There’s Brian Leiter over on his blog treating philosophers’ rudeness as a joke.  Or, equally, as something you should experience as proof you are being treated as an insider.  AND I CAN’T  SEEM TO COMMENT ON IT.  Goodness knows where the comment box is, or isn’t.

The post is called “Funny–On Academic Bad Manners.”   Notice that though he and those acting like him apparently think they’d never, ever treat students with crushing rudeness, everyone else is fair game.  Interesting view of social interaction and one’s place in it. 

Is the priority given to one’s feelings and thoughts  in an academic debate – and the obvious sense of entitlement to nastily dump on people-  narcissistic?  Is there really any justification for comments that are nasty and bitter enough that, when made by a powerful figure, they can lead to one’s being ostracized?   What do you think? 

UPDATE:  You might want to look at our earlier discussion of philosophy as a blood sport.

21 thoughts on “Rats!

  1. There is no justification for it. It’s one of the worst things to afflict philosophy, and probably a major reason that there are so few women in philosophy. My impression, however, is that it’s getting better: that more and more younger philosphers think this is something to be actively fought against. Here’s hoping.

  2. I was just talking about the combative, quick-comeback style of philosophy with some friends the other night. That conversation reminded me of a piece by Janice Moulton, `Duelism in philosophy’, Teaching philosophy Fall 1980. From her introduction:

    What I would like to do is to identify and criticize a paradigm, or part of a paradigm, in philosophy. It is the paradigm that represents the philosophic enterprise as an unimpassioned debate between adversaries who try to defend their own views against opposition and show how opposing views are wrong. Recently, this paradigm has received a few gibes from the popular press for its weaponry of quick counterexamples but no one has said why philosophers would
    use it so exclusively. My objections to this Adversary Method are to its role as a paradigm. If it were merely one procedure among many for philosophers to employ, there might be nothing to object to. But when it dominates the evaluation, doing, and teaching of philosophy, it restricts and misrepresents what philosophy is.

    I suspect Moulton would say that this isn’t narcissistic — it’s about power dynamics and establishing a pecking order. The most prestigious philosophers at my institution are masters (the gender there is significant, I think) of the quick-witted, combative style. (They’re absolutely scary in the weekly colloquium.) And a lot of the grad students here admire them — and, consequently, emulate them.

    What’s scary is that they do this without even realising it. One — who is already very, very good at this style of philosophy, and readily falls into it — actively denies that it’s the dominant style, that it might make people uncomfortable, that it might have anything to do with the male-dominance of the discipline, and that he himself uses it most of the time.

  3. Another appropriate quotation from Moulton:
    Rude and belligerent styles are developed in the name of teaching philosophy; glibness rather than careful thinking is modeled and encouraged in classes; winning arguments rather than encouraging and developing good ideas becomes the role of the teachers; and sensible people who would abhor such an
    interchange among normal human beings learn to admire such teachers and are even motivated to do it themselves.

  4. I think that what seemed to me narcissistic is the total lack of any concern about what effects this has on others’ watching the encounter. One’s nastiness can invite people to regard someone as a fool.

    I don’t see that excellence in philosophy has anything to do with surviving such attacks, except for the fact that you have to endure them to have a public presence, more or less.

    But it does seem to be getting a bit better.

  5. We should distinguish, I think, between “Duelist Philosophy” and plain old rudeness. Like Noumena, I’ve known many who were quite skilled at the former. But a good many of them have been polite, kind, and gentle too–even when engaged in spirited philosophical conversation.

    The point: we can condemn rude, bitter, narcissistic, etc. behavior in philosophy without thinking that any adversarial model has to go too. =)

  6. Notice that though he and those acting like him apparently think they’d never, ever treat students with crushing rudeness, everyone else is fair game. Interesting view of social interaction and one’s place in it.

    What kind of a view would this be? It seems to make sense to give students a lot more lenience than others. After all, it looks like students are often expected to commit to views or positions that they don’t know much about or understand very well, and it’s inevitable that they will sometimes make drastic mistakes. But normally people aren’t expected to commit to things that they haven’t thought through or don’t know much about, and when they do and make a huge mistake, they are criticized not just because they made a mistake, but because they shouldn’t have committed to a position they don’t understand very well (or haven’t thought through). I am not sure about crushing rudeness, but this seems to be some justification for being less critical of students than professionals or public figures.

    I do think that people very often go overboard, and as someone pretty new to philosophy I am surprised by some of the angry rhetoric that pops up once and awhile. For example:

    As I said at the outset, Fodor’s paper is a gold mine of Cautionary Tales with which to scare the very dickens out of the young. Look what happens, boys and girls, when you try to shoehorn all your arguments into the form of constructive dilemmas, as if you were doing proofs in geometry or number theory, where hard edges abound. Look what happens, boys and girls, when you can’t be bothered to look at the actual science and instead make up all your examples. You can have a jolly time making fun of the words you put in your imaginary explainer’s mouths, but at the end of the day, you have to return to the real world, empty handed.

    Yikes. Fodor’s paper (“Against Darwinism”) broke the rules – he came out and said that Darwinism is fundamentally flawed, but he doesn’t seem to have thought his position through or done any fact checking before did it. And he made a few mistakes, and got quite a bit of mean criticism out of it. In any case I do think that the quote is going overboard and is needlessly harsh.

  7. I see this kind of activity quite often in my graduate program. My fellow students and I sometimes act as if we’re trying to belittle each other as much as we can, and to be honest, it’s depressing and tiring. And furthermore, because it’s so hard to deal with, I question whether I really want to continue doing philosophy all together.

    But what’s the solution? What can I do, as a graduate student to help get rid of this problem? I know I’m guilty of doing the same thing to my fellow students, and yet I know it’s wrong for me to do so. But, again, how can I change as a person, and furthermore, what can we do to change as a discipline?

  8. I appreciate Bret B’s acknowledgement of participation in the adversarial interactions of philosophers. I myself was trained in this method, and, to my regret, I realize that I have used it probably at times inappropriately. Other times, I have used it as a way to defend myself from attacks aimed at me.

    In other words, the paradigm is very successful in perpetuating itself. I continue to be shocked at the ways in which my undergraduate students (the ones who persist in philosophy, anyway) enthusiastically take up the attack-and-kill approach as they have learned it from other professors. In class, I try to emphasize the importance of other approaches–like building on what another person says or writes, or raising questions about it, or connecting it to the work of another. Trying these approaches is quite hard for some of them; they would prefer to go for the jugular.

    I also think the reliance on the attack-and-kill method is ironically linked with the very cozy alliance-building that some philosophers engage in. That is, there is a tendency to look for allies to stand up against one’s enemies. Philosophy is very clique-y; there are insiders and outsiders; there is a surprisingly fixed hierarchy of “real” or “important” philosophy, as contrasted with what is thought to be not real or not important.

  9. Wow, the description of philosophy as blood-sport is so apt, but some distinctions should be drawn which unfortunately are not by the “masters” indeed of this sport.
    The quotes from Moulton are helpful. I think that this paradigm of “debate” is thoroughly masculinist and primarily (correct me if I’m wrong) within the analytic “camp” of philosophy. Women and non-analytics in a male, analytic dominated department have to prove themselves as “men”and thus get often pulled into the nastiness.

    The fact that the grad student who commented seems to flounder on an alternative way to engage others with philosophy is sad testament to the way that students are trained in this form of aggression–it is SOOO INTELLECTUALLY LIMITING. My own history as a feminist intellectual in various contexts–including most recently a (blood-sport type) philosophy department but, over the years, in a wide variety of feminist, intellectual settings such as conferences, and communities, and study groups–shows that argument and conflict is not ruled out by by a type of discourse that can be primarily dialogic, co-creating, cooperative building on one another’s points in intense excitement rather than beating one another down and one-upping one another (by the way I know that this one-upping style can be done in non-analytic, and even non-philosophy graduate programs). I’ve experienced and enjoyed this dialogic style occur at some SWIP meetings for example–especially when there is an excellent facilitator.

    On the other hand, I think that there is also a kind of taboo against conflict that often, paradoxically, coincides with the adversarial style, and exists outside of the blood-sport style–especially but not only among women intellectuals, including philosophers. And this also shrinks the intellect. I have no idea who Fodor is- but it doesn’t seem to me that the style of the quote chosen is in and of itself mean. For reasons of space, limiting my comments now to the academy: I feel strongly that sharp critique, especially when directed against those who hold authority positions (e.g. not junior scholars, or students) is important. Sarcasm, and sometimes ridicule is warranted if a particular intellectual position is held by elite members of the academy *and* that position justifies or obfuscates and mystifies various forms of exploitation and domination. Evolutionary psychology for example in defenses of male dominance. But also a lot of poststructuralism, imho.

    As a junior scholar my work in feminist theory was subjected to a supposed “review” by senior colleagues (two men and one woman) that was riddled with sarcasm and overall antagonistic. This was wrong on so many levels, but especially given my junior position, and the fact that as a mid-tenure-track review , I would have thought that evaluation was supposed to *help* me develop rather than tear my work apart–the element of derision was thoroughly gratuitous to put it mildly ( I ended up publishing everything i wrote in good to excellent journals- just to give you a sense of the value of my work vis-a-vis my actual peers in academia.)
    On the other hand,
    I have also been criticized by others (not in this case those colleagues) for my sharp critiques of world-famous feminist scholars–scholars in the most elite positions one might imagine–and whose work, I argue, functions to mystify rather than clarify existing forms of domination. I have been criticized for the sharpness of my own critiques as if these were unfair or even “personal” attacks (even though all the critiques were leveled at the specific arguments made, not the person). { I use a different tone and moderate my intensity –and eliminate any sarcasm–if I criticize the work of a junior scholar, or someone without too much cultural capital or authority.] So this is where the flip side of the blood-sport ethic is felt- in a taboo against the kind of fierce debate that is so needed among feminist scholars, and an imperative to “be nice” no matter what.
    In some – I just think the issue is complicated and would love to hear more of others’ thoughts.

  10. Thanks to Introvertica and NTFK for your comments about what an alternative could/should look like. I’m thinking of trying to write a post about it, which will be indebted to the comments.

    Taylor, my point was really that to recognize one has one kind of social obligation – that to students – and not any other restrictions on verbal nastiness (except perhaps general ones about not being lewd, etc) seems to me quite odd. One of the reasons for my reaction is suggested in my first comment; namely, one can damage another person professionally.

  11. Bret– the question of what to do is an excellent one. I think a hugely important start is just to talk about the issue, and about the fact that the same point can be made in multiple ways– some constructive, some go-for-the-kill. Also, to praise (loudly) those who manage to be constructive (and also do good philosophy, it should go without saying)– either orally or in writing. But not to praise them for their kindness, instead to praise them for the quality of their points– people need to know that smart people can behave well, and good philosophy can be done in a constructive manner, and that those who do this will not just be appreciated for niceness but also have their work taken seriously. In grad school, I knew that I was very uncomfortable but I didn’t know there was another way to be a philosopher until I came to the UK. It’s made a huge difference to me to see that people can do philosophy collaboratively– and to be in atmosphere where that is cultivated and appreciated, and the attack-dog style is considered not just nasty but shallow and intellectually inferior.

  12. Dare I mention, Jender, that England has spawned some exceptions to your general statement. During a recent conference I kept fantasizing about going up to one very well regarded British philosopher and saying, “Are you really an as..le, or do you just like acting like one?” Well, not my thing, so I didn’t. But also friends later told me it would have done no good, since he likes to think of himself as one.

    And then I have memories of (one of) my Oxford tutors who was quite capable of saying, “Of the face of it, this is one of the stupidest things I have ever read. Whatever could you have meant by it?” I’m thinking here of a very public meeting. Or the time that the same person refused to look at the commentator at a Philosophical Society meeting (back kept turned). Or the brilliant young woman who just about stopped writing upon being savaged at a meeting of the Phil. Soc.

    Of course, in some cases, we’re talking about first or second generation students of Wittgenstein.

  13. Now, that said, I should say I don’t probably see enough to question the geneeral difference between philosophical behavior in the two countries.

    I’ve often thought that there at least was a difference between how philosophy is approached, but I think also that there’s increasing convergence, though I’m not sure. I think that my training at least had one look not so much at specific arguments as at the type of theory being developed, its goals and suppositions. That makes a constructive approach easier and the specific put-down often less interesting, since the goal really is increased understanding. It is not so much about a competition among the theories competing in some sub-field. Mind you, this is my first shot at trying to put this point.

  14. I had a tenure-track job in Philosophy (in Australasia, where tenure doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in the US). My Head of School said that I would be confirmed i.e. I had made it through the probationary period, just after I resigned.

    I resigned for many reasons, but one of them was feeling that it was no fun participating in a discipline where I had been done over and treated with disdain by senior philosophers, and not even in the context of discussing my ideas. Including by one of the philosophers mentioned in Lieter’s post.

  15. Everyone in philosophy has come across a prick professor. You know the one ‘fighting the good fight’, who’d take not so subtle digs at the work of other professors during their lectures and students that weren’t their pet sycophants. I used to laugh at it when a prof would get short with a student. Barbara Hutton’s line in Poor Little Rich Girl would always come to mind, ‘Is this about art Andy or are you just making fun of me?’

    Philosophy departments become cliquish over time. So and so is a neo young Hegelian, the other is Platonist, the other Platonist thinks the first Platonist is a cartoon Platonist, etc… the classroom dynamic tends to become a tense as it fragments.

  16. This discussion leads me to ask the question oft on my mind. What is the role of the philosopher in life rather than in academe? Is it that being the former is to be a different–perhaps a very different–kind of person than the latter?

  17. I think NTFK makes an excellent point; a distinction probably needs to be made between debate and bloodsport in cases like this, in part because I think the latter sometimes gets a pass because it mimics the former. There’s no question that in philosophy debate’s a good thing — even fierce debate, sometimes — mind against mind, a chance to put your own thoughts to the test of another’s, iron sharpening iron, as the saying goes. You come together as genuine colleagues, you argue it out as genuine colleagues, and you leave the room as genuine colleagues, and probably have lunch together after. But in the bloodsport-type clashes collegiality itself is what suffers: someone is being treated with disrespect and contempt. And the real problem here, I think, is not that there are fierce arguments, or even that things occasionally get more bitter and fierce than they should (which is human nature, and probably not wholly avoidable); it is that the mistreatment of another is tolerated as both professional and philosophical, or at least as if it could not be removed without removing debate. That, I think, is the tragic thing about what one finds in the Leiter post: that somehow the whole thing is treated as justified, so much so that the expectation of others that academic philosophers would behave better is amusing. It’s a sign that something has gone very wrong.

  18. Khadimir, that’s a good question, I think. We’d probably need to know what academia is for before being able to answer it. I’m not sure we Americans have any idea.

  19. Just an aside – sometimes, often, lack of arguments/inability to occupy a different perspective/ignorance/etc/ lead to being nasty and combative. If you do not have a real answer, be condescending and most people will give up on pressing you further. One more note – nobody is kind and nice towards students while being nasty towards peers and such. One might be delusional and think of oneself that way (as when one thinks that being nasty in debates means winning them), but that in itself tells us something about the person.

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