Recently, Jonathan Wolff, a professor of philosophy, wrote about sexism in academic philosopy: How can we end the male domination of philosophy?. I'm not going to comment on the gender implications specifically, but Wolff makes an important observation about how philosophy is practiced:
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. 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.In Against (most) aggression in philosophy, Chris Bertram mostly agrees, noting that
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. . . . [A] lot of conduct in philosophy goes well beyond the robust and forthright and tips into the straightforwardly arseholish.In Speech-and-Debate vs. The Agon of Authenticity: How Least Badly To Fight, in Philosophy?, John Holbo seems to disagree; according to Holbo, the idea of philosophy as do-anything-to-win intellectual combat is just "teaching philosophy at its worst," presumably atypical and the product of just "a few assholes." My experience, however, more closely reflects Wolff and Bertram's view: asshole philosophy seems not sparse but pervasive.
My sample is small and indirect. As noted above, I have never taken an academic philosophy class. My experiences consist entirely of talking to a few professional academic philosophers on blogs and message boards. My experiences should not be taken as representative of the profession as a whole. I am not seeking any redress; I am very happy with my current disciplines of political science and economics. I am, however, a reasonably intelligent, literate person with an interest in the philosophyt who has been literally driven away by its practitioners. Worse, I was driven away by academic philosophers I mostly agree with: pro-science atheists and humanists. (I'm not going to let a Christian drive me away from anything except religion.) Make of this post what you will.
I won't belabor examples; I will simply confirm that Wolff and Bertram's descriptions are not just typical of my experience, but without significant exception. I have had many productive discussions about philosophy with other amateurs, but I have never had a productive discussion about philosophy with a professional, from undergraduate students to tenured professors. Either I agree with them completely (which is unproductive), or at best, I am subject to, as Wolff notes, the immediate descent into the most uncharitable, often perverse, interpretation of my position. At worst, I often get the argument from authority; as I do not have a Ph.D. in philosophy, I am simply unqualified to have any position at all on anything philosophers consider withing their subject matter.
I am not lacking self-confidence. I find the asshole approach to intellectual discussion off-putting not because it undermines my fragile self-confidence, but because I find it a gigantic waste of time. I know how to fight, and when I really do consider my opponents to be not just mistaken but bad or hopelessly naive, as I usually do when discussing religious apologetics, I am happy to fight. But when I am trying to figure out what's true, I have no interest whatsoever in fighting. When discussing philosophy with professionals, I struggle to make myself understood by people who appear committed to not understanding me at all cost. To really understand the truth, I believce I have to make myself vulnerable, because I want to correct my own mistakes. Not only is there no reason to believe that combat is the best way to get to the truth, there's reason to believe it definitely impedes the search for truth.
I should reiterate: I am in no real position to critique the entire establishment of academic philosophy. I am not an insider, and I do not have the empirical data to draw any real conclusions as an outsider. All I can do is say that because of the very behavior that Wolff and Bertram describe, one potential student and practitioner has been driven away. If this result is by design, then academic philosophers can take my experience that they are achieving their purpose. If not, well, I guess it's up to them how to respond.