Don’t Turn It Off (guest post by Danielle Wenner)


The following is a guest post* by Danielle Wenner, assistant professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s a response to Monday’s post, “When To Turn It Off.”


Don’t Turn it Off
by Danielle Wenner
@DanielleWenner

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, but less well when our goal is to arrive at a precise characterization of what’s true, or of what follows from what. The trick, then, is not only to acquire Hájek’s philosophy tool kit, but to know when to use it.

This week at NPR’s 13.7, psychologist and philosopher Tania Lombrozo hypothesizes that one reason the tools in a philosopher’s toolkit may be difficult to learn and apply is because they undermine other, pro-social behaviors for productively interacting, conversing, and finding common cause with others. Lombrozo’s post was quickly followed up here at Daily Nous, with Justin opining that philosophers need to learn “When To Turn It Off”, a sentiment that was echoed among the chambers of the philosophy web-o-sphere. I want to push back against this sentiment.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Lombrozo’s hypothesis—in fact, personal experience bears it out: often the philosopher in me seems to be precisely the thing that cuts off fruitful discussion with others—not only potential friends, but existing friends and family too. What I take issue with is the suggestion that others’ inability—or more often, unwillingness—to interact on the basis of solid reasoning is itself a good reason to “turn it off”. Now, to be fair, I don’t take Justin to be making the strong claim that philosophers should learn to “turn off” their reasons-based means of communication. He seems to be making a weaker claim that we should “restrain the analytical impulse” to question implications, definitions, and distinctions when engaging in non-philosophical discourse. And I guess what I want to ask is: Why?

The American public (and perhaps publics more generally) have arrived at a time when “let’s just agree to disagree” is less tension-breaker than rule of life.  People are positively hostile to disagreement or demonstration that they’ve engaged in logical fallacy. Our interest in finding the truth has been displaced by the interest in being right, regardless the cost. And it is costing us dearly. We have not only a president, but an EPA head who question established science about climate change. We have an administration that postulates the existence of alternative facts. And perhaps most importantly, we have persistent social media bubbles in which “alternative facts” are the reality and any attempt to question them is only further evidence of their truth.

None of this comes as news to anyone who’s been paying attention. But I find it striking that in this environment, there could be a call for philosophers—those who know how “to spot poor arguments, uncover hidden assumptions, tease out subtle implications and recognize false dichotomies”—to “turn it off” in service of promoting better social discourse. We might think “better social discourse” means having the kinds of conversations that are cost-free for all involved: no one has to acknowledge being wrong, no one has to face an uncomfortable truth, and we can all skip away happily knowing that we’re still friends. Or, we might decide that the real “better social discourse” is the one in which we stop pretending that both sides of every disagreement have equal merit, ask our interlocutors to grapple with reality, and put our relationships (both real and potential) on the line in service of the truth.  That is, after all, what we’ve been trained for.

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Carnap
Carnap
4 years ago

Thanks for this.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

On discourse, I thought the original point was driving at the idea that there are lots of situations where the analytic style associated with counterfactual reasoning (of often really remote or practically irrelevant possibilities) is probably not the best method of persuasion. On the other hand, there could be lots of ways you could “turn that off” and still improve or even correct discourse about important social topics we care about, or build better relationships, which might be another good way to do that.Report

Joe
Joe
4 years ago

I have to say, I find this post kind of chilling. You write:

“He seems to be making a weaker claim that we should “restrain the analytical impulse” to question implications, definitions, and distinctions when engaging in non-philosophical discourse. And I guess what I want to ask is: Why?”

Well, here’s what Justin wrote:

“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.”

In response to worries about the hampering of human connections like friendship, you say in an unmistakably derisive tone, “we can all skip away happily knowing that we’re still friends”. The invocation of “skipping”, of course, implying childishness, immaturity or frivolity. I am quite sure that you do not actually feel this way about the good of friendship, nor the related goods of collegiality, mentorship, and trust. Yet, these are the very goods at issue, here, since a person who continually questions the presuppositions of everything you say is not your friend, nor is a person who continually seeks to identify holes in your logic. It follows that friendship is premised upon the restraining of the analytical impulse. I am somewhat baffled, and a little bit disturbed, that a philosopher can be moved by this puffed up sense of Public Civic Duty to cast such extraordinary aspersions on the very things that make most lives worth living in the first place.Report

Devin
Devin
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

“a person who continually questions the presuppositions of everything you say is not your friend, nor is a person who continually seeks to identify holes in your logic. It follows that friendship is premised upon the restraining of the analytical impulse.”
First, I’m quite disappointed to find out that some of the people I consider my closest friends apparently aren’t my friends at all!
Second, more seriously, this seems to me to be a caricature of the “analytic impulse,” which never to my knowledge involves questioning presuppositions or looking for holes in logic indiscriminately.Report

Devin
Devin
Reply to  Devin
4 years ago

Should have said “never to my knowledge is supposed to involve”Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Devin
4 years ago

So, which is it? Is my description a caricature, or does it accurately describe your friends?

Here is what the post says the analytical impulse is: the drive to “question implications, definitions, and distinctions when engaging in non-philosophical discourse.” I didn’t say this practice was “indiscriminate”. But when it is manifested, it involves these activities, yes?

If you’re going to redefine the impulse to include (for example) caring for what your interlocutor cares about (de dicto) then this entire argument is over, but only because you’ve made the argument entirely uninteresting. Surely you know what kind of activities we are talking about. Does our drive to engage them need to be switched off or restrained in non-philosophical contexts? Yes, because friendship involves more than these activities. I am amazed that I have to spell this out, and I am quite sure that your friends, in addition to caring about the truth, also care about you.Report

Devin
Devin
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

I realize this is a rather long time after which to respond, but I never received notification of your reply and it just now occurred to me to look and see if anything more had been said.

In talking about my friends I was playing into what I took to be your caricature of the analytic impulse, so there was a certain level of sarcasm, but I was also pointing the fact that there was something I found genuinely troubling in your claims about who is/isn’t a friend. There are people who I value deeply, and who I have reason to think feel the same towards me, who do not restrain their analytic impulse (as I understand it) around me, or at least I hope they don’t. Indeed, I would feel minorly betrayed if I were to find out that they had noticed an apparent mistake on my part and avoided saying anything. As pointed out in Danielle’s comment below, for some of us it is precisely one of the many values of friendship that it provides a forum in which such mistakes can be discussed without fear of offense. (Of course, these sort of friendships aren’t for everyone, and that is fine.) If this is not the sort of behavior you are talking about, then I apologize for the misunderstanding, but if it is, then I’ll admit that I find your comment somewhat insulting.

I’ll admit that I do not see anything in what you have just quoted from the post that rules out doing such things in caring, sensitive way. I brought up “indiscriminately” because in the bit from your comment I was responding to you talked about a person who “continually questions the presuppositions of everything you say,” which does seem indiscriminate – it does not sound to me like this behavior involves any sort of judgement about whether there is in fact a potential problem with one’s presuppositions. Yes, if someone really were to question the presuppositions behind *everything* I said that would quickly become annoying. But I don’t think anyone is arguing in favor of this behavior, and again, I see nothing in the what the post is describing that would imply it. When it comes to the sort of behavior I take the post to be talking about, it seems to me the question isn’t whether or not to engage in the analytic impulse, but *how* to do so. I think the comments below discuss this nicely.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I find the failure isn’t in being unable to “turn off” the analytical mechanism (I certainly can’t). Rather, it’s learning how to escape one’s own skull, and apply a little empathy to that analysis.

Understanding how intensely peoples’ opinions are often wedded to their sense of self helps. When a philosopher asks “why”, a non-philosopher is often going to take that as a personal attack, or at least, a threat to that sense of self. Putting yourself in the shoes of the other person helps to clarify this. Also, it’s helpful to be acutely aware of where my own insecurities are. One psychological motivator that pushed me toward philosophy (at least, as a hobby), was the conscious awareness of just how little I actually knew, or *could* know. In a word, my own intellectual and emotional insecurities. Most people have this same awareness, only it’s stuffed just below the surface of their conscious awareness. Every time a philosopher asks them “why”, that bubbling cauldron of insecurity pops a little geyser into their conscious experience, and the resulting anxiety will often overwhelm them. The same still happens to me, from time to time. It’s an acute thermometer of myself, and a keen reminder to be mindful of the other person, in any tough-topic discussion.

The upshot, is that what philosophers need to do, is not ‘turn off’ their analytical minds. They need to ‘turn on’ their patience and understanding. In a sense, they need to be every bit as much psychologist, as they are philosopher. Report

Danielle Wenner
3 years ago

I guess I’m confused about why friendship must be predicated on restraining the analytical impulse. That seems to me a rather impoverished view of friendship, as I hope my friends will correct me when I wander into logical fallacy and will point out to me when what I say is predicated on false premises. Not doing so seems akin to not letting me know when my fly is down in public: being confronted with our intellectual mistakes may be awkward for a moment, but it’s better than going on making the same mistakes over and over, and we’re all subject to biases, errors in thinking, etc. Part of a mature relationship is being able to discuss such mistakes without feeling as though one is being personally persecuted, or that the friendship is in jeopardy. We might even think that being capable of receiving such criticism is part of maturity in general, a part that seems to have gotten lost in recent generations for some reason.

I confess I am surprised at the reaction here. I would have thought the idea that we should question our suppositions and those of the people with whom we interact would be a comfortable and familiar idea to philosophers, given that we all teach Socrates in our intro classes.

That said, it seems to me that what Greg says is right: exposing flaws in thinking need not entail being a jerk about it. There are better and worse – more and less sensitive – ways to have these kinds of conversations. Maybe what philosophers who think “turning it off” is necessary for good relationships should be working on is not so much turning it off, but figuring out how to keep it on in better ways.
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