“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.]
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.