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?
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 Misogyny. The full interview is here.
“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.”
I haven’t read the interview, so maybe it’s explained there, but as I understand this paragraph, Manne argues as follows:
1. Historically subordinate groups are socially forbidden from disagreeing with heterosexual, cis, white men (aka, “hyper-privileged”).
2. In philosophy, to do well, you must disagree with the figures you discuss.
3. The figures you discuss in philosophy are hyper-privileged.
4. Therefore, historically subordinate groups are socially forbidden from doing well in philosophy. (From 1-3.)
Assuming I have the argument correct, I have two criticisms of it.
First, 1 strikes me as false. There seems to be no shortage of non-hyper-privileged disagreeing with the hyper-privileged, and not just in rarefied quarters. It happens on TV all the time, to say nothing of the political sphere. But perhaps my impression, which is not based on empirical research, is based on an extremely unrepresentative sample; perhaps most Hispanic women, for example, want to criticize Trump, but are afraid to because they think it’s not acceptable.
Second, I don’t know how much of the gender gap in philosophy this explanation is supposed to explain. If it’s supposed to explain only a small part of it, then perhaps it could work (though I’m skeptical, for the first reason I give above). But if it’s supposed to explain a large amount, then how does it account for the fact that over 50% of law students are female? (See https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/16/business/dealbook/women-majority-of-us-law-students-first-time.html) It was not always so; in 1978, the percentage of 1st-year J.D. students was only 33% (see https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/statistics/jd_enrollment_1yr_total_gender.authcheckdam.pdf). I could be wrong, but I gather law school involves criticizing the hyper-privileged; how did it go from 1/3 female to over 1/2 female if Manne’s argument is correct?Report
Also not sure I get the law school analogy/reductio–as the interview mentioned, my husband went to law school and now teaches in a philosophy department, and so is a convenient if modest source of anecdata that, in order to get into/through law school, there’s considerably less need than in professional philosophy to directly challenge the ideas of the hyper-privileged (e.g., by saying “no, you’re wrong, because…” in talks and papers to the likes of a Thomas Nagel). Anyway, hope that helps to clarify somewhat.Report
Oh, I have a third point, which is really a question: it seems that Manne’s argument for increasing diversity in the philosophical canon is so that non-hyper-privileged students will be willing to criticize what they read, in particular, the non-hyper-privileged. That’s a very unusual reason for wanting to diversify the canon. Is that really what she means, though? The more I think about this, the more I think I must have badly misunderstood Manne on some level, leading to the oft-repeated but rarely followed admonition: read the whole interview.Report
One last response: “It seems that Manne’s argument for increasing diversity in the philosophical canon is so that non-hyper-privileged students will be willing to criticize what they read, in particular, the non-hyper-privileged. That’s a very unusual reason for wanting to diversify the canon. Is that really what she means, though?” No. Not sure how you got this reading. In the relevant section, I’m pointing to the importance of increasing diversity–or better, combating exclusion–in the profession for the sake of historically subordinate group members themselves–because I regard philosophy as a liberating discipline. That’s of course compatible with thinking the canon should be diversified for many other reasons besides the one you attribute to me.
I’m out now for lack of time to clarify–but I do agree it’d be a good idea to read my words rather than speculate about what I might mean.Report
I don’t think this is a reconstruction of any argument in the paragraph. But premise 1 is plausible if socially forbidding the Fs from disagreeing with any G can be done by systematically underestimating the talent, intelligence, authority, etc. of Fs (in general, or for the most part) in such disagreements.
The relevant context of criticism of the “hyper-privileged” *in philosophy* is very different from that in the political sphere and elsewhere, and different from that of law school. So your criticism of premise 2 doesn’t consider disagreement in a relevantly similar context. So, plausibly, it misses the point.Report
correction: not premise 2, I meant your criticism of premise 1Report
Your Friend writes,
“I don’t think this is a reconstruction of any argument in the paragraph.”
Huh. Well, let me at least say why I made the reconstruction I did, using quotes from the paragraph.
1. Historically subordinate groups are socially forbidden from disagreeing with heterosexual, cis, white men (aka, “hyper-privileged”). (Based on: “But that’s a verboten social move as a historically subordinate group member.”)
2. In philosophy, to do well, you must disagree with the figures you discuss. (Based on: “I think because our discipline more or less *requires* directly disagreeing with established philosophers … in order to *prove your philosophical chops.*”)
3. The figures you discuss in philosophy are hyper-privileged. (Based on: “our discipline more or less requires directly disagreeing with established philosophers, who are typically white male authority figures … the hyper-privileged men (in being white, het, cis, wealthy or middle-class, non-disabled, etc.) who continue to dominate in our field.”
Maybe my argument is all wet, but can you at least see how I arrived at it?Report
Thanks for your question. My thought is that women will tend to be subject to (more or less) hostile and punitive reactions, as compared with a male counterpart, when challenging hyper-privileged male authority figures. (There’s a large literature in social psychology that bears on this issue, which I canvass in Chapter 8 of my book on misogyny fwiw.) The upshot being that, re: your premise 1, by “verboten” I didn’t mean forbidden in the sense that would make it a social rarity, as opposed to imposing differential social costs on different groups of people, affect incentive/ disincentive structures, etc.Report
Thanks for the responses, Your Friend and Kate Manne. So, let me explain what I was getting at with the law school analogy. The thought I had was this: in law school, you have to directly challenge the hyper-privileged; in philosophy, you have to directly challenge the hyper-privileged; law school has seen its proportion of female students go from a minority to a majority; philosophy has not; therefore, what explains why philosophy has so few women is not the fact that they have to directly challenge the hyper-privileged, but something else.
It seems, though, that you (Kate Manne) mean something different by “directly challenge” from what I thought you meant. I thought you meant something like “disagree with the works of hyper-privileged people in a classroom setting”. But, based on a comment you made above, it seems you meant something more like, “disagree with hyper-privileged people face-to-face” (I take this from your remark above: “in order to get into/through law school, there’s considerably less need than in professional philosophy to directly challenge the ideas of the hyper-privileged (e.g., by saying ‘no, you’re wrong, because…’ in talks and papers to the likes of a Thomas Nagel)”. Do I have you right?
(And Your Friend, who doesn’t speak for you, Kate Manne, but for him/herself, seems to also have a different understanding of direct disagreement from what I had thought you meant.)
Assuming I have you right, let me make a couple of observations: when I was in graduate school, I don’t recall having the courage to disagree with people on the level of Thomas Nagel, face-to-face. I was too intimidated (though maybe people who went to graduate school with me could chime in and regale me with stories of my bravery). And I also recall being fairly intimidated by my dissertation committee (two white men and a white woman) and some of my fellow graduate students. Is this the kind of direct disagreement that you’re talking about? So, not just famous philosophers, but also your own committee-members and fellow graduate students?Report
I meant writing papers/talks/presenting claims in informal settings in which you directly contradict the claims of prominent philosophers, who are disproportionately likely to be hyper-privileged. In other settings, that’s often seen as socially inappropriate, and discouraged/punished by third parties who tend to side with those who are more privileged. Or so I would argue. But these sorts of claims, casually expressed here in an interview, are defended at greater length and with much more precision in my book and elsewhere.Report
A not very important yet real (not rhetorical) question for Kate Manne: was Thomas Nagel particularly hard to disagree with (in public – lots to disagree with in his writing!)? I never met or encountered him, but have found that famous philosophers are highly variable in the level they can be disagreed with in, say, a colloquium. Some take even poor questions, or aggressive questions, well and try to find something good in them. Some are well-known jerks, or respond with jokes rather than answers, etc. I’m sure we all have our lists, though they also likely differ. What about Nagel earns his mention here (and elsewhere in the interview)?Report
See above–I’m talking about it being appropriate vis-a-vis the disciplinary norms of philosophy to disagree directly with Thomas Nagel, e.g., to argue against his views in print, but less appropriate vis-a-vis gendered social norms to disagree with/correct people of his genre in everyday life. This norm is enforced by third parties, and needn’t involve second-personal exchanges with the figure in question. So, by “direct” I mean “not in a roundabout way,” the latter being more the norm in other humanities disciplines as a general rule–or so I claim in the interview, and hopefully is clear there from context.Report
P.S. I’ve never met Thomas Nagel, and have no idea what he’s like (ironically). My point above certainly isn’t to impugn his character or interpersonal skills in the slightest. It’s merely to point to an example of a figure one may be comparatively intimidated to disagree with as a historically subordinate group member, or (relatedly) deemed arrogant by third parties for presuming to correct. That claim is supposed to be a general social norm, which either conflicts with, or (ideally) is supplanted with the disciplinary norm in philosophy that one is entitled, and indeed encouraged, to disagree with anyone, however authoritative/powerful/revered/brilliant etc.
I used Nagel as an example of someone with the relevant social status above purely due to his salience in this context (given the name of Cliff’s website, and also because I named Nagel in the interview as my favorite philosopher with whose views I often disagree.)
I should bow out now and get back to syllabus-writing. But thanks for the questions and opportunity to clarify some of my thoughts.Report
Thanks for the clarification, Kate. I guess I don’t see the restrictions of disagreeing with people in print, though could see it in person more plausibly, especially from particular people, some of whom may be well known to not take disagreement from “lower status” people well. (Some, of course, also don’t take disagreement from “high status” people well, either!)Report
I don’t think we disagree–that’s why I think philosophy is liberating, compared with everyday life (as it would be otherwise, for me at any rate, given earlier experiences outlined in the interview). Cheers.Report
If philosophy is so much about disagreeing with established figures, why are so many graduates of top philosophy graduate programs immediately recognizable as such, by the way they ape the views of the influential philosophers in those departments?Report
Perhaps because it is possible to disagree with some established figures while agreeing with others, even sometimes when those different established figures are in the same department? Perhaps because it is even possible to disagree with some established figures about some things while agreeing with them about others? Perhaps because it is difficult to write a dissertation under someone who shares literally none of your starting points, even if you are friends with them and there is mutual respect between the two of you, while it is less difficult to write a dissertation under someone who shares some of your starting points even if that means that on a superficial reading of your (and their) work others will think that you are aping their views?Report
Sorry JDF, I overlapped with you–your comment just showed up for me after I posted mine below. But yes, that’s the idea.Report
In answer to your question: because in philosophy one can–and I would argue, often does–ape the established figures one likes or has been influenced by by arguing against their opponents, or defending their claims against salient objections. If the latter have been disproportionately voiced by hyper-privileged figures, then my point still holds–it’s not that it’s necessary to disagree with everyone prominent, but rather with someone prominent. Otherwise the charge will be that one is attacking a straw philosopher or scrounging for low-hanging fruit.
The fewer people you feel free to say “Who are you/is he to know *that*?” to/about (in mixed company) in everyday life, the harder–and more liberating–the discipline of philosophy promises to be for you, all else equal. That is the claim I make in the interview, and defend elsewhere. Hope that helps.Report
In response to Tom Hurka, Kate Manne might have been lucky in where she was educated. .Some departments, some schools and some teachers really do encourage rational dissent and value it when they see it. Others only pretend to do so. Kate was perhaps largely educated at the first kind of department; the clones come from the second. (I would add that Australian departments where Kate did her BA and I did my PhD, are, in my experience, fairly dissent-friendly. There was no attempt to turn me into anybody’s clone and no need to become one to succeed.)
But I would like to suggest a problem with Kate’s proposal (which perhaps she discusses in her book). Suppose we employ more women academics (for example) so that people in general, including the under-privileged, will feel more free to disagree with them in the way that we consider healthy. Won’t they carry an unfair burden of being- disagreed-with? Furthermore since the reason people feel more free to disagree with them is their lower social status, can’t that disagreement turn quite nasty? I think that this might be a real problem. Indeed I think it that in the past it actually *has* been a problem in my own (still predominately male) department. Some years ago we employed a female graduate student as a temporary lecturer. The smart young men in her class gave her an exceptionally hard time, challenging the legitimacy of this entire area of enquiry. I should stress that none of them overstepped the bounds of polite discourse (our classes are not the bear-pits of overt sexism and racism that I have sometimes read about) , but it was still very psychologically gruelling for her and In the end we had to stage a sort of intervention in which I (as a confident and experienced male academic) gave a guest lecture answering some of the persistent criticisms. Verbally at least everything remained on the elevated plane of philosophical theory, but I could not help feeling that there was an unpleasantly sexist edge to the whole episode.
Isn’t Kate’s proposal almost an open invitation to this sort of thing?
Note I am not contesting Kate’s conclusion that a less white and less male professoriate would be a good thing. I am just suggesting that there is a significant downside to one of the goods that she expects this to produce.Report