Unproductive Adversariality

Brian Leiter recently wrote a dismissal of my reply to Joe Heath on “‘Me’ Studies.” My original pair of articles were linked on FP here. I found Leiter’s post quite a useful illustration of Janice Moulton’s claim that a preoccupation with adversariality is bad for philosophy.

More on that point here: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2015/07/adversariality-and-me.html

31 thoughts on “Unproductive Adversariality

  1. Audrey, I don’t think that you’re reading Leiter’s response to you correctly or charitably. Leiter called your response to the Heath piece a “non-sequitur,” and hence, he gave a philosophical reason for his implicit conclusion that your piece, whatever its independent merits, was not argumentatively relevant to the Heath piece that you took yourself to be responding to. Many top-notch articles and books in philosophy, as well as blog posts, personal conversations, etc. correctly and non-aggressively use a charge of “non-sequitur” to advance an argument. Thus, your claims that Leiter “wrote a dismissal” and that this dismissal was caused by a “preoccupation with adversariality” are simply false and unfounded, respectively. A dismissal, on the other hand, would not have provided a compelling reason for thinking that your piece was not argumentatively relevant to the Heath piece. In honesty, I agree with Leiter here that your piece does not engage with the claims made by Heath, changes the subject, and then declares a conclusion irrelevant to Heath’s to be probable or proven.

  2. Susan. How can you read the following as anything but dismissive?

    “This was such an obvious non-sequitur on Heath’s argument, that I originally thought it had to be misquotation, but, alas, it was not. Apparently the author thinks that the philosophical systems of Descartes, Hume, and Kant are usefully explained as being about their own experience as “straight, upper-middle-class, cis, heterosexual white men.” This kind of mindless identity politics is not the face that philosophy should put before the world.”

    Let me repeat the final sentence again: “This kind of mindless identity politics is not the face that philosophy should put before the world.”

    That’s as dismissive as it gets.

  3. Susan, I don’t think her piece is a non-sequitur, or I don’t read it as such. Rather, she is claiming that Heath, in eschewing philosophy concerned with the un/underrepresented, is simply preferring the ‘me’ studies of privileged white men.

    It is a common observation that the class of priviledged guys is unmarked and to its members appears to deal with the universal. But, to adopt Heath’s remarks

    [W]ho is best positioned to study these various forms of oppressionprivilege… the field of study tends to attract, sometimes overwhelmingly, people who suffer from Enjoy the relevant form of oppression Privilege– partly just for the obvious “me” studies reason, that the issue is greater interest to them, because it speaks to their personal ambitions and frustrations. But it can also set in motion a dynamic that can crowd out everyone who does not suffer from enjoy that particular form of oppression privilege

  4. Perhaps you’re more privy to Leiter’s intentions than I am. I took him to just be claiming that the quoted opening riff of my piece was a non-sequitur. And that’s actually fair, since that bit wasn’t at all intended to be a statement of what follows from Heath’s claim. I thought it was clear as a kind of parody but maybe it wasn’t.

    But if his claim is that the piece as a whole was a non-sequitur then perhaps there could actually be some argument to that effect? That way there could actually be a compelling reason for thinking my piece wasn’t argumentatively relevant? Really, I’d prefer that because then we’d be engaging with (what I see as) the important issues instead of who is or is not middle class.

  5. Audrey, I hope I got one of your points; I just restated it removing maybe distracting qualifiers.

    I think It is hardly down to you that this is the face philosophy is in fact too often presenting to the world.

    I need here to note Brian’s support for the gendered conference campaign, which helped a great deal as we going.

  6. There seems to be an important point of agreement here with something that Papineau also said in his recent TLS article (https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/papineau-on-women-in-philosophy/): “Reason and analysis may matter more in philosophy than in subjects that answer to empirical or textual data, but that is no reason to ignore ordinary standards of civility. A spirit of mutual exploration rather than animosity would serve philosophy just as well …”

  7. Greetings Anne: In a constructive spirit, please consider that Heath is certainly not eschewing philosophy concerned with the interests of the marginalized. That is overstating things. “Me studies” =/= studies concerned with marginalized interests, e.g. Heath wrote: “oppression, in its various forms, is a perfectly legitimate topic of inquiry…figuring out why they are so hard to get rid of can be a surprisingly challenging endeavour.”

    Also, your adoption of Heath’s remarks strikes me as inapposite, since Hume (etc) does not claim to be studying his own privileges. The parallel claim ought to be that philosophers who are studying their own privileges would tend to get things wrong for self-serving reasons. (This doesn’t seem totally unreasonable to me, and I dare say, Heath would probably agree!) Meanwhile, your point seems to speak to a different issue, which is that so-called universal/rational philosophies are, in fact, warped by the social privileges prior philosophers swam within. You might be right about that, though this requires strong argument. Maybe you are saying that (A) “me-studies” does not tend towards self-interested rationalizations, and (B) “canonical philosophy” does just the opposite. These are interesting and provocative claims, but let us agree Heath’s claim was only about A.

  8. Heath: “So who is best positioned – those who suffer from it, or those who do not? The inevitable conclusion is that neither are particularly well-positioned, since both will be biased in the direction of producing theories that are, at some level, self-serving, or self-exculpatory. Thus the best arrangement will be one in which lots of different people study these questions, then challenge one another to robust debate, which will tend to correct the various biases. This is, unfortunately, not how things usually play out. Instead, the field of study tends to attract, sometimes overwhelmingly, people who suffer from the relevant form of oppression – partly just for the obvious “me” studies reason, that the issue is greater interest to them, because it speaks to their personal ambitions and frustrations. But it can also set in motion a dynamic that can crowd out everyone who does not suffer from that particular form of oppression.”

    As if there’s really any sort of equivalence between black working class anger and white college professors. The condescension is grotesque. If only railway porters had studied Hegel… His comments are obscene. But what are yours? You’re university professors in the most powerful state in the history of the planet. You’re playing at radicalism as an idea. I’m not going to listen to you when I can listen to the women of Hamas, or at least those who speak to them. None of you live in a favela. You worry about tenure, not your next meal. You want to pretend feminists were all college professors and not housewives, that Stonewall was led by PhDs and not hustlers and drag queens. “Naming and Necessity” was a product of the Me Decade. Scholastic formalism and academic radicalism are forms of narcissism.

    Heath again, quoted approvingly by Leiter: “Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the Western world have become increasingly divided—not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy,” Leiter signs off on pedantry and anti-politics. Neoliberalism, “Rubinomics” and “the end of welfare as we know it” can only be described as “non-crazy”. The politics sucks. And in response you offer the feminism of Bloomsbury. Give me the anger of their servants. Give me the anger of the niggers and the wogs.

  9. Anonymous, As I have said here a number of times, I learned from my days in faculty governance that (many/most) white men do believe that those best able to study oppression or marginalization are those without experience of it. I had thought this idea was utterly exploded, but I do see Heath coming very close to endorsing it, at least to the point of not according those with the experience any privilege compared to their non-oppressd, non-marginlized debaters. I think he is in effect eschewing knowledge of the oppressed and marginalized, but you have reminded me that he doesn’t know it.

    I am here reminded of a revealing exchange:
    Hyper-distinguished English visitor: there is a love-hate relationship between Indians and the British.
    Hyper-bright Indian colleague: there is no love.

  10. @seth edenbaum – I think the politics does suck, but as you point out, I’m writing from a place of relative privilege. That anger isn’t mine to express, but at least those of us with privilege can shut up and listen to it a little more and tell those who are similarly privileged to do the same.

    @Enzo Rossi – Maybe there’s a misunderstanding? I think most people who criticize adversariality criticize it as a paradigm, not as a method in its own right. I don’t have a problem with adversarial debate in its own right, but I think that in lots of cases, like S. Wallerstein’s comment, it masks a lack of substantial engagement.

  11. My longer comment I referred to was refused.

    “But at least those of us with privilege can shut up and listen to it a little more”. And the people shouting to be heard will be in an adversarial relation to you. I’ll repost here what what I tried to post elsewhere. We’ll see if it flies:

    This entire debate is confused. Heath touts Habermas to the point of parody.

    “Thus the best arrangement will be one in which lots of different people study these questions, then challenge one another to robust debate, which will tend to correct the various biases.” It reads like a variant of Anatole France: The law, in its majestic equality, allows both rich and poor to engage in communicative action, or debate the importance of John Rawls.

    Debate among the educated elite regarding their own beliefs is not enough. That’s why we have lawyers paid to make arguments they have no stake in beyond the urge to win.

    Institutionalized adversarialism is the basis of democracy. And even then we know it skews towards the powerful. That’s why the most powerful adversarialism comes from below; social change comes from below. That’s not even debatable, it’s a fact of history. Change begins with the the janitors and the railway porters not college professors.

    The model of the academy is collaborative. Heath is a white liberal and his politics is mediocre, but your background is in formalist philosophy which by definition is anti-politcal. If facts and events will always outflank liberalism’s best intentions, you’re living in Cloudcuckooland, with the fantasy politics of mathematicians and engineers.

    And you’re all debating amongst yourselves within the academy. Real Politics as Geuss would call it, is outside.

    Schliesser is a defender of philosophy as continuous with science, and a staunch defender of Zionism. He does not hear the shouting of Palestinians. Others do and that has led to change. What does that say about our ability to solve problems by reason? You have to be open to experience and allow yourself to be changed; the whole logic of analytic philosophy denies that. The recent “rediscovery” of experience by philosophers is comic. There’s no way to escape the need for others to argue, even to yell to get people finally to pay attention. A problem is that yelling can be self-perpetuating. Righteous anger can become an ideology. The history of oppression is mostly the history of rulers’ indifference to the suffering of others. Sadism is secondary. But sadism is primary to the experience of the oppressed and that leads to a misunderstanding of their own situation. Zionists see themselves as oppressed; they can’t imagine themselves the oppressors.

    Heath asks when the anger of the poor becomes the whining of the careerist middle class. But then he falls back on the righteousness of the more serious middle class, by which he means himself. That’s doesn’t work. And Wallerstein simply elides the history of the relation of philosophy to theology, to the elite, the church and the crown. His response is also useless.

    Philosophy can’t solve these problems, certainly no technically minded first-order curiosity, without self-awareness or irony. “Irony is the glory of slaves.”
    Czeslaw Milosz Socrates hated poets.

  12. @annejjacobson: In a certain way, the conflation you make when you write “but I do see Heath coming very close to endorsing it, at least to the point of not according those with the experience any privilege compared to their non-oppressd, non-marginlized debaters” between very real head in the sand liberal paternalism and Heath’s position can seen to illustrate what amounts to the problem here. It does not seem to me that Heath’s point is at all that oppressed populations have no special understanding but neither do they have exclusive rights to speak on these matters. You are absolutely correct about the history and present of such an attitude on the side of too many white male academics. At the same time, I would appear to me that your very reasonable skepticism of that kind of attitude ends up in the rather unreasonable position of attributing a position to Heath that is simply not there, and in fact that he expressly disavows. Ultimately, it may be the case that this sort of thing happens all the time (for a number of complex reasons) in these matters.

    Maybe Heath’s tone and his dismissive phrase “me studies” doesn’t help us to read him charitably, but the central issue is that the very theoretical lens that allows for the vital intellectual identification of structural racism, microagressions, and privilege is a hermeneutic of skepticism that makes it all too easy to attribute positions and even motivations that are not actually evident. That kind of attribution in turn cannot really be argued against because boils down to a matter of faith. Either we believe the attributions or we don’t. Both options seem unnecessarily limiting.

  13. I’ll add one more. It won’t be published but maybe someone will read it first

    @annejjacobson: “I am here reminded of a revealing exchange:
    Hyper-distinguished English visitor: there is a love-hate relationship between Indians and the British.
    Hyper-bright Indian colleague: there is no love.”

    You give us an exchange between a condescending Brit and a bitter ex-colonial. The reality exists between and outside them.
    The British empire left behind a language, an educational and legal system and a system of governance.
    In your desire for simplicity you miss the ambiguities.

    And maybe the Brit wasn’t condescending and the ex-colonial was too bitter to care. I wasn’t there. How would I know?
    It would be a great scene to stage. You can play it so many ways.

    That’s not a defense of the Raj, Health, or Leiter. It’s a defense of the moral weight of real politics, and for what it’s worth, of real art.
    The ambiguities of lived experience are the stuff of novels, and irrelevant to philosophy.

  14. Good to know that people on this blog are so “anti-adversarial” that they are only willing to shame people out of the profession, not to argue them into changing their minds. The future of philosophy is bright. Kudos to the FP crowd for spotting your wagon-circling potential.

    Argumentatively, I felt your response to Heath was very weak. In particular the bell hooks example does not help you: there her intervention seems like an antidote to the essentializing “me studies” of Friedan, an antidote which would not have been necessary without standpoint-style presuppositions about what sorts of claims Friedan was licensed to make.

  15. @ Anne Jacobson: Thanks for your response! In saying that A is not better than B Heath isn’t coming close to saying A worse than B. Heath is very clear that the oppressed and nonoppressed are on a par with each other when it comes to studying oppression in the sense that each will tend towards self-serving rationalizations in the absence of critical feedback from across the spectrum (i.e. by including critiques from both perspectives). This is compatible with the oppressed having certain insights that the non-oppressed aren’t aware of (and vice versa).

  16. Seth, do you have a comment that wasn’t published? You’ve made two references now that led me to believe you had made at least one such comment, but both when your previous comment was posted and just now when I saw your most recent one, I’ve looked in the trash, the pending, and the spammed comments and haven’t found anything from you. Is there something going on with our filter?

  17. I have a comment that wasn’t published, which everyone will hear about soon. I asked why there was no link to the post to which Prof .Yap was responding.

  18. Anonymous (2:30): you have a familiar view of this blog, but I fail to see much evidence for it. There’s a great deal of disagreement in the discussions of a number of recent posts. I sometimes thing an echo chamber would be nice, but I never expect it.

    I am also puzzled by the idea that Freidan was engaged in “me” studies.

  19. Brian, you are very conscientious about links, but some of us hate doing them and skip them when we can.

    I cannot speaker to the motives of the original poster, but I myself sometimes leave out links when I’m pretty sure no readers will have trouble one the source is named. I reckon that is often the case with the NY Times, CNN and your blog.

  20. Brian, you are very conscientious about links, and I trust your not-so-subtle threat has been duly noted.

  21. I would like to know what “adversariality” means personally. It seems a blanket statement that is sometimes used to protect people (not you specifically Audrey) from having their arguments thoroughly scrutinized. Surely we don’t want our talks to resemble comparative lit talks, do we? Also, I think we must always be careful about watching for our own moral biases — many of us were brought up with be polite, turn the other cheek, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it. NOW…let us tell the people from Ferguson this shall we? I mean seriously folks? Being nice all the time is in my opinion immoral,s since we also must be just and being just sometimes means giving what you get. Philosophy ought to be a place where any and all questions are able to be examined, and we have to expect that when examining deeply held views, that is going to raise some hackles sometimes, since it’s hard not to take it personally, sometimes. May I remind you of what Russell thought of philosophy: Thought looks into the pit of hell and is unafraid.

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