How to discuss Searle, etc.

 

COMMENTS ON THIS POST ARE NOW CLOSED.  I can’t keep up with the moderating.

UPDATE: I want to make it really clear that I’m genuinely uncertain about what to do in these cases.  I’m calling for discussion because I think the issues are hard.  I would not be at all surprised if the discussion here changes my mind, and I’d welcome that.  I put some initial thoughts up to get the ball rolling, but I really do think it’s far from obvious what to do.

 

I’d like to open up a (carefully moderated, as usual) discussion about strategies people are taking for discussing men like Searle, with high-profile allegations of misbehaviour against them.  I’ve had two discussions of this issue just in the last couple days, and I’m wondering what others think.  Here’s what came out of the discussions I had:

  1. If you can avoid teaching/discussing them, that may be the best strategy.
  2. You should mention the allegations, making clear that you think the behaviour is unacceptable, but also flag up efforts to improve things in the field.
  3. For conference papers (and sometimes in teaching), additional issues are raised by the fact that you may well have victims of these particular people in the audience.  This means that it’s important to have a well-publicised abstract that can serve as a content warning for people who want to avoid mention of them/prepare themselves.

What else do people suggest?

38 thoughts on “How to discuss Searle, etc.

  1. Here are my (unmediated but, I hope, moderate) perceptions of this briar-patch.

    1 I’m really not comfortable with avoiding teaching about these men. Aristotle was a slave-owner, Seneca was a loan-shark, Heidegger was a Nazi. These morally salient facts, though, are not what make their ideas right or wrong. Their ideas, if useful, should be explored; and if wrong-headed, should be refuted. I think Searle is seriously wrongheaded on (just as an example) the Is-Ought question. If we fail to criticise his errors (or, if you disagree with me, if we fail to commend his insights), we fail our students.

    2 Yes, by all means mention the allegations (if you are satisfied that you are not doing the person an injustice by doing so). Open up the discussion of what this means for Philosophy, both as a discipline and as a community. Ask the question “are the (entirely praiseworthy) efforts to improve things in the field pertinent to the contents of philosophy?” Encourage your students to navigate their conflicting intuitions without feeling the need to close the question.

    3 There may indeed be members of our various audiences who are suffering from, say, PTSD or other serious psychological trauma connected with matters we need to mention.. They have the right to decide how they manage that. Some will prefer avoidance, some will prefer exposure. This means that they deserve to be given relevant information on which they can make an informed decision, as well as our cooperation in tracing alternative learning paths. What they don’t have a right to is for us to second-guess their needs and wishes, or for their non-traumatised fellow-students to be denied as much exposure to Searle as they need.

    4 They are adults. We are not their nursemaids. A person who has been abused will experience surges of horror, shame, rage and other powerful, toxic, feelings. This will happen in response to all manner of triggers (if, say, a friend calls them “surly” – or, indeed, for no discernable reason). How they handle this is their call, not ours.

  2. If you can avoid teaching/discussing them, that may be the best strategy.

    = = =

    Really? So, if I’m doing art history, the best strategy would be not to show any Picasso paintings, because of how he treated women?

    Or if I’m doing continental philosophy, the best strategy would be not to teach any Heidegger, because … Nazi?

    [edited for compliance with blog rules]

  3. (I posted a version of this comment at Leiter’s blog too. But it’s just as relevant here.)

    I’m generally against deciding whether to teach or discuss someone’s ideas on the basis of their biography, including their non-intellectual (un)professional conduct. But there may be some point in connecting Searle’s behavior to the interpretation of his work. Consider Nietzsche. We know he lost his mind at some point, and there’s a legitimate question about how this should influence our reading of his later works. Discussion can be had about when to stop taking him seriously, or how seriously to take him, or what about him to take seriously, as his madness progresses.

    Likewise, I think men like Searle (if the allegations are true) are probably suffering some sort of degenerative condition. It may be entirely moral and not clinical. (I’m not necessarily suggesting an “insanity defense”.) But I don’t believe it can be completely separated from their intelligence because it goes to their judgment. In some cases, strangely self-indulgent lines of reasoning and cruelly uncharitable interpretations of the work of others begin to make sense if we imagine a mind coming undone.

    Sometimes we hear of a scholar’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism and it helps us to set aside some passages of their writing as not worth bothering with. Not worth the effort to try “make sense” of. (Usually, the tradition of interpretation has already quietly pushed those texts to the margins.) None of this, I would argue, could ever justify suddenly completely ignoring a thinker who has had a deep influence on the field. That influence, and the work that exerted it, will remain worthy of study. But I can see why we would be unable to ignore credible reports of behavior like this when weighing someone’s arguments.

  4. Quickly and imprecisely: I’m not entirely comfortable with the guidance to just not talk about it – it’d be nice to use it without necessarily getting into judgments about the specific accusation. Part of what’s unfortunate generally is that often the female victims in these cases are just *naïve* and get led along a sort of garden path while they were incorrectly convincing themselves all along that they were being primarily valued for their work (argh). In cases where women are not even particularly *naïve*, they may not have necessarily thought about this kind of thing or formed a view on what kind of approach they want to choose to take should there be red flags for themselves or their students. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on that stuff.

  5. In haste– I foolishly posted this when I’m about to leave on a trip…

    (1) DK- I really meant the qualifications ‘may’ and ‘if you can’. So, if you just need a representative of some family of views, you can avoid the whole issue by choosing someone else. If you really need to discuss Searle’s view, then you discuss Searle’s.

    (2) Thomas– I don’t so much agree with the pathologising. I think we don’t have evidence that it’s accurate in most cases, and also that this is unfair and insulting to those who are in fact suffering from degenerative conditions. Would rather keep the focus on the moral.

  6. I guess I don’t agree with the moralizing, Jenny. Obviously, harassment deserves moral condemnation, but course and paper content is not a moral issue, so moral considerations shouldn’t sway our decisions about what to teach or what to write about. Now, there are some people who write about and teach each other as a kind of favor. One can then understand why one might, under the present circumstances, want to withhold the favor. But there’s something corrupt about this practice in the first place. In a certain sense, it’s immoral to choose your intellectual interlocutors on moral grounds.

  7. jennysaul:

    Presumably, we are talking about once there is some outcome to the case. Obviously, we’re not talking about doing this with anyone against whom have been lodged allegations. Or at least, I hope that’s obvious.

    But I must admit to still not seeing the point, even with your qualifications. If I’m teaching the history of Cubism, of what relevance is it to tell students that Picasso was horrible to women? And if I am teaching computational theories of mind, of what relevance is it that Searle is a harasser (if it turns out he is one)?

    If he is found guilty in whatever arena or manner of guilt — criminal, civil, administrative, etc. — and the relevant penalties and compensations are imposed, then what is the purpose of adding a clause to my Chinese Room discussion “Oh, and the guy who did this is a harasser”? If he had burgled a house or committed armed robbery, would I add those clauses to my lecture as well?

    If the relevant penalties and compensations are *not* imposed, then I can imagine bringing pressure to bear upon the relevant authorities, in all sorts of ways. But I still don’t see the point of adding the clause to my Chinese Room lecture.

    This strikes me as a kind of vigilantism, and it seems to me that it is only applied to one sort of offense. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that this should be done with those convicted of *any* other offense, whether drunk driving, drug convictions, robbery, arson, etc.

  8. A short meta-comment: That Leiter and others seem to think it’s more important to criticize this effort than criticize Searle and those who enables Searle is, I think, telling. I don’t doubt the earnestness of their concern for teaching/discussing philosophy. But that concern ought to be balanced against a concern for Searle’s victims and for the (potentially) hostile climate of academic philosophy. (A similar criticism could be made against National Review style anti-anti-Trumpism.)

    I, myself, would not support any changes to the reading/discussion of Searle’s philosophical work on the basis of recent revelations. But I do think it’s important to say something about Searle’s sexual harassment when assigning his work for course reading in undergrad courses. First, students might have heard about it, and not mentioning it would suggest that it’s not sufficiently important. Second, it can be opportunity to acknowledge/further discuss the field’s history of sexism and curent efforts to improve. The only major downside that I can see is that it might pump stereotype-threat-like responses and make students focus more on what feels like an unwelcoming atmosphere than the material itself.

  9. It’s hard for me to know what to think without understanding why we would avoid teaching him or why we would mention the allegations. Maybe there are good reasons to do those things, but I don’t know what they are. I have an especially hard time seeing why, if I did mention the allegations, that I would also mention that I find the behavior unacceptable. Unless it’s to be funny, which now that I think about it would be pretty funny if you did it right. “I find this behavior unacceptable!” with your voice rising and finger held aloft or something. Or maybe it would it be better to be all serious, like, “Now, I want everyone to know that personally, I find it unacceptable for tenured male professors to sexually harass female undergraduates!” with your finger or even fist pounding into the table with increasing force with each word beginning maybe with “tenured”. You’d have to use your instincts in the moment. It would be hard, but very important, to stay totally deadpan. You ruin it if you smile or wink or anything. You’ve got to trust your audience to get it. Once they smile or laugh, it’s ok for you to, but wait for it!

  10. DK: One difference between your examples and this one is that there are unlikely to be victims of Picasso or the Nazi’s in the average academic audience. Now that we have excellent reason to believe that there is a recent history of abuse we may well have special reason to avoid traumatizing victims in our audience. Of course that might be trumped by other important academic norms, which is where 3 comes in.

    In a colloquium talk last week the speaker mentioned the mind to world vs world to mind distinction, and then said “as pointed out by a philosopher whose name I recently forgot”. In that small group of folks who know each other it made the point subtly and well.

  11. At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to hard to get Jennifer Saul to like me, let me say that I discussed her work on stereotype threat and implicit bias in my class today. I think it really helps students to see exactly why we can’t tolerate this sort of behavior, and why allegations must be taken seriously.

    I think once that’s made clear, we can continue to use, say, Minds, Brains, and Programs, in our classes if there’s no suitable replacement.

    As a victim of sexual harassment AND a lover of good philosophy, I can say that this sort of approach sits well with me. But I’m curious what others think.

  12. Yes, an important factor here is that victims of living predators may be in an audience in the case of individuals like Searle, McGuinn, and Pogge. But they aren’t the only ones affected by discussions of the work of known, living predators that go unflagged. (By “flagging”, I just mean some remark that acknowledges the harm to survivors.) It is chilling for anyone who is a survivor of assault or harassment to listen to a discussion about someone who is a predator as if they are an ordinary member of our community. Since it’s easy to avoid giving survivors compelling reasons to avoid philosophy talks, we should do that. They have done nothing to put themselves outside of our community. The perpetrators have.
    That there is likely to be at least one survivor at any talk and that the discussion of predators as if they are not predators is harmful to survivors are not open to debate; they are established empirical facts. If you need to be convinced of them, you can look here (https://www.rainn.org/about-sexual-assault), for example, and here (https://www.rainn.org/effects-sexual-violence).

  13. This discussion comes at a useful time for me since I will be teaching a course this summer in which I usually assign Searle. Jenny’s post reminds me to sort out what to do about that.

    I don’t know precisely what I’ll do yet, but I know that I won’t assign Searle (as I usually do in this course). To be clear, the Searle material isn’t load-bearing in this course. I can easily remove it without compromising student learning outcomes. For me, if Searle (or McGinn, or Heidegger, or Pogge…) are not load-bearing, I’m just not going to teach them. For me, syllabus construction always involves narrowing down a too-long lost list of readings to a manageable one. There is no shortage of excellent philosophical texts to assign. So, it’s easy enough to switch the usual texts out in cases like this.

    By “cases like this,” I mean cases in which the author is guilty of willful harms to others. Daniel Kaufman urges that we should reserve judgment until cases are resolved, and would therefore, I presume, caution me that Searle is accused, not necessarily guilty, of harms to others. In response, I would urge that the standard that is appropriate in criminal proceedings is too high a standard in this case. The reason that “innocent until proven guilty” is so important in criminal cases is that the risk of unjust harm to the accused would be too great if we abandoned that principle. That is, when imprisonment or worse are on the line, it’s important to calibrate in favour of the accused.

    I would say though that no such calibration is necessary in the case of pedagogical decisions. I do no substantive harm to Searle at all if I remove him from my syllabus. With or without my course, he remains a wildly successful, influential, senior scholar. By contrast, when I assign to my students the work of someone widely believed to be a sexual harasser, I risk conveying to the students the message that I don’t much care about fighting sexual harassment in the discipline. This message harms students and colleagues who have themselves experienced sexual harassment. It also risks deterring women from continuing in the discipline. On balance, these harms are much greater than any harm I do Searle by dropping one reading of his from my course. And, these harms obtain whether it turns out in the end that Searle is guilty or not.

    I’m working hard these days to build my courses less around big-name stars of the discipline and more around diverse voices, demographics, and perspectives. So, I’ll take this opportunity to plug the hole in my course with a really excellent piece by a more junior scholar, probably a woman, possibly a racialized author. On the whole, regardless of how the Searle case is resolved, this will, I am confident, make my course a better one.

  14. @jldowell: I wonder if there’s a special harm in talking nonchalantly about *known* predators. I.e., isn’t there always a risk (indeed, might Searle himself not already have constituted a risk ten years ago?) when we’re teaching someone about whom we simply don’t know whether they’ve harmed someone? Given that we’re willing to run that larger risk, I’m not sure that dropping a known predator to avoid having one of his/her handful of victims in the class is a reasonable precaution to take. Unless, like I say, the fact that it is common knowledge is especially hurtful. Low risk, very high harm?

    @Lady Day: Your notion of a non “load-bearing” text that could be dropped on moral grounds (where a load-bearing text) does not, sort of intersect with my concerns (above) about thinking of teaching a text as a favor to the author. My approach (though I don’t teach much) is to confine my assigned reading to load-bearing texts. If I’m going to make someone read something, I’d like to think I have a good reason. Especially, like you say, since there really is an overwhelming amount of good reading matter to teach.

  15. What jldowell said. Likewise, on the Heidegger example, imagine that you’re teaching continental philosophy, not today, but in the 1950s. Or during the Holocaust. In that context (in which both Heidegger and the victims of Heidegger) are still living, it seems perfectly appropriate to do any of 1, 2, and 3 in the original post.

  16. Side note: some of us have grandparents who are holocaust survivors. They are alive and kicking. We do feel something when y’all teach Heidegger like he was the greatest thinker since Plato.

  17. A way to think about this: ask what principles should apply to science teaching and science conferences. Suppose that a scientist, S, is publicly known to have committed sexual harassment. S once made a major discovery that has for many years been referred to as “the S effect.” This discovery is covered in many upper-division and graduate courses on the field. It is also frequently discussed at conferences.

    Should instructors and conference participants remove discussion of S’s important finding from their syllabi and their conference papers? Should they discuss the discovery without calling it “the S effect,” potentially confusing listeners who are trying to get an understanding of the recent literature? Should citations of S’s work be omitted from conference papers and posters, even when the practices of the field would normally call for a citation?

    I would think that if we take philosophy seriously as a research enterprise, the norms that we endorse for our discipline should be the same as the norms we would endorse for the sciences.

  18. One important difference between serial sexual harassment and, say, arson or armed robbery is that our discipline is facing something of a crisis of sexual harassment. We are facing no similar crisis or epidemic of arson among philosophers. (That might also explain why philosophers aren’t up in arms about it, since it’s not a thing.)

    Another important difference between sexual harassment and arson is that sexual harassment is, in the cases under discussion, a professional and not merely ‘personal’ wrong. The harassers targeted their students and research assistants in their capacities as senior professors. That makes a professional response relevant in a way that it might not be in the case of recreational arson.

    I used to assign Pogge in my moral issues courses. I no longer will.

    I want my students to wrestle with the argument that they are responsible in a direct way for the suffering of the global South– I want them to confront the argument that their comfort is the result of, not merely hard work or even good luck, but *exploitation.* Pogge makes that argument very well. But precisely because I want my students to take the argument seriously, I won’t assign Pogge.

    Students don’t like being told they’re responsible for the suffering of tens of millions of people who live in poverty. They fight the conclusion pretty hard. Now, if they know that the author of the argument is a sexual predator (one whose victims are often women from the global South!!), how likely are they to take the argument seriously? We’re all prone to motivated reasoning, particularly when we’re being blamed. The fact that his crimes are irrelevant to the soundness of his argument is itself irrelevant in the context of a classroom. (Yes, I could spend lots of extra time working through the critical thinking lesson about ad hominem arguments. What should I therefore drop from the syllabus in order to be scrupulously fair to a sexual predator?)

    Pogge’s work played an important role in the class, but what’s important about the work is the argument, and not his specific formulation of it. I can get the argument elsewhere, and so I will.

    (If I just didn’t tell them about the sexual harassment, that would be a problem, but they’d learn anyway. If you Google his name– as students are wont to do in search of readings or essay help– 9 of the first 10 hits are about his sexual harassment.)

  19. These comments are addressed specifically at undergraduate teaching, though I think they mostly generalize to graduate teaching and research presentations.

    I’m taking as a starting assumption that the point of work in a given area of philosophy is to advance our objective understanding of the issues in that area, and as much as possible to make progress on solving or dissolving the defining problems of the area. In which case, the content of an undergraduate course ought to be put together to help students understand those defining problems and the progress that has been made on them – and, of course, the disagreements and controversies between different approaches to them.

    If that’s right, selecting material for a philosophy course is not fundamentally different from selecting material for a physics or math course. It’s going to be a matter of academic judgement what to include or exclude, and different people will reach different conclusions, but they are (or should be) conclusions reached on purely internal grounds.

    So, for instance, in *my* view the central organizing themes of twentieth/twenty-first century general philosophy of mind are consciousness and mental content and the relations between them.* From that point of view, including Searle is pretty much essential, both because the Chinese Room thought experiment is so widely discussed in itself and because it’s part of Searle’s general consciousness-first/content-second approach that’s a starting point for many aspects of the debate. (You could disagree, but we’d be disagreeing on academic grounds internal to philosophy of mind.)

    I guess in theory, there could be genuine ties, so that one could make a case for breaking the tie on external grounds. But in practice I think they will be vanishingly rare. Even when two people say the same thing, one will say it better. Or one will have said it in a way that’s been more widely picked up in the literature, so that it’s been more significant to the debate even if the content is similar. (Comments on similar discussions in the past have suggested that the ties are much more common; I think that attitude is incompatible with treating syllabus design as governed by academic principles internal to the subject being taught.)

    So I’d want to reject the first suggestion in the OP, except in a circumstance that I think is mostly theoretical.

    At least for teaching undergraduates, I think the second suggestion is also mistaken. The topic of the class is neither “issues in the profession of philosophy” nor “biographical facts about philosophers”; it’s “mental content and consciousness, and their interrelations”. So I don’t think I’ll advance the educational goals of the class by bringing up an author’s wrongdoing**, and I’m likely to harm them by distracting the class and/or keying them up to take an author’s arguments less seriously than they should because of facts about them.

    (Non-hypothetical example: I’ve just taught Lakatos to my 2nd year philosophy of science class. Lakatos’s past is controversial at best, but I think it would have been a huge mistake to discuss it, both because it would have been a distraction and because it would have been virtually impossible to present it without the students drawing the conclusion that Lakatos’s biography was relevant to their assessment of his arguments – after all, if it wasn’t, why did I take up class time discussing it?)

    I can see it being slightly more complicated if an author I discussed was such a public figure that undergraduate students might reasonably be expected to have heard about their controversies. (I guess linguists must have this problem when they teach Chomsky.) Then you might say that students already know about the issues, so they’re already assessing the philosopher in that context. Even then, though, I’m inclined to think that the educational principle that we are assessing arguments, not people, is so central to philosophy (and academia more generally) that it’s better to teach that norm by being entirely silent on the author’s biography – and, if it comes up in questions, being clear that what’s at stake is the arguments and that no judgement *positive or negative* about an author is being made by discussing their argument.

    *I’d distinguish general philosophy of mind from more specific topics in philosophy of cognitive science – but this is now starting to get too far into details, given I’m only giving this as an illustration.
    ** without prejudice to whether the allegations against Searle in particular are correct.

  20. David Wallace’s comment (for which, thanks!) made me think of something. Suppose I’ve never thought that the Chinese Room shows that AI isn’t possible–that it begs the question, for example. But every year I assign the damn text and every year Searle persuades half my students that he’s right about consciousness and I’m wrong. And that’s with him just “dead” there as an author of words on the page and me, with all my charms, “live” in the classroom making my best case against him. Year after year, students fall under his spell, to my great chagrin.

    Then, one day, Searle is accused of sexual harassment. I have a personal (or perhaps we might say professional) interest in taking his text off my syllabus, but all these years I’ve done the obvious and decent thing which is to let the (apparently) better argument win, putting an important text before the students and letting them make up their mind, even when the result is that they think my rival is smarter than I am. (Suppose I think of mine as a greater mind than Searle’s, just for the sake of argument).

    On the view of some of the commentators here, I have suddenly found my excuse to do an end run around the usual standards of intellectual honesty that have constrained me until now. That standard is, roughly: if you know of an argument that is relevant and goes against your position you should present and do your best to dismantle it. If you lack the ability to dismantle it, but still don’t like the conclusion it leads to, you can’t simply pretend it doesn’t exist. Your students deserve to know what you know.

    That is, I’m asking us to consider the possibility of exploiting this scandal opportunistically to accomplish goals unrelated to social justice. I think stating the reasons one might not teach Searle in this way is a pretty good argument against taking him off your reading list.

    (PS, to relate this to another Berkeley scandal. Imagine two astronomers in competition for time on the same telescope….)

  21. Speech Acts, the Chinese Room, and Intentionality have ideas that would have to find their way into any contemporary discussion of philosophy of mind. So, I don’t quite know how to assess Lady Day’s position. She says Searle isn’t “load-bearing” in her class; well, maybe her class isn’t about philosophy of mind. But she says she wants to build her courses “less around big-name stars of the discipline and more around diverse voices, demographics, and perspectives.” That’s great if the diverse voices etc. have important things to say. It’s not ok if reading these people is a way of discussing Searle’s ideas without reading Searle. Whatever Searle did, it’s not ok to steal from him, or to discuss his ideas without proper attribution.

  22. I very much agree with commenters arguing that there will be plenty of courses in which one really needs to teach Searle. But in such cases I still worry about giving students the impression that one really doesn’t care about sexual harassment– given the background conditions of underrepresentation of women and what seems to be a lot of well-known sexual harassment in the field. I share the concern that it feels off-topic to discuss the allegations, but I think in the end I’m more worried about making women feel like this is a field where we just ignore that stuff. I’d love to hear from those who (a) would go on teaching Searle; (b) don’t want to discuss the allegations in class; but also (c) want to make sure that women don’t feel unwelcome in philosophy. What else might one do about (c), if one rules out discussing the allegations?

  23. Jenny, in re (c) are you talking about women in general, or women who have been harassed by Searle?

    The first group, I think, will feel welcome in so far as they feel welcome in your class and those of your decent colleagues. I presume most women feel generally respected in most of their classes by most of their teachers. If not, then what you say about Searle isn’t going to make much of a difference. By a similar token, what they hear about Searle will not make much of a difference either. As long the harassment story they hear isn’t consistent with behavior they’ve come to experience as normal it will be interpreted as what it is: an exception to the rule. If it isn’t then it is the regular behavior your students are experiencing that needs to be fixed, not your presentation of Searle.

    The second group is too small to worry about. I.e., the likelihood that you are teaching one of Searle’s victims is very small. If it happens, it’s possible she will tell you, and then you can have an individual conversation outside of class in which you talk through it.

    I guess my answer is to just *be welcoming* to women. Don’t harass them, of course. Don’t treat them any differently. Be welcoming to students in general.

  24. The place of women in academia, and in academic philosophy in particular, has been shaped by attitudes toward women. These attitudes include grabbing and groping, along with administrators declining to protect the women. But they probably include other matters, such as the incompatibility many people feel of being a philosopher and being a mother.

    Then there’s the fact that all sorts of institutions until relatively recently would not admit women. I think that until the early 80’s about 5 economically challenged Oxford colleges admitted women and 30 often quite wealthy colleges were for men only. So until very recently one’s chances of being hired at Oxford if one was a women were clearly much lower. Ditto lots of other places.

    So for goodness sake, don’t remove Searle from your syllabus; but do know that there could have been work on it by quite brilliant women who for various reasons did not produce-and-get-accepted equal work. Honestly, I could name names; I’m willing to bet just about no one has heard of these women. Among other things, it is very taxing mentally to live in the atmosphere so many administrators are reluctant to change.

    Should the behavioral background be mentioned? I think that it is a bit like teaching in a building built by slaves, but only a bit, since the damage continues today. There’s a ongoing history behind the Searle case that even visitors to Berkeley’s dept know about. And a very long history to the multitude of ways in which women have been aand probably are still being stopped.

    Well, sorry, it clearly is not good for my temper to think about these things.

  25. Yeah so one of the main reason I’ll be leaving philosophy when I’m done with my thesis is that comments sections like these, and how typical they are. The amount of intellectual and emotional labour required for women (and people of colour) to just express their thoughts about the political issues that have a *direct* impact on their everyday lives in an analytic philosophy context is completely exhausting. really, at this point, I’m impressed when anyone says anything vaguely non-reactionary in these circles. nevertheless, I feel some obligation to reply. I don’t really know where to start…

    Almost all the men commenting uncharitably interpreted 1. as saying that there should be a ban on all thinkers throughout history who held reprehensible views — tell me, where is that claim in the original post?

    The idea that Searle had to be suffering from some “degenerative condition” or intellectual impairment individualises the issue of sexual harassment as an act that is perpetrated by peculiarly ‘evil’ men. No. Women know that a culture of sexual violence towards us is completely pervasive, and is committed by *ordinary men*–those passerby’s glances and whistles on a hot day when you have to wear “revealing” clothes or you’ll sweat to death, that “nice guy”s whose hand won’t stop wandering to your thigh when you’ve already said you’re not really in the mood, that kind male professor that takes an interest in you while letting his eyes wander…the guilt for not giving them the benefit of the doubt, the feeling that you invited the treatment, the feeling that you can’t quite call the behaviour out because you’re not sure you’re being oversensitive, or delusional, or afraid of your physical safety… and when you are sexual harassed, assaulted, raped, there’s the fear that no one will believe you if you speak out because it’s “a serious allegation”, “slander”, it’s probably your own fault (your own ‘naivety’* or behaviour), it would have to stand the scrutiny of a law court before being a claim worth considering… this is all part and parcel of a culture in which we are force-fed images and narratives that male sexual desire is subordinate to women’s, and where women are taught paradoxically to both be charitable to men’s intentions and be very cautious to not arouse an insatiable male sexual appetite. it’s no wonder that when it comes to men who are in positions of power with the institutional protection to sexually harass vulnerable young women (who are in a relatively precarious position in the academy) that they take full advantage of it. the idea that some medical condition could be a more plausible candidate betrays the astonishing blindness to social reality that has dogged much of the commentary (from philosophers) on this issue.

    *to the person who said the victims in these situations are naive. Yeah, shame on that woman for thinking she was being valued for her intelligence… Why don’t we shame the sexual harasser, rather than suggesting women should think and act like they deserve any better?

    Re: the reading list… first, the idea behind potentially excluding him from a reading list is not that his sexual misconduct by itself renders his work of less intellectual merit — one reason is that given that we must make choices from an impossibly *huge* amount of material, much of which is philosophically and pedagogically valuable, we are often faced with a choice–whether to include someone who did not abuse his power and harass a young female student/graduate (moreover, a woman of colour), or someone else. i don’t see any problem with choosing another option in this case. another reason is that reading lists etc. are mechanisms of power–not only do they invest intellectual authority in certain individuals, they provide them the recognition and fame that is precisely what permits more egregious forms of sexual harassment to occur without proper accountability. moreover, i’d like to echo jldowell’s comment and add that where an academic’s sexual misconduct is a known fact, it is demeaning to women (particularly in a discipline where sexual violence is rife, is apparently is widely misunderstood, and rife with victim-blaming and testimonial injustice towards victims) to treat him as a normal member of the academic community, and choose to read his papers or review his arguments if there are others that suit the purpose. if his arguments really are necessary or intellectual honesty really demands *his* inclusion (which I am sceptical about), his arguments could be presented without using his name, or at least with mentioning and condemning his misconduct.
    second, the idea behind not mentioning his sexual misconduct does not imply that every historical philosopher’s reprehensible views and conduct need to be mentioned whenever they are taught. let’s say you choose to put Searle on your reading list because it is strictly necessary for philosophical or pedagogical reasons. if you then want to avoid the investment of power (fame and recognition) that comes with putting him on the reading list, then mentioning his sexual misconduct and condemning it can play a positive role in achieving that. it also sends the message that this kind of behaviour is not accepted in the community, and he is certainly not to be treated as an ordinary member of the community (however ordinary sexual harassers may in fact be in the community as it stands). of course, this requires many people to join you in this effort. the more lecturers that mention sexual harassing academics’ misconduct, the more the norms of the community might shift — women students will be more comfortable to speak out, would-be harassers are less likely to take the risk, faculty will be better supported to deal with the issue… this is important in a context where those who sexual harass are still at large, and in a context where sexual harassment is a serious issue in the academy. as such, there’s an important disanalogy between highlighting e.g. Searle’s sexual misconduct with e.g. Lakatos’ controversial past. that said, I think when it comes to hugely revered thinkers, e.g. Aristotle, Kant, J.S. Mill, there is some value in highlighting some of their reprehensible views–if not only to show that “the greatest minds” weren’t immune to sexism, racism, slavery, or the endorsement of colonialism, and to problematise the relation between intellectual acuity and insight into real social and political issues.

    also to Thomas’ suggestion that if we choose not to teach Searle, academics would exploit this opportunity to push their own agenda. if there really is good reason to think professional philosophers are likely to exploit the situation in this way, then that puts me off more than I was already. if it’s just one *possible* (but unlikely) situation (which I hope- naively perhaps- it is) then I don’t see why it should be worth mentioning, except if the tiny possibility of this happening outweighs other weighty moral/political considerations.

    I think I do have more to say, but I’m getting tired, so I’ll stop there.

  26. To jennysaul’s question, I think the answer goes to what is it that makes women feel unwelcome. Is it discovering later in their careers that a philosopher whose views they respected was also a serial sexual assaulter (and no one told them!). Or, is feeling that their views are marginalized in class, that they don’t see women as having contributed to the field (as they are missing on syllabi), that they are targeted by their own professors, that they see only all-male plenary speakers, etc.?

    My point is that is seems like local issues carry much more weight, especially if the field is losing women very early in their undergraduate career. If professors tend to their own departments and classes, won’t the rest take care of itself? I’d like to think philosophers who are motivated to discuss the allegations in class would also be motivated to take care of the other stuff, stuff that would have a much greater impact on a budding philosophy student. And if philosophers don’t take care of this stuff, what good will be done by mentioning the Searle/Pogge cases?

  27. I don’t think anyone who has (like me) read the court document considers what Searle did to be normal or acceptable behavior, nor would many people approve of Hudin’s alleged protection of him (though one does understand her difficulty, I guess.) In my opinion, no one should be hired in the way Ong was hired; it leaves them too vulnerable to precisely the sort of abuse of power that is being alleged.

    Two last points: (1) I explicitly allowed that the “degenerative condition” could be moral, nor medical, i.e., that people who do this sort of thing have been losing their soul’s for years. (2) the point of the thought experiment about opportunism was merely to introduce a competing ethical principle (intellectual honesty about counter-arguments) that may have been keeping Searle *on* the reading list until now. This let’s us weight the importance of the principle that Jenny is considering, about which all of us are, in the end, going to have to make up our own minds.

  28. For Open Days, I usually do a spot on the Chinese Room, with a photo of John Searle. I’ll choose a different topic this summer. Given that there are many more fun and important topics than we could ever hope to teach, I’m not going to get hung up on one person’s work.

  29. Killjoy– please know that there are many, many many of us fighting to make the profession better. I’m so sorry you’ve found it so inhospitable.

  30. I know I’m repeating some of what has been said before in several of the comments (esp. killjoy), but I guess it’s worth making explicit once again what cases like Pogge, Searle etc. have in common such that advices 1-3 in the original post *might* be the right thing to do (I am not totally convinced whether all of them are) :

    First, unlike, say, Gottlob Frege, the accused people are still alive and active in academic philosophy. Second, the crimes they have committed (let’s assume Searle is found guilty) are not private in the sense in which, e.g., a philosopher’s stealing a car during their vacation would be – after all, we are talking about professors who harassed their students. Third, it is reasonable to assume that the kind of behavior Pogge & Co. displayed used to be tolerated in philosophy in the past.

    So I think when we ask professors who discuss Searle’s or Pogge’s work in class to mention the allegations against them and condemn their behavior, it is not their personal opinion that we are asking for (“it is morally wrong to sexually harass other people”). Rather, as the offenses are *not* instances of private misconduct, they, as members of the community of academic philosophers, should make explicit that anyone who behaves in the way that Pogge & Co did will no longer be a part of that community – that we, as a discipline, do not tolerate such behavior no matter how brillant the philosopher in question is considered to be. Of course, in principle that should go without saying. But given the history of our discipline, it still doesn’t. To me as a female grad student, such statements *are* important factors in making me feel welcome.

  31. Louise Antony has asked me to post this:

    My guiding principle for this stuff is that human beings are extremely complicated, and that we can successfully compartmentalize things to a surprising degree. It’s possible (and I think we have examples of this) of people being very good theorists about morality and yet be terrible pracititioners. That they don’t practice what they preach doesn’t entail the that content of the preaching isn’t valuable.

    I sometimes point out that things said by (e.g.) Kant in one context (discussion of the categorical imperative) are inconsistent with what he said about women, because I think it’s pedagogically important to show that “generics” can mask implicit — or even explicit — biases against some groups, like women.

  32. Suppose that you are in a situation where you think two papers are equally good pedagogical tools to discuss an important philosophical idea. Suppose one of those papers is written by someone who you have good evidence to believe is a genuinely harmful jerk. Does anyone deny that that is a good reason to choose the article not written by the harmful person? I myself would endorse a stronger version of the “avoid the harmful jerks if you can” principle. But I assume we can agree on such a principle when philosophically other things are equal and there is good evidence available about the harmfulness of the jerk, no?

  33. In the case that David suggests the answer does seem obvious. The trouble arises when two papers aren’t *exactly* equally good. I would argue that no two papers are ever exactly the same in terms of philosophical interest. But, in any case, to make this “other things being equal” argument work, we would need to be able to measure degrees of philosophical interest against degrees of personal harm. How much more of a jerk would a philosopher need to be to be dropped in a contest with a how much less philosophically interesting one? There’s really no way of answering that question.

    Also, I think it’s important to remember we are comparing persons (authors) not papers. The reason we’re worried about Searle is not what they might learn from the paper we’re considering no assigning, but because of what the students might either know or learn about him when following up. But that’s also where most of the value of the Searle text is found: in the conversation that happens around him. It wold be difficult to find a text about the same problems that has an exacctly equally valuable conversation associated with it. Dropping Searle means dropping the problems Searle has worked on during his career.

    Unfortunately (?), the way philosophical traditions works pretty much makes the texts we use in teaching problems *uniquely* suited to their aim (which can be very complex). It’s very hard to imagine planning a course where this “Is he a jerk?” question could identify a deciding factor.

  34. Re killjoy’s comment “*to the person who said the victims in these situations are naive. Yeah, shame on that woman for thinking she was being valued for her intelligence… Why don’t we shame the sexual harasser, rather than suggesting women should think and act like they deserve any better?”

    Wait – who the heck said or implied “shame on them”?!? If you’re referring to my post that’s just not something I indicated.

  35. Hi. Yeah, I was referring to your post — sorry, I meant to say (sarcastically) “let’s blame the woman for thinking she was being valued for her intelligence… why don’t we blame the sexual harasser…” etc.

    Although I think if shame is a response to being blamed for some wrong, it is a kind of de facto shaming to blame someone for a wrong.

  36. I am locating your comment in the context of a victim-blaming culture that defaults to focusing on what the victim could have done to prevent the crime, rather than focusing on the actions of the perpetrator. The focus on the naivete of the victim–attributing some flaw to the victim, in the absence of which the assault presumably would not have or be less likely to have happened (“if only she hadn’t wrongly thought the professor was valuing her for her intellect…”), rather than a focus on the abuse of power and violation of the wrongdoer participates in that victim-blaming culture. My comment was intending to question why you were focusing on the victim’s actions and features, as opposed to the perpetrators, given a context in which victim-blaming is rife.

    I find it hard not to read ‘naive’ as suggesting a lack of judgment or sophistication of thought, but okay, perhaps attributing ‘naivete’ to victims need not suggest that they should have known better (and therefore presumably should shoulder some blame), perhaps they simply blamelessly lack judgment or sophistication of thought. but this still focuses on victim, and is focused on locating a flaw in her–it is her (blameless) lack of judgment or sophistication of thought that explains or partially explains why she was assaulted.

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