Here’s a depressing thought that sometimes occurs to me: someone I teach may, one day, end up in a position of elected power. It’s not an unreasonable fear. The Houses of Parliament are stacked with former Oxford PPE students, shiny-faced and slick of hair, trumpeted by the University as proof of our continuing excellence. Many of our students seem halfway there already, constitutionally incapable of taking any stand on a position that matters. How long before one of them makes the journey from my tutorials to elected office?
Prime amongst the ‘transferable skills’ so lauded by philosophy’s proselytisers are those of drawing careful distinctions, of paying attention to small but subtle differences between cases.
The development of these skills is thought to be central to a philosophical education. (‘Oxford Philosophy: training tomorrow’s thinkers today.’) And when used effectively, they allow a clarity of thought shocking in its brilliance and precision.
But they sometimes lapse into institutionally sanctioned pedantry. And when they do, they have analogues in a particular kind of self-deception, that involved in rationalising our bad behaviour. It is easy for a philosopher, trained in the making of distinctions, to distinguish lying from reticence, as Kant did, when writing to a suicidal correspondent. Lying is contrary to the moral law, he claimed; reticence on the other hand…
Here is one use for philosophical thinking: to draw distinctions that make one’s immoral conduct seem permissible, even praiseworthy. It is the kind of thinking which justifies claiming light bulbs on expenses or pressuring one’s spouse into taking one’s speeding points.
It is as if philosophy provides the tools which enable us to do all that we do whilst looking in the mirror and saying: yes, you’ve done good.
If you've sent me a conference invitation or referee request to which I have not responded, please contact me again at bleiter-at-uchicago-dot-edu. I have in recent months caught one of each that somehow landed in "junk mail" for unknown reasons. I do check junk mail periodically, but I worry I may also miss things. My apologies for any inconvenience.
ADDENDUM: I should note I'm turning down most referee requests due to my on-going eye problems, which left me behind on a lot of work--though things may get better in the summer.
Totally believable and totally disgusting. In a civilized society, these pointless people would be separated from the money that makes their excesses possible. (And it's an illusion that this behavior is confined only to the Upper East Side.)
When Colin McGinn was forced to resign from the University of Miami, I can still recall Sally Haslanger's cry of victory on Facebook and shout-out to UM President Shalala; the lawyer for the victim does not see it that way, it turns out:
Feminist lawyer Ann Olivarius, who is representing the alleged student victim of sexual harassment in the McGinn case, says there's another side to Shalala's legacy. Olivarius compares Shalala's exit to the way the Catholic Church kept silent and moved its pedophilic priests instead of addressing the situation.
“For centuries, the standard way Catholic bishops handled child sexual abuse by priests was to move them quietly to a new job and keep mum,” she says. “Donna Shalala doesn’t quite look like a Catholic bishop, but I am astounded how much she seems to have borrowed from their playbook in steering the University of Miami after one of its graduate students.”
In 2012, after the student Olivarius is representing submitted explicit emails and text messages from her professor as part of a sexual harassment complaint, Shalala made sure the tenured and prominent professor was removed from the university. Shalala rerouted the proper firing protocol for a tenured professor by strong-arming the accused professor into resignation for “failure to report a consensual, romantic relationship” and avoiding a faculty senate hearing.
The student claims that as soon as the professor left, Shalala stopped caring about her well-being even though she had been complaining of retaliation as a series of blog posts sprouted up on the professor’s personal blog. She also says that having McGinn cop to a lesser offense allowed her alleged harasser to continue to claim that their relationship was consensual and romantic.
Olivarius contends that Shalala offered McGinn the “plea bargain” and a dignified exit to “avoid a long and ugly Faculty Senate trial that would have generated terrible headlines for UM. Shalala and other University officials threw the student under the bus knowing full well that McGinn had harassed her,” Olivarius says.
A curious website, I can not vouch for its reliability. Lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, occupational therapists, and college professors have very little chance of being displaced by robots (3% or less); economists, on the other hand, have worse odds (over 40%!). Go figure.
A senior philosopher at another top program (not Michigan) e-mailed an interesting question about attrition; she writes:
[Y]our most recent post raises a question that might be worth discussing, namely whether all grad school attrition is a bad thing, and how to tell good from bad if not. I think US News etc. have done a huge disservice to academe by suggesting that the higher the completion rate the better at the undergrad level, and I wouldn't like to see the same assumption become unquestioned at the graduate level. Some people are better off doing something else, especially when there are not going to be enough jobs for all qualified candidates, and it's often in everyone's interest for them to find that out before completion -- though the how and when is always tricky, and most departments don't handle it well. And of course from an applicant's point of view a high attrition rate is always reasonably taken as a bad sign.
I am inclined to agree with my correspondent. Readers?
You've linked to two articles by Todd Gitlin recently. Both indicate troubling characteristics of college students that are possibly (at least in part) attributable to the influence that capitalism exerts on American culture (e.g. freshmen are now in general more interested in great financial success than "develop[ing] a meaningful philosophy of life," while in 1974 the latter was more strongly valued than the former - perhaps this is explicable in terms of changes in the college population, but from what I understand (uniquely capitalistic) economic forces may well be to blame). Then there are larger worries about growing depression among Americans (Gitlin speaks to this in one of the articles that you posted), which is sometimes vaguely explained as a product of an empty consumer culture that allegedly breeds nihilism. (A more expansive list of cultural problems supposedly produced by capitalism is offered by Terry Eagleton in Why Marx was Right: "Alienation, the ‘commodification’ of social life, a culture of greed, aggression, mindless hedonism and growing nihilism, the steady hemorrhage of meaning and value from human existence . . . .")
In light of the foregoing, my question is this: Are there any good, and relatively recent, books or articles that argue that capitalism has deleterious effects on American (or, more broadly, Western) culture? If there are, I've had little success in finding them. The Frankfurt School is clearly relevant here, but Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse were (obviously) engaged with a world substantially different from the current one, and the modern representatives of the Frankfurt School (e.g. Habermas and Honneth) repeatedly strike me as far too gentle with contemporary culture, possibly for fear of seeming too pessimistic.
Habermas basically abandoned the original critical/Marxian/Freudian aspects of Critical Theory in favor of a return to Kant. But the question posed is a good one. What would readers recommend by sociologists, historians, political theorists, philosophers etc.?
MOVING TO FRONT FROM YESTERDAY, AN INTERESTING DISCUSSION IN THE COMMENTS; MORE CONTRIBUTIOSN WELCOME
Stefan Sciaraffa (McMaster) calls my attention to a striking item by philosopher Elizabeth Barnes (Virginia); an excerpt:
I have sat in philosophy seminars where it was asserted that I should be left to die on a desert island if the choice was between saving me and saving an arbitrary non-disabled person. I have been told it would be wrong for me to have my biological children because of my disability. I have been told that, while it isn’t bad for me to exist, it would’ve been better if my mother could’ve had a non-disabled child instead. I’ve even been told that it would’ve been better, had she known, for my mother to have an abortion and try again in hopes of conceiving a non-disabled child. I have been told that it is obvious that my life is less valuable when compared to the lives of arbitrary non-disabled people. And these things weren’t said as the conclusions of careful, extended argument. They were casual assertions. They were the kind of thing you skip over without pause because it’s the uncontroversial part of your talk.
Now, of course, no one has said these things to me specifically. They haven’t said “Hey, Elizabeth Barnes, this is what we think about you!” But they’ve said them about disabled people in general, and I’m a disabled person. Even just thinking about statements like these, as I write this, I feel so much – sadness, rage, and more than a little shame. It’s an odd thing, a hard thing, to try to take these emotions and turn them into interesting philosophy and careful arguments. My first reaction isn’t to sit down and come up with carefully crafted counterexamples for why the views I find so disgusting are false. My first reaction is to want to punch the people that say these things in the face. (Or maybe shut myself in my room and cry. Or maybe both. It depends on the day.) It’s a strange thing – an almost unnatural thing – to construct careful, analytically rigorous arguments for the value of your own life, or for the bare intelligibility of the claims made by an entire civil rights movement....
Sally Haslanger once told me to trust my anger. That was some of the best advice anyone’s ever given me. I’m trying to learn how to take my anger and use it as motivation to keep writing, especially on those days when the thought of using philosophical arguments to push back against the status quo feels somewhere between overwhelming and pointless. And while feeling this way can be exhausting – in a way that writing about, say, metaphysical indeterminacy never was – it can also make the end result deeply special and meaningful in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated.
Thoughts from readers on the issues raised by Prof. Barnes?
David Owens (ethics, philosophy of action), Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading, has accepted appointment as Professor of Moral Philosophy at King's College, London. Together with the strong group in moral and political philosophy on the law faculty at KCL, this will make KCL one of best places in the UK for work in these areas.
Available here. Attrition appears to be much lower than when I was at Michigan in the late 80s and early 90s. In my class of nine (seven men, two women), the two women did not complete the program, but all seven men did eventually--and that was a good year. The following year, as I recall, only one or two students out of eight or so completed the program, and attrition of half or more of the class seemed to be the norm for the preceding years. A lot has changed in the interim: Michigan now offers better financial aid for all admitted PhD students than it did then; and the Department was a pretty ferocious place at that time (Peter Railton is alluding to this briefly in his Dewey Lecture); I think it is less so now.
The full report. Briefly: Michael LaCour, a PhD candidate in poli sci at UCLA, got a lot of attention for a paper co-authored with Donald Green in 2014:
LaCour and Green (2014, Science) report a remarkable result: a ~20-minute conversation with a gay canvasser produces large positive shifts in feelings towards gay people that persist for over a year. The study’s design is also notable: over 12% of voters invited to participate in the ostensibly unrelated survey that formed the study’s measurement apparatus agreed to be surveyed; nearly 90% were successfully reinterviewed; and each voter referred an average of 1.33 other voters to be part of the study who lived in the study area. The paper is based on a dataset that allegedly describes two field experiments, LaCour (2014).
Other researchers, taken by the results, want to pursue the research further: "Hoping we could harness the same procedures that produced the original study’s high reported response rate, we attempt to contact the survey firm we believed had performed the original study and ask to speak to the staffer at the firm who we believed helped perform Study 1 in LaCour and Green (2014). The survey firm claimed they had no familiarity with the project and that they had never had an employee with the name of the staffer we were asking for. The firm also denied having the capabilities to perform many aspects of the recruitment procedures described in LaCour and Green (2014)."
Presented with this and other evidence of irregularities, Prof. Green "agrees a retraction is in order unless LaCour provides countervailing evidence." Prof. Green then reports that "LaCour has been confronted and has confessed to falsely describing at least some of the details of the data collection," and proceeds to post a public retraction of the 2014 paper.
Barring some further exonerating circumstances, I would imagine this is the end of Mr. LaCour's career as an academic political scientist.
Excesses of censorial zeal are easy to recognize, and pseudosolutions that require tiptoeing through minefields are easy to decry. The more deeply interesting question is: Why are we having this discussion at all? Deploring is simple, but grasping is hard.
The closer you look, the higher the questions pile up. Are more students arriving at college already feeling rattled? Is sexual assault on campus more common than ever, requiring new levels of preventive intervention? Or is the fear of rape, surely realistic up to a point, inordinate?
Does a troubling curriculum suggest an abundance of troubled minds? Is there an epidemic of fragility? Of the fear of fragility? Or both? (Are they the same thing?) Maybe more traumas — more date rapes, more racial "microaggressions" — lie in wait for unsuspecting students nowadays. Does the clamor for the right to be undisturbed emanate from a particular set of students, or does it reflect a more sweeping incidence of disturbance? Is there a climate of contagion? Is fragility the new normal?...
There is ample reason to believe that more college students now than 20 or 30 or 40 years ago consult campus counselors to deal with one stress or another. According to the most recent survey (September 1, 2012 to August 31, 2013) of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors:
Several readers have recently reported being redirected after awhile on the blog to other websites (one about gardening [!], for example). We've filed a "help" request with Typepad to see if we can fix the problem. Thanks for your patience (and also for letting me know).
Specifically, from July 21  Wise was herself touting Salaita’s free-speech rights, and during the subsequent two days leading up to the BOT meeting she consulted multiple times with UIUC Provost Ilesanmi Adesida and UIUC Assistant Provost and Associate Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access Menah Pratt-Clarke on Salaita’s hire letter. These exchanges are notable because they show Wise consulting regularly with these faculty members, and not just in the administrative vacuum that UIUC’s earlier FOIA productions to the public had suggested. And of course it’s also interesting to note that from very early on Wise’s thoughts and those of Provost Adesida and Assistant Provost Pratt-Clarke had turned from Salaita’s free-speech rights to the question of whether or not he could be un-hired based simply on a decision not to forward his hiring to the BOT.....
Consider also the email exchange of July 22 in which Adesida tells the UIUC Vice President for Academic Affair Christophe Pierre that, regarding the Salaita hiring, “He [Salaita] accepted the offer; this has been done since September last year! It is final,” which I discuss in detail in the Open Letter I sent to the CAFT on their investigation. This email was seemingly never provided by UIUC to the CAFT. Why? It’s unfortunately quite possible UIUC didn’t provide it because it supports the argument made by Salaita’s lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) of what’s termed “promissory estoppel,” that is, a legal doctrine that, if applicable, would bind UIUC to its hire offer because that offer was unambiguous and Salaita relied on it to his detriment. According to CCR, UIUC’s lawyers claim estoppel is not applicable because “Defendants [UIUC, Wise, etc.] contend (a) that no unambiguous promise was made to Salaita, and (b) that Plaintiff’s reliance on any promise was unreasonable.” But that email of Adesida’s on July 22 sure suggests Adesida himself believed the offer was unambiguous and “final,” which certainly seems strong evidence against UIUC’s claims.
I myself do not think on the evidence available that Prof. Barnett acted wrongfully (though without a doubt imprudently, as one of his colleagues suggested the other day), but I can certainly see how reasonable people could differ on that question. I am more astonished by the 10% who think that what Prof. Barnett did could constitute a firing offense for a faculty member with tenure.
I hope a Department looking to raise its profile in philosophy of language and mind, as well as metaphysics, will take advantage of the misconduct of Colorado's Administration in the Barnett case. In addition to having a strong publication record (papers in Mind, Philosophical Review, Nous, Australian Journal of Philosophy, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research and elsewhere), Barnett also got a Teaching Excellence award at Colorado a few years ago.
The Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine has made (so far) two senior hires for 2015-16: Annalisa Coliva (philosophy of language and mind, metaphysics, epistemology, history of analytic philosophy) from the University of Modina, and Karl Schafer (epistemology, ethics, history of modern philosophy, Kant) from the University of Pittsburgh. Coliva starts in Spring 2016, Schafer starts this fall.
(Thanks to Aaron James, Chair of the Department, for confirming the particulars.)
Just posted the Mary Louise Gill interview. It's interesting stuff. She talks about reading Gone with The Wind in secret at home (it was forbidden), being required to read J Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit in the 6th grade, her father, John Glanville Gill—a unitarian minister who was eventually fired for being too radical --and his fight with the Ku Klux Klan in St. Louis, how she realized she was never really religious, being Chair of the Classics Department at University of Pittsburgh, a department the administration was itching to get rid of, finding out about and subverting a secret plan to get rid of Classics, suffering reprisals in the form of rumors, finding peace of mind at Princeton and, eventually Brown, teaching philosophy in China, and what she would do if she was a philosopher-queen!
MOVING TO FRONT FROM YESTERDAY--COMMENTS ARE NOW OPEN, SEE THE UPDATE
Several readers sent this. The correct answer is, of course, 'yes."
UDPATE: A graduate student at a top PhD program writes:
I was wondering whether you would consider opening the thread up for discussion. I agree with you that grad students and adjuncts, and philosophy grad students and adjuncts in particular, ought to unionize. But I honestly have no idea how, and I would appreciate it if a discussion on the subject could point the way toward doing so. Which unions are grad students and adjuncts in philosophy joining if any?
[H]er latest publication, For the New Intellectual, offers a selection of those passages, with an overtly philosophical introduction which places the rest of the system in perspective. At last the eager student can get some sort of overview of the intellectual edifice which is presented for his acceptance. I must say at the outset that I have not found the offering very palatable. Not, let me hasten to add, because I disagree with the conclusions—free trade, a minimum of governmental interference in the economy, the immorality of altruism, are, I think, eminently justifiable intellectual positions. Rather it is the paucity of rational arguments, the frequency with which nonsense is offered as self-evident truth, the hysterical ranting against opponents who have had their views distorted beyond recognition, the amateurish psychologizing—in a word, the sloppiness of the whole thing, which forces me to regard it as a paradigm of philosophical incompetence. The temptation is to see it as a huge joke, a farce by means of which its creator can laugh at the gullible. But at the risk of being taken in I shall treat this book seriously, with perhaps only the popularity of the doctrine to justify the enterprise. My method shall be the following—I shall quote, sometimes at length, from the book, and then comment on the material presented.
And this from the conclusion equally sharp:
It is not difficult to understand the attraction Ayn Rand has for the uninstructed. She appears, I suppose, to be the spokesman for freedom, for self-esteem, and other equally noble ideals. However, patient examination reveals her pronouncements to be but a shroud beneath which lies the corpse of illogic. Those who are concerned with discovering the principles of a sound social philosophy can read and study libertarian thought at its best. The ludicrously mistitled “philosophy of Ayn Rand” is a sham. To those who are travelling her road I can only suggest its abandonment—for that way madness lies.
Although predictable sanctimonious posturers in the bowels of cyberspace (like David Koepsell) apparently think it correct to fire a tenured professor for writing a report trying to exonerate one of his graduate students, the overwhelming response of philosophers and others appears to have been that a grave injustice was done in this case, either because Prof. Barnett did not act wrongfully in trying to defend his student or that even if Prof. Barnett was wrong to do his own investigation of the University's investigation into the allegations, what he did was not by any stretch of the imagination a firing offense. That's my impression only; I wonder what readers think about this case? If you have not followed it, please read some of the Daily Camera articles before voting.
A young philosopher in a non-tenure-stream position (and who has an extremely impressive publication record) writes:
Naturally, being non-TT faculty or an independent scholar can be trying. But I don't know if people realize how much non-TT professionals are ignored, even when their CVs are much better than some TT professors (and even though securing a TT-job is somewhat a matter of luck). I've seen recently on social media some good suggestions about how to improve things, for example, by inviting non-tenure-track philosophers to contribute to a volume you are editing, or speak as part of your department's speaker series, or speak or comment at the conference or APA session you are organizing.
Continental Philosophy Farhang Erfani, a philosopher at American University, provides a useful set of links to news, events, interviews, reviews, videos, etc. related to "Continental philosophy" (broadly construed)