On mentoring. A response to Katarina Mihaljević

Professional philosophy has a reputation for protecting harassers in their midst. Although John Searle’s assaults are said to have been known since 2004, it was only this year that he has finally been sanctioned, a bit. Fostering such perpetrators not only speaks of an enormous sexism in the institutions in question, it also affects the normal or desirable relations between faculty members and students. Thus, it is not surprising that many public discussions about “the profession” revolve around the problematic aspects such as the effects of power imbalance. So much so that one might almost forget that faculty-student relations are not only poisonous but might even provide some remedies, also against the problematic culture in our discipline. Katarina Mihaljević argues that mentorship is crucial in education and even in combatting sexism. At the same time she points out that the precise nature of mentorship remains unclear: often neither students nor faculty members seem to have a clear idea of what to expect. In what follows, I would like to reflect on mentorship and its elusive nature.

During my years as a graduate student, mentorship wasn’t part of the educational programme. I just asked two of my professors for guidance and was very lucky in that they responded in an encouraging manner and supported me greatly and continuously. In my faculty at Groningen, mentoring forms a clear part of the graduate education. But that does of course not determine the nature of mentoring. According to one of many definitions, mentoring is a “process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development …” While at least some of us are trained to impart knowledge, it’s harder to get clear on what it means to transmit social capital and to lend support. A “code of conduct”, as Katarina envisions it, might provide a framework, but it can’t get to the heart of the matter, simply because questions of social capital and support are highly personal. In this sense, it is no surprise that the “rights and duties” remain and perhaps even have to remain vague. Nevertheless, there are a few elements that form a recurrent part of the conversations I have with students. In what follows, I’d like to list those that I find crucial:

  • Contextualising (content): No matter whether I am formally determined to be someone’s mentor or just happen to discuss a paper, I often begin by trying to figure out what the goals of students are. Why, for instance, does she want to write a certain paper? Is it related to a continuous set of interests or just falling out of the actual course work? Answers to this question help me understanding the philosophical drive of the student and, in turn, enable me to show a particular research question in its relation to wider issues inside and outside philosophy. My hope is that a particular piece of work makes sense to the student in a wider scope.
  • Contextualising (career): Where do you want to go with this piece of work? That is often my next question. Sometimes I receive an incredulous stare, but the point is to relate the actual work to wider life goals. Does someone see themselves as an academic or outside the university? And what difference might the work on a particular topic make? Sometimes people burn for a topic; others might wish to foster certain skills or just challenge themselves. – The idea is not to tailor the essay accordingly, but rather to get a sense of what matters to the student and whether I can say anything helpful at this point. If this goes well, the best outcome is some sort of confident projection of the student’s goals into the future. Ideally, the student seriously begins to see herself in a certain professional context or environment.
  • Understanding uncertainties: Obviously, this projection is not an attempt to fix the future. It’s about seeing obstacles and paths around them. To make this work, I try to connect to my own experiences as a student. This not in order to end up saying something like “do it my way”, but in order to understand: How would I have felt with such goals? How would I have felt about telling them to my supervisor? It helps me seeing the courage and worries involved in this projection. In some moments, I can then honestly say “oh, that would have worried me”, or “I would have loved to do something like that” or “faced with this, I wanted to do x, but never dared to.” Let’s face it: most worries are about performing well and how to get there. But in the background there is a larger story about belonging to a community. The crucial point, for me at least, is not to come up with recipes but to remind myself and others that it is part of the game to have worries or uncertainties. Mirroring that this is normal might help, and also put things into a balanced picture in line with other parts of life.
  • Advising: The forgoing items are mainly elements that figure in listening, “active listening”, still involving some talking on my part. Where does the advice come in? Ideally, students give themselves much advice while responding to questions. Most things suggest themselves when people unpack their ideas. One can steer this by asking things like “Have you asked yourself this?”, “Have you heard about that [book, conference, person]?”, “If you do x, you might run into the following problem.” – The idea is to encourage students to articulate their ideas in the strongest possible ways, to make them see objections, and show them the context in which they can be placed. This has a scholarly and a social dimension. Over and above the discussion of ideas, I find it crucial to impart an understanding of the network of people and institutions involved. Ideally, students feel encouraged to approach people whose ideas they find interesting, be it during talks, at conferences, summer schools or via mail. If students begin see themselves as a real part of the conversation I have reached one of the crucial goals in mentoring.
  • Limits: What I find equally crucial is to point out the limits of this process. Ultimately, I can’t do or help much. I cannot make promises that go far beyond the words spoken in such meetings. Of course, one can and should act on students’ behalf, be it putting them in touch with colleagues or relevant authorities, write a reference or help settle administrative processes. But that’s about it.

All of these steps are fairly elusive because they depend on the personalities of the people involved. This means that the crucial outcomes (or limits) of mentoring ultimately depend on the mutual trust that people have. That’s why students should feel free to turn away from a given mentor and turn to someone else if they wish. Personally, I always found it helpful to talk regularly to two people: one person who is more involved in the topics I care about; another person who might be more efficient when it comes to settling formal or even career-related issues.

Countering sexism, then, as Katarina envisions it, is ultimately an issue of fostering trust, confidence, and empowering ways of dealing with uncertainties. It should go without saying that this can only flourish in a climate in which perpetrators of any kind do not enjoy any protection. That is true of individual people and institutions as well as the wider discipline. But there is also a lot of sexism below the threshold of harassment. While good mentoring might be part of a remedy against this, mentoring is always related to a certain status quo. If mentoring is a form of guidance for going along with that status quo, it would involve strategies of coping with forms of sexism. It is here that I see the limits of mere mentoring. Countering sexism cannot mean gaslighting people into living with it.

Sexism and the importance of mentors in academic philosophy

It takes a village to raise a baby and it takes willing mentors to turn you into a good philosopher. I know it is true because I never had one. And then I briefly had one (nod to you, Martin), and now I have a new one ( 👋 Sander). When discussing mentoring with my colleagues, it often seems that the reason so many of us did not manage to clock in over the total of sixty minutes with our assigned academic supervisors/mentors during our one or two year-long master program was the skewed balance between the research, teaching and the administration duties. Argument went that, at the end of the day, our mentors/supervisors simply had no time or desire to meet with us.

But what if we could argue, even better, give some evidence that mentoring presents an important factor in helping underrepresented groups, such as women, to continue their studies on the graduate level?

Although mentoring, widely construed, is by no means a sufficient condition to secure transition of more women from the undergraduate to graduate programs[1], it is my contention that ultimately external conditions, such as mentorship, peer review, access to work spaces and the relevant literature are necessary if a student is to develop her philosophical contributions to a satisfactory level. For the purposes of this short note, I will only focus on mentoring and how the absence of it helps uphold the status quo in philosophy.

It is my contention that to stop being sexist in academic philosophy is to stop being selfish: with (1) the attention and (2) the resources.

One thing that all of us struggled with asking for and receiving attention were the unclear boundaries and vaguely described and understood rights and duties on both sides. Is one’s mentor supposed to take on a parental role? Or that of a therapist? Or that of a shoulder to cry on after Joris never texted back? The attention that so many of us wanted was never expected to be a one-sided effort. Regardless, most of the times, we would end up talking to whomever would listen about our minors, essay ideas and career plans.

To succeed in academic philosophy, women need not only mentors but also promoters. What does a promoter do? One example of promotion is to use resources at hand in a form of the access to information on relevant venues for the development of her research interests (read: summer schools).

In conclusion, to tackle the continued perpetuation of institutionalized sexism in academic philosophy, we ought to help develop more both capable and selfless male and female philosophers. In order to do that, I believe that we need to set up a more concrete mentor-mentee code of conduct which will outline rights and duties on both sides of the table.

[1] In their own take on quantification of the gender gap in the philosophy departments, Paxton, Figdor and Tiberius (2012) argue that the presence of female faculty members positively impacts the number of students transitioning to philosophy majors.

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.

Against history of philosophy: shunning vs ignoring history in the analytic traditions

Does history matter to philosophy? Some time ago I claimed that, since certain facts about concepts are historical, all philosophy involves history to some degree (see here and here). But this kind of view has been and is attacked by many. The relation to history is a kind of philosophical Gretchenfrage. If you think that philosophy is a historical endeavour, you’ll be counted among the so-called continental philosophers. If you think that philosophy can be done independently of (its) history, you’ll be counted among the analytic philosophers. Today, I’ll focus on the latter, that is, on analytic philosophy. What is rarely noted is that the reasons against history are rather different and to some extent even contradictory. Roughly put, some think that history is irrelevant, while others think that it is so influential that it should be shunned. In keeping with this distinction, I would like to argue that the former group tends to ignore history, while the latter group tends to shun history. I believe that ignoring history is a relatively recent trend, while shunning history is foundational for what we call analytic philosophy. But how do these trends relate? Let’s begin with the current ignorance.

A few years ago, Mogens Laerke told me that he once encountered a philosopher who claimed that it wasn’t really worth going back any further in history than “to the early Ted Sider”. Indeed, it is quite common among current analytic philosophers to claim that history of philosophy is wholly irrelevant for doing philosophy. Some educational exposure might count as good for preventing us from reinventing the wheel or finding the odd interesting argument, but on the whole the real philosophical action takes place today. Various reasons are given for this attitude. Some claim that philosophy aims at finding the truth and that truth is non-historical. Others claim that you don’t need any historical understanding to do, say, biology or mathematics, and that, since philosophy is a similar endeavour, it‘s equally exempt from its history. I’ll look at these arguments some other day. But they have to rely on the separability of historical factors from what is called philosophy. As a result of this, this position denies any substantial impact of history on philosophy. Whatever the merit of this denial, it has enormous political consequences. While the reasons given are often dressed as a-political, they have serious repercussions on the shape of philosophy in academic institutions. In Germany, for instance, you’ll hardly find a department that has a unit or chair devoted to history of philosophy. Given the success of analytic practitioners through journal capture etc., history is a marginalised and merely instrumental part of philosophy.

Yet, despite the supposed irrelevance of history, many analytic philosophers do see themselves as continuous with a tradition that is taken to begin with Frege or Russell. To portray contemporary philosophical work as relevant, it is apparently not enough to trust in the truth-conduciveness of the current philosophical tools on display. Justifying current endeavours has to rely on some bits and bobs of history. For some colleagues, grant agencies and students it’s not sufficient to point to the early Ted Sider to highlight the relevance of a project. While pointing to early analytic philosophy is certainly not enough, at least some continuity in terminology, arguments and claims is required. But do early analytic philosophers share the current understanding of history? As I said in the beginning, I think that many early figures in that tradition endorse a rather different view. As late as 1947, Ryle writes in a review of Popper in Mind, the top journal of analytic philosophy:

“Nor is it news to philosophers that Nazi, Fascist and Communist doctrines are descendants of the Hegelian gospel. … Dr Popper is clearly right in saying that even if philosophers are at long last immunized, historians, sociologists, political propagandists and voters are still unconscious victims of this virus …”*

Let me single out two claims from this passage: (1) Hegelian philosophy shaped pervasive political ideologies. (2) Philosophy has become immune against such ideologies. The first claim endorses the idea that historical positions of the past are not only influential for adherent philosophers, but shape political ideologies. This is quite different from the assumption that history is irrelevant. But what about the second claim? The immunity claim seems to deny the influence of history. So on the face of it, the second claim seems to be similar to the idea that history is irrelevant. This would render the statements incongruent. But there is another reading: Only a certain kind of philosophy is immune from the philosophical past and the related ideologies. And this is non-Hegelian philosophy. The idea is, then, not that history is irrelevant, but, to the contrary, that history is quite relevant that thus certain portions of the past should be shunned. Analytic philosophy is construed as the safe haven, exempt from historical influences that still haunt other disciplines.

Ryle is not entirely clear about the factors that would allow for such immunity. But if claim (2) is to be coherent with (1), then this might mean that we are to focus on certain aspects of philosophy and that we should see ourselves in the tradition of past philosophers working on these aspects. If this correct, Ryle is not claiming that philosophy is separate from history and politics, but that it can be exempt from certain kinds of history and politics. As Akehurst argues**, this tradition was adamant to shun German and Britisch idealism as well as many figures that seemed to run counter to certain ideas. Whatever these precise ideas are, the assumption that (early) analytic philosophy is simply a-historical or a-political is a myth.

Whatever one thinks of Ryle’s claims, they are certainly expressive of a core belief in the tradition. At it’s heart we see a process of shunning with the goal of reshaping the canon. The idea of being selective about what one considers as the canon is of course no prerogative of analytic philosophy. However, what seems to stand out is the assumption of immunity. While the attempt to immunise oneself or to counter one’s biases is a process that includes the idea that one might be in the grip of ideologies, the idea that one is already immune seems to be an ideology itself.

Now how does this shunning relate to what I called today’s ignorance? For better or worse, I doubt that these stances are easily compatible. At the same time, it seems likely that the professed ignorance is an unreflected outcome of the shunning in earlier times. If this is correct, then the idea of non-historicity has been canonised. In any case, it is time reconsider the relation between analytic philosophy and the history of philosophy.***

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* Thanks to Richard Creek, Nick Denyer, Stefan Hessbrüggen, Michael Kremer, and Eric Schliesser for some amusing online discussion of this passage.

** See T. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe, London: Continuum 2010, esp. 58-60. I am grateful to Catarina Dutilh-Novaes for bringing this book to my attention. See also his brief blog post focussing on Russell.

*** Currently, Laura Georgescu and I are preparing a special issue on the Uses and Abuses of History in Analytic Philosophy for JHAP. Please contact us if you are interested in contributing!

The competition fallacy

“We asked for workers. We got people instead.” Max Frisch

 

Imagine that you want to buy an album by the composer and singer Caroline Shaw, but they sell you one by Luciano Pavarotti instead, arguing that Pavarotti is clearly the more successful and better singer. Well, philosophers often make similar moves. They will say things like “Lewis was a better philosopher than Arendt” and even make polls to see how the majority sees the matter. Perhaps you agree with me in thinking that something has gone severely wrong in such cases. But what exactly is it? In the following I’d like to suggest that competitive rankings are not applicable when we compare individuals in certain respects. This should have serious repercussions on thinking about the job market in academia.

Ranking two individual philosophers who work in fairly different fields and contexts strikes me as pointless. Of course, you can compare them, see differences and agreements, ask about their respective popularity and so forth. But what would Lewis have said about the banality of evil? Or Arendt about modal realism? – While you might have preferences for one kind of philosophy over another, you would have a hard time explaining who the “better” or more “important” philosopher is (irrespective of said preferences). There are at least three reasons for this: Firstly, Arendt and Lewis have very little point of contact, i.e. a straightforward common ground on which to plot a comparison of their philosophies. Secondly, even if they had more commonalities or overlaps, the respective understandings of what philosophy is and what good philosophy should accomplish can be fairly different. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, philosophies are always individual and unique accomplishments. Unique creations are not something one can have a competition about. If we assume that there is a philosophical theory T1, T1 is not the kind of thing that you can compete about being better at. Of course, you can refine T1, but then you’ve created a refined theory T2. Now you might want to claim that T2 can be called better than T1. But what would T2 be, were it not for T1? Relatedly, philosophers are unique. The assumption that what one philosopher does can be done better or equally well by another philosopher is an illusion fostered by professionalised environments. People are always unique individuals and their ideas cannot be exchanged salva veritate.*

Now since there are open job searches (sometimes even without a specification of the area of specialisation) you could imagine a philosophy department in 2019 having to decide whether they hire Lewis or Arendt. I can picture the discussions among the committee members quite vividly. But in doing such a search they are doing the same thing as the shop assistant who ends up arguing for Pavarotti over Shaw. Then words like “quality”, “output”, “grant potential”, “teaching evaluations”, “fit” … oh, and “diversity” will be uttered. “Arendt will pull more students!” – “Yeah, but what about her publication record? I don’t see any top journals!” – “Well, she is a woman.” In a good world both of them would be hired, but we live in a world where many departments might rather hire two David Lewises. So what’s going on?

It’s important to note that the competition is not about their philosophies: Despite the word “quality”, for the three reasons given above, the committee members cannot have them compete as philosophers. Rather, the department has certain “needs” that the competition is about.** The competition is about functions in the department, not about philosophy. As I see it, this point generalises: competitions are never about philosophy but always about work and functions in a department.*** Now, the pernicious thing is that departments and search committees and even candidates often pretend that the search is about the quality of their philosophy. But in the majority of cases that cannot be true, simply because the precise shape, task and ends of philosophy are a matter of dispute. What weighs is functions, not philosophy.

Arguably, there can be no competition between philosophers qua philosophers. Neither between Arendt and Lewis, nor between Arendt and Butler, nor between Lewis and Kripke. Philosophers can discuss and disagree but they cannot compete. What should they compete about? If they compete about jobs, it’s the functions in departments that are at stake. (That is also the reason why we allow for prestige as quality indicators.)  If they assume to be competing about who is the better philosopher, they mistake what they are doing. Of course, one philosopher might be preferred over another, but this is subject to change and chance, and owing to the notion of philosophy of the dominant committee member. The idea that there can be genuinely philosophical competition is a fallacy.

Does it follow, then, that there is no such thing as good or better philosophy? Although this seems to follow, it doesn’t. In a given context and group, things will count as good or better philosophy. But here is another confusion lurking. “Good” philosophy is not the property of an individual person. Rather, it is a feature of a discussion or interacting texts. Philosophy is good if the discussion “works well”. It takes good interlocutors on all sides. If I stammer out aphorisms or treatises, they are neither good nor bad. What turns them into something worthwhile is owing to those listening, understanding and responding. To my mind, good quality is resourcefulness of conversations. The more notions and styles of philosophy a conversation can integrate, the more resources it has to tackle what is at stake. In philosophy, there is no competition, just conversation.

Therefore, departments and candidates should stop assuming that the competition is about the quality of philosophy. Moreover, we should stop claiming that competitiveness is an indicator of being a good philosopher.**** Have you ever convinced an interlocutor by shouting that you’re better or more excellent than them?

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* At the end of the day, philosophies are either disparate or they are in dialogue. In the former case, rivalry would be pointless; in the latter case, the rivalry is not competitive but a form of (disagreeing or agreeing) refinement. If philosophers take themselves to be competing about something like the better argument, they are actually not competing but discussing and thus depend on one another.

** This does not mean that these needs or their potential fulfillment ultimately decide the outcome of the competition. Often there is disagreement or ignorance about what these needs are or how they are to be prioritised. With regard to committees, I find this article quite interesting.

*** In a recent blog post, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between being good at philosophy vs being good at academic philosophy. It’s a great post. (My only disagreement would be that being good at philosophy is ultimately a feature of groups and discussions, not individuals.) Eric Schliesser made similar points in an older more gloomy post.

**** On FB, Evelina Miteva suggeststhat we need fair trade philosophy, like the fair trade coffee. Fair trade coffee is not necessarily of a better taste or quality, it ‘only’ makes sure that the producers will get something out if their work.” – I think this is exactly right: On some levels, this already seems to be happening, for instance, in the open access movement. Something similar could be applied to recruiting and employment conditions in academia. In fact, something like this seems to be happening, in that some universities are awarded for being family friendly or being forthcoming in other ways (good hiring practice e.g.). – My idea is that we could amend many problems (the so-called mental health crisis etc.), if we were to stop incentivising competitiveness on the wrong levels and promote measures of solidarity instead. – The message should be that the community does no longer tolerate certain forms of wrong competition and exploitation.

Relatedly, this also makes for an argument in favour of affirmative action against discrimination of underrepresented groups: People who believe in meritocracy often say that affirmative action threatens quality. But affirmative action is not about replacing “good” with “underrepresented” philosophers. Why? Because the quality of philososphy is not an issue in competitive hiring in the first place.

History of contemporary thought and the silence in Europe. A response to Eric Schliesser

What should go into a history of contemporary ideas or philosophy? Of course this is a question that is tricky to answer for all sorts of reasons. What makes it difficult is that we then tend to think of mostly canonical figures and begin to wonder which of those will be remembered in hundred years. I think we can put an interesting spin on that question if we approach it in a more historical way. How did our current thoughts evolve? Who are the people who really influenced us? There will not only be people whose work we happen to read, but those who directly interact and interacted with us. Our teachers, fellow students, friends and opponents. You might not think of them as geniuses, but we should drop that category anyway. These are likely people who really made a difference to the way you think. So let’s scratch our heads a bit and wonder who gave us ideas directly. In any case, they should figure in the history of our thought.

You might object that these figures would not necessarily be recognised as influential at large. However, I doubt that this is a good criterion: our history is not chiefly determined by who we take to be generally influential, but more often than not by those people we speak to. If not, why would historians bother to figure out real interlocutors in letters etc.? This means that encounters between a few people might make quite a difference. You might also object that a history of contemporary philosophy is not about you. But why not? Why should it not include you at least? What I like about this approach is that it also serves as a helpful corrective to outworn assumptions about who is canonical. Because even if certain figures are canonical, our interpretations of canonical figures are strongly shaped by our direct interlocutors.

Thinking about my own ideas in this way is a humbling experience. There is quite a number of people inside and outside my department to whom I owe many of my ideas. But this approach also reveals some of the conditions, political and other, that allow for such influence. One such condition I am painfully reminded of when observing the current political changes in Europe. No, I do not mean Brexit! Although I find these developments very sad and threatening indeed, most of the work done by friends and colleagues in Britain will reach me independently of those developments.

But Central and Eastern Europe is a different case. As it happens, the work that affected my own research most in the recent years is on the history of natural philosophy. It’s more than a guess when I say that I am not alone in this. Amongst other things, it made me rethink our current and historical ideas of the self. Given that quite a number of researchers who work on this happen to come from Central and Eastern Europe, much of this work probably wouldn’t have reached me, had it not been for the revolutions in 1989. This means that my thinking (and most likely that of others, too) would have been entirely different in many respects, had we not seen the Wall come down and communist regimes overthrown.

Why do I bring this up now? A brief exchange following up on an interesting post by Eric Schliesser* made it obvious that many Western Europeans, by and large, seem to assume that the revolutions from 1989 have had no influence on their thought. As he puts it, “the intellectual class kind of was conceptually unaffected” by them. And indeed, if we look at the way we cite and acknowledge the work of others, we regularly forget to credit many, if not most, of our interlocutors from less prestigious places. In this sense, people in what we call the Western world might be inclined to think that 1989 was not of significance in the history of thought. I think this is a mistake. A mistake arising from the canonical way of thinking about the work that influences us. Instead of acknowledging the work of individuals who actually influence us, we continue citing the next big shot whom we take to be influential in general. By excluding the direct impact of our actual interlocutors, we make real impact largely invisible. Intellectually, the West behaves as if it were still living in the Cold War times. But the fact that we continue to ignore or shun the larger patterns of real impact since 1989 does not entail that it is not there. Any claim to the contrary would, without further evidence at least, amount to an argument from ignorance.

The point I want to make is simple: we depend on other people for our thought. We need to acknowledge this if we want to understand how we come to think what we think. The fact that universities are currently set up like businesses might make us believe that the work people do can (almost) equally be done by other people. But this is simply not true. People influencing our thought are always particular people; they cannot be exchanged salva veritate. If we care about what we think, we should naturally care about the origin of our thought. We owe it to particular people, even if we sometimes forget the particular conversations in which our ideas were triggered, encouraged or refuted.

Now if this is correct, then it’s all the more surprising that we let go of the conditions enabling much of this exchange in Europe so easily. How is it possible, for instance, that most European academics remain quiet in the face of recent developments in Hungary? We witnessed how the CEU was being forced to move to Vienna in an unprecedented manner, and now the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is targeted.**

While the international press reports every single remark (no matter how silly) that is made in relation to Brexit, and while I see many academics comment on this or that aspect (often for very good reasons), the silence after the recent events in Hungary is almost deafening. Of course, Hungary is not alone in this. Academic freedom is now targeted in many places inside and outside Europe. If we continue to let it happen, the academic community in Europe and elsewhere will disintegrate very soon. But of course we can continue to praise our entrepreneurial spirit in the business park of academia and believe that people’s work is interchangeable salva veritate; we can continue talking to ourselves, listen diligently to our echoes, and make soliloquies a great genre again.

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* See also this earlier and very pertinent post by Eric Schliesser.

** See also this article. And this call for support.

Should contemporary philosophers read Ockham? Or: what did history ever do for us?

If you are a historian of philosophy, you’ve probably encountered the question whether the stuff you’re working on is of any interest today. It’s the kind of question that awakens all the different souls in your breast at once. Your more enthusiastic self might think, “yes, totally”, while your methodological soul might shout, “anachronism ahead!” And your humbler part might think, “I don’t even understand it myself.” When exposed to this question, I often want to say many things at once, and out comes something garbled. But now I’d like to suggest that there is only one true reply to the main question in the title: “No, that’s the wrong kind of question to ask!” – But of course that’s not all there is to it. So please hear me out.

I’m currently revisiting an intriguing medieval debate between William of Ockham, Gregory of Rimini and Pierre D’Ailly on the question of how thought is structured. While I find the issue quite exciting in itself, it’s particularly interesting to see how they treat their different sources, Aristotle and Augustine. While they clearly all know the texts invoked they emphasise different aspects. Thinking about thought, William harkens back to Aristotle and clearly thinks that it’s structure that matters. By contrast, Gregory goes along with Augustine and emphasises thought as a mental action. – For these authors it was clear that their sources were highly relevant, both as inspiration and authorities. At the same time, they had no qualms to appropriate them for their uses. – In some respects we make similar moves today, when we call ourselves Humeans or Aristotelians. But since we also have professional historians of philosophy and look back at traditions of critical scholarship, both historians and philosophers are more cautious when it comes to the question of whether some particular author would be “relevant today”.

In view of this question, historians are trained to exhibit all kinds of (often dismissive) gut reactions, while philosophers working in contemporary themes don’t really have time for our long-winded answers. And so we started talking past each other, happily ever after. That’s not a good thing. So here is why I think the question of whether any particular author could inform or improve current debates is wrongheaded.

Of course everyone is free to read Ockham. But I wouldn’t recommend doing it, if you’re hoping to enrich the current debates. Yes, Ockham says a lot of interesting things. But you’d need a long time to translate them into contemporary terminology and still more time to find an argument that will look like a right-out improvement of a current argument.* – My point is not that Ockham is not an interesting philosopher. My point is that Ockham (and many other past philosophers) doesn’t straightforwardly speak to any current concerns.

However … Yes, of course there was going to be a “however”! However, while we don’t need to ask whether any particular author is relevant today, we should be asking a different question. That Ockham doesn’t speak to current concerns doesn’t mean that historians of philosophy (studying Ockham or others) have nothing to say about current concerns. So it’s not that Ockham should be twisted to speak to current concerns; rather historians and philosophers should be talking to each other! So the right question to ask is: how can historians speak to current issues?

The point is that historians study, amongst other things, debates on philosophical issues. “You say tomahto, I say tomato”, that sort of thing. Debates happen now as they happened then. What I find crucial is that studying debates reveals features that can be informative for understanding current debates. There are certain conditions that have to be met for a debate to arise. We’re not just moving through the space of reasons. Debates occur or decline because of various factors. What we find conceptually salient can be driven by available texts, literary preferences, other things we hold dear, theological concerns, technological inventions (just think of various computer models), arising political pressures (you know what I mean), linguistic factors (what would happen if most philosophers were to write in Dutch?), and a lot of other factors, be they environmental, sociological, or what have you. Although we like to think that the pursuit of truth is central, it’s by far not the only reason why debates arise and certain concepts are coined and stick around, while others are forgotten. Although contingent, such factors are recurrent. And this is something that affects our understanding of current as well as past debates. The historian can approach current debates as a historian in the same way that she can approach past debates. And this is, I submit, where historians can truly speak to current concerns.

Coming back to the debate I mentioned earlier, there is another issue (besides the treatment of sources) that I find striking. In their emphasis of Augustine, Gregory and Peter show a transition from a representational to an action model of thought. Why does this transition occur? Why do they find it important to emphasise action over representation against William? – Many reasons are possible. I won’t go into them now. But this might be an interesting point of comparison to the current debates over enactivism versus certain sorts of representationalism. Why do we have that debate now? Is it owing to influences like Ryle and Gibson? Certainly, they are points of (sometimes implicit) reference. Are there other factors? Again, while I think that these are intriguing philosophical developments, our understanding of such transitions and debates remains impoverished, if we don’t look for other factors. Studying past transitions can reveal recurrent factors in contemporary debates. One factor might be that construing thoughts as acts rather than mere representations discloses their normative dimensions. Acts are something for which we might be held responsible. There is a lot more to be said. For now suffice it to say that it is in comparing debates and uncovering their conditions, that historians of philosophy qua historians can really contribute.

At the same time, historians might also benefit from paying more attention to current concerns. Not only to stay up to date, but also to sharpen their understanding of historical debates.** As we all know, historical facts don’t just pop up. They have to be seen. But this seeing is of course a kind of seeing as. Thus, if we don’t just want to repeat the historiographical paradigms of, say, the eighties, it certainly doesn’t hurt if our seeing is trained in conversation with current philosophers.

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* That said, this is of course an open question. So I’m happy to be shown a counterexample.

** More on the exchange between philosophers and historians of philosophy can be found in my inaugural lecture.