Performance

There is a telling anecdote about G.E.M. Anscombe and A.J. Ayer. Anscombe said to Ayer, “You know, if you didn’t talk so fast, no one would think you were so clever.” Ayer rapidly replied, “And if you didn’t talk so slowly, no one would think you were so very wise.” (As told by Jonathan Glover.)

They may have both been right. Ayer was clever and Anscombe wise, but so are many people who don’t gain reputations for cleverness and wisdom. What is remarkable about this anecdote is that it has them accusing each other of using theatrical business to burnish their reputations and therefore gain extra traction for their arguments as if this were an unusual departure from normal practice. Anyone who has attended philosophy seminars knows that this is not the case, and it certainly was not the case in the generation before these two. Here, John Maynard Keynes remembers philosophical discussions in the Cambridge of his youth:

In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents of infallibility. [G.E.] Moore … was a master of this method – greeting one’s remarks with a gasp of incredulity – Do you really think that, an expression of face as if to hear such a thing said reduced him to a state of wonder verging on imbecility, with his mouth wide open and wagging his head in the negative so violently that his hair shook. Oh! he would say, goggling at you as if either you or he must be mad; and no reply was possible. …[Lytton] Strachey’s methods were different: grim silence as if such a dreadful observation was beyond comment and the less said about it the better, but almost as effective for disposing of what he called death-packets. [Leonard] Woolf was fairly good at indicating a negative, but he was better at producing the effect that [it] was useless to argue with him than at crushing you.

Keynes summed up these debates as, “…A kind of combat in which strength of character was really much more important than subtlety of mind.”  (‘My Early Beliefs’ (1938) in Collected Writings, vol.10: Essays in Biography (London: Macmillan, 1951), p.433-50 With thanks to Prof Stephen Clark)

Post-war philosophy developed a new repertoire of physical tropes, most notably the head-clutching and stuttering that ordinary language philosophers used to indicate how very hard they were thinking about the most ordinary of phrases. Here, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller spoof the genre brilliantly:

Aside from the physical and verbal contortions, Bennett and Miller capture an odd feature of philosophy in this style, which is that other people’s logical mistakes are always ‘blunders’, ‘howlers’, ‘elementary category errors’, etc.. Apparently, no-one in this milieu ever made forgivable slips resulting from the difficulty of the content and the subtlety of the arguments. In part, this may have arisen from the deflationary mood of ordinary language philosophy—nothing is hidden, there are no philosophical depths, all that philosophers do is issue reminders of easily observed features of ordinary language, etc.. Since everything of interest to philosophers lies open to view by native speakers of the ordinary language in question, the error of overlooking something must be a blunder and the person who makes it must be a bit thick. The oddness is the preening tone in which such ‘blunders’ were often pointed out. How could pointing out an elementary mistake be a ground for such self-satisfaction?

Since we started this blog with an eye on student perceptions of professional philosophical performances, here is a recollection of a residential philosophical weekend with Peter Winch and Gilbert Ryle, “Ryle boomed and took no prisoners while Winch’s gimlet stare convinced one that he could read your mind and was disappointed at what he found. I cringed in a corner praying, ‘for God’s sake don’t ask me anything – unless it has to do with Liverpool FC’.” (thanks to Keith Farman).

The common thread in all this theatrical business is that these devices silence the victim. From Moore’s incredulity onwards, the purpose is to dissuade an opponent from pursuing a criticism of the speaker’s claim. Only the boldest spirit will press on with a point when a famous great mind reacts to its first expression with apparent bewilderment, contempt or nausea.

Why do we see so much of this in philosophy, and especially in English-speaking philosophy? One reason is that philosophy deals with highly general questions, and the relevance and reasonableness of an objection is often a matter of judgment. Therefore, to sustain the coherence of an argument in discussion, it may be necessary to shut up a critic who wishes to  undercut the premises of the whole enterprise. Wittgenstein wrote in On Certainty “it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go further back” (OC471). Faced with someone who insists on trying to ‘go further back’, what can one do, if the reasons for not going further back have already been rehearsed? All teachers know the answer, because all teachers have had students who wish to take the discussion in a direction that no-one else would find helpful. There is only an hour to discuss this topic, and the other students gain nothing from indulging this eccentric line of thought. If appeals to reason fail, what do we do? As gently as possible, we shut the student up with some combination of charisma and rank.

There may be another reason why there is so much theatrical business in the spaces where the arguments ought to go in English-speaking philosophy. This is that, generalising wildly, philosophy in English was dominated in the twentieth century by research programmes that depended on intuitions, first about language and then about science fiction (Mary the neuroscientist, Twin Earth, zombies, etc.). The locus classicus for this is the division of labour between scientists and philosophers that the logical positivists attempted to establish by reference to the analytic/synthetic distinction.  If philosophy all happens on the analytic side, no appeal to facts can disturb my analysis or contradict the intuitions that it rests on.  Since my intuitions have no special authority over yours, I might be tempted to gain credibility for mine by performing incredulity or disgust at the expression of alternatives. Indeed, one should expect exactly what we see: an arms race of intuition-boosting devices. Moreover, as English-speaking philosophy has gone global, one would expect to see the intimidating performances take on textual forms (because personal encounters no longer decide who is victorious). Perhaps this is the function of the philosophical science fictions.

If anything like this is right, then the root problem is methodological. We know that much of the academic philosophical world is hostile to people who can’t or don’t wish to perform booming confidence, or who do not feel boomingly confident in the environments where academic philosophy happens, especially if their first attempts at the performances take place under gimlet stares. We may make some progress by insisting on procedural rules such as those that Daniel Dennett or David Chalmers have devised. However, these are merely procedural rather than methodological. Lasting change may require philosophers to find ways of arguing for their doctrines that do not involve insisting on a philosophical intuition and glaring at those who do not share it. To achieve this, philosophers will have to find ways of conceiving philosophy that make philosophical doctrines responsible to something other than merely intuitions. Otherwise, victory will still go to those who are most skilled and ruthless at silencing critics.

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Manifest Humility

This week’s guest writer is Andrea Kenkmann, editor of Teaching Philosophy (2009)


There was a time when I thought of philosophy as some kind of arrival for myself. It was a space where one was still allowed to ask those big questions ‘What is a good life?’ or ‘What does it mean to be?‘  Whereas previously people often gave me funny looks when I started to ask questions about our underlying assumptions, the philosophers took them seriously. With colleagues and students, but also with friends one could have passionate discussions about questions that mattered to me; there was a shared sense that what we were talking about was important.  However difficult it was to read philosophers like Heidegger and Levinas, I always felt their ideas related to my own life, and shaped my thoughts and actions.

I think students notice that passion and that personal investment in the questions one asks; it makes them listen (although I might be misguided in my belief here) and think about the questions for themselves. I love teaching philosophy or sociology or really anything I care about, because I see it as an opportunity to learn from the discussions with students. Some of my fondest memories from my own time as a student are my Old English seminars where the old professor who had an international reputation for excellence came into the seminar room with such humility and the clear expectation that he wanted to learn from us. Funnily enough, I always thought we, the students, rose to the occasion with some brilliant ideas.

Yet whenever I venture into academia I see a big business that stifles all passion. The passion to think and ask questions suddenly needs to be translated into publishable manuscripts, churned out at regular intervals, and with high impact please. Ideas need to lead to funding proposals and the syllabus needs to be covered, never mind whether I’m passionate about Brentano.  And of course you need to think full-time, no time to dip my toes into the sea, watch clouds drift by, write children’s stories or play some Stravinsky.

The risk in such an environment is that research seminars, or, indeed, any seminars become merely meaningless intellectual exercises, rather than passionate debates connected to something that matters. Students can tell the difference. So maybe the question that those full-time professional philosophers running around in the academic treadmill need to ask themselves, is whether they are still passionate about those questions raised in their debates. If yes, then show and tell.