Jerry Fodor And Philosophical Practice

I wrote a short post on Facebook today, making note of the passing away of Jerry Fodor:

Much as I admired Fodor’s writing chops, I deplored the way he did philosophy. The stories of his ‘put-downs’ and sarcastic, ironic, ‘devastating’ objections, questions, or responses in seminars always left me feeling like this was not how I understood philosophy as a practice. The admiration all those around me extended to Fodor was a significant component in me feeling alienated from philosophy during graduate school. (It didn’t help that in the one and only paper I wrote on Fodor–in refuting his supposed critique of Quine‘s inscrutability of reference claim–I found him begging the question rather spectacularly.) I had no personal contact with him, so I cannot address that component of him; all I can say is that from a distance, he resembled too many other academic philosophers: very smart folk, but not people I felt I could work with or for, or converse with to figure out things together.

In response, a fellow philosopher wrote to me:

[H]onestly that was my impression of Fodor also….while I too didn’t ever even meet him in person, I thought much of his rhetoric was nasty and unfair, that he routinely caricatured positions of others and then sort of pranced around about how he had totally refuted them, and that he basically ignored criticism…he was very far from what I would take to be a model for the profession….I got the impression that pretty much every other philosopher he mentioned was just a foil – produce a sort of comic book version of them to show how much better his view was.

There has been plenty of praise for Fodor on social media, much of which made note of precisely the style I pointed out above, albeit in admiring tones. In their obit for FodorThe London Review of Books paid attention to similar issues:

Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB….Many of them were on philosophy of mind…more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong….His literary criticism included a withering review of a pair of ‘amply unsuccessful’ novels about apes; and he had this to say of Steven Pinker’s view of Hamlet in his demolition of psychological Darwinism:

And here [Pinker] is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Unsurprisingly, this quote from Fodor was cited as a ‘sick burn’ on Twitter–as an example of his ‘genteel trash talk.’ But a second’s reading of Pinker, and of the response above by Fodor, shows that Fodor is again operating at his worst here. The paragraph cited is a deliberately obtuse and highly superficial reading of Pinker’s claim. Do we have to think about the specific events in Hamlet in order to ponder the ethical dilemmas that the play showcases for us? Is this why people have the emotional responses they do to Hamlet? Or is it because they are able to recognize and internalize the intractability of the issues that Hamlet raises? Do we need to specifically think about rings, dwarfs, and giants in order to specifically ponder the abstract problems that lie at the heart of the tale Fodor cites? Indeed, the many folks who have read these stories over the years seem–in their emotional responses–to have been perfectly capable of separating their concrete particulars from the concepts they traffic in. Fodor does not bother to offer a charitable reading of Pinker; he sets off immediately to scorn and ridicule. This kind of philosophy, and this kind of writing, earns plenty of applause from those who imagine philosophy to be a contact sport. But it does little to advance philosophical thinking on the issues at play.

Back To Conferencing, Thanks To The Mountains

Last year, indeed, almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post titled My First Academic Conference. In it, after describing my reluctance to attend academic conferences, I closed with the following lines:

Now, I don’t go to conferences any more; the travel sounds interesting, but the talks, the questions and answer sessions, the social schmoozing, the dinners, (and the conference fees!) don’t sound enticing. I prefer smaller-scale, more personally pitched interactions with my fellow academics.  But perhaps a suitable conference venue–with mountains close by–will overcome this reticence.

Well, that ‘reticence’ was ‘overcome’ and unsurprisingly, mountains had something to do with it. Last week, I attended the University of Calgary Philosophy Graduate Student Conference to deliver a talk–as one of four plenary speakers. Calgary is, of course, wonderfully proximal to Banff National Park and the Bow Valley; hiking opportunities would be ample; so I gratefully accepted the invitation. My wonderful host was Justin Caouette, a doctoral candidate in the department who had organized the conference, and amazingly enough, offered to put me up and arrange a couple of hikes too. His hospitality and friendship made this trip memorable; he is a professional ethicist engaged in a constant struggle to abide by the theoretical principles he espouses; I can extend no higher praise to a practicing philosopher.

On arriving in Calgary on the 2nd, we drove up to Banff for coffee and some pleasant strolls around the stunning local lakes.  The next two days were taken up by the conference; I attended all the talks and participated in most question and answer sessions; I’m glad to say that these went well and were not hijacked by the kind of querulous interactions that are the bane of academic philosophical discussions. My talk closed out the conference; the time allotted to my session was generous and allowed for a very engaged interaction with the audience. (More on the content of my talk in a separate post.)

Once done with the conference, Caouette and I headed off to hike Mt. Yamnuska in the Bow Valley. The hike is an elementary one in terms of distance and elevation gain, but the scrambles above the treeline make it an exciting one, as does a short cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section leading up to the final summit ridge. Descending by a looped route requires scrambling down long scree slopes, an experience which was utterly novel. The views from the summit were stunning; the good ones always require a little work. (I will write more, in a separate post, about the personal challenge that the cabled section presented to a terrified-of-heights person like me.)

On the following day, Caouette and I had planned to hike Mt. Rundle, but locals in Banff informed us that avalanche conditions made that too dangerous. We settled for a pleasant hike from Lake Louise up to Lake Mirror and Lake Agnes. The lakes were still frozen; they were stunningly beautiful. The forested paths leading up to them were blanketed in snow, and hikers were rare. We were able to enjoy the stillness of that snowy walk in relative solitude.

Finally, on Sunday, we went for a little indoor climbing–my first crack at this endeavor. I chose a wall equipped with an auto-belay and tried a few routes; the 5.7s were elementary but the 5.9s defeated me. I consider myself a reasonably strong and fit person but was amazed at how quickly my arms grew tired; some failures resulted just because I could not hold on or pull up any more. (Much more on this experience too anon.)

I’m back home now, and have already notched up a full day’s teaching. But I’m only partially here; one part is still dreaming about the mountains.

Not So Fast With The Private Surveillance

A revealing–no pun intended–reaction to news of Steven Salaita’s troubles at the University of Illinois was that he was only paying the price for having his social media speech monitored (or surveilled) by his employer. As the argument goes, all employers monitor social media; we should all accept the consequences–in our places and zones of employment–of our public speech being monitored by our employers in non-workspace settings; Salaita’s employer did just that; he should deal with the consequences.

In an earlier post, I noted some of the adverse implications of such a situation for academics. But it is problematic for all workers, precisely because of the not-so-benign assumptions smuggled into its premises. First, it  uncritically accepts employer surveillance, not just of work spaces but of speech zones elsewhere as well–the restriction to social media networks is a red herring. This premise suggests we have no expectations of privacy–0r vastly lowered ones–in public spaces; but we clearly do, as our reactions to rude eavesdroppers at our restaurant table or street-corner conversations would suggest. Rather than meekly rolling back the boundaries of acceptable private surveillance to include more speech zones, this debate offers us an opportunity to inspect and examine where and how–and to what end–we consent to having our communications monitored by our employers.

Second, what does it mean to allow the content of our non-work space speech used against us in work space decisions such as hiring and firing? It means introducing an element of critical control and scrutiny into a domain where we expect to speak freely, to permit a regulation of speech by an entity as powerful, if not more, than governmental ones. No legal strictures would be required for chilling effects to be produced; the mere fear of the denial of livelihood would be enough. (Unsurprisingly, political activism of all stripes becomes easier when means of livelihood are not at stake; not for nothing is the tenured radical’s freedom so often lampooned by his critics.) The paucity of First Amendment restrictions on private employers is well-known; permitting their expansion, just because the technical means enable it, is to concede defeat all too quickly. Moreover, to permit it in a zone where the technical means permit it is to open the door to more extensive surveillance provided the technical means can be made available. This is to lose the argument at precisely the wrong point. After all, why not just micro-chip all from birth so as to permit future employers make the most informed decisions regarding suitability?

This reaction–the surveillance is in place, it is inevitable–is also depressingly indicative of the acceptance of an asymmetric surveillance; there is no talk of increasing employer–or chief executive–transparency to accompany this rollback of privacy safeguards. And lastly, as always there is the most appalling suggestion of all, more indicative of a civilizational  decline than anything else: when it comes to doing business, to making money, all concerned enter a morality-free zone of sorts; no imperative larger or more grand than an increase in profits need animate anyone’s actions.

Steven Salaita and Academic Freedom in Academic and ‘Non-Academic’ Spaces

Steven Salaita might have thought he was headed for a new faculty position: the University of Illinois had made him a job offer, he had accepted, and resigned his position at Virginia Tech. But not so fast: the Chancellor of the university rescinded the offer, apparently because of Salaita’s aggressively vocal presence on Twitter, where he has sent out more than a few angry 140-character blasts directed at Israel’s current policies in Gaza.

The defenses of the Chancellor’s decision follow rather predictable trajectories: one, curiously adopted by Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and unstinting champion of academic freedom, is that Salaita’s public speech shows evidence of incivility and uncollegiality, which should be appropriate considerations in hiring and firing decisions; that they show evidence of his inability to ensure his students’ appropriate treatment in his classrooms, presumably because those with ‘pro-Israel’ views would feel threatened that they would not be treated on par with others; that Salaita would have done better to restrict his pronouncements to peer-reviewed academic journals. The second, related to the first, is that Salaita, not being protected by the First Amendment, is subject to the same regulation of his speech that all those who are acted on by private, non-governmental actors are; if you speak in public, you should expect to pay the ‘consequences’ for it.

Academic freedom, in these viewpoints, becomes bogus; there are no special freedoms that accrue to those engaged in teaching and research in universities; or if they do, they are, as Nelson suggests, only to be found in teaching and research in specifically academic forums. When faculty step out of those restricted domains, they leave their academic freedom behind. You are free to teach what you want; you are free to research what you want; you are not free to say and write what you want ‘outside.’

Some of Nelson’s concerns are addressed by my colleague Justin Steinberg, who in an email to Chancellor Wise protesting Salaita’s ‘dehiring’ wrote: :

Tweets are like (self-made) bumper stickers that one might put on one’s car; they do not reveal anything about how one comports oneself in face-to-face discourse or in the classroom. Just as it would be wholly inappropriate to rescind a job offer based on the perceived tastelessness or stridency of the bumper stickers that bedeck one’s car, it is equally inappropriate to do so on account of the tone of one’s social media posts.

As Amardeep Singh notes in his thorough examination of Salaita’s online record, Twitter is an inherently limited medium; it all too easily facilitates reductive understandings of the points made in its confines. Because it is so physically limited, it often encourages polemical excess: your tweet will soon scroll off your followers’ timelines; there are so many tweets; better to pack as much gunpowder as possible into your volley. Further, if Nelson’s guidelines to faculty hiring were to be taken seriously, with so much public speech taking place on social media, an increasing number of conversations could come in for scrutiny, increasing the likelihood that we may be indicted all too easily for incivility. The net result would be to self-censor online speech. Whatever Twitter’s faults, it offers a new medium of discourse, and it would be unfortunate if those using it were to censor themselves.

And why stop at social media? Any polemical remark made anywhere becomes grist for the mill; a conservative professor expressing his unvarnished–but overheard–opinions about the decline of the American family at a colleague’s dinner party should not be allowed into classrooms where single mothers might be taking classes. The ridiculousness of this situation should be apparent. All over the American university system, many professors with radically diverse political and ethical views teach, conduct research and supervise students; are we to now vet their speech in all and any fora so that we may judge whether they are able to provide safe spaces for their students? Or are we rather to trust them to be able to comport themselves in learning environments, which almost invariably feature diverse political opinions and leanings? As we seem to do more often than not. To set aside certain topics and not others as toxic to the touch will rely, rather unsurprisingly, on making untenable distinctions between them and others on which rather pungent opinions are expressed as a matter of course. (With probability one, Twitter’s archives may be searched to find evidence that academics have expressed such views on all manner of topics; have they all been restricted from coming into contact with various student demographics?)

Nelson is also relying on an incoherent distinction between academic and non-academic spheres of speech, with the former only present in conventional fora such as journals. Au contraire; an academic’s intellectual productions are not so easily demarcated. I consider my writing here to be an important component of my academic role; it helps me think aloud in different shape, manner, and form than the confines of monographs and journals, and thus, helps inform them as well. (Material written here has, for instance, found its way into my latest book.) I sometimes ruminate on my teaching experiences here, and sometimes think aloud about my syllabi. This blog is not a peer-reviewed space, but it no less academic for that. Social media is where a great deal of information-sharing and discussion takes place; it offers a modern form of the salon, with different avenues and modes of participation available. To suggest that this is not an academic space of learning and its dissemination is to turn a willfully blind eye to its structures and usage.

The university is supposed to provide a haven for untrammeled inquiry; to provide spaces within which teachers, researchers, and students may explore many avenues of intellectual exploration, with these not restricted by conventional niceties; we expect to have our mental spaces rearranged within its confines. Academic freedom is supposed to safeguard these modes and methods of learning and teaching. And that learning and teaching will take many different forms and modes; to insist that academic freedom will only be offered in some fora and not others is to say that academic freedom is to be restricted, and only made available in safely restricted ways. That is, it is to be rendered meaningless.

The Missed Rejoinder: Memorable For All The Wrong Reasons

A few years ago, I served as a referee for the National Science Foundation, reading and evaluating grant proposals, and hopefully, being fair to the hopeful applicants. Once I had submitted my preliminary report, I traveled to Washington DC for a final meeting with other referees for that round of funding; we met over two days to classify the proposals into three categories that read something like ‘Funding Certain’ ‘Undecided’ and finally, ‘Reject.’ Unsurprisingly, our discussions were quite vigorous with frequent disagreements, and sometimes contention, on display. During one of these disputes, after I had finished stating why I thought a proposal to fund a mentoring workshop for junior faculty didn’t look sufficiently well put-together, articulated, or planned, a fellow referee, a professor from a private university, one clearly committed to getting the proposal through and over the finish line, delved into the ad-hominem during his attempted refutation, concluding with, ‘Let me tell you something pal, you’ve led a sheltered life!’

Before I could respond, another member of the panel correctly pointed out the personally offensive nature of that sort of remark, called for calm, and our deliberations continued. The proposal was eventually funded.

I was seething though and continued to for a long while. (As the writing of this post shows, perhaps I never stopped.) The funding of the proposal wasn’t what had upset me. Rather, I had not had a chance to say what I wanted in response, which in unvarnished form would have gone something like this:

I’ve led a sheltered life? Excuse me? I left home twenty years ago and came to this country as an immigrant, finished ten years of graduate school with inconsistent funding, sometimes working on the side to make ends meet; I studied in one of America’s worst inner cities; I teach in a public university; and you, a man who enjoys the privilege of his race and teaches in a private university, you’re telling me I’ve led a sheltered life. Why don’t you–pardon my French–go take a flying fuck at the moon?

And then, I would have dramatically pushed my chair back, and walked out of the conference room.

In my dreams.

What is it about the missed rejoinder, the missed opportunity for the perfect comeback, that galls us so? Why do the burrs left under our saddles by moments like that continue to aggravate us in particularly and peculiarly painful ways? I don’t think any great rhetorical point was scored by my opponent; I wasn’t humiliated; I wasn’t refuted; the pompous twit did get reprimanded in a fashion; and perhaps anyone with a modicum of intelligence in that room saw that his remark was uncalled for and ridiculous. (No one, however, came up to me after the meeting to say as much.)

The problem, I suppose, is that we carry around too many memories like these; life throws us into close proximity, too often for our comfort, into the company of those that are quick with the personally hurtful quip. The man suggesting I had lived a ‘sheltered life’ had somehow found, unerringly, the one assessment of me that would cut deep. And the only way we know of fighting back at that moment is to retaliate in kind. When that opportunity is denied, perhaps because we weren’t quick enough on the draw, perhaps because peacekeepers step in, we are denied our moment of release. And forgiving and forgetting and  moving on has never been easy.

Academic Arguments, Sports, and Urban Policing as ‘War’

In the introduction to The Social Construction of What? Ian Hacking writes:

Labels such as ‘‘the culture wars,’’ ‘‘the science wars,’’ or ‘‘the Freud wars’’ are now widely used to refer to some of the disagreements that plague contemporary intellectual life. I will continue to employ those labels, from time to time, in this book, for my themes touch, in myriad ways, on those confrontations. But I would like to register a gentle protest. Metaphors influence the mind in many unnoticed ways. The willingness to describe fierce disagreement in terms of the metaphors of war makes the very existence of real wars seem more natural, more inevitable, more a part of the human condition. It also betrays us into an insensibility toward the very idea of war, so that we are less prone to be aware of how totally disgusting real wars really are….Wars! The science wars can be focused on social construction. One person argues that scientific results, even in fundamental physics, are social constructs. An opponent, angered, protests that the results are usually discoveries about our world that hold independently of society. People also talk of the culture wars, which often hinge on issues of race, gender, colonialism, or a shared canon of history and literature that children should master—and so on. These conflicts are serious. They invite heartfelt emotions. Nevertheless I doubt that the terms ‘‘culture wars,’’ ‘‘science wars’’ (and now, ‘‘Freud wars’’) would have caught on if they did not suggest gladiatorial sport. It is the bemused spectators who talk about the ‘‘wars.’’

Two quick responses. First, Hacking is correct to note that the invocation of ‘gladiatorial sport’ in the recounting of academic debate is an integral part of the rhetorical arsenal deployed to describe academic debate. This is presumably meant to indicate the extent of the disagreement extant between the parties in the debate, but over time it has come to characterize debate itself in too many disciplines. In philosophy, as I’ve already noted–much to the detriment of women philosophers–this has become the norm. An argument is an opportunity not to move toward discovery and edification but to destroy a putative opposing position. The conquest of one’s intellectual ‘opponent’ becomes our primary, normatively assessed responsibility.

Second, Hacking is also correct in indicting the usage of the language of ‘war’ to describe academic disagreement: it simultaneously trivializes war while dangerously lowering the standards of discourse in academic debate. In general, wherever the language of ‘war’ and ‘battle’ is thrown around freely, the standards of behavior in that domain decline.  Consider sport, where the all-too frequent reliance on military tropes results in the condoning of illegitimate play and questionable sportsmanship, and more generally, the attitude that games, like wars, must be won by any means necessary. Or consider urban policing, where the constant reference to ‘war zones’ results in a ‘shoot or be shot’ mentality that takes the lives of innocents each year. The trigger-happy policeman is already convinced he is a soldier on patrol, well behind enemy lines, surrounded by hostiles ready to take him out. The outcomes that result are grimly foretold.