Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Or We Can Be Philosophers: A Response to Barbara Forrest

That is the title of an article of mine that is forthcoming in the philosophy journal, Synthese. It is, however, now available online prior to its appearance in print. (It may be downloaded by individual purchase or if you or your institution has a subscription).  Here is how my article begins (references omitted):

When I came across Professor Barbara Forrest’s “analysis” of my work when it first appeared online in Spring 2009..., I was surprised that a philosopher of my modest accomplishments should be the subject of an entire article in such an esteemed journal. My moment of honor, however, was short lived once I began reading it. I soon discovered that Ms. Forrest’s interest in me goes far beyond my academic work, but in to my entire career and then some, including my friendships, my civic associations, the locations of my speaking engagements, my Church, and the political histories of groups and organizations that people with whom I disagree and who I have never met and do not know once belonged.

One is immediately struck by the article’s strange style of philosophical reflection, one that seems out of place in this revered periodical. It is, to be sure, a lengthy article (49 pp.), which would make it a philosophically interesting piece if size matters. But on philosophical questions, what matters is the quality of one’s argument, the clarity of one’s language, the accuracy of one’s depictions of the views with which one is interacting, and the charity by which one engages these views. On these criteria, Forrest’s assessment of my work is a professional embarrassment. So much so that the editors of this journal—not to be confused with the editors of the “special issue” in which Forrest’s article appears—have done something unprecedented: they have included in the front of the issue a disclaimer.... They have distanced themselves from her literary misconduct, her article’s personal attacks and bizarre tangents into my religious pilgrimage that surround and embed her case against my work. As much as I do not deserve Forrest’s attempt at character assassination, I surely do not deserve the generosity of the Synthese editors. For in the grand world of academic philosophy, I am a minor figure, who, to be sure, has been blessed to be part of a first-class philosophy department at an outstanding university.

My task of responding is made more difficult by the fact that Forrest’s 49-page article is at many points nearly incomprehensible. She cites, quotes from, and misrepresents works of mine published over a 23 year period, from when I was 24 years-old until the age of 47 (I am presently 50); she compares and contrasts works, composed sometimes decades apart, that are dealing with different issues in different disciplines at different levels of abstraction and written for diverse audiences, including professional philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, Christian lay persons, etc.; and she often writes longish paragraphs that include a lot of controversial assertions that she presents as uncontested truths, and quotes from assorted writers whose work she often misunderstands or misrepresents, but with no actual arguments (or at least none that one can immediately recognize).

There really is no easy way to remedy this problem, though it is, happily, not my problem. It is Forrest’s. I have no obligation to provide clarity, rigor, and coherence to an article that lacks all three and that I did not author. But what I will do is the only thing I can do: offer in my response a critical assessment of a few examples of Forrest’s work and trust that the interested reader will go back and read her article to fully appreciate the severity of her philosophical malfeasance.

Here is how the article ends:
At the end of the day, my assessment of Forrest’s article... is about how we, as philosophers, ought to conduct our disagreements in public, especially when they touch on those questions that arise from what John Rawls calls our “comprehensive doctrines”... We have a choice. We can take our cue from Forrest, and a few of her compatriots  higher up on the philosophical food chain, and continue to escalate and amplify our inflammatory rhetoric, falsely depicting our adversaries as sinister subversives looking to usher in a totalitarian regime committed to either theocracy or atheocracy. Or we  can be philosophers.

You can download the entire article here. (Subscription required)

Here is the article's abstract:
This article is a response to Barbara Forrest’ 2011 Synthese article, “On the Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design.” Forrest offers an account of my philosophical work that consists almost entirely of personal attacks, excursions into my religious pilgrimage, and misunderstandings and misrepresentations of my work as well as of certain philosophical issues. Not surprisingly, the Synthese editors include a disclaimer in the front matter of the special issue in which Forrest’s article was published. In my response, I address three topics: (1) My interest in Intelligent Design (ID) and public education and why as a Thomist I have grown more skeptical and explicitly critical of ID over the years, (2) the sorts of philosophical mistakes with which Forrest’s article is teeming, and (3) my Christian faith, religious exclusivism, and interfaith dialogue.

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