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?

11 thoughts on “Rats! II: So how should we do philosophy?

  1. I would like to suggest an alternative to the foregoing suggestions on how to do philosophy.

    Suppose that philosophy is the activity of understanding, and the philosopher is a person who seeks to understand and be understood. Consider first the former.

    In seeking to understand another, one attempts to re-enact the understanding that some historical or present person has. This is in a sense to become other than oneself, to think and speak thoughts that are not one’s own but are coming to be oneself. Perhaps, it is to come to think a different conceptual language, but to think with all the social, cultural, and historical weight of the other that one can manage. Why? What one seeks to understand is the world and others, which is to bring them into one’ self, to enlarge oneself thus.

    Concerning the latter, seeking to be understood is to learn the arts of communication.

    Clearly, this suggestion does not support any adversarial method, but it might not give support to strict argumentation models either.

  2. Hasn’t this discussion being going on for twenty five hundred years? How many days did Socrates waste having to out sophist the sophist in order to bring them to a position in which they could begin dialog. Ideally, debate can be left to lawyers who make their vocation rhetoric, but wasn’t conversation and an honest respect for the products of conversation the basis of philosophy (then before the constructs of truth)?

  3. Hard to answer your challenge without being misunderstood. I have to say I’m not a philosopher at all but someone who applies philosophy in an unrelated field. I think the adversarial method is worthwhile provided these ground rules are set forth: first, it’s not a grudge or wits match, and it’s all about ideas, not people, so ad hominem attacks are out of bounds. Second, everyone I know had these “good at first sight but turn out terrible” ideas more often than is comfortable, so weeding these out early is a good thing, and trying to avoid hurting the originator’s feeling by allowing her to fall flat later on is not helpful — I’m aware that this is weak, but I do think this is a useful to defuse hard feelings. Third, the reviewing body as a whole should strive to improve on the original idea, not just put it down — some people are good at tearing, some good at building, that’s why I said “as a whole”. Fourth, the originator should strive to see the biased proceeding for what it is, i.e. intent on attack; that means avoid holding grudges, consider criticism, but feel free to answer and/or discard differing opinions, or even better come up with some way to settle it — admittedly easier when applying philosophy to testable fields.

    I think there is worth in this method, and what I’m really afraid of is false agreement, where one should refrain from criticism out of a fear of hurting feelings. My being male may very well make my opinion worthless in this discussion, but I’m very grateful when someone points outs my mistakes early. I try to ignore the way that came about, but I definitely think the method can be improved by making it clear that the debate should be about ideas, not people.

  4. Counterfnord, I did try to say that I – and surely many other women in philosophy – value careful analysis of our arguments and those of others; I assume that such an analysis will often enough point out flaws or even huge and devastating errors. There are really two points to be made: (1) that approach is too partial to be the whole of what philosophy does, or to be the only desirable pedagogical method; (2) when the criticism is hostile, it can be damaging in sometimes very serious ways, at least to the extent of making the discipline less friendly to women.

    A couple of days ago I saw a description of someone’s work. I first met the guy in 19XX, when he gave a paper at the US University of the Hyper Elites. He was completely and cold bloodedly torn apart; there was nothing left, and I remember seeing him slumped in a chair looking extremely depressed. According to what I was reading recently, his major and very influential work was published when he was still young – by 19XX-1; that is, a year before his experience. I really can’t say that that put an end to his work, but we should take seriously the idea that it could.

    I remember going home and saying ‘I see; at Oxford philosophers just wanted to get the bull down on his knees, but here they insist on drawing blood and maybe even lopping off some bits.”

  5. Khadimir, I’m not sure I understand you, but I’m struck by how much you description is like that of the emotional (and more) mirroring that many cognitive scientists think we do with others. This reverberates in a couple of ways, but one perhaps particularly important one is that some people have argued that a lot of philosophers are not very good at mirroring others and picking up, as it were, where the others are. For a picture of the disconnectedness of philosophers, have a look at: https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2007/12/06/a-perspective-on-the-apa/

  6. jj, I agree completely with your take on this.

    The attack mode has its place, but I think it would be stupid to be stuck in that mode all the time. I think the criticism should be blunt in that exercise, but there’s no room for hostility; I use it as a method of investigation, it’s not about channeling your inner playground bully. And I’ve seen it get personal and that hostility driving talented people away, that’s why it must be balanced by suggestions and never get personal. Otherwise it’s not just unfriendly, it’s counterproductive.

    Makes me wonder what these guys are actually after: pack mentality and bared teeth are not what I look for in philosophy, I get plenty of that already. Or used to get. I’m on a break from that kind of setting for many reasons, but the mindless hostility is one of them. I felt I was getting far too confrontational myself.

  7. I am fairly new to philosophy, decided to make it my major last summer. I’ve only had two philosophy courses (both upper level, but still have alot to learn). In a effort to learn more, I read these kinds of blogs. This is my first post as I felt compelled to reply.

    My first instructor was a very kind, gentle, older man. He “refereed”, if you will, our debates with such grace always allowing his students to express their opinions, and handled “heated debates” very delicately. His class was also very challenging. I owe much of my decision to change majors to him and his course, and have much respect for him. Unfortunaetly he is retiring after this semester.

    I had a very different experience with my second professor. He is young, energentic, challenging, but moody at times. Sometimes he would make “personal” attacks on me, ones that were not at all philosophical in nature. Other times I felt as though he tried to help both myself and other students with assignments. I have a “like/dislike” for this professor. So, I spent that semester going back and forth, trying to understand what I did wrong to warrant those personal attacks. Of course, in his defense, I did not “always” act passively. However, most of the time I just didn’t speak so I couldn’t give him more ammunition, realizing that this is just not how philosophy is suppose to work.

    During my second course, I met a friend. He and I debated alot, and still do. We disagree on things and equally get frustrated when the other doesn’t accept the other’s opinions. Then we go have lunch, laugh, and start over again.

    I guess I said all that to say, that although my philosopy experience is limited, I’m glad I was exposed early on as to what can be expected from some philosophers. I want to use my philosophy degree to pursue a law degree. So, I enjoy debate. I guess all in all, I should be grateful for the experience as it will be helpful in the courtroom someday. (smile).

    I am currently signed up to take a summer course with professor #2. I’m alittle apprehensive, but determined not to let a professor deter me from my goals. I still enjoy philosophy, and am looking forward to learning more. :)

  8. Just starting out: You seem to have a very good understanding of what’s going on, and you’ve learned a great lesson: a lot of your education in philosophy will be from interactions with other students.

    It’s really too much, though, that you are having to try to figure out your professors moods. If you think we can help some, you can contact us through “contact” in the category list.

    You might think about becoming a philosophy prof and giving them hell!

  9. counterfnord, I thought we were really in agreement. Great.

    I have recently been think about how much the adversarial method in practice includes bullying. You may have seen the latest Sunday cat, who stands her (?) ground. In fact, when I’ve been able to keep my cool and have had the time to ask questions of the form “what exactly fo you mean here” I do often see them go around in circles.

    I think that’s not a trivial observation. The adversarial method leaves a lot of us feeling that such seeming self-confidence must be backed up by decisive insight. In fact, we need to remember that there aren’t all that many brilliant people, and in any case, the way to advance understanding is to get people to explain themselves to the point that the real disagreement gets revealed.

  10. jj: yes indeed, I learned a valuable lesson, but I think the sweetest revenge will come in the form of success in my field (and breaking down sterotypes). :)

    Well, I’m off to reading more topics!

    Like your “Sunday Cat”

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