Philosophical Vices

Philosophers who are aware of the systematic character of their enterprise may always fall in love with their own system to such an extent that they gloss over what they ought to recognize as intractable difficulties or unanswerable questions. Love of that particular system displaces the love of truth. If the vice of reducing philosophy to a set of piecemeal, apparently unconnected set of enquiries is the characteristic analytical vice, this vice of system-lovers may perhaps be called the idealist vice.

Both these vices have their representatives in present-day academic philosophy. Yet neither they nor the condition of academic philosophy more generally is sufficient to explain the radical marginalization of philosophical concerns in our culture. This marginalization has several aspects. In part it is a matter of the relegation of philosophy in the vast majority of colleges and universities to a subordinate position in the curriculum, an inessential elective for those who happen to like that sort of thing. But this itself is a symptom of a more general malaise. For to a remarkable extent the norms of our secularized culture not only exclude any serious and systematic questioning of oneself and others about the nature of the human good and the order of things, but they also exclude questioning those dominant cultural norms that make it so difficult to pose these philosophical questions outside academic contexts in any serious and systematic way. We have within our social order few, if any milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained and the education to which we subject our young is not well-designed to develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning. So it is not just that the philosophy of the academic philosopher has been marginalized in the college curriculum. It is also and more importantly that, when plain persons do try to ask those questions about the human good and the nature of things in which the philosophical enterprise is rooted, the culture immediately invites them to think about something else and to forget those questions.

– Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Philosophy Recalled to Its Tasks’

It Sometimes Begins with Emerson

I just did this survey, “put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.” (You have to be an APA member to take it.)

It was fun. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first encounter with philosophy, which, contrary to the old saw, didn’t begin with Ayn Rand. It began in a high school English class on American literature, where we read Emerson and Thoreau. I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers, but whatever you call them, they were my first contact with anything describable as philosophy.* I found them pretty enthralling, and still do. As it happens, I’m re-reading Walden for the first time in a couple of decades, and enjoying it immensely. One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists. I was offended at the time, but by George, he was right. Continue reading

Law Enforcement, Philosophy, and the Ethics of Belief

From an article on the recent “swatting” case in Wichita, Kansas:

The law allows the police to use deadly force when an officer reasonably believes, given the information at the time he pulls the trigger, that his life or someone else’s life is in imminent danger. The Wichita officers had been told, wrongly, that they were encountering an armed hostage-taker who had already killed one person and was threatening to burn the house down.

“Nine-one-one is based on the premise of believing the caller: When you call for help, you’re going to get help,” Chief Livingston said. The prank call, he added, “only heightened the awareness of the officers and, we think, led to this deadly encounter.”

The antinomies of legalistic reason: The first paragraph tells us that the 911 caller made an accusation of criminal activity. But according to one prominent line of legal reasoning, an anonymous telephone-based accusation at best establishes reasonable suspicion of the commission of a crime–and usually requires a “totality of circumstances” test that conjoins the claims made in the call with facts observed or gathered independently of the call (see Lippmann, Criminal Procedure, pp. 107-109, 139-40, 2nd ed.). Continue reading

An Essential Question

Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.

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Saying Stupid Things about Intelligent Design

Politics and religion sometimes make people say stupid things. They even sometimes make otherwise quite intelligent people say stupid things. Perhaps it’s naive, but it does seem natural enough to expect that unusually intelligent people would have intelligent things to say about things in general, and that they wouldn’t suddenly start sounding like people of merely average or lower intelligence when the conversation turns to religion or politics. This expectation seems to be satisfied insofar as the people who most often have intelligent things to say about politics and religion are, well, otherwise pretty intelligent. But it continues to astound me how often really smart people seem to lose hold of their intellects when they think there might be something at stake. I suspect that anyone with a Facebook account has encountered this phenomenon. I have encountered it enough times today that I feel compelled to write about it.

Today’s most egregious offense appeared in a Facebook post complaining about the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in schools. In case you’ve been living under a rock, ‘intelligent design’ is the label for a loosely related set of theories that criticize Darwinian evolutionary theory and purport to offer an alternative scientific hypothesis about the origin and development of life: life is (surprise!) the product of intelligent design. This family of theories is widely dismissed by scientists and usually endorsed only by religious believers (and not even by many of the most educated and informed religious believers, at that). The controversy that has occasionally boiled up in the United States over whether it should or should not be taught in schools owes much of its heat to its apparent religious implications and motivations; critics charge not only that it is bad science, but that it is a not very covert attempt to inject religious dogma into science classrooms and public education more generally. I’d thought that the political debate about this issue had more or less died a while back, but apparently not, since I found myself this morning reading a rather strong condemnation of efforts to teach intelligent design.

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Derek Bowman on Adjuncting: “Why Working for Free Is Bad For Your Students”

I’ve previously mentioned the adjunct session we’re doing at the Felician Institute conference in a few weeks, with Michelle Ciurria and Derek Bowman presenting. Derek Bowman alerts me to the fact that he’s posted a two paragraph precis of his presentation on his website, which I’ve cut and pasted below the fold. I have a complex set of agreements and disagreements with Derek’s way of putting things, but I’ll reserve comment for later, and for now, simply invite comment from others. I’m hoping to invite presenters to the conference to post their papers on the Institute’s website. More on that when I hear back from them.

PS. You might also be interested in this paper of Derek’s on philosophy and practical engagement [PDF] (which happens to mention PoT’s own Michael Young in the acknowledgements). Derek’s paper provides an interesting contrast to this one by Bas Van Der Vossen, forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology.

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Tenth Annual Felician Institute Conference: Tentative Program

Just a quick note to say that I’ve worked up a tentative version of the program for the Tenth Annual Felician Institute Conference. As usual, we got more papers than we had spots to fill, so we couldn’t include all of them. But the ones on the program are really good, and I’d like to think that the sessions might well end up being more than the sum of their parts.  There’s a nice blend of meta-ethics, normative ethics, applied ethics, and political philosophy this time (though not very much in the way of history). I was particularly gratified to get two hard-hitting pieces for our dedicated session on the ethics, politics, and economics of adjuncting–one by Michelle Ciurria (Washington University at St. Louis), and one by Derek Bowman (Providence College).

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Roderick Long (and others) on Hilary Putnam

Here’s a nice brief memorial to Hilary Putnam by Roderick Long, with a bonus link to Roderick’s review of Putnam’s Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, from Reason Papers 28 (2006). Roderick has a real gift for writing these RIP notices, emphasizing the deceased’s achievements but not ignoring what might legitimately be criticized.

Here’s Martha Nussbaum in The Huffington Post.

Jane O’Grady in London’s Guardian.

The official notice from Harvard, with a link that goes to Putnam’s blog, Sardonic Comment.

Though it’s not online, I’ve always found the interview of Putnam in Giovanna Borradori’s The American Philosopher candid and interesting.

Feel free to add any particularly good ones in the combox.

Contingency, Irony, and Brutality: Richard Rorty in Israel

As the years went by, and we both left Princeton, I am afraid the incipient intellectual and emotional gulf between us got wider, especially after what I saw as Dick’s turn toward ultra-nationalism with the publication of Constructing Our Country. Dick had always been and remained to the end of his life a “liberal” (in the American sense, i.e., a “Social Democrat”): a defender of civil liberties and of the extension of a full set of civic rights to all, a vocal supporter of the labor unions and of programs to improve the conditions of the poor, an enemy of racism, cruelty, arbitrary authority, and social exclusion.

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Augustine’s Cogito

The one thing people are sure to know about Descartes—who know anything about him at all—is that he said (approximately), “I think, therefore I am.”

Therefore, it is ironic that Descartes was not the first to say this. Consider the following:

…I am most certain that I am and that I know and delight in this. In respect of these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians [i.e., skeptic philosophers], who say, “What if you are deceived?” For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not, cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token, I am. And since I am if I am deceived, how am I deceived in believing that I am? for it is certain that I am if I am deceived. Since, therefore, I, the person deceived, should be, even if I were deceived, certainly I am not deceived in this knowledge that I am.

This passage is from St. Augustine’s City of God (XI.26). The reference to the Academics is significant. Augustine was evidently aware of philosophical skepticism and concerned to answer it at least in some respects—just as was Descartes. Moreover, Augustine contrasts the frailty of sense-perception as a means of knowledge with the certainty of “another and far superior sense, belonging to the inner man” (XI.27)—just as does Descartes. Immediately preceding the passage quoted above, Augustine asserts that our knowledge of our own existence is not subject to illusion just because it is not derived from the bodily senses, which only produce in us images resembling sensible objects, not the objects themselves. Intellectual knowledge, such as the knowledge we may demonstrate of our own existence, is free of “any delusive representation of images or phantasms.”

Clearly, Augustine’s cogito was not merely a transient thought which he failed to fully recognize or develop. According to Roy Sorensen (A Brief History of the Paradox, Oxford U.P., 2003, p. 170), Augustine presents the argument no less than seven times in assorted works. (Some other references I’ve found are The Trinity (10.10.14) and the Enchiridion (7.20).) Of course, Augustine does not employ his cogito as the foundational argument for an elaborate epistemology and system of knowledge. Still, in view of the fame the cogito argument acquired with Descartes, it seems odd that Augustine’s prior claim is so little known.

Did Descartes rip off Augustine? He claims not. However, Sorensen is not convinced, pointing out the ubiquity of the cogito in Augustine’s writings and the popularity of Augustine with Descartes’s Jesuit teachers at La Flèche.

In any event, Descartes employed his cogito in one important way that Augustine did not. Specifically, he thought it demonstrated the prior certainty of consciousness, by which I mean loosely that the mind is better known than the body. For example, a visual experience as of an object—a cup, say—in front of me may or may not really be of a cup, but it is unquestionably an experience. Descartes realized that only “thought,” by which he meant to include any conscious event, could support his argument. It wouldn’t do, for instance, to say, “I walk, therefore I am,” even though walking supports the logic of the argument, as presented by Augustine above, just as well as being deceived. Try substituting “walk” for “be deceived” in the passage above. Except where being deceived refers specifically to being deceived about one’s own existence, as opposed to being deceived in general, the logic of Augustine’s argument remains undisturbed. Thus, the fact that the event in question is being deceived appears to be almost incidental in Augustine’s cogito. But it isn’t; only an event involving conscious “thought” will support the argument. And this implies that the reality of thought is more securely knowable than the reality of the objects of thought. This is a point that Augustine may have missed, even though, with his talk of images and phantasms, he had the conceptual tools that would have enabled him to do so.

The prior certainty of consciousness, after going more or less unchallenged for nearly 300 years after Descartes, finally came to be controversial and to be rejected by many philosophers. But I am inclined to think it is true and that the cogito provides a pretty good argument for it. (Of course, the further uses Descartes made of the prior certainty of consciousness, for instance as support for mind–body dualism, are another matter entirely.) In this respect, Descartes saw more deeply into the cogito, even if he did not invent it.