Is Philosophy Unfriendly?


The latest interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? is up, and it’s with Dan Haybron (Saint Louis University). There’s a lot of interesting stuff in it, so worth a read. One theme that stuck out was the idea that, though most philosophers are quite nice, there is something “unfriendly” about philosophy. Professor Haybron says of grad school in philosophy:

there was something about the whole package that added up to an environment that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time in, and by the end of it all I’d changed from a very laid-back guy to, well, not. Part of it, no doubt, was inherent to academic training in a tough job market. And part of it has to do with the climate issues that generally plague the profession. Generally, I don’t think we do a very good job of providing a supportive environment for young philosophers. It should be possible for most students to get their degree without raiding the pharmacists’ armamentarium like starved Vikings. Then add the East Coast status games, and you’re not having much fun.

And later on, in response to Clifford Sosis’s question, “Do you think philosophy is unfriendly, generally?” Haybron says:

I don’t think so; sometimes I get frustrated, but at least as often I think “what a great bunch of people.” But we could still do a lot better, and one thing that I think would help with inclusiveness on many fronts, including gender balance, is if people were more consistently nice to each other, more supportive, and if the field were characterized more by cooperative or constructive dialogue, and less by competitive discussion. And generally, if we related to each other more along the lines of “parity-seeking” rather than status or dominance-seeking—that is, trying to maintain a sense of equality or parity with our conversational partners rather than trying boost or assert our status over them. Less “dick-waving,” for instance. Put it this way: in the top 10-20 graduate programs in philosophy, how many of the students would characterize the environment as “warm, friendly and supportive”? I could be wrong, but I suspect not many.

Academics have always tended to have fragile egos, as we earn a living by getting the approval of our peers, which both means that we tend to be fairly conservative and conformist, intellectually speaking, and that it’s hard not to be concerned with status. (All the more reason we need to be nice to each other.) So academic culture naturally has strong pressures toward status-seeking behavior, and is only tolerable to the extent that we have norms, practices, institutions in place to counter those tendencies. Philosophy has those, but I think we could do better—and the need may be stronger because philosophers tend to prize raw intellectual power more, and philosophical ability is judged in a wider range of contexts than ability is judged in other fields (it seems to me)…. Philosophy strikes me as a relatively unsupportive field, yet for the most part philosophers are nice people and don’t to overtly obnoxious things. It’s more a sense you have of being comfortable in some environments and crowds, and uncomfortable, anxious, on edge in others, for reasons you can’t really articulate. Maybe you just feel more like you’re being judged in some environments. I suspect we mostly need to find ways to change the basic attitude we take up when dealing with each other—the professional gestalt, as it were.

The whole interview is here.

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