Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The humanities again

A friend has called this essay "smart, passionate, and research-driven." (Why mention that it's passionate?) Anyway, I could resist responding by secretly blogging my disagreement, but I won't.

In the essay, Eric Hayot, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies at Penn State, takes a careful (or at least careful-looking to me) look at some of the numbers involved in the state of the humanities in American universities and colleges. He points out, for instance, that "the low point of humanities degrees as a percentage of overall degrees came not in 2014–15 but in 1985–86," which suggests fluctuation rather than the crisis or steady decline that we often hear about. On the other hand, he also delivers some seemingly very bad news: "At many institutions the decline in humanities majors since 2010 is over 50%, a phrase that I can barely bring myself not to italicize, put in all capital letters, and surround with flashing lights." This is all interesting, and he gives some plausible suggestions about why it is happening. So far, so smart and research-driven. But then we get to his proposed solutions.

At the undergraduate level he has four (for programs at the graduate level his suggestion is: "unless you are placing most of your students in the professorial jobs for which you are training them, you need to rethink what you are doing"):

1. teach the humanities, not the disciplines
2. experiment with courses, departments, and programs
3. don't give up on the students
4. justify and explain what we do

I'm probably not going to argue that we should give up on the students, but otherwise I have a lot of disagreement to express.

Here's the first half of what Hayot says about teaching the humanities rather than disciplines:
The data suggest that enrollments in the humanities are falling far more slowly than the number of majors, because, I suspect, of the continuing appeal of humanistic questions: What is friendship? What does it mean to have a good life? What is justice? How do feelings work? Does history have meaning? Are we alone in the universe? What does it feel like to be a migrant? Students are less interested—as far as I can tell—in topical courses that promise coverage of a geographic region or historical period, in courses like The Modern Novel or Medieval Europe.
Students also like classes that tell them how to do things—how to eradicate world poverty; how to live a satisfying life; how to create political change. None of these would be strictly history or English or philosophy. I think that’s a feature, not a bug: my guess is that the humanities are going to survive by expanding and extending their general interdisciplinarity, by realizing that the separation of disciplines produces appeals to certain kinds of expertise that at this point may not be enough to retain our traditional audiences. Our market has changed; we probably need to change with it.
That's my emphasis. Things are not so research-driven here. The questions in the first paragraph are philosophy, philosophy, philosophy, philosophy/psychology, philosophy, physics/biology, and possibly literature. Not "the humanities," exactly. The things in the second paragraph that students want to know how to do are things that, roughly speaking, no one knows how to do. How (and whether) we can eradicate world poverty is a question of economics. How (and whether) we ought to try to do so is a question of philosophy (specifically the branch of political philosophy concerned with distributive justice). How to live a satisfying life is either psychology or philosophy (specifically ethics). How to create political change is something you might learn in a politics course, although if you're hoping to learn how to change the world rather than how to change one particular policy or law then you are likely to be disappointed. So far as Hayot's suspicions are right, they suggest that students should be offered a lot more philosophy and social science courses, not general interdisciplinarity.

Under suggestion #2, Hayot recommends courses like some that have proved very popular at Penn State and Harvard. But how to make a course popular is a bit of a mystery, and probably has to do with individual charisma, which some of us just don't have. (The Harvard course he mentions is the one on which this book is based, which, once again, is a philosophy course.) Here is most of the rest of what he says under this heading:
Making the kind of curricular changes I’m proposing is difficult because of institutional inertia. Who would approve the courses? Under what rubrics would they be taught? Here faculty members and administrators need to work together to create experiments in departments and programs. What if, for instance, a dean offered a group of faculty members (let’s say ten to fifteen) who could make a viable proposal the opportunity to create a new humanistic program focused on undergraduate education? What if those faculty members could spend five years, supported with a course release or two and a bit of research money, working to create new courses that would either answer the big questions or introduce students to majors in a broad and appealing way?
Of course such a thing might not work! But what we have now is not working either. It would be really great if we could populate the country (or the world) with experiments like this, knowing that we can all learn from their successes and failures and copy from them what makes a difference.
This will never happen. And not only because of institutional inertia. I've already explained why there is good reason to think Hayot is barking up the wrong tree. Believing this to be the case is not mere inertia. Even if one agreed with him, as many non-philosophers in the humanities, I think, would, there is no way that people would be given that amount of time and money and course releases to develop a new program. (I was involved in the design of a new program at my school. We were given one summer to do it.) And what do you do if, as seems likely (given the nature of experiments), the experiment does not work? Anything you undid cannot easily be brought back, anything done cannot easily be undone, and what do you do with any undergraduate majors in your new, failed program? It's a recipe for disaster. What works in one school will not necessarily work in another, either (nor will what fails at one school necessarily fail at another), so there is a limited amount of learning from others that can be done.

Hayot's third suggestion, the sure to be controversial "Don't give up on students", is about teaching. We should, he implies, expect less of them than we have in the past because students are reading and writing less before they get to college. And we should take teaching more seriously than we do (at schools that do not take it seriously) in tenure and promotions decisions. It's hard to disagree with this. There's no point blaming students for what others have failed to teach them (because of government insistence on standardized testing, etc.). And teaching is obviously important. But it's also very hard to measure good teaching, as Hayot seems to recognize, and many schools (e.g., mine) already care a lot about teaching when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.

Finally, Hayot says that:
Every single class in the humanities should include some discussion about what the humanities are and why they’re worth something; it might even include information about salaries and employment issues, since our students (and their parents) often care about those a great deal.    
I disagree with this, because I disagree with his idea of the humanities. That idea seems essentially to be that people with PhDs in English (and maybe some related fields, such as Comparative Literature) should teach courses in philosophy (and maybe some other fields, related to the topic of the course), because that's what students seem to want. I do believe that English is worth something. As is Comparative Literature. As is history. But if the humanities is what Hayot seems to think it is then I'm not at all sure that it has much, if any, value. People with expertise in literature should teach literature. People with expertise in rhetoric should teach rhetoric. And so on. By all means let's offer a mix of humanities courses and respond (to some extent) to what students seem to want to learn. But if that's philosophy or economics or politics let's say so, and act accordingly. "General interdisciplinarity" is another name for mush, for the unqualified teaching students presumed too ignorant to know that their teachers lack the relevant expertise. "Let the blind lead the blind" is no way to save anything.

Hans Sluga has a blog

It's here. h/t John Holbo

If you don't know who Hans Slugs is, here's his bio.

If you're wondering whether he blogs about Wittgenstein, he does (but also about other things).

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Schopenhauer on women

I have four things to say about Schopenhauer's essay (it's really a collection of remarks) "On Women."
  1. The version of the essay in the Penguin Classics Essays and Aphorisms is abridged, leaving out the last remark and the words "The Mormons' standpoint is right" at the end of the penultimate remark. In what follows, nevertheless, I will use the numbering from the Penguin edition and hope that this is not misleading
  2. It is possible, even likely, that Schopenhauer really does mean the misogynistic things he seems to be saying
  3. Even so, his remarks are not all misogynistic. His first remark says that "the right point of view for the appreciation of women" is shown by Jouy's words, "Without women the beginning of our life would be deprived of help, the midst [of our life would be deprived] of pleasures and the end [of our life would be deprived] of consolation," and by similar thoughts of Byron's. The fourth remark implies that nature equips all creatures with what they need to survive, suggesting a kind of equality of value. In the fifth he writes that, "women are more sober in their judgment than [men], and [...] they see nothing more in things than is really there." In the sixth he claims that, "they live more for the species than for the individual, and in their hearts take the affairs of the species more seriously than those of the individual." This might sound bad, but Schopenhauer argues that the species is far more important and valuable than any individual, which would make women's hearts wiser than men's, in his view. The eighth remark sounds particularly bad (it includes, for instance, the claim that "They are the sexus sequior, the second sex in every respect"), but is in part an attack on the idea of the lady, which many feminists would also reject. 
  4. I want to explore the possibility that his apparent misogyny is ironic, and that what he means is therefore not nearly as bad as what he appears to be saying. Consider this paragraph, which is the last one in the Penguin edition:
"It is useless to argue about polygamy, it must be taken as a fact existing everywhere, the mere regulation of which is the problem to be solved. Where are there, then, any real monogamists? We all live, at any rate for a time, and the majority of us always, in polygamy. Consequently, as each man needs many women, nothing is more just than to let him, nay, make it incumbent upon him to provide for many women. By this means woman will be brought back to her proper and natural place as a subordinate being, and the lady, that monster of European civilisation and Christian–Teutonic stupidity, with her ridiculous claim to respect and veneration, will no longer exist; there will still be women, but no unhappy women, of whom Europe is at present full. The Mormons’ standpoint is right."
Assuming his readers are mid-nineteenth century German men, how would they be likely to react to this argument? Not very happily, I would think. They are accused of polygamy, which is associated with Mormonism. In his MA thesis "The Mormons in Wilhelmine Germany 1870-1914: Making a place for an unwanted American religion in a changing German society", Michael Mitchell writes (p. 1) that: "Mormonism had officially come to Germany in 1850 but opposition there was ubiquitous and conversions few." So recommending the Mormon standpoint could not be expected to be popular. Nor would Schopenhauer's reference to "Christian–Teutonic stupidity". The accusation of polygamy also seems unlikely to win him friends. Especially since, as I read the essay, he is talking about men hiring prostitutes, whose lives he describes as being "as joyless as [they are] void of honour." Nor do I imagine his readers would enjoy thinking that their wives are not ladies. And, finally, I doubt they would like the suggestion that it be made "incumbent upon [them] to provide for many women." It is not especially attractive women that Schopenhauer is talking about here but, on the contrary, all the women who are not chosen to be gentlemen's wives in the current system, including "old maids," prostitutes, and other working women. All women are to be taken care of by men of means under Schopenhauer's proposal. (Which presumably also means that all other men are left with neither wives nor prostitutes.) 
It is indeed a terrible idea. But it is so terrible that I wonder whether all that comes before it should be taken not at face value but as part of a kind of joke, whose punchline is this terrible enforced polygamy policy proposal. In other words, maybe this whole essay is really a kind of reductio ad absurdum
That's what I was going to say, anyway. Then I read the last remark (excluded from the Penguin edition), which ends:
That woman is by nature intended to obey is shown by the fact that every woman who is placed in the unnatural position of absolute independence at once attaches herself to some kind of man, by whom she is controlled and governed; this is because she requires a master. If she is young, the man is a lover; if she is old, a priest.
Perhaps this is some sort of joke at the expense of priests, but it hardly supports my Schopenhauer-as-feminist idea.So maybe I'm just completely wrong about that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain, RIP

Now that Anthony Bourdain has apparently committed suicide, I regret every critical thing I ever said about him. He was human, and so had flaws, but he seemed like a good guy, and he made very entertaining TV.

Orwell and Wittgenstein again

When I'm not taking a day off, my plan from now on this summer is to do something Schopenhauer-related every day. Mostly this will be writing in the form of blogging, although I doubt I'll actually post every time I write. And the plan itself could change, of course.

John Holbo's dissertation is Schopenhauer-related, and that's my starting point. Here's a quote in it from Wittgenstein (LC, p.2):
If I had to say what the main mistake made by philosophers of the present generation is...I would say it is that when language is looked at, what is looked at is a form of words and not the use made of the form of words.
This strikes me as an important thought to keep in mind if you're ever tempted, as I am, to see Wittgenstein as a kind of ally of Orwell's on questions of politics and language use. Orwell does talk about the uses made of forms of words, but he also seems to think that if only we get the forms right then the uses will take care of themselves. I do think there is something to this idea. Simple words and sentences can make evil and stupidity harder to hide. But it's not a particularly Wittgensteinian idea. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018


I don't think I'm giving too much away if I say that the HBO series Westworld raises ethical questions about artificial intelligence. The series is set in an amusement park where people can live out fantasies of the Wild West, fantasies that to a striking extent involve murder and rape. But no one actually gets murdered, because the characters that populate the world are (very lifelike) robots. They feel no real pain, despite appearances to the contrary, and can be repaired relatively easily. And the customers are paying high prices for the privilege, so what could they have to feel guilty about?

I assume no one believes Jesus' idea that committing a sin in one's heart is just as bad as committing it in the flesh, but is also seems about as clear as can be that much of what Westworld's clients are paying to do is very bad (even though it is, in a sense, not really done in the flesh). Standard ethical theories seem incapable of handling this fact. Or, if not incapable, not at all well positioned to do so plausibly or simply. The problem is similar to the well known one about Kantian ethics and mistreatment of animals: if ethics is all about respect for reason and the creatures that embody it, then (why) is tormenting animals wrong? The Kantian answer is that it is bad because it makes tormenting people more likely, but this is fairly plainly inadequate. A dying man could spend his last moments torturing bunnies and do nothing unethical at all on this view. 

Shooting at (robots that look and behave just like) people for fun is cruel. Perhaps part of why cruelty is bad has to do with its effects in the world, but, as Kant saw, bad will is bad on its own, regardless of whether it turns out to have bad consequences or not in any particular instance. It seems to me that Westworld therefore shows that consequentialism and textbook Kantianism are wrong, or incomplete, as moral theories. I'm sure others see it differently though.

On a related note, in Avengers: Infinity War the baddie is a consequentialist and the goodies "don't trade lives" (cf. Kant and Romans 3:8). I usually don't like science fiction-inspired philosophy, partly because it's usually metaphysics or epistemology (which are not my thing) and partly because it so often seems to be wrapped up in concerns about what is cool (also not my thing). But Westworld, which also raises metaphysical questions, seems to me to demonstrate something important about ethics that is rarely shown.

Attempts to anticipate dissent:

1. The clients of Westworld don't do anything wrong--you can do what you like to robots, as long as no actual people's rights are violated.  In a way I agree with this. But perhaps that just shows that there is more to ethics than questions about actions and their rightness or wrongness. There is, it seems to me, just something obviously very bad about choosing to have the experience as of shooting a man and seeing him bleed to death, screaming in pain, etc. Perhaps the badness is located more in the heart-mind of the person choosing to behave this way, or in the choice to act this way, than in the act itself, but that there is badness there seems about as plain as it could be.

2. So you're saying it's wrong or bad to play video games that involve shooting, etc.? Not necessarily. But there is something bad about playing a game that focuses on violence and in which the players want the violence to be as realistic as possible. Space Invaders is not like this. Nor is Angry Birds. (Although would the Buddha play either of those games?) No doubt there is a gray area somewhere. Such is life.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Forsberg on Agam-Segal and Dain

Niklas Forsberg has helpfully posted a non-final draft of his review of Wittgenstein's Moral Thought (eds. Reshef Agam-Segal and Edmund Dain) here. Naturally you want to know mostly what he says about my paper, so here you are:
[I]t is a relief of sorts that only two of the papers of this volume start off by noticing that Wittgenstein wrote very little about ethics. [I'm pretty sure mine is one of the two.] One may even say that one of the most central lessons one should learn from this book is that “what we had thought of as the field of ethics is so vast and unbounded that we no longer recognize it as a field at all” as Duncan Richter formulates it.
Richter’s text is something like a turning point of the book. He focuses on later Wittgenstein’s more fluid conception of language, which enables him to bring into view the multifarious ways in which evaluative words – like good and beautiful – are meaningfully used. One may see this as on a par Wittgenstein’s earlier thought, where ethics is not about a specific something, and ethical difficulties may surface anywhere and are interwoven with our lives in language. If we assume that “good” means one thing, and one thing only, we will have nothing to say about it. As a consequence, a notion like “good” must remain indefinable, but not because it is ineffable or somehow out of reach. As Richter says: “An accurate  picture will not be neat,  because the use of the word ‘good’ is not neat” (154), falling back upon Wittgenstein’s idea that one cannot really “sketch a sharply defined picture ‘corresponding’ to a blurred one” (PI,77). We need to think about more things than moral code words such as good, evil, right, wrong, etc. One must also think about “things such as people, their property, our relationships with them, and so on. (…) There is far more to ethics than questions about what is right and what is good” (168).
[T]his is a very helpful book. It should be, and probably will be, one of those books that most philosophers who think about ethics after Wittgenstein will have to read.