The Philosophy of Jerks / Jerk Moves in Philosophy


Eric Schwitzgebel explores the philosophy of jerks, particularly the moral and epistemic dimensions of the type.

I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship. The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests…

The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart. The sweetheart sees others around him, even strangers, as individually distinctive people with valuable perspectives, whose desires and opinions, interests and goals are worthy of attention and respect. The sweetheart yields his place in line to the hurried shopper, stops to help the person who dropped her papers, calls an acquaintance with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude. In a debate, the sweetheart sees how he might be wrong and the other person right.

Perhaps this provides us with some material with which to inquire into philosophy jerks. What are jerk moves in philosophy?

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anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

Denying that philosophers suffer from the same implicit biases that research has shown we all suffer from. That is a first-class Jerk Move.Report

anon
anon
Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

The ‘who’s a good philosopher’ game!!!! wtf is up with that? I’m talking about philosophers sitting in bars saying things like ‘he’s good… she’s good… he’s good..’ Just *listing* philosophers whose work they probably have a minimal acquaintance with and then making the BS pronouncement about their goodness (as a philosopher of course, what else could matter).

This practice is bizarre, embarrassing, and extremely harmful. It promotes the genius myth that philosophers love so much. It probably also contributes to the underrepresentation of women in philosophy. See sarah-jane leslie and carol dweck’s work on how promoting a less ‘innate talent’ and more of an ‘incremental talent’ view of intelligence can dramatically improve academic performance in women.

related to all this: as a lecturer, putting certain philosophers (as opposed to their *ideas*) on a pedestal as geniuses — this is so harmful to students, it makes them think good philosophy isn’t the product of hard work but is just the invariable result of being born the right way. i had some undergrad professors say things like ‘some people can just do philosophy and some people just can’t’ and ‘you can’t teach philosophy.’ then why were they there as our *teachers*?? (full disclosure: they dfn thought I was one of the few who ‘just could’ do philosophy — and believe me, being labeled that way has its own set of harms. the whole approach is wrongheaded).Report

ThinksFirstAsksQuestionsLater
ThinksFirstAsksQuestionsLater
6 years ago

Taking several minutes to “ask a question” during a post-talk q&a. Whether it is because you don’t know what you are asking, or your question first requires the acceptance of some long and drawn out idiosyncratic point, or for some reason you just feel like you have to re-reiterate the same damn thing, you are ignoring the scarcity of time in that venue and being a jerk. If you cannot formulate in your head and in advance of speaking a version of your question that is concise enough for you to remember, that is generally a good reason not to ask it during a q&a.Report

Tim O'Keefe
6 years ago

For a paper being presented at a conference, revising your paper after receiving your commentator’s comments and not letting them know beforehand that you’ve done so.Report

nicole wyatt
nicole wyatt
6 years ago

John Scalzi’s maxim that *The failure mode of clever is “asshole.”* seems apropos here. (Scalzi, perhaps not accidentally, has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy.) http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/06/16/the-failure-state-of-clever/Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

My pet peeve jerk move is when a philosopher, obviously disingenuously, claims to “not understand” a particular view or argument, as if they are so totally flummoxed by it that they can’t even begin to critique it. It “just doesn’t make sense” to them, etc!Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

If it isn’t jerk to say “I think you’re wrong about X” (which, I assume, it isn’t), then why is it jerk to say “I don’t understand your claiming X”? So what if it’s disingenuous when heard literally (which it probably isn’t supposed to be anyway). I would think the implicature is obvious enough that it can just have the same (not) jerk status. Moreover, what’s wrong with leaving open the possibility for the respondent to say, ” Yes, you obviously do misunderstand me…”?Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

I find at least 90 percent of what gets said at philosophy talks extremely hard to understand. I often say so. I think it’s right that there are people who use this as a jerk move. But I also think that philosophy would be better, and we would be accomplishing more, if people were more open about not understanding stuff. A lot of the time the Q&A in a talk, or a seminar, or meal conversation during a conference, involves a bunch of people pretending that they understand something in order to not look bad in front of one another. I mention this because I think disingenuously pretending to understand something happens way, way, way more often in philosophy then disingenuously pretending not to understand something. I happen to think that the former would count as a jerk move if only it wasn’t so extremely widespread that it is completely normalized in our profession.Report

offcenter
offcenter
6 years ago

Criticizing a manuscript for not citing an article or book that is not yet published or was published *while you were refereeing the manuscript* is a jerk move. It is fine to say, “I think the author would want to see the new article on this by so and so that was just / is about to be published” but you are a jerk if you say “This paper should be rejected as it fails to take into account so-and-so’s brand new / forthcoming article on the topic.”

I suspect this is a particular instance of a more general class of jerk moves: forgetting your privileged status. Not everyone is part of the “in crowd” and has awareness of and ready access to the works-in-progress of the central players in the profession.Report

Garret Merriam
Garret Merriam
6 years ago

1) Calling your students “stupid idiots” and dismissively telling them to kill themselves. Call this jerk-move “pulling a Ziezek”:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/06/02/slavoj_zizek_calls_students_stupid_and_boring_stop_worshiping_this_man_video.html

2) Sexually harassing your students. Call this one “McGinning”. Or “Ludlowing”. Or “Poggeing”. (My gods, we have a lot of choices on this one, don’t we?)Report

markalfano
6 years ago

Responding to a question — especially a question that’s meant to point to a problem with one’s argument — with “Good, good,” or “Good question.” It’s simultaneously condescending and sycophantish.Report

anon
anon
Reply to  markalfano
6 years ago

hmm, *so* many things philosophers do in q & as — *most* of them in fact — drive me nuts, but not this. sometimes they are simply pointing out that’s it’s really a good question (and maybe buying a bit of time say they can pull together a reply).

probably better though would be to simply thank people for their questions instead of making the unnecessary evaluative comment.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
6 years ago

You guys are tough. You’re a jerk if you say don’t understand when you’re in the audience, and you’re a jerk if you say someone asked a good question when you’re the speaker. Isn’t it possible that you’re put off by these behaviors because you give them the most uncharitable interpretation possible?Report

WhatItsLike...
WhatItsLike...
6 years ago

How about some more major stuff? Winning a large research grant in a specific area. Hiring a grad student who works in that specific area out of her PhD studies as RA on the grant. After she’s hired, informing her that her main duties will be secretarial work organising a prestigious conference at which she is not invited to present.Report

anonymous
anonymous
Reply to  WhatItsLike...
6 years ago

Is this jerky? I’m really not sure (maybe I just have to hear more about the case). If the RAship is freeing up time that she otherwise would have had to spend teaching, for example. Also my grad student friends in the sciences seem to spend tons of time doing this sort of organizational work. I’m not saying that is good, but it does seem to somewhat “come with the territory” of being hired off of grant money. In the sciences at least, seems like a more systemic problem than anyone being a jerk (no one uses grant money to hire administrative staff to do these things, so of course the grad students are going to end up doing it because they are at the bottom of the food chain).Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

cutting out the speaker out of her own talk by starting an exclusive exchange w/ another audience member. related: referring to the speaker as ‘she’ — when discussing her points with another audience member, instead of the inclusive ‘you’ as in ‘you argue blah blah blah. but he was wondering blah blah’Report

anon
anon
Reply to  anon
6 years ago

eye-rolling, sighing, smirking, yawning, that look of dismissive disgust that some philosophers wear during talks (i’ve seen these all many, many times!!!)

taking up too much time in Q & A thing. and asking follow-ups when other people want to talk (to 2nd what another commenter said)

listening more attentively to more senior members of the audience and and not even bothering to pretend to listen when someone very junior (like a grad student) is talking — so effing awful!)

checking your phone during a talk (cmon people..)Report