The Basic Question

We encourage students to come to philosophy research seminars. “You may not understand much of what is said, but you will see philosophers at work and get an intuitive grasp of how it is done.”   Longer versions of this pitch may mention that philosophy is an activity rather than a body of knowledge, so you should see how the experts do it, much as a music student would attend concerts. There might be mention of tacit knowledge and enculturation. The most optimistic versions of this advertisement recommend that students attend the whole series of invited talks, so that they can get a feel for the variety of styles and methods in contemporary philosophy.

Thus encouraged, some students do turn up to research seminars. On a good day, they may see everything they were promised. On another day, they may see the sort of behaviour that has led to a recent spate of codes of conduct. Daniel Dennett has published four steps to intelligent discussion, while David Chalmers offers a list of forty-three rules for governing philosophy discussions. Chalmers seems to have generated his list simply by asking other philosophers for suggestions. We know that the ancient Israelites worshipped idols, because we have a written record of prophets telling them to stop. The fact that Dennett and Chalmers feel moved to publish rules for conduct in discussions tells us something about the incidence of poor behaviour in Q&A sessions. The most popular forms of speaker-abuse are familiar to us all: the invitation to discuss the questioner’s stuff rather than the speaker’s; the pointed expression of bafflement; the wilfully ungenerous interpretation; the deployment of questions in volleys; etc..

Experienced philosophers may flinch with anger or embarrassment at such antics. But our understanding of what philosophy is and why we do it is unlikely to be shaken. We recall better days and know that there can be rigorous discussion without venom. But what of the students? Having been promised an exhibition of expert philosophy, they might reasonably suppose that whatever they witness in the research seminar is the good stuff.

So it behoves philosophers to behave well, for the sake of students as well as each other.   Suppose, though, that philosophers do adhere scrupulously to the letter and spirit of Chalmers’ list. Imagine a seminar in which the philosophical virtues shone forth. Would they be apparent to watching students? Would students observing a bravura display of logical analysis see it as such, or would they see it as a pedantic ego-trip? When a questioner demands multiple clarifications from a speaker, would the students see rigour or bullying?

Suppose that significant numbers of students do not see the professional philosophical virtues as virtues but rather as social vices? What then?

Three possibilities occur to us:

  • There might be consequences for pegagogy
  • There might be consequences for equal opportunities and access
  • There might be other ways of doing philosophy that produce better philosophy

This list is certainly not exhaustive.


Now read John Lippitt on Equal opportunities and the sin of pride


15 thoughts on “The Basic Question

  1. Great way of putting this. Add to that, first, that some of the best interactions in a philosophy research seminar rely on a great deal of shared expertise and familiarity with texts and arguments that students are unlikely to have, and therefore are hard to appreciate as such; and, second, that much of what makes “bad behavior” in research discussions academically unhelpful or distasteful is also what makes it accessible and even memorable for neophytes. I understood some of the good points when I attended research seminars as an undergrad, but I’m sure many more went over my head. What I do remember, even now, was the thrill of seeing a takedown (however uncharitable, but how could I have seen the difference?) or the curiosity of watching reactions to obnoxious 7-part questions. Indeed, such bad behavior teaches neophytes some things about academic philosophy that are valuable for them to know (there are arguments about approaches at varying levels, much can be personality-driven) that they might have a harder time learning from good behavior, if good behavior can teach it to them at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like this idea:
      “such bad behavior teaches neophytes some things about academic philosophy that are valuable for them to know (there are arguments about approaches at varying levels, much can be personality-driven) that they might have a harder time learning from good behavior, if good behavior can teach it to them at all.”

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Nice Blle8#&230;Excgolent blog here! Also your website a lot up fast! What host are you the use of? Can I get your associate hyperlink for your host? I wish my website loaded up as quickly as yours lol…


  2. I say this not to be contrarian, but one reason I became a philosophy major is that I finally had a professor who engaged “virtuously” in philosophical discourse. This person entertained all questions and objections with equanimity and respect, maintained humility about preferred positions, and refrained from any rudeness like interrupting, condescending, ignoring, or attacking. I wanted to be just like that teacher and I learned far more from observing those good practices than from witnessing all the poor ones. The squeaky hinges in professional philosophy sometimes appear to soak up all the oil. This is unfortunate and could be different.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad to hear it. Why did you fear this would sound contrarian? Your professor sounds like the sort of teacher this blog approves of. So perhaps our basic statement isn’t clear enough.


  3. Enjoyed examining this, very good stuff, thanks . “A man does not die of love or his liver or even of old age he dies of being a man.” by Percival Arland Ussher.


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