The Chorus

Many of you will know about The Stone, a series written by various philosophers for the NY Times.  One remarkable features of these is the chorus of comments that follow.  As one person puts it in comments on the latest of the series:

Many reader comments on The Stone would be much better if the commentators came to the table as open-minded and careful readers who are interested in constructive dialogue. All too often, we see people who offer vague, ungrounded, and often fallacious responses instead. It’s no coincidence that the worst accusations against philosophy here come packaged in “arguments” that wouldn’t pass muster in freshman logic class.

I’ll put in a sampling of some short bits, but I’m not sure we should dismiss the comments.   So is there anything we can learn from the comments?  What do you think?

A sampling:

–  Ayn Rand complained that ‘modern philosophy’ had lost its compass. And this was in the mid-50s.
Fortunately, The Stone has proved that she was largely correct.

–  Mr. Sorell, you are really stretching it way out there by developing generalizations that are arrived at from comparing apples and oranges. Your last sentence makes absolutely no sense in the context of the rest of your article.

–  Talk about over-analyzing.

–  “Ayn Rand complained that ‘modern philosophy’ had lost its compass.”
Believe me, modern philosophers take that as a compliment.

–  The first part of this article is highly sensible–much too sensible for The Stone. However, the author more than makes up for this lapse in the second half of his post … where he suddenly departs the reality based community and phones it in from the monastery:

–  Like everything else of which philosophers make a muck, so it is with causality.
You’d propose to run the tapes of Katrina flooding New Orleans backward, and find out precisely which butterfly flapped its wings and started the Atlantic (atmospheric) wave that became Katrina.

This last comment may seem especially off the wall.  It reads like something the author has stored for some time and has let out at the first vaguely relevant moment.

Unfortunately, though, it does seem as though Sorell is promoting some conjectures about what would not have made a difference with the 9/11 terrorists, and he may indeed be in trouble there.

10 thoughts on “The Chorus

  1. I should add: one thing I am wondering is whether these attitudes should affect our teaching techniques. I expect in fact that I do anticipate some of the “you are just thinking too much” kinds of attitudes.

    How about you?

  2. The only thing I’m learning from the comments is that most New York Times readers are much like my students in that they approach a text with an oppositional attitude, as though they read in order to pick a fight. Most of the comments are breathtakingly uncharitable, and put me off of ever contributing.

  3. Comment walls like that make me feel as S-M-R-T as Homer Simpson without the crayon up his nose.

    What kind of Teabagger goes around quoting Ayn Rand anyway?

  4. What kind of Teabagger goes around quoting Ayn Rand anyway?

    You must not be familiar with many Tea Partiers. Rand is HUGE in some parts of the movement.

    I generally don’t read the comments on blogs, for three reasons:
    (1) I generally follow blogs using a RSS reader, so I’d have to do extra work just to see comments.
    (2) On many blogs, the comments are the dispiriting partisan squabbling, ranting, and ad hominem attacks you’re pointing to here.
    (3) The ones that don’t devolve in that way — and still have active comments — are generally sycophantic — 75 variations on `yeah, RepubliTeaRacists are teh stupid!’ Which is just as dispiriting as (2) because it’s the other side of the same coin.

    Feminist Philosophers is a happy exception. :-)

  5. That’s what I meant, DH. Ayn Rand fan=Ethical Egoist =Teabagger=FOOL.
    Maybe I should have said What kind of FOOL goes around quoting Ayn Rand? Only a Teabagger.

    And yes, the Teabagger Manifesto is the bulk of our American Studies curriculum this term. It’s a horrifying, migraine inducing, but informative class.

    Please tell me you didn’t just mistake me for some Teabagger criticizing the “purity” (RETCH!) of another Teabagger’s view.

  6. I just thought your question was supposed to imply that the comment quoting Rand couldn’t have been made by a tea partier (since tea partiers don’t go around quoting Rand).

    While it’s true that some tea partiers love Rand, it’s a mistake to identify all tea partiers as either Rand fans, ethical egoists, or libertarians. It’s not hard to find community-and-tradition tea partiers.

    And please, just call me `Dan’.

  7. Ok, Dan. I never know what to call people on these sites, since many are people I would refer to as Dr. or Professor in a face to face meeting. Some have titles, but use catchy but long pseudonyms that scream for abbreviation. So I figure it’s only fair to abbreviate everybody down to 2-5 characters.

    I guess that’s not quite working? Dan works for me, then.

    I’m trying hard not to get into the kind of partisan bickering you expressed disdain for in #4, but it seems to me that people who latch on to such a far right leaning ideology because they “kinda like the music”(?), go for the fellowship, or can’t separate their religion from their fiscal and other politics are more than a little naive.

    I’m a Canadian with more or less statistically average political views compared with other Canadians. (By that I mean liberalism works just fine for me. I lean slightly left or dead center–the Canadian left or center, a little further left than the American left and center–depending on the issue at hand). Ethical egoism and libertarianism are self defeating ideologies. To combine either with religious fundamentalism is also contradictory.

    And Pilgrim Nostalgia?!? Don’t even get me started…

    That’s about as courteous as I can be to any of the views listed above, and I’m only doing so because your choice of words leads me to suspect that you know and respect a Tea Partier or several. My experience with Canadian supporters of the Reform Party (yes the name has changed but the values haven’t–they’re our equivalent of Republicans) suggests that even an expert critique of the unworkable or fallacious points of an ideology is only convincing “the choir”, as it were. So, since I’m far from an expert, I’ll just shutup about that now.

    Dingit! Now that I’ve just done everything you complained about in #4 I have to go back and try to say something intelligent about the post.

    Maybe I could just mimic Homer Simpson’s noble demonstration of free will within the limits of social&biological determinism and totally own that crayon <:-/

  8. After a much more careful reading of the article and the first 14 comments, I can see your point, JJ, profbigk. But I am mostly in agreement with about half of the commenters. Sorrell was WAY too diplomatic. Maybe commenter #9 could have been more polite in his/her intro, but he/she is right to criticize the politicians who capitalized on the body count, and Sorrell’s notions of collective responsibility. The question that still plagues me is WTF!?! happened to the $700 000 000 in charitable donations raised by Xmas 2001? That’s $100 000 per widow/widower, enough money to build a very large whatever, AND a large pool of $ to help the wounded.

    You are absolutely right about comments#2 and #10, among others. They are completely nonsensical.

    I can understand Dan’s confusion about my statement on commenter #1. I didn’t read the entire comment because I’m not a fan of Rand’s work, and I usually stop reading as soon as I see the name. The rest of the comment clearly WAS NOT written by a Tea Partier or a Republican. Introducing it by quoting that particular writer seems contradictory to me. Kinda like quoting Mel Gibson to advertise kosher foods:

    “You can take our mazza balls but you’ll never take our yamakas…”

    Er… not quite.

    Why do students approach texts with such an oppositional attitude?
    There are probably many more answers to the question than the 2 I’m going to suggest. Keep the discussion open if you’d like.

    1) The article is about 911for pity’s sake! No matter what anybody says in any article, dozens of people are going to attack the author’s view with varying degrees of finesse–from highschool dropout to MA candidate.

    2) Isn’t that how many (you the experts will have to be the ones to throw out exact percentages if there are any available) undergrads approach the argument styles we learn in analytic philosophy? I’ve seen 20 year old boys practicing after class trying to use Possible Worlds theory to argue intent in a hypothetical murder case, as if it were a valid position outside of literary analysis. Some, including these ones AND that prof I ranted about, actually get all red-in-the-face about arguing their hypothetical positions. As if the debate was a contest with some kind of prize available for the winner. One grad student here actually got expelled for turning a debate into a fistfight.

    I find that attitude puzzling when it’s about something like “is this my hand?” or “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck?”, but I get just as irate when I’m arguing about something that effects actual lives and carries serious potential for human suffering. I’m sure at least a few of your students pick fights because they care–I mean REALLY care about the subject they’re debating. Some might just be pushy. Some call valid statements “stupid” when they just don’t understand them.

    I don’t know if any of that helps you with the question, should that effect your teaching techniques? But I thought I’d try to be sincere after that Homer Simpson comment. That could be misconstrued in so many ways.

  9. Xena –

    I just find being addressed as `Dan Hicks’ or `DH’ a little disconcerting. Who goes around calling everyone by their full names all the time? (For the record, I encourage my students to call me `Dan’, too. As far as I’m concerned, there’s enough hierarchy in the classroom without them calling me `Professor Hicks’.)

    I don’t think anyone (the vanishingly small number of literal sociopaths excepted) is actually an ethical egoist. Almost everyone has friends and family that they care about. People might *say* things that sound like ethical egoism, but in their *actual behavior* they’re not egoists. One serious problem with Rand’s philosophy is that she has to equivocate furiously to make `selfishness’ compatible with love, families, and friendship. If you watch carefully, sometimes you can see it happening in the middle of a single sentence.

    So Tea Partiers aren’t ethical egoists. But many, perhaps even most, are libertarians of one stripe or another. I do think libertarianism is inadequate as a complete political philosophy or account of justice — individual freedom is important, but so is making sure everyone has access to a decent minimum of food, shelter, education, productive work, and so on. At the same time, precisely because they’re so focused on freedom, libertarians provide the extremely valuable service of reminding us non-libertarians that individual freedom is important and, for example, our (the US’s) new health care reform plan does involve curtailing that freedom. They point out that there’s a tradeoff being guaranteeing access to health care for everyone and freedom, and force us to ask whether or not that tradeoff is really worth it.

    In short, while their views as a whole might be problematic, libertarians have something valuable to contribute to our political discourse. The trick is to go looking for that thing, underneath all the weird costumes, racism, and paranoia about Muslims that, rightly or wrongly, is associated with the Tea Party.

    I don’t want to ramble on too much longer (plus I’ve been procrastinating for way too long this morning), but in light of your last few points I’d like to add that I make the distinction between disputes (debates, endless partisan bickering) and dialogue (searching for common ground) a explicit theme of my Intro to Philosophy course. As of last week, several of my students are convinced that endless disputes are natural and inevitable. I’m hoping I can convince them otherwise over the next 12 weeks.

  10. Maybe for the US. Any big economic change is painful in the beginning. But most Americans are already paying huge hidden fees to insurance companies, while the poorest and the sickest cough up blood and shoot each other down in the streets. That concept of “freedom” only benefits the extremely wealthy.

    I hope you get an opportunity to share something of that lesson on this site sometime, maybe on a future post. It would be nice to see proof that endless arguing is not inevitable. I don’t see it yet, but it would be nice to be convinced.

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