–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Discourse Delusion

by | Oct 24, 2023


The “Law of the Instrument” is a common bias that involves excessive reliance on a familiar tool, even when it is ill-suited to the task at hand. As Abraham Maslow characterized it in 1966,“If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” 

In the social media age, discourse has become such a tool among the general public. For professional philosophers, it has long been so. We – professional philosophers and “lay” people alike – overestimate the aptness and efficacy of discourse and especially in online environments. In terms of the “law of the instrument,” if the only tool you have is talking/writing, it is tempting to treat everything as if it was an argument. And if you spend a lot of time in places where discourse – and especially, its argumentative forms – is the dominant means of engagement (and obviously, social media platforms are such places), then you will develop an overly disputational view of human interaction. Even in those online exchanges where the point of conversing would seem to be to share common enthusiasms, whether for music, food, movies, television, or the like, the “discourse” almost always devolves into arguments and browbeating, as if one really is going to make another person – usually a stranger – stop listening to 1980’s glam metal, cease consuming and enjoying hamburgers or pizza, halt knitting a shawl or pot holder (there is such a thing as “knitting discourse,” alas), or desist in wearing certain Halloween costumes, because one has announced that they are “___-ist,” “problematic,” “culturally appropriating,” etc.   

Philosophers have long suffered from this bias, which is why we are overly impressed by claims that this, that, or the other is “warranted,” “justified,” “impermissible,” “obligatory,” and the like. Underlying this are (at least) three mistakes that philosophers routinely make. 

The first is presuming that discourse, by itself, has some sort of intrinsic force. Philippa Foot once noted this, saying that “[p]eople talk … about the ‘binding force’ of morality, but it is not clear what this means if not that we feel ourselves unable to escape,” and in “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Elizabeth Anscombe described the force of mere moral utterances, absent any tangible sanction or real potential for it, as “mesmeric.” I’ve written about this myself, asking in Some Questions About Obligation, “What is the significance of a negative moral judgment for which there is no sanction of any kind that matters to the accused?” the answer to which is “zero.”

The second is thinking that the claims we advance in the imperative mood enjoy substantial consensus. They do not. For one thing, moral imperatives depend on the conception of obligation one is working with – Utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, for example, will often yield contradictory imperatives – and there is nothing resembling consensus on this front. (My own view is that all such positions suffer from indeterminacy.) For another, there often is little to no consensus on the first-order judgments themselves. Not long ago, in a discussion over at Daily Nous (a popular philosophy insiders blog), someone asked the following –

Why aren’t more philosophers vegan (or at least vegetarian)? What are the *real* reasons for not being so? This directly relates to academic conferences and talks when there are meals: Philosophers are increasingly concerned about the climate/environmental impacts caused by flying to conferences, etc. So (in addition to allowing virtual options for attendance and the like), why not have all meals be vegan? What’s honestly so difficult about that? –

– which, given that some 95% of the population is not vegan, is rather out of touch. One participant in the conversation observed that perhaps “the arguments for veganism aren’t as compelling as vegans believe” to which, well, yes, quite.

Beyond moral obligatoriness and permissibility, justification or “warrant” are philosophers’ favorite notions to throw around, but here too there is nothing resembling consensus and once again, different views will yield contradictory judgments: something that may be justified or warranted on a traditional “internalist” view of justification – having good reasons under some or other conception of ‘good’ – may not be under an “externalist” view, according to which being warranted means being properly connected to the truth-maker, regardless of what reasons one may have.

An unstated – and largely unexamined – assumption among philosophers is that people care an awful lot about consistency, rationality, and a number of other related intellectual virtues to the exclusion of other considerations. More: that they care about these things as they are conceived by and figure into the preoccupations of professional philosophers. They do not and neither do philosophers in our unguarded or more honest moments. Like everyone else, we care about satisfying the sort of “reasonable person” standard that one finds in the law and in ordinary life, for reasons of sociability, getting along, and getting things done. But the sort of justification one regularly encounters in academic philosophy is not something anyone cares about in daily life and when demanded is largely performative and of dubious effectiveness.

Which brings us to our third mistake and that is failing to see where our professional activities end and regular life begins. David Hume wrote in the Enquiries that one should “be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man,” a sensible, practical guidance that we seem to have great difficulty following. Our entire business consists of argumentative discourse, and because it is often directed towards the elements of ordinary life, it is easy to forget that an overlap in subject matter entails nothing about the aptness of a particular approach to it. What is an appropriate level of epistemic and other forms of “rational” scrutiny in the context of doing academic philosophy may not be appropriate in one’s other interactions and engagements. It would be inapt to raise general skeptical considerations during the course of a scientific investigation – imagine if every scientific inquiry was held hostage to skeptical arguments concerning the existence of the external world – and it makes little sense to drag philosophical notions of warrant or theories of obligation (all of which, remember, are controversial, even within academic philosophy) into ordinary conversations about someone’s halloween costume, crocheted pot holder, music preferences, or lunch. Even in philosophical investigation “reasons come to an end,” as Wittgenstein observed, and they certainly do – and much sooner – in one’s daily commerce, at least if one prefers not to be a pest.

In the political arena, discourse is often contrasted with violence, and it has been to the benefit of modern political and civic life that the former has replaced the latter as determinative of political contests in the liberal democracies. It is worth noting, however, that “discourse” in this sense involves negotiation as much as it does disputation and argument, because (a), as just observed, reasons come to an end – as often as not without resolution of the issue at hand – and (b) the relevant discourse takes place within a framework of shared purpose, namely that of self-governing. When this shared purpose collapses and with it, the inclination to negotiate – as it recently has in the US House of Representatives – the “discourse” simply becomes a kind of discursive violence, with the real thing perpetually on the cusp. And in online, social media environments, where there is rarely if ever a shared purpose, due to the indiscriminate, global character of such interactions, negotiation is essentially non-existent and frustrated disputation leads straight and swiftly to discursive knife fighting. Add to this the fact that participants may be more interested in playing to an audience than persuading their interlocutors – there is an ever present, global audience in online interactions – and the limits to productive argumentative discourse should be obvious.

“Take people where you find them” is a well-worn bit of psychological wisdom and is essential to successful friendships, intimate relationships, business, and more casual interpersonal engagements. You are unlikely to change people very much, especially with regard to their fundamental sensibilities, values, and epistemic norms, and will have to decide for yourself what you will and won’t tolerate from your friends, associates, and lovers. This remains doubly – triply – true when one is talking about strangers online or anywhere else. After all, if you aren’t going to change the mind of your co-worker, best friend, or wife, what chance is there that you’re going to change the mind of a random stranger passing by or on some social media platform? Part of acknowledging the sovereign autonomy of other independent adults is understanding that they have their own sensibilities and orientations and views, whatever you may think of them, and that no one has deputized you to put them straight or “call them out.” And while there are some circumstances in which arguing with others – even strangers – can be a productive activity, when the reasons have run out, the dispute remains unresolved, and the desire to live with or negotiate over whatever is at issue has evaporated, it is best simply to walk away.

The alternative is a discursive Forever War and all that entails.

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