Monday, July 28, 2014

Ivy League zombies?

This article in the New Republic seems to have got a lot of attention. It's a strange piece, I think, with good bits and bad. The basic claim is that students should not go to the most elite universities and colleges but should aim one step lower, at places that many people think of as elite but that are not quite as difficult to get in to.

Why? Because:
Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
What the author, William Deresiewicz, says he is talking about when he talks about elite education is "prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools," but if these "second-tier" schools are so bad then it is odd that his conclusion is that "the best option of all may be the second-tier—not second-rate—colleges, like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and others." It's also a little strange to hear such good schools referred to as second-tier. Wesleyan is ranked 17th among national liberal arts colleges by US News & World Report, and several others mentioned here are in the top 40. Given the unreliability of the rankings it seems crazy to think there is much difference in quality between any two places in the top 50 or so, although there are probably some exceptions. Perhaps just being ranked 1st or 2nd makes a difference to the kind of students that apply and get in, but I wouldn't blame the colleges themselves for that. Maybe Deresiewicz doesn't either.

What he's really complaining about is:
the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.
In other words, not elite colleges and universities but the admissions system and the socio-economic, largely economic, inequality that it helps perpetuate. He makes a good point.

Here's another:
Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth“success.” What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want oneall this was off the table. 
I think this is generally true, and probably always has been. Students (in general and for the most part) don't go to college because they want to learn, even if they think they do. I don't think this is a problem so much as a feature of human nature, especially for young people coming out of high school who are used to doing what their parents and teachers tell them to do.

What is the problem then? Here's one, according to Deresiewicz:
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. 
Again, though, I don't know that this is a problem. The obvious solution would be for college admissions officers to give priority to applicants who had failed or had shown a willingness to take risks. Then this would become one more thing that well prepared students would make sure was part of their application. Perhaps some would fail to fail and so accidentally look too perfect. Then they might end up at second-tier schools, where Deresiewicz wants them anyway. The real problems seem more to be the obsession with rankings, as if the generally unmeasurable could be very finely measured after all, and the unfairness (and inefficiency) of a system that perpetuates inequality instead of being the meritocracy it pretends to be.

Here's one of the worst parts of the article:
Religious collegeseven obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coastsoften do a much better job in [teaching students how to think]. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.  
He gives no evidence that this is true, and it's hard to believe. Surely many obscure religious colleges stifle thought in favor of orthodoxy. There are different orthodoxies at non-religious colleges, no doubt, but merely asserting that religious colleges are often better than Ivy League schools in this regard is no indictment at all in the relevant sense (i.e. it is an accusation but not evidence that the accusation has any merit).

Such missteps aside, the main point of the article (as I read it) is good:
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. 
Why is this?
The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. 
Private colleges won't admit the best students regardless of their ability to pay, so the decline in funding for public higher education means that social mobility is in decline.The obvious solution, which Deresiewicz in effect calls for, although he mixes it up with irrelevant claims like "The problem is the Ivy League itself," is a massive increase in funding for public universities along with more sensible admissions policies. This will not ensure that rich kids don't become "entitled little shits" but it will make it far less important that anyone get into an Ivy League university or elite private college. Since no one cares about fairness, though, it will probably take failure to compete economically with better educated countries to prod the United States into improving its educational system. I wouldn't hold my breath, in other words. Especially when it's the zombies who are in charge.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Are there any language-games?

I've been thinking about this post at The Limits of Language, and this concluding thought in particular:
“Language game” is not a name. It is a picture made to counter the charm of certain other pictures.
I think this is right, but there seems to be more than one picture of a language-game. In PI 7 Wittgenstein introduces the term 'language-games' to refer to the "speech-like processes" that constitute exercises one goes through in teaching and learning a language (repeating words after the teacher, pointing to appropriate objects when the teacher says certain words, and so on). He gives a list of examples here, but they all seem to me to be examples of the same thing: games and exercises by means of which one learns a language. Nursery rhymes, for instance (which Baker and Hacker say that Wittgenstein preferred to "games like ring-a-ring-a-roses" as the English translation of Reigenspielen). Then right at the end he adds (my translation):
I shall also call the whole, the language and the activities with which it is interwoven, the "language-game".
It isn't clear what he means by "the language" etc. He has already said that he will call a primitive language a language-game, and it isn't really clear what counts as a primitive language. Is "the language" the primitive language, or some other language? The only thing to do is to look and see how he uses the term. In 300, for instance, when he talks about "the language-game with the words "he is in pain"," he seems to mean neither a learning exercise or game nor a whole language in any obvious sense of "whole language." We have to attend, it seems, not to what he says but to what he does. And presumably that's deliberate.

What he certainly does not do is present himself as having unearthed some phenomenon that had previously been overlooked, namely language-games. Instead he has invented a concept as a tool, and what matters is what he does with it. His use of the term develops in the course of the book. So the introduction of the term in PI 7 no more gives us everything we need to grasp its meaning than does the ostensive teaching of a word.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Political links

The problem with unstructured summer time combined with distracting (albeit lovable) family members is that I don't get nearly as much done as I think I should. The stretches of uninterrupted time needed for work or reading a good book just aren't there, or take more effort to create than I tend to make. On the plus side, I do end up reading lots of little things, some of which are quite good. Here are some highlights from the last couple of days:

William Findley against big banks:
If our wealth is less equal than our kind of government seems to require—and if agrarian [i.e., redistributionist] laws are unjust in our present situation, how absurd must it be for government to lend its special aid in so partial a manner, to wealth, to give it that additional force and spring, which it must derive from an almost unlimited charter? Can any gentleman avoid seeing this to be eventually and effectually overturning our government? Democracy must fall before it.
Lee A. Arnold on ten truths about "a cohesive, pervasive social organism"
conservative white males are likely to favor protection of the current industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well. Fiscally conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system, controlling stocks and flows of various forms of capital and benefiting from ample amounts of prestige, status, and esteem… Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it makes sense that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes—triggered by the anti-climate science claims of the conservative movement…—may drive them toward climate change denial.
[I'm not convinced that white males' favoring an order that has served them well is "not racist," but I suppose we can disagree about how to define 'racism'. And what I've quoted (which is itself a quote from someone else, not Arnold) might seem obvious, but there's more in Arnold's comment than just the obvious.]

Finally, Changing Universities on "the higher education myth":
[Arne] Duncan and others appear to believe that college degrees produce jobs that require degrees, when in fact, there is very little relation between these two factors.  In fact, since wealthy students graduate from college at a much higher rate than anyone else, higher education often serves to increase income inequality.  Higher education thus cannot substitute for broader economic public policies, and at a time when public higher education is seeing decreased funding, it is absurd to ask higher education to be the solution to all of our problems.  For example, Duncan claimed that higher education is the key to keeping high-pay, high skill jobs in America, but this perspective fails to look at the role of corporations seeking to increase their profits by outsourcing jobs and replacing full-time workers with part-time employees. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The future of analytic philosophy

This is a post to take with a pinch of salt because my starting point is Peter Unger's book Empty Ideas, which I haven't read, and in particular the response to its publication, which I haven't read in its entirety either. So why bother? Unger suggests that contemporary analytic philosophy is empty and he seems to have hit a nerve. That, really, is my point. If mainstream analytic philosophers feel insecure about what they are doing this does not prove that their work has no value, of course, but it strikes me as being interesting enough to warrant a blog post.

The initial responses to Unger's interview about his book accused him of being a hypocrite, of being obnoxiously rude, of saying things that have been said before by Rorty and others, and of overlooking all the work in philosophy that is not mainstream analytic philosophy. What struck me was the difficulty people seemed to have in coming up with obviously non-empty or non-trivial work to present as a counter-example. My favorite response was this:
The idea that contemporary academic philosophy (n all of its roots and branches; for instance, political philosophy), when compared to the diverse fields of the sciences (physical sciences but also mathematics, cosmology, biology, applied sciences such as medicine and biomedical research, technology, engineering, psychology, neuroscience, the social sciences, information theory, computer programming, etc.) fails to make clear, unambiguous contributions to our stock of knowledge about the world, only makes sense if one first assumes that science itself is primarily about clear, unambiguous advancements to knowledge. Yet clearly a great deal of science itself fails to make any such contribution.
Philosophy is like science because a great deal of science fails to contribute to our knowledge, and so does philosophy! Actually, though, the point of the comment is right (so I retract my snark): whatever value contemporary philosophy has is surely outside the scope of unambiguously producing new knowledge. But this means that we need to give up the idea of philosophy as being like science. 

Several comments mention Gary Gutting's book What Philosophers Know, but this (a book that I have read) does not deal with unambiguous advancements to knowledge made by philosophers. It deals with the ideas of people such as Quine, Rawls, and Rorty, that is, people who have certainly been influential and have many admirers but whose ideas are neither universally accepted as true nor universally rejected by other philosophers. It should perhaps be called What Many Philosophers Agree On

Brian Leiter writes:
I want to second the recommendation of Gary Gutting's book. Another possibility, of course, is that there are relatively few substantive results reached by so-called analytic philosophers, but that its value resides elsewhere: in intellectual hygiene, one might say, clarity of thought and reasoning, something in short supply in many other fields (as physicists are endlessly reminding us with their pronouncements).
This is surprisingly (to my mind) Wittgensteinian, although of course there is room for different ideas about what counts as clarity. And Wittgenstein comes up also in this response by Marcus Arvan (who I don't think of as a Wittgensteinian, which is why this is relevant, although I can't say I know his work well):
I've been thinking more and more lately about a worry about analytic philosophy that traces back at least to Wittgenstein, and which is enjoying a resurgence (see e.g. Millikan's Dewey Lecture, Avner Baz' recent paper which I commented on here, and Balaguer's paper on compatibilism and conceptual analysis, which I commented on here). The worry is simply this: analytic philosophy is, by and large, predicated on a systematic misunderstanding and misuse of language. 
We have also seen John Searle describing contemporary philosophy as being "in terrible shape." He calls it boring and lacking in insight. People have been saying this kind of thing for as long as analytic philosophy has existed, but could a new stage in its history be about to begin? Or will these complaints be soon forgotten? I wonder. I don't think we're about to witness a new golden age of Wittgensteinianism, but it might be more Wittgenstein-friendly than what we've seen in the last few decades. Or, of course, nothing much at all might change.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hostility to Wittgenstein

There have been some heartening calls for niceness in philosophy lately (here and here, for instance). Which is perhaps why I'm so struck by the apparent animus in some of Charles Pigden's remarks on Wittgenstein here and here. Pigden does not just disagree with Wittgenstein, he characterizes his "polemical practices" as "dishonest and authoritarian." I don't know which practices he has in mind, but he does mention Wittgenstein's interactions with Turing at one point. The only record we have of those, however, is notes taken by students, so they are hardly a reliable basis for making accusations of this kind. What I recall of these notes doesn't seem all that polemical, either. It certainly doesn't seem dishonest and authoritarian. Pigden is too young to have seen Wittgenstein in action, and Wittgenstein's work generally does not seem polemical. I don't know where the accusation of dishonesty comes from either. It's odd. But Pigden is by no means alone. Tom Hurka's "Wittgenwanker" moment comes to mind, which I remembered as occurring after dinner but which is time stamped as 8:05 a.m. Not enough coffee rather than too much wine, perhaps. (There's a nice response here.) Someone once told me that Peter Hacker's combative style had put people at Oxford off Wittgenstein. I don't know whether that's true, but I wonder whether Pigden is perhaps reacting in part against one or more followers of Wittgenstein rather than Wittgenstein himself.

Michael Kremer provides some good responses, but he hasn't yet answered Pigden's last move, which begins like this:
Like Wittgenstein himself, you have a wonderful way of insulating yourself from refutation. I say Wittgenstein employs implicit criteria for what is and is not meaningful, a claim I could back up by quoting chapter and verse. You say that he often says things which suggest this, but that if we look at the Investigations as a whole we see that this is not so. I recommend this hermeneutical tactic to any interpreter whose interpretation might be falsified by inconvenient quotes.
But you don't falsify an interpretation by quoting remarks out of context, as Pigden surely knows. And all Kremer said was that the context, the book as a whole, needs to be taken into account. Pigden continues:
My real point however is that unless Wittgenstein has such a set of criteria and unless they are correct his therapeutic procedures are simply a set of rhetorical tricks designed to impose a restricted Oldspeak in which the ideas that Wittgenstein disapproves of cannot be expressed. Your defense make him far less honest and much more of an authoritarian than his positivist contemporaries who at least had a theory to back their prohibitions.
According to you, Wittgenstein presumes to tell his interlocutors what is and is not meaningful even though
1) he does not have a theory about what makes utterances meaningful or otherwise (because he does not have ANY theories) 
and 
2) he has no criteria (not even vague ones) to determine whether something is meaningful or not.
If there is no theory or criterion for what is and is not meaningful then it seems to me we have two possibilities with respect to Wittgenstein’s therapeutic procedures.  
These two possibilities, of course, turn out to be bad for Wittgenstein.

And equally of course it is not the case that according to Kremer Wittgenstein presumes to tell his interlocutors what is and is not meaningful . What Kremer says is that:  
As for Wittgenstein, I do not think he employs even a vague set of criteria designed to rule out what he doesn't like. What he does is to use a series of methods for trying to bring his interlocutor to see the meaninglessness of his or her words, when the use of those words leads to seemingly intractable problems. Insofar as these methods do not persuade the interlocutor (lead the fly out of the fly-bottle), they are not successful by Wittgenstein's own lights
So Kremer's Wittgenstein does not presume to tell anybody anything. He presumes to try to bring people to see that their words are meaningless. And if they cannot be so brought then the Wittgensteinian either keeps trying or admits defeat. Agreement is essential to the method, which is why there is no telling and no authoritarianism. Nor does Wittgenstein have any criteria because so far as criteria of meaningfulness are needed these must be shared with the interlocutor, who might be anybody, so they can't be criteria specific to Wittgenstein.

Kremer quotes this passage from the Big Typescript to illustrate Wittgenstein's view and method:
One of the most important tasks is to express all false thought processes so characteristically that the reader says, 'Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it'. To make a tracing of the physiognomy of every error. 
Indeed we can only convict someone else of a mistake if he acknowledges that this really is the expression of his feeling. [if he (really) acknowledges this expression as the correct expression of his feeling.]
For only if he acknowledges it as such, is it the correct expression. (Psychoanalysis.)
What the other person acknowledges is the analogy I am proposing to him as the source of his thought.
How this could seem authoritarian is beyond me. I can only think that Pigden is talking about something, and perhaps someone, else. This someone else, though, appears to have treated people so badly that talk of Wittgenstein now raises a red mist before some people's eyes. Which is perhaps another reason why philosophers should try to be nice. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The uselessness of humanity

There is a lot of wisdom and sense in Tal Brewer's essay on the value of the humanities (and the future of higher education, and politics, and economics, and the meaning of life), but I think I disagree with a key part of it. Tal rejects the idea that the humanities are useful because they are beneficial economically or politically, but he also rejects Stanley Fish's view:
that the humanities are their own reward, and that they can be justified only in terms of the special pleasure they afford their initiates, and that humanities professors should be pleased to admit their uselessness since this is tantamount to insisting on the autonomous and intrinsic value of their pursuits.
He doesn't reject it outright, but he does reject it:
The humanities really can be pleasurable, they really are intrinsically rewarding, and it would be a serious mistake to turn to them solely because of their usefulness. Yet in my view, Fish takes insufficient care to distinguish between the truth that the humanities are not to be used and the falsehood—I want to say, the slander—that they are useless. To say they are useless is to say they bring nothing of value to our lives beyond the transient pleasure of engaging in them. But this is surely wrong.
Here we get into what I am coming to think of as Wittgenstein territory, that is, the distinction between the animal and the ritual, which can also be thought of as the distinction between the pragmatic and the ethical, the trivial and the significant, the scientific and the transcendent, the factual and the valuable, the worldly and the unworldly. Attributing this distinction to Wittgenstein is not really important, but the distinction itself (which is also, in various forms, in Schopenhauer, Kant, and Plato, among others) is. It's closely related, also, to Mill's distinction between lower and higher pleasures.

Not wanting to accept Fish's claim that the humanities are useless, Tal says things like this about the value of the humanities:
they deepen virtually all of the activities of those who permit their psyches to be reshaped by sustained engagement in them. They deepen friendships; they deepen neighborly social relations; they deepen loves and marriages and parent-child relations, walks in the woods, idle musings, creative and expressive activity, and contemplation of the creative and expressive products of others.
The main opportunities for exercising the sort of understanding inspired by close reading of Marcel Proust and James Joyce seem to lie not in the political forum but at the café, or over the dinner table, or perhaps in the bedroom (where it greatly multiplies the menu of available pathologies!).
The humanities are, more accurately, a gateway to and instigator of a lifelong activity of free self-cultivation. The changes they provoke in us are not always for the happier, or the more remunerative, or the more civically engaged, but when things go passably well, these changes are for the deeper, the more reflective, and the more thoughtful. The humanities connect our lives with a human vocation that is different in kind from, and potentially more meaningful than, commerce or politics 
I don't know what 'deepen' means, and suspect both that it has no clear meaning and that things very different from the study of the humanities can do whatever deepening is just as well. Sex, for instance, might deepen love, and the sincere love of God might deepen a walk in the woods. Wanting to improve, or pathologize, one's sex life is not a good reason to read Joyce. Nor, really, is wanting to improve one's conversations over dinner. Not that sex and conversation are unimportant, but these benefits of reading good books carefully seem no more relevant than the alleged economic and political benefits that Tal rightly looks past. The third passage I've quoted seems better, but again we have the idea of depth, which I can't understand as anything but enrichment, which in turn means little more to me than improvement. Books don't make us more thoughtful than business problems and opportunities, for instance, do. They make us thoughtful in a different way. This way is better (or deeper, if you prefer) but saying so is a rather empty endorsement. Metaphorical language about gateways and cultivation obscures this emptiness but does not remove it. These passages all come from the part of Tal's essay before he has fleshed out his argument, though, so no wonder it seems a little thin at this point. Let's move on.

Here's something like the heart of the last part of the essay:
The ideal teacher of philosophy is not someone whose opinions are to be accepted, but someone whose form of thought is worth emulating. The Socrates we know is a dramatic persona Plato puts forward as worthy of emulation. I believe that such emulation consists in serious-minded lifelong engagement (engagement “unto death,” as Plato wishes to make clear in the Phaedo and Crito) in the activity of self-articulation, which is to say, the activity of bringing oneself into a more determinate form by bringing oneself into words. Here “articulation” is meant in both of its common senses: We give a more fine-toothed and determinate shape to our views about important matters (i.e., give them greater articulation) by bringing them into the space of words (i.e., by articulating them).
No doubt much could be said about this idea (and Charles Taylor has said much of it, as Tal acknowledges), but it seems at least roughly right. But is bringing oneself into more determinate form useful? That doesn't seem the right word. It is not thereby useless, but that slightly shocking way of putting its non-usefulness helps, I think, to make the point that the value of the humanities and of growing up in the way they help us to do is utterly different from the kind of value recognized by people whose minds are wholly of the world, wholly practical. This, I take it, is Fish's point. The study and practice of the humanities is work in being human or grown-up. The humanity that they help us acquire is not good because it is useful, but it is certainly good. That they help us acquire something good is Tal's point, and I suppose I agree with it. But I prefer Fish's way of putting it.

[Hat-tip to the Daily Nous.]