Confidence & Performance in Philosophy


There’s an interesting post at Show and Tell about the speaking styles of philosophers. It begins with this:

There is a telling anecdote about G.E.M. Anscombe and A.J. Ayer. Anscombe said to Ayer, “You know, if you didn’t talk so fast, no one would think you were so clever.” Ayer rapidly replied, “And if you didn’t talk so slowly, no one would think you were so very wise.” (As told by Jonathan Glover.)

The post goes on to discuss a variety of verbal and physical tropes. There’s not just the speed but the conviction with which one speaks, the turns of phrase, the degree of teasing. There’s the letting one’s mouth hang open in incredulity, the head clutching, the stare.

The common thread in all this theatrical business is that these devices silence the victim. From Moore’s incredulity onwards, the purpose is to dissuade an opponent from pursuing a criticism of the speaker’s claim. Only the boldest spirit will press on with a point when a famous great mind reacts to its first expression with apparent bewilderment, contempt or nausea.

The authors ask:

Why do we see so much of this in philosophy, and especially in English-speaking philosophy?

They consider a couple of provocative answers, worth checking out. They also note a negative effect of all of this theatricality:

We know that much of the academic philosophical world is hostile to people who can’t or don’t wish to perform booming confidence, or who do not feel boomingly confident in the environments where academic philosophy happens, especially if their first attempts at the performances take place under gimlet stares.

Most graduate students in philosophy are told to project confidence. Given how philosophical discussion often takes place in the academy, that may be reasonable advice—though in some cases, being told that one is insufficiently confident may just give one another reason to not be confident, so know well whom you advise. But perhaps we should also turn our attention to modifying the circumstances which lead confidence to play such an important professional role. After all, such confidence does, in a way, seem at odds with the questioning and uncertain inquiry characteristic of philosophy.

Show and Tell is authored by Brendan Larvor and John Lippitt (University of Hertfordshire) and is dedicated to a discussion of virtues in vices in philosophical practice, as they describe here.

(via Eric Schwitzgebel)

 

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Ryan
Ryan
5 years ago

Two nuggets…

1. Philosophy is highly performative, and this becomes all the more important in debates about issues that don’t seem to allow a theoretically-neutral standpoint (e.g. scepticism/dogmatism). We seem to resort to theatrics when we’ve arrived at a dialectical impasse as a way of using ‘force’, rather than reason, to persuade our interlocutor.

2. If you practice philosophy like Socrates, you will almost certainly fail to secure a career in academic philosophy.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
5 years ago

If the suggestion is that Moore’s incredulity was a theatrical “device” adopted for a “purpose,” it’s hard to fit with Moore’s character, which many of his contemporaries described as pure or saintly (see e.g. Leonard Woolf). And in later work he directed as much scorn at his own earlier writings as he did at anyone else. I don’t think he was acting, or expressing just “apparent bewilderment.” He really felt it.Report

Ryan
Ryan
5 years ago

Yeah, I think I can agree with that. The theatrics needn’t be insincere. It’s just that we tend to resort to them when we lose confidence in the ability to persuade someone with reasons, perhaps because we don’t want to lose the debate, but more charitably because we’ve reached a rational impasse. Often in that case we’re most sincere, I’d say.Report

Martin Peterson
Martin Peterson
5 years ago

“Why do we see so much of this in philosophy, and especially in English-speaking philosophy?” Well, I have witnessed this in Swedish-, Dutch- and German-speaking philosophy too. Is it really something that should always be avoided?Report

Phil H
Phil H
5 years ago

“theatrical business in the spaces where the arguments ought to go”
This in itself is a bit of polemic about what sort of thing philosophy should be. Is philosophy a thing that should be composed of arguments only? Is the objective to construct arguments, or to persuade of their conclusions? Or is philosophy a performative discipline in itself?

I think one could object to specific impolite theatrical gestures without attempting to say that all non-logical persuasion is illegitimate.Report

Alan White
5 years ago

I just lost about an hour’s worth of typing into this comment field to accidentally tipping my keyboard and hitting one key, so emotions are very much with me.

So. There are two things to distinguish here. *Reporting* inquiry, which should be only assessed in terms of performance in terms of better or worse means of expression in writing or lecture (Nussbaum, Lewis, Kripke as good in print, e.g.) and thus minimizes the issue of performance to manners of expression, and *teaching* inquiry, which indeed requires an emotional and performative engagement in embodying and exemplifying the dialectical pursuit of the truth (and certainly not just an emotive manipulation of students’ attitudes associated with propositional content, otherwise known as propaganda). After all, Plato didn’t just report Socrates’ results of inquiry, but most aptly described how he engaged people in the process of inquiry. And Socrates wasn’t detached and unemotional; he *cared* about how to find the truth, even to the point of losing his life for his commitment to that . Teaching inquiry requires emotional expression of caring about what one is teaching–especially since teaching inquiry is not about a result, but invested methods of obtaining results. The investment in methods–even classical versus paraconsistent logic, e.g.–is not unemotional.

I said it so much better before my *^&%$#@+ computer nixed it. Oh well, I guess that ironically makes my point.Report

anon student
anon student
5 years ago

I think confidence works along a similar line as masculinity, extroversion, and height — they’re evolutionary indicators of power and dominance. The problem isn’t so much as one of sincerity (as opposed to, I guess, faking confidence? I can’t see anything wrong in that though), but of excluding people who naturally are or appear to be unconfident even when they’re brilliant.Report