Thought Is Supposed to Set You Free, Composing, 16/12/2016

Yesterday morning, I watched a short video interview with Emma and Peter Worley. They’re education advocates in the UK who run The Philosophy Foundation. Its mission is to introduce philosophical education into primary and elementary school curriculums.

Now, before you call them ridiculous, this isn’t a matter of getting a bunch of nine year olds to read The Critique of Pure Reason. Instead, he’s talking about getting kids actually thinking about profound concepts.

Emma and Peter Worley. They advocate for such a wonderful idea, but
I can't help but feel that they express something troubling.
The example they discuss in the video is a discussion of number. The teacher writes ‘2’ four times on the chalkboard in a square shape. She asks the class ‘How many numbers are on the board?’ and asks each kid to explain why they think the way they do.

You’ve got a bunch of nine year olds talking seriously about the ontology of mathematics in their own words. That’s awesome.

They pitch the idea as a brilliant way to get kids thinking critically about deep and freaky topics. Exercises in that kind of thinking gets them interested in knowledge, in discovering the world, making themselves smarter, sharper, more perceptive and nuanced thinkers.

That's the kind of philosophical work that I try to write – in my current giant research project Utopias, as well as my smaller projects like reviews for SERRC and different conferences. Same with my policy work in the NDP. Diving into the fundamentals of our questions, so we can better understand our world.

Sadly, when I think back on so much of the day-to-day bluster of academic philosophy departments, I feel like many in that community wouldn’t want that kind of behaviour in their classrooms.

It isn’t just the condescending attitude that too many professors can easily slip into regarding their undergrad students. Though it is that.

It isn’t just the growing focus on scholarly minutiae, where the need to publish in highly specialized, steeply paywalled journals pushes people to write more and more densely technical interpretive arguments. Though it is that.

The popular paradigm of the philosopher wasn't
a professional teacher or school administrator. He
was some rebellious contrarian who spent his
life talking with his people, no matter their
class, wealth, status, or pedigree.
It’s the fact that those densely technical arguments, in person-to-person interactions get to such heated intensities. But that aggressive, sometimes confrontational approach to professional conversation could produce a dangerous tendency.

Yes, often this is a part of the social atmosphere in philosophy departments that tend to drive women away from the discipline. Or worse behaviour. And this is an expression of the social force I’m talking about. But it goes deeper.

There’s always a tendency in academics for an inflated sense of themselves. You get a little arrogant. You puff yourself up when you’re in the institution. If you restrict your social life to the institution, you can start to take those peacock feathers too seriously. And you actually become that insufferably arrogant.

The conversation on subject matters in academic philosophy has a tone of professionalized aggression. We will meticulously analyze a colleague’s argument and consider it entirely proper to coolly tear that argument to shreds.

We are purposefully destructive to each other’s work, and respond to such acts with gracious thanks for those helpful criticisms. After spending up to a year preparing a piece of research.

To criticize a work exclusively as a search for problems with it is a destructive act. But professional discourse treats this as a force of progress – an idea improves as you test whether it can stand up to argument. But there is a relentlessness that refuses to quit.

When the relentlessness of academic philosophical criticism blends deeply with the self-inflation of the culture’s arrogant tendencies, the result is an almost sociopathic degree of professionalized aggression.

This is certainly not everyone in academic philosophy – it was very few. But this was a tendency of the entire culture. When it was brought to its highest intensity, it can produce a troll of Milo-like strength as articulate as Bertrand Russell.

When I get my philosophical arguments on, I lately try to think of them
as more like a rap battle where you actually believe what you say. And
no, I'm not going to post a picture from Epic Rap Battles of History
because those videos are terrible and horribly stupid. 
In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about the worst tendency of the arrogant philosophy student. In the name of achieving the truth, he argues so aggressively against every idea he encounters that he becomes the nihilist sophist he hates.

Everything around him is wrong.

I wonder if this attitude, this style of talking and thinking, with others but always against them, is a condition of the drift of some former philosophy students I know to Men’s Rights Associations. To other reactionary avenues.

Certainly not the only cause. But quite plausibly a condition. Certainly not sufficient. Maybe not necessary. But tantalizingly present.

Maybe I feel so haunted by its presence in the voice of day-to-day academic philosophy because that was once my professional world. My chosen career path. Then I had to leave.

Maybe it haunts me because that style could have been a condition leading me down that path. Not the only condition. Certainly not sufficient. Definitely not necessary. But terrifyingly present.

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