April 29, 2012

The Pretend Doubt Phenomenon

There is a phenomenon which often happens in philosophy classrooms. I will call it "the pretend doubt phenomenon".

An example. It is the first day of an introductory ethics class. The professor raises the questions, "What is ethics? Why does it matter?" A moment of reflection has been introduced. The students await the answer. The professor continues, "Ethics is the study of values. Are there any objective values? Or is everything subjective? For instance, we normally believe that lying is wrong. But is it really wrong? How can we know? Is there a fact of the matter about that? Similarly, we think that killing is wrong. But could it be that it is simply a subjective claim? These question are enormously significant because the answers to them matter to our everyday lives. If we can't justify that there are objective values, then we would have to rethink our whole way of living. Ethics is the study of these questions. It concerns the most basic questions of value, and they are essential for every human being to think about." The professor has given the justification for the subject matter of the course. The students are excited.

Now the professor hands out the syllabus. Goes through the readings. She comes to the requirements for the course: "The main work for this course will be writing essays. The university has a strong no plagarism policy. If you plagarize, you will fail the course. Also, doing philosophy involves a lot conversation, and so we will be talking with each other a fair amount in this course. So it is expected that you will be civil with your classmates. Getting angry will not be tolerated. Nor interrupting others. The use of laptops for anything other than taking notes is strictly prohibited. If you miss class more than 5 times, your grade will be docked a third of a grade. These are common sense points, so I expect and hope that no one will have a problem following them." The terms for the semester have been set.

The professor concludes the class by saying, "Ok, for next time we will read Harman's essay on relativism, and we will consider if there are any objective values. See you then."

This is usually the first day in many introductory ethics classes. It can be seen as having two parts. In the first part a pressing doubt is introduced: Are there any objective values? Oh no, what will happen if there are no such values? How will we survive as a society? We need to think about this. You need to think about this. Once the pressing doubt has been introduced, and the justification for the course established, the doubt seems to magically disappear. There is no more doubt. There is only the mechanical procedure of setting the terms for the semester, and of what values will guide the course. In the first part of the class - the content part - the doubt is raised as deep and pressing. In the second part of the class - the procedural part - the doubt is set aside to go over the basic values which are going to be taken for granted in the class.

As the philosopher J.L.Austin said, regarding a similar kind of double move, "There's the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back."


In the first part of the class the doubt has been introduced as if it is real. As if the professor really has this doubt, and that the students should seriously have the doubt. But in the second part of the class the doubt is shown to have been only a pretend doubt all along; it is not a doubt which will be considered with respect to every aspect of our lives, and certainly not with respect to every aspect of the course.

An alternate scenario (the kind I often wondered about as a student, and even as a professor--though in both cases I kept the fact of the imagining to myself). The professor raises the doubt. Then she goes on to the procedural part. A student raises her hand. "But, professor, why can't I use my laptop to watch a movie during class? Or plagarize? Or steal from my classmates? Why are these things wrong? How do we know they are wrong? Are there any objective values? Didn't we just now introduce this worry?"

In my imaginings I would wonder, "How exactly would the professor respond if a student said this now, during the going over the syllabus part of the class?" If I were a student all over again, I would definitely ask. I didn't ask when I was in college because I presumed then that there must be deeper truths which the professors know. Besides it seemed arrogant and silly. And yet it was a more pressing question in my mind than the original question which had been introduced by the professor.

How could the professor respond?

The professor might say, "Excellent question. That is exactly the kind of questioning we will be engaging in in this class! Good job!" The problem with this is: it doesn't answer the student's question. Why should the student not get angry at a classmate? The professor's response seems like an affirmation of the student's question, but in fact it is an evasion. What will happen if in the next class the student does get angry at another student? What will the professor do? Chastise the student, or engage in a reverie about whether perhaps it is ok for one student to yell at another student? In that moment, will the professor take the doubt seriously? If she doesn't, isn't she going back on the claim that in the class they will engaging with a real doubt about the nature of values? And if she does, is she condoning such behavior? How will she justify that to the student who had been so unfairly yelled at by his classmate? Stuck between a rock and a hard place.

What this dilemma shows is that the professor as a professor cannot raise in earnest the doubt of whether all values are subjective. For in virtue of being a professor, she is responsible for setting the tone for the conduct in the classroom. Her very identity as a professor requires and shows her commitment to some values being objectively valid--in particular, those values which she is going to enforce and model in the classroom.

Imagine a politician who says in a speech, "Is democracy a good thing? Maybe a dictatorship is better? If you elect me, I will make it a priority that we will talk about this important philosophical question!" A statement like that, in that context, seems contradictory--at odds with itself. For as a politician running for office and seeking the votes of the citizens whom he hopes to represent, the politican is affirming through his very professional identity: Democracy is best, and I am totally committed to that! It is hard to know how to respond to the politician's commitment to questioning if democracy is good. Because it is unclear how that commitment is compatible with his commitment to being a politician in a democracy.

Likewise, a professor as a professor stands in front of the classroom as someone who exemplifies certain values. If she is a philosophy professor, the value is that philosophical reflection is good, and that the students ought to engage in such reflection. A classroom is a space of a group activity, and the professor, just in virtue of being a professor, has the task of modeling certain activities which the students ought to grow into and which they ought to develop. They ought to at least once they sign up for the class. By taking the class the students commit themselves to being governed by the values of the classroom and of the values which apply to the subject matter. And by teaching the class the professor commits herself to exemplifying to some extent those values.

Hence the bizareness of the professor herself raising the question whether all values are subjective. For if the professor really has that doubt, in what sense is she entitled to standing in front of the classroom? If the doubt is real for her, what is she doing taking on the role of a teacher? What values can she pass on to the students if she herself doesn't know if any values could be passed on--if all values are subjective, and they have no inter-subjective hold in the community?

The pretend doubt phenomenon is not unique to ethics classes. Consider an epistemology class, which begins with the question, "Can we know anything? How do we even know we are not dreaming right now? What if there is no campus outside this classroom?" In virtue of being a professor the person in the front of the class is committed to the fact that there is knowledge to be gained, and that is of course the reason why the students are in the class.

Or a metaphysics class in which the professor asks, "Do human beings have free will? Or are we determined? If we are determined, does that mean no one can be responsible for anything?" Is this a real doubt or a pretend doubt? The seriousness of the professor's demeanor can suggest that the doubt is real, and pressing, and profound. But the fact that the professor doesn't think twice about holding the student's responsible for turning in essays on time or making valid arguments in their essays or explaining the authors being read in class correctly suggests that perhaps the doubt wasn't so robust or so genuine after all. "There's the bit where you say it, and the bit where you take it back."

Of course, the point isn't that it is somehow wrong of the professor to take it back, as if he should genuinely hold on to the doubt. For what would it mean for the professor to hold on to the doubt even as she is a professor? Can the concept of a professor be understood independently of the concepts of people being responsible, or people having knowledge, or people sharing values? It is hard to see how.

The interesting question is why there is the bit where the professor says it in the first place. Why is philosophy so often introduced in this way in classrooms? What are the psychological, sociological and philosophical causes for the pretend doubt phenomenon? That is a topic for another post.

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