Recently -- in May -- Dan Garber and I had a friendly debate in which we discussed both matters of interpretation of Spinoza and the issue of methodologies for the study of history of philosophy. On the former topic, the focus was on Dan's criticisms of my PSR-based interpretation of Spinoza in my book for the Routledge series. The debate took place at Yale as part of our early modern workshop and was well attended by folks from Princeton as well as from Yale and elsewhere. The event was recorded and it was entitled "Philosophical Superheroes?". (A similar debate recently appeared in the pages of the Journal of the History of Philosophy.)
You can see the video of the debate here (scroll to the bottom).
Torbjorn Tannsjo, Kristian Claëson Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University, asked me to share the following experience he recently had.
Dylan Matthews, a philosophically-minded editor at Vox.com, solicited Professor Tannsjo to write a piece for Vox on the "repugnant conclusion." More precisely, Mr. Matthews wrote:
I'm an editor for the US news site Vox.com, and we're trying to start a new series where philosophers and other thinkers argue for provocative and/or counterintuitive propositions that our readers might find intriguing.
I'm a big fan of your work from my undergraduate years — there aren't a lot of fellow hedonic utilitarians in philosophy! — and in particular found your argument for accepting the repugnant conclusion very compelling. It's a fascinating problem, and one that's fairly easy for lay readers to get into — people care about population size, and "We have a duty to make the world's population as large as possible" is a proposition that demands peoples' attention.
I'm writing to ask if you'd like to write up a popular version of your argument on this for Vox.
After inquiring about its status after a period of silence, Prof. Tannsjo received the following from Mr. Matthews:
Afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news, Torbjörn. I ran the piece by some other editors and they weren't comfortable running it; I think the concern is that people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which, while I know it's not your intent, is a real concern.
I'm sorry to waste your time; I really am a big fan of your work and appreciate your willingness to work with me.
As Prof. Tannsjo remarked to me this sorry affair illustrates "how sensitive abstract philosophical reasoning sometimes is"--and also, I might add, how difficult it is to translate it for a mass audience which apparently is more concerned with taking the "correct" view than with the reasoning.
UPDATE AUG. 26 (EVENING): This item has gotten a lot of traction, so much so that the Vox editor has responded. If I were feeling generous, I would describe the response as pathetically stupid. Prof. Tannsjo actually supports free abortion, as he told me. But what he supports or doesn't support is not the issue! If you solicit a piece from a philosopher, knowing what their work is about (as was clearly the case here), you have an obligation to publish it, subject to reasonable editing. What you can't do, if you are an even remotely serious operation (and not an echo chamber), is reject it because someone not paying attention might think the argument supports a conclusion they find icky. This rule for adult, scholarly discourse applies to the so-called "right" and to the so-called "left." Vox will be hard-pressed to get any serious scholars to write for them after this. But the same warning applies to so-called "conservative" sites (who are terrible offenders on this score too). If you really want to challenge your readers, then invite serious people with serious arguments, and don't reject them because their conclusions might be deemed offensive to casual readers. The Socratic ideal, which so many profess allegiance to, and so few act on, is to let the arguments run their course. That is what Vox failed to do.
AUGUST 27 UPDATE: I asked Prof. Tannsjo whether he cared to respond to Vox's response, and he sent me the following:
As Vox admits, they solicited a piece from me on the ”repugnant” conclusion, it went through a thorough editing procedure, and it was eventually rejected. I quoted the reasons that were given for the rejection, a concern that ”people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which ... is a real concern”. To put it mildly, Vox has wasted my time. Furthermore, it is indeed bad policy to defend a right to free abortion and to refuse to take seriously the moral problems abortion gives rise to. That’s what pissed me off. Now other reasons are given. The argument I gave is not convincing enough for us /Vox/ ”to stand behind a conclusion so sweeping and dramatic”. But I, and not Vox, would have stood behind the conclusion! Of course, the argument is, given the context, very simplified. It would not convince a fellow philosopher. That was not the intent. But those who take a real interest in the subject can read the chapter on abortion in my recent book, Taking Life. Three Theories on the Ethics of Killing (Oxford UP) upon which the short article is built and to which a reference was given. Or, they can read my ”Why We Ought to Accept the Repugnant Conclusion” in the scholarly journal Utilitas (2002). Finally, there is an entry on the repugnant conclusion in Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I have co-authored with Gustaf Arrhenius and Jesper Ryberg.
From the "Critique of the Kantian Philosophy," an Appendix to The World as Will and Representation:
[T]he most injurious result of Kant's occasionally obscure language is, that it acted as exemplar vitiis imitabile; indeed, it was misconstrued as a pernicious authorisation. The public was compelled to see that what is obscure is not always without significance; consequently, what was without significance took refuge behind obscure language. Fichte was the first to seize this new privilege and use it vigorously; Schelling at least equalled him; and a host of hungry scribblers, without talent and without honesty, soon outbade them both. But the height of audacity, in serving up sheer nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously only been heard in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most ponderous general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a lasting monument of German stupidity.
Jonathan Strassfeld, an intellectual historian completing a PhD at the University of Rochester on the history of American philosophy, is seeking help with research for his dissertation that involves using text mining to examine the development of analytic philosophy in the mid-twentieth century. Part of the work calls for using a classification algorithm to identify analytic and non-analytic texts. To do this, one must 'train' the computer what analytic philosophy looks like by giving it a sample of of representative texts. Jonathan would like to put the question to the readers: what works should be included in a list of texts meant to exemplify philosophical analysis? He requests you restrict suggestions to journal articles published between 1930-1980.
BL COMMENT: It's a bit amusing that the only books Brandom recommends that he didn't write are by the one important philosopher who adopts an anti-representationalist view like his (Huw Price at Cambridge), plus one colleague and two former students. Oh philosophy!
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.
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?
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!
I was wondering if you could ask your readers for what they think is the best advanced introductory texts in their respective sub fields. I am thinking of something akin to Miller's excellent 'Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics' or Kymlicka's 'Contemporary Political Philosophy'. I found Miller's book to be very helpful and it would be nice to know what other advanced introductory texts are widely considered top notch (I'm most interested in suggestions for epistemology, philosophy of science, and normative ethics, but I suspect readers might be interested in advanced introductions for other areas too).
Miller's book is indeed an excellent example of the genre in question. (I have not read Kymlicka's, though have often heard it recommended.) In epistemology, I will note that I learned a lot in grad school from Laurence BonJour's The Structure of Empirical Knowledge, which was an important scholarly monograph in its own right, but hugely instructive about the state of the art in epistemology in the 1980s. Richard Miller's Fact and Method was similar in philosophy of science, but again also a bit dated now. Frederick Suppe's long introduction to the old The Structure of Scientific Theories was a terrific overview of main currents of twentieth-century philosophy of science through the early 1970s. I'm sure readers will have more current suggestions.
Here. Philosopher Clifford Sosis, the interviewer, writes:
In this interview, he talks about his childhood dealing with the death of his mother, an unsupportive father and the crushing British class system, his struggle with depression as an undergrad and grad student, discovering Philosophy via Descartes, dropping out of Rochester, getting divorced, turning around his career at Guelph, how he got into Philosophy of Biology, fighting creationists in the courts, finding love again, building a family, becoming an American citizen, his frustration with and deep respect for his colleagues (and philosophers generally), the way it appears the administration at Florida State University has handled the investigation of athletes accused of sexual assault, his beef with Thomas Nagel, spending a year in the South of France (and the steep cost), and, of course, his favorite curse word.
...in The Washington Post of all places! It's quite a nice overview, and especially remarkable that it appeared in a mainstream outlet. (They do suggest, less plausibly, that the neglect of some of the early modern figures they mention has something to do with the underrepresentation of women in academic philosophy.) Herewith a question for other scholars and students of the history of philosophy: what do we know about why these figures were neglected? In every period I know something about there were figures of enormous importance in their day who are now largely unknown (e.g., Ludwig Buchner's Kraft und Stoff, a polemic and brief on behalf of materialism, was the best-selling book in Europe in the 19th-century after the Bible, though is almost wholly unknown today--Beiser devotes a chapter to Buchner and the materialist controversy in a recent book, the first extended treatment I had ever seen in English). Sometimes the explanation is changing philosophical fashions, something the explanation is that the work really wasn't very good (that's Buchner, in my view), and sometimes other kinds of bias and prejudice.
I will be starting my MA (terminal) programme in Philosophy in the Fall of this year, in Europe. I don't have a background in the subject and want to spend the few months before the session begins, in reading several works in the subject.
Could you please give (or ask on your blog or, perhaps, direct me to any pre-existing link) a list of "25 (or so) Must Read Books before starting Graduate School in Philosophy"?
Since I am only beginning to explore the various fields of the subject, I don't want to limit myself to any particular areas of interest.
This is a tough one, since many important books in philosophy are surely not profitably read on one's own; and what will count as "must read" will not be indifferent as between "fields of the subject." Even allowing for that, what would readers recommend? It might be particularly useful to say something about whether or not the book (or article) can be approached by someone without a background in philosophy.
MOVING TO FRONT (originally posted April 21)--MANY INTERESTING COMMENTS, MORE WELCOME
This question, from the open thread, deserves separate notice and discussion:
Could we start a discussion on what philosophers have found to be the most surprising positives and surprising negatives of becoming a professional philosopher (or PhD grad)? It may help me, and perhaps others, with my decision to apply to PhD programs or not. If there is a similar thread with many comments, a link would suffice. (I'm aware of the poor job market, so hopefully there are other comments.)
ADDENDUM: A reader sends along this sophomoric prattle; The Monist must have fallen on hard times to be publishing material like this. The abstract alone will probably be enough for most readers, but do press on, it gives one real insight into the nether regions of the 'profession' where no actual intellectual standards prevail. Imagine, an entire paper organized around an alleged "conflation" that any smart undergraduate would avoid!
I, myself, thought Frankfurt's observation reasonable--there's certainly some nice work being done here and there, but nothing agenda-setting comparable to the figures Frankfurt mentions--but unsurprisingly, lots of younger philosophers dissented from the proposition that their field is in the doldrums. So what do readers think? I'll open a discussion afterwards.
From his contribution to Portraits of American Philosophy:
I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts. In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines--and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.
The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded. We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet. We seem, more or less, to be marking time. (pp. 125-126)
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)