A Discussion of Tone in Philosophy

Leigh Johnson and Edward Kazarian discuss “tone” in recent discussions about issues in the profession over at NewApps. The post, as well as the ensuing discussion, are worth a read. So is the last paragraph of this.

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Jennifer Frey
10 years ago

Respectfully, I disagree with this perspective. The authors are surely right to be sensitive to how collegiality will be defined and potentially policed in the profession. As I said in a different thread, I am inclined to think it would be very difficult to police effectively and fairly, and it may be better for that reason simply to state the norms rather than to enforce them. And of course there should be a robust, democratic discussion of the norms, and any discussion of policy must be careful about unintended consequences. Having acknowledged this, the authors draw conclusions from this I would resist. They seem to say that any statement of norms would merely reflect rather than challenge the prevailing power structures in philosophy. I would have thought, to the contrary, that establishing such norms would have the opposite effect, and non-accidentally so. For instance, if philosophers decided that it is “unprofessional” to make offensive remarks about a woman’s pregnant body during an interview, to me that is a clear statement that professional philosophers affirm that the shape of a woman’s body (especially a pregnant body) is a topic that is off limits in professional contexts. Such a norm would make clear that bringing these things up detract from a woman’s views and put focus on the supposedly crazy and worrying fact that she is a pregnant woman seeking a career as a professional philosopher. Having such a norm in place therefore seems to me to be a very good thing, since it would make professional philosophy a more welcome place for women who choose to have families. After all, the norm states that we do not condone behavior that insists pregnant woman are outsiders, aliens, threats, or somehow in any way of intrinsic concern. Other norms I would like our profession to consider: it is unprofessional to summarily dismiss Christian or conservative philosophers who argue for a very old-fashioned and extremely marginalized sexual morality as “bigots” or “fascists,” because philosophers ought to be able to show that a view is immoral or wrong without resorting to character assassination first; it is unprofessional to insist without argument that feminism, race theory, or continental philosophy are stupid, worthless, or “not even philosophy”, as if these pursuits are obviously only apt for the lesser minds and talents, and that those who work on them are not worthy of our attention. I could go on here but hopefully my point is taken. We can and *should* argue about all these things, but again, we should do so in accordance with certain agreed upon norms of civility, decency, and good will, norms that are unfortunately all too lacking all too often, with intellectually impoverishing results. If the conservative is wrong about sex there will be very good arguments against him, arguments about what sex and sexuality is and its role in human life; likewise, if the feminist is doing bad philosophy, again, there will be arguments and a robust, respectful debate about how to do philosophy. Professional norms are not about squelching debate and monitoring beliefs but rather facilitating debate in order to better check our beliefs, to make sure they are justified. Such norms are necessary because philosophy is not always homogeneous. Some of us are Christian theists, some of us are radical feminists, some of us are Marxists, and some of us are very, very hard to define (try to put MacIntyre into one of these camps, for instance. he doesn’t fit very neatly, and any attempt would be a hopeless caricature of his philosophy). The point of professionalization is just to ensure that we can talk to one another respectfully and without fear. Let us not be too pessimistic about the chances of this. Let us at least try to fix a problem. And let us do it by establishing basic ground rules of interaction.

The authors are right that we do well to remember that there are *many* marginalized groups in philosophy: as far as the numbers go, the “typical” analytic philosopher is a white male atheist materialist with a more or less liberal politics. That’s just a fact (if there is empirical evidence against this claim, I would certainly love to see it). Certainly that is Brian Leiter’s perspective, and many of the more insulting remarks on his blog about other professional philosophers can only be comprehended from this very perspective. So, whatever norms we decide upon should not be norms that uphold this status quo as the standard of “right reasoning” or “right thinking.” I don’t think anyone is arguing for this, and I would not support any statement that looked as if all it would do is maintain this. I would have thought, however, that much of the unprofessional behavior that goes on in philosophy comes from exactly this privileged point of view, a point of view that is dismissive of anyone who cannot be seen to be “one of us,” and that norms of professionalism and civility would be necessary to have anything close to a level playing field in the discipline.

In sum: I see no reason to think that professional norms would necessarily enforce or reflect homogeneity. It is no accident, I think, that the authors of the petition are women, and that at least one is a Christian theist. Arguably, a statement of professional norms would lay the groundwork to make things far less homogenous in philosophy than they currently are. And that would be, from my point of view anyway, a very, very good thing.