Unthinkable: Who should you follow on social media for unbiased opinion?
Philosophers should take the broadest possible measure of beliefs, argues philosopher Justin EH Smith
Users of Twitter tend to follow like-minded souls. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
There has been much discussion of the way in which social media reinforces our prejudices rather than challenging them. Users of Twitter tend to follow like-minded souls; Facebook friends have similar likes.
The creation of ever more homogenous online communities is said to exacerbate confirmation bias and further polarise public opinion.
What can be done to combat it? Universities concerned about gender imbalance in senior posts are introducing “unconscious bias training”, but this addresses just one manifestation of prejudice.
Even an open-minded pursuit such as philosophy is skewed by professional preferences of an ethnic, cultural and urban variety.
As American philosopher and blogger Justin EH Smith has written: “The goal of reflecting the diversity of our own society by expanding the curriculum to include non-European traditions has so far been a tremendous failure.”
In his latest book The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, Smith reflects on these biases within academia in the context of whom we follow for intellectual stimulation.
“I hear Thomas Nagel holding forth on whether death is or is not an objective misfortune,” he writes, “or Daniel Dennett on which creatures may be killed with no moral qualms, and which may not be, and I think: why should I listen to you in particular?”
Offering a template for other free thinkers, he says: “My philosophy would be the one that would take the broadest possible measure of . . . beliefs, without concern for the institutional affiliations, the literacy or the geographical niche of their holders.”
You suggest western philosophy should pay more attention to other cultures. But if philosophy claims to be a kind of pure reasoning, or natural science, then surely it should try to rise above cultural influence entirely?
“Philosophy tries to separate itself out from culture to the largest extent possible. But it is never possible to bring about a complete separation, since the concerns that enter on to the radar of philosophers emerge out of their broader cultural nexus.
“Debates about free will and determinism are historically rooted in concerns about how to hold people responsible for their sins; Descartes’s engagement with problems of substance and properties are directly connected with his interest in the problem of explaining the transubstantiation of the Communion wafer, and so on.
“Now this might be true of all disciplines: their concerns are rooted in culture. So why shouldn’t all disciplines do what I am recommending philosophy should do, and examine the cultural ore, so to speak, in which the pure element is embedded?
“The answer, I think, is that philosophy is the only discipline that is charged by definition with the task of investigating everything, including its own foundational presuppositions and its own myth of origins.”
Another area you discuss in the book is gender bias, and you reference Nietzsche when he observed that all the “great” philosophers have been unmarried, monastic types. As a rule, philosophers have spent little time reflecting, for example, on the ethics of dividing domestic chores. Is that legacy still with us?
“Domestic chores? Now we’re really drifting from my area of competence. But seriously, I think in fact professional philosophers today are very interested in examining the ethical questions that arise in the domestic setting, notably in domestic partnerships like marriage and child-rearing. This is particularly interesting to philosophers working in the new vein of what is sometimes called ‘analytic existentialism’.
“This interest is, obviously, a symptom of philosophy’s extreme professionalisation. It is hard to imagine Nietzsche following up his bit on ‘How to Philosophise With a Hammer’ with another on ‘How to Do Your Part around the House’.
“I am definitely not saying Nietzsche had the right view of philosophy, and the new analytic existentialists the wrong one. But I do think there are good reasons why philosophy, and a fortiori existential philosophy, has typically focused on features of the human condition other than domesticity, and these reasons have to do not only with philosophy’s coddling of men who enjoy the leisure of contemplation as women labour in the home.”
Taking the “broadest possible measure” of beliefs is a commendable aspiration, but, given the sheer number of viewpoints, how does one achieve it in practice?
“Well, obviously, one can’t really achieve this goal in practice. Ars longa, vita brevis [Art is long, life is short], as the saying goes. But one can at least hold it out as an ideal that in turn gives life and shape to the things one actually does succeed in doing.
“Even if our own individual capacities are limited, we can take some faith in the collective nature of inquiry.
“In fact, the collectivisation of the project of inquiry, in the theoretical elaborations of Francis Bacon and the later institutional arrangements set up, for example, in the Royal Society of London, were one of the principal motors of the emergence of modern science in the 17th century, in a period in which science was not just of interest to philosophy, but rather constitutive of it.
“Much of the effort of [my] book, I realised belatedly, is focused on reclaiming the spirit of curiosity for philosophy, in particular the passionate interest in singular empirical facts, that was lost when the natural sciences separated off from philosophy over the course of the 18th century.”
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ASK A SAGE
Question: Is philosophy a threat to religious faith?
Francis Bacon replies: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”