In defense of intellectual blood sport

Agnes Callard, a moral philosopher at the University of Chicago, recently shared her vision and defense of philosophy as an intellectual blood sport. Philosophy has historically been one of the more adversarial disciplines in higher education, which makes for sometimes awkward cross-border interactions with other fields. I see this in workshops and seminars as well — the philosophers’ questions are almost always the most pointed and most critical of the speaker’s premises or implications. And it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of it, as Callard’s anecdote illustrates.

In ordinary conversation it’s bad form to be too disagreeable. One obvious reason is that exposing someone’s error in reasoning is often embarrassing for the person. But why feel embarrassment? In one respect successful criticism is helpful, since you now see that your reasons for believing P aren’t as strong as you thought. Perhaps the criticism unexpectedly ripples through your web of belief as you realize you’ve made the same mistake in reasoning on other occasions. Anyone in the audience who also sees that the criticism is well-placed similarly learns something.

A reason this outcome almost never happens is that the point of conversation is almost never to the acquisition of true beliefs as such. “Veritistic success” isn’t often the primary point of conversation. Instead, the context is usually far more specific like to solve some practical task or enjoy one another’s company. In the example above everyone benefits from one person pointing out another’s mistake. It’s true that everyone could benefit from the criticism, but if the context is not primarily concerned with veritistic success 1) the audience are excused if they do not recognize the benefits and 2) the audience will be justified in thinking that others in the audience haven’t recognized the benefits. Given a different conversational context, the audience can justifiably believe that an excessively critical speaker is (to use a technical term) being an asshole. They’re justified in believing this because the likely effect of such criticism, in a non-veritistic context, is zero-sum. We could say that the audience justifiably believes the criticism is a token of a certain type of speech act that reduces the status of the person criticized and in so doing raises the status of the critic.

Inappropriate philosophical criticism is I think relevantly similar to inappropriate humor. Humor is in part aestheticized cleverness. Observational comedy and wordplay, for example, involve exercising what in another context would be considered insight or attentiveness. However, the intention of humor is not to educate but to amuse — cleverness in a humorous context doesn’t have an instrumental or practical purpose. Instead, the point is the exercise and enjoyment of cleverness itself. A reason humor can be inappropriate, then, is when the context requires us to use our capacity for cleverness rather than enjoy it. In such a context, humor is a selfish diversion of one’s capacity for thinking and reasoning from the task at hand. Similarly, philosophical criticism in the wrong context takes conversation to an unhelpfully abstract or reflective direction. If I ask you how to replace a tire on my bicycle, and you reply, “What makes it a bicycle anyways?” you have not understood the pragmatics of my request.

Philosophy then seems to require a set of special norms that permit discourse that in ordinary conversational contexts would count as disrespectful. The results can be electrifying. Philosophy seminars in both college and grad school have been the hardest classes I’ve taken in part because your peers push you to think harder and more deeply than at any other time. Even listening is a challenge — a question’s been gnawing at you for the last half-hour while you try to follow the dialectical situation and figure out whether you understood that point from five minutes ago. If you’re the one defending a position, you know that others in the room are ready to pounce on any weak spot they see in your argument. The anticipation of criticism, as well as the satisfaction if your parries and ripostes succeed, makes philosophical work feel worthwhile.

There are in general two ways to defend adversarial norms. One is instrumental — adversarial discourse in philosophy helps get to the truth better than a more collaborative, less confrontational style. In general, adversarial strategies are appropriate when the goal in question is hard to achieve directly. One strategy an acquaintance in film production shared with me for creating realistic messiness on a set is to have one group come in and dress the set neatly, then bring in a second group to create disorder. This apparently creates a more realistic mise en scène than if a single group were to try to create a messy environment from scratch. A background reason for this sort of adversarial strategy is that a mess is contains a good bit of randomness, and in general people are bad at simulating random processes. So if we try to deliberately design a messy environment it probably will look a little off.

I think adversarial norms are especially important when dealing with highly abstract and general questions like those considered in philosophical inquiry. The hardest philosophical problems take us to edge of what’s thinkable, which means philosophical inquiry is constantly on the brink of teetering into nonsense. Thomas Nagel has a line from the introduction to The View from Nowhere that:

… [philosophy] faces us with the question of how far beyond the relative safety of our present language we can go without risking complete loss of touch with reality. We are in a sense trying to climb outside our own minds, an effort that some would regard as insane and that I regard as philosophically fundamental. (p. 11)

One result of this focus on the problems that arise at the outer limits of thought is that it’s hard to determine on what counts as good method for inquiry. Joseph Heath speculates that one reason for less aggressive Q&A norms in the sciences is that the peer review process enforces much stricter methodological constraints on scientific research, which means audiences feel less pressure to ask tough questions during research talks. Confirmation bias, as Heath notes, is no less prevalent in the sciences than in philosophy. Our difficulty in distinguishing good from bad reasoning in our own views only compounds the risk of falling into nonsense in the case of philosophical inquiry. As a consequence, perhaps the best we can do methodologically is subject every position to ruthless, withering criticism.

A second reason for adversarial norms that Agnes Callard identifies is intrinsic rather than instrumental. Adversarialism can be valuable when the outcome is something that you can only achieve by regarding another person as a competitor. In the case of philosophical inquiry, it’s knowledge of one’s own intellectual ability. The only way to know them is to face the sharpest, quickest, and most persistent critic head on. If you survive, you can say with confidence that you earned it. If you don’t, you found your limits.

One part of Callard’s argument that I think needs greater emphasis is that philosophical argumentation is not like a test of physical fitness or a measuring rod. Compare athletic competitions. It matters who actually crosses the finish line first in a footrace, and the whole point of developing one’s capacities is to be the one to actually win. A substantial part of the intrinsic value from adversarial norms is the prospect of recognition of how one actually argues, and in particular if one actually succeeds. Adversarialism in philosophy allows us to realize what the Greeks called thumos, or “spiritedness.” Realizing thumos in philosophical argument is distinct from pursuing knowledge of one’s intellectual abilities, even though such self-knowledge may be an important by-product of such argument. Still, philosophical argumentation can only have value for oneself if the point is to win.

If philosophy were done by very different kinds of beings from us, like Vulcans, this reason for adversarial norms in philosophy would be less important. But for us an adversarial culture holds out a unique kind recognition that’s difficult to achieve in any other context.

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.