Monday, 25 April 2011

Surviving a Philosopher-Attack

I can remember very clearly my first sighting of a philosopher-attack. I was in college and rooming with my sister. My philosopher and I were in the first few months of our young romance, a time when he was far away getting his M.A. and I was finishing up my B.A, so we talked on the phone every night. One night, my philosopher made a comment over the phone that I was supposed to share with my sister, and then she had a comeback for him that I was supposed to pass back. This little back and forth game went on for a while until I got tired of being the middle-woman and passed my phone off to my sister, who proceeded to have an hour-long debate with my philosopher over something.

Meanwhile, I left the room and innocently did some laundry, caught up with some friends in the dorm, and finished some homework. By the time an hour had passed, I was getting antsy, so I came back into the room. My sister nearly threw the phone at me, in tears, and left the room. My philosopher, on the other hand, was in an absolutely superb mood.

What just happened? My sister was the unfortunate survivor of a philosopher-attack.
[Note: It took her awhile to recover from this attack. There had to be several years of me enforcing a no-debating zone around my sister for her to trust him again—and I bet she still doesn’t completely trust him].

Philosophers do these sorts of things with each other all the time. I don’t know how many times we’ve been at a philosophy party when I wander back to my philosopher after making the rounds of conversation with other non-philosophers, I discover that he is in heated and angry-sounding discussion with other philosophers. When it’s all over, though, everyone is happy and joking and full of philosophy intoxication. In the first case, he didn’t try to make my sister upset, and your philosopher in the midst of a philosopher-attack does not try to hurt you, either.

Philosopher-attacks are very dangerous to non-philosophers, though, and sometimes deadly (they can kill any desire a non-philosopher might have to ever talk to one again), but you can survive them.

[Note: One interesting thing that I’ve noticed about philosophers is that analytic ones are more likely to initiate attacks than continental philosophers. All of my experiences with continental philosophers—when talking philosophy—have been positive and non-damaging (any bad experiences I’ve had have been due to a philosopher’s arrogance, but all philosophers have to fight against some sort of arrogance, not just continental philosophers). You will probably never experience a philosopher-attack from a continental philosopher, but continental philosophers might often encounter philosopher-attacks from analytic philosophers. These sorts of attacks can been incredibly harmful to your continental philosopher's perception of analytic philosophers. End note.]

At the beginning of your philosopher’s philosophical awakening, they can be rather quick to attack but very unwieldy. Young philosophers can be smart-alecky and quick to pull out the cheap moves (“Aha, but we can make a distinction between those two claims such that….therefore your argument is invalid!”). These sorts of attacks can be annoying, but they aren’t really too harmful yet.

The time when they really become dangerous is in grad school. I don’t know how many times I’ve been chattering along about something and accidentally make some careless, general statement about something, when whamo! I see that gleam in my philosopher’s eyes and I know the next thing out of his mouth is going to be something along the lines of, “So you think in all cases . . .” or “Do you really want to commit yourself to that?”

The danger comes when a philosopher drives you into a corner and makes you feel like you’re stupid. I’ve said before that philosophers do this with each other as part of their jobs, but when they unleash their philosophy-powers on one of us non-philosophers, the act of driving a non-philosopher into a corner can cause a lot of bad feelings and resentment.

So, non-philosophers, how can you get yourself out of a philosopher-attack alive?

1. Change the subject abruptly.

You may think this is rude, and it is, but it can be more harmful for both of you if you allow your philosopher to corner you in an argument.

2. Refuse to continue the discussion.

This can be incredibly difficult for those among us (*ahem*myself*ahem*) who want to be right all the time. After all, it is very tempting sometimes to keep arguing because you think that maybe you could actually win this one. Philosophers are tricky. Don’t fall into this trap; sometimes you just have to throw in the towel and walk away.

3. If your philosopher is of the understanding, sensitive sort, stop them and say that the conversation is making you feel attacked and you would rather stop.

This only works if you have a sensitive philosopher. There are more than a few of these out there (like mine!), but some philosophers are just not that understanding or not that perceptive (sorry, philosophers, but some of you just don’t play nicely), and saying something like this might have no effect on them.

4.  Turn the conversation around on them and say something like, “I don’t really understand this problem well. Why don’t you explain to me what you think the best answer is?”

This may not work on some philosophers, but can work marvelously on arrogant (or unaware) ones. After all, it is very hard for almost every philosopher to resist the sirens’ call of “Please tell me what you think is correct in this philosophical argument,” so the more arrogant among the philosophers, who already love to talk about philosophy, will be more than happy to indulge to you what they think. Some philosophers do not fall for this trick, though.

If you end up falling into or willingly entering a philosopher-attack, be aware that a really painful one could fracture your relationship with your philosopher. Sometimes diverting conversation to a thought experiment or to one of your philosopher’s favorite philosophical ideas is really the best thing you can do for everyone.

It is also worth noting that as you get better about redirecting philosopher-attacks, you might be able to train your philosopher to not be so thirsty for blood when she/he enters into philosophical discussion with you. Philosophers, like other humans, can be trained effectively, if you are patient.

I must also note that this is not an excuse to avoid talking about philosophy with your philosopher all together, and it is also not an excuse to always shut your philosopher down. There is a very clear difference between regular philosophical discussion and philosopher-attacks: when you start to feel threatened or hurt or super-annoyed, it is time to stop the conversation so you won’t be perpetually annoyed with philosophy. Philosophers, setting up boundaries like this will help you in the future.

Be aware. Divert conversation. Save yourself.

P.S. You can follow me on twitter (@philosiologist) or friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed). You can also send me an email, too. I am much too sleepy now to come up with something witty to say.

~The Philosiologist~


  1. As philosophers, we're trying to use all the things we've learned to help our friends think more carefully about the positions they hold and their reasons for holding those positions--just as an accountant or stockbroker or banker or financial planner would want to use the things she's learned to help her friends save money. We've spent so many years studying this stuff, why not try to use it to help people? So the worst part is that the philosopher really thinks these exchanges are good ones. Or the philosopher can see that they're not, but doesn't understand why. I've found that the longer I continue in philosophy, the worse I get at relating to non-philosophers.

    1. um. the last sentence is painfully accurate.

  2. As always, spot on. But wait for a continental philosopher to accuse you of western white male bias sometime. It may be true, but they are no more agreeable in their attacks than we analytics. And they don't shout a beer afterwards!

    1. yes we do, we are a lovely bunch! also, far less willing to snipe and be mean, in my experience that is...
      Also, that is a crude and inaccurate portrait you paint there, although, what with there being no responsibility, I can't hold it against you.

  3. genius. as a recovering philosopher myself, i know i have initiated and fended off many such a philosopher-attack. sisters and brothers, forgive me for the times i thus sinned and hurt others for no good reason. now, disciplining myself as a geographer, i am still often reminded how my conversational techniques (particularly the way of asking questions) can still be felt by others like an attack. it makes me sad, but the vestiges of the philosopher i was/am still makes me arrogantly think: "well, they shouldn't be so weak in the first place, and its not like i meant to be hurtful". very well... the philosiologist already seems to know this, but perhaps other readers of this entry might not know, so let me explain: once trained as a philosopher, it is very, very, very hard to become sensitive and delicate in our ways of talking to people about intellectually stimulating topics, it is difficult to learn to quit these habits, even to outgrow, so to speak, the emotional and intellectual conditions that lead us to train ourselves as philosophers in the first place. so when a philosopher is attacking you, hopefully the awareness that she/he needs your help to get out of this unhappy situation will make it easier to employ one of the various techniques the philosiologist suggests.

  4. is there a difference between a philosophical-attack and regular philosophical engagement (or what you like call incessant questioning)?
    if there is, how do you tell the difference?

  5. Plato has a great example of escaping philosophers' attacks in book one of the Republic. Cephalus has enough of Socrates' philosophizing and just leaves to do other things.

  6. What NOT to do: without actually changing the topic, make absurd statements to signal that you don't want to talk about this topic anymore. Why not to do it: what you think is absurd may sound merely misguided or even innovative to a philosopher, so they may become more engaged in the topic rather than less.

  7. Neouto: "is there a difference between a philosophical-attack and regular philosophical engagement (or what you like call incessant questioning)?"

    Yes. Being an analytical philosopher is a bit like learning to play chess. We learn various moves and strategies, and the aim is to show that we can check-mate other players. Bertrand Russell, one of the founding fathers of analytical philosophy, once said something like "Whenever I meet someone with a reputation for high intelligence, my first thought is whether I can beat him, or he can beat me." (Not the exact words).

    Sometimes we like to practice moves, or talk about strategies, but sometimes someone says something and we realize that, within a few moves, it will be check-mate! That's when our eyes light up, and we get ready to launch the whole campaign. One time, at a conference, my former supervisor was in the audience as I gave a paper. Afterwards, he asked a question and then commented, "Of course, you can either answer x or y. If you say x, I will say z, but if you say y, I will say v..." Now, I'm a professional philosopher, and I was flattered that he thought it worthwhile engaging with me - just as a novice chess-player would be flattered by a challenge from a Grandmaster. I can see how non-philosophers would be intimidated though.

    To summarize, regular philosophical questioning is like making an opening move: "How do you deal with the Sicilian Gambit?" The Philosophy Attack comes when we sense the Endgame "Mate to me in six moves!"

  8. Ben, your response is so much better than mine could have been. Thank you!

  9. I *love* number 4!!! Philosophers and non-philosophers can use this excellent defense in a philosopher attack. And it's far more charitable than the dismissive philosopher (non)defense, "I don't get it."

  10. good enough cook26 April 2011 at 10:41

    This is the best thing I've read on the internet in months: accurate, witty, and insightful. Thank you!

  11. Two questions: one to Katie and one to Ben.


    Could you say what it is about a philosopher attack that hurts so much? I'm not sure I understand the phenomenology from the perspective of the non-philosopher, yet.


    You seem to be distinguishing between playing chess and talking about playing chess (meta-chess?). In the object case, you might follow some standard line from the Nimzo-Indian. In the meta case, you might talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the Nimzo-Indian or talk about how some famous chess players used it successfully or unsuccessfully. Do you think that one or the other of these is more typical of ordinary philosophical discourse? And if we are engaged in the first sort of discourse (object-level), then aren't a lot of our moves well before the endgame going to count as attacks?

  12. Another thing that can help avoid such "attacks" turning uncomfortable, at least assuming they are genuinely well-intentioned, is willingness to take very seriously the possibility that whatever it was you said that started the conversation/attack wasn't quite right and/or wasn't quite what you meant. Lack of such willingness (and philosophers totally do this too) is the single factor that in my experience most often leads to the kind of conversations in this genre that generate ill-feeling.

  13. I think that this blog is brilliant, and extremely kind and sympathetic to philosophers, but I think that this particular post misrepresents to some degree the situation that it describes.

    To me, it gives the impression that philosophers somehow get off on pointing out flaws in other people's arguments or positions. The idea seems to be that, when we are in this blood thirsty mood, we know not what we do (because we're used to doing it to each other, for sport?), and we must somehow be stopped before we cause too much damage (judging from the comments in this thread, some philosophers do apparently get enjoyment simply out of refuting another person's position, which I personally find bizarre).

    I think that what is often going on in the sort of situation you describe is that what the non-philosopher perceives as an attack, the philosopher sees as an earnest and innocent attempt to share thoughts and ideas with another person.

    What the non-philosopher sees as an attack, the philosopher sees as an attempt at *cooperation*: there is an issue up for discussion, we happen to disagree about it, let's see what your reasons are for believing what you do, and what my reasons are for believing what I do, let's try to get clear on where we agree and where we disagree, and hopefully, if we keep talking things through, we can reach some kind of consensus about what the truth is. At the very least, by the end we will have a better understanding of each other and why we think what we think.

    I think that this is what neouto was trying to get at when he/she asked about what the difference is supposed to be between a philosopher attack and regular philosophical engagement.

    The point is that any *earnest* attempt to explore a disagreement that you have with another person is going to involve saying things to the other person along the lines of, "What do you mean by x? Do you mean y or do you mean z? And if you mean z, why do you believe that?"

    The question is, when does saying that kind of thing constitute an "attack" and when is it just an honest attempt, motivated by curiosity and a desire to understand, to figure out what the other person thinks?

  14. good enough cook26 April 2011 at 13:19

    Oh Gawd, they're *doing* it again...quick, someone...ummm...

    So how about that royal wedding?

  15. I really identify with this post. Very early on in our relationship, my philosopher would go into attack mode during discussions that were emotional for me. He would point out logical problems in my argument when I was trying to talk about how I was feeling, lol. I would then dissolve into tears while he backed me into a corner proving he was "right." I talked about how upsetting this was for me in several different ways at many different times. What finally got through to him was when I quoted his favorite movie, The Big Lebowski to him. "You're not wrong, you're just an asshole." It made him laugh and helped him see past arguing to prove his point versus maintaining a relationship. Now that's my signal anytime my philosopher is on the attack and I'm not into a debate. It works like a charm and always makes us both laugh.

  16. I'm a new follower of your blog (I'm a philosopher) and I LOVE IT. I think this post is also useful for philosophers ourselves. There are a fair amount of philosophers that do not realize what they are doing is "philosophy-attack". There is a time and a place for philosophy, I think some philosophers need some help figuring this out.

  17. Btw, I'm not trying to say that we do not get carried away sometimes, or that there is no reason to feel attacked or pushed into a corner on those occasions, or that it's not fair to ask us to stop and engage in conversation in a different way. Just saying that the place we are coming from when we get carried away is, in a lot of cases I think, an admirable one that involves trying to genuinely connect with the other person. We just like going back and forth with people and sharing ideas. It's not about proving somebody else wrong or "winning" an argument (at least most of the time! Everyone has pride and an ego).

  18. I wonder if this comparison with chess isn't misguided, where winning is seen as the end result. Is the point of philosophy to "win" by convincing or browbeating your interlocutor into your position? For while there can be moves as in chess, I'm not sure that the end here we're after is the same as in chess. The moves are undertaken not with the intent to win; to corner the person for a different reason, so we (not only me, but both of us) can have some understanding. This might be much less confrontational than the attack, even when it uses similar moves as chess does. And this may be the difference between a philosophical attack (if indeed it is philosophical at all) and philosophical engagement, though perhaps non-philosophers will still feel attacked.

  19. Jonathan - Let me deal with the final question first, since it is the easiest:

    aren't a lot of our moves well before the endgame going to count as attacks?

    Suppose we follow the analogy of philosophy as a game of chess then yes, there are plenty of attacking moves before the end-game. Furthermore, the really good attacking moves may be concealed as defensive moves.

    However, Katie was writing about the shock caused by a philosophy attack. I think that this shock comes with the realization that the opponent has a strategy that is coming in to play. You take my bishop: an attacking move. But then when I make my next move, I notice that whereas before you were considering your moves slowly, now, every time I move you smile - yes, you expected my move - and you respond instantly. I realize I've fallen into a trap. So too, in a philosophy seminar, someone may ask a hostile question, but that is not the same as the person who has a whole series of questions lined up.

    Suppose, furthermore, this takes place in a conversation between a philosopher and a non-philosopher. (I think it was clear that the shock of the Philosophy Attack comes from a Philosopher unleashing our special weaponry on a civilian). The shock comes as the person realizes that I regard a remark they made as being like a King on a chess-board, that I am setting up a line of attack, that every subsequent comment they make is being treated by me as a way of defending that king...

  20. When you want to do philosophy on a professional level, it's really not a good idea to expect to be always right (well, at least if you are not a continental philosopher). Philosophers normally don't feel "attacked" when a fellow philosopher says that their argument is clearly unsound, that their position is completely trivial, or that one of their premises is obviously false (there are exceptions, of course, but most of the time they involve young undergraduate students which still have to get a lot of philosophical spankings that will help them to learn how to be "wrong"). To compromise your self esteem when you are an average philosopher having a philosophical discussion is almost suicidal.

    But I understand that several non philosophers don't have the ability to do this when they have a discussion and feel that a philosopher's "attack" is personal. After all, most "analytic" philosophers are trained to build arguments, perceive flaws in those of their opponents, and to detect fallacies (and even use them on some special occasions!). It's a very important part of our job. To discuss with a philosopher about philosophy when you don't have a proper training can be a frustrating experience (which is similar to a normal person trying to beat Federer in tennis or Tyson in boxing, with the difference that the only thing that can be damaged when having a discussion with a philosopher is, precisely, your self esteem).

    Your blog is excellent. Although I simply don't share your point of view on some occasions (well... you surely must expect that from a philosopher!) I sincerely enjoy several of your intelligent, refreshing and funny observations. We philosophers are normal people, but as you know, we can be extremely stupid from a social perspective. I'm pretty sure that your philosopher is a very lucky one!

  21. 5. Change your character so you do not get upset by someone (who may or may not be a philosopher) pointing out that you do not make sense or are in error. Rather take them to be doing you a favour. Learn from them.

  22. Jonathan - I just realized something. Your post says "Two questions: one to Katie and one to Ben." But you actually ask me two and a half questions. (The comment about 'meta-chess' is the half question). So your post is riddled with contradictions. Ha! (This is how philosophers engage in playful repartee).

    Analytical philosophers usually see philosophy as concerned with the evaluation of arguments for rival philosophical positions. So, you need at least two positions. In order to keep the score, it is easiest to imagine a single person advocating each position - e.g. The Rationalist and The Empiricist, or The Realist and The Idealist. A single individual could write a dialogue involving two such figures, or two people could actually play each part - either because they really believe it, or as a philosophical exercise. As a student, my teachers encouraged my to present and defend a thesis in my papers, and then the teacher would argue against it to see how well I could defend it. We could call that - a debate between advocates of at least two position, aimed at producing a definitive victory for one side - first order philosophy.

    Of course, what we often do is speculate about what each side might say, (what if Frege had met Brouwer), or look at what they did say, and try to decide which side they are really on (was Frege really a realist?) We could call that second-order philosophy, or meta-philosophy. Of course, second-order logic is still logic, and a metalanguage is still a language. I once read that, in order to become a Grand Master, you spend far more time studying chess problems and great games of the past, or studying games that you yourself played, than you do actually playing games. So what I'm calling first-order philosophy is not necessarily the way that most analytical philosophers spend most of their time when they are engaged in philosophy. But unless you understand such debates, you won't understand anything. (Just as most mathematicians don't spend their time adding very, very long numbers together, but when you are learning mathematics, that's where you start).

    As to why these debates are so central, you might think of it this way. A physicist tests a theory against nature: experiments will reveal flaws in the theory. Many philosophers want their theories to stand the test of reality, but their theories deal with areas of reality accessible only to reason (if you are not a Fregean, please give me a grain of salt here). So the only way to test a theory is to have another philosopher to represent the Voice of Reason, trying to expose the errors. The Correct Theory should be capable of withstanding criticism from the Ultimate Philosopher - that's why it matters so much to have these debates, or at least to imagine how they might go in ideal circumstances.

    But of course, in practice, we can be very childish, and use these occasions to demonstrate our own intellect. Instead of a mutually co-operative enterprise to establish which theory would withstand the Ultimate Philosopher test, we get into a competition to see which of us is the Ultimate Philosopher...

  23. Jonathan Livengood: In response to the phenomenology question, if I may, this is my theory on the reason for the attack feeling, which I think actually feels like 'how dare you?' and 'just who do you think you are?' The feeling of indignity at being judged when a trial was neither volunteered nor deserved.

    Non-philosophers often started talking without the philosopher's goal in mind. They were not pursuing wisdom or trying to represent truth when they spoke. Maybe their chosen words were meant to evoke an emotional response, to feel like a part of the group, or to just stave boredom with idle chitchat. These motives are legitimate and people have a right to act on them. This is why I think they can feel attacked when the philosopher appropriates their statement to his or her own goal, which is wisdom or truth. It can be unfair to judge a statement by a burden it wasn't created to bear.

  24. Wonderful post!

    The philosopher-attack situation is genuinely interesting. Underwriting it seems to be a co-misperception on behalf of the philosopher (who thinks she is engaging in a Socratic dialogue) and the non-philosopher (who thinks he's just been bombarded by some kind of Sophistical voodoo). I suppose what about the situation that constitutes it as an 'attack' is that it is conducted on the philosopher's terms, in her own 'home court' so to speak. An attempt to "genuinely connect with the other person" doesn't force him into one's own terms but works in earnest to see eye to eye. I take it that the 'philosopher-attack' is a situation in which at least one party recognizes a failure to do this.

  25. Wait, you were still living in the dorms when you were finishing your B.A.?

  26. Ben Murphy,

    Thanks for the detail response.

    I understand how someone may debate someone with reputed high intelligence, for the purpose of gauging themselves. But is that a philosophical action? isn't philosophy suppose to be about finding truth, instead of just intellectual fencing?

    regarding the distinction between questioning and attack, you are saying that they are different stages of the same process?

  27. I love this site. I consider myself a mere philosophaster with a philosophy degree, but everything I've read has been entirely accurate!

    Now, can someone just make one for how to live with engineers?

  28. Ben,

    Indeed! I often incorrectly count the number of questions I'm asking. I think what happens is that I start with a sort of vague question area -- a proto-question, if you will -- and I think, "Yeah, that's just one question." Then my proto-question grows and blossoms, and lo, I have now asked seven questions (or two and a half, as the case may be). Apologies. ;)

    Back to the topic. Do you think that the main difference between middle-game attacks and end-game attacks (metaphorically) is that in the middle-game, one's interlocutor might not see how devastating a given attack really is; whereas, in the end-game, things are obvious to everyone?

    I've been trying to think back to the last time I distinctly remember someone being upset by a philosophical inquiry. It seemed at the time like two very different things were happening at once. On the one hand, my interlocutor was annoyed at the (Socratic) demand for definitions and the apparently silly thought experiments that poke at proposed definitions. Just to set context, in that case the discussion was about what it is to be a person, and so, I brought up things like dolphins, computers, aliens, human babies, human coma patients, ... the usual hard cases. On the other hand, my interlocutor seemed genuinely angry that she was being asked to explore the question of what makes something a person. Now, I can understand annoyance at silly thought experiments. Many of them really are silly. You sort of have to be committed to playing the game a certain way before they start to look reasonable. But what is it that makes people angry when they are asked to defend their opinions or explore things like personhood or whatever? I would like to think that people get really upset only when the topic under discussion really matters to them. To return to the chess analogy, I care that you are about to kill my king because I really care about my king. But I am skeptical.

  29. good enough cook27 April 2011 at 10:21

    Way upthread, Jonathan Livengood asked,

    “Could you say what it is about a philosopher attack that hurts so much? I'm not sure I understand the phenomenology from the perspective of the non-philosopher, yet.”

    Since Katie hasn’t responded yet, I’ll give it a shot, if I may, as the conversation seem to be mostly understanding the philosophy attack as good-philosophy-gone-awry, which it isn’t.

    Blogger says my post is too long, so I'll divide it into two parts.

    Let’s say that the conversations most people have in everyday life are like tossing a Frisbee:

    What to have for dinner
    Whether U2 is superior to REM
    How I should have handled that situation yesterday differently
    Why X is a jerk

    …all Frisbee. One can toss/catch a Frisbee badly or inconsiderately or aggressively, but on the whole most people with any minimal Frisbee competence will adjust their game to the person they’re talking with and things proceed, with the occasional dropped Frisbee, midair collision, or mad chase after a bad throw, and unless there’s bad stuff going on unrelated to the Frisbee game, it won’t be a big deal.

    [Disclaimer: this analogy is ONLY being advanced to explain what the “philosophy attack feels like”—NOT to make an argument about the nature of discourse. I freely and of my own will here acknowledge that the further analogy that will be advanced is riddled with holes that make it a flawed tool for anything BUT the coarse and imperfect illustration of How It Feels. But let me submit that since I have had this feeling, and I know what this feeling feels like, and the person asking has already acknowledged that as a philosopher he does not share my (non-philosopher) relation to these feeling and so would benefit from having such an illustration, any confessed philosopher who responds by saying in effect “no that’s not what it feels like” is missing the point of the whole post AND my further adumbration of it.]

    Now for Part II, where I explain how the philosophy attack registers in the Frisbee world...

  30. good enough cook27 April 2011 at 10:25

    Ahem. So imagine you’re having a typical average round of Frisbee-playing and all of a sudden you find you’ve been transported to a completely different game. It’s being played in a small enclosed space. There may be a net or a basket. There are rules. There are good moves and bad moves. The person you are playing with practices this game regularly and in fact either hopes to or already plays professionally.

    Jarring? Yes. Potentially unfair? Yes. Again, that's what it FEELS like.

    Sometimes the shift from Frisbee to the game is benign—it’s volleyball, you’ve played a little volleyball, and it’s kind of fun to play a more complicated game than Frisbee, and sometimes it even feels good to practice those skills and brush up some new moves. Sometimes it turns out that the game is dodgeball, and while no one’s playing maliciously, dodging balls isn’t at all what you had in mind when you set out to play Frisbee that day. Sometimes it’s the bloodsport-version of dodgeball (again, not always maliciously—and perhaps one did in fact say something fairly stupid—), and sometimes it’s bloodsport dodgeball accompanied by the implication that the Failure to enjoy being smacked with large plastic spheres is a failure of character and intellect.

    Harmonious union between philosophers and non-philosophers in my experience requires an ability to recognize when the game is shifting from Frisbee to something else, along with some degree of control over that shift. I think the sense of “attack” comes about when the non-philosopher feels like the only options are a game of dodgeball that one is going to lose badly or nothing. It can help to stave off that point if there is a “safe word” or some way for the non-philosopher to be heard when he or she says (in effect), “I think Frisbee is adequate for now,” or “I’m sorry, I’m going to need to reflect a little more on my ideas before I’m ready to move to the volleyball level on this one” or “you know—you may be right about the complete superiority of Mexican food to Italian, but I’m just really in the mood for lasagna tonight. Can we work out a compromise?” or “I’ve got to throw this Frisbee so my boss will catch it; it’s a lousy move by volleyball standards, but a good volleyball spike won’t really help me here, so please stop analyzing my Frisbee reasons as if they were volleyball reasons.”

    Unfortunately, a philosopher in the grip of a good volleyball game doesn’t always register the existence of the Frisbee frame of reference. And a non-philosopher who is new to hanging out with philosophers may not be able to recognize and articulate why the game is suddenly becoming unpleasant and unproductive.

  31. I would just like to bring out a very common philosopher attack the depressed/self-destructive and drunk philosopher, but first the depressed philosopher attack.

    The Depressed Philosopher Attack:
    Now these don't happen very often because, at least from what I have seen, we are far too arrogant when depressed to talk with non-philosophers. This seems to lead to just an annoyed stare or perhaps a sigh signaling that the non-philosopher could not grasp the concept of nihilism or paradox. If we do respond it is a statement halfway through an argument, or a thought, and so the non-philosopher is completely flustered. something like "The set of all sets makes anything you say worthless" or "That of which we cannot speak we must past over in silence" or even, "I am absolutely free... and everything is still meaningless".

    Depressed Drunk Philosopher Attack:
    Now as apposed to the depressed philosopher, the depressed/self-destructive and drunk philosopher can be a dangerous creature, especially in shady bars. He attempts to spread is discontent and nihilism to anyone who will listen. To begin with the philosopher is really frustrated and annoyed by everything, and wants to bring everyone down to his level.

    In normal academic discussion there are certain rules which are used in order to help the discussion remain elevated. Some of these would be no ad-homonim (personal) attacks, and no poisoning the well (discrediting sources with irrelevant correlations).

    The use of these cleaver fallacies lead to statements like, "Did you know that because your Christian you believe your god was vindicated in raping Mary, you a rapist too?" or "Hitler believed in god, you a Nazi?" Obviously this is not a productive line of conversation but that is not what the philosopher is trying to do.

    Firstly he wants to talk to someone easy to bully with logic, secondly he wants to bring them down in a boiling depression/self-destruction with him. This can be very dangerous when drinking in a biker bar or some such where physical rather than logical responses are common.

    In philosophy we learn tools for reasoning and argumentation. In a philosophical discussion we are like surgeons with a scalpel, carefully dissecting arguments and creating rebuttals.

    When your philosopher is drunk it is more like swinging a giant sword in order to cut off some cheese for a cracker. Wildly inaccurate and rather destructive to anyone around.

    In sober conversation your philosopher will fight fair, or somewhat so. In the depressed/drunken attack the philosopher cheats, in order to make up for his drunken state. They makes logical jumps, leads the listener around paradoxes, and willfully commits fallacious arguments.

    For anyone not versed in logic or argumentation a drunken and self destructive philosopher can be dangerous creature in a conversation.

    If your philosophy friend is in the bar running with this type of vicious philosopher attack, how would you resolve the problem? I have seen many of my fellow philosophy associates go into this state and so far have not come up with a diversionary tactic. Any Ideas?

  32. The comment about strategy I think captures the haecceity of a philosopher attack. In “regular” conversation we go back and forth, responding to each other’s last statement. But the (well-trained) philosopher will think ahead and prepare counter-responses to possible responses, often with the unfair advantage of already having thought about/studied the topic extensively and so already knowing the available arguments and their weaknesses.

  33. good enough cook,

    Thanks! Your posts were very helpful. Could I press you a bit further? I completely follow that changing games unannounced is disconcerting and annoying. What I still don't quite get is why you chose such painful games to represent (advanced) philosophical dialogue in your analogy: dodgeball and then bloodsport dodgeball. You might have illustrated your point by going through increasing levels of difficulty of board games or pencil and paper games, like tic-tac-toe, dots and boxes, checkers, and chess. But I take it that those examples would have left something out. What?

    What I'd like to know is how/why philosophical discourse is perceived as painful. Why is it that non-philosophers (especially) come out of philosophical discourse feeling hurt? What is it about the discourse that prompts a feeling of being bombarded with these bad boys?

  34. neouto - "isn't philosophy suppose to be about finding truth, instead of just intellectual fencing? " Yes, it is supposed to be about finding truth, but in order to learn how to be a philosopher, you need to learn to fence. To play an instrument well, you need to be able to hear when you are playing out of tune(one reason I was never good at the violin). To learn to be a philosopher, you need to be able to spot the problems with what you have written. The best way is to have someone smarter and more experienced than you keep on pointing out problems, until you internalize their voice, and start seeing the problems for yourself. Of course, as you get better, your work has fewer problems, and you can defend it better. This is encouraging - it is a sign that you are acquiring the required skill. But it also means that there is a constant temptation to engage in competition for its own sake. In other words, the method by which many philosophers are trained to seek the truth carries a built-in temptation to be distracted from truth-seeking.

    Jonathan - "But what is it that makes people angry when they are asked to defend their opinions or explore things like personhood or whatever? I would like to think that people get really upset only when the topic under discussion really matters to them." Sometimes people are upset because it is something that matters to them, but often, in a discussion with a non-philosopher, they are upset because I take what was meant as a casual comment and treat it very seriously.

    In Surprised By Joy, C.S.Lewis describes the first meeting he had with his tutor. William Kirkpatrick. Lewis commented that the scenery in Sussex was wilder than he expected, and Kirkpatrick asked what kind of research Lewis had done before coming to Sussex, leading him to conclude that Lewis had no right to have any expectations about the scenery.

    That, I think, is a classic Philosophy Attack. Lewis made the comment about the scenery as a way of initiating conversation. Kirkpatrick treated it as a King to be check-mated - fool's mate in this case, one might say. By Lewis's account, Kirkpatrick found it difficult to engage in any other type of conversation - why express a remark about expectations if you never had the grounds for forming any expectations to begin with? If you didn't say it to be taken seriously (and it wasn't funny enough to be a joke) why say it? Why? Lewis, for his part, was beginning to learn how to be a philosopher.

  35. good enough cook27 April 2011 at 14:56

    In response to Jonathan Livengood's question to me:

    Well, I did offer something of an intermediate stage (between Frisbee and dodgeball) with the mention of volleyball, a game with far less potential for physical aggression (and its resulting pain). I had considered too adding a couple of sentences where the game could be basketball—something a little more like the mutual search for truth that neonuto (I think) describes, in the form of sinking baskets rather than hitting balls back and forth, but I wanted to keep things simple.

    I there are three points on which my Frisbee v. ball-games analogy conveys "how it feels" (and why it hurts) more clearly than a continuum from tic-tac-to to chess:

    1. The desultory and organic way these games can begin. Tossing a Frisbee can be a pleasant way to pass the time—so can a pickup ball game (of whatever variety). Given two (or more) physically active people and the presence of a Frisbee or ball, and no other pressing matters, chances are a game of some start will get started, just in the course of low-level socializing, with less deliberate intent than the decision two people make to draw a tic-tac-toe grid or get out the chess set. And I think part of the problem of a philosophy attack is that it doesn’t start with two people saying, “Let’s talk about the nature of civil discourse in the postmodern age!” or “I’ve been thinking a lot about God, and I’d like to share my ideas with you!” It often starts with a fairly insignificant or commonplace remark or question.

    2. The disparity in how these games end. There are no winners in Frisbee, and no obvious form that closure should take. The tossing stops when someone gets bored or has something else to do. Volleyball/dodgeball/basketball have a goal or object, and it’s really really hard to play them without that teleology, particularly if the person you are playing with instinctively counts points. I can’t offhand think of a board or paper-and-pencil game that doesn’t involve a clear object and winner to provide the counterexample equivalent of Frisbee. The point is not so much the differing complexity of philosophical vs. nonphilosophical discourse as the jarring shift to a game that has rules in the service of an endpoint vs. a game (Frisbee) that has general expectations (throw it so that your counterpart can catch it!) but no obvious goal.

    ...and I'll have to put point #3 in a separate post to keep Blogger happy...

  36. good enough cook27 April 2011 at 15:01

    3. (Here’s where I think I’m honing in on the issue of pain/bloodsport.) The reaction these games elicit from the casual/reluctant participant. If someone draws a tic-tac-toe grid and hands you the pencil, you can put the pencil down or use it to erase the grid, or play one trial game and then stop. It’s pretty clear what your choices are, and if you choose to fill in an X, you agreed to play until someone wins. But if someone throws a ball/frisbee at you, and you are kindly disposed to that person, chances are you will catch the ball, or hit it back or otherwise play along in a fairly (as I said before, desultory and open-ended) way. In a philosophy attack, it can feel like that “playing along/return the toss” reflex gets taken advantage of, or at least that what had been a convivial tossing of the ball/Frisbee has suddenly become competitive according to rules that one may have appeared to have consented to by continuing to play along at an earlier stage. And it can be really hard to back out with dignity at that point. (here my analogy breaks down) Suppose one does actually have some not-very-well-articulated but deeply felt convictions about the issue that is suddenly on the table, but lacks the resources (time for reflection, ability to think on one’s feet, access to the precise vocabulary one needs) that will give one a shot at winning against a more able and experienced player. In that situation, the game that one never quite agreed in the first place to play competitively can start very uncomfortable. And the discomfort is compounded by the sense that one did, in some sense, ask for it by continuing to return the ball at an earlier stage, particularly if the philosopher-opponent has entirely forgotten that the game was ever being played in any other spirit. It’s fairly easy to extract oneself gracefully from this sort of situation if one has been there before and can tell when the rules are starting to morph (katie offers excellent advice along these lines). If one is caught unawares or isn’t familiar with this phenomenon, the first sign that it’s happening is that it, well, hurts. But the rules have now evolved in such a way that “OUCH!!!” (which is at that point the only available response) marks one not only as the loser, but a particularly pathetic and incompetent loser, which hurts all the more.

  37. Daniel Weiskopf27 April 2011 at 17:00

    This phenomenon is widely noted. In an interview in the Paris Review, the novelist John Gardner remarked: "Philosophers--except for the few who are my friends--drink beer and watch football games, and defeat their wives and children by the fraudulent tyranny of logic."

    Elsewhere, in his novel Mickelsson's Ghosts, the main character reflects: "What a world, Mickelsson was thinking. Tillson and himself, arch-enemies, shepherding another poor innocent--fugitive from the clean, honest field of Engineering--into the treacherous, ego-bloated, murder-stained hovel of philosophy." Mickelsson is insane, as it will emerge, but one can't help but sympathize.

  38. The borderline between those who are trained philosophers and those who are not trained philosophers is very different to the borderline between those who are upset by philosophical discussion and those who are not upset. Those who are not upset include those who whilst not being trained philosophers have a philosophical outlook, who are have questioned themselves, their character and life, tried to improve themselves and use reason to establish a firm, secure, basis to their lives.

    Those who get upset are those who are shallow and insecure, trying to avoid recognising or admitting to themselves that their current views and way of acting have no foundation. They just want to avert their eyes from the fact that their life, character, decision-making and so on are just down to chance, merely a product of genes, upbringing and past experience. Philosophers tend to draw attention to the hollowness and arbitrariness of their lives, which upsets them.

    However, of course philosophers are doing them a favour, by holding up a mirror and showing them themselves – rather than colluding with their self-deception. Sometimes if you care about someone you have to be cruel to be kind.

    The solution of course is for them to be willing to question, reason, learn, and establish a firm rational foundation for their character, decision-making and life. This is better for them, and something philosophers can help them with. Then they will have a worthwhile life, and as an added bonus, will no longer be upset by philosophical discussion.

  39. Jonathan, Sorry, this response is a long time in coming. I wanted to see if other non-philosophers would answer your question first.

    Philosophers in full-out philosophy-mode appear to us to be angry, so the first thing that we feel when we are philosopher-attacked is that our philosopher is angry at us.

    Often times, too, a philosopher in philosopher-attack mode will not present points and counter points in a kindly way--they may even say unkind things like, "Well if you think that then you're a [expletive], because reason A, reason B, reason C." [I know I'm not being as charitable as I could be here, but I have heard this sort of argument from several different philosophers at different times].

    Philosophers can't always see very well when they are in attack mode that the way that they present arguments can hurt our feelings. Any time a philosopher accuses us of being a certain way because we've posited point A, then we are likely to get our feelings hurt. Perhaps we didn't really mean for point A to come across the way it did, but we don't know quite how to explain ourselves in a way that our philosophers will be satisfied with.

    Also, non-philosophers do not usually engage with each other in this type of attacking dialogue. Non-philosopher 1 might say, "I think X," and non-philosopher 2 might answer, "I think X, too" [which means, "I do agree with you"] or "Oh, hm" [which means, "I don't agree with you."].

    The more educated, opinionated [myself], or argumentative among us non-philosophers might have some sort of argument, but it will not be dependent on philosophy necessarily, but on feelings, "facts," and/or news stories.

    Even in my response you cannot really see an argument, I'm sure, because I'm just not good at arguing in a philosophical way [my method is to throw a lot of emotional stories at people, as in "I have a friend in a low-income situation with five children, no high school education, and a custodial job who had to live on only rice for three months when her husband lost his job because she did not want to look like a welfare case and apply for food stamps. So you're saying that these people, who work really hard, are trying to be leeches on the system? We should not provide welfare for them? They clean your toilets and you pay them pennies. Etc."].

    It's hard to see this, as a philosopher, but it is important to at least understand if you want the non-philosophers in your life to enjoy spending time with you and if you want them to talk to you. I wrote this entry in such a way as to give your non-philosophers a way out before things get serious, rather than chastising you philosophers for doing what comes naturally, because your non-philosophers will know at what point they need to stop the attack before it goes too far.

    Those of you others who say that we should not expect philosophers to change their ways just to please non-philosophers (who just don't understand philosophers!) are very confused. We are not asking you to change your ways, we are asking for a little kindness and consideration, and we are going to protect our relationships with you by giving ourselves a way out. You have other philosophers to philosopher-attack; you don't need to attack us, too.

  40. Tina, I think this is a very confused an inaccurate interpretation of non-philosophers. I think that, also, you are excusing bad behavior from philosophers.

    People--rational, thoughtful people--are much more likely to change their minds about something through careful, thoughtful dialogue not from philosopher-attacks. When I am attacked outrightly, I make up my mind to completely discredit whatever was said to me in this attack, whether it is "right" or not, because I do not trust a person who could not restrain themselves enough to present things in a kinder way (my thought is, "This person is a bad person, therefore, why should I pay attention to anything they say. They are not a trustworthy source.").

    You are not "showing" us ourselves when you attack us, you look like an unkind, untrustworthy person with whom we never want to talk to again, because it's really hard to get past the way that you present yourselves to see the "truths" that you are trying to show us.

    Patronizing is especially unhelpful. I absolutely hate a patronizing person, even if they have a lot of "wisdom" they feel like sharing with me.

  41. This comment has been removed by the author.

  42. This essay and resultant commentary have elicited pure bliss on the part of this reader. Thank you.

  43. The posts on this blog are brilliant. Kind of close to the bone and cringe-making. But brilliant.

  44. Question: do you think that this is what undergraduate students are referring to when they claim in evaluations from time to time (say, 1 per 100 students) that they feel attacked when they ask questions? From my perspective, I just ask some follow up questions to figure out what they're asking and then give the best answer I can.

  45. Ben Murphy,

    "In other words, the method by which many philosophers are trained to seek the truth carries a built-in temptation to be distracted from truth-seeking."

    Thats the point i hope my questioning let to.

    Philosophy is not about defeating the opponent. If anything a philosopher hopes to be proven wrong in a discussion, because only in when proven wrong can a philosopher emerge from a discussion closer to the truth.

    ps, i will be lying if i said i dont sometime give in to the temptation to want to "win" a discussion, but i do try my best not to.

  46. Oh My Gosh... My husband philosopher was kind enough to send me a link to this blog and it is a godsend! I have been married for almost 3 years and with him for almost 5 1/2. I love him to death but I don't know how many times I've found myself caught in a philosopher-attack. I have learned to catch them before they start and try my best to steer the conversation, but occasionally I still get trapped and it usually turns into hurt feelings and resentment. Although we are both getting better at it.
    Thank you for your insight and advice.

  47. Pay no attention to philosophers - they are just angry at the world because hard science is slowly taking over all of their area of study.

  48. Andres,

    i am sure most philosophers are delighted by the findings hard sciences are producing. New evidence fuel new questions for philosophers to contemplate.

  49. my approach, when sensing an impending philosopher-attack, is to lay a small, but cunning intellectual trap.

    to date, none have seen it coming. all who have chased me down that path have hit the wall, and backed away.

    i almost never tell them i was trained by jesuits until it's too late.

  50. I have lived with my (rather sensitive, thank goodness) analytic philosopher for 15 years. This would have really helped back at the start! Now, all I have to do is lay a hand on his shoulder and he gets the point. They aren't beyond training ;)

  51. When dealing with my lawyer husband (who is also subject to the same attack the conversation with logic/non-consensually employ the Socratic method syndrome you describe) I simply to point out to him that he's being an asshole and if he keeps it up, I'm going to quit talking to him. It's a good strategy in general, I find:Tell people what your action will be if their action continues, and then follow through.

  52. The analytical philosopher sounds almost exactly like the problem most people have with ENTPs and INTPs. I wonder if these types are attracted to philosophy.

  53. Anonymous,

    Hilarious that you say that because I am an INTP (borderline ENTP) and was a philosophy student as an undergrad--now an environmental policy graduate student, by way of Heidegger of course : ). Love this blog, and send it along to my girlfriend.

    For those who were using the chess analogy I think that is appropriate, phenomenologically, more so from our perspective then from the non-philosopher. I was literally in the shower today thinking about a "line" of reasoning that I would use in the face of an upcoming and completely hypothetical argument. In thinking of this "line" I prepared a statement to the affect that the attack is only successful until a response that brings the position to equality is found, and that this is often the nature of philosophical argumentation and innovation. Perhaps philosophers are also fond of chess and the heuristic lessons it provides?

  54. There's another response that I particularly love, said to an aspiring philosopher, that seems to work well...

    My brother is one who loves to argue over the fine minute points, and while I do enjoy a good philosophical conversation, his approach annoys me to no end.

    One day I figured it out:

    1) Respond with a noncommittal "maybe..." while seeming to space out, or

    2) (This one works best with family / partners) "You know... I love you, man..."

    That second one sounds remarkably cheesy, but it is far more effective than the first, because he's smart enough to know that I am explicitly avoiding the conversation, but in the nicest way I can think of.

    Last thought:

    Berdyaev made a comment (which I am surely going to butcher here) that in philosophy, you find out less about the nature of the universe and more aboutthe character of the philosopher.

  55. ENTP here, ENT in 80s.

  56. What about an Eastern approach? Action through non-action. Surely if the non-philosopher was to listen intently for a period of time without responding or engaging, the philosophy attack would eventually pass as all things do?

  57. First off, I think a lot of the time people assert certain things and expect to have them accepted unquestioningly because people have psychologically labelled them as "fact," or believe themselves to be infallible, or believe their view is so generally accepted any attempt to question it must be pure pedantry, or some other psychological problem they have, and oftentimes what they see as a personal attack is just someone not blindly accepting what they say, going so far as to dare to dispute a claim someone has made. Of course that isn't to say I don't just jump in with the intention of making someone feel bad sometimes. I think a more common problem is being openly digusted, dissapointed or angry with someone's reasoning after contesting a point with good intentions.

    If unprovoked however, the vast majority of the time It's not about being right. It's about making you realise you're wrong, or you're commited to mutually exclusive positions, which is basically the same thing. From what I understand of what an attack constitutes it involves backing you into a corner. Obviously this is never something you should do for the sake of it, but if you're wrong, and refuse to accept it; finding some new questionable chain of reasoning every time the last is disproved the only way to find out if you're wrong is to cut off all chains of reasoning and assumptions made to justify them, until you either find something sound or run out of angles to approach. Feeling cornered can be a sign that you're irrationally attatched to something that isn't true: If the philosopher has good intentions he can only cut off contradictory assumptions, empirically false assumptions, false logic and other mistakes. If doing so makes you feel cornered that seems like a problem with your feelings and/or your ideas.

    Of course, arguing is a sport to a lot of people, and like any "sport" it can be particularly fun to "play" with a newbie. If this is your situation you can almost always win by refusing to play.

    Anyway as far as avoid having to feel bad about how your ethical positions contradict each other (and you should feel really really bad, unless your ethical position is roughly, "fuck ethics") you can stave off attempts to make you think about your views in a few ways the OP didn't mention:

    You can appeal to a lack of knowledge/skill. "I don't have the practice with this form of debate that you do, and I can't accept what appear to be convincing arguments from you because I can't tell if they're convincing or true: roughly, it all looks like continental philosophy to me."

    Another solution is not to commit to positions that let you be backed into a corner. Instead of "Yes I commit fully to the view that blahblahblah." try "I didn't mean that literally/ that's just how I feel/ it was a conversational gambit, not a truth proposition"

    Point to abuses of logic (e.g. ontological argument) and say you don't have the inclinatin to decode a logical maze to just become wrong on a higher level.

    If its some non-trivial value that's important to you, you can just say its a matter of psychology/preference/aesthetics. Don't say its a matter of morals if you want to avoid arguing.

    Assuming that the philosopher has good intentions, you problem want something between "You (I) don't have to be right to be happy" and actually being open to thinking things through, especially realising that criticising something you've isn't a personal attack, and that the way you feel may in fact be innapropriate. Feeling can't be literally "wrong" but in much the same way you'd prefer not to get angry at people for bad reasons you should preder not to feel cornered for bad reasons.

  58. Action through non-action? That would work if you were dealing with someone who is just expounding an opinion. Philosopher thrive on discourse and (see: play reflex in above posts) are great at drawing people into the exchange of ideas. You would have to rudely avoid myriad prompts and copious questions, which is not nearly as an effective strategy as those already listed.

  59. My son, a philosopher, and my other son, a linguist, and my niece, a passionate Buddhist, have one thing in common, their wonderful facility with the spoken word. For someone more comfortable expressing herself in writing, this can be intimidating. I like to think about my words, modify them, and make sure they communicate what I mean. In discussions (arguments?), I often feel outmatched. Does this mean I am a non-philosopher, incapable of understanding or searching for the truth?

    Why do people assume their philosophy/religion/method of examination/whatever is superior to or more important than mine, merely because I am less verbally able or less inclined to impose myself on others? Is this an admission of "defeat?" Am I imperceptive, incapable of logical thought? People who thrive on the love of knowledge can be admirable in their search for the truth, but even more so when they remember that humor and kindness are also pathways to true communication.

    When my sons exhausted me with their words, I learned that batting my eyes and saying, "I love you" with excruciating sincerity worked like a charm. In order to avoid this humiliation, they became more sensitive to my gentler hints to end the conversation. Of course, I can't use it on every philosopher I meet, as he/she might misinterpret my intent. But wait, now that I'm a senior citizen, it could work really well! Hmmmmm.

    Oh, yes. My philosopher son sent this link to me. Thanks, Keith! And thanks, Katie, for raising awareness about the potential harm of the dreaded (bum bum bum bummmmmmm) philosopher attack.

  60. I agree with some of what the author is hinting at. The 'blood-sport' mentality is amusing and often obnoxious. Perhaps some of my colleagues have had the quality of their training affected by a dystopian job market. Or, perhaps it depends on local culture and a sense of philosophical role-models: someone who takes Jerry Fodor for a role model is going to behave in ways that are surprisingly different from, say, John Rawls or Jurgen Habermas.

    Unfortunately, I'm concerned that this essay is overstated, in such a way that it acts as an apologia for tone trolling. In particular, it is revealing that the author conflates being 'super-annoyed' with being hurt or attacked. I have to hope that if the author just took an introduction to critical thinking from a competent instructor populated by decent human beings, they might discover that many "attacks" are actually the first times they have encountered other earnest, independent human beings engaged in dialogue.

    That might sound peculiar, so I'll try to explain my point of view using a bit of autobiography. When I was young, I assumed that any time people argued it was because they were fighting. No substance, just feeling. I spent a lot of time scared in my room, curled up in a ball because everyone was yelling at each other inexplicably. I still remember the revelation when I was a teenager, when I figured out that actually people disagreed over propositions, not just because of feelings or frames, but for *reasons*! What an amazing insight that was -- and what a relief! I mean, if there isn't any back-and-forth over reasons, then what hope have we got? Why ever bother with dealing with anyone, ever? Indeed, why trust anyone? If my only link to other people is philosophy, and you respond to the exchange of reasons for reasons as an 'attack', then you're inadvertently cutting people like me off from the only social world we feel safe in -- the space of reasons.

    Here's my essential problem. I don't take issue with your critique of 'blood-sport' philosophy, which is dead-on. I also don't take issue with the idea that other people have a different set of standards for trust: while I would prefer it if everybody were more philosophical than not, I know that life isn't all about what I want. My problem is that you can't tell on the basis of your prior assumptions what is a 'philosophy attack', and what is a disagreement that only appears to be an attack because you have a different standard of trust than your interlocutor. If you aren't willing to be alive to the possibility that you're facing genuine problems that deserve to be talked about, then you will think that you're entitled to slime anyone who wants to dialogue in places that are outside of your comfort zone. And that's not very nice.

  61. @Ben: This is post is for non-philosophers, not philosophers. Of course it doesn't quite make sense to you, because you are on the other side.

    I have no problem myself with philosopher attacks (I engage in them too often myself), but there are many non-philosophers who do. This post is meant to (1) explain why philosophers do what is perceived as "attacking" and (2) to show how to stop these sorts of discussions before they hurt relationships (there does often come a point in a long-term relationship where a non-philosopher can handle this sort of dialogue, though).

    Your response goes back to the problem that I always have with philosophers: Philosophers think they are just pushing people and exposing illogical ideas (or pushing people where it hurts), and they interpret non-philosophers as just reacting because they feel bad that they are being exposed. What is really going on is that non-philosophers only see such conversations as attacks--not shedding light on a problem with they argument, but being unmercifully being backed into a corner by a vicious animal. Non-philosophers will not change their minds or adjust their ideas in these circumstances.

    Certainly, I don't lay out a detailed exposition of what such "attacking" is in this essay, but this is because every non-philosopher I know has experienced something like it, thus it does not need a rigorous definition. I am not an analytic philosopher; I am a member of the simple proletariat (and so is a large portion of my audience).

  62. Hi katie,

    A lot of what you say is fine and fair, so far as it goes. I do not assume that all philosophical conversations are a benign debunking exercise. Sometimes, in some very obvious cases we could all agree on, select philosophers have behaved in ways that are hopelessly pretentious and abrasive: as you put it, not shedding any light on the problem. I'm sure there is a bestseller waiting to be written on the subject of philosophers behaving badly.

    But here's my situation. Without any kind of principled and intuitive definition of an 'attack', non-philosophers are going to feel entitled to shut down philosophers whenever they feel 'super-annoyed'. This leads to a kind of cold shoulder towards the philosopher that effectively undermines and limits the trust of the philosopher in others. This is especially devastating for those of us who are gung-ho 100% philosophers.

    I mean, there is no "prolitariat". You do an injury to yourself and others by putting yourself in a class below the philosopher. Putting aside some self-indulgent professional myths, we're really not *that* special!

  63. @Ben:

    First, there is a difference between academic philosophers and those of us who are not academic philosophers (the proletariat). I don't think it's putting myself below philosophers when I say that I'm a member of the non-philosopher common-folk who actually understand how the general public thinks and reacts. There are very few academic philosophers I know (and I know very many) who actually understand how the non-philosophical public thinks and reacts.

    In fact, I would argue that I was actually giving myself a sort of compliment.

    That said, the general public (non-philosophers) usually characterize their feelings in such terms as "annoyed" and "angry." You do not even know how many philosopher-partners I talked to before I wrote this entry, and every one of them used the term "annoyed" to describe their feelings.

    Now, this term as I am using it may seem general to you, not defined clearly, too subject to mood changes, but I can assure you that when I say "annoyed" I mean: angry, attacked, rejected, made to feel stupid, unloved, etc.

    I try to defend you philosophers in this blog, but I do not think that the feelings of a non-philosopher (particularly a philosopher's partner)should have to be trounced upon merely because we must let philosophers be philosophers all the time (this reminds me of the "let boys be boys" argument that defends all manners of sexual discrimination).

    You should notice that I do explain why philosophers act the way that they do in this same entry. I just do not believe that a philosopher should treat every non-philosopher as if they are a philosopher. Any philosopher can learn to be sensitive to others (and should learn to be!), just like us of the proletariat.

    Have you heard the recent interview of Alain de Botton on BookTV? If not, I encourage you to listen to part of it (at least the first half). In this interview, Botton shares his view of "The University," particularly humanities programs. Some of what he said is silly, but one thing I think he really had right: humanities programs have disconnected from the rest of the world. "Normal" people do not understand how a humanities program connects at all to how they live their lives and what they believe about the world.

    That said, expecting to be able to be 100% of a philosopher all the time is committing to a dangerous, head-in-the-sand way of living.

    I guess the question I would want you (and any philosopher) to ask themselves is this: What do I really want to happen from my philosophical discussions with non-philosophers? Do I really want them to change their opinions/arguments about things? Am I just doing this to make myself feel great or to expose their ideas as being foolish?

    If you (the philosopher) really want to change the minds of non-philosophers about something, then you need to understand how to go about doing so in a non-damaging way that they can understand. This means that you have to talk about feelings with a non-philosopher and that you will have to be sensitive to how they take your "attacking."

  64. Katie,

    Thanks for the reference to de Botton. I'll check it out.

    I don't doubt that there is ample friction between philosophers and non-philosophers. I certainly do not doubt that prompting philosophy can be annoying. I also agree that philosophers ought to do some introspection about their purposes in communication: that they should pay attention to audience expectations, and their own expectations. Sounds good.

    I also have come to enjoy this blog. My initial post was slightly bitter, because I had a poor feeling for where you're coming from (since I had only read the initial entry and not any others). I think I now have a better idea, and am less apt to bristle. I apologize if I came across badly.

    And I certainly recognize that there is a difference between academic philosophers and non-academics. There is a spate of jargon in academic philosophy that a half-way decent philosopher can and should be able to explain (or eliminate altogether). I mean to refer to philosophy as a practice of trading reasons for reasons, that is tied to (but not necessarily the same as) academic philosophy. If you only have academic philosophy (or, frankly, any particular academic discipline) in mind, then I'd probably agree with you: smile and nod is the way to go.

    But then, I think you've almost perfectly articulated the proposition I find disturbing, when you claim that "expecting to be able to be 100% of a philosopher all the time is committing to a dangerous, head-in-the-sand way of living." I believe the opposite is true. It is risky and myopic to live a life that falls short of exchanging reasons for reasons, at least when reasons can be found. More than that -- and this is really getting right to my point, I think -- the ability to trade reasons for reasons is a necessary condition for trustworthiness. This is not necessarily a matter of persuading someone of something else, it's about having philosophy as a lifestyle.

    So, drawing this back to your original post -- your advice may only work for the 'compartmentalized philosophers'. When dealing with the '100% philosophers', it seems to me that only techniques #3-4 will work. #1-2 can have negative side effects that you may or may not be cognizant of.

  65. Ben:

    There is a difference between being a philosopher in one's mind 100% of the time and acting as a philosopher 100% of the time to all people. I am quite "cognizant" of what a philosopher would be like if they compartmentalized philosophy, but I am also "cognizant" of what a philosopher acting like one 100% of the time is like, and I can tell you from my daily interactions with many philosophers that the latter is not a pleasant person to be around at all. They are not unpleasant because they challenge my reasoning (which would, theoretically, make me uncomfortable as an "unreasonable" non-philosopher), but because they are unkind, insensitive, and self-absorbed.

    Being able to relate to a non-philosopher does not require one to stop reasoning; it requires one to be sensitive.

    I think your argument is one advocating intellectual laziness, as it takes much more work to try an understand how to talk with non-philosophers (when you are a philosopher) than it takes to simply be a 100% philosopher all the time.

  66. That's interesting. I don't think my argument has those effects, but that's because it appears as though I have a different idea of what it means to be a "100% philosopher". It sounds to me that you're describing the 'blood-sport' mentality, which certainly exists in some (perhaps many) departmental cultures -- but which is optional, even among analytic philosophers. e.g., I don't feel like I'm one of those people, and certainly don't want to be like them.

    That having been said, I do agree with you that, to some extent, the 100% philosopher has to numb themselves to frustration (in themselves and others). That will be annoying, guaranteed. On the other hand, the numbness required of the philosopher has to fall well short of doing harm or posing a threat. Sensitivity to context -- to the other speaker, to the norms of cooperation, in what you intend to say, what you mean, what the other person is saying and what they mean -- are part and parcel of a good philosopher's toolkit.

    So I think we are close to agreement when you say that "being able to relate to a non-philosopher does not require one to stop reasoning; it requires one to be sensitive". I just prefer to put it this way: if you're open to the reasons-for-reasons exchange, then while you might not be a philosopher, you're on your way there.

  67. (Too tired to read wall of text and therefore engage in what looks to be awesome debate. Also, I thought Jonathan Livengood was just parodying the post, taken on the role of the philosopher-who-smelt-blood. He either has done an excellent job or proved Katie correct. Anyway, reason I'm posting. :P)

    This didn't happen to me personally (I'm a philosopher myself - are we attackable?) but rather when talking with another philosopher and a non-philosopher. I'm not too keen on existentialism and often feel that the good arguments in favour of it quickly get left behind as the word 'authenticity' gains power. Disliking this trump, I oft argue against 'authenticity-for-authenticities-sake'. During one of these arguments, I proposed my feelings on the subject (long forgotten) and my philosopher friend promptly (and rightly) called me scum. This was followed by the non-philosopher trying to calm us down, that harshness was not needed, that we were all friends etc etc. Explaining the concept of Sartrian scum didn't actually help all that much and it is just one of those funny events where my honour was guarded for (as I saw it) no reason.

    In fact, as I recall, he stopped our debate with his niceties. Curse him! :P

  68. Wonderful post, thankyou. As an ex-philosopher (got out after graduate school) every single thing you wrote rang true of how I used to be, and sadly still am sometimes. (I'm working on it.)

    The people who are saying non-philosophers just need to toughen up are immature, naïve and utterly lacking in social grace. There is nothing superficial, intellectually dishonest or unphilosophical about being amiable and affable. Thinking that speaking (what you consider) the 'truth' somehow immunises you from a whole host of despicable behaviour is common (among philosophers and non-philosophers) but, frankly, stupid.

    There are 1 000 ways for a doctor to tell a family member that a patient has died, all speaking only the truth. There are very few that are becoming of a genuinely ethical character.

    Some of you think you are just doing what a banker, or accountant, or lawyer would do. No: they give advice when it is asked for, in a professional setting. They do not assume the role outside of work and strop when advice is not taken. In fact, they often prefer not to talk shop outside of work because it is tiring to them, boring to listeners, and hey, why give it away for free? Take note.

    Imagine you have not decided to attend a boxing lesson. You are just mucking around with a friend, a little play fighting. Your friend trains in boxing or maybe is a pro boxer. Your friend suddenly springs into boxing action as if they are sparring with a fellow boxer - or even in a professional fight - and will not stop *despite the fact your discomfort is clear* until you verbally admit defeat.

    *Then* they expect you to graciously thank them for the free lesson. And if you complain you are hurt, well that is your own fault for not being tough enough. They have done you a favour; now you know you are not tough and won't walking around thinking so and perhaps finding out from a less-than-friendly boxing stranger.

    This is how ridiculous you sound when you make these arguments about philosophy.

    I can only imagine the hopelessness of these sorts of philosophers should they be having a conversation with an expert in something else. E.g. I once made a joke Superman reference about the yellow sun, in order to break the ice among 3 other graduate students I had just met. The arrogant physicist immediately missed the joke, the point of making it, and tried to school me (having just met me, and in front of 2 other people we'd both just met) about how the sun isn't really yellow y'know [cue yawnsome physics lecture].

    Short version: grow up.

  69. Bring 'm on! Evidentary arguments will conquer idle speculation and hair-splitting every time! ;-)

  70. Unfortunately, philosophy cannot be compared to lawyers, and other "professions", because philosophy is about how to correctly live life in its entirety, which involves giving reasons for actions. So to NOT engage others on how to live a better life on the grounds that one is playing a different game than "non-philosophers" play is bogus. Everyone is a philosopher, because all have worldviews that can be communicated through reason. Worldviews can determine war and death; if you are not able to defend a position, then you are going to be controlled by those who have give you what position you have. Don't be a slave. To quote Kant, AUDE SAPERE. Of course, as Socrates was well aware, the oi polloi can't handle that their world view is incoherent, so you have to control people by treating them like children and being polite, while selecting the one's with the most philosophic potential to actually discourse with seriously. That is not to say that refutation isn't pleasant ('ouk aedes', see Apology). Why did Socrates give Crito the speech of the Laws? He understands his old friend is no philosopher. BTW, Just imagine if someone denies the validity of universal human rights, multi-culturalism or women's rights or some other trendy position and then says he doesn't want to defend himself because he feels "cornered". Noone will come to his aid as champions of the "non-philosophers" then. You're kicked out of society. The philosopher has to defend himself against the many by concealing his real position and giving the many myths that they can cling to.