On “Going Low”

I’m teaching critical reasoning this term. It’s one of my favorite classes because it’s so important. Few things are as empowering as being able to reason well. And yet this skill is also a source of enormous frustration in that it is so rare it’s also rarely appreciated. That is, it takes someone who is good at analyzing arguments to be able to recognize when someone else has actually legitimately won an argument rather than simply pummeled his opponent with a hodgepodge of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric.

I have to explain this to my students. I have to explain to them that reasoning well is actually a rare skill and that people who do not have it will often think they’ve won an argument when they haven’t. You can try, of course, to explain to them what is wrong with their pseudo-argumentation but most people won’t even be able to follow the explanation let alone accept they’ve been beaten in an argument.

This point was driven home to me again recently when I found myself on the receiving end of a hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric in the “Letters” section of the Times Literary Supplement in response to a critical review I had done of a book, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (Allen Lane, 2019), by one of their regular reviewers, Clare Carlisle.

The first barrage of pseudo argumentation came from Carlise herself who began her letter with the observation that she knew of me only via my “online dissections of other scholars’ work.” Of course I was thrilled to see my blog described this way, but Carlisle clearly did not intend it as a compliment. It was an ad hominem. That is, I am disparaged personally twice in that one sentence. I am purportedly obscure, in that my work has not come to Carlisle’s attention, hence I’m not qualified to comment on her book. Moreover, I’m not a nice person because I “dissect” the work of other scholars (I was actually taught that such dissection was an important part of what scholarship is.)

This ad hominem is followed immediately by a straw man. That is, Carlisle accuses me of being unable to appreciate the unique genre of her book. which is a combination of biography and philosophy. This is a straw man, which is to say a mischaracterization of one’s opponent’s argument, in that my criticism was that the book was in fact a combination of biography and fiction in that Carlisle simply makes up thoughts that she attributes to Kierkegaard without this qualification, and in that she gets some facts wrong.

This straw man is then followed by a claim that is demonstrably false. That is, I had mentioned in my review that the references in the book were incomplete. This charge, claimed Carlisle “is simply false.” Except that it isn’t simply false, as I detailed in a letter in the “Letters” section the following week where I cited by page number four of the many quotations for which she is missing references.

I doubt that Carlisle intentionally lied when she asserted that my charge that the book’s references were incomplete was false. She just didn’t bother to check to see if she might have forgotten to include a reference here or there.

Following immediately upon this falsehood is another straw man. Here, instead of responding to my observation that she had based her claim that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity on a conflation of two distinct Danish terms, she mischaracterizes my criticism as a claim that ambivalence and deep commitment are mutually exclusive and argues that it is possible to be both deeply committed to something and ambivalent about it. This point needs further qualification, of course, in that while it is certainly possible to have these conflicting feelings intermittently with respect to the same object, it is not possible to have them simultaneously with respect to the same object. They are mutually exclusive.

That’s not the point, however. The point is that whether it’s possible to be both ambivalent about something while also being deeply committed to it was entirely irrelevant to my criticism. My criticism was that Carlisle had used Kierkegaard’s pejorative references to “Christendom” to support her claim that he was ambivalent about Christianity when she should have known that Kierkegaard does not use “Christendom” to refer to Christianity. but to a culture that purports to be Christian but is not. I made that point very clear in my review, so it is disingenuous of Carlisle to ignore it and and argue instead against a point I did not make.

Carlisle next accuses me of “grim positivism,” a charge it would appear she does not even properly understand because she advances it against my criticism that her portrait of Kierkegaard is “not new” whereas positivism concerns whether claims have been adequately supported by evidence, not whether they are novel (for more on this charge see “‘Grim Positivism’ vs. Truthiness in Biography”).

Next Carlisle inserts a red herring in that she observes that “the facts of [Kierkegaard’s] life are expertly documented in the recently completed critical edition of his journals and in earlier biographies.” She doesn’t argue, as one might expect, that these other sources support her account of the facts of Kierkegaard’s life, hence her reference to them is a red herring. That is, whether the facts of Kierkegaard’s life have been documented somewhere else is irrelevant to the issue of whether she has gotten them right.

Following on this red herring is another ad hominem. Among the earlier biographies that she asserts, erroneously, have expertly documented the facts of Kierkegaard’s life is “Joakim Garff’s monumental SAK, which Piety has been hounding through the dark tunnels of her blog for years.” Unfortunately, whatever the strengths of Garff’s biography may be, expert documentation is not among them. In fact, some of Garff’s facts were proven by another Danish scholar, Peter Tudvad, to have been wrong. That is not the point, however. The point is that Carlisle invokes non-argumentative rhetoric (“dark tunnels”) to disparage both my character (I am a bully) and a blog that she clearly has not even read because if she had read it, she would realize that of the more than 115 posts, fewer than half a dozen have Garff or SAK as their subject and that one of those is very positive.

Carlisle closes, finally, with the informal fallacy known as the sob story, or appeal to pity, in that she asserts that she found it “rather difficult” to write Philosopher of the Heart, as if the fact that she struggled to produce the book could legitimately be advanced as a defense against substantive criticisms of it.

Carlisle’s letter to the editor of the TLS is, from beginning to end, nothing but informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric. Nowhere does she present a genuine response to any of the substantive criticisms I advanced against her book. What would possess Carlisle, a scholar, to write such a letter?

To return to the point about how few people have well-developed reasoning skills, people sometimes “go low,” so to speak, in their “argumentation” simply out of ignorance, or because they can’t distinguish legitimate arguments from pseudo-arguments. Public discourse in the U.S. is so riddled with informal fallacies, etc., and our educational system is generally so bad that it isn’t surprising that even purportedly educated people in this country often stoop to illegitimate rhetorical tactics to defend their positions.

I’d assumed that the situation was better in the U.K. I have to assume, however, that Carlisle is unaware that her letter is nothing but a collection of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric or she wouldn’t have allowed the TLS to print it. After all, scholars usually want to avoid creating a public record that their reasoning skills are weak. What’s going on, I wonder, with the the teaching of critical thinking in the U.K.? I was subjected to a similar hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric by another U.K. theologian, Daphne Hampson, a couple of years ago.

But even if Carlisle is unaware just how poor the reasoning in her letter was, she certainly cannot have failed to be aware that it is bad form to cast aspersions on the character of someone simply because she doesn’t like their evaluation of her work.

It’s tempting to conclude that Carlisle is simply very ill-mannered. I have it on good authority, however, that she’s actually ”a very fine person.” How is it possible, then, that a very fine person could behave so very badly?

The answer to that question is contained in the letter itself. Someone has clearly disparaged me to her. By her own admission she does not know me and is unfamiliar with my work. She has not even actually read my blog or she would have known better than to charge that I use it to harass Joakim Garff. No, Carlisle has herself no first-hand knowledge of the blog, or at least had none when she wrote her letter. Someone had simply told her about it, and about me. Someone had slandered me to her, told her that I was a bad person, so she felt entitled to “go low” in her letter to the editor on the basis of that slander.

“Civility is a wonderful thing, when shared among equals,” writes Jennifer Weiner in a recent article in the New York Times entitled ”Why Did It Feel So Good To See Trump Booed? We are supposed to ”go high” she observes, quoting the former First Lady, even when others go low. ”Except,” she continues, ”it turns out, going low feels wonderful. More than that, if feels effective and proper and just.” “When you’re confronted with evil,” she continues, however, “you don’t shake its hand … If booing is incivility, bring it on.”

Carlisle has been led to believe that I am a bad person, so rather than responding to the substance of my criticisms of her book, she has effectively booed me. That doesn’t mean, of course, that she is not generally “a very fine person.” I’ve seen other purportedly very fine people behave similarly toward individuals they thought were undeserving of civility. It’s an ugly sight. It reminds me of pack animals turning on a member of the pack they deem to be weak. It makes me doubt sometimes that there really is a significant difference between human beings and those animals.

If standards of decency and decorum really are reserved for those we deem to merit decent treatment, then we really are no better than those animals and civilization as we like to think of it, is a chimera.

I will close with the very Kierkegaardian point that the way one treats another person should be a reflection of one’s own character, not of the character, or imagined character, of the other.

(This essay originally appeared in the 1 November 2019 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.)



On Political Bullying and the Hell of Knee-Jerk Feminism

Portrait caricatureI understand Bernie Sanders has a huge flock of male chauvinist supporters. That seems implausible, doesn’t it? I’m not disputing that someone is posting offensive sexist responses to comments by Clinton supporters on various websites. What I’m skeptical of is the claim that such comments are coming from Sanders’ supporters. I’m not saying there is no such thing as a genuine leftist who is also sexist. They exist. The British are particularly prone to this personality disorder. I doubt, however, that there are many British who are all that involved in online debates among the supporters of various candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in the U.S.

The purported “Bernie Bros” movement is about as plausible as a group called “Vegans for Trump.” In fact, “Bernie bros” sounds very much like an invention of some public relations firm hired by the Clinton campaign. You remember the public relations industry, the people who invented equally implausible fake “grassroots” groups such as the “National Smokers Alliance,” “a supposedly independent organization of individual smokers which claimed that bans on smoking in public places infringed on basic American freedoms” (Trust Us, We’re Experts, p. 239), and the “Wise Use” movement, a fake grassroots group opposed to environmentalism (Trust Us, We’re Experts, p. 20).

The Bernie Bros have been charged with “mansplaining” political issues to Clinton supporters. It wasn’t clear to me, at first, what “mansplaining” was, so I looked it up. It’s apparently a type of explanation that is condescending or patronizing, typically made by a man to a woman whom he assumes may have difficulty understanding what he is trying to say because she is, well, a woman. Now that, of course, is bad. From what I have been able to gather, however, the “mansplaining” of Sanders’ supporters is characterized not by condescension or contempt, but by factual references and valid inferences. That is, Bernie Bro “mansplainers” use sound arguments as rhetorical clubs to beat down the specious arguments of people who claim that the facts, and the valid inferences that can be drawn from them, are not relevant to the issue of Clinton’s fitness to hold the highest office in the land.

I have to tell you that, as a woman, I take offense at the implication that sound arguments are somehow inherently masculine and that using them to defend one’s political position constitutes a type of bullying. It can indeed be humiliating to have one’s errors in reasoning publicly exposed, and I have a certain sympathy for the plight of Clinton supporters for whom this ordeal must seem unrelenting. No one is forcing them to go to the barricades, however, for someone whose record makes her effectively indefensible.

Polls suggest that Clinton’s main supporters are older women. That makes me wonder whether the teaching of critical reasoning is a relatively recent pedagogical development. Learning to recognize fallacious arguments and non-argumentative rhetoric, takes some training (see philosopher Stephen Stich’s “Could Man Be An Irrational Animal”, Synthese 64 [1985] 115-135”). Perhaps many older women failed to receive that training.

Madeleine Albright appears, in any case, never to have taken a first-year critical reasoning course. Albright rebuked female Sanders supporters at a rally for Clinton in New Hampshire. She reminded everyone that the battle for gender equality had not yet been won, that there was still much work to be done before it would be, and that part of that work involved supporting Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Just remember,” she concluded, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Really, Madeleine? Do you really think women should support other women simply because they are women? Where would you draw the line? Should women always support other women who seek political office, not matter what their views? Should all the women in the U.K. have supported Margaret Thatcher, simply because she was a woman, even if they disagreed with her conservative views? So women don’t get the same freedom of choice as men do? They don’t get to vote their consciences? And if they dare to do that, they’re bad people?

That sort of effort at persuasion is, in fact, a very specific form of informal fallacy known as “peer pressure,” which is itself one of a family of informal fallacies referred to as “appeals to emotion.” When you can’t get people to agree with your position on its merits, just try making them feel really bad about disagreeing with you. So instead of Clinton supporters attempting to use sound reasoning to persuade women that Clinton is the better Democratic candidate, they hurl invectives at them such as “You’re betraying women!” or better yet: “You’re going to hell!”

Really, Madeleine? Do you really think this generation of educated young women is going to be taken in by such transparently underhanded rhetorical tactics as that? Really, Hillary? You’re not going to denounce that kind of tactic?

If you want an example of bullying, there it is.

There was a time, way back in the early days of feminism, when some cognitively challenged feminist scholars argued that logic was inherently masculine, that while men made decisions based on reasoning and logic, women made them based on intuitions and emotions and that this was an equally valid way of making decisions (see, for example Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice). Fortunately, this view has few followers nowadays. Years of increased access for women to high-quality education has made it glaringly obvious that men do not have a monopoly on rationality and that the whole logic versus emotions view of reasoning was itself a false dichotomy based on an inadequate understanding of the complexity of rational thought.

Albright is right, of course, in her observation that women’s fight to “climb the ladder” of equality with men is not done. Bullying them to vote for a candidate against their own better judgement is hardly going to advance that cause, however. The Clinton campaign’s knee-jerk “feminism” is creating a hell of its own, and not just for women who refuse to jump on the Clinton bandwagon, but for all women, because it will only confirm in the minds of horrified onlookers that women are not actually so rational as they claim and hence will set the whole feminist movement back decades.

(This piece originally appeared in the 26 February 2016 issue of Counterpunch.)

The Mythical Socrates

I picked up a book recently called The Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2001). I’m interested in books like that, books that try to popularize philosophy. One of the things I love about teaching philosophy is that everyone has an interest in it. It’s not like teaching math or chemistry or some other special-interest topic. Everyone philosophizes, some people are better at it than other people, and some people take more pleasure in it than other people, but everyone does it to some extent. That makes it much easier to get a good discussion going in a philosophy class than it often is, I think, in other sorts of classes.

So anyway, as I was saying, I’m interested in books that attempt to popularize philosophy because I think that’s a very worthwhile project. Philosophers, God bless them, tend to be abysmal writers and hence real turnoffs to students who might actually be interested in their views if they could only get past the achingly awkward prose. I keep looking for a contemporary work that will take the time-honored insights of the great philosophers and express them in a way that is actually entertaining to read. Some of these new books do read pretty well, at least compared to Aristotle or Kant. I almost always give up on them though before I can finish them because they tend to be just a little bit patronizing and simplistic. The reason philosophers have been struggling with the same questions for millennia is not simply that they are perennial human questions. They are perennial human questions because none of them is simple and none admits of a simple answer.

That’s the difficulty with trying to popularize philosophy. There’s something about it, as a sustained activity in any case, that is inherently elitist. It’s difficult. It requires extraordinarily well-developed powers of concentration. I take great pains to explain this to my students. “You have to stick with it,” I tell them, “I know it’s frustrating and confusing, but if you just stick with it, it gets easier with time. You get better at it.” Reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (or the “first Critique” as we in the profession call it, to distinguish it from the second and third Critiques, those of Practical Reason and Judgment) used to make my head hurt, literally make my head hurt. And writing about that work, for the first time had an effect on me not unlike that of a hallucinogenic drug. Does “a priori synthetic cognition” actually mean anything I wondered with rising panic as I pecked away at my typewriter (oh yeah, that was back in the days when college students did their papers on typewriters). My thoughts seemed to have become unmoored from concrete reality, to have taken flight a là Munchausen into a fantastical realm populated with all sorts of fictional concepts that had no clear relation to anything real.

But then I read The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, which, despite the inclusion of the off-putting expression “metaphysics” in the title (I still don’t know what that means and endeavor simply to change the subject when my students ask), is much more accessible. It made me like Kant and figure that after all, there was probably some merit to the apparently impenetrable “first Critique.”

So I kept at it, not so much because I liked reading it, or writing about it (those are acquired tastes), but because, as I have written elsewhere, I liked talking about it and as with so much else in life, I understood that I had to take the good with the bad. I kept at it and got better at it. But it’s a lonely discipline in a way because it develops one’s analytical powers far beyond the state that everyday experience normally facilitates and so can cause one to find ordinary discourse enormously frustrating and counterproductive. I try to warn my students about this, particularly in my Critical Reasoning course where I endeavor not simply to help my students analyze arguments, but also to construct strong arguments of their own. I teach them to eschew such underhanded rhetorical devices as straw man and ad hominem arguments in favor of legitimate appeals to reason, but then explain with a certain melancholy that mastering genuine argument brings a very different kind of frustration from the one associated with the failure to master it. Once you get really good at this, I explain, you will find that there are relatively few people who will be able to appreciate your skill. People ought to be persuaded by the arguments you will make, but, many of them won’t be because they won’t be able to follow them. Many people will simply refuse, for example, to accept that the straw man and ad hominem arguments are not legitimate and will continue to use them and myriad other illegitimate argumentative strategies in response to your sound logic and you should not be surprised, I continue, if it happens that the majority of your audience assesses your idiot opponent’s argument as in fact stronger than your own. (I try to make this little speech before the official drop deadline. It seems only fair, and I often do lose a few of the less stout hearted at that point.)

Philosophy is thus an intellectually elitist discipline. I don’t know if it has to be that way. Differences of temperament would mean, of course, that even in an ideal society, philosophy would have more appeal for some people than for others. Ours in not an ideal society however. We seem to do everything within our power to impede the development of sound reasoning in the populace. We have been trying since the dawn of this “great nation,” to reserve genuine education not for those who demonstrate intellectual aptitude, but for the economically elite, and even they receive an education that is far too authoritarian to be optimally effective in developing reasoning powers. And as if the wretched state of our educational system were not bad enough, we add insult to the injury it inflicts on the minds of the citizenry by showering them with public discourse that is nothing buy empty platitudes and a parade of the very same fallacious arguments that are cataloged in informal logic texts, as well as with marketing strategies such as “branding” that are effectively a repackaging of the notorious technique of ancient sophists of making the weaker argument appear the stronger. It’s a wonder that anyone in contemporary American culture is able to preserve enough of his or her reason to understand the basic relations of cause and effect (and in fact, many do tend to confuse correlation with causation).

Sound reasoning is a skill that has to be cultivated and which it requires some time to cultivate. Most people are not, in fact, particularly good at it partly through lack of adequate instruction, and partly through lack of time. The average person has very little time to devote to such an esoteric enterprise and if that’s true now, it was even truer in Socrates’ day. That’s the first thing that put me off about Phillips’ book, The Socrates Café. His Socrates is a mythical reconstruction of what we know of the real man. Socrates, he asserts, talked with everyone, with the common man on the street. Socrates, he continues, didn’t think “knowledge was the rarified domain of so-called intellectuals” (8). The latter claim may be true, but the former emphatically is not. Socrates did not spend his time conversing with the man on the street. His interlocutors were aristocrats, important public figures, the wealthy, people who had time to hang out all day and talk, figures such as Critias and Charmides, members of the notorious group, referred to as “the thirty tyrants,” who ruled Athens after its defeat by Sparta. , Nicias, Laches and Meno, military and political leaders duiring the Pelopennesian war, Euthyphro, a recognized authority on matters of religion, and Gorgias a famous orator.

The sarcasm in Socrates’ protestations that he wanted to learn from his interlocutors is obvious to scholars who know anything about the history of Athens of the period, but is apparently lost on the general public. Phillips admits at one point that “in some instances [Socrates] seems intentionally to try to make those who claim to know ‘the way, the truth, and the light’ look bad, or at least silly” (18). I would argue, however, that he is nearly always doing this. Socrates, at least Plato’s Socrates was a ruthless exposer of intellectual ineptitude and hypocrisy and not merely in the abstract as was the case, for example with Nietzsche, but concretely. Socrates’ little dialogues were a kind of blood sport the victims of which were famous public figures. I’ve often wondered whether Plato’s Socrates was Plato’s way of avenging himself on the culture that had condemned and executed his mentor. There’s long been speculation concerning how closely Plato’s Socrates reflects the real man. Perhaps the real man was more benign than the Platonic reconstruction of him. The question, however, is merely academic because it is Plato’s Socrates people have in mind when they go on about how egalitarian and democratic he was, how he would converse with anyone. Few people seem to understand that the contemporary counterpart of one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues would be a public interrogation of Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, not the sort of impromptu discussion Phillips conducts amongst people who wander into the average Barnes and Noble.

Phillips claims he wants to converse with “everyman” and “everywoman” (8). If you actually try this, however, you will find it unutterably frustrating. Just because someone wants to talk, does not mean he’s going to talk sense. It’s not difficult to get together a group of people who enjoy spending an evening shouting platitudes at one another, or reducing sound statements to meaninglessness through over analysis . “[T]he one firm and lasting truth that has emerged from all the Socrates Café discussions I’ve taken part in,” asserts Phillips, “is that it is not possible to examine, scrutinize, plumb, and mine a question too thoroughly and exhaustively” (9). I would argue, however, that that it is possible to examine a question too much, that it is possible to dissect legitimate questions in such an arbitrary and capricious manner that they eventually seem meaningless. Much of what passes for philosophical dialogue is often just such chatter. It seems to me that sometimes when people think they are doing philosophy, they are really only exercising their lungs in the way physicians say babies do when they cry.

There’s a difference between liking to talk and wanting to get at the truth. There are many more people who enjoy the sound of their own voice than there are people who want to find truth. It’s a myth that you can do philosophy with anyone. You ought to be able to, of course, because, as I observed at the beginning of this essay, everyone philosophizes, at least to some extent. The problem is that most people do it poorly (whether because of nature or nurture, I don’t know). To assert, however, that philosophy is an intellectually elitist discipline is not to say that it is properly reserved for professionals. There are plenty of professional philosophers who are more enamored of the sound of their own voice than of the truth. To say that philosophy is intellectually elitist is to say that it appeals to a rarified portion of humanity–the real thinkers.

Part of my job, I feel, as a philosophy professor, is to increase the proportion of real thinkers in the population, to expose people to the joys of thought, of the contemplative life. It is impossible, after all, to have a taste for something one has never experienced. There are so few opportunities to experience genuine intellectual stimulation in our anti-intellectual culture that I assume many of my students will be encountering it for the first time. I try to bring the joy I take from it with me into the classroom because people are animals and can thus sense, on an animal level, when someone is excited. I figure if they sense I am excited about my discipline that they will assume there’s something inherently exciting about it and hence become interested in it.

I look at my students when I talk to them. I try to look at all of them, to make eye contact with each of them in the course of a single lecture. It’s a challenge though because by about the third class there is always this select little group of three, or four, or five, who are hanging on my every word, and not because of any particular affection they have for me, but because they have come, as Kierkegaard would say, under the sway of the idea, and I find myself almost irresistibly drawn to speaking to them rather than to the class as a whole.

That’s a beautiful thing to behold, a young face illuminated by the joy of thought. It’s this particular joy, I believe, that distinguishes human beings from other animals. Everything else we do, even making tools, would appear to distinguish us only quantitatively rather than qualitatively from other creatures. Only the capacity to become enraptured by thought appears completely unique to human beings. It’s part of our distinctive beauty as a species, like speed, or agility, or even cunning distinguishes other species. But if all human beings have this capacity, few seem to realize it. That’s a mystery to me. I like to think it’s more nurture than nature that’s the problem. I thus try, both in the classroom and outside, to make up for what I fear are certain deficiencies in the intellectual environments of my students.

I know though, I know going into a classroom, that there will be only a few in each group who will respond. It’s these few I look for as my eyes scan the horizon of faces. Kierkegaard was fond of referring to his “reader” in the singular. I used to think that that was just one of his eccentricities. It makes sense to me now though. There are always only a few genuine thinkers in every group. Socrates understood that. He knew that however large were the crowds that would gather at his spectacles of intellectual flaying, there were only a few who were really listening.

There are always only a few who really listen. Still, one never knows who those few will be. That’s the sense in which philosophy is egalitarian even if, sadly, it is not for everyone. Socrates understood that. He knew you couldn’t really converse with everyone. He was looking for those few real thinkers just as assuredly as Diogenes was looking for those few honest men. He never tired of that search though, and neither do I.