshit can be a valuable service to humanity again (and the people who do so are made heroes), so perhaps there are some natural cycles to this.

* In the non-pejorative sense, simply meaning “statements lacking support, made with no intent to provide support for them”


QS 11.29.13 at 1:10 pm

^ I wish I had any idea what you’re talking about. Alas, my ignorance of computers runs deep.


William Timberman 11.29.13 at 1:38 pm

Contention anywhere, with anyone, is difficult, and I think it gets worse as you get older. Maybe that’s because the level of essential combat hormones in the bloodstream drops off, or maybe it’s because ars longa, vita brevis comes to have new meaning as you begin to realize that the day when someone throws dirt in your face is getting undeniably closer. I don’t know. I do know that about thirty years ago I let my subscription to the NYRB lapse, the reason being all those long, nasty arguments in the letters section which seemed to me to be much ado about very little. As I remember, more than half of them were about, or from, V.S. Naipaul — not that it matters. A few years ago, I relented, and renewed my subscription. It’s much better now, I tell my friends, and they nod courteously. I’m not sure they believe me, and I’m not at all sure they should.

The point of all this wandering about, if there is one, is that I’ve come to believe that a lot of time gets wasted in aggression and defense that might be spent thinking about how stuff actually works. It might be best to read what people write, and go to listen to arguments about it without contributing to them, except, perhaps by writing books that one one will read for a hundred years — if the urge can’t otherwise be contained. Is that satisfaction enough for the scholar? Maybe. For the advocate, probably not, but then the advocate is in another business entirely.


Belle Waring 11.29.13 at 1:45 pm

Ed Herdman: that is genuinely a rather impressive feat of pearl-clutching. If it were possible for me to insert the “Orson Welles clapping vigorously and slowly” .gif I might very well do so. You can’t actually believe that I am unaware that fictional representations of injury to imaginary humans does not harm actually existing humans? Or that you are astounding me with references to this Philippa fellow? (It’s a funny story, really: his father wanted to have wanted to have a boy named Philip but only to have had a girl and named her Philippa, but his wife disappointed his velleity by giving birth to a boy, and instead he had to name his son Philippa.) Or that after brief stops to ban videogames and Shakespeare in no particular order I apparently intend to go on and limit the freedom(?!) of suddenly beleagured philosophers who–much like EMTs or some other heroes of the everyday–are simply trying to make the world safer for living, one thought experiment at a time? And–as is so tiresomely often the case–isn’t it Mrs. Macbeth doing the washing up, again? I’ll console myself with the near-certainty that you’re just saying this to piss me off. I’m going to sleep; I’ll get into an argument with you about it tomorrow.


Asteele 11.29.13 at 1:45 pm

When someone mentions one of Neal Stephenson’s libertarian “imaginings”: it’s time to reach for my revolver. Not to shoot someone, but to shove in my mouth.


Rob 11.29.13 at 1:58 pm

Let me know if you need a hand.


Rob 11.29.13 at 1:59 pm

(OK, that might have been a bit of rancour).


harry b 11.29.13 at 2:09 pm

The big moment for me was several years ago at a couple of workshops in preparation for a volume mainly authored by economists and sociologists. Although I think I occupy a pretty benign space within Philosophy, those sessions were extraordinary. About 1:1 sex ratio, and full of really quite amazingly clever people — and the tenor was thoroughly cooperative, as if the only things anyone cared about was improving the quality of one another’s work and getting everybody closer to the truth. There must have been plenty of ego in the room, but if so it was all deployed to a common end. I’ve been embarrassed about the standards of behaviour in my discipline ever since.


Z 11.29.13 at 2:17 pm

I wonder about linguistics as a discipline. Not too many women there: Barbara Partee, Joan Bybee, Eve Sweetser, and a some others.

And many many others (I could give you the names of ten top female linguists any moment). At the anecdotal level, the seminar I follow usually has perhaps 15 women and 4/5 men attending. Not at all a male dominated field, it seems to me.

The lengthy comments to his posts tell tales of extreme combat with and around Chomsky […] Seuren thinks that Chomsky’s days as King of the Linguistics Hill are rapidly fading, and I think he’s right.

Hum. I wouldn’t make too much of Seuren’s retrospective, not necessarily because it’s wrong in any way but because it is about the 60s and 70s and that was, well, 40 years ago (I hardly found a word in his 5 posts about anything after the early 80s). Linguistics has moved on. Interestingly, in the corner of linguistics I follow, people seems to have mostly stopped caring about what other people do in other theoretical schools, so the style and engagement is not combativeness but polite ignorance.


Chris Bertram 11.29.13 at 2:19 pm

Is it wrong to call bullshit bullshit? – NO
Is it wrong to argue forcefully and clearly for or against a proposition because you believe it to be untrue or unjustified? – NO

Clearly, there are times when both of these are the right thing to do in a philosophical discussion.

There are also times when the right thing to do is to work co-operatively with someone to help them better articulate their view, and, indeed, providing objections to that view (proceeding dialectically) can be part of that process.

So I don’t oppose any of those things. What I oppose is to conceive philosophical encounters mainly or even ideally on the model of combat, where the aim of combat is personal triumph and the crushing of the opponent. Anyone who has been in a few philosophical fora (and economics ones too, for that matter) will recognize the sort of bloody encounter whose purpose is not to get at the truth but to gratify the ego of the aggressor. These are behaviours that lead some good smart people not to bother engaging and others to lose confidence in themselves. We’d be in a better place if such people did not disengage, so we need to tackle the way some people conduct themselves.


Barry 11.29.13 at 2:20 pm

John Quiggin 11.29.13 at 8:56 am
“Repeating a point I’ve made many times before, the use of gratuitously bloodthirsty and violent examples in philosophy seems like a major part of the problem. The whole discipline seems to hover on the edge of a Godwin’s Law violation a lot of the time.”

To me, it’s striving after macho, and fear of irrelevance.


Tom Slee 11.29.13 at 2:31 pm

Is it wrong to call bullshit bullshit? – NO

Premature and ill-thought-out readiness to call someone else’s point of view bullshit is, however, exactly what this is all about.


William Timberman 11.29.13 at 2:34 pm

…argue forcefully and clearly for or against a proposition because you believe it to be untrue or unjustified?

Ahem…. What am I missing?


Rob 11.29.13 at 2:36 pm

To me, it’s striving after macho, and fear of irrelevance.

Isn’t the point of using striking examples (including the bloodthirsty or the macho) to illustrate the point that rationality is imperfect? By inducing an emotional response, these examples force us to consider the difference between perfect rationality and actual human thought.

At the risk of citing even more fringe libertarian figures and inducing more self-inflicted gunshot wounds, Eliezer Yudkowsky had a pretty good essay criticizing the use of politically-charged examples in rational pedagogy here, and some of his arguments echo Gary’s citation of Lakoff @8. If you’re really interested in solving the abstract problem, you want to keep your examples neutral, but if the whole point is to explore why the problem can’t be considered in the abstract and solved rationally, then evocative examples can be useful.


Chris Bertram 11.29.13 at 2:36 pm

Agreed Tom.

William – yes, sloppy editing.


William Timberman 11.29.13 at 2:44 pm

Well, Chris, it’s not as though I don’t have egg on my own face from time to time. Anyway, what I was really thinking about was some of Niall Ferguson’s recent impassioned defenses his own malice aforethought. He does indeed argue for propositions he ought to know are untrue and unjustified, and seems to do so precisely because they are.

So…maybe not sloppy editing so much as a Freudian slip, and a productive one at that, at least for me.


Anderson 11.29.13 at 2:54 pm

When Brian Leiter argues for aggression, I don’t think he’s doing so from a disinterested position.


engels 11.29.13 at 3:32 pm

I think everyone is neglecting the third way between aggression and co-operation: passive-aggression. Pretend to be engage in a collaborative project but subtly undermine others in the group with back-handed praise, condescending help, self-serving misunderstandings, etc.


armando 11.29.13 at 3:53 pm

Thanks Belle, thats actually quite a useful way of looking at it, and gels with my experience. Its also why I can both agree and disagree with Z at the same time about the agression of mathematicians. That is, they are (usually) quite polite but what they are saying would, in any other context, be considered extremely rude. Telling someone baldly that what they have said is wrong – without caveats, but with strong justification – tends to be interpreted as extremely hostile in most human interactions in my experience. Mathematicians have to a large extent internalised the norms of a certain debating style that allows one to make such statements somewhat impersonally. (I also know a few female mathematicians who believe that there is a macho element to the way math is often discussed. Even with strict norms, you still have to interrupt, press your point, etc etc.)

So interrupting someone and saying “no, thats wrong” is perfectly ok when its about sums, but much less so in real life. Or to take another example, “interpretive charity” has almost no value in mathematics. (Some, of course, but surprisngly little.) I’m *supposed* to attack your weakest point, in whatever imagined ridiculous situation I can come up with. And you are supposed to welcome such an attack. It is hard for me to believe that this doesn’t look aggressive, albeit in a gently mannered way, to outsiders. (Not that all interactions like this *are* gently mannered.) In fact, I expend quite a lot of effort trying to convince students that they can and should talk to me this way. Of course, these are arguments I will almost always win (unless I made a mistake), but the point is that it is the accepted way to converse, and which the students clearly perceive as grossly impertinent and rude.

So getting back to philosophy….I think I get the problem. There is a certain amount of philosphy that looks like it substitutes rhetorical flair for argument to me (but what do I know, right?). And argument by arrogant performance is bound to disadvantage minorites. But I’m not kidding about the coercive nature of certain non-confrontational environments. It is something that I have seen many times – that it is simply rude to flatly disagree with someone more powerful than you. Am I alone in thinking this is a concern?

Anyway….what to do? Asking people not to be agressive, but in other ways keeping things as they are doesn’t sound very productive to me. If the game stays the same, and you ask people not to play their trump cards, you might get them to only play them when they *really* need to. Which I suspect changes nothing. Is this problem simply stated the wrong way round? Ie, would it be better to change gender balance first, and then go for a change in norms once it is easier to socially enforce the new norms? Dunno.

Still, I am genuinely surprised if philosophy has a worse gender balance than Maths and Physics. I mean, we are bloody awful. How can philosophy be worse???


Phil 11.29.13 at 4:11 pm

What I oppose is to conceive philosophical encounters mainly or even ideally on the model of combat, where the aim of combat is personal triumph and the crushing of the opponent

This reminds me of a curious passage in Nick Cohen’s encomium to Norman Geras. Cohen quotes extensively from a dissection of an argument by Karen Armstrong, praises Norm for avoiding cheap shots and ad homs (“The argument in front of him is all that matters.”) and concludes:

“Observe finally, that Norm’s avoidance of polemical bitterness and his observance of the normal rules of polite debate does Ms Armstrong no good: she still ends up in pieces on the floor.”

It seems that Cohen isn’t praising Geras for not seeing debate in terms of combat after all, but for conducting the combat by stealth. (And winning! Yay polite unpolemical winners!)


mattski 11.29.13 at 4:20 pm

Even the Anti-philosopher was not anti-aggression.

Also, I nominate Belle Waring for Heavyweight Champion.


armando 11.29.13 at 5:05 pm

But this is just the game; if you *really* want to demolish your opponent in an intellectual debate, doing so politely is much more effective.

I’m thinking of someone like Christopher Hitchens. Great polemicist, but actually an awful debater. Or is it just me who thought that the content of his arguments was largely non-existent? I thought this even when I broadly agreed with him. That said, it was amusing to see him debate atheism and rely almost completely on anecdote and ad hominems – it infuriated the religious people he debated with, who seemed so geared up to telling him he had missed the point by engaging with religion on a purely intellectual level, yet found that his “not missing the point” was actually rather more unpleasant.


bill benzon 11.29.13 at 5:35 pm

@Z: Glad to hear about the women, as for “Linguistics has moved on. Interestingly, in the corner of linguistics I follow, people seems to have mostly stopped caring about what other people do in other theoretical schools, so the style and engagement is not combativeness but polite ignorance.”

It’s been like that for 30 years or more.


Katherine 11.29.13 at 5:38 pm

When I was a young lawyer I loved the cut and thrust of a good debate, but slowly over time the appeal diminished, not because I ceased to enjoy debate but because I got tired of all the idiots who didn’t know the difference between a debate and a fight and thought belligerently beating down the opposition was “winning”. A good sprinkling of both male and female lawyers in that category.

Part of the problem is the ambiguity of the word “argument”. It can mean debate, or a fight. The people who give arguments a bad name are the ones who can’t distinguish between dispute and conflict; assertiveness and aggression; and debate and fight.


Anderson 11.29.13 at 5:51 pm

94: one thing I like about appellate argument is that it doesn’t repay the belligerence you describe. An attorney who doesn’t realize that, quickly takes himself down without my having to do it for him.


prasad 11.29.13 at 5:51 pm

Let’s stipulate that excessive adversarial mano a mano stuff is both a) too common in philosophy and b) off-putting disproportionately to women.

Does it follow that women won’t (can’t?) achieve parity in the legal profession itself? Certainly the actual business of trying and defending people, but constitutional law seems like it’d be affected too. I wonder if law schools should routinely advance “women have different temperaments” as being among the reasons they haven’t achieved gender parity.


Rakesh Bhandari 11.29.13 at 6:09 pm

Another thanks for Patrick O’Donnel. Happy to see reference to Matilal’s work on Indian and in particular Jaini modes of argument. Have been reading through some of Jonardon Ganeri’s work, which is also exceptional. An important development of the suggestions in Amartya Sen’s Argumentative India.

And what of critique? There is the interesting idea that through critique one does not destroy an opponent but illuminates the conditions under which certain apparently ‘universal’ relations or ‘invariant’ laws hold. To take a simple example: it could be that there is presently some positive relation between higher wages and unemployment; through critique one could lay bare the background conditions for such a relation to hold.

Marx’s work was critical–critique of German Ideology (Stirner), the critique of Proudhon, the contribution to the critique of political economy, anti-Vogt, critique of political economy, critique of the Gotha Program, anti-Duhring. I don’t know of a comprehensive analytical treatment of Marx’s characteristic modes of critique and argument.

William J Blake “Karl Marx: Titan of the Poor”, New Masses, 5/7/40, on the 122nd anniversary of Marx. >

Of course he was choleric and attacked like a wild boar. Of course when old friends left the cause, he assailed them. But if his silly critics will look at the then state of German and French polemics, in which he was educated, they will note that Marx is practically the most urbane and polished controversialist of that acrid period. And if in England debate was more pleasing, it was because nothing was argued. Marx wrote Lavrov to come to England where he would be safe. In Paris, he said the police arrested people for dangerous ideas. In London they police had no inkling that there could be any ideas, dangerous or otherwise… The artist intoxicated with Greek drama, the reciter of Richard III and Timon of Athens, the man who smashed lamp posts on Saturday night to scandalize bobbies, like college students, was no stuffed library pedant. When real genius came forward, as In Darwin’s Origin of Species in that wondrous year 1859, Marx bowed before a conscientious mind. He knew the Malthusian assumptions but he rose above Darwin’s sources to measure Darwin’s achievement. When Balzac a royalist laid bare the nerves and tissues of the bourgeoisie, his devotee was Karl Marx. Socialists produced variant philosophies Marx thought unsound. But if he felt that the work was animated by a sincere love of the working class and was not noxious, he applauded. Witness his sympathy for that inspired Pfushcher Dietzgen.. Note his tribute for the followers of brave old Blanqui, heroes of the Commune. Mark his honest admiration for the Proudhonists in the Commune, whose principles he detested. For Marx there was no narrow dogmatism. A Man who in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, so admirably detected the spiritual nuances of every segment of the French nobility and bourgeoisie (as arising from their material foundations) is a miniature artist in delineating character to rival La Bruyere. To anyone who has checked the thousand references to numberous worthies in the three volumes of Capital, his skill at quick personal descriptions remains a marvel of literary triumph. Witness his thumbnail sketches of Americans in his letters on our Civil War…

“Not for nothing did Marx make his his motto ‘I am a human being, nothing human is alien to me.” That excerpt fromthe old Roman comedy was dear to him. If he appeared cruel in his remarks on Schurz and Kugelmann, was not their career as he prophesied? He foresaw the public future of every revolutionist and he caviled at the conduct that foreshadowed it, not because he was informed by spleen, but because his eye carried a microscope slide of honesty and acute, detailed vision. To those who wish to see the difference between marx and the economists, let them look at the permutations and combinations of surplus value, as given in his chapter on the total law of surplus value. Suddenly he pitches out of the orbit of economic “theory” into the human needs of men,into their biological possibilities. No Ricardo, no boasted institutionalist, has ever so summed-up theory and the living needs of men. No other man has so situated theory in a historic, that is, a human setting. No other theoretician has made material law subject to the creative will of a rising class. He never studied “laws of political economy” as the rules of Medes and Persians. He annihilated the codes of science. He saw science as the plastic servant of man, whose consciousness of necessity was the springboard to freedom. “Marx’s passion came from his deep belief that classless society, producing the true individual, would at last break down the barrier between man’s soul and his surrounding institutions, that paradox of art since the liberating Renaissance. He carried the dream of Leonardo da Vinci to its scientific expression. That goal is human and inspiring. Marx restored the vision of paradise, not in the realms of the dead, but in the living labor of communal man…. “


prasad 11.29.13 at 6:14 pm

Also, to take back the previous stipulation, about mano a mano stuff being both a) excessive and too common in philosophy and b) off-putting disproportionately to women:

We do need both these things to be true for Wolff’s argument to work, yes? Without b), the matter doesn’t help explain female representation, so the discussion never gets off the ground. And without a) the field is doing nothing wrong against the yardstick of doing good philosophy. I’m not clear on the connection between a) and b) implied in Wolff’s article. It seems too simple to say that any style of argumentation that’s off-putting is philosophically suspect based simply on disparate impact – it’s just as open to us to say instead that women need to become more brassy and asshole-ish. Scott Aaronson puts it really well on a related subject – of nerds and women in science:

when people talk about cultural changes that would entice more women into science, they always mean changes to nerd culture. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about:

Emphasize teamwork and community over intellectual combat.

Eliminate all-nighters.

Discourage questions in seminars that might hurt someone’s feelings.

Festoon the STOC proceedings with hearts, rainbows, and ponies.

The problem with such proposals is not just that they’re patronizing (and indeed deeply sexist in their own way), and not just that successful female scientists tend to be as competitive as anyone else. The real problem is the implicit assumption that, whenever there’s a disparity between nerd culture and popular culture, the fault must lie with nerd culture.

Sure, there are nerds could stand to shower more often, read more Shakespeare and less Slashdot, etc. But there are also plenty of “normals” who could stand to follow a chain of logic to an inconvenient conclusion, unsheath their sarcasm swords when confronted with idiocy, and judge people more by the originality of their ideas than by whether their clothes match.

In short, if the reason more women don’t study science is that they’re repelled by nerd culture, then de-nerdifying science is only one solution. The other solution is nerdifying the rest of the world! Admittedly, nerdifying the world might seem like a rather drastic way to increase the number of women in university science departments. But as you might have guessed, I want to nerdify the world for independent reasons as well.


Rakesh Bhandari 11.29.13 at 6:27 pm

In terms of numbers philosophy may well be dominated by men; but in terms of who is producing interesting philosophical and political theoretic ideas women are disproportionately represented, given their under-representation in the profession.

My first three years of undergrad study were in philosophy. I learned a great deal from Stroud, Scheffler and Railton. But I was most influenced by Nancy Ann Davis with whom I took a seminar on JS Mill and a course on philosophical writing. I read Aristotle and McIntyre with Linda Foy. And I read ten or so Platonic dialogues with Hanna Pitkin who later introduced me to Machiavelli and Arendt. In my first attempt at grad school I studied under Seyla Benhabib. I have always associated philosophy or perhaps political and ethical theory with women intellectuals. It’s curious to me that Wolff speaks of great women philosophers from a couple of generations ago but does not mention stimulating contemporary thinkers such as Seana Schiffrin, Wendy Brown, Penelope Deutscher, Genivieve Lloyd, Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum, Donna Haraway, Jane Gordon, Drucilla Cornell. Their styles and interests are very different, but I would say that they all are formidable argumentative minds. At least, I read them with great expectation of having a prejudiced uncovered, an accepted premise weakened or a new possibility of thought opened up.


Barry 11.29.13 at 6:50 pm

prasad 11.29.13 at 5:51 pm
“Let’s stipulate that excessive adversarial mano a mano stuff is both a) too common in philosophy and b) off-putting disproportionately to women.

Does it follow that women won’t (can’t?) achieve parity in the legal profession itself? Certainly the actual business of trying and defending people, but constitutional law seems like it’d be affected too. I wonder if law schools should routinely advance “women have different temperaments” as being among the reasons they haven’t achieved gender parity.”

On various other blog discussions of this, it’s been pointed out that the percentages of women in various fields such as law, math, etc. have been increasing at a much higher rate than for philosophy. This casts doubt on hypotheses such as women shying away from confrontational fields or fields which have hardcore logic.


adam.smith 11.29.13 at 7:56 pm

@101 – one possible difference between law and philosophy may well be that you don’t have a ref in the seminar room. I’m not terribly familiar with the insides of US court rooms – i.e. mainly from reading transcripts and from watching law and order, but it seems to me that there is a very strong emphasis on decorum as well as on the types of arguments you can and cannot make. E.g. questions that are “inflammatory” or “badgering” can be objected to.


bianca steele 11.29.13 at 8:13 pm

First thought: I worry about some kinds of attempts to reach gender parity for reasons I mentioned on LGM a little while ago. Suppose thirty percent of men are good candidates as things currently are constituted and ten percent of women. To get parity a new path is created that will draw on twenty percent or more of women (like Lego for girls). Does that become the default “female” path? Does that mean the first group of women are cut out from one of the few careers available to them? Does that cause nightmares for education at the college and highschool level? Or is the result that an advantage is given to graduates of expensive private schools with the resources to keep up?


bianca steele 11.29.13 at 8:31 pm

Second: Is it too soon to expect follow on research on things like stereotype threat? Are there things that can make the problem less severe? Surely the point isn’t just to point to details of existing structural gender divides and emphasize how difficultit might be to go against them?


John Quiggin 11.29.13 at 8:36 pm

Slightly OT My only experience in court is as an expert witness, mostly in wage arbitration cases for public sector unions (this is still v important in Oz). These have been very combative and with some odd rules. The assumption of decorum applies much more to the witness than to the opposing barrister who does the questioning. And, since I’m (by stipulation) an expert and he (always “he” in my experience so far) is not, the only way for him to win is by being better at debating, or else to get me rattled. A few hours of that kind of exchange is pretty exhausting.


Alex K. 11.29.13 at 8:41 pm


“I think that the Principle of Charity is usually applied on a maximin basis is, you choose the most plausible interpretation of your interlocutor’s weakest point, having first established to your own satisfaction that you can destroy it anyway.”

You are right only in the sense that in an adversarial environment, _public_ displays of intellectual charity appear only after the “charitable” debater is sure that he is winning. But public displays of intellectual charity in adversarial environments do not exhaust the uses of the principle of charity.

You choose the most charitable interpretation of an opponent in order to prove to yourself the strength of your position. Therefore the quote bellow:

” In professional wrestling terms, the analogy would be that if you have challenged a midget, it is the convention that you first have to spend a few minutes explaining to the audience that the midget is actually a supervillain.”

is precisely the wrong analogy. The right analogy is making sure you beat a strong wrestler by legitimate fighting methods, not just by kicking him in the
_cojones_ .

If you want to construct a strong conceptual position, you want to employ the principle of charity as much as possible. Conversely, people that don’t use the principle of charity often, are probably more tolerant of having big holes in their position, and are therefore less trustworthy in intellectual arguments.

On the other hand, if you just want quick political wins, then cojones kicking might be the best strategy. The danger is that you end up confusing the goal of quick victories with the goal of constructing strong positions.


Lee A. Arnold 11.29.13 at 9:02 pm

bianca steele #104: “…things like stereotype threat? Are there things that can make the problem less severe?”

“Social capital”, when defined as supportive emotional networks for children at home, neighborhood, school. I think that some of this research was noted by Putnam in Bowling Alone.


Ed Herdman 11.29.13 at 9:06 pm

I’ll go ahead and say it, and I hope what I have to say can be taken equanimously – at this point I don’t think that Belle Waring is trying to have a discussion, as I know how to have a successful one. That this would happen in this discussion, of all places, carries more than a trace of irony. Now, I still hope the problem is merely that I’m jumping to wrong conclusions here, but consider this: Is it better to talk to someone directly, or talk around them (nevermind continuing to talk around somebody while having quickly abandoned the original point, as I read John Quiggin as having done above)?

I don’t doubt that the method of Socrates or of a Zen koan is useful, in its place, but it also needs be said that people are discourage from writing philosophy in the form of a Socratic dialogue, a koan, or the Confucian analects, for the simple reason that the kind of cleverness required in arranging direct points subtly (without weakening the force of one’s comment) is simply beyond most of us. More directly, Socrates still gives his audience ample clues (or even explicit marching orders) about the source of his confusion.

Also, the context of actually being the stooge in a koan or Socratic dialogue is a special status familiar to generations of readers who transport themselves into the dialogue; but the kind of thing that is easily missed in a cramped conference room or an online comments thread.

There is also a distinction, I think, between being the assuredly fictional stooge Euthyphro, and being a real person. It is good that we are agreed that fictional people cannot be afforded special consideration, but what about a real person that you should treat as your fellow in search of truth?

We have seen arguments so far in favor of consideration (ordinary and not special) for women and for the meek. What, then, of people who have the sincere (if misplaced) belief that writing obliquely around a problem is an unstable mode of discussion?

I know I’m not astounding you, Belle, with “this Philipa fellow” or any of the rest, but I do feel that I have not been given adequate clues about what you are trying to achieve with me. And if you are trying to achieve something at my expense, then I must beg for an out, if it is intended to continue in this manner. That is the source of the apparent grasping. If you simply want to be left alone – that certainly can be arranged; just be open about it!

That is what I think the “aggression in philosophy” debate is partly about. It’s not just about trying to protect the disadvantaged or the meek; it’s about using good and open methods to have a discussion. This online forum holds a different context and format than heated voices in a cramped conference room, but the potential for underhanded tactics is still there – and I think very much in evidence, unfortunately.

In short this has been a big waste of time. A lot of brainpower that could have been used to find and negotiate a debate has been spent tying each other up in knots. I take the view that this mode of discussion is to be avoided as much as possible because it doesn’t usually lead to success (and if it does, it doesn’t lead to success as often as other methods).

My original problem is still here: I still don’t see anything from you folks (Belle, John Quiggin) on how exactly the trolley problem is a net problem in philosophy. It certainly is an idiosyncratic way of studying problems but it was a good early stab at the idea of bringing empirical evidence into the discussion. As far as I can tell, the emphasis is still on whether it asks the right kind of question with adequate precision for what it’s trying to achieve. If the reason is simply supposed to be that it is “obvious” (i.e., an obvious moral truth) that the trolley problem is bloodthirsty, that is not an adequate response at all.


ezra abrams 11.29.13 at 9:47 pm

If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament

If men weren’t full of testosterone, combative philosophy would be akin to coprophagy

(well, I may bet points for trying)


Corey Robin 11.29.13 at 10:08 pm

Chris: The topic of this post and discussion thread reminds me of that stanza from W.H. Auden’s Under Which Lyre:

“Brutal like all Olympic games,
Though fought with smiles and Christian names
And less dramatic,
This dialectic strife between
The civil gods is just as mean,
And more fanatic.”


bianca steele 11.29.13 at 10:20 pm

Third: Programming does offer a kind of referree, which everyone can refer to. I would think the same is true of many parts of mathematics. Things quickly get too complicated though to refer to “what works”. Then there’s a split between theory and practice that allows for some BS and some inability to recognize BS and avoid it. In my experience though the best analogy is to actors: everyone wants to be creative and to follow their own vision but everyone has to work together and in the end their disputes are often trivial. But no one thinks actors should stop idealizing their roles as those of artists because more pliable actors would make the director’s and crew’s life easier.

(I know there are IT managers here who see their experience different my.)


Andrew F. 11.29.13 at 10:35 pm

I think Wolff overlooks the value of sharp questioning as a teaching device. Wolff writes:

Sitting on the edge of her chair to pay full attention to what we said, she would take our stumbling comments, tidy them up, give them back, and tell us how they related to the history of the subject. She would observe that the views we were advancing, even if wrong, had been held by great philosophers of the past. Instead of feeling that we had embarrassed ourselves once again, we came away with the feeling: “I can do this!”.

That can be a useful approach as well, but given that philosophy really is obsessed with analytical clarity, being confronted with what one actually said and being forced to take note of what Wolff terms mistakes so small you need a magnifying glass to see them is a vital part of learning to actually do philosophy oneself. The habit of being cognizant of those mistakes, and understanding why they are mistakes, is an important part of analytical clarity.

Moreover, forgotten in Wolff’s column is the obligation of a philosopher not to become too personally attached to his positions. There must be sufficient space between one’s argument and one’s self for an interlocutor to question the argument without insulting the self. Philosophical discussions always struck me almost as informal lab work, as haphazard testing grounds, the results of which could be more thoroughly examined later. One must have the moral courage to expose ideas one believes true to that testing, let them suffer what they will, and then assess them again honestly. If one identifies too much with one’s ideas, that becomes impossible; every argument is then personal.

I’m sure that philosophy has its fair share of cases where the person, and not the idea, is attacked, but let’s be careful to allow that many (all, perhaps) students and professionals will sometimes identify personally with their ideas, and will take criticisms of those ideas personally – and since philosophy is substantially composed by criticism, students and professionals at such times will find philosophy harsh and combative. I agree with the pleasant exhortation for philosophers to treat each other with respect, and to balance critical appraisal with encouragement, but the obligation to understand and accept critical appraisals appropriately is equally important.

As to Wolff’s hypothesis for why women may be underrepresented in philosophy… Women compose nearly half of all law students in the United States, and nearly half of all federal clerkships (prestigious, highly competitive positions sought largely by graduating law school students or recently graduated lawyers) were won by women last year. If philosophy has fewer females in its professional ranks than it believes it should, I don’t think “combativeness” is the problem.


Ed Herdman 11.29.13 at 11:14 pm

Simpson’s paradox is also lurking at the edges of this discussion, waiting to be invited in, I’m sure.

re: The person, not the idea – yes, precisely. The link Bill Benzon gave is a classic example emphasizing the clubby nature of people all excited about working an “in thing” but deemphasizing some of the routine work that gives such projects weight. If what we are interested in is the sharing of good ideas, then clearly there is much tendency of people to get the “short form” of an argument by simply learning that the long form is too hard to explain and it’s impolite or daft to do so. Clearly this isn’t helpful; it’s just the appeal to authority.

Of course the issue of justice for individuals (i.e. women seeking a role in philosophy) is a problem too – both are clearly problems (and sometimes distinct problems) and I don’t care to try to rank them. I don’t think it’s a particularly hard job to treat both issues carefully simultaneously, but both have wrinkles that have allowed this comment thread to fracture into these two sometimes distinct worries.


Katherine 11.30.13 at 12:13 am

Several people assuming that the legal profession = acting as an advocate in a trial. Ain’t so. I never stood up in a court as an advocate because that wasn’t my field, and I daresay that’s the experience of most lawyers.

What I did do a lot of was negotiation, often in person or on the phone but frequently in letters or emails. There were few things more disheartening than a combative person on the other side of the table. Yes, it was often the case that one side “winning” something meant the other side losing it, but in the long term it was just as often in everyone’s interests not to get into a fighting stance.


SoU 11.30.13 at 12:15 am

Ed H @113 ‘ Simpson’s paradox is lurking at the edges of this discussion’ – care to elaborate?

I also think that the empirical evidence re: women in law, noted by Andrew F just above, is very germane to this discussion and warrants addressing. It squares with my own experience, and lends credence to the suspicion that factors other than the combative style are responsible for the current gender disparity in philosophy.

Lastly – regarding the point made above re: large number of female philosophers ‘at the top’ – i would agree that the list of ‘philosophers doing interesting work’ is quite balanced, but imho this is a fairly recent phenomenon. but maybe this is something important moving forward and the whole aspirational element is a big deal when people are exploring the discipline. syllabi are slow to change, especially in such an old field with so little space available for contemporary thinkers after reading all those dead white European men. which reminds me why i don’t think combativeness is really that big of a problem in phil. – because there are already so many problems re: conceptions of gender as relates to reason, and re: the etiology of various philosophical concepts throughout the history of the discipline and their historical location in imperial centers; and i think that these problems are so deep and ingrained that they make argumentative style a 2nd order thing.


John Quiggin 11.30.13 at 1:13 am

“nevermind continuing to talk around somebody while having quickly abandoned the original point, as I read John Quiggin as having done above”

(irony on) That’s a neat example of interpretative charity (irony off). Belle made an amusing response to me, and I made a less amusing response to her (I try, but I’m not Belle). While I was writing my little joke (posted at 10:58) you came in with your lengthy defense of existing practice (10:52). I posted my little bit before seeing your comment, but even if I had seen it, I wasn’t under any obligation to respond. I made my point, enjoyed Belle’s response, had a go myself, and went to bed.

If I get time, however, I will take up the challenge of a non-violent trolley problem.


Ed Herdman 11.30.13 at 2:30 am

@ SoU:
By invoking Simpson’s Paradox I only mean to state that we can quickly get into trouble trying to diagnose causal relationships. Clearly, when we look at the big-picture items – lower rates of acceptance by women in big fields appears to be a problem. But from whence this problem? Is it loud boorish men? Is it the superior state of women, or the prevalence of uninteresting problems in much modern philosophy? Is it something else?

I definitely agree with you about the role and weight of the empirical evidence, although here again Simpson’s Law lurks in the backgrounds – we have nothing yet but a pathwork of anecdotes, each of which is hopefully analyzed clearly as an individual circumstance. In other words, I think this is a problem that is best approached by a patchwork of interested communities, rather than as a top-down approach (I’m a Democrat, what the hell am I saying?!)…I hope this makes some sense.

@ John Quiggin:

I’ll accept that criticism, and I’m sorry for being sloppy and ungenerous – though, speaking of ironies, it is rather interesting that it’s always the issues of emotive import that get cleared up first!

Still, why no interpretative charity for your comment? I think it’s clear that a lot of the problems we’ve discussed in philosophy have, as their cause, the use of political strategies (or even just fixed patterns of action that don’t necessarily have any bad intent) that end up burying promising lines of inquiry. So while I certainly accept some blame for trying to be the humorless taskmaster and in misreading your comment, I think that everybody can take steps to elevate the conversation.

That only helps me so far when I read hard-to-interpret comments; I do not want to stretch my definition of interpretative charity beyond what appears to be the limits of common sense. So there’s just something that I have to leave as an open question – when is it appropriate to make jokes, and when should we refrain? It seems a question very nearly parallel, if not exactly the same as, when criticism is too loud or aggressive. I don’t see this as blaming the victim.

I think you and Belle are fine, and I don’t want you to feel that I resent your fun. I just want to point out that for the purposes of having a discussion, sometimes clubby atmospheres can suck the oxygen out of the room. It makes the “atmosphere” of a comment thread a bit more confusing, like trying to listen to one person in a cramped conference room while others have a discussion on the side. This should sound familiar to the tone of much of the preceding conversation, and not by accident.

Back to the issue of the minute: Your focus on a “non-violent trolley problem” is, I hope, purely facetious, because trying to alter the tone of the problem will necessarily defeat its claim to success. Trying to discover how people make choices in tragic situations – the intent of the trolley problem – while swearing off the ability to talk about tragedy is simply a non-starter, at least if my intuitions are accurate about the similarity between philosophy being able to use empirical methods in the same way normal science can.


Ed Herdman 11.30.13 at 2:34 am

Oh, and Katherine’s great comment reminds me that if we look at the situation from a different social perspective, the issue can shift quite neatly from “aggressive individuals” to “too much social conformity” or outright sexism (i.e., Japan). Yet this doesn’t mean that it’s right to have a naive sociobiological view that people are helpless in the face of such forces – rather that coping mechanisms (in the case of Japan, many of these are fascinatingly recounted in “Office Ladies and Salaried Men,” which appears to still be representative of modern Japan to a great degree) do not make up enough lost ground in getting back to a “more ideal” state (however that is defined.


Belle Waring 11.30.13 at 4:20 am

Ed Herdman: like I said, I just said something sarcastic and then went to sleep. Never let it be said I don’t keep my promises! I was ignoring you only to the same degree that I was ignoring all other real-world stimuli. Why was I so sarcastic, you may wonder? It’s possible I’m just kind of a jerk to people in comments. Posssssible. It’s also possible that your defense of bloody thought experiments was strange and condescending. You say were not intending to surprise anyone by noting that it was women philosophers who were, perhaps most strongly, associated with trolley problems. Its only further relevance can be to imply: “you think these gruesome tales are likely to drive away the fair sex! How wrong you are!” And then, if you do not mean to offer the justification, “no actually existing humans are harmed during the construction of thought experiments,” why go to the trouble of offering it? Surely not offering it would have been the way to go there? And really, it is either condescending, or it is passive-agressive. There is no ordinary conversational setting in which we say to someone, “I know you’re worried about Ripley, but the alien is just special effects. The actress is fine!” save that in which we are talking to a very young child, and may I add, sir, that I do not approve of your baby-sitting-style if you think that Alien is appropriate movie-night fare for a three-year-old.

What’s wrong with a little of the old ultra-violence to get the mental juices flowing? Possibly nothing. The advantage of eliciting some emotional effect, in your view. But consider, there are a number of variables, and no particular reason to think we have all the sliders set properly now. If we wish to maximize the emotional effect, and minimize the scalded-tea cozy problem (which is funny! +10), perhaps it would be best to fill all the slots in the experiment with specific individuals particularly beloved by the interlocutor/thought-experimental-subject. So, some probing questions will be in order first, so that we can determine whether to put the person’s mother on the tracks, and father wearing a heavy back-pack on the highway overpass, or vice versa. This will have two disadvantages. The first is that the questioning will be awkward and might poison the relationship between (let’s say) student and professor. The second is that many might say the information produced by the experiment will be tainted in some way, not properly elicited, and so on, if it hinges very closely on the emotional particularities of the (again stipulative) student.

And, again, why some sorts of violence but not others? What if there are 100,000 people on the train (it’s mag-lev and a km wide and racing ahead of Mercury’s terminator on circular rails and anyway I don’t need to explain that because THOUGHT EXPERIMENT no backsies), and it will derail, and everyone will die, unless you rape a three year old child? Unless you rape an adult woman? Unless you cut off each joint on your non-dominant hand, one by one, with a pair of poultry shears, such that in the end you have only a bloody stump, but are provided with medical care throughout and will not bleed to death or have any medical complications? What if I were to erase the child’s memory? The woman’s? And also everyone on the train’s? And mine? What if you need to save the severed joints in a jar of formaldehyde on your desk and never explain it to anyone, and they think you are mad? Do you think that the practice of analytic philosophy would be improved if it were all “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” all the time? “A Clockwork Orange” all the time? “On Beyond Zebra” all the time? No? Yes? Maybe?

It has happened that someone has come up with a really amazing alternate worlds hypothesis that is genuinely illuminating and then we all stand around saying, “oh, shit. Huh. Goddamn.” [The two practices aren’t identical obviously, but you see my point.] But rote fall-back on trolley problems is often a misuse of imaginary violence that is not particularly instructive either. You may very well object at this point–‘Belle, I can’t go too far wrong misusing imaginary violence because I have an infinite supply! Literally! No, literally, I do have an infinite supply.’ I know, me too! But a) some if it is really quite infinitely awful (as JQ suggests, I can have everyone marching to Chemlno in a trice), and b) in my opinion we frequently use it to ‘elicit’ intuitions that don’t have prior existence, so we cannot elicit them. We just make them up after we’ve heard the problem. That obviously can’t get us anywhere in ethical philosophy, just making things up and thinking we know because of imaginary introspection, right? It didn’t seem to do Euthyphro a lot of good. Well, philosophy-wise, anyway; he may have had his dad convicted and enjoyed unfettered access to his inheritance as a relatively young man. (I never see anyone else suggesting this; perhaps I have a suspicious mind.) And if we evaluate the paper in part based on how clever we think the trolley problem is, and in part how clever it made us feel when we made up intuited various things, well, things can go pretty badly off the rails.


John Quiggin 11.30.13 at 4:36 am

A search of my archives reveals that my first objection to gratuitous violence was made in a debate with Matt Yglesias in 2003 (yes, I knew him before he was famous!)


QS 11.30.13 at 4:41 am

he may have had his dad convicted and enjoyed unfettered access to his inheritance as a relatively young man. (I never see anyone else suggesting this; perhaps I have a suspicious mind.)

Or it was an Oedipal move to free up mommy? Twisted Greeks, ‘n all.


Belle Waring 11.30.13 at 5:27 am

Wait, also, this is like the funniest thing anyone has said about me ever: “I’ll go ahead and say it, and I hope what I have to say can be taken equanimously – at this point I don’t think that Belle Waring is trying to have a discussion, as I know how to have a successful one. That this would happen in this discussion, of all places, carries more than a trace of irony.” IRONIC NOTIRONIC! I am taking this hella equanimously. With the caveat that I was, in fact, asleep, and furthermore expressly told you I was going to sleep and that I would be absent from the conversation, so that this is completely, totally, and in every respect uncharitable and unfair.

I imagine, Ed Herdman, that you may not have been reading our blog for a very long time because, while I have virtues so numerous I have no space to list even one in the comment box (I will supply the proof later), yet still do I have one vice and that is, I will get into an acrimonious argument with a motherfucker. In this very discussion, in fact, it may come about that I end up doing so. Possibly. And of all the things that you can do that are likely to invite an argument of this sort, explaining things to me that I already know, in a condescending way, is probably #1.

My husband occasionally defends the practice of thought experiments by explaining to some anti-current-practice-of-analytic-philosophy interlocutor that the people in the thought experiment aren’t real, and that no one is hurt, and that it’s much like something they may have heard other people talk about, called a “play” or “novel” in which people “pretend” things that aren’t true. When he does this he is attempting to enrage his interlocutor by means of bland passive-agression. It’s, like, his whole deal! Ask anyone! He’s doing it on purpose, though. I have come to think, through reading your other comments, that you are well-intentioned, so I gently invite you to consider–if your straight-faced, genuine attempt to defend trolley-problems is identical to one devised to insult and enrage opponents while denying them any point to focus their anger on, something has gone wrong, hmm?


John Quiggin 11.30.13 at 5:40 am

I think it’s pretty clear that the central problem here is Western Hemisphere chauvinism. Belle and I go to sleep, separately of course but on roughly the same longitude, and then we get blamed for sloping off from the important discussion that is taking place where the sun is shining. Happens all the time!


John Holbo 11.30.13 at 5:57 am

“When he does this he is attempting to enrage his interlocutor by means of bland passive-agression. It’s, like, his whole deal!”

Just for the record: I only ever use this strategy in conscious, justified self-defense against people against whom no better strategy will work. And I always make sure, first, to try reasoning with people like a normal person. When that fails, the passive-aggressive fall-back is like spraying a cat with a water-bottle to teach it not to jump on the table. It causes no permanent damage but encourages good behavior. The reason this seems to be my ‘whole deal’ is that trying to reason with people like a normal person so rarely works that my wife may be pardoned for treating the successes as an error to be rounded off.


John Holbo 11.30.13 at 6:05 am

I agree with my wife that either Ed is trolling her or he is, literally, the newest person I have ever met.


QS 11.30.13 at 6:06 am

^^ I too hate waking up and realizing an interesting conversation was born in EST and died in PST, too late for me in SGT to pipe in to an active audience.


John Holbo 11.30.13 at 6:12 am

Maybe not the newest, literally. But new.


Ed Herdman 11.30.13 at 7:23 am

You can bet on me being the newest person here. My last comment before this one is a much more carefully-written exposition of my views there, but still not careful enough.

I do find a…certain tension between the exhortation, on the one hand, avoid nastiness, while on the other hand using words like “motherfucker.” I won’t try to dodge blame for having spectacularly kickstarted the whole fracas. My major point at this time is to say the pattern of action seems germane to the original study of the thread – somebody wet behind the ears says something terrible; this provokes a justified sense of outrage; now to weigh the response. (In my case all I can do is offer the sincere apology for causing such outrage.) Here is the next question, which should cover a thread I tried to include with all my postings – how much of a response is appropriate, and how much is too much? I don’t mind being the butt of a joke and even find it a bit literating when it’s warranted, although there is a limit to this effect where instead of having the desired result, it doesn’t push the stooge in the koan to enlightenment. No doubt the human tendency to push away intrusive trolls and other fools has shown its value through evolution, but at the same time we should always be skeptical of the appropriateness of our reactions – treating personal slights as tantamount to violence seems to me the way our bodies often respond to such things, even through the apparently helpful buffer of the Internet. The risk is that the pushback is too much for payment; the originally aggrieved party ends up feeling put off and unfulfilled, while the person who should be learning they made a mistake is simply driven off and feels themselves unduly penalized. In short there seems to be a fine line between just desserts and a response which is over the top.

Hopefully this also will explain another point of (now downright embarrassing) confusion I had – I thought “this is a moral objection against trolley problems, which I don’t understand” to two more nuanced objections, which I now see as justified.

I accept Belle’s criticism about the implication of bringing up female exponents of trolley problems – I’ll just lamely offer the explanation of trying to smash up various thread trends that didn’t belong together; I should’ve paid attention to my intuition about that!

Speaking of being new to the ‘net, you should all know by now that trolls don’t use their real names. I get the “passive-aggressive” criticism, but again I think there’s a fine line between being passive-aggressive, and trying to make a fine point without attaching an irrelevant personal criticism to it. When I said that I couldn’t believe there was good faith behind some of the comments (which was a wrong thing to say) that was meant as a critique of the process, not the person. And so it goes!


Belle Waring 11.30.13 at 7:43 am

It’s not, like, his whole thing of ever, just of defending trolley problems against misguided objectors.


John Holbo 11.30.13 at 8:21 am

“just of defending trolley problems against misguided objectors.”

Well, strictly the set is a bit larger than that. Strictly, the recipe is this. You are in an argument with someone who is making consistently mildly unfair points, for force and emphasis. Do not object to this. Instead, encourage it, saving up all the slight unfairnesses over the course of a long thread. Then, when you have enough, straight-facedly aggregate them all into one grotesquely foolish-sounding total, the Frankenstein monster of all the little over-the-topnesses. Earnestly explain to the person that, while Frankenstein may look human to them, more sophisticated people see him as grotesque.

This ‘give ’em enough wringer for their tit’ strategy works, even though it is unfair, because the true and correct rebuttal to its unfairness – namely, they obviously never intended to say one big stupid thing, only a lot of little, vaguely unfair things – sounds weak.

Once in a while this actually works, and people figure out it will be less aggravating, in the long run, to be reasonable, even though that doesn’t otherwise appeal to them as a strategy for defending their views. But its time-consuming to train people in this way.


Belle Waring 11.30.13 at 8:28 am

It’s cool, Ed, this doesn’t even rise to the fracas level.

bianca steele: “First thought: I worry about some kinds of attempts to reach gender parity for reasons I mentioned on LGM a little while ago….Does that mean the first group of women are cut out from one of the few careers available to them? Does that cause nightmares for education at the college and high school level?”
I really don’t get at all what you mean here. Who will be cut out, and why? If there is a greater intake into Philosophy qualified women will be taken from other fields? How will private schools be at more of an advantage than they are now?


Mao Cheng Ji 11.30.13 at 8:46 am

“I really don’t get at all what you mean here.”

Hmm. I’m not bianca, but I think I understand… You see, since it’s seems unlikely that the post suggests cracking down on only the male aggressors in the profession, a number of women (the aggressive ones) is going to be discouraged (or excluded?) too. What are they supposed to do?


dbk 11.30.13 at 8:55 am

JQ@123 Western Hemisphere Chauvinism: what about the poor folks trapped in the no-man’s-land of EET, who go to sleep in the middle of one sort of thread and wake up to find it’s another thread altogether? Talk about a lose-lose time zone.

When one is totally lost after having read through a discussion thread twice, then one does what one must: return to the source, in this case the Guardian piece linked in the OP. No one’s mentioned the (to me) salient point that there was a group of highly distinguished women philosophers at Oxford, all of whom entered university at the very moment the men left for WWII. This suggests to me that women can do philosophy, and do it extremely well.

I haven’t followed the field for 35 years, so had to look up all the names so helpfully provided @ 100 – interestingly, all ( nearly all?) are in political / moral philosophy. This suggests to me that the gold standard specialization by which philosophical greatness is measured (analytic) might not be as appealing to women as it is to men. It could be useful to break out the specializations and see what the gender mix looks like these days.

For Ed Herdman: the trolley problem is a long-running CT leitmotif; in fact, I see that JH has been inspired to post on it again today. I find it advisable to avoid its mention, though I’m now going to violate my own advice and head off for the new thread…


Ed Herdman 11.30.13 at 9:14 am

@ John Holbo
That’s just rolling the dic. What I found helpful personally were the pointed comments that picked out exactly what I was doing wrong – I do try to pay attention when people are straight to the point!

@ dbk:
I actually did submit a comment to the new thread, but mainly I think if you throw together what’s said there with what John Quiggin posted here for me (if the comment doesn’t clear moderation, thanks for the link John!), and it’s pretty clear what’s going on to me now.

I can sign on to support the criticism given here of trolley problems as pushing a particular viewpoint (I mentioned Kohlberg and the question of “philosopher expertise” earlier but ironically didn’t know of the connection, or make that exact link), and also when they are used imprecisely, as I think Matthew Yglesias’ example (from the linked thread on John Quiggin’s blog) is.


Ed Herdman 11.30.13 at 9:14 am

“rolling the dice” :\


QS 11.30.13 at 9:26 am

You’re so phallo-centric, Ed.


Belle Waring 11.30.13 at 10:16 am

Mao Cheng Ji: hmm, OK. There are perhaps five things run together there and I hadn’t taken it the right way around. So something like: “policies will be put in place that make everyone stop being such an asshole, which, by stipulation, causes more women to join the field, but then what about the asshole women? Does no one care about them us?” Along these lines? Erg. This goes back to the geek sexism complaint, illustrated perfectly by the Stephenson quote above.

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.” However, they are about 30% right, so you can’t dismiss them altogether. 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 problem?” 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.

Clearly, part of the solution is convincing women that they should embrace their inner asshole a bit more and just start smacking people around, argument-wise. Because there really is an aspect of this that, done properly, is instructive and useful. But analytic philosophy does not require abrasiveness. Stereotype threat is important, since it means that even in a group of men and women who are equally intelligent, composed of argumentative types in equal amounts, women will fare worse. When John and I were PhD students in Philosophy (& Ancient Philosophy) at Berkeley in olden tymes, up till when we moved here in 2000, ethics, especially bioethics, and Ancient Phil., were acceptable chick subjects, while your manlier man would go for something which, as it asymptotically (and sadly, merely in imagination) approached math (such as logic of certain kinds), gained…ah…rigor. Yes, became more rigorous. Since the topics were…harder and so on. It’s my depressing impression this is still true. Looking at the enrollment, it seems Mathematics does, indeed, grant proportionately more PhDs to women than Philosophy does. Certainly consistent with a preference for a less confrontational style–or as a fall-back position, a perfectly ajudicable system!


Mao Cheng Ji 11.30.13 at 11:10 am

If analytic philosophy does not require abrasiveness, then, in fact, you could tell “hey, why not stop being such an asshole” to the assholes of both sexes, if you were defending non-assholes (of both sexes) against the assholes (of both sexes). There must, after all, many men with that “imposter syndrome”; what, do they get what they deserve? Why reenforce the stereotype by framing this as a ‘mechanism that excludes women’, that’s what I don’t understand. But maybe this is similar to what you’re saying in 137, I’m not sure.


Belle Waring 11.30.13 at 1:21 pm

It seems, as a matter of actual fact, to deter many women who might otherwise enjoy philosophy a lot, though there’s less than no reason to think women are less competitive or, even, any worse at being abrasive. I don’t think it should deter them, but it does. In my experience this is part stereotype threat and part active sexism on the part of (some–a small minority!) male PhD students and Fight Club profs. I believe that if a certain type of ferocious attack weren’t the community-wide norm, more women would join, but sadly there are plenty of women who go take one seminar, basically get singled out and hassled, and decide, fuck that noise, I’ll be a sociologist or something. This was so much the case at Berkeley that until like 1998 they didn’t award a joint Classics/Philosophy PhD. The Venn diagram of “reads Plato in Greek” and “studies Plato as a philosophy student” was not as complete as it should have been.


Collin Street 11.30.13 at 1:50 pm

(some–a small minority!)

Doesn’t take many. If you want to drive women out, you don’t need to make the environment intolerable: just make your field worse — even a little bit worse — than the other options and they’ll leave of their own accord.

I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you. Where “outrun” means “render inhospitable to women” and “you” means mathematics, I guess.


Andrew F. 11.30.13 at 5:14 pm

Well, here’s a reference noting a study suggesting that “confrontational style” may not be a significant factor in explaining gender disparity within philosophy.

Katherine – fair point that many attorneys practice in an area where a confrontational style is counter-productive, but would you agree that most attorneys are exposed at length to a confrontational style in the course of law school? Given that female law students, judging at least by the federal clerkship numbers I mentioned, seem to do quite well regardless, I think that this still poses a problem for the “confrontational style” explanation (via any of the mechanisms claimed in the comments) for lower numbers of women in philosophy.

As to trolley problems and violence… philosophy contains much less violence than sociology, history, political science, and literature, to name a few. Has a trolley problem ever succeeded in actually moving someone to anger, or tears, or sadness, or horror, in the way that large parts of other subjects unsurprisingly do? Surely one with such skill in devising fictional scenes of violence is more likely to be found writing fiction, or being interviewed on 60 Minutes, than doing moral philosophy.


bianca steele 11.30.13 at 5:51 pm

Still on my phone but quickly: First, I’m supposing there’s some qualitative difference between philosophers and others so changing the criteria excludes the previously selected group. If women think what generally happens in philosophy seminars makes them sound bitchy there are other philosophy related things they can do. But I would be annoyed if women were excluded from seminar debates because that was only for men or if I got all the way to grad school by being argumentative only to be told I had to switch to chick philosophy.

So my second point as a public school graduate is that this last seems likely to happen in part because in many places the idea that being ladylike is an essential element of being successful, emotionally integrated and self supporting would seem counterintuitive. In part you’re right that every difference between reality and common sense probably favors graduates of elite private schools.


bianca steele 11.30.13 at 6:04 pm

Also I would have been all over the idea of using logic to get to the basics of a problem and never get to qualitative stuff so if you get my meaning it makes sense toe that there’s for some reason a gender related personality difference involved.


Lisa Schweitzer 11.30.13 at 6:13 pm

Sure, western philosophy may be based on questioning, but there are questions, and there are questions. Some questions seek clarity; other questions try to score points. One of the most charming things about Plato’s depiction of Socrates is that even when confronted with Theages, Euthyphro, or Aristophanes, the old boy never gets snarky or personally dismissive, not really. Ultimately the question about how to behave for me always comes down to : do we want to behave like Polemarchus, Thrasymachus, Glaucon, or Adiemantus? Polemarchus runs away when his ideas are challenged. Thrasymachus, despite having a very plausible argument, undermines himself by allowing his his ego to become wrapped in being right, and by the end his conduct degrades to cheap ad hominem. Glaucon and Adiemantus, however, keep it up; they don’t allow Socrates to get away with the muddled answers he gave Thrasymachus, but they do so in a way that says “if you’ve got the answer, help us see it as you see it.” I also think it is meaningful that Plato gives up on the elenchus at various points, probably because he can’t get where he wants to go with it. There’s nothing that says we must be 100% agonistic or inquisitive or collaborative all the time; matching method and approach to the moment strikes me as worth pursuing.


Rakesh Bhandari 11.30.13 at 7:14 pm

Looking over the OP, I see the very interesting reference to the impostor syndrome. I think it was Leszek Kolakowski who openly said that he was burdened by it and that no serious thinker is not.
At any rate, can think of many women philosophers who are not–Helen Longino, Nina Power, Debra Satz.
I am wondering whether it is being suggested that given the way philosophy of mind or philosophy of language is understood today, it tends to disinterest certain kinds of thinkers among which women are under-represented. So it’s not a matter at least directly of people being put off by the putatively combative style but of the way the fields have been constructed?


Katherine 11.30.13 at 10:49 pm

would you agree that most attorneys are exposed at length to a confrontational style in the course of law school?

I can’t comment on US law school. Having done a law degree and another year doing my Legal Practice Course, I can say no, not really. If your intention was to be practice in litigation or be a barrister, then I imagine the answer might be different.


Ed Herdman 11.30.13 at 11:02 pm

@ Lisa Schweitzer:
>There’s nothing that says we must be 100% agonistic or inquisitive or collaborative all the time; matching method and approach to the moment strikes me as worth pursuing.

Yes! The problem this kind of holistic approach poses for programmed thought patterns is always on my mind – as it is also in the trolley problems’ new home thread. I think that many people overshoot the mark and feel that a holistic approach (or whatever a good name for this might be) is tantamount to arguing that truth or ethical conduct is relative, or whatever is at stake. But at the same time is seems clear that systems that claim to be fully encompassing are doomed to make mistakes that could easily be avoided by choosing a different approach to meet the situation.


engels 11.30.13 at 11:12 pm

Gender politics is the most important prism through which to evaluate AP’s dominant discursive style but I think it might be interesting to consider other selection effects, eg. personality types. Wasn’t there a post somewhere that diagnosed Leiter with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?


engels 11.30.13 at 11:17 pm

Correction to the above: this is the post I was thinking of:


Katherine 11.30.13 at 11:27 pm

That is to say, I did my lawyering in England.


Lee A. Arnold 11.30.13 at 11:31 pm

correct answer to trolley problem, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you were forced to make either choice! You poor thing!”

Why is it always a “choice”, by the way? When did the “economic problem” invade “philosophical discussion”? How many trolley problems (horse and chariot?) did Socrates entertain?


Ed Herdman 12.01.13 at 12:08 am

Well, that just promotes “weak trolleyism” – only in specific circumstances (yes, I hear it – “how specific? Can we specify how specific?” Well, yes!), not as a perfectly general pattern of action. I’m definitely in agreement that it is counterproductive when it prompts people to see floating daggers and inescapable tragedies, when in fact there are wide ranges of non-tragic actions.

…man, why do I keep having references to Macbeth popping into my head?

But surely the trolley problem has had whatever limited successes it has won because, in fact, we recognize that in some cases the problem stands in as a model for what happens. And it seems to me that objectors to the trolley problem take on the burden of explaining how in a tragic case they will defend taking non-action, or wasting time trying to force a third option (practically prohibited by infeasibility).


Lee A. Arnold 12.01.13 at 1:13 am

I strongly promote weak trolleyism


Belle Waring 12.01.13 at 1:46 am

145: Rakesh, linguistics is massively more equal than philosophy so people who apply various theories of language also seem quite welcome of either gender.

As to the idea that Socrates was a well-intentioned, not-badgering-people, friendly interlocutor, it is to LOLOL Socrates was the trolliest troll of ever. He is the ur-troll. Pissing people off so badly that they can’t debate him anymore and then drafting substitutes and/or answering his own questions takes up raaaather a lot of time.


mattski 12.01.13 at 1:51 am

Pissing people off so badly that they can’t debate him anymore…

Worse than that, they said shut up and drink this hemlock!


BBloom 12.01.13 at 1:58 am

Very interesting thread. Some random thoughts and questions, which as a non-philosopher/non-academic, I throw out to others:
*While reading the thread, the idea occurred to me that one reason philosophers might be especially antagonistic is because of the lack of acceptable straw men, who can be beat up in a lit review with general approval. (Is this even remotely true? Only person I thought of was Bernard Henri Levy, but he’s probably too silly to count. I gather many folks don’t like Peter Singer). I think Dan Drezner wrote somewhere that if Tom Friedman didn’t exist, international relations scholars would have to invent him–someone’s whose arguments could be presented without exaggeration as hopelessly crude. This would be the scapegoat theory of philosophical aggression.
*Is it really the case that philosophy is more combative than other disciplines? (I suppose the recent story about the Russian man shot over a Kant argument suggests that it is–hard to see this happening with, say Clifford Gertz or Robert Dahl). Why might this be so if true? A guess: that the relative importance of evidence collecting and comparison across contexts in the social sciences and history versus that of internal consistency in philosophy plays a role. The intuition being that the former leads one to be more cautious or seemingly lacking in confidence.
*How much does asshole-ness carry over from the seminar room into published works? A product of classroom dynamics or style of argumentation?
*Brian Leiter writes that truth, combat is the right posture. Seems reasonable where the truth in question has consequences for politics or science, maybe not so much in areas of metaphysics or “getting so-and-so right” type scholarship. Does the aggressiveness of a debate correspond with the actual stakes involved? If no, it’d seem that ego, professional reputation, etc. is the more important concern.


QS 12.01.13 at 2:36 am

Socrates doesn’t get snarky because he’s too busy being ironic.


Main Street Muse 12.01.13 at 1:51 pm

“Instruction in philosophy often consists of being reprimanded for mistakes so small you need a magnifying glass to see them. 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.”

Got a bit of a laugh realizing that philosophers pander to the idea the idea that dominance in philosophical thought is best achieved by bashing an opponent into submission. Ivory tower warfare is ugly and unproductive.

This type of instruction, bashing a student into submission, is a terrible way to teach. Perhaps women initially interested in philosophy see this and decide to pursue more productive avenues. Bashing students and colleagues all the time must get boring…


bianca steele 12.01.13 at 5:29 pm

I think I’ve posted this poem before but hey, it’s a holiday weekend. Anyway, the point of it was supposed to be the way a supposedly consensus driven mode, iterated, can turn into bashing an opponent into submission. (The point isn’t that “do no harm” is a bad result, but that it’s a little . . . content-free? Also, I guess the TL;DR is just “stonewalling” if that’s what you want.)

I suppose if you think nitpicking–preferably non-adversarial nitpicking–will get to “truth” and not to nullity (and is usually anyway practiced in an unbiased way), even the TL;DR won’t work for you, just a proof that I don’t “get it.”


js. 12.03.13 at 12:07 am

in my opinion we frequently use it to ‘elicit’ intuitions that don’t have prior existence, so we cannot elicit them. We just make them up after we’ve heard the problem.

Just wanted to note that this is the biggest problem with trolley-type thought experiments. Utterly fatal one, at that. (Irony noted, etc.)


js. 12.03.13 at 1:10 am

Re the OP,

As several, including CB, have noted, it’s perfectly possible to be perfectly frank, even blunt, without being combative—tho admittedly the lines can blur a bit. But (and this is related), I think the grain of truth in what Leiter says is that it is I think perfectly appropriate to have different norms of criticism for when one is dealing with students vs. when one is dealing with peers. And the reason this is worth mentioning is that I think a lot of people (here, professional philosophers) do offer criticism in a constructive vein, rather than a combative vein, when dealing with their students, but much less so when dealing with their peers. It can only be to the good if they deal with their peers more like they deal with their students, i.e. make their criticisms more constructive—this can be done quite well enough without letting go of the frankness. (Tho going back to the different norms bit, I do think that it should even ideally be okay to be more blunt with one’s peers than with one’s students.)


Mao Cheng Ji 12.03.13 at 8:27 am

“in my opinion we frequently use it to ‘elicit’ intuitions that don’t have prior existence, so we cannot elicit them. We just make them up after we’ve heard the problem.”

That’s the whole point. Intuition is an immediate unconscious reaction to a situation you’ve never experienced and haven’t had a chance to analyze consciously.

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