An excellent article about Mary Beard, the famous classicist, is in this week's New Yorker. It is informative to have a prominent academic give an account of her life experiences like this. I want to encourage others to read the original article, but will pull out one salient and topical point. Beard is not only a very capable scholar, she is also "an avid user of social media," including regular postings at a blog. Despite the sexist reactions to her online presence, Beard has reacted with surprising generosity and patience: "In another highly publicized incident, Beard retweeted a message that she had received from a twenty-year-old university student: 'You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.'...The university student, after apologizing online, came to Cambridge and took Beard out to lunch; she has remained in touch with him, and is even writing letters of reference for him. 'He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,' she said. 'And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.'" Beard is an admirable and remarkable person, and learning about this new side of her makes her all the more so, in my mind. Check it out!
Twenty or so years ago some friends and I voted over and over again to try to get Wodehouse listed in the infamous Modern Library reader's choice of top 100 novels of the twentieth century. Due to our labors, for a week or so "Bertie Wooster Sees it Through" was in the top ten.
Those were good times. In the end though we just couldn't compete with the objectivists, the scientologists, the Heinlein weirdos. . . For what it's worth, we still can't, though I do hope to be able to play all of these songs at some point. That's a little bit of consolation at least.
Exactly 15 years ago today, I arrived in the Netherlands with a suitcase full of dreams (ok, maybe two), ready to start a new phase of my life, but having no idea I'd end up staying for so long. I still do and always will feel a strong bond with my home country Brazil (as BMoF readers of course know!), but looking back on these years, I realize I feel entirely at home here now. Perhaps the main turning point in my relationship with this country was the birth of my children, who were both born here, and who, for all intents and purposes (sadly, including rooting at the World Cup…), are basically Dutch. After they were born, I started feeling a visceral connection with this place, which I didn’t experience before.
However, it is not only because they happened to be born here and have lived here almost all their lives (except for 20 months living in NYC for my older one) that I feel this connection. More importantly, I simply see them happy and thriving, being given all the conditions they need to develop healthily and joyfully, and I am extremely thankful for that. And it’s not only my kids: the Netherlands is consistently ranked as number one at studies comparing the well-being of children in a number of developed countries.
Everyone’s next question is then: what’s the secret? How does one raise the happiest kids in the world? Obviously, the Netherlands is a prosperous country, with levels of social equality only to be compared to those in the Scandinavian countries, and that goes a long way of course. To start with, virtually every child here has access to health care, education, nutrition etc. (Which is not to say that everything is perfect! But even for what is not so good, it’s still probably better than in most other places.) However, there are more factors involved, and on the basis of my experience as a parent I would like to outline two of them.
Since I'm not a naturalist, I'm sort of on Monk/Wittgenstein's side, but I find some of the dichotomies to be a little bit tendentious. Monk opposes "non-theoretical understanding" to the kind of understanding proper to science, and argues that naturalizing programs in philosophy all fail because they don't realize that the domains proper to the two forms of understanding are pairwise disjoint.
Maybe something in the neighborhood of this is true but Monk doesn't mark the distinction in the Sellarsian way one would expect now in terms of the kind of normative presuppositions required by the relevant kind of understanding. Instead, we get this:
One of the crucial differences between the method of science and the non-theoretical understanding that is exemplified in music, art, philosophy and ordinary life, is that science aims at a level of generality* which necessarily eludes these other forms of understanding. This is why the understanding of people can never be a science.
I'm just not sure this is true. It's not at all clear to me that morphologists in biology aim at a greater level of generality than music theorists do.
The slow emergence of the novel as a major literary genre is an ethical event. The novel as a form of literary writing goes back to Greek antiquity, and one novel from antiquity is still widely read, The Metamorphoses of Apulieus (or The Golden Ass by Apulieus). One of the great writers on the form of the novel, Mikhail Bakhtin, even claimed it went back to the Menippean Satire of antiquity. This is probably not one of his most shared ideas. In any case, the idea of a unique moment of origin is not a good basis. There are a series of beginning, which include antique epics, behind the novel as it developed from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, when it did become accepted as a literary genre on a level with epic, drama, and lyric poetry.
The modern origin is again ambiguous. Rabelais provides a strong candidate, with major attention coming from Eric Auerbach as well as Bakthin, but Don Quixote is the more widespread object of discussion. Nietzsche refers to it (Genealogy, II.6) as with regard to a change in ideas of humour, so explicitly ethical ideas about where we can find humour. The original readers of Cervantes could laugh without restraint at the suffering of Quixote, and the suffering caused by the ‘ingenious hidalgo’, but Nietzsche suggests that by his time, readers feel unease and even pain themselves at the suffering and humiliation.
I rarely post on hot political topics (unless quantitative analysis of philosophers' lack of diversity counts), but one hot political topic has been very much in my mind this week: the boycott of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I've been forced to consider the issue especially carefully because I was scheduled to give a talk to the Philosophy Department there in December, and UIUC was starting to invite speakers for a proposed mini-conference on experimental philosophy the next day, where I would give the keynote address.
It is no news to anyone that the concept of consistency is a hotly debated topic in philosophy of logic and epistemology (as well as elsewhere). Indeed, a number of philosophers throughout history have defended the view that consistency, in particular in the form of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC), is the most fundamental principle governing human rationality – so much so that rational debate about PNC itself wouldn’t even be possible, as famously stated by David Lewis. It is also the presumed privileged status of consistency that seems to motivate the philosophical obsession with paradoxes across time; to be caught entertaining inconsistent beliefs/concepts is really bad, so blocking the emergence of paradoxes is top-priority. Moreover, in classical as well as other logical systems, inconsistency entails triviality, and that of course amounts to complete disaster.
Since the advent of dialetheism, and in particular under the powerful assaults of karateka Graham Priest, PNC has been under pressure. Priest is right to point out that there are very few arguments in favor of the principle of non-contradiction in the history of philosophy, and many of them are in fact rather unconvincing. According to him, this holds in particular of Aristotle’s elenctic argument in Metaphysics gamma. (I agree with him that the argument there does not go through, but we disagree on its exact structure. At any rate, it is worth noticing that, unlike David Lewis, Aristotle did think it was possible to debate with the opponent of PNC about PNC itself.) But despite the best efforts of dialetheists, the principle of non-contradiction and consistency are still widely viewed as cornerstones of the very concept of rationality.
However, in the spirit of my genealogical approach to philosophical issues, I believe that an important question to be asked is: What’s the big deal with consistency in the first place? What does it do for us? Why do we want consistency so badly to start with? When and why did we start thinking that consistency was a good norm to be had for rational discourse? And this of course takes me back to the Greeks, and in particular the Greeks before Aristotle.
The guitarist is playing with an "EBow"! Does anybody remember those? They peaked in the 1980s.
I love this song (and this is a credible, if truncated, cover), but I'm kind of glad we're back to using the fingers of our left (right for Cobain, Hendrix, et. al.) hand to get the strings vibrating. I'd bet a decent sum of money that Scott Thurston employed old fashioned volume swells* in the original.
*Cf. Eddie Van Halen's "Cathedral" for a canonical example. Isaac Dinesen/Karen Blixen once wrote something to the effect that you've never truly lived until you've played this solo note-for-note in front of a four dozen or so intoxicated rednecks in a dilapidated rural AlabamaVFW hall.]
So, the response must be multi-faceted. It isn’t enough to feel outrage, but do nothing. Or to feel fear, but do nothing. Or to feel utter, bone-crushing grief, but do nothing. We must institute policies that limit access to guns. Weapons of war have no place in our homes, communities, or law enforcement. But more than that, we as Church must confront the social sin of racism head-on. We must get outside our church buildings, beyond our comfort zones, and say loud and clear, “this is my brother and I will not accept that his life is less valuable than mine. The violence has to stop.” We must be willing to challenge the culture that tells African American boys that their lives are worth less than the lives of White boys. We live in a culture that attempts to justify itself by claiming “self-defense” when we really mean fear and bigotry, or pride, or individualism. But all of this is sin.Our faith reminds us that God is all sovereign and that “God calls us to love our neighbors, not protect ourselves against our neighbors.”
Read the whole thing, which focuses on both gun violence and racism (and concludes with a prayer) here.
Only a couple of weeks after the Ferguson shooting, and only about three miles away, St. Louis police shot and killed another black man, Kajieme Powell, after he apparently shoplifted from a convenience store. The details of what happened in Ferguson are in dispute, which has allowed the law and order crowd to defend putting six bullets into unarmed Mike Brown – two into his head – as a proportional act of self-defense.
No such ambiguity exists in the Powell case. The police released cellphone video yesterday, and it is absolutely chilling. Powell emerges from the convenience store with a pair of canned drinks. He seems a little confused – puts them down, paces around, and so on. Then the police show up in a white SUV, and jump out, guns drawn (already! They decide to escalate before even arriving at the scene). Powell backs away, says “just shoot me” a couple of times, climbs up on a retaining wall, takes a couple of steps in the direction of the police… and then they shoot him dead. Total time between the police arrival and his death? About 15 seconds.
The video, of course, completely contradicts the police department’s story about a drawn knife and aggression on Powell’s part. When confronted with the contradiction, the police chief replied that “in a lethal situation, they used lethal force.” The only thing harder to understand from that video clip than why killing Powell was justified by the situation is how anyone can continue to deny that the problem is structural. I am not accusing the officers or the police chief of lying. It’s much, much worse than that: I’d be pretty sure they really did think their lives were in immediate danger.
Provocative essay here by Charlie Huenemann on how academic philosophy broke bad and what might be done to correct it. Most people that make these kinds of criticisms assume that it would be easy to fix the problems so that all of us could get back to doing old-style philosophy like Plato, Kant, and Hegel did. What's most interesting to me about Huenemann's essay is that he explicitly rejects this assumption.
Huenemann first argues that the modern cult of management in academia brought about a situation where there is:
(1) more attention devoted to narrow problem-solving activity rather then efforts to deepen philosophical wonder; (2) increasingly narrow specialization and less general knowledge of the discipline itself and its history; (3) less engagement with anyone outside the professional guild; and (4) development of various cants and shibboleths to patrol membership in the guild.
There is a lot of wisdom here. However, as noted above, whenever I read this kind of whingeing (and I routinely write it in this forum), I'm almost always struck by the whinger's optimism that there could be any alternative, i.e. if we were all just less narrow we'd be able to do the same kind of stuff that Kant or Schopenhauer did. But is this not exactly like telling a music theory professor that he should compose late period Beethoven quartets and stop with all of the articles on Schenker Analysis? It's a transparently silly demand.
A few days ago, a friend on Facebook posted the following as his status:
Would any of you be down to help me organize a march on Ferguson, MO? Dead serious. It’s something I hope would send a powerful message to the powers that be, but I’d need help getting it all together. I mean, like a grassroots thing via Facebook to organize a march on Ferguson and get people from here in NYC and possibly the entire country to descend and march on Ferguson. A march to show solidarity. A march to show that we will not sit idly by and ignore human/civil rights violations at the hands of police against anyone, but most specifically to say that we will absolutely not ignore the deliberate genocide of black boys and black men in the United States.
If my friend does manage–beginning with this powerful and passionate call to action–to organize this march, and is able to bring to Ferguson other concerned citizens to participate in protests and rallies, and perhaps even get in the face of overzealous police to remind them loudly and verbally that they might be overstepping the bounds of reasonable policing, that the murder of Michael Brown will not be allowed to just pass idly into history, he will be regarded as a provocateur of sorts, an outside agitator, one meddling in affairs best left to locals, to the local community and their police, who can, and should, work out by themselves, a response to a highly particular, specific, local, problem, using highly particular, local, specific tactics to devise a highly particular…you see where this is going.
It’s a road to unmitigated bullshit, toward the worst kind of self-serving political delusion.
For as long as the cry of ‘outside agitator’ has been made–most notably, in the sad history of racist Southern resistance to the nationalization of civil rights–it has always been code for ‘butt out, and let us continue to address a political problem in familiar dead-end ways.’ In the South, the cry of ‘outside agitator’ was simply a euphemism for ‘we know how to deal with our blacks and we’ve been doing damn good job at it when no attention was paid us.’ The light often sends many scurrying for cover.
What is happening in Ferguson is not a local affair. It never was and never will be. The shooting of Michael Brown was a national phenomenon, temporarily resident in a new setting. That circus will soon move elsewhere, to some other urban killing ground, where soon enough, some other young man of color will fall to a policeman’s bullets. The police in Ferguson are not a local problem; the response to the demonstrations in Ferguson–indicative of a dangerous militarization of the police–is not a local problem. These are American problems, of interest to all Americans.
There are no ‘outside agitators’ in Ferguson. There is no arbitrary boundary that can be drawn around the problems of racism and police brutality; the stench of those wafts easily across one county line to the next.
After reading some discussion at the Daily Nous about the Ferguson situation (also addressed in this post by Leigh Johnson), it struck me that it might be helpful to open a forum dedicated to discussing steps for improvement and change. Some ideas for improvement and change may reasonably focus on specific issues at the intersection of race, law, and legal force. One article linked in the comments goes in a more general direction, targeting economic inequality and economic reparation:
But this story is neither old nor unfamiliar. Rather than asking “why,” let’s focus on the banal laws and policies needed to redirect the distribution of wealth — stolen from black Americans, such that whites can no longer summon police, law or politicians on their behalf to erase or suppress black Americans, and other minorities. That will require more than revealing the name of the police officer who shot Michael Brown; it will require asking who, in the next round of city council elections, state elections and, of course, presidential elections, is ready to compromise their political career in order to work toward redirecting wealth, jobs, opportunities toward black and Latino populations that constitute the majority of the United States. Only when wealth changes hands will black Americans have a fighting chance to resist police power and violence.
This is a powerful suggestion that leads me to wonder about how economic change might address the problems of racial injustice we have seen in Ferguson and elsewhere. Although racial injustice and economic inequality are no doubt related, the former is a distinct problem from the latter, as was noted during the Occupy Movement. In January of this year, the Pew Research Center presented data showing that not only has economic inequality worsened since 1967 but that "the black-white income gap in the U.S. has persisted" since that time. Thus, although it is possible that "narrowing the gap" of economic inequality may partially and indirectly improve the problem of racial injustice, we ought not forget the specific issue of racial inequality in seeking economic change. To improve economic inequality, Standard and Poor recommends investment in education. Here are some bullet points from the overview of a recent report:
This is in part a followup to a post from two weeks ago on irony. Irony is the object of Kierkegaard's first major work, The Concept of Irony, and then disappears from view as a direct object of discussion in Kierkegaard's writings. That is not to say that irony disappears from Kierkegaard, but the criticisms of Romantic Irony in The Concept of Irony give an indication of why Kierkegaard did not want to take irony as a major theme, which is that the Romantic understanding (referring to the Jena Romantics in the last few years of the 18th century) of irony leads towards a self-destructive subjectivity. The irony cannot be understood as just belonging in literary texts, including Socratic dialogues, but must be thought of as the way in which the subject communicates itself. As a matter of the history of ideas, this is to some degree a reference to the way that the Romantic Ironists were drawing on Fichte’s ideas of subjectivity in the first two editions of the Wissenschaftslehre (often, but misleadingly, known in English as The Science of Knowledge).
Google the keywords “academic” and “mother” or “motherhood”, and you will find various websites with discussions about the baby penalty in academia for women. Representative for this literature is an influential Slate article by Mary Ann Mason, who writes “For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high price. They are far less likely to be married with children.”
As an untenured mother of two children, I find these reports unsettling. When my second child was born, several women who are junior academics approached me to ask me if it was doable, or how I managed to get anything done. They wanted children but were scared that it would kill their careers. How do children impact one’s work? This got me thinking that it would be good to hear the stories of philosophers who did manage to combine a flourishing academic career with parenthood.
To this end, I interviewed seven tenured professors who are parents. Six of them are mothers, but I decided to also include an involved father. I aimed to include some diversity of circumstance. Some of my interviewees have very young children whereas one respondent has grown children, she had them in a time when being a mother and a professor was even less evident than it is now. One of my interviewees is a single mother, who had her child in graduate school. One went to a first-round APA interview when her son was six weeks old, with a sitter in the hotel room. Two of my interviewees have special needs children, a fact that shaped their academic careers in important ways. I aimed also for geographic diversity—my respondents come from the US, the UK, Canada and The Netherlands—since countries and institutional culture differ in the formal and informal support parents receive, such as paid leave and childcare.
I have long believed the conventional wisdom that women are not proportionately distributed through every subfield in philosophy. In my field of theoretical ethics, in particular, it is often said that more women in philosophy seem to be found here than are in the profession more widely.
I believe it a little less today, though it may still turn out to be true. Trent University student Cole Murdoch undertook a short summer research project for me, looking at the ratio of male to female authors in two leading journals of moral philosophy.
Although we've still data to wade through, it is interesting to me that in looking at a five-year window of publications in Ethics and Journal of Moral Philosophy, the student did not find that women-authored articles appeared in much greater numbers than our number in the profession. I tasked him with this merely to find out who and what the journals in my field publish, for self-interested reasons, but I also expected that, as we regularly hear women in philosophy disproportionately specialize in ethics, he'd find much more parity in JMP and Ethics, or at least, higher numbers of women's names than one might find in the profession. [see below for a report of the analysis]
Mathematics has been much in the news recently, especially with the announcement of the latest four Fields medalists (I am particularly pleased to see the first woman, and the first Latin-American, receiving the highest recognition in mathematics). But there was another remarkable recent event in the world of mathematics: Thomas Hales has announced the completion of the formalization of his proof of the Kepler conjecture. The conjecture: “what is the best way to stack a collection of spherical objects, such as a display of oranges for sale? In 1611 Johannes Kepler suggested that a pyramid arrangement was the most efficient, but couldn't prove it.” (New Scientist)
We are pleased to announce the completion of the Flyspeck project, which has constructed a formal proof of the Kepler conjecture. The Kepler conjecture asserts that no packing of congruent balls in Euclidean 3-space has density greater than the face-centered cubic packing. It is the oldest problem in discrete geometry. The proof of the Kepler conjecture was first obtained by Ferguson and Hales in 1998. The proof relies on about 300 pages of text and on a large number of computer calculations.