Dialogue, Debate, and Conversational Pathology in Professional Philosophy.

1. The Decline and Fall of Philosophical Conversation from Socrates to Chalmers

 Philosophy as we know it began in Socratic dialogue, and in Plato’s Dialogues; and in certain ways, it has been going downhill ever since.

From Socrates and Plato forward, till the specious present, the activity of real philosophy consists in (i) synoptic thinking about the human condition and the larger world in which we live, move, and have our being, (ii) externally expressing and sharing that activity of thinking via conversation, and (iii) further communicating and disseminating that thinking to others.

As represented by Plato, the primary external vehicles for the activity of philosophy in its earliest phase were philosophical conversations in small communities, like that of Socrates and his friends in the agora.

As philosophy shifted its locus to more structured communities like Plato’s own Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, and then later in the late medieval period, after the return of ancient Greek texts via the Arabic tradition, at universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris, and in the Schools of the Scholastics, the primary external vehicles for doing philosophy were tutorials, lectures, and of course written texts.

Let’s call this the academic model for externally doing philosophy.

Once firmly in place, in the mid-to-late 18th century, the university-based, academic model for externally doing philosophy via tutorials, lectures, and written texts held sway through the end of the 19th century.

Then in the early decades of the 20th century, something odd happened, with the conjoint emergence of Analytic philosophy and professional academic philosophy.

A specifically professional academic model for externally doing philosophy gradually came into existence, and by the end of World War II, it had conquered; and ever since then, it has dominated both institutionally and ideologically.

The simultaneous emergence of philosophical societies like the APA, of philosophy congresses and conventions, and of departmental symposia and lecture series, etc., etc., provided, and still provide, for its full manifestation, propagation, and hegemony.

I will call this hegemonic professional academic model for externally doing philosophy, the debating society model.

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and later writings, during the heyday of what he himself had dubbed “the linguistic turn,” Rorty evocatively described the external doing of philosophy as conversation.

But since the 1980s, there has been a steady decline and fall of Rortyan philosophical conversation into the current death-like pathological condition of debate, aka “discussion.”

Don’t be fooled by the clever obfuscating terminology, the old sophistical switcheroo that puts in ‘discussion’ for ‘debate’.

“Philosophical discussion” is just philosophical debate.

That the debating society model of externally doing philosophy really and truly is a conversational pathology that has killed contemporary professional academic philosophy as an external activity and enterprise is clearly and distinctly shown by David Chalmers’s unintentionally hilarious, kindergarten-teacher-like, hyper-disciplined “Guidelines for [blah blah blah, insert politically correct boilerplate here] Philosophical Discussion,” which I re-post in full at the end of this essay.

What is most ironic about Chalmers’s “Guidelines,” of course, is that Chalmers himself is (or anyhow,  once was, before he became a professional academic kindergarten teacher)  the smartest, shootin-est, fastest-talkin-est, most impressive debater in contemporary professional philosophy.

2. Dialogue vs. Debate, and the Philosophical Night of the Living Dead

Now back to Socrates and Plato.

What happened to philosophical conversation from its beginnings in The Age of Socrates and Plato to its decline, fall, and death in The Age of Chalmers?

Clearly, philosophical dialogue became philosophical debate, aka “philosophical discussion.”

Leaving aside philosophy for a moment, here are some fundamental conceptual differences between dialogue and debate.

  • Dialogue requires temporarily suspending one’s own beliefs, encourages critical reflection on them, listens in order to understand and find meaning, and opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions. Dialogue discovers new common aims and thoughts. Debate dogmatically asserts one’s own beliefs, negatively criticizes by denying the validity of others’ beliefs, listens only in order to be able to refute, and presupposes that one’s own position is the only acceptable or possible solution to any problem. Debate digs in its heels and suppresses or even kills shared creative thinking.
  • Dialogue allows the expression of real feelings (in ourselves and others) for understanding and catharsis. Debate expresses feelings to manipulate others and denies others’ emotions and feelings as legitimate.
  • Dialogue respects the human dignity of all participants and seeks neither to alienate nor oppress. Debate rebuts contrary positions and typically belittles and depreciates all participants who disagree.
  • Dialogue is collaborative and all about exploring common ground towards a new understanding and a new synoptic vision of the conceptual and ideological landscape. Debate is combative and all about conversational conquest, closure, and closed minds.

 Or to summarize all of this in a single statement:

Dialogue aims to elucidate ideas and enlighten all of its participants, but a debater aims only to defeat and silence his conversational opponents.

Now back to philosophical dialogue in particular.

Clearly, dialogue is what real philosophers externally do, whereas debate is what sophists do.

So how did Socratic and Platonic philosophical dialogue devolve into the current philosophical night of the living dead, where the sophist-zombies carry on their endless war against all authentic Socratic thinkers and talkers, the philosophical debating society?

The reasons are, I think, obvious, if we look at the devolution of Analytic philosophy from its revolutionary beginnings with Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein, at Cambridge, to its current state of debate-driven pathology, paradigmatically exemplified by how philosophy is externally done at The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club departments, especially Oxford, NYU, and the ANU.

In the Leiterized contemporary world of league-table-ratings-obsessed and measurement-obsessed professional academic philosophy, Oxford is at or near the top of the heap, and Cambridge is now in a seemingly permanent “we try harder” mode.

20th century Cambridge gave the world Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, early Analytic philosophy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Thank kant for them all.

20th and 21st century Oxford gave us ordinary language philosophy, P.F. Strawson, Analytic metaphysics, and the debating society to end all debating societies, the Oxford Union. Thank kant for some but not all of them.

The Oxford Union, in turn, is a direct reflection of British parliamentary debate, going back to the 19th century of course, and interestingly transformed during the Labor/socialist years of recovery after World War I and World War II, but nowadays fully framed against the larger backdrop of the post-Cold War rise and current domination and hegemony of post-Thatcher neoliberal democracy, The Folks Who Brought You Brexit.

Turning now to the USA, something that always amazes foreign visitors or permanent residents, but seems to be in the collective blind spot of all native-born Americans, is the ubiquity of debating clubs and debating competitions inside and outside schools, colleges, and universities.

The truly weird and not always so wonderful process of legal debate in the USA has been a favorite theme of Hollywood movies, for the endless fascination and moral-legal horror of non-Americans.

And the Presidential Primaries and Presidential Debates are a four-yearly recurring national spectacle seemingly designed by Monty Python’s, for the endless amusement and moral-political horror of non-Americans.

In short, the USA is a debate-obsessed society.

In contemporary American neoliberal democracy, debate is how you conversationally blow your opponents away like Dirty Harry, thereby making your day, and thereby also frightening or mesmerizing everyone else into “democratic consensus.”

Immortal Trump is the Dirty Harry of liberal democratic debate.

Now as I have argued in many earlier posts, contemporary professional academic philosophy is deeply complicit with, deeply expressive of, and deeply determined by the military-industrial-university complex that drives post-World War II and especially post-Cold War (neo)liberal democracy in the USA.

Therefore the decline and death of philosophical conversation in the current philosophical night of the living dead that is philosophy-as-debating-society, is the same as the process of professionalization of Anglo-American academic philosophy.

3. “Guidelines for Respectful, Constructive, and Inclusive Philosophical Discussion,” by David Chalmers

The guidelines below are intended primarily for oral philosophical discussion in formal settings: colloquia, conferences, seminars, classes, and so on. Many of them have some application to informal philosophical discussion and to nonphilosophical discussion as well.

The specific norms are intended as means of facilitating more general norms of being respectful, constructive, and inclusive. These probably aren’t exceptionless categorical norms (there are situations in which it is appropriate to be disrespectful, destructive, and exclusive). But in many philosophical contexts, they are useful norms to have in place. Groups are encouraged to adapt and modify these guidelines for their purposes as they see fit.

All this is a highly tentative work in progress. Suggestions for addition, subtraction, and change are more than welcome. Thanks to many philosophers for their suggestions so far.

  1. Norms of respect
  2. Be nice
  3. Don’t interrupt.
  4. Don’t present objections as flat dismissals (leave open the possibility that there’s a response).
  5. Don’t be incredulous.
  6. Don’t roll your eyes, make faces, laugh at a participant, etc, especially to others on the side. (Partial exception for signalling norm violations to the chair.)
  7. Don’t start side conversations parallel to the main discussion.
  8. Acknowledge your interlocutor’s insights.
  9. Object to theses, don’t object to people.
  10. Norms of constructiveness
  11. Objections are fine, but it’s also always OK to be constructive, building on a speaker’s project or strengthening their position. Even objections can often be cast in a constructive way.
  12. Even when an objection is destructive with respect to a position, it often helps to find a positive insight suggested by the objection.
  13. If you find yourself thinking that the project is worthless and there is nothing to be learned from it, think twice before asking your question.
  14. It’s OK to question the presuppositions of a project or an area, but discussions in which these questions dominate can be unhelpful.
  15. You don’t need to keep pressing the same objection (individually or collectively) until the speaker says uncle.
  16. Remember that philosophy isn’t a zero-sum game. (Related version: philosophy isn’t Fight Club.)

III. Norms of inclusiveness:

  1. Don’t dominate the discussion (partial exception for the speaker here!).
  2. Raise one question per question (follow-ups are OK, but questions on different topics go to the back of the queue).
  3. Try not to let your question (or your answer) run on forever.
  4. Acknowledge points made by previous questioners.
  5. It’s OK to ask a question that you think may be unsophisticated or uninformed.
  6. Don’t use unnecessarily offensive examples.
  7. Procedural norms (for Q&A after talks; some are specific to the hand/finger system)
  8. If there’s time, take a 3-5 minute break before Q&A (for resting, leaving, and formulating questions). Hold back questions until after the break.
  9. The chair rather than the speaker should field questions (to avoid various biases). The chair should keep a list of questioners rather than making people raise their hands repeatedly.
  10. Unless you’re speaker, existing questioner, or chair, don’t speak without being called on (limited exceptions for occasional jokes and other very brief interjections, not to be abused).
  11. Following up your own question is usually fine (unless time is short), but follow-up rounds should usually be increasingly brief, and think twice about whether third and later rounds are really needed.
  12. Hand/finger system [optional]: To raise a new question at any point, raise your hand until the chair acknowledges you and adds you to the list. To follow up on an existing question by someone else, raise your finger.
  13. Follow-ups should pick up directly on the existing discussion, rather than being tangentially or distantly related (for follow-ups of that sort, raise your hand).
  14. The chair should attempt to balance the discussion among participants, prioritizing those who have not spoken before (it isn’t mandatory to call on people in the order of seeing them).
  15. The chair should try to pace things so that everyone who has a question can ask a question. In short discussion periods, or with a short time remaining, this may be difficult; disallowing fingers helps.
  16. The chair should keep in mind the likelihood of various biases (e.g. implicit gender biases) when calling on questioners and applying these norms.
  17. Metanorms
  18. When norms are violated, the chair is encouraged to gently point this out, and others should feel free to say something or to signal the chair.
  19. If it’s more comfortable to do so, it’s also fine to quietly point out violations after the seminar (or to tell the chair who can talk to the offender).
  20. If the chair violates the norms, feel free to say so then or afterwards.
  21. Try not to be defensive when a violation is pointed out.
  22. Remember that it’s quite possible to violate these norms without being a bad person. (I’ve certainly violated most of them myself.)
  23. Respect the chair’s enforcement of these norms.
  24. Policing usually works better with a light touch.
  25. It’s reasonable for chairs to apply the norms flexibly and context-sensitively, but watch out for reintroducing biases in doing so.
  26. It’s fine to negotiate these norms as a group in advance. In a talk, the speaker can ask the chair to suspend some norms (especially norms of constructiveness), though the chair needn’t agree.
  27. Potential additional norms (mostly suggested by others; for various reasons I haven’t included them on the canonical list, but I’m sympathetic with many of them, and they’re certainly worth considering)
  28. Maximum two minutes per question (modified version: after two minutes, interruptions are OK).
  29. Prioritize junior people in calling on questions (modified version: don’t prioritize senior people).
  30. Ask permission to follow up your own question (modified version: ask permission for any follow-up after the first).
  31. Don’t worry about impressing people.
  32. Be cautious about pestering the speaker during the break or after the talk (they may need to rest).

Related resources (and sources)

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.