May 30, 2012

Meta-Philosophy Conference

"Is philosophy out of touch with everyday life?"

This question is sometimes posed to academic philosophers. It is not always clear in what way the question is intended. But somewhere behind it seems to lie an accusation of some kind. Or, at any rate, a worry about a possible accusation.

Here is one way to interpret the question: "Is academic philosophy failing in its responsibility to everyday people?" On this interpretation, one imagines that academic philosophers have been given a great task--of enlightening the population--and that perhaps they have been delinquent with regard to this task. That whereas philosophy is a grand, mighty subject, the academics have turned it into a trivial, silly game centered on getting tenure and academic recognition. That academic philosophers, with their tenure and their summers off and their conferences in exotic (as well as non-exotic) locations, are selling the public a false bill of goods while living the high life. Call this the accusation interpretation, since on this interpretation the very question amounts to an accusation.

In September of 2011 I went to a meta-philosophy conference at Harvard. By that time I had been out of academic philosophy for a few months. I was trying to make sense of my decision. Attempting to understand why I felt alienated from my education and from my job as a philosophy professor. A meta-philosophy conference at Harvard seemed just the ticket: an opportunity to hear others on the nature of philosophy, and to walk around campus and process the nine years I had spent there.
For me, as I imagine it was for many people, the main event of the conference was on Friday Night: a discussion between Jason Stanley and Carlin Romano. Stanley is a well reputed philosopher who teaches at a highly ranked philosophy program. He was one of my teachers at Cornell. I hadn't heard of Romano before, though a little web search suggested that he seemed to have a penchant for creating controversy and for speaking his mind about what he perceived to be the failings of academic philosophy. Given that he had been one of my teachers, I felt my loyalties were with Stanley, but, given my move out of the profession, it seemed as if Romano might speak for my frustrations. As much as anything, I wanted to go to the conference to see how I would balance these opposing sides within me.

A video of the discussion (debate? confrontation?) can be found here.

As anticipated, there was much disagreement between Stanley and Romano. Stanley defended academic philosophy and its necessity in society. He highlighted the good things professional philosophy does, and bemoaned a world without the advances made possible by a Frege or a Quine. Romano, for his part, called most professional ("analytic") philosophy a sham and criticized the manner in which academic philosophers write for each other without even attempting to be intelligible to non-academics. Stanley suggested that is part of the natural process for a specialized discipline. Romano retorted that it is an evasion of the true spirit of philosophy. Romano said Stanley should learn to write better. Stanley said that Romano might benefit from an introductory philosophy class. It seemed as if Stanley and Romano do not agree on much.

Yet, as I was sitting there listening, as if Stanley and Romano were externalizing a tension I felt within myself, it seemed to me that there was a crucial assumption they both shared. They both assumed the accusation interpretation of the question of philosophy's relation to the broader culture. Hence Stanley vehement affirmation that professional philosophy matters and is good. Stanley concedes that most people will not read his works, but he is quick to affirm (understandably) that it doesn't mean that his work is bad--or that he is derelict in his duties as a professional philosopher. The accusation assumption is even clearer with Romano, since his main thrust is to make the accusation that the kind of work which most of the people in the room do is trivial and insular--disconnected from broader inter-subjective discourse, and assuming that broad inter-subjective discourse is the method of grasping reality, disconnected from reality itself.

May 26, 2012

Philosophy in Public Spaces

A striking fact of non-academic life is how little philosophy comes up in one's interactions with other people. In my normal exchanges at work or at the shopping mall very rarely do philosophical topics come up in conversation. When sitting on a bus or walking down a street, there is hardly any sign that at one time Socrates or Plato existed, or that even in this century there was a Wittgenstein or a Dewey, or that even at this very time there are thousands of people pouring over philosophy texts seeking the deeper truths of life. In the normal course of life, everything seems so settled, as if the only task for each person is to get through the events of the day.

Of course, it is not that philosophical topics can't be found at every street corner or in every interaction with another person. Certainly they can be found. When looking at a Gap ad, one can wonder, "What concept of human excellence is being assumed here? Why do people find it natural to think that this is a form of excellence?" Or when seeing people packed like sardines into the subway, one might ask, "What is individual and what is communal in each person? How much can people be in control of their lives, and how much are they at the mercy of nature and society?" These strike me as completely natural questions, which arise from just looking at the world. And yet, try raising these questions with other people in the flow of everyday life. It is exceedingly hard. "What is the matter with you? It's just an ad. Get it together. Are you feeling ok?" Or: "Damn. We shouldn't have taken the subway in rush hour. Stop pontificating, and move further in!" The real difficulty isn't even that others will shoot down the philosophical questions. It is to even express it to another person. And even more: to hold on to it within oneself as something important and pressing and exciting.

This isn't because most people are stupid or disinterested in broad questions of human life. I think the reason for the paucity of philosophy in everyday life is that the world one engages with is now so diverse. Here is a European descended Christian. There an African descended Muslim. And here an atheist from Australia. And there an agnostic from Chile. And it is not just about countries. Or religions. Here is a person without many extended family ties, and who thinks of the world more in terms of friends than family. There another person who is defined by his family ties, and identifies with them deeply. Here is a person who loves sports. There a person who doesn't care about them at all. Here is someone who loves Hollywood movies. There someone who thinks that such movies are trivial. Etc. And etc. Society is now so diverse that there is no guarantee that one shares palpable deep values and commitments with most people one encounters.
 
Philosophy concerns abstract questions. But this doesn't mean that therefore one can talk about philosophy with anyone. As if since philosophy is abstract, conversations about it can bypass the ordinary norms of human bonds. To the contrary. Ironically, the very abstractness of the questions implies that they are best pursued with people with whom one has a certain kind of closeness fostered by shared habits: friends, colleagues, family, etc. One doesn't say to a stranger, "So, about the meaning of life..." More likely, one keeps quiet. Or else: "It's a nice day today", and so on. A philosophy conversation is a joint reflection on shared forms of life. When there is no palpable sense of a shared form of life between people, a philosophy conversation seems out of grasp. When it feels as if one can't even talk to a person about the weather, it is hard to talk about the nature of the self or freedom or the good life.

May 18, 2012

Amateur Philosopher

Here are two facts. I chose not to be a philosophy professor. And I still want to do philosophy. This combination can make it seem as if my attitude to the profession must be a combative one, as if I don't like the profession. I fall prey to thinking this sometimes too. But it's not correct.
 
There are different ways in which one might be contrasted with a professional philosopher.
 
1) A professional philosopher as opposed to not being a philosopher at all.
2) A professional philosopher as opposed to a critic of professional philosophy.
3) A professional philosopher as opposed to being an amateur philosopher.
 
When I tell people I left professional philosophy, mostly their response seems to be to think that I didn't like philosophy, and so want to leave that behind. They are assuming here contrast (1).
 
When I say that isn't the case, and that I still like and envision doing philosophy, they get a worried look. As if I had just declared war. I imagine they think that I have it in for the profession for some personal reason (maybe I dislike my former colleagues, or I resented not publishing, or maybe I just wasn't good at it but am not able to accept that). By saying that I still want to do philosophy, I seem to be implying that the philosophy profession is somehow corrupt or trivial or some other dirty thing. They expect me to be mad. Angry. Or to at least take a righteous tone, as if I had some principles which I wasn't willing to sacrifice, and which the profession was asking me to sacrifice. When I sense this look in others, it brings out similar conceptions in myself. So I take on an angry tone. Or a righteous tone. As if I am Luther putting up my 95 theses. Here contrast (2) is assumed.
 
I have spent a year fluctuating between contrast (1) and (2). Sometimes I would think, "I just didn't want to do that". But this seems hard to tell myself, since I think about philosophy pretty much constantly. So then contrast (2) presents itself. And so I would think, "Yes, the profession is all wrong! What craziness! Why is no one else seeing this? I must be a great philosopher, ahead of the curve. A prophet. Ok, then, I will speak out as a prophet. I will criticize the profession, like Jesus knocking over the tables of the money changers." A great energy would overtake me. And then....frustration. And then...depression. The whole thing seems forced. Not natural. As if I am taking on some grand project to justify my decision to leave. As if I creating an enemy to prop myself up. I ask myself, "Is the philosophy profession bad? Deeply wrong?" I think there are deep assumptions of the profession I disagree with, but that doesn't make the profession unjust or vicious. It just means I have a disagreement with some of the ways the profession functions. And where exactly do I disagree with the profession? To take on the critic stand a battery of charges is needed. Do I have such a list? As I think about it, I realize: "No, I don't have such a list." I don't even know what exactly philosophy is. I have ideas, like any one else. But if I am honest with myself, I know that I am puttering around just like anyone else. This recognition takes out the venom from my mind. It deflates the call to revolution. And then at first I feel lost, as if a public stance I could take has been lost. But slowly I feel more peaceful. Because I know in my heart that I was not meant to be a critic of the profession. That is not why I left. It is a pose I could take, but it is also a pose in which I could lose myself. Better to avoid it altogether.
 
Recently, in the past few weeks, I have started to think that contrast (3) is what applies to me. "Amateur philosopher" can be understood in two ways: one who has not acquired the skills of a professional philosopher, or one who does not make an income as a philosopher. The former does not fit me, since I did acquire such skills. But the latter does now apply to me. Philosophy is no longer my career.
 

May 14, 2012

Let It Be

Some days it feels like the experiment is a bust. I must be crazy. What am I going on about? If I care about philosophy enough to have this blog, why didn't I just stay in academia? Perhaps I am missing something. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I have a character flaw which makes me not commit to things. Or maybe it is like what some people say to me regarding my decision to leave: "Oh, you were burned out, huh?" The implication that I failed stings. All the more so because deep within me that is the one interpretation of the events which I fear. And which I worry might be true. Maybe all the hoopla of my ideas about why the experiment matters is just a cover for the fact that I failed. Maybe I just couldn't cut it, and I couldn't face up to it. Is that what I am doing by writing now? More cover up?
 
This self-flagellation and dejection didn't come out of nowhere. I knew I shouldn't do it, but I did it again today. I went to the websites: Harvard, Berkeley, Pitt, Chicago. To the Leiter blog. To see what the professionals are doing. What is happening there. What am I missing out on. Some part of me feels desperate to reaffirm some connection to the profession.
 
And yet what I see on the websites only makes me feel more distant. For where on those websites can I find my story? Or stories of others like me who had trouble committing? The websites depict only the humming machinery of the profession. The talks. The publications. The same circles of people going around giving talks at each other's departments. The polished sense of progress. And commitment. Why did I have so much trouble with that commitment? Why is it that they were able to do it, and I wasn't? My mind unconsciously asks these questions over and over again, and unable to answer clearly, it gives up, exhausted. The fall back answer arises readily: "because I did something wrong, or I didn't do something enough, or I was too stubborn. It is my fault. Something in me is lacking." And the voice which speaks this answer in my mind suggests the path of action: "Hide all this. Don't let it come to light. Your feelings of insecurity--those are your fault. Just having the feelings shows that there is something wrong with you. You are weak. Don't perpetuate the weakness by showing it to others. Bury it. Don't give a hint of it to anyone. Look normal. Be normal."
 
In the past I fell prey to this voice. I accepted it's claim that my pain is my fault. But now I see that is not true. The pain is not my fault. Nor any one else's fault. It is simply a fact of my consciousness this evening. Caused, like all facts, by the flux of events in the world. It is not a fact to run away from. To the contrary, it is a fact which holds the clue to my self-understanding. If I can look the pain in the eye and accept it as it is, without putting myself or others down, then some new understanding of myself and the world is possible. The new understanding is always only around the corner from simply acknowledging the pain. From letting it be. Given the turbulence of this evening, no point thinking too much. Or trying too hard to understand. The only way to gain understanding is to be good to oneself. To acknowledge that the deepest part of who one is can only be good. To let the pain be. And to let the understanding come in its own time. To trust and to know that it will come. To let it be.

May 12, 2012

How Not to Leave the Profession

In the 1970s Richard Rorty was a professor of philosophy at Princeton. He was well-known in the profession. He had edited a well received anthology, The Linguistic Turn, and was considered a sharp, if idiosyncratic, thinker since he defended views such as that mental states don't exist. He could have spent the rest of his life at Princeton, fine tuning his views and resting on his laurels. But in 1979 he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The book made him infamous in the philosophy profession, and a celebrity in the humanities.
 
Written as a cross between a scholarly work and a manifesto (Word and Object crossed with The Communist Manifesto), Rorty argues that certain projects of philosophy which have been dominant since the 17th Century are bankrupt and have run their ground. The book aimed to deliver the final blow to these projects, and to help start a new way of doing philosophy. He claimed the old way tried to find universal philosophical truths which were supposed to be independent of humans, and that this project has to be dismissed because there are no such truths. It was a hopeless search. On the new way, philosophy isn't about finding universal truths, but about creating interesting conversations which mobalize the world towards greater social justice. On the old way philosophers are more like physicists. On the new way philosophers are more like artists. Actually, on the new way even physicists are like artists! Viva la revolution!
 
The publication of the book was an event. Like any academic text, Rorty's book is filled with arguments, interpretations of authors, subtle distinctions. But what gives the book life, and its distinctive voice, is that one senses in Rorty's writing deep wells of pent up frustration, resentment, anger. As if he woke up one day and decided, "Enough is enough. I will finally say what I really believe." One has the feeling that he is coming out of some kind of a closet. As if he is emerging from the Ivory Tower of Princeton with some glimmering secret. That some gig is up. Kind of like an informant who was on the board of a corrupt company and is finally speaking out.
 
The book reads in a way more like a piece of investigative journalism than like a normal academic text. Where a mild-mannered professor might have written, "Descartes had a false view of the mind, and here are my reasons for thinking so", Rorty writes as if to insinuate: "Descartes pulled a wool over our eyes, but we can finally overcome his treachery! We can now wake up!" There is the persistent feeling in the book that there has been a centuries long conspiracy, and that Rorty is uncovering it with the help of his intellectual heroes such as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey and Davidson. I remember reading Rorty's book periodically in grad school. I am not sure I ever agreed with much of what he was saying. But given my own frustrations with the profession, it was the tone of the book which I found soothing. In contrast to the normally self-satisfied tone of academics, here was a genuinely frustrated academic. Most strange to me as a grad student: he had gotten tenure and was still frustrated! And he tried to express that, however vaguely. I admired that.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature made Rorty one of the "IT" guys in literature departments and the humanities. Academics who felt that philosophy had lost its way, and that it had become reduced to squabbling over the meaning of words now had something to point to and say, "See, even a Princeton professor of philosophy says so!" Naturally the idea that philosophy should seek to emulate literature was a welcome view to many literature professors. By the 70s this idea already had some grip in literature departments due to the influence of "continental" thinkers such as Derrida. The real coup provided by Rorty was that he was using the seemingly logic chopping views of "analytic" thinkers such as Quine and Davidson to argue that actually Derrida was right. The broader academic world applauded the call to revolution. Rorty won the MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 1981. And in 1982 Rorty left the philosophy department at Princeton to become a general professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. It was if Rorty had called out the philosophy profession with his book, and then decided that he can't wait for old-fashioned philosophy professors to catch up to him. He was going to lead the revolution from outside philosophy departments.
 

May 8, 2012

Descartes' Meditations

It is the second class of an introductory philosophy course. The first class where the stage for the semester is set is over. It is now time to dive into the philosophy. The reading for the day: Descartes' First Meditation. The Professor begins: "We ordinarily think there is a world external to us. But is there? What if it is all an illusion? Perhaps we are dreaming? Maybe there is an evil demon deceiving us? If we can't know there is an external world, how we can know anything else? Therefore before we can claim to know anything, we need to address this doubt." A challenge has been laid down. The implication has been made that if the students don't take on the challenge, they are being dogmatic; willing to rest content with their beliefs without really questioning them. The students' response to the challenge varies: some feel the force of the challenge and are excited, some are skeptical, some are bored, some don't understand. Which is the right response to have? Is there a right response to have to the professor's comments? The students look to the professor to see how to respond, and seek to follow the professor's actions. So they nod along. The professor interprets the nodding as affirmation from the students that they see the intrinsic worth of the questions. So the professor continues, confident that the doubt which has been introduced is shared by everyone in the room.

She begins again, "Let us turn to page 2 of The Meditations, and see how Descartes addresses the doubt of whether there is an external world...." Another example of pretend doubt.

No one stops the professor and says, "But, professor, I am already hooked by the doubt. How do we even know that Descartes' book is real? That there is even a book in front of me? That even Descartes was real? Oh my God, are you even real? Are you only a robot without a mind? Maybe you are the creation of the evil demon controlling my mind? Is this really a classroom, or am I dreaming? I don't know what to believe!" Call this taking the doubt personally.

I have been in countless philosophy classrooms where Descartes's text was discussed; as a student, as a teaching assistant and as a professor. Not once did I see any student respond in this way. Not even by the students who are most gripped by Descartes' text. I certainly didn't respond this way as a student. Even more, in those classes it seems altogether natural that no one would respond in this way. It never seems like a relevant possibility. Why?

Because a student who takes the doubt personally dislodges the assumption in the classroom that the professor knows something which the students don't, and that the professor will pass on some of that knowledge in due time. For a professor raising the Cartesian Doubt on the second day of class is part of a well rehearsed narrative, one which is like a play with 25 parts (one part for each day of class in the semester). Preparing for class is part of the professor's job, and the preparation partly consists of fine tuning the narrative so that each class session links naturally together. In part a good profession is one who takes the effort to tell a coherent narrative.

Unconsciously the students know this. The professor knows this more consciously, though she brackets it from the students while rehearsing the Cartesian doubt. Everyone in the room knows that what is being introduced in the second lecture is a set up for the third lecture, and so on; that the materials from these lectures will be on the essays or the exams for the class, and that what is happening in this second class is part of something larger --the class as a whole. And that the class is part of something ever larger--a college education which takes place on campuses.

The class functions because it has an order, and the professor is in charge of maintaining the pace and rhythm of that order. Like a conductor with an orchestra. The trouble with the student who takes the doubt personally is that he disrupts this order. Someone for whom the Cartesian doubt becomes real is like a member of the orchestra who ignores the conductor and insists on playing solo. He becomes a hurricane in the room--an unpredictable force which threatens to take over the content for that class. And the professor will then fall behind a day in the syllabus, and the narrative for the semester will have to be adjusted accordingly.

The planned rhythm of the class is: press the Cartesian doubt for half an hour or one hour; get the students into a state of admitted perplexity; and then introduce Descartes' knowledge of himself as a thinking thing in the Second Meditation as the purported solution. Do that for one class. Then move on to the proof of God's existence in the Third Meditation, cover the normal objections to it, and so on. The student who takes the doubt seriously in the second class comes across as a trouble maker because he is disrupting this flow. If the student persists in affirming the doubt, the only recourse for the professor is to say, "You are asking good questions. Let's talk after class." In this way the professor is forced to admit that she has a narrative planned. This can be embarrassing, since the professor's planned task for that class is to stroke the Cartesian doubt and not to down play it.
 

May 5, 2012

My Story 1

It is amazing how a change in one's life can reorient one's perspective and shed new light on oneself.

From 2008 to 2011, I was an assistant professor of philosophy at Bryn Mawr College. I often enjoyed the job. I was surrounded by wonderful and smart colleagues and students. I was one of the lucky ones--I got a tenure track job in academia. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: inside myself I was unhappy, and day dreamed about leaving my job. I didn't go to conferences. I didn't seek to publish. I avoided actions which required committing to the profession. Why? Even I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself: "Look how good you have it! What is the matter with you? You are a cry baby! Get it together!" I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my colleagues about what I was feeling. Outwardly everything seemed well, so I assumed that the source of the dissatisfaction must be me. There must be something wrong with me. I felt ashamed of my inability to commit to the profession. I tried to get it together. But the day dreams persisted.

From 1999 to 2008, I was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University. I often enjoyed it. My professors and fellow grad students were smart and friendly. I was one of the lucky ones--I had an opportunity to spend all my time doing philosophy, aided by the resources and prestige Harvard offered. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: inside myself I was unhappy, and day dreamed about quitting grad school. I had trouble identifying with my dissertation. Often I wasn't excited about what I wrote, feeling that my voice in the thesis was different from the inner voice of my thinking. I avoided going to conferences and developing a professional identity. At unexpected moments I would take a combative attitude to the profession I was seeking to enter. Why? I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself. "All grad students feel some kind of dissatisfaction. Don't let it get to you! Be strong! Overcome it. Don't be weak." I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my advisers or friends about what I was feeling. It felt like I was betraying my teachers and friends to share with them that I felt a big gulf between myself and the profession, that at times to be in the profession felt as if the walls were closing in on me. How do I share that without losing my ties with them? Without losing my own ties to philosophy? I tried to get it together. But the disquiet and confusion persisted.

From 1995 to 1999, I was an undergraduate at Cornell University. I enjoyed it often. My professors and friends were kind and considerate. I was one of the lucky ones--I was at an Ivy League school, and I could study anything I wanted. I chose philosophy. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: often I felt disconnected from everyone, and day dreamed about leaving college. In classrooms I often sought out the seats in the corner where I would be least conspicuous. I looked forward to my senior thesis, but abandoned it half way through. I was eager to take as many philosophy classes as I could, but found myself frequently bored in them. Why? I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself: "Here you are at this beautiful campus, surrounded by knowledge and books. What more could you want? You are just afraid of success. Of commitment. Your parents worked hard to put you in this position. Don't waste it!" I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my teachers or my family about how I was feeling. I only felt a vague dissatisfaction, which seemed to thwart  my commitment to my education. But I was unable to conceptualize the uneasiness, or express it clearly in words. I assumed this was because the uneasiness was my fault, that there was some malfunction within me. Since I felt ashamed of my dissatisfaction, it seemed best to hide it from others. I tried to get with the program. But the dissatisfaction persisted.

For fifteen years the questions reverberated in my mind. Stay in college or not? Stay in grad school or not? Stay as a professor or not?

I finally left academia last year. On January 31, 2011 at 3:00pm, I went into my department chair's office and resigned from my job. It was a Monday, and my application for reappointment was due the next day. I taught my last class on April 27. I graded my last paper on May 13.

For the past one year, I have taken time for myself. Did temp work. Listened to music. Played the guitar. Wrote for myself. Read others who had trouble identifying with their education: Salinger, Ellison, Rodriguez. Mainly, I finally started telling myself: "It's not your fault." I stopped blaming myself. Instead of feeling ashamed of my inability to commit to the philosophy profession, I started to try to understand it. Why did I feel that way for fifteen years? What were the causes? What is this peace I am experiencing being out of the profession? Why am I feeling it now? How has my life been affected by events in the world? How can the world be affected by my life?

When I was ashamed of what I felt, I was powerless to understand it. Being unable to understand it, I was powerless to express it. Once I stopped being ashamed, I could stay still long enough to observe what I was feeling. By observing it, I gained the power to understand it. And by understanding it, I gained the power to express it.

"I have striven not to laugh at human actions, nor to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them." - Spinoza

May 3, 2012

Thank You

In this blog so far I have been critical of the philosophy profession. It is just the beginning. As I become more free in my writing and discover my voice more, I sense that the criticism will become even stronger - and hopefully clearer and more focused.

I don't want to give the impression, though, that my education in the philosophy profession was only negative. It wasn't.

It was also wonderful and beautiful and inspiring. As people my teachers and colleagues were kind and caring, considerate and thoughtful. In many ways I was lucky to have the education I had. I thought so when I was in college and grad school, and I continue to think so now.

I would like to offer my teachers a heartfelt thank you. I have learnt a lot from you and I cherish my education. Even as I aim to think critically about it.

What I seek to understand and to help change, to the extent I can, is the institutional momentum of professional philosophy. It is not possible for me to understand myself, or for me to tell the story of my life, without speaking of the pain I experienced as a student. It is a murky pain which has long been unconscious. It is a pain I would like to process and understand consciously. Because the pain was real. Because the pain matters. The pain was not caused by any particular people. Instead, it was caused by institutional structures which have not been able to keep up with a rapidly globalizing world. It is these structures, and how to improve them, that I seek to understand.

I hope my blog posts will be taken in the spirit they are intended: as a honest search for the truth.

May 2, 2012

A Dialogue

 
My dear Calvin, I don't agree with Bharath's point that in philosophy classrooms there is a pretend doubt phenomenon. Contrary to how Bharath makes it seem, when the professor raises the doubt "Are all values subjective?" she isn't speaking for herself. Rather, she is raising a doubt which someone might raise, for example, someone who is a moral skeptic. And why is the professor doing this? Because by raising the question she is challenging the students' conception of the world, and  forcing them to rethink their deepest assumptions.


But, Hobbes, there is a simple response to the moral skeptic who worries if all values are subjective. Suppose I am talking to The Moral Skeptic. Either she acknowledges that our interaction is governed by values of civil discourse or she doesn't. If she does acknowledge such values, then she isn't actually a moral skeptic; she is just saying some words without realizing that she doesn't believe what she is saying. And if she doesn't acknowledge such values, then she and I are not going to be able to have a pleasant conversation anyhow. If we can't take for granted that while talking she can't use me as a punching bag, I sure as hell am not going to be able to have a simple philosophical conversation. I will then be seriously worried for her and for myself. If I come across a real moral skeptic, my worry wouldn't be that I wouldn't be able to convince her by argument. My worry would be: what if she steals my money, or stabs me? This is a loose cannon I am dealing with! Suppose she isn't actually a moral skeptic, but is toying with the position, and seriously wondering about it. Then I would assume that she is feeling really estranged from society and must be feeling very lonely and hurt, and I would see how I can help by bringing her off the ledge of such deep pessimism. The point that a professor can't be a moral skeptic because she is a professor applies in a sense to everyone. A father who aims to be even a decent father can't be a complete moral skeptic; for being a father means being committed to guiding one's child in some ways which will help the child when she grows up. Similarly with anyone who aims to be a neighbor or a friend, or any of the normal identities we as people strive for. There is no magical person we will come across to whom we have no bonds as people, and with whom one can discuss moral skepticism as if it were a purely theoretical issue. As I see it, this settles the worry of moral skepticism. What is there to go on about for a whole semester?