Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible? (guest post by Nomy Arpaly)


The following is a guest post* by Nomy Arpaly, professor of philosophy at Brown University. In it, she discusses the effects of politeness and rudeness in philosophy. It was initially posted at PEA Soup.


Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?
Nomy Arpaly

I’ll never forget the old guy who asked me, at an APA interview: “suppose I wanted to slap you, and suppose I wanted to slap you because I thought you were giving us really bad answers, and I mistakenly believed that by slapping you I’ll bring out the best in you. Am I blameworthy?”.

When he said “suppose I wanted to slap you”, his butt actually left his chair for a moment and his hand was mimicking a slap in the air.

Since that event – which happened back when I was a frightened youngster with all the social skills of a large rock – I have thought many times about the connection between philosophy and rudeness – especially the connection between philosophical debating and rudeness. It seems to me that the connection between philosophical argument and rudeness is similar to the connection between fighting a war and immorality. Surprisingly precise analogies can be drawn between the soldier in a just war and the philosophical arguer in pursuit of the truth. Let me explain.

It is a big part of moral behavior in ordinary situations not to kill people. Yet the morally healthy inhibition against killing people has to be lost, of necessity, in war—even in a morally justified war.It is a big part of politeness—not in the sense of using the right fork, but in the sense of civility—in ordinary situations not to tell another person that she is wrong and misguided about something she cares a lot about, or that she cares about being right about. For brevity’s sake, let’s just say it’s a big part of politeness or civility not to correct people. Yet the civilized inhibition against correcting people has to be lost, of necessity, in a philosophical argument.

A soldier who is fighting, even for a just cause, is in a precarious situation, with regard to morality, because he has lost, of necessity, the basic moral inhibition against killing people.

A philosopher who is arguing with another, even in pursuit of truth, is in a precarious situation with regard to politeness, because she has lost, of necessity, the basic civil inhibition against correcting people.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against killing people, some soldiers find themselves shedding other moral inhibitions—and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against correcting people, some philosophers find themselves shedding other social inhibitions—and being terribly, terribly rude.

That’s just the nature of inhibition loss.

I do not wish to be a philosophical pacifist. I think arguing—including, naturally, correcting and being corrected—is something for which there is no substitute in philosophy. I remember it whenever a beginner graduate student asks me how to anticipate objections or simply how to “see” the arguments for the other side of one’s view, which, as per Mill, is important if we want to understand our own view at all. I tell her that we humans are pretty bad at imagining what having the opposite view would be like (more on the badness of our imagination some other time), and thus there is no substitute for talking to someone who disagrees with you and who can “pressure” you hard to come up with answers to her arguments. Someone who pretends to disagree is not enough, as the same lack of imagination makes us bad at the pretending. You need the real thing. Argue for the opposite view if you wish—and see how much your writing, even as you do so, even as you do so casually, is guided and improved by imagining an interlocutor who deeply disagrees. For real philosophical writing, as opposed to a post like this one, nothing short of talking to a real disagreeing interlocutor will do (note: I am not going to argue from the ambiguity of the words “argument” and “disagreement” because I’m not monolingual).

I am not a philosophical pacifist, but you don’t need to be a literal pacifist to oppose war crimes, and you don’t need to be a philosophical pacifist to oppose gratuitous rudeness. Being compelled to break the rule of thumb against telling people that they are mistaken in the understanding of an important thing is no excuse for also yelling at them, repeatedly interrupting them and talking over them, responding to their painstakingly prepared talks with a sneering “why should I be interested in any of this”? (as opposed to a “does this have any implications for my field” or “how does it fit in the literature”), and worse things that we philosophers do, such as asking a job candidate about the counterfactual merits of hypothetically slapping her.

Furthermore, I will argue against the philosophical Henry Kissinger within many of us who worries that whatever might be true about war and war crimes, realistically speaking philosophical rigor just requires rudeness.

Some would find it funny that anyone should need to argue against rudeness. It’s clearly a vice, virtue ethicists would say. Politeness is a form of respect for persons, Kantians would chime in. Politeness is good for social cooperation, utilitarians might add. I take these things to be true.

I would like to add the following. I think the state of women in philosophy can be improved significantly simply through the elimination of rudeness in philosophical discourse. One can have many views about things we could or couldn’t do, should or shouldn’t do, to improve the state of women in philosophy, but before we settle those issues, why not start by doing what we already know that we have excellent reasons to do—utilitarian, Kantian, virtue-oriented, and commonsensical reasons, independent of any special feminist theory—and reduce our rudeness?

Here is how I think it will help. First, if everyone is rude, women are judged unfairly (as potential colleagues, for example) because rude women are treated more harshly than rude men, by everyone, due to implicit bias. Implicit bias is notoriously hard to change, but thankfully it is not as hard to change behavior—such as rudeness. I am not saying that we should not try to change implicit bias—of course we should—nor am I saying that changing behavior is easy (I have plenty of experience to the contrary), but you get my drift.

Second, in the actual world, polite women are also judged harshly when they respond to the rudeness of others. In a job interview, for example, a woman who faces a rude interviewer has the choice between responding assertively (and thus facing the notorious “shrill voice” bias) and responding gently. A woman who responds in a gentle, conciliatory manner to a rude interview question, or who looks too insecure and intimidated in response to the rude question, is often perceived by the some people in the room as not having enough to say. This whole painful catch-22 does not occur if the interviewer is not rude in the first place. Again, changing behavior is much easier than changing implicit bias.

Third, it has been said many times that women are put off by the idea of entering philosophy because girls are not taught to handle confrontational, adversarial situations, or situations where one’s abilities are judged harshly. Some think philosophy should change here—either through what I called “pacifism” earlier or through changing the way we evaluate people, or otherwise. Some, on the other hand, say that though the education of girls should change, philosophy shouldn’t. After all, girls and women play sports nowadays, and compete in athletics, and the ones who do most definitely don’t ask for the rules of rugby to be changed to make it kinder and gentler, or for boxing be made non-adversarial, or for the cruelty of publishing players’ stats to be stopped.

Me? All I want to do here is suggest that we try to eliminate what we already regard as foul play,what we already know we shouldn’t do but do anyway. It won’t solve everything, but if we reduce rudeness, I solemnly promise that more women will want to do philosophy. I hereby conjecture with confidence that the simple words “sorry, but you were saying?”, can make a critical difference, consciously or not, to some young women’s readiness to do philosophy. It might sound silly, especially if one forgets how susceptible all humans are to seemingly insignificant factors, but it is not silly, but rather tragic, if we have lost some wonderful potential contributions to the field just because we couldn’t wait for someone to finish talking. It would show the wrong priorities if we continue to lose such wonderful contributions in the name of some supposed sacred right to be as obnoxious as we’ve always been.

Some people would worry that if you eliminate rudeness during philosophical discussions you’ll have to turn down philosophical rigor. That this is false is shown quite simply by the example of philosophers who argue very rigorously without being rude. It is shown most emphatically by downright quiet, mild-mannered philosophers whose objections, expressed in a nice tone of voice, are nonetheless absolutely lethal. I do not wish to mention living people, but I will mention my memory of Fred Dretske who, during his days at Stanford, showed us graduate students how to scare the hell out of a visiting speaker with a very polite request for clarification and an “I see, thank you” after the reply. Fred and others have taught me that not only is rudeness unnecessary for rigor, it’s not even necessary for being frightening!

They say revenge is best served cold. Objections can be delicious at room temperature.

I’m not saying that we should all be quiet. Philosophical discussion can legitimately feel like a very tiring game of squash. But as Gary Watson noted, though the intensity of playing squash might cause a fantasy about punching your opponent in the face to go through your mind, there are some desires one should not act on, whether one is an athlete, an accountant, or a philosopher.

(Vincent Van Gogh, detail of "Four Cut Sunflowers")

(Vincent Van Gogh, detail of “Four Cut Sunflowers”)

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PQRST
PQRST
5 years ago

“Fred and others have taught me that not only is rudeness unnecessary for rigor, it’s not even necessary for being frightening!”

I would have assumed being frightening is just another way if being rude. Either way, acting so that the person you’re questioning feels scared, and thinking of objections as “revenge” seems to me to be as vicious as “being rude” in a more traditional way.

Rudeness is just one manifestation of the deeper problem – the underlying “I’ll show them what’s what” attitude that even “polite” people can have. Report

Sam
Sam
Reply to  PQRST
5 years ago

Excellent post. I think there’s another, corresponding virtue worth cultivating here which could (cumbersomely) be called: “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong,” the disposition to feel exhilaration when corrected by a polite (even if “frightening”) objector. The reason we should try to feel pleasure in being (politely and civilly) corrected, rather than embarrassment or humiliation, is simply that, as the author points out, this kind of correction improves our positions in ways that are nearly impossible to achieve by other means. In a sense then, objectors (provided they are not hostile or rude) are really just assisting the presenter towards a goal they both share (doing good philosophy). Of course, it’s essential that the objectors appreciate this shared goal as well, and present their objections accordingly. If all parties view successful objections as pleasurable, mutually beneficial exchanges rather than humiliating losses or merciless victories, there will be fewer frightened presenters and fewer rude objectors.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Sam
5 years ago

Absolutely. Philosophical discourse is always aided by the shared goal of pursuing the truth. Those who lack such a shared goal will be more likely to offend, and more likely to be offended. It is hard to cultivate a greater concern for the truth than for one’s own ego, of course. I know that from personal experience!Report

Jake
Jake
5 years ago

Why should we want anyone go into Philosophy at all when there are not enough jobs to go around at all? Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Jake
5 years ago

It depends on what you mean by “go into philosophy.” If it includes majoring in philosophy and going to grad school in philosophy, then one can surely have reason(s) to go into philosophy that aren’t related to the probability of obtaining academic employment. Report

Randolph Clarke
Randolph Clarke
5 years ago

Terrific post, Nomy.Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Randolph Clarke
5 years ago

I agree. Thanks Nomy!

For what it’s worth, I’ll add that Randolph Clarke was the first person who came to mind when I was reading about polite and philosophically rigorous questions and dialogue. Report

M. Silcox
M. Silcox
5 years ago

The thing about politeness, though, is that it always to some extent reinforces the status quo, which is exactly what women are already being bullied into doing in every other area of human endeavor outside of philosophy. The fact that I have yet to read a single academic feminist defending the need for more rather than less overt, confrontational argument in our discipline doesn’t strike me as indicative of an unambiguously positive trend.Report

some person or other
some person or other
Reply to  M. Silcox
5 years ago

I’m not endorsing (or not endorsing) the following (though fwiw I agree that the trend is not unambiguously positive, I’m just not sure I agree with everything in these posts), but you might be interested in the following (and the post that is also linked within it, which is directly about civility):

http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/09/normalizing-civility-policing-critique-enforcing-silence-and-misunderstanding-collegiality.html#moreReport

WP
WP
Reply to  M. Silcox
5 years ago

Nomy’s point about how women are evaluated when rudeness is the norm seems very relevant…

I can’t imagine the view you think is missing—what does argumentation that’s *more* confrontational than what we currently have in our discipline but still productive look like? Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  M. Silcox
5 years ago

I would have thought that the opposite was true. I would have thought that a culture of rudeness reinforces the status quo since the powerful will always have the most license and ability to be rude. Politeness can give us a mutual standard of behavior on the other hand.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Great post. I found the analogy with just war especially helpful.

Professor Arpaly’s suggestion (or “promise” or “conjecture with confidence”) that decreasing rudeness will increase women in philosophy seems right. But it also seems to leave unaddressed the flip side of the situation: that the perceived increase of women in philosophy is contributing to the rudeness of, say men, in the profession. The “old man” who considered the counter-factual of slapping was being passive aggressive because, I imagine, he was threatened, or affronted, by the prospect of an intelligent women who had, I imagine, philosophy views different from his. Here the rudeness is not an already existing feature of philosophy which is stopping women from entering the profession; rather, it seems to have been used precisely to discourage the woman being interviewed.

Just thinking common sensically, and without any actual data, I imagine that close to 95% of the philosophy professors in America 75 years ago were white males. With the push for equality with women, the aim I take it is for that number to be down to 50% for men. If we add in the push for minority men, the aim for the percentage of white men is going to be even lower: 30%? 20%? Assuming these changes take place in the next 25 years, that means that in the span of a century, white male philosophy professors would have gone from 95% of the profession to, say, 20%.

An implication of this trajectory is that there are bound to be transitional generations of white male philosophers who are stuck between the old and the new situations. Taken in the abstract it is simple enough to justify the change from 95% to 20%. But for the thousands of white males who have to alter their hopes as a result, not so simple; they have to pay the price for greater equality, and for which they as individuals never contributed. This can result in anger and rudeness. This doesn’t justify it, of course. But something more than calls to civility and politeness are needed to address such concerns. Either a sense of saying “Well, tough luck”, or an earnest “I understand, but the greater good comes first”. Something which can acknowledge the difficulty of being one of the transitional generation of white men, even if that is no reason to stop the “progress” of diversification.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

As a first step, I agree with everything Nomy has written. The second step, however, is this: “How do we respond to rudeness?” Philosophers have a license to correct one another’s *arguments*, but not one another’s character traits. In this way, we should revert to being ordinary citizens, who generally inhibit our own instincts to correct one another.

And in this vein, I think philosophers should try to practice tremendous restraint, both in person and online, not to correct one another — point blank, directly — for being rude. There is a place for such corrections, among friends. But those corrections, between strangers, just tend to make the conversation become mud-slinging.

If someone is being rude, excuse yourself from the situation. Or bite your tongue. They deserve to be corrected, yes, but nothing good will come of correcting them.Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
5 years ago

Wonderful post! One issue I think implied here but not necessarily explicit is the trouble likely to arise where we sanction rudeness. Social training, personal ambition, and a host of other factors will incline people against letting their rudeness fly where they interact with perceived superiors. Not so with perceived inferiors. So, to the extent that we have implicit biases operating beneath behavior, we’re quite likely to be *rudest* exactly to those most vulnerable. Put another way, giving yourself permission to be rude may well result in your accessing that permission exactly where it’s most damaging: with the comparably vulnerable and less powerful. This is why people are more freely rude to waitstaff than they are to their bosses, and why rudeness may fall hardest on women and other demographically underrepresented philosophers. It need not be that they are more sensitive to it; it may well be that they get more of it!Report

Erin Beeghly
Erin Beeghly
5 years ago

Anyone who likes this post should check out Amy Olberding’s article, “Subclinical Bias, Manners, & Moral Harm.” It’s great & super accessible. I teach the article in my intro to ethics class, as well as in upper division/grad courses. Even beginning undergrads really get into it, in my experience. She didn’t mention the article above, but I will!Report

T
T
5 years ago

Love the post! I agree completely that there is no place for rudeness in philosophical discourse.

But something I worry about, as a teacher, is that even *civil* philosophical discourse can violate norms of everyday conversation and make people uncomfortable, especially if they are not accustomed to it. I’m thinking in particular of the Socratic Method. Many people hate, hate, HATE being subjected to Socratic questioning, no matter how politely and sincerely the questions are posed. People hate being corrected, for sure, but people also hate being shown the implications of their views and having to defend them on the spot. And from my experience watching non-philosophers who attend philosophy talks, many of them will gasp in horror and cover their mouths (okay, I’m exaggerating here) when they hear a polite but devastating objection a la Fred Dretske. Afterward they will say, “That was so uncomfortable; I just wanted to leave the room!” After my dissertation defense, which I thought was challenging but fun, my family members who attended were white as ghosts (again, exaggerating), and felt the need to tend my wounds: “Are you okay? They were so MEAN!” They weren’t, but only philosophers are used to questions like, “Well, how would you explain X (where X is presumably hard to explain on your view)?”

Rudeness surely does keep some people from going into philosophy, and it surely discourages other people who have already gotten into it, so we should eliminate it. But even civil philosophical discourse keeps many people from going into philosophy. In line with what Sam said above, I tell my students about Socrates’ claim that we should be thankful for having false beliefs exposed, but my students always roll their eyes and tell me that I’m masochistic. Beliefs can’t be false, they say, and you shouldn’t make people think that there’s anything wrong with what they believe. That’s something that philosophers roll their eyes at, but it reveals a great deal about the norms that govern everyday conversation.Report

Wayne Fenske
Wayne Fenske
5 years ago

Fascinating and deeply insightful.
Let me throw this out there though.
As I understand it, when professional philosophers argue with one another, there is an extensive network of what we might call ‘generally accepted canons of good argument’ that normatively underwrite the entire process.
Not infrequently, however, someone will present an argument that merits a certain degree of respect in the ongoing philosophical dialogue because it so nicely adheres to the accepted canons of good argument.
Unfortunately, however, the praiseworthy argument is belittled, mocked, or worse, met with a carefully calculated bemusement designed to insinuate that either the speaker had no legitimate point, or failed to word their concern in a comprehensible way.
Maybe it’s me, but, for the most part, this tactic is employed by more established philosophers against less established philosophers.
When I see this tactic employed, I have to try me level best not to respond to the practitioner in an overtly rude way because I can’t help thinking that this kind of dirty pool, merits a rude response.
Is the employment of this tactic itself vest understood as a form of rudeness in the context of a philosophical conversation?
How ought one to respond to it?
Just wondering.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Is this really more of a problem in analytic philosophy than in continental?Report

Yousef
Yousef
5 years ago

Polite debate is possible but not in the middle east another free thinker killed. http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2016/april/yemen-atheist-murder.htm#sthash.WzjlsWa8.dpbs
These cases are common in all Arab countries. Report

Ian McKay
Ian McKay
5 years ago

This article deserves airing in a more general forum, because it contains good advice about how to conduct debate in any contentious subject, such as politics, religion, climate change, GM foods, etc.; not just philosophy.Report

Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
5 years ago

On the one hand, I can’t help but feel like “Sayre’s Law” is relevant here: philosophers of a certain stripe are vicious and dismissive to give undue weight to problems that don’t actually matter. Or rather: they matter a great deal, but largely for professional and egocentric reasons.

On the other hand, there is a sort of rudeness that, I think, quite befits the philosopher. As Nietzsche writes, what made Socrates a great philosopher was his plebian upbringing; he lacked the refinement and tact of the sophist, and so never knew just when to let up. He thus ends up embarrassing those who, from the standpoint of one oriented to matters of the true and the good, are quite deserving of it. If our derisiveness were pointed in the right direction, I wouldn’t find it so objectionable.

Finally, even the unrefined Socrates enjoyed the company of those similarly interested in the true and the good. In this way, it seems particularly small-minded of arrogant conference attendees, interviewers, or article reviewers to behave the way they do. Especially if, as some other commenters have mentioned, the arrogant one is a senior scholar or otherwise privileged academic. Isn’t there something like a sense of responsibility to others, or sense of respect or love for the subject matter itself, that should compel a more charitable attitude amongst colleagues?Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
5 years ago

I second T’s point above. Yes, of course, we should make a point not to be needlessly rude to others, and we should let the force of arguments themselves, and not needless insults, put pressure on arguments, positions or objections we wish to attack. We should also make a point of attacking the arguments or positions themselves, and not their sources, etc. All these things are just good philosophical practice.

However, I hope nobody takes this to imply that we should go as far as to make philosophy less rigorous by refraining from making the most powerful arguments or objections. To do that would be to commit a sort of philosophical malpractice. Like empirical scientists, mathematicians, or historians, what we philosophers produce is given a certain respect on the understanding that it has survived exposure to the unforgiving process of argument and counter-argument at the hands of the best critics and defenders. That is, in fact, what the whole peer review process is. Would we want scientists to spare hypotheses a rigorous testing as part of an effort to make science more polite? I certainly would not. To hold philosophy to different standards seems to imply that philosophy is less important than the sciences or that its consequences matter less, and those are implications we had better avoid.

One of the greatest benefits philosophy has to offer its students at all levels is the capacity to take seriously reasonable criticism and to engage in honest intellectual self-criticism. Through this process, we learn not to be stubborn, not to be fooled, and not (one hopes) to be complicit in harmful social movements or cults of various sorts. Through the practice of genuine, critical philosophy, we learn to think twice, that not all our beliefs are as reasonable as the others, and that the times when we feel most strongly committed to some view are exactly the times when we should watch ourselves for fallacious reasoning. Surely no reform of philosophical practice should take that away.

I have been told by a few female undergraduates over the years that they feel they are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts because, while they see those male students getting their views really challenged, their professors and fellow students sometimes “go easy” on them and deprive them of equal opportunities of intellectual growth. If these women are correct in their impressions, then they seem to be right to complain that they are being denied an important part of their tutelage — I would say perhaps the most important part. I’m all for making the discipline as welcome as possible to groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in it. But I hope it is not suggested that this should be done by concealing the strongest objections to arguments with certain students, since that would be harmful and unfair to those students. And it would be worse to conceal the strongest objections to arguments across the board, or not even to try to come up with these arguments anymore, since that would be deeply harmful to the discipline and all its practitioners. Report

Scaffen-Amtiskaw
Scaffen-Amtiskaw
4 years ago

Is it okay to be rude if doing so reduces future attempts at rudeness? At the heart of this question is another question “Would the world be a better place without rudeness?”. I would argue it would but the only way for that to be possible is either for there to be nothing that can be done or said that is rude or that everyone else is incapable of taking a comment or action as being rude (they cannot be offended). Heres the dilema one might reason that to get from here (where we are now) to there (being unoffendable) the best way is to reduce the rudeness of things that we consider to be rude. They may then reason that this can be done by constantly being rude to people thereby triggering psycological diminishing returns lowering the rudeness of rude actions. Would that be okay? Does the end justifies the means. I think if this outcome was guarenteed maybe it would be. Unfortunately it could just make everone horrible to be around with no discernable benefit. Interesting idea though.

Thanks for the post. Really got me thinking.Report

Glen
Glen
4 years ago

The problem I see it that we get into a subjective area where one person’s “rudeness” is another’s way of cutting into the issue with greater precision and it seems to me that a way of going about it is to play on the safe side with people we have just met, but as we get to know each other more, the conventions slip away and we get comfortable with being combative. In my case there are lots of people who are in it for the philosophy and their main objective is to enhance and deepen the conversation to get to the interesting ideas directly. While they would definitely come off as rude to outsiders looking in on the conversation, it is plain to those participating in it that no such rudeness is actually present. In other words, a genuine philosophical interchange just takes it as a given that the ego is checked at the door and that for the personalities of the interlocutors to get in the way is an impediment. Perhaps it requires a high level of maturity and an ability to see through one’s “opponents” abrasiveness as nothing more than an indication of their interest in the issue at hand.

I guess what makes me worried is that we might err too much on the side of assuming everyone (male, female, whatever) is just too fragile. As far as I am concerned, I am not that interested in talking about philosophy with people who I am not sure are in it for the philosophy. It is probably a fault on my part, but nevertheless I tend to treat everyone the same, and perhaps I’m sexist in a way if the tactics I employ in some implicit way assume a typical male interlocutor with whom it is easier to be “rude” because I know he will understand that its not really rude. I should probably be more careful, but as I said I have a lurking suspicion it will degrade the quality of the conversation.

Not sure if what I said was even coherent, the issue is obviously complicated, but does anyone else feel like they know what I am talking about?

Report

Joseph Ratliff
4 years ago

I might begin to question the strength of your position if you must be rude to discuss / defend it.

Position in this case = material, subject matter, paper being discussed etc…

And another question I would ask you if you were being rude … what does that accomplish in terms of moving a discussion forward towards refining and / or improving knowledge?Report