Friday, April 24, 2015

Being in the World: the movie

You can watch this film about Heidegger now on YouTube:

It features an all-star cast of philosophers introducing you to some of Heidegger's main ideas, and it's broken into fourteen parts, which suggests you could base a course on it. (A typical semester lasts fourteen weeks.) I haven't found out yet whether there's an accompanying book.   

I'm sympathetic with a lot of it, but I'm not sure I can really see students going for it. The general theme seems to be that we should be more patient, more spiritual, more engaged with the world through the development of crafts such as cooking and carpentry. Which I suspect would sound like: stop running and get off that phone! Which is basically another way of saying get off my lawn. Or that's how I imagine it seeming to students.

Not that that's a reason not to teach them about ideas like these. But I think the way to do it would be by teaching them a craft and letting them discover the benefits of it, and not teaching them one course in which the virtues of learning a craft are repeatedly sung. Perhaps a course like the one I'm vaguely imagining would be good after students had developed some mastery of the relevant kind of skill. Otherwise it might amount to little more than a lament or a sigh.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Obvious injustice

This paper by N. Coleman on "Philosophy and the 'obvious' wrongness of slavery" has been getting some attention. It's been tweeted and retweeted. Here's the conclusion:
So, 'Why is it "obvious" to us that the institution of slavery is an inexcusable evil?' (2003:166). This is the question once posed by another British philosopher, Stephen R. L. Clark. Given that it is neither obvious that nor obvious why slavery is wrong, I think the answer to Clark's question lies in the pronoun Clark uses: 'to us'. It is reasonable to interpret a false, yet frequently uttered, slogan in light of the social status of the persons uttering the falsehood—in this case, in light of Clark's 'us'. This is reasonable, because at least one function of frequently uttering a falsehood is the maintenance of an existing relation of social power. Who, then, is Clark's 'us'? Given the disproportionate predominance, in the academic discipline of Philosophy, of persons-classed-racialised-and-gendered-as-wealthy-white-men, Clark's 'us' is classed, racialised, and gendered in this very way. What, then, is the social relation of power maintained by the frequent utterance of the falsehood that it is obvious that slavery is wrong? Since the most recent incarnation of legal slavery unjustly put social power in the hands of persons-classed-racialised-and-gendered-as-wealthy-white-men, Parfit's Practice [i.e. treating the injustice of slavery as obvious] permits those persons who are predominant among professional philosophers (a) to place themselves on the right side of contemporary morality, while (b) putting paid to any discussion that might implicate them in the wrongness of slavery. This posturing and policing of philosophical enquiry constitutes racial injustice and oppresses persons who are racialised as black.

I'm not a racist, but I disagree with this. That is, I think it is obvious that slavery is wrong. But it is worth thinking about how we could show that it is.

Here are three approaches we might try:

1. We could analyse what slavery is, taking either the practice itself or the concept of it as the thing to be analyzed. Assuming we managed the task we would then have a set of components or ingredients that make up slavery, and we could, as it were, measure them for wrongness. If an essential feature of slavery violates the rights that belong to a rational being then we might hope to show in this way that slavery is unjust. But is it only rational beings that have rights? And what are rights? What grounds them? These are vexed questions. If, instead of rights, we talk about human dignity or value or sanctity then we face the same kind of questions. As long as we are talking about ethics we will inevitably (if we take this route) hit some kind of bedrock that is inexplicable: God, rights, etc. This need not be regarded as a problem, but it will always be open to our opponents to deny the existence of God, rights, etc., and some of this denial might be sincere.

2. We could try instead to be as concrete as possible, to avoid intellectually unsatisfying and all too easily dismissed references to God or rights or the kingdom of ends or higher forms of happiness or what-have-you, and focus instead on pleasure defined in terms of neurobiology. It might be, and might be demonstrable, that slavery is not conducive to pleasure understood in this way (not only for enslaved people for the population taken as a whole) and perhaps also that it increases pain (also understood biologically). There are reasons why we might not want to turn ethics into a matter of psychology in this way (or abandon ethics and replace it with psychology, if that's a better way of putting it), but it might be possible. It would be interesting to see what came out of it.

3. We could look at, or think about, the way that slavery fits, or fails to fit, with the rest of our lives. Instead of scrutinizing slavery itself we would look at the (human) world as something like a jigsaw puzzle or machine, and at slavery as a piece that might or might not fit into this puzzle. We might think about the various other ways we deal with human beings and about the various other ways we use the methods of slavery: beating, confinement, and so on. Is slavery a good fit with the rest of our lives? Does it cohere? Or is life with slavery incoherent in some significant way?

It is this third approach that seems most promising to me. But it will involve, so to speak, seeing that slavery does not belong in our world. There will be no explanation, because you can always make a piece fit. Doing so will involve violence, of course, but violence to a machine part or jigsaw piece is here just a metaphor for significant disruption of the flow of life, of the way we do things. And that is neither always nor necessarily a bad thing. That a given change is violent, a violation or spoiling of the previous order, rather than a radical improvement, is an aesthetic judgment. Not a simple "ooh" or "aah" response. It is a judgment. But it is an aesthetic, subjective judgment all the same. What is clearly wrong to a connoisseur might not seem wrong at all to someone else, although they could (at least in principle) be brought to see that it is wrong.  

(This relates, I think, to Sean Wilson's idea of connoisseur judgement, and to Wittgenstein's saying that a musical theme is not just a mix of notes.)         

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Marxists as motorists

I've been reading the notes taken by Rush Rhees after conversations with Wittgenstein that Gabriel Citron has edited and published in Mind. It's lovely stuff, but I can't quote it all here. Here are some short bits on the difference between philosophy and science (from 1947, pages 36 and 38):
Philosophy is contemplative; and so not scientific. It is concerned with pointing out other possibilities; other ways in which it might be done. 'Vielgestalt'.

When a scientist is doing science, he isn’t contemplating science; and he is never in a position to do so.
Compare [...] a racing motorist like Sir Malcolm Campbell. If you are to make speed records like that, it’s a life’s work. Constant preoccupation with questions of how the car and the motor may be improved, and so on. Such a man cannot take the point of view: “Oh yes, you can go on trying to make speed records. This is something that may be held to be important. But perhaps it doesn’t make so very much difference. We might have no attempts at speed records, etc.” That sort of consideration must be foreign to the racing motorist. And to the scientist in the same way.
(The scientist would regard it as reactionary. So the Marxists would regard it too. For the Marxists are racing motorists.)
That last line reminds me, irrelevantly, of Alexei Sayle. The reference to Malcolm Campbell also reminds me of this poem about his son.

That's about all the response I have so far though.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The future of education

  1. Any other reason to save?
  1. Yeah?
  1. PROFESSOR: Right.
I'm enjoying the MOOC I'm taking on global poverty and think that this kind of thing is not going to go away. But it has its limitations.

For one thing, watching lectures online is even worse than watching them in person (which can be great, but often isn't). I just read the transcripts, which is quicker, but reading the same points articulated more thoughtfully (and articulately) would be better still. In other words, I would rather read. Lectures generally, I think, are a waste of time, and probably only exist because a certain amount of class time is required by accreditation agencies and it's much cheaper to have someone lecture to hundreds of students than to actually teach them meet them in smaller groups. If the administrators will allow it, large lecture courses will surely be replaced by something like MOOCs. And I would think that the lecture portions of MOOCs will go away if they are not greatly improved.

But big lecture courses typically involve smaller discussion groups, and, although the chance to discuss strikes me as having little value in itself, the chance to be part of a question and answer session with someone who knows the material much better than you is (or would be) very helpful. MOOCs don't do well here.

The graduate teaching assistants who run discussion sections also do most or all of the grading, which is much better than having students grade their own essays(!), which is how this MOOC does things. So I think the future of the kind of introductory level college course that involves lectures and multiple choice tests is likely to be extinction and replacement by online teaching supplemented by limited face-time with cheap graduate student teachers or adjuncts. This will mean that universities hire slightly fewer full-time lecturers. Anything above the introductory level will still require in person expertise for answering questions and grading essays, so the change will not be dramatic.

Except at institutions where courses never really get much above the introductory level anyway. I imagine we'll see a pretty obvious automatic ranking of colleges and universities, at least in the United States, with those at the bottom being relatively cheap and all, or almost all, online, and those at the top being much more expensive and all, or almost all, involving teaching by well qualified and physically present instructors. Poorer students will get a kind of one-size-fits-all education in easily testable knowledge and skills, while richer students will get individual attention and learn the kind of things that are best tested by the writing of essays, subjects that require greater literacy, intellectual sophistication, and creativity. Actually it's probably creativity that is hardest to grade by machine, so that is what will be reserved for the well off.

What is dying is general access to an education in the liberal arts. They were originally, I believe, the arts reserved for gentlemen at liberty, i.e. people who would today be called independently wealthy. And the trend is back in that direction. For a while we seem to have thought collectively that it would be good for as many people as possible to have this kind of education. We might even have thought that justice required it. Now we think it is too expensive.

The pessimist in me thinks this is terrible. That we are letting our worst instincts rule our lives (not just the love of money over everything else but also all the kinds of bigotry that are expressed in the laws, policies, and proposals we see every day). That our humanity is being squandered.

The optimist thinks about the access we have now to books, papers, documentaries, online lectures and courses, blogs, etc. online. And (less optimistically) about how crappy a lot of in-person education is anyway, and how uninterested in the liberal arts a lot of students appear to be.

We do not, by and large, want the ineffable benefits of education (we want only the ones we can spend). We don't believe that it is better to be Socrates satisfied than a fool satisfied. Or, if we do, we do not care if other people's children remain fools. I don't think we care much about other people's children at all. And we are happy with fakes. At least the real thing (genuine debate, good books) is available online. What is increasingly less available to everyone but the rich is any useful credential associated with what you might call real thinking. Socrates might be happy about that, as might others. Whether it's good for democracy is another matter.    

(But perhaps it's too late for democracy anyway.)