Don’t Turn It Off (guest post by Danielle Wenner)

The following is a guest post* by Danielle Wenner, assistant professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s a response to Monday’s post, “When To Turn It Off.”

Don’t Turn it Off
by Danielle Wenner

Some forms of critical evaluation and philosophical thinking are hard because they force us to suspend other habits of mind; habits that serve us well when our goal is to engage or persuade or befriend, but less well when our goal is to arrive at a precise characterization of what’s true, or of what follows from what. The trick, then, is not only to acquire Hájek’s philosophy tool kit, but to know when to use it.

This week at NPR’s 13.7, psychologist and philosopher Tania Lombrozo hypothesizes that one reason the tools in a philosopher’s toolkit may be difficult to learn and apply is because they undermine other, pro-social behaviors for productively interacting, conversing, and finding common cause with others. Lombrozo’s post was quickly followed up here at Daily Nous, with Justin opining that philosophers need to learn “When To Turn It Off”, a sentiment that was echoed among the chambers of the philosophy web-o-sphere. I want to push back against this sentiment.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Lombrozo’s hypothesis—in fact, personal experience bears it out: often the philosopher in me seems to be precisely the thing that cuts off fruitful discussion with others—not only potential friends, but existing friends and family too. What I take issue with is the suggestion that others’ inability—or more often, unwillingness—to interact on the basis of solid reasoning is itself a good reason to “turn it off”. Now, to be fair, I don’t take Justin to be making the strong claim that philosophers should learn to “turn off” their reasons-based means of communication. He seems to be making a weaker claim that we should “restrain the analytical impulse” to question implications, definitions, and distinctions when engaging in non-philosophical discourse. And I guess what I want to ask is: Why?

The American public (and perhaps publics more generally) have arrived at a time when “let’s just agree to disagree” is less tension-breaker than rule of life.  People are positively hostile to disagreement or demonstration that they’ve engaged in logical fallacy. Our interest in finding the truth has been displaced by the interest in being right, regardless the cost. And it is costing us dearly. We have not only a president, but an EPA head who question established science about climate change. We have an administration that postulates the existence of alternative facts. And perhaps most importantly, we have persistent social media bubbles in which “alternative facts” are the reality and any attempt to question them is only further evidence of their truth.

None of this comes as news to anyone who’s been paying attention. But I find it striking that in this environment, there could be a call for philosophers—those who know how “to spot poor arguments, uncover hidden assumptions, tease out subtle implications and recognize false dichotomies”—to “turn it off” in service of promoting better social discourse. We might think “better social discourse” means having the kinds of conversations that are cost-free for all involved: no one has to acknowledge being wrong, no one has to face an uncomfortable truth, and we can all skip away happily knowing that we’re still friends. Or, we might decide that the real “better social discourse” is the one in which we stop pretending that both sides of every disagreement have equal merit, ask our interlocutors to grapple with reality, and put our relationships (both real and potential) on the line in service of the truth.  That is, after all, what we’ve been trained for.

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