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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugly ducklings and progress in philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotting mistakes and getting it right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do rejections of our claims presuppose that we are abnormal?

Discussions about meaning and truth are often taken as merely theoretical issues in semantics. But as soon as you consider them in relation to interactions between interlocutors, it’s clear that they are closely related to our psychology. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that people questioning our claims might in fact be questioning whether we are normal people. Sounds odd? Please hear me out. Let’s begin with a well known issue in semantics:

Imagine you’re a linguist, studying a foreign language of a completely unknown people. You’re with one of the speakers of that language when a white rabbit runs past. The speaker says “gavagai”. Now what does “gavagai” mean?

According to Quine, who introduced the gavagai example, the expression could mean anything. It might mean: “Look, there’s a rabbit” or “Lovely lunch” or “That’s very white” or “Rabbithood instantiated”. The problem is that you cannot determine what “gavagai” means. Our ontology is relative to the target language we’re translating into. And you cannot be sure that the source language carves up the world in the same way ours does. Now it is crucial to see that this is not just an issue of translation. The problem of indeterminacy starts at home: meaning is indeterminate. And this means that the problems of translations also figure in the interaction between speakers and hearers of the same language.

Now Davidson famously turns the issue upside down: we don’t begin with meaning but with truth. We don’t start out by asking what “gavagai” means. If we assume that the speaker is sincere, we’ll just translate the sentence in such a way that it matches what we take to be the truth. So we start by thinking: “Gavagai” means something like “Look, there’s a rabbit”, because that’s the belief we form in the presence of the rabbit. So we start out by ascribing the same belief to the speaker of the foreign language and translate accordingly. That we start out this way is not optional. We’d never get anywhere, if we were to start out by wondering what “gavagai” might or might not mean. Rather we cannot but start out from what we take to be true.

Although Davidson makes an intriguing point, I don’t think he makes a compelling case against relativism. When he claims that we translate the utterances of others into what we take to be true, I think he is stating a psychological fact. If we take someone else to be a fellow human being and think that she or he is sincere, then translating her or his utterances in a way that makes them come out true is what we count as normal behaviour. Conversely, to start from the assumption that our interlocutor is wrong and to translate the other’s utterances as something alien or blatantly false, would amount an abnormal behaviour on our part (unless we have reason to think that our interlocutor is seriously impaired). The point I want to make is that sincerity and confirmation of what we take to be true will correlate with normality.

If this last point is correct, it has a rather problematic consequence: If you tell me that I’m wrong after I have sincerely spoken what I take to be the truth, this will render either me or you as abnormal. Unless we think that something is wrong with ourselves, we will be inclined to think that people who listen to us but reject our claims are abnormal. This is obvious when you imagine someone stating that there is no rabbit while you clearly take yourself to be seeing a rabbit. When the “evidence” for a claim is more abstract, in philosophical debates for instance, we are of course more charitable, at least so long as we can’t be sure that we both have considered the same evidence. Alternatively, we might think the disagreement is only verbal. But what if we think that we both have considered the relevant evidence and still disagree? Would a rejection not amount to a rejection of the normality of our interlocutor?