Thursday, November 11, 2010

Philosophical 'violence' as an alternative to physical violence

Gerald Graff's 'Hidden Intellectualism' (Pedagogy, 2001) is a meditation on how students' seemingly unintellectual interests (sports, etc.) can be an avenue to the development of their intellectual dispositions and talents. (That's one way to see the nascent 'philosophy and popular culture' movement, as encouraging people to see patterns of philosophical thinking in pop cultural objects.)

Aside from this, Graff remarks that argumentation is often marginalized in educational settings because it too closely resembles the very violence that educators and parents are trying to forestall via education:

for many educators and parents, "fighting with ideas" seems dangerously close enough to fighting "with fists or guns" that it can be difficult to imagine how argumentation can be a substitute for violence. Our tendency to see argument as a form of violence rather than an alternative to violence helps explain why the studious avoidance of open conflict is such a prominent feature of the American high school and often the college and university.  ... Like the antiseptic shopping mall, the school maintains an appearance of harmony and choice that denies the realities of conflict. Though this repression of conflict does help preserve short-term peace and quiet, it ultimately bottles up aggressions that, when they do erupt, are more likely to take antisocial and destructive forms than they might if they had an intellectual outlet. 
Graff (sounding a bit like Habermas) suggests that academic argumentation might be an outlet for negotiating conflicts that might otherwise be addressed in more antisocial ways.

It's often been noted that among academic disciplines, philosophy is 'combative'. And as we've noted here at ISW, that combativeness attracts some students, but drives away many. Philosophy, I suspect, strikes many students as uncivil, nearly rude in its insistence on not letting anyone's core assumptions about truth, reality, or value go unscrutinized. To my eyes, many students fear philosophy for precisely this reason. Its combativeness verges too close to bona fide conflict. (This was perfectly obvious when I taught at a Southern university as a graduate student!)

Of course, there's likely to be disagreement about whether this combativeness is even a pedagogical problem, much the less how instructors might combat the combativeness. Is this a problem in teaching our discipline, or is it, as Graff seems to hint, an argument for the value of philosophy: philosophy as mind-to-mind combat that displaces hand-to-hand combat? And if it is a problem, how do we respond?


  1. The point seems most plausible when whatever is being argued over is the same as what might otherwise have been (physically) fought over. We might call this the content of the dispute. For instance, it seems somewhat plausible that our arguing about political policies helps to displace a tendency to violently assault those who disagree with our strongly-held political views.

    The problem for philosophy is that few of the things we argue about are things anyone would otherwise fight over. It's difficult to imagine a person disposed toward fisticuffs over a Millian view of names, or ready to attack those with different opinions on mereology. Even philosophical ethics and political philosophy tend to so intellectualize the debates (e.g. we stop arguing whether abortion is permissible, and instead argue whether accepting principle A is consistent with permitting abortion) that it barely resembles the sorts of things over which people actually get worked up enough to fight.

    If that is so, then philosophical combativeness is actually creating conflict where there would otherwise be none, not displacing one particular sort of conflict for another. Perhaps that is why many students (reasonably?) find philosophical combat aversive.

    One response might be to claim that the displacement effect of argument is neutral to the content of the dispute. In other words, arguing about X can deter physical violence over (unrelated) Y. This might be true in certain cases, where argument simply functions as a short-term vent for particular moments of aggression. But it doesn't seem especially plausible as a description of regular, systematic philosophy class debates.

  2. One of the things that tends to bug me about presenting philosophy as argumentational is that it's too linear, too formal, too I win/you lose.

    Pedagogically, it may be good to present philosophy (and writing philosophy papers) as presenting an argument. This is why you have to preach to students that they need a thesis and that the ideas in their papers should support that thesis. But I always feel a bit like a fraud because I don't like that part of philosophy.

    I like thinkers like Socrates who feel out an idea, who see how the idea develops throughout the work. I like writers like Kierkegaard who write in images and reveal things just as much 'argue' for them. And while I have mixed feelings about Derrida and Derridean thinkers, I appreciate their ability to capture wonder, exploration, and dialectics in their writing.

    Granted, your normal intro student won't be able to do things Socrates, Kierkegaard, and Derrida can. Also granted, some of the qualities I just mentioned might drive some philosophers crazy because they "don't get to the point," or they "obscure the point."

    But for me, the linear, argumentative, 'violent,' nature of philosophy is only a methodological choice; I teach students to write that way because it's the most useful/feasible thing to do. But when I think of good philosophers, they are generally ones who understand process and wonder and exploration through ideas. Certainly confrontation, linear thought, and argumentation are a medium for philosophy, but they are not the only (and certainly not my preferred) way to approach the topic.

  3. 1) I agree with boomer's argument that teaching philosophy as being primarily argumentative in nature is problematic. Perhaps we could treat arguments as communicating a way of viewing or experiencing the world, so when we study a philosopher, we are learning how they view the world.
    2)Some people seem to learn through the process of forceful disagreement. They aggressively look for flaws in the models that they are being presented with as a way of promoting their own understanding. These students are often drawn to philosophy because its methodology fits well with how they learn. This conflictual style of learning can also be associated with a kind of self assertion that can lead to violent disagreement. So rather than displacing some moment of emotion philosophical conflict can be a refocusing of a tendency toward violent conflict in general (and hence a substitute for violence like sports which are fought over goals no one values outside the context of the sport)
    3)Certainly some philosophical debate seems pale and bloodless on the surface (although the combatants often seem quite passionate in their advocacy) an hence unlikely to promote violence if addressed unphilosophically but using this fact to reject philosophy as alternative to violence seems misleading. People fight for reasons other than content, such as matters of pride and revenge. Clashing dialectically could certainly be a way of expressing those emotions. Further there are topics, such as the existence of God, which have been clearly associated with violence and are still being argued about in philosophy.
    Over the years students have remarked to me that they have been surprised that in philosophy classes that it was possible for people to disagree over important matters without emotion overwhelming the possibility of engagement. I have frequently assigned students the task of having argumentative conversations with people they know outside the class. The reports I have received indicate that most people avoid talking about controversial topics especially with people that might disagree with them. Philosophy promotes habits of interaction that allow conflict without promoting the emotions and attitudes that can lead to actual violence, so philosophy can act as a form of creative expression of conflict and aggression that might otherwise become physically violence.


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