Desperate Honesty (guest post)


“I abandoned classics for philosophy in large part because that was where the refuters were. Now people can’t stop telling me I am wrong.”

In the following guest post, Agnes Callard, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, describes a way philosophers need other people, the argumentative honesty it encourages, and the extent to which that “virtue born of professional necessity” applies not just within the domains of research and teaching, but also our social, political, and personal lives.

This is the tenth in a series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.

[Posts in the summer guest series will remain pinned to the top of the page for the remainder of the week in which they’re published.]

*  *  *

Desperate Honesty
by Agnes Callard

Though philosophers are not always taken especially seriously by the world outside us, there is one arena where we reliably accrue respect and credit: our adherence to intellectual norms of honest argumentation. Outsiders appreciate that we don’t get angry with people who disagree with us, or mock them for doing so. We are known for welcoming counterargument, and even seeking to amplify and sharpen our opponents’ objections. These days I regularly wander outside the gates of philosophy, and it is remarkable to me how often I receive applause for doing what comes absolutely as a matter of course within our discipline. Those praising me seem to imagine that I am constantly lashing myself with the painful whip of intellectual morality. I enjoy the praise and respect, but secretly I know I don’t deserve it. Unless you’re a philosopher, you probably don’t understand: ours is a desperate honesty.

Imagine: you meet someone who is very scrupulous about the time they go to bed and the time they wake up. They never stay up late, they never sleep in in the morning, not even on the weekends.  At 6:30am sharp, they jump out of bed and start their day. You never find them, past midnight, lying in bed, their face lit by the glow of a phone. At first you are impressed by the level of sleep discipline they exercise; you wish you could be more like them, you think your own life would go more smoothly if you could refrain from indulging in late nights and lazy mornings—but it seems too difficult. You think to yourself, wistfully, “I just don’t have that kind of fortitude!” Now imagine that you were to discover they have a disease where deviation from a sleep schedule immediately sends them spiraling into illness. This would change your assessment of the situation, by driving you to chalk their nighttime routine up to desperate necessity rather than discipline. You now see that they must maintain a strict sleep schedule, and that’s different from choosing to; it’s likely you would do as they are doing, if you were in their place.

*  *  *

It is hard to convey, to those who have never given a philosophy talk, the sheer wonder of being on the receiving end of the audience’s questions. You are standing in front of a group of people who have just heard your ideas for the first time, and immediately, without missing a beat—sometimes there is no break between the end of the talk and the beginning of the Q&A—hands shoot up and there it is: a flood of new objections. Where on earth did these ideas come from? When you were working on the talk, which you spent months doing, lonely hours in front of your computer, reading related papers, occasionally discussing your arguments-in-progress with colleagues and friends, you tried as hard as you possibly could to think about every objection that anyone could raise. You devoted many hours of your time and all of your brainpower to anticipating how people would respond to what you were saying, and to closing off possible avenues of attack. You did your absolute best. Not only that: you are an expert. Equipped with all the time and resources in the world, you carefully armored your talk against your audience and they, equipped with far less, pierced through your armor with ease. I have probably given a hundred talks, but it never gets old, this magic trick that the audience performs; it continues to astonish me almost to the point of laughter.

And talks are only part of the story. Last week, a fellow philosopher sent me comments on one of the chapters in my book. It took me hours to work up the courage to open the email—and then once I did, I read them over and over again. That’s my usual pattern, and I’ve been at this for decades now. The encounter with the mind of a person who is determined to let you get away with absolutely nothing, and who has been extensively trained to succeed at precisely that task—I can’t decide whether that is like stepping in front of a firing squad, or stepping into a cathedral. Perhaps it is both at the same time. She made many good points, but the most important moment in her email was a short, direct question. The first time I read through the email, I thought to myself: well I’ve definitely answered that! But then I tried to say, to myself, what my answer was—and I felt myself stumble. Eventually I realized, it wasn’t a question I HAD answered; it was a question—probably THE question—that I NEEDED to answer. Why I hadn’t I posed it to myself? Why did I need to have it handed to me by someone else? I don’t know. But what I do know is that now that I have it, I’m not letting it go. I told her afterwards: your question will be my guiding thread in revising the chapter. If I can answer it, my chapter succeeds; if I can’t, it fails.

But is this neediness really distinctive of philosophers? I think it is. Back when I was in a classics PhD program, people rarely told me that I was wrong; I abandoned classics for philosophy in large part because that was where the refuters were. Now people can’t stop telling me I am wrong. Of course all humans have blindspots; anyone can get something wrong without realizing it; and intellectuals of all persuasions are prone to benefit from critical comments—nonetheless, I claim, philosophers are, and are aware that we are, in a uniquely desperate situation. Whereas classicists or physicists or economists might be sailing on a slightly leaky boat, philosophers are cast adrift on stormy seas, clinging to nothing but a rotten plank of wood. Pride or vanity leads many intellectuals to be invested in their theories working out, of course, but in philosophy that occupational hazard runs deeper and is less reliant on accidents of personality. An especially humble scientist might escape the vanity problem, but the philosopher’s problem is that she is only ever doing half of the thinking she needs to be doing.  The humblest philosopher has this limitation and even the most arrogant one is routinely confronted with the fact that she has it; and so all of us, humble and arrogant alike, are forced to adopt practices of humility. But why are philosophers consigned to a life of half-thoughts? The explanation of the limitation under which we philosophers labor is this: when it comes to philosophical questions, there is no such thing as an open mind.

Even on the first day of an introductory level course, I find that my students are somehow already equipped with opinions, which, if I’m doing my job right, will in short order get launched at me in the form of questions, objections, and counterexamples. Philosophical questions, at least those that matter most to us, show up in the mind already answered. We recognize these questions, they spark of familiarity, because they lie at the foundation of what we’ve been doing all along, and how we have been thinking all along. We say to ourselves, my answer must be good, since I’ve been counting on it. As Callicles says to Socrates, “if these things you’re saying are really true, won’t this human life of ours be turned upside down, and won’t everything we do evidently be the opposite of what we should do?”

Given where my students start—which is not nowhere, but already somewhere—I can’t be in the business of telling them what to think. Rather, I’m forced to be in the business of inviting them to fight me. This is not true in other disciplines. A physics or Greek teacher can safely assume they are either starting with a clean slate, or working with a solid shared foundation. Either way, they’re on level ground, building upwards. The philosophy teacher looks out a landscape that is already full, and not entirely in a good way. In philosophy we don’t build up, at least not without tearing down. Our starting point is not the barren wastes of ignorance, but the clutter of falsity. Philosophy begins in error.

This feature of philosophical questions doesn’t change even as we advance from introductory classes to publishing papers in professional journals. You find you gravitate precisely to those questions that are, least of all, objects of detached curiosity for you. If you are asking yourself “what is anger?” or “why are people weak-willed?” or “when is war justified?” you find that by the time the question has gotten a hold of you, by the time you are ready to count it as your own question, you already have the makings of an answer—and, of course, the hope and faith that your answer will work out. This isn’t to say that your original way of articulating the answer will survive the twists and turns of inquiry, or even that you will have any way at all of articulating an answer when you first set out; nonetheless, from the very beginning, you feel there is something already there, something you are reaching for, stumbling towards, albeit at times through a dense and blinding fog. You have, from the outset, an orientation. And so you are missing, from the outset, all the things one can see from vantage points that are oriented otherwise. That is what you need other people for. Realizing you need them means realizing that they are the ones doing you a favor, that you had better make arguing with you not just palatable, but ideally so pleasant as for them to find it downright delightful. And so yes of course you are going to be a paragon of cheerfulness when they raise their objections, you will be “generous” with criticism, and “fair” to your critics, trying to extract every bit of help from their comments. They hold all the cards, and you hold none. You need them, they don’t need you.

*  *  *

If desperate honesty is a virtue born of professional necessity, does it carry over to the world outside teaching and research? Can a philosopher engaged in politics or parenting or fighting with her spouse continue to adhere to the norms that go without question in her classroom or office? Can you keep your philosopher hat on, even on Twitter? Like all of the big questions that grip a person, these come to me already answered.

My answer is that you never need to mock someone to make a point, and you never need to insult anyone to teach them a lesson. In the classroom you make the point by making the point, and teach the lesson by teaching the lesson; you can do it the same way outside the classroom. Inside your office you know that you shouldn’t ever try to beat the truth into anyone, because that is not how truth works. You can know this outside your office, too. If I can receive my colleague’s criticisms gratefully, I should be able to receive my spouse’s criticisms gratefully. In philosophical discussions you don’t get anywhere by lying—you might as well make the argument that you think actually works, and if it has problems you’re best served by being attentive to them—well, this approach of not lying works more broadly as well. We struggle and strive to interpret Plato, Aristotle and Kant as charitably as we possibly can; we could accord the same interpretative charity to everyone.  We do not feel the need to have “takes” on our philosophical colleagues, we don’t habitually sort them into “ally” and “enemy,” we simply try to learn as much as we can from everyone—we could behave likewise towards people on Twitter.

These claims will, even if they are taken only as pointing to an ideal from which occasional departures are to be expected, strike some people as embodying an objectionable form of intellectualism. “Intellectualism” is a term of critique for the application of intellectual norms to non-intellectual arenas. I reply: norms that govern how people behave when they realize they truly need one another cannot be described as “intellectual” in any restricted sense. Philosophical honesty is a tool to that allows a person to lean on the minds of those around her; it makes a person socially adept.  Philosophers are the socializers par excellence, our skills are social skills.  And I want to use these skills all the time, in all my socializing. Not because that kind of behavior is more virtuous, or generous, or disciplined, but because what I see in the classroom, I see everywhere. Life is a theater of desperation, and I need all the help I can get.

COMMENTS POLICY

Beyond the Ivory Tower. Workshop for academics on writing short pieces for wide audiences on big questions. Taking place October 18th to 19th. Application deadline July 30th. Funding provided.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

15 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ned Hall
Ned Hall
11 months ago

“The explanation of the limitation under which we philosophers labor is this: when it comes to philosophical questions, there is no such thing as an open mind.” This claim does not describe my experience, either personally or as a teacher. Personally: I find myself growing more and more agnostic over time about answers to central philosophical questions, and more and more interested *not* in defending some answer but in collaboratively developing and curating the best possible answers. As a teacher: Very often my students are gripped by some question I’ve introduced them to, but are not *at all* “already equipped with opinions” (not, at least, about what the right answer is). I think the picture you’ve painted here about the nature of philosophical interaction is much more limited in scope than you might think, Agnes.

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Ned Hall
11 months ago

I was taken aback by “no such thing as an open mind” as well, but on continuing into the following paragraph realized she didn’t mean “open mind” in the sense of a habit of mind, commitment, or aspiration (a word tenatively chosen, as I have yet to read her book), but more in the sense of “blank slate.” So maybe “open mind” here is a phrase that needs reconsideration, or maybe it’s an interesting provocation that plays on the double meaning. I take it as the latter.

By extension, “already equipped with opinions” would mean “already equipped with [experiences, rationalizations, etc. that cannot help but influence how we think]…” — and here again I think her position is defensible, even obvious.

Since I haunt a couple of linguistics blogs, I feel like the situation is somewhat analogous there, as those participants often observe: everybody speaks and writes, so everybody has “[opinions]” about linguistic issues. Just as, with philosophy, everybody lives. feels, and thinks.

Ned Hall
Ned Hall
Reply to  Mark Raabe
11 months ago

Except there’s this: “Philosophical questions, at least those that matter most to us, show up in the mind already answered.” Anyway, your understanding of these terms seems interesting and valuable (even if it’s not Agnes’s), so thanks!

Chris
Chris
11 months ago

In addition to Ned’s point, I’m skeptical that “refuters” are unique to philosophy. Sure, they might be nice and polite in classics, but have you been to any economics colloquia? Watched theoretical physicists in the audience of a philosophy of science talk? etc.

Cecil Burrow
11 months ago

It’s slightly humorous that someone who gets up at 6:30am is regarded as an early riser.

Kris
Kris
Reply to  Cecil Burrow
11 months ago

I went to get statistics to show that 630 wake up is less common than you think but nope, it’s the plurality among wake up times.

Further evidence for my hypothesis that people are crazy.

Cecil Burrow
Reply to  Kris
11 months ago

We’ll have to just agree to disagree about who the crazy people are here!

S C
S C
11 months ago

I agree that this is the ideal, but I wonder whether there are only “occasional departures.” Anecdotal evidence–A LOT of it, mind–suggests that, in the context of hiring, philosophers do not engage in “desperate honesty.”

Leslie Glazer PhD
11 months ago

Often in everyday conversations this desperate honesty can lead to unexpected reactions on the part of one’s conversation partners. One’s adversaries [if I can call them that] while appreciating the effort to formulate their positions in the strongest possible way, also quickly can resent the inevitable problems that appear in the position and argument. Similarly, one’s friends [if I can call them that] often will quickly see you as turning against them even with the smallest amount of skepticism or exploration of their positions. For example I have often been mischaracterized as conservative and in other ways for exploring the problems with many contemporary progressive or woke positions, even while seeing myself essentially as an ally. desperate honesty is not generally socially acceptible

Cecil Burrow
Reply to  Leslie Glazer PhD
11 months ago

This is the reason that much ‘woke’ philosophy is intellectually bankrupt – any disagreement is interpreted as you being a Trumper, and ends up getting you excluded from the conversation in some subtle way at best , or cancelled at worst. This of course is the exact opposite of how things work in genuine philosophy.

Emmanuel
11 months ago

I think this draws a funny contrast with the story from earlier this year about this right-wing philosopher whose book on transgender didn’t get published and the reactions it triggered from all sides.

My answer is that you never need to mock someone to make a point, and you never need to insult anyone to teach them a lesson.”

I agree there’s benefits to a clinical outlook on philosophical questions that involves honesty. It contributes to the core that allows us to do productive thinking. But I think that can become too bland and take us away from what matters most with philosophy: We’re dealing with real things that have real effects on people and on ourselves. As Merleau-Ponty would put it, you’re doing philosophy because you’re in the action, in the midst of things. So I think it’s also normal to have emotional reactions when it comes to ideas and worldviews. There’s a reason a lot of students, teenagers and philosophy aficionados become “depressed” or anxious after reading existentialist books, because those ideas are dealing with real things that concern them. I sure as hell would laugh or get angry at someone promoting fascist ideas in my face because emotional honesty is also a teaching virtue about co-habiting socially. Sometimes tolerance and intellectual openness just don’t cut it when it comes to people involved in the business of putting you down (on the basis of your class, gender, culture, identity, etc.). Of course I don’t do that with my students because like most of us I believe in logical reasoning. But what can you do with logic against ideas that are banking on emotions instead?

Your argument also makes me wonder about toxicity in academia… It reminded me about that time a professor of mine referred to Chomsky’s “agreement” to debate with a holocaust denier (Chomsky’s Jewish and was affected by WWII) in order to tell me that the bully in my department had a right to free speech. I mean, that was very honest from them and I guess logic prevailed here, but that did not help fight against the toxicity that floats around philosophy departments and abuses people.

EuroProf
EuroProf
Reply to  Emmanuel
11 months ago

Alex Byrne – I assume that is who you are referring to – is not a ‘right-wing philosopher’.
(Also, his book was eventually published with a different press I believe…)

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
11 months ago

I find Callard’s writing always thought provoking, even when there is much to disagree with. I respect she almost seems to provoke disagreement with her, as a way to get past surface norms of debate as normal.

Do students always come with opinions? I wonder if her experience isn’t colored by how students come to her. If her writings are an indication of how she is as a teacher, I suspect she might provoke her students to it – or spur them to challenge her opinions. Imagine Socrates saying, “So interesting! People are so full of philosophical opinions on everything!” Are they? Well, they are if you are Socrates and go around asking people their opinions and don’t let them off the hook even when they might be unsure and don’t want to talk – and then claim you are just finding out what people think.

Students respond to the personality of the teacher. The teacher and the students find each other. Not sure what the value is of generalizing about how students are, anymore than generalizing how teachers are. For every Socrates, there is a Descartes, Rousseau, Anscombe, Carnap or Lewis – all engaging in different modes of dialogue, with different intonations and eliciting different reactions from students.

On the issue of philosophical dialogue outside academia, my objection to Callard isn’t that her view is a form of intellectualism. It is that it is overly optimistic and perhaps not sensitive to the depth of the problem. When one is a professor, social engagement is often inseparable from dialogues about ideas. Engaging with students or colleagues, or even with the public as a public intellectual, can feel not that different from Socrates engaging in dialogue. But when one is not a professor, often one can be met with indifference, annoyance and anger – as if you were intellectually molesting them. I use that word “molest” on purpose. We can’t go up to people and start touching them. Often when one goes to a person – even family members and friends – and asks them their philosophical thoughts, people react as if you are encroaching on their personal mental space uninvited. To keep pushing as Socrates might, or as one can in a classroom as a teacher, emotionally feels not that different than forcing oneself onto the other person. It is not anti-intellectualism, but a desire to respect the others’ freedom think when and how they want which makes it hard to engage philosophically with others outside academia.

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
11 months ago

Socrates: “Who, lil’ ol’ me?” 😇

socrates3.jpg
Monte Johnson
11 months ago

It seems odd to me to say that Classics lacks “refuters”. Ever been to a Greek or Latin reading group? It is not uncommon to prepare a translation for hours and then suffer “refutations” on a semantic, syntactic, or interpretive level on every sentence beginning with the first one. It is true that Classicists are generally more courteous in their objections, and perhaps more apt than philosophers to try to offer helpful suggestions for supporting your own argument during Q&A. But they are no less prone to refutation of bad translations, bad interpretations, bad arguments, bad grasp of the context, etc. Perhaps Classicists don’t offer summary “refutations” as readily as philosophers, but their tendency to write and consult line-by-line commentaries on the works they study suggests that they do not lack a healthy critical approach to their subject matter. Classicist methods of criticism and refutation have and still can improve a lot of philosophical work. For this reason I am often encouraging Philosophy students to study Classics as a minor or double major. I think you “abandoned Classics” too early.

Last edited 11 months ago by Monte Johnson