Monday, December 02, 2013

On the teaching of philosophy

I came to academia in a somewhat roundabout fashion. I used to work in the computer business as a software engineer. While working, I got involved in the atheist/theist debate at a relatively intellectual level, at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. Talking about arguments for the existence of god(s) led relatively naturally into the philosophy, because many canonical philosophers have discussed the topic, and the modes of discourse is very similar. As a computer programmer, I think I have gained some modicum of skill at logical reasoning and argumentation. Some years later, I left the computer business (I was pushed out, to some extent, but I didn't have to be pushed hard) and entered academia as an undergraduate student. For several years, I was considering studying philosophy, but by the time I actually became a student, philosophy was completely off the table. Indeed, despite that I would have been well-prepared, I very carefully avoided taking any actual philosophy classes. The reason for excluding philosophy has everything to do with how I observed professional philosophers, i.e. people with Ph.D.s in philsophy who were academic faculty, practiced philosophy.

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.


  1. I have spoken and argued (I mean that in the discussion sense, not the combatitive sense) with a few professional philosophers. I was astounded on one or two occasions at the ridiculous arguments that were offered.

    An example would be one where an interlocutor besides me and a professional philosopher was advancing the position that the root of all religion was fear. The professional philosopher thought he had a knock-down argument with the following
    “Animals experience fear as humans do but they have no form of religion as far as we can tell, therefore religion is not based on fear.”
    It took me about three attempts at suggesting that fear may be a necessary but not sufficient requirement for developing religion. It likely requiring advanced cognitive capabilities as judged in human/animal comparisons. I had assumed this was taken as writ in the initial proposal of the position.
    I thought there were only really two realistic possibilities as to why he needed this pointed out.
    1. He was so accustomed to dealing with logical statements in a manner totally divorced from and real world application that he was genuinely seeing this in a purely logically way taking into account exclusively what was said and ignoring any implications or basic assumption.
    2. He wanted to take the least charitable interpretation of the position as advanced.
    In either case, it seemed to me that if he was unwilling to or unable to understand the position being taken without the need for every last logically possible interpretation to be eliminated and the position refined to the point where it takes about a week to recite, the whole effort would be a frustrating, pedantic waste of time.

    Some professional philosophers seem more willing to engage with arguments as the person advancing it really intends it. There is still a heavy emphasis on point scoring.
    In general though I think ideology is a far greater par to productive philosophising than attitude. People in my experience, professional and amateur alike have entirely malleable standards of evidence and rationality depending on how dear the topic is to their hearts. So extreme is this bias in my experience that almost all debate is pointless. Even when devastating cases are brought against a person’s position, they generally refuse to be moved.
    An example of this phenomenon might be something like William Lane Craig grinning and sneering at a an opponent who case is not perfectly evidenced and logically watertight and then going on to suggest with a straight face that Jesus being the son of God is the most rational evaluation of the historical evidence. Admittedly WLC is something of a snake-oil salesman for Christianity and not exactly the most honest of debaters, I use him only to illustrate the astounding change in evidential and logical requirements of claims depending on how much the person wants to believe them.

  2. Serendipitously, I read this immediately after re-reading Maria Popova's review of Dennett's "Intuition Pumps".

    As Dennett points out, philosophers are (or ought to be) experts in the "mistakes business", but as you have observed many of them allow their egos to turn this into a "points-scoring business". But it doesn't have to be that way.


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