Is argument in philosophy too aggressive? Maybe, but in plenty of other arenas, it’s even worse

In fact, it’s a lot fucking worse, if you can’t see that, you must be a fucking moron, just the kind of thing I’d expect from someone like you, over-privileged wanker in your fucking ivory towers. Ivory! Don’t you know it’s ILLEGAL. It’s down to wanking academics like you that THE ELEPHANTS ARE ENDANGERED and all you can do is moan that some other tosspot in a stupid seminar had accused you of failing to understand how a proper appreciation of Anselm’s view of the first person present demonstrates that contemporary accounts of the difficulties attributed to the Cartesian Circle are inadequate. Tosser.

Okay, calm down now. We all know that we’re talking about the internet, don’t we. And at least in a philosophy seminar you know who the people are – if you don’t recognise someone, you can just ask ‘who’s that person?’ or look them up on google when you get home. But on the internet, people can spew shite at you under the label ‘anon’ or ‘PetefromLuton’ or ‘Just_having_my_say_in_whats’_left_of_modern_britain’ or ‘NotDeadYet’. Feel better already about the state of philosophy?

Secondly, in a philosophy seminar, if someone advances an ad hominem argument, everybody knows that this is illegitimate. I have been to lectures recently where a Famous Philosopher peppered her talk a bit too much with references to how the people whose views she favoured were ‘Nobel Prize winners’, or were friends with somebody extremely famous, or were themselves extremely famous, but at least the audience knew that fame and prizes are irrelevant to how good any particular argument is. Likewise, in a seminar, no one would publicly express the sentiment that ‘you aren’t going to take any notice of what that total fucking waste of space thinks are you?’

But this is where we need to start to stop to think a bit more. Because we know that this does not just happen in internet forums, it happens in real life, albeit sometimes more politely; and in real life, not only do people use ad hominem arguments frequently, people often seem to think that ad hominem arguments are generally valid. You casually remark that you agree with what person X said on topic Y – you moron, don’t you know that they voted for Biden? (Our politicians of course do this routinely – rarely if ever admitting that someone from another party had a point, often seeming to think that the mere fact that a position was put forward by someone from a rival party meant that it was wrong). In philosophy seminars, we know such ad hominen arguments are generally problematic. Phew!

Next: never mind philosophy seminars, in real life, people are horribly aggressive – often looking for fault all around them. Someone expressed a view that leaves scope for interpretation in the most uncharitable manner possible, thereby leaving you a chance to score some points? This is the warp and weft of the internet, but it happens in real life too. It happens in philosophy seminars too, but in philosophy, we know that such an argumentative move is poor form. True, a particular person might not get a chance in a philosophy seminar to correct the mistaken interpretation. Chairing of seminars is often pretty poor. But philosophy as an academic discipline fully recognises, and holds up as a standard, the notion that twisting the interpretation of someone else’s views is bad philosophy. I don’t think that Joe and Jane Internet blogger knows this. And I have often found such levels of misinterpretative aggression in Real Life too.

And it’s not just misinterpreting views that goes on. It’s misinterpreting intention and motive, using any tiny hint to label someone as dabbling in the Dark Arts, of being under suspicion. Someone you know for years makes some off the cuff remark – perhaps, for instance, assuming that a neighbour is Muslim when they are actually a Sikh – and you insist that they are therefore racist – as if you’d completely misjudged their character and belief system all this time. Someone points out a spelling mistake – that means they HATE people with dyslexia. Ooh, lucky you, you managed to spot that someone used an inappropriate word to describe some minority group, perhaps having failed to keep up with what the latest vocab is meant to be – what, that person has been advocating rights for minorities for years, who would have guessed that all along they hated, yes, HATED, that particular minority? ‘Thought you were a Xist but you obviously hate Yists’ etc etc. At least in philosophy, we might think it odd that someone manages to be a realist about X but an anti-realist about Y (or whatever) but we think this is interesting and don’t necessarily think it automatically they are a disingenuous, lying, wanking cunt. Or at least, not to their face.

I’ve given up bothering to defend myself against people who make such character assassinations. I just ignore them. I guess that the level of this accusation and counter-accusation in part stems from terrible uncertainty about what it is that we are meant to think, how we are to avoid causing offence  – the terrible fear of accidentally being racist, for instance, grips many people, and one way of showing publicly that you are not racist, or disablist, or any -ist, is to spot this crime in other people as a way of demonstrating your own purity of thought (I might at this point out that this move is the bread and butter of repressive regimes but that deserves its own rant)  – regardless if this means picking up the slightest hint that there’s some suspicious attitude lurking under that seemingly benign exterior; regardless of whether you’ve know that person all your life and they’ve seemed both decent and amenable to argument so far. This coupled of course with not being entirely sure what being racist is – is mentioning that rickets is a worse problem amongst those living in northern climates who have darker skins racist? Hmm. Might be. Or it might be racist to fail to do something about this. Not sure. My fingers tremble as I type.

One thing that’s ironic about all this is that there’s a horrible climate of people desperately trying to avoid giving offence, whilst simultaneously frequently accusing others of giving offence, and often in a most offensive manner.

Now, in philosophy seminars, people nit-pick and sometimes find fault with opponents in an openly or obliquely aggressive manner. But they aren’t often directly casting vile aspersions on that persons’ whole character and being. Yes, people are marginalised, even ostracised, not given the credit they deserve for their views; people have their opinions credited to someone else; people are not always listened to; but, when I turn my gaze to the big bad world, I long, oh, I long, for the safe haven of a philosophy seminar.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.