Saturday, December 23, 2017

Leadership and persuasion

I mentioned here that I don't think leadership and persuasion are real subjects. Can I back that up? Let's see.

A first point to make is that teaching a practical subject seems pointless unless it focuses on doing the thing in question well or correctly. A course in French that spends as much time on how to speak French incorrectly as it does on how to speak it correctly would be absurd, unless the point was to guide people to correct French by showing them what not to do. This might sound obvious, and hence not worth saying, except that many people who reject the very idea that some novels, say, are better than others do believe in teaching writing. And this only makes sense if there is such a thing as good writing. We might have to add that what is good in one context will not necessarily be good in every other context, but this concession is easy to make.

So what is good persuasion? It would be both effective and ethical, surely. What works is the province of psychology, especially the areas studied by behavioral economists, and, to a lesser extent (I would think) the arts. What is ethical in persuasion is partly a matter of ethics, partly a matter of logic. It would be worth considering also the kind of persuasion engaged in by writers like Dickens, in Hard Times, say, which is arguably both rational and ethical without being likely to be covered in many logic courses. So a course on persuasion should probably include psychology, literature, ethics, and logic. But approximately no one is qualified to teach all these subjects well, so it would be better to require three or four courses, at least, if you really want students to learn how to persuade. In fact it would probably be best to require something like introductory psychology, behavioral economics, marketing, at least two literature courses, critical thinking, logic, introductory ethics, a course on the ethics of communication (maybe--if enough readings to make up a course could be found), and a course on literature and philosophy. That's more like a major than a general education course, but it would make some sense. And it wouldn't all be in one subject.

Now what about leadership? There's a rumor that I might be asked/told to teach leadership, so I've been thinking about this a bit. Leadership is a lot like persuasion, but effective leadership probably requires knowledge of whatever situation you are in (so decisions are informed), intelligence (so decisions are smart), and things that cannot be taught, such as charisma. In this society I would guess that it is easier to get people to follow or obey you if you are good-looking, tall, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian, middle-aged, college-educated, etc., but these things cannot be taught. To the extent that they can be they almost certainly shouldn't be. (How to be good-looking--dressing for success, getting sculpted abs, etc.-- could possibly be taught, but isn't a subject that belongs in a university.) I would think that good leadership--the only kind it makes sense to teach--would be about one part getting people to do what you want, one part ethics, and one part making good decisions. Getting people to do what you want is part charisma, etc. and part using incentives well. There might be something to be learned about this, but not much, I think. (I have seen multiple job talks by prospective professors of leadership and have come to the conclusion that what is worth knowing on this subject, so far as it can be taught at all, can be taught in one hour or less.) Ethics is a real subject, but no amount of ethics courses will turn students into good people. And how to make good decisions is another non-subject. There might be some rules of thumb to pass on, but they would all surely be (what ought to be) common sense. The course of study I outlined above for persuasion would cover everything, and more, that can be learned from books about leadership. 

At least that's how it seems to me. And that's what I mean when I say that persuasion and leadership are not real subjects.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Year in review

Probably the most interesting thing I did this year was to decide that, now I'm 50, I should make a point of doing things that I want to do some time in my life. My mum died when she was 62 so I'm aware that I might not have much time to do these things. Or I might have several decades. So I read War and Peace, finished Crime and Punishment, and now I'm on Moby Dick. It's amazingly easy to forget that the great books really are great, and not in some obscure moral sense (although perhaps that too) but in the very simple sense of being a great pleasure to read. It's terrible that the teaching of literature seems to be done less and less, and that those who teach it seem to feel obliged to pretend there is no such thing as good and bad. Sweet Briar College looks as though it is getting rid of all its English professors, while keeping its creative writing program. Sigh.

I'm also reading more contemporary stuff, my favorites this year being Geoff Dyer's White Sands, Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, and The Rough Guide to Beijing.

I won't attempt a top ten anything of the year list, but I'm sure Lady Bird was the best film this year. Others I've seen mentioned in the same breath, like Get Out, aren't nearly as good. Get Out is certainly worth seeing, but its point seems to be to reveal a single--sort of scary, sort of funny--idea. Okja is another good one, but not that good. It's like a live action (plus CGI) Miyazaki film, but the real Miyazaki is better.

My album of the year, not that you asked, is Alvvays' Antisocialites, which is even better than their first one. Pleasant surprise of the year goes to the Granite Shore album Suspended Second, which is like the soundtrack to a really good musical, if there could be such a thing. (People say the songs sound like Abba, but they're much less disco-ey to my ear than that suggests.) Finding this Saint Etienne Christmas album was also a treat.

The other thing I need to do, of course, is to try to write some good philosophy. I will at least try this year. (Not that I haven't tried in other years, but I'm feeling a bit more inspired than I sometimes do about things I will work on next year.)

Thanks for reading. Merry Christmas and happy New Year.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Recommended reading

Martin Shuster is kind enough to thank me (I'm not sure what for, but I'm not complaining) in the acknowledgements in his book on New Television. I've only read the introduction so far, but it looks great; a really nice combination of fun subject matter and Cavell-style scholarship.

Something I have read all the way through is Gabriel Citron's paper on Wittgenstein and philosophical virtues: "Honesty, Humility, Courage, and Strength". It's a bit depressing (your mileage may vary) to compare yourself with Wittgenstein's ideal and see how far short you fall, but it's a very good account of Wittgenstein's values.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Lady Bird

What a great film! I was thinking about trying to write something about it and love and attention and possibly Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch, but Vox has beaten me to it. (Spoiler alert: there are no Iris Murdoch references.) Here's the beginning of their review:
The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote often of attention as a kind of spiritual discipline. “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” she wrote in her notebooks, an idea she later would continue to develop, eventually concluding that attention “presupposes faith and love.”
In a Q&A following a festival screening of her masterful solo directorial debut Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig quoted Weil, and it’s clear from the film that this spirit of faith, love, generosity, and attention animates the whole endeavor. Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film starring the great Saoirse Ronan as Christine — or “Lady Bird,” as she’s re-christened herself — and it’s as funny, smart, and filled with yearning as its heroine. Lady Bird is an act of attention, and thus love, from Gerwig, not just toward her hometown of Sacramento but also toward girlhood, and toward the feeling of always being on the outside of wherever real life is happening.
Some films seem designed to make you fall in love with one or more of their characters, or the people who play them. Lady Bird is like that, except what you fall in love with is not Saoirse Ronan or the character she plays but growing up itself, or the tenderness of youth and family, the pain of forming as an individual and separating from your parents, and the sweetness of forming as an individual and never separating from your parents. I haven't nearly cried so many times about so many different kinds of thing at any movie I can remember.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Doyle on Anscombe

I knew James Doyle slightly in graduate school, but wasn't aware then of any interest on his part in Wittgenstein and Anscombe. Now he's got a very interesting looking book on Anscombe coming out. I haven't seen the book yet, but it looks as though you can get a taste of it from this paper on "Modern Moral Philosophy."

Strikingly, he says early on in his paper that Anscombe's paper "has not been properly understood, at all." (I'm not sure when the paper was written, but it cites a paper from 2014, so it's at least fairly recent.) Reassuringly, he later qualifies this claim by saying that "only the few authors who are sympathetic to Anscombe's overall view avoid more or less basic misconstruals of" Anscombe's second thesis in MMP, which he takes to be "both fundamental to the structure of 'MMP' and what makes the paper especially profound (if it is)." These few authors include Cora Diamond and Candace Vogler. This still leaves the possibility that he thinks even they have misconstrued Anscombe's argument, thereby failing to properly understand it. Indeed, I think his belief in this failure is implied by what he says. Which makes his claim a bold one.

It's not bold in the sense of stupid though. Doyle points out some inconsistencies in what Anscombe says, and then makes the best sense he can of what she has written. This involves ignoring some of her claims, or writing them off as slips. Near the end he concludes:
In short, the parts of Anscombe's view that really matter fit together much less awkwardly if we simply drop any supposedly deep distinction between law-based and virtue-based conceptions of ethics. At least, I cannot see what is lost, except gratuitous confusion, if we suppose that all conceptions are ultimately virtue-based, that all of these will involve exceptionless norms, and that an important species of these is distinguished by the norms being commandments of God, this species alone comprising all and only the various versions of the law conception, so that the search for a secular law conception has no interest in it.
This is an interesting view, but it doesn't sound (as Doyle recognizes) like Anscombe's view. So maybe no one has really understood her properly yet. Or, at least, there is more work to be done, such as fully explaining what Anscombe really meant (which I suppose is the point of Doyle's book) or else explaining where he goes wrong.

Shorter version: if you're interested in Anscombe or questions about the nature of morality and what reason there is to be moral then I recommend the paper linked to above. [Warning: it's the time of the semester when I spend all my time grading papers, so I might be slow to respond to any comments.]