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A Sociobiological Explanation of Strategies Of Reading and Writing Philosophy

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semiahmoo-resortThe Philosophical Forum, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring) 1990, pp. 295-323

A disciple is just a gene’s way of making another philosopher in its own image.

                                                                                                                       A Variation on an Old Theme by Herbert Simon

By writing and reading – just as by speaking and listening – we seek encouragement, appreciation, respect, and assistance; we test and refine our self-image, reveal desire, anxiety, and disappointment; we negotiate our daily lives.  Performing the linguistic acts of writing and reading (or speaking and listening) is the distinctive mode of survival invented by homo sapiens.  Yet “analytic philosophers” working in the “plain style” have actively avoided the social and psychological concerns these actions suggest – relegating them to the realm of “expressive discourse” and “emotional appeal” or placing them outside the study of philosophical reading and writing entirely.

In this essay I will give a sociobiological account of “plain style” analytic philosophy.  First, although my concern is not the history of philosophy per se, I will briefly sketch the plain style origins of analytic philosophy in order to provide an example of style which claims to be a “helping behavior” rather than a “self-interested” behavior.  Then I will use the sociobiological concept of “territoriality” to explain the social work of analytic philosophy.  I do not intend to pick out analytic philosophy for special criticism; the same analysis can and should be applied to all the other styles of philosophical literature (and academic writing in general).  But analytic, plain style writing and reading would appear to be the most stringent test case for my model of explanation in that it denies territoriality and claims to be a form of helping behavior rather than self-interested behavior.1

Although I would rather regard philosophical work in a more romantic light, I believe that so many of us have viewed philosophy romantically for so long, this crude look at it under unusual light may be helpful in eliminating abuses which follow from an unconscious and uncorrected enthusiasm.  Call me unromantic.

Plain Style

In classical times, Cicero defined the “plain style” as the art of making one’s speaking or writing appear artless.2 For instance, if one must use metaphors (they are unavoidable, even in philosophy and science) then use dead ones – ones so common and trite that they are not even recognized as metaphors.  Cicero criticized Socrates for assuming that rhetorical form was independent of logical form. He charged Socrates with being “the source from which has sprung the undoubtedly absurd, unprofitable and reprehensible severance between the tongue and the brain, leading to our having one set of professors to teach us to think and another to teach us to speak.” Distinction of style is impossible to achieve without worthy ideas; conversely, ideas remain lifeless without stylistic distinction.

Thus, plainness is not an absence of style but a subtlety of style.  Cicero writes,

Just as some women are said to be more handsome when unadorned . . . so this plainstyle gives pleasure without obvious embellishment . . .. All noticeable devices, pearls as it were, will be excluded; not even curling irons will be used; all cosmetics, artificial white and red, will be rejected; only elegance and neatness will remain.

On this narrow view of style as expression (but not as thought), all style, even plain style, is a working out at the surface of discourse some quality or relation inherent in a subject.

According to Cicero, Socrates’ dualism of logical and rhetorical form led his followers to the unfortunate view that a philosopher must stand apart from practical affairs as a “detached gadfly” – a social critic whose stance is disinterested.  If this is true, then a huge denial of the social motives of intellectual work is built into the early history of philosophy itself.  However, philosophy divorced from interest is illusion; and practical action without philosophical assumption is a dream.  Argumentation cannot (I practice) be divorced from persuasion.

The plain style was redefined in the seventeenth century by Puritan preacher and by defenders of the New Science.  Thomas Sprat, who wrote The History of the Royal Society, said that natural philosophers should strive

To reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things, almost in an equal number of words. They should exact from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions, clear senses; a native easiness; bringing all things as near Mathematical plainness as they can: and prefer the language of Artisans, Countrymen, and Merchants before that of Wits or Scholars.

The mark of merit in a Puritan plain style sermon (like those I heard from my father) was for it to “smell of the candle” – to be so well thought through that it would exhibit a “pithy plainness” and be an “enlargement” of the text without being an “embellishment” of it.  “Flowers of rhetoric may conceal meagerness of content and make false doctrine look true,” warned John Downame. A common way of expressing this was to say that “real meat needs no garnish.”

Andreas Hyperius claimed that little of the “stuffe and furniture” of oration is appropriate to teaching the Truth which needs, rather, a style “brief, strict, and strainghtlaced.”  “Sincerity and earnestness, not irony and poetic indirection, are becoming of truth,” writes William Ames. The plain style, according to Samuel Hieron, removes “the veil between man’s mind and the truth so it will not seem dark and hard.”  In the purest plain style, language is simplified by the removal of all foreign intrusions, polished quotations, and hard words; and the tone, though urgent in exhortation, is expository, deliberately avoiding narrative and dramatic appeal – as in parables, historical anecdotes, and allegories.

The doctrine of self-denial (necessary to the dignity of the Puritan working classes) requires the pure speaker or writer to give up such flourishes – such “lures” of rhetoric.  This assumption led the Puritan preachers to condemn the high, “metaphysical style” of the Anglicans for its over-subtle topical analysis (“division”) of a text which left the audience only crumbs instead of meat (men cannot live by bread alone); for its conceits which might easily distort the intent of the Scriptures and thus be ill-suited to the urgent needs of spiritually sick people; for its “doctorly” content, which gave it the nature of a general university lecture; for its exaltation of the Church Fathers when apostolic authority should have carried more weight; and for its use of irony instead of some more blunt weapon of reproof.

The Puritans derived plain style from the critique directed toward Aristotle’s logic and rhetoric by Peter Ramus.  Whereas Aristotle (and Cicero) believed logical and rhetorical form were inseparable and allowed delight to be a legitimate goal of communication, Ramus divorced style from substance and believed that wit, irony, and metaphor got in the way of truth.  And while Aristotle allowed that there were social as well as psychological consequences to speaking and writing, Ramus reduced all such consequences to individual ones.

The Puritan followers of Ramus railed against the “blubber-lipt ministers” of “carnall eloquence” such as John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, and Thomas Adams.  Alexander Richardson, for instance, said that a sermon might be seasoned with a bit of rhetoric in order that it may not be harsh to the heart, but if too highly seasoned, it “passeth by the understanding, and so the Will takes hold of it, and whilest the Will doth hastily embrace it, the reason cannot examine it.”

By the sixteenth century, scholastic complications of Aristotle’s rhetoric were so intricate that Shakespeare could satirize it in Love’s Labour’s Lost. That is when Ramus stepped in to “simplify” things.  One of the unintended consequences of his “simplifications,” however, was to make it appear that rhetoric could be divorced from logic; this made rhetoric superficial.

Charles Butler said, “if you respect truth in precepts, or brevity in method, or perspicuity in examples, or utility in everything, then you must prefer the style of Ramus to that of Aristotle.”  And so Ramus reaffirmed the view of Cicero and Horace that the art of rhetoric is one of concealing art.

The only use for a knowledge of rhetoric, according to the reformed plain stylist, is “as a tool to plane the colors of speech . . . revealing the smooth fresh surface of that one entire and natural sense.” The literal truth is revealed when the rhetoric is “peeled off.”  The rhetoric of Ramus (one that regarded style as appropriate or inappropriate, or as effective or ineffective, but never as essential to thought) was a godsend to men who professed to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, who were not gifted with poetic insight, and who were somewhat deficient in humor.  Samuel Ward condemned the Anglican divines by saying that theirs was

A vein of vain preaching, turning sound preaching into a sound of preaching, tinkling men’s ears like a tinkling cymbal . . . spoiling the plaine song with descant and division. What is this but to show our own levity and want of true art; indeed, affecting such a dancing, piperly, and effeminate eloquence . . . instead of that divine, powerful delivery which becometh him that speaks the plaine oracles of God.

Here he echoes Thomas Taylor, who said that an expression of the truth should not be designed “to beat musically upon the ear, but to give medicine to the soul and to anatomize the conscience.”  Or as Richard Sibbes put it, “who would wish to enamel a precious stone?”

I do not have space on this occasion to show how the rise of plain style was accompanied by the rise to power of the working classes, or to show in general how rhetoric may be a weapon of class warfare.  But I will show in general (in following sections of this essay) how a rhetorical style can be a strategy of taking or keeping “territory.”  This model will enable the historical exercise.  According to plain style rhetoric, language has a logic all its own which is immune to personal or class interest.  Its rationality in not tied to individual or group interest for (tautologically) the structure of ordinary language, when it is cognitively meaningful, “transparently” reflects the world; propositional content, though independent of sentence or textual style, is best presented in plain style.  This philosophical assumption that the logical structure of language mirrors the logical structure of the world was later to be adopted by the “analytic philosophers” in the positivist mode. From the territorial point of view, the declaration of this false view can be seen as an advantage because it disguises its taking of advantage.  Pretending that “pure reason” and “ordinary language” take the territory (not the author) – if any territory is taken at all – is a device that creates trust in the reader (or listener) on behalf of the writer (or speaker).  The art of taking territory can consist in denying that any territory is at stake or is being taken at all. But in this, “plainness” is not an absence of style; it is merely a subtlety of style.

The Puritan, plain style reaction may have been as excessive as the original scholastic abuse.  If some Ancient and Medieval philosophers indulged in stylistic excess, some during the Renaissance and Enlightenment seemed to indulge the fantasy of content without form – writing without rhetoric.  The radical impersonality of their philosophical work embodied only one of many dualisms running rabid at the time.  In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century view of the relation of language to the world and of rhetoric to logic (combined in plain style) we can see the beginning of the modern “academic style” of writing.

The philosophical literary tradition was reformed: Aristotle’s plain style lectures were reborn in the plain style treatises of Hobbes, Locke, and especially Hume, the literary source of later “analytic” philosophy. In their work it may be easier to see not only the origins of contemporary, analytic plain stylists but also to see the general connection between philosophical style and the practice of doing philosophy.

Philosophical style refers (in part) to the way we use words to express what we believe or feel.  Too often logicians have thought that words get in the way of thought.  And too often grammarians have limited the meaning of “style” to the rules of spelling, punctuation, or usage that can be found in a stylebook; but the elements of style include not merely the agreed upon conventions of the writing trade, but encompass the strength, precision, grace, and honesty – or lack of these virtues – that characterize the way we communicate.

As for the philosophical style books that say – keep your sentences short, cut out all adjectives and adverbs, don’t use dashes – I simply ignore them.  But to the analyst: short and sweet.  Less is more.  His taste in style matches his taste in corned beef: lean is keen.  The canonization of brevity: introduce it, lay it out, sum it up.  The dash is dead – so too the exclamation mark!

Mine is not a call for long-windedness or redundancy.  You need not be flowery to love adjectives, and a judicious use of words ending in –ly adds not only color but precise nuance to the stark action of trendy verbs packing a punch.  Too many crisp declarations leave the reader punch-drunk, reeling from incessant short shots.

We must stop thinking about philosophical writing style as an outer garment with which to dress our thought.  Style, in the sense I have in mind, is not the synonym of “form,” the antonym of “substance,” a fashion to be adopted and set aside.  Style in this sense is not a mask, an image or a persona – but the point of view these suggest.  Upon his admission to the French Academy in 1753, Comte Georges-Louis de Leclerc Buffon said “Style is the man himself,” arguing that style is of the essence of things.  In order to do this we must reject Ramus and return to Aristotle.

The way we write reflects the way we think, and the way we think is the mark of the kind of person we are.  When you peel that onion down from writing, to thinking, and on down to where the tears are, then you’re down to character – character infects every style of writing and thinking.  Style is character.  Style in this sense involves rhetoric – the way you relate to others; rhetoric involves a point of view and implies a social relation between a writer and reader, and other manifestations of character.  [The issue raised by plain style is not whether form is independent of content or whether writing is independent of thinking; the issue is whether logic is independent of rhetoric.]

Aristotle might say to us, “You want to fix up your writing, parse your sentences, use the right words? Fine.  Pick up those little books, learn to avoid mistakes, revere taut prose and revile tautology. But do not flatter yourself that you have significantly changed your style.  First straighten out your character so that your style of writing and thinking is straight and fair – this will lead to writing and thinking that is clear and honest and graceful.”  [By doing this you will not have avoided using a rhetorical style, but you will have become moral.]  Your style (in this sense) is yourself in the process of acting and thinking and writing, and you cannot buy that in a bookstore or fix it up in a seminar.

An author is implied in any text that is not composed by random processes.  And this author’s persona in the text entails conceptions of her audience, the limits of her subject matter, and the purpose for that persona (point of view).  Therefore, the point of view embodied in philosophical writing represents a claim about the character of philosophy as project.  The persona and project cannot be dissociated; they may stand as friends, enemies, or aliens but not alone.  Strategy suggests a choice of method – a style of thought and writing.

Plain style writing assumes a static, independent author, audience, subject, and text.  The plain stylist writing the lecture (ancient), treatise (modern), or “professional philosophy article” (contemporary) assumes that the relations among these, and thus the act of communication in which they are actualized, are accidental; their interaction makes little difference to any of the elements (let alone to truth or meaning).

Often in plain style the author will not introduce himself in the writing at all – yet he is there; (at this time there were few women writers).  The author’s studied absence within his text (third person and passive voice) can constitute his presence.  The plain stylist conceives of the subject of his writing as an intelligible “given” whose status is independent of anything he (or anyone else) says about it.  In other words, he “exposes” a subject matter for philosophical analysis; his writing is an attempt to mirror or represent that (“real” or “ideal”) subject matter.  He may hope that this representation is original insofar as it makes identifications previously unnoticed – but if he succeeds in this, his act is one of discovery rather than invention.

The plain style philosopher may think of herself as complete in the sense that she is a detached observer of subjects and objects which neither affect nor are affected by her; elements of her processes of perception and conception (not to mention her writing) just happen to match the elements in the object to which these processes are directed.  The object is intelligible – she has intelligence.

Built into her “plain persona” and “transparent sense of self” is a view of what the reader of her writing should be.  The image of the “implied reader” closely approximates the detachment assumed by the writer herself: independent of subject matter from which it has been logically abstracted (not rhetorically constructed).  Since the differences between the writer and reader are assumed to be irrelevant, or neutralized, or non-existent, the reader will have in his head what the writer had in her head.  [Philosophers such as Nietzsche and Derrida do not assume that we share highly similar experiences; their rhetorics – first person, aphoristic, metaphoric, and ironic – betray this.  Plain style, when not ironic, is compatible with many but not all interpretive strategies.]

Let me illustrate what some regard as “early modern plain style” with the writing of David Hume, who to this day has written the most elegant philosophical prose in the plain style.  In his Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, he makes clear his belief that “too much ornament is a fault in every kind of production.  Uncommon expressions, strong flashes of wit, pointed similes, and epigrammatic turns . . . are a disfigurement, rather than any embellishment of discourse.”  And, almost quoting Cicero, he says, “it is with books as with women, where a certain plainness of manner and of dress is more engaging than that glare of paint and airs and apparel, which may dazzle the eye, but reaches not the affections.”  In his essay, “Of Eloquence,” however, Hume shows a preference for Demosthenes over Cicero who was sometimes “too florid and rhetorical,” while Demosthenes was “more chaste and austere” and a near perfect speaker because he concealed his art.  Cicero was a plain stylist in theory but not in practice; he is “too striking and palpable” and stoops to the “artifice of pun, rhyme, or jingle of words.”  In a letter to his publisher, William Strahan, Hume describes his own work as “disinterested.”  And in his six-page autobiography (“My Own Life”) written on his deathbed, Hume complains: “I was the only historian [of England] that had at once neglected present power, interest, and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices; and since the subject was suited to every capacity, I expected proportional applause.”  And, at the end of Section VII of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume declares that “In all abstract reasonings there is one point of view which, if we can happily hit, we shall go farther towards illustrating the subject than by all the eloquence and copious expression in the world.  This point of view we should endeavor to reach, and reserve the flowers of rhetoric for subjects which are more adapted to them.”  Hume does seem to be a plain stylist.

Now consider the opening of Hume’s Treatise:

All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall

call impressions and ideas.  The difference betwixt these consists in the degree of force and

liveliness with which they strike the mind and make their way into our thought or consciousness

. . ..  I believe it will not be very necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction.

Although the writer injects himself into his prose, counter-evidence appears in this brief passage. And counter-evidence is dominant in the Treatise as a whole, according to Berel Lang.  Follow what he has to say about this passage:

In his reference to the “human mind,” it seems clear Hume also includes the Humean mind: he

looks on himself no less than on others as an object of experience (the difficulties he has in

finding such objects, in himself or any other self, do not detract from the intention); his own self,

he asks his reader’s warrant, is a typical or characteristic self – and most certainly, if the work as

a whole is to make an impression, so also the reader’s self.  The latter, too, will recognize the

division of quality which separates impressions from ideas; he, too, will acknowledge that all

perceptions are subsumable under one or the other category; and he, too, will come to see, as the Treatise expands its range of analysis to include such topics as substance, abstract ideas, space and time, causality, that they are indeed aspects of perception reducible in accordance with the principle asserted in Hume’s opening lines [quoted above].

On Lang’s analysis, Hume addresses a “given,” if limited, universe.  Impressions and ideas comprise all the world to which we have access, and there is nothing problematic about it or about the way its persons inhabit it.  For the seventeenth-century philosopher, as for the scientist, there exists a public, or at least common, subject matter.  In addition, there exists an investigator whose assertions are open to inspection by an audience which stands in the same position before their source as does the author. [The image of Hume as philosopher described in this passage is at odds with Hume’s doctrines concerning the self and its relations in general.  But that’s another story.]

The point I want to make in general is that the author’s point of view (1) on her subject matter, (2) on her own work, and (3) on her audience is firmly lodged (if not clearly placed) within her written words even if those words say nothing explicitly about any of these objects.  The implied assertions of the plain stylist are traditionally philosophical.  As Lang says, “they include claims about both human nature and the reality of which that nature is part – claims which if they were expressed more overtly would certainly not go without saying.”  So the plain style may questionably assume not only that “fancy” styles do not yield clarity, but also that “plain” styles avoid bias (by presenting a view from nowhere).  My challenge here is to the claim that logical form (analysis) is independent of rhetorical form (motivation), not to claims about the priority of thinking over writing, or vice versa, nor to claims about the independence of form and material content.

Philosophy students before the Scientific Revolution often learned to vary a philosophical theme in as many as one hundred or two hundred different ways.  They strove to amplify their writing through comparison, example, description, repetition, paraphrasis, and digression.  Philosophy teachers before the seventeenth century, unlike those of today, drilled their students in a whole range of rhetorical styles and devices.  When our own students confront the project of writing a philosophical essay they are rarely armed with sufficient tools to shape their compositions, and to shape them aggressively.  They tend to be more aware of what they are expected not to do than with what they can do with their writing.  They are expected to muddle through with a stylistic instinct for the “plain style” – an approach that reinforces the myth that one is born a writer, a reader, or a thinker.

Perhaps it is a fear of crossing the line between teacher and counselor that leads us, we who are philosophers in the “analytic tradition,” to train the next generation in the plain style.  Attribute of personality like composure and aggressiveness, openness and self-effacement, or evasiveness and self-pity, seem more readily the province of therapy and maturation than of the logic or rhetoric of argumentation – or of the teaching of philosophical reading and writing – however important they might be to our appreciation or distaste for an author’s opinions or the creation and expression of our own.

On the other hand, a widespread practice of plain style reading and writing may reflect a widespread attitude towards expressiveness itself.  Perhaps the connotations are bad.  We may “associate expressive aims with pointless effusion and self-indulgence.”  Expressive aims may represent to us “not productive goals but impositions on the audience, unjustified by useful content.  We equate social and psychological motives with all we teach [philosophical] students to avoid: with confessional and egocentric [reading and] writing, with preconceptions and unsupported judgments,”  We see the dark side of expressiveness – intimidation, self-promotion, and attention-seeking at its worst – and in the interest of suppressing it we seek to convert the young to the “plain style,” believing it to be a style of interpretation and creation that is empty of bias, self-promotion, and contrivance – a style that is not a style at all. “The difference between well-founded assertiveness and intellectual bullying can be difficult, after all, to discern.  It is similarly possible to dismiss as childish attention-seeking that which is a legitimate demand for due respect.”

We may also suppress these “social motives: (expressive behaviors) because they are dangerous to admit. [I contend that they are more dangerous to deny.]  “Authors who invite appreciation are likely to receive disdain.”  Being too explicit about the importance of one’s own ideas – even when justified – can seem like egotism.  And admitting uncertainty sends readers packing.  So, despite all that can be gained from making the author’s persona explicit and three-dimensional in philosophical discourse, the risks seem so great that we generally have preferred to erect defenses of formality, reserve, abstraction, and indirection between ourselves and the reader (when writing), ourselves and the author (when reading).  “To protect ourselves and to conceal self-gratifying aims, we learn to express ‘private’ feeling as public generalization, to transform ‘simple’ opinion into reasoned conclusion, and to emphasize socially ‘acceptable’ motives at the expense of evolutionarily direct social behaviors such as asserting authority or trying to gain acceptance.”

Displaced territorial aims do not cease to exist by being hidden or denied, however. [All that is buried is not dead.]  These aims remain as part of the unstated message in our interpretations and creations – as “hidden agendas, ironies, and implication” that can be denied if suspected, or blamed on our accuser’s “
overactive imagination and excessive sensitivity.”  In the accomplished writing and reading of the professional “plain style philosophy paper,” evolutionary aims are so well camouflaged that we tend not to notice them at all.


How can philosophers understand the social motives of philosophical work?  A rhetoric of social motives might be “read into” classical theories.  Interpersonal objectives could be incorporated into classical categories.  Laib suggests that the desires to persuade, to delight and instruct, and to express one’s feeling or identity more or less correspond to persuasive, literary, referential, and expressive aims of communication.  “Attention-seeking, from this perspective, might be seen as expressive creating [or interpreting] gone awry.  Flattery and self-abasement could be described as low forms of entertainment or perhaps as feeble persuasion.”  Misleading the audience or misinterpreting the author could be classed as special instance of persuasion, along with intimidation, self-promotion, and attempts to deflect criticism.  This attempt to socialize rhetoric, however, seems forced and not instructive.

An alternative approach would be to use contemporary “communication network” theories to explain the social motives in philosophizing: to increase uniformity of information in the population; to increase uniformity of opinion in the population; to change one’s status in a group; to express emotion.  The advantage here, as Laib points out, is that “rising in status” is admitted as a social motive; this approach also recognizes that the cognitive content of discourse has social consequences.  Uniformity of information and opinion may result in increased social efficiency and a stronger sense of community.  Long ago, Isocrates noted that communication is basic to community:

. . . Because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to

make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities, made laws and invented arts; and generally speaking, there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped us to establish.

“Whether individual desires should converge into social aims by recognizing our self in others” is a normative, not descriptive question and falls outside the province of a “systems” version of communication theory.  Moral or aesthetic reasons might be given for preferring philosophical strategies of interpreting and creating which “de-polarize argument, create empathy for divergent opinions, maintain communication, and nourish mutual respect.”  These procedures would create a different social relationship between adversaries; they would substitute conversation for war – mediation for litigation.

There are other possibilities.  We might explain social motives for philosophical work in a Freudian way – differentiating and characterizing those motives which arise from ego, superego, and id – or their interaction in the form of the adult, parent, and child readers (or writer) within us: tough, stuffy, or sweet.  But this too seems an overly indirect way to begin explaining the social work of philosophy.

The direct acknowledgment of social motives in discourse occurs in our response to advertising and politics – cases where the motives of manipulation and self-promotion are relatively easy to spot.  Yet even in the reading and writing of the plain style philosophy paper these social motives exist – in more subtle but not less effective form.  Philosophers’ use of the rhetoric of plain style may be an attempt to divorce themselves from the unattractive and blatant conduct associated with business and government (repression, intimidation, submissiveness, and manipulation).  This is a social motive.  And yet, practitioners of the various plain styles claim that the pursuit of social goals is “sophistry at best, and tyranny at worst.”

The effect of the plain style has been to reinforce a fragmentation of philosophical behavior, separating good motives from bad, interpersonal communication from public discourse, practical from ideal objectives, and referential aims from social context.  This is not a neutral result.  The three “rhetorics” discussed above do not integrate well enough the social motives and general aims of philosophical work and, in particular, they do not explain the popularity of its academic “plain style.”


I find a sociobiological model of rhetoric to be a helpful beginning point (although a misleading end point) for explaining the social motives of alternative strategies of reading and writing philosophy.  Using the intervening variable, “territoriality” – the desire to increase one’s control over occupied property, to expand its boundaries, to make oneself secure, to improve, consolidate, or alter one’s status, and to perpetuate ownership of both the status and the property – we can more effectively integrate the social motives and general aims of philosophy.

The concepts of “status” and “property” used here encompass more than their prototypes.  “Status” extends beyond appointed, elected, or inherited position to include less institutionalized interpersonal roles, rhetorical stance, and identity; “property” extends beyond fiscal property to include ideas, beliefs, information, procedures, conventions, and institutions.  And by “territorial motives” we may refer to more than instinctive, non-rational, impulsive, aggressive responses and include behavior indirectly gathering benefits for the individual by stabilizing or changing the social environment in which she participates, and include behavior that requires choice and reason, as in our creation and interpretation of texts.

Extending our philosophical journalism (by adapting more of Laib’s ideas), we can say that from a sociobiological perspective, philosophical work has been the art of claiming, controlling, and defending intellectual property and status.  It defends property in the form of ideas, research programs, disciplines, way of life, self-image and reputation, or the extent of one’s power, authority, and position.  It can expand the dimensions of the territory claimed, reassert or redefine past ownership, and preempt claims to ownership in the future.  It persuades others to respect one’s claims and to conform to patterns of behavior that reinforce the status quo or extend the boundaries of property one controls.  Territorial strategies in philosophical work, from a sociobiological perspective, are part of the system of governance and social relations that define and maintain the community for the sake of the individual (its biological and cultural genes).  The territorial rhetoric of the plain style is “not a separate art of presentation, argument . . . ornamentation and style – though it serves these purposes – but is an element of social organization in a class with laws, contracts, policies, rules, professional jargon, and genres, and is an element of culture interdeterminant with social conventions, attitudes and beliefs, patterns of decision-making [and value distribution,] accepted rights, interpersonal roles, institutions, and traditions.”

A social rhetoric of philosophical reading and writing (or any other kind of reading and writing) cannot be based on informational content, on logic, on genre, or even on effectiveness and purpose, in the usual sense of those terms.  Nor does it operate entirely within the boundaries of individual essays, texts, or dialogues.  Its subject is behavior and belief – more specifically, the gene’s way of making another philosopher (or poet) in its own image.

Three points in review: (1) all styles of reading and writing (even those – like the analytic plain style – which deny it) imply a point of view toward a subject, audience, and author; (2) a style of reading and writing may be consistent or inconsistent with the beliefs, values, and attitudes asserted. Or with the strategy of arriving at these; (3) taking a point of view is a self-interested (adaptive) behavior because it is an element of persuasion – it is a way of defending intellectual (or cultural) property.

Three points to come: (4) helping behavior can be regarded as self-interested behavior; (5) analytic plain style rhetoric (which regards itself as a disinterested helping behavior), can be regarded as self-interested (or “territorial”) behavior; (3) all self-interested behavior can and should be judged for its moral and political consequences.


Sociobiological models of behavior, using “territoriality” as an intervening variable, often explain behavior as selfish.  This is dramatic, but misleading.  The sociobiological concept of “self-interest” is not identical to the moral concept of “selfishness.”  “The dilemma, however, for my project is that plain style reading and writing is (as I will soon show) considered by its practitioners to be helping behavior – not self-interested behavior.  Therefore, my project will be useful only if “altruistic” behavior (to use another moral term in a dramatic and misleading way) is productively explained as territorial (self-interested).  How can this be done?

Biologists have explained some complex animal behaviors as methods for increasing an individual’s genetic representation in following generations of the species.  If proportionally more of the individual’s offspring survive, then the behavior or trait which helped them survive may be perpetuated.  Sociobiologists have recently expanded this model by allowing a gene to be successful if it increase the likelihood that a close relative’s offspring will survive to reproduce.

Caste sterility in bees and ants, warning cries in birds, adoption and food sharing among lions, and dominance hierarchies in apes appear (at least on the surface) to be examples of organization which require some individuals to risk reproductive ability and personal fitness for the benefit of others.  If we share an average of half the genes of our sibs and one-eighth the genes of our first cousins and we are faced with a choice of saving oneself alone or sacrificing oneself to save more than two sibs or more than eight first cousins, the evolutionary calculus favors altruistic sacrifice, for in so doing, an altruist actually increases her own genetic representation in future generations.

If the struggle for existence depends on the traits and behaviors not simply of an individual philosopher (or poet) but upon those of an extended family of philosophers with a similar genetic make-up (with similar memetic commitments; ones practicing similar interpretive/productive strategies) then we can explain helping behavior between philosophers (or poets), such as deliberately using the “helpful” plain style of reading and writing, as having a territorial motive.

The cultural “gene” here (the “meme”) is an interpretive or productive strategy.  Briefly, an intellectual strategy is one of several alternative ways of conducting inquiry.  It consists of a tendency to use certain characteristic assumptions, definitions, topics, attitudes, purposes, methods, and so on, rather than others.  It includes specific grammatical, logical, and rhetorical forms of argument and specific criteria for adequacy of understanding.  Intellectual strategies account for harmonies and conflicts of belief.  For instance, if the conflicts of interpretation stem from a use of conflicting interpretive strategies, then the differences of meaning cannot be reduced wholly to differences within the object of interpretation.  They must be due in part to differences in the writer, such as her social or moral interests for spending time with the text in the first place.  In other words, conflicts of interpretation are not differences which can be wholly settled by more complete knowledge, better morals, or finer sensibilities.

If an individual decreases her ability to reproduce a disciple by helping another philosopher gain intellectual territory, she may, if genetically (mimetically) similar to the one she helps, be ensuring the transmission (into the next generation) of traits and behaviors “coded for” in her own cultural memes (strategy).

Even more surprising is Robert Triver’s extension of this model so that it makes sense that even distantly individuals should show helping behaviors toward each other.  This larger sense of fitness is called “inclusive fitness.”  His model of natural selection favors helping behaviors because in the long run they give survival and reproductive benefits to the helper.  The helping behavior entails some loss and no immediate benefit to the altruist, but if it inspires a reciprocal act by the current beneficiary at some future time, then it may pay off in the long run: a genetic (memetic) incarnation of the age-old adage, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” (even if we’re not related).

The benefits of reciprocity depend on the unequal cost/benefit ratio of the altruistic act, that is, the benefit of the altruistic act to the recipient must be greater than the cost of the act to the performer (in terms of reproduction of a disciple).  Now, we might wonder, why wouldn’t the philosopher (or poet) helped not cheat (that is, not reciprocate)?  Selection will discriminate against the cheater if cheating has future adverse effects on his life which outweigh the benefit of not reciprocating.  This may happen if the altruist responds to the cheating by curtailing all future possible altruistic gestures to this philosopher (or poet).  Assuming that the benefits of these lost altruistic acts outweigh the costs involved in reciprocating, the cheater will be selected against relative to individuals who, because neither cheats, exchange many altruistic acts.

There are three possibilities: (1) the helpful philosopher (or poet) dispenses her help randomly throughout the population; (2) she dispenses help non-randomly by considering the degree of genetic relationship with possible recipients; or (3) she dispenses it non-randomly by regarding the altruistic tendencies of possible recipients.  Trivers assumes that altruists restrict their altruism to fellow altruists.  It is the exchange of behaviors, not the immediate benefit of a helping behavior by itself that favors the selection of helpful people.

If an “altruistic situation” is defined as any in which one philosopher can dispense a benefit to a second greater than the cost of the act to herself, then the chances of selecting for helping behavior are greatest when (1) there are many such altruistic situation during the lifetime of the altruists; (2) when a given altruist repeatedly interacts with the same small set of individuals; and (3) when pairs of altruists are exposed “symmetrically” to altruistic situation (that is, in such a way that the two are able to render roughly equivalent benefits to each other at roughly equivalent costs).  These three conditions can be elaborated into a set of relevant parameters affecting the possibility that reciprocal helping behavior between philosophers (or poets) – say, by offering plain style readings of each other’s work – will be selected:

  1. Length of lifetime. Long lifetimes of professional activity by philosophers (or poets) maximize the chance that any two of them will encounter many altruistic situations.
  2. Dispersal rate. Low rate of relocation outside an actively interacting interpretive (creative) community increases the chance that a professional will interact repeatedly with the same set of colleagues.
  3. Degree of mutual dependence. Interdependence of ability to survive and to produce disciples will tend to keep philosophers near each other and thus increase the chance they will encounter altruistic situations together.  There may be different optimum sizes to a group whose members help each other reproduce disciples depending on which aspect of survival or reproduction is in question.  Protection from predators requires a big group.  Foraging food for thought requires a small one.  Grooming behavior requires another size.
  4. Parental care. A special case of mutual dependence is that found between student and teacher.  The relationship is usually so asymmetrical that few situations for reciprocating by the student occur until much late.
  5. Dominance hierarchy.  Strong dominance hierarchies within departments, fields, or professions reduce the extent to which altruistic situations occur in which the less dominant philosopher (or poet) is capable of performing a benefit for the more dominant one.
  6. Aid in combat.  No matter how dominance-oriented the profession, department, or “school” of philosophy (or poetry), a dominant individual can usually be aided in aggressive encounters with other professionals by help from a less dominant colleague.  In general, it is not the number of true believers, but the quality of their work (building on that of their master) which benefits the reputation of the mentor and thereby extends her territory.  Rapid reproduction is less important than competitive ability in one’s intellectual (or cultural) progeny.

These parameters suggest the broad conditions that favor the evolution of reciprocal altruism, and in turn, reproduction.  Types of helping behaviors between philosophers would include the following:

  1. Defending in times of danger (warding off attacks by predator philosophers, or finessing a mistake by a friend).
  2. Sharing food for thought (book reviewing, writing survey articles, translating, circulating unpublished manuscripts, sharing new ideas or research).
  3. Helping the sick the wounded, or the very young and old (editing and commenting on their manuscripts).
  4. Sharing resources (access to journals and publishers, grants, fellowships, awards, sabbaticals, visiting appointments, access to audiences, conference programs, nominating to an office or position, students).
  5. Sharing information (arguments, ideas, interpretive strategies, writing strategies, research programs.

[Similar behaviors would apply to poets, or other professionals.]  All of these forms of behavior often meet the criterion of small cost to the giver, and great benefit to the receiver.  And they define a reproductive mechanism.

It is the fifth of these categories in which we might locate reading and writing in a “plain style” as helping behavior motivated by the hope for the same type of help in return. Plain style reading is thought to be the most sympathetic reading of someone else’s writing because it attempts to capture the author’s intention behind his or her words by assuming that words transparently say what authors mean (words have precise meaning, grammar is unambiguous, and there are no “gaps” in the text), and that authors always mean what they say (literally), and that authors always write with unambiguous and coherent intention.  This allows a reader to say that a specific interpretation is “correct” and that alternative ones are “wrong.”  This type of reading which (falsely) appears to refrain from “reading-in” seems to do maximum justice to authors and their texts and so is likely to be (mistakenly) counted as helping behavior and reciprocated.  Plain style interpreting of another’s work is thought to be the least aggressive and most subtle (because indirect) means to gaining territory for oneself.

Plain style writing (creating) is thought not to be a writing style at all but simply “proper words in proper order.”  It pretends to be argument without rhetoric – pure logic.  With a third-person ego and passive tongue, no authorial voice (or point of view) seems present because the words are speaking the author’s intention transparently. It implies that there is a single way to clearly say what one thinks.  No personal or social motives are acknowledged; therefore, the plain style of writing appears to be the least aggressive and most subtle (because hidden) way to gain territory for oneself.  I speculate that a positivist view of science held as an industry-wide norm provided some of the environmental selection pressure in favor of plain style.


With respect to knowledge and culture, the territorial motive in rhetoric functions to perpetuate interpretive communities (populations) and their intellectual strategies (genotypes/memotypes): ideas, organizations, policies, preferences, patterns of belief and commitment, worldviews.  From a sociobiological perspective, a philosopher’s effectiveness might be measured by his or her ability to proselytize – to increase adherents to the beliefs, theories, and methods which that philosopher espouses.  Disciples are phenotypes having some degree of influence on the immediately following generation (a hen is an egg’s way of making another egg).  A well-written essay or profound book may act as a recessive gene – making its presence felt in a third generation, that of one’s grandchildren.

The ability of a plain style text to inform or convert us is but a special and gentler form of aggression than is “evangelism, advertising, establishing a consensus, voting, passing on a tradition, replicating experimental results, and trying to assemble a support network of friends and associates.”  As a result, a major (if typically unconscious) component of motive in philosophical work is not required by reason (unless the attempt to survive, not merely ward off, our death can be deemed obligatory), and “is related to maintaining an [interpretive] community, the projection of identity, and the export of culture, however logical or objective the surface of a text may seem.  In general, emotional issues tied to gaining intellectual territory and progeny may underlie and shape philosophical (or poetic) work.  Reading and writing (or listening and speaking) may be to some extent – however small – a rationalization of social and territorial concerns.  The surface of a philosophical text may be objective, informative, or dispassionate, yet down deep be in some small part an excuse, a means to social ends.

In this sense, philosophical work (such as explaining and justifying) expresses desire; explanations or justifications express desire; and explanations or justifications represent, even when logically valid or empirically supported, a vision of the world – a vision full of hope and fear, an image or model of what we want it to be.  Our interpretations and creations represent (in some small, unconscious way) the manner in which we want to interpret the facts, to view others, to see ourselves, and to control or shape events and attitudes.  Our strategies are projections of our interests: to be powerful, happy, and alive.

Reading and listening are, according to surface theory, submissive behaviors.  On the (questionable) theory that one can read without interpreting (that a text can stand independent of context, subtext, or pretext), to read uncritically is to accept an author’s claim to the territory discussed in a text and to acknowledge the author’s superior authority on the subject – at the expense of one’s own identity and viewpoint.  Yet at a deeper level of analysis, passive behavior may be seen as aggressive behavior.  Passive aggression in the form of critical reading or willful misinterpreting to one’s own advantage, even when nothing of immediate importance seems at stake, is a way to preserve self-identity and territory.

Another manifestation of this territorial principle is “our aversion to hearing or reading what others have to say about subjects that are intensely interesting to us.  This aversion is one of the special and often unanticipated problems of addressing a friendly audience.  Readers are always potentially resentful of the fact that someone else is [published,] even though they might agree entirely with what is said.  If the audience regards itself as outranking the writer [professionally, experientially, socially, or in terms of knowledge, education, and writing ability], resentment is all the more likely and dangerous.

“We suppress or evade this competitive response in many ways.  Among the more obvious are establishing our own authority on the subject or appealing to the authority vested in our social or professional position, or to that inherited from mentors.  We may clothe ourselves in a conventional role suited to the occasion, relying on its “given” status to render the audience receptive (and thereby hold or gain ground).

“Or we may defer to the experience and wisdom of the audience (‘no doubt many of you know better than I how . . . .’), deprecate ourselves [and our arguments] (‘There is, of course, nothing particularly original in what [I] have done . . . .’), invite criticism (‘Disagree if you like, but . . . .’), or speak hypothetically (‘Consider the possibility that . . . .’).  And there are elaborate plain style strategies which philosophical homo sapiens have devised “to put the audience and author on equal footing [in order to defend territory], for instance, the use of the first person plural (‘We have recognized for some time that . . . .’), submersion of the author into a group identity (‘The consensus with the profession is that . . . .’), and the convention of objectivity and impersonality (‘Reason suggests that . . . .’).

There are many types and degrees of aggression (territoriality); speaking and writing are surely among the gentlest forms ever devised.  Writing and speaking assert control not only over the time consumed and the forum in which they occur but also over the subject under dispute, and even more importantly, over the method of disputing.  “They imply or assert demands on the audience and inevitably assign to it a role . . . not necessarily one of its own choosing.”  You may not want to listen to the speaker; you may wish you could talk back to the absent writer.

Even philosophical discourse that is seemingly plain and deferential “can have aggressive consequences, veiled by the [unemotional character and] submissiveness of its style.  A question, for instance, though it might seem conciliatory and deferential to the authority of the reader, has the effect, if acknowledged, of controlling the respondent, making him or her perform at the behest of the writer. Declarative statements assert the validity of the author’s point of view and thereby claim or reassert status.”  Declaring beliefs which our audience already holds is mundane, but it maintains or grooms the community image (and thereby makes shared territory, and the groomer’s place in it, seem more secure); it adds to the “evidence” (as does a replicated experiment) in favor of the widely shared belief.  This is a defense of territory against dissenters.  And as we have already noted, even more subtle are the territorial motives in plain style reading or listening – taking the author’s words to have meanings transparent to intention and devoid of egoistic interest – as if words were clean, clear windows on the world lined up like ducks, but meaningless as hangnails.

Rhetoric is part of our socializing machinery.  The revision of our “reading” of another’s text or the revision of a manuscript of one’s own “from egocentric to public discourse is a microcosm of the processes through which we grow into contributing members of the community.  Rhetorical behavior mediates our competing self-interests.”  It is through rhetoric that philosophical education transmits our cultural identity – our community image and fund of ideas.  Education does not simply list or reiterate information but recreates it by producing understanding as the result of a reasoned and negotiated process of expression – as a cumulative text.

Philosophical reading and writing are certainly much more than territorial behavior.  On the other hand, denial of territorial motives in philosophical work or disguising them by euphemism, displacement, or indirectness creates the illusion, after a while, that the work is all logic and no rhetoric.

One way to notice the illusion behind the view that logic is independent of rhetoric is to notice the element of rationalization in argument.  The “claim” (conclusion) almost always precedes the “reasons” (premises) in a philosopher’s actual reasoning process.  Constructing a deductive argument is an art of discovery from this temporal (territorial) point of view.  But if the logical priority of premises to conclusion is emphasized (instead of their temporal priority) in a restructured presentation of the argument, then the aspect of argument-as-defense of a belief which temporally preceded its warrant disappears and leaves the impression that persuasion (of one’s self or of others’) is not part of the motive – and so rhetoric is cleanly severed from logic, and we are left with a brain in a basket.  Argument then appears an inquiry, when it is actually rationalization.  A logically restructured argument may seem to be a disembodied set of sentences on a blackboard or white page, rather than a performance or speech act.  But it is not.

Writing or reading evolves from egocentric beginnings: the thinking, research, and early drafting of a text or interpretation all result from the pressure to resolve social, psychological, and territorial needs.  In plain style prose (which eliminates genres like satire, ridicule, polemic, and confession, as well as others less obvious) these social motives are revised, rationalized, or displace into the rhetorical substructure of the final draft, into the vast framework of assumptions, omissions, indirections, and allusions upon which a text is built – into the interpretive or creative strategy which is the context, subtext, and pretext of the text being composed or read.

According to the divisions of classical rhetoric, situations of philosophical work might be classified as deliberative (practical or impractical), forensic (just or unjust), or ceremonial (praiseworthy or blameworthy) forms of attack and defense.  All these situations are territorial ones: deliberative philosophy changes or reaffirms the larger system of environmental niches (for authors and indirectly for readers); it affects the institutional distribution of intellectual status, power, and property; the legitimacy of the status quo.  Forensic philosophy expands personal intellectual property, negotiates the establishment or severance of personal philosophical relationships and transactions.  Ceremonial philosophy may formally defend, expand, or attack reputations and ritually reinforce the culture of an interpretive/productive community.  For each of these types of rhetorical situations there are genres of speech acts (tactics) which can be utilized in performing the philosophical work (strategies) of interpreting and composing arguments.

For each rhetorical situation and genre of speech act we are taught to disguise the private motives of philosophical work by use of the plain style and to realize that other people have their own interest and objectives which often conflict with our own.  The plain style is among the most subtle and complex systems for merging our individual desires into the common good, for identifying them with the wishes of the audience, for de-emphasizing private needs and expressing all of these indirectly.  In addition to these, some of which are virtues, the plain style produces clarity. However, it may only seem that the plain stylist puts all his or her cards on the table – that he or she holds nothing back, that he or she fights, thinks, and writes fairly, even to the point of writing clearly enough to be found out.  My complaint against an overly strong paradigm of plain style philosophy is not (for instance) that in a totalitarian society the truth can sometimes be spoken only in metaphoric or ironic form (censorship is the mother of metaphor); nor is my complaint that in a state of plain style orthodoxy we will lose the raw language of the pamphlet with its biases flashing like bared teeth (putting us automatically on guard).  Rather, my point is that even in less extreme circumstances the use of the plain style (impersonal, unemotional, and literal as it may seem) does not guarantee the absence of bias, though some of its practitioners believe it does.  The plain style simply makes the task of noticing and discounting bias more difficult.  To say that the assumptions of plain style or its practice are “mainstream” does not take the bias out of our arguments.  Bias is not measured by statistical majorities or minorities; and bias is not eliminated by having a long and respected tradition.  Plain style may be practiced by the majority and have a long history, but that guarantees nothing.

This is not to say that the plain style has not virtues; it has many, perhaps more virtues than vices, and perhaps fewer risks than any alternative style.  Nevertheless, among the virtues of plain style is not an increased probability of speaking the truth or of correctly reading a text.

The three main points I have outlined can be summarized in the following way:

  1. (a) All reading and writing strategies (styles) imply a persona of the writer, a nature of the reader, a stance toward the subject matter, and a purpose for the text.

(b) These assumptions imply a point of view about philosophy (or poetry or any other kind of writing) as a project (its methods and goals) which may or may not be consistent with the beliefs asserted and attitudes otherwise expressed.

(c) The assumptions concerning the i) writer, and his or her relations to the ii) reader, iii) subject matter, and iv) text — because they imply a view of v) philosophy as a project – indicate prior commitments in epistemology, ontology, ethics, politics, aesthetics, hermeneutics, and so on.

(d) Therefore, alternative rhetorical strategies imply significant differences in belief and behavior – they are not neutral.

2.   (a) Adaptive behaviors in humans are self-interested (in part).

(b) Helping behaviors in humans can be regarded as adaptive, and so and self-interested (among

other things).

(c) Social behavior that is adaptive is territorial behavior (among other things).

(d) Territorial behavior establishes or maintains power relationships among people.

3.  (a) All philosophical activity (thinking, writing, and reading) makes use of a rhetorical strategy of

some sort.

(b) The use of any rhetorical strategy (even one that denies the use of rhetoric – for example

the plain style) can be regarded as self-interested, territorial behavior (among other things)

because it is an element of persuasion.

(c) Territorial behavior (such as using the plain style of expression) establishes or maintains

power relationships among people.

(d) Therefore, doing philosophy affects (if indirectly and unconsciously) power relationships

among people (readers and writers for instance).

The sketch of explanation offered here hints at a larger project which we might consider: re-reading the classical texts of philosophy as rhetorical speech act performances which create, maintain, or change social relations.


There are at least two objections sure to be raised against the whole procedure of using territoriality as a conceptual tool for explaining the social motives of philosophical work.  One objection concerns the “naturalistic fallacy” of deriving “ought from is’; the second concerns the status of “cultural genes” (memes) and their relation to biological genes.

Historically, most social applications of evolutionary theory, and the concept of territoriality in particular, have been used to create the impression that biology imprisons us (limits our potential).  We should not accept this old equation o biology with the “given” (as opposed to the malleable).  Biology makes us free.  It creates as many possibilities as impossibilities; the creative and critical brain is our potential to change things; our narrative and systematic imagination is our glory.  To choose the old equation is to take sides in a false dichotomy between nature and nurture (between the innate and the learned).  And it is misleading to emphasize the self-interested and competitive motives of human animals without reminding ourselves that we also have other-interested and cooperative motives for our behavior.

As critics of biological determinism we should not uphold an equally fallacious (as well as cruel and restrictive) view that human culture completely cancels biology.  The extreme, orthodox view of environmentalism goes so far as to say that there is not biological, genetic variance in the transmission of culture.  In other words, the capacity for culture is assumed to be transmitted by a single human genotype.  Dobzhansky stated this hypothesis as follows:

Culture is not inherited through [biological] genes, it is acquired by learning from other human beings . . . In a sense, [biological] genes have surrendered their primacy in human evolution to an entirely new, non-biological or super-organic agent, culture [cultural memes].

I agree with Steven Jay Gould that belief in biological determinism has “limited the lives of millions by misidentifying their socioeconomic disadvantages as inborn deficiencies, but cultural determinism can be just as cruel by attributing severe congenital diseases, autism for example, to psychobabble about too much parental love, or too little.

My use of evolutionary theory for revealing the social motives in rhetorical behavior (including the denial of rhetoric involvement) opposes both oppressive forms in which strict-determinist ideology (biological or cultural) manifests itself.  I share a commitment, with others, to the prospect of creating a more socially just society.  My metaphorical use of sociobiology is therefore “critical” and meant to oppose any social work by philosophers to hinder the creation of that just society by its acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.  My use of a sociobiological model of explanation does not assume that what is need remain as it is.

Homo sapiens are the only species which can deny their species nature or, instead, live according to a species consciousness.  The value of introducing a sociobiological perspective on cultural activity is that it will remind us, in an era when this has become obscure, that we are species-beings.  It is a way of protecting ourselves from drifting into thinking of personal activity as if it were impersonal, and from ignoring the fact that helping behavior is also self-interested.  This reminder will make us sensitive to the moral and political consequences of our work.

Philosophers are no different than anyone else.  We are passionate human beings, enmeshed in a web of personal and social circumstances. Our profession does recognize canons of procedure designed to give truth “The long shot of asserting itself in the face of our biases.”  No honest philosopher or effective political activist would be foolish enough to advance a program in evident discord with nature or reason.  “Many facts are decidedly unpleasant – the certainty of our bodily death prominent among them.”  But realism does not entail determinism.  And unless philosophers understand their hopes and engage in vigorous self-scrutiny, they will not be able to sort previously unacknowledged preference from reality’s weak and imperfect message.  The philosopher may be as elitist as Plato or as egalitarian as Marx.  Putting a twist on the well-known comment by Herbert Butterfield (in The Whig Interpretation of History) we can say that it is not a sin in a philosopher to introduce a personal bias that can be recognized and discounted.  The sin in philosophical work is the organizing of the reading or the writing in such a sway that bias cannot easily be recognized.  This is what plain style rhetoric does.

We can artificially separate the obvious social origins of ideas and arguments from their logical or empirical status.  But we cannot get rid of the deeply entrenched interpretive strategy necessary to presenting or discovering an idea.  Each interpretive strategy creates (or implies) a kind of social relation between writers and readers – although these are not easy to see.  Each intellectual strategy embodies social motives.  Plain style interpreting and composing denies, but does not eliminate, these relations and motives.  Hiding social intentions and consequences may or may not be of help to our attempts to evaluate each other’s work.

Biology creates and interacts with culture which then creates and interacts with biology. “The straw man [of environmentalism] set up in response to biological determinism is the caricature of cultural determinism, the tabula rasa in its pure form.  Although biological determinists often like to intimate, for rhetorical effect, that their opponents hold such a view, no serious student of human behavior denies the potent influence of evolved biology upon our cultural lives.  Our struggle is to figure out how biology affects us, not whether it does.”

One attempt to move beyond the vulgar positions (hard determinisms) is “interactionism” (vulgar dialectics) – the idea that “everything we do is influenced by both biology and culture, and that our task is to divide the totality into a measured percentage due to each.  In fact, this kind of interactionism is the position of most biological determinists, who love to argue that they are not crude 100 percenters of pure naturism.”  Biological determinists who hide behind the screen of interactionism complain bitterly that they have been maligned, and that they do, after all, acknowledge the importance and independence of culture.  They then allot the percentages so that biological genes control what really matters – 80 percent biological determinism, after all, is enough to swamp out a 20 percent cultural influence.  On this model, cultural determinists are people who parcel out the percentages differently.

However, this mechanical brand of interactionism still separates biology and culture; it still views biological genes as “primary, deep, and real,” while cultural genes [influential interpretive strategies (or memes)] are viewed as “superficial and superimposed.”  They believe biological genes are our real inheritance – our “essence,” or our “biogram”; culture is merely epiphenomenal tinkering.”

This view is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: biology is not “given” and culture simply built upon it.  Biological individuals are not more primary than social groups.  Cultures make individuals too; neither comes first, neither is more basic.  You can’t add up the attributes of individuals and derive a culture from them.  Emergent properties and change result from an interaction of components of complete systems, where the components are not a priori entities but are, at the same time, products of and inputs into the system.  Humans are not only producers of culture but are also its product.

A brain capable of a full range of human behaviors and predisposed toward none is our heritage.  Biology and culture have produce in us a creative and critical brain that allows us to imaginatively and deliberately choose among alternative ways of being in the world – ways of coping.  A plain style is one way of adapting; its combination of self-interest and other-interest (of competition and cooperation) is adaptive: we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.  A non-vulgar dialect admits that both egoism and altruism are mixes of biologically and culturally influence.

Northeastern Illinois University


1 I intend this investigation to be a contribution to an explanation of academic writing in general and to a more general theory of social evolution along the lines suggested by Jürgen Habermas in “History and Evolution,” Telos 39 (1979) : 2 -44.  Whereas my first purpose (to discover the origins of plain style academic writing) is descriptive, my second purpose is explanatory (the on-going use of plain style according to an evolutionary model).  My third purpose is to recommend (that we acknowledge the inevitable role of rhetorical style in academic writing and that we consider the virtues of diverging from a strict plain style.

2 Cicero, Orator, trans. H.M. Hubbell, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), III.xxiii.76.

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