• Kindle
  • Markku N

    Thank you for this! I hold an advanced degree in philosophy, but refuse to call myself a philosopher, and reading the essay was revelatory. It reminds me of an online test I took recently that revealed my personality type to be INTJ. The description included a prediction that I would most likely hold argumentative rigorousness at higher value than common sensibilities. The term ‘arsehole’ never cropped up, and references to philosophy were few. Yet I wonder whether philosophy is a way for me to justify and sublimate my innate arseholeness or did philosophy corrupt me? After all, I was an INTP, according to a different test, before I went to university.

  • Edwige K.

    If only ‘social intelligence’ (that specific set of information-processing skills allowing an adaptive equilibrium between ourselves and our environment – according to Piaget) could be proven to have an impact on intellectual achievement…But alas! For a philosopher or an intellectual to start each day – or essay – by asking herself if (s)he is an ass only proves one thing – which certainly won’t lessen her contribution as a philosopher : (s)he is trying to be a good – or better – (wo)man.

  • Matt

    Mistaking pedantry for philosophy seems the cornerstone behaviour of ‘The Arsehole.’

  • Enrique Guerra-Pujol (priorprobability.com)

    Perhaps there is an “optimal level” of arseholeness …

  • Barry

    Your essay was quite enlightening. I think I might be married to an arsehole.

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This essay appears in a special symposium on intellectuals, which is entirely composed of essays by the editors of The Point. Click here to read all of the essays from the symposium.

A few months into a cushy postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton, where the walls were a soothing yellow and poached salmon was a staple, it dawned on me that I could reasonably be considered an arsehole. This wasn’t the first time the thought had occurred to me: after all, I am the kind of Brit who insists on the difference between a donkey, otherwise known as an ass, and a backside, otherwise known as an arse. But on this occasion my reflection was prompted not by looking in the mirror or by hearing a recording of my voice but by the experience of being a philosopher in a non-philosophical setting. Calling yourself a philosopher already makes you sound a bit of an arse, but the fact remains that I have spent most of my professional life studying, discussing, writing and teaching philosophy—and it is this, I submit, that has made me liable to appear a right royal arsehole.

Every Friday the Society of Fellows hosted a presentation series for postdocs and senior professors that also doubled as a fancy lunch; the time for questions was also the time for brownies. Attendance was mandatory, electronics were banned and there was a strict policy of one question per person with no follow-ups. The idea was to create a supportive environment where scholars from different disciplines in the humanities and human sciences—the vast majority were cultural historians—could help one another with their research. Generally speaking the presenter’s authority vis-à-vis the subject matter was taken for granted, or at least not seriously questioned.

One day there was a presentation by an archaeologist analyzing finds from the Roman period in North Africa. He was one of those genial classicists whose seemingly inexhaustible supply of dorky enthusiasm is both endearing and infectious, and he cheerfully hypothesized that a stone object that had recently been unearthed might have been used as part of a tribal ritual intended to summon rain by means of some kind of incantation. The stone, he said at the talk, was the tribe’s technology for bringing about rain, and the incantation was performative in the sense elaborated by the philosopher J. L. Austin.

My ears perked up at his misuse of a philosophical concept. Austin’s observation was that in certain circumstances merely saying something is enough to bring it about: when the right kind of official says “I now pronounce you man and wife,” there are background conventions that make it the case that the couple are now married, with no need to conduct experiments to confirm the procedure’s success or reliability. Whatever the tribe in the archaeologist’s presentation were up to, it seemed to me, their utterances were clearly not performative in that sense. Nor was their stone a piece of technology, however primitive. For an item to count as technology, it must be the kind of thing whose efficacy is inherently in question, such that its users would be disposed to look for improvements if it didn’t seem to be working—and ritual incantations are not like that.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Read more essays like this in our
What are intellectuals for?” symposium,
such as “Enlightenment Idols” by Ollie Cussen
and “Tired of Winning” by Jon Baskin.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When I pointed this out, my colleague made a comparison between the tribe’s use of the stone and our own tendency to press the “close door” button in an elevator even though it (allegedly) has no effect—just as the button remains a piece of technology, he was saying, so too was the tribal stone. “But if the button isn’t actually connected to anything then surely we’re wrong to press it?” I blurted out in my excitement. “And if we find out it’s having no effect we should change our behavior, no?”

The arsehole, writes philosopher Aaron James, is someone who “allows himself to enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” At the other end of the spectrum is the fully cooperative person who recognizes others as equals and therefore acts respectfully. From my perspective I was being respectful to the archaeologist: the real disrespect, it seemed to me, lies in assuming your interlocutor needs to be treated with kid gloves. And if I broke the no-follow-up rule, well, that was down to a failure of self-control rather than an entrenched sense of entitlement: This is where the fun begins, I wanted to exclaim. Looking around the room, however, it was clear that I had already pooped the party. I had spoken out of turn, but more importantly I seemed to have revealed myself as the kind of person who is willing to embarrass a colleague to make a trivial point.

This was by no means an isolated incident: every few weeks I found myself raising eyebrows by asking skeptical questions of one kind or another. I started to make a conscious effort to restrain the way I expressed myself, prefacing everything with praise and confessing my own ignorance where possible, but when the words came out I still had the sense that I sounded smug and supercilious, as if the best I could achieve was passive aggression. The only way to avoid coming across as an arsehole, it seemed, would be to remain silent—and I wasn’t even sure that would work. For it was slowly dawning on me that the eyes of others might be seeing me for what I truly was: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

One of the norms governing ordinary conversation is that to disagree too much is to be disagreeable. Just as socially competent individuals tend to encourage whoever’s speaking by nodding or giving other affirmative signals, so they also tend to agree with most of what is being said unless something really important is at stake. If a stranger says that the last few days have been brutal with all the rain, a well-adjusted conversationalist might gently suggest an alternative viewpoint (“It’ll make us appreciate the weekend even more!”) but they would be unlikely to dispute the proposition entirely (“Actually you’re wrong: there was a lot of gray sky but not that much rain. People often make that mistake.”) Agreeing is a way of preserving a bond between people, so you have to weigh the importance of the truth against the importance of that bond. Among friends the bonds are often strong enough to withstand a lot of disagreement, but it might still be necessary to avoid certain subjects, like politics or religion or the ethics of eating meat, in the interests of getting along.

The trouble for philosophers is that they find disagreement to be one of life’s higher pleasures. Part of the fun of philosophy, for those who have acquired the taste, is the cut and thrust of argument: for the person proposing it’s the thrill of trying to articulate yourself in the knowledge that a step in the wrong direction could get you skewered; for the person responding it’s the thrill of trying to reverse engineer an argument until you find a chink in the armor. In principle there’s nothing personal about this, just as there’s nothing personal about trying to exploit a weakness in someone’s backhand. In practice things tend to be more complicated. To take an obvious example, philosophers will often test an argument to see if it implies something ridiculous or if it rests on premises that do. But it’s a short step from calling someone’s argument ridiculous to ridiculing them—and in most contexts even asking whether someone’s view might imply something ridiculous is already a violation of trust and mutual respect. To claim that this is simply a way of serving the other person is to risk being perceived as what James calls a “self-aggrandizing” arsehole, one who invokes moral causes in order to enhance his own power. But it is also to risk actually being one, inasmuch as you’re taking pleasure in a process that someone else finds humiliating.

This is why context is so important. Philosophy classrooms and conferences are special spaces designed to allow relentless disagreement to occur against a background of mutual respect. The question period after a talk, for example, tends to be structured so as to make it as hard as possible for the speaker to evade a question: usually everyone is permitted at least one follow-up, and often others are encouraged to pile on. In reality, of course, some people are too polite and others are too aggressive. If you fail to express your doubts about your interlocutor’s position, or if you assume the reason you’re not convinced is that you’re not smart enough to understand what they’re saying, or if you preface all of your remarks by objecting to the argument that you’re just about to make, the chances are that you count as overly polite relative to the social norms of philosophy. If you deliberately mischaracterize an interlocutor’s position, mercilessly pursue them despite a gulf in ability or experience, or continually sidetrack the conversation towards your own hobby horses, on the other hand, the chances are that you count as an arsehole relative to those norms. But the nature of the collective endeavor is such that philosophy as a discipline is likely to have a high degree of tolerance for those who are borderline arseholes even relative to its own norms: if you’re one of those people with a mania for popping other people’s balloons, well, you may be a sociopath, but on balance you’re probably helping others improve their arguments.

Just as there are spaces that are made for vigorous argument, so there are spaces in which it is obviously inappropriate—Quaker meetings, for example, or school prize-givings. Often, though, there is no clear divide between philosophical and non-philosophical spaces. People who aren’t astrophysicists don’t typically spend their evenings arguing about dark matter or string theory, but at some level everybody argues over what to believe and what to do. And when an ordinary conversation takes a philosophical turn, the challenge for the philosopher becomes how to sound like a normal being. You have to shake off turns of phrase that have become second nature, especially the pseudo-informal false friends like “at first blush” or “by your own lights” and you also have to stop couching everything as a “worry” (“I worry this might open you up to a second objection” or “this reminds me of Hume’s worry about causation”). But these adjustments are nothing compared to learning to recognize the times when philosophical reasoning is both perfectly permissible and utterly inadvisable. For philosophy trains you to presume that genuine listening, and so genuine conversation, involves helping people to clarify their thoughts, and while this might be true in some contexts, it can also have the effect of turning a heart-to-heart into an Oxbridge tutorial. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve said three different things that are in tension with one another” isn’t always the most helpful way to respond to a loved one’s distress, as I have repeatedly discovered—but old habits die hard.

The philosopher’s penchant for argument isn’t just a habit, of course, or an idiosyncratic pleasure—it’s grounded in a conception of the good life. To actively lead a life, rather than simply living one, requires choosing what to pursue and how to pursue it, and that in turn requires deciding what to value. But as John Stuart Mill argued, those who have never “thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently … do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.” It seems natural to conclude that the social role of philosophers is to help people think things through by confronting them with counterarguments to their current views. But since there’s no way to do that in a non-philosophical context without coming off as an arsehole, there’s no way for a philosopher to be a good citizen without having the courage to look like a bad one. Which brings us, with inexorable familiarity, to the figure of Socrates, who injected philosophical reason into the Athenian body politic and got sentenced to death for his troubles.

“The modes of trolling are many,” writes Rachel Barney in her wonderful mock-Aristotelian treatise, “On Trolling.” Characteristic techniques include treating small problems as if they were large ones, disputing what everyone knows to be true, criticizing what everyone knows to be admirable and masking hostility with claims of friendship. If that sounds like the kind of thing Socrates got up to, this is no accident—for like Socrates, the troll claims “that he is a gadfly and beneficial, and without him to ‘stir up’ the thread it would become dull and unintelligent.” The difference, says Barney, is that while Socrates may have annoyed people, that was never his goal; he simply wanted to convince his fellow Athenians that they lacked wisdom and needed to care for their souls. The troll, by contrast, intentionally aims to generate “confusion and strife among a community who really agree,” whether for amusement or for profit or for partisan gain. Socrates was a philosopher, in other words; the troll is just an arsehole.

Yet there is surely a sense in which Socrates was trying to generate confusion and strife among Athenians (and hence, from a certain perspective, to “corrupt the youth”). After all, disagreement is hardly incidental to philosophy: when people are forced to think seriously about an argument, they tend to realize that they disagree with each other far more than they had thought. Nor is the shattering of consensus always to be regretted from a political perspective. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” addressed to white clergymen who had asked him to reduce social conflict by limiting his battle for civil rights to the courts, Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked Socrates to support his argument that “constructive nonviolent tension … is necessary for growth.” “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal,” he wrote, “so we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

King’s analogy suggests that the philosopher and the activist share a common predicament, at least to some degree: both are willing to disrupt social convention and embarrass others in the name of a higher cause that typically exalts them personally, and so both run the risk of not only being perceived as, but actually being, self-aggrandizing arseholes. Henry David Thoreau—a favorite of King’s and also, like him, a philosophical activist—claimed that the citizen never had cause to “resign his conscience” to laws and norms he disagreed with. “A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority,” he wrote in his essay “Civil Disobedience.” “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” In hindsight it’s easy to admire Thoreau’s heroism—he was refusing to pay taxes to a government that tolerated slavery—but at the time he was generally regarded as insufferable: at his funeral Emerson described him as a man who, in his zeal to protect his independence and “interrogate every custom,” cared little for “disappointing the natural expectations of his family and friends”—that is, an arsehole.

What then is to be done? How are we to know when being a good citizen requires us to protest convention, or to shut our mouths and go along with it? Kant offered one solution: drawing a rigorous boundary between philosophical debate and responsible citizenship, the former sequestered in clearly demarcated spaces where it cannot undermine the latter. That idea will strike many as extreme—if it keeps philosophers from disturbing social life, it also deprives them of any opportunity to improve it. But a watered-down version might appear more appealing: where a given topic is particularly fraught, we could first address it in arenas that have been deliberately constructed as safe spaces for free discussion, such as college classrooms or academic journals, and only afterwards try to bridge the gap between safe and risky contexts via trade books, op-eds, symposia, public talks, radio appearances and so on.

This accords with the common thought that the way for academics to contribute to public conversation is to translate their work into a popular idiom. The problem with this picture is that it inevitably implies a divide between intellectuals and everyone else, the paradigm case being the TED Talk, in which experts condescend to inform us of the latest results from a given wing of the ivory-tower complex while we look on in stupefied admiration, grateful for the profound thinking that these titans have performed on our behalf. This seems obviously antithetical to the philosophical ideal of thinking things through for ourselves. What is more, the whole picture rests on a fantasy concerning intellectual life within the ivory tower. Anyone who works in academia knows full well that classrooms and journals remain permeated by the demands of responsible citizenship—so much so, in fact, that it can take far more bravery to air certain views in an academic context than it would in the wider world.

The alternative is a Socratic approach in which philosophers contribute to public life by modeling the earnest questioning of self and others that can sometimes be necessary for good citizenship. Socrates treated philosophical questioning as a natural part of life, something that could just as easily come up in the gym or at a party as after a talk by a visiting speaker; he presented himself as a learner rather than a teacher; and he approached his own convictions with suspicion. That said, his famous method may not have been adequate to his deepest aspirations. For if he was often perceived as an arsehole, this was at least in part because his technique of interrogating others seemed to place him in a position of unassailable superiority, like a judge who is never judged. This was unfortunate, since it obscured his commitment to examining himself, which began with admitting his own ignorance:

I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription says, to know myself; and it really seems ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that. … Am I a beast more complicated and savage than Typho, or am I a tamer, simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature?

Fortunately, the possibilities afforded by the written word made it possible for Socrates’s followers to find new and arguably more effective ways of being Socratic. Plato, for example, invented (or at least mastered) the dialogue form, which allowed both author and reader to examine their own convictions by confronting a multitude of competing views, including those of card-carrying arseholes like Callicles and Thrasymachus. And then Montaigne introduced the personal essay, which depicted that multitude as inhering within the narrator himself, and so, by implication, within the reader as well: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Both forms allow intellectuals to express arseholish thoughts without fully endorsing them, and both therefore permit a degree of honesty that in other contexts might violate social norms. By suggesting that the most important disagreements are those that we have with ourselves, moreover, they offer us a way of being good citizens in both the philosophical and the political senses—to disagree without being disagreeable, as Barack Obama was once fond of saying.

Absolution is not to be found, of course. For one thing, the philosopher will always remain an arsehole by some metric. For another, the forms of writing just mentioned require qualities that few of us possess. The experience of over two millennia suggests that philosophical dialogues are impossible to pull off for anyone lacking world-historical genius: being at the level of Cicero won’t cut it. And while the bar for the philosophical essay is thankfully lower, true success still requires something that I, at least, have always found elusive: the ability to combine argumentative rigor with autobiographical rigor rather than trading one for the other or failing at both. If the beginning of philosophy lies in recognizing your own lack of wisdom, in other words, the beginning of good essay writing may lie in something even harder: a relentless willingness to ask whether the real arse, or ass, is you.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This essay appears in the “What are intellectuals for”
symposium in issue 16 of The Point.
Subscribe now to read this essay
and more in print.

  • Kindle
  • Markku N

    Thank you for this! I hold an advanced degree in philosophy, but refuse to call myself a philosopher, and reading the essay was revelatory. It reminds me of an online test I took recently that revealed my personality type to be INTJ. The description included a prediction that I would most likely hold argumentative rigorousness at higher value than common sensibilities. The term ‘arsehole’ never cropped up, and references to philosophy were few. Yet I wonder whether philosophy is a way for me to justify and sublimate my innate arseholeness or did philosophy corrupt me? After all, I was an INTP, according to a different test, before I went to university.

  • Edwige K.

    If only ‘social intelligence’ (that specific set of information-processing skills allowing an adaptive equilibrium between ourselves and our environment – according to Piaget) could be proven to have an impact on intellectual achievement…But alas! For a philosopher or an intellectual to start each day – or essay – by asking herself if (s)he is an ass only proves one thing – which certainly won’t lessen her contribution as a philosopher : (s)he is trying to be a good – or better – (wo)man.

  • Matt

    Mistaking pedantry for philosophy seems the cornerstone behaviour of ‘The Arsehole.’

  • Enrique Guerra-Pujol (priorprobability.com)

    Perhaps there is an “optimal level” of arseholeness …

  • Barry

    Your essay was quite enlightening. I think I might be married to an arsehole.

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