Saturday, June 3, 2017

Uses of Philosophy, Part 3: Intellectual Empathy - Understanding Without Agreeing

In recent years famous scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Stephen Hawking have declared that philosophy is useless.  I shrugged this off for the most part since I'm used to people making uninformed pronouncements about my discipline.  Still, given philosophy's public relations problem, it's troubling to hear this sentiment from respected public figures.

But as Socrates says in the Apology, if people are mistaken, you should calmly correct their errors rather than punishing them (informing people about philosophy is in fact part of the mission of this blog).  I also still admire Tyson, Nye, and Hawking (or maybe I'm in an abusive relationship with science).  Tyson, for his part, later added a little bit of nuance to his comments.  Besides, he has said philosophical things, too (see above).

Rather than getting all confrontational and claiming that philosophy is better than science (I like both just fine) or that philosophy is harder than science (I'd say they're difficult in different ways), I'm continuing my series on the uses of philosophy.

In part one I described three uses: philosophy is fun, it develops skills such as critical thinking, and it can make us less dogmatic.  In part two I discussed the ways in which philosophy can cultivate a mental state I call coolness of mind.  This time I'd like to discuss another skill that philosophy can help you cultivate, one that I dare say we need today more than ever.

Why We Need to Understand Without Agreeing

I call this intellectual empathy, but I don't mean merely understanding what other people are thinking.  I mean understanding what other people are thinking while at the same time being free to disagree with them.  This is a harder trick than you'd think, as it runs against the grain of human nature as well as what passes for political discourse these days.

After the election of Donald Trump here in the United States, there were calls among some on the left to understand the type of American perceived to be Trump's base: white, rural working class voters (I say "perceived" because I think the American political situation is far more complex than that).  Others on the left decried this call as if attempting to understand Trump voters would be to admit that they had a point.  The choice seemed to be between attempting to understand, or refusing to understand as a sign of one's defiant disagreement (a lot of this was also moral grandstanding, a term coined by philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke).

I certainly don't mean to say that this false dichotomy (a logical fallacy you can learn about in philosophy) is wholly a phenomenon of the left.  As far as I can tell it's even worse on the right, where the closest thing to calls to understand the perceived base of Democrats - coastal, urban relatively-affluent liberals - are rabid denunciations of "the elites" in the name of "real Americans" or memes about the future that liberals want.

I think the inability to understand without agreeing is a major problem for a democratic society.  It's hard to have a dialogue when "dialogue" becomes merely the reiteration of opposing viewpoints, often in shouting matches in those little boxes on cable news shows.  When attempting to understand other people becomes a sign of weakness, politics devolves into jingoistic tribalism in which people agree without understanding just because their side says so.

Intellectual Empathy: The Future that Philosophers Want

One of the things I've always loved about philosophy is the challenge of making sense of bizarre points of view.  As one of my undergraduate professors used to say, philosophers are generally smart people.  They may be wrong, but they are seldom just stupid.

This is especially true in the history of philosophy.  Philosophers from far-flung historical eras often have points of view that seem literally incredible.  I discussed two of my favorite examples in one of my earliest posts on this blog: "Is the Study of Ancient Philosophy Like Science Fiction?"

Kumārila, a member of the ancient Brahmanical (what we’d now call “Hindu”) school of Mīmāṃsā, argues that the Vedas are eternal holy texts (see this excellent Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Kumārila by Dan Arnold).  Deference to scripture is a normal thing for orthodox religious philosophers.  But hold on to your seats!  Kumārila is also an atheist (he argues that the world has no creator), and he thinks the Vedas have no author!  In fact, it is because they have no author that the texts can be free from error, since mistakes come from authors.  Also, Vedic statements beyond any possible perception can’t ever be proven wrong (this view is embedded in a staunchly-defended realist epistemology). 
Consider also the case of Parmenides, an ancient Greek philosopher who seems to argue that all plurality and change are illusory; there is only Being – single, unified, eternal, and changeless.  Many people are more familiar with his student, Zeno, and his famous paradoxes
One could, as I suspect many smug contemporary philosophers [edit: and scientists!] would, simply dismiss Kumārila and Parmenides as wooly-headed, premodern, prescientific morons.  But if you actually read their texts, you find attempts at rationally adequate arguments in favor of these views (i.e., philosophy).  These were human beings not all that different than any of us today – they ate, breathed, lived, loved, worked, died, etc.  Yet they argued for points of view that many modern, Western people living after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution find quite literally incredible.
I have an aesthetic appreciation of this encounter with weirdness (probably also why I like Twin Peaks), but in philosophy you can't just say, "Whoa, that's weird" and move on.  The challenge is to make sense of these views.  Why would a fellow human being believe that?

It turns out Kumārila's view does make sense if you can imagine yourself taking the Vedas really, really seriously and having the entirely commonsensical view that the way your senses perceive the world is basically correct until you have some reason for doubt.  And Parmenides is not that bizarre once you take the opposite view that it is reason and not the senses that reveals the ultimate truth about the universe.

Does the fact that I can make sense of Kumārila and Parmenides mean that I agree with them?  Of course not.  I can admire the internal coherence of their views while disagreeing with their initial premises.  I don't take the Vedas as authoritative, nor do I take either the senses or reasoning as inherently trustworthy, but I can recognize that if I did I might be more likely to agree with Kumārila or Parmenides.  That is, once you puzzle out whether their views really are internally consistent!

Applied Intellectual Empathy: Classical Indian Edition

Understanding without agreeing is an essential skill in philosophy.  Even philosophers who work entirely in contemporary philosophy rely on this skill when they encounter other philosophers with different views.  This skill is especially pronounced in philosophy, which is basically an entire area of human activity based on disagreement.

Philosophical debate between Śaṃkara and Maṇḍaṇa with debate judge Ubhayabhāratī

One of my favorite aspects of the classical tradition of philosophy in India is the centrality of public philosophical debates.  Two philosophers would have a structured, public debate that would draw huge crowds - the ancient Indian equivalent of spectator sports!  Often the winner of the debate, as determined by an appointed judge with expertise in logic, would receive royal patronage for his (or in rarer cases, her) school.  Other times, as in the famous debate depicted in the picture above, the loser would agree to convert to the winner's school (presumably won over by superior arguments, understanding with agreeing in that case).

Classical Indian philosophical texts are jammed full of arguments and counter-arguments in a textual representation of such a debate, although a text rarely ends with the author converted to a new point of view.  The Indian tradition placed a huge premium on understanding without agreeing.  You couldn't really make your case unless you exercised intellectual empathy to represent the other side while ultimately showing its flaws.  The attitude was that if you couldn't show that your view is better than your opponents', then you might as well agree with one of your opponents.

Applied Intellectual Empathy: Contemporary American Edition

I think the contemporary refusal to understand represents a deeper level of anxiety: maybe your view isn't as unassailable as you'd like to think or maybe you don't know how to give arguments that might actually convince somebody.  Dogmatism becomes a refuge for those who, paradoxically enough, lack confidence in their position or their ability to defend it.  One thing I admire about classical Indian philosophers is that they engaged in debate because they were confident they could defend their points of view (except for skeptics, who spent their time debunking everyone else).

I realize it sounds crazy to say that Americans lack confidence.  The contemporary American scene looks like a place where people are more confident than ever that their side is right.  Part of this is that our increasingly relativist age has made us more dogmatic (if you don't expect arguments to convince anyone, then you get the points-scoring-shouting-matches that infect everywhere from CNN to Facebook). At another level, I think we've simply given up on the idea of understanding people who disagree with us.  Once politics devolved in a Hobbesian war of all against all, you don't understand, you dig in and fight, giving no quarter or any indication that people who disagree with you might be decent human beings (sometimes they aren't decent human beings, but that's not uniquely determined by whether they completely agree with you).

But what we've lost in this false dichotomy is the middle ground that philosophers have occupied for thousands of years: you can understand people and fight them (intellectually, at least).  In fact, understanding a view might be the first step to making a solid case against that view.  This is why I ask my students to consider an objection in their philosophy papers: it strengthens your argument.

But Aren't There Some People We Shouldn't Understand?

To consider an objection myself: what about people we probably shouldn't understand?  Do Nazis and bigots of all stripes deserve our intellectual empathy?  Is the recent resurgence of bigotry the direct result of having too much empathy?  Are some views, such as those that deny the humanity of entire groups of people, inherently unworthy of engaging in dialogue?

These are difficult questions, or at least they would be if our current political climate allowed the existence of questions that can't be answered in a tweet.  There are cases where intellectual engagement is unwise or actually harmful.  I don't dispute that.  Yet sometimes understanding without agreeing is precisely what we need.  (It may also require a division of labor; not everyone has the requisite temperament for engaging empathically with difficult people, just as not everyone has what it takes when a more aggressive attack dog style is needed).

I don't claim to completely understand Trump voters, nor do I think all Trump voters are the same, but my sense is that the Trumpism is what happens when vast swaths of a country stop taking politics seriously, when it becomes something that speaks to snooty elitists rather than people like you.  Now, I'm personally against Trump both as President and phenomenon.  I think the sentiment I just described is based on serious errors, not to mention a bizarre explicitly-denied-but-implicitly-accepted undercurrent of misguided bigotry.  And maybe some Trump voters really just are hopeless bigots.

But if America has any hope of moving beyond Trumpism, we're going to have to understand something about what drives it.  We'll have to take a lesson from Socrates as well as classical Indian logic and start by seeing where we can understand and beginning the debate from there.  I suspect that some Trump voters might have a point about not being taken seriously in national politics even if blaming this situation on immigrants and people of color rather than rich powerful white dudes in New York City (you know, dudes like Donald Trump) is fundamentally mistaken.

Or consider Trump's recent controversial decision to opt the US out of the Paris Climate Accord.  This decision is based on serious errors both factual and philosophical.  But if we want to have an honest debate about it, we'll have to start by considering the concerns Trump and others claim they have about the US economy, political sovereignty, or fairness in international relations, even if these concerns are overblown or misguided as I think they are.

Is understanding people who disagree with you difficult?  Of course it is.  It runs against much of our tendencies as human beings and definitely against our contemporary political culture, which is why it's a skill that has to be learned and constantly practiced.  And philosophy is one of the best places to learn and practice this skill.  If you can have intellectual empathy for Kumārila or Parmenides, surely you can learn to have intellectual empathy for Donald Trump or his opponents.

I think intellectual empathy is required for the health of a democratic society, maybe even for our survival.  So as much as I understand where Neil deGrasse Tyson is coming from when he said that philosophy is useless, I have to respectfully disagree.


  1. Hiya Ethan!

    I’ve been reading through your blog backwards (from new to old) to see what you’ve been up to. I haven’t been commenting like I used to but I can assure you that I am still reading your thoughts and ideas. Intellectual empathy is an interesting topic. I actually spent the day reading the thoughts of a man named Kenan Malik who wrote an article called “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation” for The New York Times. I read this article because I had thought about cultural appropriation (the phrase popped into my mind) today and wanted to see what folks were talking about. I also went to his page, his personal blog, to see more of his thoughts.

    Search for his article "Cultural Appropriation and Secular Blasphemy."

    I’m the kind of person who likes to read and hear people’s thoughts. I like when people say what they truly mean and feel. When I read the article I understood what Malik was attempting to make the reader believe but I did not agree on his delivery. He used a painting of Emmet Till created by a woman named Dana Schutz as the premise for his argument against what he claims was an argument of cultural appropriation. He basically says that if Schutz wasn’t a white woman no one would have complained. No one meaning black people of course because apparently the only thing we do it sit around waiting for someone to say something we disagree with. This is a beyond flawed idea. Black people complain about other black people portraying violence upon our bodies quite often. Non-black people refusing to address this doesn’t negate the fact that it happens. Moving on…

    What stopped me in my tracks while reading is the following line, “Many objected to a white painter like Schutz depicting such a traumatic moment in black history.” If this moment was only traumatic in black history and to no one else then why are we having this discussion? Another thought I had was why a black person was being used as the object of appropriation. I always thought appropriation applied to thing not humans. Emmet Till is a human, a person, a child. To speak of him as if he is an object is absolutely disgusting. You can read the article yourself and form your own opinions.

    Cultural appropriation is often seen as a cry from the ‘left.’ First of all, to assume that a person of color is a leftist is problematic and highlights societal issues we have with race and politics in our country. Second, to assume that minorities are worried about ‘what people are doing with their time’ is high on the list of things that are important to them denotes hidden prejudices about said people. Third, to assume that believing in cultural appropriation supports race-based stereotypes is bullshit. Because like Malik said, assuming that white people don’t wear tribe-based Native American headdresses only works to stereotype Native Americans.

    I don’t agree with Malik on many of the things he says. At the end of his article he goes as far as claiming that anti-racists are the new racists when racism is still a thing. “Seventy years ago, racist radio stations refused to play ‘race music’ for a white audience. Today, antiracist activists insist that white painters should not portray black subjects.” He somehow managed to miss the point that the problem is that some black people are tired of being depicted in pain. This is why many black folks don’t like watching Tyler Perry. We know the female protagonist is going to be beat, raped or both. He failed to mention this. I disagree with this guy but I read his thoughts because I want to know what other people think and feel outside of myself. Even in discussions that are, for some odd reason, about black people but ironically do not include us. It’s funny and eye opening. Funny because this particular person seems somewhat condescending and eye opening because I get to see the world differently thanks to someone brave enough to share their thoughts.

    1. Hi Kyanna! Thanks for reading. It's good to hear from you.

      I haven't gotten around to reading Malik's articles yet, but I think issues like cultural appropriation are subtle. Cultures have been mixing for a long time. It would be impossible (and boring!) to stop that.

      I think the deeper issue is about the context. I think that a lot of Native American sports mascots are pretty demeaning forms of cultural appropriation because it's a politically powerful group trivializing the culture of a less powerful group with no input from that group (the same can be said for some cases of white people wearing Naive-style headdresses). Or if you think about white bands playing Blues or something, it somewhat depends on context. Led Zeppelin basically stole songs and styles without any credit and little appreciation for the cultures of African Americans in Mississippi or Chicago. (I think some of these cases were later settled in or out of court).

      Another example I have students discuss in my Indian philosophy class is the whole phenomenon of Yoga in the US. Yoga was never supposed to be just for India, but people should appreciate that that's where it comes from. I cringe a bit at some of the Orientalist discourse around Yoga that depicts India as inherently "mystical" or "spiritual" as opposed to a rational and secular West. So I would say that Americans doing Yoga in a way that bolsters this stereotype without deeper appreciation of the original context is a bad kind of cultural appropriation, but Americans doing Yoga is not just by itself bad cultural appropriation.

      These issues are probably more complicated than most internet discussions will allow for, which is to some extent what keeps tired old Culture War issues going.


  2. I’d like to mention that we shouldn’t think we are right all of the time. Many people think their opinions are facts. No. Your opinions are your thoughts and ideas. Unless it’s a scientific law, I’m a skeptic. We need to learn to speak with people who we do not agree with without attempting to degrade their intelligence. We live in a world where people thrive off of deindividuation and so what happens as a consequence of such nonsense? Attacks. Particularly attacking the ‘other.’

    We can tell how bad things are because folks are turning off their comments and not allowing people with different opinions to speak. They should speak and voice their opinions. Each and every one of them. Even if they are hateful and make no sense.

    Happy reading! LOL

    1. Right. Adding to this, there's definitely an echo chamber effect in a lot of our contemporary discourse where we only talk to people who agree with us, which makes it easier to have the attitude you describe. I think a lot of people think of their opinions as things they just kind of have as part of their identity rather than something that could be investigated or tested. Not that people's beliefs aren't part of their identities, but our identities can shift over time. One thing I've learned from Buddhist philosophy is to be careful of the ways in which people get attached to beliefs in unhealthy ways.

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