The Uses and Abuses of Self-Flagellation

Another outsider looks in on philosophy: this time it is historian of mathematics Michael J. Barany


The recent post by Matthew Inglis got me thinking. (So did his recent article in the Notices of the AMS. Pleased to meet your work, Matthew!)
I, too, consider myself an outsider to academic philosophy. Like Matthew, I get both personal joy and intellectual stimulation from my occasional exchanges with some academic philosophers, and I also find the field fascinating to observe from the outside. Matthew finds it strange that a field with such interesting and friendly people, and one so little implicated in fraud and torture, manages to get bogged down in the kinds of recriminations that more or less explicitly animate blogs like this one. I agree with Matthew that philosophers’ “introspective self-flagellation” is excessive, but I suspect my reasons are different from his.
If you have read my previous contributions to this blog’s comment threads, it won’t surprise you that the “self-flagellation” doesn’t seem out of place to me.  What worries me, instead, is the “introspective” part.  Inside is the last place a philosopher concerned about the future of philosophy should be looking. That’s not because there aren’t problems on the inside, but because there are good reasons to think there won’t be solutions, or at least not the solutions philosophers will need in order to be inclusive, relevant, and interesting.
Specifically, I think one should be wary of presuming, even implicitly, that the problems faced by the discipline of philosophy are the kinds of problems that can best be solved or even properly understood philosophically. Calling for robust debates, parsing style and content, and identifying affective and other values are all part of the nature of academic philosophy. Philosophers have an abundance of finely-honed and practiced methods of self-analysis and self-flagellation. My outsider’s experience of participating in philosophy conferences and seminars, indeed, has been to be first exhilarated then exhausted and finally alienated and troubled by the ease and effectiveness with which philosophers manage to pick each other apart. They do so with grace and pith and candor and even humility, to be sure, but a takedown with a smile is still a takedown.
I would suggest that this engenders a certain comfort with the rules and norms of philosophical discussion that favors introspection to the exclusion of what can be important contributions (not just critiques) from the outside. For, outsiders intervene in academic philosophy all the time, if only one pauses to notice them. They do so as students, as interlopers (like Matthew and myself), and in many other forms. Outsiders also intervene in academic philosophy by not engaging or taking notice, and this kind of intervention is as important as it is easy to ignore or dismiss. If one of the criticisms of academic philosophy is that it is an elite and narrow discipline with elitist and narrow participation, then one could ask philosophers what it is about what they do that makes it so. But it would be more to the point to focus on bringing outsiders in–as both participants and critics–before trying to pin down features of philosophical discourse that many insiders might not see or appreciate. And not just interested outsiders like Matthew and me; philosophy needs people who would never think of themselves as philosophers, too.
Such an approach takes a much more expansive view of pedagogy than we as academics (and I am very much an insider in that respect) tend to take. It goes beyond public engagement, interdisciplinarity, and the other watchwords of academic (not just philosophical) self-flagellation and self-congratulation. A lesson I have taken from Joan Richards’s recent work on Augustus De Morgan (and others) is that the idea that philosophy can be enriched by seeking the broadest possible participation in practice (not just in principle), and that philosophers have an obligation to such pursuits, has been around for a while. This means making more a virtue of the less introspective kinds of self-flagellation, the ones that start by looking outward.

Fascinating people

Our latest blogger is Matthew Inglis, of the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University. 


Some background: I work on the boundaries of education and psychology, with a particular interest in the cognitive processes involved in mathematical thinking. A few years ago I got interested in how professional mathematicians go about their work, which drew me into the rather curious philosophy of mathematical practice community. As a result of this connection I sometimes turn up to philosophy conferences and very occasionally write articles for philosophy journals and books.

I thoroughly enjoy engaging with philosophers. You are fascinating people. I think your best feature is your apparent willingness to give serious, careful and rigorous consideration to ideas that would be rejected without thought by normal people for being utterly absurd. For example, at the last philosophy conference I attended I was convinced, by what seemed to be a watertight argument, that society should give serious consideration to going back to using Roman numerals. Later at the same event I heard an hour’s talk on the proposal that there is a largest integer to which it is simply impossible to add 1. Enthused by these crazy experiences I returned to my home department and tried to recount the ideas and arguments to my colleagues. Sadly this was not a success, and soon I became known as an unhelpful oddball.

What I find most interesting about my enthusiastic reaction to mixing with philosophers, is that it seems quite at odds with the reaction you see when philosophers are forced to mixed with each other. This does not appear to be a discipline at ease with itself. This can easily be seen by studying the stories that make it onto Leiter’s blog. The impression one gets from reading that site is that half the philosophers in America are sex pests, and the other half are arrogant bullies who spend their lives writing rude book reviews. I suppose it’s just about possible that I’ve stumbled across the only corner of your discipline where most people seem to be both interesting and friendly, but it seems improbable.

An important thing to remember is that all disciplines have this kind of self doubt. For instance, in the last few years psychology has been going through a methodological crisis of confidence provoked by a few high-profile failed replications, and a couple of even higher-profile fraud cases. It’s left everyone with the nagging feeling that perhaps everything we thought we knew might be false. Not content with that dismaying confidence sapper, we now learn that the discipline’s primary learned society seems to be implicated in torture.

I suppose my message to philosophers is that things look much worse from the inside than they do from the outside. From my highly naive vantage point, you come across as an interesting and impressive bunch. I’m sure this observation won’t bring an end to your introspective self-flagellation, but I hope it’s at least marginally cheering.