A brief note on the ethics of the principle of charity

The principle of charity is often introduced as a maxim for reading texts or conversing with interlocutors. In such contexts, it’s mostly taken as the idea to interpret your interlocutor in the most rational way possible. So if you read something and you have trouble understanding, you should try to reconstruct it in the best possible way, rather than dismissing it as nonsense. However, as I see it, the principle also has an ethical dimension in that it is rooted in our mutual recognition as humans.

Why do I think that? Donald Davidson famously claimed that the principle of charity is not optional. While he says this in the context of discussing conceptual schemes, I like to see it as the precondition of shared rationality in virtue of shared humanity. It should be in place when you interpret your interlocutor as a fellow human, as a fellow rational being. Recently, I put it as follows: The more you give your interlocutor the credit of being rational, that is making good sense of your interlocutor, the more you see them as human.* Conversely, the more you attack, try to find holes and belittle what your interlocuter says, the more you tend to dehumanise them. Of course, not every uncharitable reading is a form of dehumanisation. But there is certainly a number of problematic degrees, starting from local and perhaps voluntary misunderstandings, moving on to ‘othering’ your interlocutor, ultimately resulting in forms of dehumanisation.**

When you can’t see clearly, you’ll try to adjust your view or change the perspective. By contrast, when certain philosophers can’t understand someone well, they charge their interlocutor with talking nonsense. Isn’t it strange that we philosophers, of all people, are often so uncharitable? Given that the rest of the world makes mostly fun of us for being incomprehensible, you’d think we should know better. A ressentiment?

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* I’d like to thank Chloé de Canson and Ismar Jugo for great and greatly charitable conversations on this topic.

** Here, I take dehumanisation as a way of seeing others as subhuman in their rational capacities.  See David Livinstone Smith’s work for a thorough account. (Here is a start.)

De boekenkast van … Martin Lenz. An interview with Ismar Jugo from our student magazine

[During this summer, Ismar Jugo from our student magazine Qualia kindly asked me to do an interview for their series on bookcases.* We talked for about two hours about books, philosophy, reading, my daughter Hannah, the principle of charity, and new media. Ismar wrote up a text condensing and commenting on what might have been the gist of our conversation. I am very grateful for this piece and would proudly like to share it here.]

Most of us who have had the pleasure of having Martin as a teacher, know him as a specialist in medieval and early modern philosophy. Thus, I was surprised when he said that the philosophical work that influenced him the most was Ruth Millikan’s Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. The work came out in 1984 and, to use Martin’s own words, “it made quite a splash”. What made the book special for Martin is that is offered a systematic theory of almost everything. It touched upon topics of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, normativity, ideology and so on. “It was as if you were reading Leibniz,” Martin said. Such systematic philosophy is not so ubiquitous in contemporary philosophy.

As I already said, I found it quite strange that a professor in medieval and early modern philosophy had book about philosophy of mind as one of his favorite books in philosophy. According to Martin, however, this is not strange at all. “I see the history of philosophy as a natural way of engaging with philosophy,” Martin says, and he goes on, “because you want to see where ideas come about and where they go. And Millikan’s theory was for me, and still is in some degree, a most encompassing and convincing approach. I see it on top of a long history of philosophical ideas that happens to result in something like this.”  From Martin’s perspective everyone who engages with philosophy, engages with philosophy’s past, in some way or another. And, especially, when you are working on questions of philosophy of mind in medieval and early modern philosophy, it is interesting to see how such ideas develop through time.

Talking about the past, I got interested in what book influenced him the most when he was a student. And again my expectations were proven wrong. Nothing about the philosophy of mind, medieval philosophy nor early modern philosophy. The title that influenced him the most as a student was Morgenröte from Friedrich Nietzsche. He had something to explain. “When I was young, around fourteen, I started to grab books from the shelve that I did not really understand. The first book I tried to read was something on paranoia by Sigmund Freud. Later, some people would talk about Nietzsche. Then I found the Antichrist and did not understand a word. Morgenröte was the first philosophical work that I started to make sense of.” Morgenröte is a collection of aphorisms, a style of philosophical writing that Martin still finds interesting. He gradually started to understand these aphorisms. What intrigued him was not only the content of the aphorisms, but also the beautiful style of Nietzsche’s writing. Martin is still interested in Nietzsche. “As with music and recordings, the first one can set the standard for what comes later and therefore be very impactful,” as he said. And then he quoted from the Gay Science: “What is the seal of attained liberty? To be no longer ashamed of oneself.” “As I grow older,” Martin said, “I find ways of overcoming my shame. That is a process of liberation, but also an ethical idea. It is about how you treat others as well.” And as I experienced, making the problem of shame a topic of discussion in a dialogue, gives liberty to both interlocuters. 

Leaving my shame behind, I asked Martin about other philosophical books he found fascinating. He mentioned two works of one thinker: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. Both works were written by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Before reading Wittgenstein, Martin read a lot of Heidegger. Both thinkers are central in his web of beliefs. He started with the Tractatus and, again, did not understand a word of it. To be able to understand it, he self-studied a lot of logic and read many introductions to the work. Eventually he could make more sense of it.

However, there was something of what I could not make sense of. I could not make sense of the connection between the different thinkers we discussed so far and his own work in medieval and early modern philosophy. His answer: “I have problems with making that connection myself. As with a lot of things, there is a professionalized side of philosophy where I happened to be successful in. The things that you are interested in are not always found back in your professional work. It may be a driving force.” The reason why Martin became a professional in medieval and early modern philosophy is because of his teacher Kurt Flasch. “When I thought about medieval philosophy as a student,” Martin says, “I thought: “Oh my God… That must be the most boring thing one can imagine!””  He explained that Flasch gave a seminar about Nietzsche that he took. Martin started to greatly admire Flasch and he still does. “It turned out that Flasch was a medievalist by profession. He just did the Nietzsche seminar as a past time.” Martin asked me to see the resemblance with himself and his teacher. Maybe we were not looking for a connection but for a resemblance after all.

Nevertheless, there is a line that connects all these different titles and thinkers and Martin’s current profession as a specialist in medieval and early modern philosophy. Since he was young, he was fascinated with texts that he did not really understand. In these classes Flasch gave about medieval philosophy, Martin had to translate old Latin texts. “Flasch had a very hands-on approach to medieval philosophy. We needed to translate Latin texts and discuss these. So, I was again reading texts that I did not really understand. It was a bit like reading the Tractatus of Wittgenstein, a kind of medieval version of it. But, of course, if you start from such a low base, you can see your progress and that is something nice. It had also something pioneering and exciting, because in these Latin texts you get the sense that no one has looked at them before. Eventually, I could see my progress and that was very rewarding.” As a former history student, I can relate very well to what Martin is saying here. Accessing the past through old texts can feel like entering a foreign country that only you can see.

When I asked Martin what the role of reading was in his life, he answered: “Not quite the same as breathing, but it comes close.” I can well imagine that a professional academic has to read a lot of philosophy every day. So, I went on and asked what the relation was between philosophy and his daily life. “As a student I was all over the place and during my PhD I did not see myself as a philosopher. I was busy with playing music and other things that did not really relate. When I did my Post doc, I worked seven days a week. Closing the laptop rarely happened. That is a very unhealthy lifestyle. This is an important political aspect before we go on and talk about how ideas interfere with daily life.”  Now that Martin has a permanent job, he considers his relationship with the philosophical ideas he is engaging as very pleasant. “Philosophy helps making sense of my life. It also gives me new tools to think about music.” However, lately it works the other way around as well, according to Martin. “Everyday life creeps into philosophy for me. I feel a growing responsibility to respond to societal questions with the means that are given to me with philosophy. I do this in blogging and other ways of articulating ideas.”

I noticed that we wandered off from the books that were in Martin’s bookcase. I asked him what non-philosophical book made impact on him. It was not a book, but rather a story from a collection of stories. “If you’d allow for stories, I’d go with Ingeborg Bachmann’s Alles; it came out in the collection Das dreißigste Jahr.” He went on and said: “I would recommend it to anyone walking free.” The story Alles is about a man who will become a father soon. He asks himself what kind of father he will be when his child is born. The most interesting part of the story is an inner monologue of the protagonist, where the protagonist sees language as something that prohibits us of having a genuine relation with each other and the world. This part of the story brought Martin to one of his philosophical fascinations: “How do you move from what you think is within you to an articulation that still is in some sense true to that? There is a part that will fail and a part that still wants to go on pushing. The question of articulating what you want to say is one of the big questions in literature. And one of the questions in philosophy. It neatly binds the two together. It is actually a question for all of us.”

The protagonist in the story Alles had fears about failing as a father. I asked Martin if he had the same fears before his daughter Hannah was born. He laughed and answered that his worries were more of practical nature. However, Martin talks with a lot of love and fascination about his daughter who is now four years old. He reads a lot to her and is very surprised how she remembers the stories almost exactly word by word. So, there is no room for mistakes in misreading a word here. There is one book that does not contain any words, only very strong colors. The purpose of the book is to teach children how to deal with and express their emotions. Hannah is surprisingly good at doing that, according to Martin. “It was yesterday evening and Hannah was very tired and upset about something. With everything I said she responded with a way of impatience and whaaaa! And I asked her: ‘Can’t you express yourself in a nicer way?’ And she paused a moment and responded by saying: ‘Well…I am too tired to use nice words.’ I thought that that was amazing because she understood, obviously, something that I would not understand as a child, and even as an adolescent, that sometimes being tired is what does it for you…that blocks something.”  Martin thought it was very observant from his own daughter and, honestly, I think so, too. Being tired sometimes does it for you. In this way I am not only learning from Martin Lenz but from his four-year-old daughter, too.

The interview seemed to come to its end. We already covered a lot of Martin’s bookcase and even that of his daughter, Hannah. Nevertheless, there still were some questions to be asked about Martin’s reading. Many of the books that we discussed were philosophical works and even the non-philosophical works were interpreted in a philosophical way. Thus, I asked Martin if philosophy was also his favorite genre in literature. “Recently, I’ve written a blog post on how the paper model kills other good philosophical genres,” Martin said, “like the commentary and more experimental forms of literature. Going by a narrow notion of professional philosophy, I’d say no. Going by my wider notion I’d say it has to be yes, but then it includes literature, music and other forms of art; anything that is dialogical.” With “dialogical” Martin means a form of writing where there is not fixed form with only a thesis defended by some arguments. According to Martin, an engagement with a text is already a form of a dialogue: this text in the Qualia is saying something and you are interpreting it, talking back from your perspective. “The paper-model has a building block style: you have a claim that you want to defend against objections, and everything is already set. This is boring. The great thing about dialogues is that the unexpected might happen. Discoveries! Insights! That sort of thing. These things do not happen when you sit down to defend a claim. Of course, you might get ideas but these ideas you get from a self-dialogue.”

Martin thinks that the paper has its good sides, but people should keep seeing it in perspective. It is a way of stating results clearly and quickly, but it should not replace the dialogue. Martin tries to give that a place within his teaching: “When we teach philosophy, we teach students too much to insist on these building blocks. They look nice and shiny. But it takes away, to my mind, the crucial part of philosophy. For me that is, engaging in dialogue, learning something. There you get these moments of surprise where you say: ‘Oh! I wouldn’t have put it like that, but now you say it in this way, it makes perfect sense to me.’ You know these moments are the moments I live for.” He pauses and then goes on: “With these moments you get a step further because you see the light that you haven’t seen before. Sometimes you start to understand a position that you thought of as an absurd position. All of a sudden you get to grips with it. You even start to kind of embrace it because it is shining in a new light.”

            The last questions that I asked Martin were not about the books on his bookcase, but rather about the practice of reading itself. I got a specific interest in this topic and after what Martin said, I got interested in what he thinks about that. “Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins,” Martin started with quoting Heidegger, and went on with saying that “if language is the house of Being, then reading along with music paved the way into the parts of the world I want to inhabit most.” Thus, along with music, reading is very important in Martin’s life. He sees reading as perceiving the world through language. To understand this, we need to go back to one of Martin’s favorite philosophers, Ruth Millikan. “According to Millikan,” Martin says, “language works a little bit like your eyes or your sense of smell or touch. It is another sense modality. It is a more abstract sense. Language gives you another mode of perceiving that same thing you would perceive if you would look at it or touch it.” What Martin likes about this perspective on language is that “it makes language more direct. Direct in the sense that when I am telling you something you really did perceive this. There is a level of immediacy that is also given in language. Language is not the stuff that is hovering above the world. Language is right there with your body and the rest of the world. It allows you different ways of perceiving, different from the other senses.”

            Being intrigued in what Martin said, I asked him about his thoughts on the rise of new media. Martin is happy to be able to vent on that. “The new media have a bad name without good justification because whenever there was a new technology people saw the world ending. Miraculously it didn’t. Amongst philosophers there is a lot of talk about fake news as something that is dangerous. And that is true and I would be one of the last to say that that isn’t a problem. But I don’t think that it is a problem of the new media, but a problem of literacy. It is a problem of not making good sense of the media. Philosophers are trained to analyze arguments, but for the new media something else is important. That is knowing what kind of effect they have on us emotionally. How they can build a kind of glue and the opposite of that glue; a kind of poison.”

            Martin thinks that we need to become more literate about the new media. “It is not a given that we understand what we read. The opposite is more of a given. That does not only apply to difficult philosophical texts, but it applies to everything. This works on so many levels. If I would ask you: “How are you?” And you would answer: “I am fine.” That could mean so many things. Of course, there is a literal understanding of that you are in a good mood, but we both know that it is a conventionalized expression to disguise. Contextualizing such a remark is something you need to learn. When we read stuff online, we need to do that, too. Perhaps someone writes this in despair, perhaps drunk, perhaps it isn’t even a person. We need coherence markers; we need to get a picture of the Other to understand who that is. We need to rebuild that person. Like a writer does that with a world in a novel, we need to build it from scratch. And if something is wrong, then we need to notice that. We need to check if something in our reading is wrong or that something in the story is wrong. All these skills need to be learned and I have the feeling that we need to spend more time on this.”

Like with his critique of the paper model of philosophy, Martin tries to incorporate this critique of illiteracy in his education by introducing his students to the principle of charity. In the first place the principle of charity is about interpreting a text in the best possible way, thus in the way that it makes the most sense. However, according to Martin, “the principle of charity has a deeper footing. Donald Davidson at some point says that the principle of charity is not optional. It is the foundation of rationality. It should be in place when you interpret your interlocutor as a fellow human, as a fellow rational being.” Martin goes on saying that “the more you give your interlocutor the credit of being rational, that is making good sense of your interlocutor, the more you see them as human. And conversely, the more you attack and are trying to find holes and a sort of downsize what your interlocuter says, the more you tend to dehumanize them. In the sense of trying to find ways into deeming your interlocutor as not rational. And in that sense, it is not optional.” The principle of charity is, thus, not only epistemologically relevant, but ethically too.

I think that I can speak for Martin as well as for myself that the time went very fast during our interview, or dialogue. We touched upon many topics both inside and outside the bookcase. I heard Hannah asking for her dad and I thought that this could be a moment for me to be charitable in a way. So, I grasped the moment, ended the interview and, by that, gave her Martin back.

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* Published in Qualia 17.3, a magazine edited by students of the philosophy faculty of the University of Groningen.

You don’t ever write about things; you write about what people say

Seeing that I don’t write about things or topics but about what people say about things was one of the most important lessons I learned. I’ve said this a number of times, here and here, but a recent chat with a friend made me realise that it is perhaps worth highlighting again.

So, when you’re writing about stuff like justice, language, the supreme good or whatever, you don’t write about these things or phenomena, as it were. Rather you write about what people say about these phenomena. Or about what you yourself say (or think) about these phenomena. The point I’m trying to make is that what you’re targeting when you write is a piece of language: you’ll be writing about a claim or a passage, a specific argument, an example or a specific question.

Why is this worth noting? – Let’s begin with a pragmatic reason: As long as you think that you write about, say, freedom and necessity, you will be paralysed by the vast amount of things you could look at. Things provide no focus. A string of sentences by contrast gives you focus. Sentences pick out something; they leave open something else; and they deny something at least implicitly. In this way, they give you a dialectical field of positions and neglect. You can start immediately by picking on a word or phrase and ask what precisely it means. So instead of fretting where to begin you can start immediately by thinking about the phrases and what they evoke, by what they miss and by how you feel about them.

What you enter. – Once you realise that you’re not embarking on a boat tossed across the vast ocean of being, you will see that the idea of philosophy as a conversation is quite literally true. You are always dealing with someone’s (or you own) formulation. You will want to understand and thus ask for clarification, offering alternatives or counterexamples. The point is that the kind of skill you first and formost need is the skill of zooming in on the language.

Play with words. – Now of course this doesn’t mean that you can skip informing yourself about things. It just means that, in beginning to write (or talk) about these things, you will always target a formulation. You can begin with your own way of phrasing something and take it apart, one by one, or with someone elses and ask them about it. The skills that you can train for this are reading, reformulating (in other words, other terminologies, in other genres or examples or in formal language), translating, and, generally, playing with words. When you sit at your desk or in a talk wondering what is going on, don’t focus on the things, issues or phenomena. Rather focus on the words. That’s where you’ll enter.

So it begins. – So when you begin to plan and write your text or talk, I’d advise you to begin by quoting the paragraph or claim you want to focus on. And if it’s not someone elses point you want to focus on, then offer your best formulation. Write it down and begin to wander around it.

You think that this whole idea is odd? Perhaps I am just an old Kantian who thinks that the Ding an sich is not available to us.  

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By the way, this month this blog is three years old. Thanks for bearing with me.

Are we really polarised? A conversation with Emma Young (podcast)

This is the sixth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Emma Young who is a research master student in philosophy at Groningen University. We focus on the issue of (political) polarisation. While it seems common to portray public discourse as being polarised, we rarely find the assumption itself questioned or investigated as such. Here is a rough outline of topics:

  • Introduction 0:00
  • Is polarisation empirically discovered or an assumption structuring our perception? 5:58
  • Does the assumption of polarisation create a self-fulfilling prophecy? 9:30
  • First summary. And does polarisation obscure problems? 12:10
  • Division over corona policies as an example 15:50
  • How polarisation promotes the illusion of a (neutral) centre 23:00
  • How this illusion figures in history (of philosophy) 33:03
  • Interests in or beneficiaries of polarisation 45:02
  • Is polarisation irrational? 48:26
  • Does philosophy fail in overcoming polarisation? 52:28
  • How do we build solidarity? 1:07:04

Repressed ideas? For an embedded history of philosophy

Over the weekend I posted a piece of news according to which one of the last representations of academic psychoanalysis in Germany is under threat. What I found particularly interesting were the somewhat heated discussions that ensued on various social media. While some regretted the prospect of seeing psychoanalysis pushed out out of academia, others saw it as an instance of scientific advancement. More than once was it claimed that, after all, we wouldn’t have chairs in astrology either.* Lacking expertise in psychology, I am not the right person to make a case for the current role of psychoanalytic research, but I was struck by the frequent and ready dismissal in favour of a current status quo. Yet, what this insistence on the status quo obscures is the likelihood that future historians will see many of our current ideas as similarly outdated. Our most recent neuroscience will become tomorrow’s astrology. In this post, then, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to imagine that our current theories and even our own beliefs will be deemed outdated. The idea behind such an embedded history** is to historicise the present and pave the way for seeing our very own ideas like a historian of thought, that is: seeing our beliefs in their contingent relations to our (social) world rather than as items in the space of reasons.

Condemning ideas. –  What makes people condemn ideas or approaches? Our study of the mind has a long and complicated history. Many ideas are now outdated. Although Aristotle is held in high esteem, no one will want to maintain his views on the heart-brain system. However, controversial ideas present a different case. Disciplines like psychoanalysis are still evolving and are held in high esteem by many, but their precise status in the academic landscape has become dubious. The reasons for advacing doubts are varied: they might be internal to the discipline but also of a political or moral nature. Despite substantial criticisms, however, certain ideas not least from psychoanalysis pervade much of our current culture and are known, not only by experts, but the public at large. What’s interesting about ideas that are both common and controversial is that they present us with normative questions: They are held, yes, but should they be held (in the future)? Now the normative attitude according to which, for instance, psychoanalysis should be condemned to the past can itself be historicised. This is what a embedded historian would do. Rather than taking a side for or against a particular view, the embedded historian would try and historicise the controversy. For the embedded historian, discussions invoking perceived progress, then, would shed some light on our current normative historical attitudes, that is, attitudes about things that we begin to see as belonging to the past and that we (or some of us) think should no longer be present.

But how can we turn into embedded historians? – Peter Adamson once suggested seeing our current philosophy just as the latest stage of the history of philosophy. Naturally, I agree. As I see it, this approach not only helps us achieving a better understanding of the current philosophical landscape, it also shifts our attitudes in intriguing ways: Being convinced by an argument is quite different from explaining how someone like you (in your day and age) would encounter and be compelled by a certain argument in a certain context and style. This is what Bernard Williams called “making the familiar strange”. But how is it done? Having ideas is one thing. Rejecting ideas as belonging to the past is quite another thing; it carries the force of condemnation. But what if you find yourself on the other side? What I’d like you to imagine is that you hold ideas that future historians will think of as outdated. This, I submit, is how you can become an embedded historian about your own ideas. You can do this in two steps: first, you study a theory that is considered outdated, try to embrace it by looking at the best arguments for it, and then you look at the refutations. Second, you take the most forceful refutations and try to have them carry over such that they attack your own convictions. (The second move is of course much harder, but if you want to see it in action it might help to consider how Wittgenstein attacks some of his own ideas in the Philosophical Investigations.)

How can you attack your own convictions? – Somehow attacking your own convictions seems paradoxical, because they are your convictions. But are they (still) your convictions, if you can attack them? Here is a start: Think of the latest good idea that convinced you and try to give a reason for holding it. But now try to do this, not when you’re clear-headed, but rather when you get up at six in the morning, straight away. What I’m after is the difference between what we say on the fly as opposed to what we think we should be saying (i.e. our best version of our argument). This is the way many historians approach, not their own convictions, but the material they study: they take the explicit (badly formed) reasons, and then say what their author should have said but didn’t. (Historians shunning anachronism will then often go with the explicit badly formed reasons, while others opt for the best reasons because they apply the principle of charity.) Now just allow yourself the (bad) reasons you invoked on the fly. You can then imagine how a future historian will dissect your account easily.

Why should we do it? – Now that you have a beginning, you might still ask why such a thing is worth your time. Well, attacking your own convictions is the only way to create headspace for ideas that seem to be in opposition to your own. There are so many ideas that are out of touch with the current status quo that it would seem ridiculous to believe that we – we of all people – would have the best ideas and the best methods of approaching them or putting them to use. Rather than dismissing ideas quickly in the name of progress (= status quo), we should be triangulating for objectivity.*** And this we can do only with attempting to understand those who we consider controversial, outdated or opposed to what we believe. That said, there is yet another reason: Studying the ideas that we reject might uncover the reasons for rejections which, in turn, might uncover ideas that tacitly underpin our beliefs. After all, condemned ideas might become repressed ideas. But that’s for another day.

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* While David Livingstone Smith, for instance, presents substantial criticism against most psychoanalytic traditions, at least a quick browse through the research done at Frankfurt leaves me with the impression that abolishing this kind of work would mean a severe impoverishment of academic psychology.

** The term “embedded history” is reclaimed from the term “embedded journalism” which, though a problematic practice in itself, captures intriguing aspects of the way we are involved when doing history and thinking about ourselves and others.

*** I use “triangulating” as a term of art from Davidson. Here is a lucid passage from his “Rational Animals” (also quoted in Jeff Malpas’ great introduction to the term): “If I were bolted to the earth, I would have no way of determining the distance from me of many objects. I would only know that they were on some line drawn from me towards them. I might interact successfully with objects, but I could have no way of giving content to the question where they were. Not being bolted down, I am free to triangulate. Our sense of objectivity is the consequence of another sort of triangulation, one that requires two creatures. Each interacts with an object, but what gives each the concept of the way things are objectively is the base line formed between the creatures by language. The fact that they share a concept of truth alone makes sense of the claim that they have beliefs, that they are able to assign objects a place in the public world.”

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

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

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

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

On shame and love in (academic) reading and writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADHD, struggling with decisions, and the myth of autonomy in academia. A conversation about mental health with Jef Delvaux (podcast)

ADHD, struggling with decisions, and the myth of autonomy in academia.
A conversation about mental health with Jef Delvaux (podcast)

This is the third installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Jef Delvaux who is in the third year of his PhD programme in Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Although we had a number of themes lined up, we ended up focusing on what is called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which despite an increasing attention to mental health in academia still seems to be flying somewhat under the radar. Jef addresses this issue not as a specialist, but from the perspective of someone affected by it. The aim is to provide an understanding of the condition and how it can be addressed (and perhaps ameliorated) in academic settings. One thing we discuss in particular is the difficulty of deliberating and making decisions. It’s a long conversation. So if you feel like skipping bits or want to focus on a specific topic, here is a rough overview:

  • Introduction   0:00
  • Mental health and ADHD   2:00
  • Belittling ADHD   4:00
  • What is it like to live with ADHD?   7:20
  • Teaching students with ADHD: buddy systems* and autonomy   12:20      
  • Decision paralysis with and without ADHD: what is the difference?   22:15
  • ADHD during the pandemic   1:02
  • “What if I could talk to my undergraduate self?”   1:08

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* Regarding study buddy systems, I (Martin) state that Groningen has them for writing theses. But it turns out that we also offer them for BA and MA students generally.