Abstract cruelty. On dismissive attitudes

Do you know the story about the PhD student whose supervisor overslept and refused to come to the defence, saying he had no interest in such nonsense? – No? I don’t know it either, by which I mean: I don’t know exactly what happened. However, some recurrent rumours have it that on the day of the PhD student’s defence, the supervisor didn’t turn up and was called by the secretary. After admitting that he overslept, he must indeed have said that he didn’t want to come because he wasn’t convinced that the thesis was any good. Someone else took over the supervisor’s role in the defence, and the PhD was ultimately conferred. I don’t know the details of the story but I have a vivid imagination. There are many aspects to this story that deserve attention, but in the following I want to concentrate on the dismissive attitude of the supervisor.

Let’s face it, we all might oversleep. But what on earth brings someone to say that they are not coming to the event because the thesis isn’t any good? The case is certainly outrageous. And I keep wondering why an institution like a university lets a professor get away with such behaviour. As far as I know the supervisor was never reprimanded, while the candidate increasingly went to bars rather than the library. I guess many people can tell similar stories, and we all know about the notorious discussions around powerful people in philosophy. Many of those discussions focus on institutional and personal failures or power imbalances. But while such points are doubtlessly worth addressing, I would like to focus on something else: What is it that enables such dismissive attitudes?

Although such and other kinds of unprofessional behaviour are certainly sanctioned too rarely, we have measures against it in principle. Oversleeping and rejecting to fulfil one’s duties can be reprimanded effectively, but what can we do about the most damning part of it: the dismissive attitude according to which the thesis was just no good? Of course, using it as a reason to circumvent duties can be called out, but the problem is the attitude itself. I guess that all of us think every now and then that something is so bad that, at least in principle, it isn’t worth getting up for. What is more, there is in principle nothing wrong with finding something bad. Quite the contrary, we have every reason to be sincere interlocutors and call a spade a spade, and sometimes this involves severe criticism.

However, some cases do not merely constitute criticism but acts of cruelty. But how can we distinguish between the two? I have to admit that I am not entirely sure about this, but genuine criticism strikes me as an invitation to respond, while in the case under discussion the remark about the quality of the thesis was given as a reason to end the conversation.* Ending a conversation or dismissing a view like that is cruel. It leaves the recipient of the critique with no means to answer or account for their position. Of course, sometimes we might have good reasons for ending a conversation like that. I can imagine political contexts in which I see no other way than turning my back on people. But apart from the fact that a doctoral defence shouldn’t be such an occasion, I find it suspicious if philosophers end conversations like that. What is at stake here?

First of all, we should note that this kind of cruelty is much more common than meets the eye. Sure, we rarely witness that a supervisor refuses to turn up for a defence. But anyone sitting in on seminars, faculty talks or lectures will have occasion to see that sometimes criticism is offered not as an invitation for response, but as a dismissal that is only thinly disguised as an objection. How can we recognise such a dismissal? The difference is that an opinion is not merely criticised but considered a waste of time. This and other slogans effectively end a conversation. Rather than addressing what one might find wanting, the opponent’s view will be belittled and portrayed as not being worth to be taken seriously. As I see it, such speech acts are acts of cruelty because they are always (even if tacitly) ad hominem. The conjunction of critical remarks and of ending a conversation shows that it is not merely the opinion that is rejected but that there is no expectation that the argument could be improved by continuing the conversation. In this sense, ending a conversation is owing to a severe lack of charity, ultimately dismissing the opponent as incapable or even irrational.

You would think that such behaviour gets called out quickly, at least among philosophers. But the problem is that this kind of intellectual bullying is actually rather widespread: Whenever we say that an opinion isn’t worth listening to, when we say, for instance, that analytical or continental philosophy is just completely wrongheaded or something of the kind, we are at least in danger of engaging in it.** Often this goes unnoticed because we move within circles that legitimise such statements. Within such circles we enjoy privilege and status; outside our positions are belittled as a waste of time. And the transition from calling something bad to calling something a waste of time is rather smooth, if no one challenges such a speech act.

Having said as much, you might think I am rather pessimistic about the profession. But I am not. In fact I think there is a straightforward remedy. Decouple criticisms from ending conversations! But now you might respond that sometimes a conversation cannot continue because we really do not share standards of scholarship or argument. And we certainly shouldn’t give up our standards easily. – I totally agree, but I think that rather than being dismissive we might admit that we have a clash of intuitions. Generally speaking, we might distinguish between two kinds of critical opposition: disagreements and clashes of intuition. While disagreements are opposing views that can be plotted on a common ground, clashes of intuition mark the lack of relevant common ground. In other words, we might distinguish between internal and external criticism, the latter rejecting the entire way of framing an issue. I think that it is entirely legitimate to utter external criticism and signal such a clash. It is another way of saying that one doesn’t share sufficient philosophical ground. But it also signals that the opposing view might still deserve to be taken seriously, provided one accepts different premises or priorities.*** Rather than bluntly dismissing a view because one feels safeguarded by the standards of one’s own community, diagnosing a clash respects that the opponent might have good reasons and ultimately engages in the same kind of enterprise.

The behaviour of the supervisor who overslept is certainly beyond good and evil. Why do I find this anecdote so striking? Because it’s so easy to call out the obvious failure on part of the supervisor. It’s much harder to see how we or certain groups are complicit in legitimising the dismissive attitude behind it. While we might be quick to call out such a brutality, the damning dismissive attitude is more widespread than meets the eye. Yet, it could be amended by admitting to a clash of intuitions, but that requires some careful consideration of the nature of the clash and perhaps the decency of getting out of bed on time.


This post by Regina Rini must have been at the back of my mind when I thought about conversation-enders; not entitrely the same issue but a great read anyway.

**A related instance can be to call a contemporary or a historical view “weird”. See my post on relevance and othering.

*** Examples of rather respectable clashes are dualism vs. monism or representationalism vs. inferentialism. The point is that the debates run into a stalemate, and picking a side is a matter of decision rather than argument.

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