The three types of intellectual generosity

It seems to me that there are three types of intellectual generosity, one genuine, the other two hollow.

Genuine intellectual generosity takes place when someone brackets their own ideas and projects and simply follows your idea along with you. At its best, this kind of intellectual generosity is more than “constructive criticism” — it is Kantian critique in the most authentic sense, pushing your ideas until they hit their own internal limits. We have all benefited from this type of generosity at one time or another. The best academic advisors are skilled at practicing it, and even some “big name” academics have a reputation for this form of generosity (e.g., Caputo).

Genuine intellectual generosity is a true gift, asking nothing in return other than for you to more fully develop your own intellectual project. It makes no demands, but elicits a natural response of “paying it forward.” But for just these reasons, it cannot be demanded as a baseline for all intellectual interactions. To insist that everyone who encounters you display this type of selfless submission to your ideas is profoundly narcissistic — and in any case, productive intellectual exchange can and must occur between ideas and styles of thought as well as within them. No one has “world enough and time” to display this kind of rigorous intellectual generosity at all times, and no one has a right to demand it — it is, after all, generosity, which means that it is gratuitous, extra.

The first kind of hollow intellectual generosity is a kind of poisoned gift, a veiled threat. It sets you up for a fall by claiming the moral high ground. “I am being generous to you,” the interlocutor says,” and you’d better respond with the appropriate levels of gratitude — or else!” Spurned generosity provokes the harshest possible attacks, all the more furious owing to the perception that you, the ingrate, have willfully placed yourself beyond the pale and therefore are no longer entitled to the protections of charity.

The logic here is similar to the wounded narcissism of colonial powers who find their civilizing mission less welcome than they anticipated. Dan Barber has shared with me a relevant quote from Talal Asad’s On Suicide Bombing: “Writing in 1927, US Army captain Elbridge Colby noted: ‘The real essence of the matter is that devastation and annihilation is the principal method of warfare that savage tribes know. Excessive humanitarian ideas should not prevent harshness against those who use harsh methods, for in being overkind to one’s enemies, a commander is simply being unkind to his own people.’ Captain Colby belongs to a dominant line of thinking and practice in Western colonial warfare. To him as to others, it is self-evident that since uncivilized opponents do not abide by international law, they cannot be protected by it.”

By contrast to the second form, which renders the ingrate homo sacer, the third and final form of intellectual generosity is fundamentally assimilative: we “generously” acknowledge that your ideas are similar to ours, we “generously” consider adding them to our toolbox, etc. As before, the standard is the interlocutor’s own exalted state, to which he is generously willing to admit a select few. The logic is the other side of that of the colonizer, representing the liberal cosmopolitan attitude that everyone can be as good as us if they make a good-faith effort.

Spurn this generosity, though, deny this charity — by accentuating difference, by accusing them of misunderstanding or misconstruing in their hurry to generously agree — and this assimilative generosity can easily turn into its exclusionary cousin. Indeed, the two are fundamentally linked, insofar as both consist of demanding as a baseline expectation the genuine intellectual generosity that can only occur as a free gift.

Thus I propose that we displace generosity or charity as our central intellectual virtue. We can be grateful for genuine intellectual generosity when it comes — but in the meantime, perhaps we can content ourselves with the more pedestrian, but less potentially explosive, values of accuracy, clarity, and forthrightness.

59 thoughts on “The three types of intellectual generosity

  1. I would say that the first, genuine, type of generosity involves a deliberately arranged coincidence of acquisitiveness and openness: I read you attentively, bracketing or suspending my own concerns, in order to receive, absorb, perhaps ultimately be changed by something that an inflexible insistence on my own frame of reference would prevent me from encountering. The point here isn’t that self-interest trumps altruism, or that the appearance of the latter is just a mask for the former, but that generosity in this sense involves seeking out a zone of indistinction between my (future, not yet fully grasped or understood) concerns and yours. “Generous” thinkers in this sense are also *hungry* thinkers, motivated by curiosity and willing to risk possibly getting nothing out of the encounter in order to have the encounter in the first place.

    “Hollow” and “assimilative” generosity would then be simulacra underpinned by possessive anxiety: I will be strenuously civil, but as a way of bargaining for a risk-free reception of my own concerns; or, instead of seeking a zone of indistinction between my possible and your actual concerns, I will insist that your concerns are already my own as I already apprehend them.

  2. What is the connection between “generosity” and the “principle of charity” (which basically states, according to discussions elsewhere, that one must always assume the other knows what he or she is talking about, even in cases when it is clearly not the case)? It seems that in some cases one might be “generous” without being “charitable” (in cases where correction is necessary for the sake of the one who is being corrected). Or is “generosity” here a kind of kindness and open-mindedness without any judgement or critical assessment?

    Since this post is clearly connected to the most recent “discussions” I wonder if the calls for “charity” are just fairly obvious signs of insecurity? I mean if I don’t know what I’m talking about, I don’t like it when others point it out (however politely) – the lesson, however, isn’t that they should be more “generous” or kind, but that I shouldn’t be talking about things I know nothing or little about. Is that “oppressive”?

  3. One might say that charity is a sub-class of generosity, which basically includes only the two bad categories. There must be room for correction in generosity, or else it’s just patronizing.

  4. To be more specific, I generally have Davidson’s principle of charity in mind alloyed with my study of hermeneutics, history, and various intellectual traditions. To name something more specifics–apologies that I cannot remember the specific article off the top of my head and it was part of a larger argument about meaning and truth.

  5. This strikes me as an excellent characterisation of the three ‘types’ you’ve suggested. The only thing that occurred immediately to me as I read it was that the first type you mention, the genuine intellectual generosity, might and perhaps ought better to be described in terms of ‘Hegelian’ rather than ‘Kantian’ critique – the ideal model being the way that, in the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, the position of Science is ‘bracketed’ in favour of examining natural consciousness on its own terms and seeing where it leads… I suppose I’m not sure Kant is so ready to let go of his own project.

    …Is it possible that I am displaying a form of intellectual generosity by taking Hegel at his word and trusting that he isn’t just manipulating a semblance of natural consciousness so that it leads inevitably to Science anyway…? You’re welcome Hegel.

  6. I like your tripartite division, Adam. I’d add one observation. It seems to me that charity/generosity assumes a substantial shared intellectual context. The interlocutors are “in the same ball park” as it were. They may well be on opposing teams, but they’re playing the same game.

    When they don’t share significant intellectual context, when they’re not playing the same game, then generosity/charity is much harder. Either it’s a superficial show of understanding or tolerance or there has to be some kind of genuine educational discourse in which one person becomes a student of the other or, even trickier, they become students of one another. That’s difficult to manage. It’s one thing for a more experienced and knowledgeablt player to teach or coach a less experienced player in the same game. But when then games are different . . . .

    Being a student means submitting yourself to the authority of the teacher. And, yes, the student-teacher relationship is one of authority. Depending on a whole lot of things that can work out well or it can be a disaster. But it’s not a symmetrical relationship.

    What you describe as genuine generosity can happen in a symmetrical relationship or an assymetrical relationship but, in either case, they’ve got to be playing the same game. The assymetrical case is that of a stronger player and a less accomplished player. When they’re expert in different games then, by definition . . . and so forth.

  7. Yes, Adam, I agree.

    It would be interesting to gather up a whole bunch of cases where “generosity” and “charity” are being invoked and seeing if they have something in common beyond the invocation of those terms. There’s a job for a digital humanist.

  8. But tedium is in the eye of the beholder, no? In this case SR/OOO is at issue. And some of those folks have claimed/suggested that THIS is the Next Big Thing. That’s a kind of claim that interests me and I’m interested in the kinds of discussion that crop up around it.

    I came of intellectual age at time when behaviorist psychology, a Big Thing in its day, was being sent to the showers by the co-called cognitive revolution. At the same time the New Criticism was being retired by phenomenology and then by structuralism. No sooner had I blinked than structuralism got deconstructed and postmodernized. Not too long after that the bottom fell out of the nascent artificial intelligence industry. Whoops! Another Big Thing bites the dust.

    So, I’m skeptical about Big Thing claims. But I’m also interested. If there really is a Big Thing coming along, I’d like to give it a whirl.

  9. Adam is quite correct that ‘generosity’ can be a mask for passive-aggression, but I fail to see how ‘accuracy, clarity and forthrightness’ comprise a trinity immune from analogous corruption. (Is there anything more likely to be passive-aggressive than a conscious self-presentation as an especially ‘forthright’ person?)

    Why are you engaging in philosophical/intellectual/academic debate/discussion? If you are only doing it because you like kicking people in the teeth, dominating them, so forth, then nothing is going to save your philosophical soul – not forthrightness, not generosity, nothing. (But your philosophical soul wasn’t much of one to begin with, apparently, so maybe it’s not a big deal.)

    On the other hand, if you are engaging in debate/discussion it at least in part because you are interested in the topic under consideration, then generosity seems to me the way to go, the correct default position. Not in an emotional or characterological sense. As Adam notes, it’s unusual for people to be overflowing with generic generosity for all around them. Some kind of attention surplus disorder with regard to the ideas of others. Generosity is, properly, just a point of etiquette, which is in fact a prosthetic sort of prudence. It’s just tit-for-tat, in a game theory sense. You should talk to people if you think there’s some point to talking to them. If something is worth talking about, it’s worth talking about generously – and forthrightly and clearly. If you don’t think there’s a reasonable prospect of any of that working out, probably you are better off not talking at all – unless, per above, the point is just to kick them in the teeth, or mark your territory, or what have you. If you enter into discussion, because you genuinely find the subject worth discussing, but it turns out that you were wrong about the other party being willing and/or able to contribute usefully, because they are unreasonable or trolls or just don’t know what they hell they are talking about, then you should certainly turn off the spigot of generosity forthwith. Life’s too short. (Unless you just want to have a bit of fun with them.)

    If, like most people, your motives are a mix – you are interested in the subject, and you want to do it intellectual justice; but you also want to exercise a touch of Will to Power; then, again, generosity is the way to go. Because you get to make optimal intellectual progress AND you can, if the opportunity arises, get in as good a scrap as any. It’s win-win.

    In short, it turns out that US Army captain Elbridge Colby was right about how to do it. (Not about imperialist colonialism, obviously. That stuff is bad and you shouldn’t do it!) Be generous but don’t feed the trolls. He was right about that.

  10. By “forthright,” I was trying to get some synonym of “honest” that didn’t imply negativity (i.e., one rarely says, “I’ll be totally honest — he’s an amazing person”). The intention was something like “don’t be manipulative.”

    I think you’re positing too big a dichotomy between “generosity” and what we might call “being a dick.” I’m trying to give “generosity” some content other than just “being a good dialogue partner.”

  11. It also strikes me that your comment moved seamlessly from expecting generosity as a baseline to expressing sympathy with the good colonel’s ideas — as we would’ve said back in the classical era of blogging, “Thank you for proving my point for me.”

  12. What we all have in mind, but mention only tangentially I believe, is the fact that a lot of academic politicking occurs in certain sorts of dialogue. So, “being a dick” often comes in the form of unnecessary politicking. In academic politicking, the intellectual nature of the discourse becomes subservient to professional and disciplinary power struggles. It amazes me how often this occurs without either or both individuals realizing it, especially when a minority position in present.

  13. “Now that you’ve opened the question, I wonder if it might not be more Schellingian? Definitely not Fichtean, though.”

    Hey Adam, just wondering what you had in mind here. I have some interest in Schelling here so it would be interesting to hear some of your thoughts.

  14. “Is there anything more likely to be passive-aggressive than a conscious self-presentation as an especially ‘forthright’ person?” -John Holbo

  15. ‘I think you’re positing too big a dichotomy between “generosity” and what we might call “being a dick.”’

    There’s not a big dichotomy between being a fake generous person and being a dick. But there is a big dichotomy between generosity and being a dick. You admit it yourself when you write sentences that turn into nonsense if you try the substitution: “Genuine [dickishness] takes place when someone brackets their own ideas and projects and simply follows your idea along with you.”

    Obviously you don’t think that.

    So what’s your point? You say you want people to be ‘non-manipulative’, but that is no better than ‘forthright’. Some of the most manipulative people in the world are ‘non-manipulative’ – in a fake, passive-aggressive way. How is it then better to counsel people to steer clear of fake, passive-aggressiveness by going for ‘non-manipulativeness’ rather than ‘generosity’. In either case, if you get the real thing you’re fine, and if you get the fake thing, you’re not. So what’s the case against generosity?

  16. I’d settle for accuracy and clarity, I guess. I’m just trying to get people to be less moralizing, because I think that can so easily become toxic. Obviously everything would go great if everyone practiced all the virtues to the greatest possible degree, though, so you’ve got me there.

  17. “I’d settle for accuracy and clarity”

    That seems too thin. ‘Generosity’ – or ‘charity’ – have functions as social lubricant. Accuracy and clarity are consistent with an Asperger-ish a-sociality. That’s not what we are looking for, I take it.

    “Obviously everything would go great if everyone practiced all the virtues to the greatest possible degree, though, so you’ve got me there.”

    But I didn’t advocate exhibition of the unity of the virtues (any more than I advocated bloody imperialist colonialism – be it noted. So you haven’t got me there, or there.) Exhibiting a full-spectrum unity of the virtues is too hard, presumably.

    Also, the thing about generosity, I think, is that although it seems like a personal virtue – i.e. something that somehow flows beneficently from your personality – it’s more a point of etiquette. And the point of the point of etiquette is to make things less toxic. Like a handshake and a smile. It doesn’t always work, of course. Like all superficial things, it’s liable to employment as a mask only. Even so, it looks to me like you are, at best, re-inventing the wheel of generosity – or rebranding it as the wheel of forthrightnesss and non-manipulativeness, or something of the sort.

  18. John,

    Given the demonstration that we had in the prior post and comments, which showed lack of charity, what is the point of your line of questioning? If we offer a little charity, I think it’s apparent that your interlocutors get your points, so what are you offering that is not obvious?

    This message, btw, is in line with what I’d name “forthright and non-manipulative.” I asked a question and indicated why, in good faith, I asked it and gave the motivation as well.

  19. “Given the demonstration that we had in the prior post and comments, which showed lack of charity, what is the point of your line of questioning?”

    I was taking the post on its own, without regard for previous posts and comments, although I’ve read some of the recent posts (fewer of the comments). Which one(s) are you referring to?

    “If we offer a little charity, I think it’s apparent that your interlocutors get your points, so what are you offering that is not obvious?”

    What I am offering, that is apparently not obvious, is that my point is right. Adam gets my point, I think, but he doesn’t buy it. I think it’s more important to be charitable and generous to one’s interlocutors (so long as they are not trolls) than he does. He deprecates the value of generosity/charity on the grounds that it may be false (but this is no objection, because it applies as strongly to all the alternatives to generosity/charity). And on the grounds that it is psychologically heroic, to an unsustainable degree. But this mistakes the nature of the beast. It’s not a thing you do in your soul. It’s a thing you do, as a point of social etiquette. (Don’t turn generosity into an authenticity trip, man! And then complain that you had a bad trip.) Remove these two objections to generosity and the argument against it fails. That, at any rate, is my point. Apparently it is not obviously correct.

  20. John,

    Must one always be charitable? Keep in mind the context of the original conversation if you saw the recent topics on this blog. A number of individuals requested charity, much else happened that we need not revisit, and then the question of why charity is of such high value came up since so many clamored for it. If I may interpret the situation, I would say that charity without forthrightness and honesty was requested, and Adam was right to reject the earlier requests.

    True charity makes one vulnerable to an interlocutor who abuses it, and I believe this point was overlooked in the prior conversations and, speaking for myself, is being more manifest in this one as we discuss the larger context of charity. Hence, Adam wrote ” I’m trying to give “generosity” some content other than just “being a good dialogue partner.”” Again, charity makes one vulnerable to an interlocutor who abuses it, and if you disagree with this point, then I am glad that you have not learned this, since it’s not a pleasant experience.

  21. “Again, charity makes one vulnerable to an interlocutor who abuses it, and if you disagree with this point, then I am glad that you have not learned this, since it’s not a pleasant experience.”

    I feel that I have earned at least a Ph.D. in having my generosity and charity serially abused, in the context of blog debates, over the years. It’s the internet and I wasn’t born yesterday! But my own view is that the appropriate response is game theoretic tit-for-tat, which amounts to rhetorical lex talionis. Always be generous to strangers. It is a sin in the eyes of Zeus to behave otherwise. If your generosity is abused, you are free to respond in kind; at the very least you abstain from further extensions of charity/generosity until such time as the interlocutor gives evidence of having mended his/her sorry ways. Those who do not abide by the laws of having a decent conversation are not entitled to the protections of those laws.

    No one ever died from saying something generous and having someone else say something trollish in response. Therefore, your opening move should always be generous, vulnerability notwithstanding.

  22. “True charity makes one vulnerable to an interlocutor who abuses it, and I believe this point was overlooked in the prior conversations…”

    Sounds good to me. I agree, point overlooked.

    “Those who do not abide by the laws of having a decent conversation are not entitled to the protections of those laws.”

    Sounds good to me.

  23. Exactly how the hell could you possibly think the fact that true charity produces vulnerability has ever been overlooked in any of these conversations? It has been at the basis of my objection to “charity” fetishization from the beginning. It’s especially clear if you realize that this whole conversation grows out of our discussions of gender in the last week or so, rather than starting with the SR/OOO thread.

    And I love how ready everyone is to carry out a troll counterinsurgency! How about instead of giving the “good” people license to be abusive in the service of politeness, we just go ahead and block people or delete comments if they’re being so disruptive?

  24. Basically: John, everyone gets your point. You’ve repeated it at least five times. I know how much it bothers you when people don’t get something you view as clear and obvious, but I’m going to have to ask you to work through those emotions elsewhere.

  25. Adam,

    I do not think it’s been overlooked; that was my way of bringing the topic to the fore and making obvious the obvious. I agree with your points, especially per vulnerability and context, but not with your brutally direct manner. Then again, I bet you’ve been more effective at communicating them even if it is less … charitable? ;)


    My “being charitable” lead to the point being drawn out far longer than it should, because even before I responded you really should have taken my hints and read the context, etc to see why we were going beyond your point.

  26. Let’s try again, with your kind permission. Then I will give up and let you do your thing.

    I’ll try to put my point a bit more rudely and bluntly, in deference to local standards, so I don’t look like such a passive-aggressive git.

    Your objection to ‘charity fetishization’ looks to me like a license to garden variety rudeness, just wearing a policeman’s cap. You’ve told yourself a story that dresses this plain old thing as transcendence of the false virtue of charity. If you don’t agree with what Holbo is arguing, for example, proclaim his argument is due to ’emotions’. (Is that a nice way to treat an old friend, I ask you?) You substitute scorn for generosity, in an attempt to keep people in their proper place, by your lights. But if this is all well and good, then all the objections that you and Anthony and others made in the gender threads fall away. I’m not familiar with the gender politics of theology debates, but it’s hardly likely that anyone is doing anything harsher than publicly dismissing what women are saying on the grounds that they are purely emotional creatures who should be working out their mental problems in private, where they won’t bother the adults doing the serious thinking.

    If no one is doing anything worse than this thing you think is, fine, what’s the problem?

    You will respond, I take it, with something rather complicated that will, however, soon enough boil down to your opinion that you are right and they are wrong. A bit more precisely: it isn’t that someone died and made you philosopher king, but that you, unlike those hegemonic jerks, are trying to be a virtuous counterweight to vicious ‘dominant voices’. But this seems to me hopeless. Assholery as affirmative action, or as a kind of systematic handicapping scheme, is just unworkable as a framework in which to conduct intellectual discussions. Obviously so. After all, the people you are objecting to, who probably think they are the ‘good’ people, could as easily say (or at least privately feel) that they need to act dismissively because they need a counterweight to ‘uppity’ women who would, otherwise, cause the discussion to go out of ‘proper’ balance.

    Also, I’m a minority voice on this blog and you are the dominant voice, but does it follow that it should be ok for me to be rude to you, but not ok for you to be rude to me – you know, ‘for balance’? No, of course not. That’s nuts.

    Basically, the problem with ‘figure out who sucks and preemptively be rude to them’ in place of ‘be generous and charitable’ is that 1) it depends on you being infallible about things you are doubtfully infallible about; 2) it’s not like the other side isn’t going to notice what you are doing. You are trying to tilt the playing field to the ‘right’ degree to give the ‘right’ side rhetorical breathing room; but, realistically, no one likes someone being an asshole to them. So once you’ve got the tilt against the opposition set ‘right’, the ‘wrong’ side is likely to take their ball and go home. Maybe that’s fine with you, because you didn’t want to talk to them anyway. But presumably there’s someone you want to talk to, who you don’t agree with, yet who you don’t want just to dismiss. What are the ground rules for entering into intellectual debate/discussion, in such a case? Generosity and charity, surely.

    So, in conclusion, the only case that is actually a case of debate and discussion, rather than dismissal or non-engagement is a case based on generosity and charity towards one’s interlocutor. There is no such thing as a good debate in which both sides are just abusing each other rudely. And there is no such thing as a good debate/discussion in which one side is being polite and formally respectful and the other side is being abusive and dismissive ‘for balance’, because that’s just unstable. What it leads to is: the polite but abused party either turning abusive, or else going on being polite, but now in a passive-aggressive ‘look at how these assholes are failing to hold up their side, but I’m above all that’ way. You hate that shit – don’t I know it! – so why act in a way that encourages it?

    But what if the ‘polite’, dominant party really are in the wrong and, furthermore, won’t listen to arguments? They’ll always find some ‘polite’ way to go on doing as they please? So you have no recourse but to shout at them? Well, I guess you should shout, then. But don’t get confused and conclude that shouting is a kind of argument, after all, just because it’s what you’ve been driven to, when argument fails (by your lights).

    This debate is sort of like Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, but with ‘be charitable’ playing the part of normal science, and ‘fuck you!’ playing the part of paradigm shift.

  27. I’m confused. You’re the one who’s been arguing the whole time that the good colonel had the right idea. Now that I made one sarcastic remark (to the effect that you need to deal with your obvious frustration that people aren’t agreeing with you in some way other than by repeating your point yet again), I’m suddenly the colonel?

    It’s also great that you’ve opportunistically latched onto the gender issue, given that you’d never mentioned it before now (I suppose you’re essentially a persecuted woman now that I’ve mentioned the word “emotion”? I guess that shows me!) I never said your argument as such was just emoting — I was suggesting that some kind of stubbornness was at work, given the repetitiveness.

  28. Well, my shift to discuss gender was supposed to be, not opportunistic, but obliging, per Jason’s urging that I discuss the issue with reference to that context. But you can’t please all the people all the time.

    The point about the persecuted women was supposed to be a hint, not that I am one myself, but that I share a relevant moral characteristic with them. The reason we care about persecuted women is, fundamentally, that they are people. And I’m one of those, too. One of those ‘expanding the moral circle’-type arguments, then. But a flop, in the event, to judge from the cold reception.

    So now I have a better idea: I give up. You’re right. I should have given up earlier. I’ve said my piece, as you say, and you think my attitude is blinkered. Best of luck and (as I often say at the ends of these threads) sorry for ill-feeling caused.

  29. From the olden days:

    Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?
    I’m counting on you, Lord, please don’t let me down.
    Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
    Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?

  30. For the record, as far as I can tell John has been simply reasserting the common-sense position I was trying to complicate in the post (generosity/charity as baseline requirement for dialogue), or else arguing against some kind of straw man position where I must be directly advocating rudeness if I’m skeptical of “generosity.”

  31. “as far as I can tell John has been simply reasserting the common-sense position”

    That wasn’t it at all, from where I’m sitting. But, since I’ve promised to shove off, I’ll leave the question as an exercise for future scholars, who may find it interesting.

    As a gesture of friendliness, I promise not to contribute to the Judith Butler ‘difficult writing’ thread.

  32. That was a really confusing thread, but I think

    John wrote: “Generosity is, properly, just a point of etiquette, which is in fact a prosthetic sort of prudence.” No, especially not when used as a synonym for “charity,” as it is being used both here and in the conversation cited above. It’s a theological virtue, which allows for some very subtle but toxic slippage. Since Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching,” the word ‘charity’ in the context of theological hermeneutics has meant “to interpret [the Bible] in such a way that it teaches only love” — this is in fact called the “rule of charity.” So while many people say “We deserve your charity when we dialogue,” what they subtly ask for is this: “Interpret me in such a way that I am saying something loving.” But that isn’t always the case, is it? And if someone pushes on this point, they can fall back — “I was just saying you should extend common courtesy.” Within the context of theological conversations, I have often noticed a similar conflation of common courtesy and the “rule of charity.” I think Adam has a good point, because these words have a history of being abused in precisely this way: “I am saying something despicable, but you should interpret my intentions and even my conclusions as if they are loving, because you owe me interpretive charity as a baseline of starting a conversation.”

    If you mean “generosity” as “be nice,” then why don’t we just say “start off being nice”? It’s a lot more clear and doesn’t carry any theological baggage.

    Then there’s the whole Derridean semantic problem: generosity and charity are by definition things given in excess of what is required; so if we make them required, we’ve made charity and generosity impossible.

  33. That should begin: “That was a really confusing thread, but I think I might have something to contribute to the confusion.” I don’t know how that vanished.

  34. OK, I apparently lied about shoving off. I say that generosity is a point of etiquette. Brennan demurs:

    “No, especially not when used as a synonym for “charity,” as it is being used both here and in the conversation cited above. It’s a theological virtue”

    My point, one leg of the stool of my argument (not a commonsense claim! an argument!) could be restated as follows: Adam (and others – now you) are mistaking the theological virtue sense of generosity and charity for the sense that it properly operative in intellectual discourse/debate, which is more an etiquette sense. That is, I’m saying that Adam is thinking about it the way you are thinking about it, Brennan, and it’s the wrong way to think about it. It allows Adam to commit the fallacy of declaring generosity this heroic thing (which, in a theological sense, it is) and then to beg off the obligation to exhibit it (which, since it’s actually not heroic, but a more ordinary thing that anyone can do without too much trouble, is too easy a wriggle off the hook.)

    “If you mean “generosity” as “be nice,” then why don’t we just say “start off being nice”?”

    This isn’t it either. Generosity and charity, as discursive norms, are not just a matter of being ‘nice’. You can be ‘nice’ without being generous or charitable, and you can be charitable and generous without being particularly ‘nice’. Looks to me like.

    But now I’m going to stop and keep my promise, unless Adam himself rises up and tells me he wants to talk about this stuff. I know I have annoyed him and I am trying to stop that. (The problem is that I have a boring chore to do this morning. So, naturally, I keep hitting ‘reload’ instead and wasting my time commenting on blogs. The flesh is weak.)

  35. Wait… I’m *mistaking* caritas for a theological virtue? Or, perhaps that should read: I’m mistaking *caritas* for a theological virtue? I just pointed out that people use the theologically-laden word “charity” to smuggle theological freight where it doesn’t belong. In the context of theological discourse, “charity” cannot be simply de-theologized in certain uses and not others. Hence the need to rigorously define it as the virtuous thing it is, and then use other decidedly non-theological words to describe the general non-theological baselines for a conversation.

  36. “Hence the need to rigorously define it as the virtuous thing it is, and then use other decidedly non-theological words to describe the general non-theological baselines for a conversation.”

    Well, we live in a world in which people also use ‘interpretive charity’ to mean something decidedly not like the theology thing. So ‘charity’ is, like many an English word, ambiguous.

    If it’s any consolation, you certainly are not ‘mistaking caritas for a theological virtue’. Nor is anyone else. No one talks about interpretive caritas, after all.

    I have broken my vow of blog comment silence once again. I am a bad person.

  37. “No one talks about interpretive caritas, after all.”

    You must know nothing about my field, then. I’m sorry I responded at all.

  38. On second thought: I’d love to just go around making pronouncements about what “nobody talk about.”

    Nobody talks about Wittgenstein.
    Nobody talks about football.
    Nobody talks about the other guy from WHAM!

  39. Google hits for “interpretive caritas” = 0. So that’s pretty low. “Interpretative caritas” gets you 1 solitary hit to a book by Michael Fagenblat about Levinas. (Are you perhaps a Fagenblat student?) So that’s still pretty low.

    By contrast, “Andrew Ridgeley” – the other guy in WHAM! – gets almost half a million, which is way more.

    Football and Wittgenstein do even better.

    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. It’s just … I’ve never blogged about WHAM! before.)

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