An Existential Crisis Of The Hoi Polloi

Reading the thoughts of an academic can be taxing enough, but when the academic is a philosophy prof, it can be brutal. This became clear when I tried reading some of the public writings of NYU philosophy prof Avital Ronell. It wasn’t just that they weren’t good or easy to read; they were pure gibberish. I concede that I might simply not have been up to the task of appreciating philosophical genius, but I tried and failed nonetheless.

So I approach anything relating to philosophers with trepidation, including Agnes Collard’s op-ed in the New York Times. I was aware of the existential war within the academic community about signing petitions and open letters as a means of silencing heretics within their community, to shame and blame, using bulk in lieu of reason.

As with some other niches where outrage and ideology  have seized control, the primary means of control had become numbers of signatories, with a few heavyweight names within the niche to add gravitas. But this was philosophy. Of all the areas of enlightenment, this was the one where thought, particularly heretical thought, should be appreciated. And yet, they couldn’t be bothered to argue why when they could instead silence ideas by wielding their numbers, their influence, like a bludgeon.

Collard’s op-ed was not merely clear and understandable, but bold.

Whether you call it a “petition,” an “open letter” or a “public statement,” this type of document is distinguished by the fact that after stating and arguing for a position, it lists the names of people who endorse the position.

That it argues a position is fine, even laudable. The problem is that it does not seek to let the argument persuade, but uses the list of names to inform how many endorse it.

The problem here is not that what many believe can be false, though that is a problem. The problem is that even if it’s true, the fact that many believe it doesn’t shed any light on it why it’s true — and that is what the intellectually inquisitive person wants to know.

But if enough people believe something, endorse something, who are you to disagree? This should be particularly unacceptable to philosophers.

Philosophers ought to be especially sensitive to introducing this element of belief imposition into our culture. As a philosopher, I want my influence to be philosophical, which is to say, I want to bring people to believe only what they, by their own lights, can see to be justified; I don’t want them to believe something because (I am one of the) many people who think it.

And it should be to lawyers as well.

The idea that “the many” cannot be philosophical goes back to Plato’s dialogues: Socrates’ interlocutors frequently resist his counterintuitive conclusions as violations of “common sense,” and Socrates regularly replies, “why should we care so much for what the majority (“hoi polloi”) think?” (Crito 44c.) Socrates wants to know why the view is true, not who or how many hold it.

It would be undignified for an academic to argue that the average IQ is 100, and half the people are dumber than that, but trench lawyers never let such trifles as dignity get in the way of reality. There’s a difference between determining the most popular food and the best food. That far more people eat Big Macs than duck confit doesn’t make the former haute cuisine.

Philosophical argument may not always bring about the largest number of mind-changes in your audience — the award on that front would go to mass propaganda of some kind — but it represents the kind of belief acquisition that we as philosophers are committed to: intellectually honest, conducive to knowledge, nonaggressive, inquisitive, respectful.

Granted, unlike philosophers and academics, lawyers tend to be aggressive, and “respectful” is a bit too relative and vague to serve as a guide anymore, but the idea is that it’s the validity of the argument is what matters, not how big the swarm of insipid gnats.

Also granted, it may well be that a sound, factual and logical argument will not prevail against an ideological belief, such that no argument, no amount of reason, will accomplish anything. Lawyers are, unfortunately, becoming increasingly susceptible to the influence of numbers when it comes to rationalizing outcomes they desire even though they make no sense or, worse, they are untenable.

We used to be a pretty robust bunch, willing to call bullshit when necessary. Our ranks are swiftly being overcome with useful idiots, whose beliefs are bolstered by the comfort of the approval of their fellow gnats.

There is no greater threat to intellectual culture than the thought that when it really counts, when it actually matters to us, we philosophers give up on doing philosophy. If we don’t believe in what we’re doing, no one else will either.

Presumption of innocence? Due process? Even the dreaded presumption of regularity. The hoi polloi doesn’t care much for these principles, as they get in the way of their desired outcomes, and they tolerate no argument that impairs achieving the goals they are certain must be achieved.

And lawyers are not merely failing to use their voices to explain why these foundational principles exist, why they matter, why we cannot sustain a viable society without them. They are joining the charge, leading it, and lending their weight to the insipid gnats who believe that their numbers are more important than principles.

If lawyers have given up on principles like due process, are willing to throw them under the bus if they stand in the way of their ideology, then there’s little hope that the hoi polloi won’t come to reject principles as well.

If we don’t believe in what we’re doing, no one else will either.

It may be hard to buck the swarm of insipid gnats, to challenge the orthodoxy, to hold firm to principles when all the cool kids call you a heretic. But if lawyers give up on law, then it’s lost.

28 thoughts on “An Existential Crisis Of The Hoi Polloi

  1. KP

    “Socrates wants to know why the view is true, not who or how many hold it.”
    Well! HE wouldn’t believe the global warming alarmism just because 97% of scientists agree!
    Mind you, politicians are those who only care for how many people believe, not whether they are right or wrong. Maybe philosophy is converging with politics.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      If 97% of scientists agree, and have good reason, then their view is sound. It’s not the number. It’s the reason.

      And if its unclear to you, politics is lost, at least for now.

      Reply
  2. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Your eclectic post and the clarity of Professor Callard’s writing caused me to look up her CV at the University of Chicago.

    Her primary area of specialization is Ancient Philosophy and Ethics including the likes of Plato and Aristotle. In this post modern age where the ancients are rejected, even vilified, as merely old, dead white men whose works are not worth studying, I am very glad Professor Callard continues to do what she does. Relatedly, what former law students of a certain age can ever forget his or her humbling first introduction to the Socratic method?

    All the best.

    RGK

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      It’s my understanding that few lawprofs use the Socratic method anymore, as it hurts and humiliates students for being dumb or too lazy to do their reading. When I’ve pointed out that the ability to face harsh questioning is an important skill for lawyers, they respond that transactional lawyers don’t go to court, and therefore don’t need to be able to handle the Socratic method. I offer these apologists a dime.

      Reply
      1. B. McLeod

        Safe enough, since you can be sure they won’t accept the dime, due to the wealthy, white, right-wing, male power-monger whose portrait appears on it.

        Reply
      2. Richard Kopf

        SHG,

        My understanding is the same as yours. I suppose that means you and are destined to drink hemlock.

        All the best.

        RGK

        Reply
    2. PseudonymousKid

      Judge, what philosophy department rejects ancient philosophers wholesale? Do any? Apparently it’s not the University of Chicago. Who the hell cares about the gibberish non-philosophers think about the discipline? Maybe we can agree that pop-philosophy is worthless.

      Philosophical SJ will always be the worst SJ.

      Best,
      PK

      Reply
  3. Bruce Woodrow

    Yesterday I read about a petition at GWU regarding the oppressiveness of a sign with a WHITE stick MAN telling pedestrians when it was ok to cross. The petition was a hoax, designed to test how far attitudes had come.

    But the post included “students (and 1 prof)“, presumably to add gravitas. I mean, if 1 prof supported it, how could it be wrong.

    Reply
      1. Bruce Woodrow

        Ouch. Yes, your tweet was where I first saw it.

        In my “defence”, when I googled the topic so I could get the institution right, your tweet was not among the first several results. I’m old enough that remembering details from one day to the next is a challenge.

        Reply
    1. B. McLeod

      While traveling in Scotland, I encountered many signs with a running, green stick man. Initially, I thought this indicated men’s bathrooms in the stick figure’s depicted direction of travel, but I later learned it is actually showing where emergency exits are located. True story.

      They probably use green so that no people of any actual pigmentation will be offended. We could do likewise here, but we should probably use some color other than green, so that people from Scotland won’t think our “safe to cross” sign means “emergency exit.”

      Reply
      1. Bruce Woodrow

        I first saw the green running man in an airport in South Africa. I assumed right away it was pointing to an emergency exit. Why else would you be running in an airport?

        Reply
  4. Phv3773

    Logic is not the lingua franca of politics.

    On reflection, its interesting how rarely these multi-signed letters contain, or point to, an exposition of the basis for their opinion.

    Reply
      1. Patrick Maupin

        It is axiomatic that lists of wrong-thinking individuals are bad mojo.

        OTOH, it could be amusing to see a list of signatories to vacuous petitions — a list of no-thinking individuals…

        Reply

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