Yours, Mine, and Ours: Confessing a Philosophical Theft

In a post today, my longtime friend Leigh Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution and appropriating her idea of “friendly fire” in my response to Noma Arplay and Joseph Trullinger. In this post, I want to acknowledge my error and say a few things about the difference between our two conceptions of “friendly fire.”

To be clear: the phrase is hers, and I credit her for it. But I failed to link to her blog in my post: I linked to my old post, which itself links to her post. Most readers will not follow those links, and so most readers would not see the larger context. In cases like those, it’s important to link explicitly (like this and this) if only to produce trackbacks. Johnson is actually a champion at this particular practice (as you can see in the post in question but really all the time), and I needed to emulate her.

Additionally, I’ve appropriated the term for a different idea, and erased her usage in the process. The ideal that I articulated under that name is distinct from Johnson’s. In brief, I believe she has a basically “Aristotelian” conception and I have an “Arendtian” one. So I was using “friendly fire” to name a concept that I believe is Hannah Arendt’s by way of Lessing. That’s important to me, because I articulated that ideal in my dissertation long before I had a disagreement with Johnson about moral realism. I stole material in my dissertation to write that post and I want to be clear which parts are Johnson’s and which parts mine.

Here is what I take to be Johnson’s idea of “friendly fire:”

On the contrary, almost all of the fights that I have with my “true” friends work to reinforce the idea that they are exactly the kinds of people I think they are: people who are committed to their ideas, convicted by their values, fearlessly engaged in the world and with the people that constitute our shared lives. It is because of that character that I find we are able, as Aristotle says, to “live together.”

For Johnson, “friendly fire” is when disagreements happen between people of conviction, commitment, and engagement. Since (on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendships should not be dissolved by disagreement, but (also on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendship should involve shared judgments of pleasure and pain, Johnson argues that among her “true” friends, arguing with conviction is not a sign of a lack of shared judgments, taking pleasure and pain in different things. Rather, having and valuing commitments is what gives all such friends pleasure (and lacking them gives pain.)Among her perfect friends, disagreement is evidence that we are like-minded by virtue of having convictions worth disagreeing over.

I say that this is all “on Aristotle’s terms” but Johnson’s reading of those passages against each other goes beyond the text and deserves to be called “Johnsonian.” What she ultimately shares with true friends is commitment-as-such rather than specific commitments: this makes volleys of friendly fire the source of friendship rather than an impediment to it. (And I’ll note that she’s displaying that sort of friendship here, for which I am grateful.)

The conception of “friendly fire” I used back in 2009 was always intended to be a distinct one from Johnson’s, while intending to preserve credit for the phrase Johnson used and to be inspired by her Aristotle-inflected account. It is derived from a reading of the truth/fact distinction described by Arendt, both in the way it plays out in her Lessing prize address, and in the way she develops it in her essays on truth and lying in politics. It played a crucial role in the first chapter of my dissertation, which was finished years before my exchange with Johnson. In the subsequent years, I’ve used that phrase “friendly fire” and the ideal it describes on many occasions, always linking back to the 2009 post. So in that sense, Johnson’s distinct conception of the term really has been elided: I stole it to refer to something about Arendt for which I didn’t have a good name.

I’ve also conflated this conception of disagreeable friendship with Maurice Blanchot’s Infinite Conversationeven though Blanchot’s actual conception of the phrase “infinite conversation” is radically different than Arendt’s, than Lessing’s, and than Johnson’s. It’s really just the title phrase “infinite conversation” I like: the idea of taking a position just for the sake of disagreement among friends who savor argument; to Johnson’s “principled” and “engaged” disagreement, I contrasted Arendt’s pluralism: disagreement for its own sake, to extend the conversation.

Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution: I didn’t link to her at all, throughout the most recent post. I mentioned her name at the start, but by the end she had dropped out. Now, Johnson calls this erasure, and I think she’s right. I erased her name, and added a different one, and I erased her concept, and added a different one. I kept the term as my own, and I really have spent the last seven years thinking in terms of “friendly fire” quite often without also thinking of my friend Leigh Johnson. So Johnson is right here:

I suppose someone might argue (maybe even Miller himself) that the insertion of “Arendtian” distinguishes what he calls “my ideal” and my (Johnson’s) idea of “friendly fire.” No reader could make that argument, though, because the actual content of my idea of “friendly fire” was erased from the get-go.

I agree: I actually did erase the content of her idea. I did it from the “get-go” in my most recent post. And that will tend to lead to confusion about what belongs to whom, and since the term is hers I really should get my own or use one of Arendt’s. Johnson has always had a gift for pithiness, and I appropriated it. Mea culpa: it is my fault, and I apologize.

So that is the “yours” and the “mine.” Let me say a bit about the “ours.” Leigh Johnson has been my fiery friend for more than twelve years; we’ve basically always found each other disagreeable in the friendliest ways. So the content of my conception of “friendly fire” was always about our friendship–especially our frequent disagreements on the blogs–no matter which philosophers were referenced. For her role in helping me develop my thoughts on Arendt in practice, I owed her much more than she received in the last post.

And it gets worse: I must confess to a further crime. Good citation practices should really have required me to refer to Johnson’s essay (with Ed Kazarian) on tone policing. For a lot of us in this little group of fiery-friendly professional philosophers, that post was a major influence on how we’ve thought and talked about tone and tenor in philosophy for the last couple of years. Now, the position I take at the end of my last piece, spelling out desiderata for a (third? fourth?) conception of friendship, is a bit more conciliatory and so is not really fully compatible with Johnson’s and Kazarian’s critique of civility and collegiality. I do try to spell out a disposition for all practitioners that is not combative. But it’s important to cite and work through relevant prior work on a topic: it’s a good scholarly practice, and this is ultimately a scholarly blog.

I’ve also now learned that the conception of “taking pleasure in being proven wrong” may be itself owed to another friend. Kate Norlock’s published article on the ideal of receptivity captures much of what excited me in Sam’s comment. An excerpt should tempt you to read the rest:

Generally, philosophers provide arenas for argumentation to advance understanding or ascertain the truth; if one is engaged in a community whose members hold that truth is best tested by some rigorous argumentation designed to experiment with whether a counterargument succeeds or fails, then adversariality of a sort is a receptive practice.

This means that how or whether one goes about the adversarial project depends upon which philosophical community provides the opportunities for argumentation. One with the explicit goal of ascertaining through analytical methods whether an argument is nearer or further from the truth will require a different sort of rigorous inspection from an organization dedicated to investigating the historical accuracy of a translation, or a workshop exploring the interconnections between new scholars’ related research for an anthology. I frequent feminist conferences in communities that have quite publicly committed to a reduction of adversariality and offered alternative models of engagement. There, what receptivity demands of me is different. This picture of the philosophical aims of communities is complicated when one enters general gatherings populated by people with different commitments, some of whom value adversarial methods highly and some of whom deplore the same methods. Although one’s task in such plural communities is more difficult, it is not a reason to discount receptivity. Sometimes the golden mean is hard to hit. We should still try.

That’s good, right? Norlock has really worked out–using Nel Nodding’s conception of care–an account of receptivity that Sam’s comment and perhaps also the fiery friendship that Joseph Trullinger is developing.

One last thing: Johnson charges me with a kind of unintentional misogyny. This is a difficult charge to evaluate internally, and is best judged by others, especially Johnson. I think everything she says on this point is true in general, but I am tempted to argue that substituting one woman’s ideas (Arendt’s) for another’s (Johnson’s) in response to a third female scholar (Arpaly) and using others (Kristie Dotson and Maria Lugones) to make the point doesn’t feel quite like a good exemplar of the true, pervasive, and general problem Johnson points out.

Yet at the same time, there is ample evidence that women must be much more qualified than men to receive the same esteem and citation, so that substituting more famous woman for a less famous one will tend to contribute to that trend. So there, too, more care was and is warranted, and I owed it to my friend–more than I owed it to the subject of my dissertation–to make sure she got credit

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