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06/12/2012

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Moti Mizrahi

It seems to me that there is a “Darwinian” reason for cultivating a more supportive environment in philosophy. The ultra-competitive “red in tooth and claw” philosophical environment selects for certain traits, such as thinking quickly on one’s feet. However, it seems to me that, as a profession, we want careful thinkers, not quick thinkers. To put it in stronger terms, we want philosophers who are careful thinkers, not sophists who can bedazzle an audience. Unlike the ultra-competitive environment that selects for sophists, a supportive environment seems to be the kind of environment that selects for careful thinkers. That is why a supportive environment is the kind of professional environment we should promote.

Marcus Arvan

A nice point. I recently had a run-in with a person like this at a conference. They parried audience questions (including mine) brilliantly, but I felt along along as though we were all debating the sophist Gorgias. The parries -- as brilliant as they were -- largely seemed far more like clever wordplay (and not just to me) than worthwhile philosophy.

Mark Alfano

I feel like I'm always saying, "Yes, but..." on this blog.

Yes: I agree that we want a discipline that selects for careful, innovative, and creative thought, not just quick thought. The gladiatorial model often seems to select for the latter rather than the former.

But: Having been to (a few) philosophy conferences and (many) literature conferences (my wife is an English Ph.D.) where the gladiatorial model was eschewed, I worry about what replaces it. There are terrific conferences such as the MEW (https://sites.google.com/site/wiscmew/) and the Bowling Green Workshop in Applied Philosophy (http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/phil/conferences/manipulation/index.html) where difficult objections are raised without the seeming animus that of the gladiatorial model. In my experience, objections at these conferences are offered and treated as potentially helpful commentary, as part of a collaborative project of revising a philosophical view to make it more interesting or more likely to be true. That's terrific -- the best kind of conference I've ever attended. There's another model, though, that often replaces the gladiatorial one, in which the q&a is almost entirely 1) congratulating the speaker, 2) saying what I think, regardless of what the speaker said, or 3) asking the speaker to spell out further details of the view. These conferences (I won't name names) are hellishly boring, with everyone trapped in their hermeneutical bubbles.

The upshot: it's important not only to critique the reigning model but also to argue in detail for a replacement. My preference ranking is collaborative truth-seeking > gladiatorial >>> hermeneutic bubble.

Marcus Arvan

Completely agree, Mark. It's undeniably important not to replace blood sport with a self-congratulatory hermeneutic bubble. But I don't think that's what was being suggested or implied. As you note, there's a clear difference between engaging in mean-spirited, gladitorial grandstanding and well-meant, supportive, incisive critique. I hope we all accept the importance of the latter, and the suggestion was that those of us who are ready and willing to promote that approach should get off our rears and do what we can to help move the profession more in that direction.

Kyle Whyte

People of color in philosophy certainly talk a lot about this particular issue. My take on it is that it's not really the adversarial nature of some philosophical communities by itself, but the way in which adversity gets coupled with privilege, which makes spaces unsafe, unwelcoming, and hostile. There are a lot of benefits to being in a competitive, sometimes (and appropriately) adversarial field. But if competitiveness and adversity are just so many additional tools that philosophers with social privilege use, consciously or not, to exclude diverse people and reaffirm their misinformed assumptions about these people and the philosophical issues that interest them - well there's a problem.

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