A Paradigmatic Example Of A Philosophical Dickhead

Over at the Rough Ground, Bharath Vallabha has an interesting and critical post on the institutional biases implicit and explicit in the ranking of philosophers. He takes as target a recent poll that ranked the Top Twenty Anglophone Philosophers. Vallabha notes the lists’ most prominently featured institutions and philosophical traditions, its narrow emphases, and goes on to conclude:

At its root what “Anglophone philosophy” picks out is not a language or even a philosophical tradition (like Logical Positivism or Ordinary Language Philosophy), but simply the network of departments which are considered to form a unit. Therefore “Anglophone philosophy” is just another way of saying: “doing philosophy this way, what we do, at these departments.”

Unsurprisingly, given Vallabha’s recent persistence in making this–and related–critiques of the institutions of academic philosophy, his post provokes the following comment from ‘Anonymous’:

I think you’re getting to be a broken record on this topic. We get that you think it’s all about the sociology of institutions and connections, and not intellectual content, but have you really argued that or just asserted it? Can you name an Indian philosopher in the last fifty years who wrote in English and explain why his (or her) work was important, indeed, as important as any of those in the top 20 or the top 30 on the list?

When Vallabha responds, offering reasons for why he makes such a critique and cites as an example of an ‘important philosopher’, J. N. Mohanty–a philosopher I can bet good money Anonymous has never heard of–Anonymous comes back with a series of rapid-fire questions. (Picture, if you will, this querulous questioner at an academic seminar.)

You have not explained why Mohanty’s work was important, other than saying it bridges traditions. Why is that important? And how is that comparable to, for example, Kripke’s contributions to modal logic and our thinking about meaning and reference? What important philosophical theses are due to Mohanty? Can you state them for us?

Anonymous’ opening comment was a very good example of a very particular style of doing philosophy–one I am intimately familiar with thanks to my experience attending philosophy colloquia. Here, Anonymous opens with an accusation of ‘overkill’; no reasons are given for this characterization. Instead, it is assumed emphasis and persistence are philosophical sins (especially when they concern the ‘sociology of institutions’, an unimportant issue to be sure.) Then, interestingly enough, for someone familiar enough with the content of Vallabha’s posts to say they sound like ‘a broken record,’ he asks “Have you argued it or just asserted it’? Perhaps Anonymous can tell us why–i.e., offer reasons why he thinks Vallabha is only asserting and not arguing. Then, we have some aggressive interrogation, mixed in with a healthy dose of disbelief: “Can you name an Indian philosopher…” Clearly, if an Indian philosopher writes a post critical of the Anglo-American tradition in philosophy, it must be because he is upset about Indian philosophers being left off some exalted list. And, of course, if Anonymous hasn’t heard of them, they don’t exist.

There is a masterful engagement here with the content of Vallabha’s post that suggests a really well-trained philosophical mind–one perhaps keenly honed on modal logic and repeated readings of Naming and Necessity. Having thrown these rhetorical firecrackers, and thus in his exalted mind, having scattered the advancing forces of critique directed at the high temples of Anglophone philosophy, Anonymous does not stick around to offer, gasp, reasons for his skepticism and disdain in response to questions put to him by Martin Shuster:

Anonymous – can you explain why modal logic or thoughts about meaning/reference are important? Why are they more important than thinking about how to bring together disparate traditions and people, or indeed whatever (other) issues Mohanty thought about? Thinking about how to bring together traditions might do much to alleviate human suffering, and one could argue then, that it is far more valuable than advances in modal logic or theories of reference.The thing is, either philosophy–understood here in the broadest sense as self reflection and critical thought–is important or it is not. If it is, then there is no way to decide, in advance, which issues are more important than others, and therefore which figures.

I’ve written a couple of posts before on the discursive environment in academic philosophy. They were titled On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory and The Dickhead Theory of Academic Philosophy, Revisited. In those posts, I was indulging in some hand-waving, referring to a class of academic philosophers without naming names or citing paradigmatic examples. Well, I still don’t have names, but I do a have a paradigmatic example.

Anonymous is a dickhead. And he–I use that pronoun advisedly–is not alone.

One comment on “A Paradigmatic Example Of A Philosophical Dickhead

  1. Bharath Vallabha says:

    Thanks for your post. I appreciate what you say about that comment. Even as I have tried to not take it seriously, I have felt that it shut down a part of me, and I have to struggle to not get shut down. The force of the comment is that I am supposedly being somehow irrational, emotional, focused on trivialities, and in general not being rational. And where then being rational is defined by entering into and justifying oneself to certain existing paradigms. I think this explains the shutting down feeling. Because I feel it is incredibly hard to justify oneself in that way: to speak out in categories and structures which make one feel voiceless, and to speak out in those categories nonetheless as if they are the categories which are best suited for expressing my thoughts and experiences. This is a version of what I in another post on my blog called institutional gluttony: where rationality gets defined by the process of certain institutional structures, and so any criticism of the structures is by definition irrational. I think what you are calling being a dickhead is perhaps what I mean by being an institutional glutton, and vice versa.

    Still, another reason the comment on that thread did stop me in my tracks is that it made me wonder what it means to be a philosopher (apropos your very interesting post on this theme recently). One way to think of a philosopher is someone who uses ideas to liberate oneself and others from pain. That there is a form of reflection which simultaneously tracks truth/justification and heals wounds/gives peace. What stopped me in my track was the thought I have myself long felt, and which I felt in reading your post on being called a philosopher, that I have yet to discover this mode of being a philosopher. In this sense, though the commentator was being unfair, something he was saying rang true to me. I think there is a way of reasoning which can speak back to the commentator, but without playing by his rules, such that he can recognize that form of reasoning as more rational than what even he is used to. What is this way of being rational? I would like to explore this more.

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