When To Turn It Off


Here’s a… hypothesis for why many habits of philosophical thinking might not come naturally. The hypothesis is that some tools for critical evaluation run counter to another valuable set of tools: our tools for effective social engagement. These tools help us make sense of what someone is saying by encouraging us to interpret underspecified claims in the most positive light; they help us coordinate conversation by establishing common ground.

That’s Tania Lombrozo, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and National Public Radio (NPR) columnist, in a recent post at NPR’s Culture & Cosmos. She’s commenting on the “Philosophy Tool Kit” Alan Hájek (ANU) published at Aeon last week (you might have seen it in DN’s Heap of Links).

Of the tools of critical reasoning Hájek explains, Lombrozo asks:

Why do we need special training to acquire them? Why aren’t they built into our cognitive machinery, or acquired through our years of experience evaluating claims and arguments in everyday life?

Hájek identifies certain cognitive biases as the explanation. Lombrozo considers a social explanation:

When someone asks us for “the right thing to do,” we’re inclined to engage in the conversation they’ve invited us to engage in: one in which we assume there is a right thing to do, and we help them to find it. When someone says “everyone likes a good book,” we understand them to be telling us something about the kinds of people relevant to our current conversational context, not something true of every single person.

If this is right, then some forms of critical evaluation and philosophical thinking are hard because they force us to suspend other habits of mind; habits that serve us well when our goal is to engage or persuade or befriend.

I think there’s something to this—and it runs in both directions. In conversation, questions about implications, definitions, and distinctions in my interlocutor’s speech sometimes come to mind before its implied meanings, scope restrictions, and purpose. Vocalizing these questions in a non-philosophical context (and sometimes even in philosophical ones) can serve as an obstacle to understanding and progress—and human connection. Perhaps the fact that restraining this analytical impulse requires effort explains philosophers’ apparent preference for romantic partners who are also philosophers.

UPDATE: See this reply by Danielle Wenner (CMU).

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Joe
Joe
4 years ago

+1,000,000,000 on this observation. I would only stress that there is no clean separation between what we do as philosophers and the activity of making human connections. After all, teaching and mentoring our students, at the graduate and undergraduate level, is a form of human social activity. To allow your predilection for critical reflection and presupposition-questioning to get in the way of these tasks is to fail to do your job.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
4 years ago

I don’t think there is a “kind of person” for whom “everyone loves a good book” is true, apart from “book-lovers” (which would make it tautological, yeah?). The right recuperative reading is not to understand “everyone” as a restricted quantifier but simply to understand it to mean “most people”. When I audited his class on personal identity, Eli Hirsch gave a similar example of “loose talk”: “You never call me anymore” (to someone who has just called you).

In general it’s distressing to see a philosophy blog take this anti-philosophical tack. It’s in line, though, with a recent trend (bad for several reasons) to accuse philosophy of “autism” (https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/beyond-understanding/?_r=0 e.g. or http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/09/did-you-test-positive-for-autism-you-may-have-autism-or-you-could-just-be-a-philosopher.html), or with comments on posts about issues in the profession urging people not to “do philosophy about this”.

Philosophy is, in fact, continuous with normal cognition. Your average office worker might not be skeptics about the meaningfulness of “the right thing to do”, but they’re sure as hell going to express skepticism about the meaningfulness of “synergizing action items” – regardless of whether they’re in a “context” where the phrase is “supposed to” make sense. This is a point that Barry Stroud, for example, has made quite convincingly. The awkwardness of the philosopher is simply the awkwardness of asking probing questions.Report

Tania Lombrozo
Tania Lombrozo
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
4 years ago

I’m curious why you see my post as “anti-philosophical” for suggesting that philosophical habits of mind are good for truth-tracking and figuring out what follows from what, but not necessarily optimally suited for persuasion and befriending. Presumably we have all sorts of epistemic and non-epistemic aims, both within philosophy and beyond philosophy, and I wouldn’t expect the same tools to be good tools across all cases for all aims. (I’m not asking this in a rhetorical or snarky way; I’m genuinely curious to hear your response.)Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Tania Lombrozo
4 years ago

Well, sorry to have spoken carelessly. To be clear, I’m objecting mostly to this sentence (from the DN post, not from the post of yours it quotes): “Vocalizing these questions in a non-philosophical context (and sometimes even in philosophical ones) can serve as an obstacle to understanding and progress—and human connection.” It’s hard to think of “understanding” as a “non-epistemic aim”.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that one should *always* be saying “I don’t know what you mean” (a catchphrase of many junior philosophers I’ve met; I like to respond with something like “You ought to!” or “Let me know when you figure it out!”). But one of the insights philosophy is supposed to provide is that the common ground isn’t so common. My claim is that this is important, liberating, and not at all unique to philosophical “contexts”.

I truly wonder sometimes how contemporary philosophers would have treated Gorgias, Euthyphro, and all the others. Actually, scratch that: I don’t have to wonder. Here at DN people make it clear that Socrates was so mean to them all that he deserved to die – http://dailynous.com/2017/03/20/how-socratic-was-socrates/ – do you think there is a “pro-philosophical” reading of that idea?Report

Nick Byrd
4 years ago

Huh. I’ve been calling this (i.e., “restraining [the] analytical impulse”) the “philosophers’ mistake”: https://www.byrdnick.com/archives/8962/is-philosophical-reflection-ever-inappropriate

I call it a mistake because whenever I do it, I feel like I am becoming one of those socially inept academics. But — like Lombrozo — I take the mistake to be a domain-general mistake. I.e., it’s only a mistake in certain situations.

(And now that I’ve engaged in some analysis about it, I find myself wondering if this was one of those contexts in which I shouldn’t have…)Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
4 years ago

Just stick to talking sports with non-philosophers.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
4 years ago

I wish that more philosophers knew how to “turn it half-way off”, for lack of a better phrase, in their dealings with other philosophers. If a bunch of philosophers go out to a bar, it makes sense that they might talk about philosophy, just as a bunch of accountants might talk about accounting, or builders about building. But there’s a difference between talking about each other’s work and grilling people about particular points. Too often I’ve felt like I’ve been asked, in a social setting, to discuss my work in a way that is perfectly appropriate in a Q&A session or a reading group, but less appropriate after hours. Frankly, it’s nice to talk about your work and hear about others’ work in a social setting. It’s less nice to feel like you’re back in a Q&A, only this time with a beer in hand. Now some might object that philosophy is unlike accounting or building in that it doesn’t allow for that level of pleasant, superficial engagement; if you don’t get into the nitty gritty, than you’re not doing philosophy at all. Some others might object that if you want to “clock out” at 5pm, you should do something more like accounting or building. But surely this isn’t right, and may even be counter-productive to learning about work in friends’ sub-disciplines in a friendly way that doesn’t assume expertise or a knowledge of the literature.Report

G
G
Reply to  Grad Student
4 years ago

This may be correct, but it goes against every fiber in my, perhaps twisted, mind. I went into philosophy because it was what I talked about in my spare time. I don’t mean to condone not using the principle of charity, but when I discuss philosophy I want to figure shit out.. Does God Exist, are there universals. What is the nature of humor?.. and so on.. not that we will figure it out after a few drinks, but its FUN TO TALK ABOUT THIS, and to do so in a point/counterpoint way, just as I, when just thinking to myself, imagine a critic trying to poke holes in my argument . I think philosophy is a way of life, a passion–and this is why you should only go into it if you cannot imagine anything else, not the job market or grad school assholery (well not just those things). I realize this may b e just a psychological quirk, but I ask that it be respected.. Of course I would not want to engage in such discussion with someone who is not also into itReport

Saint-exupery
Saint-exupery
4 years ago

philosophers can fail as mentors and dissertations advisors precisely for this reason, and I have seen some dramatic failures that have caused excellent, promising students quit graduate school.Report