Might hope counter political polarisation, boomers? A delayed response to Titus Stahl

“What do you love in others? – My hopes.” Friedrich Nietzsche

 

“One day you should be better off than we were.” – My parents offered this line of reasoning often when I opposed their ideas of care and upbringing. More often than not it was meant to convince me of something that I didn’t like. But even back then, as a child or adolescent in stark opposition to my parents’ ways, I recognised that they meant it. They were sincere in their hope. Seeing someone speaking or acting out of hope is special. Even if you disagree with what they do or say, you will be inclined to forgive them if they fail or do wrong. It’s difficult to say how exactly this works, but my hunch is that joint hope can connect you even with those whose actions or views you disapprove of. Why might that be the case? Perhaps because hope creates commitment to a goal when the precise course of action is still not determined. We hope to improve our state. How? That we must find out. But we have a mutual trust that we’ll try in good faith. This matters greatly if we have conflicting views about a course of action. If you think I fail or do wrong, you might be able to forgive me because you see where I’m coming from. – Now look at a common political discussion, as represented in the media. What you notice is not only that such discussions are often emotionally charged or outright hateful, but also that hope for improvement is completely absent. I’ve been wondering about this for a long time. What exactly is missing? What exactly is lacking in our political exchanges? Now I begin to think it’s the absence of hope that makes such discussions so unforgiving. Let me explain.

Should we all become vegan to counter the climate crisis? Ask that kind of question and you’ll soon have a discussion spiralling out of control. The views quickly harden and seem to become more extreme. Why? There are many answers on various levels: we have bad manners, we are badly informed, people have bad motives, everyone is after their own advantage, we don’t listen, we’re not ready for the internet etc. But what do we actually disagree about? We disagree about courses of action. And actions are often mutually exclusive: If you turn left, you can’t turn right. This simple fact turns disagreements about actions into rather strong arguments. It’s either this or that. But this alone is not problematic. What is problematic is that our political discussions are often exhausted by considering a fixed set of possible actions. This, I submit, is because (views about) actions are often taken as a proxy for values or goals. This results in a proxy model of morality. If you tell me that you eat meat, you will assume that I will judge you by that fact. But actions cannot be meaningful units in themselves. They become what they are in virtue of our intentions. But the relation between intention and action is often less direct than the proxy model suggests. More importantly, we can make two kinds of mistakes about the relation between action and intention: (1) we can be wrong in assuming that a particular action fulfils a certain intention; (2) we can be wrong in assuming that a particular action expresses a certain intention. The proxy model disregards both these possibilities.

Many political actions are very tenuous in their relations to intentions. Whether or not a certain course of action or policy has the desired effects is often unclear and indeed contingent. This is precisely where hope should enter the scene. We can hope that promoting affirmative action leads to social justice, but there are factors that might jeopardise the desired effects. If we share social justice as a goal, we will probably deliberate about whether such factors outweigh the benefits. But on the proxy model, the common goal seems quickly forgotten. What we find instead is that affirmative action is taken as a proxy for a desired or undesired value. Are you for or against diversity? Let’s decide that quickly! In such cases, your view or action is not judged in the light of a (shared) goal that is hoped to be achieved. Rather, the action is itself judged as an instance of a value. And then it’s either for or against. In this sense, the absence of hope or common goals makes us unforgiving. Any failure is a moral failure tout court, not just a single failure in a larger and common project. By contrast, hope for a better state will be emphasising our commonalities across divides over a course of action. It is in this sense that I think the absence of hope leads to polarisation. Without hope we lack the common space that makes our disagreements meaningful disagreements between us.

If this is correct, hope is crucial for politics in that it provides the glue between people who might disagree. But it is also important to see the power of hope in guiding us in the absence of clear ideas about what to do. As I see it, hope is crucial when so-called realism has no grip. You might not think so, but realism can be pernicious because the reality of our future is undetermined. This is why the attitude often celebrated as political realism can be counterproductive in holding a society together, at least when the course of action still needs to be decided on. This becomes palpable whenever I think of family and friends. Growing up during WWII and making do with next to nothing, my parents had not much reason to expect that things would get significantly better. Going by what the situation had to offer (for them), they probably could have resigned to what they thought likely at the time (which was not much beyond surviving). But they didn’t. Which is expressed in that statement “One day you should be better off than we were.” This attitude of hope is perhaps best understood when compared to more sceptical attitudes: In the face of possible failure or misery, it seems reasonable to expect what is likely, certainly no better. By contrast, hope is not so much grounded in what is to be expected but what is desired. Trying to understand what my parents’ attitude meant, I’d say they didn’t act on what they thought was likely to work out but on the sheer hope for the better. In that sense, hope transcends the realm of the reasonable without leaving it behind entirely. Clearly then, hope is an enormously powerful attitude, sometimes carrying us across the worst we might expect. It allows us to move on without seeing a path (yet). At the same time, it’s hard to overestimate the emotional glue that hope provides in such moments: Even though my parents and I (often) did not agree on the intermediate goals or ways, their hope instilled hope in me. Their attitude carried over, resulting in a shared hope. If this is correct or aptly put, then hope can bind us together across divides. We might disagree about means, but our hope for similar ends can bind us together. Despite our disagreements, we can thus join forces and attempt to find a compromise or a distribution of disparate strategies. It was in trying to grapple with these issues that I was reminded of Titus Stahl’s excellent piece on hope. He writes:

Fortunately, we need not limit ourselves to what we can expect. Even though we are not justified in expecting more than limited agreement on justice, we can still collectively hope that, in the future, consensus on more demanding ideals of justice will emerge. When citizens collectively entertain this hope, this expresses a shared understanding that each member of society deserves to be included in an ambitious project of justice, even if we disagree about what that project should be. This knowledge can contribute to self-respect and is thus a desirable social good in its own right. In the absence of consensus, political hope is a necessary part of social justice itself. So it is rational, perhaps even necessary, to recruit the notion of hope for the purposes of justice.

I can’t possibly unpack this understanding of hope in a blog post. One consequence of this idea is that the absence of a consensus does not entail that the situation is hopeless (no pun intended). As I see it, political realism, in focusing on what is likely, limits our view on future commonalities and compromises that we are not yet able to see. Helmut Schmidt’s dictum “Wer Visionen hat, sollte zum Arzt gehen”  sums up this brand of realism nicely. What I find particularly problematic in this kind of realism is that it expresses nothing more than a complacent attitude, defending the status quo in the face of challenges. Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can!” or Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das!” were slogans attempting to instil political hope. As we know all too well, their impact was not sustained. Today, we find ourselves surrounded by the entirely hopeless complacency of the Trumps and Johnsons of this world. But what is perhaps (big ‘perhaps’) more worrying is that this attitude of hopelessness is carrying over to common discourse. The proxy model of morality, “brexit or not”, “wall or not”, is all over the place.

That said, I’m hopeful that hope will return to the political arena with the new movements* founded in the face of the climate crisis, be it Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion. It’s telling to see that these movements are often met with the complacent charge of not offering concrete policies of action. This is of course the proxy model of morality in place again. But refraining from concrete paths of action is exactly the factor that allows us to retain hope, hope for consensual deliberation rather than the either-or conduct suggested by the proxy model. Deliberation that takes into account all sides, but gives pride of place to experts and scientists whose work should be seen as the institutionalised outcome of collective hope. In this sense, I read the recent attack against the “boomers” not as one against a particular generation, but rather as a humorous reminder that complacency does not instil any hope or idea for a better future.

Yet, the distinction between political hope and a simplistic proxy morality is neither one of left and right nor one of optimism and pessimism. The opposite of hope is not despair; it’s complacency.

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* I should add that I think of new movements not only in terms of decidedly political movements. In fact, I’m most hopeful when it comes to progress in the arts (and, for personal reasons, not least in music). In this respect, I think that the music of people like Jacob Collier is deeply political, but at present I have no clear idea as to how to conceptualise this. – One observation might be in order though: Read the comments on youtube, for example, under Collier’s music videos and compare them with comments on other content, musical or not. What I find intriguing is the positive and indeed hopeful attitude in these comments. What this is a sign of I don’t know, but it strikes me as a hopeful sign.

Take me by the hand! Structuring texts

What is the following paragraph good for? It’s providing an introduction to the text. – This is of course a bit much. In academic texts, we commonly expect first paragraphs to introduce us to something, ideally to the text that follows. Stating the obvious is superfluous. But how much of the obvious is actually obvious? Some texts just open with stating facts about the topic. After all, the title of the text will have told the reader enough. So why should one care to introduce you, gentle reader, to the text? We can start straight with the topic, no? Opening lines confirm, raise or irritate and adjust expectations. I could have written that it is a sunny morning and the coffee was rather nice. Then you might have expected a bit of storytelling. That would have irritated the standard expectations in academic writing, but then again a bit of irritation might draw extra attention. But at some point you might want to know what I am up to. Or do you? And is there that much of a difference between the text, the topic and myself? – I tend to think that, at least in academic writing, a text is more readable if the author takes care to guide the reader through the text. At the same time I realise that providing guidance is something that requires some added attention. So here are some suggestions.

It is or at least feels like an old trope to compare a text with a house. Ideally, an academic text guides you like someone guides you through a house. While it’s obvious that you enter through the door, the rooms will need some guidance. “So this is my study; and there on the left we have the bathroom.” But some people will just show you where the house is. And others might just hand you a key, expecting you to guess the rest. The same with texts. Some people send drafts without even providing a working title. The assumption might be that I can simply guess what the text is about after reading it. But while I welcome the trust in my reading skills, I I’d like to note that it is never obvious what a text is about. Unless of course you’re dealing with a manual for setting up furniture, but even then …

The tricky thing is that much academic writing is fairly formulaic. This means that both reader and writer live under the impression that we roughly know what the parts of a text do. So most writers just get on with their business, that is: with stating the claims and arguments they want to state. This might easily trick us into thinking that it’s equally obvious what the individual parts of a text do. But this is just wrong. There is an enormous difference between saying that p and saying that the thesis that p will be briefly introduced and then discussed in the light of the concern that q. What is the difference? The first thing the latter formulation does is that it locates p in (a glimpse of) a space of further reasons or ideas. Knowing that the bathroom is next to the bedroom upstairs provides much more guidance than just being told that there is a bathroom upstairs. But such mapping out also tells me more about the authors’ attitude towards the claim that p. Reading upfront what’s going to be done with p informs me that p is not just being taken for granted. It will be questioned or assessed in the light of q. This, in turn, allows me to ask myself about my attitude towards p and q. It raises expectations, but it also indicates under what conditions the job of the following paragraph or section is done. It’s done when we know how p relates to q.

Why is that important? Locating claims in a space of other claims and attitudes does not only help me in mapping out the conceptual territory; it also enables a more dialogical reading. I can see relations between attitudes, between mine and yours, and perhaps between yours and those of others if you take the trouble to inform me whether q is taken for granted in the bulk of the literature. Moreover, it allows for economical reading. Perhaps I’m not bothered about the relation between p and q, and take the liberty to skip to the next section. Then I will look for markers that tell me when the job is done and where a different part of the argument begins. This might give you pause. But I doubt that all of us read every paper and book from cover to cover.

But while pointing out the jobs that paragraphs do is great, it’s sometimes not enough. Sometimes we also need to be told why a job needs doing in the first place. Why are there two bathrooms but no kitchen? Authors often assume that the moves they make are sufficiently motivated, because, for instance, there is this counterargument or example that everyone talks about. It just needs to be addressed. Does it? Why? And do you have anything special to say? And why in this context, at this moment? To avoid concerns about the relevance or aptness of a step, it will help to remind the reader why something is there. The easiest way of doing this will be by stating how the move in question relates to your main point or question. If that relation remains unclear, the passage might be better off somewhere else, perhaps in a different paper or a footnote.

But how do you do it? How do you provide such guidance? Often writing happens more intuitively, rushed, back and forth, unaware of the reader addressed, perhaps even unaware of your attitude towards the ingredients. I don’t think that this can or should be done in the first version. Rather I’d insert such guidance in the revision of a first draft by simply asking myself about each paragraph: Why is it there? How does it relate to my main point or the previous paragraph? If I have no answer, I have to search or adjust. If I do have an answer, I will write it down. I write at the beginning of every paragraph what the paragraph or section is supposed to do. Oh, and watch out for connectives between paragraphs and sentences. Is a “thus” or a “likewise” really justified? Am I drawing a conclusion? Am I making an analogy? Is the precise relation perhaps unclear? Then why not state that and perhaps why it is unclear? Of course, even guidance can be overdone or cumbersome. Experiment with different ways. But already the sheer awareness of what the bits are doing will help the author in steering attention.  Except for the very beginning, each part of a text with some sort of guidance will be greeted with appreciation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transgression and playfulness in academic exchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarity as a political concept

“With which of the characters do you identify?” For God’s sake, with whom does the author identify? With the adverbs, obviously. Umberto Eco, Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”

Philosophers, especially those working in the analytic tradition, clearly pride themselves on clarity. In such contexts, “clarity” is often paired with “rigour” or “precision”. If you present your work amongst professional philosophers, it will not only be assessed on whether it’s original or competently argued, but also on whether it is written or presented clearly. But while it is sometimes helpful to wonder whether something can be said or presented differently, the notion of clarity as used by philosophers has a somewhat haunting nimbus. Of course, clarification can be a worthy philosophical project in itself. And it is highly laudable if authors define their terms, use terms consistently, and generally attempt to make their work readable and accessible. But often wishing to achieve clarity makes people fret with their work forever, as if (near) perfection could be reached eventually. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as clarity, at least not in an objective sense. You can objectively state how many words a sentence contains, but not whether it’s clear. Rather, it is a political term, often used to police the boundaries of what some people consider canonical.

The notion of clarity thrives on a contentious distinction between content and form or style of writing. According to a fairly widespread view, content and form can come apart in that the same content can be expressed in different ways. You can say that (1) Peter eats a piece of cake and that (2) a piece of cake gets eaten by Peter. Arguably, the active and passive voices express the same content. Now my word processor regularly suggests that I change passive to active voice. The background assumption seems to be that the active voice is clearer in that it is easier to parse. (The same often goes for negations.) If we use this assumption to justify changes to or criticisms of a text, it is problematic for two reasons:

Firstly, we have to assume that one formulation really is clearer in the sense of being easier to parse or understand. Is the active voice really clearer? This will depend on what is supposed to be emphasized. Perhaps I want to emphasize “cake” rather than “Peter”. In this case, the passive voice might be the construction of choice. Although I’m not up to date in cognitive linguistics, I’d guess that semantic and pragmatic features figure greatly in this question. My hunch is that, in this sense, clarity depends on conformity with expectations of the recipients.*

Secondly, we have to assume the identity of content across different formulations. But how do you tell whether the content of two expressions is the same? Leaving worries about analyticity aside, the Peter-Cake example seems fairly easy. But how on earth are we going to tell whether Ryle presented a clearer version of what Wittgenstein or even Heidegger talked about in some of their works?! In any case, an identity claim will amount to stipulation and thus be open to criticism and revision. Again, the question whether the stipulation goes through will depend on whether it conforms to the expectations of the recipients.**

If clarity depends on the conformity with expectations, then the question is: whose expectations matter? If you write a paper for a course, you’ll have an answer to that question. If you write a paper for a journal, you’ll probably look at work that got published there. In this sense, clarity is an inherently political notion.*** Unless you conform to certain stylistic expectations, your work will be called unclear. On a brighter note, if you’re unhappy with some of the current stylistic fashions, it is helpful to bear in mind that all styles are subject to historical change.

The upshot is that stylistic moves are to be seen as political choices. That said, the fact that clarity is a political notion does not discredit it. But the idea that style is just a matter of placing ornaments on a given content is yet another way of falling prey to the notorious myth of the given, often invoked to obscure the normative dimensions.

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* On FB, Eric Schliesser raises the objection that “conformity to expectations” is a problematic qualification in that some position might be stated clearly but lead to entirely novel insights. – I agree and would reply that conformity to expectations does not rule out surprises or novelty. Still, I would argue that the novelties ought to be presented in a manner acceptable by a certain community. – Clearly, clarity cannot merely equal “conformity to expectations”, since in this case it would be at once too permissive (in that it would include grammatically acceptable formulations whose content might remain unclear) and too narrow (in that it would exclude novelty).

** Eric Schliesser makes this point succinctly with regard to ‘formal philosophy’ when saying that “it can be easily seen that if the only species of clarity that is permitted is the clarity that is a property of formal systems, then emphasizing clarity simply becomes a means to purge alternative forms of philosophy.”

*** This is convincingly argued at length over at the Vim Blog. Go and read the whole piece! Here is an excerpt: “[The concept of clarity] creates, enforces, and perpetuates community boundaries and certain power relations within a community. … [T]here is no pragmatic distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of clarity. Not only is an ascription of clarity a claim about quality, but it is seemingly a claim that references objective features of the bit of philosophy. So far we have been attempting to analyze the concept of clarity by first drawing out the descriptive senses and standards—i.e. by understanding the evaluative in light of the descriptive. The better approach is the opposite. What does the word do? I propose focusing first on the impact that the word has in discourse. The assumption that clarity begins with descriptive features leads to an array of problems partly because such an approach “runs right over the knower.” Instead, first, certain bits of philosophy are called clear or unclear as a feature and consequence of the power relations of the group and world more broadly. And then second, what gets called clear or unclear becomes subject to philosophical analysis.

… There is a powerful rhetorical consequence. The ascription of clarity marks those who would stop and question it as outsiders. Those in lower positions of power will not dare to question what has been laid down as clear. It is always possible that the clarity of a putatively clear bit of philosophy can indeed be justified from shared evidence. In that case, the person who dared to speak up is revealed as someone who does not grasp the shared evidence or has not reasoned through the justification, unlike everyone who let the bit of philosophy go unchallenged. They appear unintelligent and uninformed and, in effect, deserving of their lower position of power. So, insofar as power is desirable, there is an inclination to let claims to clarity go unchallenged, thereby signaling understanding through silent consent. The immediate impulse is to assume that one is behind or uninformed.”

Experiencing humility: hope for public debate?

When I was young (yes, stop snickering), when I was young I was often amazed at people’s knowledge. Most people had opinions about everything. The government issued a statement about a new policy and my father or one of my uncles already knew that the policy wouldn’t work. This admiration didn’t stop during my adolescence: I remember listening in awe when friends saw through all the motives and consequences of political decisions. How did they figure it all out? – Well, they probably didn’t. Or not much of it. I don’t want to sound condescending but most of us probably don’t understand the implications of political decisions all that well. Yet, judging by the readiness and vehemence of our contributions to public debate, most of us do at least give the impression of relative expertise. If this is correct, there is a disproportion between actual understanding and confidence in our opinions. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that amending this disproportion might hold the key to improving public debate.

According to Kees van den Bos and other social scientists,* this disproportion is one of the crucial factors leading to polarisation in public debate. However, the inverse also seems to be true: if people are asked to explain how certain policies work and experience that they understand these policies less well than they thought, they are likely to exhibit more moderation in their views of these policies. Fernbach et al. (2013) write:

“Across three studies, we found that people have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies. Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation under-mines this illusion of understanding and leads people to endorse more moderate positions. Mechanistic explanation generation also influences political behavior, making people less likely to donate to relevant advocacy groups. These moderation effects on judgment and decision making do not occur when people are asked to enumerate reasons for their position. We propose that generating mechanistic explanations leads people to endorse more moderate positions by forcing them to confront their ignorance. In contrast, reasons can draw on values, hearsay, and general principles that do not require much knowledge.”

So while I might become increasingly stubborn if you ask me to give reasons for p, I might become more moderate if you ask me to explain how p works. According to the researchers, this is the case because in the latter scenario I am humbled by experiencing the limits of my knowledge. I guess it won’t be too much to ask you to imagine examples. Asking how certain policies of, say, traffic regulation or migration work in practice might even lead politicians themselves to moderation.

What precisely is it that leads to moderation? My hunch is that the effect is produced by experiencing humility. This means that it is vital that the subject in question experiences their lack of knowledge. It is probably no good if I am told that I lack knowledge. (In fact, I believe that this might instil resentment.) The point is that I realise my lack in my own attempt at an explanation. So what I would like to emphasise is that the moderating effect is probably owing to experiencing this lack rather than merely knowing about this lack. Of course, I know that I don’t know how precisely certain policies work. But it’s still quite another thing to experience this ignorance in attempting to explain such policies. In other words, the Socratic attitude alone doesn’t help.

If this effect persists, this finding might indeed help ameliorating conversations and debates. Instead of telling people that they are wrong or asking for reasons, we might simply ask how the proposed idea works. This requires of course humility on part of all interlocutors. A good start might be debates in philosophy.

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* I am grateful to Hendrik Siebe, Diego Castro and Leopold Hess for conversations about this work online and offline.

Fake news, faith, and the know-it-all

When working on Ockham’s discussion of the distinction between faith and reason, I encountered an interesting kind of sentence, the so-called “neutral proposition” (propositio neutra). A common example for such a sentence is “the number of stars is even.” It is neutral in that we have no grounds for assenting or withholding assent. We grasp what it means but we are neither compelled to believe it nor to disbelieve it. (Please note: “neutral” doesn’t necessarily mean that the proposition is neither true nor false; it just means that we have currently no way of figuring out whether it’s true or false.)* In fact, many important things we believe seem to have that status, at least at the time of learning about them. We believe that we have been born in a certain year, that the earth is round and so on. Most of us learn such things through the testimony of others without ever checking them. Although the context of the discussion in Ockham is theological, his ideas generalise: there are many things we do and need to take on faith. I think that this fact is crucial but underrated in the discussion of fake news.** A very widespread response to the phenomenon of fake news is to recommend fact checking. I think this is one-sided and thus problematic. When we have the suspicion that some news item is fake news, then we often are in a position where we cannot (immediately) assess the information. In other words, news are much of the time a collection of neutral propositions for us. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we need to consider the role of faith or trust as well as the related role of (intellectual) humility, if we want to tackle this issue.

We don’t only learn things through others; we also learn early on that it is vital to trust others and trust what they say. Trust is the glue that holds our societies and our lives together. It’s not surprising, then, that we have a tendency to believe everything we perceive and read. Yes, every now and then we might step back and look again, but our default mode is to believe.*** So even if, strictly speaking, a neutral proposition comes our way, we will embrace it. Read the following sentence: “The majority of people now living in Prenzlauer Berg (in Berlin) have migrated there from Southern Germany.” Do you believe it? Of course, the current context of discussion might make you doubtful, but you’d probably read on without hesitation if this were a newspaper article on urban life in Berlin. Your response would not be to fact-check but to believe, unless something triggers a doubt.

This psychological fact, the “bias to believe”, has a number of consequences. We are inclined to believe things. If this is the glue of our lives, then any dysfunction of that glue will hurt us. We will be hurt if our trust is exploited. More importantly perhaps, our pride will be hurt if we are found out to have assented to a lie or even passed on a piece of false information. We will be called naïve, and people will reduce the degree of trust in us. Do you like to be called naïve? – I don’t. So what do I do? That depends on my emotional and other resources. Was it a one-off? Were you just told that Father Christmas doesn’t have a beard? That’s fine. But what if your whole belief system is branded as a result of naivety? You certainly will feel excluded, to put it mildly.

Let’s shift the focus for a second: how will you feel if you are a religious person who is told, again and again, that there is no God, that atheism is the way to go and that religion is anti-science? It is often said that matters of religion are a private issue. Psychologically speaking, this cannot be right. If trusting and believing are the glue of society, then attacks on our beliefs will hurt and upset individuals and, by extension, our society. Of course, many people have come to live with that. For many, it’s part of the package I guess. We can be pluralists. But the direct confrontation might still hurt. And if we can choose our company, we might be inclined to stick with those who respect our beliefs and perhaps host a quiet resentment towards those who feel justified in attacking us.

The point I want to return to now is that criticism of our beliefs often not only concerns individual convictions but also targets the trust we have in others, the trust on which we were inclined to embrace certain beliefs. Religion is just one of many possible examples. Most of our beliefs are deeply entrenched in our daily actions and partly shared conventions: be they religious, political, aesthetical etc. But the example of religion is a helpful one, since there is hardly any field in which people seem to feel so justified to self-righteously criticise others, and this despite the fact that most beliefs in this area are not attacked because they could be shown to be false. Most beliefs in this realm are a matter of faith. They are what I introduced as neutral propositions, to which we are neither compelled to assent nor to dissent. There is a huge difference between the agnostic claim that we do not know about these matters and the more invested claim that certain beliefs are false. In some cases, such a stance might be justified; in other cases, we might just act like a know-it-all. My hunch is that the latter stance is fairly widespread and causes much more controversy than is justified by the evidence the participants in disagreements can invoke.

If we are criticised for holding certain beliefs, this might of course be justified. There is nothing wrong with that. What I am concerned with is beliefs that are based on neutral propositions. Of course you might argue that one should only believe what one has evidence for. Good luck with that! – If we are dealing with information that we can’t assess, we have three options: we can embrace it (which is what we are inclined to do); we can (try to) reject it; or we can acknowledge – hold your breath, drumroll: we can acknowledge that we do not know whether it’s true or not. The virtue I am referring to is known as (intellectual) humility. Of course, we can do what we like if we are by ourselves, scrolling through the web or listening quietly. But if we are in a discussion, our choice matters. Do we want to criticise? By all means, if it is justified. But more often than not our own means are limited: we have stored whole systems of beliefs, without ever checking whether they are true. If we are not sure, it might be advisable to just acknowledge that. Criticising others in their beliefs is probably going to hurt them, more or less. The point is not to stop being critical; the point is to figure out what we are critical towards. Instead of saying, “you are mistaken”, we can also say, “I don’t know whether that’s right or not.” You can then establish whether and how that can be checked.

Now of course this does not mean that we should try and check all the beliefs we hold. Luckily, we have a division of labour. My parents know my birthday; so I don’t need to work it out by going to archives. There are a number of authorities we rely on. “Relying on authorities” sounds naïve perhaps, but that’s what we do when we trust others. If we have disagreements with others about politics or religion, this is often owing to the fact that we rely on different authorities or that we prioritise different authorities. Authorities come in various shapes. Often we don’t even notice them, because they have the form of deeply entrenched ideologies, promoting misogyny, racism and other forms of dehumanisation. Equally often they might concern ideas about how the world works, about what is valuable, what is useful etc. Beliefs about all such matters can be spread by everyone, with quite different epistemic status. In some matters, we trust our friends more than others, even if they might lack epistemic credentials. Criticising others often involves criticising their authorities. Again, that’s fine and often vital, but it’s equally important to be aware that we are doing it, because it concerns the glue of trust that potentially holds us together or keeps us apart if we disagree.

Calling out “fake news” is a way of criticising such authorities. Now what should we do in cases of disagreement? Criticism is of course important. But it is eqally important to see that we are interacting with others whose beliefs are at stake. Even if we suspect that the politicians or the news venues in question are merely bullshitting, the believers are inclined to take their words for granted; they trust their authorities. Now the point is not to be nice to people who believe bullshit; the point is to acknowledge that they have reasons to believe that bullshit. Calling believers (of bullshit or whatever) stupid will only deepen the rupture of trust. What’s crucial to see is that they will see our criticism in the same way as we see their beliefs. What we should establish in such disagreements, then, is whether we might perhaps be dealing with a neutral proposition. That might actually reveal a commonality between us and our interlocutor. We might both be in a position in which we don’t know for sure what’s going on. If we can establish that, we might gain more ground by scratching our heads than insisting we’re on the right side.

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* This wasn’t really clear in the original post. Thanks to CJ Sheu for the fruitful discussion.

** Part of my reflections have been triggered by an excellent new book by Romy Jaster and David Lanius. Get it, if you have some German.

*** See for instance Eric Mandelbaum, Thinking is Believing.