Monday, October 29, 2007

GPC (and GBP)

A couple people have asked me where the GPC website is. It's here.
It's also linked from the "graduate program page" on the department website.

This Thursday we continue on with Streed on naturalism. Be there.

As for tonight: Go, Pack, Go!

Fires and Chocolate

I'm grateful to hear, via various and sundry sources, that everyone made it through the fires relatively safe and sound; here's hoping that smoke inhalation and cabin fever were the only negative consequences of the wildfires for UCSD philosophers. Oh yes, and not being able to see your students' smiling faces for an entire week!

Speaking of students, I was recently directed to the following article about a study from Northwestern about student evaluations:

It reminded me of two things, in particular:

(1) Why I wait to bring in the home-baked chocolate chip cookies until AFTER the evals; and
(2) Why student evals should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Ideally, our pedagogy will be developed enough that we'll be able to engage even the most reticent students in a way that stimulates them WITHOUT using chemicals :-) (For the more sarcastically inclined, a snarkier take on this study is at

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Some bars probably aren't on fire

We should all do something social this week/weekend. I'm already feeling the cabin fever a bit. Any ideas?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Analytic vs. Inspirational Philosophy

More from Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country:

A humanistic discipline is in good shape only when it produces both inspiring works and works which contextualize, and thereby deromanticize and debunk, those inspiring works. So I think philosophy, as an academic discipline, was in better shape when it had room for admirers of Whitehead as well as admirers of Ayer. I think that literature departments were in better shape when people of [Harold] Bloom's and [Dorothy] Allison's sort had a better chance than, I am told, they now have of being allowed to spend their teaching lives reiterating their idiosyncratic enthusiasms for their favorite prophets and demiurges. People of that sort are the ones [Frederic] Jameson thinks outdated, because they are still preoccupied with what he calls the "bourgeois ego." They are people whose motto is Wordsworth's "What we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how." This kind of teaching is different from the kind that produces knowingness, or technique, or professionalism.

Of course, if such connoisseurs of charisma were the only sort of teacher available, students would be short-changed. But they will also be short-changed if they only sort of teacher available is the knowing, debunking, nil admirari kind. We shall always need people in every discipline whose talents suit them for understanding rather than for hope, for placing a text in a context rather than celebrating its originality, and for detecting nonsense rather than producing it. But the natural tendency of professionalization and academicization is to favor a talent for analysis and problem-solving overt imagination, to replace enthusiasm with dry, sardonic knowingness. The dismalness of a lot of social science, and of a lot of analytic philosophy, is evidence of what happens when this replacement is complete.

Within the academy, the humanities have been a refuge for enthusiasts. If there is no longer a place for them within either philosophy or literature departments, it is not clear where they will find shelter in the future. People like Bloom and Allison---people who began devouring books as soon as they learned to read, whose lives were saved by books---may get frozen out of those departments. If they are, the study of the humanities will continue to produce knowledge, but it may no longer produce hope. Humanistic education may become what it was in Oxbridge before the reforms of the 1870s: merely a turnstile for admission to the overclass. (pp. 134-5)

Of course, this is Rorty at his best: sweeping, broad, visionary... and maybe a little overgeneralizing and incautious. The context of this is a chapter entitled "The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature," in which Rorty bemoans the trend in Literature towards cultural studies and "theory" and away from the appreciation of the Western canon. Now, on the one hand, the passage was published in 1998, and, on the other hand, I have no way to evaluate his claims about the trends in Lit, either then or since. But I feel a little more comfortable assessing his claims about philosophy, and I find both sets of claims interesting and inspiring.

As background, Rorty has been in the chapter getting some mileage out of comparing the current trend to the history of sociology departments, which according to Rorty "started out as movements for social reform [and] ended up training students to clothe statistics in jargon." In comparison,

If literature departments turn into departments of cultural studies, Bloom fears, they will start off hoping to do some badly needded political work, but will end up training their students to clothe resentment in jargon. (p. 127)

The second comparison that guides Rorty is the state of academic philosophy in the 1930s, in which he saw two paradigmatic figures. On the one hand, there was A.N. Whitehead, who "stood for charisma, genius, romance, and Wordsworth. Like Bloom, he agreed with Goethe that the ability to shudder with awe is the best feature of human beings." On the other hand, there was A.J. Ayer, who

stood for logic, debunking, and knowingness. He wanted philosophy to be a matter of scientific teamwork, rather than of imaginative breakthroughs by heroic figures. He saw theology, metaphysics, and literature as devoid of what he called "cognitive significance," and Whitehead as a good logician who had been ruined by poetry. Ayer regarded shudders of awe as neurotic symptoms. He helped create the philosophical tone which Iris Murdoch criticized in her celebrated essay "Against Dryness." (pp. 128-9)

Now, we are far removed from the '50s, in which positivism was arguably at its zenith, and it's been a decade since Rorty's essay. I'm a little more optimistic than he about the possibility for what we might call "inspirational philosophy," bringing his comparison full-circle. Feyerabend's imaginative late work, Conquest of Abundance, was published a year afterwards, and in recent years, the appreciation of imaginative figures like Whitehead, Dewey, Feyerabend, the German Romantics, and others like them seems to be on the rise in academic departments, and there were even when he was writing more imaginative and inspirational figures than Rorty probably appreciated (I would count Paul Churchland as one such). Still, we obviously have a long way to go towards being a humanistic discipline that is in "good shape," if Rorty is right.

What do you think?

Does This Help?

Chaospet raises an interesting problem for compatibilism. (Hat tip: Leiter)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Did I miss something?

Found this on the USD Law and Philosophy Roundtable website.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Is there still an American Left?

I've just finished reading Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country, and I must say that it is the best thing of his that I've ever read. I will probably bother the group with it more than once as I think about it more, but for now, since I'm just in the "stunned" phase, here's a choice little passage I wanted to share:

It is as if, sometime around 1980, the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them. They decided that although social mobility had been appropriate for their parents, it was not to be allowed to the next generation. These suburbanites seem to see nothing wrong with belonging to a hereditary caste, and have initiated what Robert Reich (in his book The Work of Nations) calls "the secession of the successful.

Sometime in the Seventies, American middle-class idealism went into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the Democratic Party has survived by distancing itself from the unions and from any mention of redistribution, and moving into a sterile vacuum called the "center." The party no long has a visible, noisy left wing---a wing with which the intellectuals can identify and on which the unions can rely for support. It is as if the distribution of income and wealth has become too scary a topic for any American politician---much less any sitting president---ever to mention. Politicians fear that mentioning it would lose them votes among the only Americans who can be relied on to go to the polls: the suburbanites. So the choice between the two major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence. (pp. 86-7, emphasis mine)

Monday, October 08, 2007

You're all just a bunch of robots, man.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the "determinism makes us robots" assumption that seems more or less pervasive in the popular literature on free will and moral responsibility. It popus up especially in popular articles about the impact of neuroscientific work on free will. The idea seems to be that the truth of determinism would preclude reasoned judgment, which appears to be at least a significant requirement for free and responsible action. But the robot metaphor carries with it the image of self-alienation, as if determinism would have us carrying on mechanistically in spite of some deper free self.

There was an interesting exchange about this on The Garden of Forking Paths recently over an article of Dana's. And since then contributors have been linking to (mostly popular) articles that make this assumption or seem to take it as a serious position that needs to be dispatched.

All this strikes me as interesting both sociologically and philosophically. There's ample evidence to show that lots of people think this way about determinism. What makes, not just incompatibilism, but this particular interpretation of its consequences, so attractive to undergraduates and science journalists? Is compatibilism really that unintuitive? And so what if it is? Eddy Nahmias and Joshua Knobe have pushed this for some purpose that is a bit opaque to me.

Anyhow, thoughts on the determinism to robots move, either anecdotal or otherwise?

Friday, October 05, 2007

semantic externalism comics


the medicalization of back pain

Here. An excerpt:

Now as I have said so many times before, the placebo effect is not about a sugar pill, it’s about the cultural meaning of a treatment, and our expectations: we know from research that two sugar pills are more effective than one, that a salt water injection is better for pain than a sugar pill, that colour and packaging have a beneficial effect, and so on. Interestingly, there has even been a trial on patients with arm pain specifically comparing a placebo pill against a placebo ritual involving a sham medical device, modelled on acupuncture, which found that the elaborate ritual was more effective than the simple sugar pill. “Placebo” is not a unitary phenomenon, there is not “one type of placebo”.

But the most important background information missing from the news reports wasn’t about the details of the study: it was about back pain. Because back pain isnt like epilepsy or tuberculosis. Most of the big risk factors for a niggle turning into chronic longstanding back pain are personal, psychological, and social: things like depression, job dissatisfaction, unavailability of light duty on return to work, and so on.

And the evidence on treatments tells an even more interesting psychosocial story: sure, anti-inflammatory drugs are better than placebo. But more than that, bed rest is actively harmful, specific exercises can be too, and proper trial data shows that simply giving advice to “stay active” speeds recovery, reduces chronic disability, and reduces time off work.
We don’t like stories and solutions like that for our health problems. There are huge industries telling you that your tiredness is due to some “chromium deficiency” (buy the pill); your cloudy headed foggy feeling can be fixed with vitamin pills, pills, and more pills. It is a brave doctor who dares to bring up psychosocial issues for any complaint when a patient has been consistently told it is biomedical by every newspaper, every magazine, and every quack in town.