Intellectual regrets. How do I figure out what to think? (Part II)

“The ‘thorough’. – Those who are slow to know think that slowness is an aspect of knowledge.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

“Damn! I should have thought of that reply yesterday afternoon!” Do you know this situation? You’re confronted with an objection or perhaps a somewhat condescending witticism, and you just don’t know what to say. But the next day, you think of the perfect response. Let’s call this intellectual regret, whishing you had had that retort ready at the time or even anticipated the objection when stating your thesis, but you haven’t. Much of our intellectual lives is probably spent somewhere between regret and attempts at anticipating objections. What does this feeling of regret indicate? To a first approximation, we might say it indicates that we think of ourselves as imperfect. When we didn’t anticipate or even reply to an objection, something was missing. What was missing? Arguably, we were lacking what is often called smartness, often construed as the ability to quickly defend ideas against objections. But is that so?  

Given our adversarial culture, we often take ourselves as either winning or losing arguments. Thus, we tend to see oppositions to our ideas as competitive. If we say “not p” and someone else advances arguments for “p”, we have the tendency to become defensive rather than embrace “p”. Accordingly, we often structure our work as the defence of a position, say “not p”. The anticipation of the objection “p” is celebrated as a hero narrative, in which p is anticipated and successfully conquered. This is why intellectual regrets might loom large in our mental lives. As I see it, however, the hero narrative is problematic. As I have argued earlier, it instils the desire to pick a side, ideally the right side. But this misses a crucial point of philosophical work: Taking sides is at best transitory; in the end it’s not more battle but peace that awaits us. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we tend to misconstrue the nature of oppositions in philosophy. Rather than competitive positions, oppositions form an integral part of the ideas they seem to be opposed to. Accordingly, what we miss out on in situations of intellectual regret is not a smart defence of a position or dogma, but a more thorough understanding of our own ideas. But in what way does such an understanding involve oppositions?

Understanding through antonyms. –  How do you explain philosophical ideas to someone? A quick way consists in contrasting a term with an opposed term or antonym. Asked what “objectivity” means, a good start is to begin by explaining how we use the term “subjective”. Wishing to explain an “ism”, it helps to look for the opposed ism. So you might explain “externalism” as an idea countering internalism. Now you might object that this shows how philosophers often proceed by carving out positions. It does indeed show as much. But it is equally true that we often need to understand the opposing position in order to understand a claim. So while the philosophical conversation often seems to unfold through positions and counterpositions, understanding them requires the alternatives. Negative theology has turned this into a thorough approach. – Now you might object that this might be a merely instrumental feature of understanding ideas, but it doesn’t show that one idea involves another idea as an integral part. After all, subjectivism is to be seen in opposition to objectivism, and if you’re holding one position, you cannot hold the other. To this I reply that, again, my point is indeed not about positions but about understanding. However, this feature is not merely instrumental. Arguably, at least certain ideas (such as subjectivism or atomism) do not make sense without their oppositions (objectivism or holism). That is, the relation to opposed ideas is part of the identity of certain ideas.

Counterfactual reasoning. – It certainly helps to think of opposed terms when making sense of an idea. But this feature extends to understanding whole situations and indeed our lives as such. Understanding the situation we are in often requires counterfactual reasoning. Appreciating the sunshine might be enhanced by seeing what were the case if it were raining. Understanding our biographies and past involves taking into account a number of what-ifs. Planning ahead involves imagining decidedly what is not the case but should be. Arguably, states such as hope, surprise, angst, and regret would be impossible if it were not for counterfactual ideas. So again, identifying the situation we are in involves alternatives and opposites.

Dialectical reasoning. – You might argue again that this just shows a clear distinction between ideas and their opposites. I do not deny that we might decidedly walk through one situation or idea before entering or imagining another. However, at least for some ideas and situations, encountering their oppositions or alternatives does not only involve understanding their negation. Rather, it leads to a new or reflective understanding of the original idea. You will have a new sense of your physical integrity or health once you’ve been hurt. You understand “doubt” differently once you realise that you cannot doubt everything at once (when seeing that you cannot doubt that you’re doubting) or once you thought through the antisceptical ideas of Spinoza or Wittgenstein. Your jealousy might be altered when you’ve seen others acting out of jealousy. Just like Hume’s vulgar view is a different one once you realise that you cannot let go of it (even after considering the philosophical view). The dynamics of dialectical reasoning don’t just produce alternatives but new, arguably, enriched identities.

Triangulation and identity. – Once we recognise how understanding opposites produce a new identity for the idea or the understanding of our very own lives (the examined life!), we see how this pervades our thinking. Entering a town from the station is different from entering it via the airport or seeing it on a map. Here we have three different and perhaps opposing ways of approaching the same place. But who would think that one position or one way of seeing things is true or better or more advanced than another? All of these ways might be taken as different senses, guiding us to the same referent, or as different perspectives in a triangulation between two different interlocutors. When it comes to understanding what we call reality, there is of course a vast amount of senses or triangulations. But who would think one is better? Must we not say that each perspective adds yet more to the same endeavour? So while we might progress through various positions, I would doubt that they are competitive. Rather they strike me as contributing to the same understanding.

Disagreement. – If this is a viable view of things, it might strike you as a bit neoplatonist. But there is nothing wrong with that. But what about real disagreements? Where can we place disagreements, if all oppositions are ultimately taken to resolve into one understanding? Given how stubborn humans are, it would be odd to say that oppositions are merely transient. My hunch is that there can be real disagreement. How? Whenever we have a position or perspective we can benefit from another perspective on the same thing or issue or idea. In keeping with what I said above, encountering such a different perspective would not be a disagreement but, ultimately, an enrichment. That said, we can doubt whether our different perspectives really concern the same thing or idea. We might assume that we now enter the same town we saw on the map earlier. But perhaps we in fact enter a different town. Assuming sameness is a presupposition of making sense or having a sensible disagreement about the same. But our attempt of tracing sameness might fail.

Returning to our intellectual regrets, what is mostly missing is not the smartness to outperform our interlocutors. Rather, we might lack a more full understanding that only the perspectives of others can afford us. In this sense, the oppositions in philosophy are transient. If we have to wait and listen to others, that slowness is indeed an aspect of knowledge.

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.

Alienation: On learning to talk philosophy

Much learning happens through alienation.* Walking at night through an unfamiliar town in a foreign country requires you to find your way around by activating untrained resources. Wanting to get to the station, you need to look around, stay alert and imagine what awaits you round the next bend. You might have to get out your dictionary and ask others for the way – only to end up in an unexpected part of town. Reading philosophy is often like that. However, in professional and even educational contexts, people often pretend to already know their way around. Asking questions serves more as an opportunity to show off, making newcomers feel like outsiders. After a while, newcomers will also learn to show off and put some erudition on display. Actually, it might help getting some recognition, but it also blocks actual engagement and learning. In this post I don’t want to decry the state of the profession, but rather impart some very basic considerations of how to learn talking and reading philosophy.

There is a nice saying according to which trying to tell our children something won’t educate them, since they’re going to imitate what we do anyway. In other words, if we pretend to know our way around, people around us won’t learn to ask genuine questions. Likewise, if the main kind of response we teach students is to meet a claim with a “no”, headshaking or some other form of critical disagreement, we won’t incentivise attempts at understanding and creative exploration. Although it’s important to learn disagreeing, it’s equally important to ask questions (not veiled objections) and formulate tentative hypotheses that serve as the starting point of explorations rather than a defence. So how can we practise asking questions and forming hypotheses?

Alienation. – Let me begin with what I take to be a general principle for generating questions and hypotheses: alienation. Moving within familiar territory generates no questions or ideas. But anything can be questioned when taken out of context. Think of food. We eat daily. Take a step back and look at the food you eat: zoom in on a detail, look at the texture, the structure, and the colours. Doesn’t it seem strange, unfamiliar? What do you know about it? – Now imagine a face, but don’t think of it as a face! Try to imagine it as something that you don’t know but try to paint or draw: What is its structure? What do you have to do in order to paint it? Try different styles: pointillism, realism, abstract away etc. – Finally listen to people speaking: What do you hear? Words? Really? Try to hear the emotions couched in the utterances. Do you hear confidence, enthusiasm or a restrained sadness? Can you detect irony, sincerity? What are the markers of what you hear behind or within these sounds? – Now try to describe such impressions, it’s hard but not impossible.

Philosophising can take the shape of making things unfamiliar in such ways. A lot of it consists in looking at concepts or claims and arguments. Now you might say that looking at arguments is quite different from alienating one’s view on food or faces. Think again! You take strings of sounds or written traces appearing on a screen (or paper) and transform them into sequences of (formal) symbols or paraphrases that you call “valid” or “sound”. Such transformation is, first of all, a form of alienation. You take language out of context and put it into a different one. A crucial effect of that alienation is a shift of focus. You can concentrate on things that normally escape your attention: the logical or conceptual structures for instance, ambiguities, things that seemed clear get blurred and vice versa. Shifting the focus opens up space to move around and hopefully stirs the imagination, but as such it doesn’t generate questions.

Taking our space. – When I remember my early student days, I see a shy person, sitting in class and directing all his energy at remembering the question he meant to ask. When the time came and it was my turn, I would usually blush, avert or close my eyes (I still do that), and get out the sentences as quickly as possible. It was hard, but it must have been equally hard to get what I was trying to say. Can you imagine someone feeling like that and raising a question or considering a hypothesis? No way, just get it out and over with! When we want to learn or talk, we first need some breathing space. What is it that enables us to get into such a mode? – Trying to speak, we need to take our space, slow down and take the time it takes to get the sentences out, accentuate the words that matter. All that can be practised. But there is also the issue of content. How do we generate that?

Expectations and deviation. – Let’s look at generating a question! The first thing to notice is that we are often dealing with two kinds of expectations: (1) We expect a text or an interlocutor to say certain things. We expect a lecturer to lecture, to know things, not ask us what we like for breakfast. If that expectation is irritated, we have a question. Either the irritation is genuine or we generate an irritation by alienating what is said.** Repeat a word and ask whether it means more than one thing! If it means more than one thing, there are at least two options of understanding what is said. So now you can ask which of the possible options is meant. It’s a simple question, but even so we’re not there yet. (2) When we raise our voice to speak, we know (tacitly) that people expect us to say certain things. We have an idea of what is expected of us. Most of the time, we want to align with such expectations. But if we align with such expectations, we probably want to look clever: that will make us remain silent or ask a clever rather than our genuine question. That’s fine, sometimes. But no one will learn anything if no one leaves the realm of mutual expectations. Thus, a helpful strategy might be to deviate from that expectation. You might feel silly to begin with, but it will be liberating. But how is it done? – By making explicit that you deviate from the common expectations. If you’re in a typical seminar setting and you’re asked to eplain what you mean, you can, for instance, go up to the board and draw a diagram that helps illustrating a conceptual relation. So rather than just answer the question and do as you’re told, you make an extra move. You don’t need to do something outrageous of course. Finding a peculiar example or analogy, drawing a sketch or diagram, saying explicitly that something sounds strange or would sound strange to someone’s ears, something like that might do the trick. Say: “this might sound funny, but what if we imagine the following …” Another way is to put a supposed side issue centre stage. As one student put it in today’s lecture on the Condemnation of 1277: “Isn’t the layout of the text quite important? Was the original manuscript structured in the same way?” Thus, she moved the attention from the content to the layout, which actually led to some quite significant insights no one had seen coming. – The point is to frame your contribution in a way that deviates from what you take to be the expected form of proceeding. Ideally, you draw on your resources and imagination, and literally play around with all the bits and pieces that catch your attention. Take an example or analogy dear to your heart; use a medium you feel comfortable with. The slightest deviation will be liberating. It will be liberating because it gives you space: options to move away from (supposed) expectations.

The point of such exercises is not to make you stand out as “odd”. The idea is to move into unfamiliar territory, but by using resources that you feel at home with. Using your resources, as many as possible, but your resources, is vital: often it’s best to try and think of areas that interest you ouside of philosophy. (Sara Uckelman has a wonderful piece invoking this idea.) By deviating from expectations, you create a friction that you can draw on to make further moves in a conversation. Ideally, you learn to move in a way that enables you to articulate the expected as well as the unexpected elements of your take. If a musical analogy is allowed: You should build up tension (by moving away from the expected) and release (by returning to the commmon expectation), just like a tune will build up tension and return to the familar tonic chord. This way you can state the supposed expectation and your deviation. This gives you two options to consider: “Is this a helpful example/illustration/phrasing or should we be looking at it the other (usual) way?” The crucial point is that it will open up space for your interlocutors, too. Once you stop aligning with expectations, others might feel entitled to do the same. At the same time, this might facilitate a situation in which you can begin to learn from your interlocutors. Not just by listening, but also by addressing questions at them directly. Not necessarily about the common object of discussion but about their take. Once you uttered your contribution, you don’t have to fall silent again. You can ask others whether they have the same question or thought about it along similar lines. Their answers will tell you something about their expectations and your intuitions. You might end up having a real conversation.

All of these moves are intended to make the “familiar seem strange”, to use a phrase by Bernard Williams. Once you learn to feel comfortable with such moves, it might allow you to explore, ask genuine questions and articulate hypotheses. It is a way of finding your own voice and concerns, even within the most formulaic styles of speaking and writing. We can stop pretending to know our way around; instead we can ask for the way to the station and decide to take a detour via the pub.

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* I have been reading much Brecht when I was around 16, but then put him aside. It’s funny how this past is now tacitly (?) coming back to the fore. Of course the idea has its roots in the Verfremdungseffekt pursued in Brechtian theatre practice. 

** In this sense, allowing ourselves and others to fail is quite a crucial part of the process. Sara Uckelman has pointed me to a beautiful post of hers touching on this issue.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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.

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.