Eric has some very interesting things to say here, about giving credit where credit is due, and about boundary-enforcing in philosophy.
Eric has some very interesting things to say here, about giving credit where credit is due, and about boundary-enforcing in philosophy.
When I write a longish review, I put most of my work into having the piece work well as reader's guide, keeping my own views to myself as much as possible until the end. But since I've signed up for an e-mail subscription to the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (just go here to get it), I've noticed that this practice is by no means uniform. Consider the beginning of Bruce Russell's recent review of James Sterba's From Rationality to Equality:
In this book James Sterba sets out to answer two central questions in moral philosophy: (1) Why be moral? and (2) What does morality require? (see Sterba's Preface and Introduction, esp., pp. 1-2). He understands (1) to be the question (1a): Are we always rationally required to do what we are morally required to do? However, I think the fundamental question is (1b): Is there always most reason to do what we are morally required to do? I may be rationally required to take a pill that I have overwhelming epistemic reason to believe will save my life when I am really not dying and the pill will actually kill me (imagine some doctor wants me dead and has presented me with conclusive evidence to make me believe that I am dying and that the pill is my only hope for survival). But in this case what there is most reason to do is to refrain from taking the pill even though the rational thing to do is to take the pill. I think what we want to know when we ask, "Why be moral?" is whether there is always most reason to do what is morally required. We want to know whether it is necessarily true that there ismost reason to do what is morally obligatory, not whether it's necessarily true that we are justified in believing that there is most reason to be moral.
I worked hard to try to figure out what Russell meant here, and then was frustrated to find that the phrase "most reason" doesn't occur in the review itself.
I am taking an indefinite leave from regular posting at NewAPPS.*
None of us ever imagined that our daily readership would include thousands of our peers. While undoubtedly some of the interest in the blog springs from less than noble impulses (philosophers are human, after all), I have been humbled by the size and loyalty of our audience. The huge interest of our readership in our daily postings has had many unexpected benefits and consequences. My greatest pleasure has been able to share this platform with many, long-admired guest-posters.
It's sobering that the positions I express on the blog are -- even with polemical distortion (and my rhetorical ambiguity) -- much better known than my scholarly views. It remains disconcerting that a paper that consumed my intellectual life for a few years will have a smaller readership until eternity than this post will have during the next few hours. It's been strange to see snippets of my blog posts reappear as 'blurbs' on the back of books or in scholarly articles on the state of the profession.
To be clear, participating in NewAPPS has been a source of joy and has brought me into contact with astounding intellects and generous souls within professional philosophy and economics as well as the wider academy. It has been thrilling to draw folk into multiple conversations that have enriched me, and I have enjoyed the unexpected attention that my opinions have received on a variety of professional issues and causes.
Before NewAPPS had any readers other than ourselves, Protevi decided on grounds of higher order political economy that we would never accept any advertising. This, together with Cogburn's and Des Chene's design acumen, has resulted in our clean look. With the addition of Dutilh Novaes (and other regulars) our readership grew, and Matthen prudently insisted that we should reduce the number of announcements of conferences (etc.) on the blog. These decisions ensured that our editioral course has been guided primarily by our (sometimes conflicting) professional judgments. I am grateful to Lance for pushing us all into activism on a whole range of professional norms and practices. I take great pride in the fact that we have revived the art of the philosophical essay; when I feel melancholic, I turn to the 'NewAPPS back-lists' of Bell, Des Chene, Matthen, Brogaard, and Cogburn.
My fellow NewAPPSies have graciously put up with my careless grammar and provocations. I have learned an astounding amount of philosophy and living wisely from them. 'Behind the scenes,' I cannot imagine a greater group of generous colleagues.
I am leaving without rancor or disagreement. I have been eager, even restless to try new approaches to philosophy for a while now; I'll meditate a bit before I launch into new adventures, before long.
The University of Florida has been given permission to hire "100 faculty members to fill new positions it will create as part of a push to join the nation’s top 10 public research institutions," The Chronicle reports. [HT Pete Boettke] According to the university, the main fields targeted for expansion "are life sciences, massive data, cybersecurity, Latin American development." Given demographics and geography, the first and last of these priorities make eminent sense, of course. (I ignore here the non-trivial issue to what degree Florida should be investing in higher education rather than, say, in K1-12.)
Now, earlier in the year this very same university made national headlines by acknowledging that it is basically terminating its PhD program in economics. Given that "massive" data-mining is increasingly taking over economics, there is some logic in this decision (recall and here, here). But before any philosopher has misplaced schadenfreude over the demise of the once-imperial human science in the face of market-forces, it is worth noting that the economics department was "offered the opportunity to move to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences but opted to remain within the business college and become smaller." One wonders what is known about the investment priorities of the Gator's college of LAS. For more on the internal political economy at UF called "responsibility-centered management", see here.
Last night I heard the Vertavo Quartet perform Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C♯ minor, Op. 131 in de Kleine Zaal of de Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. On his deathbed, Schubert had this piece performed. [Schubert was, in fact, no stranger to composing a haunting C-minor quartet (unfinished).]
Whatever Schubert intended with this request, I cannot imagine a greater compliment from one composer to another.
Let's leave aside, those professional philosophers for whom philosophy is primarily a job or an interesting diversion from which one can 'retire.' Let's imagine, rather, those ('the infected philosophers') for whom philosophy is a necessity. Such an infected philosopher would keep at philosophy to the very end. Yet, on her deathbed, would she turn to a work by somebody else (e.g., as Hume did with Lucian), would she keep teaching (Socrates), would she, in fact, try to complete her last work(s), would she seek consolation, or would she ask to re-read or hear one of her own results/works?
The first universities in Europe with a form of corporate/guild structure were the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), the University of Oxford (1167), the University of Modena (1175), the University of Palencia (1208), the University of Cambridge (1209), the University of Salamanca (1218), the University of Montpellier (1220), the University of Padua (1222), the University of Naples Federico II (1224), and the University of Toulouse (1229).---Wikipedia.
Universities as corporate bodies are institutions with amazing longevity. They have a demonstrated record of adaptability, re-invention, and expansion. They have seen the rise and fall of Feudalism, the Reformation, the growth of capitalism, expanding suffrage, Communism, Nazism, and innumerable break-through technologies (including print, telescopes, radio, TV, etc.) One does not show such durability by exhibiting special moral courage nor by clinging to the status quo. Rather, one does so by shrewd opportunism and a firm eye on strategies that ensure long-term survival. None of this is to deny that there are not failed (e.g. Palencia) or zombie universities in which the academic ethos struggles against clientism, nepotism, state control, and a whole list of -isms taht promote mediocrity (many of which intimately familiar to us in Europe).
Only a fool bets against universities. One has to be a huge fool to bet against North American universities; these thrive in an extremely, competitive environment. To be clear: their thriving can come at the expense of many academics (e.g., adjuncts); their thriving is compatible with being a rich source of profit to alternative parties (e.g., Apple); their thriving is also compatible with providing governments with tools to spy on the whole world (enuff said). What's good for universities is not necessarily an unmitigated good. Now, for that whole, amazing history of the university, philosophy has had some place in the curriculum. Nothing lasts forever, of course, and philosophy may have changed essence along the way...because just saying.
The Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP) announces the launch of a dedicated 'Philosophy of Physics' iTunes U channel. [HT Karim Thébault]
Michael Kremer calls my attention to this post by Alex Usher (itself a response to this one). The significance of the post is three-fold: (i) one of the big corporate players in MOOC (massive open online courses) world, Udacity, is changing its strategy from competing with traditional universities to focusing on corporate training--this is accompanied by very forthright commentary by one of the intellectual (and corporate) pioneers of the very idea of MOOC; (ii) the mainstream press is silent on (i); (iii) there is, in fact, no mechanism to keep score on the opinion-leaders of the mainstream press (who have by-and-large been cheerleaders for MOOC and their corporate sponsors).
Over a decade ago the maverick economist, Robin Hanson from overcoming bias, tried to promote interest in (iii), but I don't recall what happened to his ideas.
Anyway, here is a generous excerpt from Usher's post:
There was a big story in MOOC-world last week, which the mainstream press has surprisingly yet to pick up on; namely, that Udacity, one of the three big corporate MOOC players, has just left the building.
Udacity, if you recall, was created by one Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist at Stanford. It was he who kicked off the current MOOC craze by opening up one of his computer science classes to the world, and then finding out that 160,000 people around the world had signed up. Thrun left Stanford to start Udacity which, along with Coursera and EdX, has been part of the Holy Trinity of the MOOC revolution.
Last Thursday, Fast Company Magazine put out a story (hagiography?) on Thrun, which contained some staggering statements from the man himself, including:
(on looking at data on drop-outs) “We don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product”.
(on providing remedial education) “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives… it’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit”.
(on the value of Udacity courses) “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you”.
From a guy who cockily said he was on the verge of finding a “magic formula” for education, and that by 2060, thanks to MOOCs, there would only be 10 universities, this is some funny stuff.
Here's a moving, detailed tribute to my former colleague, Ned McClennen.
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt--Celan.
Yesterday, I posted a very lengthy (by our blogging standards) piece about the role(s) the purported contrast between understanding and explaining the Holocaust can play in the arts, ethics, and social science. It was framed as a response to a two-part review by Mark Lilla. I was careful not to motivate my disagreement with Lilla in political terms. In fact, I avoid mention of "politics," "Israel," "evil," "Hitler," (etc). Interestingly enough, three out of four published comments on the piece thus far (two by fellow NewAPPSies),* focus on political abuses of the Holocaust in Israel or Stateside (or elsewhere); these comments seem to target primarily what they take to be the political and legal implications of Lilla's position.
This is a beautiful review. It is clear on technical issues; it is very critical, albeit respectful. It is informative to experts and non-experts alike; the formal apparatus is used to provide clarity not to create an esoteric, gated garden. It calls attention to unexplored alternative positions, and does so not just to keep scholarly score, but especially in order to illuminate the philosophical possibility space. It also contains a touch of wicked humor. (I return to that below.)
Note that Takashi Yagisawa (the reviewer) does not offer a detailed summary of the book; it is, thus, not balanced. Readers have to trust his judgment that he has focused on the central issues that are relevant to the community. Only competent readers of the whole book can decide, thus, if the review is fair. For some, the lack of summary may be a fatal flaw. Such people think that the main duty of a review is to tell people what's in a book. While that is important (which is why judicious summaries are often part of great reviews), it need not trump other considerations of the sort mentioned in the first paragraph.
Every advance in research that adds a new complication to our understanding of what happened on the Nazi side, or on the victims’, can potentially threaten our moral clarity about why it happened, obscuring the reality and fundamental inexplicability of anti-Semitic eliminationism.--Mark Lilla, NYRB, 21 November.
In a two-part article, which is a review of two films and some books, Mark Lilla presents us two competing approaches to the Holocaust: one -- represented by the author Hannah Arendt -- attempts "to find a schema that would render the horror comprehensible and make judgment possible;" the other -- represented by the film-maker Claude Lanzmann prior to the film (The Last of the Unjust) under review -- embraces a "refusal to understand." Without wishing to obscure the differences between Arendt and Lanzmann as presented by Lilla, the point of aiming and obtaining understanding, or not, is in some sense moral on their views. (I return to this below.)
As the passage above reveals, Lilla's position also embraces the "fundamental inexplicability," of "anti-Semitic eliminationism" by which he appears to mean the Holocaust of the Jews.* But in Lilla's approach the inexplicable has no stated moral purpose. In fact, in the passage above, Lilla offers us an asymmetry in the possible consequences of obtaining new facts, insights, even "understanding" of a historical event: (i) in the moral sphere they can undermine (or fortify) "moral" judgment; (ii) in the epistemic sphere, they leave untouched what is fundamentally inexplicable. To be sure, in the moral realm certain forms of historical explanation are presupposed; in particular, one needs a functional or teleological account why something happened before one can obtain "moral clarity" or not. But Lilla's position also involves the further claim that even with some such "understanding," an event can remain fundamentally inexplicable. We are not told much about what remains elusive such that a functionally or schematically understood event is still not just a mystery, but at bottom a mystery.
A couple of weeks ago, Eric wrote about books that "that try to get away with systematically ignoring existing scholarship and alternative views," suggesting (on the basis of Colin Howson's review in NDPR) that Michael Strevens's Tychomancy might be an example, alongside some others that have been discussed here. We offered Strevens space to respond to Howson's review. Here is what he says:
"I highly recommend the beginning and end of Colin Howson's review of my book Tychomancy. The beginning summarizes the book's aims nicely, and as for the end, what author would not like to hear that their book is "far from being without merit", if perhaps not exactly in that phrasing?
Then there is the middle 80%.
Tychomancy formulates a set of rules for inferring physical probabilities from non-statistical facts such as physical symmetry (e.g., the 1/2 probability of heads from the symmetry of a fair coin) and makes three claims about these "rules of equidynamics":
1. Psychological: they are inherent in every human's mind.
2. Historical: they have been used (usually implicitly) to make important discoveries by scientists such as Maxwell and Darwin.
3. Epistemological: the rules are reliable (though not infallible).
Reading Howson's review, you would think that the purpose of the book is rather to make mathematical or physical claims, contributing to a body of literature about the probabilistic-looking behavior of things such as tossed coins, roulette wheels, particles bouncing around boxes, and even animals bouncing around ecosystems—the literature on "the method of arbitrary functions". Tychomancy in fact makes no attempt to contribute to this technical literature. It rather uses it—extensively—to explain the reliability of the equidynamic rules.
Sympathy is derived from the classical Greek συμπάθεια, or fellow (συμ)-feeling (πάθεια). A solid Latin translation would be compassio. Unfortunately, whatever is exactly meant by "sympathy," to English ears "compassion," that is, "a feeling of wanting to help someone" would seem to denote merely a sub-set of sympathy.* While "sympathy" does appear (with related concepts like harmony, natural friendship, etc.) in Plato and Aristotle, it tends to be originally identified with Stoic thought; it was also taken up and developed in non-trivial ways by Plotinus, Pliny, Vetrivius, and Galen (amongst others). Use for the concept was re-discovered in the Renaissance and -- as I learned from the distinguished scholar, Ann Moyer, -- promoted not so much by Ficino, but by Erasmus and Fracastoro. Even though in Fracastoro sympathy itself had a properly atomistic explanation, the concept was banished by Descartes and lumped with the to-be-discarded occult (see Principles of Philosophy 4.187).
Given the diversity of usages of 'sympathy' within the context of very different philosophical aims, one might doubt that there is a single, underlying concept rather than a host of family resemblances. Even so, while editing a forthcoming volume on the history of the concept, I came to think that one can identify the four following features that are incorporated in most usages of the term, 'sympathy.'
[This is an invited blog post by Anca Gheaus.--ES]
"An economic theorist who offers a model prepares the ground for a practitioner who should employ her judgment in using this model; but the theorist's contribution falls short of a testable prediction." (Gilboa, et. al. 11)
"Cases can never be refuted, and case-based reasoning is thus an attractive alternative to rule-based reasoning, allowing economists to work with models simple enough to be useful without worrying about refutations." (Gilboa, et. al. 27) [HT: Jong Jae Lee]
The two passages above are quoted from a paper "Economic Models as Analogies" forthcoming in the Economic Journal by a group of leading economists.* It represents part of a wider trend among economists re-interpreting their own activity (recall last week's post); in doing so, they are also making more sensible claims on behalf of economics, while trying to keep most of the economist's tool-kit intact (recall this post). Both passages reveal how thoughtful economists' are trying to come to grip not just with the charge that their models are not realistic (as noted throughout the opening sections of the paper), but with the widespread perception that their models have been refuted in the events of the last decade. While a cynic might interpret the two passages above as a belated admission that something was refuted in 2008, the significance of these passages is to be found in the renewed focus on judgment.
I am optimistic about the potential of the powers-based approach, but I see its major barrier to success to be bridging the gap between itself and other systems, or at least, clearly situating itself with respect to the dominant dialectic. Many advocates of more traditional approaches see the powers-based system as operating within its own philosophical universe and making little contact with the existing framework. This hurts both sides: powers-based theories are only taken seriously by those antecedently friendly to them, and prevailing approaches do not benefit from the theoretical resources of the powers approach. At the same time, using the tools of the more dominant strategies would benefit powers-based theories, as some of their key concepts (properties and substances, to name a few) remain underdeveloped. Clearly connecting powers-based theories to the traditional Humean framework will open up greater theoretical resources for both sides.--Sara Bernstein reviewing at NDPR. [Letters added to facilitate discussion.]
This quoted passage is the closing paragraph of Bernstein's very informative and stimulating review. (What follows is in no sense criticism of Bernstein.) I read Bernstein as identifying the "traditional Humean framework" (i.e., Lewisian metaphysics) as the more "dominant" approach to metaphysics at present. I read her as describing the "powers-based" (i.e., a neo-Lockean or, more accurately, neo-Aristotelian) approach as the weaker party. Let's stipulate that Bernstein's judgment on the relative strength of both parties in analytical metaphysics is accurate (see also Troy Cross's recent reviews, here and here). Even so, her review raises some uncomfortable questions about the state of the discipline. Here I focus on three features: (i) the existence of sub-disciplinary echo-chambers; (ii) who gets to decide who should respond to who; (iii) the benefits, if any, of philosophical engagement.
One problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy, rather than discovery of fundamentals. Nobody really cares much about economic data except as a guide to policy: economic phenomena do not have the same intrinsic fascination for us as the internal resonances of the atom or the functioning of the vesicles and other organelles of a living cell. We judge economics by what it can produce. As such, economics is rather more like engineering than physics, more practical than spiritual.--Robert J. Shiller [HT Jeff Bell]
Is the younger generation of economists like Raj skipping some of the big questions of economics because some smaller questions are easier to answer? If so, is that optimal from the standpoint of society as a whole?--Greg Mankiw.
The character of cutting-edge, academic economics has changed during the last few decades. It is not entirely easy to characterize these changes in part because economics is a very large, fast-moving field (and, of course, I pay more attention to philosophers than economists). Even so there can be merit in this simplification: (i) between 1947 and 1970, there was a formal revolution in economics (associated with names like Samuelson, Arrow, Debreu, etc.); this revolution occurred more or less simultaneously with (ii) the development of econometrics (associated with names like Tinbergen, Koopmans, etc.)--many of the people involved interacted with each other at the Cowles Commission. Of these two developments, the first had a more theoretical ethos and the second a more policy oriented focus. (Of course, lots of fields in economics -- development, labor, forestry, agriculture, etc. -- have always been very focused on policy.) With the break-down of the Keynesian consensus in the mid-1970s, policy, "big questions of economics" returned to the center of the discipline's attention.* In the quoted passage above, Shiller's "necessarily" takes the centrality of policy for granted...so much so that most of what is published as "theory" by theoreticians in economics these days has some such policy orientation.**
One day is equal to every day [Unus dies par omni est.]--Heraclitus, the obscure.
Almost nothing so boring as old people speaking to young people about old age and general decay. Yet, this is the 'hook' of Seneca's twelfth Letter, in which he goes out of his way to present himself as an angry old man who sees decay and death everywhere--nothing like the image of Stoic, apathetic wisdom one might expect. More important, he shows the persona 'Seneca' failing at enjoying the available life's variety of pleasures (marked by different Latin words, e.g, delectavit, voluptatis, iucundissima, etc). It might be the case that the old cannot really avoid looking death in the face, but it is not obvious that we all must fundamentally do so, especially because Seneca himself seems to make a hash of it. While the letter is nominally addressed to the young Lucilus, it is really an admonition to himself to embrace and love [complectamur...et amemus] old age. In recounting his foibles (and other aged men), he wishes to become a true friend of himself such that he is capable of moderated love (sans madness) (recall Letter 9).
It is, after all, not shameful [inprobe] to hope for another day, every day, in old and young alike. (In recounting his foibles, Seneca does not name his more shameful desires.) One might think such lack of shame, which is constituted by the recognition of a binding norm one fails to live up to,* is an instance of living without necessity. But that can't be quite right because in context Seneca treats the denial of necessity as equal to the possibility of ending one's life rather than the hope for another day.
13 invited logicians in Bochum.
McKenzie's review of McGinn's book raises three distinct, larger 'issues:'
(1) How much incivility in reviewing is still acceptable?
(2) Do Oxford UP and other prestigious academic presses apply different 'rules' for 'senior' figures?
Let's ignore (3), really. When I mention him in what follows, it is only to discuss (1-2).
In my opinion (2) is the more important issue because it gets at the political economy of our profession. For, let's be clear; McGinn and OUP are not isolated cases. Here are some other examples: today I read a polite, albeit devastating review of a book by Strevens (Harvard UP) that recounts a whole host of problems, including "failure to reference properly the remarkably rich research tradition." All the reviews of McGinn's 'triple' (see the links in discussion) make clear that he was permitted to allow himself to systematically ignore ongoing discussions in pertinent areas of scholarship. Whatever one might think of Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, however enjoyable and provocative, one cannot accuse it of generous engagement with informed, alternative views.
Bad books make reviewers famous. It is, as they say, an ill wind . . .
Eric linked to Kerry McKenzie's devastating review of Colin McGinn's book on physics (if it deserves to have it said that it's 'on physics'). That reminded me of Nina Strohminger's immortal review of The Meaning of Disgust. Since the latter bears re-reading every month or so, I thought that readers ought to know of it's new home on the web. (Most of the Google links that I found pointed to its old address.)
By the way, there's bound to be more hilarity of this sort. MIT Press has signed McGinn up to three more books. They couldn't get Dan Brown, I guess.
From a recent essay by John Coetzee [HT Joshua Miller]:
The response of the political class to the university's claim to a special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual: if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the challenge.
The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire....
Ingrid Robeyns has a very nice post at Crookedtimber with an excellent discussion on why "economics should become much more aware of the values it (implicitly or explicitly) endorses. Those values are embedded in some of the basis concepts used but also in some of the assumptions in the theory-building." Her post includes a lovely, brief and clear treatment of the abuse of the Pareto-improvement criterion; it's worth your time to check it out.
However, I worry a bit about the meme that focuses on the lack of clarity about values by economists. For, it reinforces the convenient economist's (and philosopher's) distinction between positive and normative questions, embraced since Sidgwick encouraged the split between the two fields (recall and here). To put the worry more constructively and subtly reinterpret my two earlier posts (here and here) on Raj Chetty's widely discussed NYT op-ed piece: economists are not transparent about their status-quo bias that is embedded in their empirical methodology, which (recall (and here and here), takes important institutions and norms as given).[+] From the point of view of the political economy of economics this (relative) status-quo bias of policy oriented economics is to be expected because the demand for economists is fuelled by existing institutions.
Analytical philosophers are a notoriously argumentative, sometimes savage, bunch, except, apparently, when it comes to reviewing Kripke. In particular, at Stanford ca 2012-3, they must really like their Kripke. NDPR's latest review of Kripke's Collected Papers (by Mark Crimmins) does not quite match the hagiography of this earlier one (by Alexis Burgess) [recall my post], but it comes close. Here's a choice quote: "The reader's delight will grow as hints are dropped that there is a great deal more to come in this series being prepared by Kripke and an ace team of philosopher-editors at the Saul Kripke Center at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York."
Yet, the oddity of this review is that in between praising Kripke's "gems," "greatest hits," and "lastingly important contributions," the reader is left wondering what exactly the contribution of "newer essays" by Kripke is meant to be.
I have never met Kripke. I enjoyed Naming and Necessity, and I understand, I think, why some of his papers "spawned literatures so large that even all of your basement shelves, cleared of the antique house paints, could not hold them." But, folks, it is 2013 not 1983. If I hadn't learned not to project my own rhetorical tricks onto others, I would guess that his purported admirers are praising Kripke in order to bury the legacy.
When I studied philosophy in graduate school [in the 1990s--ES], my peers and I went to classes where we were made to read Kripke and Davidson and Quine and Putnam. Then, duty done, we met together at a coffee shop and discussed the latest paper from Millikan, pens in hand, arguing passionately. I cannot even recall how we found her work and knew we had to study it, but somehow there was consensus among us that she was producing the most exciting philosophy happening right then. Sometimes we were convinced that Millikan got a problem wrong... more often we felt she had offered a solution to some problem that other philosophers had mostly just obscured. But that was not what made us study her work so eagerly. The important thing was that Millikan gave us tools. Her theory of proper functions was something we could actually use. It had wide and general utility...And, as we contrasted her work with what our instructors considered the contemporary canon, we felt certain that Millikan represented the vanguard.
I mention all this because the second striking feature of Millikan's responses to these thirteen criticisms is that she still seems the radical maverick. If it is fair to consider her critics in this volume as representative of current philosophy, then one gets the impression that most of us are still catching up with Millikan....To see her respond to this pressure, however, is very helpful to understanding the details and applications -- and, ultimately, the novelty -- of her approach.--Craig DeLancey, reviewing Millikan and Her Critics [the volume includes a chapter by our very own Mohan--ES]
I sometimes wonder how common DeLancey's experience is of graduate students discovering and debating exciting work unrelated to one's instructors' sense of significance. I often have the disheartening sense that it is more common that graduates recycle the shared and undoubtedly sophisticated commitments of their graduate instructors (despite the now relatively easy access to other people's works). This recycling is often itself very sophisticated with accompanying mini-narratives that bolster the priority claims of privileged participants (see, for example, this interesting review). There is nothing dishonest about this kind of recycling and it allows the generation of progress, but one wonders if more frequent intellectual parricide/matricide wouldn't be healthier for the discipline.
A few weeks ago, Kevin Vallier wrote a thoughtful, agonized blog-post (at BHL) on to what degree 'non-ideological' political theory is possible. Before I could pen a response, David Sobel created a robust discussion at Pea-Soup on the related question if it is "inappropriate to hold moral principles in a way that is immune to empirical falsification." Now, both Kevin and David flirt with treating 'ideology' and 'empirical' as contraries; admittedly, both introduce a great deal of sensible qualification and hesitate endorsing the conceptual opposition. Even so, David channels the ghost of Popper and treats the empirically 'falsifiable' as the opposite to the 'ideological.'[+]
Shortly thereafter, the influential economist, Raj Chetty, published a widely discussed op-ed piece in which he tacitly assumes that in virtue of being properly empirical his favored approach to economics is scientic and, therefore, cannot be ideological. In my response, I point out that even if one fully accepts that the new trend in data-mining economics, which exploits so-called 'natural experiments,' is based firmly in fact, it could still be ideological. For it presupposes background stability in one's institutions and norms. Much of the very best of contemporary economics is 'empirical' in this sense; it relentlessly explores the impact of policy within a given framework. (The idea that current, mainstream economics is somehow very formal and far removed from empirical reality is seriously outdated.) This status-quo bias of Chetty's mainstream approach remarkably friendly to existing background institutions and norms (recall also this post on Gul and Pesendorfer).
But was I correct in using 'ideology' in describing economics?
“No variation of things arises from blind metaphysical necessity, which must be the same always and everywhere.” [A cæca necessitate metaphysica, quæ utique eadem est semper & ubique, nulla oritur rerum variatio.]--Isaac Newton, General Scholium (1713), Principia.
This week we're celebrating three hundred years since Newton published the General Scholium, attached to the second edition of the Principia. The passage above was only inserted in the final (1726), third edition. The argument of the sentence seems to be something like this: