Philosophers: “Learn to listen rather than talk”
“What is the first thing philosophers have to change about their ideas, or their ways of presenting them, when putting on their public policy hat?”That question is put by Diana Popescu (KCL) to Jonathan Wolff, the Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Professor Wolff says:
The first thing philosophers have to do is learn to listen rather than talk. Many of us have grown up thinking we have this special capacity for thought, and some philosophers even think that they are personally the smartest person they’ve ever met and they have nothing to learn from anyone else. But the thing I’ve learned is that our talents are much more limited. It may be that things that go down well in philosophical circles don’t always go down so well outside. And people outside philosophy, if they’ve been working in a policy area, will have very nuanced views, very often philosophically sophisticated views. They might not be fantastic in expressing them, but they very often do have things to teach us even about philosophy. So that’s the first thing, be open.
And so starts an interview at Justice Everywhere about doing political, social, and moral philosophy that is, as Wolff puts is, “empirically engaged,” about the kind of impact philosophy can make on the world, and how to appreciate the expertise of, and learn more about, other fields.
Here’s one other part of the interview, in which Wolff is asked about how his work in philosophy has been affected by thinking about policy matters. He answers:
Like many people I was a bit appalled that Rawls said so little about disability. Then Dworkin came along with his theory of equality of resources which incorporates the hypothetical insurance scheme to address disability. I thought Dworkin’s theory was pretty good. And I was at an interdisciplinary conference, explaining Dworkin’s development of his view following Kymlicka’s lead in presenting Dworkin as mainly a criticism of Rawls. There was a disability studies person in the room and after hearing me he said, ‘This is a terribly reactionary view that Dworkin’s put forward’. And I was shocked because I thought this was cutting edge egalitarian political philosophy, the best we’ve got. I’m being told that it was a reactionary view. And the person explained a little bit about the disability studies literature and I thought, ‘Ok, I’d better take a look at this’.
So I started reading disability studies. And I realised it had no connection with anything we were doing in political philosophy. But— and this goes back to an earlier theme—it was philosophically much more sophisticated than anything I had read in philosophy.
The whole interview is here.
This is an important point. I remember a professor ‘strongly’ encouraging me to speak more in a graduate philosophy seminar. Though I appreciate the importance of being an engaged student, I didn’t understand why he believed that my choice to listen more than I spoke was precisely my way of being an engaged student.
The quality of the learning environment in a philosophy seminar is too often compromised by the fact that some students insist on sharing every thought they have. In fairness, they might be operating under the common assumption that good students contribute to discussion. But instead sitting, listening, and not forming an opinion right away are not signs of intellectual weakness; they can be signs of intellectual modesty, of the plain fact that, like a good meal, good ideas take time to digest.
All of this of course circles around that unfortunate stereotype of philosophers’ tendency to propound, which once you start spending time in larger intellectual circles becomes a stereotype that leaves you cringing.Report
Someone has to say something, after all, or there is nothing to listen to.Report
So from my comment you seem to have got: if I prefer to listen more than I speak, then I’m committed to the absurdity that I can never listen because no one should ever speak.
Where to begin?Report
In a seminar context, where part of what you’re trying to do is develop some philosophical skills, speaking is going to be a way to test your skills of theory-building, question-asking, question-answering, connection-drawing, etc. If you remain quiet, it is hard for anyone to tell what is going on and provide any feedback for you.
There are definitely sometimes periods when it is important to just sit and think and read and think more. But it’s hard for anyone to give feedback on how effectively you’re doing that if you don’t say or write something.Report
Thanks for your comment.
Nothing I said should be taken to suggest that I think graduate students should never write anything. And feedback on writing is very important and welcome.
I was referring only to talking rather than listening–the original topic of this discussion. On this note, I did not mean to imply that no one should say anything. I meant only that more of us should say less so more of us can spend more time listening.
Ideally, by listening more what we have to say will be more thoughtful and considered, and therefore any feedback we get on our oral communication skills and contributions in a discussion will be better founded.
So I’m not sure I see the thrust of your point.Report
I was surprised and rather disappointed to read Jonathan Wolff’s remarks about criticisms of Dworkin’s insurance scheme to “compensate” for disability. As Jo knows (or did at one time at least), I wrote the first critique of Dworkin in this regard in my article “Dworkin on Disablement and Resources” (published in Can. J of Law and Jurisprudence, 1996), which I wrote as a graduate student. In the article, I critique the hypothetical insurance scheme “to compensate for handicaps” on the grounds that it violates Dworkin’s own dictum according to which the government should not compel people to accept an argument that would require them to compromise their self-respect. This, I argued, is precisely what Dworkin’s insurance scheme requires of disabled people. Although I still hold these views about Dworkin’s insurance scheme and even used them in my recent article “Feminist Philosophy of Disability: A Genealogical Intervention,” (published last year in Southern J of Philosophy), I have developed a different conception of disability (i..e, as an apparatus) than the rather undeveloped conception of disability that i relied upon back when I wrote the original article.
More generally, I was disappointed to read the way that Wolff juxtaposed work in philosophy and philosophers to work in disability studies and disability theorists, again obscuring the existence of disabled philosophers of disability such as myself.Report
I’m surprised and disappointed to read your comment given how curious, open-minded and inclusive Jonathan Wolff’s evolving position seems to have been. That you should pick on that rather than all the nice things he says is puzzling. If the issue is that he doesn’t cite you in an interview, I don’t think that’s a fair concern. If the issue is the distinction between philosophers working on disability and disability studies, then there probably are friendlier ways of bringing some nuance to the conversation. But you just can’t say he’s obscuring the existence of disabled philosophers when what he’s trying to do is exactly the opposite: bringing their work to bear on what (most) philosophers had (wrongly) not been interested in at the time. That’s how I read his remarks.
“Thinking about disability made me realise that we’ve been very, very narrow in philosophy in our thinking about remedies for injustice, which I later on called ‘addressing disadvantage’. … All of those are philosophical arguments and ideas, but none of them were in the philosophy I was reading at the time. True, the inspiration is there if you look for it, in writers like Iris Marion Young. But often these ideas are there but they’re not really given as much weight as they should be. For example, in disability studies, the social model of disability is more or less the default position. … I think it’s fair to say I changed my way of doing political philosophy because of the encounter with disability studies.”
Wolff is not saying that *no* philosophers were working in disability studies. He’s talking about the mainstream strand of political philosophy. Insofar as he’s praising disability studies scholars and their relevance to philosophical discussion, the fact that some philosophers at the time were doing what *most* philosophers were not seems moot to me.Report
In a longer treatment I would have acknowledged how much I had been influenced by Shelley’s work and Anita Silvers and others. But that was after I first started writing about the topic. My point was really about what was in the main journals and reading lists around 1998. I have learnt an enormous amount from Shelley’s 1996 paper that took the critique of Dworkin to a different level.Report
So already two commenters on this post have taken it as an opportunity to jump straight on a hobby horse without paying close attention to what the interview says or is about. I’m trying to decide if the irony is depressing or entertaining. I’ve decided that it’s both.Report
I don’t want to prolong the discussion but let me just say that Shelley Tremain’s criticism of Dworkin was very influential on my developing views on disability. This was a recorded interview and I did not prepare my remarks in advance. If I had done, and been thoughtful, I would have mentioned it, as I do in some of my writings.Report
My response to some of the comments on this post is over at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here:
Shelley, regardless of the intent of your post, I find it rather distasteful to single out those ‘nondisabled philosophers’ in a polemic post. Eva Kittay, in particular, has had quite first-hand experience of the implications of disability with her daughter Sesha. It strikes me as unfair that she, and potentially others, should be targeted given how much of their life and work have dedicated to disabled people. All your points about ableism in philosophy might stand, and the need to give much more room to disabled philosophers is very real, but I fail to see how e.g. Kittay being recognized as an important voice in the literature gets in the way of achieving otherwise laudable goals. In fact, Kittay, as many others, has emphasized how speaking from *personal* experience about these questions is epistemically important to the way we do philosophy––something she recognizes, for instance, in Michael Bérubé’s writing about his son Jamie or, just recently, in a PPR symposium on Elizabeth Barnes’ _The Minority Body_. So, of course, we need more people like you, Liz Barnes, Adam Cureton, Joseph Stramondo, and other philosophers writing wonderful things on disability, people whom you fail to acknowledge, instead choosing to single out nondisabled philosophers for having allegedly failed to ensure “that their department hires a disabled philosopher of disability, though each of them has benefitted from our pathbreaking work and the revolutionary work of disabled theorists”.
Also, I’m curious what you mean by the following remarks?
“One of these events took place in comments on the Daily Nous blog, involving philosophers who seem largely uninformed about ableism in philosophy and indeed uneducated about how power operates in the profession and society more broadly. … [T]he philosophers in question depoliticized and individualized a politically saturated situation, namely, the unacknowledged use of the insights of disabled philosophers of disability by a nondisabled philosopher, appealing to dismissive remarks about political correctness and unexamined views about personal intentions in order to do so.”
No one on this thread, it seems to me, has made any remark about political correctness. The only criticisms made of your comment were pointing out that this is just an interview, and Wolff makes many points that are much more important (and which you should welcome) than the fact that he did not cite you. You’re also assuming those philosophers (among whom I guess I must be) are “uninformed about ableism in philosophy and indeed uneducated about how power operates in the profession and society”. But again, nothing in this thread speaks to that, unless you assume that disagreeing with your stance on an interview is automatically evidence of ignorance about these matters. But that’s a very unfair assumption to make. In fact, this is getting close to a textbook case of gas-lighting. You’re chalking up different perspectives on an interview to broad differences in knowledge and psychology. You have in fact not replied to Wolff’s addenda or my comment. No one is saying that the issues you care about are unimportant. But paying attention to what is said in an interview, however incomplete it may be, doesn’t mean anyone is trying to ‘depoliticize’ a ‘politically saturated situation’.
Shelley, we value your work and your interviews, but I think this is not a hill worth dying on.