Let none who are ignorant of the Queensbury Rules enter here

[Previously on Show and Tell]

These instances of ‘philosophy behaving badly’ are more than just irritations. They are increasingly being linked to the recognition of serious under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the profession. For instance, prominent female philosophers such as Mary Margaret McCabe have confessed that in their graduate student days, the atmosphere of philosophy research seminars served as a major barrier to so much as opening their mouths.

This recognition is to be welcomed – though we are sure that it is not only women and ethnic minorities who are put off by this atmosphere. We are all for improvements to the gender and ethnicity balance of philosophy departments, but two questions arise. First, one typically unnamed problem is class. Would the profession consider it a mark of success if, ten years down the line, gender and ethnicity figures had been improved while the profession remained overwhelmingly middle-class? Second, even if the figures on all three measures improved, this would not necessarily mean that the profession had changed for the better in terms of virtue and vice. Improvements in gender, ethnicity and class would not necessarily improve the situation described here:

Several of my closest friends are academic philosophers, yet I find the culture of academic philosophy off-putting.  Philosophy is not as imaginative, dynamic, timely, publicly engaged, worldly and inclusive as it could or should be.  … I prefer being around historians, lawyers, artists, sociologists, nanoscientists—almost any other group.  Among philosophers I feel especially self-conscious.  I cannot be myself.  For example, I attended an analytic philosophy symposium in a major philosophy department a few weeks ago.  The audience was 90% male.  98% of the audience was white. Most of the white women seemed extremely smart but guarded and intellectually artificial. (Did they care about what they were talking about?)  Some of the older men used inappropriate examples. (Really? Did he say that?)  I felt out of place and decided to skip the event dinner.

This comment struck a chord with us, as it has apparently with others. (A subsequent poster described reading it as ‘spiritually rejuvenating. It made me feel less suffocated, and less alone.’) Our interest in the Show and Tell blog goes beyond the stories of uncontroversially obnoxious behaviour. Rather, we wonder what it is about the culture of academic philosophy that makes its practitioners so often ‘smart but guarded and intellectually artificial’. Perhaps part of the difficulty is the model of philosophy as pugilism, sponsored by Wittgenstein’s unfortunate comment that ‘a philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring’. But if this is the model, does it not seem obvious that many people (some of them white males) would not want to participate? A philosopher who also coaches boxing says that he would much rather take a punch in the nose than be subjected to some of the attacks he has witnessed in philosophy colloquia.

What do students learn about the virtues of ‘good’ philosophers from this atmosphere? Does authority come across as arrogance? Does a concern with pursing the truth appear as a lack of compassion? Does the emphasis placed on good argument and pursuing the truth sometimes combine with deafness to other important ethical and intellectual virtues, such as open-mindedness, trust, patience, justice and empathy?

Or does putting it like that cut philosophers too much slack?  Isn’t the desire to ‘defend one’s position’ – such that ‘How can I answer this objection?’ looms as a more dominant question than ‘In what way does my questioner have a point?’ – rooted in pride?  Likewise the felt need to make contributions that come across as ‘smart but guarded and intellectually artificial’.  And wasn’t pride plausibly condemned as being at the heart of the capital vices? Yes, there might be such a thing as virtuous, as well as vicious, pride – but this does not seem to be the kind that is typically lurking in the background on these occasions.

Either way, how might we raise staff consciousness of their roles as models and suggest better ways to model academic and discipline-specific virtues? How can we avoid occasions on which what passes for a philosophical virtue comes across as an ethical vice? And – a nagging worry – what if, on occasion, a philosophical virtue really is an ethical vice?



One thought on “Let none who are ignorant of the Queensbury Rules enter here

  1. Plato, according to Miller (2009:49) uses six boxing metaphors and ten wrestling metaphors. The pugilistic model did not start with Wittgenstein.

    Stephen G. Miller, The Berkeley Plato: From Neglected Relic to Ancient Treasure. An Archaeological Detective Story. Berkeley, Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2009


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