Some of us are hearty and confident and think we are almost there [in explaining life]. Others think there is still a revolution in our future if we are to make sense of intelligence, or of life, as a genuinely natural phenomenon.
What kind of disagreement is this? To my mind it is foolish to cast it as a standoff between those who embrace science and admit its stunning achievements and those who reject the project of natural science itself. It is not a conflict between those who know and those who are confused.
Certainly how such a description looks may depend on which side of the standoff one is on. But Michael Weisberg (Penn) and I continue to be puzzled by Noe's position, both in his original quasi-defense of Nagel and this new piece. Michael gave me permission to post his response:
All parties agree that we don't know how life got started, but most scientists, contra Noe, see this as a problem of historical reconstruction. The event in question was almost 4 billion years ago, and since the historical record is so limited, we have to construct plausible hypotheses about what happened. There are plausible mechanisms for each major step in the origin of life (including inorganic molecules to organic molecules, achiral to chiral molecules, chiral molecules to self-replicating systems, cellular encapsulation, RNA to DNA, etc.) The real problem is not having a plausible account, it is knowing which plausible account is correct since more than one is consistent with the data. We might never be in a better epistemic situation, but I don't understand why we would need dramatic theoretical innovation as opposed to more data.
It is also strange that Noe thinks we are very far from making life in a test tube. We can already construct novel DNA-like systems from scratch. Synthetic DNA has been inserted into cells. We seem to be close to making the first artificial cells (all the parts have been made, but functional integration is still an obstacle). If we put all these pieces together, will we not have life in a test tube?
In sum, this does seem to be in part a "conflict between those who know and those who are confused," at least about some important aspects of the science.
We must challenge the thought that philosophy aims to contribute to human knowledge of the world. Its task is to resolve philosophical problems. The characteristic feature of philosophical problems is their non-empirical, a priori character: no scientific experiment can settle the question of whether the mind is the brain, what the meaning of a word is, whether human beings are responsible for their deeds (have free will), whether trees falling on uninhabited desert islands make any noise, what makes necessary truths necessary. All these, and many hundreds more, are conceptual questions. They are not questions about concepts (philosophy is not a science of concepts). But they are questions that are to be answered, resolved or dissolved by careful scrutiny of the concepts involved. The only way to scrutinize concepts is to examine the use of the words that express them. Conceptual investigations are investigations into what makes sense and what does not. And, of course, questions of sense antecede questions of empirical truth – for if something makes no sense, it can be neither true nor false. It is just nonsense – not silly, but rather: it transgresses the bounds of sense. Philosophy patrols the borders between sense and nonsense; science determines what is empirically true and what is empirically false. What falsehood is for science, nonsense is for philosophy.
Let me give you a simple example or two: When psychologists and cognitive scientists say that it is your brain that thinks, then, rather than nodding your head and saying ‘How interesting! What an important discovery!’, you should pause to wonder what this means. What, you might then ask, is a thoughtful brain, and what is a thoughtless one? Can my brain concentrate on what I am doing – or does it just concentrate on what it is doing? Does my brain hold political opinions? Is it, as Gilbert and Sullivan might ask, a little Conservative or a little Liberal? Can it be opinionated? or narrow minded? – What on earth would an opinionated and narrow-minded brain be? Just ask yourself: if it is your brain that thinks, how does your brain tell you what it thinks? And can you disagree with it? And if you do, how do you tell it that it is mistaken – that what it thinks is false? And can your brain understand what you say to it? Can it speak English? – If you continue this line of questions you will come to realise that the very idea that the brain thinks makes no sense. But, of course, to show why it makes no sense requires a great deal more work.
Alan Schrift, a mediocre Nietzsche scholar at Grinnell College (otherwise a reputable liberal arts college), writes:
A general consensus has emerged that following the passing of Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, Alain Badiou remains, in the words of Slavoj Žižek that appear on this book's cover above the title, the one final "figure like Plato or Hegel [who] walks here among us!
This is typical, I fear, of the embarrassing hagiography that is characteristic of those parts of the discipline where fealty counts for more than content. I have read only a bit of Badiou, partly because it didn't seem worth more effort, though I didn't have the sense he was a charlatan of Derridean proportions. But surely no one really thinks that Foucault or Deleuze is on a par with Plato or Hegel in terms of philosophical influence (Foucault is a more profound social theorist than Hegel and probably Plato, but that's a different matter).
In any case, as a sociological matter, declarations like this are interesting, even if absurd.
Since antiquity, philosophy has been centrally concerned with what we usually call metaphysics and epistemology (what exists, and what can we know about what exists?), and the theory of value (how should we live and what should we value?). Because our predecessors answered these questions often more profoundly and more perspiculously than us, the history of philosophy is central to our discipline (though probably not as central as it should be). Because in the wake of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, the sciences, including mathematics, emerged as powerful guides to the metaphysics and epistemology, reflection on those disciplines has also become central to philosophy. Unsurprisingly, then, the very best departments are excellent in all these areas of our discipline. NYU emerged about a dozen years ago as the best department in the Anglophone world because it brought together not only many of the leading figures in metaphysics and epistemology, broadly construed, as well as the philosophy of the sciences and mathematics, but because it also invested heavily in value theory and--in a way some other leading departments have not--in the history of philosophy, including leading scholars of modern philosophy (Don Garrett), Kant and post-Kantian philosophy (Beatrice Longuenesse), and later 19th- and 20th-century Continental philosophy (John Richardson [a long-time member of the department], Tamsin Shaw).
There is a myth afoot, especially in cyberspace, that strength in the Continental traditions in philosophy does not help a school's ranking in the PGR. But as far as I can tell from years of doing these surveys, the opposite is the case. That is, hold constant strength in the other areas of philosophy, those who come out on top have excellent scholar(s) of the Continental traditions on the faculty. NYU's dominance over Rutgers is almost entirely traceable to that fact, and such examples could be easily multiplied (e.g., Yale vs. North Carolina; Stanford vs. UCLA and Southern California; Columbia vs. Arizona and CUNY; Chicago vs. Wisconsin and Duke; UC Riverside vs. Virginia and UC Santa Barbara). Given the financial pressures on philosophy departments these days, and the tremendous undergraduate interest in the post-Kantian traditions in European philosophy, I expect one of the "growth" areas in philosophy hiring over the next decade to be in scholars of the Continental traditions.
During the 1955-56 academic year, the Professors of Philosophy at Harvard were Henry D. Aiken, Raphael Demos, W.V.O. Quine, Morton White, John Wild, and Donald Williams. There was one associate professor: Roderick Firth. The junior faculty were Hiram McClendon, Hao Wang and Paul Ziff.
At Princeton, in the same year, the full professors were Carl Hempel, Gregory Vlastos, and Ledger Wood. The associate professors were Walter Kaufmann, James Ward Smith, and Arthur Szathmary. The junior faculty were Hilary Putnam, Bernard Wand, and John Yolton.
It is an interesting question whether the academic philosophical world of sixty years from now will look more or less discontinuous. I bet on more continuous, since the professionalization of academia has become more firmly entrenched since 1955.
Mohan Matthen (Toronto) comments on the peculiar spectacle of Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga trading laudatory reviews of their recent anti-naturalist books in different high-profile publications, especially when at least one of the books (Nagel's) is obviously not very good (I have not read Plantinga's, though I'm not optimistic given what I've read about it). (Commenting on Professor Matthen's post, the distinguished Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace offers the amusing quip: "I was initially shocked to find that two such distinguished philosophers were so remarkably ignorant of basic science. It totally violated my common sense. Then I realised that in that case, it couldn't be true. So that's okay.")
NAGEL IS NOT AFRAID to take unpopular positions, and he does not seem to mind the obloquy that goes with that territory....Nagel has endorsed the negative conclusions of the much-maligned Intelligent Design movement, and he has defended it from the charge that it is inherently unscientific. In 2009 he even went so far as to recommend Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, a flagship declaration of Intelligent Design, as a book of the year. For that piece of blasphemy Nagel paid the predictable price; he was said to be arrogant, dangerous to children, a disgrace, hypocritical, ignorant, mind-polluting, reprehensible, stupid, unscientific, and in general a less than wholly upstanding citizen of the republic of letters.
I suppose it testifies to the influence of this blog that most of Plantinga's sarcastic aside clearly references criticisms levelled at Nagel on this blog (and other authors to whom I linked). But Plantinga's silliness aside, let's be clear why Nagel earned the criticism:
1. There is no scientific controversy about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.
2. There is no evidence for Intelligent Design or any other religiously motivated alternative.
3. As good fallibilists, we can acknowledge that, despite (1) and (2), Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection might turn out to be false. But fabrications, confusions, and bone-headed philosophcial speculations give us no reason to be skeptical.
4. Given 1-3, it's an outrage to try to encourage high schools to teach children anything other than Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as part of the standard biology curriculum. The raison-d'etre of the Discovery [sic] Institute and its paid shills like Stephen Meyer are to perpetrate this outrage.
No one doubts that Nagel and Plantinga are capable philosophers, who have done high quality professional work during their careers. Plantinga at least has the excuse of his religion to explain his more doubtful philosophical forays. But neither can be excused for trying to legitimate the hucksters at the Discovery [sic] Institute and the Intelligent Design scam. This really isn't a hard issue, and one can predict with certainty that both Nagel's and Plantinga's trafficking with this nonsense will not redound to their credit over the long haul.
PhilosophyBites asked lots of philosophers (and some others), and collected all the answers here. Participants inlude Frank Jackson, Tim Crane, Kit Fine, Martha Nussbaum, Raymond Geuss, Cynthia Freeland, Helen Beebee, Joshua Knobe, Sean Kelly, Gideon Rosen, Noel Carroll, and me, among many others; in the "others" category there's Nicola Lacey, Catharine MacKinnon (a disappointing answer, I thought, more political than intellectually revealing), and Alison Gopnik, among others.
Jason Clark, a postdoc at the Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrueck, writes:
It seems clear that philosophers co-author papers far less often than scientists do, but while there has been some discussion on your blog as to the market value of co-authored works, I haven't found any mention of comparative data on co-authorship rates by discipline (not to mention the potential significance of such differences). Do you know of any such research, or could you post this question for comments?
I asked David Papineau (King's College, London) to share a bit about how he teaches logic at KCL, since I thought it might be of general interest:
Once philosophy students get beyond the foothills, they are likely to start coming across passing references to ideas like denumerability, Bayesian conditionalization, modal scope distinctions, logical completeness, and so on. Yet often there will be nothing in their education designed to explain these technical notions to them.
For the past few years I’ve been teaching a course at King’s College London that aims to remedy this. I’ve just published the course as a text with OUP, called Philosophical Devices. (The book’s four sections cover: sets and numbers, starting with the membership relation and ending with the generalized continuum hypothesis; analyticity, a prioricity and necessity; probability, including objective versus subjective probability, conditionalization and correlation; metalogic, starting with syntax and semantics, and finishing with a sketch of Godel’s theorem. All in under 50,000 words including exercises and solutions.)
No doubt the techies will think that a book like this can only be a bluffer’s guide. But I think that I explain everything properly, and moreover make it philosophically interesting. Of course I don’t provide the depth available from higher-level courses in mathematical logic and the like. But for those many aspirant philosophers who will never go near such courses, I at least offer a way of understanding what the experts are talking about.
My course at King’s uses half the twenty weeks the first-year students used to spend on elementary logic. I’ve long been unsure about the point of normal introductory logic courses. It is doubtful they do anything to improve argumentative skills, and they tend not to leave time for any philosophically significant metalogic. Of course, they are a necessary prerequisite for those who are going to go on in logic. But for the many who aren’t, it is not obvious what the philosophical payoff is.
Not that this need be a competition. Ideally I’d want the students to do some introductory logic alongside my introduction to technical ideas. That’s what our students at King’s now do. But if they did have to choose, I think that my course would do more for their philosophical education than an extended training in elementary logical exercises.
In CHE. A comment from one "dvelleman" (I'm assuming it's the philosopher) that follows the article makes the key point:
Those who lament the loss of "relevance" and the rise of "specialization" in philosophy haven't read Aristotle's Metaphysics ... or Spinoza ... or Leibniz ... or Kant ... or, for that matter, Aristophanes' Clouds, which shows that their complaint is as old as the discipline itself.
We created a self-transforming paper survey of moral opinions, covering both foundational principles, and current dilemmas hotly debated in the media. This survey used a magic trick to expose participants to a reversal of their previously stated attitudes, allowing us to record whether they were prepared to endorse and argue for the opposite view of what they had stated only moments ago. The result showed that the majority of the reversals remained undetected, and a full 69% of the participants failed to detect at least one of two changes. In addition, participants often constructed coherent and unequivocal arguments supporting the opposite of their original position. These results suggest a dramatic potential for flexibility in our moral attitudes, and indicates a clear role for self-attribution and post-hoc rationalization in attitude formation and change.
So with over 2,000 votes cast, we know something about the eating habits of philosophers and their views about the ethics of those habits. 8% of respondents were vegans (a rate 10-20 times higher than in the population at large), 25% are vegetarians (a rate about 8 times higher than in the population at large), and 67% are carnivores. Not quite a quarter of the vegetarians, however, had ethical doubts about their eating practices--I assume many of those thought they really ought to be vegans. (Matthew Hernandez, a philosophy student at Portland State, wrote with a question for those folks: "I've never heard a reason for being Vegetarian that did not extend further to Veganism. That is, every reason I've heard for being Vegetarian, is a reason to be Vegan and say if we rated the level of ethical outcome of the acts, the Vegan would rank higher than the Vegetarian (solely based on my knowledge of the arguments and relevant scientific and statistical data as well as knowledge of factory farm practices)." I hope some readers will take that up in the comments.)
More than half of the carnivores professed ethical doubts about their eating practices. (That might be consistent with a recent finding by Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust that moral philosophers "were...substantially more likely [than other philosophers] to self-report vegetarianism. However, when asked about their last evening meal, ethicists reported eating meat at approximately the same rate as did the other groups.") It would be interesting to hear from carnivores on this subject. Are moral considerations in fact not overriding in their practical reasoning? Is it that they think the ethical arguments against meat-eating are not wholly persuasive, and they are still undecided?
Finally, 5% of carnivores identified ethical reasons as central to why they do eat meat. What did readers have in mind? Is it that that they are Kantians or contractarians who think that non-human animals have no intrinsic moral standing or worth, such that it would be a moral mistake to refrain from eating meat for allegedly ethical reasons? Or do they share the view widespread, for example, in the disability rights community, that Singer-style reasoning in support of vegetarianism entails morally reprehensible conclusions in other domains, constituting a reductio of the premises? Or something else altogether?
I'll consider unsigned comments, IF they include a valid e-mail address and they are substantive and on point. I would prefer signed comments. Readers may comment on any aspects of the results that are of interest.
At the recent Metaetahics Workshop in Madison, a philosopher remarked to me that he'd had lunch with six other people, and, to his amazement, there was only one vegetarian at the table! This led me to wonder what the real breakdown of eating practices, and views about those practices, are among philosophers. Hence this poll. Please only answer if you are a philosophy student or teacher. Someone who, e.g., is a vegetarian mainly for health reasons, but also think it is ethically right to be a vegetarian should choose the middle option, since a practice that is ethically right is also "ethically unproblematic." Someone can also choose the middle option if he or she thinks the practice is ethically neutral.
UPDATE: This poll has been remarkably popular; even though it's a Saturday, there have been more than 550 responses in just a few hours. So far, 6% of respondents are vegans, 25% vegetarians, and 69% carnivores--but more than half of carnivores (205, or 37% of all respondents) are concerned that their eating practices might be ethically problematic. Only 33% of all respondents are carnivores with a clean conscience! We'll open this up for discussion on Monday. Just to put those numbrers in perspectives, here are some numbers about the population in general courtesy of Vegetarian Times.
FINAL UPDATE: So with over 2,000 votes, here are the results; I'll open a discussion later today or tomorrow:
How would you describe your eating habits and their ethical status?
I am a vegan for what I take to be ethical reasons.
That Hegel is a metaphysician, and that he thinks metaphysics is fundamental to philosophy, is plain enough from his definition of philosophy. Hegel defines philosophy as knowledge of the absolute. The absolute is essentially what Spinoza calls substance. Since substance is infinite, the universe as a whole, i.e., god, Hegel is telling us that philosophy is knowledge of the infinite, of the universe as a whole, i.e, god. You cannot get more metaphysical than that. I think that Hegel scholars have to admit this basic fact rather than burying their heads in the sand and trying to pretend that Hegel is concerned with conceptual analysis, category theory, normativity or some such contemporary fad. Spooky terms like “spirit” and “absolute”? They should get their meaning from their historical context not from contemporary concepts that we impose upon them (viz., normativity). All the spookiness comes from giving a contemporary anachronistic sense to terms whose historical meaning is lost to us....
No one nowadays talks about the absolute, not even people with firm and deep religious convictions. The whole Hegelian project has no resonance for us, as it once had for the Germans in the 1820s and the British and Americans around the 1880s. This is not to say Hegel is unimportant, or that we should not take his philosophy seriously. We should take him very seriously, but that is essentially for historical reasons. Hegel remains of great importance to understand ourselves, but essentially because we have all grown out of a reaction against Hegel. This is to say, then, that Hegel is still important for us for essentially negative reasons, i.e., to show us what we are not. Feuerbach wrote in his Principles of the Philosophy of the Future: “Hegel’s philosophy is the last great attempt to rescue lost and fading Christianity through philosophy…” I think that this is absolutely accurate. The more we come to terms with it, the more we can see the degree of Hegel’s relevance for us. I think that for most of us nowadays, who have accepted life in a secular age, Hegel’s project is obsolete. Christianity was still central to the life and worldview of my old supervisor, Charles Taylor, and that is why he went back to Hegel. But as a secular pagan Hegel’s project has no resonance at all for me.
And I'll take the liberty of here quoting myself from "The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Recovering Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud," in The Future for Philosophy (Oxford, 2004):
If we can recover the naturalistic ambitions of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, we will also accomplish two important meta-philosophical goals: first, it helps make philosophy “relevant”--as the critics of philosophy so often demand--and, second, it bridges the so-called analytic/Continental divide in philosophy. Philosophy becomes relevant because the world—riven as it is with hypocrisy and concealment—desperately needs a hermeneutics of suspicion to unmask it. And by taking these three seminal figures of the Continental traditions as philosophical naturalists we show their work to be continuous with the naturalistic turn that has swept Anglophone philosophy over the past several decades. Such a reconciliation of Continental and Anglophone philosophy may seem to some the wrong one, but it is beyond the scope of this essay to defend the importance of the naturalistic turn. All I hope to establish here is that the antipathy to naturalism often thought to be constitutive of “the Continental tradition” is simply an artifact of cutting the joints of that tradition in certain places. Much of that Continental tradition has earned the--sometimes justified--antipathy of Anglophone philosophers, but there is reason to hope that just as German intellectuals of the 1840s and 50s, in the grips of the first great naturalistic turn in philosophy, gave up on Hegel as an obscurantist metaphysician, that we, too, may leave behind Hegel and his progeny.
Further to your current discussion on underappreciated philosophers, I wonder whether you and your readers would be interested in a neglected papers seminar that I'll be organising in Oxford this coming term. Each session members of the Faculty will draw attention to some interesting philosophy papers which they think should be better known. (The inspiration is a wasted youth spent hunting for rare records.) The papers may range from less well-known papers by famous philosophers (David Lews B-sides); interesting work by people who were once important but have now been forgotten or simply really good papers to which people haven't paid much attention. The hope is to be introduced to some good and interesting work which one might not know about – and to find out what one's colleagues think is worth reading.
This term the speakers are: Terry Irwin, Lizzie Fricker, Roger Crisp and Cian Dorr. A website with details of the papers to be discussed will go up sometime before term starts. Roger has already fixed on his paper: he'll be talking about Don Locke's 'The Trivializability of Universalizability', Philosophical Review (1968).
Visitors to Oxford are very welcome to attend (or, indeed, to present in future terms). Anyone who wants further information should feel free to contact me . I hope it will be a fun and interesting series of talks!
ADDENDUM: Philosopher David Morrow (Alabama/Birmingham) points out that the journal Philosophical Papers has a regular feature ("Re-Readings") devoted to discussing neglected articles and books.
1. Clarence Irving Lewis (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. Alfred North Whitehead loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 99–80
3. George Santayana loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 111–53, loses to Alfred North Whitehead by 97–51
4. George Herbert Mead loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 106–46, loses to George Santayana by 66–62
5. Susanne Langer loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 104–40, loses to George Herbert Mead by 54–52
6. Tied: Brand Blanshard loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 109–33, loses to Susanne Langer by 57–51 Roy Wood Sellars loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 109–23, loses to Susanne Langer by 50–44
8. John N. Findlay loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 111–31, loses to Brand Blanshard by 50–47
9. Charles Hartshorne loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 109–31, loses to John N. Findlay by 46–41
10. O.K. Bouwsma loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 111–26, loses to Charles Hartshorne by 54–39
11. C.J. Ducasse loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 107–17, loses to O.K. Bouwsma by 47–34
12. Monroe Beardsley loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 117–27, loses to C.J. Ducasse by 44–42
13. Maurice Mandelbaum loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 111–24, loses to Monroe Beardsley by 44–38
14. Ralph Barton Perry loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 114–16, loses to Maurice Mandelbaum by 41–34
15. Tied: Alain Locke loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 111–18, loses to Ralph Barton Perry by 35–30 Walter Stace loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 117–11, loses to Ralph Barton Perry by 37–25 Paul Weiss loses to Clarence Irving Lewis by 110–18, loses to Ralph Barton Perry by 38–29
A couple of readers pointed out a significant omission from the survey, Morris R. Cohen. Feel free to list other omissions in the comments, but take a moment to say why they were significant and should be appreciated today. More generally, I'd be keen to hear from readers what they think of the philosophers on this list, why they are significant and still worth reading. That will surely be more interesting than the mere ordinaly listing.
The poll is here, and it lists philosophers whose main work was done from roughly the early 1900s into the 1960s in some cases, philosophers whose careers largely began before the "analytic" takeover of the philosophy departments in the 1950s and 1960s, and who mainly worked during this period in the U.S. (even if they weren't American). I didn't include some, like John Dewey, who seem to be well-appreciated today, and I did include some, like C.I. Lewis, who were proto-analytic philosophers. Some like Whitehead are well-known, but for earlier work (on logic with Russell), rather than for the "process metaphysics" that occupied most of his later career. All the folks on the list were among the most prominent philosophers of their day, teaching at the leading universities, winning election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and so on.
"Underappreciated" here should be taken to mean that philosophers today ought to be reading and thinking about this philosopher's work, that there is still much to learn from it.
Have fun! I'll open a thread to discuss the results next week.
I've been following your blog for a couple years now, and one of the most beneficial things you've done (for me, at least) is post about the significance of certain philosophers and philosophical works. For instance:
I'd like to request another inquiry of this sort: What are the most influential philosophical articles written during the 20th century? I understand "articles" to exclude book chapters; these should be works that appeared (at least initially) in academic journals. I am quite curious what people will mention in the comments, though I suspect Gettier's "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?", Frankfurt's "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility", and Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" will be among them.
I think getting answers to this question would be helpful for graduate students looking to familiarize themselves with the core articles that have shaped the literature in both their specialty areas and philosophy as a whole.
A good topic, I think; comments are open for reader input.
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)