Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Philosopher Watch

Posted by Jerry on September 26, 2007

Philosophers in particular have long been happily secluded in the obscurity of their journals, books, and philosophy departments. Rarely have they had to engage with the popular culture and defend their ideas in public, and rarely do they even bother to do so. Even when philosophers publish books and papers, they are mostly just putting their views out there without being pressed into a dialog with their readers to respond to criticisms.

However, with the revolution that blogging is today, practically any person or opinion can be the target of intense scrutiny, analysis, and investigation, and on a medium that is open to a large number of people. Intellectuals, therefore, now have to be more careful of what they say and how they say it because not only can they suddenly be picked up by some obscure blogger out there, but their views can be traced, archived, summoned repeatedly, linked, and distributed.

With the ability to search for keywords and activate keyword alerts, practically every area of knowledge and content on the internet is at the disposal of anyone interested. So, for example, if you’re a philosopher like Colin McGinn, you have much to worry about what you publish on your blog and how/who you engage in a dialog with.

Recently, Colin McGinn presided over what may be the lengthiest comment thread on his blog, on a post about ethical egoism. He began the discussion by claiming to have swiftly “dispatched” with the egoistic moral theory; when several of his commentors highlighted the logical flaws of his arguments, he proceed to label them with ad hominem smears, insult their intelligence, dismiss their criticisms as irrelevant, delete their comments, and even send private e-mails to at least one commentor with immature insults.

Flibbert was that particular target of McGinn’s private cheapshots. In several and persistant e-mails to Flibbert, McGinn comes off looking like a teenage bully in a schoolyard. Now, remember that Colin McGinn is apparently a well-known philosopher in his academic circles. But on the blogosphere, the man is a cheap weasel. Here is a sample of the e-mail exchanges Flibbert had with Professor Colin McGinn, which Flibbert posted on his blog:

McGinn: “What a pompous fool you are.”

Flibbert: “More name-calling? Really? Seriously, professor, I’m not sure which is in worse shape: your manners, your logic, or your integrity.”

McGinn: “There are a lot of fools in the world. The internet has given them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have. You are a particularly egregious example of the type. I am simply stating the facts.”

Flibbert: “The same could be said of intellectual cowards and their university posts particularly in the case of philosophy departments.

Has it occurred to you that you’re engaging a complete stranger — one you’ve deemed to be obnoxious junk and a pompous fool — with petty insults? You seem to do so without any sense of irony about it. Compounding the irony is the fact that you are again hiding your shameful behavior from others. If your conclusion is so factual, why didn’t you just post an additional comment to your blog calling me a pompous fool?

I’ve told you why I think you’re a shameful and dishonest, not to mention condescending and rude, but as usual you haven’t provided any citations or examples to support your conclusions. No, you’ve simply ejaculated your opinion into this medium and expected others to slaver over it. To use another’s phrase, it’s a bukkake of stupid with you.

You disgust me.”

Professor McGinn continued to delete comments and insult Flibbert in private e-mails. Flibbert, on his part, decided that McGinn’s behavior did not warrant any decent and restrained responses from him any longer (with which I agree); Flibbert responded to him likewise.

After more than 100 comments were written by various commentors, McGinn finally chooses to reveal that he had never even read anything about the kind of ethical egoism Ayn Rand had formulated and which his detractors were pointing out to him. He said that he had never intended to address the ethical egoism of Ayn Rand but was attacking the egoism of Thomas Hobbes and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic.

This admission gives a clear indication of McGinn’s intellectual dishonesty because any honest interlocutor would have explicitly defined the target of his criticism by stating early on who’s theories were under scrutiny. Notably, in contrast, he did indeed define his exact usage of “altruism”–which he was defending–very early on in the comments.

Early commentors politely suggested that he tackle the Objectivist theory of ethical egoism because it was the strongest case ever devised–because it was also true. Instead of coming in right at that moment and admitting that Objectivist egoism was not his proper target because he was not yet properly familiar with it, McGinn chose to insult his commentors as “cultists”, and presided over a comment thread that introduced a whole host of wildly bizarre hypotheticals and contorted theories to distort ethical egoism and paint Objectivists as intellectually inept cultists.

I think McGinn has learned a very stinging lesson from the blogosphere: if you choose to put your intellectual opinions on the internet–even on a blog, you better consider what you say and how you conduct yourself–intellectual dishonesty will particularly be called out and receive scathing attacks. There are potentially a large number of eyes reading every word on the blogs. This cautionary principle applies particularly to professional intellectuals and philosophers because they bear the greater responsibility of being careful with what they say: indeed, they are in the profession of shaping minds!

And with the Internet the way it is today, they can no more hide behind the dusty covers of philosophical tomes, closed academic circles of acolytes, and misty deparmental offices. On the blogosphere, professional authority has little traction.

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22 Responses to “Philosopher Watch”

  1. olywood said

    The internet is an invaluabe tool to test your theories and ideas
    out on, probably only bettered by the peer review.
    virtually every ‘original’ idea ive ever had has been torn to shreds
    on numerous online forums and chats, and you do grow a thick skin after a while, and eventially learn to use it to your advantage.
    I can only assume McGinn is a realtive internet n00b to have gone so wildly off the rails on this one.
    That being said, you’d think hed have a basic grounding in class/public debate, its a given that
    you dont descend into ad homs, no matter how much on the back heel
    you are.
    Who knows, it could all just be fragile egos in ivory towers…

  2. Monica said

    “Who knows, it could all just be fragile egos in ivory towers…”

    I think that’s the exact issue. Professors who claim authority on a particular issue aren’t used to being challenged on it by any old person, especially when one can’t verify the person’s “authority” on the issue. It reminds me of the British tactic of trying to place a peron by their accent, and when they can’t do that, they get upset because they don’t know how to treat the person according to their own social code.

    A lot of times in academia one first determines a person’s authority to speak on an issue and then evaluates their arguments, if that. Rather sad. I’m not saying that all academics act that way, but that authority and prestige often do matter more than reasoning. We had a prominent, world-renowned biologist come and speak in our department. Almost none of what she said made any sense whatsoever, and everyone I spoke with later admitted that in private conversations, but no one asked her any hard questions about her talk. They simply assumed that since she was well-renowned for another theory she’d developed, that meant she knew what she was talking about on this particular topic, too.

    Certainly authority does mean something in many fields, but McGinn’s second-handed nature of deleting intelligent and critical comments he disagrees with, while keeping silly, poorly reasoned comments of those he agrees with, is pretty good evidence of the “fragile egos in ivory towers” phenomenon. What a pity.

  3. Ergo said

    Yeah. I suppose philosophers are not quite used to the thought of some lesser qualified intellectual lay men on blogs insisting that they make rational sense and back their theories with correspondence to reality. They hold that philosophy is a philosopher’s game within the philosopher’s domain and to be played by philosopher’s rules.

  4. […] Philosopher Watch […]

  5. […] Philosopher Watch […]

  6. Eric said

    I must say that I find it hard to believe that Ergo has actually read through the comments on Mcginn’s blog post on egoism. I participated in the discussion myself, and nearly all of the pro-Rand posts were point missing. They completely failed to engage Mcginn’s arguments and insisted that he answer irrelevant ripostes. I and others pointed this out during the debate, but to little or no avail. I think this post on Philosphy Et Cetera puts the problem perfectly. http://www.philosophyetc.net/2006/05/problem-with-non-philosophers.html

  7. Ergo said

    It doesn’t matter what you believe, Eric. I not only read the entire comments, I wrote up my own lengthy response to the post, which was duly ignored by McGinn and others.

    P.S. Those going to McGinn’s blog to read the comment thread now may get a rather distorted picture of the discussion because McGinn has deleted several comments from several of his dissenters. I am not aware of exactly which ones were deleted or what were the substance of those comments. Nevertheless, it bears keeping in mind while you read through the thread.

  8. Eric said

    Ergo,

    Your post on Mcginn’s site was ignored because it too failed to address Mcginn’s argument. If redefining a term and using it in an unconventional manner in response to an argument that uses a term in accordance with its acceptation is your idea of how philosophy is done, then I think you must rethink your approach. Anyone could “argue” in this manner to prove anything. E.g., Does God exist? Of course he does; God is the totality of the energy in the universe, and this patently exists, so God does too — by definition. You’ve made a similar move in your response. Altruism is not to be understood as it has conventionally beed understood when addressed by philosophers, but it is to be understood as Ayn Rand understood it, or as the man who coined the word understood it. I

  9. kishnevi said

    “Redefining a term, etc.” is one of the standard techniques of Objectivism. Tread carefully, please.

    And as for:
    Altruism is not to be understood as it has conventionally beed understood when addressed by philosophers, but it is to be understood as Ayn Rand understood it–
    That’s exactly the method you attacked in the first sentence, and exactly the method McGinn used when he started out attacking what all of us layfolks thought was Objectivism and only later announced that it was not Objectivism. When speaking to a wahoo, use words in the way the wahoo understands, or at least announce beforehand that you are not using the word in the way the wahoo understands it, because otherwise the wahoo will think you are using the word in the way the wahoo understands it. When speaking to a philosopher about altruism either use it in the way the philosopher understands it, or say right off the bat that you are using it in a different way. Even Rand herself made sure (most of the time, but not always) to warn her readers that what she meant by altruism and other terms was not the usual definition.

    Of course, none of this detracts from the main fact, which is that even when considered as an argument against his declared targets,McGinn’s arguments are incredibly weak.

  10. Eric said

    Kishnevi,

    I don’t think Mcginn had any reason to think that most of the people who would be reading his blog would understand common philosophic terms like “altruism” and “egoism” as Ayn Rand understood them. Rand’s usage is not at all conventional, as even a cursory glance at any of the standard texts used to teach ethics will show.

    Redefining a term is fine, but when your entire counterargument rests on such a redefinition you must also show that the philosopher you’re countering has not used the term properly. The problem arises when the criterion of “using a term properly” is “using it the way I use it.” You must do much more work than this. You must show that the term, as used by the philosopher, is incoherent; or that the term is being used differently at different times; or that the philosopher is using the term unconventionally and his argument presupposes that he is using it conventionally (as in my “God exists” example in my earlier post); etc. You cannot simply say, “I use the term this way,” or “some obscure philosopher uses the term this way.” Keep in mind that Mcginn was criticizing ethical egoism as it has been commonly understood throughout the Western philosophic tradition, and not specifically criticizing Rand’s conception of egoism. Some Objectivists tried to respond to Mcginn by presenting a Randian understanding of ethical egoism, but that is not the same thing as presenting an argument, and that is why they were largely ignored. That was my only point.

  11. Ergo said

    Eric,

    Auguste Comte is not an “obscure” philosopher! I find it audacious that altruists COMPLETLY IGNORE the man who *coined* and defined the very term and moral theory that they seek to defend!

    In any case, you have failed to address the key point of my post, which was McGinn’s dishonest behavior of presiding over a long discussion without even bothering to step in and clarify the context of his post early on. If you re-read the thread, you will note a few things:

    1) McGinn nowhere defines whose theory of egoism is he claiming to have “dispatched.”
    2) He gives an example of egoistic action: someone who seeks to rape because it best suits his purpose.
    3) Unlike egoism, he is quick to define and demarcate the term “altruism” early in his comments and define it differently from what the original philosopher who coined the term used it as. (And in comparison, McGinn is perhaps more obscure than Comte is).
    4) Among his first commenters was Diana Hsieh who pointed out that the egoism McGinn was attacking is a strawman version and that it was flawed (both his attack and the target of his attack).
    5) A worthy philosopher would assume the best and strongest case for his opposition and tackle that position specifically. Objectivists on his blog outlined Rand’s theory of egoism as the best and strongest case, and McGinn would do well in addressing the strongest case for egoism–not some grotesque theory that says you shouldn’t rape if you could get caught.
    6) McGinn side-steps these comments by saying they are not relevant to the post or have not addressed his wildest hypotheticals.
    7) Not only does he side-step the strongest case of his opponents and insist on arguing on a strawman of egoism, he goes further and speculates on “suspicious”, “political” motivations behind the Objectivists, and then labels us as “cultists” and “intellectually inept.”
    8.) Objectivists of course do not defend Hobbesian egoism because we don’t consider it egoism proper to man and life on this earth. We defend ethical egoism, the only kind of egoism practicable consistently in life. The way philosophers have traditionally defined egoism is neither ethical nor rational. Thus, we find no reason to engage McGinn in a disagreement over what traditionally masquarades as egoism in philosophy. We are interested in engaging him on egoism proper, and in showing him how his “altruism” is watered down, adulterated, and injected with egoistic motivations; his altruism is not as originally formulated by Comte, and cannot even be defended as practicable consistently in everyday life.
    9) Instead of conducting himself–as a professional academic should–with civility and in the spirit of honest discussion, he sends insults in private e-mails to at least one Objectivist, in which McGinn calls him a “fool”.

  12. Eric said

    Ergo,

    The term egoism has been in use since the 18th century, yet you ignore this completely and insist on using it the way a 20th century philosopher used it! How audacious of you! If the rest of us must defer to the 19th century and Comte when we use the term altruism, then it follows that you must defer to the 18th century usage of egoism. Do you see how silly this line of argument is?

  13. Eric said

    Ergo,

    Comte may not be obscure in the sense that everyone knows who he is (and reflexively associates his name with Logical Positivism), but he is obscure as a philosopher in the sense that no one reads him today.

    Egoism is understood in a number of different ways, yet they all share an essential element, and it was this that Mcginn was addressing. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy defines ethical egoism as “the view that people ought to do what is in their own self interest.” Mcginn’s formulation of ethical egoism fits quite nicely with this. He is teaching a course on ethics in general, not on ethical egoism in particular. A course on ethical egoism itself would go through all the variations of egoism, taking note of the subtle differences among them, but a general course on ethics will only have the time to go through egoism as it is generally understood.

    A similar case can be made for his use of ‘altruism.’ Again, the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy defines altruism as “any ethical view that implies that people sometimes ought to do what is in the interests of others and not in their self interests.” This too is entirely consistent with Mcginn’s usage.

    Mcginn states in his earlier posts that he is teaching a course on ethics, and that he is posting on some of the subjects he is going over in his class. So it seems to me that the notion that Mcginn failed to make the context of his post clear is simply incorrect as a matter of fact.

  14. Ergo said

    Eric,

    I don’t see why you haven’t addressed the main point: McGinn is entirely free and within his rights to discuss egoism however he wishes to, even if it is the way traditional philosophy has defined it. The point is, one of his early commentors raised an objection to his argument against egoism by explicitly using the Objectivist theory and raising the names of Ayn Rand and Tara Smith. Other Objectivists even pointed out that given the definition of egoism by McGinn, none of us have a disagreement, we all believe *that* egoism is not egoism at all but subjectivist hedonism masquerading under a different name.

    A typical response to this objection would have been to say something like (early on in the debate) “Well, that’s a different kind of egoism that I have not heard or read about. I am not familiar with any of Rand’s writings or the kind of egoism she espoused. So, Diana, I’m unable to respond to your criticism competently. Here in this post, I am referring to egoism as formulated by Hobbes and Glaucon. But your points are interesting and worth considering.”

    Instead, McGinn et al descend into cheap name-calling, insinuating baseless ideological, political, and cultist motivations, and asserting that Objectivists do not know how to do philosophy. Apparently, Objectivists philosophers in the Ayn Rand Society and the Ayn Rand Institute have been publishing books and papers without even having a clue of how to do philosophy all along! Now McGinn and gang should seek to enlighten us.

    Interestingly, McGinn was rather quick to define altruism as he wanted to use it very early on.

    You can’t deny the facts Eric.

  15. Eric said

    Ergo,

    Perhaps we can reach a compromise here. I’d agree that Mcginn should’ve answered as you suggested, but only if the Objectivists commenting on his site had opened with something like, “Professor Mcginn, I’d agree that you’ve shown ethical egoism as you conceive it to be patently false, but what do you think about the much more sophisticated case for ethical egoism made by Ayn Rand? If you’re not familiar with Rand’s case, I’ll sum it up for you here…” Instead, the Objectivists opened by telling Mcginn — an Oxford educated philosopher with an international reputation — that he didn’t know what ethical egoism is, and suggesting that the only kind of egoism worth mentioning is Randian egoism! Honestly, this reminds one of the sort of arrogance that creationists who are ignorant of science display when they question trained scientists about evolution.

    As far as Objectivism and cultism, I must say that Mcginn is on to something there. Let’s look at a couple of basic, uncontroversial facts. Many philosophers today consider themselves to be Kantians, Utilitarians, etc. Yet, if you read their work, you’ll always find that they don’t merely repeat what Kant or Mill has said, or simply develop Kantian and Millian themes; rather, there is always an element of serious disagreement and rigorous contention with Kantianism or Utilitarianism as develpoed and formulated by Kant and Mill. You simply don’t see this with Objectivists. Sure, Objectivists sometimes disagree with one another about what Rand meant, but I have never seen a book or an article written by an Objectivist that criticizes one of Rand’s arguments or formulations (please note that saying, “Rand was correct here but could’ve been more clear” isn’t what I’m talking about. I’ve seen this on a few occasions, but what I’ve never seen is, “Rand is simply wrong here” written by an Objectivist). This is one of the things that turned me away from Objectivism when I began to study academic philosophy. Admittedly, I haven’t been following Objectivist literature for some time now, so this may have changed. I hope it has. But I’ll challenge you: I could easily cite one hundred articles written by Kantians that have fundamental disagreements with Kant; can you cite ten articles written by Objectivists that take issue with Rand’s arguments?

  16. Ergo said

    The criterion for not being a cult is to have disagreements? What about the criterion of truth? Do you *have* to express disagreement just to fend off the impression of cultism without any regard for the truth of your own position or that of the person you wish to disagree with??

    In any case, I am a homosexual Objectivist. As such, I’m an exemplary case of someone who disagrees with Rand’s comment that homosexuality is immoral; but I am an Objectivist nonetheless. My criterion of accepting the philosophy is the truth of its propositions.

  17. Eric said

    Ergo,

    Of course all philosophers are committed to truth, and of course you don’t “have to express disagreement just to fend off the impression of cultism.” But I think that most reasonable people find it prima facie ridiculous to suppose that any one person “got it right” about every aspect of philosophy, and when you speak to an Objectivist, and find him making arguments that are often lifted word-for-word from R

  18. Eric said

    (Sorry about that partial post! I’ll continue here from the last sentence.)

    …and find him making arguments that are often lifted word-for-word from Rand’s writings, the impression that Objectivists think that Rand was right about everything is just what you get. It has much more in common with scripture-quoting fundamentalists (an example of cultism) than it does with what you read in philosophy journals.

    Now, you say that you disagree with Rand’s statement that homosexuality is immoral. As we all know, any ethical statement by Rand can be traced back to her metaphysical and epistemological views. Just where do you think Rand erred in her reasoning in this case?

  19. Ergo said

    Eric, we’ll have to leave the issue of homosexuality to a different thread, if I choose to post one about it. For now, suffice it say that her assessment of homosexuality as immoral does not bear deep roots in her ethics, epistemology, or metaphysics; perhaps, that’s exactly why her assessment is false in this instance.

  20. Flibbert said

    Eric, in my comments I actually DID say that as the terms had been defined by McGinn and others that their conclusions were valid. But I gave reasons why I didn’t think their conditions were valid for application in reality. I actually said this a couple of times in the discussion.

    Definitions aren’t arbitrary assignments. You can test them for internal consistency as well as external consistency. The definitions for altruism and egoism given aren’t externally consistent and their internal consistency requires such a limited view of the topic that they prove insufficient to call the inquiry into the topic complete.

    I guess an easier way to point this out is thus: Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand, more on that in a moment) outlines an argument for ethical egoism. McGinn’s discussion of ethical egoism does not consider and even excludes the argument provided by Objectivism. Therefore, either Objectivism is not ethical egoism or McGinn’s discussion does not address the broad topic of ethical egoism, but perhaps he addresses a single argument for it.

    McGinn’s remarks, up until the very end, were not qualified as being limited to a particular brand of ethical egoism in any way. He just said that he had addressed ethical egoism. Point of fact, his original post isn’t even an argument. He just says “rubbish” without saying why he disagrees. Further, he didn’t even provide citations for his definition of altruism in the discussion — he hid them in the comments of his post on Utilitarianism.

    As for Objectivists objecting to Objectivism, it is important to note that Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand. There is some rather lengthy discourse on this matter, actually. Objectivism is a “closed” system. There are people who dissent from Ayn Rand and still call themselves Objectivists, but in so objecting they exclude themselves from the set. This is also why many people who are sympathetic with Objectivism do not call themselves Objectivists, but students of Objectivism or some other title that clarifies that they aren’t necessarily in complete agreement with Rand.

  21. Andrew said

    17 Eric may be incorrect. “Of course all philosophers are committed to truth”

    Socrates stated:

    “- the aspiring speaker needs no knowledge of the truth about what is right or good… In courts of justice no attention is paid whatever to the truth about such topics; all that matters is plausibility… There are even some occasions when both prosecution and defence should positively suppress the facts in favor of probability, if the facts are improbable. Never mind the truth — pursue probability through thick and thin in every kind of speech; the whole secret of the art of speaking lies in consistent adherence to this principle”

    As stated here, there are occasions where truth must be clearly avoided. (Whatever “truth” is)

    However, states this also:

    “virtue was the most valuable of all possessions; the ideal life was spent in search of the Good. Truth lies beneath the shadows of existence, and that it is the job of the philosopher to show the rest how little they really know.”

    Also the topic of atruism. I think it’s fair to assume it means having the benefit of others in mind. Any other useage would be obscure to the common Man.

    The topic of fragile egos in ivory towers is interesting. For someone to be so “closed” to accept they could possibly be wrong, to me seems infantile, whoever they may or may not be.

  22. […] while ago, I had posted on McGinn’s poor intellectual manners after he had made the preposterous claim of having “dispatched” […]

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