Friday, March 6, 2009

So am I a crank and a liar, or not?

Mark Murphy has put forward a draft letter to the APA critical of Charles Hermes’ petition, though for reasons different from (though not incompatible with) the reasons put forward in the counter-petition several philosophers (including me) put together in response.

In commenting on Murphy’s letter, Brian Leiter wrote:

“The quality of argument and reasoning here is certainly more substantial than in the counterpetition--not surprising, giving that Murphy is a very good philosopher (and lightyears more able than cranks like Ed Feser, author of the counterpetition [Professor Feser has been denying, by the way, that he is the sole author, but, oddly, hasn't been able to name any other authors]) -- though, for reasons addressed by others responding to Professor Murphy here, not particularly compelling.”

Or at least, that’s what he wrote earlier today. The relevant post has since been altered and the words in boldface consigned to the memory hole (though they are, for the moment anyway, still available in Google’s cache).

Why the change? Did Leiter decide that calling me a crank and (in effect) a liar would perhaps not reflect well on the cause of Hermes’ petition (which he has done more than anyone other than Hermes to promote)?

Did it occur to him that his readers might reasonably infer from his intemperate language that he also regards the other authors of the counter-petition – and perhaps all the signers of the counter-petition as well (268 of them as I write, including Alasdair MacIntyre, Roger Scruton, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Peter van Inwagen, and many other well-known philosophers) – as “cranks”?

Did someone who actually knows the facts of the case inform Leiter that I am not lying, and that several other people were involved in writing the counter-petition? Did his lawyer’s conscience kick in for a moment on reconsidering his libelous insinuation?

It’s the other authors’ business, by the way, whether they want to identify themselves, not mine. Of course, doing so will just open them up too to Leiter’s standard ad hominem way of dealing with people he disagrees with – as Leiter well knows.

In any event, the petition speaks for itself.

As do Leiter’s actions.


  1. I would like to know just how much of your philosophic work Leiter is familiar with -- in other words, I'd wager that Leiter is basing his opinion of your ability as a philosopher on nothing more than the fact that your political beliefs are at odds with his. (C'mon, he thought your popular work on the new atheism was about liberalism). But, then, what does this say about Leiter's ability to reason? Should we conclude, from his non sequitur, that he's not philosophically able? Everyone knows how smart Leiter is; some of us just with he'd use his substantial intellect when he's dealing with those whom he disagrees with.

  2. I agree with Eric.

    In fact, using Leiter's own "logic", we'd to think that his philosophical work is useless, incompetent and irrelevant (because he can't deal with opposite views in rational ways).

    However, Leiter's posts reflects more his prejudices, agenda-driven thinking and emotional reactions (cognitive dissonance?) in front of topics he disagrees with, than his philosophical competence. (It remembers me of A.C. Grayling's recent angry and simplistic anti-religion posts in Bill Vallicella's blog)

    Maybe I'm naive, but I learned that philosophy is about the honest and rational search for the truth and wisdom. However, when I read Leiter's ignorant comments on Prof.Feser's book (that he judged it without reading it), or his an-philosophical ad hominem labels, I tend to get dissapointed with philosophy as a tool for perfecting our wisdom. (At least, it's not a tool useful to everybody)

    For some people, it seems that philosophy is only a intellectual (ego-driven) exercise, not a true commitment to the seeking of the truth and personal wisdom.

  3. Ah, now I know where I read about Leiter before. He was cited in the first chapter of TLS as one of the secularists who mocked Antony Flew and his rejection of atheism, attributing it to his old age.

    As Jime said, I'm reminded of Grayling's posts on Bill Vallicella's blog. I also relate to Jime's disheartenment whenever I read all these ad hominem argument dismissals and ignorance coming from supposed professionals. How unfortunate that there is often little to nothing separating the ivory towers of academia from the elementary school playground.

    On another note, Prof. Feser, have you by chance been in contact with Mark Murphy? I'd be interested in knowing his reasons for declining to sign the counter-petition.

  4. Hello all,

    Eric, as far as I know, Leiter's only ever read a popular polemical piece I wrote years ago on leftism in the universities. That, apparently, is enough evidence for him of my "crankiness," and my various books and straightforward academic articles need not be consulted.

    Of course, the fact that many left-wing academics also write political polemics on the side is not taken by Leiter to show them to be cranks. But consistency has never been one of Leiter's strengths.

    I haven't talked to Murphy, Aaron, nor, to my knowledge, have the other authors of the counter-petition. I don't know what his reasons are, but there's nothing he says that is incompatible with the counter-petition.

  5. Aaron, there is a significant difference in the arguments and language behind the counter-petition and Murphy's letter. Murphy's letter claims, "Gay and lesbian philosophers are, as are all members of the gay and lesbian community, regularly subjected to grave injustice. It is also indisputable that, among the perpetrators of this injustice, some have been Christians and Christian institutions. And of course, like all of us in society more broadly, Christians need to reflect on the way that they contribute to these injustices, and how they are to be halted and rectified." Murphy's letter never raises the question of whether homosexual acts are unethical. These aspects of his letter are what have caused many philosophers (including myself) to be significantly more impressed by his letter than the counter-petition. Of course, I will not sign either. Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised if a significantly larger number of APA members will be willing to sign Murphy's letter than have been willing to sign the counter-petition (when he opens it for signatures). There is also a pragmatic reason that APA members who have signed the counter-petition ought to also sign Murphy's letter. "As of this morning, There are 304 total signatures on the counter-petition of which 30 are anonymous and 209 are not listed in the APA database. There are, then, 65 names (no change from yesterday) appearing on the counter-petition that match names in the database." For comparison, the original petition has now received 1400 signatures from APA members and I have deleted 28 signatures from non-members. Since the APA is an organization run by its members, a petition with many non-member signatures will provide little motivation for the APA to act. By asking that only APA-members sign the letter, Murphy is providing those of us who support the original petition a significantly stronger opponent. Unlike the counter-petition, I worry that Murphy's letter may provide real resistance to the original petition. I predict that many APA member who have signed the counter-petition will delete their names from it when they are given the opportunity of resisting the original petition by signing a more respectable document.