‘What’s the University For?’ The Series so far, September 2015

In an earlier post, we argued that questions about character and the virtues cannot be avoided in thinking about higher education, because the independent learning that universities demand of students requires the exercise of some character traits, even if these are only the deviousness required for successful plagiarism or the social skills necessary for sustained free-loading.  University senior managements have picked up on this theme in the form of published lists of graduate attributes.  This connects our narrow question about philosophy teaching to the wider topic of the nature and purpose of HE.

In this post, Harriet Harris, Chaplain at the University of Edinburgh, reports on the University of Edinburgh’s What’s The University For? project. 

What’s the University for?’ is a Series we’ve been running in the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy since 2012:

  • to bring students, academic and non-academic staff together, from across the University
  • for fundamental reflection on our purpose
  • via different visions or philosophies of the university (Mediaeval/community of scholars, liberal arts, Humboldt/blue sky research, Napoleonic-functional, and in our current context in which to a large extent universities are seen as drivers for the economy)

Through panel discussions and group-work we ask ourselves:

  1. What is the nature of the University of Edinburgh, and
  2. What do we hope for it and from it?

The sessions are open to all, and each event has been planned by a diverse team of students and staff from the Colleges and various departments including the Institute for Academic Development, the Student Association and the International Office.

The Student Association and General Council joined us in 2014 to ask whether there are core values that identify the University of Edinburgh and our graduates, and whether it’s helpful to make any values explicit, as some universities do: values, or aspirations perhaps, such as collegiality; academic freedom; dignity and respect; global responsibility and impact. For all of these values it is possible to identify behaviours that either promote or undermine them, such that they guide practice, as well as contribute to a sense of Edinburgh identity.

The drive for conversations around values has also come from students who put together a proposal to broaden Edinburgh graduate attributes beyond academic skills to include integrity, social and emotional intelligence, and commitment to sustainability and the common good. This proposal has gone to Central Management Group.

What are participants hoping for from discussion of values?  To quote some of their words: a sense of belonging, a humane university, a commitment to communities locally and globally. Many students want to be co-producers, working with their tutors in developing their curricula and influencing learning and assessment styles.

We hear expressed a wish for students and staff to know one another better, and a need for the staff experience to receive attention alongside the student experience. Quick turn-around times for marking, and making teaching slides ready 24 hours in advance need to be fitted in alongside lecture-writing, admin, references for students, personal tutee support, Masters supervision and PhD reading, departmental business and so on, before research even gets a look in, although the suspicion is that staff are only interested in research.

The main benefit of the What’s the University for? Series is that it brings staff and students together for honest conversation in a way that builds understanding and fosters good relations. It encourages informal socialising and has also led to some formal collaboration on teaching and learning styles. Our two most recent events have been called: ‘Creating a University’, and ‘The Humane University’.

Links to some student blogs from these events speak partly of the value in staff and students sharing their struggles and hopes within academia:




A new initiative at the end of the academic year was the launch of an annual ‘Thank you tea’ to which people apply and bring a guest who has helped them at the University. A number of students brought lab technicians, cleaners, receptionists, or tutors. Current planning is around ‘failing for success’, such that actual or perceived failures can be mined for important lessons, rather than being felt to be a dead-end; a Sustainable University, picking up from Paris 2015; and a panel event on University and mental health, drawing on expertise from architecture, sports science, social geography and counselling with a wish-list of panelists whom we hope will be available.

Harriet Harris, Chaplain, University of Edinburgh


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.

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



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.

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.

Character Education

At a university open day, a parent gestured at her daughter and asked me, “Will she be changed by university?” Feeling reckless, I (BL) replied, “It’ll be a shocking waste of time and money if she isn’t”. I still think that this is the honest answer. Education should be transformative. This is especially true of education in the humanities, because the information we impart is of little practical use and the skills we foster might be developed by other less expensive means. Besides, the skills-and-knowledge side of education requires the student to exercise some virtues—diligence, perseverance, the courage to hazard an opinion in public, the moral strength to admit error, a proper respect for the magister, the confidence to question the magister’s opinion, etc.. This sounds like a lofty list, but anyone who parades at a graduation ceremony must have exercised these virtues to some degree, albeit minimally and cynically. The Hungarian mathematician George Polya wrote that, “Teaching to solve problems is education of the will.” (How to Solve It 2004 p. 94). So even if we confine ourselves to helping our students to perform better on narrow academic tasks, we will be in the business of encouraging them to develop the necessary virtues.

This is not a radical view. Many universities have lists of attributes that their graduates ought to develop as a result of their higher education. Universities that write such lists shy away from the language of virtues, but nevertheless these attributes are excellences of character. On reading some of the lists, one might suspect that these are the excellences of an excellent employee, as specified by business leaders to university senior management. Certainly, the courage to speak the truth to power does not always figure as saliently as one might have hoped. Sometimes, the authors of these lists seem to have mislaid or forgotten the critical function of universities and their graduates. Nevertheless, the graduate attributes are excellences and they are not always written by captains of industry. Harriet Harris led a project to ask staff and students at Edinburgh University what the university is for. One of the outcomes was “A proposal for more broadly conceived graduate attributes that more clearly support character development, social and emotional intelligence, commitment to sustainability.”

For these and other reasons, the notion of character education is enjoying something of a return to favour. It would be well, therefore, to ask why it fell into relative disuse. A satisfying answer would require a comprehensive history of education in the developed world over the past century, but I think part of the answer would be the following. The institutions that were most serious and effective in shaping the characters of pupils and students did so by isolating their charges from the outside world in a way that few people now would countenance. A residential facility in a rural setting allows the educators to control every aspect of the learner’s environment and every waking minute. Brief versions of this are still common practice in adult development from religious preparation to management training. A residential course or retreat allows an ethos to develop even over a few days that encourages excellences in the participants that may not normally find expression. It’s not incidental that Newman made this point in the context of Catholic higher education (The Idea of a University chapter six section nine).

This degree of control raises some obvious dangers and risks, and places enormous responsibility on the shoulders of the educator. In the USA, the advocates of character education are often politically conservative—it’s curious that people who are scornful of social engineering should favour the psychic engineering of individuals. It also presents a practical contradiction to those universities that wish to combine the development of student attributes with breaking down the walls between the university and the rest of society—if Newman is right, it is these very walls that make character development possible. At the same time, reflection on Newman suggests that small residential gatherings may offer an alternative to the picture of philosophy with which we started. Recall that our basic question concerned the virtues on display at departmental seminars. Why do the professional philosophical virtues so often look like public vices? It may make a difference here that the research seminar speaker is often a stranger, a visitor with whom most of the listeners have no bond, no obligations of community except the thin demands of professionalism and the burden of departmental hospitality that is often carried by a named host. Perhaps real philosophical engagement requires more than the mere civility that we owe to fleeting visitors invited by someone else in the department. It’s common for philosophers to report that they get more out of small conferences where they meet the same people to continue the same conversations than they do out of participation in huge philosophical jamborees.  (Even Collingwood saw some value in discussions between friends.)

To return to the principal theme of this blog: we are, inevitably, in the business of character education. This is practically, politically and ethically problematic (but that’s education for you). The conditions under which we (BL & JL) teach at our home institution (diverse student body, modular degree programmes, large campus, many non-residential students) are not conducive to character education, which goes better in small, isolated residential communities. We would not change our teaching conditions—we have no nostalgia for homogeneous classrooms, rigid degree structures, narrow focus and near horizons. This, though, puts if anything more importance on the role of staff as exemplars of the excellences of character necessary for academic success. It also demands that we re-think how we go about character education in an institution that is very different from the university as Newman imagined it. It would be a shocking waste of time and money if three years of higher education did not change a person—for the better.

Is philosophical discussion pointless?

James Connelly

Discussion is often thought of as the lifeblood of philosophy. But what is discussion for? What can it achieve? Is securing conviction (or refutation) the measure of success in philosophical discussion? In his Autobiography (1939) R.G. Collingwood made some rather startling comments about the pointlessness of philosophical seminars and discussion:

 I enjoyed … the friendship and society of a great many philosophers … I also enjoyed their philosophical conversation and liked to hear, and engage in, their discussions … I used to meet a dozen or so of my colleagues every week in order to discuss a topic or a view propounded by one of us, and more ceremoniously … the Oxford Philosophical Society met on Sunday evenings two or three times a term for the reading and discussion of a paper. Once a year the thing became a debauch, in the annual joint meeting … at which papers and discussions went on for days together … But these discussions serve no philosophical purpose. Viva voce philosophy is an excellent thing as between tutor and pupil; it may be valuable as between two intimate friends; it is tolerable as between a few friends who know each other very well; but in all these cases its only value is to make one party acquainted with the views of the other. Where it becomes argument, directed to refutation and conviction, it is useless, for … no one has ever been convinced by it. Where it becomes general discussion it is an outrage. One of the company reads a paper, and the rest discuss it with a fluency directly proportional to their ignorance. To shine on such occasions one should have a rather obtuse, insensitive mind and a ready tongue. Whatever may be true of parrots, philosophers who cannot talk probably think the more, and those who think a lot certainly talk the less.

(Autobiography, 53-4)

On this view, there is a philosophical purpose to discussion, but only as enabling one person to understand the views of another; pursuing the goal of convincing or refuting another is pointless. However, although I am sure we recognize that Collingwood’s account is an accurate depiction of some philosophical occasions, could it possibly be true of all?

Before proceeding, it is worth recording that Collingwood was not exaggerating his views for public effect. His private correspondence reveals a similar line of thought. Thus he wrote to Isaiah Berlin in 1938 that: ‘I altogether disapprove of these ‘philosophical discussions’, and have never attended one which did not confirm me in my disapproval and make me ashamed of having gone … I won’t further explain my position; I only ask you to believe that it is a position and not a mere churlishness.’ In the early 1920s he remarked to his close friend Guido de Ruggiero that ‘I also send a trifle which I contributed to one of those Congresses … I am not much pleased with it … the rules of the game called a ‘symposium’ (the name is a good deal cheerfuller than the thing) oblige the disputant to take up an exaggerated position and defend his thesis’; he also described the occasion to his father:

we had only one unpleasant moment, when two Cambridge philosophers of great eminence lost their tempers with each other and screamed and shook their fists in each others’ faces and seemed likely to resort to violence over the question of what if anything, was bent when a stick in water looked bent … My own contribution was quite a success … I succeeded in making A. E. Taylor, who wanted to pull me to pieces, say the exact opposite of what he had said on paper, so I was quite happy; and especially when several different people approached me afterwards and said I had done well …

So Collingwood could, on occasion, relish academic sparring: but what of his serious doubts about the value and purpose of philosophical discussion?

Should we reject Collingwood’s doubts about the value of philosophical discussion out of hand as reflecting his purely personal experience? I suggest not: but some distinctions need to be drawn first. In the passage quoted above he distinguishes three possible types of philosophical discussion, the first two characterized by their goals. He accepts the first and denies the second and third. They are:

  1. Discussion with the goal of making one person acquainted with the views of another
  2. Discussion with the goal of employing argument directed to
    1. refutation
    2. conviction
  3. Discussion as ‘general’ discussion

Collingwood’s hypothesis is that philosophical discussion is good only in so far as it enables one person to learn the views of another. Clarification and elucidation is presumably included, but attempts to convince or refute are not. The contrary view is that discussion per se, the critical play of philosophical dialectic, sharpens what each interlocutor says and thinks and that the attempt to refute, for example, acts as a service to the interlocutor.

Which view should we adopt?[1] It is certainly true, for some, that understanding another’s point of view is enough and that the point of discussion and questioning is to clarify, not, other things being equal, to dispute or refute. It is perhaps true for some that critical attempts at refutation, not on paper but viva voce, is where the action is. But, on the other hand, in a typical instance, how many have gone away from a discussion and remained convinced by a refutation that seemed persuasive a the time by contrast with those who go away and think more about their own thinking or the thinking of those to whom they have listened?

To take Collingwood’s possibilities: proposition 1 is certainly plausible. Whatever our view of a position’s merits, in discussion we can at least come to appreciate and more fully understand the view. Proposition 3, it seems to me, is acceptable. It is rare indeed for general discussion to be worth very much. Unless there is a specific question being pursued with tact, care and sympathy, then much of what passes for discussion is merely an airing of whatever a paper prompts a speaker to utter. Proposition 2 is trickier. As noted above, knock down refutation is exceedingly rare, as is knock down conviction. But doubt is not so rare, and doubt in both cases can be engendered by the attempt to explain, clarify and elucidate, i.e. in engaging in discussion as acquaintance. I might try to explain my worked out philosophical position to another or many others and they might ask me questions sympathetically designed to draw out my meaning further to ensure that they have a proper understanding of my thesis or views. But it might be the case that the more I explain the more apparent it becomes that there is a problem (or several problems) with my overall account and that this gradually becomes apparent both to myself and to my interlocutor(s). In this case 1) can lead, by stealth to 2). But it is by stealth, not by direct assault.

Collingwood might be right, that is, that direct assault either to convince or to refute rarely if ever works; but he might be wrong to assert that refutation and conviction are impossible outcomes of philosophical discussion. That is, it might be best if refutation and conviction are not pursued as the directly intended goals of discussion, and that discussion is best conceived of as elucidation. But, like happiness, although refutation and conviction cannot be aimed at directly, they might emerge as a consequence of such discussion. On this interpretation, Collingwood’s scepticism is to some extent vindicated, but conviction and refutation can nonetheless be outcomes even if not the intended goals of discussion.

A biographical coda

Did Collingwood practice what he preached? How did he appear to his colleagues? Isaiah Berlin wrote of him in 1932 that ‘Collingwood is very exciting and risky. He is a very sly lively continental sort of philosopher … I always found him entertaining, enormously ingenious, and frequently deceitful and unsound. He is the only philosophy tutor in Oxford who is also a man of genuine culture.’ It is worth noting Berlin’s use of the term ‘continental philosopher’: this is a very early use of a term which only came into general use decades later. Again, Collingwood’s colleague at Pembroke College, Oxford, the political scientist R.B. McCallum, remarked of Collingwood that:

He was sometimes said to be a sophist, and his auditors felt that they were being tricked rather than properly confuted. His manner in discussion was agreeable but also somewhat insidious. He was concessive; his code word was ‘certainly’. His interlocutor was led on to state certain propositions and then found them to be mutually inconsistent. In an argument with Collingwood one was nearly always defeated but very often not convinced … He rarely contradicted or engaged in emphatic dissent. He would not rudely dismiss a statement made to him, but would usually deal with it in the Socratic manner by asking questions often very embarrassing to the person who had raised the subject. This was not always agreeable to the rash and the self-opinionated.

[1] In what follows I exclude both considerations of basic competence and the making of straightforward and easily refutable blunders.

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?


The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’

As a thoroughly unrigorous experiment, BL posted this Facebook status:

Let’s have a list of bad behaviours during Q&A sessions. The invitation to discuss the questioner’s stuff rather than the speaker’s. The venomous clarification. Etc..

Within a couple of hours, it garnered the following suggestions:

  • Hostile criticism based on something you never said (or would ever have said given the context of your talk).
  • “I have a couple of comments then maybe a question…” <10 minute lecture> “Do you agree?” [That’s the advertised question]
  • The “look at my massive dick” questions that insist on references to such obscure texts that there’s no chance anyone has a clue what the question is actually getting at. But slow clap for being *so* well read…
  • The questioner’s speech disguised as “I have just a couple of points here”
  • “Clearly”, “obviously”, “LOOK!”
  • “You’re not serious right?”
  • Sniggers and ‘private jokes’ amongst the audience
  • Over the top gestures and looking at the people around you rather than talking to the guest speaker.
  • Saying ‘can I just ask…’ And then regurgitating a whole paper in order to show how clever I am
  • “I have the greatest respect for your views of course, and I’d just like to add …” [trans: “listen, fuckwit …]
  • “I understand that we are pressed for time and will keep my question very brief. I’m sure the panel will be aware of the paper published in [X], which I will begin by summarising …”
  • The questioner who raises a finger to indicate they have a follow-up point, then says “I agree with what [previous questioner] said, and would like to add…” before raising a completely unrelated question.

Most of these came from University of Hertfordshire philosophy alumni.