Philosophical experience. A response to Andrea Sangiacomo

Sometimes I begin a seminar or lecture by just standing or sitting in front of the course and saying nothing. I wait, sometimes for two to five minutes. That’s a long, long time. I sense that the students expect me to say something. Sometimes a student breaks the silence by asking me what’s going on or by inviting me to speak; sometimes I break the silence when I feel that the discomfort is growing. – In any case, I can be sure that in these two minutes there is at least the onset of a shared experience. The students expect me to speak and are either amused or irritated when this expectation is not met. Referring to this experience, I can then talk about the deeply ingrained expectations, roles, norms and what have you. Moreover, I can be fairly sure that the students will connect the experience to what is said. Often they will participate more actively in the seminar. Depending on how such experience is conceptualised, it gains the status of evidence, illustration or even of the content of discussion. I think that such experiences can crucially enrich philosophical activity. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we should integrate such experiences more systematically into philosophical work.*

Let’s begin by looking at some kinds of experiences that figure in philosophical exchange. When you say or write something, you (hopefully) get a response: nine times out of ten that response will take the form of an objection to what you say. If this is correct, the typical experience in current philosophical discourse is the exchange of claims and objections. While this practice gets us some of the way, it strikes me as a very limited use of the resources we actually have. To be sure, we use a few more things to stimulate our imagination: we draw on thought experiments, examples, analogies, formal methods and such like. But except for formal methods, we pay fairly little attention to the way these ‘tools’ work. What do I mean by this? – Well, if you reconstruct an argument by rendering it in a formal code, you engage in a sort of translation: in writing “if p, then q” you turn a sequence of sentences into sequence of symbols. This is a practice that has to be learned. Once you are familiar with it, it widens your resources of thinking. It enables a shift of focus (for instance on truth-values), a number of decisions (what sort of conditional is this?), and it stimulates your imagination, since you literally have to play around with the sequence. Depending on your goals, some translations will be more adequate or helpful than others. This practice is enormously helpful in various ways and has developed into a clear component of philosophical education. The same is true of the growing education in statistical reasoning. Arguably, such conventions afford us certain ways of making (highly cultivated) philosophical experiences. Once established, they turn into resources of handling ideas and arguments that enable us to move around and redirect our focus. (As I pointed out earlier, this thrives on forms of alienation.)

However, far less, if any, attention is given to other forms of thinking and cultivating attention. We spend far less time analysing or applying examples, analogies, translations into other languages, the use of pictures and drawings, forms of literature, film, theatre, music and other arts. I think this is an enormous loss. If we look at the history of sciences such as biology, it is clear that forms of representation, not least artistic representation, provided enormous boosts. Painting things larger than life, as it were, turned our attention to unregarded details. Why should that not be true of philosophy? The idea, for instance, that our moral reasonings could have developed independently of inventions by novelists strikes me as absurd. But if this is even remotely correct, then why don’t we pay more attention to the interaction between literary experience and philosophical intuitions? Why should we assume that Iris Murdoch’s Black Prince does not afford us with philosophically relevant experiences? We don’t necessarily have to become novelists ourselves, but the transformation of such experience into other forms of thought and vice versa strikes me as both vital and wholly underestimated. How, then, can such resources figure in our philosophical experience?

Perhaps you have already asked yourself now and then why at least the first chapters of Descartes’ Meditations are such a widely and persistently appreciated text. Why does it speak even to first-year students in such a direct way that other works never will? Let me give you a hint: it’s not the structure of the arguments; neither is it philosophical content. It is because it is a meditation. In a series of posts, Andrea Sangiacomo recently reminded us of this fact and also of the fact that we never really pay attention to the form. The point is that Descartes directly appeals to our experience and guides us, by example, through an experiential journey in which we focus on certain modes of perception and on blocking them. You can read the text as a series of arguments, but you can also do what Descartes insinuates: experience what he suggests. Arguably, it is this latter feature that speaks to people directly in that they don’t need anything but their means of perceiving and thinking to play along.

You might object that the appeal to experience is somehow “not philosophy”. At least, it is this estimation that often blocks the inclusion of other approaches and indeed of whole traditions. According to Kristie Dotson, our philosophising is driven by a “culture of justification” that excludes appeals to other forms of philosophy, relying on other practices or lived experiences. But in fact we don’t even need to leave the so-called western tradition to encounter such appeals. Wishing to introduce a concept, we often help ourselves to examples. If you want to talk about illusions, for instance, there is a number of stock examples ready. Most of us are familiar with optical illusions, such as the stick appearing bent in the water or the Müller-Lyer illusion. Such examples are often invoked in discussions of perception and can help demonstrate various aspects. Sometimes they are invoked as a mere illustration, sometimes as evidence for a claim, sometimes they are a topic in their own right, for instance, when we ask how and under what conditions they arise. What is rarely noted, however, is that exposure to such and other examples might constitute a philosophical experience. Presented with an example, we step out of the verbal exchange and consider an image or a scene. Even if this experience is guided by concepts and explanations, it is not wholly determined by them. It gives rise to sensations that are deeply linked with other experiences. It connects with all sorts of things, sensations, intuitions, feelings etc. and might trigger way more or other sensations and associations than expected. Arguably, it is the exposure to the experience of the illusion that triggers new lines of arguments.

Likewise, if we pay attention to certain strands especially in the analytic tradition, the use and handling of examples and thought experiments is a guiding feature. Just re-read some classics: Frege, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Davidson, Millikan, to name a few. For once, don’t pay attention to their arguments but to the wonderfully crafted examples and imaginations that inform their writings. You will soon find that much of the convictions they leave us with depend on the strength of these examples. Far more than mere illustrations, they often carry the burden of argument. But they function so well because our imagination does a large part of the work. This is why they often form the outset of whole traditions of exchanges.

In the light of such traditions, it strikes me as an enormous impoverishment if the experiential reflexes we train others to respond with reduce to disagreement. Arguably, it is not disagreement but wonder that keeps philosophy going.

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* In her latest post, Helen De Cruz kindly picked up on the idea: “I’m inclined to an expansive conception of philosophy where images, aphorisms, music, poetry, can all be part of philosophical conversation. … I do wonder whether there would be room for a journal that explicitly makes room for more wondrous philosophy–philosophy that is high in innovative content but low(er) in rigor, a journal of cool, exciting half-baked ideas of sorts. I don’t think there is such a journal yet.”

Dismissing (religious) belief. On a problematic kind of anachronism

I’m currently teaching an intro course on medieval philosophy. Although I really enjoy teaching medieval philosophy, I am always somewhat shocked at the generally dismissive attitude towards the religious or theological aspects of the material. A widespread assumption is that we can and should bypass such issues. Why bother with God or angels, if we can focus on philosophy of language or ethics? That said, there is no reason to blame students. Looking at various histories of philosophy, it’s clear that the selection of material often follows what is currently deemed most relevant. In fact, bits of my own work might serve as a case in point. However, in what follows I’d like to present three reasons for the claim that, in bypassing such aspects, we miss out on core ideas, not only in history of philosophy.

(1) The illusion of modernity. – If you ask people why they think we can happily ignore theological aspects, a common answer is that they are indeed no longer relevant, because the world is supposedly progressing towards an increasingly enlightened state of a scientific rather than a religious view of the world. This is of course not the last word. Criticisms of progress narratives aside, it is also clear that we live in a world that is currently deeply conflicted between adherents of religion and a scientific worldview. Moreover, this assumption makes us overlook that this conflict is a deeply medieval one, testified already in the writings of Augustine, culminating perhaps in the famous condemnation of 1277, and continuing well into what is known as modern philosophy. Thus, the idea that dissociating reason from faith is a trait of Enlightenment or modernity is a cherished illusion. After deciding to address this issue head-on in my current course, I made the condemnation of 1277 the first focal point. Amongst other things, it clearly shows that the battlefield of faith versus reason, along with the discussion of different kinds of truth, not to speak of alternative facts, has venerable precedents in the 13th century. In other words, the distinction between adherents of faith versus adherents of science is not a diachronic one (between medieval and modern) but a synchronic one.

(2) Theology is philosophy. – But even if you agree that conflicts of faith versus reason might be relevant even today, you might still deny that they are philosophically significant. If you turn to philosophers of the medieval or other periods, you might go straight to the philosophically interesting stuff. The assumption seems to be that certain problems or topics can be stripped of their theological content without much loss. Going from this assumption, material that cannot be stripped from such overtones is “not philosophy.” One problem with this view is that a number of philosophical systems have notions such as “god” at the core. For a number of medieval and early modern philosophers, their metaphysics are unintelligible without reference to a god. Trying to bypass this, means bypassing these metaphysics. The idea of stripping such systems from theological notions strikes me a consequence of the illusion of modernity. But in fact we find a number of 20th-century or present-day philosophers who rely on such notions. And as is well known by now, readers of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the foundational texts of the early analytic tradition, should not ignore his approach to the “mystical” and related ideas. This doesn’t mean that there is no philosophy without theology. But we are prone to serious misunderstanding if we wilfully ignore such foundations.

(3) The significance of belief. – My third and perhaps most important point is that the foundational role of belief is often ignored. Reading, for instance, that Anselm opens his Proslogion with the idea that we have to believe in order to understand, this and other remarks on (religious) belief are often taken as confessions that do not affect the arguments in question. As I see it, such estimations miss a crucial philosophical point: unquestioned belief is foundational for many further (mental or physical) acts. Arguably, there is a long tradition of philosophers (e.g. Augustine, Anselm, Gregory of Rimini, Spinoza, Hume, William James, Davidson) who exposed the foundational role of belief, showing that there are reasons to accept certain assumptions on faith. The need to rely on axioms is not only a trait of special sciences. Indeed, many aspects of our life depend on the fact that we hold certain unquestioned beliefs. Unless we have startling evidence to the contrary, we’re inclined to believe whatever we perceive. We believe that we weren’t lied to when our parents or other people informed us about our date of birth, and we don’t normally question that there is an external world. Challenging certain beliefs would probably deeply unsettle us, and we certainly wouldn’t begin searching, if we didn’t believe we had a chance of finding what we’re looking for. In this sense, certain beliefs are not optional.

The upshot is that the dismissal of (religious) belief is not only problematic in that it distorts some niches of medieval philosophy. Rather, it’s based on a misconception of our very own standards of rationality, which rely much on more on unquestioned beliefs than might meet the eye. So if the dismissal of religious belief is anachronistic, it’s not only distorting our view of the past but distorting the understanding of our current discourses. In this regard, much medieval philosophy should not be seen as strangely invested in religion but rather as strangely familiar, even if unbeknownst to ourselves. As Peter Adamson succinctly put it, for some “a proper use of reason is unattainable without religious commitment.” I agree, and would only add that we might recognise this attitude more readily as our own if we deleted the word “religious”. But that is perhaps more of a purely very verbal matter than we like to believe.

Alienation: On learning to talk philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transgression and playfulness in academic exchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugly ducklings and progress in philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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