David Chalmers is compiling a useful set of guidelines for respectful, constructive, and inclusive philosophical discussion. It makes sense to concentrate on a single field, like philosophy, since customs often vary wildly from one discipline to the other — but there’s really nothing specifically “philosophical” about the list, it could easily be adopted in just about any classroom or seminar environment I can think of. (Online, alas, is another story.)
What immediately strikes me are (1) how nominally unobjectionable all the suggestions are, and (2) how so many of them are routinely violated even in situations that wouldn’t strike us as relatively civil and respectful. Here are some cherry-picked examples from the list:
- Don’t interrupt.
- Don’t present objections as flat dismissals (leave open the possibility that there’s a response).
- Don’t dominate the discussion (partial exception for the speaker here!).
- Unless you’re speaker, existing questioner, or chair, don’t speak without being called on (limited exceptions for occasional jokes and other very brief interjections, not to be abused).
- The chair should attempt to balance the discussion among participants, prioritizing those who have not spoken before.
- Prioritize junior people in calling on questions (modified version: don’t prioritize senior people).
Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t strive to be as respectful as David’s lists suggests — just that we don’t even try, really. How many times have you been in a seminar in which a senior person in the audience interrupted and dominated discussion? I can imagine someone defending that kind of environment, on the grounds that it leads to more fun and feisty give-and-take, and perhaps even a more rapid convergence to the truth. I can testify that I was once at a small workshop — moderated by David Chalmers — where the “hand-and-finger system” was employed, according to which you raise a hand to ask a new question, and a finger to ask a follow-up to someone else’s question, and the chair keeps a list of who is next in the queue. Highly structured, but it actually worked quite well, carving out some space for everyone’s questions to be treated equally, regardless of their natural degree of assertiveness or their social status within the room. (If you’ve ever been at a “Russian” physics seminar, imagine exactly the opposite of that.) I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to judge whether enforcing these norms more actively would create a more hospitable academic environment overall.
David also suggests some related resources:
- Rules for philosophy classes (Ned Markosian)
- Pledges for a professional philosopher (Carrie Jenkins)
- Seminar chairing policy suggestions (British Philosophical Association)
- How to criticize with kindness (Daniel Dennett)
Any other suggestions? Comments are open, and you don’t have to wait to be called on.