Friday, March 16, 2018


Maybe I'm just unusually ignorant, but the version of the Encyclopedia Britannica that I remember seeing online contained either very short articles or perhaps an introductory paragraph followed by a message that I didn't have the right to read the rest of the article. As far as I can see this has changed, and not just because my library has taken out a subscription. The whole thing seems to be available for free as long as you don't mind seeing some ads. And the philosophy artifices look very good. There's Ray Monk on Wittgenstein, Roger T. Ames on Confucius, Wendy Doniger and others on Hinduism, and so on. Apologies if this is old news. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Eldridge lore

Richard Eldridge has an interesting essay on liberal education here. I don't know that I have much interesting to say about it, but he talks about the point of higher education, which I have talked about before, and I do have something, however slight, to say in response.

One of his key ideas is this:
human beings are enabled to flourish in and through the exercise of rational powers only through education as paideia: the actualization of rational powers and the direction of preference and interest toward appropriate ends. Merely having a biological life and a lot of pleasant experiences is not sufficient for living well. Absent education as paideia, then, human life threatens to collapse back out of the rational-cultural and into the animal-instinctual. To flourish, we must learn from each other to engage in activities that support the actualization of rational powers.
This is another:
If I can get students to pay attention — close attention — to the details and intricate coherences of, say, François Truffaut’s Day for Night or Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or James Baldwin’s Another Country, Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Half of Life” or Rilke’s “An Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Plato’s Symposium or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, then, I think to myself, that’s something. There’s a chance that they will resonate to the insights and, more important, the powers of perception infused with thought that are manifest in these works. They might learn to see their lives, their social circumstances, and the currently obscure possibilities within them more clearly and with more hope. That would be something, and I am not quite ready to give up. 
And his conclusion is along these lines:
In any case, I will carry on, with such modest successes in paideia as I am able to manage. Within a general culture that no longer expects or appreciates paideia and within an institution that is shaped by that general culture, this will sadly remain difficult and often-enough fruitless work. The larger issue is the plight of liberal education, paideia, in an ongoing war between Deweyan-Rawlsian liberal democracy and neoliberalism, where neoliberalism is winning.
I'm sympathetic to a lot of what he says, even if he sounds a bit like a grumpy old man (as I often do) when he brings up electronic dance music. But do I really agree that developing powers of perception is what higher education should mostly be about? Would I spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to send each of my children to university just for that? I think I would not, unless I had won millions on the lottery. 

One thing to note is that I wouldn't count on any university in particular right now to even try to get students to pay close attention to great works of art. My daughter (majoring in engineering) goes to an expensive university and has not been required to take any course that aims to do this. I don't think the college I teach at requires its students to take any such course either. So if you're paying for this kind of paideia, at least at one of those two places, you're out of luck. Secondly, students get exposed to some works of art in high school, and can be exposed to more by their parents. Might that be enough? And thirdly, how much can colleges and universities do to make students appreciate great works? Even if that is a worthwhile goal, and I think it is, is enough success likely to make the great expense of college worth it? Eldridge emphasizes the value of science, art, politics, and friendship. If someone like my daughter is already invested in three of these heavily and takes some interest in the fourth, how much should I worry that she might be missing out on something really important? A little, but enough to justify spending lots of money for the possibility of maybe partially filling the gap? The question seems simply irrelevant to all but the richest parents.

Eldridge, I think, recognizes this. The problem is less what universities teach and more the precarious state in which people entering the job market find themselves. If there were less inequality, if being at the bottom were less terrible, then we would be less worried about the need for our children to get job qualifications. It would also help, of course, if higher education were much less expensive. In the meantime, though, as he suggests, colleges and universities can at least try to cultivate the minds of students in less utilitarian ways. I agree with him that it's a shame we don't do more of this.  

As things stand, a college degree increases one's expected lifetime earnings enormously but is also very expensive. Which means the advantage goes to the children of richer parents. That is unfair, and means that we all suffer from living in a less meritocratic society (the talents of working class children are often wasted, to the disadvantage of all except the less talented members of the higher classes). This strikes me as a bigger issue than paideia.

But I do care about paideia as well.     

Friday, March 9, 2018

Miranda Fricker at Washington & Lee

Yesterday Miranda Fricker spoke at Washington & Lee University about "Epistemic Equality as a Condition of Well-functioning Blaming and Forgiving." It was a strange experience for me because we were contemporaries as undergraduates, not just at the same university but at the same college within the university, although I don't think we've ever had a conversation. She has achieved rather more than I have since then. I'm not sure that her promise was recognized as much as it should have been at the time.

She talked her talk rather than reading it, which was impressive and more engaging than the usual philosophy presentation, but it also led to a problem with timing and, unless I missed something, she didn't get to finish saying what she meant to say, even in abbreviated form. It didn't help that a man in the audience interrupted the talk to ask a question. What she did say was a kind of (necessarily very brief) summary of her ideas about epistemic injustice, followed by some application of these ideas to blame (I don't think she got to forgiveness, except perhaps very briefly).

Epistemic injustice occurs when someone either is not listened to, or is not taken fully seriously, when they make a statement because of unjust prejudice against them or some group to which they belong, or when their participation in "practices of shared social understanding" is limited. These ideas of Fricker's are relatively well known.

What was new in this talk, as far as I know, was the application to blame. I was slightly confused by some of this, so I may be presenting the ideas inaccurately, but here's what I think she said. One kind of blame (and by 'blame' she seems to mean the public act of accusing someone of having done wrong, not just holding a grudge or privately judging someone to be in the wrong) is fairly straightforward: your friend is late to meet you, say, and you point this out (perhaps she had thought the arranged time was later than it really was), whereupon she acknowledges the badness of her behavior, apologizes, and life goes on as normal. Another kind, though, is more complicated. This is the part I struggled with, especially in terms of imagining an actual example of the phenomenon in question.

This kind of blame involves someone who does not see anything wrong with their behavior, who sees no reason why they should have behaved differently. Here pointing out what they did will make no difference to them. Perhaps they acknowledge that they were late but see no reason why they should ever be punctual, for instance. Fricker's handout says:
Treat someone as if she already recognizes a reason to have acted differently, and (given she has sufficient base-line respect or care for you) you may thereby cause her to come to recognize the reason.
I'm speculating here, but maybe the idea is something like this. I tell my friend not to worry about her lateness since the time flew by as I waited for her because I was enjoying reading and rarely get a chunk of time like that in which to read; she is initially puzzled because she doesn't expect people to care about lateness, but realizes that I obviously take it to be something one might well care about; putting two and two together, she comes to see that even if she never minds when others are late, she had better be more careful with other people's time in future.

If she goes through a process of reasoning like this then the value of punctuality has now become more widely entrenched in our social world. But whether his happens, or to what extent it happens, will depend in part on how seriously she takes what I say and on how well she is able to understand what I am saying. So there is room for problems of epistemic injustice to make a difference here.

That, at least, is what I think she means. And it seems right to me.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The fallacy of the course again

I wrote about the fallacy of the course here. Since I have several posts drafted but never seem to get around to finishing and posting them, I may as well revisit the idea. In a nutshell, where it probably belongs, the fallacy is to think that requiring students to take a course will give them some significant, life-enhancing skill. Put like that it doesn't sound so fallacious, perhaps, but here's an example from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Students in every major are well advised to take a class or two in improvisational acting, creative writing, or drawing. Being proficient at writing code or any other technical skill will take you only so far in an evolving labor market.
Without creativity, good luck not being replaced by a less costly alternative.
See the problem? A class or two in drawing will not make you creative. Perhaps it will make you more creative in some ways (though I doubt it--I imagine it would mostly a) make clear to you that you are not that great at drawing, and b) teach you some techniques to improve your drawing). But why on earth would anyone think it would make you more imaginative in a general or transferable way?  

Parts of the article are fine. Its overall point, rightly understood, might even be right. But it's hard to think that any real thought has gone into it when you see this kind of thoughtless blather about creativity.

For more of my grumpy ranting see also here

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Belgrade Philosophical Annual: Perspectives on Wittgenstein

You can read the whole issue online (as far as I can see) here. The details are these:

Issue 30, Year 2017

Belgrade Philosophical Annual
Institute for Philosophy, University of Belgrade
ISSN: 0353-3891
Guest Editors: James R. Connelly, Andrej Jandrić, Ljiljana Radenović


Hans-Johann Glock


Arif Ahmed


Leon Kojen


Severin Schroeder


S.G. Sterrett


Pasquale Frascolla


James Russell Connelly


Henry Jackman


Russell B. Goodman


Dejan Todorović


David G. Stern


Ljiljana Radenović, Slaviša Kostić

Saturday, February 17, 2018

(in parenthesis)

This website, dedicated to Anscombe, Foot, Murdoch, and Midgley, looks great.
“The Golden-Age of Female Philosophy” is a rare case of women flourishing and achieving collective prominence in the discipline, at a standard that rivalled their male counterparts. Through a detailed historical study of this period, with particular focus on the life and work of Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Phillipa Foot, In Parenthesis describes the particular conditions under which this happened. As well as illuminating some of the more well-documented barriers to inclusion, there is scope to discover unknown factors and ultimately new strategies for gender activism within philosophy. By examining a brief window, albeit in parenthesis, where the social and intellectual landscape of academic philosophy was altered as a result of the disruptions of the second World War, the current project promises to reflect on the questions facing contemporary women philosophers and the more general question of ‘women in philosophy’, as it is known.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Grappling with every donkey

Some interesting stuff about Wittgenstein on an essay by Ludwig Hänsel on p. 19 of this catalogue.
Summarising his opinion on the front wrapper, Wittgenstein writes: "Auch ein Museum braucht einen Kurator, der weiß, was wohin zu stellen ist, und nicht Dreck und Wertvolles durcheinander in alle Schränke stellt" (museums need curators who know what goes where, and don't jumble up the rubbish with the valuable stuff). In the margins of the text, like a schoolmaster, he convicts Hänsel of waffle ("Geschwätz, gehauen nicht & nicht gestochen!"), ambiguity ("Wie verschwommen!") and lack of focus ("Wenn man sich mit jedem Esel herumschlägt, wird man leicht selber einer" – if you grapple with every donkey you'll become one yourself). He asks at one point "Was ist durch diese Fassung geleitet?" (how does this get us any further forward?), and at another writes "Hier wird kein Problem gelöst, sondern nur das, was problematisch wiederholt" (here you haven't solved the problem, only restated it). He also observes "Nimm die Wiederholungen fort & das Leere der Paragraphen wird sich zeigen" (take these repetitions out, and the vacuity of the paragraphs will be manifest). Towards the end, in mock-exasperation, he declares "Wenn das Philosophie ist, dann sollten die Menschen ein für allemal auf sie verzichten" (if that's philosophy, then we should all give it up for good), and against Hänsel's closing paragraph he suggests he keep his pearls of wisdom to himself - "Behalt's bei Dir!"
H/t Julian Baggini on Twitter.