The principle of charity advises us not to take the easy way out by quickly deciding that a text is incoherent or contains deplorably weak arguments.Let's adjust this for our purposes:
The principle of charity advises us to engage our interlocutors earnestly.Put positively, earnest engagement might involve:
Listening in an attempt to understand both methodology and content (What's being argued for and why argue in that way?). Plausibly interpreting claims admitting of multiple interpretations. Noting any unclear formulations of claims or arguments and attempting to make them clearer. Taking all (reasonable) questions seriously.Put negatively, earnest engagement most importantly involves:
Not resorting to unconsidered charges of incoherence, unclarity, uninterestingness, or weakness of argument without an active attempt at positive earnest engagement.More specifically:
Not interrupting. Not making (certain types of) faces. Not actively displaying disinterest.*One reason to employ the principle of charity in both its positive and negative formulations is that many younger folks - current company included - have impostor syndrome. And, I've recently decided that impostor syndrome in philosophy is as much due to certain sociological facts about academic philosophy as it is due to certain psychological facts about individuals.
Exaggerated, puzzled looks and rolled eyes in private conversation or during questions at public talks aggravate impostor syndrome symptoms. As do nasty comments from reviewers: "This paper is fundamentally confused." "This paper employs fancy argumentation for something that's painfully obvious."
At best, puzzled looks, rolled eyes, and claims of 'fundamental confusions' or 'painful obviousness' distract from possibly meaningful criticisms; they disguise attempts at earnest engagement. At worst, these behaviors indicate a real disrespect for the principle of charity and one's philosophical interlocutor.
Encouragement is important, sure. But, so is criticism that engages and takes ideas seriously. Real conversation in which questions are asked freely and philosophical terrain is genuinely explored without fear of attack or charges of unclarity or ignorance or being fundamentally wrong-headed is important. In other words: Doing earnest, engaged philosophy is important.
The things listed above are important not just because it makes others feel better about themselves, it's important because philosophy is at its best when the principle of charity is employed. When the principle isn't employed, philosophical practice suffers.
We might lay it down as a general principle that:
Those who fail to engage in sustained and directed philosophical practice - practice that certainly involves criticism and being told that one's views are wrong or unclear - without being dicks are bad professional philosophers.**Back to the principle of charity.
I think application of the principle of charity should satisfy something like a philosophical version of Rawls's difference principle.
(a) Application of the principle of charity should be as ready and free in the case of our junior colleagues as it is in the case of our senior colleagues; and (b) Senior colleagues should make a special effort to apply it in the case of junior colleagues.***I don't think that the principle of charity is applied this way very often. In practice, I find that the principle of charity is applied is more readily and freely in conversations between senior members of the profession with one another. Or, between especially precocious junior colleagues and senior colleagues.
I don't think it's readily and freely applied in conversations with those colleagues who might benefit most of all from its application, e.g., the less learned, less experienced, less adept at speaking in public. That's wrong. It fosters impostor syndrome.
Perhaps, in the end, this is all just a long way of saying:
When you don't understand something or someone, consider the possibility that it might be as much you, as it is them.****
*Broadly or narrowly construed. Side note: Even if philosophically motivated, your interest in a problem or disinterest in a problem does not free you from the principle of charity. (However, I do think that - principle of charity aside - we do ourselves no favors when we fail to motivate or frame our projects to those (everyone) who care about our projects less than we do or know very little about our fields.)
**If someone is wrong, tell them they're wrong. Rhetorical flourishes and liberal adverb use don't make them any wronger; nor do they lend force to arguments. While I grant that someone can be confused about a fundamental issue or misinterpret a position such that the original point is lost, I think adverbs aren't proper substitutes for good arguments.
*** I'll leave it up to y'all how the principle might be formulated in the case of blind-review. As a first stab, we might think that there's an obligation to leave remarks for future improvement on poorly written, unclear papers (in the same way we might do for students). For example, "This paper would benefit from a stronger organizational structure. More signposts, etc." "The author might think about considering [X's views, arguments]."
****To be clear: I'm claiming that everyone starts with an equal claim of being subject to the principle of charity. There may be certain things we do to lose that right, but those cases are few and far between. Let's just try to understand each other, okay?