Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Philosophical Percolations

Starting in May I'm going to be part of the Philosophical Percolations collective. I plan to keep blogging here, but I don't know how frequently. Over there I will post "philosophical insights that do not fit easily into contemporary units of printed philosophy" and quite possibly things that are neither philosophical nor insights, but that I mistake for one or the other or both. Here will go everything else that I think to blog about.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Wittgenstein Source

This is good too: Wittgenstein Source.
Wittgenstein Source provides free access to Wittgenstein primary sources. This includes facsimiles and text editions of Wittgenstein’s philosophical manuscripts (his “Nachlass”).

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Wittgenstein Initiative

I just found out about this, which looks like a good thing. From their website:
The Wittgenstein Initiative is a forum for international dialogue seeking to promote collective Education on the basis of clear and independent thinking. Its public events and projects aim to boost awareness of our cultural heritage and social responsibility, and to live up to Ludwig Wittgenstein's central legacy - the search for truthfulness.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

David Foster Wallace on language

If you haven't already done so you should read David Foster Wallace's essay "Authority and American Usage." It's got Wittgenstein, ethics, comedy, and more. Some bits (by the way, SNOOT is an acronym for something or other relating to language snobbery, grammar Nazis, etc.):

This maybe goes too far. I think in general we should call people what they want to be called (Wallace implicitly recognizes this when he talks about PC English as a matter of politeness), but he's right that changing language does not change reality, and excessive focus on language means turning one's back on reality. Which is not good. 

I'm not sure that any reference to either Plato or Derrida is really helpful here, but this otherwise looks like a nice disposal of a badly thought out position.

This, on the other hand, is poor. Arguing from universal acceptance is weak, a is true only if we take 'interpret' in a special sense (as 'understanding', roughly), and b is only true if we take 'ideology' in a special sense (as 'way of thinking', perhaps). The main idea is that all language is political. This, it seems to me, is both true and false. It's true in the sense that language is a human product, a social product, and reflects various social relations and practices, past and present. There is obviously something political about this. Perhaps social relations are just by definition political. But the claim is false in suggesting that all attention to language is political and therefore important. Wallace's own insights on political correctness show this. 

(SWE = Standard Written English.) I think this is true, and why we owe it to our students to teach them SWE. It is easily understandable why many people would regard this truth as a bad thing, but that doesn't justify pretending that it isn't true. And it is understandable that many people would not want to teach SWE, because it's tedious or seemingly unchallenging intellectually, but that isn't a good reason not to do it. Matt Reed, in talking about college composition courses, writes:
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that most grammar instruction has been delegated to the K-12 system -- elementary schools were once called “grammar schools” for a reason -- with developmental courses available for the many students who still need to work on that. 101 [i.e. an introductory course on composition] is intended to address college-level skills.
I don't think the assumption he wants to make is reasonable at all. The reason we have these courses is because so many students do not know SWE well enough. Wallace again:

Reed's assumption "for the sake of argument" is contrary to a well-known fact. That's a bad kind of assumption to make for any reason. Not that we should necessarily have classes explicitly in SWE. They might not be needed at every college. And Wallace notes that such courses are said to have been proven ineffective. He suggests teaching them in a different way. Whether that would work remains to be shown. I have never had a class explicitly on English grammar or style, and I write as well as I want my students to. So direct instruction in how to write English might not be necessary. Perhaps all we need is the teaching of writing across the curriculum, and one or two courses in which students read excellent writing and are required to write in correct SWE about it. But Wallace is right to point out the practical (however regrettable or immoral) need for students to learn SWE and the fact that they aren't generally learning it now.   

In short, there is a lot of good stuff in Wallace's essay. It's a long essay, packed with footnotes (which is, and are, not always as funny as I take it they are meant to be, but hopefully you'll react differently), but well worth the time it takes to read it. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Where does philosophy belong?

A couple of years ago the philosophy program, such as it is, at my college moved from the Department of Psychology and Philosophy to the Department of  English, Rhetoric, and Humanistic Studies, with philosophy and art being the humanistic studies in question. There is now some very hypothetical talk about moving it back or perhaps somewhere else entirely. Which raises the question of where it belongs.

A related question is what a philosophy program ought to be. Should philosophy be treated just like any other subject, with its own department and its own major, for instance? Or should it somehow be integrated with one or more other subjects? My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, politics, and economics, and studying philosophy on its own was not an option. I think there's something to be said for that, although in the US system nobody ever studies just one subject, so perhaps the point is moot.

Another thing that struck me recently (last Tuesday, to be precise) was that in one day I went to a talk by a leadership instructor that was all about the importance of ethics for leadership (and specifically, in his opinion, the ethics of Aristotle, Augustine, Gandhi, and Confucius, with particular emphasis on Aristotle), I attended another talk by a psychology professor that referred to the work of Thomas Kuhn, and I heard that a rhetoric professor teaches a course that includes Kuhn's work. In other words, lots of people seem to think that philosophical ideas are important. But far fewer people seem to think that philosophy is important, that, for instance, if you are going to study leadership or psychology then you ought to study some philosophy. We don't, for instance, offer any philosophy courses at my college that deal with Kuhn. There is something odd about this situation. And we are far from being the only college at which the study of philosophy is not flourishing.

Why people would pay so much lip service to the idea that philosophy matters while acting as if it doesn't is one question. (And answers might vary from its being different people who value philosophy, on the one hand, and who make decisions about what gets taught, on the other, to its being thought that philosophy isn't that hard and so you can understand (or teach) Kuhn or Aristotle without studying any other philosophy first.) My interest now is more in what the point of philosophy is as part of a college curriculum. If we can see its point then perhaps we can see its place.

One reason for teaching philosophy is to teach a kind of cultural literacy. If your other courses are going to refer to philosophers and their ideas then it would be good to have some background in these ideas, even if only of the bluffer's or dummies' guide variety.

Another reason would be to encourage more reflective thinking about whatever else you are studying. At my high school if you were applying to Oxford or Cambridge you were taught some philosophy of whatever you planned to study at university, as well as some general philosophy. I think it would be good for every history major to take a course in the philosophy of history, every science major to take a course on philosophy of science, and so on. Something like this happens now in some majors, but the courses tend to be in the history of ideas, and to be taught by non-philosophers. This does not, I think, encourage any real thought about what the subject is now or what (perhaps worth challenging) assumptions underlie it.

Then there's logic and critical thinking. I'm never sure whether taking a course on these things actually improves anyone's thinking (rather than simply rewarding those who are already logical), but it might help. There is supposedly evidence that mapping arguments improves critical thinking, but of course improving scores on tests designed to assess critical thinking is not necessarily the same thing. How critically you think during and in relation to a test might not match how you think in other situations. But it seems like something.

And then (lastly?) there's ethics, understood very broadly. Should we be religious, and if so, what kind of religion makes most sense? That is, what is religion?, is it a good thing?, and is it better to be a Thomist or a Kierkegaardian or a Buddhist or an atheist or what? What political theory makes the most sense? What values are at stake in contemporary debates about euthanasia, same-sex marriage, drug legalization, and so on? How should we rank these values or, if we don't rank them, how should we decide what to do about these and other things?

All this suggests that a healthy philosophy program would offer at least a couple of survey courses in the history of philosophy, several philosophy of fill-in-the-discipline-here, at least one logic or critical thinking course (at least if the evidence that these improve thinking stands up), and several ethics/religion/politics courses. And I'd be inclined to require at least two philosophy courses for every student. Engineers might take critical thinking and engineering ethics, say. Economists might take political philosophy and philosophy of science (or of social science).

I would think if all these courses were required and regularly offered then a stand-alone philosophy department would be needed. And it might as well offer a minor. Whether it should offer a major is not so clear to me, but a kind of minimal major, one that could easily be combined with a second major, might be a very good thing.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Marcel Studies

I just got back from this year's Anscombe Forum at Neumann University, which went very well. I'll post a link to the paper I presented when I've stopped revising it, which I keep doing. In the meantime, though, here's some information about a new journal they are starting on Gabriel Marcel:
Marcel Studies is an on-line peer-reviewed, international journal dedicated to furthering understanding and appreciation of the work of French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel. As an interdisciplinary journal, Marcel Studies welcomes submissions from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives on topics and themes that pertain to any aspect of Marcel’s thought. The journal seeks submissions of the highest academic quality, and particularly welcomes submissions for consideration from younger scholars. The journal publishes articles, reviews, and other material of interest to Marcel scholars. Marcel Studies will be published twice yearly, with the first issue planned for Spring 2015.
More here:

Friday, March 6, 2015

Falling and laughing

This review of a book supposedly about the "twee tribe" makes what seem to be good points while simultaneously missing the larger point. Here's how the review begins:
Consider the following phenomena: owl-shaped cushions, bird-print textiles and kitten ephemera. French horns, ukuleles and accordions. Grown women with wispy fringes who dress like little girls, grannies or Jean Seberg, and young men who sport excessively neat haircuts, horn-rimmed glasses and waistcoats. Cotton candy, gluten-free acai berry cupcakes and quinoa fritters with probiotic goat yoghurt. Anything that is locally sourced, vintage or artisanal. Cream-coloured retro bikes with wicker baskets and 1950s sun dresses in ice-cream shades. Polka dots and cocktails in jam glasses. The comic strip Peanuts, J. D. Salinger and Maurice Sendak. The Smiths and Belle and Sebastian. Taxidermy, stamp collecting and home baking. The films of Wes Anderson. What do they all share? According to Marc Spitz, they are emblems of “Twee” – “the most powerful youth movement since Punk and Hip-Hop”.
The problem is that there's twee and there's twee, literal twee and good twee. The good stuff is called twee as a self-deprecating joke, because it has tendencies in that direction. The cutesie twee is one of the gutters into which twee's ball perpetually runs the risk of falling. The other is nihilism. So almost everything listed above has nothing to do with the sub-culture of twee, except as a kind of accessory. If you appear too humorlessly angry or depressed you might add some ironic cuteness, like Morrissey riding a bike with National Health glasses on, or some 60s style like Amelia Fletcher wearing her hair "just like Jean Seberg's." But both also have clear punk influences and sing about wanting to die. It's not all bird-print textiles. (And the NHS specs are also both a show of solidarity with the working class and an outward sign of inner trouble. Annoying to some, perhaps, but not a form of steampunk whimsy.)

Speaking of bird-print, Edwyn Collins actually makes bird-print products, but if he's whimsical at all he's a very long way from being merely whimsical. The lyrics of "Consolation Prize," while jokey, are not a joke:
I wore my fringe like Roger McGuinn's
I was hoping to impress
So frightfully camp, it made you laugh
Tomorrow I'll buy myself a dress
How ludicrous          
Not surprisingly the song ends with the repeated line, "I'll never be man enough for you." It sounds likely to be true, but it's also despairing. Part of the essence of twee was, or is, the struggle of how to live when punk has changed everything but you don't want to be Vyvyan Basterd, when feminism has changed everything but you don't want to be Millie Tant, and when in some sense you want to die but you don't actually want to die. Being gluten-free has absolutely nothing to do with this. Irony and self-mockery, combining self-deprecation with a sense of humor, are more to the point. Perhaps these are features of the (suspiciously) ubiquitously maligned hipsterism of today, but if so I don't see it.