|René Magritte, "The Human Condition" |
(photo from my recent visit to the Magritte Museum in Brussels)
The problem with many self-described “skeptics” these days is not that they are too skeptical but that they are not skeptical enough. Or so I’m going to try to argue here via a circuitous route through a current dispute about transphobia in academic philosophy with stops in ancient Greco-Roman, classical Chinese, and classical Indian philosophy.
Recently philosopher Jonathan Ichikawa posted a Twitter thread about a particular use of skepticism. Ichikawa’s thread includes the idea that skepticism is often linked with conservatism, an idea that is hardly new (although, I think, less true than is often supposed), but the more immediate context of all this is an ongoing … well, I’m not sure what to call it. “Discussion” is too tame, “kerfuffle” is too dismissive, and “internet shit-show that gives a peek at everything that’s wrong with my discipline” is, while not entirely inaccurate, not quite right. I’ll settle on “dispute” for now with the caveat that I leave this open to future revision.
The dispute has been going on for a long time, but a few recent items are this interview with philosopher Kathleen Stock and an essay by a trans woman on why she is leaving the discipline of philosophy. I have thoughts on both of these items, but they been discussed elsewhere and I trust readers are capable of listening, reading, and judging for themselves. My concerns here are more general.
Skepticism and Gender Dogmatism
I am a cis man. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person in philosophy. The idea that I can tell other people what their experience is seems to me to be, far from skepticism, perhaps a kind of epistemic arrogance.
Here’s a suggestion: the problem with transphobia and other forms of anti-LGTBQIA+ sentiment isn’t so much that people have the wrong beliefs about gender, but that they have too many beliefs about gender. The idea that a trans woman isn’t a real woman relies on some pretty concrete beliefs about gender, particularly what it means to be a woman. Much the same could be said about notions that lesbians and gay men can be “cured”, or that bisexual people don’t really exist, or that nobody can be asexual, or that intersex children are abominations, and so on. Such notions are usually founded upon some kind of gender dogmatism.
I don’t know whether gender is “natural.” I’m even less sure what that would even mean. But I’m pretty sure that trans folks are human beings worthy of whatever respect any other human being might deserve, or in any case I’d like to think the discipline would be better off if we treated our colleagues with the modicum of respect of acknowledging basic aspects of their identity. The idea that many trans folks in our discipline feel disrespected and harmed should start from the fact that many trans people have explicitly said this, but because this seems not to be enough for many so-called skeptics, let me put it this way: whether or not trans people are “really” the gender they say they are, we should respect our colleagues. And by “respect” I mean at the very least taking our colleagues’ experiences seriously by not outright denying their identities.
I don’t see why this is so hard. And if you need some kind of argument here, try this: Imagine that one person claimed repeatedly that another person with a PhD in philosophy who is a philosophy teacher and researcher at a university was not really a philosopher. That would be pretty weird. I realize this actually happens, but notice that when it does, it’s often because the person making the claim has some definition of philosophy, often a pretty narrow one formed on the more extreme edges of specific camps, e.g., analytic, continental, etc. Notice also that I have not engaged in any sort of a priori attempt to define “philosophy” before I feel comfortable saying that the second person is a philosopher. Nor have I claimed that we should not ask metaphilosophical questions.
But this is merely an analogy. I want to reiterate again that I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person in philosophy. The only evidence I have to go on is the testimony of trans people in philosophy. It seems odd for people allegedly interested in the truth to a priori reject what would prima facie appear to be a valuable source of evidence on the matter. (But one might object: isn’t this just what skepticism does? More on that soon.)
Maybe all of this reveals that categories like gender and “philosopher” are more fluid than we take them to be. Maybe it shows that such categories are in need of further conceptual analysis or deconstruction or whatever. I don’t know. But here’s my hypothesis: whatever one’s views about gender or metaphilosophy may be, telling other people what their identity is would seem to be a matter of great dogmatic faith in one’s own epistemic abilities rather than any kind of skepticism.
(Because my intended audience here is mostly philosophers, I should add the qualification that of course I don’t mean we should always respect the self-professed identities of other people: for instance, a person who clearly advocates white supremacist views but who denies being a white supremacist is not necessarily worthy of respect).
Contemporary Uses of Ancient Skepticism
That objection again: But that’s just what skepticism does! It discounts the obvious sources of evidence at the expense of others. That’s what Descartes did: he discounted the evidence of the senses at the expense of the evidence provided by “clear and distinct ideas.” Is it just good rational practice to subject new claims to the skeptical fire?
Ichikawa in the Twitter thread mentioned earlier questions this assumption and points out that such skepticism often serves to support the status quo. Ichikawa cites a passage from Sextus Empiricus about following “the tradition of laws and customs” as part of Sextus’s answer to the inactivity objection (how can skeptics act without beliefs?). I’m not disputing that Sextus said that or that many skeptics throughout history have been political conservatives on account of their skepticism. And I agree with Ichikawa that many self-described skeptics do indeed have the effect of maintaining the status quo.
But I would like to suggest two things: first, ancient and modern skepticism are very different animals, and second, it would be dogmatic to take Sextus too seriously here.
I’ve said more on the first point elsewhere, but when most philosophers these days talk about “skepticism” they usually have in mind the kinds of arguments you find in Descartes, Hume, or their intellectual descendants in analytic epistemology. While such arguments often borrow from ancient Greco-Roman skepticism, they are put to very different uses: modern skepticism is a move within a theoretical project of epistemology, while ancient skepticism was a way of life in the sense expressed by contemporary philosopher Pierre Hadot (while the Academics come closer to contemporary skepticism than the Pyrrhonian skeptics, I think Academics were practicing skepticism as a way of life, at least as they were represented by Cicero). Or, to put it more succinctly, modern skepticism is primarily (if not wholly) theoretical, while ancient skepticism is primarily (if not wholly) practical.
On the second point, skepticism does not logically entail conservatism. A fully purged Pyrrhonian skeptic could just as easily be what we’d call “progressive” once they stop trying to base their politics on anything like a fully worked out philosophical view. A contemporary Pyrrhonian might attack gender dogmatism, especially if such dogmatism is causing harm to oneself or others. Pyrrhonism’s target (at least in the version of Pyrrhonism we find in Sextus) is disturbance and its goal is tranquility, or the lack of disturbance. I dare say there is a great deal of disturbance created both on Twitter and off by gender dogmatism. Perhaps we’d be better off with fewer beliefs about gender.
An Academic skeptic may even have what Carneades called “persuasive impressions,” or something more than suspension of judgment and less than a full belief. Academics very well may form “persuasive impressions” about gender based on testimony from the experience of trans people or at least about the necessity of respecting one’s colleagues. And this can all be done with something less than full, dogmatic belief, something open to future revision.
But, one might object, doesn’t “progressivism” (or some other political philosophy) require some idea of what we are progressing toward? Doesn’t it require some coherent beliefs about the goals of politics? Can one act politically without political beliefs?
Skepticism, of both the everyday and philosophical varieties, is these days typically associated by its opponents with cynical dismissiveness and by its champions with hard-nosed rationality. But I think both views get it wrong, because they see skepticism as inherently directed toward others.
A lesson from the ancient Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna is that skepticism is an internal affair. Once you turn skepticism back on itself to purge yourself of your internal dogmatisms, you are left with a kind of mental peace, a coolness of the mind. For Nāgārjuna (at least as I interpret him) a major cause of our suffering is attachment to philosophical views, even when it comes to Buddhism itself. The Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi and the classical Indian skeptic Jayarāśi show that skepticism might lead to a cheerful openness to new ways of being and thinking, unimpeded by our self-imposed cognitive straightjackets. For Zhuangzi, skepticism results in a freer and less dogmatic way of being in the world, and for Jayarāśi, the destruction of philosophical dogmatism (especially that of religious philosophers) leaves us free to delight in everyday experience.
I personally find great joy in the attitude that the universe doesn’t owe us anything, that we are imperfect creatures doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Imagine how dismal (and boring) it would be to believe that we have almost everything figured out already! I don’t see why this attitude can’t be applied to gender as well: human beings are complex and gender is a vastly complicated topic that has spurred a panoply of views throughout all of human history. It would be intellectual folly to claim to have figured out gender once and for all.
Neither is skepticism inherently conservative. Conservatives often rely on dogmatic beliefs that society and its inhabitants must be a certain way and know their place in some preordained order. Skeptical progressives would lack the dogmatisms that hold us back from trying something new, from listening to and taking seriously the concerns of people on the margins of societal power. Instead of asking, “Why?” skeptical progressives might ask, “Why not?” Skepticism, properly applied, is a form of openness to social progress, but without an a priori fixed idea of what this progress consists in or where it is headed; maybe this makes it a great deal more progressive than most dogmatic forms of progressivism.
Auto-Skepticism and Epistemic Modesty
Let’s call the idea that skepticism should be applied to oneself “auto-skepticism.” I’m not entirely set on this term. I may revise it later, lest someone think I’m implying that we should be skeptical about automobiles (maybe we should be, but it would require another post!).
So, my suggestion is this: skepticism should be applied as much, if not more so, to oneself as to others. Auto-skepticism is especially important for those of us who are in positions of social privilege. I’ve written about this before, but the problem is two-fold: a privileged person simultaneously has less access to evidence of what it’s like to be a marginalized person and more confidence in their epistemic authority about all matters (including the experience of marginalized people). It’s something like a Dunning-Kruger effect.
This seems especially true for someone like me. As a white, cis-het man I have been taught (usually implicitly) that I have a special epistemic authority to tell other people what their experience is: I’ve noticed over the years how easy it is for me to say dismissive things like, “It’s not that bad,” “You’re over-reacting,” “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way,” “I’ve never noticed that myself, so it can’t be right,” and so on. This is something I’m working on. And I find that auto-skepticism is a useful tool in the process of reminding myself that my experience does not dictate reality.
Here’s some skeptical advice. If you find yourself tempted to think things like “trans people are just confused” or “trans women aren’t really women,” ask yourself some questions. What is your motivation for thinking so? Is it really an open-minded search for truth, or are there emotions lurking deeper (disgust, fear, etc.)? Why does this issue matter to you? What is your evidence in favor of these claims? Does this evidence trump the evidence of testimony of trans people? Where does the burden of proof lie in this case? What is the proper amount of epistemic modesty here? What are your own epistemic limitations, especially when it comes to experiences you’ve never had? Could these limitations be doing more work than you think? What are your reasons for thinking whatever you think about gender? Are these good reasons? Are your arguments actually good arguments? Are you overly attached to a particular view about gender? Does this attachment cause suffering to yourself or others? Might you be better off having fewer beliefs about gender? Might you experience a kind of peace of mind or intellectual freedom in relinquishing some of your beliefs about gender? Must one have beliefs about everything?
I can’t say what your answers to these questions will be. To say so would be uncouthly dogmatic. But I wonder if they are nonetheless helpful questions to ask oneself.
Do I turn this auto-skepticism on everything I have written here? Of course! Feel free to tell me where I am wrong. My own position contains blind spots, and I don’t see myself as having solved anything. At best I hope to have suggested some things to consider, things that may help some people turn their gaze inward to their own dogmatisms at least long enough to give some of our colleagues a moment of respite.
When it comes to lofty matters like the ontology of gender, it’s hard to know what to think. But in the meantime, I think a basic collegial respect is warranted. And if you require an argument in favor of treating people with basic respect, well, you may need more help than philosophy can give.