Not any kind of game

Here is some advice from  Joshua Parsons, who passed away this week at the too-young age of 44.

In the bad old days philosophers used to invite speakers to seminars just in order to show off to each other by tearing strips off the speaker. It was a wonder anyone ever accepted an invitation to give a talk anywhere! The most prized skill a philosopher could have was to be able to utterly demolish a speaker’s argument; a good speaker would be one who could resist this process, or if that was not possible, then accept defeat with good grace. You’ll still hear old-timers reminiscing about this fondly: “Back in ’58, X gave us a lunch time talk on whether or not jars were a kind of bottle! Y interrupted 15 minutes in with a counterexample, and X said that he was refuted and there was no point in continuing so we all went to the staff club early for cigars and sherry!”

Point-scoring was big then. The idea is that philosophical discussions are a zero-sum game: either someone wins a point and looks clever and someone else loses one and looks foolish, or it is a stalemate, and no one likes a stalemate. This is of course completely false – philosophical discussions are not any kind of game, but a collaborative attempt to uncover and solve serious intellectual problems.

In my view, point-scoring behaviour is one of the biggest blights on the philosophy profession. The way philosophers are trained to conduct conversations in seminars lends itself to point-scoring, which is how the whole sorry idea got started in the first place. Think back to graduate school. At first you were afraid to ask questions in seminars because you had hardly understood a word of the talk, and everyone who was asking questions seemed to have understood it better than the speaker and have a trenchant criticism. Then your supervisor told you that the only way to learn was to muck in, and that she was expecting you to ask a question at the next seminar. At the paper, you listened very carefully to find something that you were sure you understood to ask a question about. You tentatively asked your first question. To your surprise, the speaker took you seriously and famous Prof X asked a follow up on your question. Your supervisor was proud of you. That was good! After that you tried your hardest to think of a question in every seminar. A few years later you had mastered the technique, not only thinking of a question, but anticipating the speaker’s response and ready with a follow-up too.

An interesting thought here is the mercenary nature of these discussions–you don’t actually have any points to make, you need to come up with some because that’s your job (or so you think). You come up with objections that may not be your objections, but they are objections nonetheless.

A further thought might be this: perhaps the author of the paper didn’t care about their point themselves. They had to come up with something to give a talk. That would make it a game for them, I think.

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