Epithets in Philosophy

By Daniel A. Kaufman
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Do epithets have a place in philosophical disputes? Is it useful, productive, or even appropriate to call people “racist,” “misogynist,” or “transphobic,” when engaged in philosophical arguments about the ethics of affirmative action, or whether we are properly described as living in a “rape culture” or whether gender identity is such that trans-women are in fact, women?

This question is currently live over at the Daily Nous, a much-read, insider-philosophy blog, published by Justin Weinberg, of the University of South Carolina. Weinberg has been linking to a series of posts by Kathleen Stock of the University of Sussex, in which she expresses a number of views critical of contemporary gender- and trans-identity politics, from a feminist perspective, as well as an essay by Talia Mae Bettcher of Cal State Los Angeles that is critical of Stock.

Bettcher engages in plenty of insult and condescension, referring to Stock’s “breathtaking hubris” and expressing doubts as to whether Stock’s essays “would have received a passing grade” in her Trans Feminist Philosophy course. One commentator referred to Stock’s “transmisogyny.” Another said that Stock, in suggesting that trans-women are not women, was “questioning my existence.” Stock, herself, refers to the “misogyny” of some trans-activism at points in her essays. It all got heated enough that Weinberg felt inspired to suggest a set of guidelines for civil discussion with respect to controversial and politically charged subjects, including “avoid[ing] needlessly using or mentioning provocative terminology or labels” and “avoid[ing] insulting, dramatic language.”

Good advice, one would think. Public discourse has become vitriolic enough, without the people who are supposed to be our intellectuals joining in. As scholars, we’re supposed to be generating light, rather than heat, after all. But it wasn’t long before someone dissented. Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and a not-insignificant voice in philosophical social-justice circles, wrote the following:

I wonder … about what counts as “needlessly” using provocative terms. I assume that if the view under consideration is that black people shouldn’t be allowed into US PhD programs because they’re intellectually inferior, Justin will agree that it’s appropriate to apply the label “racist”. But I (genuinely!) don’t know what he’d think about whether it’d be needlessly provocative to apply that label to, say, Charles Murray’s work, or the American criminal justice system, or ideal political theory. (My own opinion is that it’s perfectly appropriate to use or mention that term in each of those discussions, and that we should collectively work to get over our instinct towards extreme defensiveness in discussions involving the term.) And of course similarly substantive and difficult questions arise for “misogynist”, “transmisogynist”, and lots of other provocative terms.

I responded critically, and at present, our argument is ongoing. But I think the issue important enough to more fully flesh out my views on the subject here.

The simple fact is that people are going to disagree on this stuff. Especially, this stuff. Philosophers can’t agree on the relative moral significance of motive and outcome; or whether reality exists independently of our minds or is partly constituted by them; or whether the meaning of a term lies in its referent or in some representation of the referent. What are the chances that they are going to agree on the ethics of affirmative action programs or sex and gender or the broader character of our culture, all of which are significantly more complex and whose key terms themselves are ambiguous and subject to interpretation and therefore dispute?

People also aren’t going to agree on the implications of the relevant scholarship – or even as to what counts as the relevant scholarship – something that activists and partisans either fail to understand or deliberately ignore, which is why, in the discussion over Stock’s essays, Bettcher and her supporters repeatedly handwave in the direction of “the literature” and accuse those who reject the conclusions they draw from it as being bigoted in one way or another. But once again, it seems to me that this sort of disagreement is exactly what one would expect. Philosophers of substantial education and sophistication disagree on the inferences to be drawn from Sellars’ distinction between the Scientific and Manifest images, even coming to literally contradictory conclusions as to what it implies. Philosophers equally expert on the subject disagree profoundly on the implications of Book 10 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the interpretation of Books 1-9. What are the chances that philosophers of different political orientations, perhaps belonging to different philosophical traditions, are going to agree on the implications of the gender-identity literature, or the literature on racism or even what the relevant literature is?

The trouble with the deployment of epithets in the contexts of these sorts of discussions – of calling one’s interlocutors “racists” and “transphobes” and the like – is that doing so has a number of serious negative effects and no positive ones. It begs for a reactive response, the inevitable result of which is a kind of rhetorical arms-race, in which people just hurl epithets at each other and accuse each other of things. It creates division where there needn’t be any and thus, destroys any possibility of coalition building. (I’ve written quite a bit on the ways in which hardcore progressives seem to be doing everything they can to push classical liberals and those on the center-left out of the civil rights coalition, thereby shrinking it and making it less effective, both intellectually and politically.) And it corrupts the academic literature, which is also filled with these sorts of epithets and accusations, and is thus perceived as ideological and motivated, rather than dispassionate, which means that it has no power to persuade, only seeming credible to those who already agree with the point of view being expressed.

There are, of course, appropriate places for epithets and accusations and all other manner of rhetorical warfare: polemics; political rallies; certain types of opinion writing… I have a dedicated column to this kind of expression, which I call “Provocations.” But it is an unmitigated disaster when it is brought into academic discourse and especially philosophy. We already have several examples of disciplines that have entirely lost credibility with the public, because they have been so adulterated by motivated, ideological thinking and activist postures and rhetoric – anthropology; sociology; many of the so-called “area studies” – and philosophy is at great risk of being perceived in the same way. It’s bad enough that we’ve alienated ourselves by way of excessive specialization and technicality. Adding the sort of taint that comes with being perceived as ideological and partisan and betraying the dispassionate, critical stance that traditionally has been philosophy’s distinguishing mark will be proverbial last nail in the coffin.

29 Comments »

  1. The never ending discussion around the “problem” of appropriate (or not) language would seem to arise from philosophy’s failure to focus it’s intellectual firepower on the topics that are the most important.

    As example, if we were all sitting around your living room having this conversation and then saw that your kitchen was about to catch on fire we would immediately stop the petty ego squabbling cleverness competition dance routine and turn our attention to a most important topic, the burning kitchen. That is, we would be rational. The burning kitchen is a most important topic because if it isn’t attended to the fire threatens all other conversations we might have the rest of our lives.

    In comparison to the fire about to erupt, all other topics we might discuss are fairly labeled trivial. And if we were to focus on these other trivial topics instead of the fire about to explode in your kitchen, we could fairly be labeled irrational.

    What’s happening in the realm of philosophy is that we know about the fire threatening our civilization, but we don’t find that approaching fire a suitable vehicle for the public display of our cleverness, and so we set the fire aside and turn our attention to far smaller matters, such as squabbling over language.

    If that remains our choice, then we should at least squabble over language in a more intelligent and productive manner.

    First, instead of trying to manage how everyone else talks, a fool’s errand doomed to failure from the start, we should say whatever we actually feel so that we’re not lying to each other.

    Next, instead of running from the unpleasant words we should allow them to land on us until they generate the intended negative experience.

    Then, we should closely observe the dents in our ego, and use that observation as an opening door in to a deeper investigation of this fundamental property of the human condition.

    Instead of conducting such a careful and thoughtful inquiry in to the nature of our egos, it seems the culture of philosophy is intent on imitating the Catholic priesthood, and having a competition to see who is the best at pointing the finger of blame and shame etc. The evidence might inform us that 2,000 years of such blaming and shaming has not cured us of the urge to say inconvenient words, nor our passion for claiming the all important fantasy victim status when we voluntarily read those words.

    But, again, all of this is more efficiently solved by changing the subject to the most important topics. The civilization all philosophy depends upon is racing towards a cliff. If you can see that, write about it, and you’ll no longer be worried about whether someone has called you a name.

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  2. I guess that we can all think of instances where epithets could be used in philosophical or any other discussion. If a Holocaust denier were to comment on a philosophy blog or if a philosopher were a Holocaust denier, I would feel justified in calling him or her “a Nazi” or a “fascist” or something less polite.

    However, in the case of Holocaust denial or justification of Jim Crow legislation or the “idea” that being gay is a sickness, humanity seems to have moved beyond those positions and we are justified in treating them with scorn and insulting them. The debate about whether transwomen are “really” women is new: we are all learning from it and many of us so far have not adopted a fixed position because it something most people have never thought about beforehand.

    Therefore, I think that it should be discussed with courtesy and without insults, until humanity, in its collective “wisdom” has made up its mind about it as it has made up its mind about issues like Holocaust denial and Jim Crow legislation.

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  3. Dan,
    just putting it bluntly: Epithets have no place in academic discourse.

    One problem, though, is whether social media and comment threads, especially on blogs, constitute ‘academic discourse’, even when engaged by academics. If not, then surely common decency should still apply. (Not to mention that hostile rhetoric wins no friends, and is only intended to keep fellow travelers in line, as we see with the current President.)

    It should be noted that this problem has an interesting history, dating back at least to the 18th century. This is largely forgotten because most of the texts that have engaged in such vituperation have themselves been forgotten. (Only the wittiest have survive, like Schopenhauer’s remarks ion Hegel; but philosophers are not well known for their wit.)

    Perhaps philosophers and other academics would better serve their causes if they just went on and did their jobs, and let others do theirs, and see what future history holds.

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  4. Daniel writes, “As scholars, we’re supposed to be generating light, rather than heat, after all.”

    This sentiment seems headed in the right direction. Perhaps the statement could be improved by trimming it down to…

    “As scholars, we’re supposed to be generating light.”

    As the kitchen fire example above attempts to illustrate, passion seems appropriate in the context of topics that really matter. A kitchen fire calls upon us to engage and act decisively, and that will often involve harnessing the power of emotion. Ideally our passion will be aimed at the topic and not each other, but the ego situations of writer and reader seem far less important than whether we’re aiming the light of reason at the most appropriate topics.

    If my kitchen is on fire, I’m really not going to care if Dan hollers, “PHIL, YOU MORON, YOU LEFT THE STOVE ON AGAIN!!!” But in the context of a relatively trivial topic, the word “moron” may take on exaggerated importance.

    In my case, I find my own epithet philosophy arises almost entirely in those cases when I become frustrated with the lack of light being generated by “intellectual elites”. See the quotes around “intellectual elites”? Like that. For me, removing the quotes comes at the price of the highly educated writer being capable of focusing their light on the highest priority topics.

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  5. Dan

    What are the chances that philosophers of different political orientations, perhaps belonging to different philosophical traditions, are going to agree on the implications of the gender-identity literature, or the literature on racism or even what the relevant literature is?

    This is a key point. Much of “the literature” is utterly compromised in my opinion. By associating itself with disciplines of dubious academic worth, philosophy itself has become tainted.

    As you say:

    [T]he academic literature, … is … filled with these sorts of epithets and accusations, and is thus perceived as ideological and motivated, rather than dispassionate, which means that it has no power to persuade, only seeming credible to those who already agree with the point of view being expressed.

    It has become a power game and little more than that in some areas of philosophy and in areas of the humanities to which you allude.

    I fear that the damage done to philosophy’s standing in the wider community may be irreversible – at least without some kind of major upheaval.

    The “dispassionate, critical stance” you talk about is just not understood in some circles – or is understood as a way of masking unacceptable (e.g. moderate!!) views.

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    • Mark: Unfortunately, I agree with you that the damage to philosophy done already may be irreparable. I wish that were not the case. I will have a piece appearing in “Philosophy Now” in a few months, in which I go into some detail as to how philosophy might regain its credibility within the academy and with the public, but I doubt that the people who need to listen will.

      We may argue a lot, but I think on these big issues, we are almost entirely in agreement.

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    • As I indicated to Mark, above, I have a piece coming out in “Philosophy Now” in a few months, which addresses the question of how philosophy might regain its stature within our society. That essay addresses the question of philosophy’s excessive technicality and specialization. This short piece is the first of what will be several, here, at EA, in which I will address the question of philosophy’s political posture.

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  6. > I agree with you that the damage to philosophy done already may be irreparable.

    But who did the damage?

    Most philosophers are professionals, academics. They write phd’s, do postdocs, and are hired by some committee that should have read the phd, the published papers, the blogs. By then it should be clear if the aspiring academic is of the epithet-slinging type or not.

    If philosophy is rapidly losing its credibility, it’s not only the fault of the philosophers. It’s also the fault of all those people and administrative layers that give an epithet-slinging person an academic voice.

    I don’t know if Foucault et al. are conquering the world of academic philosophy, but I sure get the impression that the people responsible for hiring – the top of the university – are in the thrall of Foucault et al.
    .

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    • I’ve read most of Foucault’s published works, many of his lectures to the College de France and various long interviews with him. I don’t recall Foucault insulting anyone in any of those books. Actually, he is quite the gentleman. In fact, somewhere I recall reading an interview with Foucault where he expresses his dislike of heated polemics and where he values dialogues where one learns from the other.

      There is nothing in Foucault which justifies insulting those with whom one disagrees.

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  7. S., I apologize if I gave the impression I think Foucault justified insulting those with whom one disagrees.

    I used the expression “Foucault et al.” more as a metaphor. I agree it’s a bad metaphor. I shouldn’t have used it.

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  8. Isn’t philosophy supposed to be about reality, at least in theory? And isn’t the reality that many, most or all of us are thinking many of the general sentiments which some publicly express in epithets? How are we supposed to examine those sentiments if the group think demands that they be hidden under various fantasy poses? If we aren’t going to be honest with each other and share what we’re actually thinking, why are we bothering with all this typing?

    Ah, but respect you say, we must treat each other with respect!! Am I respecting you if I treat you like a child who must be protected from what you voluntarily CHOOSE to read on the Internet? Are you respecting me if you presume that what interests me most above all else is the story I tell myself about myself, that is, my ego?

    Let’s imagine that I am hurt by rude names that people on the Internet call me. Ok, so we’re all human and that’s going to happen sometimes. Shouldn’t philosophers be asking, what is the logical response to this situation? And so let’s ask, which is more logical…

    1) Trying to manage what every rude stranger on the Internet says?

    2) Or, trying to manage how our one brain hears what they say?

    Is it more logical to try to manage many thousands of brains we have little to no control over, or to try to manage the one brain we have the most access to? Which of these is the most logical and rational path towards addressing the negative emotions which sometimes arise when we read something rude or inconvenient?

    How many times do we need to be reminded that this is philosophy, and not the Catholic Church? Philosophers are supposed to inquire, examine and attempt to understand. Philosophers are supposed to apply reason to real world problems.

    I ask us please, let’s leave the holy pose moralizing to the Catholic clerics. They are world class experts at moralizing and have 2,000 years of experience in such finger pointing operations. There is exactly no chance any of us will ever be able to compete with them, so let’s stop trying.

    And please, let’s stop chanting the group think. Why shouldn’t philosophers be rude, if rudeness is what they’re really thinking? I want to hear from YOU, and not some public relations hack you send out to convince us what a nice person you are.

    Honestly, if we can’t be real here on the Internet where we can write from the safety of total anonymity, we should stop pretending and just give up on writing altogether.

    Sorry to rant, but I’ve been reading too much of this “we must pretend we’re nice” business, this blatant embrace of lying, here, there and everywhere, and it appears I’m pretty much sick of it.

    So somebody call me a name for crying out loud! 🙂

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  9. Suppose two philosophers are having a debate and one says to the other, “You are a great big stinky poo-poo-head”

    It seems to me that the other might proceed “Well, be that as it may, can we get back to the discussion?”

    Certainly it is not pleasant being called a stinky poo-poo head or a transphobe or whatever but the fallacy seems to be one of relevance.

    If someone were to actually provide me an argument that my position on an issue was due to some prejudice or other character flaw then I might listen.

    The problem here seems to be that the person has said nothing besides that their interlocutor is a great big stinky poo-poo head.

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  10. Language usage changes. But I would not have thought that ‘nazi’, ‘transphobe’, ‘racist’ etc. are epithets. “Epithet is the literary term for the application of a word or phrase to someone that describes that person’s attributes or qualities. Often, this word or phrase, used to describe the person, becomes synonymous with the person and can be used as part of his/her name or in place of his/her name.” That the word epithet has itself morphed into something pejorative is perhaps part of the problem.

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  11. I went and read the Bettcher article and realised that I suppose I am privileged in a way, that if someone asks me on what basis I call myself a man I can say “Because I have a penis, such as it is” and if someone says that this is not good enough and that I am going to have to give much better reasons than that, then I can say that this is the only reason I know of and that if they want to say that I am a woman or something else (as they all to frequently have done throughout my life) then they should suit themselves because it is all the same to me.

    If I have to say that I can’t discuss it until they have familiarised themselves with the literature then it would all seem like too much trouble.

    As it is no skin off my nose I am happy to refer to anyone as a woman who wishes to be referred to that way, but I gather I would still be a transphobe unless I were to agree that Stock and others are transphobes and I don’t agree that they are.

    But that is an exceptionally long reading list and books are expensive. I have neither the money nor the time (nor, lets face it, the interest) to become familiar with the literature that Ms Bettcher says would qualify me to adjudicate on the matter of her gender.

    It is to Ms Bettcher’s credit that shes doesn’t use the expressions ‘transphobe’ or ‘transmisogynist’ and I gather she finds explaining these things unpleasant so I should never bother her on the subject of how I could avoid being these things.

    But maybe I will keep the link so that if someone calls me a transphobe in the future I can demonstrate that it is not so simple as all of that and that the best I can be accused of is unfamiliarity with the literature, to which I readily plead guilty.

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  12. Robin Herbert writes, “Suppose two philosophers are having a debate and one says to the other, “You are a great big stinky poo-poo-head”. It seems to me that the other might proceed “Well, be that as it may, can we get back to the discussion?”

    In your hypothetical the name caller would seem to be attempting to change the subject from the stated topic to another inquiry which is potentially even more interesting. After all, most of the topics which philosophers address would seem to have quite limited relevance to the daily lives of the average person, or at the least are typically expressed in fancy pants language which isn’t accessible to the average person.

    In your hypothetical the name caller is opening a door in to the subject of ego, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, a universal phenomena with daily impact. The name caller is messing with the story the target holds about themselves. We could be asking why the name caller feels the need to do that, and why the target has whatever internal reaction they experience.

    I do most of my name calling when I become frustrated with the quality level of a conversation. I tend to become most frustrated in conversation with highly educated people because, reasonably or not, my expectations are higher. Why am I frustrated by words that people type, or don’t type, on the Internet? What is it that I’m looking for and not finding, and why am I looking, what is my need?

    It seems I’m looking for a particular kind of mental stimulation, something that will engage my mind and stir up my enthusiasm. Ok, why do I require that engagement, that enthusiasm? What hole am I attempting to fill? And why is my need such that I sometimes resort to poking others in their story?

    Why does the person that I poke experience whatever they experience? If they are bored by my poking, why is that? If they are annoyed or outraged, what is the threat that they perceive? What are they defending, and why does it require a defense?

    This is where opening ourselves up to the name calling experience might take us. Such investigations have been going on for thousands of years, and often such an investigation will prove more useful to human beings than whatever conversation was interrupted by the name calling.

    To the degree we become distracted from such a thoughtful investigation by an obsession with the politically correct finger pointing morality craze currently in vogue, we aren’t doing such great philosophy anyway, so who cares if it gets interrupted?

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  13. Re: epithet. I wonder how recent the use of epithet as insult has been around. I tend to prefer prescriptive to descriptive usage. Anyway, you clearly are not objecting to calling Aristotle ‘the Stagyrite’ or Bruno ‘the Nolan’ or Johnson ‘the Great Cham’, of ‘Lucky’ Jim, etc, all of which employ the (for a long time) dominant meaning of epithet. The tendency towards the degradation of definitions is why I referred to it as ‘part of the problem’. Not all epithets are for hurling.

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  14. Martin Manser, in Good Word Guide (2007) writes: “Some people dislike the extended euphemistic use of the word epithet in the sense of -term of abuse- . . . I guess I’m just one of those fussy ‘some people’. In fact I think Manser misuses the work euphemistic here. Oh well!

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  15. The most common use of the word ‘epithet’ today, is in a form like “racial epithets.” Indeed, I suspect that most ordinary speakers aren’t even aware of the other uses.

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  16. I think you’re right. Interesting how there has come a need for a concise new word-usage for the growing prevalence of abuse. None but a descriptive on-line dictionary would give the negative meaning first while older ones don’t have it at all. Part of the general deterioration of thought and communication, or maybe better to simply say change. Formerly the concept epithet overlapped with honorific (also Homeric). Those echoes are now abolished. Maybe this has something to do with the analysis of epithets in current philosophical discourse? analysis of the term itself? idk

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  17. Since there are two sets of threads on similar subjects I will suggest this twice.

    If we are to consider accusations of transphobia, racism etc as not being suitable refutation of arguments, shouldn’t we also consider “SJW” and “politically correct” in the same way?

    But what about “juvenile”, “sophomore” and “dilletante”?

    Is it a valid response to an argument to say that people who talk of such things must be immature or unserious, over privileged and have too much time on their hands, or that it is a topic only suitable for bull sessions in the “dorm” over beer?

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