Sunday, January 25, 2009

'Philosophy as bloodsport' redux

This brief piece by Norman Swartz is worth reading, or rereading. He claims that, unlike other disciplines, philosophy has a vicious streak that tends to alienate women (and no doubt lots of men), and in conference/colloquia settings leads to valuing the devastating "gotcha" point over thoughtful and helpful feedback, even if that "devastating" point looks quite innocuous after a bit of thought. I wonder whether any of you have stories of particularly bloodthirsty conference/colloquium presentations. Is it as bad now as Swartz made it out to be in 1994? And who is this G*** B*** Swartz is talking about?

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've found that the contrast Swartz speaks of--the difference in tone between philosophy colloquia and colloquia in other disciplines--is indeed quite striking.

It's worth noting however that many of us who call for a less combative attitude in colloquia are not asking for philosophers not to be critical. The choice between combative ("critical") and non-philosophical (non-critical) grossly oversimplifies matters.

In addition to lacking a measure of civility, "gotcha" attacks tend to be intellectually unproductive. With rare exceptions, I find that philosophers at colloquia looking for the "gotcha" moment end up looking like asses; not so much because they are uncivil, but because their criticism turns out to have less bite than they thought it would. More importantly though, there is great value to constructive remarks, even when they involve critical ideas. I would find colloquia much more stimulating if I heard comments of the following sort with greater frequency: "I worry that one will complain against your argument/thesis in such-and-such a way. Could you respond as follows?..."

BTW, the discussion that follows this post is interesting and has some relevance here.

I'm dying to know who G B is.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Swartz. It seems to me a disproportionate number of philosophers cover up their other inferiorities with an over-reliance on refutation. Who hasn't seen an undergrad phil. major, with a little logic under his belt, go and accuse everyone else he meets of committing basic logical fallacies? Some professional philosophers just never outgrow this. They have no personal dignity, "class", or self-awareness, and they never will.

The sad thing is that this won't change, because refutation is so engrained in the discipline at large. From the moment you are a grad student, and hear most of the faculty trashing the paper just give in colloquium (watch out especially if it is someone well-known giving it), you become aware that this is simply how things are done. Our research community is mostly just a bunch of overpaid adolescents trying to tear each other down. Some just do it more politely than others.

Anonymous said...

The issue of argumentative style and women in philosophy is also under discussion at http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2009/01/23/why-are-kenyans-so-good-at-long-distance-running/#comment-10690.

Chris

Anonymous said...

George Berkeley?

John Turri said...

It was George Berkeley? I had no idea!!

Anonymous said...

I actually have the opposite sentiment to many people who commented on this thread. I'm sort of an interdisciplinarian, if that's a word, so I go to a lot of talks in different fields.

It seems to me that other fields could gain from being a little more aggressive (in regards to being combatively critical). Now, granted there are folks (pretty much everyone who attends the Eastern APA meeting for example) who are a bit jerkish when it comes to questions/comments/criticisms but for the most part, I think the "gotcha" questions forces people to really consider the sort of commitments and assumptions that might sneak in with their work.

That said, I don't think that philosophers are the only people that are guilty of being a little over enthusiastic in their critical comments. I've been to a great number of biology colloquia where people have taken presenters to task in an arguably mean-spirited manner.

Also, one of the most combative questioners (if that is a word) that I've witnessed was a historian.

I don't think the problem is the "gotcha" questions and the people that ask them. The problem is when someone isn't all that bright and they try to ask a "gotcha" question that's kind of stupid. That I see happening with an alarming frequency.

Anonymous said...

Philosophy graduate students and professors: please participate in our study of issues in the profession (e.g., influence of rankings and pedigree, hiring and employment practices, the status of women and minorties, philosophical pluralism, etc) by taking a brief online survey at:

http://www.questionpro.com/akira/TakeSurvey?id=1135702

The survey should take about 20-30 minutes to complete. Results of the study will be published in an appropriate venue 6 months to 1 year after the survey closes (about 1 month from now). Thanks for your help!

Anonymous said...

Author of survey is Nathan Jun, expert on Derrida and Deleuze. Point of survey is to attack analytic philosophy establishment. Participate at your own risk.

Anonymous said...

Um, how can you attack something in a survey?

Anonymous said...

Did you look at the questions?

Anonymous said...

Wow. That was obviously quite a biased survey. Far more harmful than the PGR.

Anonymous said...

Yes, because we all know that the PGR isn't biased. And in any case, only Brian Leiter or "x-phi" people are allowed to administer surveys in the profession. Otherwise the surveys in questions are very clearly biased or intended to "attack analytic philosophic establishment," whatever that even means.

Guess what? Surveys are always "biased." Fortunately for us, however, the people who take them have something called "free will." So far as I can tell, Jun invited the entire "analytic philosophic establishment" and then some to take this survey. When and if members of the establishment take it, they have the opportunity to answer the questions freely and honestly, and in the end the data will speak for itself irrespective of "bias."

It seems, for example, that the survey has an anti-PGR bias. Well, what if the data ends up betraying warm and fuzzies for the PGR among a majority of those surveyed? Maybe Dr. Jun will be personally disappointed, but no more so than any partisan. Surely he will still report his findings honestly objectively to the rest of us.

If you want to attack something, why would you administer a SURVEY to it - even a BIASED one, for god's sake? Get real, people. Consider some of the other things he talks about: job shortages, the influence of pedigree in hiring, the status of minorities in the profession, the gossip culture, journals, the analytic/continental divide, etc. Some of the questions about the latter seem to be adapted from the Eurozine article with Burnyeat, Stroud, Barnes, and Geuss. If he does this well, he'll give us some sense of how people's answers to various questions link up with their pedigree/employment status. All of this should be very interesting and an asset to the profession.

Anonymous said...

The APA website has the Proceedings from the 1964-1965 year. It includes the program of the paper Swartz is attending as well as a listing of all the APA members that year. You can narrow the list down by finding all the people with first names beginning with "G" amongst all the "B"s. There's about 5. I think I have a guess who "GB" if he is to be drawn from that list alone.

Anonymous said...

And yet on a gossip blog, you won't list all of them and then give us your guess?

Anonymous said...

Well, it's but a guess rather than anything close to a warranted belief. It's only because I only recognize one name among all the "GB"s listed, know that he worked in the area that the paper discussed and had definite and strongly held views about it, and from stories I've heard, I would not be able to rule out his exhibiting such behavior. Actually, I should strengthen that claim: everything I've heard about him leads me to believe he this outburst is what we would expect from him. However, if I found out it was him, I'd still be mildly surprised since all the stories I'd heard so far concerned his comments to students in his program.

If I had heard from a knowledgeable source that he was the man who did this, then I might share it here, were I inclined to gossip. As it is, I don't know that the "GB"s listed in the directory exhaust all the likely GBs who would have attended the paper.

That's why I'm reluctant to speculate publicly.

Anonymous said...

Stupid question, I know, but where on the APA site can you access old copies of the Proceedings and Addresses. I couldn't find anything from last century.

Anonymous said...

I'll try to stop off-topic discussions, and get back to Swartz's articule. In my opinion the matter discussed here is much less the value of a "gotcha" observation in a colloquia, and it spreads out, as observed in the text, to the general attitude present in phi departments. I am a Phd student in Italy and I can grant from my experience that academy life tends to be a mere exercise of self promotion that has little to do with free-minded, autonomous pursuit of philosophical contents. Ostracism, prejudice and authority are felt in an everyday basis cutting off all the motivation for a young researcher. I am very optimist tempered and all these experiences still make me learn a lot about how should philosophy be carried out, understood and comunicated.

carry on with the nice and useful blog!

Anonymous said...

Who GB is precisely part of the topic.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant the survey discussion.

chris said...

I think this conversation is interesting in light of the other conversation about how to address one's professors. I get the impression from the latter discussion that many grad professors expect to be/insist on being addressed by their first names. How, exactly, does that fit with treating students [and colleagues] like enemy combatants in some battle to the death?

And, by the way: it's only a blood sport for the winners or those with nothing to lose.