Despite their friendship and close connection as philosophical allies, William James offers some interesting remarks in respect to F. C. S. Schiller’s wide use of polemics in his philosophy. James general advice, in his correspondence with Schiller, was for him to “tone down a little the exuberance of his polemical wit” (to be found in Ralph Barton Perry’s The Thought and Character of William James, 303).
Considering James’ supportive and understanding nature with his friends and correspondences, the tone of his advice to Schiller is not surprising. Yet, Schiller’s philosophy is so fixated on “taking shots” at leading Hegelians of his time (most notably F. H. Bradley), asking him to tone down the polemics is a bit of an understatement. A glance at any one of the majority of Schiller’s published works provide ample examples of his polemics drawing attention away from his arguments and main points. (Schiller’s “The Ambiguity of Truth” or “Is Absolute Idealism Solipsistic” in Studies in Humanism are just two).
Aside from a possibly interesting historical note, the main point of this post is to wonder what the role of polemics should be in philosophical writing. In an effort to stop this post from getting away from myself, I’m a bit more interested in providing a brief framing of the question of how philosophers should or should not use polemics instead of a prescriptive argument (the hope being that the comments will provide said arguments). On the one hand, one has Schiller’s writing that, as James pointed out, can tend to lose clarity (and to some degree, substance) when allowing polemics to take priority over argumentation. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine a case where a philosopher’s bent towards charitable readings allows for too much room. Essentially, I think the meta-philosophical question boils down to one wondering how much polemical writing is too much?
One last example might, I think, flesh out my position on the issue. Though a specific article being dull does not seem like a good reason to hope for polemical assertions to be found in every other sentence, a middle route could be a bit more helpful. Admittedly, “middle route” is vague, but I have in mind a rough criterion that suggests polemics as useful devices insofar as they are serving some purpose of elucidation. Susan Haack’s article “’We Pragmatists…’: Peirce and Rorty in Conversation” (to be found in Haack’s Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate) could be construed as polemical from the perspective of a Neo-Pragmatist, yet it seems the larger point is to show the differences between classical and neo pragmatism (as well as Peirce and Rorty) in general. Now, the interesting question might be whether or not there is a convincing argument for a larger use of polemics in philosophy.
– Peter Olen