Copyright © Norman Swartz 1994
This revision: April 9, 1994
Department of Philosophy
Simon Fraser University

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Philosophy as a Blood Sport


This essay was written for a Festschrift for David Zimmerman, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.

Festschriften are, by custom, celebratory in nature. And so I must ask indulgence in my offering this somber, downbeat, essay. I am sure that David will not take it amiss. It is certainly not my desire to rain on David's parade. Indeed, knowing of his intense sense of fairness, I suspect that he might even agree with some of what I have written. In any event, I have been talking about these matters with several colleagues in the Department over a period of many months, and it is time I put some of this in writing. This Festschrift provides only the occasion. I assure everyone that I had no particular philosophers, save the one faulted in the first paragraph, in mind when I wrote it.

It was back in the spring of 1965.  I was a graduate student at Indiana University and the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association was holding its annual convention in Chicago. I and a few of my classmates drove from the campus at Bloomington to Chicago for the weekend meetings. At those meetings I witnessed the rudest, the most ill-mannered, performance I have ever seen by a philosopher. Robert Imlay read a paper, "Do I Really Ever Raise My Arm?" G*** B*** was in the audience. Immediately when Imlay had finished speaking, B*** was on his feet, usurping the meeting's Chair of his scheduled role. B*** fumed: "You have got it all wrong. I am going to tell you what you should have said. Then, when I have said that, I will leave this room because I do not care how you will reply." Whereupon B*** did just as he announced. He gave an impromptu talk of a few minutes, standing at his place in the audience, and then he turned and strode out of the room. Grover Maxwell, who was chairing the meeting, recovered admirably, and - pretending that none of this had happened at all - said, eloquently, "And now let us begin."1

To this young graduate student, terribly naive about professional courtesies and mores, the incident was, although incredible, not particularly disturbing. It was titillating; it had a taste of scandale.

But with the perspective acquired over more than twenty-five ensuing years, having been involved both as spectator of, and participant in, numerous further public exchanges between philosophers, I now see that spontaneous piece of theater not as an isolated aberration but, sorrowfully, as only my first exposure to a number of such incidents.

Philosophers, of course, are supposed to be critical. We have trained, and daily refine our skills, at exposing the errors in others' work. But while the exposing of error is an essential part of the doing of philosophy, it is not all there is to doing philosophy. Far too much of the practice of philosophy, both written and dialogical, has become one-sided: finding what is wrong in someone else's work and failing to find what is right, useful, and meritorious in that work.

It is revelatory to attend the colloquia of academics and researchers outside of philosophy. The ambience is often, indeed almost invariably, radically different from meetings of philosophers. Philosophers have much to learn from those examples.

I remember when as an undergraduate, a year before I was to switch my career to philosophy, I took a summer job at the General Electric Research Laboratory, a scientific mecca which, at that time at least, was the largest privately funded research lab in the world. Every Friday afternoon there was a visiting researcher scheduled to deliver a talk in the auditorium explaining his latest research.2 These sessions were well-attended and keenly anticipated. The discussions following the talks were animated and exciting. And they were totally unlike much of what I have experienced in philosophy. To the best of my recollection, there was not a single instance at GE of anyone's ever challenging the speaker on anything said. Instead these sessions were made up entirely of replies of this nature: "I'm working on such-and-such. Do you think I could adopt your techniques for what I am doing?"; or, "I think I can help you with so-and-so aspect of your problem. Let's get together on this."; or, "Have you heard of x's results (/techniques)? I think his results (/techniques) could be useful to you."; etc.

In other words, the discussions were invariably, and wholly, given over to trying to enhance, and make use of, one another's work, to a cooperativeness, and selflessness that was natural, easy, and uninhibited. No one tried to 'score any points' off anybody else; no one tried to attack any other person's work.

Since then I have witnessed the same friendly collegiality numerous times among other academics, and by 'other' I mean 'non-philosophers'. Granted there have been occasions when I have seen philosophers behave in a similarly admirable manner. But I have also seen too many occasions when philosophers have 'gone for the jugular'.

Is the blood lust I am speaking-of the cause of the underrepresentation of women in our profession? Does our very manner - collectively speaking of course, there are many individual exceptions - of doing philosophy repel the gentler, kinder, souls among our students? Have we adopted a collective personality which perpetuates itself by driving away those students who do not share our aggressiveness? These questions are, of course, sociological ones, ones whose answers call upon empirical research, and - as philosophers - we do not much ourselves conduct empirical research. But we must not fall back upon a priori answers.

As a father of a daughter who is pursuing a Ph.D. degree in philosophy, I have been afforded a rare opportunity to see academic philosophers from the outside, through someone else's eyes. But it is not just, or even especially, Diane's views which have troubled me. It is, rather, that she has been the catalyst for my seeking to learn from my own students how they view philosophers and, along with that, the contemporary practice of philosophy. Many of my women students, having finally been invited to offer their opinions and to relate their experiences, have been forthcoming. And what stories I have heard.

What so many persons currently practicing philosophy, currently serving as role models and mentors to students, find exhilarating - the cut and thrust of verbal battle - antagonizes, indeed offends, many students. Colloquia are viewed by these students - especially women - as the academic counterparts of courtroom battles. (Is there something of F. Lee Bailey, Louis Nizer, and Melvin Belli in many of us?) My students tell me that there is a palpable feeling of combat in philosophy paper readings and colloquia. And with their having alerted me to it, I, too, have come to sense it. Moreover, certain anecdotal evidence suggests that aggressive challenging of guest speakers' theses has chilling effects on many of our students. For example, my best student of a year or two ago, a student with a real flair for philosophy, told me that she wanted no part of the hostility she felt at colloquia, and, despite my trying to convince her otherwise, was determined to leave philosophy. So far as I know, she has.3

It is not only in meetings. I find something of the same ruthlessness in many journal articles, and to an even greater extent in the reports that journal referees write about others' work. I have, in various capacities, had opportunity to read a fair number of referees' reports. Many of them leave me incredulous. What is there about writing an anonymous report on another's work that empties the spleen of so many philosophers? Time and again, I have had to edit referees' reports so as to make them, simply, civil. (Steven Davis, who sees far more referees' reports than I do, has told me that he, too, finds many of them outrageously hostile.)

I am not remotely suggesting that we not attend to, still less desist from, the uncovering of error in philosophical work. But there are ways of doing this that are humane and honorable, and other ways that are insulting and unseemly. A person's stature as a philosopher is not diminished by generosity and sensitivity. One thinks, for example, of Carl Hempel. Those who have known him personally (I have not) invariably speak of his kindness, and that humanity reflects in his writings: we look in vain there for a 'put down' of other philosophers. In Hempel's work we see how it is possible to do philosophy extremely well without savagery. (Happily many other names come to mind as well.) But, by and large, or at any rate, to a greater extent than is warranted, philosophy has a vicious streak. If we really care about our profession, we need to reverse its destructive tendencies.

To be sure, what I have expressed here are opinions. You well may disagree with me. But if you are inclined to dismiss what I have written, do try to elicit views from students, not just those who have cast their lot with us, viz. the senior undergraduates and graduates, but from beginning students, most of whom abandon philosophy courses after initial exposure. It is easy to explain the attrition as being due to students' inability to meet the high standards of the profession. But ought we to be sure that that is the principal reason? Might there be something else which disaffects students? Something not about philosophy itself, so much as about philosophers themselves?

Readers' comments and discussions
  1. Robert Imlay recalls the incident exactly as I do and has provided me with some additional information. It turns out that the meeting was the first time Imlay had ever read a paper in public. To this day, he regards B***'s onslaught as the most traumatic episode of his professional career.

  2. This was the early 1960s. I do not recall even one woman as guest speaker that entire summer.

  3. There is as well a significant further category of loss. Susan Wendell speaks of this in a note (25/07/92) she wrote me on reading a draft of this paper: "In addition to the consequences you point out, I think that the performance-under-fire aspect of presenting and hearing papers gives our students a false picture of philosophy. After all, a philosophic position is not proven false just because Jane Q. Philosopher can not instantly think of a good rebuttal to a criticism from the audience, nor is Jane thus proven to be a bad philosopher. Unfortunately, uncharitable opinions of precisely these sorts often are fostered in such circumstances. Even what looks to be a devastating criticism is sometimes seen to be smoke-and-mirrors after a few hours of hard thought. Many students, however, come to value the quick and clever point too highly. I have seen too many smart alecks, who have no significant ability to listen, produced by a philosophical education."

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