Shawn Miller, a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, has been kind enough to create a philosophy of physics grad program wiki in the mold of philbio.net, which you can find at philphysics.net. He wanted me to be sure to note that the wiki uses, with permission, Christian Wüthrich's Philosophers of Physics list from his Taking up Spacetime website (https://takingupspacetime.wordpress.com/). And also that people should please feel free to contribute to the site, i.e., add people and programs that have been left off. Simple instructions on how to do this are listed on the front page.
UPDATE/REMINDER: This is a wiki! That means it is a community project, and everyone should feel free to be involved in keeping it accurate. Anyone can edit it. If you, or someone you know, is listed incorrectly, (because they are retired, or are determinately moving to another school) you can fix this yourself!
I have always wanted to have a paper in Analysis or Thought. A really neat, short, paper, that is self-contained and makes an substantive philosophical point. Unfortunately, I tend to write articles of about 8000-9000 words, and first drafts are typically even longer. I've written some pre-read papers for conferences of 3000 words, but to get all the nuances in, they typically expand to 8000 words or more once they reach the article stage. What does it take to write brief philosophy papers? More generally, what does it take to write concisely?
Flash fiction is a style of fiction of extreme brevity, 500 words or less, typically 100-150 words. One very brief example, attributed (probably falsely) to Ernest Hemingway goes as follows: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn." Or take flash poetry. The Dutch poet Vondel wrote the shortest poem in Dutch, and probably in any language, "U, nu" (literally, "you now", or "now it's your turn"). It's also palindromic, and won him a poetry prize. How to write flash fiction? David Gaffney advises flash fiction authors to cut down on character development, and to jump right in the story. Place the denouement not at the end, but in the middle, that way you have some space left to ponder the implications of what has happened with your readers, and you avoid that your story reads like a joke, with a punchline at the end.
So how do you write really short philosophical pieces that are substantive pieces in their own right? Which brief philosophical self-contained pieces do you particularly admire?
My father, Kirkland R. Gable (born Ralph Schwitzgebel) died Sunday. Here are some things I want you to know about him.
Of teaching, he said that authentic education is less about textbooks, exams, and technical skills than about moving students "toward a bolder comprehension of what the world and themselves might become." He was a beloved psychology professor at California Lutheran University.
I have never known anyone, I think, who brought as much creative fun to teaching as he did. He gave out goofy prizes to students who scored well on his exams (e.g., a wind-up robot nun who breathed sparks of static electricity: "nunzilla"). Teaching about alcoholism, he would start by pouring himself a glass of wine (actually, water with food coloring), pouring more wine and acting drunker, arguing with himself, as the class proceeded. Teaching about child development, he would bring in my sister or me, and we would move our mouths like ventriloquist dummies as he stood behind us, talking about Piaget or parenting styles (and then he'd ask our opinion about parenting styles). Teaching about neuroanatomy, he brought in a brain jello mold, which he sliced up and passed around class for the students to eat ("yum! occipital cortex!"). Etc.
As a graduate student and then assistant professor at Harvard in the 1960s and 1970s, he shared the idealism of his mentors Timothy Leary and B.F. Skinner, who thought that through understanding the human mind we can transform and radically improve the human condition -- a vision he carried through his entire life.
I've been asked to write a review of Williamson's brand new book Tetralogue for the Times Higher Education. Here is what I've come up with so far. Comments are very welcome, as I still have some time before submitting the final version. (For more background on the book, here is a short video where Williamson explains the project.)
Disagreement in debates and discussions is an interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, having to justify your views and opinions vis-à-vis those who disagree with you is perhaps one of the best ways to induce a critical reevaluation of these views. On the other hand, it is far from clear that a clash of views will eventually lead to a consensus where the parties come to hold better views than the ones they held before. This is one of the promises of rational discourse, but one that is all too often not kept. What to do in situations of discursive deadlock?
Timothy Williamson’s Tetralogue is precisely an investigation on the merits and limits of rational debate. Four people holding very different views sit across each other in a train and discuss a wide range of topics, such as the existence of witchcraft, the superiority and falibilism of scientific reasoning, whether anyone can ever be sure to really know anything, what it means for a statement to be true, and many others. As one of the most influential philosophers currently in activity, Williamson is well placed to give the reader an overview of some of the main debates in recent philosophy, as his characters debate their views.
No, this is not clickbait. Sometimes, the headline tells the story. Gregory Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad (the Court uses the “also known as” language when referring to him, and I am not sure about the status of the two different names), an inmate in an Arkansas state prison, wanted to grow a beard, in accordance with his religious beliefs. The Arkansas Department of Corrections has a strict no-beard policy, with a medical exception (allowing those with certain dermatological conditions to grow a beard of up to ¼ inch length), on the grounds that inmates could smuggle contraband in their beards, and that it is necessary that prisoners remain clean-shaven in order to easily identify them. Sensing an uphill struggle, Muhammad proposed to grow a half inch beard as a sort of “compromise,” as he put it. The Department would have nothing of it, and so Muhammad took the argument to court. Both the district court and the 8th Circuit thought that required deference to the experts at the Dept. of Corrections outweighed any concerns they might have.
In this post, I discuss in more detail the two main categories of genealogy that were mentioned in previous posts: vindicatory and subversive genealogies.
III. Applications of genealogy
In the spirit of the functionalist, goal-oriented approach adopted here, a pressing question now becomes: what’s the point of a genealogy? What kind of results do we obtain from performing a genealogical analysis of philosophical concepts? I’ve already mentioned vindication and subversion/debunking en passant along the way, but now it is time to discuss applications of genealogy in a more systematic way.
III.1 Genealogy as vindicatory or as subversive
By now, it should be clear that genealogy is a rather plastic concept, one which can be (and has been) instantiated in a number of different ways. Craig offers a helpful description of a range of options:
[Genealogies] can be subversive, or vindicatory, of the doctrines or practices whose origins (factual, imaginary, and conjectural) they claim to describe. They may at the same time be explanatory, accounting for the existence of whatever it is that they vindicate or subvert. In theory, at least, they may be merely explanatory, evaluatively neutral (although as I shall shortly argue it is no accident that convincing examples are hard to find). They can remind us of the contingency of our institutions and standards, communicating a sense of how easily they might have been different, and of how different they might have been. Or they can have the opposite tendency, implying a kind of necessity: given a few basic facts about human nature and our conditions of life, this was the only way things could have turned out. (Craig 2007, 182)
Many philosophers refer to the game of cricket in their writings. Reading one of these references never fails to give me—a lifelong cricket fan—a little start of pleasure. Many years ago, as I began my graduate studies in philosophy in New York City, I stumbled upon JL Austin while reading on speech acts for my philosophy of language class. I was delighted to note that Austin, in his discussion of performative utterances, provided the now-classic example of a cricket umpire saying "Out". I was a lonely graduate student then, and reading about cricket, even if only in the context of an academic discussion, was a small reprieve from that loneliness. I was happy to think that perhaps some of my fellow graduate students would want clarification about the example, which, of course, I would be only too happy to provide. (They didn't. They understood the example well enough from baseball: "steeerrrikkke! You're out!").
Ten days ago a new site was launched, “A User’s Guide to Philosophy Without Rankings.” The response to the site has been extremely rewarding. Not only have there been thousands of visitors, people are using the Guide as I had hoped: they are visiting sites that are mentioned in the Guide to learn more about graduate programs, as well as the PGR. A comment on Reddit’s philosophy page regarding the Guide sums up an important reason for the site:
“Thank you so much. I'm going to be applying next year and this is exactly what I'm looking for after I heard all of the controversy about the PGR.”
I want to thank colleagues who have begun to send in resources to post on the site. And I want to make a request: please send more! Like the new philosophy wikis, the Guide is in part an aggregator of information. The more information, the more helpful it can be. Please do weigh in. You can email me about the Guide at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on the site.
In this section, I pitch genealogy against its close cousin archeology in order to argue that genealogy really is what is needed for the general project of historically informed analyses of philosophical concepts that I am articulating. And naturally, this leads me to Foucault. As always, comments welcome! (This is the first time in like 20 years that I do anything remotely serious with Foucault's ideas: why did it take me so long? Lots of good stuff there.)
I hope to have argued more or less convincingly by now that, given the specific historicist conception of philosophical concepts I’ve just sketched, genealogy is a particularly suitable method for historically informed philosophical analysis. In the next section, a few specific examples will be provided. However, and as mentioned above, I take genealogy to be one among other such historical methods, so there are options. Why is genealogy a better option than the alternatives? In order to address this question, in this section I pitch genealogy against one of its main ‘competitors’ as a method for historical analysis: archeology. Naturally, this confrontation leads me directly to Foucault.
[UPDATE: It seems that my post is being interpreted by some as a criticism of the Charlie Hebdo collaborators. Nothing could be further from the truth; I align myself completely with their Enlightenment ideals -- so I'm intolerant too! -- and in fact deem humor to be a powerful tool to further these ideals. Moreover, perhaps it is worth stressing the obvious: their 'intolerance' does not in any way justify their barbaric execution. It is not *in any way* on a par with the intolerance of those who did not tolerate their humor and thus went on to kill them.]
I grew up in a thoroughly secular household (my father was a communist; I never had any kind of religious education). However, I did get a fair amount of exposure to religion through my grandmothers: my maternal grandmother was a practicing protestant, and my paternal grandmother was a practicing catholic. In my twenties, for a number of reasons, I became more and more drawn to Catholicism, or at least to a particular interpretation of Catholicism (with what can be described as a ‘buffet’ attitude: help yourself only to what seems appetizing to you). This led to me getting baptized, getting married in the Catholic church, and wearing a cross around my neck. (I have since then distanced myself from Catholicism, in particular since I became a mother. It became clear to me that I could not give my daughters a catholic ‘buffet’ upbringing, and that they would end up internalizing all the dogmas of this religion that I find deeply problematic.)
At the same time, upon moving to the Netherlands in the late 90s, I had been confronted with the difficult relations between this country and its large population of immigrants and their descendants sharing a Muslim background, broadly speaking. At first, it all made no sense to me, coming from a country of immigrants (Brazil) where the very concept of being a ‘second-generation immigrant’ is quite strange. Then, many years ago (something like 13 years ago, I reckon) one day in the train, I somehow started a conversation with a young man who appeared to be of Arabic descent. I don’t quite recall how the conversation started, but one thing I remember very clearly: he said to me that it made him happy to see me wearing the catholic cross around my neck. According to him, the problem with the Netherlands is the people who have no religion – no so much people who (like me at the time) had a religion different from his own.* This observation has stayed with me since.
Anyway, this long autobiographical prologue is meant to set the stage for some observations on the recent tragic events in Paris. As has been remarked by many commentators (see here, for example), the kind of humor practiced by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists must be understood in the context of a long tradition of French political satire which is resolutely left-wing, secular, and atheist. Its origins go back at least to the 18th century; it was an integral part of the Enlightenment movement championed by people like Voltaire, who used humor to provoke social change. In particular in the context of totalitarian regimes, satire becomes an invaluable weapon.
Here's a short piece by the New Scientist on the status of Mochizuki's purported proof of the ABC conjecture. More than 2 years after the 500-page proof has been made public, the mathematical community still hasn't been able to decide whether it's correct or not. (Recall my post on this from May 2013; little change seems to have taken place since then.)
Going back to my dialogical conception of mathematical proofs as involving a proponent who formulates the proof and opponents who must check it, this stalemate can be viewed from at least two perspectives: either Mochizuki is not trying hard enough as a proponent, or the mathematical community is not trying hard enough as opponent.
[Mochizuki] has also criticised the rest of the community for not studying his work in detail, and says most other mathematicians are "simply not qualified" to issue a definitive statement on the proof unless they start from the very basics of his theory.
Some mathematicians say Mochizuki must do more to explain his work, like simplifying his notes or lecturing abroad.
(Of course, it may well be that both are the case!). And so for now, the proof remains in limbo, as well put by the New Scientist piece. Mathematics, oh so human!
After viewing the rather disappointing Chopin: Desire for Love a couple of years ago, I was struck again by how difficult it seems to be to make movies about artists, writers, or perhaps creators of all kinds. My viewing also served to remind me that movies about philosophers' lives are exceedingly rare, and the few that have been made--or rather, that I am aware of--haven't exactly sent cinemaphiles or students of philosophy running to the nearest box-office e.g., Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein was a disappointment, and the less said about the atrocious and unwatchable When Nietzsche Wept, the better.
The great historian of logic and mathematics Ivor Grattan-Guinness passed away about a month ago, aged 73. I only heard it yesterday, when Stephen Read posted a link to the Guardian obituary on Facebook. From the obituary:
He rescued the moribund journal Annals of Science, founded the journal History and Philosophy of Logic, and was on the board of Historia Mathematica from its inception. A member of the council of the Society for Psychical Research, he wrote Psychical Research: A Guide to Its History (1982). In 1971 the British Society for the History of Mathematics was founded: Ivor served as its president (1986-88) and instituted a formal constitution.
Indeed, many of us owe him eternal gratitude for founding the journal History and Philosophy of Logic, which continues to be the main journal for studies combining historical and philosophical perspectives on logic. Ivor's work and scholarship spans over an impressive range of topics and areas, and is bound to continue to influence many generations of scholars to come. It is a great loss.
A couple of weeks ago, in a post on Theranos, which has been developing a new - and very fast and cheap - technique for blood-testing, I mentioned the woes of 23andMe.com, a site which originally offered direct to consumer genetic testing, before the FDA shut it down for any medical claims (the FDA letter is here). As 23andMe put it (in a pre-shutdown version of its website), customers might “gain insight into your traits, from baldness to muscle performance. Discover risk factors for 97 diseases. Know your predicted response to drugs, from blood thinners to coffee. And uncover your ancestral origin.” That sort of claim, and its dubious scientific basis, was the basis of the FDA’s shutdown order, which also expressed concern about false positives and the difficulty in understanding negative results in isolation. In this, the FDA was echoing concerns of bioethicists, who have generally been alarmed about the spread of genetic testing outside of a clinical context. As a 2011 piece summarized the concerns, the lack of regulatory oversight of these practices, which trade upon the public’s fear of cancer and limited understanding of genetics, creates potential problems with inappropriate referrals, misinterpretation of results, excessive anxiety about positives, false reassurances about negatives, and even the confusion between diagnostic genetic variants and surrogate genetic markers (which account for very little risk).
Daniel Zamora’s interview in Jacobin (following the publication of a book he edited), in which he claims that Foucault ended up de facto endorsing neoliberalism, has generated a lot of renewed discussion about Foucault’s late work. Over at An und für sich, Mark William Westmoreland has organized a series of posts responding to Zamora. I’m one of the contributors; the others are Verena Erlenbusch (Memphis), Thomas Nail (Denver), and Johanna Oksala (Helsinki). My contribution is cross-posted below, but you really should start with the interview and then read Erlenbusch’s post – she lays out the context of the controversy, and discusses the book (which came out fairly recently, and which hasn’t been translated yet) in considerable detail.
I’ll update with links to Nail’s and Oskala’s contributions when they’re up.