Thought For The Day

In this post, BL reflects on Nigel Warburton‘s thoughts on Thought for the Day.  JL’s comments helped improve this post, though he is not responsible for it. 

The philosopher Nigel Warburton has suggested that the Thought For The Day (TFTD) slot on the BBC Radio4 Today programme should be converted into a philosophy slot. He has made a career of presenting philosophy to audiences who don’t have to pass exams in it, so I take his judgment on this seriously. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s a good option for philosophy, for three reasons: the format, the frame and the established conventions. For similar reasons, I wonder whether it is good for religion too—but that is a question for others.

I want to pursue this because it is an opportunity to explore the conditions for successful philosophical practice. If the Today Programme is a bad place to do philosophy, are our classrooms, philosophy societies, cafés philosophiques, podcasts, blogs, etc. good in the corresponding dimensions?

The format

TFTD is a monologue of two minutes and forty-five seconds. One reason for wondering whether it’s possible to do any philosophy in this format is that philosophy is dialogical (philosophy isn’t alone in this). Philosophy usually starts with some sort of tension, contradiction or disagreement, and while it might in principle be possible to carry out the whole business inside one person’s consciousness, really there needs to be the possibility of back-and-forth between several voices. All philosophers are in dialogue with others (or the books of others), even those like Hume and Wittgenstein who rarely referred to their sources. Even Boethius in his prison cell was thinking in terms drawn from books he had read. A brief moment of philosophical talk is rarely worth much unless one has a) access to some of the history of the discussion of which it is part and b) some opportunity to interrogate it. TFTD certainly fails on b), as there is no opportunity for listeners to engage critically with the contents of TFTD, either on air or online. This then is point one: TFTD is a monologue; philosophy is a dialogue.

Point one needs some elaboration, however, because even dialogue-writing Plato seems to have progressively abandoned the conversational format in his later works, for good reason. While earlier works have conversation all the way through, in Timeus (a late-period work), the conversation is just a preliminary set-up to introduce a long lecture on cosmology by one expert voice. Plato had to do this, because in the conversational model, no single thought ever gets developed in any depth. In the early dialogues, someone presents a naïve thought, Socrates chews on it for a while until it loses its plausibility, and then the chat moves on. This is unsatisfactory in part because it prevents Plato from doing justice to his opponents. He can’t present them properly if his semi-fictional Socrates harries them constantly. So if monologues were good enough for the mature Plato, perhaps they are good enough for TFTD?

This brings us to the brevity of the TFTD slot. Plato abandoned the conversational format in order to give his speakers a good long go at developing their positions. It takes time to present an alternative to the common-sense of the day. On first hearing, an alternative view just sounds weird and easy to dismiss—there must be time to overcome the sense of weirdness and the initial objections. I wonder whether two minutes and forty seconds is long enough. In James Connelly’s post, we met Collingwood’s view that philosophical discussions are only worthwhile when the discussants know each other well. Part of the reason for this (though perhaps not Collingwood’s reason) is that misunderstandings are rife in philosophy. You have to talk for quite a long time before everyone in a discussion has a firm grip on its more abstract terms. It’s notable that the TFTD speakers who are most successful at overcoming the limitations of the format are the regulars with well known doctrinal positions who can use their two minutes and forty seconds to add to what they have said on previous occasions.

The frame

TFTD is broadcast at around 07:45 in the BBC’s talk-radio news and current affairs programme, on Radio 4, its ‘serious’ channel. The content of this programme is part of a connected web of current affairs that extends beyond the BBC into Parliament and beyond. It is the first element in the British national daily news cycle, and political managers try to use it to set the day’s media agenda. This makes the programme itself part of the news—its interviews and reports may have consequences. It also makes the programme rather cynical as the interviewers try to circumvent the media training and planned messaging of the interviewees. Much of it therefore consists of verbal wrestling between people who believe themselves to be quite important. On weekdays, this starts at 06:00.

Then, at 07:45, there is a quick burst of religion. As noted, this is a monologue, so it has none of the back-and-forth life of the rest of the programme, and its content lacks the credibility that comes from having survived interrogation by an interviewer. Worse, it has no consequences. The Today presenters never refer to it after they pick up the programme from the TFTD speaker. TFTD is as isolated from the great ongoing play of wealth and power that makes up most of the Today programme as the sports reports. Even if the speaker succeeds in casting a fresh light on a news story, it makes no difference to the subsequent reporting and discussion of that story.

The effective implication is that religion makes no difference to the conduct of the business and politics that fill most of the airtime. The isolated framing of TFTD tacitly presents religion as something high-minded that can be safely ignored. Philosophy should not be in a hurry to gain that title for itself.

The conventions

As noted, there is no feedback function for TFTD (except for the BBC’s general feedback channels). In an age where every opinion piece on the internet has a comment section, this lack of feedback is outdated and gives the TFTD slot a patrician air (which some of the contributors don’t deserve). This is not an accident. TFTD is the successor to a wartime innovation called ‘Lift Up Your Hearts’. It dates back to the days when national culture and broadcasting were in the hands of a tiny educated elite. As an indicator, the rate of participation in higher education in the UK in 1950 was 3.4% of the population. The remit of the BBC at that time was to make the cultural riches of that elite available to the whole country. That aim was laudable, but it depended on a culture of deference among the 96.6% of the population on the receiving end. That deference has, thankfully, gone. Consider the fate of another mid-century BBC broadcast, The Brains Trust. This was an immensely popular radio show in the 1940s, and then a television show in the 1950s. A panel of distinguished brains took questions on any subject, without prior notice, and the pleasure lay in watching them cook up and bicker about their answers. There was a brief attempt to revive it at the start of this century, but it failed, because, I think, people no longer accept that a degree from an ancient university and a plummy voice entitle a person to a hearing on any and every subject. I’m sure the speakers would reject this, but to my ear, TFTD is a survival of that earlier time. The tone and content of TFTD still depend on the notion that some people are especially qualified to offer edification to everyone else, while the social order on which this notion depended has gone. This change matters for philosophy, too. In a post on philosophical performances, we linked to a Beyond The Fringe spoof of mid-century Oxford philosophy. Part of the joke there was the spectacle of philosophy professors talking about ordinariness and ordinary language—using a version of the English language spoken by almost no-one else in the world.

Aside from the Reithian heritage, TFTD suffers from the obligation to comment on a headline or current anecdote from a religious point of view. This junction between the temporal and the eternal is often rather tenuous. A report by Ekklesia found that “for as many as a third of the scripts studied, the religious link enters like a rather forced afterthought, tagged on in order to legitimise or ‘baptise’ the opinions and comments upon which the Thought is grounded.” There is no reason to think that philosophers will do any better at finding the relevance of their tradition in the rush of current affairs. Indeed, I would expect most academic philosophers to be worse at it than religious leaders, who try to make these links all the time. It takes great skill to say, “these recent events put me in mind of the books I have been reading daily since my youth” without sounding like a stopped clock.

We have been here before. Hegel, in the preface to the Philosophy of Right, explains that philosophy is concerned with the general rational order of things, but becomes ridiculous if it meddles with what are, for philosophy, inessential details on which philosophers have no special expertise:

Plato might have omitted his recommendation to nurses to keep on the move with infants and to rock them continually in their arms. And Fichte too need not have carried… his passport regulations to such a pitch of perfection as to require suspects not merely to sign their passports but to have their likenesses painted on them.

(Tr. TM Knox p. 11)

Hegel’s conception of philosophy is not widely shared nowadays, but some version of this point holds up, I think, for most contemporary philosophical projects. Philosophers seeking to demonstrate their relevance to the world by bringing their understanding of epistemology or modal logic to bear on the day’s headlines run a severe risk of looking as silly as Fichte did when he set about designing passports.


These, then, are the shortcomings of TFTD as a vehicle for philosophy. Perhaps I am wrong about this. After all, some of these difficulties are fixable; the format could be altered to allow the continuity and feedback of a dialogue and the de-haut-en-bas Reithian heritage might be consciously rejected. Perhaps Nigel and others will find ways to use this slot to do real philosophical work. I hope so. My concern here is to use Nigel’s proposal to think more generally about the conditions conducive to good philosophy, and not just on the radio.

‘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.