The other keynote speaker controversy making the rounds concerns a talk by philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne (Oxford) at a regional meeting of SCP at Evangel University in Missouri. This appears to be a sympathetic account of what transpired from someone in attendance. Briefly: Swinburne offered the usual awful arguments for anti-gay bigotry that "natural law" theorists and Christian philosophers usually trot out. No one outside the sect takes the arguments seriously, because they aren't serious arguments, but put that to one side. This talk was given inside the "sect": should anyone have been surprised that a keynote address at a Christian philosophy conference included familiar arguments rationalizing anti-gay bigotry? Many self-identified Christian philosophers reject such arguments, but many others plainly do not. As philosopher Chris Swoyer (Oklahoma) noted:
A substantial portion of Christians hold views like those attributed to Swinburne and do so on the basis of their understanding of Christianity. So it's surely not surprising for him to express such views in the setting he did.
That is surely right, and poses a difficult question for those Christian philosophers who repudiate such views about whether they want to be in that "setting" as it were.
In the case of the other keynote speaker controversy du jour, Professor Shelby was asked by a Black woman in his Q&A why he had not cited or discussed any Black feminist authors; Professor Shelby, unsurprisingly, was dismissive of the question, calling it a request for a "bibliography" and indicating he was just trying to do philosophy. He, correctly, supposed that a question of the form, "Why didn't you mention authors with particular racial and gender attributes?" is not a serious philosophical question, in contrast to, say, the question, "Why didn't you address the following argument by author X [who is also a Black feminist]?", which is an appropriate question. (Readers should review the full statement by the aggrieved audience member at the end of this post.) Other audience members shared this aggrievement as well. The organizing committee, instead of taking the opportunity to educate the aggrieved philosophy graduate student about the intellectual norms of the profession she plans to enter instead sent out a missive to all those who attended the conference stating that,
In particular, we apologize for the effects of the Saturday keynote address [by Prof. Shelby] and for our failure to do more about a situation in which SAF members felt personally and collectively hurt. When members identify effects including the erasure of Black women’s bodies and words, then we have to do better. What was said was wrong, and inappropriate at a feminist conference, and we take responsibility for our roles in the events that took place.
So one initial difference between the two cases is that Professor Swinburne's views really are a philosophical embarrassment, whereas Professor Shelby's views and his response to an inappropriate question were not. Indeed, the philosophical embarrassment is that the organizing committee of a philosophy conference caved in to meritless aggrievement by someone who apparently does not know what constitutes an appropriate philosophical question. The other difference involves the "official" SCP response to the Swinburne talk. Michael Rea (Notre Dame), the President of SCP, made the following public statement in the wake of attention being called to the Swinburne talk:
I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne's keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As Preisdent of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward. If you have thoughts or feedback you would like to share with me, I would welcome hearing from you via email or private message.
Like the SAF conference organizers, Prof. Rea rebukes the speaker to the extent of feeling the need to apologize for the effects of the talk (both statements apologize for "hurt"). Unlike the SAF conference organizers, Prof. Rea at least does not pronounce "what was said" to be "wrong" and verboten "for a Christian conference," which would, for the reasons noted by Prof. Swoyer, be a difficult position to defend in this "setting." Prof. Rea's response would have been better had it just consisted in the statement that "The views expressed in Professor Swinburne's keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse." If he'd left it at that, this would not be notable at all.
The comical sanctimony of certain segments of the philosophy "profession" is a regular topic of conversation and head-shaking among adults, but the insulting treatment of philosopher Tommie Shelby (Harvard) after his keynote at the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism (SAF) sets a new low. Justin Weinberg (South Carolina), who always has his finger on the racing pulse of the hyper-sensitive, offers this account:
At the SAF, some members of the audience found the keynote talk by Tommie Shelby (Harvard), drawn from his forthcoming book Dark Ghettos, highly objectionable. My understanding (which may not be entirely accurate) is that the controversy concerned some remarks in the talk about procreative ethics, how (as he puts it in an earlier article), “basic duties are not suspended or void because one is oppressed,” and whether what he said was disrespectful to poor, black women. Some attendees apparently thought that an apology was in order, perhaps from the organizers. (UPDATE: two days after the SAF conference ended, its organizers sent an email to the participants issuing an apology, and requesting feedback from them regarding the event and future conferences.) (UPDATE 2: further details regarding Shelby’s talk can be found in the comment below from “a poor black woman who was there.”)
I suppose Professor Shelby (and everyone else) has learned an important lesson here, namely, that the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism is not really a philosophical conference, but one in which failure of ideological purity (which is marked by giving "offense"--heavens!) is verboten and results in an "official" repudiation by the organization.
Again, if we were dealing with professionals--it appears we are not--then we would expect SAF to issue an apology to Prof. Shelby for this shameful treatment at what was supposed to be a philosophical event. (I should add that the sins of SAF should not be visited on those who work in feminist philosophy, though there is, of course, some overlap in the two groups. But I guess if I were a job candidate, I would get SAF off my CV, lest the sins of the SAF organizers be visited on the innocent.)
UPDATE: Philosopher Kate Norlock (Trent) tells me that Professor Weinberg's account is not accurate, and therefore the inferences I have drawn from it are not warranted. She writes:
Tommie Shelby spoke to an attentive and quiet audience without interruption.the question-and-answer period afterward involved many members of the audience providing substantial and critical comments and questions to him. I can attest, since I was there, that their objections were not to the notion that the oppressed can have moral duties.
Interestingly, one of the more unfortunate moments in the discussion period was a moment when Shelby attempted to deflect a robust criticism with the comment that he was "just doing philosophy." Since the unfortunate implication of this ill-chosen deflection is that his questioner may not be trying to do the same, I found myself asserting, as I closed the event, that I appreciated the extent to which we all, including our keynote speaker, remained engaged and did philosophy together. It is therefore disappointing to read your statement that "the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism is not really a philosophical conference."
Presentations at our conference included the works of philosophers from 30 different states and 3 countries. I provide you the link to our program so that you may be better informed as to the philosophical content of our conference:
I know you care about truth and fact more than your post indicates. I believe that you wish to be accurate and right. Your post about SAF is neither. It is not reflective of actualities and instead seems to merely echo Justin Weinberg's likewise uninformed post at Daily Nous. Your recommendation that my organization should not appear on a philosopher's CV may be well-intended but is predicated on misunderstanding on your part.
Last, please provide me with any proof that I or my organization officially repudiated Tommie Shelby or owes him an apology. Proof should include more than your repetition of Justin Weinberg's gossip. That the blogs cite each other does not constitute proof. Again, I know that you know this, or would ordinarily know this.
I appreciate the additional detail, but I am, I confess, still puzzled. I am surprised that Prof. Weinberg's posting would remain uncorrected on these points after more than a day and despite dozens of comments including from members of SAF. (UPDATE: Prof. Weinberg's post was updated to reflect this point after I posted this.) I have asked Prof. Norlock for the apology e-mail organizers allegedly sent to members; Prof. Norlock's message to me was silent on tHis. When I have more information, I will post more.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Another SAF meeting attendee has forwarded me the e-mail sent out by the organizers, which confirms the crucial part of Prof. Weinberg's original account:
We write to all participants in the SAF 2016 conference so that those of us not on Facebook or social media have the same access to our acknowledgement of the harms some participants have already identified, and opportunities to participate in addressing them.
In planning this conference, we wanted to create a safe and nurturing space for feminist philosophers and feminist philosophies. We recognize that this was not the case for everyone present, and for that we apologize. In particular, we apologize for the effects of the Saturday keynote address [by Prof. Shelby] and for our failure to do more about a situation in which SAF members felt personally and collectively hurt. When members identify effects including the erasure of Black women’s bodies and words, then we have to do better. What was said was wrong, and inappropriate at a feminist conference, and we take responsibility for our roles in the events that took place.
Following up on last week's post: of course, the first standpoint epistemologist in the contemporary, "inverted" and unMarxian sense was Lukacs who, in the 1920s, proposed that, in fact, the proletariat, in virtue of their class position, had special epistemic access to the pathologies of capitalism. The pedigree of that idea--an unabashed Left Young Hegelian who later became an unabashed Stalinist--would perhaps give one pause, but since most analytic philosophers, in their blissful historical ignorance, don't know anything about the pedigree, the unhappy history of 20th-century standpoint epistemology does not arise as a concern.
(Last week, I was in Vienna for a conference on relativism in German-speaking philosophy in what Martin Kusch (Vienna) calls, aptly enough, "the long 19th-century," roughly from Herder through the 1930s. Among the things I learned, thanks to an excellent paper by Johannes Steizinger (also at Vienna), is that the Nazis, and their philosophers (there were a lot of them!), were also (in a way) standpoint epistemologists, though for them the relevant standpoint was defined by the racial group, with each racial group having its own epistemic criteria. Since the Nazis also believed in an objective hierarchy of races, this required some philosophical gymnastics to square that with their epistemic relativism!)
It was Marx and Marxists who were the inventers of "standpoint epistemology," the idea that one's "social" position--for Marxists, "class," for later writers, race, gender, and so on--exercises an important, sometimes decisive, influence on a person's beliefs. For Marxists, the key thought was that the "standpoint" resulted in distortion of one's knowledge, because it was tainted by the interests associated with one's social position. In the Marxist version of standpoint epistemology, the working classes did not have any special epistemic access to the actual facts about their situation--to the contrary, their understanding of the actual state of affairs was distorted by the ideology propagated by a different, dominant class, which systematically distorted social reality in its own interests. Marxists, like Marx, assumed (correctly) that there is an epistemically superior description of social reality that is not tainted by standpoint, and which can serve as a check on the ideological delusions promoted by dominant groups.
By contrast, in recent bourgeois academic philosophy--that is, philosophizing by well-to-do professors who never challenge the prerogatives of the capitalist class, which is basically almost all of current philosophy in the Anglophone world--standpoint epistemology has, ironically, been turned on its head. Now the social position of the purported "knower"--usually "race" or "gender" or "sexual orientation"--is not taken to be a distorting influence on cognition, but rather an epistemic advantage, one which even demands epistemic deference by others. We have travelled rather far from Marx.
(I thank Clifford Sosis for a stimulating e-mail exchange on this topic, though the ideas are strictly my own!)
The intellectual historian Peter Gordon (Harvard) offers an informative review of the new biography of Habermas. Among other things, I was struck by the irony that Habermas--always an admirable critic of post-Nazi complacency in Germany, as Gordon emphasizes--secured his habilitation and first academic post thanks to the influence of the disgusting Nazi and lifelong anti-semite Gadamer! (I wonder if Habermas knew? For a long time, Gadamer was quite good at keeping it under wraps.) Gordon, in my view, significantly overstates Habermas's philosophical importance (in contrast to his invaluable role as a public intellectual holding post-War Germany to moral account). When Marxism returns, as it no doubt will, in something more like Marx's form, Habermas will be remembered mainly as taking the philosophically feeble (and irrelevant) attack on instrumental reason that began with Horkheimer and expanding it to the point that so-called "Critical Theory" collapsed into precisely the kind of bourgeois moral theorizing Marx loathed. (For anyone interested, I discuss this in a bit more detail here.)
This is an interesting response from a political theorist to the unfortunate piece by Professors Garfield and van Norden we discussed some time ago. It is true that much, but not all, of Western philosophy can be traced back to Plato, more or less, but I suppose Garfield & Van Norden would just say, "OK, then call philosophy departments 'Departments of Philosophy After Plato,'" an even more misleading title than the one they proposed! Why should lineage to Plato get special claim to the field? And what about the pre-Socratic philosophers? There's a reason they get called philosophers too! And just because styles of argument in some non-Western traditions are different (some are not different at all however!), the concerns are often recognizably similar.
Still, there is something to be said for disciplinary expertise and depth, and a department of philosophy can't be all things to all people. It is true that many wise and deep writings are not philosophy--it would be remarkable to suggest otherwise!
...so the only remedy is to require them all to have blogs. (Having blogs hasn't slowed me down that much, alas, but 50% of what I read in jurisprudence should have been on a blog instead; 80% in the case of alleged Nietzsche scholarship [down from 99%]).
...about his kind of empiricism and anti-realism...and rock-climbing. It's an interesting read. Bear in mind that van Fraassen is a religious believer (but not when it comes to the unobservable features of the physical world!).
31% of respondents have a positive view of "analytic metaphysics," 28% a fairly negative view, and 23% say we should just "ignore it." Since "analytic metaphysics" is a current prestige area of philosophy--well-represented at all the leading PhD programs--some of this may be tainted a bit with jealousy. Certainly I wish actual fields with cognitive criteria, like the ones I work in, were as important on the contemporary landscape!
UPDATE: Wow, 5 1/2 hours and nearly 700 votes! "Analytic metaphysics" gets people passionate! I'll let this run until tomorrow, but here's where things stand as of now: Yeah! 17% Just say "No"! 10% Prison 5% Ridicule & contempt 13% Praise & glory 11% Ignore it 23% None of the above 21%
ANOTHER: A funny note from philosopher Jon Kvanvig (Wash U/St. Louis): "I saw the new Dennett poll on your website, and you forgot to include the most obvious possibility of all: we should all refuse to teach anything by Dennett in any class from now on! Call it the Sterba option."
“A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world,” he says. “Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.”
Much if not all philosophical work in analytic metaphysics, for example, is “willfully cut off from any serious issues,” says Dennett. The problem, he explains, is that clever students looking to show off their skills “concoct cute counterarguments that require neither technical training nor empirical knowledge.” These then build off each other and invade the journals, and philosophical discourse.
This “cottage industry” certainly isn’t helped by the pressure on young philosophy students to publish papers.
“It can take years of hard work to develop the combination of scholarly mastery and technical acumen to work on big, important issues with a long history of philosophical attention,” says Dennett. “In the meantime, young philosophers are under great pressure to publish, so they find toy topics that they can knock off a clever comment/rebuttal/revival of.”
As a consequence, Dennett says much of philosophy is little more than a “luxury decoration on society,” and he complains many of the questions studied in both analytic and continental philosophy are “idle—just games.” For philosophers to be of real use, they should engage with the world, he says—as he does alongside those in interdisciplinary fields, such as philosophy of biology, philosophy of mathematics, or ethics.
He must not be reading much "ethics" if he thinks that's the paradigm of philosophical work engaged with the world!
Suppose, as Wegner and Wheatley propose, that we observe ourselves (unconsciously) perform some action, like picking out a box of cereal in the grocery store, and then only afterwards come to infer that we did this intentionally. If this is the true sequence of events, how could we be deceived into believing that we had intentionally made our choice before the consequences of this action were observed? This explanation for how we think of our agency would seem to require supernatural backwards causation, with our experience of conscious will being both a product and an apparent cause of behavior.
In a study just published in Psychological Science, Paul Bloom and I explore a radical—but non-magical—solution to this puzzle. Perhaps in the very moments that we experience a choice, our minds are rewriting history, fooling us into thinking that this choice—that was actually completed after its consequences were subconsciously perceived—was a choice that we had made all along.
Though the precise way in which the mind could do this is still not fully understood, similar phenomena have been documented elsewhere. For example, we see the apparent motion of a dot before seeing that dot reach its destination, and we feel phantom touches moving up our arm before feeling an actual touch further up our arm. “Postdictive” illusions of this sort are typically explained by noting that there’s a delay in the time it takes information out in the world to reach conscious awareness: Because it lags slightly behind reality, consciousness can “anticipate” future events that haven’t yet entered awareness, but have been encoded subconsciously, allowing for an illusion in which the experienced future alters the experienced past.
2. Oh, Good, Another Piece on Rawls. “Footnote 458 of A Theory of Justice has not been sufficiently explored. Buckle up for 300 pages of exploration!”
3. Splitting the Difference. “Famous philosopher A argues X. Famous philosopher B argues not-X. In this dissertation, I argue the truth is somewhere in-between.”
4. Incomprehensible Kantian Nonsense. “I’m going to argue that some policy P is justified on Kantian grounds. This argument will take 75 steps, and will read as if it’s been translated, or, rather, partially translated, from 19th century German. It will also be completely implausible, and so, to non-Kantians, will simply read like a reductio of Kant rather than a defense of P.”
Philosopher Valerie Tiberius (Minnesota), the current President of the APA Central Division, asked me to share the following, which I am happy to do:
As chair of a philosophy department at a large state institution (University of Minnesota), I’ve frequently been called upon to defend philosophy and to justify its place in higher education. This has made me reflect on what really is worth preserving, celebrating, or (possibly) changing about our field. To this end I want to solicit the views of my philosophy colleagues in a more systematic way than just asking my Facebook friends, which is what drew me to the project of creating a survey.
I am now writing to ask you to participate in this (fairly short) survey: “What Matters to Philosophers”. Please click the link below to take the survey, or copy it into the location bar of your web browser:
The point of this survey is to gather your views regarding what is valuable in your academic discipline, so that we can address questions about philosophy’s future and its role in the academy on the basis of values we share as a community.
I should say that this survey is not intended to answer tactical questions about effective ways of helping philosophy to survive in difficult times; rather, I would like to know what you believe is valuable and worth preserving in academic philosophy. And so that you can feel comfortable being entirely candid in your responses, the survey is completely anonymous.
Of course, the success of this project depends on the generous contributions of time from people like you. Mindful of this, I have tried to create a survey that will not take too much of your valuable time – it should not require more than 15 minutes to complete.
Data from the survey will form the substance of my presidential address at the APA Central Division meeting in Kansas City in March 2017. Presidential addresses are published in the APA proceedings, and I hope to publish and discuss my findings in other arenas as well. I will also share the data – in a form that does not permit the identification of any individual’s responses – with the APA and with philosophy departments who are interested in it.
During the planning process for this project, some philosophers have expressed reservations about completing the survey because they do not have full time academic positions, or are still in graduate school, or are not APA members. Please be assured that there are no such restrictions on who may take the survey! It is only by hearing from as many philosophers as possible that we can get an accurate picture of what we, as a community, think about philosophy.
Scruton says chianti with Hegel. I say Bud Light with Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” It’d be apropos because as Rand is to philosophy, Bud Light is to wine — improperly categorized, and still pretty lousy when regarded within its proper category.
Philosopher Robert Mark Simpson (Monash) has done a very illuminating review of two recent books of interest to moral philosophers. It's also a model of review writing, fair and informative, and written with style and insight.
Via Weinberg, I learn that the Chair in Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers, supported in part by a grant from the Templeton Foundation, is now official. Taking a somewhat longer view, this is an interesting development. William Alston, a philosopher of language and epistemologist who eventually became a leading figure in the "Analytic Christian Mafia" in philosophy (besides Alston, Alvin Plantinga, Robert Adams, Richard Swinburne, William Rowe, William Wainwright, George Mavrodes, and others were major players), taught at Rutgers in the early 1970s, though spent most of his career at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Syracuse University. When Rutgers catapulted to the top ranks of philosophy departments in the late 1980s it was with the appointments of resolutely naturalistic and non-religious philosophers like Jerry Fodor and Stephen Stich. The renaissance in Anglophone metaphysics in the 1990s and afterwards, which often went hand-in-hand with philosophy of religion, reached Rutgers in the 2000s when, at one time, John Hawthorne, Ted Sider, and Dean Zimmerman were all members of the faculty. Zimmerman remains, and has become the anchor for the strong philosophy of religion presence at Rutgers as well.
I agree with John Martin Fischer (UC Riverside) about the reasons why, even from a non-theistic perspective, philosophy of religion is of interest. Alston (as well as Platinga, Adams et al.) were apologists for religious belief, of course, so one may hope that this new Chair will honor Fischer's vision of the importance of the field, and that philosophers of religion who do not only do apologetics will be considered.
This is from the self-review by the UCLA Department of Philosophy in 2012 (which has been making the rounds on social media); it's a useful reality check on a lot of the blather in cyber-space:
This guides our approach to hiring: we place a premium on finding creative, talented people who can contribute to the intellectual life of the department. Like many top philosophy departments, we view raw intellectual talent as a sine qua non of an appointment; it's the lifeblood of any thriving philosophy department. Even so, we are mindful that there are specific areas in which we are understaffed....While different members of the department balance these needs differently, all are agreed that, in the matter of appointments, a first-rate department must give highest priority to quality of mind: better a gap than a stopgap.... (p. 3)
I think there's little question that the latter represents the actual thinking of almost all the top-ranked PGR programs. On the other hand, what follows seems to me more UCLA-specific:
Although much of the best philosophical work occurs in journal articles, we think it is important to avoid letting this create a bias toward quantity of publication. The best articles are rare creatures. It is our expectation that work of this quality will be done by our colleagues. This standard is shared by many of the best departments in the profession. It can create a problem for us, though, when authorities at a higher level of review are unaware of the standards that prevail in the better departments in our discipline: not only do philosophers tend to have fewer publications than those working in other disciplines (especially in the humanities), but very good philosophers often publish fewer--and more searching--articles than less good philosophers. (pp. 4-5)
MOVING TO FRONT FROM MAY 12--MR. STRASSFELD WELCOMES MORE FEEDBACK
Jonathan StrasSfeld, a PhD student in History at the University of Rochester working on an interesting project on the history of American philosophy in the mid-20th-century (especially the fates, respectively, of phenomenology and analytic philosophy), asked me to share this data on philosophy faculty at the leading graduate programs 1930-1979 (corrected list from a few hours ago): Download Philosophers 1930-1979 corrected
Mr. Strassfeld explains:
As part of my dissertation research, I have assembled a database of information about philosophers at America's leading philosophy departments in the mid-20th century. It includes every Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor (not including visiting or emeritus faculty) in the philosophy departments of Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Stanford, UCLA, and Yale, from 1930-1979.
I am making a limited version of this dataset available on this blog both because it may be of interest or use to philosophers, and in the hope that others will be able to spot errors or misidentifications. Most importantly, I have attempted to classify each philosopher as working in analytic philosophy, non-analytic philosophy, or the history of philosophy, allowing for combinations of these categories. Because of the number of philosophers involved - 492 in total - this assessment is necessarily cursory; and these categories are, of course also, not clear cut. Thus, I will be particularly grateful for any help finding misidentifications: please email corrections and suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope readers will help Mr. Strassfeld out and, in any case, enjoy the snapshot of the American philosophy faculties of yesteryear!
ADDENDUM: An explanation from Mr. Strassfeld of the departments studied:
I determined which departments to survey recursively, defining the "leading departments" as those whose graduates comprised the faculties of the leading departments. Focusing on the period of 1945-1969, when universities were growing explosively, I found that there was a group of eleven philosophy departments that essentially only hired graduates from among their own ranks and foreign universities - that it was virtually impossible for graduates of any American philosophy departments outside of this group to gain faculty positions at these "leading departments." Indeed, between 1949-1960, no member of their faculty had received a Ph.D. from an American institution outside of their ranks. There were, of course, border cases. Brown, Rockefeller, MIT, and Pittsburgh in particular might have been included. However, I judged that they did not place enough graduates on the faculties of the other leading universities, particularly during the period 1945-1969, for inclusion. This list also aligns closely with contemporary reputational assessments, with ten of the eleven departments ranking in the top 11 in a 1964 poll (Allan Murray Carter, An Assessment of Quality in Graduate Education).
Note, of course, that MIT, Pittsburgh, and Rockefeller only became major PhD programs in philosophy in the 1960s.
...at 3AM. The interview gives a nice, synoptic account of his (revisionary) account of Kant's ethics in particular. As always, Allen also offers fierce and bracing judgments on matters philosophical and political. Three examples from this interview (I disagree with them to varying degrees, but that's not the point). First, on utilitarianism (vide "effective [sic] altruism"):
The problem I see with utilitarianism, or any form of consequentialism, is not that it gets the wrong answers to moral questions. I think just about any moral theory, worked out intelligently, and applied with good judgment, would get just about the same results as any other. Mill developed utilitarianism with great humanity and insight. Perhaps that is why many utilitarians (those with less humanity, insight and judgment) say he is not a true utilitarian. I have said to two of my friends: David Lyons and John Skorupski — both excellent philosophers, who have made a deep study of utilitarianism — that they are my favorite utilitarians. The reaction of both was the same: “But I am not a utilitarian!” To this my reply was: “Ah, so that explains it.”
Consequentialist theories begin with a very simple and undoubtedly valid point: Every action aims at a future end, and is seen as a means to it. (This is precisely Kant’s conception of action.) So one rational standard of action is how well it promotes the end it seeks. Another standard is whether it aims at ends which are good. Both of these, but especially the former, depend on judgments of fact. Utilitarians are usually empiricists who think they can solve every problem by accumulating enough empirical facts. They do not realize that thinking as well as experience is necessary to know anything or get anything right.Philosophy is about getting the facts right, but it is also about thinking rightly about them. Philosophy is more about the latter than the former. That’s why empiricist philosophy always tends to be anti-philosophy (and is often proud of it). People are often most proud of precisely those things of which they should most be ashamed. (The rightward side of American politics illustrates this very well.)
The big problem for consequentialism is that facts of this last form are hard to obtain except for a few determinate ends in the fairly short run. Consequentialist theories pretend that we can set some great big ends (the general happiness, human flourishing), provide ourselves with definite enough conceptions of them to make them the objects of instrumental reasoning, and then obtain enough reliable information about what actions will best promote them that we could regulate our conduct by these considerations alone. In fact people do not know enough about themselves and what is good for them to form a sufficiently definite conception of the general happiness (or whatever the end is) to establish definite rules for its pursuit.
Further, we cannot predict the effects of our actions, especially our collective actions over generations or centuries, to use instrumental reasoning toward these big final ends to tell us what we ought to do. As a result, it is possible to use the simple point that it is rational to choose the right means to your ends to develop very elegant abstract formal theories of rational choice, and then turn these into what look like moral theories. Philosophers tend to be ravished by the formal beauty of such theories, and they don’t pay much attention to the fact that our human limitations make them pretty useless in practice, while the simple point about instrumental reasoning is too shallow to be of much real moral interest.
When consequentialist theories are developed in terms of an equally shallow psychology of the good — such as a crude form of hedonism — the results can sometimes strike sensible people as revolting and inhuman. People can be reduced to simple repositories of positive or negative sensory states, and their humanity is lost sight of entirely. When people think that moral problems can be solved by some simple strategy of calculation, that sets them up for ghastly overreaching. They think they can turn everything into a “science” the way mechanics was turned into a science in the seventeeth century. They want to turn everything over to technocrats and social engineers. They become shortsighted or simplistic about their ends, and they disastrously overestimate their ability to acquire the information they need to make the needed calculations. Utilitarians of the caliber of Mill and Sidgwick do not do these things, at least on particular moral issues about which they reflect as human beings.
1. John Rawls (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. G.A. Cohen loses to John Rawls by 214–26
3. Robert Nozick loses to John Rawls by 217–17, loses to G.A. Cohen by 122–93
4. Ronald Dworkin loses to John Rawls by 227–8, loses to Robert Nozick by 103–97
5. Joseph Raz loses to John Rawls by 217–13, loses to Ronald Dworkin by 103–80
6. Amartya Sen loses to John Rawls by 228–17, loses to Joseph Raz by 111–89
7. Martha Nussbaum loses to John Rawls by 225–38, loses to Amartya Sen by 111–107
8. H.L.A. Hart loses to John Rawls by 221–16, loses to Martha Nussbaum by 112–110
9. Isaiah Berlin loses to John Rawls by 223–21, loses to H.L.A. Hart by 107–88
10. T.M. Scanlon loses to John Rawls by 229–6, loses to Isaiah Berlin by 112–84
11. Thomas Nagel loses to John Rawls by 229–5, loses to T.M. Scanlon by 95–82
12. Jeremy Waldron loses to John Rawls by 229–12, loses to Thomas Nagel by 98–81
13. Philip Pettit loses to John Rawls by 233–10, loses to Jeremy Waldron by 84–79
14. Charles Taylor loses to John Rawls by 225–13, loses to Philip Pettit by 101–79
15. Brian Barry loses to John Rawls by 231–7, loses to Charles Taylor by 91–80
16. Joel Feinberg loses to John Rawls by 230–8, loses to Brian Barry by 87–70
17. Michael Walzer loses to John Rawls by 226–10, loses to Joel Feinberg by 83–80
18. Joshua Cohen loses to John Rawls by 233–5, loses to Michael Walzer by 94–69
19. A. John Simmons loses to John Rawls by 232–6, loses to Joshua Cohen by 69–67
20. Charles Beitz loses to John Rawls by 235–2, loses to A. John Simmons by 70–59
Runners-up for the top 20 include Susan Okin, Samuel Scheffler, Iris Young, and Gerald Gaus. There appears to have been a late surge of some strategic voting for Nussbaum, who was in the top ten even before that (one indication is that 38 people ranked her ahead of Rawls, compared to, say, 17 who ranked Nozick or Sen ahead, or the 8 who ranked Dworkin ahead--though that she came out behind Sen is, to my mind, surprising). But as with all these polls, the precise ordinal rank is less revealing than the broader picture (the top 5, the top 10, the top 20). In that regard, the results seem, yet again, fairly reasonable. There were, alas, some unfortunate omissions from the poll, including David Miller, Jean Hampton, and Gregory Kavka. And recall that among living political philosophers, only those over age 60 were included. (Some that did poorly in earlier iterations of these polls were not included.)
I'd be curious to hear from philosophers of biology and other biologically-informed readers about this New Yorker piece. Accurate? Misleading? Links to better or other discussions of epigenetics accessible to non-biologists welcome.
Now that we've done the moral philosophers, here's the political philosophers. To be included, the political philosophers had to have done most of their important work after WWII and, for those who are still living, they have to be age 60 or older in 2016. I also tried to make sure to include anyone who had a chance of being in "the top 20." Have fun!
UPDATE: Two unfortunate omissions (surprised no one flagged them in earlier iterations): David Miller and the late Jean Hampton.
An interesting tale from nearly a century ago. Note the (correct) description of Bergson's extraordinary reputation at the time, a reputation which now appears to us (also correctly) as mysterious (and not just in the Anglophone world). A cautionary note for today's "famous" philosophers!
With over 420 votes in our most recent poll (and despite some bad attempted strategic voting behavior), here's the top 20
1. Bernard Williams (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. Derek Parfit loses to Bernard Williams by 145–117
3. Philippa Foot loses to Bernard Williams by 182–79, loses to Derek Parfit by 161–94
4. Thomas Nagel loses to Bernard Williams by 183–60, loses to Philippa Foot by 128–110
5. T.M. Scanlon loses to Bernard Williams by 180–67, loses to Thomas Nagel by 121–92
6. G.E.M. Anscombe loses to Bernard Williams by 187–73, loses to T.M. Scanlon by 126–106
7. Christine Korsgaard loses to Bernard Williams by 206–50, loses to G.E.M. Anscombe by 130–94
8. Peter Singer loses to Bernard Williams by 191–62, loses to Christine Korsgaard by 121–102
9. Alasdair MacIntyre loses to Bernard Williams by 193–52, loses to Peter Singer by 111–110
10. R.M. Hare loses to Bernard Williams by 202–44, loses to Alasdair MacIntyre by 111–89
11. Martha Nussbaum loses to Bernard Williams by 202–39, loses to R.M. Hare by 96–94
12. Judith Jarvis Thomson loses to Bernard Williams by 195–50, loses to Martha Nussbaum by 96–87
13. Harry Frankfurt loses to Bernard Williams by 206–37, loses to Judith Jarvis Thomson by 99–93
14. Allan Gibbard loses to Bernard Williams by 201–38, loses to Harry Frankfurt by 89–88
15. J.L. Mackie loses to Bernard Williams by 201–37, loses to Allan Gibbard by 89–82
16. Stephen Darwall loses to Bernard Williams by 207–35, loses to J.L. Mackie by 93–85
17. Peter Railton loses to Bernard Williams by 208–34, loses to Stephen Darwall by 85–73
18. Simon Blackburn loses to Bernard Williams by 206–42, loses to Stephen Darwall by 89–78
19. Samuel Scheffler loses to Bernard Williams by 207–25, loses to Peter Railton by 85–77
20. John McDowel loses to Bernard Williams by 208-27, loses to Samuel Scheffler by 110-97
Runners-up for the top twenty included Onora O'Neill, Shelly Kagan, Susan Wolf, and Jeff McMahan. Recall that among living moral philosophers, only those over age 60 were included. I think the results aren't wholly surprising, though it certainly would not have been my personal "top 20" list. Comments from readers? Signed comments will be strongly preferred.
MOVING TO FRONT FROM YESTERDAY--IF YOU HAVEN'T VOTED YET, PLEASE DO SO IF YOU HAVE VIEWS ABOUT MORAL PHILOSOPHY
Here. When I started these polls earlier in the year, I aggregated moral & political philosophy, but in response to suggestions, I thought I'd try disaggregating them (and also adding a few philosophers who were omitted last time). I used the prior poll as a benchmark, so have not included every moral philosopher included last time, but have included most. Rawls is always a tricky case, but I'm going to leave him for the political philosophy poll, which will come. Have fun!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, the aggressive and transparent strategic voting for Fred Feldman (U Mass/Amherst) will require eliminating him from the results. I'm sorry, since I am a fan of his work.
A nicely written essay by Zena Hitz (St. John's College, Annapolis). It offers an interesting defense of a decidedly Christian understanding of the "interiority" and "dignity" of humanistic reflection (also a Platonic one, though as Nietzsche said, "Christianity is Platonism for the people") against the neoliberal ("the humanities produce people who are useful for capitalism") and liberal ("the humanities make people good democratic citizens") defenses of humanistic study. As Nietzsche notes in the Genealogy, the "slave revolt" in morality made human beings interesting, giving them interior lives. And the humanities (here understood capaciously to include the cognitive sciences generally) are, when done well and seriously (e.g., not Badiou studies!), are precisely those that help one become a human being who is "interesting." That concern has no resonance for the neoliberal or liberal defenses of the humanities. Since our age is still neoliberal to its core, that means humanistic study is doomed in the neoliberal countries. But it will likely return elsewhere.
What do readers think of Prof. Hitz's interesting essay?
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)