Finding your voice in academic writing. Some practical considerations

I’ll begin writing my paper this afternoon. I just want to check some final bits of literature before I get going. – This is me speaking to myself, almost every day. I know by now that I get out of this habit only by ignoring any further stuff. Sit down and write, just write! Do what? Write! Yeah, but what exactly? – You think I’m making this up? Yes, that’s the short version. – So what’s going on here? In such moments you’re witnessing the transition between two processes. It’s the move from discovering things to presenting what you think about these things in a paper. It’s in that transition that you have to find your own voice, amidst all the rants in your head, coming out of reading the secondary or even primary literature. Usually though, I don’t find my voice, or certainly not in that moment. Rather I hear all the others, and the feeling grows: I have nothing to say. – In what follows, I want to impart some advice of how you might find your voice. Here is the most important insight right away. I didn’t find it where I was looking for it initially. Unlike I thought, it’s not a matter of style. Rather, style is a result of something else: a result of emphasising those things that matter to you.*

Your voice: what is it anyway? – There is a lot of talk about finding your voice. But what is it anyway? I guess it’s a trademark sound you recognise. Famous musicians or writers of fiction are recognisable by how they play or say something. That suggests that it is a matter of style. But at least in academic writing I think that this is a red herring. Style does not develop out of wanting to sound stylish. Now, I have to tread carefully. Of course, it’s important to check out aspects of style. A good way of learning to write is to try and figure out what exactly you like in other writers and imitate, yes: imitate, that. That’s what I do. Academic writing can be very elegant. And what makes it elegant is that certain writers have found ways of sounding at ease when I would sound cumbersome. Good writers have a way of solving problems of presenting a lot of stuff easily. Imitating such chops helps. But imitating is not sufficient, unless you want to sound exactly like (someone imitating) Fodor or Shakespeare. You have to make it your own. So here are some ideas of how to approach it.

(1) Write an introduction. – Let’s look back at the literature search and the transition to writing a (preliminary) introduction. How do you do it? Now a good introduction tells me a number of things. It sets out

  • (a) the general topic;
  • (b) a problem arising in scholarly debates (often in line with how it’s discussed in the literature);
  • (c) a hypothesis as to how to approach the problem;
  • (d) the research question, i.e. the question inquiring about a crucial aspect that needs to be shown for the hypothesis to come out true;
  • (e) the methodological approach that justifies the kind of evidence or argument required to answer that question;
  • (f) the steps (and restrictions) that need to be taken into account to make the case.

This is a lot, but some things can at least sometimes be done with a single sentence. I’ve addressed some of these items earlier. What’s important for finding your voice is not so much how you go about all the individual points. Rather you need to get just some of these steps under your control. Let me focus on (b) and (f).

What might get you into trouble. ­– I start with (b), because it’s the most obvious point for moving from the literature to your own presentation. Beginners will often present the problem by picking two (or more) pieces from the (secondary) literature and put them in (oppositional) order. So you might write something like this: “Paper A argues thus and so. But thus and so leaves us with the problem of … In the light of this problem, paper B argues that so and thus.” This approach is perfectly fine. You identify a (perhaps long-standing) problem and see how it’s addressed. Then you present these views, probably as an opposition. And then what? Then you think you compare A and B and take a side or you address a problem in paper B and defend your own view, B*. – This is all very well, but it can create various difficulties. One of them is that you will follow the literature very closely in setting out the problem. What I mean is that you’ll probably go along with the emphases of paper B. That is fine if you want to address a certain position in particular. But it doesn’t help you if you want to set out the problem or debate. So here is what you should do.

(2) Labelling positions (in a debate). – Instead of presenting the content of two papers you should present two abstract positions, A and B. How do you abstract away from the papers? By focussing solely on what you think is important for presenting the problem. That means, you don’t follow the twists and turns of the paper. You just pick a claim or concept. Of course, this might seem difficult. But you can figure it out by saying what, for instance, makes the connection to paper B. (You want an example? Look how Putnam introduces the “traditional doctrine” of meaning by summarising Frege in the introduction to The Meaning of “Meaning”. Putnam solely focuses on what he is going to exploit later to make his case.) So your A and B are not authors or papers; they are two positions, isms, types of argument. Labelling positions rather than remaining glued to individual authors has some important consequences. Firstly, you focus on what you think matters. And this means you impose your voice from the very beginning. Your voice is not some afterthought that you present after you mastered the masters. You exercise your voice by pulling the masters your way. They just matter insofar as they are representatives of your set-up of the problem. Secondly, if you introduce a new author, you can just subsume them under one of your own categories. Thirdly, there is no right and wrong in that abstraction. Of course, your way of presenting a position might strike some readers as awkward. Try and see what works. But unlike in the case of presenting an author’s positions, you cannot be unfaithful by changing the emphasis. Of course, you shouldn’t build a straw man. But it’s perfectly fine to justify a somewhat strong characterisation by saying, for example, that you focus on a particular aspect that you deem relevant. Fourthly, you can use these labels throughout your paper. In fact, the aspect that defines the position A or B builds the conceptual repertoire for setting up the drama.

(3) Structuring with labels. – The second step I would recommend is setting out the structure of the paper (f). As suggested above, this often happens by presenting views of opposing authors, and then presenting one’s own idea in the last section. This is often frustrating because, as a writer you have to withhold your own position for long phases, while the reader will want to get to the last chapter to see what your point actually is. However, if you structure your work with the labels you defined in the introduction, your view is present from the get-go. Not in the sense of an own position, but in the sense of your take on what is important about someone else’s position. Your voice informs the writing all the way through. – Now you might worry that this will mean to present someone’s view in a biased way, but this is not the case. Of course, you present an interpretation of someone’s view in any case, but with the labelling strategy you highlight what you find relevant for your purposes. Rather than presenting paper A and paper B … and then seeing how their emphases translate into something that you can refine and discuss as your own adjustment, you will present your take of position A and B. This way, you’re setting up a conceptual space in which you can move around and attribute various positions and distinctions. Your voice is not a particular position, but what shapes the entire space of discussion.** (Once you think like that, you’re no longer tied to presenting A and B as a succession. You might also structure your paper by beginning with your idea, B*. But you do it by setting out B, reference authors that have held B already, and then introduce A as an objection to B, and finally land on B* as the position that addresses that objection.) While doing all that, you can reference and highlight peculiarities in other authors as you go along. But they will speak to the terms of the discussion as you have set them.

So how do you find your voice after long periods of browsing through literature? – I’d reiterate that you find it by focusing, not on something else or something supposedly new, but on what you find important in the text you’re working through. It’s mainly a shift of emphasis: from following what others find important to focusing on what you find important in others. If you look for examples, check out how papers that you like actually build up the problem they work through: I’m sure that more often than not you’ll find that they juxtapose ideas by characterising or labelling positions, while subsuming whole lists of authors under these labels.

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* One afterthought: I now tend to think that this (style being a result of what matters to you) might apply across the board, in writing, music, other arts. But sometimes it’s first necessary to find someone (or some piece of literature etc.) who encourages you to think that the things you find important can actually be said. Can be said, that is, in such and such a way, and without embarrassment. – So it was sometimes only after reading certain authors that I actually dared saying things the way I do now.

If this is correct, the continuous reading in such phases has at least two different functions: you can read (1) to gather content you want to write about or (2) to seek legitimacy for how you want to say things.

** This also means that your view (or what you find important about something) is not necessarily constituted by taking a distinctive or opposing position. Rather your view can be a way of relating or integrating certain positions. (Historians do this much of the time.) All too often, philosophers seem to assume that they have to carve out their view by putting it in opposition to others. There is reason to doubt this, as I argue in a previous post.

How do I figure out what to think? (Part I)

Which view of the matter is right? When I started out studying philosophy, I had a problem that often continues to haunt me. Reading a paper on a given topic, I thought: yes, that makes sense! Reading a counterargument the next day, I thought: right, that makes more sense! Reading a defence of paper one, I thought: oh, I had better swing back. Talking to others about it, I found there were two groups of people: those who had made up their mind for one side, and those who admitted to swinging back and forth just like I did. I guess we all experience this swinging back and forth in many aspects of life, but in philosophy it felt unsettling because there seemed to be the option of just betting on the wrong horse. But there was something even worse than betting on the wrong horse and finding myself in disagreement with someone I respected. It was the insight that I had no clue how to make up my mind in such questions. How did people end up being compatibilists about freedom and determinism? Why do you end up calling yourself an externalist about meaning? Why do you think that Ruth Millikan or Nietzsche make more sense than Jerry Fodor or Kant? – I thought very hard about this and related questions and came up with different answers, but today I thought: right, I actually have something to say about it! So here we go.

Let’s first see how the unsettling feeling arises. The way much philosophy is taught is by setting out a problem and then presenting options to solve it. Sometimes they are presented more historically, like: Nietzsche tried to refute Schopenhauer. Sometimes they are presented as theoretical alternatives, like: this is an argument for compatibilism and here is a problem for that argument. I had a number of reactions to such scenarios, but my basic response was not: right, so these are the options. It was rather: I have no idea how to oversee them. How was I supposed to make up my mind? Surely that would require overseeing all the consequences and possible counterarguments, when I had already trouble to get the presented position in the first place. I went away with three impressions: (1) a feeling of confusion, (2) the feeling that some of the views must be better than others, and (3) the assumption that I had to make up my mind about these options. But I couldn’t! Ergo, I sucked at philosophy.

In this muddle, history of philosophy seemed to come to the rescue. It seemed to promise that I didn’t have to make up my mind, but merely give accurate accounts of encountered views. – Ha! The sense of relief didn’t last long. First, you still have to make up your mind about interpretations, and somehow the views presented in primary texts still seemed to pull me in different directions. My problem wasn’t solved but worsened, because now you were supposed to figure out philological nuances and historical details on top of everything else. Ergo, the very idea of reporting ideas without picking a side turned out to be misguiding.

Back to square one, I eventually made what I thought was a bold move: I just picked a side, more or less at random. The unease about not seeing through the view I had picked didn’t really go away, but who cares: we’re all just finite mortals! – Having picked a side gave me a new feeling: confidence. I had not seen the light, but hey, I belonged to a group, and some people in that group surely had advanced. Picking a side feels random only at the beginning: then things fall into place; soon you start to foresee and refute counterarguments; what your interlocutors say matters in a new way. You listen not just in an attempt to understand the view “an sich”, but you’re involved. Tensions arise. It’s fun, at least for a while. In any case, picking a side counters lack of confidence: it gives your work direction and makes exchanges meaningful.

For better or worse, I would recommend picking a side if your confusion gets the better of you all the time. At least as a pragmatic device. It’s how you make things fall into place and can take your first steps. However, the unease doesn’t go away. At least for me it didn’t. Why? Let’s face it, I often felt like an actor who impersonates someone who has a view. Two questions remained: What if people could find out that I had just randomly picked a side? This is part of what nourished impostor syndrome (for the wrong reasons, as might turn out later). And how could I work out what I should really think about certain things? – While getting a job partly helped with the first question, a lot of my mode of working revolves around the second question. I got very interested in questions of norms, of methodology and the relation between philosophy and its history. And while these issues are intriguing in their own right, they also helped me with the questions of what to think and how to figure out what to think. So here are a few steps I’d like to consider.

Step one: You don’t have to pick a side. – It helps to look more closely at the effect of picking a side. I said that it gave direction and meaning to my exchanges. It did. But how? Picking a side means to enter a game, by and large an adversarial game. If you pick a side, then it seems that there is a right and wrong side just as there is winning and losing in an argumentative setting. Well, I certainly think there is winning and losing. But I doubt that there is right and wrong involved in picking a side. So here is my thesis: Picking a side helps you to play the game. But it doesn’t help you in figuring out what you should think. In other words, in order to work out what to think, you don’t have to pick a side at all.

Step two: Picking a side does not lead you to the truth. – As I noted, the way much philosophy is taught to us is by setting out a problem and then presenting options to solve it. The options are set up as better or worse options. And now it seems that picking a side does not only associate you with winning, say, a certain argument, but also with truth. And the truth is what you should think and be convinced of, right? But winning an argument doesn’t (necessarily) mean to hit on the truth of a matter. The fact that you win in an exchange does not mean that you win the next crucial exchange. In fact, it’s at least possible that you win every argument and never hit on any truth. It’s merely the adversarial practice of philosophy that creates the illusion that winning is related to finding the truth.

Now you might want to object that I got things the wrong way round. We argue, not to win, but about what’s true. That doesn’t make winning automatically true, but neither does it dissociate truth from arguing. Let’s look at an example: You can argue about whether it was the gardener or the butler who committed the murder. Of course, you might win but end up convicting, wrongly, the gardener. Now that does show that not all arguments bring out the truth. But they still can decide between true and false options. Let me address this challenge in the next step.

Step three: In philosophy, there are no sides. – It’s true that presenting philosophical theories as true or false, or at least as better or worse solutions to a given problem makes them look like gardeners or butlers in a whodunit. Like a crime novel, problems have solutions, and if not one solution, then at least one kind of solution. – This is certainly true of certain problems. Asking about an individual cause or element as being responsible or decisive is the sort of setting that allows for true and false answers. But the problems of philosophy are hardly ever of that sort. To see this, consider the example again. Mutatis mutandis, what matters to the philosopher is not mainly who committed the crime, but whether the gardener and the butler have reasons to commit the murder. And once someone pins down the gardener as the culprit, philosophers will likely raise the question whether we have overlooked other suspects or whether the supposed culprit is really to blame (rather than, say, society). This might sound as if I were making fun of philosophy, but the point is that philosophers are more engaged in understanding than in providing the one true account.

How does understanding differ from solving a problem? Understanding involves understanding both or all the options and trying to see where they lead. Understanding is a comprehensive analysis of an issue and an attempt to integrate as many facts as possible in that analysis. This actually involves translating contrary accounts into one another and seeing how different theories deal with the (supposedly) same facts. Rather than pinning down the murderer you’ll be asking what murder is. But most of the time, it’s not your job to conclusively decide what murder is (in the sense of what should count as murder in a given jurisdiction), but to analyse the factual and conceptual space of murder. Yes, we can carve up that space differently. But this carving up is not competitive; rather it tells us something about our carving tools. To use a different analogy, asking which philosophical theory is right is like asking whether you should play a certain melody on the piano or on the trombone. There are differences: the kinds of moves you need to make to produce the notes on a trombone differ vastly from those you need to make on the piano. Oh, and your preference might differ. But would you really want to say there is a side to be taken? – Ha! You might say that you can’t produce chords on a trombone, so it’s less qualified for playing chord changes. Well, just get more trombone players then!

I know that the foregoing steps raise a number of questions, which is why I’d like to dedicate a number of posts to this issue. To return to swinging back and forth between contrary options, this feeling does not indicate that you are undecided. It indicates that you are trying to understand different options in a setting. Ultimately, this feeling measures our attempts to integrate new facts, while we are confronted with pressures arising from observing people who actually adhere to one side or another. For the time being, I’d like to conclude by repeating that it is the adversarial style that creates the illusion that winning and losing are related to giving true and false accounts. The very idea of having to pick a side is, while understandable in the current style of playing the game, misguided. If there are sides, they are already picked, rooted in what we call perspectives. In other words, one need not worry which side to choose, but rather think through the side you already find yourself on. There are no wrong sides. Philosophy is not a whodunit. And the piano might be out of tune.

What is a debate? On the kinds of things we study in history of philosophy

Philosophers focus on problems; historians of philosophy also focus on texts. That’s what I sometimes say when I have to explain the difference between doing philosophy and history of philosophy. The point is that historians, in addition to trying and understanding what’s going on in a text or between texts, also deal with the ‘material basis’ on which the problems are handed down to us: the genres, dates, production and dissemination, the language, style and what have you. But what is it that we actually find in the texts? Of course, we are used to offer interpretations, but I think that, before we even start reading, we all tend to have presumptions about what we find. Now these presumptions can be quite different. And it matters greatly what we think we find. In the following, I want to say a few things about this issue, not to offer conclusions, but to get the ball rolling.

An assumption that is both common and rightly contested is that we might find the intention of the author. Wanting to get Aristotle, Cavendish or Fodor right, seems to mean that we look for what the author meant to say. It’s understandable that this matters to us, but apart from the fact that such a search is often in vain, we can understand texts independently from intentions. – Another unit is of course the focus on arguments. We can read a text as an argument for a conclusion and thus analyse its internal structure. Getting into the details of arguments often involves unpacking and explaining claims, concepts, assumptions in the background, and examples. Evaluating the arguments will mean, in turn, to assess how well they support the claims (I like to think of an evaluation as indicating the distance between claim and argument). But while all this is a crucial part in the philosophical analysis, it does not explain what is going on in the text, that is: it does not explain why and on what basis an author might argue for a certain conclusion, reject a certain view, make a certain move, use a certain strategy, use a certain term or concept. In other words, in addition to the internal analysis we need to invoke some of the so-called context.

As I see it, a fruitful approach to providing context, at least in the history of philosophy, is to study texts as elements of debates. One reason I like this is that it immediately opens up the possibility to locate the text (and the claims of an author) in a larger interaction. We hardly ever write just because we want to express a view. Normally we write in response to other texts, no matter whether we reply to a question, reject a claim, highlight a point of interest etc., and no matter whether that other text is a day or thousand years old.

But even if you agree that debates are a helpful focus both for studying a historical or contemporary text (in research as well as in teaching), there might be quite some disagreement as to what a debate actually is or what we are looking for in a debate. I think this matters not only for historians but also for understanding debates more generally. – Currently, for instance, we have a public debate about climate change. What kind of ‘unit’ is this? There are conditions under which the debate arose quite some decennia ago, with claims being put forward in research contexts, schools and the media. These conditions vary greatly: there are political, technological, scientific, educational and many other kinds of conditions. Then there are different participants, many kinds of scientists, citizens, politicians, journalists. Then there are different genres: scientific publications, media outlets, referee reports for politicians, interviews, protests in the streets and online etc. What is it that holds all this together and makes it part of a debate? My hunch is that it is a question. But which one? Here, I think it is important to get the priorities right. There are sub-questions, follow-up questions, all sorts, but is there a main question? This is tricky. But I guess it should be the most common and salient point of contact between all the items constituting the debate. For this debate, it is perhaps the question: How shall we respond to climate change?

Once we determine such a question, we can group the items, especially the texts, accordingly. The debate is one of the crucial factors that makes the text meaningful, that places it in a dialogical space, even if we do not understand very much of what it says (yet). Even if I am not a climate scientist, I understand the role of a paper within the debate and might be able to place it quite well just by reading the abstract. The same is true of a medieval treatise on logic or an early modern text on first philosophy. – So this is a good way in, I guess. But where do we go from here? You probably can already guess that I want to say something critical now. Yes, I do. The point I want to address is this: How is a debate structured?

When we think about debates in philosophy, we obviously start out from what we perceive debates to be nowadays. As pointed out earlier, much philosophical exchange is based on criticising others. Therefore, it seems fair to assume that debates are structured by opposition. There is a question and opposing answers to it. Indeed, many categories in philosophical historiography are ordered in oppositions and it helps to understand one term through thinking in relation to its opposite. Just think of empiricism versus rationalism, realism versus nominalism etc. That’s all fine. But it only gets you so far. Understanding the content, motivation and addressees of a text as a response in an actual debate requires going far beyond such oppositions. Of course, we can place someone by saying he’s a climate change denier; but that doesn’t help us in understanding the motivations and contents of the text. It’s just a heuristic device to get started.

Today I had the pleasure of listening in on a meeting of Andrea Sangiacomo’s ERC project team working on a large database to study trends in early modern natural philosophy.* It’s a very exciting project, not least in that they are trying to analyse the social and semantic networks in which some of the teaching took place. Not being well-versed in digital humanities myself, I was mainly in awe of the meticulous attention to details of working with the data. But then it struck me: They are tracking teaching practices and yet they were making their first steps by tracing opposing views (on occasionalism). Why would you look for oppositions, I wondered half aloud. Of course, it is a heuristic way of structuring the field. It was then that I began to wonder how we should analyse debates, going beyond oppositions.

Now you might ask why one should go beyond. My answer is that debates, even though the term might suggest critical opposition over a question, might be structured by opposition. But the actual moves that explain what’s going on in a text on a more detailed level, that is: from one passage or even one sentence to the next, are way more fine-grained. Again, as in the case of the straightforward opposition, these moves should be thought of as (implicit) responses to other texts.** Here is a list of moves I think of ad hoc:

  • reformulating a claim
  • quoting a claim (with or without acknowledgement)
  • paraphrasing a claim
  • translating a claim (into a different language, terminology)
  • formalising a claim
  • simplifying a claim
  • embedding a claim into a more complex one
  • ascribing a claim (to someone)
  • (intentionally) misacscribing a claim
  • making up a claim (as a view of someone)
  • commenting on a claim
  • elaborating or developing an idea
  • locating a view in a context
  • deriving (someone’s) claim from another claim
  • deriving (someone’s) claim from the Bible
  • asserting that a claim, actually, is another claim
  • asserting that a claim is ambiguous
  • asserting that a claim is self-evident
  • asserting that a claim is true, false, paradoxical, contradictory, opposing another one, an axiom, demonstrable, not demonstrable
  • asserting that a claim is confirmed by experience
  • asserting that a claim is intuitive, plausible, implausible, unbelievable
  • raising (new) questions
  • answering a question raised by a claim
  • doubting and questioning a result
  • revising a claim
  • revising one’s own claim in view of another claim
  • understanding a view
  • failing to understand a view
  • misrepresenting a view
  • distorting a view
  • evaluating a view
  • dismissing a view
  • re-interpreting a (well-known) view
  • undermining a claim, one’s own claim
  • exposing assumptions
  • explaining an idea in view of its premises or implications
  • illustrating a view
  • finding (further) evidence for or against a view
  • transforming or applying a concept or view to a new issue, in philosophy or elsewhere
  • recontextualising a view
  • repairing a view or argument
  • popularising a view
  • trying to conserve a view
  • trying to advance a view
  • juxtaposing views
  • comparing views
  • resolving a tension between views
  • highlighting a tension between views
  • associating a view with another one
  • appropriating a view
  • pretending to merely repeat a traditional view, while presenting a bold re-interpretation of it [yes, what Ockham does to Aristotle]
  • explicitly accepting a view
  • pretending to accept a view
  • accepting a view, while condemning the proponent
  • rejecting a view, while praising the proponent
  • pretending to reject a view, while actually appropriating (part of) it [yes, I’m thinking of Reid]
  • pretending to accept a view, while rejecting its premises
  • highlighting relations between views (analogies etc.)
  • ridiculing a view
  • belittling a view
  • shunning a view
  • showing societal consequences of a view
  • suppressing or hiding a claim
  • disavowing a claim
  • retracting a claim
  • putting a view in euphemistic terms
  • showing that a claim is outrageous, heretical, controversial, complacent
  • polemicising against a view
  • etc.

This list is certainly not exhaustive. And “view” or “claim” might concern the whole or a part, an argument, a term or concept. Even if we have some more positive or negative forms of responses, we have to see that all of these ways go beyond mere opposition, counterargument or criticism. Sometimes the listed moves are made explicitly; sometimes a move in a text might be explicable as result of such a move. What is perhaps most salient is that they often say as much about the commitments of the respondent as they are intended to say about the other text that is being responded to. While mere criticism of an opponent does not require us to expose our commitments, much of what we find in (historical) texts is owing to commitments. (In other words, adversarial communication in current professional settings, such as the Q&A after talks, might often be taken as people merely showing off their chops, without invoking their own commitments and vulnerabilities. But this is not what we should expect to find in historical texts.)*** So if we look at Spinoza as criticising Descartes, for instance, we should not overlook that the agreements between the commitments and interests of these authors are just as important as the tensions and explicit disagreement. Looking again at the issue of climate change, it is clear that most moves probably consist in understanding claims and their implications, establishing agreement and noting tensions, corroborating ideas, assessing consequences, providing evidence, trying to confirm results etc. So the focus on opposition might be said to give us a wrong idea of the real moves within a historical debate and of the moves that stabilise a debate or make it stick.

Anyway, the main idea of beginning such a list is to see the variety of moves we might find in a text responding to someone else. To analyse a text merely as an opposing move with pertinent counterarguments or as presenting a contrary theory makes us overlook the richness of the philosophical interactions.

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*Here is a recent blog post by Raluca Tanasescu, Andrea Sangiacomo, Silvia Donker, and Hugo Hogenbirk on their work. I’m only beginning to learn about the methods and considerations in digital humanities. But I have to say that this field strikes me as holding a lot of (methodological) inspiration (for history of philosophy and science etc.) even if you continue to work mostly in more traditional ways.

** Besides texts of different authors, this might of course also concern other texts of oneself or parts or temporal stages (drafts) of the same text.

*** I’m grateful to Laura Georgescu for pointing out this difference between criticism in current professional settings as opposed to many historical texts.

Love, crime, sincerity and normality. Or: sameness claims in history

How do the things mentioned in the title hang together? – Read on, then! Think about this well known illusion: You see a stick in the water; the stick seems to be bent. What can you do to check whether it is really bent? – Knowing that water influences visual perception, you can change the conditions: You take it out of the water and realise that it is straight. Taking it out also allows for confirmation through a different sense modality: Touching the stick, you can compare the visual impression with the tactile one. Checking sense modalities and/or conditions against one another establishes an agreement in judgment and thus objectivity. If you only had the visual impression of the stick in the water, you could not form an objective judgment. For all you knew, the stick would be bent.

Now, objectivity is nice to have. But it requires a crucial presupposition that we have not considered so far: that the different perceptions are perceptions of the same thing. Identity assumptions about perceptual objects come easily. But, in principle, they could be challenged: How do you know that what you touch really is the same thing as the one you feel? Normally, yes: normally, you don’t ask that question. You presuppose that it’s the same thing. Of course, you might theorise about a wicked friend exchanging the sticks when you aren’t looking, but this is not the issue now. We need that presupposition; otherwise our world would fall apart. Cutting a long story short, to ‘have’ our world we need at least two things, then: (1) agreement in our tacit judgments (about perceptions) and agreement with the judgments of others: So when someone says it’s raining that judgment should agree with our perceptual judgments: “it’s raining” must agree with the noise we hear of the drops hitting the rooftop and the drops we see hitting the window; (2) and we must presuppose that all these judgments concern the same thing: the rain.

Now all hell breaks loose when such judgments are consistently challenged. What is it I hear, if not the rain? What do you mean when you say “it’s raining”, if not that it’s raining? Are you talking figuratively? Are you not sincere? – One might begin to distrust the speaker or even one’s senses (or the speaker’s senses). It might turn out that the sameness was but a presupposition. (Oh, and what guided the comparison between touch and vision in the first place? How do I know what it feels like to touch a thing looking like ‘that’? Best wishes from Mr Molyneux …)

Presuppositions about sameness and challenging them: this provides great plots for stories about love, crime, sincerity and normality. I leave it to your imagination to fill in the gaps now. Assumptions about sameness figure in judgments about sincerity, about objects, persons, about perceptions, just about everything. (Could it turn out that the Morning Star is not the Evening Star, after all?) It’s clear that we need such assumptions if we don’t want to go loopy, and it’s palpable what might happen if they are not confirmed. Disagreement in judgment can hurt and upset us greatly.

No surprise then that we read philosophical texts with similar assumptions. If your colleague writes a text entitled “on consciousness” or “on justice” you make assumptions about these ideas. Are these assumptions confirmed when you pick up a translation: “De conscientia” or “Über Bewusstsein”? Hmmm, does the Latin match? Let’s see! What you look for, at least when your suspicion is raised, is confirmation about the topic: Does it match what you take consciousness to be? But hang on! Perhaps you should check your linguistic assumptions first? Is it a good translation?

What you try to track is sameness, by tracking agreement in judgments about different kinds of facts. Linguistic facts have to match. But also assumptions about the topic. Now a new problem emerges: It might be that the translation is a match, but that you genuinely disagree with your colleage about what consciousness is. Or it might be that you agree about consciousness, but that the translation is incorrect. – How are you going to find out which disagreement actually obtains? – You can ask your colleage: What do you mean by “conscientia”? She then tells you that she means that conscientia is given if p and q obtain. You might now disagree: I think consciousness obtains when p and r obtain. Now you have a disagreement about the criteria for consciousness. – Really? Perhaps you now have disagreement of what “consciousness” means or you have a disagreement of what “conscientia” means. How do you figure that out? Oh, look into a canonical book on consciousness! – Let’s assume it even notes certain disagreements: What are the disagreements about?

I guess the situation is not all that different when we read historical texts. Perhaps a bit worse actually. We just invoke some more ways of establishing sameness: the so-called context. What is context? Let’s say we invoke a bunch of other texts. So we look at “conscientia” in Descartes. Should we look at Augustine? Some contemporaries? At Dennett? At some scholastic authors? Paulus? The Bible? How do we determine which context is the right one for establishing sameness. And is consciousness even a thing? A natural kind about which sameness claims can be well established? – Oh, and was Descartes sincere when he introduced God in the Meditations?

Sometimes disagreements among historians and philosophers remind me of the question which interpretation of a piece of music is the proper one. There is a right answer: it’s whichever interpretation you’ve listened to first. Everything else will sound more or less off, different in any case. That’s where all your initial presuppositions were rooted. Is it the same piece as the later interpretations? Is it better? How? Why do I like it? How do I recognise it as the same or similar? And I need a second coffee now!

I reach to my cup and find the coffee in there lukewarm – is it really my coffee, or indeed coffee?

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Whilst I’m at it: Many thanks to all the students in my course on methodology in the history of philosophy, conveniently called “Core Issues: Philosophy and Its Past”. The recent discussions were very intriguing again. And over the years, the participants in this course inspired a lot of ideas going into this blog.

Transgression and playfulness in academic exchange

Imagine that you are about to enter one of these hip clothing stores that play fairly loud pop music. Imagine that they play, say, Abba’s “dancing queen” and imagine further that you start to sing very loudly and dance most expressively along to the music as you enter. For how long, do you think, could you go on doing this? – I guess I couldn’t do it at all, because I’d feel embarrassed. It’s just not done, or is it? – I think discussing philosophy is a bit like this. If originality really has such a high status in philosophy, then you should sing and dance in a shop. No? It’s trickier than that. You can see this if you realise that, for some people, uttering a plain sentence in an academic setting feels exactly like singing and dancing in a clothing store. Embarrassing. – Now imagine you’re a bystander: What can you do with this? (1) Well, you can of course expose them, for instance by correcting their behaviour instantly. (2) Or you can make them feel at home a bit by at least humming along with the tune. They’ll probably feel less alone. And you’ll make the others see that it is actually purposeful behaviour. (3) If you’re in the position of the shopkeeper, you could even try and clear the aisles from obstacles to open space for further dancing and join in. There are certainly more options, but the point is: you have a choice and what you choose will partly determine how things develop and how things are judged. But let’s add some context first.

Many of the current discussions about academic exchange are haunted by accusations. On the one hand, there are those who accuse others of censorship in the name of dubious political correctness. On the other, there are those who accuse the accusers of violating safe spaces. What I find particularly sad is that these camps (if there are camps) recurrently run into a hopeless stalemate. I have seen many people attempting to intervene with the best intentions and yet being called out relentlessly. The stalemate seems to arise whenever people pick option one and tell others off for dancing in the shop. – I feel not one jot cleverer than all the people already enmeshed in this mess. But today seems as good as any day, so I’ve set aside time to write a bit about this issue. Before I go through the motions, let me articulate my thesis: I believe that the common distinction between the two camps of “safe space endorsement” and “free speech endorsement” is totally misguiding. Both “camps” are eventually owing to the same problem: the problem of an intersection between educational and professional issues. Let me explain.

Transgression and types of exchange. As I see it, the accusations between the two camps often have a paradoxical air, because the two camps in question share the same goals: Everyone wants open academic exchange, but also wants to prevent harm. Thus, there is always the problem of drawing lines between freedom and harm. One person’s frankness is insulting someone else, and vice versa. People draw these lines differently anyway. But what makes academic or philosophical exchange special is that it partly thrives on transgressing such lines. Most might smile at this today, but many people did worry in debates about the immortality of the soul or personal identity in view of the afterlife. One person’s progress is another’s loss of everything they hold dear. We allow for such transgressions because we (and this includes those who might suffer offence) think that discursive openness might lead to insights that benefit us all. At the same time, it should be clear that potential transgressions require special conditions that protect all those involved both from external repercussions and from internal conflicts.

But here is the catch: In academia we encounter each other in two contexts at once. On the one hand, we are part of an educational exchange in which we learn from each other and help and criticise each other freely. On the other hand, we are part of a professional exchange in which we judge each other from different (hierarchical) positions of power. (By the way, the idea of meritocracy has it that these levels are aligned, but they are not, because the former is way more fluid.) Now these contexts often play out against one another: Your supervisor might say that she wants you to speak up freely, but you might fear that if you speak your mind you’ll be punished professionally.

As I see it, the merging of the two contexts is what creates antagonising camps. No matter which side you take me to be on: if you fear that I might retaliate professionally, it will poison our educational exchange and turn me into an enemy. Conversely, if you trust me to speak in good faith and you don’t hold a professional grudge, I am sure I can utter whatever blather. You might not think very highly of me, but you might still just try and help me see some sense. After all, we all make mistakes. And next time it might be you. Seen in this light, then, I think the two camps boil down to something that has not much to do with the particular political convictions driving either side, but with the merging of contexts.

Playfulness. Where can we go from here? Now, there is no general solution for the merging of contexts. This is why I think that we should assign as much space as possible to educational exchange in academia. We are always different personae at once, and the way to go is to keep the problematic ones in check. How? Through establishing exchange in a more playful manner. Here are some considerations about that (and here is an attempt at playful considerations).* Some of you might remember how philosophical discussions work among friends: You might try out the strangest ideas and see that they end up turning into something surprisingly sustainable. If your interlocutor can’t think on, you make suggestions to help. If it turns out to be nonsense, you laugh and move on. – Why does this work? Because you trust one another. Does it always go well? No, but your friend will be looking out for signs of disagreement and be considerate of your feelings. If you tell them to shut up about a sensitive topic they won’t call you a censor, but shut up. Next time you’ll look into it again and sort out what went wrong, “go meta” or whatever. – Now, you don’t need to make friends with all your interlocutors, but arguing in good faith works like that. We try and fail and laugh and have someone else try. The crucial idea is that such dialogues will be fluid and change the norms as we go along. Is it ok to sing in a shop? Well, let’s see where it get’s us. The whole thing is more like a jazz improvisation where the tune is not fixed. The point is this: everyone’s job is just to make everyone else sound good.

Controversial ideas and conformity. But while the trust of friendship might be a helpful regulative ideal, we have to tackle the interference of the professional level and other group dynamics. This is why I want to consider the question of embarrassment again. Of course, we might also feel occasionally embarrassed among friends, but in professional contexts, that is: in contexts in which we feel judged (be it as students or peers), embarrassment might be outright paralysing. And although some recent articles try to tone down the issue of self-censorship, I would assume that it is fairly pervasive and also problematic, if it stops us from considering what is called “controversial ideas”.

We might begin again by imagining the dance in the shop or, if you like a change of setting, in a philosophy seminar. Would that be ok? Few will think so. It would be a transgression of social norms. While it might not be outright politically incorrect to dance and sing in class, it would certainly put the dancer on the spot. The dancer would be discouraged and perhaps feel embarrassed. Now while making philosophical claims is not exactly like dancing, controversial claims might have the same or worse social effects, to put it mildly. In Descartes’ day, “Everything is material” or “Everything boils down to motion” might just have done the trick. Today, we have other issues, but the shaming of people in professional contexts is said to have become somewhat fashionable. On the whole, shaming is not very resourceful and reduces to option (1) above: If someone says something that sounds off, the common response is to say that this is false. In professional terms this quickly translates into a downgrading of status (unless the person is so established that judgement is outweighed).

At this point, a pattern emerges: Accusing one another, one group will call for safe spaces, the other will call for free speech. But what’s at stake is the embarrassment and fear of bad effects. Unless there are very vocal proponents, people in both camps will fear being put on the spot and thus try to conform to given behavioural standards. The effect is often exposed as self-censorship, but it seems to be a fairly widespread phenomenon sometimes called the Bandwagon Effect: We try to align our views and behaviour with what are the perceived standards. A particularly stunning exposure of our drive to conformity is the Asch experiment (a video is here), in which study participants will align even their own correct perceptual judgments with the obviously wrong judgment of others. However, the experiment has also shown that this effect reduces as soon as there is one ally who also utters the correct judgment. Whatever the intricacies of the social mechanisms at work, the take-home message seems to be that isolation creates embarrassment, while allies help dissolving embarrassment. If this is correct, we can use this to find resources of at least softening the impact of paralysing norms in academic exchange.

Standing by. My hunch is that, at least in the confines of seminars and other philosophical (online) discussions, we should seek to establish more roles than those of proponent and critic. The so-called bystanders are crucial when it comes to demonstrating the normative weight underlying the discussion in question. If you see that someone or some group is isolated because of a controversial position, you might at least try to support their case. Most of us are trained to play devil’s advocate, so we might as well manage helping our peers. The point is not ultimate endorsement but giving space to the idea, ideally in a playful manner such that it can come out as sounding good. This would restore some of the educational context: firstly because the proponent would hopefully feel less threatened through professional isolation; secondly, because it would ensure that we’d be discussing improved versions of ideas rather than strawmen. This would mean something like humming along with “dancing queen” or clearing the space to dance. It might of course also mean to leave. It dispels shame and hopefully even creates some much needed trust.

In my mind’s ear, I can now hear some people objecting that there are really harmful transgressions that should not be endorsed in universities, not even for the sake of argument. I agree that there are such positions. But I also think that these are exceptions. They should be treated as such, as exceptions. If people threaten others, they have left the grounds of academic exchange. For those who remain, it is vital to restore trust and argue resourcefully. This might require more than calling out falsehoods. (Online discussions are not all that different from offline discussions, except for the fact that they have massively increased means of signalling approval or disapproval of bystanders. So “like” with care and don’t pile up!) It might help more to enhance and play around with positions, and forgive each other when we fail. Something which, I am told, we do much of the time. Rather than trying to optimise our positions, it might be better to attempt exchanges by looking for cues to move or stop, try and fail. We have to improvise our way through these conversations; there is no score, and no set of rules will help us making progress.

If we want to make progress, we need transgression of norms, and this is sometimes a risky business. We might choose friendly playfulness to keep possible harms in check and prioritise educational over professional exchange.

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* Many thanks Lonneke Oostland who emphasised the importance of playfulness in philosophical exchange, and to Ilona de Jong who hinted at Asch’s experiments (referred to further down).

Ugly ducklings and progress in philosophy

Agnes Callard recently gave an entertaining interview at 3:16 AM. Besides her lovely list of views that should count as much less controversial than they do, she made an intriguing remark about her book:

“I had this talk on weakness of will that people kept refuting, and I was torn between recognizing the correctness of their counter-arguments (especially one by Kate Manne, then a grad student at MIT), and the feeling my theory was right. I realized: it was a bad theory of weakness of will, but a good theory of another thing. That other thing was aspiration. So the topic came last in the order of discovery.”

Changing the framing or framework of an idea might resolve seemingly persisting problems and make it shine in a new and favourable light. Reminded of Andersen’s fairy tale in which a duckling is considered ugly until it turns out that the poor animal is actually a swan, I’d like to call this the ugly duckling effect. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a good, if underrated, form of making progress in philosophy.

Callard’s description stirred a number of memories. You write and refine a piece, but something feels decidedly off. Then you change the title or topic or tweak the context ever so slightly and, at last, everything falls into place. It might happen in a conversation or during a run, but you’re lucky if it does happen at all. I know all too well that I abandoned many ideas, before I eventually and accidentally stumbled on a change of framework that restored (the reputation of) the idea. As I argued in my last post, all too often criticism in professional settings provides incentives to tone down or give up on the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many criticisms focus on the idea or argument itself, rather than on the framework in which the idea is to function. My hunch is that we should pay more attention to such frameworks. After all, people might stop complaining about the quality of your hammer, if you tell them that it’s actually a screwdriver.

I doubt that there is a precise recipe to do this. I guess what helps most are activities that help you tweaking the context, topic or terminology. This might be achieved by playful conversations or even by diverting your attention to something else. Perhaps a good start is to think of precedents in which this happened. So let’s just look at some ugly duckling effects in history:

  • In my last post I already pointed to Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning. Recontextualising this as a theory of representation and connecting it to a use theory or a teleosemantic account restored the picture theory as a component that makes perfect sense.
  • Another precendent might be seen in the reinterpretations of Cartesian substance dualism. If you’re unhappy with the interaction problem, you might see the light when, following Spinoza, you reinterpret the dualism as a difference of aspects or perspectives rather than of substances. All of a sudden you can move from a dualist framework to monism but retain an intuitively plausible distinction.
  • A less well known case are the reinterpretations of Ockham’s theory of mental language, which was seen as a theory of ideal language, a theory of logical deep structure, a theory of angelic speech etc.

I’m sure the list is endless and I’d be curious to hear more examples. What’s perhaps important to note is that we can also reverse this effect and turn swans into ugly ducklings. This means that we use the strategy of recontextualisation also when we want to debunk an idea or expose it as problematic:

  • An obvious example is Wilfried Sellars’ myth of the given: Arguing that reference to sense data or other supposedly immediate elements of perception cannot serve as a foundation or justification of knowledge, Sellars dismissed a whole strand of epistemology.
  • Similarly, Quine’s myth of the museum serves to dismiss theories of meaning invoking the idea that words serve as labels for (mental) objects.
  • Another interesting move can be seen in Nicholas of Cusa’s coincidentia oppositorum, restricting the principle of non-contradiction to the domain of rationality and allowing for the claim that the intellect transcends this domain.

If we want to assess such dismissals in a balanced manner, it might help to look twice at the contexts in which the dismissed accounts used to make sense. I’m not saying that the possibility of recontextualisation restores or relativises all our ideas. Rather I think of this option as a tool for thinking about theories in a playful and constructive manner.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to see that the ugly duckling effect works in both ways, to dismiss and restore ideas. In any case, we should try to consider a framework in which the ideas in question make sense. And sometimes dismissal is the way to go.

At the end of the day, it could be helpful to see that the ugly duckling effect might not be owing to the duck being actually a swan. Rather, we might be confronted with duck-swan or duck-rabbit.

Spotting mistakes and getting it right

“Know thyself” is probably a fairly well known maxim among philosophers. But the maxim we live by rather seems to be one along the lines of “know the mistakes of others”. In calling this out I am of course no better. What prompts me to write about this now is a recent observation, not new but clearly refreshed with the beginning of the academic year: it is the obvious desire of students to “get it right”, right from the start. But what could be wrong with desiring to be right?

Philosophers these days don’t love wisdom but truth. Now spotting the mistakes of others is often presented as truth-conducive. If we refute and exclude the falsehoods of others, it seems, we’re making progress on our way to finding out the truth. This seems to be the reason why most papers in philosophy build their cases on refuting opposing claims and why most talks are met with unwavering criticism of the view presented. Killing off all the wrongs must leave you with the truth, no? I think this exclusion principle has all sorts of effects, but I doubt that it helps us in making the desired progress. Here is why.

A first set of reasons relates to the pragmatic aspects of academic exchange: I believe that the binary distinction between getting it right or wrong is misleading. More often than not the views offered to us are neither right nor wrong. This is owing to the fact that we have to present views successively, by putting forward a claim and explaining and arguing for it. What such a process exposes is normally not the truth or falsity of the view, but a need for further elaboration: by unpacking concepts and consequences, ruling out undesired implications, clarifying assumptions etc.

Now you might object that calling a view false is designed to prompt exactly that: clarification and exploration. But I doubt that this is the case. After all, much of academic exchange is driven by perceived reputation: More often than not criticism makes the speaker revert to defensive moves, if it doesn’t paralyse them: Rather than exploring the criticised view, speakers will be tempted to use strategies of immunising their paper against further criticism. If speakers don’t retract, they might at least reduce the scope of their claims and align themselves with more accepted tenets. This, I believe, blocks further exploration and sets an incentive for damage control and conformism. If you doubt this, just go and tell a student (or colleague) that they got it wrong and see what happens.

Still, you might object, such initial responses can be overcome. It might take time, but eventually the criticised speaker will think again and learn to argue for their view more thoroughly. – I wish I could share this optimism. (And I sometimes do.) But I guess the reason that this won’t happen, or not very often, is simply this: What counts in scholarly exchange is the publicly observable moment. Someone criticised by an opponent will see themselves as challenged not only as a representative of a view but as a member of the academic community. Maintaining or restoring our reputation will seem thus vital in contexts in which we consider ourselves as judged and questioned: If we’re not actually graded, under review or in a job talk, we will still anticipate or compare such situations. What counts in these moments is not the truth of our accounts, but whether we convince others of the account and, in the process, of our competence. If you go home as defeated, your account will be seen as defeated too, no matter whether you just didn’t mount the courage or concentration to make a more convincing move.

A second set of reasons is owing to the conviction that spotting falsehoods is just that: spotting falsehoods. As such, it’s not truth-conducive. Refuting claims does not (or at least not necessarily) lead to any truth. Why? Spotting a falsehood or problem does not automatically make any opposing claim true. Let me give an example: It is fairly common to call the so-called picture theory of meaning, as presented in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, a failure. The perhaps intuitive plausibility that sentences function as pictures of states of affairs seems quickly refuted when asking how such pictures can be said to be true or false of a supposed chunk of reality. What do you do? Step out of the picture and compare it with the proper chunk? Haha! – Refuting the picture theory, then, seems to bring us one step closer to an appropriate theory of meaning. But such a dismissal makes us overlook that the picture theory has enormous merits. Once you see it as a theory of representation and stop demanding that it also accounts for the truth and falsity of representations, you begin to realise that it can work very well when combined with a theory of use or a teleosemantic theory. (See e.g. Ruth Millikan’s recontextualisation) The upshot is that our dismissals are often resulting from overlooking crucial further assumptions that would reinstate the dismissed account.

Now you might object that an incomplete account is still a bad account. Pointing this out is not per se wrong but will eventually prompt a recontextualisation that works. In this sense, you might say, the criticism becomes part of the recontextualised account. – To this I agree. I also think that such dialogues can prompt more satisfying results. But bearing the pragmatic aspects of academic exchange in mind, I think that such results are more likely if we present our criticism for what it is: not as barking at falsehoods but attempts to clarify, complete or complement ideas.

Now you might object that the difference between barking at falsehoods and attempts to clarify can be seen as amounting just to a matter of style. – But why would you think that this is an objection? Style matters. Much more than is commonly acknowledged.