Solitude standing. How I remain a solipsist (and you probably, too)

“… solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism. The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.” Wittgenstein, TLP 5.64

When was the last time you felt really and wholly understood? If this question is meaningful, then there are such moments. I’d say, it does happen, but very rarely. If things move in a good direction, there is an overlap or some contiguity or a fruitful friction in your conversation. Much of the time, though, I feel misunderstood or I feel that I have misunderstood others. – Starting from such doubts, you could take this view to its extremes and argue that only you understand yourself or, more extreme still, that there is nothing external to your own mind. But I have to admit that I find these extreme brands of solipsism, as often discussed in philosophy, rather boring. They are highly implausible and don’t capture what I think is a crucial idea in solipsism. What I find crucial is the idea that each of us is fundamentally alone. However, it’s important to understand in what sense we are alone. As I see it, I am not alone in the sense that only I know myself or only my mind exists. Rather, I am alone insofar as I am different from others. Solitude, then, is not merely a feeling but also a fact about the way we are.* In what follows, I’d like to suggest reasons for embracing this view and how its acknowledgement might actually make us more social.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater. – In 20th-century philosophy, solipsism has often had a bad name. Solipsism was and is mostly construed as the view that subjective experience is foundational. So you might think that you can only be sure about what’s going on in your own mind. If you hold that view, people will ridicule you as running into a self-defeating position, because subjective states afford no criteria to distinguish between what seems and what is right. Rejecting subjective experience as a foundation for knowledge or theories of linguistic meaning, many people seemed to think it was a bad idea altogether. This led to an expulsion of experience from many fields in philosophy. Yes, it does seem misguided to build knowledge or meaning on subjective experience. But that doesn’t stop experience from playing an important part in our (mental) lives. Let me illustrate this issue a bit more so as to show where I see the problem. Take the word “station”. For the (public) meaning of this word, it doesn’t matter what your personal associations are. You might think of steam trains or find the sound of the word a bit harsh, but arguably nothing of this matters for understanding what the word means. And indeed, it would seem a bit much if my association of steam trains would be a necessary ingredient for mastering the concept or using it in communication. This is a bit like saying: If we want to use the word “station” to arrange a meeting point, it doesn’t matter whether you walk to the station through the village or take the shortcut across the field. And yes, it doesn’t matter for the meaning or success of our use of the word whether you cut across the field.  But hang on! While it doesn’t matter for understanding the use of the word, it does matter for understanding my interlocutor. Thinking of steam trains is different from not thinking of them. Cutting across the field is different from walking through the village. This is a clear way in which the experience of interlocutors matters. Why? Well, because it is different. As speakers, we have a shared understanding of the word “station”; as interlocutors we have different experiences and associations we connect with that word. As I see it, it’s fine to say that experience doesn’t figure in the (public) meaning. But it is problematic to deny that the difference in experience matters.

A typical objection to this point is that private or subjective experience cannot be constitutive for meaning. But this goes only so far. As interlocutors, we are not only interested in understanding the language that someone uses, but the interlocutor who is using it. This is not an easy task. For understanding language is rooted in grasping sameness across different contexts, while understanding my interlocutor is rooted in acknowledging difference (in using the same words). This is not a point about emphatic privacy or the idea that our experience were to constitute meaning (it doesn’t). It’s a point about how differences can play out in practical interaction. To return to the earlier example “Let’s go to the station” can mean very different things, if one of you wants to go jointly but it turns out you have different routes in mind. So understanding the interlocutor involves not only a parsing of the sentence, but an acknowledgement of the differences in association. It requires acknowledging that we relate different experiences or expectations to this speech act. So while we have a shared understanding of language, we often lack agreement in associations. It is this lack of agreement that can make me vastly different from others. Accordingly, what matters in my understanding of solipsism is not that we have no public language (we do), but that we are alone (to some degree) with our associations and experiences.

Arguably, these differences matter greatly in understanding or misunderstanding others. Let me give an example: Since I started blogging, I can see how often people pick one or two ideas and run. Social media allow you to test this easily. Express an opinion and try to predict whether you’ll find yourself in agreement with at least a fair amount of people. Some of my predictions failed really miserably. But even if predictions are fulfilled, most communication situations lack a certain depth of understanding. Why is this the case? A common response (especially amongst analytically inclined philosophers) is that our communication lacks clarity. If this were true, we should improve our ways of communicating. But if I am right, this doesn’t help. What would help is acknowledging the differences in experience. Accordingly, my kind of solipsism is not saying: Only I know myself. Or: Only my mind exists. Rather it says: I am different (from others).

This “differential solipsism” is clearly related to perspectivism and even standpoint theory. However, in emerging from the acknowledgement of solitude, it has a decidedly existential dimension. If a bit of speculation is in order, I would even say that the tendency to shun solipsism might be rooted in the desire to escape from solitude by denying it. It’s one thing to acknowledge solitude (rooted in difference); it’s another thing to accept the solitary aspects of our (mental) lives. Let’s look more closely how these aspects play out.

Even if philosophers think that experience doesn’t figure in the foundations of knowledge and meaning, it figures greatly in many of our interactions.** We might both claim to like jazz, but if we go to a concert, it might be a disappointment when it turns out that we like it for very different reasons. So you might like the improvisations, while I don’t really care about this aspect, but am keen on the typical sound of a jazz combo. If the concert turns out to feature one but not the other aspect, our differences will result in disagreement.  Likewise, we might disagree about our way to the station, about the ways of eating dinner etc. Now as I see it, the solitude or differences we experience in such moments doesn’t sting because of the differences themselves. What makes such moments painful is rather when we endure and paste over these differences without acknowledging them.

If I am right, then I don’t feel misunderstood because you don’t happen to care about the sound of the combo. I feel misunderstood, because the difference remains unacknowledged. Such a situation can typically spiral into a silly kind of argument about “what really matters”: the sound or the improvisation. But this is just silly: what matters for our mutual understanding is the difference, not one of the two perspectives. In a nutshell: True understanding does not lie in agreement, but in the detailed acknowledgement of disagreement.***

But why, you might ask, should this be right? Why would zooming in on differences in association or experience really amend the situation? The reason might be given in Wittgenstein’s claim that solipsism ultimately coincides with realism. How so? Well, acknowledging the different perspectives should hopefully end the struggle over the question which of the perspectives is more legitimate. Can we decide on the right way to the station? Or on the most salient aspect in a jazz concert? No. What we can do is articulate all the perspectives, acknowledging the reality that each view brings to the fore. (If you like, you can imagine all the people in the world articulating their different experiences, thereby bringing out “everything that is the case.”)

Writing this, I am reminded of a claim Evelina Miteva made in a conversation about writing literature: The more personal the description of events is, the more universal it might turn out to be. While this sounds paradoxical, the realism of differential solipsism makes palpable why this is true. The clear articulation of a unique experience does not block understanding. Quite the contrary: It allows for localising it in opposition to different experiences of the same phenomenon. In all these cases, we might experience solitude through difference, but we will not feel lonely for being invisible.

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* Of course, the title “Solitude standing” is also a nod to the great tune by Suzanne Vega:

** In this sense, degrees of privacy can be cashed out in degrees of intimacy between interlocutors.

*** And once again, I am reminded of Eric Schliesser’s discussion of Liam Brights’s post on subjectivism, hitting the nail on the following head: “Liam’s post (which echoes the loveliest parts of Carnap’s program with a surprisingly Husserlian/Levinasian sensibility) opens the door to a much more humanistic understanding of philosophy. The very point of the enterprise would be to facilitate mutual understanding. From the philosophical analyst’s perspective the point of analysis or conceptual engineering, then, is not getting the concepts right (or to design them for ameliorative and feasible political programs), but to find ways to understand, or enter into, one’s interlocutor life world.”

Are philosophical classics too difficult for students?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we shouldn’t study what we love

I recognize that I could only start to write about this … once I related to it. I dislike myself for this; my scholarly pride likes to think I can write about the unrelatable, too. Eric Schliesser

Philosophy students often receive the advice that they should focus on topics that they have a passion for. So if you have fallen for Sartre, ancient scepticism or theories of justice, the general advice is to go for one of those. On the face of it, this seems quite reasonable. A strong motivation might predict good results which, in turn, might motivate you further. However, I think that you might actually learn more by exposing yourself to material, topics and questions that you initially find remote, unwieldy or even boring. In what follows, I’d like to counter the common idea that you should follow your passions and interests, and try to explain why it might help to study things that feel remote.

Let me begin by admitting that this approach is partly motivated by my own experience as a student. I loved and still love to read Nietzsche, especially his aphorisms in The Gay Science. There is something about his prose that just clicks. Yet, I was always sure that I couldn’t write anything interesting about his work. Instead, I began to study Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and works from the Vienna Circle. During my first year, most of these writings didn’t make sense to me: I didn’t see why they found what they said significant; most of the terminology and writing style was unfamiliar. In my second year, I made things worse by diving into medieval philosophy, especially Ockham’s Summa Logicae and Quodlibeta. Again, not because I loved these works. In fact, I found them unwieldy and sometimes outright boring. So why would I expose myself to these things? Already at the time, I felt that I was actually learning something: I began to understand concerns that were alien to me; I learned new terminology; I learned to read Latin. Moreover, I needed to use tools, secondary literature and dictionaries. And for Ockham’s technical terms, there often were no translations. So I learned moving around in the dark. There was no passion for the topics or texts. But speaking with hindsight (and ignoring a lot of frustration along the way), I think I discovered techniques and ultimately even a passion for learning, for familiarising myself with stuff that didn’t resonate with me in the least. (In a way, it seemed to turn out that it’s a lot easier to say interesting things about boring texts than to say even boring things about interesting texts.)

Looking back at these early years of study, I’d now say that I discovered a certain form of scholarly explanation. While reading works I liked was based on a largely unquestioned understanding, reading these unwieldy new texts required me to explain them to myself. This in turn, prompted two things: To explain these texts (to myself), I needed to learn about the new terminology etc. Additionally, I began to learn something new about myself. Discovering that certain things felt unfamiliar to me, while others seemed familiar meant that I belonged to one kind of tradition rather than another. Make no mistake: Although I read Nietzsche with an unquestioned familiarity, this doesn’t mean that I could have explained, say, his aphorisms any better than the strange lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. The fact that I thought I understood Nietzsche didn’t give me any scholarly insights about his work. So on top of my newly discovered form of explanation I also found myself in a new relation to myself or to my preferences. I began to learn that it was one thing to like Nietzsche and quite another to explain Nietzsche’s work, and still another to explain one’s own liking (perhaps as being part of a tradition).

So my point about not studying what you like is a point about learning, learning to get oneself into a certain mode of reading. Put more fancily: learning to do a certain way of (history of) philosophy. Being passionate about some work or way of thinking is something that is in need of explanation, just as much as not being passionate and feeling unfamiliar about something needs explaining. Such explanations are greatly aided by alienation. As I said in an earlier post, a crucial effect of alienation is a shift of focus. You can concentrate on things that normally escape your attention: the logical or conceptual structures for instance, ambiguities, things that seemed clear get blurred and vice versa. In this sense, logical formalisation or translation are great tools of alienation that help you to raise questions, and generally take an explanatory stance, even to your most cherished texts.

As a student, discovering this mode of scholarly explanation instilled pride, a pride that can be hurt when explanations fail or evade us. It was remembering this kind of pain, described in the motto of this post, that prompted these musings. There is a lot to be said for aloof scholarship and the pride that comes with it, but sometimes it just doesn’t add up. Because there are some texts that require a more passionate or intuitive relation before we can attain a scholarly stance towards them. If the passion can’t be found, it might have to be sought. Just like our ears have to be trained before we can appreciate some forms of, say, very modern music “intuitively”.

Why using quotation marks doesn’t cancel racism or sexism. With a brief response to Agnes Callard

Would you show an ISIS video, depicting a brutal killing of hostages, to the survivor of their murders? Of if you prefer a linguistic medium: would you read Breivik’s Manifesto to a survivor of his massacre? – Asking these questions, I’m assuming that none of you would be inclined to endorse these items. That’s not the point. The question is why you would not present such items to a survivor or perhaps indeed to anyone. My hunch is that you would not want to hurt or harm your audience. Am I right? Well, if this is even remotely correct, why do so many people insist on continuing to present racist, sexist or other dehumanising expressions, such as the n-word, to others? And why do we decry the take-down of past authors as racists and sexists? Under the label of free speech, of all things? I shall suggest that this kind of insistence relies on what I call the quotation illusion and hope to show that this distinction doesn’t really work for this purpose.

Many people assume that there is a clear distinction between use and mention. When saying, “stop” has four letters, I’m not using the expression (to stop or alert you). Rather, I am merely mentioning the word to talk about it. Similarly, embedding a video or passages from a text into a context in which I talk about these items is not a straightforward use of them. I’m not endorsing what these things supposedly intend to express or achieve. Rather, I am embedding them in a context in which I might, for instance, talk about the effects of propaganda. It is often assumed that this kind of “going meta” or mentioning is categorically different from using expressions or endorsing statements. As I noted in an earlier post, if I use an insult or sincerely threaten people by verbal means, I act and cause harm. But if I consider a counterfactual possibility or quote someone’s words, my expressions are clearly detached from action. However, the relation to possible action is what contributes to making language meaningful in the first place. Even if I merely quote an insult, you still understand that quotation in virtue of understanding real insults. In other words, understanding such embeddings or mentions rides piggy-back on understanding straightforward uses.

If this is correct, then the difference between use and mention is not a categorical one but one of degrees. Thus, the idea that quotations are completely detached from what they express strikes me as illusory. Of course, we can and should study all kinds of expressions, also expressions of violence. But their mention or embedding should never be casual or justified by mere convention or tradition. If you considered showing that ISIS video, you would probably preface your act with a warning. – No? You’re against trigger warnings? So would you explain to your audience that you were just quoting or ask them to stop shunning our history? And would you perhaps preface your admonitions with a defense of free speech? – As I see it, embedded mentions of dehumanising expressions do carry some of the demeaning attitudes. So exposing others to them merely to make a point about free speech strikes me as verbal bullying. However, this doesn’t mean that we should stop quoting or mentioning problematic texts (or videos). It just means that prefacing such quotations with pertinent warnings is an act of basic courtesy, not coddling.

The upshot is that we cannot simply rely on a clear distinction between quotation and endorsement, or mention and use. But if this correct, then what about reading racist or sexist classics? As I have noted earlier, the point would not be to simply shun Aristotle or others for their bigotry. Rather, we should note their moral shortcomings as much as we should look into ours. For since we live in some continuity with our canon, we are to some degree complicit in their racism and sexism.

Yet instead of acknowledging our own involvement in our history, the treatment of problematic authors is often justified by claiming that we are able to detach ourselves from their involvement, usually by helping ourselves to the use-mention distinction. A recent and intriguing response to this challenge comes from Agnes Callard, who claims that we can treat someone like Aristotle as if he were an “alien”. We can detach ourselves, she claims, by interpreting his language “literally”, i.e. as a vehicle “purely for the contents of his belief” and as opposed to “messaging”, “situated within some kind of power struggle”. Taken this way, we can grasp his beliefs “without hostility”, and the benefits of reading come “without costs”. This isn’t exactly the use-mention distinction. Rather, it is the idea that we can entertain or consider ideas without involvement, force or attitude. In this sense, it is a variant of the quotation illusion: Even if I believe that your claims are false or unintelligible, I can quote you – without adding my own view. I can say that you said “it’s raining” without believing it. Of course I can also use an indirect quote or a paraphrase, a translation and so on. Based on this convenient feature of language, historians of philosophy (often including myself) fall prey to the illusion that they can present past ideas without imparting judgment. Does this work?

Personally, I doubt that the literal reading Callard suggests really works. Let me be clear: I don’t doubt that Callard is an enormously good scholar. Quite the contrary. But I’m not convinced that she does justice to the study that she and others are involved in when specifying it as a literal reading. Firstly, we don’t really hear Aristotle literally but mediated through various traditions, including quite modern ones, that partly even use his works to justify their bigoted views. Secondly, even if we could switch off Aristotle’s political attitudes and grasp his pure thoughts, without his hostility, I doubt that we could shun our own attitudes. Again, could you read Breivik’s Manifesto, ignoring Breivik’s actions, and merely grasp his thoughts? Of course, Aristotle is not Breivik. But if literal reading is possible for one, then why not for the other?

The upshot is: once I understand that a way of speaking is racist or sexist, I cannot unlearn this. If I know that ways of speaking hurt or harm others, I should refrain from speaking this way. If I have scholarly or other good reasons to quote such speech, I shouldn’t do so without a pertinent comment. But I agree with Callard’s conclusion: We shouldn’t simply “cancel” such speech or indeed their authors. Rather, we should engage with it, try and contextualise it properly. And also try and see the extent of our own involvement and complicity. The world is a messy place. So are language and history.

Two kinds of philosophy? A response to the “ex philosopher”

Arguably, there are at least two different kinds of philosophy: The first kind is what one might call a spiritual practice, building on exercises or forms of artistic expression and aiming at understanding oneself and others. The second kind is what one might call a theoretical endeavour, building on concepts and arguments and aiming at explaining the world. The first kind is often associated with traditions of mysticism, meditation and therapy; the second is related to theory-building, the formation of schools (scholasticism) and disciplines in the sciences (and humanities). 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 an account of how language relates to the world. However, while both kinds are present in many philosophical works, only the second kind gets recognition in professional academic philosophy. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this lopsided focus might undermine our discipline.

Although I think that these kinds of philosophy are ultimately intertwined, I’d like to begin by trying to make the difference more palpable. Let’s start with a contentious claim: I think that most people are drawn into philosophy by the first kind, that is, by the desire understand themselves, while academic philosophy trains people in the second kind, that is, in handling respectable theories. People enter philosophy with a first-person perspective and leave or become academics through mastering the third-person perspective. By the way, this is why most first-year students embrace subjectivism of all kinds and lecturers regularly profess to be “puzzled” by this. Such situations thrive on misunderstandings: for the most part, students don’t mean to endorse subjectivism as a theory; they simply and rightly think that perspective matters.* Now, this is perhaps all very obvious. But I do think that this transition from the one kind to the other kind could be made more transparent. The problem I see is not the transition itself, but the dismissal of the first kind of philosophy. As I noted earlier, the two kinds of philosophy require one another. We shouldn’t rip the Tractatus apart, to exclude either mysticism or the theory. Whether you are engaging in the first or second kind is more a matter of emphasis. However, interests in gatekeeping and unfounded convictions about what is and what isn’t philosophy often entail practices of exclusion, often with pernicious effects.

Such sentiments were stirred when I read the confessions of an ex philosopher that are currently making the rounds on social media. The piece struck many chords, quite different ones. I thought it was courageous and truthful as well as heart-breaking and enraging. Some have noted that the piece is perhaps more the complacent rant of someone who was never interested in philosophy and fellow philosophers to begin with. Others saw its value in highlighting what might be called a “phenomenology of failure” (as Dirk Koppelberg put it). These takes are not mutually exclusive. It’s not clear to me whether the author had the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy in mind, but it surely does invoke something along these lines:

“Philosophy has always been a very personal affair. Well, not always. When it stopped being a personal affair, it also stopped being enjoyable. It became a performance.

… Somewhat paradoxically, academia made me dumber, by ripening an intellectual passion I loved to engage with into a rotten performance act I had to dread, and that I hurried to wash out of my mind (impossible ambition) when clocking out. Until the clocking out became the norm. Now I honestly do not have insightful opinions about anything — not rarefied philosophical problems nor products nor popular culture nor current events.”

What the author describes is not merely the transition from one approach to another; it is transition plus denial. It’s the result of the professional academic telling off the first-year student for being overly enthusiastically committed to “subjectivism”. While we can sometimes observe this happening in the lecture hall, most of this denial happens within the same person, the supposed adult telling off themselves, that is, the playful child within. No doubt, sometimes such transition is necessary and called for. But the denial can easily kill the initial motivation. – That said, the author also writes that he has “never enjoyed doing philosophy.” It is at this point (and other similar ones) where I am torn between different readings, but according to the reading I am now proposing the “philosophy” he is talking about is a widespread type of academic philosophy.** What he is talking about, then, is that he never had an interest in a kind of philosophy that would deny the initial enthusiasm and turn it into a mere performance.

Now you might say that this is just the course of a (professionalised) life. But I doubt that we should go along with this dismissal too readily. Let me highlight two problems, unfounded gatekeeping and impoverished practices:

  • The gatekeeping has its most recognisable expression in the petulant question “Is this philosophy?” Of course, it depends on who is asking, but the fact that most texts from the mystic tradition or many decidedly literary expressions of philosophy are just ignored bears witness to the ubiquitous exclusion of certain philosophers. It certainly hit Hildegard of Bingen, parts of Nietzsche and bits of Wittgenstein. But if an exaggerated remark is in order, soon anything that doesn’t follow the current style of paper writing will be considered more or less “weird”. In this regard, the recent attempts at “diversifying the canon” often strike me as enraging. Why do we need to make a special case for re-introducing work that is perfectly fine? In any case, the upshot of dismissing the first kind of philosophy is that a lot of philosophy gets excluded, for unconvincing reasons.
  • You might think that such dismissal only concerns certain kinds of content or style. But in addition to excluding certain traditions of philosophy, there is a subtler sort of dismissal at work: As I see it, the denial of philosophy as a (spiritual) practice or a form of life (as Pierre Hadot put it) pushes personal involvement to the fringes. Arguably, this affects all kinds of philosophy. Let me give an example: Scepticism can be seen as a kind of method that allows us to question knowledge claims and eventually advances our knowledge. But it can also be seen as a personal mental state that affects our decisions. As I see it, the methodological approach is strongly continuous with, if not rooted in, the mental state. Of course, sometimes it is important to decouple the two, but a complete dismissal of the personal involvement cuts the method off from its various motivations. Arguably, the dismissal of philosophy as a spiritual (and also political) practice creates a fiction of philosophy. This fiction might be continuous with academic rankings and pseudo-meritocratic beliefs, but it is dissociated from the involvement that motivates all kinds of philosophical exchange.

In view of these problems, I think it is vital keep a balance between what I called two kinds but what is ultimately one encompassing practice. Otherwise we undermine what motivates people to philosophise in the first place.

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* Liam Bright has a great post discussing the often lame counterarguments to subjectivism, making the point that I want to make in a different way by saying that the view is more substantial than it is commonly given credit for: “The objection [to subjectivism] imagines a kind of God’s-eye-perspective on truth and launches their attack from there, but the kind of person who is attracted to subjectivism (or for that matter relativism) is almost certainly the kind of person who is suspicious of the idea of such a God’s eye perspective. Seen from within, these objections simply lose their force, they don’t take seriously what the subjectivist is trying to do or say as a philosopher of truth.”

Eric Schliesser provides a brief discussion of Liam’s post, hitting the nail on the following head: “Liam’s post (which echoes the loveliest parts of Carnap’s program with a surprisingly Husserlian/Levinasian sensibility) opens the door to a much more humanistic understanding of philosophy. The very point of the enterprise would be to facilitate mutual understanding. From the philosophical analyst’s perspective the point of analysis or conceptual engineering, then, is not getting the concepts right (or to design them for ameliorative and feasible political programs), but to find ways to understand, or enter into, one’s interlocutor life world.”

** Relatedly, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between philosophy and the performative craft of academic philosophy in his post on “Being good at being good at philosophy”.

Questions – an underrated genre

Looking at introductions to philosophy, I realise that we devote much attention to the reconstruction of arguments and critical analysis of positions. Nothing wrong with that. Yet, where are the questions? Arguably, we spend much of our time raising questions, but apart from very few exceptions questions are rarely treated as a genre of philosophy. (However, here is an earlier post, prompted by Sara Uckelman’s approach, on which she elaborates here. And Lani Watson currently runs a project on philosophical questions.) Everyone who has tried to articulate a question in public will have experienced that it is not all that simple, at least not if you want to go beyond “What do you mean?” or “What time is it?” In what follows, I’d hope to get a tentative grip on it by looking back at my recent attempt to teach students asking questions.

This year, I gave an intense first-year course on medieval philosophy.* I say “intense” because it comprises eight hours per week: two hours lecture and two hours reading seminar on Thursday and Friday morning. It’s an ideal setting to do both, introduce material and techniques of approaching it as well as applying the techniques by doing close reading in the seminars. Often students are asked to write a small essay as a midterm exam. Given the dearth of introductions to asking questions, I set a “structured question” instead. The exercise looks like this:

The question will have to be about Anselm’s Proslogion, chapters 2-4. Ideally, the question focuses on a brief passage from that text. It must be no longer than 500 words and contain the following elements:

– Topic: say what the question is about;
– Question: state the actual question (you can also state the presupposition before stating the question);
– Motivation: give a brief explanation why the question arises;
– Answer: provide a brief anticipation of at least one possible answer.

What did I want to teach them? My declared goal was to offer a way of engaging with all kinds of texts. When doing so I assumed that understanding (a text) can be a general aim of asking questions. I often think of questions as a means of making contact with the text or interlocutor. For a genuine question brings two aspects together: on the one hand, there is your question, on the other, there is that particular bit of the text that you don’t understand or would like to hear more about. But … that’s more easily said than done. During the lectures and seminars we would use some questions from students to go through the motions. What I noticed almost immediately is that this was obviously really hard. One day, a student came up and said:

“Look, this focus on questions strikes me as a bit much. I’m used to answer questions, not raising them. It seems to require knowledge that I don’t have. As it is, it is rather confusing and I feel like drowning out at sea.”

I’m quoting from memory, but the gist should be clear. And while I now think of a smallish group of students as particularly brave and open, this comment probably represents the attitude of the majority. The students wanted guidance, and what I wanted to offer them instead was tools to guide themselves. I had and have a number of different reactions to the student’s confession. My first thought was that this is a really brave stance to take: Being so open about one’s own limits and confusion is rarely to be found even among established people. At the same time, I began to worry about my approach. To be sure, the confusion was caused intentionally to some degree, and I said so. But for this apporach to work one has to ensure that asking questions eventually provides tools to orient oneself and to recognise the reasons for the confusion. Students need to learn to consider questions such as: Why am I confused? Could it be that my own expectations send me astray? What am I expecting? What is it that the text doesn’t give me? Arguably, they need to understand their confusion to make contact to the text.  In other words, questions need to be understood. But this takes time and, above all, trust that the confusion lands us somewhere in the end.

When I taught this kind of course in the past, I did what the student seemed to miss now: I gave them not only guiding questions to provide a general storyline through the material, but also detailed advice on what to look for in the texts. While that strikes me as a fine way of introducing material, it doesn’t help them develop questions autonomously. In any case, we had to figure out the details of this exercise. So what is behind the four elements in the task above?

Since questions are often used for other purposes, such as masking objections or convey irritation, it is vital to be explicit about the aim of understanding. Thus, finding the topic had to be guided by a passage or concept that left the questioner genuinely confused. Admitting to such confusion is trickier than meets the eye, because it requires you to zoom in on your lack of understanding or knowledge. You might think that the topic just is the passage. But it’s important to attempt a separate formulation for two reasons: firstly, it tells the listener or reader what matters to you; secondly, it should provide coherence in that the question, motivation and answer should all be on the same topic.

In the beginning, I spent most of the time with analysing two items: the motivation and the formulation of the actual question. After setting out an initial formulation of the question, students had to spell out why the question arises. But why do questions arise? In a nutshell, most questions arise because we make a presupposition or have an expectation that the text does not meet. (Here is a recent post with more on such expectations.) A simple example is that you expect evidence or an argument for a claim p, while the author might simply say that p is self-evident. You can thus begin by jotting down something like “Why would p be self-evident, according to the author?” This means that now, at last, you can talk about something that you do know: your expectations. Ideally, this provides a way of spelling out what you expect and thus what the text lacks (from that perspective). Going from there, the tentative answer will have to provide a reason that shows why p is self-evident for the author. Put differently, while the motivation brings out your presuppositions, the answer is an attempt at spelling out the presuppositions guiding the text (or author). With hindsight, you can now also fix the topic, e.g. self-evidence.

But things are never that straightforward. What I noticed after a while was that many students went off in a quite different direction when it came to answering the question. Rather than addressing the possible reasons of the author, the students began to spell out why the author was wrong. At least during the first letures, they would sometimes not try to see what reasons the author could invoke. Instead, they would begin by stating why their own presupposition was right and the author wrong, whatever the author’s reasons.

This is not surprising. Most discussions inside and outside of philosophy have exactly this structure. Arguably, most philsophy is driven by an adversarial culture rather than by the attempt to understand others. A question is asked, not to target a difficulty in understanding, but to justify the refutation of the interlocutor’s position. While this approach can be one legitimate way of interacting, it appears particularly forced in engaging with historical texts. Trying to say why Anselm or any other historical author was wrong, by contemporary standards, just is a form of avoiding historical analysis. You might as well begin by explaining your ideas and leave Anselm out of the equation altogether.

But how can an approach to understanding the text (rather than refuting it) be encouraged? If you start out from the presupposition that Anselm is wrong, an obvious way would be to ask for the reasons that make his position seem right. It strikes me as obvious that this requires answering the question on Anselm’s behalf. It is at this point that we need to move from training skills (of asking questions) to imparting (historical) knowledge. Once the question arises why an author claims that p, and p does not match our expectations, we need to teach students to recognise certain moves as belonging to different traditions and ways of doing philosophy, ways that do not square with our current culture. My hope is that, if we begin with teaching to raise questions, it will become more desirable to acquire the knowledge relevant to providing answers and to understanding our own questions.

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* I’ve really enjoyed teaching this course and think I’ve learned a lot from it. Special thanks to my patient students, particularly to my great TAs, Elise van de Kamp and Mark Rensema, whose ideas helped me enormously in shaping the course. – Now, if you’ve read this far, I’d like to thank you, too, for bearing with me. Not only for the length of this post. Today is a special occasion: this is post number 101.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showing other(s) ways to read situations. A response to Martin Lenz

When learning how to interpret texts, we often tend to focus on the author’s intentions. What did they mean to communicate to readers? If you are trying to understand how the author views or perceives something, this seems like a good approach. However, what brought about the other interpretations in the first place? Certainly, people have a motivation for their reading of a text. Maybe they can make connections that both you and the author have not seen.

It can definitely be interesting to see why other people read a text another way and maybe you can even learn something from their reading. In this response to Martin Lenz, I first want to argue that the reason we have different readings of text and, hence, also different readings of situations is because our past experiences ‘teach’ us to read situations a certain way. Second, I want to consider whether communicating how we read situations can help us recognize power inequalities.

In a recent blog post, Martin sketched the following fictional situation:

Standing by

She knew she shouldn’t have come. But now it was too late for her to change her mind. In fact, it was getting late and the afternoon wore on, but there she was, stuck in his office and in a flow of words that was whirling around her head. He kept repeating himself and the repetition made his proposal sound friendly, even funny.

Later that evening when she remembered the episode she hated herself, again. Why had she not just left the office? It would have been easy to fabricate an excuse, and he didn’t really seem to care anyway. As it was, she had agreed to help him, just to get away. Now she was stuck in a project that no one seemed to want, she didn’t anyway.

Now, as Martin mentioned in his post, a lot of people, including myself, immediately read the situation described as having something to do with sexual harassment and could also pinpoint whence this interpretation came. This does not mean that this is what happened nor does it necessarily mean that there were bad intentions involved. But what did it mean? Why did I, and some others with me, see signs of sexual harassment where you maybe did not? According to Meno’s paradox, you can only find things if you know what you are looking for. Knowing what sexual harassment looks like or could look like means that you are able to recognize small details that could trigger such a reading. However, just as not everything that glitters is gold, not all situations that leave you to be alone with someone else doing something you would rather not be doing are sexual harassment. Still, certain things might trigger people, reminding them of previous bad experiences, despite nobody involved in this specific situation actually having bad intentions. More generally, this means that a situation can be undesirable (as perceived by one party), without the other party having bad intentions.

Where does this leave us with our interpretation of the situation pictured by Martin? Firstly, it means that what we think happened, is not necessarily what happened. Secondly, it means that our reading of a situation as undesirable does not necessarily mean that bad intentions were involved.

Leaving this reading of sexual harassment to the side, I want to focus on the power inequalities displayed, since they are a pervasive phenomenon in academia. Many of the same things apply here. Those who have suffered under power inequalities or have been told to look for certain signs, will be more likely to recognize them. Because such a situation is not one that we want to either go through or put others through, the latter option of having been told to look for these signs is certainly preferable. Speaking for myself, I have been told at the beginning of my masters to think twice when people ask me to do something. This advice was offered to me as a ‘woman in philosophy’, but people of all genders can end up in these situations.

I was told that I should not feel inclined to say ‘yes’ to things unless I actually want to do the thing. At the time I might have thought it to be a redundant talk. However, after reading Martin’s fictional account, I was reminded of the conversation. On numerous occasions I have put off saying yes to things, not because I felt like I was being persuaded to do something I did not want to, but because I was once told to make sure I wanted to do it. In other words, I was doing what I was instructed to do. This shows to me that it was not redundant to tell me this, on the contrary, it has convinced me that more people should hear this.

Just to be clear, I in no way want to claim that our professors are trying to trick us into doing chores for them. Actually, I think that often, they might not even be realizing that our reasons for agreeing to do something are not because we feel enthusiastic to take on the task at hand. This is not anyone’s fault in particular. This is how power inequality works. Being conscious of these forces at play is a good first step to choices being made for the right reasons. Telling students to think twice before saying ‘yes’ and teachers ensuring their students know that saying ‘no’ will not have bad consequences, might help ensure that fewer people agree to do things they do not want. After all, you can learn things from having gone through them yourselves really effectively, but in cases like these it is probably better if you don’t have to.

Alienation: On learning to talk philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have I been harassed? – Interpreting events through (fictional) texts

Having written a number of blog posts about interaction in academia, I recently began to wonder whether I should try out a different mode of writing. Examples and illustrations often help anyway. So why not extend these examples and use fictional scenes to get my point across? To tinker with the genre a bit I wrote a small sketch and shared it on facebook.* The responses were at once shocking and intriguing. They show that interpretations of texts (and described events) can be vastly different. Now, that in itself is probably not newsworthy. But what I find intriguing is that they shed some light on the fragility of authorship and on how this fragility might affect and alter interpretations of events. So much so that I now wonder whether I should see myself as a victim of harassment. In what follows, I’ll (1) present what I shared on facebook and briefly summarise some of the responses. (2) Then I say how I had come to write the sketch and what I had intended. I know that the reading intended by the author is just one possible reading. But the reactions make me wonder whether other readers might be in a better position to understand the events. So here goes.

(1) On facebook, I wrote the following:

Dear Hivemind,

I have a sort of interpretational request. Please read the following fictional sketch and let me know what comes to mind, be it a view of the situation, a feeling of what’s going on or something that is triggered in you, an association, whatever. You can just write a single word or phrase in the comments or be more elaborate. Many thanks in advance!

Standing by

She knew she shouldn’t have come. But now it was too late for her to change her mind. In fact, it was getting late and the afternoon wore on, but there she was, stuck in his office and in a flow of words that was whirling around her head. He kept repeating himself and the repetition made his proposal sound friendly, even funny.

Later that evening when she remembered the episode she hated herself, again. Why had she not just left the office? It would have been easy to fabricate an excuse, and he didn’t really seem to care anyway. As it was, she had agreed to help him, just to get away. Now she was stuck in a project that no one seemed to want, she didn’t anyway.

The responses to this sketch were quite different. The first tinkered with the genres and really made laugh. Most but not all suggest an academic setting. It’s clear that someone feels pressured into something undesired. A swapping of pronouns is suggested for a possible change of effects. One reading insiuates that we might be looking at an only “vaguely fictionalised account”. All of them strike me as careful readings, but there is a clearly dominant trend: Most people seem to read the scene as sexually charged or as one of (sexual) harassment. At least up until the last line: the word “project” seems to upset the sexual interpretation.

(2) Reading the responses, I thought it will be interesting to contrast them with how the story originated. Why? Not least because it allows for a comparison between the author’s intention and the dominant interpretation. So how did I come up with the sketch? – I wanted to capture a typical situation in academia: a regretful self-assessment of a situation in which we feel pressured into agreeing to something (of which neither our supervisor nor we might be really convinced). Although my time as a graduate student lies in the distant past, I remember some situations rather vividly.

So what was the material I drew on? I remembered a number of situations in which I sat in the office of my supervisor and listened to him detailing various ideas, sometimes repeating himself, either because he had forgotten about telling me earlier or for added emphasis. Sometimes he would come up with the suggestion that I might take on a certain task in a project that had some more or less direct relation to my own work. – I hasten to add that I have very fond memories of the discussions with my supervisor and think of the process with much pleasure. Moreover, the sketch does not draw on one particular situation; it’s rather coming out of a jumble of memories of several situations with him and other people. Yet, I also think that it can’t do harm to detail situations that, with hindsight, present us with what is called teachable moments. Remembering such situations, it didn’t take me long to write the above sketch. Looking at it again, I suddenly wondered what would happen if I used female pronouns for myself. Initially, I was pleased with the idea because, to my mind, it seemed to abstract away further from my situation and helped focus on the two things I wanted to capture: feeling pressured into a project, and the regret.

After reading the reactions, I notice a number of things. Although I know what I intended to say, I don’t think the deviating interpretations are wrong. Far from it, they construe the situation differently and make me wonder whether I should re-evaluate my experience. That said, I don’t think I have been harassed, certainly not intentionally. In fact, it took me quite while to even see how the sketch presents evidence for (sexual) harassment. Fortunately, the respondents took great care to argue for their readings. And at moments, their readings strike me as more plausible than my own. They highlighted a number of aspects that I didn’t notice myself, let alone intend to say, but that are still recognisable as features of the situation. The change of pronouns also hightens the creepiness that seems to figure in some of the interaction. Am I perhaps even gaslighting my former self? Being the author, then, does not make me the judge of interpretations or immunise my own reading against amendment by others. My intended take is but one reading. And in theory I could even give up on my own take. (Arguably, certain mental states might be indeterminate, such that we can’t say we are definitely in one state or have one thought rather than another.) Still, it takes some time to get used to the idea that others simply don’t read your stuff in the way you initially intended it. Yet while I agree that the description of the situation remains ambiguous, I know that I would not have called this behaviour harassment, neither at the time nor today.

But still, I wonder what to make of this kind of situation. The lesson I draw is that, clearly, the power imbalance between supervisor and student should not be underestimated. I am fairly sure that my supervisor thought that he would not pressure me into anything; he enjoyed chatting about ideas and wanted to pass on a task that occurred to him should be delegated. But while the set-up would have allowed me to refuse the task, my hierarchical inferiority facilitated the assumption that the refusal would have come at a price (that I didn’t want to pay). That might have been a false assumption, and perhaps that inferiority should not serve as an excuse for inaction or lack of honesty.

Yet, I tend to think that I would have been more at ease and in a position to refuse, had my supervisor done more to make clear that he didn’t see me under the (tacit) obligation to accept his ‘offer’. Perhaps. Perhaps not. On the other hand, I am well aware that he was raised in a culture in which is his behaviour would go through as entirely ‘normal’. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that he could have seeen his own conduct as an improvement over that of his former supervisors. On yet another hand, I also think we should be cautious when passing judgment on events that have ambiguous features. In the sketch, my self-assessment is dominated by regret over accepting a task. But as I see it, the pressure I felt was less founded in the actions of my supervisor than in the hierarchical structure. And as we all know the structures that not only surround but also carry us can become almost invisible, especially to those in a superior position.

In any case, it can’t do much harm to try harder and put ourselves into the shoes of others. Then again, it’s equally helpful to re-situate our stories in entirely different contexts. After all, the sketch can also be read as a snippet from a crime novel.

____

* Many thanks to my (facebook) friends for chiming in, especially (in the order of appearance): Mariya Ivancheva, Naomi Osorio, Sara Uckelman, Maurice Nette, Michael Morris, Linda Ham, Anita van der Bos, Charles Wolfe, and Lucy Nicolls.