Adversarialism in Philosophy: A Defence

I’m starting to come around to the view that there is something weird going on with students these days, where they are coming into the world with rather unrealistic expectations about how they can expect to be treated. For the first time the other day, I came across the suggestion – made by a grad student – that a philosophical research talk should be a “safe space,” in which audience members are expected to be “tough yet supportive.” (I actually don’t quite know what this means – if someone is saying something totally wrong, it’s a bit hard to point that out while at the same time remaining supportive. What are you supposed to say, “you seem like a really nice person, but you’re totally wrong.” Or maybe, “well this argument doesn’t work, but keep trying, I’m sure you’ll come up with a better one next time!”)

Anyhow, as most people who are familiar with how philosophy works will know, this is not the way the discipline currently operates. Philosophy has what could best be described as an adversarial disciplinary culture, something that manifests itself most clearly in how the Q&A goes after a research talk. Basically, after people present their philosophical views, the audience members try to tear them apart. Every question is a variation on “here’s why I think you’re wrong…” It is not supportive. Also, because this is the expectation in the discipline, philosophers tend not to preface their comments with ingratiating verbiage, like “first let me thank you for the rich and thought-provoking discussion” (the way they do in political theory, of instance). Philosophers will go straight to the “here’s why I think you’re wrong” part.

I think that there are good reasons for wanting to preserve this aspect of the discipline, so I would like to explain first what I mean by “adversarial,” and then second defend these practices. (I should mention, in passing, that a great deal of the complaints about adversarialism have come from people who think that the underrepresentation of women in the discipline is a consequence of those disciplinary practices. I happen to disagree with this – law is also highly adversarial, but that doesn’t seem to deter too many women – but I’m not going to get into that too deeply.)

Also, I would like to distinguish between “being adversarial” and “being an asshole” or “being confrontational.” A lot of people in philosophy are assholes, but that is a distinct phenomenon. To illustrate the distinction, I’d like to draw a contrast between philosophy and surgery (a discipline that I happen to know well, because my wife is an academic surgeon). Surgeons are notorious assholes, a tendency that is clearly encouraged by the disciplinary culture. They are also extremely confrontational, sometimes (to me) shockingly so. For instance, they lose their temper and yell at each other a great deal – my wife’s division head used to come into her office and literally yell at her for 10-15 minutes straight. They also swear constantly. At the same time, the disciplinary culture, with respect to research talks, is weirdly (to me) non-confrontational. What this means, in practice, is that when a person gives a talk, the questions will almost always be softballs, like “how did you exclude this confounder?” or “can you say more about what you think is responsible for x?” Then, as soon as people are out in the hallway, everyone will be like, “wow, what a piece-of-shit study that was,” or “holy crap, they are killing patients right and left at that hospital,” etc. And yet they never say it to the speaker! I don’t know how many times I’ve heard surgeons complaining about awful research and terrible talks, and I’ll say “did you tell them that?” and the response is always “oh no, of course not.”

This example is illuminating, because it shows that the adversarialism of philosophical exchange is not merely a consequence of the fact that so many philosophers are assholes. As the example of surgery shows, it is perfectly possible to have a discipline full of assholes, who nevertheless sustain a non-adversarial discourse around academic research. In fact, I suspect the causality in philosophy runs the opposite direction – that being an asshole is not positively encouraged, but because of the adversarial norms, the discipline tends to attract more than its share of assholes.

The reason I’m getting into so much detail on this point is that I don’t want to be seen to be defending assholes. The fact that there are so many assholes in philosophy is, for me, a major negative for the discipline, and one of the reasons that, over the years, I’ve found it increasingly painful to be around academic philosophers. I would, however, like to defend the adversarialism of the disciplinary culture of philosophy. (I think that it retains its value despite the fact that it tends to attract assholes to the discipline.)

One other little thing. Philosophy is also, in its disciplinary culture, fundamentally a problem-creating, and not a problem-solving discipline. Here I think a useful contrast can be drawn between philosophy and economics (another discipline that I have a lot of contact with). A lot of this comes, I think, from the influence of Socrates, and of the importance of Socratic method. Basically, Socrates went around Athens causing problems for people, by taking their everyday understanding of concepts like “justice” and showing that it made no sense. Skepticism does something broadly similar, and the fascination with paradoxes and puzzles has remained central to the discipline. Philosophers have built entire careers around discovering new problems (think of Parfit’s “non-identity” problem, or Gettier, or Goodman, etc.)

I must admit that this aspect of the discipline is one that I sometimes find frustrating, particularly when you want to do something fairly innocent, like come up with a model of something. Speaking roughly, my experience has been that economists will at least sometimes want to help you, and so will make positive suggestions, along the lines of “maybe you should try doing it this way.” Philosophers, by contrast, never have any positive suggestions. Even if they appear to be offering you a cup to drink from, you can be certain it will be poisoned. This is great for encouraging critical thinking, but the discipline as a whole is a very negative one. Basically, colleagues exist to tell you why you’re wrong.

This all sounds like criticism, but it’s not. It’s actually important that philosophy operate in this way. To see why, let’s go back to the case of surgery for a moment. When I ask academic surgeons why they never pose challenging questions at research talks, the answer is usually the same – they don’t think it matters, because “it’ll never get published,” or else “the referees will catch it.” In particular, when academic surgeons make methodological errors, or they do their stats all wrong (which they often do), everyone knows that it will get picked up by referees, and so they don’t feel any obligation to make things uncomfortable for the speaker. (By contrast, in “M&M rounds,” when they review the treatment of patients in hospital, they are much more likely to pose challenging questions, precisely because there is no other system of quality control in place.)

In other words, the practice of medicine, as well as scientific work more generally, is subject to much stricter methodological constraints than philosophy is. Consider, for instance, a flaw in our thinking such as confirmation bias. We human beings are all terrible at “thinking the negative.” When it comes to testing a theory, our tendency is to look only for evidence that supports the hypothesis. What we should also be doing is figuring out what evidence would disconfirm the hypothesis, and then actively seeking that out as well, in order to establish that it is not there. (This is point of Peter Wason’s famous “2, 4, 6” test, which everyone fails. I wrote about this here last week.) There are various features of scientific method – from study design, the use of controls, the concern about replication – that all serve in various ways to control confirmation bias. (That is, in fact, the most essentially difference between medicine and quackery. The former is based on controlled studies, the latter is based on “testimonials.”)

Philosophers are just as prone to confirmation bias as anyone else. Indeed, anyone what has read the literature on confirmation bias, and understands just what a profound and pervasive bias it is, must at some point have begun to suspect that philosophy is “all confirmation bias all the time.” After I failed the Wason 2,4,6 test, I stopped to think how much time and effort I have put into thinking about what it would take to prove my own philosophical views false, or cause me to change my mind, and then, how much time I have actually spent investigating whether these conditions obtain. The answer was “very little.” I invest a tremendous amount of effort in the positive task, of working out the view and marshalling the evidence that supports it, but expend almost no effort in thinking about what would prove it wrong.

So what makes philosophy an academic discipline, rather than (as my former teacher, James Johnson used to put it) “the department of data-free speculation”? Part of the reason that I don’t have to work very hard thinking of ways that my view might be wrong is that I have colleagues who enjoy nothing better. In other words, if there are obvious blind spots in my reasoning, I can be quite confident that they will be pointed out to me, in one of those unsupportive, adversarial Q&A sessions.

This occurred to me one day at a research talk, given by a distinguished colleague of mine, who was arguing that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was not really deontological, despites its surface grammar, but that it was really a consequentialist document. He proceeded to go through and give a consequentialist reading of all the major rights and the way they had been interpreted by the courts. During the Q&A, I asked what seemed to me the obvious question, which was “what would a deontologist have to do, to formulate a right that would be invulnerable to one of your consequentialist readings?” In other words, the question was just “imagine you were wrong, what would that look like?” Somewhat to my surprise (that was before I had read much about confirmation bias) he was stumped by the question – and even came up to me after the talk and said, “you know, I never really thought about that.”

To me, this is a great example of how the disciplinary culture of philosophy works, when it works well. Wilfrid Sellars once defined philosophy as the study of how things, in the most general sense of the term, hang together, in the most general sense of the term. We’re doing pretty abstract work, and we’re often trying to see how things fit together at a very general level. What makes us different from conspiracy theorists, or people who claim to see Jesus in their toast? Or what stops us from just making stuff up and believing it? I really think 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 in Philosophy: A Defence — 18 Comments

  1. In the future when non-philosophy (and especially non-academic) people ask me what it is that we philosophers do, I think that I’ll just recommend that they read this blog post.

  2. I wonder if there’s something between those extremes? More open to dissent than the “tough but supportive safe space” or the conflict-averse surgeon’s conference. But less adversarial than “Every question is a variation on “here’s why I think you’re wrong…””

    Philosophers are subject to confirmation bias, sure. Might they not also be subject to attitude polarization and backfire effects? (Where being presented with aggressive arguments against your beliefs makes you dig in more strongly?) If so, if the goal is for ideas to advance well, I’d think it might be helpful to try and find ways to express disagreement that are less adversarial than a barrage of “here’s why you are wrong”.

    I’m not a philosopher, but I’m a fan of Dan Dennett’s steps (via Anatol Rapoport) for critical commentary. I’m guessing you’d have seen these?

    How to compose a successful critical commentary:

    – You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
    – You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
    – You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
    – Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

    (see, eg: )

    Joe – I’m curious what you think of those rules. Does there seem to be any value in them?

    • I can’t answer for Joseph, but I hope you won’t mind me chiming in.

      Misha, you say “it might be helpful to try and find ways to express disagreement that are less adversarial than a barrage of ‘here’s why you are wrong.'” I’m 100% with you on that, but the older I get, the more I’m reminded that it’s quite difficult. I don’t think I ever was a total asshole, but I definitely angered people (without a philosophy degree) by arguing with them (I have a philosophy degree) without intending it and realizing it way too late. Maybe it’s cultural, but pointing flaws in arguments, finding counter-examples and refusing to let go of an idea unless convinced it’s a bad one is the meat and potatoe of philosophy; it’s also, in regular conversation, considered nitpicky, harassing and pretty rude. Not helping is the fact that from the outside, a lot of my philosophical arguments with colleagues look a lot like a common argument, even if it’s not (we get excited, blood pumping, etc.) To put it a bit provocatively, I kind of had to “relearn” how to casually discuss with other educated people, to do “conversation-as-intellectual-yet-functionaly-small-talk”. How do you make people so used to this kind of vigorous debate dial down the rhetoric without sacrificing the pinpointing of mistakes and errors?

      As an imperfect analogy, I guess it’s a bit like trying to tell professional athletes to play “more for fun, but without being less competitive” without the referees changing their way (there are no referees in philosophy). Dennett’s rules are great, but the problem I see with this kind of solution is that it appeals only to individuals, and mostly to their reason (not their emotions); in the heat of an argument, especially if you don’t like people you are arguing with or you perceive the others to break those rules, they tend to be discarded pretty fast, and it’s back to square one for everyone. It’s important to teach ourselves this kind of “ethics” of debate, but it can only go so far.

      One interesting solution, in my opinion, is suggested by Jonathan Haidt : the “asteroid club”. People are having dinner together (to create a amicable bond) and discuss freely, with the understanding that the goal is call on other people blind spots (here is a quick presentation, if you are interested : I think that in trying to change the context where the “arguing” takes place, instead of trying to convince the arguers, it’s pretty promising (even is not a silver bullet).

      Sorry for the lenghty post!

      • Jordan, thanks so much for the info about the asteroid club! I have an ongoing interest in how people can talk about differing opinions (I teach classes in communication, negotiation, and handling conflict), and have been looking for resources like that. I had not heard about that one. It sounds really interesting! Thanks!!

        • My pleasure, Misha. Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” is a great read, I highly suggest it if you are interested in discussions accross political lines.

          On a side note, I just looked your book up, and it seems super interesting. It’s now on my wish list! Reminds me a bit of John Faithful Hamer, which I really like.

    • Hi Misha, thanks for stopping by. I’m familiar with Dennett’s steps, and I should say that when it comes to teaching students to write papers, we all spend a great deal of time getting them to follow something like this list — especially the first step, of giving a clear and charitable account of the position that you are going to criticize. But you can’t really do this in a Q&A without monopolizing too much time. And if you start out a question saying, “If I understand you correctly, your view is x, y and then z…” it makes the speaker really apprehensive, because it sounds like a set-up, especially if you are rephrasing things at all, or compressing the argument. So often that’s a very anxiety-provoking, if not hostile way to start a question in philosophy. Better off just to state your objection.

      Also, I should note that Charles Taylor is the greatest when it comes to that first step. It’s just that, at the end of the story that he tells you about your view, the one that offers you a more “perspicuous articulation” of your position, you turn out to be wrong.

  3. It seems weird to talk about the adversarial method and about the asshole problem in Philosophy without talking about gender. I was asked recently by a journalist writing about assholes whether women could be assholes. My answer, yes, but it’s rare.

    • I imagine myself to have encountered about proportionally the same amount of male and female assholes. Then again I often find myself disagreeing with the majority of people on what, exactly, constitutes assholery. In order to resolve our apparent disagreement we should first have to find the necessary and sufficient conditions of being an asshole and proceed from there.

  4. As someone who survived graduate school and countless academic talks in philosophy and then moved into education, I find this analysis bang-on, but also perhaps more defensive of the status quo than it needs to be. (Notice how I was critical without being adversarial there?)

    In education talks I find myself pining for the rigour of the philosophy culture. Presenters seem to get away with all sorts of questionable assumptions and leaps of logic that I know would be pounced on by a philosophy audience. And I refuse to accept that this deficit in rigour is because education is more gender-balanced and ethnically diverse than philosophy.

    But I am also now hyper-attuned to how the philosophy culture is not only rigorous, but, well, kind of asshole-y. Yelling and swearing aren’t the only ways of being an asshole. Being adversarial to the point that you can’t even couch your question in some respectful or encouraging language is pushing the adversary-asshole boundary.

    It’s not a coincidence that there are so few women and minorities in philosophy. We (and I’m White so I use the plural with humility here) are more or less socialized to be self-effacing when we express an intellectual position. (There are data on this, in case you’re inclined to call bullshit.) Unless you have nerves of steel, you’re unlikely to participate in an culture where every question is of the form “here’s why you’re wrong.”

    It doesn’t need to be like this. Surely we can be rigorous without always being so harsh. I preface my questions in philosophy talks with some version of the “ingratiating verbiage” that Joe seems to find unnecessary, even if I’m delivering a “hardball.” Because I’ve been in the presenter’s position, and I know how hard it is to say something thought-provoking and moderately compelling to a room that is likely to contain some assholes.

    • There are data on this, in case you’re inclined to call bullshit.

      With genuine respect (no snark intended), I would like to see the references.

      My reasons:

      1. Correlation and causation can be a major issue.
      2. There is the general replication problem in social psychology.

      • A fair question. Causation is obviously difficult to prove unambiguously, but with a preponderance of evidence, as well as common sense explanations for the causation, I think mere correlation becomes implausible. Here are some studies on gender and classroom participation or academic confidence (unfortunately they don’t seem to attempt to replicate each other’s exact results):

        “Classroom Participation and Student-Faculty Interactions: Does Gender Matter?”
        by Holly E. Tatum and Beth M. Schwartz and Peggy A. Schimmoeller and Nicole Perry
        The Journal of Higher Education, ISSN 0022-1546, 2013, Volume 84, Issue 6, pp. 745 – 768

        “Teacher-student interaction in contemporary science classrooms: is participation still a question of gender?”
        by Eliasson, Nina and Sørensen, Helene and Karlsson, Karl Göran
        International Journal of Science Education, ISSN 0950-0693, 07/2016, Volume 38, Issue 10, pp. 1655 – 1672

        “Does Gender Matter? Male and Female Participation in Social Work Classrooms”
        by Hyde, Cheryl A and Deal, Kathleen H
        Affilia, ISSN 0886-1099, 07/2003, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp. 192 – 209

        “Breaking It Down: Engineering Student STEM Confidence at the Intersection of Race/Ethnicity and Gender”
        Litzler, Elizabeth; Samuelson, Cate C.; Lorah, Julie A.. Research in Higher Education 55.8 (December 2014): 810-832.

        “Exploring Gender and Self-Confidence in Engineering Students: A Multi-Method Approach.” Research Brief. Chachra, Debbie; Kilgore, Deborah; University of Washington, Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE). April 2009: 3: Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education.

        Interestingly, I couldn’t find anything specifically about philosophy classes.

        And some studies of self-effacement and race/culture/gender:

        “Self-Enhancement and Self-Effacement in Reaction to Praise and Criticism: The Case of Multiethnic Youth”
        by Lalita K. Suzuki and Helen M. Davis and Patricia M. Greenfield
        Ethos, ISSN 0091-2131, 3/2008, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp. 78 – 97

        “Asian Self-Effacement or Feminine Modesty? Attributional Patterns of Women University Students in Taiwan”
        by Kathleen S. Crittenden
        Gender and Society, ISSN 0891-2432, 3/1991, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp. 98 – 117

        I know that such studies are very specific and can’t prove a lifespan effect of socialization on gender and academic behaviour, but I suspect more general textbooks like this would help connect the dots:

        Gender development /
        Judith E. Owen Blakemore, Sheri A. Berenbaum, Lynn S. Liben.
        New York : Psychology Press, 2008.

        And I speak from plenty of experience – years of observing smart women in university classes preface their comments with self-deprecation, hesitation, and insecurity (if they speak at all) while less smart men opine with confidence; and repeated comments throughout my life on how masculine I am because I express ideas pointedly and without apology.

  5. The difficulty is that while philosophy requires us to challenge each other’s positions, it also requires us to see ourselves as engaged in a common pursuit of truth-seeking. But we are psychologically disposed to seek status more than truth—and the adversarial style of academic conferences constantly reinforces our status anxiety. Thrasymachus was an agonistic asshole who needed to be embarrassed into silence for the conversation to get anywhere; the Socratic interlocutor, when proven wrong, is pleased to have learned something. But the discipline encourages us to be more like Thrasymachus: it is not structured to help us see the testing and negation of one-another’s propositions as a cooperative exercise. When was the last time you heard a devastating criticism of a paper you had delivered and left the conference beaming because you had learned something? Most of us have a tendency, on such occasions, to blush.

  6. While it’s important to differentiate assholes from adversaries, what always struck me about philosophers is a general attitude of disdain toward others–esp non-philosophers. The underlying sentiment that people are idiots, that nothing really matters except being ‘right’ and outsmarting others. Often what’s lost in the process is perhaps an even more important distinction at the ‘heart’ of philosophy: being clever vs being wise.

  7. After I failed the Wason 2,4,6 test, I stopped to think how much time and effort I have put into thinking about what it would take to prove my own philosophical views false, or cause me to change my mind, and then, how much time I have actually spent investigating whether these conditions obtain. The answer was “very little.”

    1. The first thing this suggests is the importance of reading widely, especially in people who hold very different views from yours. For modern secular philosophers, this means seeking out people like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas and really trying to understand what they thought in a non-strawmannish way.
    2. The second thing this suggests is the importance of dialectic. The reference to Socrates is spot on. You can’t do philosophy by simply going off to your room and trying to think things through. You need to dialogue with people, and people who have different views than yours.

  8. I’m curious, Prof. Heath, if you have any rough explanation for the emergence of safe places in universities, and whether there are broader implications.

    I’ve been following the unfolding drama around Prof. Jordan Peterson at the UofT, and his rejection of compelled speech in the form of non-binary gender pronouns. Now, I don’t know if I agree with or fully understand his position. But it has been condemned as discrimination and harassment, and as potentially in contravention of the Ontario Human Rights Code. So, in your opinion, at what point should an argument or position by a university professor be condemned, or even made potentially illegal, rather than challenged?

  9. 1) IANAP, but I have been at plenty of UofT philosophy talks in the past (never saw Professor Heath at one though), and generally, they have not been the way he describes at all.

    First, there have been quite a few of the cursory “great talk, thanks, very interesting” remarks.

    Second, while there are plenty of the “this is why you are wrong” remarks, there are still quite a few of the “how would you reply to”, “could you elaborate on”, etc. type questions as well.

    Professor Heath’s own remark (despite his translating it into a somewhat more adversarial form) seems in fact one of these: “what would a deontologist have to do, to formulate a right that would be invulnerable to one of your consequentialist readings?” I mean, maybe you had to be there, to detect frustration, sarcasm, or whatever, but I can easily see this to be a request for clarification, or, a bit more adversarial perhaps, as raising a possible problem for the position, as opposed to anything like a full out “this is why you are wrong”.

    2) Like the previous commenter, but for different reasons, I would like to hear what Professor Heath has to say about Jordan Peterson. In particular, about a guy who gathers an incredible groupie following while believing frankly nutty things such as that a law intended merely to prevent discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression is a step on the way to the Gulag, something he knows because he has “studied totalitarianism for four decades and knows how it starts”, and that it is part of a project by a cabal of Marxists, who, like all Marxists everywhere, are no better than Nazis.

    • So, you’d like to hear what Prof. Heath thinks about the substance of Prof. Peterson’s argument (with which, it seems, you disagree). I’d like to hear his opinion as well. But more broadly, since the original post was about adversarialism in philosophy, I was curious if Prof. Heath has a view about what the limits are, or shoild be, to free speech at a university.