Friday, June 21, 2013

Critical thinking again

Thinking, like writing, ought to be about something, or at least might as well be about something. (Relevant to this point are this and this.) So I'm suspicious of courses that are simply in thinking or writing. I still think a good critical thinking course might be possible, if only because so many students seem not to know, roughly speaking, how the world works. That is, they don't know enough about science to know that its findings should generally be trusted, nor enough about science reporting and funding to know that scientific findings as reported in the media should not be accepted uncritically, and that one should often ask who is behind the research. Similarly they will distrust news sources they disagree with without asking or knowing who funds them, who works for them, what reasons they might have for promoting an agenda, and so on. That is, they might dismiss the mainstream media as having a liberal bias, but they couldn't say where this bias is supposed to come from. Or they might dismiss Fox News as unreliable, but they know next to nothing about Rupert Murdoch. And they don't know enough about how academia works to know that peer-reviewed works are more reliable than other works, that people with PhDs from reputable programs are more reliable than others, and so on. Maybe all this could be covered in a 100-level writing course, but apparently that isn't happening. And it would be good for them to learn something about fallacies, logic, the badness of bullshit, what Orwell says about politics and language, etc., etc. I think there's a course-worth of materials there. (Obviously there is if logic is understood in an unlimited way, but I mean the amount of logic that is likely to be directly useful to the average educated person, i.e. probably not much of it.)

Connected to all this is this post by Brian Leiter asking why "these people just make things up." Leiter does not make anything up in his post, but he does spin things quite a lot. Is it really reasonable to think that Graham Harman invented the reader he quotes? (And if not, why bother to call the reader "alleged"?) Is it reasonable to take "becoming a medium for a dismissive model" to mean "being himself dismissive"? I find myself a) tempted to say That's why these people just make things up, b) afraid to say anything lest I be publicly humiliated on Leiter's blog, and c) tempted to suggest the addition "...when you can just distort the truth" to the title of Leiter's post. What stands out is b, which is a symptom of a general problem in philosophy. (The good news for me is that I'm too insignificant for Leiter to be likely to bother with me, but of course that's bad news for me too. These power differences are differences in significance too, and so not only potentially unjust (if the power is not rightly distributed) but potentially painful too. I can imagine references to our all being grown-ups or big boys at this point, which would just add to the insult.) The problem is often associated with Leiter, perhaps unfairly, and comes out also in all this stuff. The discipline is not a straightforward meritocracy, but things like Leiter's rankings (which are useful) promote, intentionally or not, the view that it is a straightforward meritocracy. It is in this way (at least in part), I take it, that Leiter is seen to be part of the problem. His rankings encourage the view that not only are some departments better bets than others for prospective graduate students who hope to get an academic job after their PhDs but also (and there are varying degrees of truth in the following propositions) that some people are simply better philosophers than others, that some journals are simply better than others, that some areas of philosophy are simply better or more important than others, and that standard ideas about pedigree and ranking reflect these realities fairly (and) accurately. It doesn't help that when people mention Leiter in association with criticisms of some or all of this picture he uses the weight of his status in the profession to belittle the already relatively little (in terms of power). So that's another way in which Leiter is seen by some to be problematic.

What's the connection between the two previous paragraphs? It has to do with bias, power, and critical thinking. As Wittgenstein asked:
what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends.
It seems fairly clear that the most prestigious journals in philosophy don't simply publish the best work in philosophy: they prefer work done in certain areas of philosophy, done in a certain kind of way, and it may well help if this work cites certain people rather than others (whose work may be equally good), it may help if the author is male, it may help if the author works in a select group of departments, and so on. There is no escaping some bias, but that doesn't make it all OK. And that's why I'm hopeful that the new journal from the APA will be a useful addition to the journals already out there. These are laudable aims:
The APA sees a niche for a truly general philosophy journal, one that includes scholarship from all specializations and fields of study, from analytic to continental and beyond. J-APA aims to be just such a journal.
Further, as a top philosophy journal with excellent editors, J-APA will help to improve the current publishing environment in which it is exceptionally challenging for young scholars to publish at the levels necessary to secure a job or earn tenure.
[UPDATE: Aaargh! Jon Cogburn has kindly linked to this post from New APPS, and now far more people are likely to read it than would have otherwise. Which prompts me to try to clarify a few things in the second paragraph.

Leiter quotes Harman quoting a reader's email, according to which: "[Leiter has] also become a medium for a very specific model of anglophone philosophy that is dismissive of all forms of history of philosophy, metaphysics, pragmatism, continental philosophy, philosophy of art, etc." Leiter responds, in part, by saying that he doesn't write, teach, or believe anything so dismissive.  It seems to me that this misses the point of the complaint. There are philosophers who are dismissive of the things listed, and they seem to feel entitled to their contempt because of a certain culture within the discipline, a culture according to which there are insiders and outsiders, and a definite hierarchy of the more and the less respectable/contemptible. Leiter's rankings and the various polls he conducts largely reflect the views of this culture (partly perhaps because this culture is right about who/what deserves respect and who/what deserves contempt, but also partly perhaps because it is mostly those who belong to this culture who participate in the ranking process and the polls). Whatever caveats Leiter might attach to the rankings and the polls, I think they are regarded by many as supporting a certain view, based partly on prejudice, of who/what is good and who/what is not.

Why does this matter? Let's not count the ways, but here are a few. 1) It is contrary to the ideals of philosophy to dismiss a view on the basis of anything but careful thought (and yet I, for example, was told from day one of my philosophical education that continental philosophy is not really philosophy--this prejudice is widespread and often really seems to be nothing more than a prejudice), 2) it is contrary to the ideals of philosophy to dismiss a person on the basis of what they find interesting or worthwhile (it isn't very nice to do this either), 3) the dismissive attitude is not only contrary to things like wonder and open-mindedness, often thought to be vital to philosophy, but also has a narrowing effect on the discipline. More and better philosophers are likely to be drawn into respected areas of the subject simply because of the associated prestige (which, I take it, is not a good reason), and departments that care about their PGR ranking are likely to want to hire in these areas, even if they themselves regard other candidates as superior (which is also not good). In short, Leiter's rankings, polls, etc., without meaning to, contribute to a dismissive (and therefore unphilosophical) culture within philosophy. Those dismissive of continental philosophy (even Leiter's own) are likely to be drawn to his blog for this reason. And that goes double when he personally dismisses people like Harman (and now Cogburn). Leiter may be a Nietzsche scholar, believers in the model complained about might say, but my enemy's enemy is my friend. He can, of course, get away with a certain amount of dismissiveness if he chooses to precisely because he works on continental philosophy and the history of philosophy. 

This is related to the kind of fear that I said was a symptom of a general problem in philosophy. Because so many ideas, fields of study, kinds of people, and individuals are dismissed and/or insulted (sometimes with accompanying justifications for the contempt shown them, sometimes not), there is a chilly climate in philosophy, not an open or welcoming one. You must think like the people at the top of the hierarchy. And they do not usually bother to explain (what can certainly often seem to be merely) their prejudices. This is not racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia, but it has something of the same flavor: differences in power, status, job security, pay (these are all related) are used to silence or humiliate dissenters from the status quo. I don't mean that people like Leiter have not earned their salaries, status, etc. I mean that differences in status play more of a role in the life of the profession than they should (according to a certain ideal of rational discourse that I think/hope is widespread in philosophy).      

What about my talk of things being painful, and of insulting references to our all being grown-ups? I meant that if I were Harman (or Cogburn) I would be hurt by Leiter's comments. Let's imagine I'm Harman. I probably feel pretty good about my leading role in the speculative realism movement. But I probably have moments of doubt too. It's not as if this work has been universally embraced by philosophers. And then one of the biggest names in the discipline implies that I'm a crank who just makes things up! Harman is probably made of stronger stuff than me, but that would be a bad day at the office for me if I were in his shoes. And then I was imagining someone telling Harman, as some have said about the student allegedly harassed by Colin McGinn, that we are all grown-ups and should learn to take such hits on the chin. And it seemed to me that this would be like telling someone who has just been hit to grow up. Which is adding insult to injury. As I write this I have a strong sense that it is embarrassing or wrong, a deviation from disciplinary norms, to talk about people's feelings like this, and to believe that it is wrong to hurt them. But I do believe that, and I'm mystified by the apparent unconcern for others' feelings (to say nothing of the desire sometimes apparent to cause pain) in some of these exchanges. 

Finally, why did I just mention salaries and job security? I think these are relevant in two ways. For one thing, tenure and a big salary confer prestige, which in turn makes it easier (and more obnoxious) for those who have them to beat up on those who have less of them. For another, philosophy, the humanities, and higher education generally are on the ropes at the moment. With employment prospects within the discipline so bleak there is bound to be an increased desire to conform to the norms of those in a position to hand out jobs, tenure, invitations to speak at conferences, reputation, etc. The more prevailing prejudices are confirmed the more anyone who cares about being able to get a job (which includes not only graduate students and the un-tenured but anyone whose job is not 100% secure) will be inclined to conform and the more these people will be disinclined to, say, dabble in speculative realism. That is not necessarily bad, but I take it that it is bad to the extent that it happens because of prejudice and power-plays rather than the careful employment of reason.]

15 comments:

  1. This is a very complicated attempt to rationalize, without much evidence, what are, in fact, fabrications about Leiter's views that Graham Harman published.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, no, it isn't, unless you understand 'rationalize' very differently from the way I understand it. Harman published part of an email, and I'm attempting not to justify that email but to understand it. Naturally in doing so I try to read it charitably, but that's all. The main evidence I have to go on is what Harman and Leiter quote of the email, but I don't see how that reflects poorly on me. There is also, of course, the general context: who Leiter is, what he does, what others think of him, and so on. This information all helps when trying to make sense of something written about him. And the email, or what I've seen quoted of it, is not about Leiter's views at all. What it claims is that Leiter has become a medium for a certain model. That's an odd form of words, but it doesn't seem to me to be about Leiter's views. Taken as a statement about his views it is clearly false, as Leiter has pointed out. Taken as I find it most natural to read it, it makes a certain sense, as I have explained above. It might still be false, of course, but that's another matter.

      Delete
    2. I do not know you, nor do I know what would have motivated you to produce this elaborate re-reading of the fabrications that Graham Harman posted; but that you now admit that your supposedly "charitable" re-reading might also be false is a striking admission. What is the point of a "charitable" reading that makes claims you aren't prepared to defend as true? (As the earlier commenter notes, the absence of any evidence probably makes your more agnostic posture a wise one.)

      I have expert and informed opinions about a variety of topics, and in a free country, I can express them. I am not precluded from expressing them because others suffer from status anxiety of various kinds; that is their problem, not mine. And others may of course express contrary opinions to mine (as they do all the time, despite supposed status anxiety). Others may even produce tortured "rationalizations" (to quote the earlier comment) of false statements, and describe them as an exercise in "charitable" reading. To each his own!

      Best wishes,
      Brian Leiter

      Delete
    3. Thanks for the comment, with most of which (including the entire second paragraph) I agree. I'll try to answer your question, although I'm not sure I have much to add to what I've said before.

      What is the point of a "charitable" reading that makes claims you aren't prepared to defend as true?

      The point is to understand what others are saying. Whether one then agrees with them is another matter. The point of reading charitably is partly a matter of generosity, but mostly a useful means to get at what was really meant. If on one reading a statement is blatantly false it's worth considering the possibility that that's a mis-reading. Of course one is still constrained by what was actually written, but in this case I think the reading according to which an obviously and straightforwardly false statement about your views was made is not the most natural reading of the text.

      Here's the sentence in question: "[W]hat’s become a more interesting story is the way that [Leiter has] also become a medium for a very specific model of anglophone philosophy that is dismissive of all forms of history of philosophy, metaphysics, pragmatism, continental philosophy, philosophy of art, etc."

      If the author meant that you were dismissive of all forms of history of philosophy, etc., then not only would this be jaw-droppingly false, but also one would have to wonder why s/he didn't say that you were dismissive of these things. Why say instead that you had become a medium, etc., and that how you had done so was an interesting story? Call it charity, "charity," rationalization, elaborate re-reading, or whatever you like, but it is these considerations that led me to think (indeed to regard it as perfectly obvious) that the author meant something more complex and plausible than what you take her/him to have meant. I realize now that what seems obvious to me does not to you, and to others, and of course I know that something's seeming obvious to me does not make it true. But these are the reasons why I regard the sentence in question as requiring some unpacking, and I have done my best to unpack its likely contents as best I can. It is not because I have some sort of pro-SPEP or anti-you (or anti-Leiter Reports or anti-PGR) agenda. I have no such agenda. Your response to Harman's post surprised me, and I have tried to make sense of both it and the post that prompted it.

      I cannot know whether I've got Harman's reader's meaning right, but I appreciate your clarifying your view of the matter.

      Delete
    4. Professor Richter:

      Thanks for your reply. I still do not see how I can be a medium for a message that is the opposite of what I explicitly believe, write about, and teach--and the opposite of what the PGR covers. I also offered my own hypothesis: namely, that when someone because an object of slightly paranoid ire for a group of people--say, the Tea Party and Obama, or Party-Line Continentals and me--then it is characteristic for members of that group to project jaw-dropping falsehoods on to the object.

      Best wishes,
      Brian Leiter

      Delete
    5. Sorry for the typo: that should have read "becomes an object of slight paranoid ire" not "because."

      BL

      Delete
    6. Thank you.

      If you're accustomed to hearing false claims made about you then it makes sense that you would read the email Harman quoted as more of the same thing. I've encountered both praise and criticism of you and your work, but all of it has been more or less plausible, i.e. even when false, not jaw-droppingly so. So I didn't read it that way.

      I agree with you that the whole "medium for a model..." locution is obscure. Could it mean that you are somehow a medium for a message that you do not believe? If it meant that, then I think it would have to imply either that you were some sort of "useful idiot" or puppet for some other group (and this really would be an absurd claim) or else that your blog conveyed this other message, presumably through comments and posts not written by you. That seems unlikely too, though it would be less absurd.

      What seems to me more probable is that the idea was that, not you personally, but your blog and the PGR have become a sort of focal point for a certain kind of dismissive analytic philosopher. And this not because you are such a person yourself but because you are seen as an enemy of the kind of thinking that these people are most dismissive of, namely a particular kind of continental philosophy. And, I imagine Harman's correspondent thinking, you are not just an enemy of that kind of philosophy but the best known, most outspoken opponent of it. To the dismissive types, then, you may well be seen as "my enemy's enemy." I don't know whether any of these dismissive analytic types think of you as a kind of hero nor, if they do, whether it is for this reason. But I can imagine that they might well.

      Now, if this is what was meant, or something close to it at least, why use the word 'medium' rather than 'focal point' or perhaps 'rallying point'? (And why refer to you rather than your blog or the PGR?) I don't know, and this is a weak point in my interpretation. (I don't find it too implausible that someone would use your name as shorthand for your blog and the PGR though.) But my interpretation, as convoluted as it might seem, seems to me both more natural than yours and to lead to a thesis that might be true rather than one that is, as I've said, jaw-droppingly false.

      Of course what seems more natural than what else, what more plausible, and what more jaw-dropping, are all somewhat subjective matters, about which reasonable people might disagree. I hope I have at least presented my perspective clearly, even if it still doesn't seem plausible to you.

      Delete
    7. Professor Leiter, one more thought about the choice of the word 'medium.' Maybe the thinking was this: the people you identify as party-line continental philosophers probably tend not to read your blog, vote in your polls, or have their views represented in the PGR as much as other philosophers do (I don't know whether this is true, but someone might think it); on the other hand, the type of analytic philosopher who is dismissive of all continental philosophy might be especially drawn to your blog and its polls because of the whole my-enemy's-enemy business; therefore the comments on your blog and the results of the polls you conduct might be thought to have a bias in favor of that type of analytic philosophy. I don't know whether there is any such bias, nor whether large numbers of people believe there to be such a bias, but, again, I can imagine people thinking this. They might also think that the PGR is biased in a similar way. I don't know why they would think this, but I can imagine that they do. In fact I would be surprised if no one had ever accused it of suffering from such a bias. (I'm not sure why I would be surprised--perhaps I'm remembering reading such a complaint somewhere. Indeed, a Google search for "PGR bias" quickly turns up people accusing the PGR of having a bias against continental philosophy.) So in these ways I can imagine someone, especially the kind of continental philosopher you most strongly disagree with, thinking that the comments section of your blog and your polls, and perhaps even the PGR, had become an instrument for the dissemination and strengthening of a view of what philosophy ought to be that is favored by a certain kind of dismissive analytic philosopher. If this makes sense (regardless of how wrong anyone might be to think such a thing) then it is possible that someone could claim that you (really meaning your blog, and perhaps the PGR) had become a medium for a certain model of philosophy despite this not being a model that you yourself advocate.

      At any rate, this is the kind of thinking that I believe lies behind the obscure complaint that Harman quoted. To the extent that I have succeeded in explaining why I think this I have probably explained it at great enough length, so I'll stop. If you've had the patience to read this far then thanks for listening, and I hope this makes some sense.

      Delete
  2. to pick up on the Witt quote and circle back to our ongoing conversation about the value/use of non-technical/stems education when I talk to folks with BA's and graduate degrees(including profs and witness the many non-technical, in the analytic sense,to and fros@newapps) about subjects outside of their specialties, like say politics/economics, I see little to no evidence that they are thinking/talking outside of the usual sound-bite/gut-reaction punditry that makes the gossip-world goes round, little to no capacity to re-cognize what they don't know about very complex and in motion processes, and too much of a sense of being in the know, being "highly" educated.
    -dmf

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Me neither. Partly this is because the usual sound-bite/gut-reaction punditry is not as bad as I tend to think it is. That is, I write off in my mind people and opinions that I would actually struggle to defeat in a real debate. I write them off because I'm confident that I would beat them in the end, but professional rationalizers of, say, right-wing views are actually somewhat sophisticated. They have rhetorical skills, for one thing, and various economic and faith-based ideologies to lean on.

      Partly, though, it's because we all tend to be intellectually lazy, or not to realize how little we know or understand. We tend not to be conscientious in our use of words, for instance. Few people even try to teach such conscientiousness, I think. Which is a shame.

      Delete
    2. yes our cognitive-biases are many and quite resistant/resilient and there seems to be a real lack in education in terms of coming to grip with the still nascent research into such, so that this
      "Few people even try to teach such conscientiousness" seems to be at the crux of the matter, how to make people more aware/attentive in their lives...
      -dmf

      Delete
    3. Yes. And teaching conscientiousness, if it ever happened much, seems to be becoming a thing of the past. At least it has an old-fashioned sound to it.

      Delete
    4. sounds like a new vein of x-philo in the making, I think that Rupert Read has done some writing on Wittgenstein/zen and there is a quite good book of essays:http://academia.edu/187641/Perspicuous_Presentations_Essays_on_Wittgensteins_Philosophy_of_Psychology
      that one could build on, cheers, dmf

      Delete
    5. I'll have to check that out. Thanks!

      Delete