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.

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.

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.”

Once More: ‘Intellectual Property’ Breeds Confusion; Drop it

Rarely, if ever, does the term ‘intellectual property’ add clarity to any debate of substance–very often, this is because it includes the term ‘property’ and thus offers an invitation to some dubious theorizing. This post by Alex Rosenberg at Daily Nous is a good example of this claim:

Locke famously offered an account of the justification of private property, one that Nozick brought to our attention in Anarchy, State and Utopia. The account worked like this: morally permissible private property begins with original acquisition, and that happens when you mix your labor with nature, and leave as good and as much for others. Alas, this “Lockean” proviso is impossible to satisfy. Or at least it is in every original acquisition other than the case of intellectual property. Here one mixes one mental labor with nature—empirical facts about reality, including social reality. Since there are an infinite number of good ideas, the creator of intellectual property leaves as much and as good for others, and therefore has an unqualified right to what he has created.

Brian Leiter’s ownership of the PGR satisfies the most stringent test of private property I know. It’s his creation and he excluded no one else from mixing his or her labor with nature to produce a substitute for or for that matter a complement to his creation.

In light of this fact, the effort to separate him from his intellectual property owing to disapproval of his emails and posts seems rather preposterous.

It has often been proposed–most notably by Richard Stallman, free software‘s most fiery proponent-that the term ‘intellectual property’ be junked in favor of more precise usage. That is, when you are tempted to use the term ‘intellectual property’ use ‘copyright,’ ‘patents,’ ‘trademarks,’ or ‘trade secrets’ instead. Doing this would enable immediate grappling with the precise nature of the issue at hand–in each named domain there are separable legal and policy issues at play.

For instance, the granting of copyright is not the recognition of an abstract property right. It is a utilitarian policy decision–to allow the collection of monopoly rent for a limited period of time–with a very specific objective in mind: the creation of more artistic works. If someone’s copyright rights have allegedly been violated, we may begin by trying to identify the concrete expression that was supposedly copyrightable, the identification of the nature of the infringement–unauthorized reproduction or the production of derivative works–and so on. Incidentally, matters become a tad confusing because Rosenberg talks about ‘mixing mental labor with nature.’ Locke did not have ‘nature’ in mind, rather he had in mind fallow land. Which is precisely not the nature of artistic creation, where the creator does not interact with ‘fallow land’ but mixes his ideas with the ideas of others to create a new work.

In the case of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, it relies for its content on the availability of a great deal of openly available material; collation, processing, and analysis turns this into a new work–the PGR, the new concrete expression. There is indeed a copyright in the particular concrete expression of the PGR–the individual blog pages and the material in them–its author’s commentaries, analysis, and summaries. The unauthorized copying of the content of these is indeed prohibited, as is the production of derivative works–for instance, an unauthorized abridgment of his explanation of the rankings. But the current proposals aimed at changing the ‘management’ of the PGR aim to do nothing of this sort. Prof. Leiter’s concrete expressions–the current content of the PGR–remain his; he could continue to produce them, retain his copyright, and proceed as before. And indeed, an entirely new set of rankings may be produced, using the same ‘raw material’ available to the current authors of the PGR, subjected to new analysis and commentary, and thus resulting in a new concrete expression, a new set of rankings. Also copyrightable.

Analytic philosophers–who are so proud of their claims to provide conceptual clarity–shouldn’t continue to traffic in a term as obfuscatory as ‘intellectual property.’

In Praise of Alan Watts And ‘Popularizers’

I have a confession to make: I enjoy reading Alan Watts‘ books. This simple statement of one of my reading pleasures, this revelation of one of my tastes in books and intellectual pursuits, shouldn’t need to be a confession, a term that conjures up visions of sin and repentance and shame. But it is, a veritable coming out of the philosophical closet.

You see, I’m a ‘professional philosopher.’ I teach philosophy for a living; I write books on philosophy. Sometimes people refer to me as a ‘philosophy professor’, sometimes they even call me–blush!–a ‘philosopher.’  I’m supposed to be ‘doing’ serious philosophy,’ reading and writing rigorous philosophy; the works of someone most commonly described as a ‘popularizer’ do not appear to make the cut. Even worse, not only was Watts thus a panderer to the masses, but he wrote about supposedly dreamy, insubstantial, woolly headed, mystical philosophies. An analytical philosopher would be an idiot to read him. Keep it under wraps, son.

To be sure, I have read some original works in the areas that Watts is most known for popularizing: Zen Buddhism, Daoism, and Indian philosophy–especially that of the non-dualist Vedanta. I have even taught an upper-tier core class on Philosophies of India and China–my class covered the Vedas, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. My philosophical training enables me to grapple with the substantial metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political issues these writings so richly engage with. But I’m not a specialized scholar in these domains, and hardly ever read modern academic writing that tackles their areas of ongoing disputation and analysis. My current areas of interest–legal theory, pragmatism, Nietzsche–and my current distractions and diversions–mainly the politics of cricket–take up most of my time and intellectual energy.

So I enjoy reading Watts when I can. I always have. He was erudite, he wrote clearly and passionately, and if you’ll indulge me just for a second, I would even describe him as ‘wise.’ He tackles issues that are at the core of philosophical questioning and inquiry and attitudes; he often offers quite lucid insights into matters that emotionally resonate with me. Perhaps I do not have the background necessary with which to evaluate his claims about Zen Buddhism and the Vedanta; those more specialized in those domains have often contested his readings and explications. (Merely being of Indian origin does not, unfortunately, make me an expert on Indian philosophy.) But from my limited perspective, and with an acknowledgment of some expressions of only partial comprehension, and sometimes even disagreement, with his writings, I would venture that I did not find him guilty of too many philosophical sins. (For instance, his ‘The Language of Metaphysical Experience’ is a very clear piece of writing; this was first published in 1953 in The Journal of Religious Thought and later reprinted in Become What You Are (Shambhala Classics.)) 

I do not know if Watts ever featured on philosophy reading lists at universities; my guess is not. He certainly is unlikely to in the future; he is dated now, I think. Perhaps only ageing hippies–dunno if I qualify as one–continue to read him. But I think it would be a shame if our fastidiousness about a certain kind of professional philosophical hygiene were to prevent us from approaching writings like his–that is, those who set themselves to expounding for the plebes–with less than an open mind.

The Black Absence in Academic Philosophy

Jason Stanley recently posted the following interesting status message on his Facebook page:

The first sentence of this article is “Nationwide, just over 5 percent of all full-time faculty members at colleges and universities in the United States are black”. If that is so disturbing as to give rise to this headline, what are we to say about the fact that fewer than 125 members of the 11,000+ members of the American Philosophical Association are black. If *just over 5 percent* is disturbing, what about *1 percent*?

I’d call that statistic disturbing several times over. It’s not a new one to me, but its capacity to induce deep discomfort does not go away. There’s no two ways about it: philosophy, as an academic field, does not seem up to the task of accommodating black students or faculty.  A problem as severe as the numbers indicate is not amenable to easy solutions either.

At Brooklyn College, our department has twice played host to black professors–Lewis Gordon and Tunde Bewaji–for visiting positions that lasted for a year. The enrollment of black students in their classes–Philosophy of Culture and African-American Philosophy–was through the roof; we had never seen as many black students register before for a class. This suggests one immediate step: the hiring of black faculty.  (Brooklyn College has failed to hire a black philosopher, so we aren’t doing too well in his regard.)

But black faculty will have first been black students earning Ph.Ds, which brings us to the problem of the lack of black students in philosophy graduate programs. During my graduate school years, I can only remember seeing one black student in the twenty or so graduate level courses I took; he simply disappeared after a while. All the usual suggested solutions still seem worth a shot: aggressive recruitment, careful, close mentoring. I have no idea, honestly, what steps major graduate programs nation-wide are taking in this direction.

Just getting black students into philosophy programs will not help if they find their curricula to not be of interest.  One possible way to get black students interested in philosophical curricula–at the undergraduate level for starters–is to bridge it for them somehow. For instance, Brooklyn College offers a class called ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ which is taught as a Upper-Tier core course. A variant of this could be ‘Philosophical Issues in African-American Literature’; it would serve to introduce black students to epistemic, ethical, metaphysical, and political issues through that canon. (Philosophy departments, of course, would have to get over their uptightness about philosophy only being taught from ‘classical texts.’) Given this introduction they might then be inclined to see what the ‘regular’ or ‘mainstream’ philosophical tradition has to offer them.

Of course, as Stanley noted, philosophy departments also could and should:

 [T]each the extremely rich tradition in African-American Philosophy, especially in Political Philosophy. Start with David Walker‘s *Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World*, go through to Du Bois‘ *The Souls of Black Folks*, and Alain LockeCLR James‘s *The Black Jacobins* is a brilliant way to think about the contradictions of liberalism. There is tons of great political philosophy and aesthetics there. [links added]

These changes to curricula and hiring and retention practices are still just scratches on the surface. What is perhaps needed is a deeper and more fundamental change, a reconceptualization of the nature of philosophical inquiry and practice. For that, Kristie Dotson‘s paper “How is this Paper Philosophy?” (Comparative Philosophy 3:2) makes for very useful reading. I hope to write more on it soon.

Professional Academic Philosophy’s Blind Spots

A few years ago, I read an email–or a post on an online forum, I am not sure–written by a very accomplished senior philosopher (a logician to be precise.)  In his argument, the logician–adept at providing mathematically elegant proofs of recondite logical problems–seemed to have committed at least two logical fallacies in the first paragraph of his ostensible argument. The topic of the discussion: women’s place in academia.

It was not the first or the last time I noticed the Ironic Absence of Argumentative Rigor in Professional Philosophy When it Comes to Women (or indeed, Any Topic That Threatens Male Privilege.) This observation of mine can be made more general, perhaps even cast as an exception-free law of sorts: professional training in philosophy is no bar to, and indeed might even increase the probability of, sloppy argumentation on topics of personal and political interest.

There is now, once again, in the world of professional academic philosophy, a renewed debate about sexual harassment and sexism (here; here; here; here); once again, many of my academic colleagues–especially the female ones–are dismayed by the plentiful display of very unphilosophical and unsympathetic prejudice by many accomplished  and senior male philosophers. They are right to be dismayed; but they should not be surprised.

For as long as I’ve been a member of this discipline, it has bred a very particular sort of arrogance. This is manifest in many ways: sometimes it is the resolute conviction that philosophy alone–and sometimes only its analytic, science-worshipping component–provides the royal road to Truth; sometimes it is the assertion that no other discipline engages with philosophical problems; sometimes it is the implicit claim that its students and practitioners are the best equipped with argumentative dialectic and clarity and rigor in written and oral expression. The philosopher stands above all, best equipped to provide lofty judgments on all matters of human endeavor and thought. His education, his methods, his intellectual tradition has outfitted him admirably and ideally for this task.

The contrast between this confident, narcissistic self-assessment is only heightened by the actual, empirical manifestation of these supposed capacities: all too many professional philosophers reveal themselves to be narrow-minded pedants whose conception of human inquiry and motivation is remarkably impoverished. And all too many travelers on the Royal Road to What There Really Is are rapidly undone when arguing about political issues that might possess an emotional or sexual dimension. Keep matters confined to a closely specified and formally clarified sphere; you might see rigor on display. But let matters spill out into an issue in which positions are often underwritten by prejudice and you will suddenly observe philosophical acumen take its leave.

I do not doubt pedants and hypocrites are plentiful in other academic disciplines; I have had the misfortune of encountering many of them myself. But the gap between the self-image, between the professed claims to loftier things, and actual ground realities makes philosophy’s situation just a tad more sordid.

Cleaning up the muck takes much longer when those entrusted with the task continue to screw-up, all the while convinced they can do no wrong.