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Philosophical friends and epistemic partiality in friendship
Thoughts on the importance of philosophical friendship and the epistemic partiality debate
The history of philosophy is replete with passionate, deep, and inspiring philosophical friendships.
Consider Huizi and Zhuangzi, Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes, David Hume and Adam Smith, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, and the “Somerville Quartet” of women philosophers in Oxford during and after the Second World War, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch and Mary Midgley. Two recent books have been devoted to the lives of this group of friends, Metaphysical Animals (by Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman) and The Women are up to Something (by Benjamin Lipscombe).
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The Somerville Quartet
In her essay review of both books, Jennifer Frey highlights the epistemic benefits of philosophical friendship. It afforded these women a unique way of doing philosophy, that is, a unique set of philosophical practices that Frey did not think possible when she was an undergraduate, and when philosophy was presented to her (as it is to many of us) as masculine and solitary:
What is so startling and attractive about the love between Anscombe and Foot is that in spite of all their differences—of temperament, religion, class background, appearance, domestic circumstances and even politics and morals—they were able to draw close together based on their mutual desire to see their way through the philosophical problems that had gripped their imaginations and to make progress in their own search for a philosophical account of human experience. At the root of their affection lay a common goal—a search for insight and answers to the questions that were troubling them, a struggle they undertook together over the course of their lives in a spirit of cooperation and mutual aid. They did not always agree, but their respect for one another’s minds anchored their friendship.—Frey, The Somerville Quartet, The Point Magazine 2022
In the epistemic partiality literature, started by an influential paper by Sarah Stroud (2006), the thought is often that we should (or in fact should not) lower the epistemic bar for our friends. Stroud fleshes this out in the following way: the distinctive phenomenology and attitudes of friendship prompts us to adopt a set of unique doxastic practices that apply to our friends, such as believing them more readily then we would strangers, or treating negative accounts about our friends with excessive scrutiny. Differently put, we are biased when we deal with our friends. Epistemic partiality in friendship might mean that we “violate the standards of epistemology,” as Sandy Goldberg summarizes it.
But I wonder if we should flatten the epistemology of friendship in this way as just adopting different (lower) standards to certain propositions. Philosophical friendships show that the epistemology of reasoning with your friends indeed is subject to a distinctive set of norms and practices, but these do not merely amount to lowering the bar. Let me speculate how this might be.
Trust and benevolence
As Frey remarks about Foot and Anscombe, philosophical friends often disagree about substantive philosophical matters. For example, the friends William James and Josiah Royce (above) had a long and friendly dispute on metaphysics that was termed “the battle of the absolute.” Royce was a proponent of absolute idealism, the thought that everything can be metaphysically situated in a single all-encompassing consciousness. By contrast, James was a pragmatic pluralist, seeing the world as a plurality of being that we as limited organisms form partial pictures of. This debate influenced both philosophers deeply.
Arguing with your friends is different from arguing with a stranger on the internet who may or may not be favorably disposed toward you. As Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have pointed out, social contexts make us better reasoners. They provide many examples such as the early 18th- and 19th-century abolitionists and the Northern Irish conflict to show the benefits of reasoning as argumentation.
However, we argue with many different kinds of people. Sometimes the context in which we argue is hostile, against people who share little of our interests and who might use reasoning to justify oppression as in the pro-slavery camp in the abolitionism debates. But in other contexts, we reason with people who are more benevolently disposed toward us, such as our graduate advisors or our friends. In such circumstances, we operate under a background assumption of trust.
Sophie-Grace Chappell defines friendship (loosely) as “benevolent companionship over time” (in her forthcoming book A Philosopher Looks At Friendship, CUP). This benevolence is key to why philosophical friendships afford a unique mode of engaging in the practice of philosophy. We reasonably expect that a friend will be charitably disposed to what we have to say and not try to find some “gotcha” in our reasoning*. We can trust them to have our back.
As various philosophers (Annette Baier, Knud Ejler Løgstrup) have shown, trust is woven into the fabric of our social realm. Without trust, we find ourselves isolated and emotionally impoverished. Being constantly embattled does not make us better reasoners, and prevents us from realizing important goods such as testimonial learning or improving ourselves. Trust allows for the better transmission of both skill and semantic information. Without trust, our epistemic environments would look very different.
Precisely because of this background assumption of trust, we value criticisms of friends more, because we know such criticisms aren't motivated by ulterior motives such as trying to get the better of us. We reasonably expect that our friends have our best interest at heart and that their objections are aimed at helping us see more truth, or to improve some lacunae in our reasoning.
Freedom from distracting self-scrutiny
When we reason with our friends, we are not as afraid to lose face as with strangers or opponents. This freedom of fear of reputational damage makes it easier to change our minds. In an adversarial context, this looks like admitting defeat, but it is possible in the context of friendship because of its long-term character.
When we present an argument in the face of a group of strangers, we often feel self-conscious. Such a focus on the self, as Laura Callahan has shown in a recent paper, can be epistemically vicious, and can express itself both in pride and in excessive self-doubt. As Callahan writes,
In my experience, one of the most frustrating culprits of distraction of this kind can be the one that, I am claiming, marks vicious intellectual pride. We can be distracted by our intellectual activities themselves, as they reflect on our egos. How well am I reasoning, as I write this section? How perspicuous is this characterization, and what does that say about me as a philosopher? What will the referees say, and how might this paper end up looking on my CV? Such thoughts and concerns are disruptive, intrusive. Much as buzzing flies or the remembrance of a forgotten chore can interrupt and divert our intellectual energies, causing us to switch the very questions that we ask or tasks we undertake, our intellectual egos – roughly, our intellectual self-conceptions construed in a context of assessment – can distract us by interrupting and rechanneling our thinking.
While philosophy has grown to become less gladiatorial than when I started out, it is still a discipline where “appearing smart” is of paramount importance. It fuels anxiety that we would make blunders that people would quickly home in on, finally proving we weren't as smart as we thought we were. It stifles creativity, and our ability to be truly free in our philosophizing. That freedom requires a freedom of distracting thoughts of reputation.
Philosophical friends, because of their benevolent attitude toward each other, do not need to be as concerned about reputation and about appearing smart. This doesn't mean the concern disappears entirely. For example, a friend can disappoint another when she does something the other deems vicious or incomprehensible, as expressed in the devastating phrase, “I expected better from you.” Indeed, such situations can test (sometimes end) friendships. Still, in normal situations we can be free of distracting self-directed thoughts. This is why philosophical friends are valuable, and why philosophical friendships have such a deep influence on the history of philosophy. They make a kind creativity, unhindered by thoughts about the ego, possible and they give us the benefits that reasoning in social contexts afford.
Finally, while epistemic partiality in friendship is often seen as lowering our epistemic norms, I think that in our exchange with friends we sometimes heighten the bar too, both for ourselves and our friends. Notably, I expect my friends as interlocutors to be careful in their thinking (in a way I do not expect when engaging with, say, philosophyrando123 on X/formerly Twitter).
And I reasonably expect honesty. If you lack reasons, or just go by gut feel, you might be more willing to admit that to a friend than to an antagonist. I can push my friend harder to provide me with reasons than I would a stranger, because of the background of trust and respect (as Ben Bush put it to me). Trust helps us to push harder and at the same time be more gracious. That is immensely valuable in an epistemic context, and makes philosophical friendships precious.
*I am leaving to the side toxic friendships, frenemies, etc. To these kinds of friendships, different epistemic practices apply but I'm not considering these here.
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