“Philosophy Does Not Compel, Threaten, or Mock”


This past Monday, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, delivered the 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

You can watch a video of the event here. In her lecture, “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame,” Professor Nussbaum holds that “anger is a poison to democratic politics, and it is all the worse when fueled by a lurking fear and a sense of helplessness” and argues “that we should resist anger in ourselves and inhibit its role in our political culture.” You can read the whole lecture here. Below is a brief excerpt.

Lucretius tells a grim tale of human anger and fear gone wild. He imagines a world not unlike his own, in which insecurity leads to acts of aggression, which do not quiet insecurity. (At the time when he wrote, the Roman Republic was imploding, and insecurity, mounting everywhere, would shortly lead to tyranny.) In an effort to quiet fear, he imagines, people get more and more aggressive – until they think up a new way to inflict maximum damage on their enemies: putting wild beasts to work in the military.

They even tried out bulls in the service of war.
They practiced letting wild boars loose against their enemies.
They even used fierce lions as an advance guard, equipped
With a special force of armed and ferocious trainers To
hold them in check and keep them in harness.
It was no use.
The lions, hot with blood, broke ranks wildly.
Trampled the troops, tossing their manes.

In a poetic tour de force Lucretius now imagines the carnage the animals unleash. Then he pulls back. Did this really happen?, he says. Maybe it happened in some other world out in space. And what, he says, did those fictional people want to accomplish? To inflict great pain on the enemy—even if it meant that they would perish themselves!

Lucretius’ point is that our retributive emotions are those wild beasts. People may think anger powerful, but it always gets out of hand and turns back on us. And, yet worse, half the time people don’t care. They’re so deeply sunk in payback fantasies that they’d prefer to accomplish nothing, so long as they make those people suffer. His grim science-fiction fantasy reminds us that we’ll always defeat ourselves so long as we let ourselves be governed by fear, anger, and the politics of blame.

There is a better alternative. Aeschylus knew it, and King both knew and lived it. Making a future of justice and well-being is hard. It requires self-examination, personal risk, searching critical arguments, and uncertain initiatives to make common cause with opponents—in a spirit of hope and what we could call rational faith. It’s a difficult goal, but it is that goal that I am recommending, for both individuals and institutions.

My argument has drawn on three prominent fields in the Humanities. For evocative images that illuminate political problems and the path to political goals, I have turned to literature. In order to show how such goals have already been pursued in our own place and time, I have turned to history. But above all, since I am a philosopher, I have turned to philosophy for critical analysis and structured arguments about justice and wellbeing. Philosophy does not compel, or threaten, or mock. It doesn’t make bare assertions, but, instead, sets up a structure of thought in which a conclusion follows from premises the listener is free to dispute. In that way it invites dialogue, and respects the listener. Unlike the over-confident politicians that Socrates questioned (Euthyphro, Critias, Meletus), the philosophical speaker is humble and exposed: his or her position is transparent and thus vulnerable to criticism. 

The whole lecture is here.

Detail of a Roman mosaic from Llíria

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Philosophy does not
Philosophy does not
4 years ago

“Philosophy does not compel, or threaten, or mock. It doesn’t make bare assertions, but, instead, sets up a structure of thought in which a conclusion follows from premises the listener is free to dispute. In that way it invites dialogue, and respects the listener.”
I usually begin my courses with one day where I merely explain what philosophy is. I explain the same type of thing that Nussbaum does, from now on I’ll always think of Nussbaum as inspiration. That this is what philosophy does not do is why its been so disappointing to see the rise of Leiter and more recently the pathetic tough guy on the internet antics of libertarian Jason Brennan. Name-calling and mockery isn’t what philosophy does. And now, though I understand the anger people marginalized in philosophy feel about being discussed in an unscholarly and cavalier manner (the concerns are much like those of the disability community once expressed against Peter Singer, though this reaction is much more moderate), the hope is that one day those who feel marginalized will be able to respond merely philosophically. I imagine this is a widely shared hope.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

The solution to anger is neither to banish or repress it, nor to indulge or embrace it. Rather, it is to understand it, what it is telling you, why that message is important, and whether/how you can use it. Nussbaum makes a fundamental mistake *identifying* it with destructive behavior, I think. It is often associated with destructive behavior, because rather than learn to manage it in a self-conscious manner, we tend to instead act it out in a cyclical reaction to demands for suppression. Nussbaum (at least, from what I can tell from this lecture), seems to have thrown her lot in with the “banish” crowd, calling it “poison” and encouraging her listeners to “resist” it. Nussbaum even seems to predict exactly the response she’ll get to her lecture – more anger, and calls for indulging in it. That much is correct. And it’s all terribly, predictably unfortunate.Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I wonder if Prof. Nussbaum would consider her famous diatribe about Prof. Butler to be an example of mocking, or anger. Probably not.Report

Groundskeeper
Reply to  Mark Lance
4 years ago

I wonder if Prof. Nussbaum would consider herself morally perfect and immune to all charges of hypocrisy and making mistakes. Probably not.Report

Neither mocking nor angry
Neither mocking nor angry
Reply to  Mark Lance
4 years ago

I had not read it in years, but looked again to see if she seemed angry in it. No. She’s critical but I don’t see any terms of abuse being used in it, either. Where have I missed it? http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Nussbaum-Butler-Critique-NR-2-99.pdf
It seems to be the exact type of “criticism” that she takes to be philosophical.Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
Reply to  Neither mocking nor angry
4 years ago

I think that this is true in one sense. There is no obvious hate-speech, and the discourse is academic and professional. I’m inclined to take this a putting pressure on the way that constructive and destructive dialogue is being framed in the “no anger” stuff , but honestly, I’m not going to get into another big debate here on DN. Just too tired right now. If one thinks that piece furthered constructive philosophizing or grappling with opposing views and methodology, then I understand why she thinks my comment bizarre.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Mark Lance
4 years ago

She does implicitly call Butler a “bully”, a fabulist, and an obscurantist desirous of authority:

_”…Why does Butler prefer to write in this teasing, exasperating way? The style is certainly not unprecedented. Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma. One hangs in suspense, eager for the next move. When Butler does follow that “direction for thinking,” what will she say? What does it mean, tell us please, for the agency of a subject to presuppose its own subordination? (No clear answer to this question, so far as I can see, is forthcoming.) One is given the impression of a mind so profoundly cogitative that it will not pronounce on anything lightly: so one waits, in awe of its depth, for it finally to do so.

In this way obscurity creates an aura of importance. It also serves another related purpose. It bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding. When the bullied readers of Butler’s books muster the daring to think thus, they will see that the ideas in these books are thin. When Butler’s notions are stated clearly and succinctly, one sees that, without a lot more distinctions and arguments, they don’t go far, and they are not especially new. Thus obscurity fills the void left by an absence of a real complexity of thought and argument…”_

Not having read Butler, only read a little of Nussbaum, and having no familiarity with the history of these women, I have no idea why they would be at personal odds with each other (outside of this essay). But, I must say: I’m at a loss to understand what any of this has to do with my objection to Nussbaum’s position on the problem of anger?Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Glad to hear the voice of Aunt Martha calling for the children of Wisdom to play nice. Will we listen?Report

h
h
4 years ago

I think it is important to distinguish between how we feel on the one hand, and how we engage in philosophy on the other. I often use anger as a spur to get me writing, yet I try not to express that anger or to let it influence my arguments, for just the sorts of reasons Nussbaum gives. It may well be dangerous to harness anger in this way, but it makes me write.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  h
4 years ago

Er, this is Hey Nonny Mouse, not “h”. Typos make me so furious!Report

Anton
Anton
4 years ago

It’s important to understand the source of anger, rather than repress it. Anger do not just emerge out of nothing in thin air. It may originate, emerge and develop from the circumstances and livelihoods of people. If their lives are destitute and hard, there’s every good reason that anger is crucial for change.
Not all philosophers hold the same views about anger but conceptualising it as discrete makes it even more remote from a pragmatic standpoint. This won’t bode well if the discipline is to shed its perception of being arcane and remote.Report

Anton
Anton
4 years ago

And furthermore, looking at the multitude of disputes and kinds of deatiled tearing apart of opponents that is a CORE of the philosophical endeavour, one can hardly agree with the posturing of the speech.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Anton
4 years ago

“Detailed tearing apart of opponents” is at the core of the philosophical endeavor? Far from it! Detailed critiques, with the awareness that one’s own arguments could be flawed, are at the core. “Tearing apart” is not philosophical at all.Report

Troy Camplin
4 years ago

I agree that philosophy does not compel or threaten–those are tactics of the weak and of the weak-minded–but I must disagree with her that philosophy doesn’t mock. Socrates mocked. Nietzsche most certainly mocked.

William Blake of course famously wrote:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Yes, Voltaire and Rousseau were famous mockers.

Philosophers have often mocked, and done so in their philosophical works. Sometimes that’s all an opponent deserves; when a person’s ideas are ridiculous, ridicule them. Not without logic, reason, and evidence, of course, but once those are clearly in place, there is a place for mockery.Report

X
X
Reply to  Troy Camplin
4 years ago

Why should mockery be necessary if the critic has availed herself of reason, logic, and evidence?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Troy Camplin
4 years ago

I don’t think that “philosophy does not mock” mas meant to be taken as a description but a proscription. Obviously, there are philosophers who mock, or there wouldn’t be any point in protesting that “philosophy does not mock”.Report

Timothy Stock
Timothy Stock
4 years ago

I would add Kierkegaard to the obvious list of great philosophical exercises in mockery. It was clear to him that the contemporary forms of rationalized cultural universalism he encountered were the enemy of free thought, but also that the terms of rational debate dictated a mandatory loss for anyone of genuinely dissenting conviction to the cultural presuppositions that set the terms of said debate. Broadly, for him, the philosopher who seeks to obviate human experience by way of formalization will inevitably and justly be exposed to ridicule. Anger would be an excellent example of one such experience that cannot be talked out of existence.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

—“Philosophy does not compel, or threaten, or mock. It doesn’t make bare assertions, but, instead, sets up a structure of thought in which a conclusion follows from premises the listener is free to dispute.”

Really? If philosophy is not a threat and all conclusions can be disputed then it would be largely pointless in my book. Perhaps I’m misreading the words. .Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  PeterJ
4 years ago

I think the idea of “threaten” Nussbaum is referring to is a coercive sort of thing, like “if you don’t do/believe X, you’re going to be sorry.” Your idea of “threat” is more like someone saying to themselves “oh no, some idea I cherish might be wrong! This feels like a threat to my way of thinking about things!” We use the word “threat” in both sorts of ways, and I think it’s the former that Nussbaum is worried about, not the later. I suspect if you said to her “don’t your arguments threaten the beliefs of people who disagree with you?” she would say “yes, of course.” Her worry is about the other sort of threatening, the sort that is coercive.

As for whether all ideas can be disputed, I don’t think Nussbaum is claiming that all ideas can be correctly disputed, such that whoever disputes them has the right idea. I think her point is just that no ideas are put on a pedestal where any criticism of them is verboten. The idea is that philosophy ought always to be open to the possibility that any given idea is incorrect, and that there are arguments against the idea. This doesn’t entail believing that nothing is correct or that all arguments against any idea must succeed. We might think that X is correct and that any disputes against it are bound to fail. The point is that philosophy is fine with people disputing X, where X is any given idea, even if their efforts are, in the end, insufficient to dislodge X.Report

PeteJ
PeteJ
Reply to  Danny Weltman
4 years ago

Okay Danny. Fair enough.Report

Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

A somewhat ironic point, given the Hypatia fiasco, which would seem to suggest that contra Nussbaum, of course philosophy mocks, threatens and compels. Or at least, philosophy, as it has evolved in recent years does so, much to the shame of the discipline.

There are, of course, those who want to try and deny this, despite what is front of everyone’s faces. Or distract attention away from it, as Sally Haslanger tries to do in her post on these pages, which, unsurprisingly, is not open to comments. To allow comments would mean that Haslanger would have to actually respond to criticisms and engage in arguments which, of course, she might lose.

I actually think that we are at a watershed moment in the discipline. There is a chance, just a chance, that we might rescue philosophy from those who want to turn it into a partisan, ideological exercise, and return it to its Socratic roots. If it does, we may be able to follow Nussbaum’s advice. But so long as the practice of philosophy is held hostage to the ideological and partisan demands of those invested in certain brands of “social justice,” I am afraid it will continue to be in which there is plenty of mocking, threatening, and compelling.Report

Timo Tatos
Timo Tatos
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

I feel the histrionics is a bit much here. Honestly. We are public intellectuals. We say things, things happen. We try, people react. It’s so unconscionably objectionable to invoke Socrates as a figure of righteous debate without acknowledging that he spurred massive and vicious social critique, culminating in death. Come on philosophers. The heat is a part of our job.Report

James Goetsch
James Goetsch
4 years ago

As Daniel Kaufman notes, the title of this piece is very ironic given the Hypatia situation. I, too, tried to comment on Dr. Haslanger’s article, but was not able to. If I could have posted, I would have said that the problem with moving on to broader issues is that a very concrete and real person has suffered an injustice that it is hard to ignore. This injustice should not be swept under the carpet too quickly.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I agree that it is a shame that comments were closed on the Hypatia piece. I was going to post a link to a newspaper article about it. More importantly, it sounded like there might have been a petition in the offing.Report