Essential to the discipline

Over at Disabled Philosophers, we’ve been getting a lot of submissions from people expressing concern about whether their disabilities will prevent them from becoming successful philosophers. Reading these posts, I’ve inevitably started to think about to what extent the practice of philosophy as it’s currently conducted is discriminatory (particularly against the disabled – but the concerns generalize).

Let’s be clear: that the practice of philosophy excludes people with certain types of disabilities is not, by itself, enough to justify the charge that philosophy is practiced in ways which are unfair or unjust. That a discipline or practice excludes some disabled people doesn’t by itself entail any unfairness or discrimination. Because of my disability, I could not have been a neurosurgeon. Neurosurgery requires extraordinarily precise fine motor control, and most days I have the fine motor skills of a drunk toddler. The practice of neurosurgery isn’t thereby being unfair in excluding me. It’s simply that I lack skills which are essential to the practice of neurosurgery. I happen to lack those skills because of a disability, but that doesn’t mean neurosurgery is discriminatory for requiring those skills.

It’s not bad or unjust if philosophy excludes some people – even if some such exclusions are related to disability. But it is unjust if philosophy excludes people because they can’t participate in (or don’t do as well at) things which aren’t essential to the practice of philosophy. What I’ve noticed is that the concerns expressed aren’t of the form: I’m afraid that my disability will keep me from being a good philosopher. Rather, they are of the form: I’m afraid that my disability will keep me from doing the kinds of things philosophers are expected to do (things like attend conferences, give public talks, do well in high-pressure q&a sessions, hang out in bars and talk about philosophy for hours, etc).

I suspect – though I don’t have that much evidence for this – that in philosophy we haven’t given much thought to what’s essential to the practice of philosophy. And perhaps as a result, I likewise suspect that we often base judgements about philosophical quality at least in part on things that are separable from being a good philosopher (like performing well in talks, being quick on your feet, etc). If that’s the case, then the charge of discrimination is fair – and worrisome.

I’d love to hear others thoughts on this, particularly with regard to:

(i) What really is essential to the practice of philosophy? (Are the social aspects of philosophy – like giving a talk or performing well in a q&a part of what it is to be a good philosopher?)

(ii) Do we often judge philosophical quality based in part on things that aren’t essential to being a good philosopher? (Apart from the obvious, like implicit bias. I’m thinking here about things you could explicitly bring up as evidence in discussion of philosophical quality that are in fact orthogonal to philosophical quality.)

14 thoughts on “Essential to the discipline

  1. On (ii): I think we tend to value “quickness”, or being “fast on your feet” (or whatever!) — a kind of ability to track arguments speedily, come up with objections, replies, counterexamples, and connections at the drop of a hat, and so on. It’s the kind of compliment I occasionally hear being given (“so-and-so is really fast!”), and it’s pretty clear how the standard Q&A format for talks encourages it. (When was the last time you heard a speaker whose every other answer was, “Hmm, that’s a good question, I’ll have to think more about it,” and come away impressed?) But I don’t see how it’s in any way essential to being a good philosopher. Wittgenstein is often attributed to saying that philosophers should greet each other with “Take your time!”, although I can’t verify the quote; even if he didn’t say it, he sure did take his time, at least when it came to finishing projects. But that doesn’t diminish his contributions to philosophy. Likewise, if we discovered that Descartes, or Spinoza, or Aristotle, or Anselm was generally at a loss to answer questions until he’d had an evening to mull it over, we wouldn’t go around revising our syllabi as a result. Good philosophy is what it is, no matter how long it takes us to come up with it.

  2. magicalersatz, thank you this post! It’s such a fundamental question. It’s the question that really comes before anything else if we’re interested in genuine equality; for disabled people and all kinds of other people who are underrepresented in, and underserved by, the discipline of philosophy.

  3. Euthypronics:

    In his book on Spinoza’s Ethics, Jonathan Bennett suggests that Spinoza is a “slow thinker”.

    (Leibnitz is Bennett’s example of a rapid one.)

  4. I do think that at least some social aspects of philosophy are essential to it, or at least very strongly correlated with doing philosophy well. Unless one is capable of superhuman feats of reading, it is too hard to keep up with all the good work that is being done by just reading, without talking to others. And philosophers who don’t keep up with fields tend to reinvent wheels, or make arguments that other philosophers have worked hard to show are flawed, and generally don’t show sufficient respect to the labours of others.

    But there are lots of ways of being social, and there should be more. Attending conferences and listening closely to what is being said, without saying much, is a way of being social and keeping up with relevant work. Being part of electronic conversations, or even reading them, is a way of being social that doesn’t require either travel or speedy response.

    If the last two paragraphs are right, the solution is to have more kinds of ways of being social. So we shouldn’t think – the BSPC is great, how can we replicate it? We should think – the BSPC is great for some people, but who isn’t it great for, and what kinds of things would work for them?

    In other words, interaction is essential, but no one form of interaction is essential. And the posts on disabled philosophers are a fantastic reminder of the ways in which some forms of interaction are more suitable to some types of people than others.

  5. I think that it is important to draw a distinction between (a) doing good philosophical work and (b) fulfilling the balance of not only of research but also of teaching and service that are integral to most jobs that philosophers hold. I agree with Brian that some form of social interaction is essential to doing good philosophical work, but that there are many many ways of interacting. There are, however, more constraints on teaching, and even on service. Nonetheless, there are institutional differences in teaching contexts and service expectations. I am not clear whether the suggestion is that philosophy should strive for more homogeneity in professional demands, to afford an equality of opportunity, or whether we should do a better job of clarifying the different professional demands so that those who have a certain set of constraints can have the information to pursue opportunities that might suit them best. Another way of asking this: what should count as a disability? what is reasonable accommodation?

    Incidentally, some issues around disability are coming out in an unexpected context. With the abolition of mandatory retirement, one could argue that infirmities of aging are disabilities and ought to be accommodated. If one accommodates disabilities of aging colleagues who resist retiring, one can end up in a bit of challenging situation with regard to departmental governance, and even teaching demands.

  6. I think there’s nothing that’s essential to the good practice of philosophy (unless the kinds are too coarse as to be uninteresting): I suspect that there’s just a bunch of things such that it’s essential to have some, but where there are none such that it’s essential to have them. Because there’re just many ways of being a good philosopher. Even the ability to write good philosophy doesn’t seem essential to me: there are people who are great to have philosophical conversations with, but who are not particularly great at writing papers, and the profession is the better for having them; there are people who are great writers but not great conversationalists, and the profession is the better for having them. I agree with Brian that some form of interaction with your fellow philosophers is highly desirable: and also that there’s many ways of achieving this. Attending conferences is one, hanging out and chatting philosophy in the bar is one, engaging in written correspondence is one, etc, etc.

    I agree that as a profession we massively overvalue quickness, and that this is a problem and likely to be both discriminatory to some and off-putting to many. I think quickness is an intellectual virtue, but it is one of many, and not even close to being the most important. I think we also overvalue willingness to engage in philosophy at any time and for any duration, and in this case I don’t even think it’s an intellectual virtue.

  7. I wish we overvalued quickness in Anglophone philosophy conferences, heh. I’m being punny, because I find the widespread conference practice of three-hour sessions built on listening to papers to be awful. For how many people is sitting for three hours and listening the most accessible of philosophical activities?

    I agree with Ross Cameron that there’s little which is essential to philosophy, but there are practices in our profession so very common that some skills are rewarded regularly, whereas obstacles to their exercise really limit one’s interactions. The way we continue to confer is merely the uppermost one on my mind today, and other practices are similarly difficult to avoid while remaining a member of philosophical communities.

  8. Kate, I don’t think there’s anything obviously wrong with there being lots of philosophy conferences. (I’m not sure whether you were saying that there is, so this is perhaps a non sequiter!) Conferences can – and should – be made more accessible than they often are, of course. But even with additional efforts at accessibility, they won’t be ideal for everyone. That alone doesn’t strike me as problematic. A lot of philosophers like going to conferences. More power to them. And if the philosophers who like going to conferences get good information about the philosophical quality of other philosophers via those conferences, that’s great too.

    The problem comes when we expect that all philosophers will want to go to the kind of conferences we’re currently organizing, and when we start to interpret lack of conference-going-glory as lack of philosophical ability. That is, when we make the preferences of a certain set of philosophers normative for the rest of the profession.

    I think Brian’s point is really important here (thanks, Brian!) It may well be that philosophy essentially involves some social aspects. That doesn’t, of course, mean that it essentially involves the social aspects it in fact involves. There are lots of other ways we could be going about things. And maybe the most important thing to aim for is variety – there are lots of different ways to philosophize with others, and a lot of them are underexplored (and undervalued) in philosophy.

    Hopefully, if we can employ more variety in philosophical interaction, it will be harder to prioritize a very specific type of philosophical interaction that not everyone can participate in. Er, hopefully?

  9. I’ve chaired sessions at APAs where the interlocutors seemed possessed by the sheer rapidity of their mode of presentation and reply, as alluded to above. Not that these were bad presentations, nor were the philosophers intellectually lackluster. But damn–who except for them–given that they had exchanged papers and preconference comments–could keep up!! The paucity of penetrating audience questions attested to that.

    As impressed as I was by these presenters, I felt that somehow the essence of philosophy–careful pursuit of truth–was by-passed.

  10. Ah, magical misunderstands me, but I blame myself for the too-quickly written post. What I meant in #9 was not that conferences are bad. Let there be thousands! No, what I meant was that philosophers seemed largely locked into a dominant method at conferences, especially at APA. It ain’t what we do, it’s the way that we do it.

    I have told students and family who eagerly ask me to describe my participation at conferences: I sit at a panel table in front of an audience. Someone reads a paper aloud for 35 to 45 minutes. The audience sits, they listen, and then they ask questions. Then I read a paper aloud for another 35-45 minutes. The audience sits, they listen, and then they ask questions. Repeat one more time. If the audience is still awake (invariably a few fall asleep), they sit, they listen, and then they ask questions.

    I think this delivery system is poor. When I describe it to nonphilosophers (that is, to most people) they think it sounds dreadful. They ask why it’s not more like schools they’ve experienced, with shorter intervals and more interaction. They ask why it’s so auditory, and I speak over-eagerly of times (which still do not constitute the majority of sessions) when someone doesn’t just read, but provides a handout or even computer-assisted images! They ask how one could go to more than one three-hour session a day. Here, I usually shrug.

    My point is this: Our practices at major professional gatherings create regular demands for some qualities as opposed to others, and one must ask: Why this method? Why these qualities? Who comes up with these procedures, and why are they so ossified?


  11. I think it may be worth separating out two questions here: (1) What if any are the essential qualities of a good philosopher? and (2) What if any are the essential qualities of a philosophy professor? It seems to be that there may be many, many people who meet the requirements for (1) without meeting the requirements for (2). For example, there may be a person with a brilliant mind for philosophy who pours over books and produces ground breaking papers who has social anxiety to such a degree that even basic interactions with a mail carrier or grocery store clerk are extremely difficult. By all means we should encourage this person to do philosophical work, but we probably shouldn’t offer her a teaching position.

    One problem seems to me to be that there are several things we seem to think that philosophers should do well (teach, present at conferences, write papers, engage socially with other philosophers, be quick with answers to questions), and only (or mostly) positions within the philosophy world for people who excel at all of these things. One possible way the world of academic philosophy could become better at accommodating philosophers with disabilities would be to create positions that make sense for people who excel at some (or one) of these things but not all.

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