Moving forward

Commenting on some recent news, Justin at Daily Nous reflects:

Whatever the reasons, things are now changing. Over the past couple of years, philosophers have witnessed the emergence of a new consensus—one that rejects acquiescence to abuses of power in philosophy, one that seeks to overturn rather than turn away from the profession’s problems, one that seeks to support rather than silence the vulnerable. At the same time, the consensus reinforces two very traditional pillars of philosophical practice: first, it recognizes that criticism is the currency with which philosophers pay respect to one another while insults are just cheap counterfeits, and second, that we should go wherever the arguments and inquiries take us, putting aside philosophical prejudices and erasing boundaries if need be.

This is, of course, the kind of thing Carrie Jenkins was talking about in her now-famous-sub-things-philosophers-talk-about-online blog post about being nice. It would be such a shame if the main thing people remember about that post is that Brian Leiter got really mad about it, since that’s far from the most interesting thing about it. We’ve had a lot of conversations recently about things in our profession that we don’t like, and what we don’t want our profession to include. Hopefully we can now also – following Carrie’s example – have some constructive conversations about what we do like and what we do want our profession to include.

With that in mind, I wanted to draw attention to a recent comment from David Manley on our old thread inviting people to take Carrie’s ‘Be Nice’ pledge:

Carrie, thank you for articulating these goals so incisively. I also take the pledge and would like to be held accountable. I find it far more effective to consciously commit myself to specific goals rather than relying on a vague background intention to be nice or civil. It’s too easy to allow the boundaries of the latter sort of rule to shift ‘in the moment’!

It took me too long to learn this. Back in graduate school I was one of those people who would have found this sort of thing unnecessary and likely to stifle the necessary ‘rough and tumble exchange’ of philosophical ideas. I have come to realize that I was just wrong–- the most productive philosophical exchanges I have witnessed are entirely consistent with these goals. And what I thought of as the ‘rough and tumble exchange of ideas’ was too frequently in fact a destructive clash of egos that obscured whatever real philosophy was at stake.

I’ve learned all this over the years largely due to the wonderful example of many of my friends and colleagues, as well as venues (like this one) that offer a space to discuss key issues like microaggression & stereotype threat, including first-person accounts of those who have had to deal with these things. Thanks to the folks here for this transformative service.

David Manley
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

I suspect the experience David describes so well is a common one. It’s easy to confuse tough philosophy with aggressive philosophy. (I know I’ve done it in the past, and probably still do sometimes.) But they can and do come apart. Those of us who want a kinder, more hospitable profession aren’t delicate flowers afraid of getting our precious feelings hurt by your devastating counterexample. And we aren’t that worried about your tone. Norms of respect, kindness, inclusiveness, and consideration are something else entirely, and something we can strive for without sacrificing philosophical rigor.

12 thoughts on “Moving forward

  1. Regarding positive things we’d like to see, looking at this year’s job ads it’s been nice to see some departments moving beyond the standard, half-hearted “Women and minorities are encouraged to apply.” I thought this bit from UMass’s ad was particularly good:

    “Because broad diversity is essential to an inclusive climate and critical to the University’s goals of achieving excellence in all areas, we will holistically assess the many qualifications of each applicant and favorably consider an individual’s record working with students and colleagues with broadly diverse perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds in educational, research or other work activities. We will also favorably consider experience overcoming or helping others overcome barriers to an academic degree and career.”

  2. I’d always thought of the Jenkins post as strictly weaker than “be nice”, and closer to being just a slightly expanded version of Wheaton’s Law.

    On which note:

  3. “Those of us who want a kinder, more hospitable profession aren’t delicate flowers afraid of getting our precious feelings hurt by your devastating counterexample. And we aren’t that worried about your tone. Norms of respect, kindness, inclusiveness, and consideration are something else entirely, and something we can strive for without sacrificing philosophical rigor.”

    Yes! I just want to second this enthusiastically. I wish anyone who would think I’m a delicate flower could just be present with me in my life for a little while to see the sorts of things I’ll cheerfully endure and how much it actually takes to hurt my feelings. I very much want to be part of a healthy philosophical community regardless of whether or not my feelings would be hurt otherwise, though!

    I know the last few weeks have been really painful, frustrating, and irritating, for a host of people–but I am glad that this new consensus seems to be emerging. We have so far to go yet, but it’s a comfort to think we may be on the right road.

  4. “We have so far to go yet, but it’s a comfort to think we may be on the right road.”

    Yes, exactly! I’d like to think that what we’ve seen recently is evidence of increasing sensitivity to – and adoption of – norms of mutual respect and inclusiveness. That kind of change doesn’t even come close to addressing the widespread problems in philosophy, but it might be an important precondition for tackling some of the big-ticket issues.

    Like systematic racism. And sexual harassment.

  5. There was a recent Facebook discussion of how to be more constructive in refereeing, which caused me to call attention to the excellent policy from Cognition, recommended by the BPA/SWIP: An extract:
    “Your role in the editorial process is to determine, as an expert in the field, whether the paper advances the field sufficiently to merit publication in Cognition, and whether there might be ways in which the paper (and the impact it might have) could be improved. You should consider your role here as more that of a mentor than of an examiner. Even if you recommend rejecting a paper (and over 80% of submissions are rejected), do so respectfully. It IS possible to point out fundamental flaws whilst praising the endeavour. Think back to what it felt like when you were a graduate student giving your first conference presentation – the last thing you’d have wanted is to be ‘shot down’ by someone senior in the field. It is the last thing any of us want.”

    I’d love to see more journals adopting policies like this! (And more people doing as suggested.)

  6. is there any kind of petition in which people can sign a pledge to try to abide by jenkins’ suggestions? I would be the first to sign (I don’t have a blog where I could advertise my intent to abide by her suggestions…)

  7. Hi anon,

    Not a petition as such – I think there’s probably a little petition fatigue going around these days ;-) – but we do have this thread:

    It’s a few months old, but still open to comments and declarations. David Manley did just that the other day, actually, which is where the quote from him in the post above comes from. It would be cool if we could get some new life into that thread.

  8. Most of the discussion I’ve seen lately about norms of professional conduct relates to how faculty should behave toward their peers. Or at least it’s been about how they should behave toward other professional philosophers, peers or not. But the most challenging situation, from a climate perspective, that I’ve found myself in recently has to do with teaching. I teach a grad seminar where the gender balance is far from ideal. The class dynamic has quickly become dominated by three alpha males, who aren’t particularly mean, but seem intent on proving themselves by making points very forcefully and confronting anything their classmates say with skepticism and an immediate search for counterexamples.

    I’m wondering if anyone has thoughts about how to handle a situation like this. In the future, I’d like to set norms of respectful, co-operative interaction from day one. (Maybe starting with a statement on the syllabus?) But I don’t know how I’d approach it. I’m wary of implying to the men in the class that we need to be especially careful because women are too sensitive to handle tough philosophy. I’m a man, so I want to be especially clear to students of both genders that I don’t mean this.

  9. To Faculty: my disclaimer is that I’m not a philosopher, but someone who did graduate work in philosophy before switching to another field. But maybe this suggestion will be helpful anyway.

    I wonder if you can tell your students something like: when we’re just starting out in philosophy, it can seem like the main way that progress is made is by searching for flaws in others’ arguments. But in fact, progress in philosophy comes from iteratively struggling to understand the motivations behind others’ arguments and positions, what is forceful and appealing about them, and also understanding the ways in which they fail to achieve what they set out to. Discussions among people new to philosophy are often too one-sidedly flaw-focused, and you’re worried that some of the class discussions have had that character, so you want to encourage the class to also pay attention to the insight in their classmates’ comments, as well as noting where they think that insight runs into a limit. This nuanced way of approaching arguments is more likely to yield creative new positions than is an approach in which the dominant or only way of relating to arguments is to look for reasons to reject them.

    I also think that, in specific instances, you can respond to the alpha dudes by saying, “That may be a fair counterexample, but let’s make a moment to appreciate the force of the original point. It seems to capture the problem that… Now, is there a way to achieve that without running into the problem that you’re raising?” In other words, you model this for your students.

    What I like about this approach is that it doesn’t single anyone out, and it keeps the discussion on the level of how to advance the best philosophical ideas, instead of acting like that goal needs to be subordinated to some external goal of being nice. It reframes the situation from being one where people hold back arguments to be polite, to being one where people see a one-sided form of argumentation as philosophically immature, a developmental stage that many of us go through but that we ought to try not to become stuck in.

  10. Hi Faculty,

    I’ve been the female student in situations like the one you described. From my perspective, I didn’t mind when other students would debate with me- that part was pretty fun. But I didn’t like when faculty would be way too impressed with counterexamples before fully considering the initial point at hand. I found that I very often took a positive, or building approach to philosophical problems when my peers would take the opposite approach. But the building approach is much harder of the two- I mean, there’s only one way to be right, but infinitely many ways to be wrong. After a while, I got a tired of watching my classmates get rewarded for what seemed to me like taking the easy way out.

    Anyway, I think Elizabeth’s suggestion is extremely helpful here. If you treat seminar like a collaborative effort to make progress on difficult problems, then the counterexamples get their appropriate kudos. After all, let’s face it, most counterexamples aren’t exactly devastating refutations. Usually they just serve to point out flaws in particular formulations of an idea.

Comments are closed.