April 27, 2008

The Adversarial Method in Philosophy

Brandon points to a collection of posts at Feminist Philosophers on the subject of "philosophy as a blood sport". Apparently the phrase comes from this article. The latest discussion seems to have been occasioned by a post by Brian Leiter who is not particularly known for his civility, and apparently thinks this is all a big joke. In this post, I will not focus on the question of whether this has anything to do (either as cause or effect) with philosophy being male dominated. The reason for this is that that question would only be relevant in very specific circumstances, and I do not think these circumstances obtain. Specifically, the question would be relevant if the following were the case:

  1. "Blood sport" was one of the best methods of pursuing philosophy

  2. Due to contingent academic practice, it was not currently possible to pursue philosophy without tolerating the "blood sport" method

  3. There existed some other effective method of pursuing philosophy

  4. There were a bunch of women who would make significant contributions to philosophy if only they could use the other method exclusively, and not have to deal with "blood sport"

If all of these were true, then it would be the case that we should make it possible to avoid the "blood sport" method simply in order to get the contributions of female (would-be) philosophers. However, while I think that some of these statements express partial truths, I think it's all irrelevant because "blood sport" isn't a good method of pursuing philosophy in the first place. As such, we should do away with it because it's a bad method, irrespective of its effects on our demographics. No doubt it has driven away many people, of both genders.

However, having said all that, what I really want to argue in this post is that "blood sport" is a degenerate form of the adversarial method, and the adversarial method is one of the most effective methods of pursuing philosophy. I certainly know women who have no problem whatever with the adversarial method and when it is pursued in the ideal way which I am going to describe I think that if someone couldn't learn to deal with it that would be evidence that that person was not likely to be a good philosopher. Nevertheless, I do not claim that it is the only good method, or even that it can be uniquely identified as the best method. I simply claim that it is one of the best methods, and that if it is pursued in its ideal form, rather than the degenerate "blood sport" form, it is not likely to drive away people who would otherwise become great philosophers, regardless of their gender.

When I took intro to philosophy at Washington State - and this was at Washington State, mind you, not at one of the top departments - one of the first things we were taught was how to argue. To argue is to present reasons - good, logical reasons; not personal attacks, appeals to emotion, or rhetorical tricks - for believing or not believing some claim. These irrational rhetorical techniques have to be excluded. Furthermore, you have to realize that the principle of contradiction and the principle of excluded middle hold and, therefore, if we disagree we cannot both be right. (If we turned out to both be right, then we would both be mistaken in our belief that we disagreed.) Accordingly, an attack on one's position must not be interpreted as a personal attack. Persons and positions must be kept separate by both attacker and defender. Someone who is driven by emotion rather than logic and becomes emotionally upset in such circumstances is not likely to be a philosopher because this is a person who doesn't want to find out that his or her positions are wrong. Lauren resents (and is a powerful counter-example to) the assumption, shared (strangely enough) by certain feminist philosophers and certain misogynists, that this sort of statement excludes women. The claims of certain feminist philosophers that certain philosophical fields (especially ethics) have been overly concerned with logic because they have been male-dominated may well do more damage to the perception of women in philosophy than almost any other factor today. That said, the "blood lust" - the desire to win arguments at any cost - that characterizes many philosophers (most of them male) is the very same problem as the people who take attacks on their positions personally, found in an offensive rather than defensive manifestation.

All this by way of background. I will now proceed to describe exactly what I mean by "the adversarial method" and how this sort of constraint on argument plays into it.

The adversarial method is best known from its use in law. The theory (which is at least as degenerate in law as it is in philosophy) is that if equally matched opponents argue opposite sides of a matter, the side of the truth will be at an advantage. For this reason, no matter how obvious a person's guilt seems, her trial is not judged to be valid unless she has adequate representation. She must have an attorney who has done a competent job of defending her.

We do this in philosophy. When we are trying to determine the strength of a position, one person attacks it and another defends it. This is often the best way (though not always the best way, and never the only way) to test the strengths of positions. Note, however, that it only works if the two sides are equally matched. This is why one of the most important skills that philosophers (should) learn as undergraduates is to present the strongest possible argument for a position they disagree with. It is often best for a view to be defended by someone who actually believes in it, and attacked by someone who doesn't believe in it, but sometimes we need to evaluate a position and we don't have a believer available. For this reason, even the structure of many single-author papers exhibits the adversarial method: the author first builds up the position under discussion and presents arguments for it, then attacks it. If she actually agrees with the position, she will conclude by rebutting the attacks. The adversarial method.

How do we ensure that the two sides are equally matched? Well, when your "opponent" is struggling to find a good argument for his position (or against yours), you have to help him out. I think (or at least I hope) philosophy professors do this for their undergrads all the time. We have to get the strongest form of the position, and the strongest arguments for it, in order to be able to evaluate whether our attacks against it succeed; otherwise, we are in danger of the strawman fallacy.

What this reveals is, in part, that one of the ways in which the "blood sport" method is degenerate is that it's about winning. But philosophy isn't about winning; it's about understanding. When we want the other person's position to fall, or we don't want our own position to fall, then we are not loving wisdom or pursuing truth. Instead, we are loving and pursuing victory (or, in the defensive case, hating and fleeing defeat).

Now, there was an interesting remark from Ted Brennan in the Leiter post:

Journalists are surprised that academics can be short with them because they last met academics in the classroom, and most professors are kind and generous when dealing with students. Serious academics save their scathing put-downs for colleagues and equals--I doubt that those quotes from Fodor and Sterelny document interactions with students.

Instead of feeling pained and affronted, the bloggers and journalists should take it as a compliment: 'hey, those academics are treating me like an equal!'


While I don't condone this quite exactly, I do think there is an important point in it, that helps show the relationship between "blood sport" and adversarial method. In the adversarial method, as I have said, if your "opponent" is having trouble formulating a position you have to help him out. As such, if someone who is really pursuing the adversarial method is relentlessly attacking your position, the implication is that she doesn't think she can improve on your defense. This, of course, doesn't license insults or personal attacks, but I think it helps show how the adversarial method, which is a very good method, can lead into "blood sport" when it is not well understood or it is practiced inconsistently.

This is the method I try to use in most of my philosophizing, including discussions on this blog. I encourage you all to call me out when I don't live up to it.

Posted by Kenny at April 27, 2008 5:19 PM
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