Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?

This post was written by Nomy Arpaly:

I’ll never forget the old guy who asked me, at an APA interview: “suppose I wanted to slap you, and suppose I wanted to slap you because I thought you were giving us really bad answers, and I mistakenly believed that by slapping you I’ll bring out the best in you. Am I blameworthy?”.

When he said “suppose I wanted to slap you”, his butt actually left his chair for a moment and his hand was mimicking a slap in the air.

Since that event – which happened back when I was a frightened youngster with all the social skills of a large rock – I have thought many times about the connection between philosophy and rudeness – especially the connection between philosophical debating and rudeness. It seems to me that the connection between philosophical argument and rudeness is similar to the connection between fighting a war and immorality. Surprisingly precise analogies can be drawn between the soldier in a just war and the philosophical arguer in pursuit of the truth. Let me explain.


It is a big part of moral behavior in ordinary situations not to kill people. Yet the morally healthy inhibition against killing people has to be lost, of necessity, in war – even in a morally justified war.

It is a big part of politeness – not in the sense of using the right fork, but in the sense of civility – in ordinary situations not to tell another person that she is wrong and misguided about something she cares a lot about, or that she cares about being right about. For brevity’s sake, let’s just say it’s a big part of politeness or civility not to correct people. Yet the civilized inhibition against correcting people has to be lost, of necessity, in a philosophical argument.

A soldier who is fighting, even for a just cause, is in a precarious situation, with regard to morality, because he has lost, of necessity, the basic moral inhibition against killing people.

A philosopher who is arguing with another, even in pursuit of truth, is in a precarious situation with regard to politeness, because she has lost, of necessity, the basic civil inhibition against correcting people.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against killing people, some soldiers find themselves shedding other moral inhibitions – and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against correcting people, some philosophers find themselves shedding other social inhibitions – and being terribly, terribly rude.

That’s just the nature of inhibition loss.

I do not wish to be a philosophical pacifist. I think arguing – including, naturally, correcting and being corrected – is something for which there is no substitute in philosophy. I remember it whenever a beginner graduate student asks me how to anticipate objections or simply how to “see” the arguments for the other side of one’s view, which, as per Mill, is important if we want to understand our own view at all. I tell her that we humans are pretty bad at imagining what having the opposite view would be like (more on the badness of our imagination some other time), and thus there is no substitute for talking to someone who disagrees with you and who can “pressure” you hard to come up with answers to her arguments. Someone who pretends to disagree is not enough, as the same lack of imagination makes us bad at the pretending. You need the real thing. Argue for the opposite view if you wish – and see how much your writing, even as you do so, even as you do so casually, is guided and improved by imagining an interlocutor who deeply disagrees. For real philosophical writing, as opposed to a post like this one, nothing short of talking to a real disagreeing interlocutor will do (note: I am not going to argue from the ambiguity of the words “argument” and “disagreement” because I’m not monolingual).

I am not a philosophical pacifist, but you don’t need to be a literal pacifist to oppose war crimes, and you don’t need to be a philosophical pacifist to oppose gratuitous rudeness. Being compelled to break the rule of thumb against telling people that they are mistaken in the understanding of an important thing is no excuse for also yelling at them, repeatedly interrupting them and talking over them, responding to their painstakingly prepared talks with a sneering “why should I be interested in any of this”? (as opposed to a “does this have any implications for my field” or “how does it fit in the literature”), and worse things that we philosophers do, such as asking a job candidate about the counterfactual merits of hypothetically slapping her.

Furthermore, I will argue against the philosophical Henry Kissinger within many of us who worries that whatever might be true about war and war crimes, realistically speaking philosophical rigor just requires rudeness.

Some would find it funny that anyone should need to argue against rudeness. It’s clearly a vice, virtue ethicists would say. Politeness is a form of respect for persons, Kantians would chime in. Politeness is good for social cooperation, utilitarians might add. I take these things to be true.

I would like to add the following. I think the state of women in philosophy can be improved significantly simply through the elimination of rudeness in philosophical discourse. One can have many views about things we could or couldn’t do, should or shouldn’t do, to improve the state of women in philosophy, but before we settle those issues, why not start by doing what we already know that we have excellent reasons to do – utilitarian, Kantian, virtue-oriented, and commonsensical reasons, independent of any special feminist theory – and reduce our rudeness?

Here is how I think it will help. First, if everyone is rude, women are judged unfairly (as potential colleagues, for example) because rude women are treated more harshly than rude men, by everyone, due to implicit bias. Implicit bias is notoriously hard to change, but thankfully it is not as hard to change behavior – such as rudeness. I am not saying that we should not try to change implicit bias – of course we should – nor am I saying that changing behavior is easy (I have plenty of experience to the contrary), but you get my drift.

Second, in the actual world, polite women are also judged harshly when they respond to the rudeness of others. In a job interview, for example, a woman who faces a rude interviewer has the choice between responding assertively (and thus facing the notorious “shrill voice” bias) and responding gently. A woman who responds in a gentle, conciliatory manner to a rude interview question, or who looks too insecure and intimidated in response to the rude question, is often perceived by the some people in the room as not having enough to say. This whole painful catch-22 does not occur if the interviewer is not rude in the first place. Again, changing behavior is much easier than changing implicit bias.

Third, it has been said many times that women are put off by the idea of entering philosophy because girls are not taught to handle confrontational, adversarial situations, or situations where one’s abilities are judged harshly. Some think philosophy should change here – either through what I called “pacifism” earlier or through changing the way we evaluate people, or otherwise. Some, on the other hand, say that though the education of girls should change, philosophy shouldn’t. After all, girls and women play sports nowadays, and compete in athletics, and the ones who do most definitely don’t ask for the rules of rugby to be changed to make it kinder and gentler, or for boxing be made non-adversarial, or for the cruelty of publishing players’ stats to be stopped.

Me? All I want to do here is suggest that we try to eliminate what we already regard as foul play, what we already know we shouldn’t do but do anyway. It won’t solve everything, but if we reduce rudeness, I solemnly promise that more women will want to do philosophy. I hereby conjecture with confidence that the simple words “sorry, but you were saying-?”, can make a critical difference, consciously or not, to some young women’s readiness to do philosophy. It might sound silly, especially if one forgets how susceptible all humans are to seemingly insignificant factors, but it is not silly, but rather tragic, if we have lost some wonderful potential contributions to the field just because we couldn’t wait for someone to finish talking. It would show the wrong priorities if we continue to lose such wonderful contributions in the name of some supposed sacred right to be as obnoxious as we’ve always been.

Some people would worry that if you eliminate rudeness during philosophical discussions you’ll have to turn down philosophical rigor. That this is false is shown quite simply by the example of philosophers who argue very rigorously without being rude. It is shown most emphatically by downright quiet, mild-mannered philosophers whose objections, expressed in a nice tone of voice, are nonetheless absolutely lethal. I do not wish to mention living people, but I will mention my memory of Fred Dretske who, during his days at Stanford, showed us graduate students how to scare the hell out of a visiting speaker with a very polite request for clarification and an “I see, thank you” after the reply. Fred and others have taught me that not only is rudeness unnecessary for rigor, it’s not even necessary for being frightening!

They say revenge is best served cold. Objections can be delicious at room temperature.

I’m not saying that we should all be quiet. Philosophical discussion can legitimately feel like a very tiring game of squash. But as Gary Watson noted, though the intensity of playing squash might cause a fantasy about punching your opponent in the face to go through your mind, there are some desires one should not act on, whether one is an athlete, an accountant, or a philosopher.

 

This post was written by Nomy Arpaly

12 Replies to “Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?

  1. Hear, hear! This strikes me as one of the ways we can get the biggest bang for our buck in philosophy. What I mean is that, like Nomy, I think that this is one of the most important things we can do to retain and attract talented women. But not only that, many talented men are put off and burned out by rudeness, not to mention moralistic aggressiveness (often purported to be necessary or at least justified in the cause of promoting various forms of diversity in philosophy). I am one of these men. And not only that, but rudeness and aggressiveness and condescension, far from being necessary for the sort of philosophical rigor required to get at the truth, actually greatly inhibit that process in my view. I don’t think we need sophisticated psychological studies to recognize that a person is far less prone to changing their mind, or even really listening to what another person is saying, if that person is saying it in a rude, derisive, or moralistically aggressive way. All those ways of engaging are not part of some rigorousness that we need to protect in order to stay true to the heart of what we do, but rather almost always impediments to what we do. They are almost always signals of one kind or another, over and above the content expressed. This isn’t meant to suggest that there is never a place for signaling or blaming or even name-calling, or that philosophy should be all about the pure expression of truth-evaluable content (my favorite philosopher is Nietzsche, so I can’t possibly think that). Instead, it is to suggest that Nomy’s case is even stronger than she makes it, in my view. It’s not just that rigor and truth (and scariness!) can be pursued without the sort of sneering and rudeness (and I would add moralistic aggressiveness) she rightly bemoans, but that it can be done far far better without them, at least in the normal case.

  2. Some readers may have read the following in a comment thread at New APPS blog, but for those who have not, it provides, among other things, one (there are others) historical model relevant to the topic of “polite philosophical discussion”:
    In The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994), Dena Goodman points out that formal education in the West, going all the way back to ancient Greece (keep in mind that Socrates and his interlocutors in the agora engaged in dialogue and dialectic as an exemplary example of ‘informal’ philosophical education) has been largely “agonistic.” Quoting Walter Ong, she writes that “Students ‘learned subjects largely by fighting over them.’ The primary form the agon took in the education of boys and young men from the Middle Ages on was disputation, a form of ceremonial combat. Ong contends that male insecurity, although it may not have been the ‘cause’ of the agonistic structure of pedagogical and scholarly practice, was certainly fundamentally related to it.”
    The literal and figurative notion of learning in French schools since Abelard had “been steeped in the language of battle” and up until the “the end of the Old Regime” pedagogical practice was “overwhelmingly oral,” despite the focus on texts and exegesis: “Listening and memorizing were always oral and generally disputatious in form.” With roots in the sixteenth century, the reform of secondary education in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France placed emphasis on the art of rhetoric or eloquence as “the art of thinking and speaking well.” As Goodman explains, this went hand-in-hand with the Jesuits’ renewal of “militancy” in pedagogical practice. In this model, the agonistic spirit is canalized in the form of a “competition among students” believed to “foster” the kind of individual ambition that led to educational excellence. We find here the pedagogical analogue of the duel, which represents the “merger of personal human relations with militancy.”
    Perhaps needless to say, the social base of the Republic of Letters provided by the French salon offered an alternative model of intellectual learning and philosophical discourse for the philosophes. And this alternative pedagogical model, if you will, was a deliberate product of the salonnière. The women who governed these salons (e.g., Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, Julie de Lespinasse, and Suzanne Necker) enforced rules of polite conversation among the guests, transforming the salon “from a leisure institution of the nobility into an institution of the Enlightenment,” one in which the philosophes were compelled to learn a new style of philosophical argument, a new mode of intellectual disputation not fundamentally agonstic in style, thus without the victors and victims of combat. This too was a rhetorical practice of sorts, but one subordinate to the broader and normative art of conversation. Here the “mastery of word” was not synonymous with, or at least reduced the risk of degenerating into, a “mastery over persons.” Unlike agonstic philosophical argumentation, this art is far less prone to the dangers of descent into abusive and circumstantial ad hominen arguments, and is structurally better suited to the intellectual virtues of what today is discussed under the heading of “regulative epistemology,” including, noticeably, intellectual humility and generosity. Indeed, I think it is an auspicious forum for the flourishing of the principle of philosophical charity, as well as conductive to ascertaining the relative truths on all sides of a philosophical debate or argument (which does not preclude assessing their respective strengths and weaknesses).
    We should also study the modes of philosophy in Chinese and Indic philosophical traditions (to keep it short, and because I’m only familiar with the Confucian and Daoist cases, I won’t discuss the Chinese traditions). While philosophical disputations between schools could be “heated” and philosophical debate occasionally combative (consider for instance the monastic style of debate in Tibetan Buddhism: although it appears if not sounds aggressive, it is stylized or ritualized so as to minimize or soften, I suspect, any real aggression or strong combativeness), we find here different styles and modes that suggest philosophical practice need not be analogous to the adversary legal model for the discovery of truth(s). Debate in Indian philosophy appears to have begun along the lines of a conversation between friends but over time not infrequently degenerated into quarrelsome forms that relied on tricks and clever devices designed to confound and defeat one’s opponents, individuals no longer viewed as equal partners engaged in the pursuit of truth (cf. the two types of debate found in the Meno). Even the intellectually combative Cārvāka appreciated that form of debate Socrates said took place between “friendly people,” referring to such debate as sandhāya sambhāsā, “debate among fellow scholars who are friends” (B.K. Matilal), by way of contrast to debate conducted in “the spirit of opposition and hostility.” A fourfold classification of forms of debate by a Nyāya philosopher, finds two forms characteristic of “seekers after truth,” and the other two forms employed by “proud people” who merely intend to defeat others, and thus “tricky devices” are permissible in the latter two forms. I would go so far as to suggest that Jain epistemology and philosophy more widely (in particular, its doctrines of anekāntavāda, syādvāda, and nayavāda) rule out the notion of an agonistic or combative mode of philosophizing wherein one imagines the goal is merely to refute or defeat the arguments of one’s opponents. I have elsewhere described this model of truth as “para-propositional,” insofar its truly unique and provocative “standpoint” epistemology and perspectival rationalism, which emphasizes (because mandates) the relative truths of all genuine philosophical arguments, will not let us forget how beholden these arguments are to sundry presuppositions (the hidden parameters of belief and assertion) that preclude our absolutizing their truths and encourage us to actively seek out and appreciate their respective degrees of partial or relative truths as indispensable to a pluralist account of truth (I think Michael P. Lynch is right in characterizing truth as ‘an immanent functional property that is variably manifested’).

  3. Commonsense really.
    Anyway, there’s so much wrong with the masculine idea of dialogue as contest in the free market for ideas (rather than dialogue as cooperation and joint search).
    But it’s main problem is the entirely practical one that we’re highly emotional creatures – our emotions sit behind our ‘reason’ helping us wield it decisively and with intuitive insight. So rudeness – as opposed to civil and even charming directness – is an almost sure-fire way to derail reason and get people responding personally and emotionally.
    I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s marvellous opening to Beyond Good and Evil

    Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?

  4. One of the things that I thought I loved about philosophy was that quiet consideration and mutuality of respect that formed the basis of a subject that was oriented towards a certain mutuality of understanding in a way that was dignified and honoured the other’s perception and position. What I think is really difficult is that so often one-up-manship and trumping will win – not just in philosophy but in all areas of life. There is a tremendous difference between a well considered argument and robust debate which considers the issues at play and is healthy because it strengthens understanding and really helps to develop rigorous critical reasoning capabilities and crude one-up-manship which is more about the personality types of the individuals in the mix and domination and oppression. Perhaps I was naïve when I thought the inherent peace and beauty that I located in some philosophical discussions was that it was an academic consideration of really hard hitting issues that revealed the purest of hearts. There are moments when I could comprehend the purity of intention and see how truly compassionate and dignified some of the theorists that I truly admire really are. There is an inherent beauty located in a subject where the pursuit of compassionate & dignified understanding is the ambition rather than point scoring.

  5. I agree with the essay, but don’t think it says enough about what might be called “retaliatory rudeness.” Suppose that my opening move in any discussion is to grant respect (and civility) to my interlocutor. But now suppose that the respect (etc.) I grant is not only not reciprocated, but met with overt disrespect and rudeness. In contexts where withdrawal from the argument seems to signal concession of the point one is making, retaliatory rudeness may well be called for. Some people have to be put in their place, and that’s not something that can always be done in a spirit of civility or comity.
    A different point: some adverse moral judgments are hard to put nicely. Suppose that I predicate something P of a category of people S, and suppose that my interlocutor belongs to S. But suppose that P is a vice. Candor can then start to shade into something like “rudeness.” E.g., if you confront a practitioner/proponent of injustice in an argument, there is no way to avoid predicating injustice of him. But then there’s no way to avoid the appearance of impoliteness, either. Euphemism or backpedaling would be its own vice. This may seem implausible if we think of “philosophical arguments” as arguments between philosophers. But if instead you think of a philosophical argument between a philosopher and, say, an unscrupulous politician, you get a different result. Socrates was rude to his interlocutors, but excusably so.

  6. I don’t think anyone, male or female, enjoys being on the receiving end of rudeness. Maybe men handle it better or women are less willing to put up with it, but everyone should be in favor of eliminating it.
    And it is doable–you just have to find ways to “correct” people without being rude, and most of us have seen this done.
    It is still not pleasant being “corrected”, but that IS part of what you sign up for in philosophy, even if the mutual goal of the interlocutors is to find the truth together. It is sort of like boxing for exercise; you’re still going to get hit, and don’t take it personally.

  7. Nice article, Nomy.
    I doubt, Irfan, that retaliatory rudeness is a good idea. Better to be civil and set a good example, and teach the individual through example, how to interact civilly. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Socrates was not deliberately rude – even when responding to the rudeness of Calicles he referred to Calicles as his friend and drew him into a cooperative discussion. When Socrates gave offence it was simply through pursuing the truth, which might happen to show to Gorgias that, for instance, rhetoric is a form of flattery and flattery is ignoble…

  8. Far be it from me to defend rudeness. But charges of rudeness are an effective way of silencing an opponent. The word used is “insensitive.” So it is insensitive to use the word ‘trump’ as in ‘rights as trumps,’ insensitive to say that the women of Liberia nagged their menfolk into stopping a horrible civil war, insensitive to ask a feminist philosopher whether she thinks that pro-life feminism is a legitimate subschool, and insensitive even to suggest arguments against same-sex marriage. Women are the main victims of rudeness as a philosophical tactic, but men are the main victims of the manipulation of the concept of rudeness. In any case, both should stop,

  9. This thread raises interesting questions about how we should think about the relevant phenomena. Some very preliminary digging in the OED suggests to me that the concept of rudeness is at least historically tied to the behavior of uneducated people, presumably from outside the aristocratic classes. A rude person or act betrays a lack of sophistication and education and is perhaps naturally contrasted with a graceful person or act, which skillfully embodies a social code.
    If something in this ballpark is right, then I doubt that the ethical shortcomings of philosophers, exemplified in the examples in the interesting post, are best understood in terms of rudeness.
    Let’s look at the cases:
    (Interviewer) The jerk who said “suppose I wanted to slap you” in Professor Arpaly’s interview.
    (Yelling) The jerk who yells at another person in heated discussion.
    (Interrupting) The jerk who interrupts another person in heated discussion
    (Talking over) The jerk talking over another person in heated discussion
    (Sneering Skeptic) The Jerk who asks, “why should I be interested in any of this”?
    These jerks are in the wrong, but their problem is not rudeness. The first one seems more bizarre and, perhaps, different from the others. It is a less familiar case in my experience and I will set it aside. In any case, the jerks in cases 2-5 do lack social grace, but that does not seem to be the core problem.
    I suspect that the core problem is that they either suffer from self-conceit or, due to unstable self-esteem, want to assert their social importance. They think, or are motivated to act as if, they, their ideas, their interests, and their voice in the conversation are more important than others’. This hypothesis is a good one, I think, because it helps explain why they raise their voices, interrupt others, and so forth. If this is right, though, then we need to work on cultivating and rewarding is not (just) civility but healthy, non-inflated self-esteem. Those with a more Kantian or Theistic bent may suggest humility. In any case, I wonder whether this sort of diagnosis strikes others as plausible and, if so, what it can tell us about efforts to improve our communal practices. I am suggesting that our problems are rooted in what Kant called ‘unsocial sociability’, not in a lack of cultural or social refinement.
    Finally, I guess I could end with a speculative claim about what is keeping women out of philosophy: perhaps it is not the rudeness so much as the tendency to harbor, if not reward, self-conceited jerks.
    Naturally, I am thinking of the other philosophers…not you or me.

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