Adversarialism in Philosophy: A Prosecution

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In “Adversarialism in Philosophy: A Defence,” Joseph Heath endorses the adversarial disciplinary culture in which philosophers “tear apart” their colleagues’ arguments. Not that they should be assholes about it, which is apparently how surgeons are, since they tend to yell and swear at each other (although not during research talks; rather, they wait until people are out in the hallway to declare that what they’ve just heard is “a piece-of-shit” and so on). Heath wants to uphold the distinction between being an adversary and being an asshole, although he admits that there are a fair number of the latter in philosophy as well. He also wants to claim that philosophy is fundamentally about problem-creating rather than problem-solving, and so he contrasts what Socrates and philosophical sceptics get up to with the constructive work of economists. Philosophers need to try and prove their colleagues wrong since they are subject as much as anyone else to biases that confirm their hypotheses. Indeed, adversarialism is essential if philosophy is to maintain itself as an academic discipline instead of devolving into quackery, conspiracy theories, and claims to have seen Jesus in one’s toast. “I really think,” concludes Heath, “that the only thing keeping us tethered to the world is the disciplinary culture, and the fact that we have to defend ourselves, in a room full of people who have spent decades listening to arguments and identifying bad ones.”


Adversarialism, eh? Alright then, to start I want to point out that philosophers have been pushing this macho schtick from the beginning. Socrates is indeed their hero; if only they could do what he does, whether it be reducing their debating partners to silence or, even better, extracting succinct concessions to their intellectual superiority: “Yes, Socrates,” “You are quite right, Socrates,” “That is indeed true, Socrates,” “I dare say, Socrates,” and so on. Let’s face it, what they really want is to be just like Alice Cooper. Plato and his buddies loved to promote the myth that theirs was the rational, civilized alternative to Homer’s warrior ethic, but in fact their real desire was, and is, simply to continue the fight with words instead of weapons. It’s not for nothing that Plato has been called “the war lover” and Derrida has rallied his fellow deconstructionists to engage in a “violence against violence.” Musil was right: “Philosophers are violent and aggressive persons who, having no army at their disposal, bring the world into subjection to themselves by means of locking it up in a system.”

So, yes, Socrates was an asshole. Imagine how frustrating it must have been to try and explore ideas with this elenchic-obsessed wanker who never, ever listens. Don’t believe them when they tell you that he raised his questions in good faith! In fact, not once in all of Plato’s so-called dialogues does Socrates say something like “you’re right, I was mistaken” or “I never thought of it that way before” or “thank you, I’ve really learned something here.” One translation of the ancient Greek “dia-” is “between,” which tells us that genuine dialogue requires at least two interlocutors (since only that way can there be a between) each of whom is open to being changed by what they hear. Otherwise, you get only unidirectional monologue. “It wasn’t at all like conversation,” thought Alice, “as he never said anything to her.”

So what philosophers need, as I argued in an essay awhile back, is to distinguish between hostile opposition, the adversarial kind in which one gains only when, and to the degree which, one’s opponent loses, and cooperative opposition, which is what friends engage in when they disagree as only it can produce a win-win outcome. And given that truth is what those supposedly constructive economists would call a “perfectly non-rival good,” since learning it detracts not at all from someone else doing so, which form of opposition do you think is best for philosophy?

Not that cooperative opposition will be the norm this blog, obviously. Let’s face it, the adversarial kind is much more fun. And, sometimes, it’s okay to swing one’s sword for show. Moreover, having reached a certain age, it dawned on me that I’ve become a bit of a crank. But surely, I thought, I can aim for something more than the feeling of cheap satisfaction that comes from yelling the equivalent of “Get off my lawn!” at the computer screen. Hence my blog posts, which will shadow the writings of a number of other blogs as well as columnists, etc., in way that treads a path in between adversarial and cooperative opposition. Serious criticism, yes, but with a smile.


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