Empowering students to be critical

Students often struggle to criticise what they read: many feel that they are not qualified to do so, or not knowledgeable enough.

I try to empower my students to be more critical. Yesterday, I sought to plant this intuition by using the analogy of Hobbes’s state of nature, where the weakest can kill the strongest while they sleep. So too with essays: even students with little experience or knowledge can criticise what they read, because even the cleverest writers leave gaps in their defences.

Killed in his shleep

Killed in his shleep

Hobbes himself recognises this: most ordinary people can spot some errors of reasoning (Elements of Law chapter 5), and even ‘the ablest’ can draw ‘false conclusions’ (Leviathan chapter 5). Hobbes, indeed, is one of the ablest at producing false conclusions!

Now obviously, it doesn’t go far enough simply to give students this intuition – that brilliant scholarship can be criticised, just as strong people can be killed in their sleep. We should also show students how to do this, and give examples of good and bad practice. But hopefully the above analogy will help to give some students more confidence to be critical.


Hobbes on reason, deliberation and the passions

Oxford University Press has now uploaded an online-first version of my forthcoming chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra, which will hopefully be in print in 2014. Here is the link. Email me if you have problems accessing the full chapter.

My chapter covers the relationship between reason, deliberation and the passions in the work of Thomas Hobbes. I reject the common view that Hobbes depicts reason as the slave of the passions, as implied by scholars such as Stephen Darwall, Susan James, Michael Oakeshott, and Paul Rahe. The relevant passages seem to have been read out of context, and the claim does not fit Hobbes’s account more generally. 

I also reject the view that reason governs the passions, as suggested by Bernard Gert and Quentin Skinner. Again, the textual evidence for this position seems to have been overstated.

Hobbes eyes

The key conflict, rather, is between our real good and apparent goods, i.e. between our passion for self-preservation and passions such as vainglory and ambition. Hobbes is not entirely clear, though, about which of these will dominate when they clash. (That’s the part of the chapter I’m least happy with. I laid out the possible conclusions and suggested that the evidence was ambiguous. I hope that in the future, I or others can find a better answer; but perhaps Hobbes simply was not clear, in his head and/or with his pen, about what he thought here.)

I also reject the view that Hobbes thought reason could operate during deliberation, as suggested by scholars such as Michael Losonsky, Christopher Tilmouth, and to some extent, John Rawls and David Van Mill. There is almost no textual evidence for this claim, I suggest, and again it does not make sense in Hobbes’s system.

But reason can operate before deliberation, as suggested by Stephen Darwall, David Gauthier, and Jean Hampton. Reason thus informs deliberation by altering imagination and opinions, e.g. making fear of violent death more likely to be the final appetite in deliberation.

Rather than reason being the slave of the passions in Hobbes, I suggest, it is the counselor of the passions, in Hobbes’s work. The analogy is not perfect but it fits Hobbes’s account better than the slave metaphor.

TV bullshit and its effect on clear thinking

There’s a mild kind of bullshit which is common, entirely understandable, and produced by many of us, including me. But it’s insidious, and I’ll suggest that it might contribute to bigger problems.

Bullshit as Harry Frankfurt characterises it – in contrast to Jerry Cohen’s notion of bullshit – involves phoniness, indifference to truth. (See my earlier post for a comparison of Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s notions of bullshit, and some examples.)

In my view, bullshit is a matter of degree, and a mild form of Frankfurt-bullshit can often be found on TV, especially at the start of programmes.

Here are two recent examples from British television. The first is from top chef Michel Roux Jr., or rather, from whoever wrote the words which he read out at the start of the programme:

There’s nothing I’m more passionate about than what, how and why we eat and drink. … Something I’m obsessed by, just as you are, is a phenomenon that has literally taken over the world: baking. We’ve gone cupcake-crazy!

(from Food and Drink, episode 2: Baking, BBC2, 11 February 2013)

I love Michel Roux Jr. – I admire him, his cooking, his ideas, his personality, and I get a genuine buzz when he’s on my TV screen. But these comments are hard to swallow. Is there really nothing he’s more passionate about than why we eat and drink? Has baking really taken over the world? Have we really gone cupcake-crazy? Of course not, and Michel Roux Jr. doubtless does not think so either. He said these things, I assume, to create a nice, warm, positive, exciting, inclusive start to the show.

My second example is from Marcus du Sautoy, an Oxford professor, in a programme about measuring time:

Our modern day lives are completely driven by precise measurement. … Today, we can build clocks which lose one second in 138 million years. And now there are plans for a clock accurate to within one second over the lifetime of the university. What is it that drives us to such extremes of ever great precision? Why do we feel the need to quantify and measure, to impose order on the world around us?

(from Precision: The Measure of All Things, episode 1, BBC4, 10 June 2013)

Of course, our lives are not completely driven by precise measurement, and many of us do not feel the need to quantify and measure. But imagine that Professor du Sautoy had instead said: ‘Why do some people feel the need to quantify and measure, to impose order on the world around them?’ Clearly this would be a bad way to start the programme: rather than focusing on humans’ relationship with precise measurement, it would sound like a psychological exploration of why some people feel a bizarre need to quantify and order everything.

So, these over-generalisations are entirely understandable: they are an attempt to draw viewers in, make the programme seem important, in an accessible introduction. I’d probably do the same thing. In fact I’ve used similar tactics on this blog, implying that Derrida might be full of bullshit when I knew all along that I’d only be discussing one passage from Derrida which I didn’t even think was bullshit. As Harry Frankfurt says at the start of On Bullshit, we all produce bullshit; and there’s a slight whiff of bullshit to what I did there.

Nonetheless, while such mild bullshit is understandable, the problem is that it is also found in contexts where clarity and rigour matters. Consider these book titles:

  • Why Americans Hate Politics
  • Why Americans Hate Welfare
  • Why Americans Hate The Media
  • Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War
  • The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race
  • Why Americans Don’t Vote
  • Why Americans Still Don’t Vote

Wow! Poor Americans. Apparently, you all hate politics, welfare and the media. You all choose war. You can’t think straight about race. You don’t vote. And you still don’t vote.

My tongue is in my cheek, of course, but there’s a serious side to this: we can’t explain attitudes in the USA if we assume that all Americans hate politics, all hate the media, and so on.

Yet I often see this kind of overstatement in student essays. Similar overstatements crop up in academic studies of voting, as Patrick Dunleavy shows in his chapter in A New Handbook of Political Science. Richard Rorty, a prominent political theorist, often talked vaguely about what ‘we’ think. It’s very easy to make such mistakes – again, I know I do this too.

These aren’t examples of Frankfurt-bullshit: they are conceptual overstatements. But my worry is that the mild bullshit of TV programmes might contribute to these conceptual overstatements. I don’t have evidence for this – can anyone point me to any academic studies? – but my suspicion is that as we grow up, we learn to think in part by hearing how others speak, and mildly bullshitty conceptual overstatements that we often hear on TV can thus foster a looseness of thought that leads to non-bullshitty conceptual overstatements by academics. Mild TV bullshit isn’t the only cause: these errors were made long before TV! But the result is erroneous talk about what ‘Afghans’ think, how ‘the French’ behave, how ‘women’ and ‘men’ differ, and so on.

In short: however hard we try to get away from our upbringing, these older ways of thinking often sneak back in. My fear is thus that the mild bullshit of some TV programmes can sometimes have damaging longer term effects.

What is it like to be Leo Strauss?

Last year, I published a critique of Leo Strauss. Strauss was an important and influential thinker who is controversial in two ways. He’s a conservative, and may have influenced many neoconservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations. I don’t care about that. What I do care about are his historical interpretations, especially his claims that writers like Plato and Machiavelli hid secret messages in their texts using odd techniques which Strauss often seems to have been the first to spot. I have no problem with the idea that some people have written esoterically, but I do doubt the particular claims that Strauss makes. Near the end of my paper, I wrote a little satire, mimicking Strauss’s approach and parodying his style to ‘prove’ that Thomas Hobbes hid secret messages about the music of Beethoven – even though Hobbes died 91 years before Beethoven was born. While writing the satire, though, I suddenly saw what it might have been like to be Leo Strauss. I had been finding lots of astonishing parallels between Hobbes’s writings and Beethoven’s music – it was starting to get freaky. And suddenly, a thought started to flash into my head: ‘Is it possible that Hobbes was actually writing about Beethoven?’ I didn’t even finish this thought: of course, Hobbes could not have been writing about Beethoven. But that moment showed me how easy it is to read too much into a mere coincidence. Strauss and his esoteric bookshelves, by Adrian Blau And this is where Strauss goes wrong. There is a natural human bias to look for evidence which fits one’s ideas, or to interpret things to support one’s ideas. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. If you think you don’t suffer from this … well, I’m very happy for you, but you’re probably not going to be the next Sherlock Holmes. Scientific methods arose in part to counteract biases such as confirmation bias. Scientists shouldn’t just look for evidence which fits their theories: they should question their evidence, test their theories, compare different explanations, and so on. If he had applied such principles, Strauss would not have made many of the claims he made. What is it like to be Leo Strauss? I can’t say for sure, but one brief moment, I might just have known.

Did Hobbes think that reason is the slave of the passions?

Many writers have argued that for Thomas Hobbes, reason is the slave of the passions. I think this is seriously misleading. It’s misleading of Hume to have argued that reason is the slave of the passions. And worse, it’s misleading to ascribe the view to Hobbes. Or so I argue in my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (forthcoming, 2013).

I’ll post a link to the article when it’s ready.