The Art of the Philosophic Put-Down
Charles Taliaferro

Over the past few years, I have noticed a modest rise of unhelpful accusations in print and in the classroom. This is probably because (among other things) I teach a lot in philosophy of religion and the public debate on God is not exactly brimming over with respect. To take three examples: In Breaking the Spell (Viking 2006), Daniel Dennett describes theology as tennis without the net; Richard Dawkins describes God as a merciless, egocentric bastard, in a book with the affable title, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2006); Alister McGrath writes a reply with a similarly insulting title, The Dawkins Delusion? (Intervarsity 2007), and the rudeness is not limited to controversy over God. In an Oxford University Press anthology in environmental ethics, there is reference to “ass-kissing, [and] sucking up...” The problem with these charges and this kind of language is that all the charges can be reversed. One may counter: Dawkins is an egocentric bastard, and Dennett talking about consciousness is like tennis without the net. As with Jeremy Bentham’s colorful castigation of the belief in human rights as “nonsense on stilts,” we do not learn anything, but instead merely pave the way for ill will in return. I will suggest ways in which we might insult and accuse each other in a more helpful manner, but first I offer a brief portrait of a recent exchange.

In a seminar on Middle Eastern (mostly Islamic) philosophy this term, which included a modest look at Christianity, a discussion on why atheists (the new ones) are angry about theism and theists spilled over into the following sequence. Sebastian, a student in the seminar, sent the class an angry atheist website. The website was highly critical of Mother Teresa. Oliver replied: “I’m finding it hard to imagine anyone would endorse her criticism of Mother Teresa. That part, at least, was ridiculous. But thanks for the article!” Which prompted Isabel to email: “There’s actually a good bit of evidence that Mother Teresa took a great deal of money from the Sisters of Charity and that her nuns didn’t give adequate medical care to the people in India they were supposed to be helping because they believe that suffering is an important part of religious experience. I’m not sure if this is just a conspiracy theory or not, but there are definitely allegations that she in fact hurt most of the people she claimed to help.” This led Imogen to reply: “Given that the city of Calcutta shut down when she died, and that shops, schools, and offices closed as millions of Christians and Hindus mourned her death, I seriously doubt that the people of India really feel abused by Mother Teresa’s work. Also, it is ridiculous to claim that she stole money from the Sisters of Charity. Every single sister of charity takes a vow of poverty, and therefore they have NO money or possessions besides the clothes on their backs.” Arthur clarified matters with a Wikipedia report that the accusation was that Mother Teresa had accepted two suspect donations: one from the Duvalier family and one from Charles Keating. Isabel then thanked Arthur for the clarification and offered a modest, “I didn’t phrase that [original email] very well” reply.

Interestingly, just before this event, we were discussing a tenth century ethical work on the refinement of character, and this had prompted Helen to remark that she thought hatred was good: “All this stress on love is boring. Hate has energy.” “So does anger,” Sebastian noted with a great smile. I did not take this personally, but I made a mental note not to recommend that Helen read my creative nonfiction book entitled Love, Love, Love (Cowley 2006) after my father’s last words to me before he died.  In any event, I think that if we had all been just a tad more loving (even if we never use the word “love”; perhaps love between professors and students is the “love that dare not speak its name”), the above exchange about Mother Teresa could have gone a bit more smoothly. But I shall keep this essay less ambitious than making a plea for love and limit it to a plea for respectful insults and accusations.

Here are two philosophical put-downs that are more admirable than those cited at the outset. As it happens, I think both are misplaced, but I respect them anyway. Gilbert Ryle famously caricatured dualism in the philosophy of mind as the belief that a human being is a ghost in a machine. Here is another: Wittgenstein claimed that the belief in private sensory experiences that are not open to public inspection is akin to the belief that everyone has their own box with a beetle in it that only they can see. Both are insults and accusations, but they do a good job at rattling dualists (like me) who might be in danger of believing that the human person is or contains a spook and at rattling those who defend sense-data (like me) who might be in danger of an absurd sort of skepticism. If I can’t check others’ sense data, how do I know we are having similar sensory experiences; maybe I’ve got a beetle and you have a grasshopper!

Maybe I am too sensitive. About a month ago I accidently (and for the first time) looked at my profile on RateMyProfessor.com and saw a line to the effect that I did not really like anger (or something like that). I have actually defended the use of adversarial exchanges in college teaching (in the journal Teaching Philosophy), so I am not a total pedagogical pacifist, but I do regularly (and sometimes in print) defend friendship as the best model between professor and students and among students. Of course, for professional reasons, the professor-student friendship has to be rather unofficial and not curry good grades as gifts, and so on, but acting as though we are friends can sometimes be the best route to becoming actually full friends upon their graduation. And it can also prompt good Samaritanism in a seminar room or conference. I close with what, to my mind, is an ideal example.

In the late 1980s I attended a philosophy conference at the University of Notre Dame. Eleonore Stump (University of St. Louis) was giving a paper on the incarnation and faced a rather serious objection. Maybe she was on solid footing, but I smiled when David Lewis (who has since died, but was until his death a prominent philosopher at Princeton University) rose to the occasion: “I am an atheist, but if I was a theist and believed in the incarnation, I would….” And then he went on to do a little theology on the level of professional tennis one might see in a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal match. I am resolved to do likewise: I am a theist, but with both my student and colleague atheists I am prepared to help out if they feel like they are in a rough place philosophically.


Charles Taliaferro is Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. His most recent book is The Image in Mind: Theism, Naturalism, and the Imagination (Continuum 2010), co-authored with Jil Evans.

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