Why Even We Openminded Philosophers Sometimes Come Off As Dogmatic

Most of the time, I would prefer arguing with a philosopher over just about anyone else. Because of our typical training and temperament, we are quite often the most patient arguers.

Did you badly state your position? No worries. By all means keep rephrasing until you get it right. We are not so insecure as to try to confuse a malapropism for an intellectual loss. Do you want to explore an implausible hypothetical or think through an ugly or potentially dangerous thought? It’s okay. If we are to be truthful we must think through even strange or repulsive possibilities some times. Are you struggling to formulate exactly why your position is correct but you know in your guts it is intuitively superior? Heck, why didn’t you just say so? We might just put down our own argument against you for a moment, come on over to your side and help you out for a bit. Maybe if you develop this line of thought over here or make this conceptual distinction or bracket off this other question, your position might be much more effective. Is it working now? Yes? Okay, good. Now, here’s why I still have a problem…

And so on and so forth, when it comes to arguments philosophers can be pretty charitable, gracious, tolerant, patient, and openminded people. Of course, for all of this, we may nonetheless turn out to be susceptible to certain unexamined cultural prejudices or privilege-induced blindnesses as anyone else (and in some ways disturbingly worse, given the deeply problematic unbalanced proportion of men to women among our professional ranks).

But, these huge caveats aside, we tend to at least be willing to entertain any proposition, we gladly accept demands and burdens to articulate and defend our views in significant detail and against endless barrages of counter-challenges. We actively seek out counter-arguments and counter-evidence to our views. We don’t take disagreements about ideas personally the vast majority of the time. We can argue all day without feeling personally attacked or threatened or offended. We have entire friendships built on arguing. One of my dearest friends is a philosopher I do almost nothing but disagree with for amiable hours at a time. I love her to death.

Many of us are also teachers who outright relish helping our students understand a wide range of viewpoints, including ones we ourselves disagree with. In the classroom, I love advocating ideas I don’t agree with in order to force students to confront the strongest articulations of positions they may not agree with either, that they may be challenged to think their hardest.

But sometimes even openminded philosophers come off surly, aggressive, pompous, closedminded, dismissive, and dogmatic.

A bit of this is unintentional. Sometimes we seem surly and aggressive when we really mean no malice. We are just used to challenging others’ ideas and to being challenged, and to not seeing the whole thing as an interpersonal conflict. So we habitually expect others to not take things personally. And we’re accustomed to argument being a positive thing so it is hard to remember that the feelings of people who don’t like arguing are very different. For this reason, if you encounter me in real life and pay close attention, you should discover that unless you’re a philosophical person too, I surprisingly rarely raise the subject of philosophy, only doing so if it’s really germane. And I rarely start philosophical fights. I just finish them.

Sometimes we sound pompous because we say things that outside the context of philosophical rigor would be fairly presumptuous or sweeping. But we’re not actually just presuming and sweeping. We are the people who actually do the hard technical work that can at least partially justify in specific terms what for other people are platitudes or blowhard bullshit.

But sometimes our surly dismissiveness and defensiveness that gets taken as pompous dogmatic closedmindedness is due to something at the heart of what we do as philosophers. It is our job to work out very intricate, internally consistent conceptual and semantic schemes for categorizing the world. And when we switch into the mode of advocate for our ideas we can become quite adamant and easily frustrated for a couple reasons.

One reason is that philosophical conclusions are “intuitional” to an uncomfortable degree that for good reasons many philosophers (including I) want to avoid as much as possible. They’re not empirical. They’re about the most sensible way to relate concepts, semantic claims, value claims, etc. They’re about being in some sense just able to see what the most powerful picture of things is. And when a philosopher can just see how a wide ranging number of clear distinctions and logical implications all connect as the overwhelmingly best picture, and yet others are obstinant in just seeing it too, the philosopher can get very frustrated.

Because in most cases it’s not like we can show you an experiment or the mathematical model that just compels people to acknowledge with their own eyes or mathematical intuitions the truth of our point. A number of philosophers are obsessed with translating their ideas into formal logical notation to show why they must be true. But even that just covers up the ways we can always still reopen questions about the conceptual or semantic validity of the distinctions embedded in our premises. Or just question the truth of one or another premise. At the end of the day, on some level, a philosopher needs others to just see and admit to the comprehensive power of her account–its internal coherency, it’s abilities to account for everyday experience, its ability to clarify linguistic usage, its logical rigor, its clarity, its usefulness, its ability to incorporate and integrate with the best science, and, most of all, its superiority to rival accounts on all or most of these grounds.

There are objective criteria for demonstrating all these “better” and “worse” claims between philosophical accounts. But really showing someone all the intricate strengths of one’s account requires, basically, giving the whole complicated account and proving every single point and going through all the comparative weaknesses of the other person’s account. And it involves having a patient person with a long attention span who will stick around for the duration and not derail you hundreds of times with irrelevant questions or tangents.

Since we are not typically able to walk the average person through the entirety of our accounts and all our reasons for them every time we make a claim, we can be very tempted to dogmatically say to people being resistant, “no, this is just the way you should use this word! Trust me on this, goddammit!” In this way, a meticulously critical, cautious, openminded, thorough, and logical person with lots of great and carefully developed reasons for her views can get pretty damned flustered when people who have neither the time, patience, or training to understand her whole system of thought reject a part of it that has been, and must inevitably be, severed from the whole in order to have a manageable conversation.

And sometimes since all our philosophical clarity and coherence does not get rewarded with an official stamp of Accepted Truth but remains constantly open to new attacks and usually exists uneasily in permanent conflict with still living rival philosophical views, we can be quite prone emotionally to feelings of insecurity and doubts about our illegitimacy. We’re only human and so even where our reason rightly validates us, external validation can be hard to live without. So, philosophers can in a number of ways be embarrassingly demanding that we get the external recognition we’re pretty sure we deserve but which the larger Western culture, being decreasingly philosophically sensitive itself, usually refuses to give us.

I think it’s Rodney Dangerfield syndrome that makes a lot of philosophers unduly status conscious and obsessed with working out reliable rankings of philosophy departments, policing what real philosophy is or is not, or trying to sell the idea that philosophy is a progressive discipline generating results for the public comparable to the way the sciences do. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a legit place for rankings and for protecting the reputation of genuine philosophy from so much hogwash confused for philosophy and for highlighting the ways we really do regularly progress in our clarity about the issues we discuss. But whenever I see philosophers overselling just how clearly and indisputably this all can be accomplished, I’m a little skeptical and more than a little suspicious that there is overcorrection against internalized anxieties about illegitimacy going on in that stuff.

Now, less sympathetically, there is another way that this situation makes philosophers come off unpleasantly at times. Philosophy as a discipline rewards a bit of brashness and overconfidence. You have to have some serious confidence in yourself to feel like your notions about a huge number of tricky conceptual ambiguities are really the best ones.

You might wind up the Socratic kind of philosopher who spends years and years becoming more and more uncertain as he realizes that all his conceptual clarity just creates more problems and more fundamental ambiguities for himself than it ever actually “solves”. Some of these philosophers become especially humble and when they try to point out the limits of others’ systems, they’re gentle or matter of fact about it. Others can come off more cynical and like they take their joy in poking holes in everyone else’s constructive efforts.

Or you could also be the kind of strongminded person who really thinks that, despite all the complexities you are clearly aware of, nonetheless your overall picture is just basically right and if you have a strong personality to match you might be up for jousting with others. And even though there can be a ton of actual careful reasoning that you employ, you can be quite inclined to put the full force of your personal charisma and confidence behind you to help you get over the line in persuading people to feel like your intuitions about these vagaries are better than theirs. Since these are matters that require seeing intangible connections and the superiority of one general Gestalt to another, in arguments, more self-secure people can persuade more insecure people by sheer force of confidence.

And so a lot of smart and particularly self-assured people with a natural knack for philosophical distinctions can find philosophical sparring very rewarding. This can lead to domineering philosophers who get a bit too much of their satisfaction in winning arguments from the conquest over other people that can be involved in that.

I raise all these psychological dynamics that I observe in philosophers in order to continue answering an e-mail from a conscientiously openminded sounding young philosopher who wrote in with a question for my new philosophical advice column.  He is frustrated and self-doubting that others keep calling him closedminded when he argues with them. In my next post, I give practical suggestions for not coming off closedminded in arguments. As part of leading up to that advice, I wrote this post and two others (part 1, part 2) to explore why he might be having this problem in the first place.

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