Confidence & Performance in Philosophy

There’s an interesting post at Show and Tell about the speaking styles of philosophers. It begins with this:

There is a telling anecdote about G.E.M. Anscombe and A.J. Ayer. Anscombe said to Ayer, “You know, if you didn’t talk so fast, no one would think you were so clever.” Ayer rapidly replied, “And if you didn’t talk so slowly, no one would think you were so very wise.” (As told by Jonathan Glover.)

The post goes on to discuss a variety of verbal and physical tropes. There’s not just the speed but the conviction with which one speaks, the turns of phrase, the degree of teasing. There’s the letting one’s mouth hang open in incredulity, the head clutching, the stare.

The common thread in all this theatrical business is that these devices silence the victim. From Moore’s incredulity onwards, the purpose is to dissuade an opponent from pursuing a criticism of the speaker’s claim. Only the boldest spirit will press on with a point when a famous great mind reacts to its first expression with apparent bewilderment, contempt or nausea.

The authors ask:

Why do we see so much of this in philosophy, and especially in English-speaking philosophy?

They consider a couple of provocative answers, worth checking out. They also note a negative effect of all of this theatricality:

We know that much of the academic philosophical world is hostile to people who can’t or don’t wish to perform booming confidence, or who do not feel boomingly confident in the environments where academic philosophy happens, especially if their first attempts at the performances take place under gimlet stares.

Most graduate students in philosophy are told to project confidence. Given how philosophical discussion often takes place in the academy, that may be reasonable advice—though in some cases, being told that one is insufficiently confident may just give one another reason to not be confident, so know well whom you advise. But perhaps we should also turn our attention to modifying the circumstances which lead confidence to play such an important professional role. After all, such confidence does, in a way, seem at odds with the questioning and uncertain inquiry characteristic of philosophy.

Show and Tell is authored by Brendan Larvor and John Lippitt (University of Hertfordshire) and is dedicated to a discussion of virtues in vices in philosophical practice, as they describe here.

(via Eric Schwitzgebel)


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