Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

When The Courtier's Reply is Worth a Response

Not being up on the latest terms in philosophical discourse, I had not heard of the Courtier's Reply, which is apparently now the name for the thing where someone tells you, when you're discussing, and likely disagreeing about, a topic, "You really need to read XYZ if you're going to have a sufficient enough grasp of this topic to be able to debate it with me (and by extension, anyone else of intelligence)." Calling this gambit "The Courtier's Reply" is the brainchild of P.Z. Myers, who draws a pretty flawed analogy to the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes, imagining that someone who protested that the Emperor was naked would be answered disdainfully by a courtier informing him that until the protestor had read a multiplicity of works by learned men about the quality of imperial clothing, he has no standing to speak on whether the Emperor is naked.

Still, even if the name is stupid, most of us have run across, in person or on the internet, someone recommending further reading on a topic. I don't dismiss this at all -- not everyone can be an expert in every topic, and sometimes reinventing the intellectual wheel isn't the most productive use of time or words. However, it seems like one of the prerequisites for reading suggestions falling under the Courtier's umbrella is that they're made by someone with whom one is disagreeing, and whose suggestions one might be inclined to dismiss. Leah at Unequally Yoked has been examining the question of "Who Gets to Give the Courtier's Reply?", and I like this definition that one of her commenters gives on a different post:
It’s only a Courtier’s Reply if it’s an effort to shut down discussion, not improve it. “How dare you say that when you haven’t even read *this*!” is a Courtier’s Reply. “Hmm, it would be really helpful if you were to read *this* before the next time we discuss this” isn’t, I think; though I might sometimes decline.
Of course, there are a number of reasons for acceding to this rather arrogant demand; one is to know your opponent's positions in order to demolish them. Leah offers suggestions for when an intellectual antagonist's reading list is actually worth paying attention to
Even though their model is different, their predictions look a lot like yours....You’re in love with them...You both respond strongly to certain not-common aesthetics.

These are useful indicators, though I would add: You have to have some sense that your interlocutor is a person whose particular recommendations are trustworthy. This trust can be based on a number of factors: the "courtier", if you will, may be a respected member of his profession or acclaimed as an authority on the subject on which he's expounding. However, in most cases (especially in internet discussion) a person has to make a decision about the courtier's trustworthiness based solely on how the courtier represents himself in discussion. 

No subject exists in a void. A person's views on religion, politics, science, etc. shape his personality and his relationship to others, and his method of presenting those views to others can strongly predispose or prejudice his listeners as to the reliability of his testimony on behalf of those views. The courtier may feel that the very rightness of his views gives him the leeway to present them as aggressively or unpleasantly as possible or to demand that his opponent do extra research. Intellectual bullying and domination is a very different thing from arguing a position or persuading an opponent; the opponent's unwillingness to fight or inability to construct a counter-argument has more to do the opponent's abilities and interests than the essential soundness of the courtier's argument. A person who is able to argue his position with civility is going to attract more listeners to consider his positions, right or wrong. Anyone can insist that his opponents need to read certain books if they're even to be well-informed enough to continue the discussion; every reader is privileged, when deciding how to allocate precious reading time, to consider the following:

Do I trust this person to be informed and make good recommendations on this subject?

Someone who has given inaccurate information in the past, who tosses out reading lists because he can't summarize his own positions coherently, who is paranoid or ranting or incomprehensible is generally not someone who will inspire his opponent to take a reading list seriously.

Does the way this person presents himself indicate that the knowledge he claims to have is something that will make my life better, richer, and truer? 

A person may seem knowledgeable and authoritative on a subject, and yet state his case so angrily or offensively that readers draw the conclusion that although he knows his subject, the subject might not be worth knowing, or will contribute in no way to their own personal well-being and intellectual formation.

Am I actually interested in continuing a discussion with this person?

A person may be informed (and his opponent may concede that there is some truth in his position), but be so abrasive, demeaning, arrogant, or creepy that he closes off the possibility that his opponent will even want to further understand his positions, or follow his reading recommendations over those of more civil and gracious authorities.

These are subjective considerations, but very few people make decisions based on purely objective criteria. "Courtiers" ignore this at the risk of their own irrelevance. One might, of course, follow an obviously crazy person's reading demands in order to know what the crazies are reading now, 

This is especially cautionary for Christians, who believe that truth is not just an objective standard, but a person, and that our manner of speaking of what we believe to be true is just as crucial to the impression others take of that truth as is the way we speak of a person elemental to preserving or destroying that person's reputation. We can't destroy truth by speaking it badly, but we can damage another person's ability to receive truth by our own objectionable ways of presenting it. To borrow an admonition I once overheard: "You are responsible for the hearts you harden."


TheOFloinn said...

Accusations of "courtier's reply" are only made by people who have been burning straw men only to be told that they haven't laid a glove on the actual opponent. To wit, someone who has "demolished" Thomas Aquinas' cosmological argument by ridiculing a straw-man version of it does not like being told that he has not refuted Thomas' actual argument for lack of understanding. He answers, "Courtier's Reply!"
See here:

Darwin said...

I have, at times, made a complaint similar to a accusation of The Courtier's Reply, though I think the term I used was "the I'm a grad student so I win gambit". In such cases, the tactic I objected to was someone showing up in the middle of an online debate and making some sweeping statement such as "all serious theologians know that the Invisible Hand is an immoral principle", then when asked to back up such a claim responding, "Go read so-and-so. I'm not going to do your homework for you."

TheOFloinn said...

The charge of "Courtier's Reply" can and has been made even to efforts to explain the issue fully. It has been called by John Searle the "Give-it-a-name Fallacy." That is, by parroting "Courier's Reply" one can avoid coming to grips with the Other's position. It is not especially used against the problem of I'm-a-grad-student bluster.

Brandon said...

Part of the problem, I think, is that 'The Courtier's Reply' has come to be used to label several distinct things. If you go back and look at Myers's original formulation, for instance, you find that the Courtier explicitly concedes that the claim that the Emperor has no clothes is probably right; he then says, however, that if you read the proper authors, you will learn the value of attributing clothes to the Emperor, perhaps in a higher or a metaphorical sense. It was originally a response to some criticisms of the New Atheists by other atheists and agnostics. Taken in that very, very specific way it's actually quite clever as a way of making fun of a very specific kind of argument (although still potentially controversial). Basically, the point is that if theism is definitely false, it makes no sense to criticize someone for saying so, just because they haven't read certain books on the subject. It also clearly only applies to that kind of argument -- to make any sense as a criticism it has to assume that it's obvious to everyone that the Emperor has no clothes (that theism, or whatever the topic of discussion is, is probably false).

Since internet atheists are not exactly the most self-critical people in the world, though, it very soon began to be used as a slogan-ish response whenever anyone would criticize an atheist for not being properly informed of the arguments he was criticizing. (It always reminds me of the sheep in 1984, who always repeat a one-size-fits-all formula that they've picked up, without any regard for how well it fits or how consistent they are in using it.) It makes no sense whatsoever as a criticism in a situation involving an argument between people who really and truly think the Emperor has clothes and people who don't; such an argument is a completely different argument. The whole set-up originally only made sense because everyone in the story agreed that the right way to understand the situation is that the Emperor looks pretty clearly like he has no clothes (theism, or whatever, is probably not true); to use it as a slogan in a situation in which people are sincerely insisting that he does have clothes (i.e., that there are genuinely good reasons to be a theist, or whatever) and that the other side doesn't know what they're talking about because they haven't ever actually seen the Emperor (or that the Emperor is not, as they mistakenly think, that naked man from the mental institution who runs around in the back alley, and that they need to look up what the Emperor actually looks like in a reputable source) -- well, that's quite literally irrational.

mrsdarwin said...


To be honest, I'd never encountered the term before reading Leah's post, though I did follow her chain of links back to Myer's blog (which I did not link to because we have fairly reasonable discussion here most of the time, and I like to keep it that way). I found Myer's fable to be much as Brandon described it, but my post was primarily responding to Leah's usage of the term as the only place where I'd seen "Courtier's Reply" in usage. My apologies if I've done philosophic discourse a disservice by incorrectly using a term that someone just made up.

Brandon, I think the sheep are in Animal Farm, unless you've been reading the version in which Winston is confronted with the ultimate torture of The Shearing. :) Darwin notes that a Shaun the Sheep version of 1984 would be pretty awesome, though.

Brandon said...


That definitely would have given a different character to the story, wouldn't it?

Darwin said...


Fair enough. I thought the post of Leah's MrsD linked to was interesting strictly in relation to the question of when someone successfully makes a case to you of "you should read this book so you can understand my position". But I too had never run into the buzzphrase until seeing Leah's post.

Clare said...

The kissing cousin of the "I'm in gradschool so I win" gambit is the "You're 20 so you lose" gambit.

Also, I would be much more inclined to give the Courtier's reply were it actually something a caricature of a Versailles nobleman might say. Maybe "Silence, peon!"

MrsDarwin said...

This is apropos of not all that much, but I have to write it up now because it's jostling around in my memory.

Whenever I think of Animal Farm, I remember how, in the spring of 1999, Darwin and I were on the TGV in Paris, waiting to embark for the Chunnel. The departure had been delayed, and people were starting to cast glances and look at their watches. It turned out that the rail workers were striking. Status updates were piped in, first in English and then in French, and you could tell who the English speakers were by who snickered first, such as when the urbane BBC voice from the loudspeaker informed us that the train was delayed because the striking workers were laying on the tracks. The guy across the aisle from me, reading Animal Farm in French, was clearly amused by the English updates, and I remember how refreshing it was to have the sense of another English speaker nearby; after a month or two of being abroad, one missed the instinctive comprehension of one's native language.

That is all.

TheOFloinn said...

Ah. I've never seen it otherwise than as a dodge to avoid addressing the Other's actual arguments. I have sometimes listed reading material, though I hope only as helpful references. Easier to make up your opponent's argument and then smack it around. I have seen some pretty awful attempts to reduce physics or evolution to comm box comments. I don't see where philosophy would fare any better.

I have no objection to someone saying "I don't believe X has any merit and will not bother reading about it." Substitute X=astrology, for example. However, to say "I don't believe X has any merit because they make easily refuted Stupid Argument Y, and will not bother reading what the actual argument is" can be somewhat more irritating.

Darwin said...

Wait, you're 20? ;-)

Of course, kiss that cousin enough and you get the "you'll agree with me when you're married" gambit and the "you'll agree with me when you have kids" gambit. When all the gambits get together for a family reunion, no one has to listen to anyone.

Brandon said...

The discussion of gambits is reminding me of C. S. Lewis's famous essay, "Bulverism," which is worth reading if you've never read it.


I will definitely not say that you have to read it to speak on the subject, though!

Like Bulverism (and sometimes because they are Bulverisms), I think these gambits get frustrating because in practice they're really just ways to pretend that you don't have to explain yourself or argue for your position by treating the fact that you have to explain or argue as proof, somehow, that the other person's in the wrong.

MrsDarwin said...


Reading your description of people flinging "Courtier's Reply!" as triumphalist name-calling, and then re-reading my post, I can see why you would have objected to my usage, as the impression I had from Leah's writing is almost 180 degrees off from what you're describing. I'm happy to withdraw the silly phrase from discussion. With Darwin, I was thinking of the CR as putting the onus on the recommender of reading, rather than as a stupid sort of "I'm-rubber-you're-glue" retort.

I must frequent a small corner of the internet, and even within that corner I don't engage when comments get too silly, because, man, I don't think I've ever been in a discussion that dumb. Sheesh.

TheOFloinn said...

You mustn't think I was taking offense; just describing a different experience. The two aspects I think are related in any case. I understand "meme" has taken on a new meaning distinct from Dawkins' original coinage.

Small corners of the internet are good. Seldom do I glance at the likes of Meyers et al. and am happier for it.

Clare said...

21 at evening parties, as Cecily Cardew said. Speaking of gambit parties--that might be fun. Everyone would have to act in character, and the object would be to guess the particular bee in everyone's bonnet.

MrsDarwin said...

Clare, we were at a party once where this game was played. Darwin was a Jewish wine-tasting goat. I kid you not.

cminor said...

Okay, I feel smarter than I did yesterday. I'm with Darwin on the analogy, though--if the measure of success for one is that most reasonably well-educated people within the culture of origin should hear the reference and say (audibly or silently), "Aha! I know what that's all about," it fails utterly.

Is Myers' arcane coinage his idea of a shot at immortality, a la Murphy and Godwin? Whether it will take remains to be seen; only Nixon can go to China. ;-)

bearing said...

MrsDarwin: " I remember how refreshing it was to have the sense of another English speaker nearby; after a month or two of being abroad, one missed the instinctive comprehension of one's native language."

After eight weeks in France, I once accosted some poor Mormon missionaries I spotted (you can't miss 'em, with the ties and the white shirts and the nametags) on the subway platform, just so I could have the joy of talking to another couple of Americans.

I don't remember if they started edging away nervously, but they didn't get in the same car with me when the train came.

TheOFloinn said...

Aber warum sollte man immer englisch sprechen?