Saturday, May 01, 2004

Philosophical Generosity and Richard Dawkins

In Ektopos, Matthew writes:

Philosophical Generosity (AKA Why do I hate Richard Dawkins)

I’ve been wondering why it is that every time I see Dawkins name my blood just boils, especially when I see a quote. I figured out last night that I get irritated not so much by Dawkins ideas as by his attitude. Simply put Dawkins lacks philosophical generosity. Perhaps it is the case that this was not a concept that anyone ever taught young Dawkins at Oxford. Perhaps it might stem from the fact that Dawkins studied zoology and not philosophy. Whatever the case you would think that Dawkins would have stumbled across the concept by now.

I think the concept is really rather simple. When discussing philosophical matters try and give the most positive reading to your opponent, remember that you may think your opponent wrong but that doesn’t necessitate them being stupid, and try to act magnanimously .

I’m wondering if anyone else ever learned of such a concept, or maybe it’s just my little neck of the woods? Perhaps such a notion is well spirited but wrong-headed?

I agree with this assessment, and I'm gratified to hear others taking a similar perspective. The more of Dawkins I read, the more impressed I am by his intellect and his knowledge of certain aspects of biology, and ability to reason through difficult biological theories. However I'm also taken aback by exactly what Matthew calls philosophical ungenerosity.

Dawkins seems very much to assume that anyone reasoning from a background of any theistic tradition is arguing from revelation or "blind faith," and that this is the kind of reasoning that characterizes anything associated with religion. While he's not entirely wrong, it certainly seems to lead him to sometimes to cross that translucently veiled line we all (should) fear into assaulting strawmen.

This is indeed one of the things that for me best distinguishes Dawkins from other people who often take very similar positions on current issues. For example, Dawkins is often aligned in the media with Dennett, for example for their nearly simultaneous and similar assaults on Stephen Jay Gould, and their nearly simultaneous and similar support of the Brights movement. However, to me Dennett is a model of philosophical generosity, and takes great and admirable pains to argue against the strongest form of his opponents argument he can stomach. Some of his dialogs with Rorty are a great example of this.

I agree that philosophical generosity is a worthwhile value, perhaps a core value of what I think of as the modern liberal intellectual tradition, and that we can and should support it both through reasoned argument and by directly expressing our gut feelings about it.

To put the matter succinctly, as it was in a negotiation course I once took, I take as a useful and important guideline to be "hard on principle, but soft on people." To me that translates to giving some benefit of the doubt to opposing viewpoints, to explore them actively rather than simply taking our gut impression of them as accurate and final, but to do this exploration without capitulating on important principles. It's a challenge, but sometimes it isn't hard to identify people who seemingly haven't even accepted the challenge.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this and it made me smile. As a philosophy major in college, one of the things I enjoy most about the subject and I believe absolutely necessary for its practice is generosity. At the very least the concept of philosophical generosity contributes to more argumentatively robust responses. And at the very most it makes philosophy and its practitioners approachable. It takes a mature mind to be generous. Something all philosophers should be striving for in the first place.