How philosophy does not make progress. A note on Scott Soames’ new book

Every now and then, philosophers like to discuss whether philosophy makes progress. Although the notion of progress is problematic, I often find these discussions rewarding, for they bring out how varied our understandings actually are. For me, “progress” is a term qualifying interaction, e.g. between interlocutors. In this sense, a conversation can be progressive in that it becomes more refined. And insofar as philosophy can be seen as a form of conversation, it certainly allows for progress. I don’t particularly care whether the progressive elements lie more in the problems or answers or in the methods of tackling them. After all, it depends on what the interlocutors make of them. On Twitter, Michael Schmitz recently suggested that the impact of philosophical ideas on other fields (sciences, arts, politics) might make for an interesting measure of progress, and I wondered whether there are histories of philosophy that put such impact centre stage. When studying linguistics, for instance, I was struck how often Wittgenstein would be named as an inspiration, but my question of how exactly the interaction between linguists and philosophers went remained unanswered. While I have no doubts that there are crucial interactions between philosophy and other fields, I think the precise relation between them would be an intriguing topic for historical research: What was the impact of philosophy, perhaps decisive in the foundation of disciplines, policies or other developments? More than once, Scott Soames’ new book The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age was mentioned as an example for this kind of history. So I began to read. In what follows, I don’t want to present a thorough review. Rather I want to point out in what ways this book is an exemplar of the kind of book that might block progress.

The book does indeed set out from what I’d call an interactionist account of progress. In the introduction, Soames notes that “this book is about the contributions philosophers have made, and continue to make, to our civilization.” (xi) On Daily Nous and elsewhere, Soames’ book has already been noted for its intriguing view on progress:

Philosophers help by giving us new concepts, reinterpreting old truths, and reconceptualizing questions to expand their solution spaces. Sometimes philosophers do this when sciences are born, but they also do it as disciplines mature. As science advances, there is more, not less, for philosophy to do.” (ibid.)

Given the subtitle of the book, it’s clear that we should not expect a very detailed account of such interactions. Fair enough, it might be a start. However, we know that the notion of philosophy might have changed since Plato. Trying to depict any interaction between philosophers and other fields requires an idea of how to identify agents of different fields, doesn’t it? Soames loses no ink over demarcating philosophy from other endeavours. There are no remarks on the shaping of disciplines or even on research on such developments. For instance, the chapter on the “science of language” begins with Chomsky, whose work is deemed as crucial for the empirical study of natural language (133). Is he to be seen as a linguist or a philosopher? We are not told. What did he draw on? Who cares? Not a single word about the Neogrammarians in the nineteenth century; nothing about the early and later works of Bloomfield or the relations of linguistics and warfare in the early twentieth century. Soames is known for history of analytic philosophy and work in the philosophy of language, but one gets the impression that Soames merely works from the top of his head when drawing distinctions or picking his heroes, even in his area of specialisation. To his credit, I should note that he was “initially not inclined to” write this book (ix). Rather he portrays himself as having been persuaded by his editor at Princeton University Press.

Of course, I was particularly curious what Soames would make of medieval philosophy, for in this case we have numerous assumptions and prejudices about the relation between, for instance philosophy and theology. The schematic “timeline” at the end of the introduction notes three stages in medieval philosophy: Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the “revival of the Aristotelian study of nature” and “Ockham’s razor”. The chapter itself is called “A Truce between Faith and Reason” and also mentions Augustine, Avicenna, Averroes, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Roger Bacon and Duns Scotus – a serious expansion of the canon relied on! Despite these honourable mentions, it’s clear that Aquinas is the hero of the chapter. Without any questions Soames repeats the story of the “grand synthesis” (39) between faith and reason, Augustine and Aristotle, that the Neothomists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have handed down to us. If you follow the sparse footnotes (409-410) you will find that, besides Aquinas himself, Copleston’s history (1946-1975) is the true source of erudition. And why bother with any later scholarship?

But what is Soames’ verdict? In his own words, the “genius of the High Christian Middle Ages – its foremost contribution to the world philosophy made – was in finding a way to give Greek philosophy a second chance …” (21-22) This might indeed pass as a witty remark. After all, medieval philosophy is known as a set of commentary traditions, and the talk of a “second chance” – isn’t it just? But substantially, what acclaim do you receive, if I note that what you do best is give voice to someone else’s thoughts? Similarly great are the achievements of individual men (yes, what else?). Albert the Great’s “most lasting contribution was his influence on his brilliant student Thomas Aquinas.” Of course, the Editio Coloniensis, the critical edition of Albert’s works comprises roughly 50 percent, but Soames can already assess the lasting influence of this work.

These assertions of the traditional canon are so lame that even challenging them can by now count as canonical. As the résumé of his chapter makes clear (39), he merely repeats a teleological narrative of philosophy as striving towards a rational autonomy designed to foster the development of the sciences. Soames writes: “… as time wore on, philosophy asserted its natural critical autonomy, the synthesis [of faith and reason, M.L.] eroded, and philosophers created the intellectual space they needed to begin laying the foundations for the spectacular growth of mathematics and natural sciences that was to come.” (39, italics mine) I italicised parts of the text that indicate the familiar teleological reasoning driving this well worn idea. It’s a story of decline and growth, and its hero or rather heroine is philosophia, endowed with natural properties that come to flourish in the course of history. It’s a story with agents and detractors, of destination towards the fate that we have come to now.

It’s 2019, and we see a major academic publisher disseminating a piece of work, admittedly reluctantly composed by someone who is not a specialist, who grounds at least part of his work on no research, who does not pause to question the categories and descriptions he applies. You might object that this is not “scholarship” but intended for a larger audience. If so, what kind of audience is this? An audience that needs to be told that Plato was a philosopher or that Bach had interest in organ music? Does that audience not deserve to be served state of the art research? Or at least something based on research of the last thirty years? Or, if that would be asking too much, something that highlights caveats or open questions in the introduction?

I’ve read too many books to ignore the fact that Soames’ book is not the only exemplar of this kind of work. Nor is it a special problem that Soames publicly endorses the politics of Trump.  Indeed, there are many books by famous philosophers who get to share their sometimes ideosyncratic views in an unquestioning manner with a major publishing house. The problem is not just that some of the chapters might be outdated. Given that the actual question of the project behind this book is rather interesting, this publication will represent the state of the art on this issue for years to come. Aspiring scholars wanting to engage with this kind of project will have to reference this work and discuss it, thereby perpetuating the impact of unquestioned teleological bullshit.

Philosophical experience. A response to Andrea Sangiacomo

Sometimes I begin a seminar or lecture by just standing or sitting in front of the course and saying nothing. I wait, sometimes for two to five minutes. That’s a long, long time. I sense that the students expect me to say something. Sometimes a student breaks the silence by asking me what’s going on or by inviting me to speak; sometimes I break the silence when I feel that the discomfort is growing. – In any case, I can be sure that in these two minutes there is at least the onset of a shared experience. The students expect me to speak and are either amused or irritated when this expectation is not met. Referring to this experience, I can then talk about the deeply ingrained expectations, roles, norms and what have you. Moreover, I can be fairly sure that the students will connect the experience to what is said. Often they will participate more actively in the seminar. Depending on how such experience is conceptualised, it gains the status of evidence, illustration or even of the content of discussion. I think that such experiences can crucially enrich philosophical activity. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we should integrate such experiences more systematically into philosophical work.*

Let’s begin by looking at some kinds of experiences that figure in philosophical exchange. When you say or write something, you (hopefully) get a response: nine times out of ten that response will take the form of an objection to what you say. If this is correct, the typical experience in current philosophical discourse is the exchange of claims and objections. While this practice gets us some of the way, it strikes me as a very limited use of the resources we actually have. To be sure, we use a few more things to stimulate our imagination: we draw on thought experiments, examples, analogies, formal methods and such like. But except for formal methods, we pay fairly little attention to the way these ‘tools’ work. What do I mean by this? – Well, if you reconstruct an argument by rendering it in a formal code, you engage in a sort of translation: in writing “if p, then q” you turn a sequence of sentences into sequence of symbols. This is a practice that has to be learned. Once you are familiar with it, it widens your resources of thinking. It enables a shift of focus (for instance on truth-values), a number of decisions (what sort of conditional is this?), and it stimulates your imagination, since you literally have to play around with the sequence. Depending on your goals, some translations will be more adequate or helpful than others. This practice is enormously helpful in various ways and has developed into a clear component of philosophical education. The same is true of the growing education in statistical reasoning. Arguably, such conventions afford us certain ways of making (highly cultivated) philosophical experiences. Once established, they turn into resources of handling ideas and arguments that enable us to move around and redirect our focus. (As I pointed out earlier, this thrives on forms of alienation.)

However, far less, if any, attention is given to other forms of thinking and cultivating attention. We spend far less time analysing or applying examples, analogies, translations into other languages, the use of pictures and drawings, forms of literature, film, theatre, music and other arts. I think this is an enormous loss. If we look at the history of sciences such as biology, it is clear that forms of representation, not least artistic representation, provided enormous boosts. Painting things larger than life, as it were, turned our attention to unregarded details. Why should that not be true of philosophy? The idea, for instance, that our moral reasonings could have developed independently of inventions by novelists strikes me as absurd. But if this is even remotely correct, then why don’t we pay more attention to the interaction between literary experience and philosophical intuitions? Why should we assume that Iris Murdoch’s Black Prince does not afford us with philosophically relevant experiences? We don’t necessarily have to become novelists ourselves, but the transformation of such experience into other forms of thought and vice versa strikes me as both vital and wholly underestimated. How, then, can such resources figure in our philosophical experience?

Perhaps you have already asked yourself now and then why at least the first chapters of Descartes’ Meditations are such a widely and persistently appreciated text. Why does it speak even to first-year students in such a direct way that other works never will? Let me give you a hint: it’s not the structure of the arguments; neither is its philosophical content. It is because it is a meditation. In a series of posts, Andrea Sangiacomo recently reminded us of this fact and also of the fact that we never really pay attention to the form. The point is that Descartes directly appeals to our experience and guides us, by example, through an experiential journey in which we focus on certain modes of perception and on blocking them. You can read the text as a series of arguments, but you can also do what Descartes insinuates: experience what he suggests. Arguably, it is this latter feature that speaks to people directly in that they don’t need anything but their means of perceiving and thinking to play along.

You might object that the appeal to experience is somehow “not philosophy”. At least, it is this estimation that often blocks the inclusion of other approaches and indeed of whole traditions. According to Kristie Dotson, our philosophising is driven by a “culture of justification” that excludes appeals to other forms of philosophy, relying on other practices or lived experiences. But in fact we don’t even need to leave the so-called western tradition to encounter such appeals. Wishing to introduce a concept, we often help ourselves to examples. If you want to talk about illusions, for instance, there is a number of stock examples ready. Most of us are familiar with optical illusions, such as the stick appearing bent in the water or the Müller-Lyer illusion. Such examples are often invoked in discussions of perception and can help demonstrate various aspects. Sometimes they are invoked as a mere illustration, sometimes as evidence for a claim, sometimes they are a topic in their own right, for instance, when we ask how and under what conditions they arise. What is rarely noted, however, is that exposure to such and other examples might constitute a philosophical experience. Presented with an example, we step out of the verbal exchange and consider an image or a scene. Even if this experience is guided by concepts and explanations, it is not wholly determined by them. It gives rise to sensations that are deeply linked with other experiences. It connects with all sorts of things, sensations, intuitions, feelings etc. and might trigger way more or other sensations and associations than expected. Arguably, it is the exposure to the experience of the illusion that triggers new lines of arguments.

Likewise, if we pay attention to certain strands especially in the analytic tradition, the use and handling of examples and thought experiments is a guiding feature. Just re-read some classics: Frege, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Davidson, Millikan, to name a few. For once, don’t pay attention to their arguments but to the wonderfully crafted examples and imaginations that inform their writings. You will soon find that much of the convictions they leave us with depend on the strength of these examples. Far more than mere illustrations, they often carry the burden of argument. But they function so well because our imagination does a large part of the work. This is why they often form the outset of whole traditions of exchanges.

In the light of such traditions, it strikes me as an enormous impoverishment if the experiential reflexes we train others to respond with reduce to disagreement. Arguably, it is not disagreement but wonder that keeps philosophy going.

____

* In her latest post, Helen De Cruz kindly picked up on the idea: “I’m inclined to an expansive conception of philosophy where images, aphorisms, music, poetry, can all be part of philosophical conversation. … I do wonder whether there would be room for a journal that explicitly makes room for more wondrous philosophy–philosophy that is high in innovative content but low(er) in rigor, a journal of cool, exciting half-baked ideas of sorts. I don’t think there is such a journal yet.”

Dismissing (religious) belief. On a problematic kind of anachronism

I’m currently teaching an intro course on medieval philosophy. Although I really enjoy teaching medieval philosophy, I am always somewhat shocked at the generally dismissive attitude towards the religious or theological aspects of the material. A widespread assumption is that we can and should bypass such issues. Why bother with God or angels, if we can focus on philosophy of language or ethics? That said, there is no reason to blame students. Looking at various histories of philosophy, it’s clear that the selection of material often follows what is currently deemed most relevant. In fact, bits of my own work might serve as a case in point. However, in what follows I’d like to present three reasons for the claim that, in bypassing such aspects, we miss out on core ideas, not only in history of philosophy.

(1) The illusion of modernity. – If you ask people why they think we can happily ignore theological aspects, a common answer is that they are indeed no longer relevant, because the world is supposedly progressing towards an increasingly enlightened state of a scientific rather than a religious view of the world. This is of course not the last word. Criticisms of progress narratives aside, it is also clear that we live in a world that is currently deeply conflicted between adherents of religion and a scientific worldview. Moreover, this assumption makes us overlook that this conflict is a deeply medieval one, testified already in the writings of Augustine, culminating perhaps in the famous condemnation of 1277, and continuing well into what is known as modern philosophy. Thus, the idea that dissociating reason from faith is a trait of Enlightenment or modernity is a cherished illusion. After deciding to address this issue head-on in my current course, I made the condemnation of 1277 the first focal point. Amongst other things, it clearly shows that the battlefield of faith versus reason, along with the discussion of different kinds of truth, not to speak of alternative facts, has venerable precedents in the 13th century. In other words, the distinction between adherents of faith versus adherents of science is not a diachronic one (between medieval and modern) but a synchronic one.

(2) Theology is philosophy. – But even if you agree that conflicts of faith versus reason might be relevant even today, you might still deny that they are philosophically significant. If you turn to philosophers of the medieval or other periods, you might go straight to the philosophically interesting stuff. The assumption seems to be that certain problems or topics can be stripped of their theological content without much loss. Going from this assumption, material that cannot be stripped from such overtones is “not philosophy.” One problem with this view is that a number of philosophical systems have notions such as “god” at the core. For a number of medieval and early modern philosophers, their metaphysics are unintelligible without reference to a god. Trying to bypass this, means bypassing these metaphysics. The idea of stripping such systems from theological notions strikes me a consequence of the illusion of modernity. But in fact we find a number of 20th-century or present-day philosophers who rely on such notions. And as is well known by now, readers of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the foundational texts of the early analytic tradition, should not ignore his approach to the “mystical” and related ideas. This doesn’t mean that there is no philosophy without theology. But we are prone to serious misunderstanding if we wilfully ignore such foundations.

(3) The significance of belief. – My third and perhaps most important point is that the foundational role of belief is often ignored. Reading, for instance, that Anselm opens his Proslogion with the idea that we have to believe in order to understand, this and other remarks on (religious) belief are often taken as confessions that do not affect the arguments in question. As I see it, such estimations miss a crucial philosophical point: unquestioned belief is foundational for many further (mental or physical) acts. Arguably, there is a long tradition of philosophers (e.g. Augustine, Anselm, Gregory of Rimini, Spinoza, Hume, William James, Davidson) who exposed the foundational role of belief, showing that there are reasons to accept certain assumptions on faith. The need to rely on axioms is not only a trait of special sciences. Indeed, many aspects of our life depend on the fact that we hold certain unquestioned beliefs. Unless we have startling evidence to the contrary, we’re inclined to believe whatever we perceive. We believe that we weren’t lied to when our parents or other people informed us about our date of birth, and we don’t normally question that there is an external world. Challenging certain beliefs would probably deeply unsettle us, and we certainly wouldn’t begin searching, if we didn’t believe we had a chance of finding what we’re looking for. In this sense, certain beliefs are not optional.

The upshot is that the dismissal of (religious) belief is not only problematic in that it distorts some niches of medieval philosophy. Rather, it’s based on a misconception of our very own standards of rationality, which rely much on more on unquestioned beliefs than might meet the eye. So if the dismissal of religious belief is anachronistic, it’s not only distorting our view of the past but distorting the understanding of our current discourses. In this regard, much medieval philosophy should not be seen as strangely invested in religion but rather as strangely familiar, even if unbeknownst to ourselves. As Peter Adamson succinctly put it, for some “a proper use of reason is unattainable without religious commitment.” I agree, and would only add that we might recognise this attitude more readily as our own if we deleted the word “religious”. But that is perhaps more of a purely very verbal matter than we like to believe.

Alienation: On learning to talk philosophy

Much learning happens through alienation.* Walking at night through an unfamiliar town in a foreign country requires you to find your way around by activating untrained resources. Wanting to get to the station, you need to look around, stay alert and imagine what awaits you round the next bend. You might have to get out your dictionary and ask others for the way – only to end up in an unexpected part of town. Reading philosophy is often like that. However, in professional and even educational contexts, people often pretend to already know their way around. Asking questions serves more as an opportunity to show off, making newcomers feel like outsiders. After a while, newcomers will also learn to show off and put some erudition on display. Actually, it might help getting some recognition, but it also blocks actual engagement and learning. In this post I don’t want to decry the state of the profession, but rather impart some very basic considerations of how to learn talking and reading philosophy.

There is a nice saying according to which trying to tell our children something won’t educate them, since they’re going to imitate what we do anyway. In other words, if we pretend to know our way around, people around us won’t learn to ask genuine questions. Likewise, if the main kind of response we teach students is to meet a claim with a “no”, headshaking or some other form of critical disagreement, we won’t incentivise attempts at understanding and creative exploration. Although it’s important to learn disagreeing, it’s equally important to ask questions (not veiled objections) and formulate tentative hypotheses that serve as the starting point of explorations rather than a defence. So how can we practise asking questions and forming hypotheses?

Alienation. – Let me begin with what I take to be a general principle for generating questions and hypotheses: alienation. Moving within familiar territory generates no questions or ideas. But anything can be questioned when taken out of context. Think of food. We eat daily. Take a step back and look at the food you eat: zoom in on a detail, look at the texture, the structure, and the colours. Doesn’t it seem strange, unfamiliar? What do you know about it? – Now imagine a face, but don’t think of it as a face! Try to imagine it as something that you don’t know but try to paint or draw: What is its structure? What do you have to do in order to paint it? Try different styles: pointillism, realism, abstract away etc. – Finally listen to people speaking: What do you hear? Words? Really? Try to hear the emotions couched in the utterances. Do you hear confidence, enthusiasm or a restrained sadness? Can you detect irony, sincerity? What are the markers of what you hear behind or within these sounds? – Now try to describe such impressions, it’s hard but not impossible.

Philosophising can take the shape of making things unfamiliar in such ways. A lot of it consists in looking at concepts or claims and arguments. Now you might say that looking at arguments is quite different from alienating one’s view on food or faces. Think again! You take strings of sounds or written traces appearing on a screen (or paper) and transform them into sequences of (formal) symbols or paraphrases that you call “valid” or “sound”. Such transformation is, first of all, a form of alienation. You take language out of context and put it into a different one. A crucial effect of that alienation is a shift of focus. You can concentrate on things that normally escape your attention: the logical or conceptual structures for instance, ambiguities, things that seemed clear get blurred and vice versa. Shifting the focus opens up space to move around and hopefully stirs the imagination, but as such it doesn’t generate questions.

Taking our space. – When I remember my early student days, I see a shy person, sitting in class and directing all his energy at remembering the question he meant to ask. When the time came and it was my turn, I would usually blush, avert or close my eyes (I still do that), and get out the sentences as quickly as possible. It was hard, but it must have been equally hard to get what I was trying to say. Can you imagine someone feeling like that and raising a question or considering a hypothesis? No way, just get it out and over with! When we want to learn or talk, we first need some breathing space. What is it that enables us to get into such a mode? – Trying to speak, we need to take our space, slow down and take the time it takes to get the sentences out, accentuate the words that matter. All that can be practised. But there is also the issue of content. How do we generate that?

Expectations and deviation. – Let’s look at generating a question! The first thing to notice is that we are often dealing with two kinds of expectations: (1) We expect a text or an interlocutor to say certain things. We expect a lecturer to lecture, to know things, not ask us what we like for breakfast. If that expectation is irritated, we have a question. Either the irritation is genuine or we generate an irritation by alienating what is said.** Repeat a word and ask whether it means more than one thing! If it means more than one thing, there are at least two options of understanding what is said. So now you can ask which of the possible options is meant. It’s a simple question, but even so we’re not there yet. (2) When we raise our voice to speak, we know (tacitly) that people expect us to say certain things. We have an idea of what is expected of us. Most of the time, we want to align with such expectations. But if we align with such expectations, we probably want to look clever: that will make us remain silent or ask a clever rather than our genuine question. That’s fine, sometimes. But no one will learn anything if no one leaves the realm of mutual expectations. Thus, a helpful strategy might be to deviate from that expectation. You might feel silly to begin with, but it will be liberating. But how is it done? – By making explicit that you deviate from the common expectations. If you’re in a typical seminar setting and you’re asked to eplain what you mean, you can, for instance, go up to the board and draw a diagram that helps illustrating a conceptual relation. So rather than just answer the question and do as you’re told, you make an extra move. You don’t need to do something outrageous of course. Finding a peculiar example or analogy, drawing a sketch or diagram, saying explicitly that something sounds strange or would sound strange to someone’s ears, something like that might do the trick. Say: “this might sound funny, but what if we imagine the following …” Another way is to put a supposed side issue centre stage. As one student put it in today’s lecture on the Condemnation of 1277: “Isn’t the layout of the text quite important? Was the original manuscript structured in the same way?” Thus, she moved the attention from the content to the layout, which actually led to some quite significant insights no one had seen coming. – The point is to frame your contribution in a way that deviates from what you take to be the expected form of proceeding. Ideally, you draw on your resources and imagination, and literally play around with all the bits and pieces that catch your attention. Take an example or analogy dear to your heart; use a medium you feel comfortable with. The slightest deviation will be liberating. It will be liberating because it gives you space: options to move away from (supposed) expectations.

The point of such exercises is not to make you stand out as “odd”. The idea is to move into unfamiliar territory, but by using resources that you feel at home with. Using your resources, as many as possible, but your resources, is vital: often it’s best to try and think of areas that interest you ouside of philosophy. (Sara Uckelman has a wonderful piece invoking this idea.) By deviating from expectations, you create a friction that you can draw on to make further moves in a conversation. Ideally, you learn to move in a way that enables you to articulate the expected as well as the unexpected elements of your take. If a musical analogy is allowed: You should build up tension (by moving away from the expected) and release (by returning to the commmon expectation), just like a tune will build up tension and return to the familar tonic chord. This way you can state the supposed expectation and your deviation. This gives you two options to consider: “Is this a helpful example/illustration/phrasing or should we be looking at it the other (usual) way?” The crucial point is that it will open up space for your interlocutors, too. Once you stop aligning with expectations, others might feel entitled to do the same. At the same time, this might facilitate a situation in which you can begin to learn from your interlocutors. Not just by listening, but also by addressing questions at them directly. Not necessarily about the common object of discussion but about their take. Once you uttered your contribution, you don’t have to fall silent again. You can ask others whether they have the same question or thought about it along similar lines. Their answers will tell you something about their expectations and your intuitions. You might end up having a real conversation.

All of these moves are intended to make the “familiar seem strange”, to use a phrase by Bernard Williams. Once you learn to feel comfortable with such moves, it might allow you to explore, ask genuine questions and articulate hypotheses. It is a way of finding your own voice and concerns, even within the most formulaic styles of speaking and writing. We can stop pretending to know our way around; instead we can ask for the way to the station and decide to take a detour via the pub.

____

* I have been reading much Brecht when I was around 16, but then put him aside. It’s funny how this past is now tacitly (?) coming back to the fore. Of course the idea has its roots in the Verfremdungseffekt pursued in Brechtian theatre practice. 

** In this sense, allowing ourselves and others to fail is quite a crucial part of the process. Sara Uckelman has pointed me to a beautiful post of hers touching on this issue.

Have I been harassed? – Interpreting events through (fictional) texts

Having written a number of blog posts about interaction in academia, I recently began to wonder whether I should try out a different mode of writing. Examples and illustrations often help anyway. So why not extend these examples and use fictional scenes to get my point across? To tinker with the genre a bit I wrote a small sketch and shared it on facebook.* The responses were at once shocking and intriguing. They show that interpretations of texts (and described events) can be vastly different. Now, that in itself is probably not newsworthy. But what I find intriguing is that they shed some light on the fragility of authorship and on how this fragility might affect and alter interpretations of events. So much so that I now wonder whether I should see myself as a victim of harassment. In what follows, I’ll (1) present what I shared on facebook and briefly summarise some of the responses. (2) Then I say how I had come to write the sketch and what I had intended. I know that the reading intended by the author is just one possible reading. But the reactions make me wonder whether other readers might be in a better position to understand the events. So here goes.

(1) On facebook, I wrote the following:

Dear Hivemind,

I have a sort of interpretational request. Please read the following fictional sketch and let me know what comes to mind, be it a view of the situation, a feeling of what’s going on or something that is triggered in you, an association, whatever. You can just write a single word or phrase in the comments or be more elaborate. Many thanks in advance!

Standing by

She knew she shouldn’t have come. But now it was too late for her to change her mind. In fact, it was getting late and the afternoon wore on, but there she was, stuck in his office and in a flow of words that was whirling around her head. He kept repeating himself and the repetition made his proposal sound friendly, even funny.

Later that evening when she remembered the episode she hated herself, again. Why had she not just left the office? It would have been easy to fabricate an excuse, and he didn’t really seem to care anyway. As it was, she had agreed to help him, just to get away. Now she was stuck in a project that no one seemed to want, she didn’t anyway.

The responses to this sketch were quite different. The first tinkered with the genres and really made laugh. Most but not all suggest an academic setting. It’s clear that someone feels pressured into something undesired. A swapping of pronouns is suggested for a possible change of effects. One reading insiuates that we might be looking at an only “vaguely fictionalised account”. All of them strike me as careful readings, but there is a clearly dominant trend: Most people seem to read the scene as sexually charged or as one of (sexual) harassment. At least up until the last line: the word “project” seems to upset the sexual interpretation.

(2) Reading the responses, I thought it will be interesting to contrast them with how the story originated. Why? Not least because it allows for a comparison between the author’s intention and the dominant interpretation. So how did I come up with the sketch? – I wanted to capture a typical situation in academia: a regretful self-assessment of a situation in which we feel pressured into agreeing to something (of which neither our supervisor nor we might be really convinced). Although my time as a graduate student lies in the distant past, I remember some situations rather vividly.

So what was the material I drew on? I remembered a number of situations in which I sat in the office of my supervisor and listened to him detailing various ideas, sometimes repeating himself, either because he had forgotten about telling me earlier or for added emphasis. Sometimes he would come up with the suggestion that I might take on a certain task in a project that had some more or less direct relation to my own work. – I hasten to add that I have very fond memories of the discussions with my supervisor and think of the process with much pleasure. Moreover, the sketch does not draw on one particular situation; it’s rather coming out of a jumble of memories of several situations with him and other people. Yet, I also think that it can’t do harm to detail situations that, with hindsight, present us with what is called teachable moments. Remembering such situations, it didn’t take me long to write the above sketch. Looking at it again, I suddenly wondered what would happen if I used female pronouns for myself. Initially, I was pleased with the idea because, to my mind, it seemed to abstract away further from my situation and helped focus on the two things I wanted to capture: feeling pressured into a project, and the regret.

After reading the reactions, I notice a number of things. Although I know what I intended to say, I don’t think the deviating interpretations are wrong. Far from it, they construe the situation differently and make me wonder whether I should re-evaluate my experience. That said, I don’t think I have been harassed, certainly not intentionally. In fact, it took me quite while to even see how the sketch presents evidence for (sexual) harassment. Fortunately, the respondents took great care to argue for their readings. And at moments, their readings strike me as more plausible than my own. They highlighted a number of aspects that I didn’t notice myself, let alone intend to say, but that are still recognisable as features of the situation. The change of pronouns also hightens the creepiness that seems to figure in some of the interaction. Am I perhaps even gaslighting my former self? Being the author, then, does not make me the judge of interpretations or immunise my own reading against amendment by others. My intended take is but one reading. And in theory I could even give up on my own take. (Arguably, certain mental states might be indeterminate, such that we can’t say we are definitely in one state or have one thought rather than another.) Still, it takes some time to get used to the idea that others simply don’t read your stuff in the way you initially intended it. Yet while I agree that the description of the situation remains ambiguous, I know that I would not have called this behaviour harassment, neither at the time nor today.

But still, I wonder what to make of this kind of situation. The lesson I draw is that, clearly, the power imbalance between supervisor and student should not be underestimated. I am fairly sure that my supervisor thought that he would not pressure me into anything; he enjoyed chatting about ideas and wanted to pass on a task that occurred to him should be delegated. But while the set-up would have allowed me to refuse the task, my hierarchical inferiority facilitated the assumption that the refusal would have come at a price (that I didn’t want to pay). That might have been a false assumption, and perhaps that inferiority should not serve as an excuse for inaction or lack of honesty.

Yet, I tend to think that I would have been more at ease and in a position to refuse, had my supervisor done more to make clear that he didn’t see me under the (tacit) obligation to accept his ‘offer’. Perhaps. Perhaps not. On the other hand, I am well aware that he was raised in a culture in which is his behaviour would go through as entirely ‘normal’. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that he could have seeen his own conduct as an improvement over that of his former supervisors. On yet another hand, I also think we should be cautious when passing judgment on events that have ambiguous features. In the sketch, my self-assessment is dominated by regret over accepting a task. But as I see it, the pressure I felt was less founded in the actions of my supervisor than in the hierarchical structure. And as we all know the structures that not only surround but also carry us can become almost invisible, especially to those in a superior position.

In any case, it can’t do much harm to try harder and put ourselves into the shoes of others. Then again, it’s equally helpful to re-situate our stories in entirely different contexts. After all, the sketch can also be read as a snippet from a crime novel.

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* Many thanks to my (facebook) friends for chiming in, especially (in the order of appearance): Mariya Ivancheva, Naomi Osorio, Sara Uckelman, Maurice Nette, Michael Morris, Linda Ham, Anita van der Bos, Charles Wolfe, and Lucy Nicolls.

Should you be ashamed of flying? Moral shortcuts in the call-out culture

Do you still travel by plane? Have you recently suggested going to a steak house? Are you perhaps an old white man? – Then you’ve probably found yourself being called out one of these days. Doing these things or having certain traits means that your actions are addressed as moral failures. If you are involved in some sort of ecological or social activism, you might think that you’re off the hook, or compensate a bit at least. But then you can still be called out as a hypocrite. Shame on you! – If you think I’m trying to ridicule calling out moral failures, I’ll have to disappoint you. On the whole, I think the fact that we publicly deliberate about moral problems is a good thing. Naming problems and calling out people for committing problematic actions is part of that process. That this process is fallible in itself does not discredit it. However, there is an element in that process I begin to worry about: it is what I’d like to call moral shortcuts. Using a moral shortcut means to take an action, the expression of a view or even a trait as an indicator of a morally relevant intention or attitude. What makes my acts morally dubious is not the act itself but certain intentions or their lack. It’s not my suggestion of going to a steak house as such, but my not caring about the well-being of animals or the climate crisis that you want to call out. You might assume that one indicates the other, but this indication relation is tenuous. After all, I might have suggested going there merely because it was raining, not to consume meat. In the following, I’d like to suggest that, while calling out moral failures is an important practice, ascribing moral failures on tenuous grounds is morally dubious in itself.

Let’s begin by looking at moral shortcuts again. So does someone’s flying indicate a morally relevant intention? Of course, we are prone to suppose a close connection between action and intention. Arguably, a behaviour or process only is an action in virtue of an intention. What makes my taking a flight that kind of action is that if I have some pertinent intention, say of going to a place, getting on the plane etc. Conversely, if a refugee is forced onto a plane to be returned to their country of origin, you don’t want say that they “took a flight to Albania”. Accordingly, you won’t call out refugees for not caring about the climate crisis. Moreover, the intention of taking a flight is not necessarily an indication of a general attitude about the climate or even flying. So even if my action can be correctly called indicative of a pertinent intention, this might not be morally significant, be it because I lack alternatives or whatever. After all, the reason for calling out such acts is not to shame or sanction a singular intention. What we’re after is a general attitude, allowing, for instance, for the prediction of certain future acts. That someone gets onto a flight is as such not morally significant. It’s the general attitude of not caring that we might find blameworthy. But while it might be correct to assume that certain actions can be indicative of intentions that, in turn, can be indicative of general attitudes, such inferences are fallible. Now the fallibility as such is not a problem. But there are two problematic issues I want to highlight. The first is about the nature of inferential shortcuts; the second is about moral status of relying on such shortcuts:

  • As pointed out in my last post, we’re not only making tenuous judgments. Rather we often use actions, expressions of views as proxies of moral failures: Instead of calling out the attitude, we call out the acts or traits as such. Short of further evidence, the acts of flying or of suggesting eating meat themselves are treated as moral failures. As Justin E. H. Smith pointed out, this is now following associative patterns of prediction. Making moral judgments is like shopping with Amazon: “People who like to eat meat also fail to care about the climate crisis.” In addition to their fallibility, the focus on actions also deprives us of room for deliberation. Unlike intentions, actions are often exclusive, inviting strong friend-enemy distinctions and thus polarisation: If I do A, I can’t do B, can I? – But it is simply wrong to identify an action with a general attitude, for an action can be exprissive of several and even disparate attitudes. Yet, especially in online communication we are prone to make such shortcuts and thus have our exchanges spiral into heated black and white accusations.
  • However, despite their fallibility, we often have to rely on quick inferences. Moral wrongdoings can put us in severe danger. So it is understandable that certain actions raise suspicions. Especially when we are in immediate danger, inferential shortcuts might be close to seeming hardwired: Someone is aggressively running after you? You probably won’t wait for further cues to estimate their intentions. But it’s one thing to seek protection from harm; it’s quite another thing to call out and shame a person as a moral suspect or perpetrator while not averting immediate danger. If you have no more evidence than the moral shortcut, then the act of shaming someone is itself a moral transgression. Calling someone bad names based on individual acts, beliefs or traits such as their skin colour is rightly seen as morally blameworthy. This is, amongst other things, why we oppose racism, sexism and other transgressions based on shortcuts. My point is that such quick and purely associative inferences are also at work when we shame others without further evidence.

Given our globalised online culture, we often don’t have much more to go on than our shortcuts. While it is important to discuss actions as possible outcomes of structural problems, sources of harm and danger, or as indicative of morally significant attitudes, it is equally important not to glide from such deliberation into unwarranted shaming. In the face of public deliberation, we can monitor, question and adjust our behaviour if need be. In the face of being public shaming, however, we will be more inclined to run into arguments about hypocrisy.

On the other hand, there is the equally problematic tendency to mistake public deliberation about the moral status of certain actions for being blamed. But if someone expresses the idea that flying is morally blameworthy, they are not automatically blaming individuals for such actions. The assumption that you are personally blamed because someone calls out bad attitudes as indicated by acertain kind of behaviour, is unfounded and based on an inverse shortcut. Likewise, whatever is called out by the ‘old white men’ or boomer meme does not automatically translate into shaming individuals. Such memes are indicative of structural problems. Put in a nutshell, public deliberation is not public shaming. However, the tricky thing is that such deliberation can glide into shaming if people help themselves to moral shortcuts.

That said, we will continue to rely on shortcuts. My point is not to rid ourselves of them, but to restrict them in their scope. At the same time, this reliance on shortcuts increases the significance of what is called, often pejoratively so, symbol politics, tokenism and virtue signalling. We might think that such symbol politics is merely a form of appeasement or white washing, pretence or covering up. I doubt it. In times of increasing reliance on moral shortcuts, we often have nothing but symbols, tokens or signals to go on. We need them, but we equally need to be aware that they come with fallible tacit inferences.

Might hope counter political polarisation, boomers? A delayed response to Titus Stahl

“What do you love in others? – My hopes.” Friedrich Nietzsche

 

“One day you should be better off than we were.” – My parents offered this line of reasoning often when I opposed their ideas of care and upbringing. More often than not it was meant to convince me of something that I didn’t like. But even back then, as a child or adolescent in stark opposition to my parents’ ways, I recognised that they meant it. They were sincere in their hope. Seeing someone speaking or acting out of hope is special. Even if you disagree with what they do or say, you will be inclined to forgive them if they fail or do wrong. It’s difficult to say how exactly this works, but my hunch is that joint hope can connect you even with those whose actions or views you disapprove of. Why might that be the case? Perhaps because hope creates commitment to a goal when the precise course of action is still not determined. We hope to improve our state. How? That we must find out. But we have a mutual trust that we’ll try in good faith. This matters greatly if we have conflicting views about a course of action. If you think I fail or do wrong, you might be able to forgive me because you see where I’m coming from. – Now look at a common political discussion, as represented in the media. What you notice is not only that such discussions are often emotionally charged or outright hateful, but also that hope for improvement is completely absent. I’ve been wondering about this for a long time. What exactly is missing? What exactly is lacking in our political exchanges? Now I begin to think it’s the absence of hope that makes such discussions so unforgiving. Let me explain.

Should we all become vegan to counter the climate crisis? Ask that kind of question and you’ll soon have a discussion spiralling out of control. The views quickly harden and seem to become more extreme. Why? There are many answers on various levels: we have bad manners, we are badly informed, people have bad motives, everyone is after their own advantage, we don’t listen, we’re not ready for the internet etc. But what do we actually disagree about? We disagree about courses of action. And actions are often mutually exclusive: If you turn left, you can’t turn right. This simple fact turns disagreements about actions into rather strong arguments. It’s either this or that. But this alone is not problematic. What is problematic is that our political discussions are often exhausted by considering a fixed set of possible actions. This, I submit, is because (views about) actions are often taken as a proxy for values or goals. This results in a proxy model of morality. If you tell me that you eat meat, you will assume that I will judge you by that fact. But actions cannot be meaningful units in themselves. They become what they are in virtue of our intentions. But the relation between intention and action is often less direct than the proxy model suggests. More importantly, we can make two kinds of mistakes about the relation between action and intention: (1) we can be wrong in assuming that a particular action fulfils a certain intention; (2) we can be wrong in assuming that a particular action expresses a certain intention. The proxy model disregards both these possibilities.

Many political actions are very tenuous in their relations to intentions. Whether or not a certain course of action or policy has the desired effects is often unclear and indeed contingent. This is precisely where hope should enter the scene. We can hope that promoting affirmative action leads to social justice, but there are factors that might jeopardise the desired effects. If we share social justice as a goal, we will probably deliberate about whether such factors outweigh the benefits. But on the proxy model, the common goal seems quickly forgotten. What we find instead is that affirmative action is taken as a proxy for a desired or undesired value. Are you for or against diversity? Let’s decide that quickly! In such cases, your view or action is not judged in the light of a (shared) goal that is hoped to be achieved. Rather, the action is itself judged as an instance of a value. And then it’s either for or against. In this sense, the absence of hope or common goals makes us unforgiving. Any failure is a moral failure tout court, not just a single failure in a larger and common project. By contrast, hope for a better state will be emphasising our commonalities across divides over a course of action. It is in this sense that I think the absence of hope leads to polarisation. Without hope we lack the common space that makes our disagreements meaningful disagreements between us.

If this is correct, hope is crucial for politics in that it provides the glue between people who might disagree. But it is also important to see the power of hope in guiding us in the absence of clear ideas about what to do. As I see it, hope is crucial when so-called realism has no grip. You might not think so, but realism can be pernicious because the reality of our future is undetermined. This is why the attitude often celebrated as political realism can be counterproductive in holding a society together, at least when the course of action still needs to be decided on. This becomes palpable whenever I think of family and friends. Growing up during WWII and making do with next to nothing, my parents had not much reason to expect that things would get significantly better. Going by what the situation had to offer (for them), they probably could have resigned to what they thought likely at the time (which was not much beyond surviving). But they didn’t. Which is expressed in that statement “One day you should be better off than we were.” This attitude of hope is perhaps best understood when compared to more sceptical attitudes: In the face of possible failure or misery, it seems reasonable to expect what is likely, certainly no better. By contrast, hope is not so much grounded in what is to be expected but what is desired. Trying to understand what my parents’ attitude meant, I’d say they didn’t act on what they thought was likely to work out but on the sheer hope for the better. In that sense, hope transcends the realm of the reasonable without leaving it behind entirely. Clearly then, hope is an enormously powerful attitude, sometimes carrying us across the worst we might expect. It allows us to move on without seeing a path (yet). At the same time, it’s hard to overestimate the emotional glue that hope provides in such moments: Even though my parents and I (often) did not agree on the intermediate goals or ways, their hope instilled hope in me. Their attitude carried over, resulting in a shared hope. If this is correct or aptly put, then hope can bind us together across divides. We might disagree about means, but our hope for similar ends can bind us together. Despite our disagreements, we can thus join forces and attempt to find a compromise or a distribution of disparate strategies. It was in trying to grapple with these issues that I was reminded of Titus Stahl’s excellent piece on hope. He writes:

Fortunately, we need not limit ourselves to what we can expect. Even though we are not justified in expecting more than limited agreement on justice, we can still collectively hope that, in the future, consensus on more demanding ideals of justice will emerge. When citizens collectively entertain this hope, this expresses a shared understanding that each member of society deserves to be included in an ambitious project of justice, even if we disagree about what that project should be. This knowledge can contribute to self-respect and is thus a desirable social good in its own right. In the absence of consensus, political hope is a necessary part of social justice itself. So it is rational, perhaps even necessary, to recruit the notion of hope for the purposes of justice.

I can’t possibly unpack this understanding of hope in a blog post. One consequence of this idea is that the absence of a consensus does not entail that the situation is hopeless (no pun intended). As I see it, political realism, in focusing on what is likely, limits our view on future commonalities and compromises that we are not yet able to see. Helmut Schmidt’s dictum “Wer Visionen hat, sollte zum Arzt gehen”  sums up this brand of realism nicely. What I find particularly problematic in this kind of realism is that it expresses nothing more than a complacent attitude, defending the status quo in the face of challenges. Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can!” or Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das!” were slogans attempting to instil political hope. As we know all too well, their impact was not sustained. Today, we find ourselves surrounded by the entirely hopeless complacency of the Trumps and Johnsons of this world. But what is perhaps (big ‘perhaps’) more worrying is that this attitude of hopelessness is carrying over to common discourse. The proxy model of morality, “brexit or not”, “wall or not”, is all over the place.

That said, I’m hopeful that hope will return to the political arena with the new movements* founded in the face of the climate crisis, be it Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion. It’s telling to see that these movements are often met with the complacent charge of not offering concrete policies of action. This is of course the proxy model of morality in place again. But refraining from concrete paths of action is exactly the factor that allows us to retain hope, hope for consensual deliberation rather than the either-or conduct suggested by the proxy model. Deliberation that takes into account all sides, but gives pride of place to experts and scientists whose work should be seen as the institutionalised outcome of collective hope. In this sense, I read the recent attack against the “boomers” not as one against a particular generation, but rather as a humorous reminder that complacency does not instil any hope or idea for a better future.

Yet, the distinction between political hope and a simplistic proxy morality is neither one of left and right nor one of optimism and pessimism. The opposite of hope is not despair; it’s complacency.

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* I should add that I think of new movements not only in terms of decidedly political movements. In fact, I’m most hopeful when it comes to progress in the arts (and, for personal reasons, not least in music). In this respect, I think that the music of people like Jacob Collier is deeply political, but at present I have no clear idea as to how to conceptualise this. – One observation might be in order though: Read the comments on youtube, for example, under Collier’s music videos and compare them with comments on other content, musical or not. What I find intriguing is the positive and indeed hopeful attitude in these comments. What this is a sign of I don’t know, but it strikes me as a hopeful sign.