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.

___

* 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.

Clarity as a political concept

“With which of the characters do you identify?” For God’s sake, with whom does the author identify? With the adverbs, obviously. Umberto Eco, Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”

Philosophers, especially those working in the analytic tradition, clearly pride themselves on clarity. In such contexts, “clarity” is often paired with “rigour” or “precision”. If you present your work amongst professional philosophers, it will not only be assessed on whether it’s original or competently argued, but also on whether it is written or presented clearly. But while it is sometimes helpful to wonder whether something can be said or presented differently, the notion of clarity as used by philosophers has a somewhat haunting nimbus. Of course, clarification can be a worthy philosophical project in itself. And it is highly laudable if authors define their terms, use terms consistently, and generally attempt to make their work readable and accessible. But often wishing to achieve clarity makes people fret with their work forever, as if (near) perfection could be reached eventually. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as clarity, at least not in an objective sense. You can objectively state how many words a sentence contains, but not whether it’s clear. Rather, it is a political term, often used to police the boundaries of what some people consider canonical.

The notion of clarity thrives on a contentious distinction between content and form or style of writing. According to a fairly widespread view, content and form can come apart in that the same content can be expressed in different ways. You can say that (1) Peter eats a piece of cake and that (2) a piece of cake gets eaten by Peter. Arguably, the active and passive voices express the same content. Now my word processor regularly suggests that I change passive to active voice. The background assumption seems to be that the active voice is clearer in that it is easier to parse. (The same often goes for negations.) If we use this assumption to justify changes to or criticisms of a text, it is problematic for two reasons:

Firstly, we have to assume that one formulation really is clearer in the sense of being easier to parse or understand. Is the active voice really clearer? This will depend on what is supposed to be emphasized. Perhaps I want to emphasize “cake” rather than “Peter”. In this case, the passive voice might be the construction of choice. Although I’m not up to date in cognitive linguistics, I’d guess that semantic and pragmatic features figure greatly in this question. My hunch is that, in this sense, clarity depends on conformity with expectations of the recipients.*

Secondly, we have to assume the identity of content across different formulations. But how do you tell whether the content of two expressions is the same? Leaving worries about analyticity aside, the Peter-Cake example seems fairly easy. But how on earth are we going to tell whether Ryle presented a clearer version of what Wittgenstein or even Heidegger talked about in some of their works?! In any case, an identity claim will amount to stipulation and thus be open to criticism and revision. Again, the question whether the stipulation goes through will depend on whether it conforms to the expectations of the recipients.**

If clarity depends on the conformity with expectations, then the question is: whose expectations matter? If you write a paper for a course, you’ll have an answer to that question. If you write a paper for a journal, you’ll probably look at work that got published there. In this sense, clarity is an inherently political notion.*** Unless you conform to certain stylistic expectations, your work will be called unclear. On a brighter note, if you’re unhappy with some of the current stylistic fashions, it is helpful to bear in mind that all styles are subject to historical change.

The upshot is that stylistic moves are to be seen as political choices. That said, the fact that clarity is a political notion does not discredit it. But the idea that style is just a matter of placing ornaments on a given content is yet another way of falling prey to the notorious myth of the given, often invoked to obscure the normative dimensions.

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* On FB, Eric Schliesser raises the objection that “conformity to expectations” is a problematic qualification in that some position might be stated clearly but lead to entirely novel insights. – I agree and would reply that conformity to expectations does not rule out surprises or novelty. Still, I would argue that the novelties ought to be presented in a manner acceptable by a certain community. – Clearly, clarity cannot merely equal “conformity to expectations”, since in this case it would be at once too permissive (in that it would include grammatically acceptable formulations whose content might remain unclear) and too narrow (in that it would exclude novelty).

** Eric Schliesser makes this point succinctly with regard to ‘formal philosophy’ when saying that “it can be easily seen that if the only species of clarity that is permitted is the clarity that is a property of formal systems, then emphasizing clarity simply becomes a means to purge alternative forms of philosophy.”

*** This is convincingly argued at length over at the Vim Blog. Go and read the whole piece! Here is an excerpt: “[The concept of clarity] creates, enforces, and perpetuates community boundaries and certain power relations within a community. … [T]here is no pragmatic distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of clarity. Not only is an ascription of clarity a claim about quality, but it is seemingly a claim that references objective features of the bit of philosophy. So far we have been attempting to analyze the concept of clarity by first drawing out the descriptive senses and standards—i.e. by understanding the evaluative in light of the descriptive. The better approach is the opposite. What does the word do? I propose focusing first on the impact that the word has in discourse. The assumption that clarity begins with descriptive features leads to an array of problems partly because such an approach “runs right over the knower.” Instead, first, certain bits of philosophy are called clear or unclear as a feature and consequence of the power relations of the group and world more broadly. And then second, what gets called clear or unclear becomes subject to philosophical analysis.

… There is a powerful rhetorical consequence. The ascription of clarity marks those who would stop and question it as outsiders. Those in lower positions of power will not dare to question what has been laid down as clear. It is always possible that the clarity of a putatively clear bit of philosophy can indeed be justified from shared evidence. In that case, the person who dared to speak up is revealed as someone who does not grasp the shared evidence or has not reasoned through the justification, unlike everyone who let the bit of philosophy go unchallenged. They appear unintelligent and uninformed and, in effect, deserving of their lower position of power. So, insofar as power is desirable, there is an inclination to let claims to clarity go unchallenged, thereby signaling understanding through silent consent. The immediate impulse is to assume that one is behind or uninformed.”

Let’s get rid of “medieval” philosophy!

“Your views are medieval.” Let’s face it: we often use the term “medieval” in a pejorative sense; and calling a line of thought “medieval” might be a good way of chasing away students who would otherwise have been interested in that line of thought. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that, in order to keep what we call medieval philosophy, we should stop talking about “medieval” philosophy altogether.

While no way of slicing up periods is arbitrary, they all come with problems, as this blog post by Laura Sangha makes clear. So I don’t think that there ever will be a coherently or neatly justified periodisation of history, let alone of history of philosophy. But while other names of periods are equally problematic, none of them is as degrading. Outside academia, the term “medieval” is mainly used to describe exceptionally cruel actions or backward policies.  Often named “dark ages”, the years from, roughly, 500 to 1500 count as a period of religious indoctrination. This usage also shapes the perception in academic philosophy. Arguably, medieval philosophical thought is still seen as subordinate to theology. Historical surveys of philosophy often jump from ancient to early modern, and even specialists in history often make it sound as if the sole philosopher that existed in these thousand years had been Thomas Aquinas. This deplorable status has real-life consequences. Exceptions aside, there are very few jobs in medieval philosophy and a decreasing number of students interested in studying it.

You will rightly object that the problems described are not only owing to the name “medieval” and its cognates. I agree. First of all, the field of history of philosophy has not exactly been pampered in recent decades. Often people working on contemporary issues are asked to do a bit of history on the side or the study programmes are catered for in other fields of humanities (history, theology, languages). Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the dominant research traditions in medieval philosophy often continue to represent the field in an esoteric manner. As a student, the first thing you are likely to hear is that it is almost impossible to study medieval thought unless you read Latin (at least!), learn to read illegible manuscripts, understand outlandish theological questions (angels on a pinhead, anyone?), and know Aristotle by heart. Thirdly, most historical narratives depict medieval thought as a backward counterpoint to what is taken to be the later rise of science, enlightenment and secularisation. While the first of these three problems is beyond the control of medievalists alone, the second and third issue are to some degree in our own hands.

Therefore, we can and should present our field as more accessible. A great part of this will consist in strengthening continuities with other periods. Thus, medieval philosophy should always be seen as continuous with what is called ancient or modern or even contemporary thought. This way, we can rid ourselves not only of this embarrassment of a name (“Middle Ages”) but also of trying to indicate what is typically medieval. I’m inclined to think that, whenever we find something “typical” for that period, it will be also typical of other periods. In other words, there is nothing specifically medieval in medieval philosophy.

While there are already a number of laudable attempts to renew approaches in teaching (see e.g. Robert Pasnau’s survey of surveys), my worry is that the more esoteric strands in our field, both in terms of method and content, will be insinuated whenever we talk about “medieval” philosophy. The term “medieval” is a sticky one and won’t go away, but in combination with “philosophy” it will continue to sound like an oxymoron. What shall we say instead, though? I’d suggest that we talk about what we really do: most of us study a handful of themes or topics in certain periods of time. So why not say that you study the eleventh and twelfth centuries (in the Latin West or wherever) or the history of thought from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century? If a more philosophical specification is needed you might say that you study the history of, say, psychology, especially from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. If you believe in the progress narrative, you might even use “pre-modern”. Or why not “post-ancient”?

By the way, if you are what is called a medievalist and you work on a certain topic, most of your work will be continuous with ancient or (early) modern philosophy. If there are jobs advertised in these areas, it’s not unlikely that they will be in your field. That might become more obvious if you call yourself a specialist in, say, the history of metaphysics from 400 to 500 AD or the history of ethics from 1300 to 1800. If this is the case, it would not seem illegitimate to apply for positions in such areas, too. – “Oh”, you might say, “won’t these periods sound outrageously long?” Then just remind people that the medieval period comprises at least a thousand years.

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PS. I started this blog on 26 July 2018. So the blog is now over a year old. Let me take the opportunity to thank you all for reading, writing, and thinking along.

On mentoring. A response to Katarina Mihaljević

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

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

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

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

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