Getting started: exploiting embarrassment

You probably all know this moment at the beginning of almost every course. “Any questions?” – Silence. No one, it seems, has a question. The same thing might happen after a conference talk. – Silence. The silence after a talk, in a reading group or seminar is quite embarrassing. It is particularly embarrassing because it happens out of embarrassment. You know it: it’s not because there are no questions; it’s because no one wants to make a fool of themselves. – What I would like to suggest today is that there is a simple technique of exploiting this embarrassment in order to get started both with a discussion and with writing.

How then can we exploit this embarrassment? By making it worse of course! We are embarrassed when we want to look smart and are unsure how to achieve that. Seeing other people stuck like that who see you stuck like that doesn’t help either. When we want to speak up or start writing, we probably focus too much on what we know (and then we think that everyone already knows that and that we’d look foolish by saying something trivial). My suggestion is: don’t focus on what you know; focus on what you don’t understand. That might seem worse, but that’s the point. To be sure, you should not just use the donnish phrase “I don’t understand”, while implying that something is just stupid. What I mean is: focus on something you genuinely don’t understand; that way you’ll raise a genuine question. And everyone will be grateful to you for breaking the ice in a genuine way.

How then do you find something that you genuinely don’t understand? – You might be surprised to learn that this will require some practice. That is because it is often difficult to pin down what precisely it is that you don’t understand. Anyway, in philosophy we can be sure of one thing: nothing is ever (sufficiently) justified by itself. Going from this premise, you can develop a question in two steps. Step one: you need to locate a phrase or passage that you find doubtful. (You don’t find one? Well, then ask yourself why everything is so incredibly clear. Are you omniscient?) Step two: ask yourself why you don’t understand that passage. Yes, you will deepen your embarrassment now, but only for a second. Because in asking that question, you will start looking for reasons for your lack of understanding. And reasons are a good thing in philosophy. The other upside of this technique is that you will begin phrasing a question with your own voice. Why? Well, because that question zooms in on the relation between the passage and yourself. But there is no need to fear exposure, for this “you” is not the personal “you”; it is the presuppositions, biases, and convictions of the epistemic culture you are part of.

Where to begin then? Quote the passage and highlight the move or term that you find doubtful. Then begin to spell out the presupposition that makes it seem doubtful to you. “This passage seems to presuppose that p. But I would presuppose that q. So why does it seem apt for the author to presuppose that p?” – Now you have a genuine question. And if you don’t know the answer, you can move on by exploring reasons for your own presupposition: “Why does it seem natural (to me) to presuppose that q?” And then you can ask what reasons there might be for giving up your presupposition.

If this is a helpful strategy, then why don’t we do this more often? I suppose that we assume something like the following: I don’t know why the author presupposes p, but the rest of my peers certainly knows why! – Well, even if they do know the answer, it is still required to make the reasons for accepting the presupposition explicit. Because in philosophy nothing is ever justified just by itself.

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