Thursday, September 29, 2011

According to him...according to her

Here is a common experience in introductory-level courses. There you are, teaching Mill or Aristotle, or Nagel, or Anscombe...what have you. You are working hard to motivate and make clear the positions under scrutiny. But you have one, or two, or three students who will inevitably follow your description of the position with "...according to him..." or "according to her..."

So, you say something like: "Involving another person in a scheme or a plan that she couldn't or wouldn't rationally consent to if she knew the whole story is to use her will in a way that disrespects her autonomy." And then from the corner of the room, you hear a student mutter, "...according to him," (referring here to Kant, of course).

I pride myself on being an empathetic and patient teacher, especially of beginning students. But I have to say that this particular piece of classroom behavior drives me to fits of catastrophic irrationality. Catastrophic because I find it so unrelentingly annoying that I can't even articulate why it drives me so nutty.

So, fellow teachers: 1) help me by speculating about why I find this behavior so distracting and unproductive; 2) do you have a particular strategy for this particular phenomenon? Is it successful or not? Why or why not...I mean, that is, according to you...


  1. I'm usually ecstatic if students can remember who came up with positions, much more so if they can remember the position. :)

    But I think I understand what you mean...not that they are given Mill's account of utilitarianism but say something like "In this situation Mill would think..." Yes?

    If so I try to gently nudge them into something like, "A position Mill might be sympathetic with is..." or "A Mill-like response would be...."

    This works pretty well for me.

    But then you might be talking about some kind of relativistic crap or appeal to authority they are making? In other words, they are being snide?

    In situations like this I do variations of "The people we study are no dummies. They have probably done more than any of us in class will ever do, especially when it comes to influencing world views and changing the course of history."

  2. I don't think this has ever happened to me --- if it did I didn't notice.

    But I have just spent a few hours striking out "I believe that", "I personally think that", "According to my personal view" and the like from student essays, and I wonder if that is the flip side of this phenomenon. In a couple of cases those sorts of phrases were attached to every sentence in a paragraph, as if the student couldn't tolerate the possibility that they might be read as putting forward a viewpoint as anything other than a matter of taste for more than a second.

    It's not just cultural relativism but what seems like extreme subjectivism about vast topic areas, and seemingly combined with the sense that any suggestion otherwise would be extremely rude.

  3. Anon: yes, I mean the snide version. I'm talking about contexts in which you think that you and the class are successfully and charitably trying to figure out a view and it gets derailed by one or more students responding dismissively with "...according to him..."

    Nicole, I also do a lot of work to get the point across that declarative sentences conversationally implicate that the person wielding the sentence believes its content. You are totally right that this habit of students to preface everything with "I believe," has its origin in a kind of humility. That's why it doesn't bother me in the least, though I work hard to get students to recognize the authority and responsibility that comes with making claims.

    What I am trying to put my finger on is different - it is kind of maneuver that derails and disrupts the class, and it occurs in conversation (and sometimes in papers).

    I have tried the "these people are really smart and have thought about this very hard," response but it tends to get a literal shrug from the same students - an unvoiced, "yeah...according to you..."

    Thinking about where these things comes from is usually very telling - it usually gets me to recognize that lots of behaviors come from very noble intentions and attitudes. The one you mention - prefacing everything with 'I personally believe..." usually comes from a kind of humility and a kind of wish to be clear that you are willing to acknowledge that others can and will disagree. That is laudable.

    The problem I am having is that I can't for the life of me find a similar charitable explanation for why a student or a group of students in a single class would engage in this "...according to him..." behavior, class after class. Without that, I find I am unable to engage in a productive class conversation about it that would resolve the issue satisfactorily for all.

  4. Becko,

    I'm not sure if the following charitable interpretations are actually what's going on, but they're worth a try.

    Here are two features that philosophical inquiry has that few others have:
    1. There's plenty of disagreement.
    2. Positions are often associated with individuals, particularly long dead ones. (You don't see this in most other academic disciplines. Physics students are not taught "Newton's laws" as if Newton mattered to their truth. Perhaps literature and psychology (Freud?) are exceptions.)

    Now my guess is that students might be using the 'according to X' locution to register feature 1 and keep track with respect to feature 2. And this wouldn't be an entirely bad thing: The student would be verbally reminding herself that most philosophical positions are contentious while trying to reinforce the association of a particular position with a particular philosopher.

    But if the locution is intended to be snide or dismissive, then it seems like you've got classic student relativism: an intellectual posture that enables students to avoid engaging hard questions. There's a lot to be said about this topic. Steve Satris' article on the topic is here:

  5. A Universal Philosophical Refutation

    A philosopher once had the following dream.

    First Aristotle appeared, and the philosopher said to him, "Could you give me a fifteen-minute capsule sketch of your entire philosophy?" To the philosopher's surprise, Aristotle gave him an excellent exposition in which he compressed an enormous amount of material into a mere fifteen minutes. But then the philosopher raised a certain objection which Aristotle couldn't answer. Confounded, Aristotle disappeared.

    Then Plato appeared. The same thing happened again, and the philosophers' objection to Plato was the same as his objection to Aristotle. Plato also couldn't answer it and disappeared.

    Then all the famous philosophers of history appeared one-by-one and our philosopher refuted every one with the same objection.

    After the last philosopher vanished, our philosopher said to himself, "I know I'm asleep and dreaming all this. Yet I've found a universal refutation for all philosophical systems! Tomorrow when I wake up, I will probably have forgotten it, and the world will really miss something!" With an iron effort, the philosopher forced himself to wake up, rush over to his desk, and write down his universal refutation. Then he jumped back into bed with a sigh of relief.

    The next morning when he awoke, he went over to the desk to see what he had written. It was, "That's what you say."

    [From Raymond Smullyan, 5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies. St. Martin's Press, 1983]

  6. As I understand it, your students are using "According to x" as though the mere fact that x believes something is an objection to that view. This would involve one or other of two kinds of mistake.

    First, it would involve an 'ad hominem' fallacy. That is to say, any one who objects to, say, Mill's view merely on the grounds that Mill actually believed it is assuming the logical validity of the move from (1) Mill believed that p, to (2) it's not true that P. but this move isn't logically valid. For example, Mill believed that 2+2=4, and he was right! One possible response to a student who makes this mistake might be, "Yes, that's what I just said: Mill believes that p. But what about you: Do you think p is true or false?"

    To follow up on this first point: one motivation for making the kind of ad hominem fallacy just described is a deep seated relativism about truth. But relativism comes in two broads forms. Real philosophical relativism is conceptually sophisticated - it has to be because it needs to face up to several powerful objections. So I don't think your students are motivated by real relativism. A second form of relativism is much cruder. On this much cruder view, it is thought that beliefs can never be true. Getting your students to see why this is a mistake will be a much longer process. If you want to go into it, why not try something like "Yes, that's what Mill thought. He also thought that 2+2 was 4. So sometimes he was right. Is he right about this?"

    Second, responding to a view with "according to him" involves changing the subject. When we're assessing someone views, we're primarily interested in what it was that they believed, not so much that it was they who believed it. One possible response then would be "Yes, that's what Mill believed. Other people have believed it, too. But we're not trying to work out who believes this view. We're trying to working what the view is, and whether it's true (or perhaps, whether we should believe it."

    Hope this helps!

  7. I haven't read the comments in detail yet, but, quickly, it sounds to me that this student or these students are attempting to resist the "authority" of the philosopher in question: something like, "Who are they to tell me that I should think this about this situation??" The students might feel like this perspective is somehow imposed on them or they are "forced" to accept it as plausible.

    One response to this is to try to get students to develop various philosophers' positions / concepts / categories / theories on their own, and then tell them that said philosopher had an idea like what they have, developed it, etc. and now it's become an important part of the history of philosophy and thought.

    So, as one example of this strategy, ask students to come up with some scenarios where they've been treated wrongly. More narrowly, have them come up with some examples, from their own experience, where they've somehow been taken advantage of, lied to, manipulated, etc. Ask them what they thought about it, even how they "felt" about it.

    They'll be able to develop a Kantian-like explanation here that's THEIR OWN and plausible by their own lights.

    Then tell them that Kant had an idea much like their's.

    Then the idea is much harder to resist and have snide comments about.

    I hope these quick thoughts address the issue you are concerned about.

  8. These are some very useful suggestions, thanks.

  9. Becko,

    I may have missed where you indicated as much, but did you ask the student(s) to explain what they meant by it? Depending on their response, I would think that some follow-up Socratic questioning might be in order. If nothing else, it might help impress upon them the idea that if they make a claim or dismiss someone else's view, they bear the burden of justifying that claim or dismissal. Also, it may not have initially been the case, but they may be saying it now just to get a rise out of you.

    Good luck!

  10. I really like a lot of the comments posted so far. I think I may get this response in my classes more than I notice, because it is so often the case, as Michael said, that we tend to associate views with people in Philosophy. I do this all the time in class, and then require it of students on exams and essays (e.g., "state and explain Mill's view of...," etc.). So I'm not surprised when students link views to people.

    I'm not sure I've gotten the snide version before, but if I did I'd be inclined to talk about what arguments can be read as doing. Clearly, we use arguments sometimes to defend our own positions against objections. But we can also understand them as ways to open up discussion with others rather than say we're definitely right. Offering reasons can be a way to gesture towards other rational beings and say something like: "Here's what makes sense to me and why. Now, what do you think? You're rational too, and so we can discuss these reasons I've offered. You can offer other reasons and we can work together to see which are the best." Then one doesn't have to read the arguments of philosophers as just giving their own views.

    This discussion has made me really think about what message we might be sending when we focus on associating a view with a philosopher and requiring that students remember who said what. It may encourage the sort of crude relativism mentioned above, especially when combined with the fact that often what we do in undergrad philosophy courses is to give students a range of competing views without a conclusive answer as to which is right (unlike in, e.g., science courses). We often go through criticisms of the views, of course, but then it starts to seem like everything is flawed and there's no clear answer. It's not then surprising that students may get the sense that different people have different views, no one has it right, and the point is just to make sure they know for assignments who said what and what's wrong with each view. Clearly not everyone does this in their teaching, but I have at times! Now I wonder if that's the best idea...

  11. Sorry, I shouldn't have phrased that last paragraph to indicate that I think we should be telling students what is the correct view, rather than presenting a range and questioning each. I think one thing we do well is precisely to NOT tell students exactly what is "right," and to invite them to analyze and criticize the views themselves. The issue is more about focusing their attention on specific persons, as if views are owned by them rather than claims with arguments we can all consider and weigh and decide to hold or not. I'm wondering if I should have exams and papers that focus on what so-and-so said, or a particular philosopher's view, since this might potentially lead to relativism of the sort discussed here: there are just different people with their different views. I hope this makes better sense of what I was trying to say!

  12. I might come across as being a bit cynical here, but the problem might be that they are being dismissive. But, regardless of the motivation, I agree with Jeff Wisdom and I would simply turn it back on them and ask them to explain what they thought that whom they were referencing was relevant to the issue being discussed.

    There may be another issue that I think some others have alluded to and that is that we also reference 'authorities' when we make our points as if doing so adds some credibility to the point we are making. Ironically, we are in a profession that really does not seek consensus, but trains its followers to stake out some conceptual position and defend it against all comers.

  13. It strikes me that my initial assumption would be that they simply disagree and want to express that the view you're presenting is pretty distant from their own way of looking at things. If that's what's going on, it might be a good moment to ask them why they have such a visceral response to the view and to see if they can motivate their desire to criticize the philosopher you're discussing. I'd just treat it as if a student said, "but that's wrong!" I'd want them to explain why they think so.


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