Failing Well and Challenging Authority

“But what I loved about philosophy, and what got me hooked in that intro course to begin with, was the sense that you could fail well. That you could think and think and think and never be assured of being right: that you could be good at philosophy and careful, indeed obsessive, and still end up being wrong.”

That’s Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell, in an interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? 

She continues:

Hence the allure of these deep disagreements it was fairly clear were never going to be resolved. Somehow, they were the sorts of debates that nobody ought to win, and that ought to be ongoing discussions—-between reasonable people with different intellectual temperaments, perhaps. Professional philosophers sometimes bemoan this aspect of the discipline, but it was a large part of what drew me in initially, and is one of the things I love about teaching philosophy to this day.

It also enables people, including those who don’t traditionally get to disagree with members of socially dominant classes without stepping on their toes, to say “No, I think you’re wrong, because…” and to argue civilly and well with authority figures, while abiding by social (or at least disciplinary) norms. That represented an incredibly liberating possibility for me, since I was often afraid to challenge or disagree with the boys I went to high school with.

Later in the interview, she makes a related point in answering a question about why there’s a lack of demographic diversity in philosophy:

Among other factors, I think because our discipline more or less requires directly disagreeing with established philosophers, who are typically white male authority figures, in order to prove your philosophical chops. But that’s a verboten social move as a historically subordinate group member. This is also why, incidentally, I think it’s so important to have diversity in philosophy. In philosophy, you get to say ‘no’ to authority figures—which makes it a forbidding but also potentially highly liberating discipline for those who are socially marginalized relative to the hyper-privileged men (in being white, het, cis, wealthy or middle-class, non-disabled,  etc.) who continue to dominate in our field.

Manne is the author of the recently published Down Girl: The Logic of MisogynyThe full interview is here.

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