Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category


Does science have all the answers?

March 17, 2011

Oxford scientist Prof Peter Atkins and philosopher Mary Midgley discuss whether there is anything more than facts, facts and more facts.


A Dean with the Right Attitude

January 5, 2011

NPR has a heartwarming story of Laguardia Community College and their push to increase enrollment and interest in philosophy:

As state universities cut back on humanities programs in order to deal with budget shortfalls, LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y., is going in the opposite direction. At LaGuardia, philosophy is king: Of the 17,000 matriculated students, 4,500 are taking philosophy. There are seven full-time professors, most of whom have been added in the past two years.

Unbelievable, really… but good news. Hopefully more universities will pick up the pace; and hopefully more philosophers and philosophy departments will see this as a sign that there is plenty of opportunity to build the richness of philosophy throughout the university system.

Oh, guess what? I finished my book. I think I might soon hop right back on the blogging train. (Yay me!)


Does Philosophy Ever Make Progress?

January 4, 2011


October 9, 2010

This is pretty cool, albeit not entirely new, and a pretty kooky overview of the trolley problem. But hey, if more people take an interest in philosophy because of this, the better for everyone. However, what the hell is up with Jeff McMahan and tea?

One of them is Jeff McMahan of Rutgers University. McMahan is a good liberal, open to debate on any topic—except tea. Green tea is sent to him every two months from the Indian estate where it is grown. His cup of tea has to be brewed in a certain way: steeped for precisely six minutes in distilled water.

More seriously, I think the author of this article does a hatchet job on the trolley problem, and seems fundamentally to misunderstand the purpose of raising trolley style questions. The point isn’t straightforwardly to identify what we’d do in trolley-like scenarios, but to try to get at the underlying moral intuitions. Why is it that we feel the tension between fat man and spur, between spur and surgeon? These are difficult questions, and if we work reflectively to iron out how the two scenarios differ, we may gain clarity on the intuitions that very often guide us.


October JFP is Out

October 8, 2010

The October JFP is out. My quick take is that it’s nowhere near as bad as it’s been in the past few years. What is particularly striking is (a) that there are more jobs listed than there were last year and (b) that most of these jobs are for choice or prime schools. Many of these positions are downright plum jobs, not the usual mix of teeth gritters, and anybody landing a TT appointment this year would likely do very well for themselves. Ethics, social and political, applied… these particular fields are in great shape this year. Obviously, there’s a backlog from years past, but it’s pretty amazing for anybody working in this area.


The Force of Reason

October 4, 2010

JM Bernstein nicely dismantles the current financial crisis and the TARP by using Hegel, of all people. He says, quoting Hegel, “regulation is the force of reason needed to undo the concoctions of fantasy.”

…it is not motives but actions that matter, and how those actions hang together to make a practical world.  What makes the propounding of virtue illusory — just so much rhetoric — is that there is no world, no interlocking set of practices into which its actions could fit and have traction: propounding peace and love without practical or institutional engagement is delusion, not virtue.  Conversely, what makes self-interested individuality effective is not its self-interested motives, but that there is an elaborate system of practices that supports, empowers, and gives enduring significance to the banker’s actions.  Actions only succeed as parts of practices that can reproduce themselves over time.  To will an action is to will a practical world in which actions of that kind can be satisfied — no corresponding world, no satisfaction.  Hence the banker must have a world-interest as the counterpart to his self-interest or his actions would become as illusory as those of the knight of virtue.  What bankers do, Hegel is urging, is satisfy a function within a complex system that gives their actions functional significance.

I really like the way he puts this. It could’ve badly derailed. Fortunately, I don’t think it did. At least, I find it clear enough. Wonder what non-readers of Hegel think.


A Grain of SALT

September 15, 2010

I’m probably more of a fan of Immanuel Kant than most folks at Colorado, and I certainly think the Groundwork in the Metaphysics of Morals is one of the great books of ethics (as well as the Critique of Practical Reason), but our dear Tea Party winner-of-the-hour Christie O’Donnell has taken this Kant stuff a wee bit too far.

Turns out, she’s the living incarnation of the great Professor. On one hand, she appears to believe that lying is wrong under all circumstances, even under extreme murderer at the door scenarios. Here she is on Politically Incorrect ten years ago:

Kant, famously, also believed that lying is wrong in all circumstances, and he explicitly addressed a murderer at the door case. Many non- and even anti- Kantians take this example as a core reason to reject Kant out of hand. As a consequence, many notable Kantians have since struggled to offer plausible responses to critics.

But more distressingly, O’Donnell thinks that masturbation is a form of self-aggrandizement akin to adultery. Kant, as well, appears to have believed something similar. Again, some people take this as clear evidence that Kant was a nutter. Here’s O’Donnell again in a PSA she made for an organization called the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT) from 1988:

Needless to say, what makes her crazy is not, strictly speaking, these crazy views. If Professor Awesome himself can defend the views — and I believe he can — then it is likely that they are not, strictly speaking, crazy views. What makes her crazy is that these views can’t readily be defended in any non-ideal way, which is what was primarily of concern to Kant. It’s not clear that O’Donnell is speaking of the ideal. She’s speaking of the non-ideal. Fact is, people get horny and people get bloodthirsty. Better to let the horny ones handle their drives in a productive way and to steer the bloodthirsty types away from the kids.


Philosophy and Policy

September 9, 2010

Roger has a nice post this morning about the conflict and pushback he’s gotten from political scientists by working on policy issues. The same could be said for those working in philosophy and policy.

Curiously, many philosophers will insist that they’re interested in public policy issues. They will tell you that they focus on abstract philosophical questions associated with broad-reaching public policy concerns: moral status, personal identity, doing and allowing, the nature of value. These are all  interesting questions, of course, and I work on some of them too. When push comes to shove, however, many philosophers often refuse to go further. They’ll insist that many of the more pressing public policy issues aren’t philosophically interesting enough, that there’s no sense in dissecting the details. Doing so will certainly come off as scholastic and picayune.

Meh. Policy is messy, gritty stuff. The targets are moving. The questions are changing. Philosophers need to step up and get a little dirty. It ain’t as pure as all the beautiful as the M&E or metaethics stuff; it’s not as fun as the normative or even the applied ethics work; but it’s just as damned important.

Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretirt; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern. Or something like that.


Tenure and Jobs

August 24, 2010

Okay. Semester’s upon us. I’ve been slacking like a fishing line on my blog, but you guys keep coming back for more. Or, at least, my blog-hits are still on the high side. Apparently I can leave this puppy to sit for a while and people still come. Honestly, I’m flattered. Apologies for the delays. I’m working on a book and I’ve been deeply engaged in that project.

Here’s a thought that’s been irking me for a while. The philosophy blogosphere was a little nuts earlier last week with some garbage by Mark C. Taylor when he wrote on academic bankruptcy. I don’t agree with him about academic bankruptcy, and I think tenure is a pretty important institution, as I’ve argued before.

Today I read a piece on the philosophy job market. The author there rightly explains that it’s pretty dismal and that it’s nearly impossible to get a job. She laments this state of affairs as akin to sending out a message in a bottle.

Naturally, this raises a question posed succinctly by snwiedmann in the comments.  Here’s the thought that caught my eye:

When a small college offering only a one-year position receives 350 applications and a large university 750, isn’t time we began to examine the admission practices of our graduate programs?

My view is this: it is a pretty serious mistake to assume that the reason that people go to grad school in philosophy is because they expect (anticipate? feel entitled to?) a job on the other end. Surely, some people go to grad school in philosophy under the mistaken impression that they will waltz into a tenure-track job somewhere. I must assume, however, that these folks are in the minority. Most people enter grad school — or, at least, they should enter grad school — knowing full well that the likelihood of landing a job in philosophy, not to mention a good job in philosophy, is pretty slim.

It’s my attitude that just because there are few jobs available that this doesn’t at all call into question the admission practices of our graduate programs. I have two reasons for this:

1) I think there is intrinsic value in studying philosophy (or most other academic topics, though I’ll speak mostly about philosophy). If an undergraduate finishes her BA in philosophy and feels that she has only scratched the surface, feels that she would like to scratch deeper, who are we to stop her? Seems to me that we should encourage her to scratch deeper, to continue scratching, even if it involves living the life of a grad student for two to seven years or more. It’s a nice life. It’s rewarding. It’s fulfilling.

FWIW, this is exactly how I felt when I left my BA. I wanted more. I thirsted for more. And I entered my PhD knowing full well that the odds were against me ever landing a job. As it happens, the stars aligned in my favor, but I had no way of knowing this when I went to grad school. To hedge my bets, I got a professional degree that kept me sane; I carried at least some reassurance that I could always land on my feet. But even without the professional degree, my suspicion is that most graduate students can land on their feet if they really have to.

2) Accepting that there is intrinsic value in studying philosophy, but perhaps stipulating that the value is primarily extrinsic, I even still fail to see the logic in re-evaluating our admission practices. Why not instead re-evaluate the options at the back-end? Why not try to entertain, and even elevate, the status of non-academic positions? Or, perhaps seek to capture some more academic positions by creating new areas of study? Or, even more radically, push for philosophy to be taught at different levels, perhaps even in high school?

I, for one, feel that philosophy is deeply underutilized, and I think some (if not most) of the jobs crisis in philosophy falls squarely on the shoulders of a philosophical establishment that chastises innovation and deviation from a very small sample of questions.

My two cents. Discuss. I’ve got a book to work on.


Morris Judd

August 5, 2010

This article was forwarded to me by a friend. It’s about McCarthyism at CU Boulder in the 1950s. Pretty fascinating stuff, particularly since it involves the philosophy department.

“In 1952, the university of Colorado fired Morris Judd, an instructor in the Department of Philosophy, for failing to answer President Robert Stearns’s question, “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”  Seeking to pacify a public alarmed by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charge that communist professors were subverting American universities, CU disregarded the lessons of the 1920s, when the KKK had attempted to rid the university of Catholics, Blacks, and Jews, and initiated a purge of students, staff, and faculty….”

Fair enough. Pretty interesting lede, actually. Now this:

“To this day at the University of Colorado, the curriculum, particularly in philosophy, can be read as the triumph of the Stearns gang.  Analytic philosophy holds center stage, no doubt because of its value-neutral stance, having displaced courses in social and political theory.  Faculty scholarship has changed as well.  In virtually every discipline, explicit argumentation has given way to “thick” description and “new” narrative, overt to covert (or unconscious) agendas.  The baneful effects of this change are especially apparent in my own specialties, English and composition:  students are now trained to feel rather than to think.  The obligation to defend a thesis is foreign to them.  It is my contention that their intellectual irresponsibility is both cause and effect of political irresponsibility, and that worse is to come unless our professors and pastors and politicos remember how to nail their own theses on authority’s door.”

Say what? Analytic philosophy does hold center stage, but it’s not clear that it’s because of its value-neutral stance. For instance, we play host to one of the largest annual conferences in ethics, broadly conceived, which is generally speaking not value-neutral. That’s happening today and through the rest of the weekend.

We also have a fair bit of social and political theory going on, though perhaps not of the sort that relies heavily on Marx.

Finally, explicit argumentation hasn’t actually given way to “thick” description and “new” narrative in philosophy. Check out our paper abstracts for RoME. Not a lot of description in those papers. Pretty bare-bones argumentation.