On (dis)orientation and the epistemology of personal experience. A response to Martin Lenz

In a previous blog post, Martin wondered what we can say about the current crisis without simply repeating or questioning statistics or predictions. And he answered this question in a performative manner, as I interpreted it, namely by devoting most of his blog post to a discussion centered around the importance of personal experience in this time of crisis.

And this might be thought to be a good point of departure, too, since we are dealing with a crisis of such a massive scale that we all feel and experience it personally in any case. That is to say, irrespective of our geographical location or societal context, the crisis appears to us in the guise of something that immediately intrudes into and changes our lives. And so, the outbreak of Covid-19 affects us all, globally and indiscriminately, but at the same time also in irreducibly personal ways. And this makes is so that we are, perhaps, better served by personal experience than by imagination or theory if we want to understand our current situation, or so one might think.

However, this is a thought that needs to be heavily qualified and scrutinized, I believe, because, as it turns out, we are indeed all affected by the current crisis, but not all in the same way or in the same measure. And this renders an uncritical reference to personal experience more than a little problematic, seeing as it could all too easily lead into false generalizations and ideological deadlocks.

This is a problem that became especially pronounced, to my mind, when I considered Martin’s personal experience as he described it in his above-mentioned blog post and compared it with my own personal experience and the experiences that were reported by my friends. Because whereas Martin (and some of my friends) reported experiences of disorientation, confusion, and a loss of cognitive mapping in light of the crisis, I myself (and some of my other friends) reported experiences of validation, of a strengthening of our pre-existing beliefs, and of ideological certitude.

And so, the questions that I began asking myself, in light of these conflicting reports, were questions along the lines of ‘Who is actually on the right track here?’ and ‘Whose experiences are epistemically reliable?’. After all, if we assume that our personal experience of orientation or disorientation – i.e., our sense of our ability to ‘make sense’ of things – has an epistemic import, then it is not so outlandish to believe that an experience of disorientation might indicate a cognitive failure and that an experience of orientation might indicate a cognitive success.

But this is precisely a juncture at which I recognize a possibility for an error to creep into our thinking. Because it seems to me that an experience marked by a sense of having found one’s orientation despite the maelstrom of events is, in fact, always epistemically uninformative; whereas an experience marked by disorientation can be epistemically informative, but, even then, only in a negative way.

And so, to illustrate, let us first consider the experience of (still) being able to make sense of things. This has so far been my own experience in the face of the crisis and it is the reported experience of some of my friends, too, which means that it can be said that, for us, nothing has fundamentally changed since the beginning of the crisis. Our beliefs and expectations did not need to be altered because of the Covid-19 outbreak, and the worldwide response to it only confirmed our pre-existing beliefs and expectations.

The reasons for this are multifaceted and complex, as they are wont to be, but for the most part they boil down to us being Marxists. And so, naturally, we have no faith in the bourgeois state that can be eclipsed by its current legitimation crisis, nor any confidence in market economies that can be shaken by the onset of yet another economic recession. Moreover, as Marxists, we have of course been having a field day in theoretical and political discussions in the last weeks, because the way in which the crisis is unfolding – tragic as it may be – makes our positions easier to illustrate and more defensible than they have been in decades. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it may even seem as though the response to the current crisis, which is shaped by material pressures and practical necessities more than that it is determined by any normative ideals or moral considerations, has been specifically designed to provide new empirical grounds for historical materialists to stand on.

And so, for us, there is no disconfirmation; no disorientation. Our personal experience has a rather sanguine overall character in spite of all that has happened, and our beliefs have never seemed more true or justified than they seem now. But, even so, this momentary stability or sense of coherence does not, to my mind, bear any positive epistemic significance. After all, it could be based on quicksand.

Indeed, in this regard the standpoint that my Marxist friends and I now avail ourselves of is, structurally speaking, not so different from the standpoint that Francis Fukuyama availed himself of when he announced the end of history and the timeless marriage of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. That allowed him to make sense of many things, too, at a time when any honest Marxist would have admitted to feeling very disoriented in light of the then-recent world historical events and the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’. Yet the tables have turned on Fukuyama rather spectacularly in the meantime, and nothing about his experience of being able to make sense of things at the time could have tipped him off to that possibility, I imagine.

So, the experience of being able to make sense of things is, in itself, not epistemically useful. It makes one neither better nor worse off when it comes to finding the truth or developing appropriate ways of relating to the world. After all, an experience such as this can occur accidentally, too, due to unknown or misunderstood causes that only make it seem as though one has understood something, while one has, in fact, misapprehended or badly contextualized it. And, of course, we also have a tendency of initially repressing our awareness of any evidence that makes our heartfelt convictions and cherished frameworks unworkable, meaning that we sometimes still feel like we can make sense of things even though some pieces of the puzzle already do not quite fit.

But what about the opposite experience, then? What about an experience of disorientation, such as the one that Martin and others reportedly have (had) in light of the crisis?

Well, here I think things look differently. That is, I think that an experience of disorientation can be epistemically useful, even when it is considered by itself. And the reason for this is that an experience of disorientation occurs when one is trying to orient oneself – i.e., when one is trying to make sense of things – but is frustrated in the attempt. And it seems to me that such an experience of frustration, as a rule, needs to have some real cause.

After all, why would one have trouble making sense of things if there is not something outside of oneself that directly and manifestly renders one’s ideas unfeasible or unfitting? And so, for this reason, it can safely be said that an experience of disorientation almost certainly reflects an actual incongruity between the reality one tries to subsume under one’s Notion, on the one hand, and one’s Notion itself, on the other hand. Moreover, this will be an incongruity that one, in some sense, cannot get around when one has such an experience. The contradiction is too obvious or too glaring here; it distorts one’s whole experiential field, that is why one feels disoriented.

And, what is more, it seems likely that, if one attends to one’s experience of disorientation closely enough, one can glimpse the real cause of the disorientation, too, precisely because the experience of disorientation is so intimately tied to some directly experienced incongruity. And this then also means that the experience of disorientation provides a key, not so much to positive knowledge, but certainly to a specific diagnosis of what went wrong. In other words, an experience of disorientation immanently provides the dialectical means to its own solution; at least when one attends to it closely enough. Or that is the hope anyway.

However, beyond this, I doubt that personal experience – even when it is theoretically developed and considered as a totality – should be considered a reliable guide to positive knowledge. It is simply too partial and conditioned, and not to mention too determined by self-serving interests, for us to put stock in it.

Nothing to lose? Other voices in the corona crisis

Many people, part of myself included, seem to see the current crisis as a loss of normality. That makes sense, because a lot of processes just came to a halt. But what if you didn’t feel at home in the world as it used to be some months ago? What if you felt like you didn’t belong or wouldn’t get anywhere in that world? If you felt guilty, day in day out, for not getting done what you ought to get done, you now wake up in a world in which hardly anyone gets anything done. The “new normal” that lockdowns create, then, might be a rather comforting kind of normal, at least more comforting than the old competitive world that we had to leave behind for the time being. – Writing my “search for a conversation”, I focused on the current situation as a disconnection from the recent past. Since then, I had a number of conversations that made me see quite a different perspective: The uncertainties and losses we partly experience might actually make us more equal, such that at least some aspects of the current situation might create more familiarity with one another than the former status quo. In what follows, I still don’t have much to say myself, rather I’d just like to give voice to this idea – an idea that I began to see thanks to the conversations I had so far.

Before I get into details, let me be clear about one thing: There is no cynicism or disregard for the current suffering. Quite the contrary. We need to distinguish between two facts: On the one hand, there is the spread of the virus and the disease it causes. On the other hand, there are our social responses and their impact on our lives. By “social responses” I mean measures such as the stay-at-home policy, the prohibition of public gatherings and events etc. In order to appreciate the perspective I’m trying to describe, it might help to imagine that the social responses were put in place independently of any threats to our health. So when I say that the crisis might be comforting for people, I mean that the social measures themselves (and not the disease) can afford comfort.

But how, you might ask, how does being locked up (more or less) afford comfort? The social measures have a number of effects. In my last post, I suggested they disconnect me from my recent past and all the norms that guided me. Of course, this might be disorienting. But think again! What if many of these norms are not helpful or even harmful? Take the general competition within various job markets. Now we’re asked to support each other rather than compete. Is that a bad thing? Take the priorities of academia. Is it so bad that we cannot churn out paper after paper, host workshop after workshop right now? Take the effects on the environment. Isn’t it a good thing that we can swiftly adapt to acting in accordance with measures that will play into ameliorating climate change?

If we focus on certain social, psychological and environmental effects, we can quickly see that there is a lot to be said in favour of our response to the crisis. But still, you might say, it is hard to let go of cherished conventions that guided our interactions. Isn’t it worth keeping them? The disconnection from our recent past might feel like a loss. But again, what if you didn’t feel at home in these conventions? What if you think that much of your life looks like a failure or non-normal in the light of the status quo we had to abandon? There will be way more interesting examples, but I guess that my own experience helps me in taking this perspective. Before I got a permanent job at Groningen in 2012, it became increasingly likely that I would end up with, well, not much. Remembering how it felt to live through various existential worries allows me to imagine myself in quite a different state. Unemployed, ignored, full of on-going self-doubts, would I have thought that I am losing much by the social distancing measures? Or would I perhaps have thought that everyone is now a bit more on the same page as I am?

I don’t know. But Jon, a reader of my last blog post, fleshed out pertinent thoughts about our response to the crisis in some detail. He kindly gave permission to quote his message to me:

After a short burst of anxiety I realised that for me life continues much the same. I’ve been probably unhappy and somewhat anxious for the last year and a half. Why? There was no obvious reason, but a sense of foreboding, that one was not prepared for some thing, that a house could likely never be owned, that I was too ordinary for my growing children to want to spend time with me as they got older, and that I was shaping up to be a net taker, rather than a giver. Confronted with a global event like this is in many ways is a relief, I think once a cancer patient knows what they have is terminal, what really is there to fear outside of the illness.? So, this has happened and it is what I’ve always feared, yet it is hardly that unpleasant. If one can keep ones home and have enough food, it is potentially entirely satisfying. Better still, to be free of the conflict a person can have when immersed in the guilt, the kind of guilt that tells us we should be working when we are not, we should be outside when we are in, we should be engaged in some activity that is full filling when really we can’t be bothered. I find this pandemic peaceful and an opportunity to gaze into the hearth of life, free of self criticism. I enjoy the small things I’ve not seen in people before, both good and bad, and shopping is a surprisingly pleasant experience where people are cordial and aware of you, in the supermarket itself there is space to move and a quiet, calm. On the farm where I live, the M25 that drones as if an ocean is just past the tree line, is quiet now. The ancient farmland seems to be remembering itself, walking around it in the evening it is once more in the depth of the countryside and not a faux village as it is in the modern era. I will miss this when it is over. While the pandemic itself is ruinous to a small number of people for the vast numbers of younger, healthier population, this is far safer an environment that the risks taken driving to work. It is astonishing to me the level of reaction, it is one we can not repeat, there will not be another time in which any sane government will consider suspending all economic activity for everyone on full pay – and on a global scale too! It is an extraordinary experience. I’ve been thinking the virus could be the narrative vehicle in a Pinter drama, the virus itself is relatively harmless, but the story is far more about a collection of disparate personalities confined in a small space. I tell people to savour these times, because scary or not it will be an unforgettable chapter in our lives and we will mourn it when it is over.

Jon’s account brings out aspects and possibilities that I wasn’t aware of when beginning to think about this situation. Taking them into account, I realise what an enormous privilege it is to think of the time before as something lost. Yes, I lived to some degree in accordance with the status quo, I was and still am a beneficiary of the system that is now under threat. But as I noted earlier, I see my alignment with this status quo as a then lucky accident. Things could have gone differently, quite differently. And then it would have been likely that I would have felt largely out of touch with what happened to become, to some degree, a sort of normality for me.

But whichever perspective is more in line with your biography, no matter whether you feel more at home in the abandoned status quo or the interim that we’re living in now, all of us have to face the time after, the time after “suspending all economic activity”. As Eric Schliesser points out today in a rather dark piece, we’ll likely find ourselves in “political turmoil”. As I see it, we might be facing a kind of post-war situation without having had a war. Economically speaking, things look pretty worrisome already. Socially and politically speaking, I fear we’ll be confronted with various myths that are already in the making. It remains to be seen which of these two perspectives will be a better preparation for the time to come. In any case, I find it vital to learn as much as possible about our various takes and hopes generated by the crisis, and look forward to many more exchanges.

Where are we now? In search of a conversation, beyond graphs and statistics

 “That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.” Hume

I’ve been trying to begin this post for a number of days now. Everything I write feels like a failure. Why is that? Everything seems out of place. I don’t have any interesting opinions to share and I’ve even lost my own conventions for writing. Before March 2020, when I began to write something, I often felt a background against which I was thinking: What I wanted to say felt “worth noting”, “exaggerated”, “inappropriate”, “dull” or whatever, because there was a normality that afforded orientation, a canvas to which I could add my scribbles. Now it feels as if the canvas were gone. With everything in motion, all eyes fixed on the graphs showing the spread of the coronavirus, there is no normality. Of course, there are people trying to maintain business as usual, but funnily enough it is them who stand out a bit awkwardly now, because most of us live in uncertainty. (Here, I’m not talking about all the admirable professionals who work ceaselessly to limit the damage, but ordinary people tucked away in their homes.) We don’t know what’s coming next, whether curves go up or down, whether our neighbours or loved ones or we will be affected more drastically, whether we can return to the normal lives that we had to put on hold. What can we say, if we want to talk and say something beyond repeating or questioning statistics or predictions? It seems as if there were currently no proper place for a conversation between ordinary people. But we need to talk. At least I do.

It feels important to speak, not because I have anything to say, but simply because I think I need a continued conversation, I need to connect. I’m writing in the first person deliberately now. Firstly, because I’m not sure I can speak for anyone else. Secondly, because I begin to feel sick of the third-person perspective. The talk about our lives seems largely determined by graphs and pandemic plans, by talk about symptoms, spreaders, medical, social and economic challenges. Don’t get me wrong: I think this is vitally important. But beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of ordinary exchange that acknowledges the current situation. The lack of normality makes most of what drove our interactions before March 2020 seem rather pointless. In a manner of speaking, I’m inclined to say that I no longer take it for granted that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s custom and convention that made me expect so, but much of that custom and convention is shattered for the time being. Currently, my friends and colleagues are not friends and colleagues but potential spreaders. So am I. Thank God, then, we have these virtual tools now, but they do have limits that I need to get used to. What’s perhaps more, we neeed a mode of speaking that neither relies on the past status quo nor merely echoes the current medicalisation of our lives.

So how can we connect? How can we have such a conversation? I’m asking because there is so much exchange and advice on how to get through. This is good. But it concerns an uncertain future. I want to talk about the present. I want to understand, not just cope with, what is happening now. No, not in numbers. I want to understand the kind of life we’re living now. We keep acknowledging that these are “strange times”. But they are our times now. We are disconnected from our recent past and from the predictions that guided us then, up till February or March 2020. The catch is: I cannot understand anything on my own. Understanding is a joint project. It works through mutual acknowledgement, occasional disagreement, and refinement, creating a shared familiarity, fostering hopes and hangovers. – But while I have not much to say myself, I have found some really good pieces that helped me shaping my thoughts. (While there are many other good pieces, I’d like to focus on those acknowledging the situation and addressing to some degree concerns of our ordinary lives.) So why not simply list them (in order of appearance):

  • The first is “Academics, lead by example” by Boudewijn de Bruin. Amidst numerous (laudable) attempts to maintain business as usual, this piece felt as if someone had opened a window and let in some fresh air. A crucial idea is the acknowledgement that this is not a normal situation and that we need different resources to respond to challenges: “This is not the time to be competitive. This is not the time to tell everyone how productive you are, working 24/7. … So should we give up? Not at all. But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s just business as usual, only online. Seize the opportunity and lead by example and share your wisdom and humanity with your students and colleagues.”
    What I particularly liked about Boudewijn’s account is that he has a clear sense of how he arrived at this acknowledgement. It came through listening to others. Accordingly, he writes: “Listening to people with different views is more important now than ever. Think about all your students and colleagues of different nationalities, from different cultures, different religions. They will bring their own ways of dealing with uncertainty. They have their own views about life and death. They may have widely different expectations about the responsibilities of the state – or they may trust the state much less than you do, or more. Imagine what you would want to do if you were in Italy or Iran right now. You would want to go home. Many of our non-Dutch students and colleagues are in that situation. But many borders are closed. They need our care more than ever.”
  • The second is “Covid-19 and online teaching: mind the slope” by Andrea Sangiacomo. He stresses that, while it’s fine to try and remain functional, we must do so by respecting the context in which we function: “If the whole university system happens to run quite smoothly online, if in the end we end up enjoying this (and this might even happen, who knows?), another risk is forgetting why everything is moving online. Reminder: we’re amidst a world pandemic that so far killed almost 15.000 people worldwide (as for today, Monday 23rd March 2020). This is the context within which our online teaching is happening. Remembering this context is important in order not to loose perspective on the meaning of the events, including online teaching. Yes, education needs to keep going, not everything can now become explicitly about the pandemic. And yet, this pandemic is now the broader context within which people are teaching and learning about any subject. We’re teaching online because students (and everybody else) must remain home, trying to limit as much as possible social contacts, practicing social distancing and trying to slow down the spreading of the virus.
    There are pragmatic and existential downsides in forgetting about this context. From a pragmatic point of view, if one looses this context one might forget why staying home and avoid socializing is so vital for everybody at this time. Online teaching becomes just another way of getting distracted, trying to find something in which one can become absorbed, in order not to think to what is happening (about the absorption syndrome see here). But in situations of emergency like this (which will likely endure for some time), trying not to think is precisely the worse one could do. We need all our thinking capacity at this point in order to face whatever will happen.”
  • The last one I want to list for now is “It’s all just beginning” by Justin E.H. Smith. It’s a very rich and multifaceted piece. What struck me most is that it gave voice to a feeling that I struggled to express myself earlier to no avail: the strange disconnection to our own and shared pasts: “In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways. …
    We created a small phenomenal world for ourselves, with our memes and streams and conference calls. And now—the unfathomable irony—that phenomenal world is turning out to be the last desperate repair of the human, within a vastly greater and truer natural world that the human had nearly, but not quite, succeeded in screening out.”

In sum, it’s the call to listen to others, to respect our context of emergency, and the insight into the disconnection to many habits and values that began to help me localising my own thoughts. What I begin to see is that my habits and my past don’t provide orientation in the current context. But it’s the current context I live in and need to understand. In order to live, we need customs and habits. If past habits don’t help us, we need to stabilise habits by building and sharing them with one another. Medical and other expert advice is crucial, but only goes so far. That’s why I want to search for voices speaking to the ordinary experience we likely share. For now, we need to establish something from scratch. – So I’d be grateful for any hints at attempts to make sense of the present situation.

Governmental gaslighting? Communication in the corona crisis

On 7 March 2020, a group of 900 students returned to Groningen from a mass skiing vacation in Piedmont, a place declared as a high-risk area for the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, citizens were concerned, only to be met with reassuring phrases. Although China had documented cases of the coronavirus spread by asymptomatic patients some weeks earlier, a missive by the Groningen branch of the Dutch health authorities (GGD) still explicitly declared that people without symptoms cannot spread the virus. The document is unchanged to this day. Moreover, it seems to be part of a larger pattern. This kind of conduct strikes me as disturbing in two respects: On the one hand, it downplays potential threats and creates a false sense of safety. On the other hand, coming from a health authority such (false) statements help framing concerns and critical questions as overreactions. Questioning institutions and individuals who align their conduct with official guidance will make you stand out as “unduly critical” and “panicky”. No matter how many papers and news articles you’ve critically engaged with, frowned upon by adherents of what governmental institutions declare to be the status quo and quaestionis you might soon wonder whether you should question your own sanity. Beginning to wonder exactly that, I was reminded of the phenomenon called gaslighting, which is defined as psychological manipulation to the effect that people begin to question their sanity, memory, judgment etc. While this phenomenon is often recognised in abusive relationships, there are obviously variants of political gaslighting. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that gaslighting might be an important feature of crisis communication. This is not only important to recognise for restoring one’s sanity, but also in order to prepare for coping in the aftermath of the crisis.

The claim that there is no or little reason to be concerned is of course a trope in crisis communication, especially in the beginning. I vividly remember such claims around the time of Chernobyl. We are used to such claims, and perhaps most of us see them for what they are. There are good reasons to avoid overreactions or panic. However, things are different when more information becomes available. A claim, made unwaveringly against a background of contrary information, does not calm me down; rather it provides additional reasons for worrying. Why would authorities try to reassure me in the light of credible sources raising doubts? At this point, I normally begin to wonder whether the sources I consult might be limited in problematic ways. Am I overlooking something? Is there a serious debate? Of course, newly established facts will be questioned. What gave me pause in this incident was not the claim as such, but the fact that it was declared with such certainty, permitting no room for doubt. Given the large amount of uncertainties, it was the confidence itself that made the claim seem questionable and indeed as politically motivated, in the sense that the intention came across not as informing but downplaying. This assumption was confirmed by observations Naomi O’Leary and others shared on twitter, suggesting that there might have been a series of attempts to downplay the whole issue by health authorities and news outlets.

Finding confirmation (or contrary information) is an important part of assessing your own position. So finding papers and news articles that confirmed my perspective was important in many ways, especially as this crisis is still emerging. (As a side note: I’m immensely grateful for the fact that we have social media such as facebook and twitter. For all the wrongs they are known for, social media seem crucial now for sharing information, raising doubts, and not least for social bonding in times of physical distancing.) But however reassuring it was, it didn’t explain why the health authorities issued false claims. Surely, they must have known that the public wouldn’t be (completely) reassured by false claims whose refutation might just be a click away. Since I can’t read the minds of those issuing false claims, it might be better to focus on the effects of such gaslighting. Two effects strike me as particularly relevant. First, as we know from Trump’s and other famous cases, gaslighters might wish to divert attention from other facts. In the Dutch context, it might be construed as a means to divert attention from the idea of creating “herd immunity”, although, lo and behold, this is now explicitly denied. However, I’m not sure that this diversion was the underlying reason in the present case. So at this stage it might be more useful to focus on a second aspect: Arguably, a general effect of political gaslighting is to nudge people into adherence to a status quo. Panic is certainly recognised as a social problem. To cut a long story short, it will generally be seen as socially desirable to maintain calm (rather than panic). If you manage to portray critics as creating panic, you effectively depict them as having undesirable traits. If this is correct, people might be expected to silence their critical tendencies in order to appear socially desirable. That’s (political) coolness, in a nutshell.

Apart from the fact that making false claims is morally dubious and might incentivise counterproductive forms of conduct, the effects of such governmental gaslighting strike me immensely problematic for two further reasons. First, they generally polarise and thus might even reinforce nationalist tendencies, at least when the supposed status quo is construed as the achievement of a particular country. In the Netherlands, some crisis experts even went as far as claiming that Italy’s strategy of a lockdown was “incredibly stupid”, since it would damage the econony, while the Dutch way was the “only right one”. While I hope that this assessment remains an outlier, there is a second reason that, in my view, renders such gaslighting particularly pernicious: the creation of political myths that serve to polarise after the crisis. Let me explain.

In the last few days, I was often reminded of stories about the time after WW II, after the revolutions of 1989 and after the financial crisis of 2008. Of course, the corona crisis is vastly different in many respects. But what crises of such scale have in common is that they allow for fundamentally different ideas about how to go on afterwards. The fact that large parts of our social and economical customs break down is both devastating and ground for reconsiderations. Do you remember Occupy Wall Street, to pick just one example? It’s no exaggeration to say that this movement has been portrayed by and large as a failure. Whatever the merits or downsides of the movement, such portrayal has been prepared long before. Not intentionally, of course. But by depicting criticism of neoliberalism as a failure, a meme that is still with us, the grounds were prepared to portray countermovents as countering a supposedly desirable status quo.  – I am reminded of this and other stories whenever I listen to all these wonderful ideas about how the corona crisis might also inspire new forms of interaction, forms that are more in line with general political goals such as reacting to the climate crisis. Be they about new forms of online teaching, or larger ideas about environmental or economical questions. My worry is that downplaying the impact of the corona crisis today will serve as a force to retain a status quo from which to counter and suppress important movements after the crisis.

What does this mean for crisis communication? Of course, not every attempt to avoid panic is a form of gaslighting. But I generally think that governmental institutions might underestimate their audience. Here is a positive counter-example: The virologist Christian Drosten currently runs a regular podcast for the public (in German). In one episode, he openly explained how reading one single paper (by a historian on the Spanish Flu) made him change his mind about recommending the closure of schools. What impressed me was the general public response. In a moment of crisis, an expert calmly communicates the fragility and uncertainty in establishing scientific facts and policies. Of course, I’m relying largely on anecdata, but my impression was that this attitude was received as rather reassuring. This in stark contrast to the archetypical assertion that everything is under control, which often prompts worry or cynicism.

I stop here. These are just a few confused thoughts and associations that struck me while trying to come to terms with the new situation that is now affecting us in a number of very different ways. Let me end by saying that I wish you all the best.

Saying what is unsayable. Or in what sense there is a private language

If I try to tell you what’s on my mind, I’ll fail. This is partly because not everything can be said. When I tell you how I feel, you won’t feel how I feel. When I tell you what I see, you won’t see what I see. You’ll see the sun, too, but it doesn’t have the same colours and it doesn’t mean to you what it means to me. At the same time, I know that you know this, too. You know that you would fail much in the same way that I would. Although our experiences might be worlds apart, I know exactly that you will understand me when I say what I just said. Although I probably know hardly anything about you, I know that we are very much alike. At least in this, and probably in quite some more respects, too. In my last post, I tried to say why our thinking in language and images might not be suited to think about ourselves. However, I think that this attempt remains incomplete without pondering on the opposite, that is, on the attempt to express ourselves as best we can.

What shall we do with this insight? The insight that there are things we might wish to express but cannot say? The attempt to tackle this has been with me for a long time. It drove a desire to say what was unsayable, and it drove a desire to see whether it really is unsayable, and it drove a desire to understand why it might be unsayable. This desire seems to be everywhere. You, ordinary people, philosophers, poets, musicians, all kinds of artists and scientists have looked into this at some point. “You don’t understand me.” This simple sentence testifies the paradox. Yes, it is true, there is always something lacking. And yet, we all know that we don’t understand. The phenomenon has a long history, ranging at least from the ancient saying that “the individual is ineffable” to Wittgenstein’s famous argument against the possibility of a private language. The individual cannot be captured, at least not by concepts. – However, the idea that we should resign to this insight sparks fury. It strikes me as unacceptable.

Why unacceptable? At least among philosophers I sense that we have indeed resigned to this insight. After telling first-year students that language cannot be private or providing some other version of this insight, most of us move on and expect people to come to terms with it. Subjectivity is a loser! (Liam Bright has a nice post showing that the arguments we standardly advance against it are not even very good. And I agree.) – But this, I submit, is a mistake. While it is true that there are a number of good ideas and arguments in favour of this insight, it strikes me as a mistake to stop trying to push against it. Why? Even if you believe that the unsayable really is unsayable, there remain at least two unsettled issues: first, there remains the mystery why exactly it should be so; second, there is the desire to express the unsayable anyway. Let’s briefly look at these two issues:

  • Looking at the history of ideas, there are a number of very different reasons for the claim that there is something unsayable. Some believe it has to do with the contingent nature of the individual; others think that nothing is conceptually accessible as a simple given; others think it is the nature of language defying such access; others still think the individual is a fictitious construct or reification anyway. At the same time, there always have been ways of retaining something of what counts as inexpressible, for instance by referring to God, the individual par excellence, or by introducing non-conceptual content, or by advocating varieties of relativism. Simply resigning to the insight, taking it as a fact, strikes me as accepting that this is a matter of yes or no. But I don’t see a principled reason for seeing this as a categorical matter. Neither do I think it can be reduced to one single insight. If this is correct, there is no reason to give up on it, whatever ‘it’ may be.
  • Even if you believe that it might be illusory to believe that saying the unsayable is possible, it would be a mistake to deny the presence of this illusion. As already noted the problem does not only inspire philosophers to write refutations; it also gives rise to artistic and other attempts to express the inexpressible. Compare freedom: Many philosophers believe that libertarian freedom, alternative possibilities, is an illusory idea. But that doesn’t disqualify the topic. In the same way, the resignation to the insight strikes me as a mistake. Yes, Wittgenstein wrote that we should remain silent whereof we cannot speak. But there are good reasons to disagree.

Ok, you might say, fine! But how do we move on? What can be gained, and how? And what are you talking about anyway? – Right then, I can only try, and this is a first attempt. So here goes: As I said in my previous post, I think that thinking about ourselves works according to the money model. This means that the crucial point in thinking (and speaking) lies in interacting with others. (So, like Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, I assume that language is a social institution from the getgo.) Again, the point of crying, for instance, is normally not to express a very particular kind of pain, but to interact with others. Crying is a communicative act; and it receives an apt response if the person in question is consoled or something like that. In the same vein, language works as a form of interaction, not as a form of decoding of what has been encoded. Now, I think the same is true when we want to express something that we deem inexpressible. When I attempt to express my innermost experience or something I deem totally private or personal what changes is not the kind of content (from something public to something private). What changes is the (imagined) interlocutor. So what makes the difference between a private and a public speech act is the relation I have to my interlocutor. Thus, communicating something supposedly unsayable works by speaking to an interlocutor whom you trust very much or know very well. Ranging from a conversation, say, with your employer to one with your lover, your closest friend, your parents or even yourself – the levels of privacy can differ accordingly.

So, yes, I think there is a private language, not in that you can encode your private experiences but in that you can speak to someone in a very personal mode. It is the kind of interaction that creates the degree of privacy. To illustrate this, let me suggest a small experiment: Take the sentence “I love you.” We all know it’s a very common kind of sentence. Now imagine that sentence spoken to you by different people. My guess is that your experience and understanding of that sentence will be quite varied in accordance with the imagined interlocutor. So what makes the difference is the person talking to you; not the content of what is said as such.

To return to the more general point, then, I think that when we think about private language we often might be looking in the wrong place. Privacy is not constituted by a kind of content only knowable by you. That would indeed be something self-defeating. Privacy is constituted by the intimacy of the interlocutor. Of course, you can only use a public language even when speaking to yourself. But the conversation can become more intimate, richer and more private in associations and in its relation to concrete experience when we are sufficiently close to our interlocutor.

So if we look for modes of privacy, it might be good to look at different relations between interlocutors or people more generally. These don’t always have to be people close to us in an emphatic sense. If we look at ritualised forms of interaction, we might find other pertinent forms of privacy. So in adition to thinking about personal interlocutors, we might want to think about the relation between language and music, linguistic-musical rituals (such as prayer, meditation and interaction between musicians or other artists), the development of language use in children etc. – As I said, this is just a beginning. But it strikes me as important not to give up on the quest for modes of expressing what we deem unsayable.

What do I really want? Why it is so hard to think about yourself

If you enter a restaurant, you might find yourself with recurrently revised decisions. Let’s take the table in the corner. Oh, no, actually I’d prefer the one by the window! The same difficulty might go for choosing career options or partners. Should I really study philosophy? And what will I miss out on if I start going out with this guy? ­– Now, I won’t tell you what the answers to these questions are. But I can tell you why it is so difficult to think about such issues. Perhaps this might help in finding ways of dealing with thoughts about decisions.

I guess what we want to figure out in asking (ourselves) such questions is what is part of our real selves or what will make us happy or prevent us from running into the next failure. When we think about such questions, we usually fall back on two kinds of related tools: we have language and images. When thinking about a job, for instance, you have a set of words that describe what you would do. When thinking about a partner, you will have a stock of images that you can place your (future) self in. So you might hear the word “freelance” ringing in your head. Or you might have a wintery image of a family scene by a fireplace. You might like or dislike the sound of this word or the stereotypes that these images carry along. But whatever you feel, you can always ask yourself whether that’s really what you want. This means that this kind of questioning doesn’t lead to a satisfactory answer. My hunch is, rather, that such words or images are never going to determine an answer to the question of what you want.

What’s going wrong here? My point is not that it’s wrong to think about your life and to do that in words or images. Rather, my point is that we often misunderstand what these words or images do for us. That means, we misunderstand how they work. Let’s begin by looking at how we commonly think such items work: When we think about something (be it in words or images), we tend to assume that we’re interested in the content of our thoughts. So we wonder something like this: What does “freelance work” mean? Then we might think of a number of criteria and wonder whether we will like having to fit into those. Likewise, we might think about the family scene and wonder whether we like being in that scene. So we might ask: Am I the kind of person who likes this sort of thing? – Now, what’s wrong here? Well, it’s that these words and images don’t have the function we assume they do. They don’t work (primarily) by depicting some content, e.g. some (future) states of affairs. Rather, they work by being items in the interaction with other people. The crucial aspect about the word “freelance” is not what content it makes you think of, but how it allows you to interact with others. That means, the word (or the scene by the fireplace) allows you to interact with others in a certain way: Being a freelancer means something in relation to other people, your friends, the tax office and your customers. Being surrounded by family at a fireplace depicts you as a certain type of character, and it makes demands on the people who surround you, for the kind of context in which you move around etc. Thinking about yourself in certain ways allows you to enter into certain transactions with people (while denying other kinds of transactions). To coin a term, then, words and images don’t work on the content model but on the money model. The point of money is not to inform you about numbers (or some kind of content); it’s about entering transactions with others. (So you might say that wanting to find out about yourself by thinking in language and images is like wanting to find out about things by finding out how much these things cost.)

So when you think about yourself, what you actually think of is not so much what you are or want to be. Rather you think about what kinds of transactions or dealings you want to have with other people. The reason for this is that language and images don’t work (primarily) by being related to some content, but by being embedded in interactions with others. To return to an example of my last post: When you cry, the question that arises is not “what kind of pain do you really feel” but “will someone console me”. When we use words or images in thinking about ourselves, then, they don’t have meaning in virtue of relating to some content; they have meaning by making (imaginary) others respond to them. So when we think about the question of what we really want, we don’t want to uncover an unknown self; we want to figure out what kinds of relations or transactions we want to enter.

Whether you’re a freelance person is not about who you are, deep down, but about the transactions you want to enter with the tax office and your customers. Whether you like that fireplace image about yourself is not about whether you, deep down, like fireplaces or to sit by them, but what kind of interactions you want to enter into with your family and whether you like others to see you as belonging to the bourgeoisie. According to the money model of thinking, it’s not about whether you like the content of your thoughts; it’s rather whether you like the kinds of transactions that they allow you to enter.

Now how does all this affect the question of what you really want? First of all, you don’t have to hope for uncovering a buried self. Rather, it’s what you like about interacting with others. But now you might wonder whether you can really know what kinds of interactions you prefer. Well, no. You can’t figure that out by yourself, precisely because it involves not just yourself but others. (With some people it’s nice by the fireplace, with some it isn’t.) Moreover, it means that you can’t really figure out things by trying to focus on the things as such. Rather, you have to see them embedded in interactions. That’s why we can’t know beforehand whether we actually like the table we chose. We have to choose it and actually sit down to figure out whether we like it or not. In other words, most choices don’t work by thinking about whether we like them. We have to act them out in order to see whether we like them. Thinking (whether it’s about ourselves or about other stuff) is less about the things or content than about the interactions that this thought can make us enter into. This is because the language we use to think about ourselves is not made to think about ourselves. It’s made to interact with other speakers, even when we use it to think about ourselves.

Is ignorance an integral part of communication? On the difficulty of taking someone on their own terms

“What we do is never understood, but always merely praised or blamed.” Nietzsche

Do you know this? You have said something or written a text, and most of your interlocutors seem to misunderstand what you say? It happens all the time. If you ask me, it is so widespread that I sometimes wonder whether misunderstanding is a mode of communication rather than its failure. Now you might think that I am just being cynical, but no: I am sincere. I think it’s worth considering that understanding someone else is not the crucial part of what counts as successful communication. Let me walk you through a few examples.

If you’ve witnessed academic talks, you will be familiar with the following phenomenon. Some established academic sleeps through the talk of a colleague and then raises their hand first for asking a question. This kind of academic ‘exchange’ is often reported with a mixture of amusement and awe. How does it work? Well, I guess there are two standard ways: If the sleeper is sufficiently established, whatever they ask will carry enough weight to count as pertinent. Even if it is just remotely related to the talk. The other strategy is to pick on one item, an example or phrase, and pull it into a different context. If you’re a lucky sleeper, yours will be taken as a refreshingly original perspective. ­

­­­Now compare those strategies to more genuine questions. Typically, these will be way more cumbersome. Even if people are quick on the uptake, following an argument for the first time is really hard. Already trying to rephrase it in your own terms might bring out differences that need further discussion. The upshot is that questioners remaining on their own territory come across as clear or original, while those honestly struggling to take the talk on its own terms often lack time to even establish a mutual understanding. At least my anecdotal evidence tells me that sleepers are seen as more clear and original than the genuine listeners. I guess it’s not really surprising that this strategy works. Ignoring a speaker is not read as a display of ignorance but as a “power move”. (Can you have philosophical exchanges on Twitter? With such a small amount of signs? Of course you can! Mostly because what it takes is not understanding but making a clever move.)

Although the rules of the game might differ in different settings, similar patterns can be witnessed in other public exchanges, especially on politics. Again, I don’t have anything beyond anecdotes right now, but I would bet that the most common kind of frustration is that the interlocutor “fails to genuinely engage with the actual arguments”. Now what is behind this phenomenon? Going by my own experience, I think that the lack of actual engagement is often real. The reason is that we often rely on fairly general categories when trying to categorise our interlocutors. Before we engage with any argument, we will ‘know’ that our interlocutor is a “Leftie”, a “Kantian”, “a first-year student”, “a stranger (to the familiar customs)” or what have you. Once these evaluations and categories have kicked in, it’s not impossible but very hard to do what is called “engage with the argument” in the mode of genuine listening. However, since lack of engagement is read as a power move, perhaps even as a stable position, ignorance can be a winning strategy in all kinds of exchanges. Trump’s handling of his ignorance bears witness to this.

But what about personal conversations? My guess is that these strategies don’t really work in private settings. Try sleeping through a rant by your partner and then impress them with a pertinent question! Although some people might try to get away with it every now and then, it doesn’t really work in the long run. But why doesn’t ignorance work in private settings? A great number of reasons comes to mind. A crucial factor might be that understanding can’t be replaced by approval of the onlookers. In a public conversation the approving nods of others might be sufficient; in a private setting each interlocutor sets the standards. I’m not saying that private conversations are thriving on understanding; I’m saying that they are much harder. Of course, we might try the same clever moves that we get away with in public, but they don’t count for anything unless our interlocutor approves of them as sincere attempts at taking them on their own terms.

That said, the difference between public and private exchanges is not that the latter have to rest on genuine understanding. It’s that in private settings the interlocutor has to accept our moves. Convincing or understanding one individual is just harder if you cannot rely on the applause of a larger group. But the crucial point is not that we understand the other; it’s that the other accepts our move. Imagine that you are trying to console someone who is crying: What will make the situation work? That you really understand what moves your interlocutor to tears? Or isn’t it rather that the other accepts your engagement as a sincere attempt to console them?

The upshot for both cases, public and personal communication, is that our exchanges largely rely on accepted moves rather than genuine understanding. Genuine attempts at understanding, by contrast, will often feel cumbersome and take time. Paradoxically, then, attempts at understanding each other will feel like unsuccessful communication. The reason is not that we are stupid; the reason is that genuine understanding doesn’t (for the most part) rely on accepted moves or general evaluations. It simply takes time to follow an unfamiliar line of reasoning or to really put yourself into someone else’s shoes.

What does this tell us about communication? I talked about “genuine understanding” as if it were a great achievement. But I doubt that it is crucial for what counts as successful communication. What makes communication successful is some sort of acceptance by the audience or interlocutor. That something is understood might be a by-product. Or to put it in Wittgensteinian terms, the content of what is actually said might drop out of consideration as irrelevant.

On expressing dislike and becoming yourself

I don’t like Bach. – Uttered in a conversation amongst academics, this sentence will make you stand out. I remember some occasions when that remark was met with a blank stare. When the conversation was sincere, however, people would go on and ask for reasons. Now you might think this is just highbrow party talk, and I won’t blame you. But it does have a crucial side-effect: it shapes my identity. The idea behind this assumption is that personal identity is crucially shaped by what psychologists call distinctiveness. Put crudely, distinctiveness is what distinguishes you from other individuals. So in a group of people who are likely to like Bach, expressing my dislike will probably set me apart. If you still think this is a concept of snobbery rather than identity, just think about your youth or even childhood, when expressing dislike was vital for building some first if perhaps shaky foundations of an identity. How and why did you choose your football team? Were you a Beatles or Stones person? Star Wars or Star Trek? Closer to home: continental or analytic? Of course not all identity markers are attained by expressing dislike. After all, expressing dislike is an expression of a preference. But in a highly homogenous environment, expressions of dislike clearly help carving out your niche, for better or worse. In what follows, I want to do two things: firstly, I’d like to explore this feature of identity formation a bit more; secondly, I would like to suggest that this feature might be relevant for explaining why many of us, not least philosophers, are attracted by disagreements so much.

Discovering and inventing yourself. – Admittedly, it took me quite a while to get from my Bach statement to identity formation. It was triggered by a chat about a boy who had recurrently expressed dislike of a certain kind of music, knowing very well that doing so would leave him hugely unpopular. Why does he do this, I wondered. I tried to imagine myself doing that and hit upon the Bach statement. But obviously, my Bach statement involved no social risks (at least none that are known to me). So I had to go back in time, to my adolescence: What makes you stand out, for better or worse, amongst a bunch of rock or classical guitarists? Right, jazz! What makes a fourteen-year-old stand out among their friends? Right, reading some philosophy. What makes your three-year old daughter stand out at an harmonious dinner table? Right, throwing a tantrum and knocking a glass off the table. The degrees of dislike and authenticity may vary. Some acts might not be continued; some might be mere experiments, but my hunch is that they figure in building distinctiveness and thus in determining personal identity.

Social functions of expressing preferences. – That said, I doubt that determining personal identity is an end in itself. Distinctiveness is embedded in social relations. Speaking from the now somewhat remote inside of my teenage head, a preference or dislike could be determined in several ways. Role models’ statements would often inspire me to try whether I liked something, too. In this case, I would hope for similarity with the role model. My parents, at least back in the day, often inspired the opposite. I guess one reason for that is that my parents wanted me to be “normal”, but building distinctiveness is all about being unusual. Or to quote from a pertinent psychology paper: “You are what makes you unusual”. While people’s expressions of preferences could inspire or help me in discovering my own preferences, such expressions also helped in building friendships. If you find yourself at a party disliking the music, you might be happy to find a companion sharing your dislike. Now you can mutually acknowledge how special you are. – But while expressions of preferences or dislike help building identity in social relations, they are also value judgements. And since such judgments are linked to our identity, they can feel empowering or hurtful. It might not hurt to hear that I dislike Bach, but if an esteemed music professor speaks to an aspiring pianist it might make all the difference.

From dislike to disagreement. – Seen as a type of judgment, expressions of dislike can be part of a disagreement. If it is true that we strive for distinctiveness, then initiating a disagreement is an obvious tool, especially in a highly homogenous setting such as an academic exchange. Perhaps this partly explains the adversarial culture in philosophy. I was once told that a straightforward way to become famous among philosophers would consist in defending an absurd thesis. Although this was rightly meant to be taken with a grain of salt, it makes even more sense in view of the identity-forming function of disagreement. But if such claims are also linked to our identity, then we should bear that in mind when expressing our disagreement.

Given that such claims can be quite empowering or hurtful, it is not surprising that certain discussions, especially on social media, often quickly get emotionally heated. If we strive for distinctiveness and try to achieve this partly by expressing dislike, then expressions of dislike or disagreement are often linked, in one way or another, to our social identity. Expressions that signal virtues to our in-group might be seen as vices by an out-group member. Arguably, social media facilitate (perhaps even encourage) expressions of distinctiveness. So we’re much more likely to find similarity (e.g. through ‘likes’) as well as disagreement and dislike, and along with it all the empowerment or hurfulness involved.

Two kinds of philosophy? A response to the “ex philosopher”

Arguably, there are at least two different kinds of philosophy: The first kind is what one might call a spiritual practice, building on exercises or forms of artistic expression and aiming at understanding oneself and others. The second kind is what one might call a theoretical endeavour, building on concepts and arguments and aiming at explaining the world. The first kind is often associated with traditions of mysticism, meditation and therapy; the second is related to theory-building, the formation of schools (scholasticism) and disciplines in the sciences (and humanities). If you open any of the so-called classics, you’ll find representations of both forms. Descartes’ Meditations offer you meditative exercises that you can try at home alongside a battery of arguments engaging with rival theories. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus closes with the mystical and the advice to shut up about the things that matter most after opening with an account of how language relates to the world. However, while both kinds are present in many philosophical works, only the second kind gets recognition in professional academic philosophy. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this lopsided focus might undermine our discipline.

Although I think that these kinds of philosophy are ultimately intertwined, I’d like to begin by trying to make the difference more palpable. Let’s start with a contentious claim: I think that most people are drawn into philosophy by the first kind, that is, by the desire understand themselves, while academic philosophy trains people in the second kind, that is, in handling respectable theories. People enter philosophy with a first-person perspective and leave or become academics through mastering the third-person perspective. By the way, this is why most first-year students embrace subjectivism of all kinds and lecturers regularly profess to be “puzzled” by this. Such situations thrive on misunderstandings: for the most part, students don’t mean to endorse subjectivism as a theory; they simply and rightly think that perspective matters.* Now, this is perhaps all very obvious. But I do think that this transition from the one kind to the other kind could be made more transparent. The problem I see is not the transition itself, but the dismissal of the first kind of philosophy. As I noted earlier, the two kinds of philosophy require one another. We shouldn’t rip the Tractatus apart, to exclude either mysticism or the theory. Whether you are engaging in the first or second kind is more a matter of emphasis. However, interests in gatekeeping and unfounded convictions about what is and what isn’t philosophy often entail practices of exclusion, often with pernicious effects.

Such sentiments were stirred when I read the confessions of an ex philosopher that are currently making the rounds on social media. The piece struck many chords, quite different ones. I thought it was courageous and truthful as well as heart-breaking and enraging. Some have noted that the piece is perhaps more the complacent rant of someone who was never interested in philosophy and fellow philosophers to begin with. Others saw its value in highlighting what might be called a “phenomenology of failure” (as Dirk Koppelberg put it). These takes are not mutually exclusive. It’s not clear to me whether the author had the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy in mind, but it surely does invoke something along these lines:

“Philosophy has always been a very personal affair. Well, not always. When it stopped being a personal affair, it also stopped being enjoyable. It became a performance.

… Somewhat paradoxically, academia made me dumber, by ripening an intellectual passion I loved to engage with into a rotten performance act I had to dread, and that I hurried to wash out of my mind (impossible ambition) when clocking out. Until the clocking out became the norm. Now I honestly do not have insightful opinions about anything — not rarefied philosophical problems nor products nor popular culture nor current events.”

What the author describes is not merely the transition from one approach to another; it is transition plus denial. It’s the result of the professional academic telling off the first-year student for being overly enthusiastically committed to “subjectivism”. While we can sometimes observe this happening in the lecture hall, most of this denial happens within the same person, the supposed adult telling off themselves, that is, the playful child within. No doubt, sometimes such transition is necessary and called for. But the denial can easily kill the initial motivation. – That said, the author also writes that he has “never enjoyed doing philosophy.” It is at this point (and other similar ones) where I am torn between different readings, but according to the reading I am now proposing the “philosophy” he is talking about is a widespread type of academic philosophy.** What he is talking about, then, is that he never had an interest in a kind of philosophy that would deny the initial enthusiasm and turn it into a mere performance.

Now you might say that this is just the course of a (professionalised) life. But I doubt that we should go along with this dismissal too readily. Let me highlight two problems, unfounded gatekeeping and impoverished practices:

  • The gatekeeping has its most recognisable expression in the petulant question “Is this philosophy?” Of course, it depends on who is asking, but the fact that most texts from the mystic tradition or many decidedly literary expressions of philosophy are just ignored bears witness to the ubiquitous exclusion of certain philosophers. It certainly hit Hildegard of Bingen, parts of Nietzsche and bits of Wittgenstein. But if an exaggerated remark is in order, soon anything that doesn’t follow the current style of paper writing will be considered more or less “weird”. In this regard, the recent attempts at “diversifying the canon” often strike me as enraging. Why do we need to make a special case for re-introducing work that is perfectly fine? In any case, the upshot of dismissing the first kind of philosophy is that a lot of philosophy gets excluded, for unconvincing reasons.
  • You might think that such dismissal only concerns certain kinds of content or style. But in addition to excluding certain traditions of philosophy, there is a subtler sort of dismissal at work: As I see it, the denial of philosophy as a (spiritual) practice or a form of life (as Pierre Hadot put it) pushes personal involvement to the fringes. Arguably, this affects all kinds of philosophy. Let me give an example: Scepticism can be seen as a kind of method that allows us to question knowledge claims and eventually advances our knowledge. But it can also be seen as a personal mental state that affects our decisions. As I see it, the methodological approach is strongly continuous with, if not rooted in, the mental state. Of course, sometimes it is important to decouple the two, but a complete dismissal of the personal involvement cuts the method off from its various motivations. Arguably, the dismissal of philosophy as a spiritual (and also political) practice creates a fiction of philosophy. This fiction might be continuous with academic rankings and pseudo-meritocratic beliefs, but it is dissociated from the involvement that motivates all kinds of philosophical exchange.

In view of these problems, I think it is vital keep a balance between what I called two kinds but what is ultimately one encompassing practice. Otherwise we undermine what motivates people to philosophise in the first place.

____

* Liam Bright has a great post discussing the often lame counterarguments to subjectivism, making the point that I want to make in a different way by saying that the view is more substantial than it is commonly given credit for: “The objection [to subjectivism] imagines a kind of God’s-eye-perspective on truth and launches their attack from there, but the kind of person who is attracted to subjectivism (or for that matter relativism) is almost certainly the kind of person who is suspicious of the idea of such a God’s eye perspective. Seen from within, these objections simply lose their force, they don’t take seriously what the subjectivist is trying to do or say as a philosopher of truth.”

Eric Schliesser provides a brief discussion of Liam’s post, hitting the nail on the following head: “Liam’s post (which echoes the loveliest parts of Carnap’s program with a surprisingly Husserlian/Levinasian sensibility) opens the door to a much more humanistic understanding of philosophy. The very point of the enterprise would be to facilitate mutual understanding. From the philosophical analyst’s perspective the point of analysis or conceptual engineering, then, is not getting the concepts right (or to design them for ameliorative and feasible political programs), but to find ways to understand, or enter into, one’s interlocutor life world.”

** Relatedly, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between philosophy and the performative craft of academic philosophy in his post on “Being good at being good at philosophy”.

Questions – an underrated genre

Looking at introductions to philosophy, I realise that we devote much attention to the reconstruction of arguments and critical analysis of positions. Nothing wrong with that. Yet, where are the questions? Arguably, we spend much of our time raising questions, but apart from very few exceptions questions are rarely treated as a genre of philosophy. (However, here is an earlier post, prompted by Sara Uckelman’s approach, on which she elaborates here. And Lani Watson currently runs a project on philosophical questions.) Everyone who has tried to articulate a question in public will have experienced that it is not all that simple, at least not if you want to go beyond “What do you mean?” or “What time is it?” In what follows, I’d hope to get a tentative grip on it by looking back at my recent attempt to teach students asking questions.

This year, I gave an intense first-year course on medieval philosophy.* I say “intense” because it comprises eight hours per week: two hours lecture and two hours reading seminar on Thursday and Friday morning. It’s an ideal setting to do both, introduce material and techniques of approaching it as well as applying the techniques by doing close reading in the seminars. Often students are asked to write a small essay as a midterm exam. Given the dearth of introductions to asking questions, I set a “structured question” instead. The exercise looks like this:

The question will have to be about Anselm’s Proslogion, chapters 2-4. Ideally, the question focuses on a brief passage from that text. It must be no longer than 500 words and contain the following elements:

– Topic: say what the question is about;
– Question: state the actual question (you can also state the presupposition before stating the question);
– Motivation: give a brief explanation why the question arises;
– Answer: provide a brief anticipation of at least one possible answer.

What did I want to teach them? My declared goal was to offer a way of engaging with all kinds of texts. When doing so I assumed that understanding (a text) can be a general aim of asking questions. I often think of questions as a means of making contact with the text or interlocutor. For a genuine question brings two aspects together: on the one hand, there is your question, on the other, there is that particular bit of the text that you don’t understand or would like to hear more about. But … that’s more easily said than done. During the lectures and seminars we would use some questions from students to go through the motions. What I noticed almost immediately is that this was obviously really hard. One day, a student came up and said:

“Look, this focus on questions strikes me as a bit much. I’m used to answer questions, not raising them. It seems to require knowledge that I don’t have. As it is, it is rather confusing and I feel like drowning out at sea.”

I’m quoting from memory, but the gist should be clear. And while I now think of a smallish group of students as particularly brave and open, this comment probably represents the attitude of the majority. The students wanted guidance, and what I wanted to offer them instead was tools to guide themselves. I had and have a number of different reactions to the student’s confession. My first thought was that this is a really brave stance to take: Being so open about one’s own limits and confusion is rarely to be found even among established people. At the same time, I began to worry about my approach. To be sure, the confusion was caused intentionally to some degree, and I said so. But for this apporach to work one has to ensure that asking questions eventually provides tools to orient oneself and to recognise the reasons for the confusion. Students need to learn to consider questions such as: Why am I confused? Could it be that my own expectations send me astray? What am I expecting? What is it that the text doesn’t give me? Arguably, they need to understand their confusion to make contact to the text.  In other words, questions need to be understood. But this takes time and, above all, trust that the confusion lands us somewhere in the end.

When I taught this kind of course in the past, I did what the student seemed to miss now: I gave them not only guiding questions to provide a general storyline through the material, but also detailed advice on what to look for in the texts. While that strikes me as a fine way of introducing material, it doesn’t help them develop questions autonomously. In any case, we had to figure out the details of this exercise. So what is behind the four elements in the task above?

Since questions are often used for other purposes, such as masking objections or convey irritation, it is vital to be explicit about the aim of understanding. Thus, finding the topic had to be guided by a passage or concept that left the questioner genuinely confused. Admitting to such confusion is trickier than meets the eye, because it requires you to zoom in on your lack of understanding or knowledge. You might think that the topic just is the passage. But it’s important to attempt a separate formulation for two reasons: firstly, it tells the listener or reader what matters to you; secondly, it should provide coherence in that the question, motivation and answer should all be on the same topic.

In the beginning, I spent most of the time with analysing two items: the motivation and the formulation of the actual question. After setting out an initial formulation of the question, students had to spell out why the question arises. But why do questions arise? In a nutshell, most questions arise because we make a presupposition or have an expectation that the text does not meet. (Here is a recent post with more on such expectations.) A simple example is that you expect evidence or an argument for a claim p, while the author might simply say that p is self-evident. You can thus begin by jotting down something like “Why would p be self-evident, according to the author?” This means that now, at last, you can talk about something that you do know: your expectations. Ideally, this provides a way of spelling out what you expect and thus what the text lacks (from that perspective). Going from there, the tentative answer will have to provide a reason that shows why p is self-evident for the author. Put differently, while the motivation brings out your presuppositions, the answer is an attempt at spelling out the presuppositions guiding the text (or author). With hindsight, you can now also fix the topic, e.g. self-evidence.

But things are never that straightforward. What I noticed after a while was that many students went off in a quite different direction when it came to answering the question. Rather than addressing the possible reasons of the author, the students began to spell out why the author was wrong. At least during the first letures, they would sometimes not try to see what reasons the author could invoke. Instead, they would begin by stating why their own presupposition was right and the author wrong, whatever the author’s reasons.

This is not surprising. Most discussions inside and outside of philosophy have exactly this structure. Arguably, most philsophy is driven by an adversarial culture rather than by the attempt to understand others. A question is asked, not to target a difficulty in understanding, but to justify the refutation of the interlocutor’s position. While this approach can be one legitimate way of interacting, it appears particularly forced in engaging with historical texts. Trying to say why Anselm or any other historical author was wrong, by contemporary standards, just is a form of avoiding historical analysis. You might as well begin by explaining your ideas and leave Anselm out of the equation altogether.

But how can an approach to understanding the text (rather than refuting it) be encouraged? If you start out from the presupposition that Anselm is wrong, an obvious way would be to ask for the reasons that make his position seem right. It strikes me as obvious that this requires answering the question on Anselm’s behalf. It is at this point that we need to move from training skills (of asking questions) to imparting (historical) knowledge. Once the question arises why an author claims that p, and p does not match our expectations, we need to teach students to recognise certain moves as belonging to different traditions and ways of doing philosophy, ways that do not square with our current culture. My hope is that, if we begin with teaching to raise questions, it will become more desirable to acquire the knowledge relevant to providing answers and to understanding our own questions.

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* I’ve really enjoyed teaching this course and think I’ve learned a lot from it. Special thanks to my patient students, particularly to my great TAs, Elise van de Kamp and Mark Rensema, whose ideas helped me enormously in shaping the course. – Now, if you’ve read this far, I’d like to thank you, too, for bearing with me. Not only for the length of this post. Today is a special occasion: this is post number 101.