April 28, 2016

· Philosophy

Nomy Arpaly has an interesting post at Daily Nous called Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible? She says, in part:

I am not a philosophical pacifist, but you don’t need to be a literal pacifist to oppose war crimes, and you don’t need to be a philosophical pacifist to oppose gratuitous rudeness. Being compelled to break the rule of thumb against telling people that they are mistaken in the understanding of an important thing is no excuse for also yelling at them, repeatedly interrupting them and talking over them, responding to their painstakingly prepared talks with a sneering “why should I be interested in any of this”? (as opposed to a “does this have any implications for my field” or “how does it fit in the literature”), and worse things that we philosophers do, such as asking a job candidate about the counterfactual merits of hypothetically slapping her.

That last example is something that happened to Nomy herself as a junior candidate, by the way.

I have various thoughts on this. Here are three. First, one of the best philosophers I’ve ever seen in action was an unfailingly polite man. He disabused me of the idea that rudeness or rhetorical aggression has any sort of necessary connection to intellectual quality.

Second, many of the standard forms of philosophical rudeness are less about content and more about asserting one’s social position or trying to enact a specific model of “being smart”. For example, aggressively asking “Why is this interesting?“, or querulously saying “I just don’t understand”, or simply pulling a face (oh god, the face-pullers) are all interventions that depend for their effectiveness on prior beliefs about who is clever and important. They would seem absurd or “simply” rude if someone with no standing tried them. It’s tempting to point to Ludwig Wittgenstein as the exemplar of this approach, and his huge success as the reason his methods have echoed down through the years. But there are plenty of other possible sources. In Wittgenstein’s case, as I’ve noted before, it’s a real shame that Frank Ramsey died at such a terribly young age. It would have done twentieth century philosophy a power of good to have someone like Ramsey around the Cambridge colleges as a counterweight to Wittgenstein, partly because he had a mind of the same magnitude but quite different cast, but also because he provided an appealing alternative model of what genius can be. It might have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble, right down to some of the people I knew in grad school who tried so, so hard to induce genius in themselves—or at least its designation in them by others—through being assholes to nominally lower-status people whenever they could.

Third, there’s a case to be made that rudeness and aggression is both actively antithetical to philosophical progress and also an expected outcome of disciplinary practice. Why, after all, are there so many face-pullers in the field? How do we get to the point where statements like “I just don’t understand” are taken as emblematic of the brilliance of the questioner, rather than evidence that they’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer? In a classic essay from the 1960s, “On Getting ‘Hung-Up’ and Other Assorted Illnesses”, Arthur Stinchcombe dissects some of these pathologies for academia generally. He notes that presenting one’s own work involves “putting one’s identity on the block”. Because one’s research area is seen more or less as a free choice reflective of one’s “passions”, there’s not a lot of daylight between what you produce and who you are:

Most people can explain what they do by appeal to the requirements of the job, or to the orders of the boss, or to the custom of the manor. But perfectly free choices reflect what kind of people we are. One who designs cigarette-lighter mechanisms may never call their work ‘creative engineering,’ but because their job is specified and circumscribed, one need never ask oneself whether one is, in fact, a creative person. In contrast, if my research project is not creative scholarship, it’s because I’m not creative. For the scholar, each choice of a research topic or strategy is a choice of what kind of person to be.

Unfortunately, research changes as you do it. Stinchcombe remarks that “a project that ends up after a year or two of work with results that the investigator could have foreseen in considerable detail probably is not worth doing”. This produces a lot of anxiety.

This problem is particularly intense the first time it is confronted, most often in graduate school. Graduate students are often more interested in their work for what it tells them about themselves, about whether they are ‘brilliant’ or not, than for what it tells them about the world. Generally in the process of maturation, this disturbance calms down somewhat, and they aim to have it said of themselves,‘—does good work.’ But we all see the slightly megalomanic symptoms in our colleagues, so irritating because it undermines our own megalomania.

Contemporary analytic philosophy has this problem to an unusually heightened degree. The sciences have demanding methods but also the prospect of results. The humanities cultivate virtuosos but leave room for a lot of disagreement over standards of evaluation. Philosophy is caught between these worlds. It is highly technical but has little use for data. It has well-institutionalized standards but little agreement on progress. It eschews collaboration but is powered by interpersonal argument. It thirsts for genius but dislikes innovation. In this environment, evaluations of quality are even more tied to perceptions of sheer personal talent than is usual in academia.

All of this makes progress harder to achieve. Sympathetic listeners ask, “What is the speaker trying to do here?” and try to put themselves in the speaker’s shoes. The kinds of blunt rudeness that Nomy mentions are all refusals of that. They’re effectively assertions of the opposite—“No, you justify yourself to me”—that fall back on the safety of some pre-existing status order. One thing that makes some of the best philosophers so intimidating is the sense you get that they have a better grip on your ideas than you do yourself. That is an unpleasant feeling. In a field that runs on arguments rather than results, and where one’s identity as a “smart person” is so closely tied to what one says, often in person, to others who are also subject to that identity pressure, it’s no wonder that there’s so much preemptive aggression oriented to undermining one’s interlocutor and asserting one’s own identity.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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