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”.

Silent academics and the decline of (higher) education

Yesterday alone, about three articles about manifest maltreatment of university staff came my way: The SOAS University of London “sacked all of its casualised academic staff in one go”; the University and College Union published a report about “dehumanisation” of casualised staff, and a group of researchers on higher education published a paper revealing “an acute situation of endemic bullying and harassment, chronic overwork, high levels of mental health problems, general health and wellbeing problems, and catastrophically high levels of demoralisation and dissatisfaction”. Academics read such news a lot, but three articles of that sort in one day are a bit much. Now there are many good analyses of the situation, but I’m increasingly convinced that many of the problems come down to one simple issue: silence. By and large, academics seem to remain silent about these issues. And the silence signals or translates into a lack of solidarity with those under threat. Given the articles above, you might think that the community is rather vocal. But my impression is that this is the tip of the iceberg. Only, the iceberg has become quite huge by now.

Looking at the situations worldwide, it is clear that universities are under threat in many places: Hungary and Brasil look particularly bad, but Turkey, Romania, the US and many other places seem to fare no better, when it comes to systematic attacks on higher education practices.* The articles mentioned above are about the UK. I am writing from the Netherlands. While our system struck me as fairly good on arrival in 2012, I now begin to see rather worrying signs. Whenever I say that the attacks on the education system are systematic, I get a number of frowns: “Surely, it’s bad, but no one wants to harm universities”, is what people want to say. – I’m not so sure. Education is a pillar of democratic participation, and that makes it a nuisance for those who just would like to have things their way. Anyway, what strikes me as systematic is the following ubiquitous chain of events: (a) The government reduces the education budget and incentivises research competition among universities (via grant agencies). (b) Universities compete by setting up staff to fulfil incentives; neglect of teaching follows. (c) Fulfilment entails increase of incentives and casualisation of teaching-oriented tasks. (d) Research grows while the outsourced teaching is pushed to the fringes so much that the field of study might be perceived as irrelevant for students and thus for other stakeholders. (e) Finally, people note the irrelevance, close the pertinent departments and repeat from (a). The upshot is: the business model of universities feeds on research and casualises teaching. Rather than forming a unity, teaching and research (or rather the pertinent performance indicators) are played off against one another.

Wherever the chain sketched above or some variation is seen as the proper business model of universities, the silence among staff members follows almost automatically. Of course, no one really seems to want the outcome (e) or even the decline of teaching. Thus, it will get portrayed as an undesired result of focus on research. At this point, however, we have already forgotten that what is being measured most of the time is not really research but performance indicators, in other words: jumping through hoops. Jumping through hoops and worries about failing to do so ultimately block collective action and promote silence instead. Mariya Ivancheva describes this as follows:

“It is quite difficult to unite and organize resistance around a common cause while higher education has a huge reserve army of workers on precarious fixed term and fractional contracts, unsure if they will have secure employment and bread on their table in a few months. And this while even permanent academics feel ever more vulnerable and threatened …”

Dutch academia is currently addressing this issue in the guise of overwork. While overwork was already a topic a while ago, the government recently intervened by reallocating (and effectively cutting) money for universities. Thus, gone are all the measures thought out for balancing the situation. Ingrid Robeyns explains the situation as follows:

“Colleagues report negative effects on their mental and physical health, sleep deprivation, constant worrying, deterioration of their friendships and other social relations, insufficient time for self-care including doing exercise, and so forth. The main problem is that the notional hours that are given to teach a course or do supervision … are inadequate, and hence a 70% teaching load leads to a more-than-fulltime workload. And since everyone also wants to, needs to, and/or is expected to do research, that also still needs to be done. Add some administration and/or leadership tasks, and societal outreach, and we easily make 55 hours a week. For colleagues who only teach, and who are on the lowest pay scales, this also means they have troubles buying a house or starting a family, since those contracts are almost always part-time, and hence also create financial stress. … [T]he Minister of Higher Education has acknowledged that the universities need a structural increase of their yearly budgets with Euro (one billion!) but she claims she doesn’t have that money available.”

Too bad, isn’t it? You would think that this would create some momentum, but it doesn’t. But why not? I have no clear idea, but my first hunch is that it has something to do with the way criticism is portrayed. You would assume that criticism is mainly seen as a means to spot problems or weaknesses in a system. But in a competitive system, spotting weaknesses is likely turned against the critic. If you spot a weakness in the system, then you are too weak for the system. Arguably, academia is therefore often driven by the pretence that everything is just fine. A second reason might be that political criticism in universities is currently framed as an indication of left-leaning biases or even what is called “Cultural Marxism”. Accordingly, criticising the system can be framed as a political attitude that is deemed unfit for academics, who are taken to be sworn to dubious standards of neutrality. If you want a whiff of this just listen in on Trump likening climate scientists to “foolish fortune tellers”.

It seems, then, that there are three mechanisms that govern the silence in academia: (1) The competitive set-up incentivises pertinent priorities among staff members. This is not per se an incentive to remain silent; it just directs the focus on performance rather than cooperation. However, the following two points might reinforce adherence to the status quo more strongly: (2) In a competitive set-up, criticism can be portrayed as the display of a weakness (“oh, this is too much for you?”). (3) The ‘external world’ frames criticism as “left-leaning politicisation” of academia.

How can this be countered? Given the well-founded worries, it should be on the tenured staff members to speak up first. But contrary to common opinion we should also be reminded that university administrators are not enemies by default. It is clear that such framing helps dividing different university staff groups, but it is by no means a given that people involved in administration are enemies of researchers and teachers. In fact, many people in higher administration have condemned the policies of the government in the clearest terms. (Here is an example from the president of Groningen University.) So a second measure would be to doubt the common construal of academics against administrators, not least because administrators often are academics. We should return to seeing ourselves as a community with quite a number of shared goals and interests. In this spirit, criticism should not be construed as putting blame on someone else or oneself, but as a normal way of detecting problems. Reinstating vocal criticism with this aim would hopefully reinstate some trust between different status groups and stakeholders. But, yes, as Ingrid Robeyns pointed out already, one of the first things one should do is: join a union.


* Just over the last two days there were a lot more reports. Let me just name France, where a new research law is under way: “France’s new research law is yet to be made public. But judging from preliminary discussions, Professor Huneman feared it could make the previously permanent positions of assistant professor and CNRS junior researcher temporary.”

In the meantime, protests in the UK include a growing number of academics refusing to act as external referees: “29 professors said they were resigning as external examiners and refusing to take on new contracts because of pension cuts and insecure contracts throughout the sector, as well as gender and ethnicity pay gaps, heavy workloads and stress.”


“I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Travelling in times of the climate crisis

Last week a good friend from Sydney came to visit Groningen and give a paper at a small workshop on early modern philosophy. We met the evening before to do some catching up. Not having had a proper chat for about a year meant that there was quite a bit to talk about, but our conversation was dominated by the climate crisis. Although we enjoyed the meeting, we soon realised that it is hard if not impossible to pretend that all is well. Many people’s lives are more or less directly affected, the news are full of it. But here we sat in a cosy restaurant when my friend spoke the words that continue ringing in my head: “I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Just re-read that sentence, will you? In the meantime, I try to ponder on what it might mean.

Listening to my friend’s account of what had been going on over the last months was scary enough.* But that sentence made it sound like we’ve moved beyond a so-called tipping point. I guess no one needs a reminder of the bushfires that are destroying enormous parts of Australia, while the government is still in denial of the facts. (Here is a recent account by John Quiggin. And if you’re up for it, try the hashtag #AustraliaBurning on Twitter.) Of course, there is much talk about tipping points in relation to climate change, but there are also “personal tipping points” that one will confront. Imagine that you will soon return from a different continent but have no idea what your home will look like or whether it will still be there, whether your friends and family are ok, and what will become of your plans. Whatever might happen, whatever help will be available – there is a sense of reality altered. Something has already changed, but you don’t know exactly what it is and what it will involve. All you know is that it happened, and perhaps sooner than expected or hoped. Such moments are to some degree ubiquitous, while they can also be deeply personal. One might experience personal tipping points in relation to all sorts of things: encounters with others, diseases, loss, war, I don’t actually want to go through all the options. The effects of climate change might be experienced on an equally personal level, but they still feel different in that we know how much they will equally affect others: not only current animals, human and non-human, our ecosystems and cultures, but also, and in much worse ways, our children. Let alone further future generations.

And yet, here we were, getting ready for what has been a most common event, an academic meeting of the sort of which there have been many. One thought that eerily struck us was the idea that people would get on with their business as if nothing were happening. Of course, we do that, too. But how common will that be in a few years from now? My friend told me of recent academic talks in Australia, speaker and audience trying to supress coughing while the smoke is creeping in from under the door. No acknowledgement in the face of the obvious. But indeed, what can we do?

There are a number of things that can be done. Whilst there is much public debate and still a grotesque amount of denial, climate scientists and social scientists have designed concrete plans of action, policies that try to keep the social and economical costs at a minimum. (The PIK in Potsdam is one such institute studying the impact of climate change while working on plans of action. Listen to them in addition to other media outlets!) While I admire a lot of individual action, putting collective pressure on governments to act in accordance with such plans should have priority. In the news, measures to counter the climate crisis are still too often presented as either-or scenarios, while there are in fact many nuanced approaches available. In this sense, the credo of movements like Fridays for Future strikes me as just right: Listen to the science! And keep talking, not least to those who don’t listen or sit on the fence. I often hear the accusation that these movements make high-brow demands and nothing else. This is a lie. They are advised by scientists, and they are pointing to institutions that do have worked out policies. But discrediting climate activism and even climate science is currently rampant. While no surprise, I am struck by the increasing amount of unfounded accusations and hate directed at institutions and individuals.

Like many others, I have been wondering a lot what do. Whenever I listen to the news, my attempts at writing something (e.g. here, here, here and here) strike me as futile. So I guess overcoming the feeling of powerlessness and keeping up hope is vital. That will probably involve amplifying the voices of well-informed politicians and movements, countering denial and silence both as a citizen and philosopher, wherever possible. (My colleague Diego Castro has written an instructive piece about countering denial.)

It’s likely that our habits and ways of interaction (not least in academia) will (have to) change. Sooner than we think we might be travelling around the world for quite different reasons. But we have to be careful. At the moment, we see a lot of incentives to change our forms of travelling. Some people not only take the train rather than the plane, but also begin to refrain from travelling altogether. I’d worry if that should signal a tendency towards gradually cutting ourselves off from others, at locally distant places. Especially now we have to keep in touch.


* I can’t possibly give a recollection of even the most crucial things that my friend mentioned. But here is a quote from a different, enormously helpful and detailed personal account I found through a Twitter search today, which corroborates many of the facts my friend mentioned (and which you might want to read in full): “Even in our cities, where we are safe from the worst of the fires themselves, many days the acrid taste of smoke in the air has been so hazardous it’s risking your health to even go outside. Many days have been designated as total fire ban days. Even many of National Parks have been closed for fear of having to evacuate visitors. […] Since the bushfire season started in September 2019 we have had:

  • 28 lives lost – another fire fighter was lost on 12th January
  • Over 2000 homes lost, not including other buildings such as sheds, barns, and community halls
  • 17.9 Million hectares of land burnt out – already 46% more than the Brazilian Amazon fires
  • Over 1 billion animals lost – including much of Australia’s distinctive wildlife
  • Possible extinction of up to 20 threatened species in just one day of fires on Kangaroo Island (part of South Australia)
  • The largest peace time evacuation in Australia’s history to move thousands of Summer tourists trapped in coastal towns in NSW South Coast and Victoria

Much of this has only happened since New Year’s Eve. We are only 2 weeks into the start of the new year. There’s at least another 2 months of bushfire season to come.

Sydney is known for being the first major city for New Year’s Eve fireworks. This year it felt like we were the first major country for severe climate change impacts.”

Showing other(s) ways to read situations. A response to Martin Lenz

When learning how to interpret texts, we often tend to focus on the author’s intentions. What did they mean to communicate to readers? If you are trying to understand how the author views or perceives something, this seems like a good approach. However, what brought about the other interpretations in the first place? Certainly, people have a motivation for their reading of a text. Maybe they can make connections that both you and the author have not seen.

It can definitely be interesting to see why other people read a text another way and maybe you can even learn something from their reading. In this response to Martin Lenz, I first want to argue that the reason we have different readings of text and, hence, also different readings of situations is because our past experiences ‘teach’ us to read situations a certain way. Second, I want to consider whether communicating how we read situations can help us recognize power inequalities.

In a recent blog post, Martin sketched the following fictional situation:

Standing by

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

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

Now, as Martin mentioned in his post, a lot of people, including myself, immediately read the situation described as having something to do with sexual harassment and could also pinpoint whence this interpretation came. This does not mean that this is what happened nor does it necessarily mean that there were bad intentions involved. But what did it mean? Why did I, and some others with me, see signs of sexual harassment where you maybe did not? According to Meno’s paradox, you can only find things if you know what you are looking for. Knowing what sexual harassment looks like or could look like means that you are able to recognize small details that could trigger such a reading. However, just as not everything that glitters is gold, not all situations that leave you to be alone with someone else doing something you would rather not be doing are sexual harassment. Still, certain things might trigger people, reminding them of previous bad experiences, despite nobody involved in this specific situation actually having bad intentions. More generally, this means that a situation can be undesirable (as perceived by one party), without the other party having bad intentions.

Where does this leave us with our interpretation of the situation pictured by Martin? Firstly, it means that what we think happened, is not necessarily what happened. Secondly, it means that our reading of a situation as undesirable does not necessarily mean that bad intentions were involved.

Leaving this reading of sexual harassment to the side, I want to focus on the power inequalities displayed, since they are a pervasive phenomenon in academia. Many of the same things apply here. Those who have suffered under power inequalities or have been told to look for certain signs, will be more likely to recognize them. Because such a situation is not one that we want to either go through or put others through, the latter option of having been told to look for these signs is certainly preferable. Speaking for myself, I have been told at the beginning of my masters to think twice when people ask me to do something. This advice was offered to me as a ‘woman in philosophy’, but people of all genders can end up in these situations.

I was told that I should not feel inclined to say ‘yes’ to things unless I actually want to do the thing. At the time I might have thought it to be a redundant talk. However, after reading Martin’s fictional account, I was reminded of the conversation. On numerous occasions I have put off saying yes to things, not because I felt like I was being persuaded to do something I did not want to, but because I was once told to make sure I wanted to do it. In other words, I was doing what I was instructed to do. This shows to me that it was not redundant to tell me this, on the contrary, it has convinced me that more people should hear this.

Just to be clear, I in no way want to claim that our professors are trying to trick us into doing chores for them. Actually, I think that often, they might not even be realizing that our reasons for agreeing to do something are not because we feel enthusiastic to take on the task at hand. This is not anyone’s fault in particular. This is how power inequality works. Being conscious of these forces at play is a good first step to choices being made for the right reasons. Telling students to think twice before saying ‘yes’ and teachers ensuring their students know that saying ‘no’ will not have bad consequences, might help ensure that fewer people agree to do things they do not want. After all, you can learn things from having gone through them yourselves really effectively, but in cases like these it is probably better if you don’t have to.

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

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

(1) On facebook, I wrote the following:

Dear Hivemind,

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

Standing by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.


* 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).

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.