Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Communication breakdown (pt. 1)

I had been working on a post recently about how the adoption of the burning armchair by the Experimental Philosophers is symptomatic of larger collegiality and communication issues between philosophers. I was going to note how their logo, no matter how lighthearted, serves to frame the debate they want to have about philosophical methodology in combative and aggressive terms and how this just prompts their interlocutors to respond in kind.

As such, the opportunity to have what could be an important and new (actually, probably renewed from the '50s - '60s) debate about the course and nature of philosophy is often missed. Points are lost or purposefully ignored, arguments become less about substance and more about style, and an unwillingness to engage or understand the opposing project is engendered.

But, then I remembered how much I've always been amused by how Hume ends the Enquiry by, more or less cheekily, advocating the burning of books. And it was this remembrance of Hume that made me realize I was, perhaps, reading a bit too much about the collegiality of the profession as a whole into the burning armchair imagery.

Certain movements have a long history of selling their projects by declaring in grand, polemical terms the end of a certain type of philosophical methodology and the birth of an entirely novel and awesome approach to philosophy (examples abound; just think about the long history of empiricism). It's just what those who are really super-excited and confident about their projects do. Such excitement and (over)selling is part of what's cute about philosophy and sometimes it's part of what makes it fun.

And while it may not create an atmosphere that is especially amenable to being taken seriously by one's opponent, the burning armchair isn't symptomatic of larger issues. They don't mean anything by it other than trying to create a splash by dropping a polemical bomb. It creates a problem, but it's personal, namely, what do Experimental Philosophers have to do to get read charitably by their opponents after dropping said bomb?

So, the post, as previously conceived, was scrapped.

But, even if the particular example I chose for the earlier post didn't exactly work, I do think that professional philosophy has some real collegiality issues. There are certain accepted ways of talking to and about one another's work (of which examples will be given in a later post) that are embarrassing and stifle debate. And the idea many seem to have that philosophy is more hand-to-hand combat between positions fighting for their lives and less forceful dialectical nudging certainly also serves to create a hostile academic environment.

Of course, maybe I'm too sensitive or don't have a sense of humor or am naivé about what constitutes vigorous philosophical debate. Yeah, maybe I am all those things and blah blah glass houses, but, still, to be continued.



zombie said...

As a bioethicist, I'm all about applied philosophy and thinking about actual problems and blobbidy blah blah, but I'm still having a hard time figuring out the difference between x-phi and sociology. Not that I have anything against sociology. It was the easiest class I ever took in college, as a matter of fact.

Dr. Killjoy said...

I am fine with X-phi as long as folks don't invoke it to escape having to answer tough questions.

Actually, given what I have seen at numerous recent conferences, I may not be fine with X-phi for much longer.

Maybe my intuitions are out of whack. Hmmm. I should do a survey.

Anonymous said...

The tone of the threads on Leiter of late seems like a good example of what you're talking about. People getting dogmatic, throwing stones at anyone perceived to be in a different camp, getting needlessly personal over things like opinions about the relative ranking of Locke and Leibniz (or whoever). Ugly stuff, as far as I'm concerned.

Anonymous said...

looking forward to the next post, stb.

Anonymous said...

"I'm still having a hard time figuring out the difference between x-phi and sociology." Really? Then are you also having trouble figuring out the difference between traditional philosophical methods and just sitting in one's chair making stuff up? I would suspect that you aren't having that other difficulty, because of course there's just vastly more to doing traditional philosophy than just pumping intuitions while sitting on one's behind. There's setting up theoretical framework in which the intuitions are to be located, there's the argument that one builds using those intuitions, the various sorts of counter-moves that one considers and proposes still further counters against... and so on. And experimental philosophy partakes of all of that something more, in very much the exact same way.

That also serves as a response to Dr. Killjoy's comment: I don't see anyone in experimental philosophy looking to duck any of the hard questions. No one, really no one at all, thinks that they are going to solve any thorny philosophical problem just by administering surveys.

Pixelation said...

I'm of the vague opinion that some xphi can be extremely useful and some is complete malarkey. But I only think it's useful when it exposes the malarkey in regular philosophy. So, to the extent that you think regular philosophy has gaping holes in its logic, ontology, or epistemology, you're more likely to view xphi as a potentially useful methodology. That said, some methods are better than others and some x-philosophers are much better than the rest.

Just because you find problems with the armchair, however, doesn't mean that you have to burn it.

Anonymous said...

Because about the only thing I know about x-phil is that it involves paying attention to the results of surveys, the only thing I will say about it is this: those philosophers who think they are going to "find something out" by doing a "simple" surveys had better make sure they are properly trained in survey design and statistical methods before they put any stock in the results of their surveys, and even then, it's not clear what surveys show.

As I said, I really know nothing about x-phil, but I do know something about proper academic surveys. I know they are hard to design in such a way that one can get meaningful data, and I know that interpreters of survey results are keenly aware of Quine's underdetermination thesis, even if they wouldn't put it that way. So I say x-phil away, but do it right and get the right training, if you expect it to mean anything.

Typically, for the kind of surveys I assume x-philers are interested in, the kind of training necessary would come with a PhD in fields that take humans as their primary research focus -- fields like linguistics, neurobiology, sociology, psychology, etc. (Of course, there are issues here about the degree of underdetermination versus the amount of control one can exert over variables, which varies within these disciplines, but I digress!)

All I can say is, good luck with those PhDs in those other fields x-philers.

zombie said...

Maybe traditional philosophy just needs a catchier name, like Y-phi. I'm still waiting for my armchair, BTW.

Anonymous said...

Klismos Phi!

Sebastian Lutz said...


I think Norman Swartz has written the defining paper on this topic, and a web search for `Philosophy as a Blood Sport' will point you to a host of discussions.

Now there are the questions whether X-Phi-ers themselves treat the methodological debate as a bloodsport and whether their proclamations contribute to the debate's becoming one. Another question is whether their opponents do.

My impression is that the debate has been fairly civilized so far. Of course, one can say the most irritating things politely (just ignore your discussion partner's arguments, for example, or systematically commit the known fallacies), and I am not certain that the debate has been free of this (the straw man comes to mind).

Finally, methodological questions are especially thorny, and in philosophy even more so than in other areas. Maybe this contributes to a rather rhetorical tone in some discussions.

Anonymous said...


I think I agree. I've often thought it confused and silly that philosophers go on and on about what is and isn't intuitive and how we must respect and/or accommodate various intuitions. Whose intuitions? And why respect them? Et cetera.

If you think that way, it's fun to say, "OK, if you're so interested in what the folk think, let's take a frickin' survey," especially if it turns out that (surprise, surprise!) folks' intuitions are nothing like philosophers'.

But the reason I had these vague critical thoughts about traditional philosophy's preoccupation with intuitions is that I don't care much about anybody's intuitions, and the last thing I want to do is learn how to conduct surveys. So I don't think I'm likely to find much solace in X-phi.

The good thing about philosophy is that nobody knows what the hell it is, so we can all just read and write whatever strikes us as interesting, so long as we can convince a faculty member or two to sign off on it.