Leigh Johnson’s piece on friendly fire makes the case that we need friends who are willing to levy thoroughgoing attacks on our cherished philosophical convictions, and that this “friendly fire” is a sign of a solid friendship. Using Aristotle’s trichotomy of friendships of use, pleasure, and virtue, Johnson argues just as the truest form of friendship is one of two souls united in the project of virtue, the highest form of friendship is one that admits of vigorous debate:

I was having a conversation with one of my oldest and closest friends (Dr. Trott) a few weeks ago, and we were both genuinely perplexed by people who take disagreement to indicate some fundamental devaluation of the other person or, alternatively, people who take disagreement to be the expression of a fundamentally un-friendly disposition toward the other. Dr. Trott and I disagree about a lot of things, some of them quite important to one of us, but for as long as we’ve known each other, we’ve taken the fact that we can have it out about things that matter to us to be a sign of the health and strength of our friendship. In fact, I tend to be more unsure of friendships in which those kinds of arguments present “threats” to the relationship.

As I see it, Johnson reveals two main truths: 1) some attacks from friends challenge us to refine our arguments, and 2) strong friendships can withstand some attacks. Demonstrable as these truths are, I think these observations need to be supplemented. Otherwise, we can come away thinking that all refinement of philosophical ideas requires attacks, and likewise that attacking our friend’s views makes our friendships stronger. In other words, there is an illicit inference from a statement about particulars to a statement about universals.

I don’t think this is what Johnson means to say, nonetheless I don’t think it’s controversial to say that many use the phenomena she notices to make this kind of fallacious inference. There is a long and storied history, in fact, of prominent philosophers saying that we will stagnate without antagonism: Nietzsche and Hegel are just two examples of what William Blake was pointing to when he said, “Without contraries is no progression.” On the whole, we tend to think that it is when we are leveling hard critique that we are doing serious philosophy, and after giving a visiting speaker a sound thrashing we might go up to them and tell them something to that effect. No hard feelings, just hard thinking. The second point seems to follow upon the first: through adversariality, we take on a worthy adversary, and thereby gauge and reaffirm our friend’s worth as a philosopher, for to philosophize is to be adverse.

Joshua Miller extends Johnson’s view in an Arendtian fashion: in order to be doing good philosophy, a difference of opinions is not just salubrious but necessary, to the extent that if one lacks friends who disagree one must become the devil’s advocate and take up an opposing view one does not actually think true, in the name of truth-seeking.[1] According to Miller, what matters more than certainty (especially in metaphysical matters) is the political space of free inquiry and honesty created and maintained by “friendly fire,” but the volley of debates back and forth, in which a ceasefire would mean the end of friendship.

[Arendt] suggests that Lessing would always trade certainty for friendship and debate. The plurality of religious dogmas provides an opportunity to encounter others, rather than a set of differences which must be managed or equalized. If Arendt is right, then Scruton’s liberal tolerance is worthless, a mere modus vivendi for putting up with each other. The measure of tolerance is the friendships that are possible despite disagreements or rivalries.

Like Johnson, Miller sees something noble in the ability of people with different convictions to hash it out among themselves, and like Johnson, Miller is picking up on phenomena that are demonstrably true: people who can withstand a philosophical attack on their worldview appear to exemplify the tolerance necessary for a pluralistic democracy. Yet here too, I fear that this could be taken up by some contrarian to mean that the more we pounce upon someone’s poorly articulated or ill-formed views, the more tolerant we are ourselves are being.

Earlier I proposed the cultivation of a certain kind of philosophical hospitality to overcome the implicit dangers of what Maria Lugones calls “arrogant perception.” Both Johnson and Miller strike me as people who want to avoid arrogant perception, and think the way to do that is through a virtuous adversariality. In contrast, I suggest that adversariality itself—especially when understood through the language of war and contestation—can often erode friendliness to wisdom precisely because adversariality suggests a zero-sum game only one can win. If it were truly the case that antagonism were the best way to avoid self-deception and self-flattery in philosophy, we would see more people willing to concede that they have lost the debate.[2] “Let the best man win”—and if I’m not winning, that is only because this isn’t over yet. From this it should be no surprise how rare it is for a person to gladly (without internal grumbling) allow his opponent the last word, and how common it is for a person to giddily cut his opponent off in the middle of speaking.

Even in “sportsmanship” that adheres to prearranged rules, there is some degree of indulgence in our drive for aggression alongside the restraint of aggression. There is supposedly joy in controlling one’s temper, in seeing how much irritation and vexation and insult one can withstand without losing one’s cool, as signs of the degree to which you are self-possessed. “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” as some say.

To my mind, coming from Marcuse’s critique of how aggressiveness is normalized and internalized, this idea that friendly fire is needed for philosophical growth smacks too much of the idea that (to use the title of Chris Hedges’ book) war is a force that gives us meaning. This vision of reality—that it is only during crisis, during war, that we take things seriously and pay proper care and attention—is one that comes easily to me, as I suspect it comes easily to most Americans. In this way of looking at ourselves and the world, whenever it is unclear whether an oncoming person is friend or foe, it seems wise to regard them as a threat until proven otherwise; hypervigilance is our default mode of being in the world, and sometimes if there is no object to fear the mind will supply one. After all, what use is a warrior if there is no enemy? When another’s point is not clear, or one does not see another’s point clearly, one fires away some truth bombs. Sometimes it turns out one fired on one’s friend: friendly fire.[3]

Much of my critique of friendly fire, appropriately enough, springs out of a back-and-forth I have been having with Miller, as we are good friends. In contrast to this disciplinary rudeness Arpaly describes, and what I call philoniky, Miller proposes that we might conceive of a receptivity toward other people’s arguments—which is the subject of a short essay by Kathryn Norlock, “Receptivity as a Virtue of (Practitioners of) Argumentation”—that dovetails with the hospitality I described in my last post. Norlock uses Noddings’ ethics of care to argue that philosophical debates should be a form of caring for the interlocutor, and therefore one must be receptive to the reasons given by others. Naturally, receptivity speaks to a characteristic that may be in deficiency (as in pugilism) or in excess (as in uncritical acceptance). Thus Norlock wishes to retain the vigor and rigor of philosophical debate, but see it as operating within the context of a very specific communal norm, the community of academics:

…I hold that our relations in interpersonal argumentation are not limited to the dyadic one of author and an individual audience member; I include the relationships of both to the wider philosophical community that provides the opportunities for argumentation. One could argue that even in the dyadic relationship, it is not really caring to refrain from robust criticism, but this is a hard sell depending on the context; if my friend and colleague mentions during a long car ride that she is absolutely devastated by writer’s block, then I will probably not take this opportunity to point our every weakness in her current project. However, if I am writing a book review for publication, or engaging in a question and answer period during a conference session, I must consider the philosophical aims of my hosts and fellow guests. Generally, philosophers provide engaged in a community whose members hold that truth is best tested by some rigorous argumentation designed to experiment with whether a counterargument succeeds or fails, then adversariality of a sort is a receptive practice.[4]

Although there is some similarity here to Arpaly’s use of just war theory (i.e., an otherwise illegitimate practice is justified within certain circumscriptions), what Norlock brings to bear is the important fact that debates happen between persons with whom we are in a relationship of one sort or another: “…precisely because the other is an individual subject and not a mere means, one ought to refrain from using their identity as a vehicle for disagreement, or reducing their personhood to that of an opponent.”[5] Even if I see flaws within the argument of my friend who has crippling writer’s block, now would not be the time to mention them, and when that time comes, instead of seeking to lay waste to her argument, I could be honest about the flaws but also recommend alternative paths for her project. In the process, I might surprise myself by realizing new things about my own project, which I could not have come to had I not tried to be hospitable to her view. In so doing I would avoid an excess of receptivity, but I would also provide much-needed support that acknowledges who she uniquely is. In paying attention and paying heed (Achtung) to who she is, I give her respect (Achtung)—and in so doing I treat her as an end in itself in that wonderful, old, evergreen, flexible, polyvalent Kantian sense. The true respect of a real philosophical friendship is one that does not see the other as an occasion for victory (philoniky). Miller highlights Norlock’s communal norms as the grounding context for what constitutes virtuous receptivity, but does not discuss Norlock’s parallel analysis of individual, one-on-one relationships that involve unique, irreplaceable persons. I am for Miller’s proposal that we have “infinite conversation,” although I take it that for this conversation to be infinite it cannot just be communal but must also (perhaps primarily) be personal. With some attention to the one-on-one nature of hospitable philosophizing, we see why friendly fire is an inadequate framework.

I see hospitality to be superior to adversariality because I find that hearing good ideas from someone else is oftentimes more philosophically productive than the collapse of my bad ideas. In those hospitable sorts of discussions I become less defensive, less fixated on trying to hold on to a bad point, and more willing to imagine with how else I might think about the world and who I might be in what the world looks like from that vantage point. It’s then that I really philosophize, and come up with my own adaptations or elaborations on the other person’s original point, and because what I say proceeds from how I’ve deeply listened to them, they are more willing to return a comment that speaks to mine, and we go back and forth like that and it feels like we could do that forever—genuine dialectic, what Gadamer calls the “inner infinity” of dialogue.[6] As he quotes Rilke:

Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is

mere skill and little gain;

but when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball

thrown by an eternal partner

with accurate and measured swing

towards you, to your center, in an arch

from the great bridgebuilding of God;

why catching then becomes a power–

not yours, a world’s.[7]

Not yours—and thank God it is not!—for this is the liberating dimension of reverence, in this case reverence of wisdom: when we cease to see wisdom as something someone can take credit for, we cease to stay alone. By opening ourselves up, we open up to the world as a more expansive, more playful, more personal place. We engage in world-travelling, as Lugones puts it. The more lovingly we perceive our dialogue partner, the more we see that we will never exhaust their world, and their complexity is such that we do not have to have new human beings trucked in periodically to keep us philosophical, provided that we are faithful to the immensity of what we have before us in each other. We are still underway, and we are works in progress. Whereas the person who feels herself near victory sees her opponent as “finished,” the philosophical friendship consists in a mutual sense of our unfinishedness, as Paulo Freire so beautifully puts it.[8]

In contrast to friendly fire, I wish now to put forth “fiery friendship,” which captures a good deal of what Johnson and Miller have been driving at, but were barred from by the antagonistic framework of friendly fire. Fiery friendship is a friendship that crackles with the energy of different minds who humbly accept one another’s help with their unfinishedness. The fire of fiery friendship is an internal fire of transformation, while the fire of friendly fire is an external fire of attrition. Fiery friendship sees the value of being in the hot seat, but without turning discussion into an inquisition in which the other is the heretic who must be burned at the stake. Just as one fire may be in danger of going out and need the fire of another to rekindle itself, while remaining separate fires, a fiery friend shares the ideas they are burning with without seeking to extinguish yours.

One example of a fiery friendship would be the one I have with my friend Chris Ellzey, an atheist, who last year listened carefully to my excited jabbering about Philo’s account of prophecy as God speaking within the prophet and not to the prophet.[9] With great hospitality for the concept, he helped me consider how Philo’s view might be correct, and he concluded: “God cannot be heard, only listened to.”

Chris continues to be an atheist, and I continue to reflect on the implications of this reverberating statement. He raises strong objections to the view that he suspects others will have, and together we consider the merits and flaws of each. He does not believe in God, nor does he need to for me to have felt truly heard, truly recognized as an end in itself. At other times I will hear him out, for instance, about frustrations he may have with religious fundamentalists, and I try to receive this message personally by trying to be more conscious about ways I may cause frustrations for others.

We are working on different things, yet we can work together on one person’s project for a while without forsaking entirely who we are. We have to overcome our fear that if we listen we will forget what it is we want to say. We must behave as if the dialogue will last forever, and therefore we will get back around to it.

As anybody who cooks knows, fire cannot be applied too quickly, or else it consumes what you were seeking to transform. Likewise, a fiery friend applies the fire of their supportive critique slowly, with great patience and humble attention to the state of the other person, in order to refine away the dross we all have—all the while being open to revising their idea of what the other person should think, or more properly, who they should become. Instead of being a volcanic eruption of genius that devastates everything in its path, a truly philosophical discussion with a friend would take the form of a slow burn, lasting years or centuries or eternity.

You must read, read, reread, work, and maintain reverence for wisdom as transcending you both, and then you will discover together. You will have to—get to—visit one another’s worlds again and again, and in the process make a transition yourself from something base into something noble. Alchemical drawings often show a magus collaborating with an assistant in the laboratory—the space of labor, the space of experiments for the great work of finding the philosopher’s stone, whose final form nobody can know ahead of time. One stage in the process involves a special kind of crucible known as an athanor, where materials slowly transmute under a constant heat. It looks something like a house, where transformation is welcome. A fiery friend is an athanor for your soul.


Part 1: Philonikers and Philosophers

Part 2: Guest-Friendship and Friends of Wisdom: Dialoguing with Arpaly and Lugones

Part 3: Fiery Friendship



[1] I have problems with Arendt’s reading of Lessing on this—I think she de-metaphysicizes him, when in actual fact he was acutely involved in Leibnizian metaphysical and theological disputes with what appear to be ardent hopes for a certain result, alongside his Socratic playfulness and humility. I’ll leave this for a future post.

[2] The parameters for winning and losing are relatively clear in most sports—and far less so in war, where even those who win lose—and do not exist with remotely such clarity in philosophy, however invigorating it is to think that philosophy admits of the jocular respect that a bloodied boxer can have for the champion who bested him. The comparison of philosophy to a blood sport is therefore aspirational, at best. I would speculate that this comparison only appeals when one imagines oneself to be the person in possession of the better argument, having just delivered the coup de grace—yet as experience shows, the ones you defeat in an argument (if that is what you have done) keep piping back up.

[3] It is true enough that, within a relationship that is already well-developed and amicable, small acts of mockery or teasing constitute signs of warm fellow feeling. A world where no friends would ever engage in things like trash-talk or zingers seems like a less vibrant world. But in any moment where teasing is actually friendly it is always already the case that constructive habits of hospitality are in place, which guarantee that the “attacks” stand as exceptions to an otherwise persistent sense of solidarity and support. Another salient feature is that the teasing not be mean-spirited, that the butt of the joke be laughing with the jokester, that the jokester’s amusement should never be too much greater than the recipient’s, and especially once things go too far the jokester leaves off immediately. The problem comes in with who gets to decide what counts as going too far. Sometimes the “friendly” punch on the shoulder is uninvited or hard enough that you can’t use your arm for a while. Other times you really do not need to hear someone address you by the derogatory term that has become their nickname for you. And sometimes unremitting teasing goes too far for too long, or intentionally touches a sore spot. There is an amorphous but noticeable sense that you are somehow your friend’s enemy, even as they swear you are still friends. It is not for nothing that modern English has the word “frenemy.” It is telling that the first defense of the bully is that they were “only joking”: perhaps much of what we call friendship is predicated upon the ability to disavow the harm we do as unintentional. Friendly fire legitimizes this ambiguity.

[4] Kathryn J. Norlock, “Receptivity as a Virtue of (Practitioners of ) Argumentation,” in Mohammed, D., & Lewiński, M. (Eds.) Virtues of Argumentation. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation (OSSA), 22-26 May 2013. Windsor, ON: OSSA, pp. 1-7. Page 6.

[5] Norlock, p. 7

[6] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. D. Linge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1977. p. 67: “…every dialogue has an inner infinity and no end.”

[7] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Trans. J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall.  New York: Continuum. 1989. Vi.

[8] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage, trans. Patrick Clarke. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 1998. P. 51

[9] For more on this, see p. 164 of Adam Kamesar’s “The Logos Endiathetos and the Logos Prophorikos in Allegorical Interpretation: Philo and the D-Scholia to the Iliad,” in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 44 (2004): 163-181.