Philosophers and Petitions


Numbers generate a pressure to believe that isn’t grounded in explanatory force, because having more and more adherents to a view doesn’t give rise to better and better accounts of why the view is correct…

Philosophers ought to be especially sensitive to introducing this element of belief imposition into our culture. As a philosopher, I want my influence to be philosophical, which is to say, I want to bring people to believe only what they, by their own lights, can see to be justified; I don’t want them to believe something because (I am one of the) many people who think it.

That’s Agnes Callard (Chicago), writing in The New York Times, on why “petitions, regardless of their content, compromise core values of intellectual inquiry” and why their use “constitutes a kind of philosophical malpractice.” Her central focus is on petitions and open letters directed at academics.

Mural by David de la Mano and Pablo S. Herrero

I get what she’s saying. In regard to an academic petition from a couple of years ago, I urged that “in conducting our academic work we should try as much as possible to rely on the exchange of evidence and arguments, not (directly) on the numbers of people who agree with us, or the strength of their agreement” and cautioned against activities that push us towards “a version of academia in which, in the contest of ideas, when expertise bumps up against popularity, the latter is more likely to win.”

In her column, Callard writes:

We’d never approach questions such as “Are possible worlds real?” or “Is knowledge justified true belief?” by petition, so why are we tempted to do so in the case of questions around sex, gender and hurtful speech?

She thinks the answer she’d get is:

the latter question involves real feelings and real people, and it is about something that is happening now—for all these reasons, it strikes us as being of grave importance. The petition writers are thinking to themselves, this time it really matters. 

And she replies:

I think it is a mistake for a philosopher to take the importance of a question as a reason to adopt an unphilosophical attitude toward it… If we are going to have professional, intramural discussions about the ethics of the profession, we should do so philosophically and not by petitioning one another. We should allow ourselves the license to be philosophical all the way down.

I’m somewhat sympathetic with this, but I’m not sure Callard accurately characterizes the thinking of petition writers. She emphasizes that petition writers think it’s the “importance of a question” that draws them to that particular tool. Importance is one thing, sure, but I suspect the crucial element is practical urgency. That is, there is a decision or action that needs to be taken on a specific matter, or as part of the shaping of practices and norms in our shared work environment, and there are reasons to think it would be better if this decision or action were taken sooner rather than later.

Callard says we should make these decisions “philosophically and not by petitioning one another.” We know, though, that, generally, any given philosophical discussion is an ongoing matter unlikely to be resolved any time soon, and so sometimes we employ non-philosophical methods to make practical professional decisions. We vote on association bylaws or departmental policies, for example. We answer polls on various questions related to the discipline. Are these unphilosophical methods of proceeding? Maybe, but fortunately we are not forced to choose between them and doing philosophy, for we can philosophize in advance of them, during them, and after them. And that’s what we do.

The same goes for petitions and open letters. I see little evidence that they are substituting for philosophical conversation that otherwise would have taken place on their subject matter, even when the subjects veer a little from practical professional matters into substantive philosophical issues. If anything, they draw attention to the subjects, provide information about people’s beliefs, and prompt increased philosophical conversation and more robust disagreement among a greater number of parties.

That said, Callard’s considerations may inform discussions of what is reasonable to state in petitions or open letters directed at fellow academics, or what is reasonable to ask of our colleagues in such documents—as well as the ways in which it’s responsible to let them affect our reasoning.

Callard says “we should allow ourselves the license to be philosophical all the way down.” Sure. And as we head all the way down, if we need to make a few decisions along the way, or think it would be useful to know the prevalence of certain opinions about our journey, we should allow ourselves to make thoughtful use of various tools we have at our disposal to do so. That doesn’t stop us from doing philosophy.

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Avalonian
2 years ago

Now, in a sense, this is just a false dilemma. Nothing in principle prevents us from including philosophical argumentation or moral explanation in a petition. I think that a major issue is that in the past couple of years, we’ve seen multiple petitions designed to attack or otherwise limit the activities of professional philosophers, and that the petition-writers have been remarkably unwilling to substantiate the positive claims they’re making, even just by providing links to longer documents or external evidence. We hear, for example, that some philosophers aren’t familiar with relevant literature, or we hear ambitious empirical claims about speech or harm or disrespect or what have you, and at no point do the letter-writers tell any of us why we should believe these claims. And when pressed, some of them insist that it’s “not their job” to educate the rest of us. I hope that those signatories understand that, to anyone remotely familiar with philosophy and ordinary human psychology, this just looks incredibly suspicious. We know you are capable of explaining yourself, and you’re refusing to do so.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Avalonian
2 years ago

“And when pressed, some of them insist that it’s “not their job” to educate the rest of us.”

That really is about the cheapest trick used by some in the profession, and it always makes me lose respect for the trickster’s philosophical integrity.

It’s not just that it’s coercive and unfair, which is bad enough. It’s that it reveals such an utter lack of intellectual humility. If I don’t know of a compelling reason for believing that P, and someone else believes strongly that P, I want to find out why so that I can reevaluate my own beliefs. I presume that a philosophically-minded person who has thought about the issue and come upon a good reason for believing P would love an opportunity to present the argument and entertain objections or win a convert. If the person says, ‘I don’t feel like discussing it, but I feel confident that P’, I already feel it’s a little strange, though I often try to charitably imagine that the argument is very complicated or something.

But the people who pull this swindle are going beyond that. They’re not just saying they reject the opportunity to present the apparently powerful argument: they’re saying that the secret argument is so devastatingly strong that it makes the issue a foregone conclusion in their favor. If they had the least doubt about whether they had thought the whole matter through correctly, they might say “Sorry, I don’t feel like discussing it”, but they would never presume to imply that the argument would ‘educate’ (or ‘inform’) us about the matter unless they felt no doubt at all about the truth of their view — which is even more arrogant given that they are declining, in the same moment, the opportunity to discuss the issue with us and hear what we have to say on the matter.

When I hear people say this, I tend to conclude pretty quickly that they don’t seem to be interested in thinking philosophically about the issue. That, in turn, makes me wonder how many other people who hold the view have arrived at it non-philosophically, which has the opposite effect to the one sought by the speaker.

So, this calls into question for me the speaker’s interest and ability at doing real philosophy. But the typical choice of the word ‘educate’ for ‘inform’ in these cases makes it even worse. I can _inform_ a peer by presenting him or her with facts, theories or arguments, but I think I can only ‘educate’ someone who is not yet a peer of mine in the relevant area, and only when I work to cultivate his or her intellectual autonomy. ‘Educate’ therefore shows an even greater lack of epistemic humility than ‘inform’ would in the same sentence, and the running together of those terms makes me fear that the speaker is apt to engage in indoctrination in the classroom and hence be a bad teacher in addition to a bad philosopher.Report

S
S
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

This totally depends on the context in which the phrase ‘it’s not my job to educate you’ is used. Sometimes I think this is a perfectly valid reason to end a conversation. Sometimes it is plainly obvious that your interlocutor hasn’t made a lot of effort to try and read up on the issue and/or understand the arguments of the opposing side (or is simply trolling). For example, I think it’s perfectly fine for a feminist to decline to “educate” a misogynist who has just said something sexist or discriminated against her, while at the same time maintaining the stance that she is in an epistemically superior position to her interlocutor. It takes a lot of time and effort to engage with sexists, and feminists do not always owe their time and effort to such individuals.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  S
2 years ago

If you have good reason to think that your interlocutor is trolling you, or is not willing to earnestly engage with any of your arguments, then surely the best response is to say something like:

“I don’t think you are approaching this discussion in good faith, and I don’t think that you are willing to earnestly engage with my arguments. Therefore, I don’t wish to continue”.

This is better than responding with “it’s not my job to educate you” for a number of reasons. First, it directly points to what the problem is. Second, it will probably sound more reasonable to bystanders, particular those who haven’t taken a side, and if you think your side is right then you don’t want to prejudice such people against it. Third, there is always a chance you have misread your interlocutor. By being straight about what the problem is you give them a chance to present evidence to you that they are being sincere and are open to hearing your arguments.

If your interlocutor says something sexist or discriminates against you, and this (understandably) makes you unwilling to continue the debate then why not say:

“Because of your sexist remark(s) and discriminatory actions I no longer wish to participate in a discussion with you.”

This is better than responding with “it’s not my job to educate you” for similar reasons to those stated above.

If none of the above problems apply, and the issue is merely that your interlocutor, in your view, has not made a sufficient effort to learn about and consider the arguments on your side of debate then I agree with Justin Kalef’s comments above. By asking you (in good faith) to present some of these arguments to them, they are at this very moment attempting to learn about the relevant arguments and are showing a willingness to give them due consideration. Saying “It’s not my job to educate you” is a poor response for the reasons that Justin gives. This seems true even in the case of debating a misogynist. Suppose someone thinks that men by default ought to take a leadership role over women in all domestic and institutional settings. Furthermore, suppose they are discussing their views with you in good faith and are open to considering any reasons you offer against them. You might decide to offer them some of the (overwhelming and decisive) arguments against their view. Or you might choose to say something like: “Right now, I don’t feel like debating someone like you, with your views”. Either response is reasonable. However, saying “it’s not my job to educate you” does not seem reasonable even in this extreme case.Report

A grad student
A grad student
Reply to  JTD
2 years ago

All excellent points. Of course, part of the problem is that people mistake earnest questioning for trolling, harassment, or discrimination. This may be understandable, as they have to constantly sift through a large volume of trolling. Or it may not be, in the case of those who think that any questioning of their views is trolling/harassment/discrimination.Report

GradStudent
GradStudent
Reply to  JTD
2 years ago

It’s worth remembering that “It’s not my job to educate you” entered the lexicon because of bad faith trolls who would use an endless string of “who says that?” “what’s the citation for that?” etc., in response to whatever you say in an online argument hoping to cause exhaustion or find a moment where their opponent lacks justification for something so they can give them a “gotcha!”Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

I don’t think it’s just trolling if this presupposes deliberate deception. I’ll just be blunt and partisan: the problem in a lot of these cases is that the people in question are relying on stuff in the “continental” tradition: Butler, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, etc. and the literature that builds off of them. The problem is that they simply can’t summarize the arguments for you in these cases because there aren’t any good arguments there in the first place. It’s mostly obscurantist sophistry comprised of longwinded unparsable sentences about whether the otherness of being is itself a being or an other, etc. and a bunch of rhetorical questions. All the obscurantist sophist can do is tell you to read the obscurantist sophists’ literature because it is the prose that does all of the persuasive work rather than the underlying arguments or ideas (which often do not exist).

But this isn’t to say that these people aren’t genuine in their beliefs. It is that they themselves have been duped. They drank in those long unparseable sentences and thought they *must* have conveyed something deep and important. They see those rhetorical questions as devastating because they sound so subversive. And their social circle reinforces this belief. But no matter how many people agree, the emperor remains buck naked.

Thus the “I don’t have to educate you” response is more of a defensive reflex than an attempt to troll. It’s exactly what you would do if someone questioned the foundations of your worldview and you didn’t know how to respond. It’s how ordinary people respond to flat-earthers and anti-vaxers. The ordinary person doesn’t really have the scientific knowledge or critical thinking abilities to provide a substantive response so they just tell the person to educate themselves. Of course, the difference in this case is that the Critical Theory people *should* be in a position to explain their positions because they are the supposed experts.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

the problem in a lot of these cases is that the people in question are relying on stuff in the “continental” tradition: Butler, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, etc. and the literature that builds off of them.

Who specifically are you saying is doing this?Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

The people who work in those traditions who sign petitions about race and gender. For instance, many of the people who complained about Tuvel’s paper seemed to be angry that she didn’t cite people in these traditions. Same with many of the people who dismissed the recent Sokal-style hoaxes which specifically targeted these traditions. Whenever I have an argument with a conty it *always* ends with them telling me to read ten thousand pages of French gibberish and refusing to clarify what the arguments are supposed to be. (Regardless of whether the argument has to do with race or gender. Yes, I am axe-grinding here.)

Granted, many who refuse to explain themselves are also analytics. You have to go through their C.V.s. I find the analytics who resort to saying they don’t have to explain things tend to be more cynical and politically self-serving, and will generally just shout their opponents down and call them scumbags in the same breath.

I’m not gonna name names, though. First because I’m too lazy to dredge through Twitter to round up the usual suspects. But also because I’m posting anonymously and the people in question would count it as another instance of some anonymous person personally attacking them. I’d rather attack the ideology, anyway.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Avalonian
2 years ago

We hear, for example, that some philosophers aren’t familiar with relevant literature… and at no point do the letter-writers tell any of us why we should believe these claims. And when pressed, some of them insist that it’s “not their job” to educate the rest of us.

On this particular charge, there is a lot of stuff out there about how the GCFs don’t appear to show familiarity with the literature. Christa Peterson in particularly has been doggedly documenting this.* Here is one thread. You can find lots of others if you search Christa’s timeline for words like “familiarity” and “reading.”

If you want an example of an assertion without evidence in the dispute over who’s done the literature, you could hardly do better than Holly Lawford-Smith’s response to someone bringing up Christa’s work.

Now, those aren’t in the letters themselves, it’s true. I can’t say why anyone else includes or doesn’t include something in an open letter that they sign, but I think that there are many reasons why people might not include specific documentation in their letters–avoiding bloating the letters too much and some reluctance to call out individual colleagues by name might be some reasons. I do think it’s a bit unfortunate that the exchanges of open letters, which are what most people are seeing, are proceeding at such a level of abstraction, because it obscures what’s actually at issue. It’s hard to evaluate a claim that accusing philosophers of being transphobic is cruel and abusive if you don’t know what those philosophers have actually done; if you think that the background is that certain people argued that journals should reject out of hand papers arguing for a certain thesis (or that philosophers arguing for that thesis should be sanctioned, which as far as I can tell no one has said), you’re going to have a different take on things than if you think that the background is that some philosophers have been misgendering a colleague, or using unrepresentative scaremongering anecdotes to argue against equal rights legislation in Medium posts.

As for the part I snipped:

we hear ambitious empirical claims about speech or harm or disrespect or what have you

It’s a bit difficult to analyze whether these claims are supported without being told exactly what they are (ahem). But it’s notable that a substantial part of the dispute begins with GCFs repeatedly making ambitious empirical claims about trans women being more violent than cis women and explicitly refusing to provide evidence! See Justin Weinberg’s points 4 and 5 in response to Kathleen Stock here, and Stock’s response here, where she does not provide any evidence for her claim, but instead demands that Weinberg show evidence that her claim is false.

So, there are people who are trying to educate the rest of you about these issues. But you may need to look for them a bit. And, given how much time, attention, and energy this dispute is taking for those who are participating in it, I don’t think it’s always unreasonable for people to sometimes tell their interlocutors to look stuff up themselves.

*At great personal cost to herself, as many different more senior people have been attacking her over this, including not only professional attacks but attempts to leverage a family tragedy that she is experiencing against her, to her considerable emotional distress.Report

Avalonian
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

I am not going to engage you, Matt, over whether these explanations are legitimate, and nor did I claim that no-one is trying to substantiate various moral and empirical claims. I suspect people will get a lot of pushback on your thinking that these explanations are obviously decisive, but hey, that push and pull is precisely the academic speech that only some people are trying to censor or limit. My primary point is that these explanations are entirely missing from the petitions, and that’s not good. And I’ll stick to my second claim that SOME petitioners refuse to explain themselves; this is obviously not true of everyone engaged in this debate, and if I gave the impression that I think it is extremely common practice I do apologize.

As a meta-point, however, I think we should all be more than a little concerned that academics are now expected to check twitter threads–TWITTER, people–for the kind of explanations that you and I agree are missing from the petitions. For one, many of us don’t have Twitter accounts. I am not going to create one and “follow” all the relevant actors so that I can be alerted to the existence of some important new moral explanation. We all need petition-writers to take 8 seconds of their time to link the explanation in the petition, and the second, much more important thing here is that Twitter’s jarring, character-limited, multiply embedded, often out-of-context and weirdly rapid-fire conversations are obviously not a great place for that link to point to. This is why Stock and Lawford-Smith have been careful to write long, footnoted essays and link to them repeatedly, and I think even this isn’t particularly ideal; we desperately need these discussions to start moving through peer-review. But yeah; I’m glad we agree that petitions could be improved, but I would insist that they will not be significantly improved by Twitter links.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Avalonian
2 years ago

For one, many of us don’t have Twitter accounts. I am not going to create one and “follow” all the relevant actors so that I can be alerted to the existence of some important new moral explanation.

I don’t have a Twitter account either! One can check Twitter without an account–in fact in some ways it’s easier, because if you don’t have an account then you can’t be blocked.

But I take your point about not wanting to have to check Twitter to find out about these things. It’s a burden! As I said, I think these petitions would be better if they would be more specific about what they were talking about, so people could more easily understand what the underlying issues are. I fear that the discussion has gone off the rails in large part because people are unaware of the underlying issues!

I would insist that they will not be significantly improved by Twitter links.

I don’t really get this, though. If the explanations have been posted on Twitter, what is wrong with linking to them on Twitter? Especially when some of the underlying conduct, such as LawfordSmith‘s and Stock’s abuse of Rachel McKinnon, is itself on Twitter?

(I can’t say that I think the length and footnotes of the GCF’s Medium essays are that helpful, because the essays are time-consuming and exhausting to read–they’re very repetitive and there are a lot of them. I got involved in this whole issue because I read one of Stock’s essays, clicked one of the links she was using to support her points [since deleted without any alteration to the argument surrounding it], and was astonished at how transphobic it was. But that took a lot of time and people are understandably reluctant to spend that much time on this.)

On the point that the statement don’t provide these links, though, I find it odd to specifically draw examples from the 33 feminist philosophers statement, though. The 12 Leading Scholars statement is surely at least as big an offender here. The first assertion in the statement is “Recent conversations among academic philosophers have given traction to proposals to censure or silence colleagues who advocate certain positions in these discussions”–which proposals? what traction? Later on they say “We condemn the too frequently cruel and abusive rhetoric, including accusations of hatred or transphobia, directed at these philosophers in response to their arguments and advocacy”–but they don’t link to those accusations, which makes it impossible to figure out whether those accusations are merited without a lot of independent research.

So on the meta issue, it looks to me as though the 33 feminist philosophers were simply responding on the same level and in the same way as the document they were responding to. Unfortunately, I think that getting into specifics of exactly who did what in these letters would wind up becoming extremely unpleasant. But perhaps other virtues should override pleasantness here.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Whoops, I should’ve linked these Twitter posts from Jazz Artemis about unsupported claims in the 12LS statement. (For those who don’t mind clicking through to Twitter!)Report

Avalonian
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

You’re right, of course the 12 signatories are just as guilty here as the 33. Full agreement there, and I think Callard has to agree as well! The subsequent question is whether any of these signatories would be willing to explain themselves, and if they are, more power to them. Given that Peter Singer has never declined to answer a philosophical question in his *life*, I somehow doubt he’d pull the “it’s offensive of you to even ask that” move, but hey, if he did, I’d hate on him too. 😉

“(I can’t say that I think the length and footnotes of the GCF’s Medium essays are that helpful, because the essays are time-consuming and exhausting to read–they’re very repetitive and there are a lot of them.”

I guess I just don’t know what to say, here. Surely you would be willing to say that, all other things being equal, a longer essay with citations functions better (as a moral or empirical explanation) than a series of Tweets, yes? I can’t help but wonder what it would even mean for an academic to deny that. Maybe you don’t like Stock’s essays or find them exhausting, but surely they function better, as explanations of the underlying positions, than tweets. On Twitter Stock wouldn’t have had the space or time to link to the document you cite, and you would have learned less (even by your lights) about her position, yes?

This is why I think that anyone interested in seriously propounding a controversial or non-consensus view has to do so in something like an essay with citations. No one at all should conclude that Stock should be made to shut up or that she (a feminist professor of philosophy) is ignorant of some feminist literature on the basis of some angry tweets… certainly not academics. This is like Social Epistemology 101… if a group of people are going to work issues like this out they *can’t* do it on Twitter.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Avalonian
2 years ago

I should start by saying that I think we’re having the discussion at a very meta level here, and I’m not really too committed to any position on the meta level about the best way to hold these discussions. What’s really important to me is that people adequately inform themselves about what’s happening if they’re going to have opinions. Maybe the open letters aren’t doing the best at that, though I’m skeptical that that’s because of their open letter nature!

I think Callard has to agree as well!

And I should say that, per Daniel Greco below, she does agree–her article is about being asked to sign the 12LS letter apparently, not the 33. (I don’t have an NYT subscription and can’t read Callard’s article, which is why I’m trying to respond to responses.) Apologies for leaving a different impression.

Surely you would be willing to say that, all other things being equal, a longer essay with citations functions better (as a moral or empirical explanation) than a series of Tweets, yes?

Not really! Length can be counterproductive. Sometimes long essays have the effect of those debate-team people who talk superfast in order to get lots of points in, on the theory that if even one point goes unrefuted they win. And it’s possible to do citations on Twitter–if you follow the links to Twitter I’ve posted, lots of them have citations.

(If you just really hate Twitter and don’t want to click, that’s a perfectly defensible position! But I do think that you’re missing out on relevant information then.)

…on the basis of some angry tweets… certainly not academics. This is like Social Epistemology 101… if a group of people are going to work issues like this out they *can’t* do it on Twitter.

I don’t really see why Twitter is such a problem here, and the characterization of the discussion as “some angry Tweets” seems unfair. If an argument were a cogent contribution to the discussion as a blog post, why wouldn’t it be a cogent contribution as a Twitter thread? If you’ve ever seen Kevin Kruse’s threads in response to Dinesh D’Souza, they’re cogent contributions, because they provide evidence and citations. Christa Peterson’s threads (and others) also provide evidence and citations. It seems like epistemic responsibility to check those out if one is going to form an informed opinion for oneself. And if one isn’t going to check things out firsthand… well, you need to rely on what other people say, which is one place where open letters come in?Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

No one should be expected to read Tweets. Even when there is valuable information, as there often is, you still have to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s burdensome, a pain to read, and filled with anger, outrage, spite, higher-order snark, and verbal abuse. Twitter is hell. I deleted my account last year. We can’t be expected to follow supposedly cogent conversations on Twitter, even if that’s the only place they’re happening.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Even when there is valuable information, as there often is, you still have to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s burdensome, a pain to read, and filled with anger, outrage, spite, higher-order snark, and verbal abuse.

The same thing could be said about the GCFs’ Medium essays.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Well that’s far from obviousReport

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Really? Have you looked at this? Which part of a response to specific colleagues isn’t anger, outrage, spite, or verbal abuse, “fuck you” or “cheers, you horrors”? “[F]acile, hyperbolic, and fact-free attempts by academic philosophers to shut gender-critical feminists like me up” isn’t higher-order snark?

This whole discussion is a really exhausting shaggy-dog story. “This petition doesn’t provide any evidence for their claims.” “Here’s some evidence for their claims.” “Not that kind of evidence!\”Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

My initial point was about Twitter in general. I don’t particularly care for GCF Medium posts honestly but on average I’d say that, whether or not you agree with them, they make for better reading than twitter threads (regardless of content). Twitter is hell in a way that doesn’t compare to other media, including Medium. So yeah, the expectation that we should read tweets is much weaker than the expectation that we should read Medium posts, if there’s any.Report

Avalonian
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Matt, I think you’re fully aware of the “hell” that Nicolas is referring to and I think that you’re just pretending not to be. There is no way that any remotely reasonable person can ignore what Twitter discussions generally amount to, even if we grant to you, charitably, that a small number of discussions are of passable quality. Your ability to point to one or two potential counterexamples is irrelevant to that general comparative point. I’m sorry you find it “exhausting” to have to compare various types of academic fora… after being so worn-out having to read one of Stock’s essays, you must truly need a holiday! 😉Report

Matthew
Matthew
Reply to  Avalonian
2 years ago

The point, I think, is that basically, normal petitions act as appeals to authority. Even if there were an argument attached to a petition, they are separate objects– one sophistically operable, the other philosophically. Why include the list of signatures if the argument is the point?

Maybe we could subject the role of the petition to the philosophic ethos by making it explicit that the signers claim to have critically evaluated and approved x argument for the limited and qualified conclusion they purport it establishes.
Any mention of the expertise of the philosophers would be omitted– any such is clearly an appeal to authority. The great thing about philosophers is that they can assess the merits of most arguments they encounter, or can tell when the a deeper knowledge of the terms of this argument or that is needed to make such an assessment.
If the argument is given in the petition, then philosopher should be able to examine its merits on level epistemic ground with the signers. So, the function of the kind of petition I describe is merely to signal to others that a number of people dedicated to thinking well find x argument convincing and its conclusion important. It might do this without making tacit claims about opaque and unapproachable epistemic authorities.Report

Saul Fisher
Saul Fisher
2 years ago

Enough is enough!
Philosophers Against Petitions.
http://chng.it/Nrx2dPQ2Report

Sarr Blumson
Sarr Blumson
2 years ago

Does Callard also think that philosophers shouldn’t vote?

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Untenured Ethicist
Untenured Ethicist
2 years ago

Petitions and open letters in a professional environment are objectionably coercive. They attempt to pressure people into taking a public position on an issue for fear that their silence will be interpreted as support for the opposing side.
Asking colleagues in the profession to sign a petition or open letter is ethically questionable. Asking untenured colleagues to sign a petition or an open letter is especially problematic.Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
2 years ago

Also, better to not talk to colleagues. Someone might express an opinion and then what?Report

Untenured Ethicist
Untenured Ethicist
Reply to  J. Bogart
2 years ago

You say this sarcastically, but it can indeed be problematic to use workplace conversation to try to compel colleagues to reveal their opinions on issues they would rather not discuss. There are ways of sharing one’s own opinion without pressuring colleagues to reveal theirs.Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
2 years ago

Conversations are, of course, coercive, like publishing, and like teaching. One needs to take some risks. In the normal course, none of this counts as coercive.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
2 years ago

FWIW, I and 4761 other leading scholars are of the opinion that it’s stupid to interpret not signing a petition as supporting the other side.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
2 years ago

This reminds me of the recent anecdote about the professor who signed an open letter. His friend, who happened to know that the professor didn’t believe in the main claims of the letter, asked the professor why he had signed it. The professor said, ‘Well, I figured that just about everyone else in the department would be asked to sign it, and would do so, and then it would look really bad if I hadn’t signed.’ The friend then asked for the professor’s thoughts on why all the others signed it, and the professor said, ‘They probably felt they had to for the same reasons I did.’

I think Callard raises some great questions. For those who are in favor of these open letters: If there’s something good to be said for a certain view, then a single person could write a letter making that case. If one wants to know how many members of a department or the profession agree with what’s in the letter, a survey would be a much more effective, and less coercive, means of figuring that out and showing it. What are the advantages of open letters instead?aReport

Matt
2 years ago

From the bits presented here, I think Callard probably at least partly over-states the case, even though she’s getting at an important issue. But, this bit of reply to her:

Importance is one thing, sure, but I suspect the crucial element is practical urgency. That is, there is a decision or action that needs to be taken on a specific matter,

seems to me to fit pretty poorly with many of the well known recent examples, in philosophy and elsewhere. To take the most well known recent example, the Tuvel affair/debacle, what there could possibly be considered “urgent”, requiring anything other than the sort of normal academic/philosophical response? (It’s not just philosophers who have this problem – see the recent similarly embarrassing performance by [mostly] sociologists in relation to a paper on the Black Lives Matter movement in the journal _Ethnic and Racial Studies_.) We might well think that the difference between “Administrators at University X are considering closing the philosophy department in the next few months” and “someone wrote a paper that I think is clearly wrong and that might even have pernicious effects” would be clear, but there seems to be some strong evidence that the two are treated fairly similarly by too many people in the profession. That’s bad, for the reasons Callard mentions, and others as well. If she is able to get people to think more carefully about this, it will be a useful contribution.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
2 years ago

Another comment on Justin’s response.

It doesn’t really make sense to me. Why would we want a philosopher-specific petition if all that was desired was a practical response? Wouldn’t we just want a general social petition? The reason in actual cases I suspect is that philosophers are trading on their status as having supposedly privileged access to moral facts, and then also implying that if a bunch of philosophers take part, that makes it their professed view even stronger.

It seems really clear that that is what is actually going on. You might disagree with her underlying claim regarding the legitimacy of philosophers claiming a privileged access to moral facts, and their using that claim, their relative status, and their aggregated endorsement to change others’ minds and implicitly claim that all of these things give others reason to believe what was written.

But if so, say that. There seems to be little progress to be had in word-smithing between “importance” and “practical urgency” (indeed it’s not clear Callard did not intend the former to include the latter), and seemingly fallacious or at least horribly incomplete arguments with reference to other voting practices (as if voting legitimacy in legislatures or societies/groups would clearly have at all the same or similar justification as the legitimacy of voting when it comes to advising, arguing, or advocating about moral facts.)

We don’t get to cast doubt on other’s views that happen to disagree with our own by saying “Well other place we vote for things. Is that bad? I don’t know! But we can vote and philosophize at the same time. And since we can do both, surely one can’t be wrong. I guess you, Callard, now have the burden of proof.” I can murder and chew gum at the same time, that doesn’t make murder okay or free from critique.

I’m not even sure I agree with her. I just know I don’t agree with Justin’s response, and that his response may even illustrate the kind of flippant attitude towards philosophy had by philosophers who take themselves to be engaged in more “practical”, “urgent”, “important” matters than the rest of the profession.Report

Zach
Zach
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

I think the reason that the petitions are signed by philosophers only is because the petitions are addressing an issue in the philosophy profession. I am confused what makes you think people are “trading on their status as having supposedly privileged access to moral facts.” The audience of these petitions are other experts.

I think Justin’s point with his distinction between important and urgent problems is that urgent problems require timely solutions, and philosophizing about a problem does not create timely solutions. We are all familiar with the “one thought too many” problem over-philosophizing can cause. Urgent problems are important. And Callard is right that important problems deserve as much philosophical thought as can be afforded. But when a problem is urgent, it’s best to decide when it’s time to stop philosophizing and act.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Zach
2 years ago

I think the reason that the petitions are signed by philosophers only is because the petitions are addressing an issue in the philosophy profession.

Yes. When some philosophers think that a colleague’s abusive behavior to another colleague means that he should not be given a position of wide influence in the profession, or that colleagues have been falsely accused of transphobia and are at risk of sanction for doing so, or that colleagues have circulated a petition that misrepresents the climate in your subdiscipline, then that is something that most immediately concerns the discipline of philosophy, and it’s not surprising that philosophers choose to speak out about it. (Obviously I don’t agree with all three of those statements–it’d be impossible to do so!–but they seem like pretty clear cases of matters of concern to the discipline more broadly, such that if the concerns are correct it’s appropriate to have an open letter about them signed only by philosophers.)

As an aside, I’m not sure if anyone’s doing this and I’m not able to read Callard’s full piece, but it seems like it’d be very strange to have a procedural objection to the 33 feminist philosophers’ open letter but not to the “12 Leading Scholars” open letter that it’s responding to. If the argument about belief imposition applies to one, surely it applies to the other? And the 33 letter has an additional element of testimony about the state of the discipline, which surely is legitimate even if you have suspicions about belief imposition. It might not mean anything if I got 33 epistemologists to sign a letter saying that contextualism about knowledge is false, but if I could get 33 epistemologists to sign a letter saying that there is no consensus within epistemology about the semantics of knowledge ascriptions, that would provide pretty good evidence that there is no consensus within epistemology about the semantics of knowledge ascriptions, wouldn’t it?Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

“I’m not able to read Callard’s full piece, but it seems like it’d be very strange to have a procedural objection to the 33 feminist philosophers’ open letter but not to the “12 Leading Scholars” open letter that it’s responding to.”

It sounds like you have things backwards; Callard’s piece only mentions being asked to sign “12 leading scholars” letter, and declining to do so on the general anti-petition/open letter grounds discussed in the OP. She doesn’t mention the 33 feminist philosophers’ open letter.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Daniel Greco
2 years ago

Thanks for the clarification! I had been under the impression that some people had been taking her points to cut against the 33 more so than the 12, and I’m glad to be told that that’s not what Callard herself wasn’t doing.Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
2 years ago

A petition calling for people with certain views to be no platformed, and hence expressly trying to avoid philosophical discussion seems like an odd fit with this view. Is it acceptable precisely because it’s ineffective?Report

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

I’m in broad agreement with Callard, but I think she overstates things when she suggests that petitions compromise core values of intellectual inquiry *regardless of their content*. In my view it’s precisely the content of recent high-profile petitions/open letters that places them in opposition to philosophy. Those petitions invariably hope to curtail some area of scholarly activity e.g. a peer-reviewed article should be retracted, a gender-critical philosopher ought to be no-platformed, a given metaphysical question is “not up for debate”, and so on. *Can* we continue to philosophise on these issues after the petitioning activity? Well, no: not if the petitioners have their way, we can’t.

Suppose, on the other hand, that a group of trans-inclusive scholars want to start a petitioning/write an open letter recommending that self-identification ought to be sufficient for a trans women to be eligible to compete in women’s sport. That seems fine to me. Hopefully such a recommendation would come with reasons, and would therefore count as exerting philosophical influence rather than mere belief imposition. In any case, unlike the actual petitions/open letters that get around, this scenario does not involve the intolerance of divergent views.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Paul
2 years ago

a gender-critical philosopher ought to be no-platformed

Which petition is this?Report

Paul
Paul
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Paul
2 years ago

Even if “It was a mistake to invite this particular philosopher to give this talk because it’s harmful for these reasons, and this particular prestigious venue should not do it again” counts as no-platforming (sometimes I see the term used to shutting down a speaker), it’s not clear to me that it’s in opposition to philosophy, and it definitely doesn’t prevent anyone from philosophizing on those issues. It’s possible to philosophize on issues without being invited to do it in front of the Aristotelian Society.

Now that petition certainly suggests that philosophers shouldn’t put forth the positions Stock did. Are they wrong? Can the position expressed in that letter be dismissed without philosophical debate? The position that everything is Up For Debate is kind of incoherent, since it entails that “X is Up For Debate” is itself Up For Debate. (I suppose one could argue that “X is Up For Debate” is always Up For Debate but also always wrong, but it seems like you’d need a very strong set of arguments for that.) And in practice we don’t treat everything as Up For Debate–I never see anyone seriously consider the arguments on those sheets of paper that random people put on every chair at the APA. So why do I see so much certitude that true philosophy means taking the GCFs’ arguments seriously, but not that it means taking seriously the possibility that the GCFs’ methods and conclusions are bad and harmful? It certainly doesn’t look to me as though it’s because the GCFs are doing high-quality work, or showing familiarity with (or lack of contempt for) the relevant existing literature, or treating trans people with respect outside their relatively formal writings.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

”The position that everything is Up For Debate is kind of incoherent, since it entails that “X is Up For Debate” is itself Up For Debate.”

What’s incoherent about this? I honetsly fail to see it.

And yeah, if you have enough philosophers being shamed and banned from presenting a certain philsoophical position in a respected academic setting, and prevented from being published in a respected journal, it is fair to say that that position is prevented from being a matter of any kind of serious philosophizing.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  krell_154
2 years ago

It’s incoherent because, in declaring that no philosophical position should be ruled out, it rules out certain philosophical positions.

As or the prevention, I think the details of the way the Aristotelian Society work (if I’m not mistaken) mean that calling for the AS not to reach out and invite people to present papers arguing for certain viewpoints, without peer review, isn’t the same as preventing those views from being philosophized about tout court. It looks like the procedure basically amounts to saying “Your view is so worthy of expression that we’re going to jump it over the peer review process that you ordinarily need to go through in order to have your views heard.” I could be wrong–the AS website isn’t super transparent about how this happens.

And look, it’s probably best not to look at this as a matter of pure abstraction. Do we actually think that there is no potential philosophical view such that, if the Aristotelian Society invited someone to give a talk promoting that view, we would not find it appropriate to step back and say “Hey, this is inappropriate, and you need to make a statement in support of the philosophers who see this view as an attack on them?” I can think of some. If there are such views, isn’t it open for discussion that Stock’s view is one of them?Report

Up for a Debate
Up for a Debate
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

I don’t see the incoherence either. Consider:
(1) Everything is up for debate
entails ”everything is up for debate’ is up for debate.’ That seems self-reinforcing, not self-undermining.
(1) also entails the falsity of claims like
(2) The law of non-contradiction is not up for debate.
This might seem like “ruling out” the philosophical position (2). But to be coherent, (1) doesn’t have to be consistent with every statement. It just needs to be consistent with every statement’s being up for debate. That is, it needs to be consistent with
(2′) Whether noncontradiction up for debate is up for debate.
And it is consistent with that.
Note also that it’s not Moore-paradoxical to reject (2) and accept (2′)–it’s not Moore-paradoxical to say ‘I believe that p and it’s up for debate whether p.’
Maybe there’s a specific philosophical position that (1) rules out, thereby becoming incoherent. But I can’t think of what that position would be.Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

What views are attack’s on philosophers such that a statement of support is appropriate? Not socially reprehensible views but attacks on philosophers (which looks to mean philosophers holding particular views). Would this count: A holds that philosophers believing abortion is permissible are murderers? Philosopher argues that believing in souls is delusional?Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Up for a debate: Right, “Everything is up for a debate” is not technically self-contradictory. One could hold that everything is up for a debate, including statements of the form “X is up for a debate,” and that debates about that would always come out the same way. As I already said, I think that’s possible, but it would require very strong arguments that haven’t been supplied.

More to the point, the way “Everything should be up for debate” is being used in this dispute seems performatively contradictory. It’s not being used to encourage people to take seriously the sort of position expressed in the MAP letter. It’s being used to shut it down preemptively–to exclude that position from debate.

And as I said, nobody is going to take seriously the idea that everything should be up for debate, that just because some philosopher wants to say something in a paper we’re obliged to take it seriously. But too many philosophers would rather argue the abstract idea of “Is there a possibility that shows this position to be not technically incoherent?” Which mindset may help explain why it’s not actually a good idea for such philosophers to try to handle socially sensitive topics.

J. Bogart: Philosophers are people, so socially reprehensible views that are attacks on certain classes of people are also attacks on philosophers who fall into those classes. Like, if the Aristotelian Society invited a philosopher to give a blatantly antisemitic talk, I would feel attacked as a Jew, and I would want the Society to express support for Jews in philosophy and try to do better. Of course it would be an attack on non-philosopher Jews too, and it wouldn’t be OK if someone gave a socially reprehensible talk that attacked a group of people that didn’t include any philosophers, but it would more directly affect Jewish philosophers, since the Aristotelian Society is a philosophical organization.

(If someone literally argued that believing in souls is delusional, and it had been predictable that they would literally argue that, I’d expect an apology, yes. Arguing that a philosophical position is a mental illness is disrespectful both to mentally ill people and to philosophers who hold that position.)Report

Up for a Debate
Up for a Debate
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Matt,
You say: “One could hold that everything is up for a debate, including statements of the form “X is up for a debate,” and that debates about that would always come out the same way. As I already said, I think that’s possible, but it would require very strong arguments that haven’t been supplied.”
It might help to share some background epistemological assumptions, which inform my understanding of something’s being “up for debate” and my interest in this question. I’ve been thinking of a claim as up for debate if it’s revisable. I also hold a broadly holistic, Quinean view of belief revision, on which all beliefs are revisable. Some beliefs are more central than others, less likely to be revised, and so less likely to be debated. Maybe the bar for getting a debate going gets higher the more central the belief. But I wouldn’t say this means they’re not “up for debate” full stop (though I have no special attachment to that phrase). I suspect the reasons for this view could provide the kind of argument you say hasn’t been provided for the claim that debates about ‘X is up for debate’ will always come out the same way. But I hope I can wave my hands here. I’d rather not take the time to work that out step-by-step. 🙂
Like I say, my interest in this comes out of my epistemological views. To my ears, the claim that ‘everything is up for debate’ suggested that some kind of self-defeat argument proves the existence of (empirically) unrevisable principles. I find that kind of general anti-empiricist strategy is interesting but unpersuasive.
I don’t come to this with an interest in gender critical feminism or particular gender critical feminists. (In fact, I have an admittedly knee-jerk aversion to these debates debates surrounding GCF, as they seem to me more like internet flame-wars than attempts to address the serious injustices and harms that transgender people face.)Report

Up for a Debate
Up for a Debate
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Above I wrote: ‘To my ears, the claim that ‘everything is up for debate’ suggested that some kind of self-defeat argument proves the existence of (empirically) unrevisable principles.’ I of course meant: to my ears, the claim that ‘everything is up for debate’ is self-defeated suggested that some kind of self-defeat argument proves the existence of (empirically) unrevisable principlesReport

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

I am very much interested in this kind of general epistemological discussion! But (and maybe you’re kind of sympathetic to this, or at least you’re not so interested in the application to GCF either) I don’t think it’s great for discussions of trans rights in philosophy to wind up being about this sort of abstract epistemological principle. It’s mostly my fault that that happened in this thread and I’m sorry for doing that!Report

Up for a Debate
Up for a Debate
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Matt, you say: “But (and maybe you’re kind of sympathetic to this, or at least you’re not so interested in the application to GCF either) I don’t think it’s great for discussions of trans rights in philosophy to wind up being about this sort of abstract epistemological principle.”

I think the propriety of taking a comments thread in a different direction is highly contextual, with the subject matter being one of many relevant factors. In this case I’m confidant our digression hasn’t, for example, overshadowed a point that would have advanced the cause of trans rights.

Feel free to have the last word. I’ll already put more time into this than I can justify.Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

I hope it didn’t seem like I was trying to blame you for the direction of the subthread–as I said, I think it’s my fault for bringing up that issue at that level.

Anyway, as I said I’m interested in the abstract epistemological discussion on its own terms, so in the unlikely event that you or anyone else wants to talk about that, I put up a thread at my blog. (Feel free to use a fake email address to stay anonymous.) But I sympathize with having spent too much time on this, so I should probably just say cheers!Report

Up for a Debate
Up for a Debate
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

Hopefully this doesn’t count as going back on my pledge to give you the last word, but…

I didn’t feel blamed. And as for spending more time than I can justify: what makes it hard for me to justify the time spent are my family and work commitments, not the payoff of the conversation.

Very cool of you to put up the thread.

Cheers!Report

Wesley B
Wesley B
2 years ago

This sounds like it’s about the use of particular kinds of open letters invoking deference to decide scholarly research questions, not about petitions per se, or those concerning other matters more generally, such as self governance. In the UK, for example, signatures on a petition are part of an extended democratic process, to get leaders to discuss issues: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584. Effectiveness of that process aside, what could be wrong with this?

People might be interested in this paper by Keith Allen on the related topic “Should We Believe Philosophical Claims on Testimony?” The piece also argues that we should not, but for a really pessimistic reason: philosophical belief does not aim at truth! https://academic.oup.com/aristotelian/article-abstract/119/2/105/5526921Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Wesley B
2 years ago

In case anyone else has the same confusion I did, it appears that Allen’s paper is about whether we should believe philosophical claims on the basis of testimony, not whether we should believe philosophical claims about testimony.

The conclusion doesn’t sound that pessimistic to me, but unfortunately as it’s still behind the embargo, I’ll have to take people’s word as to its conclusions.Report

Wesley B
Wesley B
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Wesley B
2 years ago

Thanks very much!Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
2 years ago

My problems with philosophers’ petitions are a bit different. Two concerns:

1. They’re largely virtue signaling (or moral grandstanding). Whether they have any potential to effect change—and many don’t—is subordinated to “look at me! and where I stand on whatever.” A good example is the one a bunch of legal academics signed opposing Kavanaugh. By signing it, they signaled their opposition to sexual assault, but as quickly became obvious, many of them hadn’t read the petition, which was riddled with factual errors and other unsupported details. The flaws in that petition were ultimately less important than people running to put their names on it and tweeting all about how great they were for signing.

2. They often fall well outside our areas of expertise. Think of the APA resolution where philosophers opposed the Iraq war. Are we seriously supposed to think philosophers are well-situated to have a useful view here? (Including, but not limited to, security clearances, understanding of military operations, and so on?) I just don’t see that as being any more informative than 500 people signing something that says, for example, “poverty sucks”. The same thing is true when we rush to decry some departmental closing due to financial exigency (wait for Alaska’s, coming soon), with like 5% of the relevant details and 100% pre-committed to some outcome, more or less regardless of the details.Report

Kenny Easwaran
2 years ago

It might be helpful to clarify this discussion if people considered a very different sort of “open letter” or “petition”, namely, this paper, “Redefining Statistical Significance”, which includes about 70 “co-authors”, including several philosophers (at least Malcolm Forster, Edouard Machery, and myself).

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0189-z

The point of the set of authors on this paper is to indicate widespread support from researchers in a variety of fields that the proposed redefinition of statistical significance might help research in many fields (though we don’t all agree about how effective this change would be, or whether it would be the best solution to the issues).

Many of the general issues raised in the original post apply equally to this article, but the replication crisis that we address in our article raises a very different set of political issues from the petitions and open letters that have recently been gathering attention in philosophy. So it might be helpful to discuss the issues in light of this article, rather than allowing one’s first-order judgments on the other issues to cloud judgments on the general issue.Report

Andrew Richmond
Andrew Richmond
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 years ago

For what it’s worth, there’s a more extreme example. A recent article on statistical significance in Nature has 854 signatories (“Retire Statistical Significance”). They’re all ‘authors’ of the 2-page paper, but the drafting process and comments they’ve made (Andrew Gelman’s blog has some examples, though I can’t link from my phone) makes it clear that they generally see themselves as signatories to a petition more than authors of the article. There has been a lot of commentary on the use of petition in this case, both on blogs and in journals, including discussion of whether the list of signatories DOES indicate widespread agreement, whether the signatories should be counted as authorities on the subject and why, whether the article supports it’s claims with enough argument and citation to have epistemic significance (or if numbers/consensus/authority are enough), etc., all of which are relevant here.Report