Tania Lambrozo recently argued that philosophy’s “tools for critical evaluation run counter to another valuable set of tools: our tools for effective social engagement.” Philosophers’ training teaches them to critically analyze statements, which is a degree of scrutiny that most statements made in typical, social conversation are not meant to withstand. Applying our philosophical tools outside of philosophy, Lambrozo argues, is socially determinantal. Danielle Wenner, while agreeing with Lambrozo’s hypothesis, contends that philosophers should not learn to “turn it off” sometimes (at least outside of academic settings).
While I also agree with Lambrozo’s hypothesis on critical analysis of statements is socially awkward, the real issue is lurking deeper. The statements we question and analyze often aren’t benign statements about books or the weather, but people’s deeply held beliefs that can form part of their personal identities. Philosophy can be (and perhaps at best is) dangerous because it forces people to question their fundamental beliefs about themselves, the universe, and their place in it. Such question is not something that most people care to undergo. And that danger–the danger having one’s deepest beliefs questioned–is why philosophers’ way of social interaction is counter to effective social engagement. Lambrozo uses the example of “Everyone loves a good book” as a statement that philosophical thinking teaches us to analyze and question. Surely the universal quantifier ‘every’ must be restricted to be true. And what does the speaker mean by ‘good’? Is there an objective standard or is the speaker claiming that for all people, each person loves books that each person individually believes to be good? Lambrozo is certainly right that questioning a benign statement like this is ordinary social discourse (over drinks, for instance) is not an effective means of social engagement.
Demanding answers from a speaker to these questions before the conversation can progress is obnoxious and ensures one is not invited to the next dinner party. But there are much bigger fish to fry in our philosophical skillet. For example, suppose someone tells you (again in non-academic, social conversation) that she voted for a third-party candidate in the 2016 presidential election and starts advancing dubious reasons for that vote. (For brevity, I’ll not specify what the dubious reasoning is; we’ll just stipulate that in this case, it is dubious and self-contradictory.) Anyone trained in critical thinking could question these claims and demonstrate to the third-party voter that her reasoning is fishy. But the election is over; the vote can’t be changed. The only result is that the voter is now embarrassed, not only because others know she made a mistake but also because she knows. How she voted (and that her vote was right) was deeply important to her, and now she has to admit to herself that she is wrong. (Side note: this is not a hypothetical case. I do know a philosopher whose relative refuses to speak to her/him since the relative knows that the philosopher would convince the relative that her third-party vote was wrong.) Using philosophical tools to analyze and questions people’s statements about (for example) the good, human nature, or religion are not conducive to social engagement.
Asking people to explain and justify their deep-seated beliefs, ones that they sometimes use even to define themselves is socially awkward, to say the least. It is dangerous. People don’t like it (cf., Socrates). Philosophers have a distinct disdain for dogma. Dogma, however, can make it much easier for a person to get on in life: here’s something I don’t have to question. Calling these beliefs into question is deeply socially and personally upsetting. Yet, I think that is precisely why philosophy is valuable. So, should philosophers learn to “turn it off.” Yes and no. Or more accurately, philosophers should learn to apply our philosophical tools when most important. Questioning trivial and benign statements (such as “Everyone loves a good book”) is an impulse that should be suppressed. But neither should the tools of philosophy grow dull from use only in the academy. We should use them at times, even when doing so is decidedly not socially efficacious, namely when dogmas are paraded about.