On trying to cure my anxiety disorder

It was around the time of finishing my PhD, so well over twenty years ago, when bouts of my anxiety disorder manifested themselves so clearly that I sought professional help. The reason I want to write about my condition today is that, for the first time, I am hopeful to have found a way of curing it, to a considerable degree at least. I’ll begin by saying a bit about the condition and then move on to what I consider a potential step towards a cure. Since I don’t really understand my condition and the cure very well, I’m not sure that this will be of help to others. But perhaps adding my voice to the people who talk about such things openly can’t do harm. However, before you read on please note that I am not in any way an expert in these matters. All I have to offer is a personal story.

Being a hypochondriac. – Although I have some special anxieties like a fear of hights and fear of flights, my main problem is a more general disorder that goes by the name of “illness anxiety disorder”, formerly known as “hypochondria”. There is a lot I could say about this condition. The main issue is that, often following a perception of what I classify as a “symptom”, I assume to have some rather threatening illness. The kind of illness changes; what’s crucial is that I consider the worst-case scenario. The drama then typically unfolds as follows: I will first heighten the anxiety by paying selective attention to the “symptom” and indulging in refined self-monitoring. “Is it still there? Is it getting worse?” But now it’s not merely the object of my anxiety but knowledge of the anxiety itself that plays into the cycle: Knowing that I have the anxiety disorder suggests to me that my fears are overblown. But if they are overblown, I go on to think, it must be possible to find reassurance. Thus, I seek reassurance either by “investigating via google” or from people close to me, who will often confirm this and allow me to avoid seeking proper medical advice. This is my avoidance strategy. However, knowing that this is an avoidance pattern suggests to me that I am avoiding confronting the initial “symptoms”. Thus, reassurance amplifies the initial fear. This tangle works best in tandem with anxiety-induced symptoms such as an increased heart rate, but believe me it works with just about any kind of “symptom”. While proper panic attacks never last longer than 30 to 45 minutes, such anxiety cycles can go on for as much as five days. Often such cycles run for a couple of days. Then I have some days of gradual relief before they start again, often with a new perception of a different “symptom”. Since I have developed coping strategies that allow me to function well, I can go through these cycles without people around me noticing, unless I ask for reassurance. This means that the anxiety is often present at the back of my head, like an unpleasant noise in the background that sometimes spirals to very high volumes and then feels more like a disability.

For a long time, I didn’t realise that I had what people formerly called hypochondria. Simply because I sought reassurance, not through pestering doctors, but through other means. When I finished my PhD and lived on social security, the disorder worsened considerably. Among the “best of” of my worries was fearing to fall over in the street or during talks, job talks in particular. At the time, I had three meetings with a behavioural therapist. After understanding how anxiety works (especially understanding that its symptoms disappear after a certain amount of time), I felt relieved and got better again. But anxiety works in mysterious ways: Getting a permanent job in 2012 cured me of many existential worries. It’s been a game changer for sure. But something inside of me resisted the good news and clung to the strange belief that bad things will happen to me inevitably. Self-identifying as an optimist, I refused to embrace that belief consciously, but it seems to have worked its way up nevertheless. Having witnessed a number of troubles, illnesses and deaths in the family, I guess that this belief could take hold despite my avowals to the contrary. For quite a number of years, avoidance was my main coping strategy. Let’s look at some things I think were particularly unhelpful.

Things that didn’t really help. – (1) Being “reasonable”: For someone who enjoys – to some degree at least – things like thinking, understanding, and animated discourse, I found living with bouts of hightend anxiety or panic particularly frustrating, because understanding my own condition often did not help or even made it worse. Of course, understanding how anxiety plays out physically and knowing that I have the condition, for example, helped me seeing why things unfold the way they do. But at least my type of anxiety can get heightened through knowing that it might be partly irresponsive to reasons. Knowledge about anxieties can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you know that your heart rate will go up with your next bout of panic, that very knowledge might actually increase the fear of your heart rate going up, and, as a result of this, increase your heart rate. (2) There is a common dualism according to which conditions like anxiety disorders are only or mainly “in your head”. Even if such claims are meant as a reassurance to someone worrying about their physical health, they don’t help in the long run. Apart from the fact that superficial reassurance can backfire quickly by initiating problematic cycles of seeking ever more reassurance, they underestimate the fact that anxiety comes in many physical manifestations. (3) Reassurance or confrontation? Reasonable reassurance that everything is fine (for good reasons) or confronting your fears, for instance, by going to the doctor can certainly help in singular instances. If a friend points out a good reason why a particular worry is unfounded or if I go to the doctor to get a proper check up, these are good things. The problem is that they are useless once they are turned into general coping strategies. Why? Well, it seems to me at least that anxieties will absorb any coping strategy into the anxiety cycle itself. – I’m not saying, then, that these ways of approaching things don’t ever help anyone. Rather, I wish to stress that they might not help in case you have an anxiety disorder. Of course, if you discover something about yourself that makes you worry, any of these approaches might help very well, but they can fail if they are turned into coping strategies. Why? I guess because using them as strategies makes them part of an anxiety cycle. The toxic thing about anxiety is that anything, even something perfectly helpful, can be turned into part of a cycle that ends up feeding the anxiety.

Moving forward. ­– Last year was particularly bad for most of us. Strangely enough, the threat of coronavirus did not overtly add to my anxieties. Rather, I learned to “embrace fatalism” a bit and became a bit more confrontational about my condition. Thanks to the suggestions of a good friend, I also managed to catch up with some medical check ups that I had avoided for about ten years. Worrying that my daughter Hannah might pick up my behavioural patterns, I also considered starting therapy again. Living in two different places during what is called lockdown, the fairly recent death of my father and some work-related pressures made this seem an even more appropriate consideration. I started behavioural therapy again now. But while I don’t want to pass judgement on this, what eventually made me take a good leap is something else.

What helped me, after all these years, is so strikingly simple that I still don’t know what to make of it, except that it definitely does help greatly. So what happened? After a conversation about a recent bout of anxieties, a dear friend sent me a video explaining a simple thing: to slow down my breathing (like in yoga), and providing an image to think about when doing so. Whenever I experience anxiety, I now take a few deep breaths and most of the problematic anxiety symptoms disappear. The heart rate slows down and I feel good. That’s it.

Why does it work? Don’t get me wrong. I have known that this kind of thing might help for a long time. I’ve been doing a lot of physical exercise for many years. In moments of hightend anxiety I instinctively took to slowing down my breathing anyway. There is nothing fancy about the breathing technique as such. Nothing I do is special; most of it isn’t even new to me. So why does it have such a great effect? I think there are two main aspects: First, the image I am thinking of when inhaling absorbs my attention, away from anxiety symptoms, to the positive impact of inhaling. Second, the fact that this video was presented to me as a personal response and gift turns the exercise into a relational act. Both aspects, simple as they may be, strike me as indispensable in explaining the effect it has on me. I am not saying that this has cured me of my anxiety, not least because I ultimately think that at least some of this disorder is the dark side of my personality, inevitably triggered in a certain kind of context. So I’m not saying I’m cured, but what seems to make a difference, for the time being, is that I can accept this, and yet break the cycle effectively. Even if it only works for certain situations, it restores a sense of agency that many of my coping strategies seem to have deprived me of. – I’m not sure this carries over or can help you. But perhaps a bit of hopefulness will inspire trying to look for unexpected resources.

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PS. It goes without saying that I am immensely grateful to many friends who helped along the way. You know who you are.

Meditation in philosophy. A conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo (podcast)

Meditation in philosophy. A conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo (podcast)

This is the fourth installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo who is an associate professor of philosophy at Groningen University. In this conversation, we focus on meditation both as part of philosophical traditions as well as an approach that might be a resourceful factor impacting (academic) philosophy, teaching and academic culture. While Cartesian and Buddhist ideas* form a continuous resource in the background of our discussion, here is a list of themes in case you look for something specific:

  • Introduction   0:00
  • Meditation and Descartes’ Meditations   2:20
  • The notion of experience – and objections against experience as a basis in philosophy   9:00
  • Meditation in teaching   21:14
  • Why aren’t we already using these insights in education?   37:00
  • How can we teach and learn effectively?   44:36
  • How can we guide and assess?   52:50
  • Where is this approach leading, also in terms of academic culture?   1:03:00

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* The opening quotation is from Andrea’s blogpost What can we learn today from Descartes’ Meditations? Here is the passage: “Since last year, I appreciated the text of the Mediations as real meditation, namely, as a way of practicing a meditative kind of philosophy (for lack of better term), a philosophy more concerned with what it means to experience reality in this way or that way, rather than with what a certain set of propositions means.”

He has published four more posts on this topic on the blog of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Thought. They are:

ADHD, struggling with decisions, and the myth of autonomy in academia. A conversation about mental health with Jef Delvaux (podcast)

ADHD, struggling with decisions, and the myth of autonomy in academia.
A conversation about mental health with Jef Delvaux (podcast)

This is the third installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Jef Delvaux who is in the third year of his PhD programme in Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Although we had a number of themes lined up, we ended up focusing on what is called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which despite an increasing attention to mental health in academia still seems to be flying somewhat under the radar. Jef addresses this issue not as a specialist, but from the perspective of someone affected by it. The aim is to provide an understanding of the condition and how it can be addressed (and perhaps ameliorated) in academic settings. One thing we discuss in particular is the difficulty of deliberating and making decisions. It’s a long conversation. So if you feel like skipping bits or want to focus on a specific topic, here is a rough overview:

  • Introduction   0:00
  • Mental health and ADHD   2:00
  • Belittling ADHD   4:00
  • What is it like to live with ADHD?   7:20
  • Teaching students with ADHD: buddy systems* and autonomy   12:20      
  • Decision paralysis with and without ADHD: what is the difference?   22:15
  • ADHD during the pandemic   1:02
  • “What if I could talk to my undergraduate self?”   1:08

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* Regarding study buddy systems, I (Martin) state that Groningen has them for writing theses. But it turns out that we also offer them for BA and MA students generally.

What kind of thing is the canon?

“Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Given the ever-increasing amount of initiatives on diversifying the canon, it is striking that one crucial question does not seem to be tackled much: What kind of thing is the canon?* While I have sketched my view on the function of the canon in an earlier post, I don’t really have found an answer either. I find this question crucial because it will tell us something about the fate and success indicators of the initiatives. What if it turns out that the canon is a kind of thing that cannot be altered? Or at least not in the way envisaged in the current projects? In what follows, I’d like to suggest that it’s crucial to see that, like a standard language, a canon has both a descriptive and prescriptive dimension.

Description and prescription. – Like in music or literature, the canon in the history of philosophy is a historical and normative entity. It has grown over a long time and is related to a larger set of norms and conventions interwoven with our habits and actions. Here, the canon is not just something adhered to; it’s a point of reference equally for those who wish to maintain it and those challenging it. If I write atonal rock music, I know that I do that against a canon of tonal music. My writing atonal music might be a challenge to the canon or might slowly be integrated. Both is possible. What’s crucial is that it’s not under my control whether my pieces alter the canon. The same might be said of the way we speak and write or even the way we build our cities. For me, the upshot is that the canon has at once a descriptive and prescriptive dimension. It tells us how things were and became. But it also tells us how things should be done. And whether your or my contributions figure in that is not for us to say.

The canon as a standard language. – Given the co-presence of descriptive and prescriptive aspects, the canon might be compared to a standard in a language, like Standard English as opposed to certain dialects. It is a historically grown entity as well as a set of rules determining what counts as “proper”. In this sense, we can compare canon diversification projects such as Extending New Narratives to attempts at ameliorating linguistic practices by suggesting different words or grammatical features so as to make underrepresented groups linguistically visible. The emphasis on more diverse and chosen pronouns, for instance, resembles the attempt to make minorities visible in the history of philosophy. Likewise, the political backlashes and difficulties are on a par with those in historiography. But just as language is only partially under our conscious control, the (philosophical) canon cannot be altered simply by adding so called “minor figures” to it. Adding expressions to the standard language does not mean that they will be used in conversation or seen as a (new) standard. But they may be. Who knows?

Can we change the past? – If canons are both descriptive and prescriptive, attempts at altering the canon are not only prescriptive and designed to nudge us into a different future practice of (history of) philosophy. They are also descriptive, and that means they describe the past in an altered way, for instance, by including hitherto underrepresented figures. For this reason, they are often met with the silly objection that they would distort or even erase history. The objection is silly because it identifies the challenged canon with the past or with history. But the canon is not the past. The canon is a way of approaching the past. And such a way is always guided by values and thus selective.

If this is correct, however, it means that attempts at diversifying the canon are not an attempt to give a more complete or accurate picture of the past. It rather means that we (want to) change how we approach the past and who or what we think counts as relevant. The goal of doing history of philosophy is not to present an accurate picture of the past, but to present an accurate picture of what we think matters for our present and future. If diversity matters for us, it also matters in our approach to the past. In this regard, it’s helpful to consider Wittgenstein’s likening of language to an ancient city. Like the philosophical past, the ever changing city has been there and yet is present in our life. But which precise places and streets we go to and build on is something that is up to us. It took a long time until, for instance, mosques in Berlin were not only found in backyards anymore but also in clearly visible places of town.

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* That said, a number of questions have been tackled, especially in Lonneke Oostland’s recent MA thesis “Canon ‘Enrichment’ and the History of Philosophy”. Besides Lonneke, I’d like to thank Han Thomas Adriaenssen, Daria Drozdova, Martin Krohs, Laura Georgescu and Felipe Romero for intriguing conversations about the status of the canon.

On being a first-gen student, hierarchies and harassment. A conversation about meritocratic ideology with Nora Migdad (podcast)

On being a first-gen student, hierarchies and harassment.
A conversation about meritocratic ideology with Nora Migdad (podcast)

This is the second installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Nora Migdad who majors in Biology and minors in Philosophy. Like me (but a long time ago), Nora is a first-generation student. While being a first-gen student is often (rightly) treated as lending itself to disadvantages, it also offers intriguing perspectives on the peculiarities of academic life.

Following up on a guest post about being a first-gen student, Nora eventually initiated a conversation about this topic. After some exchanges about possible questions to be addressed we finally found time for the virtual meeting recorded above. Among the issues we covered are:

  • being a first-gen student 0:00
  • work-pressure and hierarchies 11:17
  • hierarchies, misconduct and prestige 12:32
  • protecting harassers 15:00
  • dealing with harassment outside and inside academia 22:40
  • criticism within hierarchies in academia 31:52
  • depending on others 34:50
  • ideas for improvement 38:06
  • dealing with sexism and racism 41:55

The Stoic Foundations of Analytic Philosophy. On Susanne Bobzien’s groundbreaking discovery in Frege and Prantl

Words fail me. And I’m still torn between solemnly staring into the middle distance and making silly jokes. For historians of philosophy like me, Susanne Bobzien’s paper “Frege plagiarized the Stoics” is a sort of landing on the moon, nothing short of a sensation. But reading comments on the matter here and there, I also begin to worry that the implications of her findings might tempt people to dismiss them out of hand. Why? Because they shatter a much cherished historiography. Frege is famously considered the “founder of modern analytic philosophy”. If Frege copied crucial parts of his later works from (Carl Prantl’s presentation of) Stoic logic, then these parts of the foundation are not Fregean but Stoic. This shifts a number of things, in our understanding of our history, of crucial tenets that held various generations of analytic philosophers captive, but also assumptions of authorship or originality. In this post, I simply want to highlight some implications that I think need elaboration in years to come.

Let me begin with why this moves me personally. After finishing my PhD on Ockham’s account of mental language in 2001, I was mainly driven by one question: What is it that makes us assume that sentences are complete units? Working on a project proposal on “Sentences, Senses, and States of Affairs: Conceptions of Semantic Identity from the Middle Ages onwards”, I studied ancient, medieval and modern texts by philosophers and grammarians. Although I started out from Abelard’s theory of the dictum and began to look for paths to 14th-century authors such as Adam Wodeham and Gregory of Rimini, it was entirely natural to read some Stoic material as well as Frege. All these authors attempt to spell out an account of what complete sentences say in opposition to words or other smaller linguistic units. In my project on this longue durée of sentence theories, I tried to pursue three different questions: (1) What are conceptual similarities between these accounts? (2) Are there lines of historical influence between these accounts? (3) Why did the issues tackled in these accounts seemingly disappear (if they did) in the 13th, and after the 14th century, until coming up again in the 19th century?

Now when presenting my research to historical audiences, they often warned me that my approach was prone to anachronism: “What does Frege have to do with medieval or ancient accounts?” The similarities in the theories were often shrugged off by pointing out similarities between the questions asked. Conversely, when presenting in front of philosophers they mostly weren’t moved by the historical accounts: “Of course, Frege is still interesting. But these earlier accounts are of mere historical interest.” So without clear sources that allowed for connecting the dots my question (2) for historical lines was often seen as either anachronistic or trivial. An idea shared by most historians and philosophers, then, was that, despite some striking similarities, Frege’s account of sentences was to be seen as entirely different from the endeavours in the ancient and medieval contexts. So what did I think? Although I was hopeful to find some direct historical lines, I wouldn’t have dreamed of Frege as having copied Stoic material. Susanne Bobzien’s paper has has shattered my entire picture of the matter. What have I been looking at when reading Frege? Have I, in fact, (at least partly) been reading the Stoic account in the wake of which we understand Abelard and others? Have I been preempted from seeing this by the silly but pervasively linear timeline of history at the back of my mind? What are we really talking about when we invoke the “Fregean account” of sentences? What do these names refer to?  

Why is Bobzien’s discovery groundbreaking? – Looking at some first reactions to Bobzien’s paper, it’s disheartening to see how some people try to debunk these findings. Two main lines of defence seemed to emerge very quickly: (a) One line is that “we have known this for a long time”. Pointing to earlier research, some people emphasise that certain conceptual similarities have already been studied very well. (b) The other line is that “Frege still deserves credit for having invented … [add a list of venerable items manifesting the status of the genius father].” What these defences miss is the historical claim of the paper: Bobzien makes a compelling case that Frege took the Stoic accounts from Carl Prantl’s Geschichte der Logik im Abendlande. This answers a large part of question (2) of my former project. It is not merely an account of striking similarities; it is historical evidence for a direct influence. For any historian of philosophy, that’s the best you can get. Given that most accounts deny such a direct influence and given that most protagonists in 20th-century analytic philosophy take Frege’s work as their point of departure, much of our history needs to be rewritten.

People wishing to defend Frege’s status as a founder of analytic philosophy seem to misconstrue Bobzien’s findings in a different way. They don’t emphasise that the similarities were known, but that they don’t mean much, in the sense that Frege is still vastly different. But Bobzien does not claim that Frege is deprived of this status. She acknowledges clearly that Frege thought through carefully what he took over. But we would deprive ourselves of our understanding of Frege’s foundational work, if we ignored that it is in fact of Stoic origin. Frege’s work needs to be rethought, too. And reading Frege might hold more for reserachers on pre-modern philosophers than the staunch hunters of anachronisms care to admit. – In this sense, Bobzien’s paper does not end but open conversations about the history of philosophy.

Finally, we need to see how we wish to tackle the issue of plagiarism. Bobzien herself opts for a “benign” understanding, involving acts of “appropriation” when taking over the ideas as “being freely available to anyone to help themselves to”. Of course, certain jokes at the expense of the Fregean idea of “grasping thoughts in the third realm” or at the expense of analytic philosophers considering the history of philosophy as a resource for “mining it for ideas” suggest themselves. However, there remains the more serious issue of how we want to conceptualise the fact, yes, it is a fact, that we tend appropriate ideas of others. Given that most of us do professional work on texts, I am struck by an often rather simplistic understanding of what constitutes authorship or originality. In my piece on philosophy’s adversarial culture I suggested a more fluid attitude towards authorship: “If you discuss an idea among friends, tossing out illustrations, laughing away criticism and speculating about remote applications, whose idea is it at the end of the night? Everyone might have contributed to an initial formulation, of which hardly anything might be left. In this sense, ideas very often have multiple authors. In such friendly settings, a common reaction to a clarifying criticism is not defence, but something along the lines of: ‘Right, that’s what I actually meant to say!’ ” What is lacking in cases where we detect copying, appropriation or plagiarism is often not a misconstrued form of originality, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of our interlocutors and of the fact that thinking is not a lonely grasping of abstract thoughts but a social process.

History is about you. On teaching outdated philosophy

Everything we take to be history is, in fact, present right now. Otherwise we wouldn’t think about it.

When I was little, I often perceived the world as an outcome of historical progress. I didn’t exactly use the word “historical progress” when talking to myself, but I thought I was lucky to grow up in the 20th century rather than, say, the Middle Ages. Why? Well, the most obvious examples were advances in technology. We have electricity; they didn’t. That doesn’t change everything, but still a lot. Thinking about supposedly distant times, then, my childhood mind conjured up an image of someone dragging themselves through a puddle of medieval mud, preferably while I was placed on the sofa in a cozy living-room with the light switched on and the fridge humming in the adjacent kitchen. It took a while for me to realise that this cozy contrast between now and then is not really an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about history, more precisely about what separates us from the past. For what my living room fantasy obscures is that this medieval mud is what a lot of people are dragging themselves through today. It would have taken a mere stroll through town to see how many homeless or other people do not live in the same world that I identified as my present world. Indeed, most things that we call “medieval” are present in our current world. Listening to certain people today, I realise that talk of the Enlightenment, the Light of Reason and Rationality is portrayed in much the same way as my living-room fantasy. But as with the fruits of technology, I think the praise of Enlightenment is not an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about what separates us from the past. One reaction to this prejudice would be to chide the prejudiced minds (and my former self); another reaction is to try and look more closely at our encounters with these prejudices when doing history. That means to try and see them as encounters with ourselves, with the ideologies often tacitly drummed into us, and to understand how these prejudices form our expectations when reading old texts. Approaching texts in this latter way, means to read them both as historical philosophical documents as much as an encounter with ourselves. It is this latter approach I want to suggest as a way of reading and teaching what could be called outdated philosophy. According to at least some of my students’ verdicts about last term, this might be worth pursuing.

Let’s begin with the way that especially medieval philosophy is often introduced. While it’s often called “difficult” and “mainly about religion”, it’s also said to require so much linguistic and other erudition that anyone will wonder why on earth they should devote much time to it. One of the main take-away messages this suggests is an enormous gap between being served some catchy chunks of, you know, Aquinas, on the one hand, and the independent or professional study of medieval texts, on the other hand. Quite unlike in ethics or social philosophy, hardly any student will see themselves as moving from the intro course to doing some real research on a given topic in this field. While many medievalists and other historians work on developing new syllabi and approaches, we might not spend enough time on articulating what the point or pay-off of historical research might be. – I don’t profess to know what the point of it all is. But why would anyone buy into spending years on learning Latin or Arabic, palaeography or advanced logic, accepting the dearth of the academic job market, a philosophical community dismissing much of their history? For the sake of, yes, what exactly? Running the next edition of Aquinas or growing old over trying to get your paper on Hildegard of Bingen published in a top journal? I’m not saying that there is no fun involved in studying these texts and doing the work it takes; I’m wondering whether we make sufficiently explicit why this might be fun. Given the public image of history (of philosophy), we are studying what the world was like before there was electricity and how they then almost invented it but didn’t.

Trying to understand what always fascinated me about historical studies, I realised it was the fact that one learns as much about oneself as about the past. Studying seemingly outdated texts helped me understand how this little boy in the living room was raised into ideologies that made him (yes, me) cherish his world with the fridge in the adjacent kitchen, and think of history as a linear progress towards the present. In this sense, that is in correcting such assumptions, studying history is about me and you. But, you ask, even if this is true, how can we make it palpable in teaching? – My general advice is: Try to connect to your student-self, don’t focus on the supposed object of study, but on what it revealed about you. Often this isn’t obvious, because there is no obvious connection. Rather, there is disparity and alienation. It is an alienation that might be similar to moving to a different town or country. So, try to capture explicitly what’s going on in the subject of study, too, in terms of experience, resources and methods available. With such thoughts in mind, I designed a course on the Condemnation of 1277 and announced it as follows:

Condemned Philosophy? Reason and faith in medieval and contemporary thought

Why are certain statements condemned? Why are certain topics shunned? According to a widespread understanding of medieval cultures, especially medieval philosophy was driven and constrained by theological and religious concerns. Based on a close reading of the famous condemnation of 1277, we will explore the relation between faith and reason in the medieval context. In a second step we will look at contemporary constraints on philosophy and the role of religion in assessing such constraints. Here, our knowledge of the medieval context might help questioning current standards and prejudices. In a third step we will attempt to reconsider the role of faith and belief in medieval and contemporary contexts.

The course was aimed at BA students in their 3rd year. What I had tried to convey in the description is that the course should explore not only medieval ideas but also the prejudices through which they are approached. During the round of introductions many students admitted that they were particularly interested in this twofold focus on the object and the subject of study. I then explained to them that most things I talk about can be read about somewhere else. What can’t be done somewhere else is have them come alive by talking them through. I added that “most of the texts we discuss are a thousand years old. Despite that fact, these texts have never been exposed to you. That confrontation is what makes things interesting.” In my view, the most important tool to bring out this confrontation lies in having students prepare and discuss structured questions about something that is hard to understand in the text. (See here for an extensive discussion) The reason is that questions, while targeting something in the text, reveal the expectations of the person asking. Why does the question arise? Because there is something lacking that I would expect to be present in the text. Most struggles with texts are struggles with our own expectations that the text doesn’t meet. Of course, there might be a term we don’t know or a piece of information lacking, but this is easily settled with an internet search these days. The more pervasive struggles often reveal that we encounter something unfamiliar in the sense that it runs counter to what we expect the text to say. This, then, is where a meeting of the current students and historical figures takes place, making explicit our and their assumptions.

During the seminar discussions, I noticed that students, unlike in other courses, dared targeting really tricky propositions that they couldn’t account for on the fly. Instead of trying to appear as being on top of the material, they delineated problems to be addressed and raised genealogical questions of how concepts might have developed between 1277 and 2020. Interestingly, the assumption was often not that we were more advanced. Rather they were interested in giving reasons why someone would find a given idea worth defending. So my first impression after this course was that the twofold focus on the object and subject of study made the students’ approach more historical, in that they didn’t take their own assumptions as a yardstick for assessing ideas. Another outcome was that students criticised seeing our text as a mere “object of study”. In fact, I recall one student saying that “texts are hardly ever mere objects”. Rather, we should ultimately see ourselves as engaging in dialogue with other subjects, revealing their prejudices as much as our own.

The children in the living room were not chided. They were recognised in what they had taken over from their elders. Now they could be seen as continuing to learn – making, shunning and studying history.

The canon as a status symbol? White men, cancel culture, and the functions of history of philosophy

“I’m an avid reader of Locke.” “I love listening to Bach.” – Utterances like this often expose the canon – be it in philosophy, literature, music or other arts – as a status symbol. The specifics of our cultural capital might differ, but basically we might say that one man’s Mercedes Benz is another’s readership of Goethe. What is often overlooked is that challenging the canon can look equally status-driven: “Oh, that’s another dead white man.” “I’m so excited about Caroline Shaw’s work.” – Spoken in the pertinent in-group, utterances like this are just as much of an indication of status symbolism. Challenging the canon, then, can become as much of a worn trope as defending adherence to the traditional canon. Let me explain.

Functions of history. – For better or worse, the aims of our discipline are often portrayed in epistemic terms. We study history, we say, to understand or explain (the development of) ideas and events. And in doing that, we want to “get it right.” Arguably, the aim of getting it right obscures a whole set of quite different aims of history. I think more often than not, history is done to (politically) justify or even legitimise one’s position. Just as talk about ancestors justifies inheritance, talk about philosophical predecessors is often invoked to legitimise why it’s worth thinking about something along certain lines. Just asking a question on the fly is nothing, but continuing the tradition of inquiring about the criteria of knowledge does not only justify historical research; it also legitimises our current approaches. Seen this way, a historical canon legitimises one’s own interests. Likewise, the attack on a canonical figure can be seen as shaking such legitimacy, be it with regard to representative figures, topics or questions. Conversely, I might aim to adjust the canon to find and highlight the ancestry that legitimises a new field of study. This endeavour is not one of “getting it right” though.  Of course, we cannot change the past, but we can attempt to change the canon or what we admit to the canon so as to admit of ancestors in line with new ways of thinking. As I see it, these are well-founded motivations to study and/or alter the study of canonical figures. – However, while such motivations might well drive our choices in doing history, they can also deteriorate into something like mere status symbolism. Let’s look at a concrete example.

Three kinds of debates. – I recently read a piece about Locke on slavery, making the point that Locke’s involvement in the American context is far more problematic than recent research portrayed it to be.* The piece struck me as an interesting contribution to (1) the debate on Locke’s political ideas, but the title was jazzed up with the recommendation to leave “Locke in the dustbin of history”. Since the word “dustbin” doesn’t return in the text, I’m not sure whether the title reflects the author’s choice. Be that as it may, in contrast to the piece itself (which is part of a series of texts on Locke’s political position), the title firmly places it in (2) a larger public debate about the moral status of canonical philosophers such as Hume, Berkeley or Aristotle. I think both the more scholarly and the more public debates are important and intertwined in various ways. We can be interested in both how Locke thought about slavery and how we want to judge his involvement. Given what I said about the justifying function of history, it’s clear that we look at authors not only as ancestors. We also ask whether they do or do not support a line of thought we want to endorse. And if it turns out that Locke’s thought is compatible with advocating slavery, then we want to think again how we relate to Locke, in addition to studying again the pertinent documents. However, in addition to these two debates, there is (3) yet another debate about the question whether we should be having these debates at all. This is the debate about the so-called “cancel culture”. While some say we shouldn’t cancel philosophers like Locke, others challenge the omnipresence of the notorious old or dead white men. As I see it, this latter debate about cancellation is highly problematic insofar as its proponents often question the legitimacy of the former (scholarly) debates.

As I see it, debates (1) and (2) are scholarly debates about Locke’s position on slavery. (1) makes an internal case regarding Locke’s writings. (2) also zooms in on the contrast to current views on slavery. (3) however is a different debate altogether. Here, the question is mainly whether it is legitimate to invoke Locke as an ancestor or as part of a canon we want to identify with. The main problem I see, though, is that the title “Leave John Locke in the historical dustbin” makes the whole piece ambiguous between (2) and (3). Given the piece, I’d think this works on level (2), but given how people responded to it and can use it, it becomes a hit piece on level (3) whose only aim seems to be to write Locke out of the (legitimate) canon. But this ambiguity or continuity between the the two kinds of debate is disastrous for the discipline. While on levels (1) and (2) the question of how Locke relates to slavery is an open question, dependent on interpretations of empirical evidence, Locke’s moral failure is already taken for granted on level (3). Here, the use of the canonical figure Locke stops being historical. It reduces to political partisanship. Why? Because history is then taken to be something already known, rather than something to be studied.

The irony is that each group, the defenders as well as the challengers of the canonical figure, questions the moral legitimacy of what they suppose the other group does by making a similar move, that is by appealing to a status symbol that enjoys recognition in the pertinent in-group. One group shouts “Locke and Enlightenment”; the other group shouts “Locke and Racism”. Neither approach to history strikes me as historical. It deteriorates into a mere use of historical items as status symbols, providing shortcuts for political fights. All of this is perhaps not very suprprising. The problem is that such status symbolism undermines scholarly debates and threatens to reduce historical approaches to political partisanship. My point, then, is not that all political or moral discussion of history reduces to status symbolism. But there is the danger that historical scholarship can appear to be continuous with mere status symbolism.

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* I’d like to thank Nick Denyer, Natalia Milopolsky, Naomi Osorio, Tzuchien Tho, Anna Tropia, and Markus Wild for insightful remarks or exchanges on this matter.

Empiricism and rationalism as political ideas?

Are all human beings equal? – Of course, that’s why we call them human. ­– But how do we know? – Well, it’s not a matter of empirical discovery, it’s our premise. ­– I see. And so everything else follows?

The opposition between empiricism and rationalism is often introduced as an epistemological dispute, concerning primarily the ways knowledge is acquired, warranted and limited. This is what I learned as a student and what is still taught today. If you’ve studied philosophy for a bit, you will also have heard that this opposition is problematic and coarse-grained when taken as a historical category. But in my view the problem is not that this opposition is too coarse-grained (all categories of that kind are). Rather, the problem lies with introducing it as a mere epistemological dispute. As I see it,* the opposition casts a much wider conceptual net and is rooted in metaphysical and even political ideas. Thus, the opposition is to be seen in relation to a set of disagreements in both theoretical and practical philosophy. In what follows, I don’t want to present a historical or conceptual account, but merely suggest means of recognising this wide-ranging set of ideas and show how the distinction helps us seeing the metaphysical implications and political choices related to our epistemological leanings.

Let me begin with a simple question: Do you think there is, ultimately, only one true description of the world? If your answer is ‘yes’, I’d be inclined to think that you are likely to have rationalist commitments. Why? Well, because an empiricist would likely reject that assumption for the reason that we might not be able to assess whether we lack important knowledge. Thus, we might miss out on crucial insights required to answer that question in the first place. This epistemological caution bears on metaphysical questions: Might the world be a highly contingent place, subject to sudden or constant change? If this is affirmed, it might not make sense to say that there is one true description of the world. How does this play out in political or moral terms? Rephrasing the disagreement a bit, we might say that rationalists are committed to the idea that the world is ordered in a certain way, while empiricists will remain open as to whether such an order is available to us at all. Once we see explanatory order in relation to world order, it becomes clear that certain commitments might follow for what we are and, thus, for what is good for us. If you believe that we can attain the one true description of the world, you might also entertain the idea that this standard should inform our sciences and our conduct at large. – Of course, this is quite a caricature of what I have in mind. All I want to suggest is that it might be rewarding to look whether certain epistemological leanings go hand in hand with metaphysical and practical commitments. So let’s zoom in on the different levels in a bit more detail.

(1) Epistemology: As I have already noted, the opposition is commonly introduced as concerning the origin, justification and limits of knowledge. Are certain ideas or principles innate or acquired through the senses? Where do we have to look in order to justify our assumptions? Can we know everything there is to be known, at least in principle, or are there realms that we cannot even sensibly hope to enter? – If we focus on the question of origin, we can already see how the opposition between empiricism and rationalism affects the pervasive nature-nurture debates: Are certain concepts and the related abilities owing to learning within a certain (social) environment or are the crucial elements given to us from the get-go? Now, let’s assume you’re a rationalist and think that our conceptual activity is mostly determined from the outset. Doesn’t it follow from this that you also assume that we are equal in our conceptual capacities? And doesn’t it also follow that rules of reasoning and standards of rationality are the same for all (rather than owing, say, to cultural contexts)? – While the answers are never straightforward, I would assume at least certain leanings into one direction or another. But while such leanings might already inform political choices, it is equally important to see how they relate to other areas of philosophy.

(2) Metaphysics: If you are an empiricist and assume that the main sources of our knowledge are our (limited) senses, this often goes and in hand with epistemic humility and the idea that we cannot explain everything. Pressed why you think so, you might find yourself inclined to say that the limits of our knowledge have a metaphysical footing. After all, if we cannot say whether an event is fully explicable, might this not be due to the fact that the world is contingent? Couldn’t everything have been otherwise, for instance because God interferes in events here and there? In other words, if you don’t assume there to be a sufficient reason for everything, this might be because you accept brute facts. Accordingly, the world is a chancy place and what our sciences track might be good enough to get by, but never provide the certainty that is promised by our understanding of natural laws. Depending on the historical period, such assumptions often go hand in hand with more or less explicit forms of essentialism. The lawful necessities in nature might be taken to relate to the way things are. Now essences are not only taken to determine what things are, but also how they ought to be. – Once you enter the territory of essentialism, then, it is only a small step to leanings regarding norms of being (together), of rationality, and of goodness.

(3) Theology / Sources of Normativity: If you allow for an essentialist determination of how things are and ought to be, this immediately raises the question of the sources of such essences and norms. Traditionally, we often find this question addressed in the opposition between theological intellectualism (or rationalism) and voluntarism: Intellectualists assume that norms of being and acting are prior to what God wills. So even God is bound by an order prior to his will. God acts out of reasons that are at least partly determined by the way natural things and processes are set up. By contrast, voluntarists assume that something is rational or right because God wills it, not vice versa. It is clear how this opposition rhymes with that of rationalism and empiricism: The rationalist assumes one order that even binds God. The empiricist remains epistemically humble, because she believes that rationality is fallible. Perhaps she believes this because she assumes that the world is a chancy place, which in turn might be owing to the idea that the omnipotent God can intervene anytime. It is equally clear how this opposition might translate into (lacking) justifications of moral norms or political power. – Unlike often assumed in the wake of Blumenberg and others, this doesn’t mean that voluntarism or empiricism straightforwardly translate into political absolutism. It is hardly ever a particular political idea that is endorsed as a result of empiricist or rationalist leanings. Nevertheless, we will likely find elements that play out in the justification of different systems.**

Summing up, we can see that certain ideas in epistemology go hand in hand with certain metaphysical as well as moral and political assumptions. The point is not to argue for systematically interwoven sets of doctrines, but to show that the opposition of empiricism and rationalism is so much more than just a disagreement about whether our minds are “blank slates”. Our piecemeal approach to philosophical domains might have its upsides, but it blurs our vision when it comes to the tight connections between theoretical and practical questions which clearly were more obvious to our historical predecessors. Seen this way, you might try and see whether you’ll find pertinently coherent assumptions in historical or current authors or in yourself. I’m not saying you’re inconsistent if you diverge from a certain set of assumptions. But it might be worth asking if and why you conform or diverge.

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* A number of ideas alluded to here would never have seen the light of day without numerous conversations with Laura Georgescu.

** See my posts on Ockham’s and Wittgenstein’s voluntarism for more details.

“Our colleagues … will seize upon public cases of misconduct as an opportunity …” A note on a retraction notice

The editors of Vivarium, a leading journal in the history of philosophy, recently published a notice on the retraction of several articles. It comes as no surprise that there was much discussion of the case on social media. Alongside the shock about the incident, it was the retraction notice itself that drew attention of blogs and individual commenters. The gist was that they had done a good job in conscientiously documenting instances of alleged plagiarism and describing the “cut throat nature of academic life”, as Eric Schliesser put it in a timely post on the issue. In what follows, I want to confine myself to the nature of the retraction notice.

What struck me in this notice is an aspect that I would like to call the moral framing of the editorial work in opposition to much of the rest of academia. Here is the passage I have in mind:

“We do not enjoy performing our duty. For marginal fields such as those served by Vivarium, we have seen from experience that the damage wreaked by plagiarism extends to institutions, bringing vulnerable positions, departments, and institutes to the attention of administrators eager to let the rationale of collective punishment direct the evisceration of budgets in Social Sciences and the Humanities. Our colleagues in adjacent fields will seize upon public cases of misconduct as an opportunity to reallocate scarce resources in their favor, thereby ensuring that those who previously lost out to plagiarists in competition for fellowships and positions lose out once again.” (C. Schabel / W. Duba, Notice, Vivarium 2020, 257; italics mine)

What is contrasted here is the unpleasant “duty” of the editors with the, shall we say, moral recklessness of administrators and colleagues. Of course, we are familiar with tirades about academia. But this is a formal notice about the reasons for retraction, in a top journal of the discipline. The conscientious listing of passages that follows makes for a strange contrast to the allusions (“we have seen from experience”) and unverified accusations expressed here. For a journal that rightly prides itself on standards of scholarly evidence, this is not a good look. Let me point out two aspects:

  • Firstly, it might indeed be the case that there are “administrators” who could be quoted as having used measures of “collective punishment” in such cases. But do we have evidence about this? And is this really evidence about the “eagerness” of administrators or are we looking at an even more structural issue? Most importantly, what is the reason to point this out in the given context? Does it serve to heighten the blameworthiness of what is being documented?
  • Secondly, I wonder about the reference to “our colleagues”. Since I am a specialist in the pertinent “marginal field”, the expression “our colleagues” should extend to my colleagues. The phrasing according to which they “will seize upon public cases” amounts to a prediction of their behaviour. Have my academic colleagues done such things? Are they likely to do such things? I know that people say all sorts of bad things on Twitter and I know that academia is competitive, but nothing I heard about such cases would bear testimony to the supposed behaviour. Again, would it not be apt to provide at least some evidence for this prediction?

Thus, we might say that the notice has a twofold structure: on the one hand, it outlines the passages and reasons for retraction; on the other hand, it frames this outline in a wider context of academic practices and moral standards. But while the outline fulfils good scholarly standards, the adjacent framing appeals to undocumented experience or hearsay. It is especially this latter part that strikes me as problematic, not least because it treats sociological assumptions about the current academic context as something that does not require reliable evidence.