Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The anything-goes culture, philosophy, chess, and yoga

It is the end of the semester here at the university that I teach at. For a professor like me, it is that time of the semester when one gets to grade lots of exams in a very short time, post the exam grades online, and then (at least in my case) get a few unhappy/angry emails from students who think that they deserve a better grade on the exam. Why do they think they deserve a better grade? Well, here are a couple of fairly typical reasons that these students offer: "I have answered all the questions on the exam, so I deserve to take A" [note: the grammatical error here was in the student's original email, so I have preserved it here in its entirety for maximum dramatic effect], "I have been getting As or A-minuses for the earlier papers in the course, and I need a better grade on this exam in order to get an A in the course, so I deserve a good grade for this exam." 

If you are not a millenial or younger (actually, even if you are...), you should have no problem hearing the tone of entitlement that practically saturates these "reasons." Apparently, there exists a universe in which one is entitled to a good grade in an exam just by virtue of having answered all the questions in it, no matter how irrelevant to the question or--let's be honest here--bad those responses are. Of course, it probably doesn't help my case that philosophy has a reputation among some undergrads (and probably many members of the public as well) for being an anything-goes discipline. As one of my former students recently put it to me, "If philosophy is just about your opinion, how can there be a wrong answer? If there is no wrong answer, how can one possibly get anything less than an A in a philosophy course?"

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a wrong answer in a philosophy exam (I'm going to set aside the question of whether there are wrong answers in philosophy as it is done outside of academic exams; that is too much to go into here). Simply put, the wrong answer is whatever answer it is that fails to provide the information that the question is asking for. For instance, if the question asks you to explain Sartre's view of the Other, and how the appearance of the Other affects your freedom, and you go off on some big rant about how you and the Other are One, and how this Oneness shows that everything in the universe is connected, then your rant, no matter how beautifully written a rant it is, simply fails to answer the question, and you will get a D on that response. (It's a D and not a F, because I simply don't have the heart to outright fail somebody who has taken the time and effort to write a long response).

Perhaps this is not obvious to many people, but in the serious academic study of philosophy, there are right and wrong answers, just as there are right and wrong answers in the serious academic study of mathematics (or in the serious academic study of anything else, for that matter). Perhaps this point is not obvious to many people because unlike the concise signs and formulas and equations that make up the language of mathematics, the language of philosophy is simply ordinary English (or whatever other human language it is that one chooses to study philosophy in). As such, perhaps people get the impression that philosophy is just words on a page, and since anybody can write words on a page, anybody can do philosophy well. Therefore, anybody can get an A on a philosophy exam just by putting words on a page. (Does this argument follow? I don't know, you figure this out for yourself :-)).

In any case, I believe that it is because of everything I have said above that philosophy gets a reputation (a bad one, on my opinion) for being an anything-goes discipline. And somebody like me who argues otherwise tends to be dismissed as an elitist, undemocratic, crusty ivory-tower academic.

But I beg to differ. I think that philosophy done properly (as in, philosophy that has right and wrong answers) is more profoundly democratic than any kind of anything-goes version of it ever could be. For instance, if one does not get Sartre right, and instead thinks that anything one says about Sartre goes just because one says it, wouldn't that run the risk of committing the injustice of misrepresenting Sartre's thoughts and ideas? And what good is democracy without justice? More broadly, what I am trying to say is that in an anything-goes culture, nothing significant or important will ever get said, because in such a culture, people will progressively lose the ability to discriminate and understand what is important and what isn't. You can call such a culture "democratic" if you like, but again, what good is this kind of democracy if it does nothing to help people to discriminate and understand what is right or wrong or what is important or not? What good is a democracy in which one is allowed to say whatever one likes, but in which one no longer has the tools with which to understand what is worth saying and what isn't? In such a "democracy", it is only a matter of time before we get to the point where the only people who are listened to are those with the loudest voices or those with the most resources/money. Unfortunately, these two groups of people tend to be the same individuals (ever heard of Donald Trump?). Such a "democracy", in other words, quickly degenerates into an authoritarian society in which individuals are judged not by the worth of their ideas, but by how loudly and flashily they present themselves and appeal to others.

The paradox, as you can see, is that an anything-goes culture which tries so hard to be democratic quickly gets to a place where it becomes very, very undemocratic. Perhaps we are already there (again, Donald Trump...). I don't have any solutions to this paradox. I am only a blogger/novice philosopher, not a pundit. But there is some reason to hope. Two of the things in my life right now--yoga and chess--are the very antithesis of this anything-goes spirit. If you claim to be good at chess, for instance, and you aren't, your lack of ability in chess will quickly be exposed. There is no such thing as anything-goes in chess; the only thing that "goes" is whatever strategy or combination of tactics it is that enables you to win. Similarly (and perhaps less obviously) in yoga, whatever goes is whatever combination of yoga practices and lifestyle that allows you to live a more fulfilled and productive life in your community. If it doesn't help you to do that, either you are doing it wrong or whatever it is that you doing is wrong in the first place. And actually, this applies even to something as mundane as asana. Despite all the bad press about "asana-fixation" that have been published in the yoga blogosphere in the last ten years, the fact still remains that there are productive (and therefore "correct") ways to do an asana, and less productive and even damaging (and therefore "incorrect") ways to do the same asana. Forcing your knees into padmasana when your hips aren't yet open enough is an example of the latter.

So, at the risk of sounding very immodest, perhaps there is a solution to this paradox of the anything-goes culture, after all. The solution lies in this question: What do yoga, chess, and philosophy done properly have in common? Answer: An attitude of humility, informed by the awareness that the only thing that goes is whatever works to address the problem at hand. Anything else simply won't cut it.