Aggression, Virtue, and Philosophy

This post’s guest writer is Ian James Kidd

Ian recently hosted a workshop on virtuous adverseriality, and this post is his reflection on that event.

Philosophers like to reflect on their discipline, but their reflections are often rather gloomy. On blogs and over coffee at conferences, we worry about our discipline’s problems, and one common cause for concern is the intellectual and social conduct of ‘aggressive’ philosophers – the forceful, intense, ‘take-no-prisoners’, style of engagement that, for its critics, reflects less a concern for truth, then with ‘kills’, ‘wins’, and ‘victories’. A typical complaint made about such aggressive modes of conduct is that they are vicious, in the technical sense of reflecting certain ethical or epistemic vices – dogmatism, arrogance, insensitivity to others’, and so on. If so, then what is needed is a reassertion of the idea of virtues of philosophical practice.

In response to such philosophical and professional themes, I hosted at workshop in Durham in late May, devoted to the idea of ‘virtuous adversariality’, developed and defended by Catarina Dutilh-Novaes. The core idea is that the adversarial component of philosophy is essential, mainly because it is truth-conducive – to articulate a claim, defend it against robust challenges, and so on, is epistemically productive. But adversariality is, by itself, dangerous, since it can all too easily lapse into aggressive cognitive egoism – a tendency familiar to many philosophers, especially those put off by the ‘kill or be killed’ tone of many debates and exchanges. The best way to counteract those tendencies is, argued Dutilh-Novaes, to insist upon an essential role for certain virtues that can regulate or manage that adversariality – an idea for which she supports by diverse appeal to ancient dialectic, contemporary psychology, and the history of science. Such virtuous adversariality would preserve the truth-conducive power of adversariality, but ensure that it does not lapse into epistemically and socially counterproductive competitive, agonistic ‘bloodsports’.

The idea of virtuous adversariality will be attractive and appealing for many people, including, but not limited to, argumentation theorists, social epistemologists, feminist critics of ‘masculinist’ modes of intellectual conduct, and others who, nowadays, urge critical reflection on how we, as philosophers, engage with one another. But it also poses obvious questions: what virtues ought a philosopher cultivate and exercise? How do we manage the inevitable conflicts between virtues, and equally inevitable disagreements about the sorts of virtues we ought to cultivate? Virtue epistemologists will agree that there are important roles for the ‘virtues of the mind’, but tend to disagree about what the virtues are, why they are ‘excellences’, and what roles they do or should play in our epistemic lives.

Such questions become more complex when they are placed in historical and cross-cultural context. After all, debates about the nature of philosophy and the sorts of qualities or virtues its practitioners must have, are not confined to the blogs, workshops, and water coolers of late modern academia. This point was illustrated by David E. Cooper’s paper, which explored contrasting estimations of the value and importance of critical argumentative engagement in a variety of philosophical traditions, including Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Common to these traditions is a conception of philosophy as a ‘way of life’ where a mastery of virtue shows itself, not in cleverly defended articulations – in a speech or a treatise – but in a mode of life characterised by apatheia, ataraxia, release from ‘grasping’, and so on. A result of this conception – one largely lost today – is that their practitioners did not automatically recognise adversariality as a privileged form of philosophical praxis, and not always a desirable or even plausible path to wisdom and virtue. Perhaps discipleship, meditation, or a ‘stilling of the mind’ are more apt to achieve insight into the nature of reality or of the good life than competitive disputation. At the least, it is clear that we should not simply presuppose that adversariality – either virtuous or aggressive – ought to be taken-for-granted without robust scrutiny in the light of some broader conception of the nature and purposes of philosophy.

My own talk brought together Dutilh-Novaes’ call for philosophers to engage, cheerfully and unapologetically, in normative metaphilosophy, with Cooper’s urge for cross-cultural sensitivity. Despite the received image, the majority of philosophers in the ancient Greek, Indian, and Chinese actually proscribed aggressive adversariality. The foundational figures of those traditions urged that aggressive modes, of life and of thought, marked out a person who lacked ethical and social sophistication. ‘Be critical, but always affable’, advises Confucius; do not be ‘apt to spoil discussion’ through aggressive, dogmatic behaviour, warned the Buddhist monk, Nāgasena. Such hostility to aggressive adversariality was typically justified by an appeal to a conception of philosophy as a ‘way of life’ – in the sense made famous by Pierre Hadot – to which the cultivation and exercise of virtues was integral. Such ways of life are exemplified by the figure of the sage – the enlightened Buddhist, consummate Confucian, or cosmopolitan Stoic sage – whose character and conduct were, strikingly, marked by mindfulness, humility, patience, and other virtues opposed to aggressive cognitive and social behaviour. In fact, the metaphor of a ‘way’ – of life, of thought – can, I suggested, be unpacked in ways that help to show why aggressive, competitive modes of conduct are objectionable.

The workshop ended with an account of ‘virtuous questioning’ by Lani Watson. Although questioning is central to philosophy, we actually lack systematic ideas about the nature of good questioning. What makes for a good question? What sorts of virtues ought a good questioner evince? How can failures to question virtuously impair our enquiries and spoil our intellectual character? Watson built upon a variety of historical examples to develop an original normative account of the virtuous questioner – a person genuinely motivated to improve the epistemic standing, of themselves or others, by asking well-communicated, well-formed questions that reliably elicit worthwhile information from others. Such virtuous questioning turns out to require the exercise of a variety of virtues, such as sincerity and inquisitiveness – ones lacking in the aggressive, ‘bruising’ styles of questioning encouraged in some departments and in many television political discussions.

Despite consensus about the importance and neglect of the ideal of virtuous adversariality, there was disagreement about the details, for two broad reasons. One is that virtuous adversariality inherits a range of more general philosophical problems from ethics and epistemology – ones concerning the nature, range, and roles of the virtues, say, or the tensions between what William James called ‘tough-mindedness’ and ‘tender-heartedness’. We do not want to be too soft on people, such that truths slip by us, but nor do we want to be so tough that potential participants are driven away. But at the same time, we surely want to steer clear of ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescriptions. Some philosophers flourish in a fight, whereas others prefer gentler stances – a specific instance of the more general fact that conceptions of the nature of good life differ hugely (and, as Cooper emphasised, not all philosophical traditions actually privileged argumentation, regarding it as a hindrance to the pursuit of the genuinely good life). The best we can say, for now, is that we really do need to have those robust normative metaphilosophical debates about the best ways to practice our discipline, hence about the qualities modes of conduct appropriate to philosopher. Even if philosophy is no longer conceived, by the majority of academics, at least, as a ‘way of life’ or as a ‘path to enlightenment’, those ancient visions of its purpose can inspire and inform our own reflections.

Another problem for debates about virtuous adversariality is that the professional and institutional realities of contemporary academic life can make it difficult to actually cultivate and exercise the virtues it requires. It is easy to prescribe virtues, but much harder to actually put them into practice, especially when the norms, structures, and imperatives of our discipline often militate against them. If philosophy is a career involving intense competition for a limited and diminishing opportunities and resources, then virtues like modesty and generosity are placed under pressure. If philosophy does not require us to actually live our ideas, but only to publish them in ‘top’ journals, then virtues like sincerity and integrity are crowded out. Moreover, if students have fewer, larger seminars, then we simply cannot cultivate the sorts of sustained pedagogic relationships – marked by sensitivity to their dispositions, interests, and sensibilities – that the careful cultivation of their virtues really needs. Taken together, modes of virtuous adversiality are not obviously supported by, and are often challenged by, the ways that are compelled to think about, teach, and practice philosophy today.

Such worries about the corrupting effects of the current institutional and professional nature of academic philosophy are not new, and are related to wider critiques of modern education and culture. But this is not just disciplinary narcissism. The call for virtuous adversariality in the philosophy classroom or seminar echoes throughout wider society – for we ought to expect virtuous questioning and disputation from our political leaders, and in public debate at every level. It is hard work to cultivate and exercise the virtues of philosophical practice – whatever they might be – but such work would be easier if we perhaps take Marx’s advice: to describe our situation, but then start the much harder work to change it.

One thing, at least, was clear, though, from both this workshop and this blog, and this is that many philosophers clearly want to encourage and exercise virtuous adversariality.

Ian James Kidd


6 thoughts on “Aggression, Virtue, and Philosophy

  1. Ian, I found your survey of the questions and challenges that came up at your workshop very helpful and stimulating. One thing that struck me was your suggestion that there was a clear consensus that “we really do need to have those robust normative metaphilosophical debates about the best ways to practice our discipline.” In light of the broader discussion, that almost seems like method begging (or whatever one calls the methodological equivalent of question begging). To me, even more so after reading your post, it appears far from obvious that metaphilosophical questions are best met with robust normative debate. Rather, I’d suspect that the problems of access and presentation that you note for philosophical arguments are often even more present and decisive in metaphilosophical ones. Perhaps this means there’s a sort of debater’s regress, or perhaps it means the Gordian knot of debate is best not cut with more rope.


  2. Thanks, Michael – glad it was helpful. Good question. I think that MP debates are often best had alongside practical demonstrations of the concerns and ideas being discussed – so not ‘just’ debating! Most of the talks at this event both argued for and demonstrated the MP points being made – which seems the right way to go.


  3. It makes sense that we’re probably looking for a combination of approaches rather than ‘just’ anything, I agree. As a historian, I’m tempted to look at other times and places where these kinds of scholarly norms have been changed, in some sense, exogenously. For example, I don’t know how much of the current U.S. discussion over “trigger warnings” as an academic norm has made it across the pond, but that’s a clear example of something coming from a combination of non-university activism and scholarship that has had a less privileged position in the university. Whether or not one thinks that trigger warnings are an appropriate or obligatory aspect of scholarly discourse, it appears the pushback they have received in the U.S. has more often been couched in the “traditional” kind of virtue-talk and virtue-debate that we’re recognizing here has such a conservative effect on philosophical norms.
    Perhaps joining debate with demonstration can help to show up the blind spots of debate on its own, but this example makes me think there are significant normative concerns, particularly as regard access and participation, that any conversation held principally among card-carrying philosophers is likely to miss.


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