Neither defence nor attack

For some time I’ve been trying to find a sweet spot in philosophy that’s neither defence nor attack but something in between; or something else entirely. So much of our discipline consists in making objections to other positions or responding to the objections concerning one’s own. I get the point of that, and can do it when required, but I also think that it can distract us from what our real business should be.

I was happy to get a paper accepted in a major journal this week but must confess sorrow that it was a largely reactive piece. I try not to do this. The dilemma I faced was that while I didn’t want to dismantle what another philosopher had said, there was a series of unanswered and high-profile objections to ideas I cared about. It’s hard not to reply in such an instance since, if I didn’t, others might assume that I couldn’t.

I’d much rather explore and develop new ideas than defend old ones from the misunderstandings of critics. Nevertheless, that can be a duty, at times, especially as I always think it’s an honour when others take time to engage with my work. The creative work that really excites me, however, is to articulate a new position or new perspective on a long-standing philosophical problem. This is where I think the real breakthroughs and progress are to be made. To develop a new insight on the free will question, for instance, or the problem of consciousness, or the relation between particulars and universals. That’s what I see as the work.

In that respect, I’m more pleased with the final chapter of my recent A Philosopher Looks at Sport. The issue of inclusion in sport has become a matter of heated debate in philosophical circles and wider society and I find much of that discussion toxic. Rather than attack the views of others, though, I had a free space in which to articulate a vision of what sport could be, or at least to push the idea that this is the question that should concern us. My interest is in a philosophy that is forward looking, in a whole variety of senses, rather than trawling through all the tangles in which we have formerly found ourselves.

The positive approach is the one that I hope will ultimately win out. The best philosophy strikes a balance between detailed argument and articulation of an attractive vision. The latter gets neglected if we are merely defending old ground or attacking that of others. What have we got to say? What is our new contribution? Will someone in the future be able to state our view of the way things are? They won’t be able to do that with work that concerns only the way things are not. Defence and attack seem only able to give us the negative. Greater progress will always be made in the discovery of what is rather than what is not and we would do well to prioritise our efforts accordingly.


  1. Robert Johnston says:

    I like to keep in mind the advice of Leibniz; to identify the best and constructive in someone’s argument. In this way something valuable can be gained beyond a simple correction or the brief pleasure scoring a point.


  2. Lee L says:

    I really like the recurring conversations about how philosophers conceptualise ‘doing’ philosophy, and how the metaphors that they use can influence the approach – one of my favourite thing to do with first year undergrads is collect and discuss different metaphors for philosophical activity. They pretty much always start off with the adversarial model (duels, winning arguments) but then move on to explorative or creative models, and eventually collaborative models.
    (On the other hand I’m working in trans theory in philosophy, and I’m not sure how to stop that being adversarial at the moment!)


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