Being Nicer Won't Save Us

Right now I’m reading Generous Thinking by Kathleen Fitzpatrick. (link) It’s an interesting, challenging book. Fitzpatrick’s thesis is that the crises faced by academia can be mitigated to a greater or lesser degree by what she calls “generous thinking” directed both inward and outward. Academics are generally too exclusionary, too insular, too jargony. In response, she believes that we should adopt more expansive and comradely modes of communication. A great example of how academic philosophers, for instance, separate themselves from the rest of the world is how often we take seriously a deep distinction between “the folk” and “experts” in the content and evidential value of our various ethical or epistemic or metaphysical intuitions. Fitzpatrick isn’t writing as a philosopher or to philosophers specifically, but a lot of what she says resonates strongly with my own experience in academic philosophy. She acknowledges that thinking and communicating generously won’t fix everything but, in her view, it’s the best way forward.

Earlier this week C. Thi Nguyen writing at the Daily Nous presented five ideas for improving the public face of philosophy. The first two of these are “Be charitable” and “Be supportive.” Nguyen says that in public philosophy we ought to tone down the mode of combative discourse we typically engage in. Instead, our aim should be “to demonstrate in public the qualities of good critical conversation.”

I agree with both Fitzpatrick and Nguyen that academia, and academic philosophy in particular, is massively uncharitable and unkind. It’s a real problem that effects exploited people worst of all. There are bad actors in philosophy that deserve scorn and, in some cases, outright banishment. This is a serious problem that deserves attention and remediation. Before I say anything else, I want to be very clear that I think Fitzpatrick’s and Nguyen’s diagnoses are absolutely correct. But here’s the problem: I don’t think that being nicer will save us.

My concern is that academics instructing academics to be nicer and more charitable to one another and to our larger community won’t be enough. Not because academics won’t listen, but because even if we wake up tomorrow and are instantly kinder, more generous, more supportive, and more inclusive the crises we face will roll over us just as hard. I’m concerned that these calls amount to calls for civility and a return to polite norms in the face of rising fascism and ecological collapse.

In the interest of being charitable I don’t think that Nguyen or Fitzpatrick is suggesting we be kinder without supporting that kindness with real action, even real political organizing and power building. I reckon they’re serious about what it means to be kind and generous and supportive and that just being a little more congenial in how we talk to one another isn’t what they have in mind.

But I think that to have a shot at saving the good parts of the educational institutions we have requires us to pick a side and declare an enemy, and doing that isn’t always generous or charitable or kind. We have to infuse our charity with solidarity and our kindness with determination. We have to build, not just critique, even if that critique is presented with genuine care. Of course, there is an incredible kindness involved in tearing down walls and putting your life on the line defending others, so these aren’t mutually exclusive.

I think the main complaint I have with this line of argument is that for people who aren’t in positions of power and authority within the established institutions, being more charitable or generous especially won’t save us from a system that actively does us harm. There’s a kind of passive pacifism at the root of giving this kind of advice to disempowered people: be gentler, give more of yourself, the meek will inherit the Earth, etc. I just don’t see any reason to believe that justice is inevitable.

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Who should count as a co-author on a paper?

In many scientific fields, co-authorship is distributed liberally among members of a lab, collaborators, advisers and students, etc. In philosophy, many papers have a single author but in a footnote acknowledge the contributions of many people (and frequently many of these are famous scholars).

Why is this? Should philosophy adopt broader norms for what constitutes co-authorship?

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Philosophy and Practical Interests

What role should academic philosophers have in changing the world?

Many academics seem to feel strongly that it is good for the field that it remain decoupled from the sort of “ground-level” concerns of practical life. I suspect it’s rooted in some kind of Platonic idealism (not in the metaphysical sense, though pun intended) about Socrates and paying attention to universal capital-T truth. This is a pretty boring provenance hypothesis, as far as it goes, but I think it’s basically the explanation for why this idea continues to reproduce itself in academic philosophy.

I also think it’s false. Consider the following two views:

Intellectualism: Philosophers ought to avoid engaging in political or social activism unless absolutely necessary.

Activism: Philosophers ought to pursue engagement with political or social activism whenever possible.

Ignoring for the moment both pluralism (both views can be endorsed by different parties) and centrism (philosophers ought to engage in a moderate amount of activism), I want to try and understand why someone might endorse intellectualism and then argue my case for activism.

I think the most obvious reason in favor of intellectualism is that activism takes time away from distinctly philosophical pursuits. In short, it wastes valuable time. This position seems to assume that philosophical pursuits and activist pursuits are both distinct and unassociated (both of which I think are false), but I think principally it’s the unassociated part that is most important. If philosophy can get done without interference from the kinds of issues activists care about, then philosophers should get on doing philosophy and stop wasting time on activism.

It seems clear to me that philosophy can’t get done without interference from the kinds of issues activists care about. People do philosophy in institutions. People and institutions are both effected to an enormous degree by civil rights, climate change, public distrust in science and medicine, and so on.

Another argument is that philosophers aren’t equipped to do activism well, and so they should leave it to the experts. A related argument is that social and political norms being defended by activists change rapidly and philosophers should avoid being wrong in public. To the first, I think the conditional premise is false. Even if philosophers aren’t the best at activism it doesn’t follow that they should avoid it. Plenty of people ought to do things they aren’t very good at and, taken to its full generalization, this kind of premise prohibits all of us from doing anything we aren’t immediately preternaturally great at. To the second, I think the atomic premise is false. Philosophers should try to be wrong in public as much as possible. One of the things that we’re best equipped for and yet do very seldom is try to be wrong very often.

Again, the model of Socrates via Plato here I think is partly to blame. Socrates says he knows nothing and yet spends his time demonstrating to others that they don’t know anything. Even if this is just his peculiar rhetorical strategy, it would’ve been better had our paragon philosopher had spent more of his time being wrong himself.

So, why should philosophers spend their time as activists? I think there’s a straightforward pragmatic reason; namely, academic philosophy as it’s currently practiced depends on a great deal of institutional support to persist. It’s in our material interests to defend many of the ways society is organized against attacks. (Of course, I think that much of the institution of academic philosophy is worth abandoning as a part of large scale revolutionary change.) The moral reason, as I see it, for philosophers in particular to engage in activism is that the training philosophers receive makes them particularly suited to conceptual and inferential organizing. We are supposed to be good at seeing our way through to the structures of things. Being able to see general structures is an extremely valuable tool in identifying oppressive social hierarchies, power relations, and the ways that language shapes our thoughts. It’s unfortunate that for the most part philosophers are taught to apply these skills to neoliberal capitalism, or heteronormative patriarchy, or to colonialism, and so on. Why aren’t they? I think this has a pretty clear answer, but I’ll leave that open for another discussion.

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A Very Brief Introduction to the Logic of the Mīmāṃsā.

Mīmāṃsā is an orthodox (roughly, pro-Vedic) school of Hindu philosophy. Recently, several philosophers (see e.g. Ciabattoni, et. al. 2013, Srinivasan and Parthasarathi 2012 & 2017, and Srinivasan 2014) have advanced formal deontic logics on the basis of the theory of inference derived from Mīmāṃsā philosophy in the work of Jamini (principally, the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā Sutras) and his commentators.

Ciabattoni et. al. define “basic Mīmāṃsā Deontic Logic” as an extension of S4 with the following axioms:

  1. (◻(p→q) ∧ Opr)→Oqr

  2. ◻(q→~p)→~(Opr ∧ Oqr)

  3. (◻(q↔r) ∧ Opq)→Opr

Where the operator “Oyz” is a dyadic deontic modal meaning “y is obligatory given z” or expressed as a conditional imperative: “If z, y!”

These three axioms are derived from three principles found in Mīmāṃsā texts:

  1. If the accomplishment of X presupposes the accomplishment of Y, the obligation to perform X prescribes also Y.

  2. Given that purposes Y and Z exclude each other, if one should use item X for the purpose Y, then it cannot be the case that one should use it at the same time for the purpose Z. (a.k.a. the principle of the half-hen)

  3. If conditions X and Y are always equivalent, given the duty to perform Z under the condition X, the same duty applies under Y.

Now, these principles are derived and abstracted by the authors from the texts to express additional axioms for a deontic, mixed modal logic extended from standard S4. The authors also point out that they use classical rather than intuitionistic S4 because the Mīmāṃsā rely on several principles that imply the legitimacy of reductio ad absurdum proofs. Further, S4 is chosen over S5 because while the Mīmāṃsā is not precise with their modal terminology, it is strongly implied that “necessity” refers to epistemic certainty. Because S4 is the weakest canonical epistemic modal system, that’s what the authors choose.

The analysis of Mīmāṃsā deontic logic also has a trivalent satisfaction semantics. (cf. Vranas 2008, 2011, & 2016) Since the conditional imperative is basic, the satisfaction values an imperative can take are satisfied, violated, and avoided. Anyone who’s taken an intro logic course and gotten mad about the truth table for the material conditional (myself included) will find some comfort in this. Conditional imperatives are satisfied when their antecedents are true and the imperative is performed, violated when their antecedents are true and the imperative refused, and avoided otherwise. Unconditional imperatives are formed by making the antecedent tautological: “Ox⊤”.

Srinivasan and Parthasarathi 2012 have a more elaborate system of conditional and unconditional imperatives based on Mīmāṃsā texts, and they introduce several logical operators to make sense of ordered imperatives, grounded imperatives, and goal-directed imperatives. Examples of these are, respectively, “Put on your socks and shoes,” “If it’s snowing put on a jacket,” and “Take my card to pay for dinner.” Each of these imperatives enjoins a kind of structure between the two parts—either a pair of imperatives or an imperative and proposition—and connects the imperative(s) via a kind of “tense” to some earlier or later state of affairs.

All this is to say that I think the Mīmāṃsā logic is an interesting deontic system worthy of investigation. I hope to do more investigation of my own in the near future.

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