• Kindle
  • Smith&Jones

    If philosophy q&a’s were primarily intended to be tests of the assailed’s inner strength, character of will, ability to stay calm under pressure, quickness of wit etc., then “more fighting, more biting” would be a good principle of conduct. But that’s not what most of us in the audience are after. We’d like the q&a to shed some light on the epistemic merits and/or defects of the arguments presented. Even when the initial blows exchanged are well placed, publicly observed philosophical fights too often degenerate into point scoring of the worst (and truth-irrelevant) kind . But if your main point is that destructive criticism should always be allowed in philosophical exchanges, I completely agree. Destroy, but destroy nicely.

  • liam

    (Please forgive the lack of paragraphs — this text field seems to have been setup to expect a single line) You might have an editing error. “[…]war as politics continued by another means, but that is a little like saying crawling is running continued by another means.” Perhaps you meant running is crawling by other means? I interpret Clausewitz to mean that War is the ultimate member in the spectrum of conflicts. Analogously running (or maybe sprinting) is the ultimate expression of bodily locomotion. This is all assuming that you didn’t intentionally interpret Clausewitz disingenuously to setup your quip. That would just be mean:) BTW, I think your point is incorrect (assuming you’re even seriously standing in for Durden). Some people simply don’t like conflict, and as a result will avoid situations where that is a likely result. For example, look to the recent Linus Torvalds’ debacle. Sure, that’s not philosophy but it shares an eerily similar structure, with the exception of the bizarro choir singing “Mean people make good code” supporting the idea of conflict.

  • Dieter Kief

    Arguing implies that there is right or wrong, better or worse; the good, the bad (the ugly). If stripped from these foundational oppositions, there is not much left in arguing, at least nothing, which couldn’t be found otherwise: The kind interaction with others, for example, or the feeling of pure and simple belonging etc. Arguing means to take the risk, to be outwitted (=to lose). Therefor, the paradox at the foundation of enlightenment culture: And this paradoxical foundation is the very insight, in Jürgen Habermas’ words, in the “forceless force of the better argument” – and – almost needless to say, but anyway, just to make this very clear: The wholehearted acceptance of this “forceless force” as our ticket to a better understanding of ourselves – and the world, too. So thanks Aron Peterson – great essay!

  • Saksin

    Sorry to disappoint you, but you won this one! Brilliantly analyzed, elegantly presented, and – I think – true.

  • S B Benjamin

    An interesting argument. I am not sure I agree that one’s self-knowledge is determined by losing an argument. It is certainly a sure-fire means of critical self-awareness, and that, I think, is the point. They are not the same thing. I think you are too vested in the concept of consciousness. Really stimulating though.

  • David Saltman

    Martial art students are advised to “invest in loss.” Your investment did not pay off because you were trying to win. The purpose of martial art is not to fight, nor even to win, but to survive, to defend oneself, to protect ones loved ones.

  • Andras

    “In other words, you like to think and it has to be to be separate from all the other verbs that fl0urish in the medium.

  • Victoria Wilson

    The esprit of Usque Ad Finem went out of fashion with world wars and atomic stand offs. The era of Bertrand Russel, Wells and Conrad all discussing their views while walking along pea gravel paths in English gardens is simply old fashioned. Agnes will have to bring the spirit back to a more modern venue and sensibility.

  • Matt Andersson

    It is perhaps somewhat unfortunate that the writer must even assert the otherwise historically self-evident pedagogic centrality of contention. In that regard she may reflect somewhat the modern academy culture of identitarianism and its effects in speech and behavior contours. Otherwise she may treble the insightful assertion made in part by Saul Bellow in his introduction to Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” that in the logic of a university society, everything must be put at risk, and one must put themselves utterly at risk. The so-called “Chicago Principles” may reflect in part that logic, despite its otherwise quizzical obedience to the previous administration’s university-wide DCL which was rather causal to both the propagation of counter-productive, self-auditing language, and the recent compensatory EO. With Regards, ’96

  • David Naas

    Philosophy ought be civil and not ruffle anyone’s feelings? Marvelous concept. Too bad Plato never heard of it. His representation of Socrates the old stonecutter squabbling – in a sneaky and underhanded method we glorify as “the Socratic method” – with any and all who were foolish enough to engage him. No wonder Athens gave him a bitter cup – the old pain in the tukus.

    Your series is interesting. One notes that the philosophers met in real life have been obnoxious snobs. (Part of the reason I chose to get away from academic snake-pits after college 50 years ago and live a life as a craftsman. And I could still read in the evenings. So, in one sense, I understand your string of failures, having experienced such myself.)

    Are you aware of the furor over Mortimer Adler’s Great Books program? It was thoroughly denounced as “middlebrow” by people with letters after their names. ( See “A Great Idea At The Time” by Alex Beam.) All it did was to make available to everyone, in English translation, the works professional philosophers had been reading for years. A heinous crime it was, to expose the masses to such material. Philosophy immediately retreated into obscure and arcane drivel by more modern “thinkers”, who added little to the Great Conversation, but whose obscurity, and the knowledge of same, served to justify those letters after names.

    So far as the artificial consensus at which philosophy (or at least professional philosophers) is supposed to arrive, May one ask, “Why?” From one of my favorite books, I steal the line, “Violence never solved anything? Tell that to the city fathers of Carthage.” Pistols at dawn. Or at least rapiers.

  • Mark

    An esteemed philosopher once told me I had a flat soul when I told him I did not care for a book that he recommended. Most other recommendations before that and subsequent to that dismissal have been spot on. I took the critique both to heart and mind. My best teachers, coaches and mentors were tough. During my adolescence both my complete understanding and willingness to hear and listen we’re not as good as I had assumed at that time. In my early 20s some irreverent tough mentors again found me. If they had not risked unselfishly to both love and offend me I could not respond to your thoughts in this same manner. It is akin to an argument with a lover or friend when we sense that the love or friendship is not at risk but the search for the common good together is in play. It is very precarious. We can be gaslighted. And sometimes we can’t see something that we are sure of until we can. Another mentor smiled at my disillusionment one afternoon. When I asked why he was making light of it ..he said this is good for you will not be walking around with the same illusions. Loving and teaching others are risks. They can be rejected. They are fraught with risk for both. Sometimes the esteemed philosopher is wrong. The life of the philosopher necessitates solitude. Solitude teaches us how to be with others. I reread the same book years later….I still have a flat soul.

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This is the third in a series of columns on public philosophy by Agnes Callard; read more here.

Once an esteemed philosopher was mean to me. He began by dismissing the value of the question I was asking, then disparaged the distinctions I drew as ill-conceived, then scorned my evident lack of technical competence, then brushed aside a number of my central claims as non-sequiturs and ended—by this point, his anger was apparent—by saying he couldn’t see how there was anything of value in my talk. There was no missing the insinuation it had been a mistake for his department to invite me. Afterwards, at dinner, his colleagues fell over themselves apologizing for his behavior, praising both the talk and how well I had handled the abuse.

I didn’t have the guts to tell them the truth, which was that while they had loved my talk, the Mean Philosopher was the one who had understood it. That goes for the manifest content of my talk—his complaints were, in fact, well-founded—and, much more importantly, its animating spirit: provocation. For some reason, he was the only one in the room who heard the invitation to fight me on this one. He didn’t just understand my talk, he understood me. The best part was that his insight didn’t rise to the level of consciousness—he was irritated by my pugnacious tone and reacted angrily. And I responded with equal sincerity.

This was years ago, but the five minutes of heated back and forth that followed are burned into my memory. Time seemed to slow down; the rest of the room faded from view; the sentences flew between us, each one carrying the weight of the world on it. What could be better than a good old-fashioned philosophy battle?

I understand that at most times and places one should endeavor to give constructive rather than destructive criticism; to play nicely with others; to be accommodating and generous and understanding; to help people overcome their faults and problems rather than use those weaknesses as an opening for attack. Instead of “no, but,” try “yes, and.” Smile. We’re all in this together. No fighting, no biting. Let’s build something. I accept that these are the rules of “regular life.” I smile plenty. But I want philosophy to be an escape ticket from kindergarten morality.

Most philosophers don’t think philosophy needs more fighting and more biting. They think we should be moving in the opposite, less “gladiatorial” direction: more charity, more supportiveness, more philanthropy, kindness and empathy. Sometimes when I argue with such people, they make the following point: being pugnacious produces bad philosophy. If you are out to trip up your interlocutor, you will misconstrue her arguments and produce flimsy counterarguments. Charitable interpretations are what lead to deep engagement. I think there is some truth to this: careful, generous critique is how we avoid the cheap victory of a superficial scar. If you’re talking a Trojan Horse of philanthropy, kindness and empathy for the sake of ultimate violence, destruction and meaningful victory, I can get on board with that.

Some philosophers do not dismiss fighting out of hand, but hold refutation and disputation to exist for the sake of ultimate and more meaningful accord and agreement. How do we decide whether we should be nice in order to be mean, or vice versa? We might compare the two approaches with respect to the goal of philosophical activity: securing answers to philosophical questions. I think fighting wins that fight, so to speak. But I am not going to make that case here. I am interested in offering you a different kind of argument, one that foregrounds the distinctiveness of the activity of philosophy, considered as a form of human interaction. In fact, in order to make my case at the proper level of generality, let me even set aside philosophy for a minute, and just consider what fighting is, and why we do it.

Is violence generally a good way to solve problems? I’ll admit that some signs point towards no. Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) described war as politics continued by another means, but that is a little like saying crawling is running continued by another means. Yes: a worse one. Take a simplified, schematic case: if you and I are both after the same quantum of value—ideally I’d like all of it, and so would you—we might come to blows. But this is a mistake: it would be better to negotiate. Fighting itself has a cost, which subtracts from the total. Think of it this way: assume the total is one hundred dollars, and the cost of fighting is ten dollars. Wouldn’t you take a 100 percent chance of fifty dollars over a 50 percent chance of ninety dollars? Admittedly, if one of us was antecedently likelier to win, she would not accept a fifty-fifty split. But in that case we should use that information, including the degree of likelihood, to keep negotiating until we come up on a split that both of us can rationally agree to.[1] No reason to lose the ten dollars.

Fighting is a non-ideal way to allocate an independently valuable resource—something we resort to when negotiations break down. This is a good critique of fighting. But it doesn’t extend to the case where the resource lacks independent value and is sought after precisely because it provides an occasion for fighting. Sometimes I want what you want, because you want it, indeed because that means I can fight you for it. And the reason I want to fight you is to know which one of us is stronger. In this sort of case I would reject a fifty-fifty division not because I believe I know I can get a better one, but precisely because I don’t believe I know, and finding out whether I can is my true goal.

In such cases, the battle prize is knowledge of one’s own mettle. We want to come to terms with the potential we have in us, a potential that will be left forever unknown until it’s tested in the most extreme terms against the best opponent possible. That is a problem to which fighting is quite an efficient and rational solution. The only real way to know how hard I can fight is to fight as hard as I can. As Aristotle says, actuality is conceptually prior to potentiality.

Whether fighting is rational or not depends on the status of the precise, certain knowledge of relative strength that only the actual fight can provide: Is it desired merely instrumentally, or for its own sake? Fighting, done right, is a form of inquiry.  And that brings us back to philosophy.

Do you want to know the outcome of the battle between me and the Mean Philosopher? Sorry to disappoint you, but he won. I lost. Again. I usually lose. This is not me being humble; it is an objective fact that I am a loser. I have been debating since high school, where I was the first person to become team captain having lost more rounds than she won. And my team was one of the strongest in the area: the team captains before (and, I suspect, after) me won state and national competitions for which my losing record prevented me from even qualifying.

So how did I get elected captain? I was competing against debaters who were good at winning, which I was not. But I was great at losing. And greatness shines forth. (It was a landslide.) In the intervening quarter century, I’ve only become greater. Losing is where it’s at. You never know just how strong an idea is, just how much scrutiny it will withstand, until the moment when it gives way. Don’t get me wrong, it also hurts. Every time. The animating force behind the idea is your own mind—your cognitive essence. When you lose, you experience just how far your capacity to think takes you, which is to say, you experience it giving out.  That’s when it washes over you: the feeling of not knowing what you are talking about, the empty nothingness of your own mind.

When you die, you don’t experience that nothingness—I guess you sidle right up to the promised land, but then, before you know it, you’re dead. The tragedy of physical violence is that by the time you kill ’em, they’re gone. If you defeat your opponent in a duel of knives or pistols, the death you give her is one she can’t receive. Words are more powerful, because the loser feels her loss, all the way through, from beginning to end.

Socrates undersold philosophy when he described it as a preparation for death. Philosophy done right is death. The other kind of death is a simulacrum, a mere half death. If you want to know what it’s like to be nothing, nonexistent, don’t sit around waiting for the inevitable. Instead, lose. The upside of winning is pleasure and glory, but the cost of always winning is never getting to know how much more was in you. The only way to find the limit is to cross it. But you can’t lose unless you fight your heart out. Which is why I say, more fighting, more biting.

Image credit: Aaron Peterson / U.S. Navy (CC / BY Flickr)

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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. If circumstances prevent parties either from coming to a shared understanding as to who will win the fight, or trusting each other to abide by any agreement they form, war may in fact be the most rational solution. But these will be, in different ways, non-ideal cases. See J. D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization, 1995.
  • Kindle
  • Smith&Jones

    If philosophy q&a’s were primarily intended to be tests of the assailed’s inner strength, character of will, ability to stay calm under pressure, quickness of wit etc., then “more fighting, more biting” would be a good principle of conduct. But that’s not what most of us in the audience are after. We’d like the q&a to shed some light on the epistemic merits and/or defects of the arguments presented. Even when the initial blows exchanged are well placed, publicly observed philosophical fights too often degenerate into point scoring of the worst (and truth-irrelevant) kind . But if your main point is that destructive criticism should always be allowed in philosophical exchanges, I completely agree. Destroy, but destroy nicely.

  • liam

    (Please forgive the lack of paragraphs — this text field seems to have been setup to expect a single line) You might have an editing error. “[…]war as politics continued by another means, but that is a little like saying crawling is running continued by another means.” Perhaps you meant running is crawling by other means? I interpret Clausewitz to mean that War is the ultimate member in the spectrum of conflicts. Analogously running (or maybe sprinting) is the ultimate expression of bodily locomotion. This is all assuming that you didn’t intentionally interpret Clausewitz disingenuously to setup your quip. That would just be mean:) BTW, I think your point is incorrect (assuming you’re even seriously standing in for Durden). Some people simply don’t like conflict, and as a result will avoid situations where that is a likely result. For example, look to the recent Linus Torvalds’ debacle. Sure, that’s not philosophy but it shares an eerily similar structure, with the exception of the bizarro choir singing “Mean people make good code” supporting the idea of conflict.

  • Dieter Kief

    Arguing implies that there is right or wrong, better or worse; the good, the bad (the ugly). If stripped from these foundational oppositions, there is not much left in arguing, at least nothing, which couldn’t be found otherwise: The kind interaction with others, for example, or the feeling of pure and simple belonging etc. Arguing means to take the risk, to be outwitted (=to lose). Therefor, the paradox at the foundation of enlightenment culture: And this paradoxical foundation is the very insight, in Jürgen Habermas’ words, in the “forceless force of the better argument” – and – almost needless to say, but anyway, just to make this very clear: The wholehearted acceptance of this “forceless force” as our ticket to a better understanding of ourselves – and the world, too. So thanks Aron Peterson – great essay!

  • Saksin

    Sorry to disappoint you, but you won this one! Brilliantly analyzed, elegantly presented, and – I think – true.

  • S B Benjamin

    An interesting argument. I am not sure I agree that one’s self-knowledge is determined by losing an argument. It is certainly a sure-fire means of critical self-awareness, and that, I think, is the point. They are not the same thing. I think you are too vested in the concept of consciousness. Really stimulating though.

  • David Saltman

    Martial art students are advised to “invest in loss.” Your investment did not pay off because you were trying to win. The purpose of martial art is not to fight, nor even to win, but to survive, to defend oneself, to protect ones loved ones.

  • Andras

    “In other words, you like to think and it has to be to be separate from all the other verbs that fl0urish in the medium.

  • Victoria Wilson

    The esprit of Usque Ad Finem went out of fashion with world wars and atomic stand offs. The era of Bertrand Russel, Wells and Conrad all discussing their views while walking along pea gravel paths in English gardens is simply old fashioned. Agnes will have to bring the spirit back to a more modern venue and sensibility.

  • Matt Andersson

    It is perhaps somewhat unfortunate that the writer must even assert the otherwise historically self-evident pedagogic centrality of contention. In that regard she may reflect somewhat the modern academy culture of identitarianism and its effects in speech and behavior contours. Otherwise she may treble the insightful assertion made in part by Saul Bellow in his introduction to Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” that in the logic of a university society, everything must be put at risk, and one must put themselves utterly at risk. The so-called “Chicago Principles” may reflect in part that logic, despite its otherwise quizzical obedience to the previous administration’s university-wide DCL which was rather causal to both the propagation of counter-productive, self-auditing language, and the recent compensatory EO. With Regards, ’96

  • David Naas

    Philosophy ought be civil and not ruffle anyone’s feelings? Marvelous concept. Too bad Plato never heard of it. His representation of Socrates the old stonecutter squabbling – in a sneaky and underhanded method we glorify as “the Socratic method” – with any and all who were foolish enough to engage him. No wonder Athens gave him a bitter cup – the old pain in the tukus.

    Your series is interesting. One notes that the philosophers met in real life have been obnoxious snobs. (Part of the reason I chose to get away from academic snake-pits after college 50 years ago and live a life as a craftsman. And I could still read in the evenings. So, in one sense, I understand your string of failures, having experienced such myself.)

    Are you aware of the furor over Mortimer Adler’s Great Books program? It was thoroughly denounced as “middlebrow” by people with letters after their names. ( See “A Great Idea At The Time” by Alex Beam.) All it did was to make available to everyone, in English translation, the works professional philosophers had been reading for years. A heinous crime it was, to expose the masses to such material. Philosophy immediately retreated into obscure and arcane drivel by more modern “thinkers”, who added little to the Great Conversation, but whose obscurity, and the knowledge of same, served to justify those letters after names.

    So far as the artificial consensus at which philosophy (or at least professional philosophers) is supposed to arrive, May one ask, “Why?” From one of my favorite books, I steal the line, “Violence never solved anything? Tell that to the city fathers of Carthage.” Pistols at dawn. Or at least rapiers.

  • Mark

    An esteemed philosopher once told me I had a flat soul when I told him I did not care for a book that he recommended. Most other recommendations before that and subsequent to that dismissal have been spot on. I took the critique both to heart and mind. My best teachers, coaches and mentors were tough. During my adolescence both my complete understanding and willingness to hear and listen we’re not as good as I had assumed at that time. In my early 20s some irreverent tough mentors again found me. If they had not risked unselfishly to both love and offend me I could not respond to your thoughts in this same manner. It is akin to an argument with a lover or friend when we sense that the love or friendship is not at risk but the search for the common good together is in play. It is very precarious. We can be gaslighted. And sometimes we can’t see something that we are sure of until we can. Another mentor smiled at my disillusionment one afternoon. When I asked why he was making light of it ..he said this is good for you will not be walking around with the same illusions. Loving and teaching others are risks. They can be rejected. They are fraught with risk for both. Sometimes the esteemed philosopher is wrong. The life of the philosopher necessitates solitude. Solitude teaches us how to be with others. I reread the same book years later….I still have a flat soul.

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