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I once took a graduate course in education in which I was the only non-teacher. One day, I disagreed with something said by another student, and her response has always baffled me. She said: "Who are you? You can't question me until you've walked in my shoes." In other words, she felt that I was unqualified to question her, to cast doubt on anything she said. Who was I to say? Well of course her response was nonsense but how so? As a matter of logic or illogic, was her remark an example of an appeal to authority? She certainly felt that she was an authority.

January 17, 2006

Response from Marc Lange on January 18, 2006

I agree that the student's response was rude. Not knowing the precise topic of your discussion in class, I am unable to say much. But it seems like the student could have done a great deal more to explain the basis for her view, and it seems like a good teacher would have required her to do so.

However, an appeal to authority is not always inappropriate. Suppose an art expert tells me that a certain recently discovered painting is by Botticelli. I could ask the art expert to explain the justification for her view. She might reply that the brushstrokes or the treatment of the hair are characteristic of Botticelli's work, and she might even point out to me the similarities between the given painting and others firmly attributed to Botticelli. But suppose I do not perceive those similarities. I just don't see the "characteristic brushstrokes", for instance. It might well be entirely appropriate for the art expert to say, "Well, I've done my best to show you what I see. But it took me years to perfect my eye for these matters, under rigorous training from other art experts. You don't have this skill, understandably. But (in the absence of other evidence against my attribution of the painting to Botticelli, and given my acknowledged expertise in this area) you ought simply to take my word for it." Such an appeal to authority seems perfectly in order and happens all the time, not just with art experts.

Of course, I can't say whether the situation in your education class is remotely comparable to the one I've just described. I simply wanted to emphasize that appeals to authority are not always misplaced.

Response from Jyl Gentzler on January 27, 2006

I have such a visceral reaction to your fellow studentís comment. I just want to slap her on your behalf, which of course Iíd never do, but Iíd want to! But then I wonder what your comment was. Maybe she was just verbally slapping you, and while verbal slapping is no better than physical slapping, it is just as understandable.

But letís assume that what you said was perfectly reasonable. As a hypothetical example, letís assume that you were respectfully questioning her view about how to handle disciplinary issues that arise in the classroom. And letís take her claim not as a verbal slapping, but as a serious claim about the conditions under which you count as having the epistemic authority to question her. She claims that you canít question her unless you walk in her shoes. Does this mean that you canít ask her a question? Surely, she canít mean this. So I suppose that she means that you are not epistemically permitted to doubt the truth of her judgment. And what does she mean by the phrase ďwalk in my shoesĒ? Iíll assume that she means ďhave the same experiences that I have had.Ē And Iíll assume that she doesnít believe that this sort of claim is true only in her own case (that she has very special shoes), but that her particular claim is based on the more general principle that X doesnít have the epistemic authority to doubt the truth of Yís judgement unless X has had the same experiences that Y has had. If this principle is true, then I never have the epistemic authority to doubt the truth of anyone elseís judgment since I can never have the same experiences that someone else has had. But since different peopleís beliefs conflict, this principle forces me to the absurdity of being epistemically required to believe that the same proposition is both true and false.

Whatís the grain of truth in the literal interpretation of her remark? Itís true that in order for X to judge the truth of Yís claim, itís important for X to take into consideration the experiences that have led Y to accept it as true. X must try to imagine what it would be like to walk in Yís shoes, since, given Xís limited experiences, X might be missing some crucial bit of information that is relevant to determining the truth or falsity of Yís claim. But itís also likely true that X has had a lot of experiences that Y hasnít had, and Y might learn something from hearing about the considerations that lead X to doubt the truth of Yís claim. So X is doing Y a favor by questioning X, especially if X hasnít walked in Yís shoes, since Xís shoes give X a different perspective on a complex world and, in general, the more perspectives any of us can gain access to, the more likely that weíll get at the truth.

Since a literal understanding reduces your fellow studentís remark to absurdity, I think that the most charitable interpretation is my first oneĖ itís just a verbal slapping.


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