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  • Rude Inquiry:Should Philosophy Be More Polite?
  • Alice MacLachlan (bio)


Should philosophers be more polite to one another? The topic of good manners—or, more grandly, civility—has enjoyed a recent renaissance in philosophical circles (Buss 1999; Calhoun 2000; Burrow 2010; Westacott 2011; Stohr 2012; Reiheld 2013; Zerilli 2014; Olberding 2019), but little of the formal discussion has been self-directed: that is, it has not examined the virtues and vices of polite and impolite philosophizing, in particular. This is an oversight; practices of rudeness do rather a lot of work in enacting distinctly (analytic) philosophical modes of engagement, in ways that both shape and detract from the aims of our discipline. If we fail to recognize practices of rudeness, we become vulnerable to some of their conflating effects, and we miss their capacity to chill and exclude. Despite these dangers, there are reasons not to embrace the abolition of rudeness, both on its own merits and for the risks inherent in any abolitionist project.

My argument proceeds in four stages. First, I provide an analysis of rudeness, detailing its complex relationship to disrespect. Second, I identify three varieties of philosophical rudeness, and consider the extent to which they are intrinsic or extrinsic to philosophical practices. In the final two sections, I provide the case for and against philosophical rudeness, highlighting its variable value—and I conclude with some modest proposals for its regulation.1

1. what's wrong with rudeness?

In ordinary discourse, to be rude is often understood to be uncouth and unmannered, either ignorant of or unmoved by the finer social graces—that is, to flout or fail the way things ought to be done, which is so often [End Page 175] understood as the way we and not they do them. Even the etymology of "rude" is heavy with elitism; its origins trace back to the Latin words rudis, meaning unwrought or unrefined, and rudus, a lump of broken stone. To be polite, on the other hand, is to be polished, made smooth (politus). A rude person is a boor, a term which originates in the 16th century Dutch and low German words for peasant. Other synonyms for "rude"—e.g. uncouth, uncivilized, barbaric—are basically different ways for describing the outsider: someone who is not one of us. The Oxford English Dictionary prioritizes "lack of knowledge or education" and "lack of culture or refinement; roughness of life or habit; uncouthness" as definitions of rudeness, while "a discourtesy; an ill-mannered act or utterance" and "lack of civility or courtesy; bad manners" are listed fourth and fifth, respectively ("Rudeness, n" 2019). While polite people know and employ social niceties, the rude speak frankly, act directly, and flout convention. If politeness is merely attention to etiquette, and etiquette merely a system of norms for maintaining insider and outsider status in a given context, then rudeness is at worst morally neutral and, potentially, praiseworthy from an egalitarian perspective.

Yet understanding rudeness as simple violations of social convention—call this the Faux Pas account—risks undermoralizing the costs of rudeness. There are times when someone's behavior is morally wrong—that is, it is harmful, disrespectful, or unkind; it hurts another person's feelings and leaves them feeling excluded and uncared for—and we best describe its wrongfulness by noting that the perpetrator behaved rudely. When "etiquette" is mentioned, most people's minds go to immediately to formal dinners and the complicated ordering of forks and knives: conventions that test whether a given dinner guest has the appropriate social upbringing. But daily life is full of subtler conventions of etiquette whose purposes include social cooperation and coordination, as well as the expression of respect and goodwill: attitudes and actions that make our shared life easier and more agreeable. We nod hello, use the right pronouns, and offer our seat. Some conventions of politeness are designed explicitly to include rather than exclude: for example, social norms that discourage social smoking without first checking, "do you mind if I smoke?" and those that rule out racist and sexist jokes. Ronni Gura Sadovsky's work identifies the sub-genre of political etiquette, whose primary aim is to express respect for...