Defending Philosophy’s Adversarial Culture

Philosophy has what could best be described as an adversarial disciplinary culture, something that manifests itself most clearly in how the Q&A goes after a research talk. Basically, after people present their philosophical views, the audience members try to tear them apart. Every question is a variation on “here’s why I think you’re wrong…” It is not supportive. Also, because this is the expectation in the discipline, philosophers tend not to preface their comments with ingratiating verbiage, like “first let me thank you for the rich and thought-provoking discussion” (the way they do in political theory, of instance). Philosophers will go straight to the “here’s why I think you’re wrong” part…

Philosophy is also, in its disciplinary culture, fundamentally a problem-creating, and not a problem-solving discipline. Here I think a useful contrast can be drawn between philosophy and economics (another discipline that I have a lot of contact with). A lot of this comes, I think, from the influence of Socrates, and of the importance of Socratic method. Basically, Socrates went around Athens causing problems for people, by taking their everyday understanding of concepts like “justice” and showing that it made no sense. Skepticism does something broadly similar, and the fascination with paradoxes and puzzles has remained central to the discipline. Philosophers have built entire careers around discovering new problems (think of Parfit’s “non-identity” problem, or Gettier, or Goodman, etc.)

I must admit that this aspect of the discipline is one that I sometimes find frustrating, particularly when you want to do something fairly innocent, like come up with a model of something. Speaking roughly, my experience has been that economists will at least sometimes want to help you, and so will make positive suggestions, along the lines of “maybe you should try doing it this way.” Philosophers, by contrast, never have any positive suggestions. Even if they appear to be offering you a cup to drink from, you can be certain it will be poisoned. This is great for encouraging critical thinking, but the discipline as a whole is a very negative one. Basically, colleagues exist to tell you why you’re wrong.

That’s Joseph Heath (Toronto) writing at In Due Course. Heath thinks that the adversarial culture of philosophy is worth preserving. He also makes it clear that he’s not defending (the sadly all-too-common practice of) being an asshole. That’s different, and not valuable. Adversarialness, though, functions as part of the system of checks on philosophical work that “makes philosophy an academic discipline.” He writes:

Part of the reason that I don’t have to work very hard thinking of ways that my view might be wrong is that I have colleagues who enjoy nothing better. In other words, if there are obvious blind spots in my reasoning, I can be quite confident that they will be pointed out to me, in one of those unsupportive, adversarial Q&A sessions…

Wilfrid Sellars once defined philosophy as the study of how things, in the most general sense of the term, hang together, in the most general sense of the term. We’re doing pretty abstract work, and we’re often trying to see how things fit together at a very general level. What makes us different from conspiracy theorists, or people who claim to see Jesus in their toast? Or what stops us from just making stuff up and believing it? I really think that the only thing keeping us tethered to the world is the disciplinary culture, and the fact that we have to defend ourselves, in a room full of people who have spent decades listening to arguments and identifying bad ones.

You can read the whole piece here.

Preserving and nurturing a robust culture of criticism and disagreement, while discouraging being an asshole—that’s a challenge, as evidenced by the fact that “there are so many assholes in philosophy.” Suggestions on threading that needle are welcome.


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