This discussion begins in medias res. I apologize in advance for its many twists and turns. Years ago, Leigh Johnson wrote a piece laying out an idea of philosophical debate as “friendly fire,” using an Aristotelian conception of friendship. My friend and former colleague Joshua Miller responded to that idea with his own elaboration of “friendly fire,” using an Arendtian notion of dialogue across difference. Having read Miller’s blogpost (but not Johnson’s), I came across Nomy Arpaly’s “Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?” in the Daily Nous, and thought I saw a connection between the two. Arpaly makes a compelling case that to equate rudeness with philosophical rigor is a hazardous conflation, and that bareknuckle pugilism hinders the philosophical process and discourages many (especially women) from participating in that process. Arpaly draws an analogy between philosophy and warfare: in both cases, a person is required to suspend our ordinary inhibition to attack other people, but there must still be inviolable rules of engagement for the fighting to be just. She writes:

I do not wish to be a philosophical pacifist. I think arguing—including, naturally, correcting and being corrected—is something for which there is no substitute in philosophy. I remember it whenever a beginner graduate student asks me how to anticipate objections or simply how to “see” the arguments for the other side of one’s view, which, as per Mill, is important if we want to understand our own view at all. I tell her that we humans are pretty bad at imagining what having the opposite view would be like (more on the badness of our imagination some other time), and thus there is no substitute for talking to someone who disagrees with you and who can “pressure” you hard to come up with answers to her arguments. Someone who pretends to disagree is not enough, as the same lack of imagination makes us bad at the pretending. You need the real thing.

Idly musing on Facebook about this, I took issue not with Arpaly’s recommendation that we avoid rudeness, but with characterizing philosophy through martial virtue. Miller then responded to this in his blog, which then got taken up recently by the Daily Nous. I will be responding to both Johnson’s original “friendly fire” and Miller’s elaboration of it in my next post. For now, however, I wish to engage with Arpaly’s martial framework and show why it is still wrong to identify hardness and toughness as “the real thing” in philosophy, and why it would be better to cultivate something like hospitality to avoid philoniky. We all know a philoniker or two; like the character of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, they’re not necessarily wrong about the point they militate for, they’re just jerks who brandish their justifications in needlessly aggressive ways. Arpaly retains the adversarial debate norm while critiquing its excesses, but I wonder whether this very way of conceiving of debate inherently leads us toward those pitfalls she wishes to avoid. As I put it earlier,

Philosophy has for too long patterned itself after polemos, war, and been polemics; I think there’s a reason Nietzsche’s depiction of the philosopher as warrior of ideas appealed to me more when I was a reedy hormonal teenager, as these sorts of self-descriptions appeal to men undergoing a crisis of masculinity. The issue is not that we have been “too soft” with ourselves and need someone from the outside to be “hard” on us. The issue is that we worship hardness itself at the expense of what we tell ourselves we’re defending with it. Here I draw a lot of insight from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” (h/t Joan Braune). Yeah, Achilles looks cool, and he takes offense over something trivial, but don’t get carried away with that pretext for allowing or gloating over more violence. Briseis is not the issue here, dude. Nor is it actually Achilles’ honor, or Agamemnon’s honor. It’s the idea that life is all about enforcing one’s life in the push and pull of force and counterforce. The intellectual “battlefield” is not the Iliad, nor should it be. Instead, we should foster the hospitality we see so many good examples of in the Odyssey.

TL;DR: less andreia, more xenia.


When we start being philosophical with someone, we take in a new guest-friend, or become one. They may come from a very different place than the ones we’re used to, and their way of speaking may be very different from ours. The different way they think is not an emergency that requires defensiveness, but a delight that is a gift, even when they are in fact wrong. Menelaus invites Telemachus in, bathes him, clothes him, and throws a feast in his honor before asking his identity or purpose for visiting; we can learn from this extraordinary case that there is virtue in making the strange welcome, making ourselves vulnerable to it, and not making what we have to give conditional upon getting answers we like. “To have friends arrive from afar—is this not a joy? To be patient even when others do not understand—is this not the mark of the gentleman?”[1]

For dialectic to refrain from being eristic, we must momentarily try to see from the other’s perspective, and I contend that this does not mean that you lob all your heaviest artillery against it—at least not at first, and perhaps not for a very long while. You see very little through your spyglass when you’re bombarding someone, and conceding that their building is still standing after your raid—and furthermore, that there are no hard feelings because you only assailed them to test the strength of their position—hardly constitutes real respect outside of fantasies of machismo.

Likewise, when we are under attack we are unlikely to do our best philosophizing. We are liable to get defensive, to fall back upon petty tricks and fallacies, or simply to become tongue-tied, especially if—for reasons of individual temperament or socialization—we already doubt ourselves to an unhealthy extreme. Either way, both sides get entrenched, and the back-and-forth of dialectic ceases. While Arpaly is right to mention the obvious fact that we tend to be overfond of our own perspective, the fog of war may do just as much to obscure what we can otherwise see with others. After all, you can only philosophize with someone, and you cannot philosophize at someone, even if both parties are philosophizing at each other—once that happens, you’ve both ceased to philosophize, and you are engaged in polemic (which may be necessary in situations of injustice [2]) or philoniky (which is never necessary). The playfulness goes out of the discussion, and one is no longer hospitable to the xenos, the stranger. In philoniky one wallows in what Maria Lugones calls “arrogant perception,”[3] which prevents you from travelling to another person’s world:

An agonistic sense of playfulness is one in which competence is supreme. You better know the rules of the game. In agonistic play there is risk, there is uncertainty, but the uncertainty is about who is going to win and who is going to lose. There are rules that inspire hostility. The attitude of playfulness is conceived as secondary to or derivate from play. Since play is agon, then the only conceivable playful attitude is an agonistic one (the attitude does not turn an activity into play, but rather presupposes an activity that is play). One of the paradigmatic ways of playing for both Gadamer and Huizinga is role-playing. In role-playing, the person who is a participant in the game has a fixed conception of him or herself. I also think that the players are imbued with self-importance in agonistic play since they are so keen on winning given their own merits, their very own competence.

When considering the value of “world”-travelling and whether playfulness is the loving attitude to have while travelling, I recognized the agonistic attitude as inimical to travelling across “worlds.” The agonistic traveller is a conqueror…. Agonistic travellers fail consistently in their attempt to travel because what they do is try to conquer the other “world.”[4]

From Lugones it’s clear that we should think of hospitality in a dual sense both as host and as guest. When we put forth an idea to someone as a sort of guest and hope the other person will entertain the thought, we have to be courteous guests in their conceptual space and kindly try out the food for thought they give us, even if it’s not like what nourishes us at home. (Especially then! Why not stay at home if you insist on getting things exactly the way you like them?) But the lion’s share of the work of hospitality falls on the host: to have patience for their stories, to give healthy feedback, to be game for what the guest offers and how they say it. The back-and-forth of host and guest has its rituals—you try to help out in the kitchen, they insist you relax, if they’re really struggling you help out anyway—and its interplay has to be respected. Part of this respect is to enjoy each other’s company, to take delight in the visit—not as a dour command of punctiliousness, but as a freeing command to give each other’s customs and habits a little leeway. Take yourself out of yourself for a little while—leave behind ossified ideas of yourself and try a different version of yourself, with this other person. It is absurd to think of a host or a guest winning at the game of hospitality—we all know how it kills the mood when people try to outdo each other in politeness—and thus it is far more amenable a metaphor than war to the mutuality Arpaly and Lugones seek in philosophizing. The “give and take” we lionize in philosophical discussions must become a give and take in the truest sense.


Part 1: Philonikers and Philosophers

Part 2: Guest-Friendship and Friends of Wisdom: Dialoguing with Arpaly and Lugones

Part 3: Fiery Friendship



[1] Confucius, Analects 1.1. Analects: with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. trans. Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2003. Page 1.

[2] Leigh Johnson and Edward Kazarian have written a thought-provoking piece on the dangers of tone-policing in philosophy, especially given that we live in asymmetrical power relations. I cannot begin to address this complex issue here, but I acknowledge its importance and hope in a future post to talk about how hospitality could avoid the dangers of tone-policing they note.

[3] Maria Lugones, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception,” Hypatia 2:2 (Summer 1987): 3-19. Page 4.

[4] Lugones, pp. 15-16