Rats! II: So how should we do philosophy?

It’s probably the case that anyone’s purporting to have the answer to that question provides a good reason for not believing what they say.  What we can do, however, is to look at one answer and consider what makes it wrong or at least incomplete.  And of course the answer is going to reflect the picture of philosophy as a blood sport, the rude philosophy discussed here (the first “Rats!”) and here.

The answer I’ll ask us to consider is one that has really been given and endorsed on at least one occasion.  That occasion was one that occurred some time ago at one of the very elite grad schools.  And here’s the rest of the story:

At August University the women graduate students in the philosophy department felt that they were under-privileged outsiders.  Their complaints became visible enough that the department called a meeting.  After a discussion of why someone might feel reluctant to speak up at a seminar, one of the male professors got up and said:

“This is the philosophical method.  Someone puts up a position and everyone else tries to knock it down.  And if women don’t like it, they should get out of philosophy.”

The impact was increased by his pounding a fist into the palm of his other hand to match the cadence of his voice. Some of the women students were in tears. One brave male graduate student said he didn’t much like getting torn apart in public either.

Now just about anyone who writes can benefit from criticism, and those of us trained in, and working within, the analytic tradition may tend especially to value having our arguments assessed and assessing those of others. But it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that the description of the “philosophical method” is at least incomplete.

I’m going to quote from some comments on the original “Rats!” (linked to above), but let me suggest something that in effect elaborates on a point in a number of comments. The fact of the matter is that the philosophical community as a whole values interesting and insightful ideas at least as much as good arguments. But if we look at research about how to encourage the engendering of interesting and insightful ideas, it doesn’t look as though the way to do it is to launch into attack mode the minute someone has the nerve to present a possible idea. So there’s a disconnect between the methodology of philosophy as a blood sport and at least one central value in the profession.

Well, see what you think. Here are some interesting comments on alternatives that come from the discussion in the original “Rats!”. (In fact, there are many more good comments than I’ll quote, since I’m especially looking for descriptions of alternatives. Thus I’m leaving out discussions of the effects of the dominant method.)

Noumena’s quote from Janice Moulton (my stress):

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.


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.”

Not the fun kind:

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 …


. 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.

My own tentative:

… 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

What do you think?

Beauty pageant with a twist



Many feminists may view beauty pageants with a critical eye. But the BBC here reports on a pageant, in Angola, for survivors of exploding landmines left after decades of civil war (see here for more information). 

The project is aims both to raise awareness of the problem of landimes, and to promote a wider range of bodies as beautiful (see here):

(in no particular order)

* Female pride and empowerment.

* Disabled pride and empowerment.

* Global and local landmine awareness and information.

* Challenge inferiority and/or guilt complexes that hinder creativity-
historical, cultural, social, personal, African, European.

* Question established concepts of physical perfection.

* Challenge old and ingrown concepts of cultural cooperation.

* Celebrate true beauty.

* Replace the passive term ‘Victim’ with the active term ‘Survivor’

Looks like an interesting subversion of the traditional beauty pageant, and there are further plans for a similar project in Cambodia.

Though for an alternative take, see here.