As a survivor from the wartime group [at Oxford], I can only say: sorry, but the reason was indeed that there were fewer men about then. The trouble is not, of course, men as such – men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about. All this can go on until somebody from outside the circle finally explodes it by moving the conversation on to a quite different topic, after which the games are forgotten. Hobbes did this in the 1640s. Moore and Russell did it in the 1890s. And actually I think the time is about ripe for somebody to do it today. By contrast, in those wartime classes – which were small – men (conscientious objectors etc) were present as well as women, but they weren't keen on arguing.
It was clear that we were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down. That was how Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock and I, in our various ways, all came to think out alternatives to the brash, unreal style of philosophising – based essentially on logical positivism – that was current at the time. And these were the ideas that we later expressed in our own writings.
A number of interesting and/or curious claims here (I am particularly struck by the confident dismissal of logical positivism, and by the implication that Oxford no longer produces talented female philosophers), but I'm curious what readers think? Signed comments will, of course, be preferred.
Mary Midgley, aged 81, may be the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool. One moment she sits by her fire in Newcastle like a round-cheeked tabby cat; the next she is deploying a savage Oxonian precision of language to dissect some error as a cat dissects a living mouse.
Interesting piece from Jacobin. (Its partial target is Mark Oppenheimer, one of the scummier journalists I've encountered, but the piece is of interest independent of the easy mark. Adorno even makes an appearance!)
Professor Ivano Caponigro, a linguist at UC San Diego, asked me to share the following:
I'm working on a biography of Richard Montague (1930-1971) that aims to reconstruct his intellectual and personal life, his contributions, and his legacy.
Please contact me if you knew him personally (or just met him a few times) or have any material from him or about him (letters, manuscripts, pictures, audio recordings, etc.) or if you know anybody who knew him or may have material about it.
“Julius Caesar!” He looked up with genuine astonishment. He was a philosopher. Why on earth would anyone ask him to read a dissertation about Julius Caesar?
“Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.”
“Oh. Right.” As though that made it clearer.
The young woman who’d cornered him in his office was a complete stranger. He’d never laid eyes on me, nor I on him. Doubtless I was wearing a leather mini skirt and high brown boots, my usual garb back then.
My take on the play was vaguely philosophical— very vaguely. I had ideas about Shakespeare and 17th century nominalism, though no philosophical context to fit them into, nor any other context, actually, self-directed as I was, the usual experience for women graduate students at Columbia those days. The Shakespearean hadn’t liked my topic, said it was “too modern and psychological,” so I approached the Miltonist with the idea, who said, uh, no, it would be awkward for him to direct a Shakespeare dissertation. I went away and came back a year later with a completed dissertation, throwing myself on the mercy of the Miltonist, who said, okay, okay, he’d try to set up a committee, there was a theater person who might read it, and a nice young assistant professor who more or less had to say yes since he didn’t have tenure, and he suggested that I talk to Arthur Danto. And that was my committee. They more or less smuggled me out the back door, unbeknownst to the Shakespearean (who found out years later, after I was comfortably ensconced on the west coast).
So that’s what I was doing in Danto’s office that spring morning, with my request. He didn’t have to agree, he was an eminence, even then; I wasn’t his student, and the dissertation was very long. But he came through.
After the dissertation defense, I stood outside in the hall, Philosophy Hall, waiting for the verdict. The committee filed out, shook my hand, congratulated me, handed me a few pages of typed notes, and went away.
Everyone except Danto. He stood there, I stood there, an uneasy moment, then he said, “By the way, do you have a job?”
“A job?” I had, as a matter of fact, just lost the adjunct position I’d been counting on to keep me in New York for the next few years. It was 1974; the job market had crashed.
“Would you like a letter?”
“Like… a recommendation? Sure, that’d be great.” It had never occurred to me to ask, I was that clueless.
He needn’t have offered—nobody else did. And he wrote not just once but many times through the years, as I applied for grants, fellowships, positions. He wrote a good letter; I never saw it but I was told it was eloquent. It opened doors.
Those were the only times we met. We corresponded when he was writing for The Nation and, for a time, so was I; we said, the next time I was in New York, we’d get together, etc., though we never did. But I remember him more fondly and vividly than I do almost any of my Columbia professors, as the one who had a sense that there was a person on the line, a person who might need a job.
I think that’s what we take from our teachers, finally, not so much information imparted as a sense of who they are.
I was struck by this from a short Times piece about Appiah, in which he mentions "the most important questions facing us — gender, the environment, animal rights." Are those the "most important questions facing us"? Discuss.
Jonathan Wolff (UCL) comments. At the end of the column, he runs together two issues that should be kept separate: the combative nature of philosophy and how one should treat students. Professor Ishiguro's approach on the latter seems the right one, but that is independent of whether philosophy as practiced among peers should, or should not be, combative. Insofar as truth is at stake, combat seems the right posture!
Mikkel Gerken kindly called to my attention this interview with Fred Dretske that was conducted by the students, named below, for an undergraduate philosophy publication, Tanken, at the University of Copenhagen; the students kindly gave permission to publish the interview.
Interview with Fred Dretske
By Tanja Tofte Bøndergaard and Linda Fønss
Duke campus is beautiful and, to a newcomer, seems like a quiet place. Forbes has ranked this tranquil spot 7th on its list of “power factories”, but it is probably better known for its basketball team and its fierce rivalry with University of North Carolina. This is where Fred Dretske, internationally acclaimed philosopher, has his office and where we have set out to meet him. It wasn’t written in the stars that Fred Dretske would become a philosopher. In fact he was only a year away from completing a degree in electrical engineering when he decided that it was not the field of study meant for him.
“I was an engineer, when I decided I didn’t want to spend my life talking to engineers. I would go to the coffee shops and overhear conversations and say: “Oh, that sounds very interesting.” People talking about literature and sometimes philosophy. I didn’t know these people, but I thought it all sounded fascinating.“
It was a basic introduction to philosophy at college, which got Fred Dretske so hooked that he decided to scrap four years of college and start over with the uncertain prospects of becoming a philosopher.
“I was so excited about the problems that I knew I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.I think it is an advantage to keep your career options open as long as you can, because you’re going to spend 40-50 years doing this and you want to make sure you get it right. I never regretted the decision I made; I know it was the right decision, because I’ve had fun my whole life. But had I stayed in engineering, I think I would have been miserable. You have to make a career decision at some time, of course, but put it off as long as you can.”
When Dretske had finally made his decision and, after two years in the army, entered the academic world of philosophy, he was talked into writing his PhD. on the nature of space, time and substance. However, he quickly abandoned this field and instead fixed his attention on the subject of perception in relation to epistemology, a topic he was far more dedicated to.
“My first book, 'Seeing and Knowing', was about perception; what it takes to see something and how seeing is transformed into knowing. Well, once you start looking at all the ways we talk about seeing and the various ways we use perceptual verbs, there are enormous complications there that you have to sort through to make headway.My claim was that there was something called non-epistemic seeing, so that I can see the book on the table without knowing that it is a book, without even knowing what a book is: simple seeing. Then there is seeing what it is, seeing that it is a book, that’s epistemic seeing. This distinction, I think, is - once you understand it - pretty obvious.It doesn’t seem to me, though, that psychologists and neuroscientists are much interested in such distinctions. What they want to know is: “If you do something here, does it affect what’s there?”.It seems to me that philosophers have something to contribute here. Seeing what is on the table is ambiguous between “seeing what it is that is on the table” and “seeing that thing which is on the table”. That’s a big difference and a philosopher has to be sensitive to such verbal differences, or he’s going to get confused and not be of much help to anyone. Scientists aren’t particularly interested in these subtleties of language. They just get bored. Philosophers are fascinated by them ... I am anyway.”
...since he doesn't seem aware that Foucault's skepticism is directed at the human sciences, not the natural sciences, which he tends to view much as a logical positivist would! See my discussion here, esp. pp. 4-5 (and the footnotes).
As gift-giving season comes around I find myself looking for a good biography of a philosopher to give a friend. When I saw the Christian Science Monitor quote that appears in the Amazon description of Ray Monk's Wittgenstein book ("Great philosophical biographies can be counted on one hand. Monk's life of Wittgenstein is such a one."), I figured I'd toss the thought over to you as a potential blog discussion topic.
So, readers, what would you recommend and why? Signed comments preferred, but all comments must include a valid e-mail address, which will not appear.
Here's this year's ad. Note that, as with last year, these Fellowships are now open to more advanced faculty who would like to combine it with a sabbatical. This year's Fellow is Sarah Conly from Bowdoin. Last year's Fellow was Justin Coates, now in a tenure-track job at Houston. Feel free to e-mail me with questions (I'll be teaching next year's Law & Philosophy Workshop with next year's Fellow: the two likely topics are "Free Speech and Its Critics" or a survey of current issues in general jurisprudence.)
Having just come back from a very enjoyable day-and-a-half at Davidson College (which has a beautiful campus, by the way, about a half-hour from Charlotte, North Carolina), I was particularly struck by how many students turned out for a talk on Nietzsche on a Tuesday evening (and how many asked questions, and good questions), and also by the College's commitment to humanistic studies, as evidenced not only by the strong philosophy faculty (about which I had known prior to visiting), but also by the size and quality of the German department, an area sadly neglected by some colleges, even though it is central to a serious program of humanistic studies, given the centrality of the German language, and German scholarship and culture, to every field in the humanities. I was particularly impressed by a student who told me she had transferred from a well-known private research university to Davidson because she felt there was too much pre-professional pressure at her former school, and she wanted to be in an environment more supportive of humanistic study for its own sake. So kudos to Davidson College!
As was said of the Sokal hoax, there is simply no way to do justice to the cringe-inducing nature of this text without quoting it in its entirety. But, in a nutshell, Basic Structures of Reality is an impressively inept contribution to philosophy of physics, and one exemplifying everything that can possibly go wrong with metaphysics: it is mind-numbingly repetitive, toe-curlingly pretentious, and amateurish in the extreme regarding the incorporation of physical fact. With work this grim, the only interesting questions one can raise concern not the content directly but the conditions that made it possible; and in this connection, one might be tempted to present the book as further evidence of the lack of engagement of metaphysicians with real science — something that has lately been subject to lively discussion (and I myself have slung some of the mud). But I would insist that to use this work to make a general point about the discipline would in fact be entirely unfair. For one thing, while contemporary metaphysicians are often tokenistic in their treatments, I think most would appreciate that looking at the pictures in a book is of limited value qua research into unobservable entities, even if it is the auspicious ‘1700-page textbook University Physics’ (p. 129) that informs McGinn’s critique. Furthermore, McGinn has scant interest in getting to grips not only with the relevant science, but also the work of fellow philosophers wrestling with questions similar to those he himself is concerned with. Despite defending dispositional essentialism, for example, there is no mention of Mumford, Ellis, or Bird; he cites nothing by Maudlin, or Albert, or pretty much any of the philosophers that naturalistically inclined metaphysicians rely upon for philosophy of physics input, with the result that his philosophical argumentation is strewn with undergraduate-level errors. Similarly, while given the title one would expect some meaningful engagement with the field of structural realism (something, I add, that he fundamentally misrepresents, as aficionados can confirm on page 10), instead we find a single reference to a contemporary work in that area — namely, ‘Mark Lange’s article ‘‘Structural Realism’’ in the online Stanford Encyclopedia’ (p. 5). Since Marc (that’s ‘Marc’) Lange is not a structural realist, and it was in fact James Ladyman who wrote said Stanford article, one can only assume it is the latter’s piece that McGinn has in mind here. (One also cannot help but assume, of course, that he never actually bothered to read it.)
For all the epistemic faux-modesty that this book purports to defend, the image that persists while grinding through its pages is of an individual ludicrously fancying themselves as uniquely positioned to solve the big questions for us, from scratch and unassisted, as if none of the rest of us working in the field have had anything worth a damn to contribute. It will however be clear by now that I take the reality to be substantially different. For me, then, the one pertinent question this work raises is why all of this went unrecognized: this book, after all, issues not from one of the many spurious publishing houses currently trolling graduate students, but Oxford University Press — a press whose stated aim is to ‘publish works that further Oxford University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education’. So why did they publish this? I can hazard no explanation other than that Colin McGinn is a ‘big name’; and if that is sufficient for getting work this farcical in print with OUP, then shame on our field as a whole. As such, McGinn’s foray into philosophy of physics may in the end provoke a worthwhile discussion, though sadly one focused on concerns rather different from those he himself had in mind.
(Thanks to Wayne Myrvold for the initial pointer, and several other readers who also kindly sent it along.) I invite discussion of the issue Dr. McKenzie raises at the end, but signed comments only: full name and valid e-mail address. (Anyone who has read Professor McGinn's book and wants to take issue with the substantive criticisms is also welcome to do so.)
Authors and/or publishers kindly sent me these new books this month:
Death & the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler, edited by Niko Kolodny (Oxford University Press, 2013) [this volume also includes responses to Scheffler's Tanner Lectures by Harry Frankfurt, Kolodny, Seana Shiffrin, and Susan Wolf].
Lectures on the History of Moral and Political Philosophy by G.A. Cohen, edited by Jonathan Wolff (Princeton University Press, 2013).
The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche edited by Ken Gemes & John Richardson (Oxford University Press, 2013). [I have an essay in this one, which is why I received a copy]
The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman (Princeton University Press, 2013).
Does God Exist? A Dialogue on the Proofs for God's Existence, 2nd edition, by Todd C. Moody (Hackett, 2013).
Aristotle's Modal Syllogistic by Marko Malink (Harvard University Press, 2013).
The Quotable Kierkegaard edited by Gordon Marino (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Confucian Reflections: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times by Philip J. Ivanhoe (Routledge, 2013).
Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind edited by Uriah Kriegel (Routledge, 2014).
Authorities: Conflicts, Cooperation, and Transnational Legal Theory by Nicole Roughan (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Joint Commitment: How We Make the Social World by Margaret Gilbert (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Liberal Rights and Responsibilities: Essays on Citizenship and Sovereignty by Christopher Heath Wellman (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Minds, Brains, and Law: The Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience by Michael S. Pardo & Dennis Patterson (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Divine Fury: A History of Genius by Darrin M. McMahon (Basic Books, 2013). [This is an entertaining work of history, that was illuminating, for example, on the cult of Napoleon as a "genius" in the 19th-century].
[Sara Rachel] Chant and her husband, Zachary Ernst, were recruited [to Missouri] in 2006 from two faculty jobs at Florida State University. The philosophy department here wooed them with higher salaries, they say. The department also paid to transport Ms. Chant's horses from Florida and agreed to allow her dog—Alexander, a Great Dane—to accompany her to the campus....
Mr. Ernst went up for tenure first, in 2008, and got it without a hitch. But when it was Ms. Chant's turn three years later, the department voted her down. Most of the other decision makers up the line, all the way to the university's chancellor, agreed with the department's decision. They said Ms. Chant had failed to design new courses, that her syllabi weren't detailed enough, and that she had cowritten too many publications with her husband rather than publishing articles she alone wrote in top journals, Ms. Chant says.
To complicate matters, a few years before Ms. Chant came up for tenure she had had an affair with a philosopher outside Missouri, and Mr. Ernst, who was crushed at the time, is said to have told a colleague here that he actually wrote most of his wife's work. Mr. Ernst now says that's something he never claimed, but Ms. Chant says she believes that it was a factor in her tenure proceedings.
By the height of Ms. Chant's tenure battle, a few years after the affair had ended, Mr. Ernst had become a more outspoken advocate for her case than she was herself. He accompanied her to administrators' offices to wage appeals. And he dashed off a treatise he put on Facebook, accusing the philosophy department of sexism.
Some blogs covered Mr. Ernst's accusations at the time, though not this one--as I suspected, there was a lot more to the story. (Ms. Chant did subsequently get tenure after appealing the decision.)
You would think this came from a Sinclair Lewis novel, but it's for real:
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama sent a letter this week to Carol M. Watson, the acting chairwoman of the NEH, in which he demanded the agency explain its peer-review process for funding grants that explore “very indefinite” questions.
Sessions pointed to seven grants the NEH funded that seek to explore the following questions: “What is the meaning of life?”, “Why are we interested in the past?”, “What is the good life and how do I live it?”, “Why are bad people bad?”, “What is belief?”, “What is a monster?”, and “Why do humans write?”
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)