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.


9 thoughts on “Performance

  1. Very interesting post!

    But I doubt that the sort of rhetorical devices that you’re interested in have really been much more prominent in 20th-Century English-speaking philosophy than they are in other traditions and historical periods. Or at least I would like to know why you think that this is really a local and recent phenomenon, as opposed to a feature of philosophical dialogue more generally.

    Although I can’t claim any expertise on this matter, I am tempted to think that philosophy has always involved quite a lot of performance art, in part because convincing people, or at least holding their attention, is part of what causes philosophers to become prominent and successful, and human psychology is such that one can accomplish these things by seeming confident, intimidating, and mysterious more readily than by (merely) tracking the truth.

    If Plato is a reliable guide, for example, then Socrates seems to have been a master of the art of shutting up younger Athenians through verbal intimidation, making them feel stupid, and maybe even convincing them of things by means of engendering sexual attraction for himself. That’s a bit of a special case because the dialogue form purports to give us access to Socrates-the-interlocutor, which most historical philosophical texts do not. But based on the writings of (say) Hume or Nietzsche, I can’t say I would be surprised if they turned out to be blustery debaters in person. (Again, someone with more historical knowledge should weigh in on this.)

    I have little experience with the style of philosophical interaction in, say, 20th-Century France or Germany. Are philosophers in those environments generally much more polite and free of rhetoric?


  2. I share your hunch that to some degree twas ever thus. I think it is significant that Plato gave up dialogues in favour of lectures. In The Sophist, Socrates hurries away on business and leaves the interrogation of the Eleatic philosopher to a youth. I think that’s because with Socrates in the room, the Eleatic would never get to think aloud long enough to reveal the logic of his position. That said, I think the methodological weakness of pure OLP leaves it especially vulnerable to grandstanding.


  3. “…the division of labour between scientists and philosophers”
    Philosophy professors are not scientists, and most of them would be very unhappy to be called theologians. Out of this “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (Gramsci’s vulgarization of Durkheim, but it’s punchy)

    Performance is a given. Plato wrote dialogues starring an orator. That the orator in question inveighed against rhetoric is something professional theologians and now philosophers have always tried to ignore.

    Geuss at least has a sense of irony.
    “Aristophanes may or may not have got Socrates right in taking him to be a dangerous subversive, but Plato was certainly on Aristophanes’ side in thinking that a happy ending was possible only in a polity from which ‘sophists’ were excluded. The difference is that Plato added to Aristophanes’ arsenal of satire, innuendo, drama, slapstick, and verbal pyrotechnics a highly developed variant of one of the sophists’ own weapons, ratiocination.”

    Lawyers are at the center of intellectual, political life of a republic. They’re actors, playing the parts assigned them. Some of them even wear wigs, but they can laugh at it, and secretly at Judges too, and at philosophers.

    Being “plain spoken” is a manner. Dennett’s manner of performance is fodder for Freudians. It’s a form of unctious academic sleaze. And the best answer to Chalmers is the most direct.
    On “The Extended Mind”
    Teacher to student: “Put your cell phone on your desk”
    Teacher smashes the cell phone with a hammer.
    “Now put your hand on the desk”

    Chalmers is taken seriously because he has a title “philosopher”. He wears the title like a robe.


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