Voices inside my head. On constructive criticism

Most of the time when writing or just thinking, I hear voices uttering what I (want to) write. Often this is a version of my own voice, but there are also numerous other voices. These are voices of friends, colleagues and students. Sometimes I hear them because I remember what they said during a discussion. But more often I imagine them saying things in the way they would phrase an objection or a refinement of what I wanted to say. Yet, although it is me who imagines them, it’s their convictions and style that determines the content and phrasing. If I succeed in my attempts to write in a dialogical fashion, it is the achievement of others in leaving their traces in my memory and eventually in my texts. It is this kind of experience that makes writing fun. But what I want to claim now is that this is also a good way of integrating criticism. This way the strengths of others can become strengths in your own writing.

Why is this important? Philosophy is often taken to thrive on criticism. Some would even claim that it lies at the heart of intellectual exchange. Only if we take into account the critique of others, can we expect to have considered an issue sufficiently. I agree. Assuming that reason is social, philosophers need to expose themselves to others and see what they have to say. However, it’s not clear that the social nature of reason requires criticism as the primary mode of exchange. There are various styles of thinking; understanding and engaging with ideas can happen in many different ways.

Some people will ask to be “destroyed” by their interlocutors, while others might think that any question might amount to an impertinent transgression. Might there be a middle ground between these extremes? What is telling is that the metaphors around philosophical argumentation are mostly intimating opposition or even war. (See for instance the intriguing discussion in and of Catarina Dutilh Novaes’ great piece on metaphors for argumentation). In view of this practice, I think it’s crucial to remember that spotting mistakes does not turn anything into a good idea. The fact that you know how to find flaws does not mean that you’re able to improve an idea. (See Maarten Steenhagen’s excellent clip on this point and make sure to turn up the sound) In any case, it’s not surprising that there is an on-going debate and a bit of a clash of intuitions between philosophers who like and who dislike an adversarial style of conversation. Some think criticism fosters progress, while others think criticism blocks progress.

How can we move on? I think it’s crucial to consider the precise nature of the criticism in question. The point is not whether people are nice to one another; the point is whether criticism is genuine. But what is genuine criticism? I think genuine criticism takes a paper or talk on its own terms. Now what does that mean? Here, it helps to rely on a distinction between internal and external criticism. Internal criticism takes the premises of a contribution seriously and focuses on issues within an argument or view. A good example of a whole genre of internal criticism is the medieval commentary tradition. A commentary exposes the premises, and aims at clarification and refinement without undermining the proposed idea. By contrast, external criticism often starts from the assumption that the whole way of framing an issue is mistaken. A good example for such an external criticism is the debate between hylomorphists and mechanists in early modern philosophy.*

I think that only internal criticism is genuine. That doesn’t mean that external criticism is useless, but it is not an engagement with the opposing position; at least not in such a way that it attempts to leave the main claim intact. It is the view that the opponent’s position is not acceptable.** I think it is important to see that these different criticisms are completely different moves in the game or even wholly different games. Internal criticism happens on common ground; external criticism is the denial of common ground. Both forms are legitimate. But I think that a lot of discussions would be better if those involved would be clear about the question whether their criticism is internal or external. Ideally, both kinds of criticism are presented along with an indication of what an answer to the challenge would actually look like.

How can we apply this to our writing? I think it is vital to include both kinds of criticism. But it helps me to make the difference. If someone tells me that my argument for taking Locke as a social externalist about semantics might need more textual support or a refined exposition of how the evidence supports my claim, I will see their point as supporting my idea. (Of course, if I have no such evidence, this criticism would be fatal, however genuine.) If someone tells me that Locke’s semantics isn’t worth studying in the first place, their point is clearly external. That doesn’t mean that I don’t need to reply to the challenge of external criticism. But the point is that the latter targets my endeavour in a different way. External criticism questions the very point of doing what I do and cannot be addressed by amending this or that argument. Responding to internal criticism happens within a shared set of ideas. Responding to a clash of intuitions means to decide for or against a whole way of framing an issue. Only internal criticism is constructive, but we need to respond to external criticism in order to see why it is constructive. So when you work on your argument, don’t bother with external criticism. If you write the introduction or conclusion, by contrast, reach out to those who question your project entirely.

How then should we deal with such criticisms in practice? It’s sometimes difficult to deal with either. This is why I ultimately like the approach of internalising all kinds of criticism into the choir of voices inside my head. Once they are in my head, it feels like I can control them. They become part of my thinking and my chops, as it were. I can turn up the volume of any voice, and in writing it’s me who in charge of the volume.*** Thus, I’d suggest we should appropriate both kinds of criticism. It’s just crucial to recognise them for what they are. Appropriating all the voices gives you some control over each of them.

To be sure, at the end of the day it’s important to see that we’re all in this together. We’re doing philosophy. And even if people don’t agree with our projects, they endorse that larger project called philosophy. So even in external criticism there must be some sort of common ground. Most of the time, I can’t see what the precise features of this common ground are, but being lost in that way makes me feel at home.

______

* Of course, there are tipping points at which internal can turn into external criticism and vice versa.

** This doesn’t mean that external criticism is hostile or not genuine in other ways. One can criticise externally out of genuine concern, assuming perhaps that an idea requires a different kind of framework or that work on a seriously flawed position might prove a waste of time for the addressee.

*** Reaching a state of control or even balance is not easy, though. It is often the most critical voices that are loudest. In such cases, it might be best to follow Hume’s advice and seek good company.

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