Custom or climate? Trying to contextualise Hume’s account of group mentality

What is it that determines humans in their opinions and emotions? Hume distinguishes between two kinds of causes: (1) physical causes such as the air and climate; (2) moral causes such as custom and education. In his essay On National Characters (1748), Hume clearly opts for the latter:

“If we run over the globe, or revolve the annals of history, we shall discover every where signs of a sympathy or contagion of manners, none of the influence of air or climate.”

What is so special about Hume’s answer? – In my book on Socialising Minds, the first draft of which I am currently revising, I argue that Hume’s rejection of physical causes as determinants of human mentalities is owing to Hume’s intersubjective understanding of the mind. Much of what we think and feel depends on other surrounding minds and not simply on a shared physical environment. However, in trying to come to grips with Hume’s account I noticed that his reply should be read as part of an intricate debate about the causes of the mentality of groups. In what follows, I’d like to raise a few questions about the intriguing context of the debate that I think Hume is participating in.

How, then, should we contextualise what Hume is saying? – As might seem obvious, Hume distinguishes two positions in line either with physical or moral causes. Readers of his Treatise will recognise his opting for sympathy and thus moral causes as an endorsement of his theory of sympathy. But what is he rejecting? As I already noted earlier, he rejects the so-called climate theory. The climate theory explains the character of people by reference to the climate and physical conditions of a certain region. Deriving from Hippocratic origins, this theory was used to explain racial and national differences with regard to politics in ancient, medieval and early modern times. In the middle ages, the climate theory was increasingly linked to the Galenic theory of humoral complexion. Thus, the physical causes that are supposed to shape our characters or temperaments can be married with hereditary lines of explanation. Thus, northern Europeans and women counted as phlegmatic, jews and heretics counted as melancholic.

Now why does Hume reject this theory? On the face of it, Hume’s choice of explanation seems to run counter to his distinction between naturally superior and inferior races (see Eric Schliesser’s pertinent post). I can’t go into this now, but the climate theory seems to have way more resources for racist distinctions than an account based on education and sympathy.

Now whose version of climate theory is Hume rejecting? An immediate contemporary target might even have been Montesquieu who had tried to explain almost all social aspects through climate in his L’Esprit des lois, which came out in 1748, thus in the same year as Hume’s essay. However, Hume seems to appeal to a much earlier discussion for his rejection. Referring to Strabo’s Geographica (23 AD), Hume writes:

“Strabo, lib. ii. Rejects, in a great measure, the influence of climates upon men. All is custom and education, says he. It is not from nature, that the Athenians are learned, the Lacedemonians ignorant, and the Thebans too, who are still nearer neighbours to the former. Even the difference of animals, he adds, depends not on climate.”

Hume clearly sides with Strabo in declaring that custom and education are the crucial factors shaping our mentalities. In fact, one might say that Hume, paraphrasing Strabo, sums up his own philosophy in a nutshell. Strabo is quoted about 25 times and forms an important source for many of Hume’s historical considerations. What Hume’s Treatise brought to the table is a refined understanding of the transmission of custom through the mechanism of sympathy. But it is interesting to see that the perhaps central elements that, according to Hume, shape our whole mental lives, i.e. custom and education, are introduced in opposition to the climate theory.

What this leads me to is not an answer but a bunch of questions: What were Hume’s reasons for rejecting the climate theory, while contemporaries still embraced it? What version of the theory did he have in mind? And why did he, unlike Montesquieu, see it in opposition to custom? – At least the first of these questions might be answered with reference to Hume’s observation that people can display mentalities in stark contrast to what the climate and other physical conditions would have us predict. In his History, Hume writes:

“Even at the end of the sixteenth century, when every christian nation was cultivating with ardour every civil art of life, that island, lying in a temperate climate, enjoying a fertile soil, accessible in its situation, possessed of innumerable harbours, was still, notwithstanding these advantages, inhabited by a people, whose customs and manners approached nearer those of savages than of barbarians.”

Framing employment in higher education, and father’s day

If you work in (higher) education, you will know some version of the following paradox: It takes the ‘best’ candidates to educate people for a life in which there is no time for education. – What I mean is that, while we pretend to apply meritocratic principles in hiring (of researchers and instructors), there is not even a glimpse of such pretence when it comes to the education of our children. If we were to apply such principles, we would probably expect parents (or others who take care of children) to invest at least some amount of time in the education of their children. But in fact we expect people to disguise time spent with or for their children. So much so that one might say: your children live in competition with your CV. – There are many problems when it comes to issues of care and employment, but in what follows I’d like to focus especially on the role of time and timing.

A few days ago I read a timely blog post over at the Philosophers’ Cocoon: “Taking time off work / the market for motherhood?”. The crucial question asked is whether and, if yes, how to explain “the gap” in productivity. Go and read the post along with the comments (on this blog they tend to be worth reading, too) first.

For what it’s worth, let me begin with my own more practical piece of advice. If a gap is visible, I would tend to address it in the letter and say that a certain amount of time was spent on childcare. Why? I’m inclined to think of cover letters in terms of providing committee members with arguments in one’s favour. If someone says, “look, since his PhD, this candidate has written three rather than two papers”, someone else can reply with “yes, but this difference can be explained by the time spent on childcare”. Yet, this advice might not be sufficient. If candidates are really compared like that, people might not sufficiently care about explanations. All I would hope for is that providing arguments or explanations for gaps should at least not hurt your chances.

However, this does not counter the structural disadvantages for women and mothers in our institutions. You might object that there are now many measures against such disadvantages. While this might be true, it also leads to problematic assumptions. Successful women now often face the suspicion of being mere beneficiaries of affirmative action. This could entail that awards or other successes for women might be assessed as less significant by their peers. (Paradoxically, this could increase the prestige of awards for male peers since they count as harder to get in a climate of suspicion.) But the problems start before any committee member ever sets eyes on an application. What strikes me as crucial is the idea that childcare is construed as a gap. Let me mention just three points:

  • Construing childcare as a gap incentivises treating it as a waste of time (for the stakeholders). But this approach ignores that employees in higher education are representatives of educational values. Treating childcare and, by extension, education as a waste of time undermines the grounds that justify efforts in education in the first place.
  • You would expect that work in higher education requires certain skills, some of which are actually trained by taking care of children. Attentiveness, constant interpretational efforts, openness to failure, patience, time management, dealing with rejection, you name it. While I’m not saying that parents are necessarily better teachers or researchers, it’s outright strange to play off one activity against the other.
  • At least in the field of philosophy, most work products are intrinsically tied to the producer. It’s not like you could have hired Davidson to write the work published by Anscombe. Unlike in certain examination practices, our texts are not crafted such that someone’s work could be replaced anyone else. So all the prestige and quantification cannot stand in for what they are taken to indicate. Thus, comparing products listed on a CV is of limited value when you want to assess someone’s work.

That said, the positive sides of parenthood are often seen and even acknowledged. At least some fathers get a lot of credit. Strangely, this credit is rarely extended to mothers, even less so in questions of employment conditions. Ultimately, the situation reminds me of the cartoon of a sinking boat: the people on the side that is still up and out of the water shout in relief that they are lucky not to be on the side that sank. Yet, educating children is a joint responsibility of our society. If we leave vital care work to others, it’s more than cynical to claim that they didn’t keep up to speed with those who didn’t do any of the care work. Comparing CVs obscures joint responsibilities, incentivising competition where solidarity is due. Such competition sanctions (potential) mothers in particular when excluding them from jobs in higher education or the secure spots on what might turn out to be the Titanic.

The ‘Identity’ Rejection Letter: Should search committees reveal the identity of the people they hire to unsuccessful applicants?

I’m a philosopher on the academic job market and an aspect of this ‘rite of passage,’ as I like to call it, is receiving rejection letters for the many jobs one has applied for. How many such letters one gets is of course a function of how many jobs one applies for (the more applications submitted the more rejection letters one is likely to receive), and I won’t here supply the details of just how many jobs I have personally have applied for and their results (though I have often thought that this information might be of interest to other applicants). However, having been on the market for a few years and having received my share of rejection letters, I’ve noticed that these letters take a variety of forms. The most common is the ‘stock’ rejection letter, sometimes sent from the committee directly, sometimes from the human resources department, sometimes addressed to me personally, sometimes to the ‘Dear Candidate,’ which thanks me for applying and regrets to inform me that I haven’t been short-listed or the committee has chosen the candidate that best serves their needs. (I don’t mean to bash the stock letter. There is good reason the stock letter is so common: the number of candidates applying for most of these jobs is so high that anything other than the stock letter would require an unreasonable amount of labour by the committee or secretarial staff.) Every once in a while, however, the rejection letter I, and presumably all other candidates, receive informs us of the identity of the person that the selection committee has hired for the position in question. What I’d like to discuss here is this specific type of rejection letter, let’s call it the ‘identity letter, and ask a question: should hiring committees reveal to applicants the identity of the successful candidate? I’ll be honest, I’m not sure committee should, in the end, do this, but there are some reasons for and against, and it seems worthwhile to at least discuss the question since committee practices are so varied.

Let me start by speculating on why the committees that do reveal the identity of the successful candidate to all applicants engage in this practice. One reason might be that it is merely serving the function of an announcement – informing a community of an important development that the community has an interest in. Another, related reason is that it’s performing the dual function of informing applicants that they were unsuccessful while at the same time saying ‘and we did in fact hire someone, their name is X.’

Now let me consider some reasons NOT to reveal the identity of the successful candidate. I think the main reason not to do this is simply that there doesn’t seem to be any good reason TO do it in the first place. Indeed, to speculate on why some committees don’t write identity rejection letters is because the applicants aren’t entitled to this information in the first place. There is likely no institutional pressure to reveal this information, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious moral or practical reason to do so either. After all: who a department hires is the business of the department and the successful candidate – nobody else’s!

At the same time, let me offer a few reasons in favour of committees revealing the identity of the successful candidate to applicants. One reason to do this, although not a very good one, is that everyone, including unsuccessful applicants, will most likely be able to find out this information themselves anyways. With sites like the Philjobs ‘Appointment’ page, and the websites departments maintain of current faculty and staff, any interested party can learn who the successful candidate for a job was by a simple google search once these sites are updated. But again – this isn’t a very good reason for committee to proactively reveal the identity of the successful candidate. So,are there any good reason?

I can think of at least one that I have experienced as an unsuccessful applicant. I admit that I have sometimes searched to see how was hired for a position I applied for unsuccessfully. But despite what you might think, this wasn’t because I was nosy, snooping, wanted to gossip, etc. (Okay, sometimes I’m just curious). I sometimes try to find information about not only the identity, but the academic record of a successful applicant so that I can see what the record of a successful applicant looks like. Indeed, to be honest the ‘identity’ of an applicant (i.e. their name and other biographical information) is only indirectly of interest to me insofar as it can help me find their CV. On the one hand, this sounds like a terrible thing to say – it’s not to say that I’m not interested in who these people are either and that they’re reducible to their CV, it’s just to say that given my specific interests in this situation, biographical information is not and indeed SHOULD not be of any interest to me, for reasons related to discrimination. Whenever a committee sends me an ‘identity’ rejection letter, and once I’ve gotten over the bitterness of rejection that always seems to be present despite the fact that this is rejection #148, I’m very grateful so that in my cool hours of reflection I can process why they hired one person and not me, and I can see where my experience fell short, how I might work to build my experience in the future to give me a better chance, etc. I know people use sites like Philjobs ‘Appointments’ simply to gossip and track where people move, who gets hired where, etc., but these sites and the identity rejection letter perform a valuable educational function not only to philosophers currently on the job market like me, but also to younger grad students and those considering an academic career: it shows these people what it takes to be successful in the competitive market we’re currently faced with. I’m not sure this is enough reason for committee to adopt the identity rejection letter as standard practice (indeed I really don’t think this is a good enough reason to ignore the competing concerns of the candidate’s right to privacy or the fact that anyone other than the applicant and the department really has a right to know who was hired before officially making this information public via a website or other mediums down the road). At the very least, however, I think this is a good reason to engage in this practice, despite initial intuitions to the contrary, and committees who decide to do this have this reason to support their practice.

Experiencing humility: hope for public debate?

When I was young (yes, stop snickering), when I was young I was often amazed at people’s knowledge. Most people had opinions about everything. The government issued a statement about a new policy and my father or one of my uncles already knew that the policy wouldn’t work. This admiration didn’t stop during my adolescence: I remember listening in awe when friends saw through all the motives and consequences of political decisions. How did they figure it all out? – Well, they probably didn’t. Or not much of it. I don’t want to sound condescending but most of us probably don’t understand the implications of political decisions all that well. Yet, judging by the readiness and vehemence of our contributions to public debate, most of us do at least give the impression of relative expertise. If this is correct, there is a disproportion between actual understanding and confidence in our opinions. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that amending this disproportion might hold the key to improving public debate.

According to Kees van den Bos and other social scientists,* this disproportion is one of the crucial factors leading to polarisation in public debate. However, the inverse also seems to be true: if people are asked to explain how certain policies work and experience that they understand these policies less well than they thought, they are likely to exhibit more moderation in their views of these policies. Fernbach et al. (2013) write:

“Across three studies, we found that people have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies. Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation under-mines this illusion of understanding and leads people to endorse more moderate positions. Mechanistic explanation generation also influences political behavior, making people less likely to donate to relevant advocacy groups. These moderation effects on judgment and decision making do not occur when people are asked to enumerate reasons for their position. We propose that generating mechanistic explanations leads people to endorse more moderate positions by forcing them to confront their ignorance. In contrast, reasons can draw on values, hearsay, and general principles that do not require much knowledge.”

So while I might become increasingly stubborn if you ask me to give reasons for p, I might become more moderate if you ask me to explain how p works. According to the researchers, this is the case because in the latter scenario I am humbled by experiencing the limits of my knowledge. I guess it won’t be too much to ask you to imagine examples. Asking how certain policies of, say, traffic regulation or migration work in practice might even lead politicians themselves to moderation.

What precisely is it that leads to moderation? My hunch is that the effect is produced by experiencing humility. This means that it is vital that the subject in question experiences their lack of knowledge. It is probably no good if I am told that I lack knowledge. (In fact, I believe that this might instil resentment.) The point is that I realise my lack in my own attempt at an explanation. So what I would like to emphasise is that the moderating effect is probably owing to experiencing this lack rather than merely knowing about this lack. Of course, I know that I don’t know how precisely certain policies work. But it’s still quite another thing to experience this ignorance in attempting to explain such policies. In other words, the Socratic attitude alone doesn’t help.

If this effect persists, this finding might indeed help ameliorating conversations and debates. Instead of telling people that they are wrong or asking for reasons, we might simply ask how the proposed idea works. This requires of course humility on part of all interlocutors. A good start might be debates in philosophy.

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* I am grateful to Hendrik Siebe, Diego Castro and Leopold Hess for conversations about this work online and offline.

Diversifying scholarship. Or how the paper model kills history

Once upon a time a BA student handed in a proposal for a paper on Hume’s account of substance. The student proposed to show that Hume’s account was wrong, and that Aristotle’s account was superior to Hume’s. If memory serves, I talked the student out of this idea and suggested that he build his paper around an analysis of a brief passage in Hume’s Treatise. – The proposal was problematic for several reasons. But what I want to write about is not the student or his proposal. Rather I want to zoom in on our way of approaching historical texts (in philosophy). The anecdote about the proposal can help to show what the problem is. As I see it, the standard journal article has severe repercussions on the way we teach and practise scholarship in the history of philosophy. It narrows our way of reading texts and counters attempts at diversification of the canon. If we want to overcome these repercussions, it will help to reinstate other forms of writing, especially the form of the commentary.

So what’s wrong with journal articles? Let me begin by saying that there is nothing wrong with articles themselves. The problem is that articles are the decisive and almost only form of disseminating scholarship. The typical structure of a paper is governed by two elements: the claim, and arguments for that claim. So a historian typically articulates a claim about a text (or more often about claims in the secondary literature about a text) and provides arguments for embracing that claim. This way we produce a lot of fine scholarship and discussion. But if we make it the leading format, a number of things fall through the cracks.

An immediate consequence is that that the historical text has the status of evidence for the claim. So the focus is not on the historical material but the claim of the historian. If we teach students to write papers of this sort, we teach them to focus on their claims rather than on the material. You can see this in the student’s approach to Hume: the point was to evaluate Hume’s account. Rather than figuring out what was going on in Hume’s text and what it might be responding to, the focus is on making a claim about what is the supposed doctrine. The latter approach immediately abstracts away from the text and thus from the material of discussion. What’s wrong with that? Of course, such an abstract approach is fine if you’re already immersed in an on-going discussion or perhaps even a tradition of discussions about the text. In that case you’re mainly engaging with the secondary literature. But this abstract approach does not work for beginners. Why? Arguably, the text itself sets constraints that have to observed if the discussion is to make sense. What are these constraints? I’m not saying they are fixed once and for all. Quite the contrary! But they have to be established in relation to the text. So before you can say anything about substance in Hume, you have to see where and how the term is used and whether it makes sense to evaluate it in relation to Aristotle. (My hunch is that, in Treatise 1.1.6.1-2, Hume rejects the Aristotelian idea of substance altogether; thus saying that Aristotle’s notion is superior is like saying that apples are superior to bananas). The upshot is: before you can digest the secondary literature, you have to understand how the textual constraints are established that guide the discussions in the secondary literature.

What we might forget, then, if we teach on the basis of secondary literature, is how these constraints were established in the long tradition of textual scholarship. When we open an edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, we see the text through the lens of thick layers of scholarship. When we say that certain passages are “dark”, “difficult” or “important”, we don’t just speak our mind. Rather we echo many generations of diligent scholarship. We might hear that a certain passage is tricky before we even open the book. But rather than having students parrot that Kant writes “difficult prose”, we should teach them to find their way through that prose. That requires engagement with the text: line by line, word by word, translation by mistranslation. Let’s call this mode of reading linear reading as opposed to abstract reading. It is one thing to say what “synthetic apperception” is. It’s quite another thing to figure out how Kant moves from one sentence to the next. The close and often despair-inducing attention to the details of the text are necessary for establishing an interpretation. Of course, it is fine to resort to guidance, but we have to see the often tenuous connection between the text and the interpretation, let a lone the claim about a text. In other words, we have to see how abstract reading emerges from linear reading.

My point is not that we shouldn’t read (or teach what’s in the) secondary literature. My point is that secondary literature or abstract reading is based on a linear engagement with the text that is obscured by the paper model. The paper model suggests that you read a bit and then make a fairly abstract claim (about the text or, more often, about an interpretation of the text). But the paper model obscures hundreds of years or at least decennia of linear reading. What students have to learn (and what perhaps even we, as teachers, need to remind ourselves of) is how one sentence leads to the next. Only then does the abstract reading presented in the secondary literature become visible for what it is: as an outcome of a particular linear reading.

But how can we teach linear reading? My suggestion is quite simple: Rather than essay writing, students in the history of philosophy should begin by learning to write commentaries to texts. As I argued earlier, there is a fair amount of philosophical genres beyond the paper model. At least part of our education should consist in being confronted with a piece of text (no more than half a page) and learning to comment on that piece, perhaps translating it first, going through it line by line, pointing out claims as well as obscurities and raising questions that point to desirable explanations. This way, students will learn to approach the texts independently. While it might be easy to parrot that “Hegel is difficult to read”, it takes courage to say that a concrete piece of text is difficult to understand. In the latter case, the remark is not a judgment but the starting point of an analysis that might allow for a first tentative explanation (e.g. of why the difficulty arises).

Ultimately, my hope is that this approach, i.e. the linear commentary to concrete pieces of text, will lead (back) to a diversification of scholarship. Of course, it’s nice to read, for instance, the next paper on Hume claiming that he is an idealist or whatever. But it would help if that scholarship would (again) be complemented by commentaries to the texts. Nota bene: such scholarship is available even today. But we don’t teach it very much.

Apart from learning how to read linearly and closely, such training is the precondition of what is often called the diversification of the canon. If we really want to expand the boundaries of the canon, the paper model will restrain us (too much) in what we find acceptable. Before we even open a page of Kant, our lens is shaped through layers of linear reading. But when we open the books of authors that are still fairly new to us, we have hardly any traditions of reading to fall back on. If we start writing the typical papers in advance of establishing constraints through careful linear reading, we are prone to just carry over the claims and habits familiar from familiar scholarship. I’m not saying that this is bound to happen, but diligent textual commentaries would provide a firmer grasp of the texts on their own terms. In this sense, diversification of the canon requires diversification of scholarship.

An ethics of climate change?

Imagine that you watch someone putting down a substance on all the playgrounds in your neighbourhood. You are then reliably informed that the substance is poisonous and that it has been put down on all playgrounds.

What would you do? Would you keep quiet about it? – Perhaps you should. Even if you see some children die, you don’t know for sure whether it’s really the poison that is lethal, do you?*

 

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* Some comments:

— Faced with the question of anthropogenic climate change, most far-right parties I know endorse a variant of this argument. Are there any other options? Probably: (a) Some mainstream parties in Germany worry most about the issue that the guy putting down the poison might be out of a job if we cause a fuss. (b) Other parties campaign for building new playgrounds. (c) A further option is to ask the producers of poison for the best strategy. (d) Oh, and another commonly favoured move is to dismiss protests of children as ignorant. Did I miss something?

— If you’ve read this far, why not sign this petition by Martin Kusch (Vienna): “Philosophers for Future”?

— While I think that dismissing findings of climate sciences or other concerns about climate change is immoral, I also see that ‘spreading the word‘ is rather difficult. Meehan Crist writes: “On a rapidly warming planet, one function of climate writing is to get the word out—to spark and help shape public discourse in the midst of ongoing and accelerating catastrophe. We are already too late to prevent some degree of unprecedented change. We know it’s going to be bad, but human activity today could still make the future worse. So it’s true both that we are too late and that there is no time to be lost. Yet if we get the framing of this story wrong—if we see the issue as a matter of individual consumer choice, for example, or choose a purely emotional rather than an explicitly political framing—we risk missing the point altogether.”