May 13, 2005

Style and Envy in Philosophy

I vaguely promised some posts based on things that happened at the Chicago APA, and I haven't yet. Here goes one (also, note to self: other people political-blog better than I do):

I was grumbling about how I thought I'd have to learn PowerPoint to teach the big Accounting Ethics class I'll be doing at Tech--if for no other reason than that I think I'll be more effective if I conform to students' expectations, rather than being "that weird guy who teaches that dumb ethics class we have to take."

A friend from Pitt urged me to come to love PowerPoint--that, among other things, presentations on PowerPoint are better than simply reading papers.

I think this may reflect some interesting differences in philosophical style, which may ultimately reflect on the envy of other disciplines that Gillian Russell and Kieran Setiya were discussing end o' last month. (I should also say that I'm kind of BSing here. What I'm about to say probably doesn't stand up as a generalization at all.)

Basically, if you think philosophy should aspire to the condition of the humanities, you're more likely to want to read a paper; if you think philosophy should aspire to the condition of the sciences, you'll be more likely to use PowerPoint or some such.

PowerPoint is very suitable for argument proceeds like this: Here's the background against which we're arguing; the problem, the competing hypotheses, etc. Here's some data--which need not be experimentally gathered data, though it can be; it can be a problem case or something else that perhaps elicits intuitions. Here's how we deal with it. This is supposed to echo a sort of Background-Data-Explanation (with Experimental Methods down in the small type, I suppose) model that you find in science papers.

On the other hand, reading papers is more suitable for--gosh, it could be hard for me to say this without being prejudicial--things where you have to keep very close track of the dialectical situation. Sort of "Here's this person's argument, here's something that you might think was an objection to this argument, here's why it doesn't work, but here's the concession they have to make to defuse it, and here's why that undermines their argument"; which is more suitable to being presented on a handout, with multiple levels of indentation, rather than a PowerPoint or series of slides which tends to have a paratactic structure (everything on the same level). And is more suitable to reading, because if you forget some detail in presenting this sort of thing it can go completely to heck.

So what seems to me like the increasing trend to talk through presentations on PowerPoint rather than read papers may reflect an increasing trend to think of philosophy as essentially scientific. (Or it may be that I heard less of these while I was at Pitt's philosophy department--my friend was in History and Philosophy of Science--and more since entering the wider world. I think the underlying point would still hold.)

This isn't quite the kind of science envy Gillian mentions, particularly in comments. Gillian envies the scientists' understanding about how the world works, and I'm surely with her on that. (Add in my George Lewis envy, and my novelist envy, and....) I'm thinking of something more like what Greg Restall says in comments about mathematics in those comments:

I like the shift between the formal, constrained definition/lemma/theorem/proof/corollary style of the mathematical disciplines like formal logic and the open-ended, discursive, exploratory, dialectical style of philosophy. One provides definitive results, which are open to interpretation. The other provides understanding, but little in the way of definitive results.

(And mathematics doesn't quite work the same way as science here--I don't know how mathematically-oriented philosophers like to present their results! I should find out at the FEW.)

Kieran, OTOH, in Gillian's comments and his own blog, expresses humanities envy--a desire to speak to a wider audience, to actually decrease the level of technicality involved.

My position here is somewhat equivocal. To some extent I think that perhaps philosophy should be more scientific, less dependent on fuzzy intuitions. But I don't particularly enjoy doing that kind of work, right now. So I don't have science envy, more science akrasia.

This manifests itself particularly in relation to epistemology. Really I think that epistemologists should be working on stuff that tends to fall on the formal side of the fence: In particular, how can we be precise about the extent to which certain evidence supports certain conclusions. But I'm not actually good at making these arguments (yet--that's part of the reason I'm going to FEW). But, fortunately for me, there's a lot of informal-epistemology arguments to be made about why the formal stuff is the stuff epistemologists should be working on.

In this way I feel a bit like the oldest Marx Brother, who

when a friend said that she couldn't imagine him living happily in an egalitarian society, he responded: "Neither can I. These times will come, but we must be away by then."

Lord, make epistemology formal and just like science! But not yet.

Posted by Matt Weiner at May 13, 2005 03:03 PM

I wonder if someone who structures a philosophical paper like this:

Here's this person's argument, here's something that you might think was an objection to this argument, here's why it doesn't work, but here's the concession they have to make to defuse it, and here's why that undermines their argument

is not still someone who takes the sciences rather than the humanities as the model for philosophy.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at May 13, 2005 04:21 PM

'cause we're arguing with each other? I'm not sure, but this doesn't seem very science-oriented; perhaps it is closer to the law (shudder) than to other humanities, which I confess to not being that up on. One of the other things that I was thinking of with respect to the non-PowerPointers is that we use rhetoric more, but that didn't seem to be a fair description.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at May 15, 2005 04:21 PM

Yes, it might better be called a legalistic conception. I think it has more in common with a scientific model of philosophy in two ways: (1) it takes the task to be a dispassionate search for the most reasoned position, so that detailed consideration of arguments is worthwhile; and, much less importantly, (2) as a matter of writing style, it finds it perfectly natural to explicitly lay out the argumentative structure in this way.

One might think that it is obvious that this is what philosophy has always done. I guess I am thinking that scholars approaching philosophy from the side of the humanities consider it more of an expressive discipline, best written in the style of literary essays.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at May 15, 2005 05:30 PM

The difference between a PowerPoint presentation and a philosophy paper isn't in the structure of the argument. Power Point is visual and often glitzy and is a show. Audience (that is, viewers) is/are led through the presentation in sequence in "real time," and there can be theater: a slide can have a topic and then each point can magically zoom into place. It's terse and the speaker fills in a lot. In contrast, every word, nay, every jot and tittle, of a philosophy paper is carefully considered and pretaped, as it were.

Posted by: Matt's mom at May 16, 2005 10:58 AM

Powerpoint is the work of the devil.

That said, there are times when Powerpoint or something like it is very valuable. The problem with software like Powerpoint is that it is like an airplane cockpit with a lot of buttons and switches. If you don't work out how to do things right, you and your passengers, the audience, can easily go down in a ball of flame.

Mom has it right. To amplify, the utility of presentation software is that it is visual. This may not be obvious to a philosophy audience, but the reason scientists use Powerpoint or its equivalents is not because of a style of argumentation, but that it allows you to show pictures. Before Powerpoint, we all used overhead transparencies, or 35mm slides (God forbid). Ppt has a perfectly useful role in the humanities for people who want to illustrate what they're talking about - art historians, obviously, but also anyone else. In fact, the first time I ever saw Ppt, it was demonstrated not by a scientist, but by a historian friend who used it to show maps, pictures of people and places, etc as background material in his intro class lectures.

That said, Ppt has a tendency to reduce all communication to a list of bullet points. This must be fought on the beaches, on the landing grounds, and in the lecture halls. Anyone who uses presentation software should read Edward Tufte on the banality of Powerpoint evil:

PowerPoint is Evil

(Tufte close-reading of confusing Ppt slide that obscured seriousness of tile damage, leading to Columbia shuttle disaster - ironically, or tragically, he had made a similar analysis of a badly presented typewritten table after the 1985 Challenger shuttle explosion)

(ad for a pamphlet I haven't yet read)

Finally, Powerpoint is Microsoft. You can get free and open-source software that does almost the same thing from It has a slightly klunkier interface, but no talking paperclip. If you have a Mac, Apple will sell you Keynote. Every Keynote presentation I've seen has looked nicer than almost every Powerpoint presentation, which means Apple set up better graphic design defaults than MS (no surprise). Both of these cost much less than a full-price copy of Ppt, which is possibly the worst software deal anywhere, although you can often get a very substantial discount if your university has a site license.

Not that I'm obsessed with this subject or anything.


[link updated 10/9/07 at request of Tufte -- MW]

Posted by: Ben at May 23, 2005 05:55 PM