Adam Riggio and the Shocking Concepts, Composing, 17/07/2013

Still working on the ecophilosophy manuscript, impeded by the humid weather, and left wondering whether any future success in my writing career could be invested in a summer home in the Rocky Mountains or elsewhere in the far less sweltering country of British Columbia. I did, however, get some work done, but unfortunately have isolated a paragraph of manuscript that it increasingly appears will have no place in the chapter. 

Some context for the orphan. “All these theories” I refer to are three attempts to build a theory of environmental moral philosophy that is based on a principle of nature’s intrinsic value. One author, Arne Næss, started writing on environmentalism in the 1960s, and advocated a belief system about reality that combined Buddha and Spinoza into a kind of universalist pantheism, which would replace atheist scientism and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Despite this, he said the reason for accepting this was a common intuition of nature’s intrinsic value, arrived through experiences like mountaineering. Paul Taylor’s major book was published in the late 1980s, advocating a general principle of respect for nature, but also the radical changes in lifestyle this would engender, like the scaling back of industrial society and at least paying lip service to ethical vegetarianism. Nicholas Agar, writing in 2000, accepted the common sense intuition that only that which had a mind was intrinsically valuable, but redefined intelligence so that all living creatures possessed some measure of it. He did not often touch on the issue of lifestyle changes. 
“An interesting quirk of all these theories is how, despite the underlying conservatism of their reliance on what their authors take to be widespread intuitions, they grow more radical with their distance from us in the past. It suggests that radical philosophies eventually have to make concessions to critiques from the very perspectives they are trying to overcome. If a central motive of developing a new philosophical system is to shock people from their dogmatic slumbers and see the limitations of what they take to be common sense, then philosophical criticism, rather than refine and improve ideas, actually strips them of their power to make a radical new beginning. If a philosophical radical must permit a conservative opponent to appeal to common intuitions in critical discourse, then adversarial philosophical argument forces a radical to concede authority to the very institutions and moralities she set out to undermine.”
Yes, this is another of my knocks on the appeal to intuition in philosophy. This will probably happen a lot in many different articulations and contexts. But it also amounts to a problem with contemporary philosophical manners. I mean manners as in etiquette. 

First consider the typical timeline of an academic philosopher introducing a new idea to the community. It doesn’t need to be a big idea, and my argument here works best with more modest ideas. Most of the time, a philosopher will write an essay of about 5,000 words about his new idea and publish it in a journal. Being a new idea, it’s content departs from the consensus view, as well it should. If the writer had nothing new to say, no way in which his thinking departed from the professional consensus, his essay wouldn’t have been published. 

But the usual reaction to such a new idea is criticism. The mainstream idea is well-established, and if it’s especially well-entrenched most folks in the field would consider it intuitively true. For example, when I talk about my distaste for retributive justice (a perspective I’ve only really embraced recently, after a long period of thinking on issues of law enforcement, and the role of the military, police, prohibition of drugs, and prisons in our society), I often get push-back from people who tell me that it’s intuitively true that the perpetrator of a crime or injury deserves to be punished. And the usual reaction to criticism is to make a compromise.

Because a new idea isn’t going to have a game-ready response to every possible critique it may face. And if there isn’t a game-ready response, our philosopher must concede in part. When people argue, there’s a winner and a loser. Those who can’t decisively shoot down criticisms are losers. Usually, that’s the advocate of a new idea. New ideas need time to be explored in all their implications. Sometimes, it takes generations to see all the implications of a new idea. Sometimes longer.

So when the first response to a new idea is the criticize it, the new idea dies stillborn. Its new versions include more and more compromises to the perspective it was invented to challenge in the first place. Instead of being intrigued by a new idea and exploring its subtleties, the common reaction is to attack the idea and force it to defend itself, usually before the idea’s advocates have fully explored all the idea can do. 

I referenced dogmatic slumber for a reason. That was Immanuel Kant’s line about the effect David Hume’s philosophy had on him: it woke him from his dogmatic slumbers. Hume’s ideas were epoch-making departures from what has come before. In many ways, we’re still exploring the subtleties of his thinking, and the implications of his concepts. Kant’s response wasn’t to argue or critique these ideas, defending the mainstream against an attack. He didn’t want to defeat Hume, but to include him as the foundation for a new way of thinking about knowledge. In response, Kant wrote works that have had equal, if not greater, longevity and affects as Hume’s. 

Being creative and open-minded to new directions in thought and life, not being critical and confrontational by instinct, is how philosophical progress is made, how new ideas are made and transform the ways we think.


  1. Enjoyed this post. I agree in principle that new ideas need to be nurtured but there's also a generational/ professional issue embedded here that might be worth considering. New ideas from leaders in the field often are nurtured. New ideas from new people often are not. The "disciplining" of a discipline is precisely to coordinate presuppositions and rules of engagement/ argumentation, hence there is a degree of conservatism inherent in academic work as you've pointed out.

    I think a solution might be if graduate student journals and conferences were developed as a sort of respectful arena for new ideas to be developed by new people without triggering the disciplining process. You present your new idea in a grad forum, ideally one that is inclusive of senior people who are sympathetic, and you present your disciplinarily recognizable work in a professional forum. Would that do the trick, do you think?

    At any rate, it's not likely in this day and age since we're in a shrinking market, so all this disciplining becomes a tool for reducing risk/ uncertainty/ debate in job hires (only hire the disciplined people) and that in turn means a more conservative academy (on the level of more conventional thinkers entering and in the sense of deepening informal commitments to discipline).

    I'm also wondering now about your characterization of intuition as intrinsically conservative. Intuition is certainly social but it can also be highly idiosyncratic and creative, reflecting personality as well as culture. Otherwise, we could just use "assumption" -- e.g. "this new philosophical ideas confirms my assumptions". But what I think philosophers mean is more like, "this new idea also conforms to my personal experience of the world". You're quite right to focus on conservatism inhering in that -- but your argument would be sharper I think if you take that into account.

    1. The real world is far more complicated than my brief account of it. I've found that the annual Canadian Philosophical Association conference at the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences tends to run rather like this. Grad students (and independent scholars) can submit papers that go through the same peer review as papers by sessional, contract-employed, tenure-track, and tenured professors. And most of the professors who go to the CPA behave in this generally open-minded manner of probing ideas without attacking.

      But the CPA isn't as universally respected across the Canadian professoriat. The ones who attend regularly have this open mind. The ones who don't, do not. Last year, one professor even stated publicly that the CPA was useless for him and that he shouldn't have to pay membership fees, because he was already an established tenure-track professor at the most prestigious university in the country, and that by accepting student papers in the degree that they did, the CPA made itself less prestigious and hurt its reputation. Everyone was so freaked that the 2012 CPA even featured a meeting to discuss policy changes that could get professors like him back in the fold. Of course, professors with attitudes like that shouldn't be members anyway because they clearly don't care about anything but their own position and prestige. It's too bad, because I really like this professor's work, and think it's very valuable.

      What's interesting is that you can sometimes tell which student members at the CPA will grow into reasonable, open-minded people, and which will become the next generation of jerks. They all attend the CPA because presenting papers there offers a solid way to build a CV before you hit the labour market. But you can tell by their personalities and what they do during the conference whether they'll continue to support the CPA after it's helped them.

      Re. Your last paragraph. I don't want to completely spoil the book.

  2. Oops, ok won't push you further on intuition!

    What you say about the CPA is exactly true of the CSA (sociology) as well. A leading intellectual and professor told me at the last CSA annual conference I went to that he wanted to propose a revision to the rules limiting grad student papers. For Canadian sociologists, I think there's a general sense that conferences as such are valuable, but the big issue is prestige relative to the US marketplace. Definitely an instrumental and individualist ethos underlying a lot of this thinking. I've been taught by some professors to explicitly and unabashedly adopt that ethos. Others have taught me the opposite.

    I've presented a lot of papers, many of them quite lame, but have gained a huge amount of confidence, professional savviness (such as I possess) and intellectual humility from doing so -- mostly as a result of the patience and compassion/ understanding of older scholars. I can't believe that most if not all successful academics haven't likewise benefitted immensely from early, rough presentations. I think it's a case of pulling the ladder up after you.

    1. Pulling the ladder up after you is an image my mother and I discuss frequently when we discuss contemporary politics. It's the Old Economy Steve meme. Or the Pearl Jam lyrics, "Born on third, thinks he got a triple."

      When one generation introduces an institution to help themselves succeed, the second generation is raised in the shadow of that institution and takes it for granted. Not really noticing the work that went into building the institution, they think they succeeded all by themselves. So when the second generation has the money and power, they hold contempt for the third generation that they see using this institution, because they think they succeeded on their own and doesn't know why these young people need it. So they dismantle it, and are dismayed but vindicated when the third generation isn't successful.

      My mother thankfully understands this phenomenon and hates her fellow older people who hold this contemptuous attitude. I think it's the underlying attitude of significant amounts of contemporary conservatism. In other words, most Baby Boomers are self-absorbed Paris Hiltons.

      I do think the CSA needs to change one thing about how they operate. For one thing, they only review by abstract, where the CPA reviews by whole paper. It makes the review process a lot more work for its volunteers, and sometimes things only come together by conference time by force of miracle. But it makes for a better conference: the student submissions have to measure up to the same peer review standards as the professor submissions. So everyone is in the same league.

  3. I agree with the review by article approach and did that for the ASA with I think better results. The feeling you're feeling is also I think a very specific feeling for our generation of Newfoundlanders, who were raised with Mount Cashel and the moratorium as what is normal in life and then headed out into a global recession right before the boom at home. Frustrating. I know your feelings toward Nfld are at least as plagued as my own.

    1. Well, my own feelings about Newfoundland and St John's in particular have more to do with stuff that happened in my personal life over my last couple of years there. The broader social changes are part of it too, but it's that personal stuff that keeps the province from feeling like home to me.

      I think as well, there's another issue that the boom in Newfoundland is fuelled by oil money. The place seems to have embraced all the worst parts of blue-collar culture (crassness, sexual violence, drug use, monetary materialism) and shunted away the best parts of blue-collar culture (community ties, strong families, solidarity, and suspicion of the corporate boss). On top of that, more intellectual workers like us seem to be held in contempt. After all, there's no recession in Newfoundland as long as you wants ta work on da rigs!

      If we don't embrace the oil industry, don't want to buy a big house and a big truck, or think of Danny Williams as less than a messiah, then we aren't really welcome. There's no place for writers and teachers in the boom, or even for musicians who don't play Celtic. But I'd be a lousy pipefitter or electrician, and that's just not what I want to do with my life.

      When I visit Newfoundland, the cultural message I get is that I'm not welcome there.

    2. Here are the rules:
      1) This blog will never involve complaining, economic difficulties, or negativity of any kind.
      2) There will be nothing on this blog talking about my personal life. Only ideas and positive professional developments.


    3. Sorry, I'm to blame for bringing up these issues. Carry on, Adam!

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  5. I've reconsidered my apology above where I take the blame for encouraging Adam to stray from his original rules. I'm now of the opinion that he should write what he likes and that economic context and personal background of moral philosophers are indeed germane to their moral philosophies. So, with that, carry on, Adam!