Archive: Philosophy of Philosophy

Adversaries and disputants, gender and argument

Inspired by some comments of Jennifer Saul on Rebecca Kukla’s remarks concerning the “aggressive, argumentative” style in philosophy, Eric Schliesser and Catarina Dutilh Novaes here at NewAPPS have taken up the question of what I would call the character of philosophy. Does it consist in contests in which adversaries, having occupied positions, not only defend them vigorously but also attack those positions which, being contrary to their own, they take to be opposed to their own? Readers of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we live by will recognize here a familiar conceit: argument is war. How warlike should philosophy be?
Consider an ideal type: the (pure) adversary intends that his or her position should prevail. To be an adversary is, by presumption, to be engaged in a contest, that is, in a collective endeavor in which it makes sense to occupy a position.
It is clear from the discussion that no-one really thinks that philosophers should be pure adversaries. We don’t intend that our position should prevail come what may, but that our position should prevail, given that it is (as we think) true, or given that it has (as we think) the balance of reasons in its favor (a condition for which I will use the word “probable” in its older, scholastic sense). We aren’t pure adversaries, but rather adversaries in good faith. (For completeness’ sake I should have an account of devil’s advocacy, i.e. of arguing for positions that one does not in fact regard as true or probable. That would be either a mere exhibition of skill or else a component of some larger act of advocacy in good faith.)
So: a second ideal type. The (pure) disputant intends that his or her position should prevail, provided that it is true (or probable). The scholastic conception of philosophy was of a disputational, not an adversarial, endeavor whose end is the discovery of the true or the probable. In the American court system, on the other hand, because the legal question of guilt or innocence is decided (ceteris paribus) by a jury’s or a judge’s verdict, the proceedings are not, in an immediate way, disputational; instead there is a strong tendency for lawyers to become pure adversaries, their proximate end being not truth but persuasion. (On a distinction between “negotiation” and “scholarly communication” which is analogous to the distinction made here, see Andrew Gelman on “Different modes of discourse”.)
In philosophical discussion (as always, I presuppose good faith) it is understood that assertions must either be defended if questioned or explicitly taken as assumed (locally if not globally) for the sake of argument. A philosopher writing in an aphoristic mode may proceed as if that requirement had been suspended: but it is only suspended, not removed. To remove it would be to shift the aims of philosophy, e.g. toward spiritual exercise (historically, a character of philosophy no less prominent than truth-seeking: see Pierre Hadot’s Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique, Matt Jones on Descartes, Pierre Force on Montaigne and Pascal, and John Sellars on Justus Lipsius).
Philosophical discourse is in that respect always disputational. At minimum to offer reasons for p is also to offer reasons against not-p, and thus to implicate a sort of contest between the proposition asserted and its negation. (On the agonistic origins of Western philosophy see G. E. R. Lloyd’s Revolutions of wisdom and Demystifying mentalities and Marcel Detienne’s Maîtres de vérité; on scholastic disputation, see John Marenbon’s Later medieval philosophy, and on disputation as ritual spectacle see Enders 1993 in the bibliography below; Catarina Dutilh Novaes has written here on argument as dialogue). Kukla is right in exhibiting contempt for anyone who is put off by mere disagreement among philosophers (see also her further remarks at Facebook). But I see no reason to suppose that philosophy must be aggressively disputational. Must an objection be cast as an attack? Disputation needn’t be agonistic, in my view; on the contrary, if the collective aim is to conduct an inquiry into truth, cooperation may be just as productive. Placing a “high premium on verbal sparring and cleverness” (where cleverness denotes something other than or in addition to skill in argument) is at best an imperfect means to that aim; and it exacts a significant social cost insofar as it amplifies disparities of power which have nothing to do with the capacities needed to conduct inquiry.
An intense aggressive style can be used as an instrument of oppression: on that point I suppose there will be agreement. “Your objection has no merit” can be a way of saying “Shut up”, an exercise of power. But I take it that Kukla would include browbeating among the activities she agrees should be discouraged. So the question resolves itself to this: does the intense aggressive style itself (if indeed we can detach the exercise of that style from the social meanings of aggressiveness in particular social contexts) function as a filter in academic philosophy in ways that we would reject, once it became apparent that it was functioning thus? Kukla tries to arrange it so that the burden of proof is on the person who says yes, demanding evidence for that position while offering (so far as I can tell) only her own experience on behalf of her own. If you are antecedently persuaded of the benefits of the intense aggressive style, that may be enough. (I am not so persuaded. Perhaps that is because I am not solely concerned with who should be a philosopher, but with the social profile of philosophy generally.)
Kukla holds that, as far as she can tell, the intense aggressive style puts off people of all sorts equally, and so no social harm will result from its being a common or the prevalent style in philosophy. That, of course, is an empirical claim. Evaluating it would require an intimacy with the literature on small-group dynamics and on negotiation (since I think it reasonable to regard the activity of a seminar, e.g., as consisting partly in negotiations about group beliefs) that I lack. Perhaps others more qualified can comment on that point. I will conclude with some impressions.
In a quick review of studies of negotiation, the firmest general conclusion I can draw is that small differences in setting and expectation can generate significant differences in the importance of gender to influencing behavior. There is no easy answer to the question raised above. For example, if an activity is framed as a winner-take-all competition, women, even those who do well, are less likely to choose to take part than men (Bertrand 2010:1555), which suggests that we not frame discussion in such a way that only one person can be right. Or again: “women’s performance in negotiation improves significantly when negotiating for someone else as opposed to for themselves” (Bertrand 2010:1557), which suggests that we frame the task of discussion not as that of defending my opinion as against yours, but rather as that of determining which of the alternatives we should maintain.
It would seem that the trend of the later literature points to two major conclusions: (i) the differences are usually not large, and are exhibited only when conditioned on other features of the situation; (ii) other relations, notably power relations, with which gender relations are correlated may have a greater role in social interaction. In short: under favorable circumstances, prevalence of the intense aggressive style need not, perhaps, aggravate inequality, in particular gender inequality. But it is up to us to ensure that circumstances are favorable.
    Marianne Bertrand. “New perspectives on gender”. In: Handbook of labor economics 4b: 1545–1592.
    Linda L. Carli. “Gender, language, and influence”. Journal of personality and social psychology 59.5 (1990) 941–951.
    Renee Edwards, Mark A. Hamilton. “You need to understand my gender role: an empirical test of Tannen’s model of gender and communication”. Sex roles 50.7/8 (2004) 491–504. (Also a nice example of modelling complex causal relations.)
    Jody Enders. “The theater of scholastic erudition”. Comparative Drama 27.3 (1993) 341–363.
    Annette Hannah, Tamar Murachver. “Gender and conversational style as predictors of conversational behavior.” Journal of language and social psychology 18.2 (1999) 153–174.
    Michael A. Gilbert. “Feminism, argumentation and coalescence.” Informal logic 16.2 (1994) 95–133 (with bibliography of earlier literature).
    Deborah M. Kolb. “Too bad for the women or does it have to be? Gender and negotiation research over the past twenty-five years”. Negotiation journal Oct 2009:515–531.
    Laura J. Kray, Leigh Thompson, Adam Galinsky. “Battle of the sexes: gender stereotype confirmation and reactance in negotiations.” Journal of personality and social psychology 80.6 (2001) 942–958.
    Alex J. Novikoff. “Toward a cultural history of scholastic disputation”. The American historical review 117.2 (2012) 331–364.
    Amy E. Walters, Alice F. Stuhlmacher, and Lia L. Meyer. “Gender and negotiator competitiveness: a meta-analysis”. Organizational behavior and human decision processes 76.1 (1998) 1–29.
    Janice D. Yoder, Arnold S. Kahn. “Toward a feminist understanding of women and power”. Psychology of women quarterly 16 (1992) 381–388.

LinkMay 30, 2013 | Comments (0)

On Schliesser on Glymour

This is a slightly amended version of a comment on one of Eric Schliesser’s responses to Clark Glymour’s opinions concerning philosophy.
How can you use “philosophical background to write insightfully and importantly about public policy” if there’s no background? I take it that the background is either (i) traditional ethics, including the “theoretical ethics” that is being consigned to the trash, or (ii) some formal-philosophical alternative. If (i), the proposal to save public policy ethics is incoherent when accompanied by a proposal to consign traditional ethics to oblivion. That leaves (ii). Is anyone actually doing public policy ethics in a formal way?
I think you’re right that there must be a supposition to the effect, not that truth-seeking entails liberal politics, but that there will be a consensus on that point among genuine philosophers, on the basis of which public policy ethics can be carried on by “formal” means, i.e. by means that themselves make no ethical presuppositions.
The justification of that consensus can only be a mystery from the standpoint of genuine philosophers themselves. How is it that agents who value, and therefore seek, truth should regard themselves as bound by (other) liberal values?
On that point there has been discussion, hasn’t there? —an “open society”, I take it, is supposed to be optimal for science, etc. It’s not clear to me why the argument has to be a priori, by the way. What bars appeal to general facts about nature and human nature?
Even if one waives the issue you raise, and grants that (i) there is a consensus and (ii) that consensus is liberal (both of which facts will be, as I said, mysteriously ungrounded, by which I don’t mean that there would be no natural scientific explanation of them, but that there would be no rational justification of it, for surely no-one thinks that ”Darwin makes right“), nevertheless what we agree on is not, so to speak, lying out in the open like the constitution of a state (and just mentioning consitutions suggests that even if they did, their interpretation would still be contentious). The route to an explicit version of the agreed-upon principles and from them to policy would require something other than “logic, mathematics and the theory and practice of computation”.

LinkDecember 29, 2011

On Rosenberg on Science

A quotation first:
“But what about other items on Professor Williamson’s list of disciplines it would be hard to count as science: history, literary theory? Can science and naturalistic philosophy do without them? This is a different question from whether people, as consumers of human narratives and enjoyers of literature, can do without them. The question naturalism faces is whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding.
“Naturalism faces these questions because it won’t uncritically buy into Professor Williamson’s ‘default assumption … that the practitioners of a well-established discipline know what they are doing, and use the … methods most appropriate for answering its questions.’ If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.
“That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than foregoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.”
Rosenberg starts here with a brief list: history, literary theory. He forgets history (after implying that all history is narrative history: so much for the Annales school and hundreds of other historians), and turns to “disciplines like literary theory”.
Then we get a seriously defective bit of non-argument. In form:
If A, then B.
Therefore B.
Here A = “semiotics etc. flout science’s standards or seek to limit the reach of scientific methods”, and B = “naturalism can’t take them seriously”.
No doubt Rosenberg holds A true. But it is bad manners in philosophy, even op-ed philosophy, to pretend you’ve proved or been granted a controversial premise that you haven’t gone one step toward proving.
Another point:


LinkSeptember 19, 2011

I stopped reading…

A result of reading
I was reading a poem of Ashbery. I stopped when I encountered the phrase ‘partial symmetry’. That phrase evoked, as an errant odor might, an image, or rather the skeletal trace of one, of my reading, long ago when I was studying music, a book on finite geometries. I recalled in particular the phrase ‘incomplete block design’, a mathematical object that indeed exhibits partial symmetry. The image and phrase could have set off a long train of reminiscence and reverie, but instead I began thinking about what the poem had done to me.
Modern criticism tends to set great store by evocativeness, allusiveness, multum in parvo. A poem ought to suggest more than it says. “Standing upon a peak in Darien”—the last line of Keats’s “On reading Chapman’s Homer”—is the type. A scientific report, on the other hand, ought to suggest no more than it says. It would be an aberrant report that lent itself to indefinite chains of allusion. Its effect requires no Pacific lurking offstage, no flower absent from all bouquets. The scientific flower is there in black and white or not at all.
Were I writing at length I would tease out the suggestions of ‘suggestion’. I might even venture a definition. After all, there are distinctions to be made. Scientific papers can be suggestive too. Einstein’s 1905 papers certainly were, but not in the way of Keats. Here, though, I rely on the reader’s sense of the difference.
We expect more
We—the present audience for serious philosophy—expect of philosophical writing that at its best it should place itself somewhere between poem and report. A philosophical work that suggests no more than it says tends not to be read once the dialectic has moved on. After the moving finger writes there follow many hands erasing until almost nothing is left (except for those of us who make a profession of reading old texts); what remains does so by virtue of its power of suggestion.

LinkAugust 31, 2011

Pundit makes stuff up, is refuted

Stanley Fish has recently asserted that “the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical […], and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them”. This is at best a gross overgeneralization; it can be refuted by five minutes’ research online.*
No doubt lots of people will step up to defend the relevance of philosophical conclusions. I want to consider a different issue. Once upon a time when a poobah like Fish issued pronouncements like this, it would have taken time to gather the evidence to refute him. Now it takes almost no time or expense. It seems that by and large the poobahs have yet to catch on, perhaps because for poobahs research is optional. When they pontificate on the day’s events, they mostly rely on their general knowledge. This is owing no doubt to deadline pressures; but it is also characteristic of the role. A well-furnished mind has been, since the days of Cicero at least, a prerequisite of the orator; but even the most well-furnished have lacunæ and lapses, and one suspects that some of our poobahs’ furnishings are sparse.
When I lecture I sometimes find myself veering into topics I haven’t prepared and don’t know much about. I too have to fall back on my general knowledge. I used to be able to count on knowing more than my students on most of the subjects I was likely to veer into. But now they have computers and iPads. If I don’t get a date or name right they can catch it almost immediately. They sometimes do, and sometimes they tell me. I’ve learned two things: one is not to fake it, the other is to take advantage of those computers and iPads—have them do some fact-checking for me. It’s instructive for both of us.
The issue I want to raise is: what becomes of “general knowledge”, or rather the social value of having lots of it, now that anyone with a phone or tablet can simulate the possession of a well-furnished mind? Is the orator’s storehouse obsolete? And if poobah discourse, like the extemporaneous public oratory of Chautauqua days, depends for its effect partly on the impressive marshalling of general knowledge, will it now gradually fade away?
*The issue Fish raises is real enough, and has a long history: for one case, see Miles Burnyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live his Scepticism?”, in Richard Rorty et al (eds.), Philosophy in History (1980) and the subsequent literature.

LinkAugust 3, 2011

A Janus-faced discipline

[Previous posts on this topic: Pasnau, Novaes, Smith I, Smith II, Lance.]
If the history of philosophy needs defending, the posts listed above ought to persuade anyone persuasible. Rather than add another log to the palisade, I thought it would be useful to try to understand why the question keeps coming up.
There’s ample evidence that it does come up every so often. You’ll find earlier stages of the discussion in Margaret Wilson’s Descartes, in Bernard Williams’ introduction to his Descartes (and the afterthoughts in A Sense of the past), in Alan Gabbey’s “Arguing with the ungrateful dead”—I can’t find a reference to it, but it circulated in samizdat in the late 1980s—, and the introduction to Dan Garber’s Descartes embodied.
It keeps coming up, I think, because the history of philosophy has two faces. One looks toward intellectual history, itself a branch of cultural history, and the other toward contemporary philosophy. Call these the East Face and the West Face (that gives me room for two more if I need them…). The East Face thinks of philosophical texts in the manner of a historian: they are remains of the past which happen to be available to us in the Archive (see Foucault’s Archeology), and which we take as indices of past events, notably the acts of thought we take to be evidenced by the texts we study. The task of the intellectual historian (once the basic work of putting together the Archive is done) is to describe accurately and to explain those events.
Putting together the Archive is itself a very difficult and challenging task—see Thomas Tanselle’s work on editing and textual criticism; or take a look at André Robinet’s edition of Leibniz’s Principes de la nature et de la grâce.
That’s a rather atmospheric way of saying that we look at texts, try to determine the intentions behind the speech acts of their authors, and—having thus understood the phenomena—try to understand why the authors did what they did. The process goes on at the level of phrases (e.g. Descartes’ semel in vita), arguments, whole texts, œuvres, schools. In my view every responsible reader does history, at least occasionally. Only in those situations in which everyone understands everyone else so well that “hitches” in understanding—do you mean by ‘essence’ what I mean?—never get in the way will we not be engaged in tasks resembling those of the historian properly speaking.
Consider the giants of the 50s—Quine, Carnap… For today’s graduate student, I suspect, a great deal more needs to be motivated and explicated than when I first encountered them; in the 70s there were plenty of native Quineans and Carnapians from whom one could absorb the requisite understandings without having to crack a book.
Nothing in that task involves knowledge of or reference to contemporary discussions of the “same” questions or concepts. Indeed it is often better to bracket what you know about the state of the art now so as to avoid anachronism. The historian of Renaissance perspective may find it pedagogically useful to refer to projective geometry (whose roots lie in the thinking of Desargues and others on the foundations of perspective drawing), but neither that nor, say, acquaintance with 20th-century “post-perspective” painting will assist the task of description and explanation—except obliquely, by contrast for example (perhaps a historian now understands the significance of perspective better now that it is no longer taken for granted; in this way the present serves the same purpose as any other contrasting period would serve).


LinkMarch 22, 2011

Inference tickets

From a post at Cassandra (“From the Stars”, 9 Mar 2006). Her father-in-law is speaking.
“It’s all logic,” he said. “Logic and philosophy. You just start with logic and it’s amazing where it can take you.”

LinkMarch 10, 2006


I’ve never quite understood the urge some philosophers have to announce that they are partisans of this or that ism, or to devote major chunks of their output to arguing on behalf of an ism. Arguing about an ism I understand, but to act the lawyer and build a case for your client ism—that mystifies me. Especially when it’s accompanied by strong feeling. People get worked up about externalism or counterpart theory, as if it were a matter of great practical importance for them.


LinkJanuary 13, 2006

The average above-average philosopher

Now we know what the average Great Philosopher looked like. But you may be saying to yourself: That’s all well and good, but what should I look like if I want to be in a top-ten department? Here’s your answer.
Composite of 68 male
Composite of 22 female
See “Another chain link” for a note on the technique used to make these pictures. Any resemblance to persons living, dead or transanimate is, well, perhaps not entirely coincidental but certainly quite unintended.
Addendum 4 Jul: Thanks to Brian Leiter, who is obviously a Person of Influence, for linking to this, and to the Buckingham Inquirer for my first ping.

LinkJune 28, 2005

History — old hat or new wave?

Donald Kagan, an ancient historian, gave the NEH Jefferson Lecture this year. Its title conveys its primary point: “In defense of history”. Jon Kvanvig of Certain Doubts applauds yet another trashing of postmodernisn, but takes issue with Kagan’s attempt to place history on the throne of the humanities.
These Lectures seem to be an occasion for fatuousness and for promoting the speaker’s own discipline (see “Vendler on the Humanities” for a comment on last year’s Lecture). Kvanvig’s comment is mostly a hooray to bashing postmodernism and a boo to making history the “queen of the humanities”. Brian Leiter says bravo.
Kvanvig calls the part he doesn’t like “garbage”. Since 95% of everything is garbage (credit here goes to Theodore Sturgeon), I prefer the more precise term Bomfog, coined by journalists covering Nelson Rockefeller.
BOMFOG stood for the “Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God”, a phrase Rockefeller used on the campaign trail in place of anything that might resemble actual thought.
Even Rockefeller’s Senate biography recognizes the term. The titer of Bomfog in the Jefferson Lectures is high. Its treatment of philosophy is an expression of ill-tempered ignorance. It deserves Kvanvig’s disdain. But it is no happier in its sallies against postmodernism. I say boo to all of it.


LinkMay 27, 2005