Fake news about free speech

Much of the time we probably assume that thinking and judging are activities that we perform. Who is doing the thinking right now? It is you. You read and form a judgement of what you are reading. But some philosophers have taught us that it’s mostly the other way round. Thoughts float around and pull us along. It’s not you doing the thinking, but you are being thought, one might say. While we take ourselves to be agents, it’s ideologies, prejudices, advertising, superstition or memes that hold us in their grip. Now I don’t take this to be a matter of either-or; rather I assume it’s a matter of degree. We might be driven or pulled along, but we can also build resistance. Perhaps you might assume that we do so in the grip of a counter-ideology. Perhaps we should even say that our minds are driven by layers of different ideologies.* Nevertheless, I guess we can become agents of our thinking to some degree. How? For instance by trying to recognise the reasons out of which we embrace one set of beliefs rather than another. After my last blog post, more precisely after some reports about my last post, I could literally see the pull of certain political memes rushing by. Although I didn’t assume that my little note of protest would pass completely without attention, I was shocked to see what happened after the media reports. If you’re interested in hermeneutics, two things stand out in particular: (1) how recklessly some people distribute false claims, and (2) how much this feeds into political memes. In the following, I want focus on one claim and show how it figured in the discussion.

Let’s begin by looking at my claim and its misrepresentation. In my last post, I suggested that a forum in a university or public institution “provides the speaker with an authoritative platform”. What does that mean? The platform is “authoritative” in that it comes with the usual expectations that we associate with universities but not, for example, with bars or some speakers’ corner. One of our student newspapers, the UKrant, quoted me as follows: “According to Lenz, providing a university platform for controversial figures is tantamount to endorsing their positions.” I wrote to the author saying that this was a misrepresentation, and they replaced “endorsing” with “supporting”. I wrote again saying that this misses the crucial distinction between support of the content of a position as a opposed to the support of the speaker by lending authority. The UKrant replied that they thought this was an adequate representation of my view and kept their wording without noting my position. – Anyway, since this distinction between supporting content and authority has been missed by almost all media outlets that I have seen, let me illustrate it with an example: If someone tells you that she has a PhD, you will be inclined to believe that she is an authority in her field. But taking her as an authority doesn’t mean that you support her views, even in her field. In fact, you might be a peer reviewer taking issue with her views in a paper. You might even think her view is false, but the paper might still get published and you might still think of her as an authority. By misrepresenting my view as they did, the newspapers ascribed to me a statement I had never made or believed.

Is this rightly framed as a matter of free speech? – Being known for a view that one doesn’t hold is one thing. But things got worse, because the whole matter was framed as an issue of free speech or diversity of opinion. This framing is absurd for two reasons. (1) If you assume that denying someone to speak at a university is a denial of free speech, then you must at least tacitly believe that everyone should have the right to call themselves a doctor. The right to free speech is not tantamount to the right to be invited to speak at a university or to anyone else’s duty to listen. Otherwise the university would have to invite everyone, because everyone has the right to free speech. (2) My note of protest was not a call for “de-platforming” but a free expression of my personal opinion, as stated in my earlier post. Thus, the framing as a free speech issue rendered the whole matter absurd and perniciously misrepresented not only my own opinion but also the position of the dean and, by extension, other fellow philosophers in my faculty.

How did the media contribute? What struck me in the communication with the representatives of the newspaper in question was the callous insistence that they had presented the state of affairs correctly, and that they did not seem to recognise the right of reply. I think there is a reason why this is considered unlawful in many countries. But let me add that this shouldn’t be read as a generalisation. I don’t think that everyone is a liar or that all media are about fake news. Be that as it may, once the text by the UKrant was out, I found cuts of it screenshotted and shared widely. The Ukrant article with its problematic misrepresentation and framing was quoted extensively by other outlets, both regional like rtv noord and national ones like the volkskrant, as well as on twitter, in emails that passed my spam folder, and even in an open letter by Paul Cliteur. Seeing the framing repeated and increased, it soon it began to dawn on me that the “story” fed into the conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism, according to which (higher) education is undermined by a left-wing conspiracy against free speech, and other rights and values we hold dear. I began to understand that what drives this spectacle has nothing to do with me or my faculty. It’s all just passed along as another instance confirming the supposed conspiracy. In this machinery, not much seems to matter: many people on twitter don’t seem to care what you think, and they do not want to hear themselves corrected. The journalists who compiled the texts I’ve seen certainly didn’t care about fact checking. I’ve never experienced this machinery at work with a piece of my own mind, as it were. And so I felt quite naïve about my involvement in the whole episode. But I’ve learned some things from it.**

Here is one of them: In view of the machinery that the press and the readers seem to feed, people and their ideas only seem to matter as instances of a larger political meme or ideology. But that’s not the whole truth: Many people who were angry with me for supposedly speaking out against free speech did care deeply. It mattered to them as it had mattered to me. After entering into some longer exchanges on twitter, I realised that some people were even ready to accept that they might have been mistaken about my view. Grudgingly so, but there was progress through exchange. So there is a common ground: we are worried about what’s going on around us. But we must be careful, for the political memes and counter-memes that are set up and fed to play us off against one another are just that: memes. But they are very, very powerful. As we all know, there are ready-made sets of beliefs for everything: for right, left, religious, atheist, migrant, male, female, other, white, non-white, journalists, philosophers … We must look hard and see what’s going on beyond that.

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* Apropos being dragged along by other thoughts, I learned a lot about the function of ideologies from Spinoza, interpreters of Marx such as Brian Leiter, and David Livingstone Smith’s teleofunctionalism, who has a recent paper in this rather pertinent volume.

** Additon on 7 April 2019: The free speech spin was carried further in ways I didn’t anticipate: (1) Cliteur publicly tried to intimidate academics (and myself personally) by demanding that “it should be made unsafe” for the likes of me. (2) Following the invitation to the night of philosophy, Cliteur was escorted by security and claimed that the requirement of security proves his point that universities  are undermined by activism against free speech.

 

On giving propagandists a platform

I always had mixed feelings about debates on invitations to controversial speakers. Every case is different I guess, and should be discussed as an individual case. At the same time, I think that inviting someone as a speaker at a university or public institution should be justified in the light of the fact that such a forum provides the speaker with an authoritative platform. Some even believe that such an invitation produces epistemological evidence in favour of the invitee’s position.* In any case, my feelings were mixed but, I thought, fairly balanced. You can always see pros and cons, and try to listen carefully to the other side, or so I thought. In this post, I want to do two things: I want to protest against the invitation of Paul Cliteur to Groningen; and I want to talk about something that I completely underestimated: the ambiguous weight of stating the obvious.

When I noticed that Paul Cliteur is invited to Groningen’s annual night of philosophy to give a lecture on “Theoterrorism and the Cowardice of the West”, I was not only shocked by the fact itself but also surprised by the vehemence of my own reaction. I feel that, unless I note my disagreement, I am complicit in endowing the speaker with extra authority, simply by being part of Groningen University. Arguably, we should note disagreement not only on behalf of those targeted by propaganda, but also in solidarity with those who feel intimidated to do so publicly. (Not long ago, a number of colleagues from Amsterdam received death threats after politely protesting against a lecture by Jordan Peterson.) Often protest or disagreement is construed as an attack on free speech. (“Nowadays we can’t say that anymore”, you hear them say all the time, while they say whatever they want.) But the opposite is the case: the very idea of free speech must comprise the right to disagreement or protest against speech. Cliteur is an active politician and a professor of jurisprudence, who has written quite a number of texts with all the ingredients of what I’d call right-wing attitudes: claiming a conspiracy of “Cultural Marxism”; nationalism; anti-Islamism, you name it. I don’t want to categorise him too readily, but he strikes me as a Dutch version of Jordan Peterson in Canada or of Thilo Sarrazin in Germany. – But what was I actually reacting to? There is a great number of claims that I find objectionable. But often the problem of propagandistic tales is not that they contain explicitly objectionable things; rather, it’s how they recontextualise “obvious” observations.

A problem with people like Cliteur is that they make outrageous claims, while sounding perfectly reasonable. Here is an example: Cliteur clearly and sensibly distinguishes between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (a political ideology based on religious doctrines). So he does not say that religion entails terrorism or that religious people are potential terrorists. But then Cliteur introduces the term “theoterrorism” to label terrorists who motivate their acts by reference to their religion. Indeed, one of his main claims is that he is almost alone in taking terrorists’ reliance on their religion seriously. He portrays others as reverting to misguided explanations and himself as seeing what their true motivation is:

“Many people are reluctant to engage in this kind of research. They are concerned with something quite different: protecting religious minorities from discrimination and the “stereotyping of their religion.” Or they have the ambition to explain why the essence of Judaism, Christianity or Islam is averse to violence. I fully recognize the importance of that type of commentary from a believers perspective. But it is not the kind of approach that makes it possible to understand the theoterrorist challenge. I fear these well-meaning people are dangerously mistaken. The greatest contribution you can make to the peaceful coexistence of people of good will is to make a fair assessment of the role religion plays in contemporary terrorism, and not to suppress or censor people who dare to address this issue.”

What’s going on here? While he pretends to be looking for an alternative explanation of terroristic acts, he does in fact claim a link between religion and terroristic acts. Religious beliefs, then, are taken as the proper reasons (if not the causes) for people to commit terroristic acts. This way the difference between Islam and Islamism, while maintained verbally, is in fact nullified. Thus, Cliteur can evade the charge of hate speech against religious people, but he might be said to celebrate his way of linking terrorism and Islamic beliefs as a scientific discovery.

Linking religion to terrorism in this general way is bad for all sorts of reasons. Believe it or not, many people are religious without ever entertaining so much as a trace of a terrorist inclination. But two further aspects are striking about Cliteur’s claim: Firstly, no one ever denied that the terrorists he cites referred to religious attitudes. There is nothing spectacular about this. Secondly, Cliteur makes no move to invoke any solid evidence for this claim. But if his point were supposed to have the status of a proper explanation, then he would need to rule out alternatives. Compare: I could tell you that I go shoplifting on a regular basis because Father Christmas told me to. Now people might speculate about my motives. But you could just tell everyone: “People, Martin’s reasons have been staring us in the face ever since. Father Christmas told him so!” While no one might deny that I said so, the reference to Father Christmas might not in fact be the best explanation of my actions. Cliteur’s point amounts to no more. He links (Islamic) religion to terrorism; he presents this claim as new while at the same time giving himself the air of stating the obvious, and he provides no evidence or ways of ruling out alternative explanations for the phenomena he picks out. It is obvious that certain terrorists invoked religious beliefs; it is far from obvious that the invoked beliefs or the religion in question explain their acts.

Although this is bad enough, it does get worse. In his little essay on theoterrorism, Cliteur asks what “the West” should do. He sees Dutch values and free speech and just about everything threatened. At the same time, he claims that all the available strategies in the West have failed. Again, without providing evidence. It is obvious that terrorism hasn’t gone away; it is far from obvious that the available strategies were not effective (e.g., against cases we don’t know about). Now what do you actually do if you claim that people are threatened by terrorism but that none of the attempted solutions work? The party Cliteur supports has a well-known list of answers, consisting of the now common right-wing ideas rampant in Europe and the US. In conjunction with the politics Cliteur supports, the brand of nationalism that recommends itself as the answer is not too difficult to guess.

While he is careful enough not to call a spade a spade, his pamphlet on theoterrorism might be read as a legitimisation of both legal and illegal means to overcome what he calls the “cowardice of the West”. The claim that Western measures fail seems to call for new measures.

“But does the west’s defense do the trick? … So as long as the western countries persist in their assault on Islamic sacred symbols, Muslims are not only mandated but religiously and morally obligated to take revenge in the name of Allah, so the theoterrorists contend.”

By building up his case as a threat to the Abendland, by suggesting that “Muslims are … obligated to take revenge”, Cliteur eventually alludes to ‘obvious’ measures without stating them explicitly. It is this unspoken call to arms that is the most dangerous part of such political pamphlets. Inciting strong reactions without explicitly stating them immunises such propaganda against any critique that relies on explicit statements. “Oh, I didn’t say that”, is a common phrase of such people. They are all quite misunderstood.

Giving a platform to such incitements strengthens them. Yet, de-platforming might turn their protagonists into martyrs. Thus, rescinding an invitation might be just as problematic as making it to begin with. That said, what should worry us perhaps even more are the voices of those who were not invited in the first place. There are many more interesting and pertinent speakers for a night of philosophy.

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* Clarification in response to some misrepresentations on social media and the news: I’m not saying that “providing a university platform for controversial figures is tantamount to endorsing (or supporting) their positions”. I rather claim that it lends some authority to their position A student newspaper misrepresented my position earlier. Unfortunately, that text was then shared widely. (Added on 27 March 2019)

Since the misrepresentations are continuously repeated, I devoted another blog post to them.

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Against history of philosophy: shunning vs ignoring history in the analytic traditions

Does history matter to philosophy? Some time ago I claimed that, since certain facts about concepts are historical, all philosophy involves history to some degree (see here and here). But this kind of view has been and is attacked by many. The relation to history is a kind of philosophical Gretchenfrage. If you think that philosophy is a historical endeavour, you’ll be counted among the so-called continental philosophers. If you think that philosophy can be done independently of (its) history, you’ll be counted among the analytic philosophers. Today, I’ll focus on the latter, that is, on analytic philosophy. What is rarely noted is that the reasons against history are rather different and to some extent even contradictory. Roughly put, some think that history is irrelevant, while others think that it is so influential that it should be shunned. In keeping with this distinction, I would like to argue that the former group tends to ignore history, while the latter group tends to shun history. I believe that ignoring history is a relatively recent trend, while shunning history is foundational for what we call analytic philosophy. But how do these trends relate? Let’s begin with the current ignorance.

A few years ago, Mogens Laerke told me that he once encountered a philosopher who claimed that it wasn’t really worth going back any further in history than “to the early Ted Sider”. Indeed, it is quite common among current analytic philosophers to claim that history of philosophy is wholly irrelevant for doing philosophy. Some educational exposure might count as good for preventing us from reinventing the wheel or finding the odd interesting argument, but on the whole the real philosophical action takes place today. Various reasons are given for this attitude. Some claim that philosophy aims at finding the truth and that truth is non-historical. Others claim that you don’t need any historical understanding to do, say, biology or mathematics, and that, since philosophy is a similar endeavour, it‘s equally exempt from its history. I’ll look at these arguments some other day. But they have to rely on the separability of historical factors from what is called philosophy. As a result of this, this position denies any substantial impact of history on philosophy. Whatever the merit of this denial, it has enormous political consequences. While the reasons given are often dressed as a-political, they have serious repercussions on the shape of philosophy in academic institutions. In Germany, for instance, you’ll hardly find a department that has a unit or chair devoted to history of philosophy. Given the success of analytic practitioners through journal capture etc., history is a marginalised and merely instrumental part of philosophy.

Yet, despite the supposed irrelevance of history, many analytic philosophers do see themselves as continuous with a tradition that is taken to begin with Frege or Russell. To portray contemporary philosophical work as relevant, it is apparently not enough to trust in the truth-conduciveness of the current philosophical tools on display. Justifying current endeavours has to rely on some bits and bobs of history. For some colleagues, grant agencies and students it’s not sufficient to point to the early Ted Sider to highlight the relevance of a project. While pointing to early analytic philosophy is certainly not enough, at least some continuity in terminology, arguments and claims is required. But do early analytic philosophers share the current understanding of history? As I said in the beginning, I think that many early figures in that tradition endorse a rather different view. As late as 1947, Ryle writes in a review of Popper in Mind, the top journal of analytic philosophy:

“Nor is it news to philosophers that Nazi, Fascist and Communist doctrines are descendants of the Hegelian gospel. … Dr Popper is clearly right in saying that even if philosophers are at long last immunized, historians, sociologists, political propagandists and voters are still unconscious victims of this virus …”*

Let me single out two claims from this passage: (1) Hegelian philosophy shaped pervasive political ideologies. (2) Philosophy has become immune against such ideologies. The first claim endorses the idea that historical positions of the past are not only influential for adherent philosophers, but shape political ideologies. This is quite different from the assumption that history is irrelevant. But what about the second claim? The immunity claim seems to deny the influence of history. So on the face of it, the second claim seems to be similar to the idea that history is irrelevant. This would render the statements incongruent. But there is another reading: Only a certain kind of philosophy is immune from the philosophical past and the related ideologies. And this is non-Hegelian philosophy. The idea is, then, not that history is irrelevant, but, to the contrary, that history is quite relevant that thus certain portions of the past should be shunned. Analytic philosophy is construed as the safe haven, exempt from historical influences that still haunt other disciplines.

Ryle is not entirely clear about the factors that would allow for such immunity. But if claim (2) is to be coherent with (1), then this might mean that we are to focus on certain aspects of philosophy and that we should see ourselves in the tradition of past philosophers working on these aspects. If this correct, Ryle is not claiming that philosophy is separate from history and politics, but that it can be exempt from certain kinds of history and politics. As Akehurst argues**, this tradition was adamant to shun German and Britisch idealism as well as many figures that seemed to run counter to certain ideas. Whatever these precise ideas are, the assumption that (early) analytic philosophy is simply a-historical or a-political is a myth.

Whatever one thinks of Ryle’s claims, they are certainly expressive of a core belief in the tradition. At it’s heart we see a process of shunning with the goal of reshaping the canon. The idea of being selective about what one considers as the canon is of course no prerogative of analytic philosophy. However, what seems to stand out is the assumption of immunity. While the attempt to immunise oneself or to counter one’s biases is a process that includes the idea that one might be in the grip of ideologies, the idea that one is already immune seems to be an ideology itself.

Now how does this shunning relate to what I called today’s ignorance? For better or worse, I doubt that these stances are easily compatible. At the same time, it seems likely that the professed ignorance is an unreflected outcome of the shunning in earlier times. If this is correct, then the idea of non-historicity has been canonised. In any case, it is time reconsider the relation between analytic philosophy and the history of philosophy.***

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* Thanks to Richard Creek, Nick Denyer, Stefan Hessbrüggen, Michael Kremer, and Eric Schliesser for some amusing online discussion of this passage.

** See T. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe, London: Continuum 2010, esp. 58-60. I am grateful to Catarina Dutilh-Novaes for bringing this book to my attention. See also his brief blog post focussing on Russell.

*** Currently, Laura Georgescu and I are preparing a special issue on the Uses and Abuses of History in Analytic Philosophy for JHAP. Please contact us if you are interested in contributing!

Networks and friendships in academia

Recently, I came across an unwelcome reminder of my time as a graduate student and my early-career days. It had the shape of a conference announcement that carries all the signs of a performative contradiction: it invites you by exclusion. What can we learn from such contradictions?

The announcement invites early-career people to attend seminars that run alongside a conference whose line-up is already fixed and seems to consist mainly of a circle of quite established philosophers who have been collaborating closely ever since. Since the invitation is not presented as a “call”, it’s hard to feel invited in the first place. Worse still, you’re not asked to present at the actual conference but to attend “seminars” that are designed “to motivate students and young scholars from all over the world to do research in the field of medieval philosophy and to help them learn new scientific methodology and develop communication skills.” If you’re still interested in attending, you’ll look in vain for time slots dedicated to such seminars. Instead, there is a round table on the last day, scheduled for the same time the organising body holds their annual meeting, thus probably without the established scholars.* You might say there is a sufficient amount of events, so just go somewhere else. But something like the work on the “Dionysian Traditions” is rarely presented. In fact, medieval philosophy is often treated as a niche unto itself, so the choice is not as vast as for, say, analytic metaphysics.

If you think this is problematic, I’ll have to disappoint you. There is no scandal lurking here. Alongside all the great efforts within a growingly inclusive infrastructure of early career support, things like that happen all the time, and since my time as a professor I have been accused of organising events that do at least sound “clubby” myself. Of course, I’m not saying that the actual event announced is clubby like that; it’s just that part of the description triggers old memories. When I was a graduate student, in the years before 2000, at least the academic culture in Germany seemed to be structured in a clubby fashion. By “structured” I mean that academic philosophy often seemed to function as a simple two-class system, established and not-established, and the not-established people had the status of onlookers. They were, it seemed, invited to kind of watch the bigger figures and learn by exposure to greatness. But make no mistake; this culture did not (or not immediately) come across as exclusionary. The onlookers could feel privileged for being around. For firstly, even if this didn’t feel like proper participation, it still felt like the result of a meritocratic selection. Secondly, the onlookers could feel elated, for there was an invisible third class, i.e. the class of all those who either were not selected or didn’t care to watch. The upshot is that part of the attraction of academia worked by exclusion. As an early career person, you felt like you might belong, but you were not yet ready to participate properly.

Although this might come across as a bit negative, it is not meant that way. Academia never was an utopian place outside the structures that apply in the rest of the world. More to the point, the whole idea of what is now called “research-led teaching” grew out of the assumption that certain skills cannot be taught explicitly but have to be picked up by watching others, preferably advanced professionals, at work. Now my point is not to call out traditions of instructing scholars. Rather, this memory triggers a question that keeps coming back to me when advising graduate students. I doubt that research-led teaching requires the old class system. These days, we have a rich infrastructure that, at least on the surface, seems to counter exclusion. But have we overcome this two-class system, and if not, what lesson could it teach us?

Early career people are constantly advised to advance their networking skills and their network. On the whole, I think this is good advice. However, I also fear that one can spend a quarter of a lifetime with proper networking without realising that a network as such does not help. Networks are part of a professionalised academic environment. But while they might help exchanging ideas and even offer frameworks for collaborative projects, they are not functional as such. They need some sort of glue that keeps them together. Some people believe that networks are selective by being meritocratic. But while merit or at least prestige might often belong to the necessary conditions of getting in, it’s probably not sufficient. My hunch is that this glue comes in the shape of friendship. By that I don’t necessarily mean deeply personal friendships but “academic friendships”: people like and trust each other to some degree, and build on that professionally. If true, this might be an unwelcome fact because it runs counter to our policies of inclusion and diversity. But people need to trust each other and thus also need something stronger than policies.

Therefore, the lesson is twofold: On the one hand, people need to see that sustainable networks require trust. On the other hand, we need functional institutional structures to both to sustain such networks and to counterbalance the threat of nepotism that might come with friendship. We have or should have such structures in the shape of laws, universities, academic societies and a growing practice of mentoring. To be sure, saying that networks are not meritocratic does not mean that there is no such thing as merit. Thus, such institutions need to ensure that processes of reviewing are transparent and in keeping with commitments to democratic values as well as to the support of those still underrepresented. No matter whether this concerns written work, conferences or hiring. But the idea that networks as such are meritocratic makes their reliance on friendships invisible.

Now while friendships cannot be forced, they can be cultivated. If we wish to counter the pernicious class system and stabilise institutional remedies against it, we should advise people to extend (academic) friendships rather than competition. Competition fosters the false idea that getting into a network depends on merit. The idea of extending and cultivating academic friendship rests on the idea that merit in philosophy is a collective effort to begin with and that it needs all the people interested to keep weaving the web of knowledge. If at all, it is this way that meritocratic practices can be promoted; not by exclusion. You might object that we are operating with limited resources, but if the demand is on the rise, we have to demand more resources rather than competing for less and less. That said, cultivating academic friendships needs to be counterbalanced by transparency. Yet while we continue to fail, friendships are not only the glue of networks, but might be what keeps you sane when academia seems to fall apart.

Postscriptum I: So what about the conference referred to above? The event is a follow-up from a conference in 1999, and quite some of the former participants are present again. If it was, as it seems, based on academic friendships, isn’t that a reason to praise it? As I said and wish to emphasise again, academic friendships without institutional control do not foster the kinds of inclusive environments we should want. For neither can there be meritocratic procedures without the inclusion of underrepresented groups, nor can a two-class separation of established and not-established scholars lead to the desired extension of academic friendships. In addition to the memories triggered, one might note other issues. Given that there are comparatively many women working in this field, it is surprising that only three women are among the invited speakers. That said, the gendered conference campaign has of course identified understandable reasons for such imbalances. A further point is the fact that early career people wishing to attend have roughly two weeks after the announcement to register and apply. There is no reimbursement of costs, but one can apply for financial support after committing oneself to participate. – In view of these critical remarks, it should be noted again that this conference rather represents the status quo than the exception. The idea is not to criticise that academic friendships lead to such events, but rather to stress the need for rethinking how these can be joined with institutional mechanisms that counterbalance the downsides in tightening our networks.

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* Postscriptum II (14 March 2019): Yes. Before writing this post, I sent a mail to S.I.E.M.P. inquiring about the nature of the seminars for early career people. I asked:

(1) Are there any time slots reserved for this or are the seminars held parallel to the colloquium?
(2) What is the “new scientific methodology” referred to in the call?
(3) And is there any sort of application procedure?

The mail was forwarded to the local organisers and prompted the following reply:

“Thank you for interest in the colloquium on the Dionysian Traditions!

The time for the seminars is Friday morning. The papers should not be longer than 20 minutes. You should send us a list with titles, and preferably – with abstracts too. We have a strict time limit and not everyone may have the opportunity to present. Travel and accommodation costs are to be covered by the participants.

The new scientific methodology is the methodology you deem commensurate with the current knowledge about the Corpus.”

Apart from the fact that the event runs from a Monday to a Wednesday, the main question about the integration and audience of these seminars remains unanswered. Assuming that “Friday” is Wednesday, the seminars conicide with the announced round table, to be held at the same time at which the bureau of S.I.E.P.M. holds their meeting. (This was confirmed by a further exchange of mails.) But unlike the announcement itself, the mail now speaks of “papers” that the attendees may present.

Fake news, faith, and the know-it-all

When working on Ockham’s discussion of the distinction between faith and reason, I encountered an interesting kind of sentence, the so-called “neutral proposition” (propositio neutra). A common example for such a sentence is “the number of stars is even.” It is neutral in that we have no grounds for assenting or withholding assent. We grasp what it means but we are neither compelled to believe it nor to disbelieve it. (Please note: “neutral” doesn’t necessarily mean that the proposition is neither true nor false; it just means that we have currently no way of figuring out whether it’s true or false.)* In fact, many important things we believe seem to have that status, at least at the time of learning about them. We believe that we have been born in a certain year, that the earth is round and so on. Most of us learn such things through the testimony of others without ever checking them. Although the context of the discussion in Ockham is theological, his ideas generalise: there are many things we do and need to take on faith. I think that this fact is crucial but underrated in the discussion of fake news.** A very widespread response to the phenomenon of fake news is to recommend fact checking. I think this is one-sided and thus problematic. When we have the suspicion that some news item is fake news, then we often are in a position where we cannot (immediately) assess the information. In other words, news are much of the time a collection of neutral propositions for us. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we need to consider the role of faith or trust as well as the related role of (intellectual) humility, if we want to tackle this issue.

We don’t only learn things through others; we also learn early on that it is vital to trust others and trust what they say. Trust is the glue that holds our societies and our lives together. It’s not surprising, then, that we have a tendency to believe everything we perceive and read. Yes, every now and then we might step back and look again, but our default mode is to believe.*** So even if, strictly speaking, a neutral proposition comes our way, we will embrace it. Read the following sentence: “The majority of people now living in Prenzlauer Berg (in Berlin) have migrated there from Southern Germany.” Do you believe it? Of course, the current context of discussion might make you doubtful, but you’d probably read on without hesitation if this were a newspaper article on urban life in Berlin. Your response would not be to fact-check but to believe, unless something triggers a doubt.

This psychological fact, the “bias to believe”, has a number of consequences. We are inclined to believe things. If this is the glue of our lives, then any dysfunction of that glue will hurt us. We will be hurt if our trust is exploited. More importantly perhaps, our pride will be hurt if we are found out to have assented to a lie or even passed on a piece of false information. We will be called naïve, and people will reduce the degree of trust in us. Do you like to be called naïve? – I don’t. So what do I do? That depends on my emotional and other resources. Was it a one-off? Were you just told that Father Christmas doesn’t have a beard? That’s fine. But what if your whole belief system is branded as a result of naivety? You certainly will feel excluded, to put it mildly.

Let’s shift the focus for a second: how will you feel if you are a religious person who is told, again and again, that there is no God, that atheism is the way to go and that religion is anti-science? It is often said that matters of religion are a private issue. Psychologically speaking, this cannot be right. If trusting and believing are the glue of society, then attacks on our beliefs will hurt and upset individuals and, by extension, our society. Of course, many people have come to live with that. For many, it’s part of the package I guess. We can be pluralists. But the direct confrontation might still hurt. And if we can choose our company, we might be inclined to stick with those who respect our beliefs and perhaps host a quiet resentment towards those who feel justified in attacking us.

The point I want to return to now is that criticism of our beliefs often not only concerns individual convictions but also targets the trust we have in others, the trust on which we were inclined to embrace certain beliefs. Religion is just one of many possible examples. Most of our beliefs are deeply entrenched in our daily actions and partly shared conventions: be they religious, political, aesthetical etc. But the example of religion is a helpful one, since there is hardly any field in which people seem to feel so justified to self-righteously criticise others, and this despite the fact that most beliefs in this area are not attacked because they could be shown to be false. Most beliefs in this realm are a matter of faith. They are what I introduced as neutral propositions, to which we are neither compelled to assent nor to dissent. There is a huge difference between the agnostic claim that we do not know about these matters and the more invested claim that certain beliefs are false. In some cases, such a stance might be justified; in other cases, we might just act like a know-it-all. My hunch is that the latter stance is fairly widespread and causes much more controversy than is justified by the evidence the participants in disagreements can invoke.

If we are criticised for holding certain beliefs, this might of course be justified. There is nothing wrong with that. What I am concerned with is beliefs that are based on neutral propositions. Of course you might argue that one should only believe what one has evidence for. Good luck with that! – If we are dealing with information that we can’t assess, we have three options: we can embrace it (which is what we are inclined to do); we can (try to) reject it; or we can acknowledge – hold your breath, drumroll: we can acknowledge that we do not know whether it’s true or not. The virtue I am referring to is known as (intellectual) humility. Of course, we can do what we like if we are by ourselves, scrolling through the web or listening quietly. But if we are in a discussion, our choice matters. Do we want to criticise? By all means, if it is justified. But more often than not our own means are limited: we have stored whole systems of beliefs, without ever checking whether they are true. If we are not sure, it might be advisable to just acknowledge that. Criticising others in their beliefs is probably going to hurt them, more or less. The point is not to stop being critical; the point is to figure out what we are critical towards. Instead of saying, “you are mistaken”, we can also say, “I don’t know whether that’s right or not.” You can then establish whether and how that can be checked.

Now of course this does not mean that we should try and check all the beliefs we hold. Luckily, we have a division of labour. My parents know my birthday; so I don’t need to work it out by going to archives. There are a number of authorities we rely on. “Relying on authorities” sounds naïve perhaps, but that’s what we do when we trust others. If we have disagreements with others about politics or religion, this is often owing to the fact that we rely on different authorities or that we prioritise different authorities. Authorities come in various shapes. Often we don’t even notice them, because they have the form of deeply entrenched ideologies, promoting misogyny, racism and other forms of dehumanisation. Equally often they might concern ideas about how the world works, about what is valuable, what is useful etc. Beliefs about all such matters can be spread by everyone, with quite different epistemic status. In some matters, we trust our friends more than others, even if they might lack epistemic credentials. Criticising others often involves criticising their authorities. Again, that’s fine and often vital, but it’s equally important to be aware that we are doing it, because it concerns the glue of trust that potentially holds us together or keeps us apart if we disagree.

Calling out “fake news” is a way of criticising such authorities. Now what should we do in cases of disagreement? Criticism is of course important. But it is eqally important to see that we are interacting with others whose beliefs are at stake. Even if we suspect that the politicians or the news venues in question are merely bullshitting, the believers are inclined to take their words for granted; they trust their authorities. Now the point is not to be nice to people who believe bullshit; the point is to acknowledge that they have reasons to believe that bullshit. Calling believers (of bullshit or whatever) stupid will only deepen the rupture of trust. What’s crucial to see is that they will see our criticism in the same way as we see their beliefs. What we should establish in such disagreements, then, is whether we might perhaps be dealing with a neutral proposition. That might actually reveal a commonality between us and our interlocutor. We might both be in a position in which we don’t know for sure what’s going on. If we can establish that, we might gain more ground by scratching our heads than insisting we’re on the right side.

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* This wasn’t really clear in the original post. Thanks to CJ Sheu for the fruitful discussion.

** Part of my reflections have been triggered by an excellent new book by Romy Jaster and David Lanius. Get it, if you have some German.

*** See for instance Eric Mandelbaum, Thinking is Believing.

The competition fallacy

“We asked for workers. We got people instead.” Max Frisch

 

Imagine that you want to buy an album by the composer and singer Caroline Shaw, but they sell you one by Luciano Pavarotti instead, arguing that Pavarotti is clearly the more successful and better singer. Well, philosophers often make similar moves. They will say things like “Lewis was a better philosopher than Arendt” and even make polls to see how the majority sees the matter. Perhaps you agree with me in thinking that something has gone severely wrong in such cases. But what exactly is it? In the following I’d like to suggest that competitive rankings are not applicable when we compare individuals in certain respects. This should have serious repercussions on thinking about the job market in academia.

Ranking two individual philosophers who work in fairly different fields and contexts strikes me as pointless. Of course, you can compare them, see differences and agreements, ask about their respective popularity and so forth. But what would Lewis have said about the banality of evil? Or Arendt about modal realism? – While you might have preferences for one kind of philosophy over another, you would have a hard time explaining who the “better” or more “important” philosopher is (irrespective of said preferences). There are at least three reasons for this: Firstly, Arendt and Lewis have very little point of contact, i.e. a straightforward common ground on which to plot a comparison of their philosophies. Secondly, even if they had more commonalities or overlaps, the respective understandings of what philosophy is and what good philosophy should accomplish can be fairly different. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, philosophies are always individual and unique accomplishments. Unique creations are not something one can have a competition about. If we assume that there is a philosophical theory T1, T1 is not the kind of thing that you can compete about being better at. Of course, you can refine T1, but then you’ve created a refined theory T2. Now you might want to claim that T2 can be called better than T1. But what would T2 be, were it not for T1? Relatedly, philosophers are unique. The assumption that what one philosopher does can be done better or equally well by another philosopher is an illusion fostered by professionalised environments. People are always unique individuals and their ideas cannot be exchanged salva veritate.*

Now since there are open job searches (sometimes even without a specification of the area of specialisation) you could imagine a philosophy department in 2019 having to decide whether they hire Lewis or Arendt. I can picture the discussions among the committee members quite vividly. But in doing such a search they are doing the same thing as the shop assistant who ends up arguing for Pavarotti over Shaw. Then words like “quality”, “output”, “grant potential”, “teaching evaluations”, “fit” … oh, and “diversity” will be uttered. “Arendt will pull more students!” – “Yeah, but what about her publication record? I don’t see any top journals!” – “Well, she is a woman.” In a good world both of them would be hired, but we live in a world where many departments might rather hire two David Lewises. So what’s going on?

It’s important to note that the competition is not about their philosophies: Despite the word “quality”, for the three reasons given above, the committee members cannot have them compete as philosophers. Rather, the department has certain “needs” that the competition is about.** The competition is about functions in the department, not about philosophy. As I see it, this point generalises: competitions are never about philosophy but always about work and functions in a department.*** Now, the pernicious thing is that departments and search committees and even candidates often pretend that the search is about the quality of their philosophy. But in the majority of cases that cannot be true, simply because the precise shape, task and ends of philosophy are a matter of dispute. What weighs is functions, not philosophy.

Arguably, there can be no competition between philosophers qua philosophers. Neither between Arendt and Lewis, nor between Arendt and Butler, nor between Lewis and Kripke. Philosophers can discuss and disagree but they cannot compete. What should they compete about? If they compete about jobs, it’s the functions in departments that are at stake. (That is also the reason why we allow for prestige as quality indicators.)  If they assume to be competing about who is the better philosopher, they mistake what they are doing. Of course, one philosopher might be preferred over another, but this is subject to change and chance, and owing to the notion of philosophy of the dominant committee member. The idea that there can be genuinely philosophical competition is a fallacy.

Does it follow, then, that there is no such thing as good or better philosophy? Although this seems to follow, it doesn’t. In a given context and group, things will count as good or better philosophy. But here is another confusion lurking. “Good” philosophy is not the property of an individual person. Rather, it is a feature of a discussion or interacting texts. Philosophy is good if the discussion “works well”. It takes good interlocutors on all sides. If I stammer out aphorisms or treatises, they are neither good nor bad. What turns them into something worthwhile is owing to those listening, understanding and responding. To my mind, good quality is resourcefulness of conversations. The more notions and styles of philosophy a conversation can integrate, the more resources it has to tackle what is at stake. In philosophy, there is no competition, just conversation.

Therefore, departments and candidates should stop assuming that the competition is about the quality of philosophy. Moreover, we should stop claiming that competitiveness is an indicator of being a good philosopher.**** Have you ever convinced an interlocutor by shouting that you’re better or more excellent than them?

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* At the end of the day, philosophies are either disparate or they are in dialogue. In the former case, rivalry would be pointless; in the latter case, the rivalry is not competitive but a form of (disagreeing or agreeing) refinement. If philosophers take themselves to be competing about something like the better argument, they are actually not competing but discussing and thus depend on one another.

** This does not mean that these needs or their potential fulfillment ultimately decide the outcome of the competition. Often there is disagreement or ignorance about what these needs are or how they are to be prioritised. With regard to committees, I find this article quite interesting.

*** In a recent blog post, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between being good at philosophy vs being good at academic philosophy. It’s a great post. (My only disagreement would be that being good at philosophy is ultimately a feature of groups and discussions, not individuals.) Eric Schliesser made similar points in an older more gloomy post.

**** On FB, Evelina Miteva suggeststhat we need fair trade philosophy, like the fair trade coffee. Fair trade coffee is not necessarily of a better taste or quality, it ‘only’ makes sure that the producers will get something out if their work.” – I think this is exactly right: On some levels, this already seems to be happening, for instance, in the open access movement. Something similar could be applied to recruiting and employment conditions in academia. In fact, something like this seems to be happening, in that some universities are awarded for being family friendly or being forthcoming in other ways (good hiring practice e.g.). – My idea is that we could amend many problems (the so-called mental health crisis etc.), if we were to stop incentivising competitiveness on the wrong levels and promote measures of solidarity instead. – The message should be that the community does no longer tolerate certain forms of wrong competition and exploitation.

Relatedly, this also makes for an argument in favour of affirmative action against discrimination of underrepresented groups: People who believe in meritocracy often say that affirmative action threatens quality. But affirmative action is not about replacing “good” with “underrepresented” philosophers. Why? Because the quality of philososphy is not an issue in competitive hiring in the first place.