On saying “we” again. A response to Peter Adamson

Someone claiming that we today are interested in certain questions might easily obscure the fact that current interests are rather diverse. I called this phenomenon synchronic anachronism. While agreeing with the general point, Peter Adamson remarked that

“… as a pragmatic issue, at least professional philosophers who work, or want to work, in the English speaking world cannot easily avoid imagining a population of analytic philosophers who have a say in who gets jobs, etc. The historian is almost bound to speak to the interests of that imagined population, which is still a rough approximation of course but not, I think, a completely empty notion. In any case, whether it is empty or not, a felt tactical need to speak to that audience might explain why the “we” locution is so common.”

I think this is a rather timely remark and worth some further discussion. Clearly, it suggests a distinction between an indexical and a normative use of the word “we”. Using the word in the former sense, it includes all the people who are reading or (in the given cases) are studying history of philosophy. Thus, it might refer to a quite diverse set of individuals. In the latter sense, however, the word would pick out a certain group, specified as “analytic philosophers”. It is normative in that it does not merely pick out individuals who are interested in certain issues; rather it specifies what any individual should be interested in. Locutions with this kind of normative “we” are at once descriptive and directive. So the sentence “Currently, we have a heated debate about the trolley problem” has to be taken in the same vein as the sentence “We don’t eat peas with our fingers.” It states at once what we (don’t) do as well as what we should (or should not) do.*

Now where does the normative force of such locutions originate? Talking about historical positions, such “we” locutions seem to track the relevance of a given topic for a dominant group, the group of philosophers identifying as analytic. The relevance of such a topic, however, is reinforced not by the mere fact that all members of the dominant group are interested in that topic. Rather it is (also and perhaps crucially) reinforced by the fact that certain members of that group are quite powerful when it comes to the distribution of jobs, grants, publication space and other items relevant to survival in academia. This is worth noting because, if correct, it entails that the perceived relevance of topics is due to political power in academia. Some might say that this is a truism. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that topics of discussion are reinforced or excluded in this way. For if this is the case, then it follows that what Peter Adamson calls “tactical” and “pragmatic” has immediate repercussions on the philosophy and historiography itself. Being interested in topics that we are interested in might promote your career. Sidestepping them might be harmful. This being so, the career prospects related to a topic dictate its philosophical value.

Does this mean that someone writing “the history of the trolley problem” will merely do so out of tactical considerations? Or should we even encourage aspiring academics to go for such topics. It’s hard to tell, but it’s worth considering this practice and its implications. It might mean that our interest in certain topics, however genuine, is not reinforced because we all find these topics interesting, but because certain members of the dominant group are perceived as liking them. Successfully deviating from topics resonating with a dominant group, then, might require the privilege of a permanent job. Thus, if we really want to promote diversity in teaching and research on what is called the canon, it would be morally dubious to ask junior researchers to take the lead.


* Ruth Millikan discusses such pushmi-pullyu locutions at length in ch. 9 of her Language: A Biological Model.

3 thoughts on “On saying “we” again. A response to Peter Adamson

  1. Honored if I triggered this! It reminded me: when I was considering dissertation topics and then again when I was an assistant professor, I was repeatedly told: you can be creative/original when you have tenure–till then, stick to what’s being discussed in the journals now. And they were trying to protect me. Didn’t work, and I barely got tenure after a fight

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your note! Yes, it’s probably a fairly common story about the attempt to protect one’s students that way. I wonder about that, too, and think there might be at least two factors blocking predictability (of thriving on the canon).
      – Firstly, there is of course the competition on the market, involving many other things such as pedigree and sheer luck.
      – Secondly, there is the fact of what I like to call *micro-fashions* inside the canon. When I was starting out (in Germany) I still had the impression that philosophy of mind was the big thing to go for. Metaphysics was interesting mostly inasmuch as it concerned phil of mind. No one seemed to care about history. Now metaphysics and early modern are flourishing… And they were even back then, it seems (to me now): it’s just that this was quite difficult to see (I think even for my supervisors who were trying to push their own agendas). – So yes, it would be very dangerous to go for the inverse claim that going for canonical work would be a safer option.
      That said, hiring committees might be fairly conservative when it comes to teaching needs.


      1. Yes–to be ready to teach at least one indispensable, central, albeit personally unexciting area should be a expectation, not a resented burden. Don’t know if this is on the point.
        “micro-fashions” surely happen–important to resist!

        Liked by 1 person

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