The Dickhead Theory Of Academic Philosophy, Revisited

A little while ago on this blog, I posited something I jocularly termed The Dickhead Theoryas a possible explanation for the lack of women in academic philosophy (“there are too many dickheads in philosophy”). In response, one male reader commented:

At the risk of unjustly downplaying its particular effect on women, I’ll note that the dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too. It’s one of the reasons I left the field. To succeed in some philosophical fora seemed to require not only the *willingness* to wave one’s dick in the way you describe, but an outright love of doing so. I don’t find oneupsmanship to be a very appealing motivator, which put me at a disadvantage.

And then, just a couple of days ago, I received an email–from a male graduate student–which read:

I have to admit, I was happy to see someone suggest this.  At my undergrad, I seldom if ever came across this sort of behavior in philosophy classes or seminars – something I now recognize as a blessing.  Coming to [XXX] on the other hand, I was admittedly rather shocked at the prevalence of this sort of behavior among the students.  You mention that this behavior is possibly a deterrent to would-be women philosophers.  I think this is probably right.  But I must admit that I too – a male – also found this sort of behavior discouraging, and I’ve heard other male colleagues express the same sentiment.  Also, I’ve even seen this behavior exhibited by female colleagues.  I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that I see this as a problem not just for women interested in philosophy – though as I said, I think this probably is a problem in this respect – but also for the profession in general. [name of institution, er, redacted]

Both my interlocutors are correct: the “dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too.” Male philosophers are not a monolithic bloc, and indeed, neither are women philosophers, some of whom, indeed, do display the same obnoxious behavior I complained about in my original post. Many of the former demographic do not find the atmosphere of ‘philosophical debate’ to their liking, conducted as it often is, in a manner that seems deeply counterproductive to the idealized notion of philosophical inquiry. Love of wisdom seems a very distant notion in these abrasive exchanges.

My second interlocutor then goes on to ask:

Given that you mentioned this problem publicly, I wonder whether you have any opinions on how to change this aspect of the culture of our profession?  Also, do you think it is a problem many other philosophers take seriously?

Second question first. I do know many academic philosophers take this problem seriously. Certainly, the philosophers I cited in my original piece do, and some others have even taken public vows to treat their colleagues with more respect in academic settings. (See for instance Carrie Jenkins’ Day One post; but see too, the reaction it provoked). But we should also acknowledge that being a dickhead is not likely to get you much professional blowback–especially if you have a few OUP or CUP books. The incentive schemes of academic philosophy are not set up to recognize or reward non-dickheadish behavior.

There is another problem, perhaps more fundamental, one which I’m not sure can be addressed. Philosophical activity is often, fundamentally, understood as the presentation and refutation of arguments. It is presented as an essentially adversarial activity: we critique, we analyze, we take apart, we seek weaknesses, we probe for openings in arguments. If an argument can be refuted or made to seem untenable then so much the better for it. (Indeed, the intensity of the inquisition is valorized.) As such an entire vocabulary of trial and examination, of survival and fortitude, is imported. I think this has a great deal to do with the some of the behavioral patterns on display. There might be alternative conceptions of philosophical activity but they do not have much play in academic philosophy–at least, as far as I can see.

Social norms in a community can be changed; we can indicate, with varying degrees of disapproval, whether some species of behavior is praiseworthy and worthy of encouragement. Much normative weight can be attached to such praise or condemnation. But if our very activity is understood within a framework that is fundamentally about conflict, then we might be fighting a losing battle. (No pun intended.)

Addendum: My Brooklyn College colleague Serene Khader comments:

Feminist philosophy is a place where alternative norms are very much alive. The paradigm supposes that we are involved in a collective enterprise and trying to figure out the truth together. We scrutinize arguments by saying things like “can you help me see how to get from x to y” and “maybe it would be helpful to you to consider this objection.”

4 thoughts on “The Dickhead Theory Of Academic Philosophy, Revisited

  1. I find it helpful to examine the possible historical roots of “dickhead theory” philosophical praxis. So, for example, Dena Goodman notes in her book, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994), that formal education in the West, going all the way back to ancient Greece* (keep in mind that Socrates and his interlocutors in the agora engaged in dialogue and dialectic as an exemplary example of ‘informal’ philosophical education) has been largely “agonistic.” Quoting Walter Ong, she writes that “Students ‘learned subjects largely by fighting over them.’ The primary form the agon took in the education of boys and young men from the Middle Ages on was disputation, a form of ceremonial combat. Ong contends that male insecurity, although it may not have been the ‘cause’ of the agonistic structure of pedagogical and scholarly practice, was certainly fundamentally related to it.”

    The literal and figurative notion of learning in French schools since Abelard had “been steeped in the language of battle” and up until the “the end of the Old Regime” pedagogical practice was “overwhelmingly oral,” despite the focus on texts and exegesis: “Listening and memorizing were always oral and generally disputatious in form.” With roots in the sixteenth century, the reform of secondary education in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France placed emphasis on the art of rhetoric or eloquence as “the art of thinking and speaking well.” As Goodman explains, this went hand-in-hand with the Jesuits’ renewal of “militancy” in pedagogical practice. In this model, the agonistic spirit is canalized in the form of a “competition among students” believed to “foster” the kind of individual ambition that led to educational excellence. We find here the pedagogical analogue of the duel, which represents the “merger of personal human relations with militancy.”

    Perhaps needless to say, the social base of the Republic of Letters provided by the French salon offered an alternative model of intellectual learning and philosophical discourse for the philosophes. And this alternative pedagogical model, if you will, was a deliberate product of the salonnière. The women who governed these salons (e.g., Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, Julie de Lespinasse, and Suzanne Necker) enforced rules of polite conversation among the guests, transforming the salon “from a leisure institution of the nobility into an institution of the Enlightenment,” one in which the philosophes were compelled to learn a new style of philosophical argument, a new mode of intellectual disputation not fundamentally agonstic in style, thus without the victors and victims of combat. This too was a rhetorical practice of sorts, but one subordinate to the broader and normative art of conversation. Here the “mastery of word” was not synonymous with, or at least reduced the risk of degenerating into, a “mastery over persons.” Unlike agonstic philosophical argumentation, this art is far less prone to the dangers of descent into abusive and circumstantial ad hominen arguments, and is structurally better suited to the intellectual virtues of what today is discussed under the heading of “regulative epistemology,” including, noticeably, intellectual humility and generosity. Indeed, I think it is an auspicious forum for the flourishing of the principle of philosophical charity, as well as conducive to ascertaining the relative truths on all sides of a philosophical debate or argument (which does not preclude assessing their respective strengths and weaknesses).

    We should also study the modes of philosophy in Chinese and Indic philosophical traditions (to keep it short, and because I’m only familiar with the Confucian and Daoist cases, I won’t discuss the Chinese traditions). While philosophical disputations between schools could be “heated” and philosophical debate occasionally combative (consider for instance the monastic style of debate in Tibetan Buddhism: although it appears if not sounds aggressive, it is stylized or ritualized so as to minimize or soften, I suspect, any real aggression or strong combativeness), we find here different styles and modes that suggest philosophical practice need not be analogous to the adversary legal model for the discovery of truth(s). Debate in Indian philosophy appears to have begun along the lines of a conversation between friends but over time not infrequently degenerated into quarrelsome forms that relied on tricks and clever devices designed to confound and defeat one’s opponents, with individuals no longer viewed as equal partners engaged in the pursuit of truth (cf. the two types of debate found in the Meno). Even the intellectually combative Cārvāka appreciated that form of debate Socrates said took place between “friendly people,” referring to such debate as sandhāya sambhāsā, “debate among fellow scholars who are friends” (B.K. Matilal), by way of contrast to debate conducted in “the spirit of opposition and hostility.” A fourfold classification of forms of debate by a Nyāya philosopher finds two forms characteristic of “seekers after truth,” while the other two forms are employed by “proud people” who merely intend to defeat others, and thus “tricky devices” are permissible in and common to these latter forms. I would go so far as to suggest that Jain epistemology and philosophy more widely (in particular, its doctrines of anekāntavāda, syādvāda, and nayavāda) rules out the notion of an agonistic or combative mode of philosophizing wherein one imagines the goal is merely to refute or defeat the arguments of one’s opponents. I have elsewhere described this model of truth as “para-propositional,” in as much as its truly unique and provocative “standpoint” epistemology and perspectival rationalism emphasizes (because mandates) the relative truths of all genuine philosophical arguments, not letting us forget how beholden these arguments are to sundry presuppositions (the hidden parameters of belief and assertion) that preclude our absolutizing their insights and encourage us to actively seek out and appreciate other, partial or relative (and degrees of) truths, truths which, as it turns out, we are often quite blind to but others may hold or articulate with perspicuity.

    * See the comment by Manyul Im in this thread (with its very different portrait of Jesuit educational praxis!):

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