Thursday, December 12, 2013

Growing in Generosity

I just finished grading the most recent set of papers for my Rousseau class. This is a "slash course," meaning that it contains both graduate students and upper-level undergraduates. The graduate students take it as Philosophy 5010; the undergraduates take it as Philosophy 4010. But they all read the same books and write the same papers; the graduate students also do a short in-class presentation on some article of secondary literature on Rousseau.

As I read the papers, I'm always curious to see how the graduate student papers will differ, if at all, from the papers by the undergraduates. We have some terrific undergraduates who are wonderful writers well skilled at philosophical argumentation; they are sophisticated readers who excel in probing below the surface of a text. So I'm never surprised if some of the undergraduate papers turn out to be even stronger than the graduate student papers. Usually the grad student papers are "better" in some sense, but not always.

This time the difference that struck me most between the two groups of fine papers is that the undergraduate papers tended to be more critical of Rousseau, eager to pounce upon the many glaring inconsistencies, even outright contradictions, in his work. In contrast, the graduate student papers were uniformly appreciative of Rousseau, trying not identify fatal flaws in his arguments but rather to defend him against his critics, seeking to dissolve the contradictions so apparent to some of the undergraduates, to show how a deeper reading of the texts could allow divergent points to be reconciled.

I wonder why this is. Part of the reason might be that the grad students view it as more intellectually challenging to take the synthesizing/reconciling approach. It's easier to poke holes in someone's argument and then waltz away; it's harder to figure out how to patch those holes. I think the grad students are also more appreciative of how hard it is to do philosophy, so they are more inclined to cut other philosophers some slack. And maybe what goes on as one matures in a discipline is development of its core virtues. I like to think that one of the core virtues of philosophy is generosity toward one's opponents, though some of my colleagues, I'm sure, would hoot with laughter at that claim. But how can any discipline be worth pursuing if its practitioners spend most of their time gleefully demonstrating how all their predecessors pursued work now seen to be worthless?

In any case, I'm all for generosity, in this holiday season. Regarding seeming contradictions in a great thinker's work, I'm reminded of physicist Niels Bohr who wrote, "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."

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