Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia (video)

Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia

This is the fifth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Anna Tropia who is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Prague. Following up on some earlier musings, we focus on issues of writing (philosophy) as they figure in my blogging. Here is a rough table of contents:

  • Introduction and the focus of “Handling Ideas” 0:00
  • How can and why should we avoid the delete button? 2:17
  • Dare to say something wrong! A general tip on writing 6:53

On shame and love in (academic) reading and writing

“What is the seal of attained liberty? To be no longer ashamed of oneself.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Like many fellow students around me, I learned writing by imitating others. How do I know about the others? Well, because there were no courses on learning how to write. So everyone was left to their own devices. Don’t get me wrong: there were and are many good guides on what desirable academic prose should look like. But these guides do not focus on the process of writing: on the despair, boredom, shame, and love that go into it. Actually, it was the lack of reflections on the process and the more doubtful stages that initially motivated me to start this blog. Speaking about these emotions is not meant as a form of venting or ranting about hardships (although they should have their place, too), but rather on the way these emotions can guide and inform our writing. In what follows, I want to say a bit more about this. I’ll start by looking at the way (emotional) experience figures in academic interaction and writing, and then zoom in on different forms of expressing thoughts.

Let’s begin with shame, though. – If you want to see how shame figures in guiding academic interactions, just start a course by asking what people did not understand in a set text. Most people will remain silent; the more experienced ones will point out passages that fail to be clear enough to be understood, passing the blame onto the text. – If you’re the odd one out who is willing to go for it, you’ll know that it takes courage to begin by admitting that you yourself do not understand. Shame is the fear of being seen or exposed in doing something undesirable (like making a mistake). When we speak or write, shame will drive us to avoid making mistakes. One way of doing that is remaining silent; another way is to pass the blame and criticise others rather than taking the blame. In writing or conversation, we can counter shame by developing technical skills, that is, by learning chops that make it look flawless, elegant, and professional. So we introduce technical jargon, demonstrating our analytical skills and what have you. While technical versatility is often equated with a sober or even neutral style, this asset might owe less to sobriety than to shame.

What’s love got do with it? – Iris Murdoch wrote somewhere that love is, amongst other things, the ability to see someone else as real. (See Fleur Jongepier’s great piece on Murdoch and love.) One way of taking this is that love is an ability, the ability to understand, not yourself and your desires, but the other. How do you do that? My hunch is that understanding others begins with trying to understand their experience. If you are able to express someone’s experience, the other might feel seen. In writing, this can be done in at least two ways. You can try to say what (you think) someone experiences or you can try to create an experience for the reader. Now you might think that this factor is totally absent from academic writing, but that isn’t true. Philosophers typically try to tap into experience by using examples or crafting thought experiments. What is rarely acknowledged is that these items do much more work than meets the eye. Strong examples and thought experiments often live on much longer than the arguments they’re supposed to back up. They are far more than mere illustrations of a point. Ideally, they allow the reader to experience a conceptual constraint on an almost physical level. Knowing a norm, for example, is one thing; being exposed (or imagining yourself) as having transgressed it is quite another.

How does this take on love as understanding the other play out in reading and writing? Returning to the example of asking people what they didn’t understand in a given text, it would be an act of love, in the sense explained, to acknowledge what you do not understand about the text. For if love is seeing the other as real, acknowledging the other’s reality would begin by acknowledging that there is something different, something you do not understand etc. In this sense, acknowledging the other (in the text) begins by admitting a weakness in yourself, the weakness of not understanding wholly. However, ultimately the point is not just to point out limitations but also to explore what constitutes these limits. This means that you also need to see what precisely blocks your understanding of the other (or the text). Seeing how factors in your personality, style, context and history enable or disable your understanding requires you to understand yourself. To use a radical example, if you have never been confronted with an optical illusion, examples of this sort of illustration wouldn’t work for you. Generally, if you never had access to certain kinds of experiences, these will constitute limits of understanding. Likewise, factors such as gender, race and class will inform the way a text speaks (or doesn’t speak) to us and limit the experiential resources available to draw on experience in writing. – It’s important to see that, in this sense, shame and love are in conflict. While love aims at seeing the other and involves the other (and thus ourselves, too) as being seen, shame drives us to disguise ourselves (at least in what we find undesirable) and perhaps even to blame the other for failing to be intelligible to us. In philosophical conversation, then, shame would make us avoid being seen (at least in undesirable aspects), while love would require us to lay bare our weakness of not understanding the other. As a result of this, shame and love play out in how we relate to (personal) experience. Arguably, shame blocks resorting to (personal) experience, while love as an approach to what constitutes borders between ourselves and others requires resorting to experience.

Expressing thoughts and experience. – If the forgoing makes some sense, we might say that shame and love inspire different attitudes in philosophical conversation: shame makes us shun (expressing thoughts by) personal experience, while love requires us to explore experience. Going from shame and love as two guiding emotions, then, we can easily discern two styles of reading and writing. Driven by shame, we find ourselves in a culture that often shuns resorting to experience and relies on techniques that correct for supposedly subjective factors. It is no surprise, then, that philosophers often highlight skills of so-called “critical thinking” as an asset of the discipline. More often than not these skills boil down to learning labels of fallacies that we can tag on texts. Looking at my student days, I often found myself indulging in technicalities to shun the fear of being seen for what I was: someone understanding very little. That said, such skills can be developed into a real art of analysis. Paired with patience, the careful study of arguments can yield great results. Then, it is no longer merely a way of avoiding shame but itself a set of tools for understanding. – Conversely, inspired by what I introduced as love, experience is crucial for understanding what sets us apart from others and the rest of the world. As I said earlier, this approach requires taking into account facors such as personalities, context and history. Crucially, such an approach cannot rely on the skillset of the writer or reader alone. It requires a dialogical readiness that might always undermine one’s own steps of understanding by what remains different. Perhaps it is not surprising that this approach is found mostly in areas that have traditionally enjoyed less acclaim, such as certain approaches in history, standpoint theory or experimental philosophy. – However, while it is important to tell such driving forces and styles apart, they are hardly ever distinct. As I said in an earlier post, if you open any of the so-called classics, you’ll find representations of both forms. Descartes’ Meditations offer you meditative exercises that you can try at home alongside a battery of arguments engaging with rival theories. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus closes with the mystical and the advice to shut up about the things that matter most after opening with a rather technical account of how language relates to the world. Yet, while both kinds are present in many philosophical works, it’s mostly the second kind that gets recognition in professional academic philosophy If this is correct, this means that experience doesn’t figure much in our considerations of reading and writing.

Can we teach failure? – Trying to pin down what characterises this sort of love as an approach in reading and writing, it ultimately seems to be a process of failure. Trying to understand others fails in that success is simply unthinkable. There is no exhaustive understanding of the other, a text, a person, a thing, whatever. Love, in this or perhaps in any sense, has nothing to do with success, but everything with dialogical trying and undermining. Of course, this can be taught. But it has no place in learning outcomes. As teachers of reading and writing, though, it might be helpful to point out that “analysing”, “reconstructing”, “discussing”, “contextualising”, “arguing” and such like are not success verbs. Showing how we fail in these attempts might go a long way in understanding and overcoming shame.

“Songs make you feel thoughts.” Music as a path to feeling philosophy

Being an amateur musician, I often indulge in watching music education videos on youtube, especially by Adam Neely, Rick Beato and Aimee Nolte. I’m struck not only by their great didactical resourcefulness, but also by how much many of their attempts carry over to philosophy. In other words, if you want to teach or learn something about philosophy, you might straightforwardly benefit from watching these and other videos. Why is this the case? On the one hand, I think there is the simple fact that these instructors do a great job of contextualisng their ideas from a number of perspectives. A recent video essay by Adam Neely on “the most elegant key change in all of pop music” is a case in point and worth watching till the very end. (This will also reveal where the quotation in the title is from.) On the other hand, I think there might be a deeper reason: As I see it, there is a kinship between philosophy and music (and perhaps other arts) that is often neglected for the simple reason that philosophy is more often taught in tandem with logic rather than with rhetoric. In what follows, I’d just briefly like to suggest how to begin thinking about this tenuous relation.

I don’t know about you, but I was drawn to philosophy and related literature way before I understood a thing. Part of me still thinks that I even was (and am) drawn to it because there is much I don’t understand. There is the promise of something meaningful, and you cannot get it or at least not all of it. So much thinking basically leaves me confused. (At the same time there can be an emotional precision that my thinking can’t catch up with.) Even if my ways and approaches to philosophy have become more refined over the years, I still think that is how philosophical thoughts feel to me: often confused, infinitely richer than my understanding will reach.

Music strikes me as a very similar kind of art. There is so much meaning but I understand so little of it. But unlike in philosophy, in music it’s totally fine if you don’t understand the more technical aspects. You can listen to a song and enjoy it – and that’s just fine. In philosophy, that seems different: if you don’t understand what’s going on that’s taken as a shortcoming. Doing philosophy, it seems, is often construed as successful understanding or thinking. Otherwise it seems to be some kind of mysticism. Right now, I don’t want to argue for a particular view on this matter. But I want to stress that not understanding or unsuccessful thinking is what attracts me in philosophy. Just like I can enjoy a very complex piece of music without understanding the details of it, I can equally enjoy thinking or reading without understanding it. Even if I want to understand (both music and philosophy), the desire and enjoyment is there before I understand. Perhaps even partly because I don’t understand. In this sense, I think that thoughts have an emotional dimension, just like music has an emotional dimension. What’s more, we’re engaging in the practice of philosophy or music or indeed any practice well before we master it. Arguably, such engagement is carried by the emotional and more tacit un-analysed features of our being. (Victor Wooten makes this case beautifully for music and language learning.)

For me, then, understanding thoughts does not only involve understanding the content or structure, but also the emotional and phenomenal qualities of thinking. You think that thoughts and emotions are separate? Well, think again! Most thoughts are expressed in language. Already the way they are expressed (whatever their content) has emotional features. The language can be dry or enthusiastic, complex or simple, feel like withholding something etc. If thoughts are verbally expressed, you get the whole register of tone of voice etc. If you see or imagine the speaker, you get their facial expressions etc. These features are not merely subjective but mostly culturally coded. If you take into account the vast history of traditions of thought, you begin to see quickly that the current way of doing philosophy in Western philosophy departments is far from the only way of doing and expressing the feel of it. As I see it, such features matter for the identity of thought. And while they might draw you in or repel you, they can also become the object of study. Yes, it’s worthwhile not just to study Kant’s ideas but the sound and rhythm of his prose. People often say they find him difficult. But the reasons behind these difficulties might owe less to his ideas and perhaps more to the emotional and phenomenal properties of his prose. In other words, the rhetorical features might weigh no less than the logical features. But for some strange reason rhetoric is largely neglected in our current practice of philosophy. Thinking about music (or other arts) and the way thoughts feel might go a long way in re-establishing such insights.

Meditation in philosophy. A conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo (podcast)

Meditation in philosophy. A conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo (podcast)

This is the fourth installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo who is an associate professor of philosophy at Groningen University. In this conversation, we focus on meditation both as part of philosophical traditions as well as an approach that might be a resourceful factor impacting (academic) philosophy, teaching and academic culture. While Cartesian and Buddhist ideas* form a continuous resource in the background of our discussion, here is a list of themes in case you look for something specific:

  • Introduction   0:00
  • Meditation and Descartes’ Meditations   2:20
  • The notion of experience – and objections against experience as a basis in philosophy   9:00
  • Meditation in teaching   21:14
  • Why aren’t we already using these insights in education?   37:00
  • How can we teach and learn effectively?   44:36
  • How can we guide and assess?   52:50
  • Where is this approach leading, also in terms of academic culture?   1:03:00

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* The opening quotation is from Andrea’s blogpost What can we learn today from Descartes’ Meditations? Here is the passage: “Since last year, I appreciated the text of the Mediations as real meditation, namely, as a way of practicing a meditative kind of philosophy (for lack of better term), a philosophy more concerned with what it means to experience reality in this way or that way, rather than with what a certain set of propositions means.”

He has published four more posts on this topic on the blog of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Thought. They are:

What kind of thing is the canon?

“Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Given the ever-increasing amount of initiatives on diversifying the canon, it is striking that one crucial question does not seem to be tackled much: What kind of thing is the canon?* While I have sketched my view on the function of the canon in an earlier post, I don’t really have found an answer either. I find this question crucial because it will tell us something about the fate and success indicators of the initiatives. What if it turns out that the canon is a kind of thing that cannot be altered? Or at least not in the way envisaged in the current projects? In what follows, I’d like to suggest that it’s crucial to see that, like a standard language, a canon has both a descriptive and prescriptive dimension.

Description and prescription. – Like in music or literature, the canon in the history of philosophy is a historical and normative entity. It has grown over a long time and is related to a larger set of norms and conventions interwoven with our habits and actions. Here, the canon is not just something adhered to; it’s a point of reference equally for those who wish to maintain it and those challenging it. If I write atonal rock music, I know that I do that against a canon of tonal music. My writing atonal music might be a challenge to the canon or might slowly be integrated. Both is possible. What’s crucial is that it’s not under my control whether my pieces alter the canon. The same might be said of the way we speak and write or even the way we build our cities. For me, the upshot is that the canon has at once a descriptive and prescriptive dimension. It tells us how things were and became. But it also tells us how things should be done. And whether your or my contributions figure in that is not for us to say.

The canon as a standard language. – Given the co-presence of descriptive and prescriptive aspects, the canon might be compared to a standard in a language, like Standard English as opposed to certain dialects. It is a historically grown entity as well as a set of rules determining what counts as “proper”. In this sense, we can compare canon diversification projects such as Extending New Narratives to attempts at ameliorating linguistic practices by suggesting different words or grammatical features so as to make underrepresented groups linguistically visible. The emphasis on more diverse and chosen pronouns, for instance, resembles the attempt to make minorities visible in the history of philosophy. Likewise, the political backlashes and difficulties are on a par with those in historiography. But just as language is only partially under our conscious control, the (philosophical) canon cannot be altered simply by adding so called “minor figures” to it. Adding expressions to the standard language does not mean that they will be used in conversation or seen as a (new) standard. But they may be. Who knows?

Can we change the past? – If canons are both descriptive and prescriptive, attempts at altering the canon are not only prescriptive and designed to nudge us into a different future practice of (history of) philosophy. They are also descriptive, and that means they describe the past in an altered way, for instance, by including hitherto underrepresented figures. For this reason, they are often met with the silly objection that they would distort or even erase history. The objection is silly because it identifies the challenged canon with the past or with history. But the canon is not the past. The canon is a way of approaching the past. And such a way is always guided by values and thus selective.

If this is correct, however, it means that attempts at diversifying the canon are not an attempt to give a more complete or accurate picture of the past. It rather means that we (want to) change how we approach the past and who or what we think counts as relevant. The goal of doing history of philosophy is not to present an accurate picture of the past, but to present an accurate picture of what we think matters for our present and future. If diversity matters for us, it also matters in our approach to the past. In this regard, it’s helpful to consider Wittgenstein’s likening of language to an ancient city. Like the philosophical past, the ever changing city has been there and yet is present in our life. But which precise places and streets we go to and build on is something that is up to us. It took a long time until, for instance, mosques in Berlin were not only found in backyards anymore but also in clearly visible places of town.

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* That said, a number of questions have been tackled, especially in Lonneke Oostland’s recent MA thesis “Canon ‘Enrichment’ and the History of Philosophy”. Besides Lonneke, I’d like to thank Han Thomas Adriaenssen, Daria Drozdova, Martin Krohs, Laura Georgescu and Felipe Romero for intriguing conversations about the status of the canon.

History is about you. On teaching outdated philosophy

Everything we take to be history is, in fact, present right now. Otherwise we wouldn’t think about it.

When I was little, I often perceived the world as an outcome of historical progress. I didn’t exactly use the word “historical progress” when talking to myself, but I thought I was lucky to grow up in the 20th century rather than, say, the Middle Ages. Why? Well, the most obvious examples were advances in technology. We have electricity; they didn’t. That doesn’t change everything, but still a lot. Thinking about supposedly distant times, then, my childhood mind conjured up an image of someone dragging themselves through a puddle of medieval mud, preferably while I was placed on the sofa in a cozy living-room with the light switched on and the fridge humming in the adjacent kitchen. It took a while for me to realise that this cozy contrast between now and then is not really an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about history, more precisely about what separates us from the past. For what my living room fantasy obscures is that this medieval mud is what a lot of people are dragging themselves through today. It would have taken a mere stroll through town to see how many homeless or other people do not live in the same world that I identified as my present world. Indeed, most things that we call “medieval” are present in our current world. Listening to certain people today, I realise that talk of the Enlightenment, the Light of Reason and Rationality is portrayed in much the same way as my living-room fantasy. But as with the fruits of technology, I think the praise of Enlightenment is not an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about what separates us from the past. One reaction to this prejudice would be to chide the prejudiced minds (and my former self); another reaction is to try and look more closely at our encounters with these prejudices when doing history. That means to try and see them as encounters with ourselves, with the ideologies often tacitly drummed into us, and to understand how these prejudices form our expectations when reading old texts. Approaching texts in this latter way, means to read them both as historical philosophical documents as much as an encounter with ourselves. It is this latter approach I want to suggest as a way of reading and teaching what could be called outdated philosophy. According to at least some of my students’ verdicts about last term, this might be worth pursuing.

Let’s begin with the way that especially medieval philosophy is often introduced. While it’s often called “difficult” and “mainly about religion”, it’s also said to require so much linguistic and other erudition that anyone will wonder why on earth they should devote much time to it. One of the main take-away messages this suggests is an enormous gap between being served some catchy chunks of, you know, Aquinas, on the one hand, and the independent or professional study of medieval texts, on the other hand. Quite unlike in ethics or social philosophy, hardly any student will see themselves as moving from the intro course to doing some real research on a given topic in this field. While many medievalists and other historians work on developing new syllabi and approaches, we might not spend enough time on articulating what the point or pay-off of historical research might be. – I don’t profess to know what the point of it all is. But why would anyone buy into spending years on learning Latin or Arabic, palaeography or advanced logic, accepting the dearth of the academic job market, a philosophical community dismissing much of their history? For the sake of, yes, what exactly? Running the next edition of Aquinas or growing old over trying to get your paper on Hildegard of Bingen published in a top journal? I’m not saying that there is no fun involved in studying these texts and doing the work it takes; I’m wondering whether we make sufficiently explicit why this might be fun. Given the public image of history (of philosophy), we are studying what the world was like before there was electricity and how they then almost invented it but didn’t.

Trying to understand what always fascinated me about historical studies, I realised it was the fact that one learns as much about oneself as about the past. Studying seemingly outdated texts helped me understand how this little boy in the living room was raised into ideologies that made him (yes, me) cherish his world with the fridge in the adjacent kitchen, and think of history as a linear progress towards the present. In this sense, that is in correcting such assumptions, studying history is about me and you. But, you ask, even if this is true, how can we make it palpable in teaching? – My general advice is: Try to connect to your student-self, don’t focus on the supposed object of study, but on what it revealed about you. Often this isn’t obvious, because there is no obvious connection. Rather, there is disparity and alienation. It is an alienation that might be similar to moving to a different town or country. So, try to capture explicitly what’s going on in the subject of study, too, in terms of experience, resources and methods available. With such thoughts in mind, I designed a course on the Condemnation of 1277 and announced it as follows:

Condemned Philosophy? Reason and faith in medieval and contemporary thought

Why are certain statements condemned? Why are certain topics shunned? According to a widespread understanding of medieval cultures, especially medieval philosophy was driven and constrained by theological and religious concerns. Based on a close reading of the famous condemnation of 1277, we will explore the relation between faith and reason in the medieval context. In a second step we will look at contemporary constraints on philosophy and the role of religion in assessing such constraints. Here, our knowledge of the medieval context might help questioning current standards and prejudices. In a third step we will attempt to reconsider the role of faith and belief in medieval and contemporary contexts.

The course was aimed at BA students in their 3rd year. What I had tried to convey in the description is that the course should explore not only medieval ideas but also the prejudices through which they are approached. During the round of introductions many students admitted that they were particularly interested in this twofold focus on the object and the subject of study. I then explained to them that most things I talk about can be read about somewhere else. What can’t be done somewhere else is have them come alive by talking them through. I added that “most of the texts we discuss are a thousand years old. Despite that fact, these texts have never been exposed to you. That confrontation is what makes things interesting.” In my view, the most important tool to bring out this confrontation lies in having students prepare and discuss structured questions about something that is hard to understand in the text. (See here for an extensive discussion) The reason is that questions, while targeting something in the text, reveal the expectations of the person asking. Why does the question arise? Because there is something lacking that I would expect to be present in the text. Most struggles with texts are struggles with our own expectations that the text doesn’t meet. Of course, there might be a term we don’t know or a piece of information lacking, but this is easily settled with an internet search these days. The more pervasive struggles often reveal that we encounter something unfamiliar in the sense that it runs counter to what we expect the text to say. This, then, is where a meeting of the current students and historical figures takes place, making explicit our and their assumptions.

During the seminar discussions, I noticed that students, unlike in other courses, dared targeting really tricky propositions that they couldn’t account for on the fly. Instead of trying to appear as being on top of the material, they delineated problems to be addressed and raised genealogical questions of how concepts might have developed between 1277 and 2020. Interestingly, the assumption was often not that we were more advanced. Rather they were interested in giving reasons why someone would find a given idea worth defending. So my first impression after this course was that the twofold focus on the object and subject of study made the students’ approach more historical, in that they didn’t take their own assumptions as a yardstick for assessing ideas. Another outcome was that students criticised seeing our text as a mere “object of study”. In fact, I recall one student saying that “texts are hardly ever mere objects”. Rather, we should ultimately see ourselves as engaging in dialogue with other subjects, revealing their prejudices as much as our own.

The children in the living room were not chided. They were recognised in what they had taken over from their elders. Now they could be seen as continuing to learn – making, shunning and studying history.

The canon as a status symbol? White men, cancel culture, and the functions of history of philosophy

“I’m an avid reader of Locke.” “I love listening to Bach.” – Utterances like this often expose the canon – be it in philosophy, literature, music or other arts – as a status symbol. The specifics of our cultural capital might differ, but basically we might say that one man’s Mercedes Benz is another’s readership of Goethe. What is often overlooked is that challenging the canon can look equally status-driven: “Oh, that’s another dead white man.” “I’m so excited about Caroline Shaw’s work.” – Spoken in the pertinent in-group, utterances like this are just as much of an indication of status symbolism. Challenging the canon, then, can become as much of a worn trope as defending adherence to the traditional canon. Let me explain.

Functions of history. – For better or worse, the aims of our discipline are often portrayed in epistemic terms. We study history, we say, to understand or explain (the development of) ideas and events. And in doing that, we want to “get it right.” Arguably, the aim of getting it right obscures a whole set of quite different aims of history. I think more often than not, history is done to (politically) justify or even legitimise one’s position. Just as talk about ancestors justifies inheritance, talk about philosophical predecessors is often invoked to legitimise why it’s worth thinking about something along certain lines. Just asking a question on the fly is nothing, but continuing the tradition of inquiring about the criteria of knowledge does not only justify historical research; it also legitimises our current approaches. Seen this way, a historical canon legitimises one’s own interests. Likewise, the attack on a canonical figure can be seen as shaking such legitimacy, be it with regard to representative figures, topics or questions. Conversely, I might aim to adjust the canon to find and highlight the ancestry that legitimises a new field of study. This endeavour is not one of “getting it right” though.  Of course, we cannot change the past, but we can attempt to change the canon or what we admit to the canon so as to admit of ancestors in line with new ways of thinking. As I see it, these are well-founded motivations to study and/or alter the study of canonical figures. – However, while such motivations might well drive our choices in doing history, they can also deteriorate into something like mere status symbolism. Let’s look at a concrete example.

Three kinds of debates. – I recently read a piece about Locke on slavery, making the point that Locke’s involvement in the American context is far more problematic than recent research portrayed it to be.* The piece struck me as an interesting contribution to (1) the debate on Locke’s political ideas, but the title was jazzed up with the recommendation to leave “Locke in the dustbin of history”. Since the word “dustbin” doesn’t return in the text, I’m not sure whether the title reflects the author’s choice. Be that as it may, in contrast to the piece itself (which is part of a series of texts on Locke’s political position), the title firmly places it in (2) a larger public debate about the moral status of canonical philosophers such as Hume, Berkeley or Aristotle. I think both the more scholarly and the more public debates are important and intertwined in various ways. We can be interested in both how Locke thought about slavery and how we want to judge his involvement. Given what I said about the justifying function of history, it’s clear that we look at authors not only as ancestors. We also ask whether they do or do not support a line of thought we want to endorse. And if it turns out that Locke’s thought is compatible with advocating slavery, then we want to think again how we relate to Locke, in addition to studying again the pertinent documents. However, in addition to these two debates, there is (3) yet another debate about the question whether we should be having these debates at all. This is the debate about the so-called “cancel culture”. While some say we shouldn’t cancel philosophers like Locke, others challenge the omnipresence of the notorious old or dead white men. As I see it, this latter debate about cancellation is highly problematic insofar as its proponents often question the legitimacy of the former (scholarly) debates.

As I see it, debates (1) and (2) are scholarly debates about Locke’s position on slavery. (1) makes an internal case regarding Locke’s writings. (2) also zooms in on the contrast to current views on slavery. (3) however is a different debate altogether. Here, the question is mainly whether it is legitimate to invoke Locke as an ancestor or as part of a canon we want to identify with. The main problem I see, though, is that the title “Leave John Locke in the historical dustbin” makes the whole piece ambiguous between (2) and (3). Given the piece, I’d think this works on level (2), but given how people responded to it and can use it, it becomes a hit piece on level (3) whose only aim seems to be to write Locke out of the (legitimate) canon. But this ambiguity or continuity between the the two kinds of debate is disastrous for the discipline. While on levels (1) and (2) the question of how Locke relates to slavery is an open question, dependent on interpretations of empirical evidence, Locke’s moral failure is already taken for granted on level (3). Here, the use of the canonical figure Locke stops being historical. It reduces to political partisanship. Why? Because history is then taken to be something already known, rather than something to be studied.

The irony is that each group, the defenders as well as the challengers of the canonical figure, questions the moral legitimacy of what they suppose the other group does by making a similar move, that is by appealing to a status symbol that enjoys recognition in the pertinent in-group. One group shouts “Locke and Enlightenment”; the other group shouts “Locke and Racism”. Neither approach to history strikes me as historical. It deteriorates into a mere use of historical items as status symbols, providing shortcuts for political fights. All of this is perhaps not very suprprising. The problem is that such status symbolism undermines scholarly debates and threatens to reduce historical approaches to political partisanship. My point, then, is not that all political or moral discussion of history reduces to status symbolism. But there is the danger that historical scholarship can appear to be continuous with mere status symbolism.

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* I’d like to thank Nick Denyer, Natalia Milopolsky, Naomi Osorio, Tzuchien Tho, Anna Tropia, and Markus Wild for insightful remarks or exchanges on this matter.

Empiricism and rationalism as political ideas?

Are all human beings equal? – Of course, that’s why we call them human. ­– But how do we know? – Well, it’s not a matter of empirical discovery, it’s our premise. ­– I see. And so everything else follows?

The opposition between empiricism and rationalism is often introduced as an epistemological dispute, concerning primarily the ways knowledge is acquired, warranted and limited. This is what I learned as a student and what is still taught today. If you’ve studied philosophy for a bit, you will also have heard that this opposition is problematic and coarse-grained when taken as a historical category. But in my view the problem is not that this opposition is too coarse-grained (all categories of that kind are). Rather, the problem lies with introducing it as a mere epistemological dispute. As I see it,* the opposition casts a much wider conceptual net and is rooted in metaphysical and even political ideas. Thus, the opposition is to be seen in relation to a set of disagreements in both theoretical and practical philosophy. In what follows, I don’t want to present a historical or conceptual account, but merely suggest means of recognising this wide-ranging set of ideas and show how the distinction helps us seeing the metaphysical implications and political choices related to our epistemological leanings.

Let me begin with a simple question: Do you think there is, ultimately, only one true description of the world? If your answer is ‘yes’, I’d be inclined to think that you are likely to have rationalist commitments. Why? Well, because an empiricist would likely reject that assumption for the reason that we might not be able to assess whether we lack important knowledge. Thus, we might miss out on crucial insights required to answer that question in the first place. This epistemological caution bears on metaphysical questions: Might the world be a highly contingent place, subject to sudden or constant change? If this is affirmed, it might not make sense to say that there is one true description of the world. How does this play out in political or moral terms? Rephrasing the disagreement a bit, we might say that rationalists are committed to the idea that the world is ordered in a certain way, while empiricists will remain open as to whether such an order is available to us at all. Once we see explanatory order in relation to world order, it becomes clear that certain commitments might follow for what we are and, thus, for what is good for us. If you believe that we can attain the one true description of the world, you might also entertain the idea that this standard should inform our sciences and our conduct at large. – Of course, this is quite a caricature of what I have in mind. All I want to suggest is that it might be rewarding to look whether certain epistemological leanings go hand in hand with metaphysical and practical commitments. So let’s zoom in on the different levels in a bit more detail.

(1) Epistemology: As I have already noted, the opposition is commonly introduced as concerning the origin, justification and limits of knowledge. Are certain ideas or principles innate or acquired through the senses? Where do we have to look in order to justify our assumptions? Can we know everything there is to be known, at least in principle, or are there realms that we cannot even sensibly hope to enter? – If we focus on the question of origin, we can already see how the opposition between empiricism and rationalism affects the pervasive nature-nurture debates: Are certain concepts and the related abilities owing to learning within a certain (social) environment or are the crucial elements given to us from the get-go? Now, let’s assume you’re a rationalist and think that our conceptual activity is mostly determined from the outset. Doesn’t it follow from this that you also assume that we are equal in our conceptual capacities? And doesn’t it also follow that rules of reasoning and standards of rationality are the same for all (rather than owing, say, to cultural contexts)? – While the answers are never straightforward, I would assume at least certain leanings into one direction or another. But while such leanings might already inform political choices, it is equally important to see how they relate to other areas of philosophy.

(2) Metaphysics: If you are an empiricist and assume that the main sources of our knowledge are our (limited) senses, this often goes and in hand with epistemic humility and the idea that we cannot explain everything. Pressed why you think so, you might find yourself inclined to say that the limits of our knowledge have a metaphysical footing. After all, if we cannot say whether an event is fully explicable, might this not be due to the fact that the world is contingent? Couldn’t everything have been otherwise, for instance because God interferes in events here and there? In other words, if you don’t assume there to be a sufficient reason for everything, this might be because you accept brute facts. Accordingly, the world is a chancy place and what our sciences track might be good enough to get by, but never provide the certainty that is promised by our understanding of natural laws. Depending on the historical period, such assumptions often go hand in hand with more or less explicit forms of essentialism. The lawful necessities in nature might be taken to relate to the way things are. Now essences are not only taken to determine what things are, but also how they ought to be. – Once you enter the territory of essentialism, then, it is only a small step to leanings regarding norms of being (together), of rationality, and of goodness.

(3) Theology / Sources of Normativity: If you allow for an essentialist determination of how things are and ought to be, this immediately raises the question of the sources of such essences and norms. Traditionally, we often find this question addressed in the opposition between theological intellectualism (or rationalism) and voluntarism: Intellectualists assume that norms of being and acting are prior to what God wills. So even God is bound by an order prior to his will. God acts out of reasons that are at least partly determined by the way natural things and processes are set up. By contrast, voluntarists assume that something is rational or right because God wills it, not vice versa. It is clear how this opposition rhymes with that of rationalism and empiricism: The rationalist assumes one order that even binds God. The empiricist remains epistemically humble, because she believes that rationality is fallible. Perhaps she believes this because she assumes that the world is a chancy place, which in turn might be owing to the idea that the omnipotent God can intervene anytime. It is equally clear how this opposition might translate into (lacking) justifications of moral norms or political power. – Unlike often assumed in the wake of Blumenberg and others, this doesn’t mean that voluntarism or empiricism straightforwardly translate into political absolutism. It is hardly ever a particular political idea that is endorsed as a result of empiricist or rationalist leanings. Nevertheless, we will likely find elements that play out in the justification of different systems.**

Summing up, we can see that certain ideas in epistemology go hand in hand with certain metaphysical as well as moral and political assumptions. The point is not to argue for systematically interwoven sets of doctrines, but to show that the opposition of empiricism and rationalism is so much more than just a disagreement about whether our minds are “blank slates”. Our piecemeal approach to philosophical domains might have its upsides, but it blurs our vision when it comes to the tight connections between theoretical and practical questions which clearly were more obvious to our historical predecessors. Seen this way, you might try and see whether you’ll find pertinently coherent assumptions in historical or current authors or in yourself. I’m not saying you’re inconsistent if you diverge from a certain set of assumptions. But it might be worth asking if and why you conform or diverge.

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* A number of ideas alluded to here would never have seen the light of day without numerous conversations with Laura Georgescu.

** See my posts on Ockham’s and Wittgenstein’s voluntarism for more details.

Music for chameleons or humans during pandemics

Surely nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, but who would have expected Covid-19 pandemics one year ago? More significantly for teachers, who would have expected a massive use of virtual platforms for contactless teaching? The first lockdown and the first “transfer” from real to virtual has been (to me, and I’m stressed that this post relates to my personal experience) a real shock. In March (again, my case) I remember students checking their phones during my last “in person” class, interrupting me to claim: “This will be our last class here for a while, it seems, they’re shutting down schools and university as well”. It was as surprising at least as the Spanish Inquisition (until then, almost nobody was really taking seriously Covid) and brought some accents of drama into the room; parting was strange, as well as my incapacity of answering to the practical question “what will we do next week?”. The rest is history, almost everybody teaching at the University or in schools moved online and had to re-adapt everything to the space of her laptop-screen, the whole being framed by a more or less personal space, offered to the view of students for the first time (such a shame in my case, for, in order to show as little as possible of my room, I chose a strange angle and eventually have no massive and impressive lines of bookshelves to show off). Be this as it may, this is not a post on Zoom’s or other tools’ aesthetics. There are YouTube tutorials for this, I guess.

The point I want to raise is so evident that it might appear flat; but it was not so to me until we entered the second lockdown and went back to a new, massive and continuous (up to the current day) use of Zoom. How much of us do we bring in class whilst teaching? What exactly do we transmit to students together with our attempts at explaining God’s simplicity and the complex story of his attributes, when external conditions are of no help (e.g. poor concentration deriving from flat-sharing, or too much privacy: cams shut down, how do you know students are still there, poorly or completely not interested by the story of the divine attributes?). The first question is broad of course. We bring a lot of us into the classroom. Our experience, from which we draw examples and images that can help out clarifying difficult abstract concepts. And the same applies to Zoom, but in a slightly different way (see the previously mentioned focus difficulty). But let’s go back to the divine attributes. Whilst preparing my power-point presentation n. 1000 etc. for the undergraduate survey-class on medieval philosophy, I was once choosing images to explain the absolute distance between creator and creatures. I put there the image of the Porphyrian tree, to show how God cannot be there at all. At a certain point I thought, well, God is a total alien, that is the idea. A completely different being. I was looking for an image to fix this, for none can think without images, right? And David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust popped up in my mind, the cover of Life on Mars? Was there anyone like him before him? Of course not. So, I put it there, it made me smile, I finished to prepare it and eventually taught the class. It worked out well, so well that we ended up listening to the song together. It sounds cheesy I know, but the point is again another. What enters the screen? How do we reach each other? Focus is not self-evident these days. 

Some weeks before using David Bowie for Aquinas, whilst teaching the same class, a smart student was smiling so much at the screen that I thought he was doing something else, so I asked him what the reason of his exaggerated smile was. He told me that he was smiling at me, because I was there striving to explain Maimonides (again, on divine attributes) in a moment in which nothing made much sense (a lot of my students had Covid-19, many lost their temporary jobs and ended up in financial troubles). I did not know what to reply immediately, just said something like: “Talking about Maimonides is our normality, mine and yours, think about it. Why are we here otherwise?” I could have done better indeed but found not better thing to say right there. And that student, Simon, is very smart. I doubled efforts, tried to reach out to them as much as possible each time, tried to be clearer and clearer. I am of course not as cheesy as to arrive to the point of making claims like: “Music is the answer, we listened together to Life on Mars? and this is the best you can do on Zoom”. I have colleagues who used to play music regularly during their classes when there was still no pandemic. But I realized how everything was much more difficult and that I was completely sharing Simon’s difficulty (Simon is the smiling student above): finding motivation to prepare classes and to enjoy my work. Being home in rigid lockdown for almost three months today, you basically go from your laptop to your laptop, either preparing courses or teaching them, to people who are as tired as you. Focusing is difficult. I decided to repeat the music experiment in the class on Port-Royal thinkers. How to explain Jansenism and Pascal’s background? We listened to Jansenist Sainte-Colombe’s music (e. g., Le tombeau des regrets) and I told the story of his pupil Marin Marais, who learned from him virtuous technique and then chose the world, becoming Versailles’ official composer. This was immediately understood and triggered a lot of commentaries that went from Pascal to the Logic or Art of Thinking passing through observations on Montaigne. What actually brings you better to the Port-Royalists’ spirit than a Leçon des ténèbres? Given the time-challenge (how long will they remain focused, once the meeting is launched?) and the necessity to transmit some content, I think the music experiment worked. In the end, aren’t we all using YouTube when we sit in front of the computer? The medium is the same. And during pandemics, we all are at pains with attention problems. So, maybe, this explains the massive usage of paintings in my power-points (never used so much of my poor competences of history of art before) or the references to literature and books, even the last entering my (invisible to them) library. I used to refer to books or show paintings even before the pandemic of course. What is different now is that they are more needed than ever to create bridges from one desktop to others.

Are philosophical classics too difficult for students?

Say you would like to learn something about Kant, should you start by reading one of his books or rather get a good introduction to Kant? Personally, I think it’s good to start with primary texts, get confused, ask questions, and then look at the introductions to see some of your questions discussed. Why? Well, I guess it’s better to have a genuine question before looking for answers. However, even before the latest controversy on Twitter (amongst others between Zena Hitz and Kevin Zollman) took off, I have been confronted with quite different views. Taken as an opposition between extreme views, you could ask whether you want to make philosophy about ideas or people (and their writings). It’s probably inevitable that philosophy ends up being about both, but there is still the question of what we should prioritise.

Arguably, if you expose students to the difficult original texts, you might frighten them off. Thus, Kevin Zollman writes: “If I wanted someone to learn about Kant, I would not send them to read Kant first. Kant is a terrible writer, and is impossible for a novice to understand.” Accordingly, he argues that what should be prioritised is the ideas. In response Zena Hitz raises a different educational worry: “You’re telling young people (and others) that serious reading is not for them, but only for special experts.” Accordingly, she argues for prioritising the original texts. As Jef Delvaux shows in an extensive reflection, both views touch on deeper problems relating to epistemic justice. A crucial point in his discussion is that we never come purely or unprepared to a primary text anyway. So an emphasis on the primary literature might be prone to a sort of givenism about original texts.

I think that all sides have a point, but when it comes to students wanting to learn about historical texts, there is no way around looking at the original. Let me illustrate my point with a little analogy:

Imagine you want to study music and your main instrument is guitar. It is with great excitement that you attend courses on the music of Bach whom you adore. The first part is supposed to be on his organ works, but already the first day is a disappointment. Your instructor tells you that you shouldn’t listen to Bach’s organ pieces themselves, since they might be far too difficult. Instead you’re presented with a transcription for guitar. Well, that’s actually quite nice because this is indeed more accessible even if it sounds a bit odd. (Taken as an analogy to reading philosophy, this could be a translation of an original source.) But then you look at he sheets. What is this? “Well”, the instructor goes on, “I’ve reduced the accompaniment to the three basic chords. That makes it easier to reproduce it in the exam, too. And we’ll only look at the main melodic motif. In fact, let’s focus on the little motif around the tonic chord. So, if you can reproduce the C major arpeggio, that will be good enough. And it will be a good preparation for my master class on tonic chords in the pre-classic period.” Leaving this music school, you’ll never have listened to any Bach pieces, but you have wonderful three-chord transcriptions for guitar, and after your degree you can set out on writing three-chord pieces yourself. If only there were still people interested in Punk!

Of course, this is a bit hyperbolic. But the main point is that too much focus on cutting things to ‘student size’ will create an artificial entity that has no relation to anything outside the lecture hall. But while I thus agree with Zena Hitz that shunning the texts because of their difficulties sends all sorts of odd messages, I also think that this depends on the purpose at hand. If you want to learn about Kant, you should read Kant just like you should listen to Bach himself. But what if you’re not really interested in Kant, but in a sort of Kantianism under discussion in a current debate? In this case, the purpose is not to study Kant, but some concepts deriving from a certain tradition.  In this case, you might be more like a jazz player who is interested in building a vocabulary. Then you might be interested, for instance, in how Bach dealt with phrases over diminished chords and focus on this aspect first. Of course, philosophical education should comprise both a focus on texts and on ideas, but I’d prioritise them in accordance with different purposes.

That said, everything in philosophy is quite difficult. As I see it, a crucial point in teaching is to convey means to find out where exactly the difficulties lie and why they arise. That requires all sorts of texts, primary, secondary, tertiary etc.