George Steiner On The ‘Unvoiced Soliloquy’ And Collaborative Creativity

In Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 84-85), in making note of the ‘anxiety of influence,’ and the valorization of solitary creativity, George Steiner writes:

I want to point to the elected presences which makers construe within themselves or within their works, to the “fellow-travellers,” teachers, critics, dialectical partners, to those other voices within their own which can give to even the most complexly solitary and innovative of creative acts a shared, collective fabric. Elsewhere,¹ I have tried to draw attention to what remains a terra incognita in linguistics, in poetics, in epistemology….It is that of inward speech, of the discourse we conduct incessantly with ourselves. This unvoiced soliloquy in fact contains the bulk of speech-acts; it far exceeds in volume language used for outward communication. It also, I suspect, is under formative or inhibiting pressures of historical-social circumstance, of the state of public vocabularies and grammars, though it may add to them elements of a private argot. It could well be that, in Western cultures until recently, soliloquy has been the unheard eloquence, vituperation, poetry of countless women. Our true familiars are the “selves” or fantom-auditors and respondents to whom we address the lexical-grammatical-semantic currents of silent speech. Our consciousness, even when our inward audition and notice are fitful, is a monologue of the many whose creative powers, whose capacity to generate terror or solace, illusion or inhibition, are as yet scarcely analysed.

In a post here on ‘Imagined Interlocutors‘ I had made note of the incessant conversations I have with myself–with real and imagined figures; inner conversation allows for argumentation with those absent, temporarily or permanently. I could not do without these conversations. Indeed, I often frame material I will write later, here or elsewhere, by means of a ‘conversation in the head’–mostly while walking. Talking to myself is thus an integral part of my ‘thinking’ and writing; even here, at this most elementary level, creativity and creation are not solitary endeavors but active collaborations–perhaps unsurprising for a being whose consciousness is not a unitary entity. Consider that a creative work is formed over time; its creator, an always-in-flux entity changes too. It is a commonplace for authors and poets and artists to find out that a piece long in the making is simply not viable anymore; they have changed, their work must in response. The harshest critics of our works always lurk within us. Fail muster with them, and you cannot proceed.

Steiner’s suggestion that soliloquy is often the voice of the otherwise silenced is provocative. Sometimes talking to oneself is the only recourse when conversation with a larger world is denied. The woman confined to the private sphere, the prisoner in solitary confinement, the survivor in the wilderness; in all of these circumstances, we find that we cannot stop talking–whether directed inwards, or at walls, or at animals and trees and ocean waves. It’s the best way we know of keeping sane, even if at the risk of being judged insane by others.

Note#1: Steiner cites his On Difficulty here.

The Inseparability Of The Form And Content Of Arguments

Is it more important for philosophers to argue well than it is to write well? Posed this way, the question sets up a false dichotomy for you cannot argue well without writing well. Logic is not identical with rhetoric, but the logical form of an argument cannot be neatly drawn apart from its rhetorical component. (Classical rhetoric has been insisting forever that we cannot separate form and content.) We define validity and soundness of an argument in formal semantic and syntactical terms; and unsurprisingly, those notions find their greatest traction when evaluating arguments expressed in formal languages. But philosophical disputation takes place using natural  languages; and arguments are made in order to persuade or convince or induce other changes in the epistemic make-up of our interlocutors.

We argue with someone, somewhere, in some time and context; we argue to achieve some end, whether moral, political, economic, legal. Any evaluation of the arguments we make must take these factors into consideration; without them at hand, our evaluations are sterile and pointless. (Why, after all, do we concern ourselves with notions of epistemic justice if not for the fact that some arguments are more likely to be ‘heard’ than others?) Fallacies abound in natural language arguments; correcting them is not just a matter of paying attention to the abstract logical form of the argument ‘underlying’ the sentences we have deployed; it is a matter too, or making sure we have chosen the right words, and deployed them appropriately in the correct context. To use an example from an older post, we reject a smoker’s argument that we should stop smoking on ad-hominem grounds, but the smoker really should have known better than to try to convince someone to quit while puffing away merrily and seemingly enjoying deep lungfuls of smoke. Good argument; terrible form. The same smoker would find a more receptive audience if he spoke with some feeling about how miserable his health has become over the years thanks to his smoking habit.

(On a related note, consider that when programmers evaluate ‘good code,’ they do so on the basis of not just the effective functionality of the code in accomplishing its task, which is a purely technical notion, but also on aesthetic notions: Is the code readable? Can it be modified easily? Is it ‘beautiful’? No programmer of any worth elides these notions in evaluative assessment of written code.)

There is a larger issue at play here. Philosophers do much more than just argue; sometimes they just point in a particular direction, or make us notice something that we had not seen before, or sometimes they clothe the world in a different form. These activities have little to do with arguing ‘correctly.’ They do, however, have a great deal to do with effective communication. Writing is one such form, so is speaking.

Note: The examples of great philosophers who are considered ‘terrible’ or ‘obscure’ writers–by some folks–does not diminish the point made here. Hegel and Heidegger–with due apologies to Hegel-and-Heidegger-philes–achieved their fame not just because of the quality or depth of the arguments they offered in their works but also because they wrote from particular locations, in particular times. (Some think they made terrible arguments, of course!) The sociology of philosophy has a great deal to say about these matters; more philosophers should pay attention to it.

On The ‘Net: Letting ‘Em Have The Last Word

I began arguing on the Internet some twenty-seven years ago. I haven’t stopped yet. At first, it was all about the Usenet newsgroups; later it was mailing lists–private and public, online conferences, blog posts, blog comments spaces, IRC channels, Facebook and Twitter timelines. I read, I wrote, I flamed; I was read, I was flamed. I was infuriated, I was provoked; I infuriated, I provoked. No matter where you went in cyberspace, there you were, arguing with someone.

And these interlocutors, they drove you batty. You knew they were wrong; they knew you were. (You both cared what your audiences thought of you.) You wrote quasi-treatises, clear and limpid in their rhetorical and dialectical simplicity; they were free of argumentative fallacies; they were responded to with obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty. Your interlocutors’ arguments were so aggravatingly wrong that at times you suspected you could not unpeel the layers of provocation they laid on; you began to doubt whether you could do an adequate job of unmasking these imposters.  You thought your extensive catalog of this world’s intellectual sins and charlatans was complete; your experience with the folks you argued with online demonstrated that many more entries needed to be made in it.

These folks online, friends and strangers alike, they were not like the ones you met and talked to in person. When those folks spoke, their words were transient, evanescent; they came and went, vanishing, leaving only some traces, sometimes bitter, sometimes pleasant, soon to be overwritten by some new stimulus. These folks online, their words were written; they were committed to ‘memory’ of several kinds; they acquired a permanence; they became lasting accusations of the lack of all kinds of uprightness and rectitude; you were indicted of a multiplicity of sins. Sticks and stones could break your bones, and these words, by virtue of their durability, threatened to do as much.

And all in public, because when you argue on the Internet, you always have some kind of audience; perhaps a small one, like your departmental mailing list, or perhaps a colossal one, like a popular newsgroup or the comments space of a leading blog. You aren’t just arguing for yourself; you are arguing because you’ve ‘got a rep to protect.’ (With probability one, a rejoinder from a Facebook commenter that you will respond to with great alacrity and vigor is one that you disapprove of, but which has received a ‘Like’ from another reader. Here, the gauntlet has been thrown, the offender has already acquired some support of dubious moral quality, some irritating cheering from the peanut galleries. You must speak up for yourself and do double duty; not only must you show the original offender he was wrong but show his worthless sycophant that he backed the wrong horse in this particular race.)

Small wonder that famous ‘Duty Calls’ cartoon from xkcd is, er, famous:

Duty Calls

You laugh, because you know it’s true: you can’t let go, unanswered, some affront to your pride and your sensibilities. You cannot let an internet interlocutor have the last word. (A friend once told me–in the early days of the pre-WWW internet i.e., in the days of Usenet newsgroups–that he would not log on once he got home for fear of not being able to log off again all night. In those days, users dialed in to access newsgroups; when you stayed logged on, whether at 1200, 2400, or 9600 baud, you ran up your phone bills too, so there might have been some economic prudence that gave my friend’s resolution some much-needed heft.)

So there it stays, that unanswered comment on your blog, the idiotic comment on your Facebook page, that chirpy, offensive tweet, burning a hole in your cranium, threatening to keep you awake as the full horror of its being read by every single user of the internet slowly dawns on you. You draft your reply as you go about your day’s business, waiting for the moment when you will be able to pour out your furious rejoinder, your nail-in-the-coffin response that will seal the deal once and for all.

But it won’t. And you know it. Another cycle awaits.

Letting that ‘last word’ remain unanswered is key, of course. The expert internet user comes to size up, quickly enough, what kind of creature his interlocutor is. Most importantly, is he the kind who will let you have the last word? If not, step away from the keyboard. No one cares very much; there is a lot to be distracted by; something will come along, sooner rather than later, to divert the attention of us all. Let the evidence of your inability to come up with a witty rejoinder, a snappy response, an exposure of the operative fallacy, a devastating demolition job on a weak argument persist; let it remain as an example of how not to ‘win’ an internet argument.

Few listen to such good advice. I often don’t. Sometimes I will let the last comment on a Facebook thread or a Twitter thread bother me, insidiously burrowing its way around my anxieties and insecurities, before, finally provoked, I snap and respond. But I have some cause for optimism too; I have often found it easier to just terminate a conversation; I have grown wiser about the demands on my time and energy that these endlessly prolonged conversations can make. Simple economic prudence rules the roost; here may be found many zero-sum games, extracting costs that will have to be paid for somehow, elsewhere in my commitments.

So, I have walked away from fields of battle. I have let my partially composed and insufficiently pungent replies die on the vine; I have left my sword buried in the ground. I have let opposing generals come out on the battlefield and reassure themselves after they have surveyed it that they have seized the day and the moment and bested their opponents, who have slunk away under cover of the night. I am content to let them think me lacking in all manner of intellectual qualities.

I’m busy writing this post instead.

Women In Philosophy And Reconceptualizing Philosophical Method

This past Monday, on 20th April, Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department’s annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was ‘How Women Changed The Course of Philosophy’. Here is the abstract:

The story we tell about the development of early modern philosophy was invented by German Neo-Kantians about 150 years ago. Created to justify its proponents’ version of philosophy, it is a story that ignores the complications of seventeenth-century philosophy and its sources. In this lecture, Professor Christia Mercer uncovers the real story behind early modern rationalism and shows that many of its most original components have roots in the philosophical contributions made by women. [link added]

At one point during the talk, in referring to the contributions made by Julian of Norwich, Professor Mercer began by saying, “Julian does not offer an argument here, but rather an analysis…”. During the question and answer session, focusing on this remark, I offered some brief comments.

There is at the heart of philosophical practice, a fairly well-established and canonical notion of philosophical method: the construction of arguments, hopefully building up to a ‘system’, which are to be subjected to an examination for weaknesses. The successful arguments emerge from this crucible all the better for their trials. From this conception of philosophical method we may also derive a fundamentally adversarial conception of philosophical activity–when two philosophers meet, they are engaged in a form of intellectual conflict, with each attempting shore up the defenses of their own system and expose the deficits of the other. But perhaps philosophers could do more than just offer and refute arguments. Perhaps they could offer observations and insights that make us view the world in a different light; perhaps they could show how one thing relates to another; perhaps they could analyze a situation or a state of affairs, not in the destructive, decompositional sense, but instead, by way of showing us what has to come together, and how, to make the situation ‘hang together’; perhaps, as Wittgenstein is said to have done, they could ‘point’ and ‘lay things out for us to see.’

If understood in this way, then the business of ‘bringing more women into philosophy’ might not be just a matter of reaching out to women to ‘pull’ them in, but also of expanding our understanding of what philosophy is and how it is to be done so that its ambit will include women and the ways in which they might have been philosophers. (I could imagine, all too easily, responses along the following lines being made to some of Professor Mercer’s examples of philosophical work in the period she was discussing: Why is this philosophy? The reasons for the exclusion of women from philosophy would not just be the denial of educational opportunity or participation in philosophical institutions  but also a straightforward failure to recognize their intellectual contributions as being philosophy in the first place.) Such an understanding of philosophy and its methods and practices would, of course, bring it closer to literature and poetry as well.

Professor Mercer seemed to respond rather favorably to these remarks. I look forward to her forthcoming book on Anne Conway, in which some of the fascinating commentary she offered on reconceptualizing so-called ‘early modern rationalism’–by way of showing its dependence on bodily experience and affect–will surely be recapitulated.

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.

That Guy, The One Who Picks Fights With Your Facebook Friends

Like many Facebook users, I have defriended ‘friends.’ Enough was enough, and the ‘Unfriend’ option got selected. Sometimes, it was because I was sick and tired of seeing their posts in my newsfeed–for whatever reason, perhaps they were politically or personally offensive, or just too silly to put up with anymore. (Pompous, self-inflated, pretentious, bon mots and faux aphorisms are among the worst offences; they deserve the electronic guillotine like nothing else.) Sometimes, it was because I was finding that person particularly contentious in their dealings with me online–in their constant desire to reduce all conversation to a species of verbal sparring. And sometimes, because the offender had committed an exceedingly common Facebook sin: getting into edgy, hostile, arguments with friends of friends.

Let’s say you have a party. You invite some of your friends over. Many of the people you invite introduce themselves to each other. They enter into conversation, and sometimes, perhaps after a few drinks have been consumed, they might even engage in spirited discussion or argument. A few intemperate ones, not recognizing the bounds of propriety turn these encounters with almost-perfect strangers into slugging matches. You wish you hadn’t invited them to your party. They are loud, they have assumed too much familiarity with your other friends, they have disturbed the decorum of an otherwise friendly space.

Or consider a variation on the above theme. A friend of yours,overhearing a response another friend of yours made to you, loudly accosts him, and starts berating him. The two do not know each other; they have not been introduced. Your first friend is bemused and bewildered. You are vexed. Why doesn’t your second friend simply address himself to you alone, the person whom he knows and has previously established some kind of relationship with? Why is he picking fights with strangers–at your  party?

This second kind of behavior is exceedingly common on Facebook. You post a status; your friends respond to you. But other friends respond to them. So far, so good. If they know each other. But if they don’t, then you  find one friend subjected to  harassment by another.

Pro-tip: this is rude. Really rude. If you want to comment on a friend’s Facebook page, by all means do so. After all, he has spoken up in a space open to you. But do not, unless you know the person, unless you are friends with them, enter into hostile, contentious arguments with friends of your friend. You are embarrassing your friend, being an ungracious guest. You are being an obnoxious presence, one begging to be expelled. There are many spaces for argument on the Internet; many spaces for discussion and disagreement. The exact template and form and content of the argument you are disagreeing with will be found elsewhere; that fact is mathematically certain. If you feel like refuting that argument, find an alternative venue for so doing. Your rhetorical and argumentative skills will find deployment; you will be reassured you are as smart as you think. You do not need to refute *this* person in *this* space.

And if you persist, do not be surprised to find yourself shitcanned.

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.”