I take considerable pride in being a blogger, but this has been a disheartening week. A lot of philosophers who are publicly active in various ways, including my former fellow blogger at NewAPPS, Carolyn Dicey Jennings, have been targeted by hostile critics, public and anonymous, in often nauseating ways that effectively silence them. It has had some such effect because people are changing their social media profiles, and undoubtedly others are deterred. I can easily imagine some of the targets being worried about further unwanted hostile attention. I would have hoped that even mutual critics could express some solidarity with each other in these circumstances, but that's rarely the case. In addition, it has been depressing to see that few have been able to transcend their own position and acknowledge the fears, concerns, and aspirations of their opponents--philosophers are just like ordinary people withholding mutual recognition! I often fear that my own blogging contributes to the dissonance.
There is a moment in Ibn Rushd's Decisive Treatise (which I am teaching this week) in which he clearly castigates Al-Ghazali for criticizing Al-Farabi and Ibn Sinna in a public and accessible fashion on theoretical matters (about God's knowledge of particulars) that (i) the ordinary public can't understand (and can't understand even by Al-Ghazali's lights), and (ii) the learned are unlikely to achieve consensus over. There is more to the debate (the inner meaning of revelation, the distinction between theoretical and ethical affairs, etc.). But I was struck, not for the first time, that philosophers' debates have an uncanny tendency to spill over into the public and be amplified there.
I tend to use the blog posts as ways of making up my own mind about such matters. But for a situationalist like me, this can only be achieved on a case by case basis, and the incidents are piling up with such rapidity this past week that I don't know where to begin. One general observation I have is that these incidents are not entirely isolated; the age of mutual solidarity among analytical philosophers seems to be ending Stateside (a period that lasted from the late 1940s to recently). In that period analytical philosophy displaced other, pre-existing local ways of doing philosophy Stateside (about which other times more), and also managed to consolidate its professional hegemony (in jobs, journal capture, attracting promising students, etc.) relative to what we now call 'Continental' philosophy.
I don't want to exaggerate the conflicts and fault-lines within contemporary, professional philosophy (stateside). Rather the existing controversies get amplified by social media and anonymity, and these create an unnecessary hardening of attitudes. I spent most of the week reflecting on Swinburne's lecture and would have blogged about it if, by chance, it has not been removed temporarily from First Things. For, I was much struck by his idea that "If there were no God, I do not think that suicide would always be wrong." (I even ended up re-reading Judges because I am doubtful that the Hebrew Bible really has an injunction against all forms of suicide [see this nice paper--HT Yoram Hazoney].) From what I can infer from Swinburne's lecture, he does not think that without the existence of God wrongdoing does not exist (so for Swinburne it's not the case 'no God --> moral nihilism'). I suppose I should not be surprised that God's existence can make a difference to the content of morality without being necessary for the existence of morality as such. What interests me is that Swinburne's momentary recognition here opens up the possibility of a conversation with Swinburne and those that praise him about what morality would look like absent God's existence--a matter not easily settled (and I suspect can only be settled by appealing to premises and norms of inference that ultimately have a bedrock in faith [faith in reason, faith in revelation, etc.]--and how we should create public norms and institutions given the minimal viability even by Swinburne's lights of two (coherent), conflicting moral codes.*
While I was reflecting about these matters, on Wednesday evening, I saw the Carducci Quartet perform The Flag Project by Huang Ruo in the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw which is an intimate concert space. (See here for more.) The Flag Project is a demanding piece in which the performers don't just play their ordinary instruments but also use Tibetan Finger Cymbals in different kinds of ways--most strikingly they use their bows on the Cymbals in order to produce an uncanny sound. However, the Cymbals are also used as percussion pieces in which the players also have to make an elegant movement with their arms. At one point, while he had just finished using the Cymbals as a percussion, the viola, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, let one of his Cymbals fly straight into Emma Denton's cello. It made a huge sound. The audience collectively held its breadth. He picked up the Cymbal, and the quartet, which gave each other a quick glance, played on apparently without missing a beat. I was astounded by their ability to transcend the moment and leave it behind later in the evening.
After the concert, the members of the quarter came to Cafe Welling, where most of us applauded them at their entry (this is a sweet ritual in the Amsterdam concert scene). When I was a kid Welling was a place where artists and writers who hung around the squatting scene would hang out. But now it has atmosphere of faded glory. When my mom and I were about to leave, we had to pass the players who were seated near the door. We stopped to compliment them. They were in a jolly atmosphere, so I asked Schmidt-Martin and Denton about the incident. This created more mirth and gentle teasing of Schmidt-Martin. Denton said she could tell from the wide eyes on the first row something had happened, but that her cello was unharmed.
As I stepped out into the unseasonably warm, early Fall evening of Amsterdam, it occurred to me that I would really wish professional philosophy is like Denton's cello. Right now, it is an open question if the profession's relatively public conversations will not be drowned under increasing polarization and mutual recrimination. A retreat to the seminar room suddenly seems very attractive.
* To be sure, even if God exists morality need not follow Swinburne's analysis; his view rests on contestable commitments about the obligations that follow being the recipient of gifts. But that's a different conversation.