Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tone deaf

Bill Vallicella gets email from a reader who, to quote one of the Geico cavemen, is “not 100% in love with [my] tone” in The Last Superstition. According to this reader (who, to be sure, does say some kind things about the book), my polemical style, no less than Daniel Dennett’s, is depressing evidence that professional philosophers “can and will immediately sacrifice civility and courtesy if they think it will best serve to advance their metaphysical/social/political ideals.”

This is unjust. As I make clear in the book and have made clear in earlier posts here, I take the tone I do with the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, et al. because they have been “asking for it.” I would never take such a tone (“immediately” or otherwise) with a serious atheist like Quentin Smith, J. J. C. Smart, or the late J. L. Mackie – regardless of whether doing so would “advance [my] metaphysical/social/political ideals.” Perhaps the reader in question also believes that policemen returning fire toward armed bank robbers who are shooting at them contribute to the crime rate just as much as the latter do. If not, I would ask him to consider that sometimes it matters “who started it,” and that in issues of public controversy as much as in maintaining law and order, rough tactics must sometimes be used against thugs who would otherwise trample upon the innocent. (The “innocent” in the case at hand being unwary non-specialist readers who might be deceived into thinking that the New Atheists must, given their bravado and public stature, have at least something of interest to say.)

Anyway, I have addressed the issue of the occasional appropriateness of polemics in philosophy at length here and, most recently, here.

Check out the comments section of Bill’s post for a drive-by piece of lightweight New Atheist-style commentary from A. C. Grayling, whose volume Against All Gods has at least one advantage over the better-known works of the Big Four: it is as thin physically (64 pages) as it is intellectually.

UPDATE: The reader in question kindly clarifies his remarks in the comments section below.


  1. Greetings, Professor Feser.

    That was my email Bill Vallicella responded to (which I'm grateful for), and some explanation is in order. I've been following your blog regularly ever since hearing about TLS (Last December or so), and have also seen your defense of TLS's tone in your response to JD Walters.

    So let me clear up something: I don't think your "polemical style, no less than Daniel Dennett's, is depressing evidence that professional philosophers can and will immediately sacrifice civility and courtesy if they think it will best serve to advance their metaphysical/social/political ideals."

    In fact, while I didn't make it clear in my email, the opposite is true: I said I was torn because, given the way Dennett (among others) repeatedly behaves (which, keep in mind, isn't restricted to tone of argument, but amounts to him doing very little philosophy and quite a lot of posturing for social/political reasons) it's clear to me that I -can't- condemn your tone. Particularly in light of the defense you offered in response to JD Walters - and I accept the reasoning you offered there.

    At the same time, I still lament what seems to be going on with philosophy (to say nothing of science, or politics, or other fields and the culture at large). As I wrote to Bill Vallicella, I used to be under the impression that professional philosophy had high standards of courtesy and behavior, and that nonsense like Dennett's and Dawkins were universally regarded poorly even by people sympathetic to their position. What can I say, I can be naive.

    So think of it this way: I think your tone is justified, but it's still disheartening that the situation has reached a point where such a response is not only justified, but needed. Just as (to speak to your example) it's in a way sad that you need a policeman around to keep people from robbing a bank.

    Hopefully I've managed to explain myself here, as I didn't mean for this confusion to pop up. As I said, I thought TLS was fantastic - my dismay was directed at Dennett rather than yourself. If anything, I'm starting to think that a more aggressive tone is needed across the board.

  2. Hello anonymous, and many thanks for the clarification.

  3. Anonymous,

    For what it is worth I have come to the conclusion that Christians are overly nice to their opponents. When I say this I mean in the academic realm. We to often lay over and act as if it is intellectual humility when it is not. Most of the time this "intellectual humility" is nothing but mask so that we are "accepted" by the intellectual community. Crazies like Dennett, Dawkins, and the Rabid PZ Myers are not interested in truth; they are interested in eradicating theistic beleif from the Academy and Society.

  4. Reformed Baptist,

    Sadly, I am starting to strongly agree with such an observation. I don't think such is always the case (I think many times theists don't react strongly to behavior like Dawkins' or Dennett's because they want to set a better example, both as intellectuals and believers), but I do think it's time to stop pussyfooting around so much on the subject.

  5. Enlightening observation of the acceptance (or lack there of) of intellectual polemics in a post modernist left culture which venerates ideological conformity.

    Cultural Marxists (AKA the politically correct) believe in diversity in everthing except opinion...particularly opinion dissenting to PC/CM dogmas (intellectual polemics).

    Intellectual Polemics and polemicists are an endangered species in the atmosphere of morbid intellectual conformity demanded by PC/CM politics on Campus.

  6. I think the criticism was right. I read your book and really liked it - except that the way you criticised actually got in the way of the arguments you were making. I found myself thinking as I read - "I wish this guy would just make his case, and stop with the long asides, sarcastic puns, and basic bad-guy lingo and personal attack.

    I appreciate your explanation. I think it brings your case down to a level it need not be on.

  7. I agree that the tone should vary depending on the critic. For example when Ayn Rand says that everyone in the history of philosophy is wrong without even studying philosophy, I think it's fair to be contemptuous of such a claim.

    (Actually, Rand did study philosophy in Russia but she seemed to lose interest in it after she came to the US.)

  8. For my part, my only regret with Feser's tone is that I can't recommend the book to those who would most benefit from it in principle. The obvious attack on liberalism and the intellectual vacuity of modern philosophical trends would only serve to make many people dig in their heels in response and refuse to even consider the arguments.

    On the other hand, Feser has made a great point in his defense, and the response of Dennett to Plantinga was the tipping point for me. If we've reached a level of discourse where - pardon me - jackasses like Dennett see fit to try and bury theistic/religious arguments by refusing to take them seriously, then - if it wasn't before this point - it's now a duty to treat philosophical arguments in favor of infanticide and worse with open revulsion and condemnation. Let's stop pretending that 'Well, we need a successor concept to the idea of truth' or 'Well, perhaps killing a 20-day-old isn't morally repugnant' or even 'Perhaps the holocaust wasn't objectively wrong, but rather was a mere culturally distasteful thing' are positions are worthy of taking so seriously that we don't call them out for what they are - the stuff of insanity.

    As I said, my only regret is that it has come to this. But more and more I think Feser has it right - he's heaping scorn on those who have not only earned it, but who have attempted to take the same route without nearly as much justification.

  9. I agree with anonymous of March 1. I ordered the book hoping I could use it as a counter to Dawkins in a first year seminar on God I teach at a secular school. But the book's opening section includes a relatively blistering attack on "gay marriage." Though I agree in substance with what's said there, the fact is that that section would immediately turn my students against the book. I was disappointed about that.

  10. Have 'em skip the intro, then. Students rarely read something if it's not assigned -- and usually not even when it is.

    And did you decide to leave Dawkins out too, given how nasty he is from the other side? If not, what's the problem with having them read TLS too? Or does only one side get to play rough in front of the kiddies?

  11. It's true that I could simply fail to assign the intro, in the (realistic) hope that they would refrain from reading it. But that was just an example! :-)

    As to your question, and here I rely on my anonymity: I have no worries whatsoever if Dawkins's tone--to say nothing of the morally abhorrent views he endorses--turns my students against him. Indeed, having my students turned against him is precisely the result I want. So let him be as nasty (in more than one sense) as he likes. Great! (Pedagogically speaking, I mean.) But I'd hate it if good, though mushy-headed, kids were lost to the perennial philosophy simply because they have a negative emotional reaction to hearing someone diss gay "marriage," or whatever. I haven't yet gotten ahold of Fr. Crean's book on Dawkins. I'm hoping maybe it will be gentler.

    There are lots of contexts where I would use your book, and I don't mean to take anything away from it. I also recognize that my criticism may not be a real criticism, since it's quite possible I'm evaluating it with a very different audience in mind than you had when you wrote it. I just posted my comment here somewhat impulsively when I followed links on the counterpetition here, started browsing, and found this thread, where a worry I myself had had was being discussed. Perhaps I should have refrained.

  12. Hi again, Anonymous. No problem, and I understand your concern. I realize that there are some people who will be turned off by the tone.

    But there's another way to look at it. When it's only the other side taking an aggressive tone, the false rhetorical impression this can leave on some readers is that atheists and leftists are highly confident in their position, while theists and right-wingers are less so. And if that's the perception, then it's a short step -- again, for some people, not all -- to the further false conclusion that the reason for this lack of confidence must be that the first side has good reasons while the other side doesn't.

    This is part (though only part) of what I find so annoying about the arguments of most conservatives vis-a-vis "same-sex marriage." They bend over backwards to try to prove their tolerant, live-and-let-live bona fides, stressing procedural rather than substantive arguments, hoping that the other side, or at least moderates, will think well of them. But the impression they actually convey is that of people who have no real confidence in the moral defensibility of their position. Constantly playing defense, they inevitably come across as defensive, and thus insecure.

    So, going on offense has its place, both to shore up the good guys who would otherwise be browbeaten into timidity and ineffectuality, and as part of the effort to show people of good will on the other side (or at least in the middle) that it is actually the theists and right-wingers who have greater reason to be confident.

    And surely students would be more likely to believe that someone with such views could hold them confidently and rationally if given an actual example of someone who does so, no?

  13. The flip side of the coin - that some will be turned off by a polemical tone and set of arguments - is that some will effectively be "sedated" or "becalmed" or whatever the better term might be by a tone and set of arguments that fails to be suitably polemical, i.e. that is arguably too abstract/analytical, given the general atmosphere within which it is advanced.

    I don't pretend to be any type of arbiter, in being able to determine what the ideal or "perfect" mix might be, I'm much more simply emphasizing the fact that none of it is advanced in a vacuum or in a neutral and abstracted setting.

    (That doesn't even get into the fact of Dawkins & Co.'s own forms of argumentation, as noted. Likewise it doesn't get into the fact of social/political consequence that is indirectly but manifestly related to the subject at hand.)

    A genuinely abstruse and recondite subject matter will almost always benefit from a more abstract and detached approace; an inextricably social/political and contentious topic will almost always benefit from a degree of impassioned argumentation, at least as subtext. But there is much that falls somewhere in the middle of those polar opposites as well and each author needs to determine that mix, dependent upon the subject matter, the broader context, etc.

  14. The last two comments make good points, and I will give them some thought.

  15. Feser: I'll take back some of my criticism based on your explanations.

    Still, I think we need both sides - brutal criticism where called for and the sweet honey of the far more attractive, coherent, and good alternative position.