Friendly Fire & Fiery Friendship: the Tenor of Philosophy Conversation (guest post by Joshua A. Miller)

The following is a guest post* by Joshua A. Miller (Loyola University Maryland). It is slightly edited version of a post originally published at his blog, Another Panaceapartly in response to the post here by Nomy Arpaly (Brown), “Is Polite Philosophical Conversation Possible?

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


Friendly Fire and Fiery Friendship: Noma Arpaly, Joseph Trullinger, and the Tenor of Philosophy Conversation
by Joshua A. Miller

I often refer back to this post about a disagreement with Leigh Johnson over the role of critical engagement in philosophy. Using Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in her Lessing Prize address, I described what I took to be the pleasure of disagreement in our profession:

Even when we retreat to our armchairs for solitary thought, we are not alone: we are drawn to each other because we share a commitment to these inquiries no matter where they may lead, and because we need the support of a community of fellow inquirers. The corollary is that, among philosophers, it is considered honorable to take on the position of devil’s advocate in order to introduce needed pluralism and distinction into a discussion. Among us, holding unfashionable views is needed and strangely satisfying. When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!

Johnson’s phrase has stuck with me over the years. I use it when welcoming correction, or when explaining why my own critical engagement with a friend is meant to be a sign of respect.

Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?

I was reminded again of that exchange by Noma Arpaly’s excellent discussion of politeness (and rudeness) in philosophical debate. As Arpaly tells it, philosophers tend to violate two interrelated conversational norms without distinguishing them:

  • we are frequently rude,
  • we frequently engage in disagreement and correction (among civilians, there is a strong non-correction norm that tends to go along with other norms like not hypothetically threatening or actually sneering at our colleagues).

Arpaly wants to endorse violations of the non-correction norm, while preserving other norms of civil behavior regarding rudeness. She creates an analogy to soldiers: the military requires soldiers to violate a widely held norm of pacifism—not-killing. But they must discipline soldiers not to thereby justify other norm violations—killing civilians and committing war crimes.

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.

It’s a real problem. Arpaly counsels us to make the relevant distinctions and discipline ourselves all the harder on civility given that we’re already engaged in an unavoidable violation of the norm of non-correction. This seems exactly right.

Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong

On the Daily Nous thread on Arpaly’s piece, “Sam” writes:

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.

What I liked about Sam’s comment was that it seemed to endorse and extend the Arpaly analysis by saying, “Here is a way that we can endorse a norm of correction without endorsing rudeness.” That this is actually my view (I like to be corrected so I can be correct) made me doubly happy to see it percolate up in a comment from another person.

This is not to put the victims of philosophers’ rudeness on the hook alone for responding gladly to it. The “glad to be (shown) wrong” norm applies equally to objectors and presenters; more to the point, it applies even more to rude objectors than to anyone else, who must prove they really do mean to correct and not just to humble the presenter. Arpaly endorses violations of the norm of non-correction: she is no pacifist, as she says.

What about mentioned threats or hypothetical attacks (such as “What if I slap you?”)? These can be characterized as rude in part because it puts vulnerable others in an uncertain position: they’re required to pretend that philosophers never would do what they say. This goes well beyond violating basic civility: discomfiting one’s interlocutor does nothing productive at the level of correction and even interferes with shared inquiry. We needn’t violate basic civility in order to violate the norm of non-correction: it fails on both counts.

Many philosophical practices must be rethought in this light: interruption, for instance, is pretty obviously a violation on her view and on the “glad to be wrong” view. You don’t interrupt someone if you’re engaged in mutual beneficial exchange, because that assumes that you already know the outcome of that exchange. Nor do you ask questions that are really just coded assertions of error: you actually engage with the interlocutor about whether there are corrections to the (shared) position within the evolving inquiry.

We must, we must be friends!

For Arendt, the philosopher needs disagreeable friends in order not to be lost to the crowd’s violent enforcement of the non-correction norm. Philosophers need to disagree with each other so that we are not isolated by our disagreement. Thus, the norms of disagreement arise from the intrinsic good of intellectual friendships. As Arendt put it:

[Lessing] was glad that… [truth] if it ever existed, had been lost; he was glad for the sake of the infinite number of opinions that arise when men discuss the affairs of the world.

We wrestle with hard questions—take detours into difficulty—because it is our excuse to spend time together. For Arendt, the philosophical project may have some or another goal—to think about what we are doing, for instance, or to prevent nuclear war—but its true function is to give our disagreeable selves an excuse to reach out to similarly disagreeable friends. It’s thus primarily a practice of friendship in homonoia, like-mindededness. This is what makes “friendly fire” palatable: that we have deeper bonds that salve the blows when we do not pull our punches.

My friend and former colleague Joseph Trullinger comments further:

Arpaly undermines the point with the war analogy, because it doesn’t go deep enough into the psychology informing the mood of the rude dude. Really, I think Arpaly is proposing something more like a “gentlemanly” duel in contrast to “unsportsmanlike” war, when it’s the martial virtues themselves that are the problem here. I think patriarchy instills in us (where by “us” I mean especially men, such as myself) this idea that the defense of one’s honor legitimates the use of aggression, but it is really putting lipstick on a pig.

The fighting done to regain or steal away social standing is like sweeping leaves on a windy day, and it may in the first place be wrong to do. Philosophy has for too long patterned itself after polemos, war, and been polemics; I think there’s a reason Nietzsche’s depiction of the philosopher as warrior of ideas appealed to me more when I was a reedy hormonal teenager, as these sorts of self-descriptions appeal to men undergoing a crisis of masculinity. The issue is not that we have been “too soft” with ourselves and need someone from the outside to be “hard” on us. The issue is that we worship hardness itself at the expense of what we tell ourselves we’re defending with it.

Here I draw a lot of insight from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” (h/t Joan Braune). Yeah, Achilles looks cool, and he takes offense over something trivial, but don’t get carried away with that pretext for allowing or gloating over more violence. Briseis is not the issue here, dude. Nor is it actually Achilles’ honor, or Agamemnon’s honor. It’s the idea that life is all about enforcing one’s life in the push and pull of force and counterforce. The intellectual “battlefield” is not the Iliad, nor should it be. Instead, we should foster the hospitality we see so many good examples of in the Odyssey.

TL;DR: less andreia, more xenia.

Trullinger goes on to recommend that we replace my ideal of Arendtian “friendly fire” with a related one: “fiery friendship.”

It seems like an important point: too often in praise for “agonism” we tend to treat the conflicts as if they are self-justifying. We somehow need the agon to achieve the intrinsic goods of flourishing; we wrestle to develop strength and skill, which is the real function. We argue not because we are engaged in a collective project but because honing the arguments themselves is supposedly tied to the good life.

Trullinger reminds me that the “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong” attitude requires more than just contention for the fun of it. Correction requires correctness; we cannot bracket truth for the sake of the infinite conversation and hope that that conversation will have the same character. Indeed, bracketing a shared commitment to truth-seeking leads to just the kinds of hurtful “games” that Arpaly rightly refuses to play.

Fiery Friendship and Philosophical Hospitality

In the backdrop here is the status of women in the profession. Arpaly suggests that rudeness may be particularly off-putting to vulnerable participants, and that a more civil tenor will make the profession more welcoming. At least some of the masculinist norms of epistemic arrogance (interruption and “well, actually” and so on) have non-pathological roles to play in parts of our social lives. The really unprofessional thing is when we treat conference presenters the same way we treat our buddies or teammates.

Women, Arpaly suggests, are just as “glad to be wrong” as men. They too can violate the norm of non-correction in service of a shared inquiry. But in at least one way the profession still doesn’t welcome them, and it demonstrates this inhospitable demeanor by treating philosophy as a game whose rules are constantly changed, or perhaps like hazing: where jocular rudeness and dishing out and receiving contempt are a part of how the game is played. This has the effect of protecting the space as a region of rough play. Certainly many women and other minorities in philosophy can survive in such spaces, and many men cannot—but what would it mean to make philosophy more welcoming and inclusive?

Trullinger’s view seems to be that we ought to endorse the spirit of “glad to be wrong” by being particularly welcoming to those who are unlike us: those who are most likely to find the space of rough play unwelcoming, with whom we lack homonoia. True strangers are those who can offer us grounds for disagreement much stranger than mere contradiction.

I sometimes joke that we only ever hear calls for ideological diversity in political matters, and never, for example, Thomistic approaches to quantum mechanics or an orderly’s eye-view on bioethics. But Trullinger means what he says: he actually does want to see an expansive ideological diversity in non-political matters, to study Mexica metaphysics, queer philosophy of time, Byzantine logic, and Confucian epistemology.

Fiery friendship should allow joyful disagreement and also charitable agreement; it should offer opportunities for world-traveling and loving perception. It should be an avid fan of the unfamiliar. It should be glad to be proven wrong and it should be receptive not just to correction, but to a complete redirection of our projects. It should welcome the vulnerable and make them strong. It shouldn’t punch down, or slap down, or suggest hypothetical down-slapping. It might even entertain actual pacifism, which need not be weak.

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

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Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
7 years ago

Politeness, friendliness and a desire to be proved wrong are essential to a healthy discipline of philosophy. It is all the more ironic, then, to see the gender slur “masculinist” used in the OP to identify epistemic arrogance. The contrast with the use of “feminist” is particularly clear (why isn’t a “masculanist” someone who wants gender equality or who endorses the rights of men?). However, the problem is clear enough if we consider adding “ist” to the names of other groups in order to identify forms of bad behavior, even forms that may be statistically associated with that group. Imagine using “feminist”, “womanist”, “Christianist”, “Islamicist”, “Palestinianist”, “whiteist”, or “blackist” to identify a form of bad behavior! The insult would be pretty clear, I think, and not many would deny that the use of such terms constitutes a slur.

7 years ago

Agreed. Philosophy should be pursued in a spirit of camaraderie, a concerted effort towards a common goal, where disagreements should be pursued civilly and respectfully.

It’s up to all of us to make it so.

Sal Scilicet
Sal Scilicet
7 years ago

When it comes to so-called ‘informal philosophical discussion’ or so-called ‘formal philosophical debate’, I don’t understand why so-called ‘agreement’, let alone so-called ‘consensus’, could ever be expected, should ever be expected, or is expected. As far as I can make it out, from, it must be said, a strictly lay-person’s perspective, a so-called ‘correct philosophical position’ is, by definition, a contradiction in terms.

All so-called ‘human intercourse’, often mistakenly lumped together under the conveniently abstruse hold-all rubric ‘communication’, relies in my view quite utterly and absolutely on one, rather than another, so-called ‘meaning’. And not only but also more often than not in more than one kind of language. Be that language strictly, formally and grammatically verbal – oral, written, poetic, prosaic, didactic, whimsical, ironical, metaphorical – or pictographic, mathematical, musical, gestural, theatrical …

All of which occurs, of course, not only on the perfectly grotesque assumption that the so-called ‘intended meaning’ really ought to coincide quite comfortably and preferably in some meaningful way with the so-called ‘perceived meaning’. But also, preposterous as it sounds, in the full knowledge that this whole pre-fabricated conceit is naturally and universally taken for granted. Albeit in the full glare and abject appreciation of the incontrovertible fact that there simply cannot be any realistic expectation of civil concordance on any so-called ‘correct meaning’, let alone so-called ‘correct purpose’ or so-called ‘correct methodology’ of what so-called ‘philosophy’ is supposed to be and supposed to be for. And, by obvious corollary, what so-called ‘philosophy’ is absolutely not supposed to be (for).

Is it so-called ‘phenomenology’? Is it so-called ‘ontology’? Or is it so-called ‘epistemology”? Or ‘logic’? Or ‘ethics’? Or some of each and/or none of the above?

Why indulge this obscene obsession with correction? Consider the contrast between the commentator who declares that a previous comment is “correct” and one who merely (humbly?) admits that, unless s/he did not fully understand the intention of the previous comment, s/he simply cannot and therefore does not agree with it.

Contrary to popular myth, so-called ‘human communication’ is not about “the reliable exchange of discrete information”. So-called ‘information’ is never comprehensive, never independent and never absolutely reliable. So-called ‘knowledge’ is routinely mistaken for a paradoxically “comprehensive” catalogue of so-called ‘autonomous facts’. So-called ‘understanding’ is routinely held to be synonymous with so-called ‘wisdom’. So-called ‘truth’ – a quality strictly and exclusively appropriate to mathematics – is routinely applied to all sorts of abstract, inconclusive, messy concepts. Whereas so-called ‘absolute’, ‘universal’ or ‘Eternal Truth’ properly belongs to so-called ‘religion’, not so-called ‘philosophy’.

“Does anybody really know what time it is?” The so-called ‘meaning’ of a grammatically coherent sentence depends entirely on at least three unique qualifications. First, the so-called ‘pretext’, being all the foreknowledge that only I can bring to the text, derived from whatever I can recall of wherever only I could have been and of whatever only I could have seen and heard. Second, the so-called ‘context’, which is not only all the circumstantial atmospheric ambience that usually surrounds every sensory perception, but also your body chemistry, state of health, nutrition and hydration, blood sugar affects mood, habitual sleep hygiene and anticipation of future developments largely defines your disposition. But finally, what it all comes down to is none other than the indispensable, so-called ‘subtext’ – that is, whatever so-called ‘sense’, ‘significance’ and ‘relevance’ only I am at that one fleeting moment inclined, pre-disposed and able to “read between the lines”.

Nothing “makes sense” quite like “you and I” do. So-called ‘meaning’ is not inherent to any text. So-called ‘sense’ is made, painstakingly, both by the speaker/writer and reader/listener. “Paying attention” costs cerebral energy. Given that all language, in whatever guise, being by dint of human intervention and contrivance potentially and inherently notoriously ambiguous and therefore endlessly conducive to the most commonplace and artless sophistry, if so-called ‘philosophy’ really was about discovering the so-called ‘truth’, there would be no need for so-called priests, politicians, lawyers, psychologists and teachers. If so-called ‘philosophy’ really was about ‘the truth’ and the attendant abrasive love of sophistry – rather than the patient, unsophisticated love of wisdom – why, there really would be no need for so-called ‘philosophers’ at all.