Philosophy as a Blood Sport

This excellent article highlights an important point regarding the manner in which philosophical debates are often conducted, especially within the academia. It holds true for much of the philosophical debates I have witnessed on internet. Unfortunately I have myself been a party to it on occasions, sometimes the victim and sometimes the guilty. The issue is the blood lust and the arrogance and aggression with which philosophers act, the intolerance of dissent, the feeling of combat and hostility that robs the debate of any opportunity for genuine learning and growth. Where is the intellectual charity? Where is the philosophical generosity? Must we be consumed by our role as a predator? This is something for all philosophical souls to think about. Let us aim to extend an attitude of intellectual tolerance. By all means, let us seek truth and let us uncover erroneous and mistaken beliefs, but let us do it with a generosity of spirit, and perhaps we may find something to learn from disagreement.


"Philosophers, of course, are supposed to be critical. We have trained, and daily refine our skills, at exposing the errors in others' work. But while the exposing of error is an essential part of the doing of philosophy, it is not all there is to doing philosophy. Far too much of the practice of philosophy, both written and dialogical, has become one-sided: finding what is wrong in someone else's work and failing to find what is right, useful, and meritorious in that work."

"Is the blood lust I am speaking-of the cause of the underrepresentation of women in our profession? Does our very manner - collectively speaking of course, there are many individual exceptions - of doing philosophy repel the gentler, kinder, souls among our students? Have we adopted a collective personality which perpetuates itself by driving away those students who do not share our aggressiveness?"

"What so many persons currently practicing philosophy, currently serving as role models and mentors to students, find exhilarating - the cut and thrust of verbal battle - antagonizes, indeed offends, many students. Colloquia are viewed by these students - especially women - as the academic counterparts of courtroom battles. (Is there something of F. Lee Bailey, Louis Nizer, and Melvin Belli in many of us?) My students tell me that there is a palpable feeling of combat in philosophy paper readings and colloquia. And with their having alerted me to it, I, too, have come to sense it. Moreover, certain anecdotal evidence suggests that aggressive challenging of guest speakers' theses has chilling effects on many of our students."

"I am not remotely suggesting that we not attend to, still less desist from, the uncovering of error in philosophical work. But there are ways of doing this that are humane and honorable, and other ways that are insulting and unseemly. A person's stature as a philosopher is not diminished by generosity and sensitivity. One thinks, for example, of Carl Hempel. Those who have known him personally (I have not) invariably speak of his kindness, and that humanity reflects in his writings: we look in vain there for a 'put down' of other philosophers. In Hempel's work we see how it is possible to do philosophy extremely well without savagery. (Happily many other names come to mind as well.) But, by and large, or at any rate, to a greater extent than is warranted, philosophy has a vicious streak. If we really care about our profession, we need to reverse its destructive tendencies."


Komal said…
Hmmm interesting post. I haven't found this to be the case in my participation in academic philosophy, but my participation has been fairly limited. Plus I'm reasonably aggressive myself, so perhaps my threshold is higher :P.
maleeha khan said…
kool .... interesting facts!
salman latif said…
I absolutely agree. I have experienced that quite often and have registered my sentiments about this antagonism too at times but this is perhaps the first time I am finally reading about it!
Anonymous said…
This is so true. I am an observer of philosophers rather than a contributor, and I've observed violent academic arguments at all levels. In some cases the level of enmity carries otherwise fine minds into amazing excess of vitriol. It's difficult to account for the often high level of personal abuse. Perhaps cerebral people are not so different from people who are more physical. Perhaps excess of testosterone drives both, but where the cerebral person expresses his anger in argument, less cerebral people express it in physical violence. Mind you, I've read of acts of physical between academics who have disagreed intellectually.
Malang said…
I can totally relate. I suppose the place one seeks contemplation and mulling over the many, many alternatives to any given problem is philosophy. To find that last refuge being encroached upon by the rabble rousing, bullying of 'the one right answer' is depressing. I cannot abide the 'might is right' vein of imposing an argument rather than encouraging one. In such cases the fact that the other party backs down has little to do with them being wrong and more to do with the fact that they simply choose not to engage at the same volume.