Links, Academic Philosophy

Words of wisdom

I was looking around the website of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona, with which many of the BHL bloggers have been affiliated in one way or another. I ran across a page I hadn’t noticed before, with a mission statement that seems to me worthy of widespread emulation. (The statement has the very strong ring of David Schmidtz to it, but I don’t know for sure whether he wrote it.)

Core Intellectual Values
These are core values that we will not compromise.

1. Growth
We aim to stand up from our desks at the end of every day knowing something that we did not know when we sat down that morning. We do not teach from old lecture notes. With our students we will share what we know, along with our uncertainties & struggles. Our students will know the joy & trepidation of exploring the intellectual frontier.

2. Seriousness
We are in the business of theorizing, but when we theorize, we draw maps whose worth stands or falls with their accuracy in representing reality. We draw distinctions not to obscure differences but to sort them out. When we make empirical claims, we back them up not by turning them into empty tautologies but by offering the kind of data that are relevant to the testing of scientific hypotheses. In short, if your definition makes it unnecessary to check the facts, then you need to check your definition.

3. Independence
We realize that if you want to maintain your passion for work, & want people to be better off for having read your work, or for having been your student, you have to stand for something. But whatever you stand for, you have to stand for honest scholarship first. Truth comes first. If and when the truth turns out incompatible with our beliefs, we change our beliefs.

4. Diplomacy
We will not demonize those who disagree with us. Our engagements will be constructive.

A blog is something different from an academic research and teaching school, and different norms apply in different settings– but these seem to me very attractive norms and ones to aspire to live up to, in university and non-university settings alike.

  • I can agree with (1)-(3). But not (4). Is the theoretical enterprise really that closely related to diplomacy? I abandoned my career plans with the US Foreign Service and went into philosophy because I thought it wasn’t.

    Anyway, (4) involves a false dichotomy. Even if you don’t demonize anyone, you need not equate philosophy with “constructive engagement.” I realize that the author didn’t intend to call Reagan and P.W. Botha to mind, but in my case, that’s what came to mind.

    Even if you manage to dispel the image of Reagan prevaricating over the need to appease PW Botha, the problem with (4) is that it seems to presuppose that every exchange is of the sort one has with nice people at the wine and cheese reception after a stimulating symposium. But not every conversation is like that, academic or otherwise. The character of discourse varies with the nature of the interlocutor. In some cases, engagements have to be destructive. Spend some time with a partisan of Hamas, Kahane Chai, or Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan and see how far you get with constructive engagement. Those are extreme examples, but the principle applies to lesser variations on the same thing.

    I wouldn’t assume, either, that conversation with fascists is utterly non-intellectual or pointless. These guys are hardly unsophisticated:

    But if I had to engage with them, I wouldn’t do it constructively. Deborah Lipstadt wasn’t very constructive with David Irving, either–but can you blame her? Irving acquired the stature he did because no one saw the need to destroy his reputation, as Lipstadt did. Well, who was right?

    Coming the other way around, how does one respond to the false accusation that one is oneself a fascist, an anti-Semite, or a paid agent of the Zionists? Not with constructive engagement. One can’t always deflect such accusations with a congenial smile. And such accusations are easier to make than to defend against.

    Finally, even on the most charitable reading of (4), I wonder whether there’s a word missing before “demonize.” The word is “publicly.” The second sentence is about public engagement, but the first sentence sounds as though it governs thought and discourse as such. For better or worse, people don’t speak to one another in private the way they engage in public. Does (4) mean “never demonize”? Or “never in public”? Not the same thing. Does “demonization” include strongly adverse moral judgments of all kinds? Some distinctions have to be made there, too.

    If (4) calls for something like the ethic of discourse that Nagel defended in “Concealment and Exposure,” I think it should go. And (4) seems compatible with Nagelian concealment.

    One missing core value there is honesty–the precise version of that virtue that specifically academic life requires. It overlaps with (1)-(3), but it’s not the same thing. I’d put it at the top.

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  • ThaomasH

    A good statement of the way I think most liberals and libertarians behave and all who engage in public discussion of issues should behave.

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  • #2 seems ambiguous between the weaker “Don’t make a priori claims about empirical matters” and the stronger “Don’t make a priori claims about anything.” For those of us who think that important parts of economic and social theory are a priori, the difference is not unimportant.

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