“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:
A1: (Metaphysical) Necessity <--> Homogeneity
A2: Homogeneity and Variety are disjunctive alternatives (suppressed premise)
P: We observe variety
Therefore, no metaphysical necessity
From textual context it is very clear that Newton wants to defend the legitimacy of final causes. In particular, in circles around Newton it was common to refer to Spinoza as having defended the system of “Blind and Unintelligent Necessity” (S. Clarke (1705) Demonstration, 12.102); or “A Blind and Eternal Fatality” (S. Clarke, Demonstration, Intro.8);
or "blind mechanical necessity” (H. More, Confutation of Spinoza, 91). In fact, More refers to Spinoza as that “completely blind and stupid philosophaster” (H. More, 91; recall!) So, because Spinoza's denies final causes, the necessity he defends is unguided and undirected, that is, "blind." In the quoted passage above, Newton is, thus, offering an empirical argument against a metaphysical thesis: observed variety is not compatible with Spinoza's proposed system of nature. Moreover, the General Scholium argues more generally that we do not just observe variety, we observe quite determinate and peculiar variety (of the sort that leads Newton to offer his famous argument to a designer).
A "sardonic" tweet by a "Duke sociologist"* about this year's Nobels in economics generates an op-ed response in the New York Times by a MacArthur ('genius') fellow and Harvard economist, Raj Chetty. [HT Matt Zwolinski] It's been a few decades since an elite economist felt the need to notice a sociologist. Chetty reveals what is at stake:
the headline-grabbing differences between the findings of these Nobel laureates are less significant than the profound agreement in their scientific approach to economic questions, which is characterized by formulating and testing precise hypotheses. I’m troubled by the sense among skeptics that disagreements about the answers to certain questions suggest that economics is a confused discipline, a fake science whose findings cannot be a useful basis for making policy decisions.
If economics is not "a useful basis for making policy decisions," its seventy year, lucrative (jobs, funding, prestige, etc.) reign as the the privileged discipline in the policy sciences ends. (The only time I have discussed Chetty's views on the blog, I provided historical context for that claim.) Before I turn to Chetty's argument for why economics is "useful" in the relevant fashion, it is worth noting that he accepts the idea that consensus in methods ("formulating and testing precise hypotheses") and answers ("simple, unassailable finding") is an adequate proxy to a discipline not being a "fake science." Such consensus, need not prevent it being "ideology," too.
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the
shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the
threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the
chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something
deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.--Michael Lynch, Opinionator, New York Times, 10/15/2013
Plato's most important observation in political philosophy is that no constitutional system lasts forever. As Michael Lynch discerns in the important piece that I quote above (it's the concluding paragraph), there are dynamics internal to the democratic process that may lead to its own unraveling. Lynch mentions three distinct ones: (i) if "legislative gridlock" becomes "a fixture of American
political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that
someone should “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus
calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the
Congress — will only increase." (ii) When politics stops being perceived to be about (Madisonian) give-and-take, then the sense of shared identity will unravel. (iii) A permanent albeit powerful minority systematically makes normal state functioning impossible--the so-called regular "shut-down strategy." [In (iii) I blend Lynch and Schliesser.]
In response to (i) the Cato's Institute's Roger Pilon, remarks: "Well, that’s already happening – witness the many lawless changes to the
Obamacare law that have been unilaterally imposed by the president,
without so much as a notice to Congress. But it’s not because of any
shutdown threat. It’s because (iv) respect for constitutional limits is today
so atrophied." [HT Jason Stanley on Facebook] From context, it is clear that Pilon is thinking of the growth of the welfare state ("special interest juggernaut poured through with one redistributive
program after another, leading to the unsustainable war of all against
all we see today.") Given his focus on limitations, it is surprising that Pilon does not express concern about the limitless growth of executive power that leads to permanent foreign wars and the surveillance state. Either way, we can recognize in (iv) Hayek's old road to serfdom thesis. But with this particular twist that, rather than edging our way toward totalitarianism, we have already returned to the state of nature ("war of all against
all.") Obviously, if we are in the state of nature then the need for a Hobbesian sovereign to get us out of it will be embraced by all minimally rational agents.
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.--Kant Quaere quid est virtus, et posce exemplar honesti.--Lucan (quoted by David Hume as epigraph to Treatise 3.)
Our bodies can betray us. The main ploy of Seneca’s eleventh Letter is to use the all-too-human-phenomenon
of blushing to talk about the limits that nature and our natures put on any
philosophical wisdom. Seneca relies on the idea that blushing cannot be controlled
even if one has completed an training in philosophical emendation of the mind.One aim of such a course is a kind of
self-mastery, that is, to be composed. Seneca uses blushing as a metaphor for all the
ways in which there are limits to our abilities to control nature more generally.
Ever since Bacon and Descartes this outlook has been on the defensive, but if
we are really heading toward an era of Environmental disasters, recognizing
limits may well return to favor before long even if there might be over-the-counter
pills against blushing.
Above, I use the plural “our natures,” not just because in
an earlier letter Seneca had already implied there are a variety of kinds of
souls (recall), but also because in the eleventh letter Seneca insists that our
characters are, in part, the product of varying natural endowments. This sheds
some light on the point of the little mystery at the start the eleventh Letter. For, Seneca introduces a third
party, Lucilus’s “friend,” but does not reveal his identity. Presumably this is
the same “friend” that had acted as (postal) messenger between Lucilus and
Senecabefore (recall the third letter).
This time Seneca reports a conversation he had with the unnamed friend, and it
reveals something about the qualities desired in a philosophical apprentice. It
seems the friend has also started a course in philosophical improvement in
which Seneca judges that he has progressed.)
A naturall foole that could never learn by heart the
order of numerall words, as One, Two, and Three, may observe every stroak
of the Clock, and nod to it, or say one, one, one; but can never know what
houre it strikes...Nor is
it possible without Letters for any man to become either excellently wise,
or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs)
excellently foolish. For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon
by them: but they are the mony of fooles...one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty,
what another Justice; one Prodigality, what another Magnanimity...such names can
never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and
Tropes of speech: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their
inconstancy; which the other do not.--Leviathan, 1.4
Night nursed not him in whose dark mind
The clambering wings of birds of black revolved,
Making harsh torment of the solitude.
The walker in the moonlight walked alone,
And in his heart his disbelief lay cold.--Wallace Stevens.
Despite the helpful reminder of 3AM Magazine, we at NewAPPS failed to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. Seneca's mysterious, terse (under 325 words) tenth Letter, brought me back to Stevens' early poetry. Stevens talks of the (nightly) "torment of solitude," faced by the poetic mind (who happens to be a religious skeptic). Yet, Seneca seems to suggest that some of the very best people should seek solitude; in particular they should living
with their conscience [conscientia] (recall eight letter). But presumably Stevens's poetic disbeliever is expressing his conscience faitfully.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced its 2013 price in economics, and gave it to Eugene Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, and Robert Shiller. One suspects [as Ross Emmett pointed out on facebook] that Fama and Hansen had been pencilled in for 2008; sadly the world did not cooperate with the original plans, and that Shiller has been added to give the whole thing credibility. (Fama and Shiller have not agreed on much.)
In its press release the Academy claims that "it is quite possible to foresee the broad course of these [stocks and bonds"] prices over longer periods, such as the next three
to five years." Of course it is possible, but it is best to bet other people's money on it. More subtly: the Academy's press release imposes a narrative on the empirical work that makes it seem (misleadingly) that there is an established consensus ("the current understanding of asset prices") that itself allows one to predict three to five years out.
"I have no great faith in political
arithmetick, and I mean not to warrant the exactness of either of these
computations." Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
While Ancient writers (Pliny) certainly noted the existence of
fossils, the meaning of the existence fossils was explosive during the eighteenth
century. In posthumously published work on Discourse on Earthquakes (1705), the secretary
of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, had while surveying fossil evidence suggested that "There
have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find
none at present; and that 'tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers
new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning." (here)
As it happens, Adam Smith's two best friends in old age, James Hutton and Joseph Black, the editors of his posthumous (1795) work, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (EPS), understood what was at stake. For, in 1785 Hutton gave
a public lecture, “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and
Stability,” at University of Edinburgh. Due to Hutton's illness, Black gave
the lecture on Hutton’s behalf. In the lecture Hutton used geological and
fossil evidence to argue that the Earth was almost certainly older than 6000
years. We do not know for sure if Smith attended the lecture,
although he was in town.The argument was elaborated in far greater detail in Hutton's (1788) Theory of the Earth, which made him an international celebrity. The significance of this episode to the history of geology and Darwinism is much studied.
But what does this have to do with the history of economics?
Smith's closeness to Hutton may provide additional clues for one of the enduring mysteries of the history of economics: why did Adam Smith forsake the deployment of a mathematical model in the Wealth of Nations (1776)?
Childhood is abundant in fruits, but infancy is sweeter [Fructuosior est adulescentia liberorum, sed infantia dulcior].--Seneca, Letter 9.
I am very bad at being powerless when I really want to help another that I care for who is self-undermining. I find it vexing, and because of the intensity of the passion, I am perfectly capable of making a situation worse--thus, not helping the person in need and frustrating my aims. Recognizing the pattern and even the fact that I re-enact childhood experience, has helped to some degree. But nobody that knows me will call me "unflappable" in such circumstances. (By contrast, I have remained unperturbed when I have been amidst gunfire and scary aircraft failures.) This particular incapacity has a work-place consequence: it makes me a less than ideal PhD supervisor for people that are self-undermining and it influences how we can do philosophy together.
In her best-selling and philosophically subtle book on Spinoza, Door Spinoza's Lens [full disclosure: I wrote a brief "afterword" to it, but that is obviously not why it is selling!] the Flemish scholar-public intellectual, Tinneke Beeckman, emphasizes the significance of equanimity. When one first encounters it in the Ethics, it seems to council resignation: "we should await and endure fortune's face with equanimity" [utramque fortunae
faciem aequo animo exspectare et ferre]. E2p49S It is easy to mistake this for passivity in the face of harms done by others to us (as E4Appendix, ch. 14 suggests).* But in chapter 32 of the appendix to Ethics 4, Spinoza makes clear that equanimity is consequent to being conscious of having done one's duty [si conscii simus nos functos nostro officio fuisse]. Given that Spinoza uses here the Ciceronian "officio," he means this in terms of meeting the obligations of one's public station or social role. Spinoza's version of equanimity is a public virtue, one that emphasizes a notion of duty that we can capture by way of 'public spiritedness.' As we know from Hutcheson this entails all of us can be heroes in modern times.
In your “Katie Roiphe: this much I know” piece
posted on The Guardian this past
July, you said you know that you make people uncomfortable because you claim
that women are partly responsible for their own date rapes; you know that women
who enjoyed Fifty Shades of Grey are
fantasizing about being the submissive sex again; you know that you get under
Unfortunately, Katie Roiphe, you haven’t gotten
under my skin – though I wish that you would. I wish that you’d get under my
skin, in my skin, in my mind, under the covers of my silence with me, for just
an hour. You can trust me. I won’t show you anything you don’t want to see.
I won’t. show you. anything. you don’t want to see.
I won’t show you what it’s like to be raped, because you don’t want to see it; in
The Morning After and other pieces, the
fact that you haven’t talked to many rape survivors is clear in your insistence
that a rape which fits even your “violent force” criteria for a rape doesn’t
count as a rape if the victim doesn’t call it that. I won’t try to show you the
body of research that shows that rape and attempted rape is an epidemic in the
U.S., because you don’t want to see it; instead of following the scholarly
journals that this research appears in, you opted to concentrate on a single
article in Ms. Magazine. I won’t show
you what it’s like to work in an environment rife with sexual harassment,
because you don’t want to see it; instead of talking to women who have been
harassed, instead of soliciting anecdotes from all corners, you have bolstered
your arguments with anecdotes and quotes from your own narrow niche of
But I will show you why your “The Philosopher and
The Student” piece in Slate was despicable, ignorant and mean-spirited. I will
show you how a power differential can twist reality. I will show you how your
refusal to see is the product of
creating a narrative in which you yourself are victimized.
All nine of the Schock winners thus far were or are eminent philosophers, and most of us can only aspire to emulate the quality of their work as best we can. Even if one allows that "The Schock" only seems to go to male, analytical philosophers, each winner is an important and interesting philosopher, deserving of significant honor. Having said that, The Schock Prize judges had four or five chances to honor David Lewis, and failed to do so. (Lewis died in the Fall of 2001.) Lewis is arguably the most significant and influential (analytical) philosopher of the last quarter of the 20th century. (Perhaps, Deleuze is the only contemporary that will match his enduring significance, but he and Foucault died before the Schock got up and running.) So, while one can excuse the members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) to play it safe and not award the prize to, say, Derrida (and, thus, avoid the predictable outcry), not giving it to Lewis means they failed to grasp the nature of analytical philosophy in their own time. That in addition, they passed on Gadamer, Ricœur, Goodman, and, thus far, Habermas suggests that the Schock has a long way to go before it can establish itself as the ultimate arbiter of general philosophical excellence.
Sometimes it might seem hard to generate constructive, cooperative class discussion. Often we have a few students who dominate open discussion, with most students spending our classes in silence. And some of us are particularly concerned about getting students from underrepresented groups to participate, especially in spaces where the dominant voices are typically (white straight cis) men.
I would like to share an activity that was passed along to me last year, called "Complete Turn Taking." I now put aside a number of days each term for this exercise, as students just love it. For my MWF introductory courses, I set aside most Fridays for this activity.
Students have to bring 2-3 typed/written questions to class
on the week's material. They organize into groups of 4, and I stress diversity in the groups. If there isn't an attached group project with this exercise, I try to have groups to change from week to week. And I encourage students to learn each others' names.
Neil has an interesting analysis of "why Congressional Republicans are taking extreme bargaining positions
that shut down the government and risk defaulting on debt." He points to Republican "primary problem, which "makes Republican officeholders do the crazy things that the Tea
Party likes, because they fear losing their primaries even more than
they fear losing the general election." This has it backward in two important respects. First, it fails to understand the rationality of the Tea Party caucus. Second, by demonizing the Tea Party as "crazy," it facilitates the far more dangerous tendency among educated people to grow impatient with democracy and pine for rule by experts.
First, since 1988, the Republicans have won the popular vote once: in 2004. Their House majority is now primarily a product of gerrymandering and superior mid-term turn-out. If you look at the congressional Tea Party heartland (see this good map at the New Yorker), it is primarily rural, elderly, white, and Evangelical. With the exception of 'Evangelical,' perhaps, this is not the future of America. And even born again America is remarkably fluid when it comes to so-called 'life-style' choices--the generational shift of opinion on Gay Marriage has been phenomenally fast. That is to say, these are folk that know they will loose national elections time and again. Obviously Republicans can still put together winning national coalitions, but as the Tea Party heartland learned under the three Bush presidencies, these will not reflect their values and interests. They are not acting as co-partners in government awaiting their turn at the helm, but as the legal opposition. They are playing a lousy hand superbly and -- best of all -- by democratic means.
That's not crazy.
Michael Kremer has expressed justified concern that prospective graduate students might use the data compiled by Andy Carson to guide their choice in graduate programs. Even if the data were perfect, one should be cautious in using them; the data are backward-looking and reflect circumstances that might well have changed significantly by the time one shows up at the school of one's choice. Even when Andy Carson removes all the current (serious) problems with his data, placement data absent attrition rates are of limited use. Moreover, given the incentives involved we should not expect to get fully reliable data easily. Ideally, once Carson has worked out the obvious snafus with his data people can use his data and measures and compare them with old and more recent Gourmet reports and figure out ways to use them in light of each other given their individual needs.
But for now, nobody should let these data play a decisive role in their decision-making.
Meena Krishnamurthy has a blog post about the relative absence of political philosophy in the The Philosopher’s Annual since 2002. This surprised me a bit because it seems to me a field that has been very fertile over the last decade. From afar it looks as if the grip of Rawls on the field has been loosened, and there is a lot of important and urgent work on legitimacy, international (and inter-generational) justice, democratic theory, and, of course, the role of religion today. (Of course, a lot of this is pursued in critical discussion with Rawlsian ideals.) Not to mention that the period has seen Libertarian ideals articulated and renewed with remarkable philosophical ability, and ongoing formal work in social choice theory. Anyway, go read her post.
UPDATE: Ryan Muldoon points out that formal work in political theory by Peter Vanderschraaf has been recognized!
Yesterday, I linked to a blog post that claims to offer detailed data and analysis on "approximately 3,200 placement records since the year 2000." While (as subsequent commentary on my post revealed) there are obvious problems with the material outside North America and more subtle ones with the ones inside, the proposed approach can give an important perspective on recent hiring. The author is calling for the right sort of assistance: "if you believe my data is mistaken, please send me the appropriate and complete data for your school, so that I can update the data." Once the data have been improved one might be able to do some interesting comparison with past Philosophical Gourmet reports.
Because I was utterly unfamiliar with the author, Andrew Carson, I also expressed concern about his/her identity in my post. A friendly reader pointed to a linkedin page, and I contacted the person via email. Carson agreed to do a brief interview, which I have reprinted (and slightly edited) below. Obviously, this does not settle any concerns about the author and his methods, I now believe we are dealing with a good faith effort to help improve the profession. Obviously, how Carson deals with the new data that people sent him will be most illuminating. Here's the interview:
I am a real person. I received my MA in philosophy from Northern
Illinois University in 2012. I have since left academia and am working
in Data Science (hence my interest in the intersection of philosophy and
did the post because I like philosophy and I like data, and I figured I
could bring the two together. I know lots of friends recently in grad
school and they are all concerned about getting a job after they
graduate. I’ve also had friends get stuck in adjunct positions. I
wanted to let others thinking about graduate school know what they were
up against and to go into it with eyes wide open, especially since I
anything like this before. I hope to just get this info out there and
get people less focused on the Leiter rankings (I know people were
obsessed with those in applications).
The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond
our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we have any plans to do so."
But ethicists nonetheless attacked the proposed use of the technology, as well
as the decision by the US Patent and Trademark Office to approve it.
Writing in the Genetics in Medicine journal four scientists led by Dr Sigrid
Sterckx of the Bioethics Institute in Ghent, Belgium, said: "It is
clear that selecting children in ways such as those patented by 23andMe is
hugely ethically controversial."
[UPDATE: I have been unable to find any information on Andrew Carson, so I wonder if this is a real person or a pseudonym. I also hope that at one point the data will be released to interested parties, so we can check for accuracy; for all I know this is a hoax.--ES]
The numbers say....go to Yale, UMass, Amherst, or Northwestern! Andrew Carson (the person who crunched the numbers), explans the method here.
I haven't had a chance to look at his approach, so I will just report his bottom line:
If you are applying to graduate schools
in philosophy and are trying to decide which schools you want to apply
to or attend, and if you are concerned about your placement prospects
after graduation, you need to consider (1) how a school ranks in your
chosen specialty and (2) how well that school places students overall. You
cannot just rely on overall faculty rankings, for these bear no
relationship to how well a school places, although many will find these
rankings important for other reasons. What does appear to matter as far as placement is concerned is the school's ranking in your area of specialty. If it ranks well, then you have a much higher chance of getting a tenure track or permanent position in academic philosophy. And some schools just appear to have better placement rankings than others.
For example, both Northwestern University and University of
Massachusetts, Amherst are not ranked above a 3 in any category (except
Continental philosophy and Social and Political Philosophy,
respectively), but they have some of the best placement records.
Why is that? I wish I knew. That is a question worthy of further exploration...[Emphasis in original--ES.]
Reflect that nothing
except the soul is worthy of wonder; for the soul, if it be great, naught is
Over half a decade ago I invited Peter Sloterdijk to a
workshop; twenty-four days later, I inquired if the invite was received. I went
ahead and planned the workshop without him. Not long before the workshop I
heard from his 'assistent,' who was volunteered by Herr Prof. Dr. Sloterdijk to
take his place. I felt bad for the 'assistent,' who confessed to having lack of
time to prepare. I declined to put him on the program. But I did ask him to convey to Prof. Sloterdijk the thought
that "he needs to realize this is no way to treat a colleague who (for
example) may write his obituary one day."* (Not nice, admittedly, but it
captured my outrage.) Much to my surprise, Sloterdijk answered the following
week that there must have been a confusion because he had already written me a
letter to inform me of his absence. After a round of apologies, we left it at
By 'celebrity philosopher' I mean to convey a philosopher
whose name is familiar beyond her own academic milieu; possibly her ideas and
works are discussed not just in professional venues, but also in a wider
context. So, I am not talking about somebody who offers a 'philosophy' to
media-stars nor does a 'celebrity philosopher' have to possess mass fame. In
our day, my old teachers, Daniel Dennett and Martha Nussbaum are paradigmatic
celebrity philosophers. When I label somebody a ‘celebrity philosopher’ I do
not intend to convey a judgment of quality one way or another.
[I am grateful to
Vasso Kindi for accepting our invitation to contribute her reflections after The Guardian
reported that austerity measures pushed the University of Athens to suspend
Universities suffer from nepotism, political patronage, inertia, and structures
that breed favoritism and unaccountability. They are in desperate need of
reform independently of the current financial crisis. Moreover, most Greek graduates
were, until recently, channeled to the public sector where they were hired
merely by only showing their Universities degrees. This meant that, for a great
number of students, learning mattered less than obtaining the degree itself.
University of Athens (UoA) is currently shut down because there is a strike of
the administrative staff. They are protesting against plans, required by the
memorandum signed by the Greek government and its creditors, to reduce 12,500
employees of the public sector by the end of 2013. The universities, which are
all state-owned, will lose 1349 members of their administrative personnel and
the UoA 498 out of 1375. Those who are on strike have prohibited access to all
university buildings. We cannot have classes, exams, register new students. We
cannot even go to our offices.
There is a new edition of Toland's (1704) Letters to Serena, edited by Ian Laesk. It is the first modern, English language edition. (I have not read it yet.) In order to celebrate this great news, I want to point to one non-trivial, generally overlooked feature that helps to explain the enduring significance of Toland's Letters (for other features, recall here, here, here, and here).
The official aim of the fourth (out of five) of Toland’s
rhetorically complex Letters
is to show that Spinoza’s “system is without foundation.” While there may be “incidental truths” to be
found in Spinoza’s system, it is “false” (Letter 4.4, p. 135 [I quote by letter, paragraph, and page-number). In particular,
throughout the fourth letter, Toland echoes Henry More’s criticisms of Spinoza[or so I claim]
and argues that Spinoza’s account of motion and its relationship to matter is
confused. Toland claims this criticism sets up his own positive
argument, to be offered in the fifth letter that matter is “necessarily active
as well as extended.” (Letter 4.17, 161; repeated in Letter 5.1, 164). In
particular, he praises those mathematicians, which
“compute the quantities and
proportions of motion, as they observe bodies to act on one another , without
troubling themselves about the physical reasons of what every person allows,
being a thing which does not always concern them, and which they leave to the
philosophers to explain.” (Letter 5.9, 177).
To this claim Toland attaches without
comment a quote in Latin from the scholium to proposition XI of Newton’s Principia. An innocent reader could not avoid thinking
that Newton endorses Toland’s stance.
He may say with Parmenides, who, upon reading a philosophical discourse before a public assembly at Athens, and observing, that, except Plato, the whole company had left him, continued, notwithstanding, to read on, and said that Plato alone was audience enough for him.--Adam Smith
The English Bill of Rights (1689) expressly forbids ""cruel and unusual" punishment, and this found its way into the U.S. Constitution. One important, enduring argument against such punishment -- and many other forms of cruelty that may not, in fact, constitute 'punishment' -- can be found in Seneca's Letter 7: viewing and otherwise participating in the degradation and cruelty of others, even in the context of justified punishment [ille meruit ut hoc pateretur], can harm not just the victims or punished, but perpetrators and spectators alike. This is especially so if the cruelty produces pleasure as it is likely to do at public spectacles [spectaculo]* because then this pleasure makes our soul receptive; a desire for more cruelty creeps up on us [per voluptatem facilius vitia subrepunt].
Seneca's particular target is the institution of aestheticized, public spectacles of cruelty and inhumanity [crudelior et inhumanior].** He emphasizes the significance of audience participation [spectatoribus suis obiciuntur]. He reorients and subtly transforms Plato's arguments for censorship of the arts to focus on the more pernicious institutions that indirectly teach people to celebrate cruelty. Seneca's argument applies to a lot of issues that we are not likely to consider primarily in terms of political speech: mass sporting events; war coverage; disaster tourism, and any form of entertainment that rely on the pleasures derived from exposure to the suffering of others. (This is not to deny that the targets of Seneca's argument can overlap with Plato's, and that his argument is indebted to Plato's moral psychology.)
"What Tarquin the Proud said in his garden with the poppy blooms was
understood by the son but not by the messenger.--Hamann,"--Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard.
"If wisdom were give me under the express condition that it must be
kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is
pleasant to possess, without friends to share it."--Seneca (Letter 6).
Can philosophical writing legitimately call attention to its own limitations? By 'limitation' I do not merely mean (a) the ways in which it its possible philosophical aims are constrained by or even unattainable due to the written form, but also (b) the ways in which it might fall short of other philosophical activities. (Let's leave aside the ways in which it falls short of non-philosophical activities.) For, while (a) can be viewed as a species of self-awareness or truth in advertising, when (b) is true, we might wonder why one is writing at all and not just engaging in those other activities (which by stipulation are better at whatever one is trying to achieve)--at its extreme, then, there might be circumstances where persisting in philosophical writing, however much required (say) for one's sanity, might be an instance of ἀκρασία.
In an otherwise effusive letter (six), Seneca explicitly calls attention to the limitations of his writing when it comes to pursuit of wisdom [sapientia]. At first it seems (echoing Plato's Phaedrus 275a) that he is primarily interested in claiming that "the living voice [viva vox] and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than
the written word."[Plus tamen tibi et viva vox et convictus quam oratio proderit.] We might think we're in Derrida's territory. But not all speech is created equally; in context, Seneca rejects learning by attending lectures or even philosophical dialogue. What really facilitates philosophical learning is observing exemplary behavior that can be copied [breve et efficax per exempla]. It's not clear this primarily involves speech at all. Rather, it requires living together with a proper model. Seneca advocates this residential-college approach by comparing it favorably to his own way of teaching, which (among other things) in each letter involves, (i) assigning (authoritative) maxims to be memorized (recall, and here, here) [deinde quia longum iter est per praecepta], and (ii) assigning selected admired texts. In fact, Seneca insists that what, say, Socrates said was far less relevant than his practices (or norms) [plus ex moribus quam ex verbis Socratis traxit] to Plato and Aristotle.*
Itis the profession of philosophers to question platitudes that others accept without thinking twice. A dangerous profession, since philosophers are more easily
discredited than platitudes, but a useful one.--David Lewis, Convention.
Of course, as philosophers, our commitment to challenging and
questioning norms is real, and important. Far be it from me to claim
that we’d be better off if we all had to be more conventional or
couldn’t play around with taboos. Doing so is essential to both the
philosophical method and the high quality of life we enjoy as
Recently, Rebeca Kukla published an insightful post at Leiter on the significance of the norm of social-norm violation among philosophers, including the one that encourages avoiding the appearance of concern with looks and dress. She argues that the benefits (i.e., "high quality of life") of the norm
of social norm violation are unevenly distributed within philosophy. Her cogent argument against the norm turns on "the cost of the most vulnerable members of the profession." While Kukla does not spell it out entirely, it seems she thinks that if we adjust the internal-to-philosophy norms we could distribute the current benefits to philosophizing more widely within philosophy without "undermining our commitment to challenging and
questioning norms." She, thus, views philosophy as a moral or at least professional community.
Seneca, too, is concerned with the norm of social norm violation and warns against "repellent atire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard..." (Letter 5.) Seneca rejects the excesses now associated with the Cynics, but apparently commonly thought to be the 'philosopher's way' (even if "discretely pursued"). Anticipating Mandeville and Veblen, Seneca treats these instances of social norm-violation as expressing the desire to be conspicuous [conspici]. The "self-display" associated with self-punishing [poenam] norms (or what Hume would label 'monkish virtues') comes at the expense of making a contribution to society [proficere].
One annoying feature of re-reading other people's scholarship, is the possibility of discovering that one's treasured ideas may well be anticipated by others. Memory and self-deception can be funny like that. So, it's probably not uncommon that folk really fail to attribute to others what is due to them without realizing they are in the wrong. Even when the mistakes are honest, they still involve injustices, and these may be quite large given that they may, say, reinforce gender related unfairness, too. Such injustices are not easy to excuse or forgive when one feels that one's work or presence has been silenced or unfairly ignored. Even so, we try to cope with this kind of injustice. Yet, faking data or copying (and pasting) texts without attribution is legitimately an unpardonable sin in the Academy, especially if it is part of a pattern of such (plagiarism/faking) cases. One might be willing to give a student a second chance, but recoil from letting a confirmed fraudulent senior scholar back into the fold. Paradoxically many of us treat such cases as worse sin than many crimes on the 'outside.' (Coetzee's Disgrace reflects on this.)
It is, thus, understandable that the good folk at Retractionwatch react with dismay that prominent scholars, including philosophy's very own Philip Pettit, are willing to endorse Marc Hauser's forthcoming book, Evilicious. What really rankles Retractionwatch is that Hauser has not owned up to his record of misconduct and "only acknowledged “mistakes.”" (As they write: "But we do prefer when those given a second chance acknowledge that they
did something wrong. That might start with noting a retraction, instead
of continuing to list the retracted paperamong your publications.")
Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications (BBRC), a journal that proudly lists that it is "the fastest submission-to-print journal! Number 1 journal in the Thomson's JCR ranking for Biophysics in terms of Total Cites, Number of Articles and Eigen Factor ™ score." It is a "5-Year Impact Factor: 2.500." Apparently, sometimes speed does not pay because the journal has been victim of a spectacular hoax (recall). Naturereports:
Oddly enough, so far there is no evidence that the hoax was perpetrated to expose the vulnerability of scientific refereeing practices. In fact, Nature quotes a scientists (the one who alerted the editors to the hoax), who "believes that the paper was intended to hurt him and his lab."
But then this "as if" proposition raises the question, psychoanalytically speaking, of latent content...He ends up rather where some began, resting the notion of analyticity on the notion of possible worlds. His contentment with this disposition of the analyticity problem makes one wonder, after all, how it could have been much of a motive for his study of convention.--Quine, "Foreword" to David Lewis Convention.
A few weeks ago I posted about boy-wonders. (Recall I tried to give it a fairly precise characterization.) While various institutional features of the phenomenon were discussed in my post and subequent discussion, the psycho-dynamic dimension was largely ignored. (Part of me suspects that's because these days it is thought very bad form to explain behavior with even a mere allusion to Freud among Anglophone philosophers.) But as it happens I was mulling Quine's curious foreword (partially quoted above) on the same day as I read the following unrelated book-review:
The relation between a literary father and a literary heir is always one of mutual idealization. Similar cross-idealizations of éminence terrible and enfant gris
occur in other fields and in both sexes. The most common variety seems
to be prompted by a young person’s wish to find a mentor, a word that
points directly to the fantasy behind the wish. In the Odyssey,
the Ithacan elder Mentor is not a mentor at all; the protective guide
who takes Telemakhos in hand is Athena disguised as Mentor, a divinity
filling a role that no ordinary mortal could manage.
Not all celebrated writers attract idealizing literary children.
Those who do seem to have an unusually sharp divide between their public
image and their private self...
What the literary father seems to find in an
ideal son is an image of his younger self as it might have been without
its weakness and doubt....What the literary son seems to
find in an ideal father is an image of what he might become if he could
overturn the barriers left inside him by his real father. Each hopes to
find in the other a relief from anxiety that no idealizing fantasy can
give.---Edward Mendelson, The New York Review of Books (reviewing Greg Bellow's Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir. [Sadly no mention of Fenelon (neither does English Wikipedia entry on mentor, although the Dutch version does--ES.)]
Cuiuscumque humanae mentis ideae aliae adaequatae
sunt, aliae autem mutilatae et confusae.--Spinoza, Ethica 3p1dem
Last week I had the good fortune to examine a PhD dissertation, "Lutheran Astronomers after the Fall (1540-1590): A reappraisal of the Renaissance dynamic of religion and astronomy," by the Ghent historian of science, Nienke Roelants (now: Dr. Nienke Roelants). One thing (among many) that I learned is that Luther and Melanchthon promoted an epistemology that includes a doctrine that has something like these five components: (i) in our Post-Lapsarian state, we need (ii) a mental emendation, that
(iii) makes exact/clear (iv) the (innate) confused idea [of God] we already posses; (v) this emendation is rarely complete in an ordinary life. Part of the process of such emendation is (a) by way of the rigorous (mathematical) study of nature, and (b) by copying the right sort of exemplars.
Descartes' version of the doctrine of innate ideas is that these are always clear and distinct in us. (Is that so? Descartes scholars should feel free to correct me.) So, that once one learns to recognize what is already in one's mind by way of the study of geometry, one has access to clear and distinct ideas. (He attributes a version of this to Plato's Meno in a letter, I think, to Voetius.)
In my piece over at Inside Higher Ed, I argued that the
Figlio, et al working paper recently published by the NBER “does a great deal
to sow confusion" regarding the fact that the pedagogically effective NTT
cohort studied were not badly paid, part-time, semester-to semester 'adjuncts.'
One key effect of this
confusion is to obscure how the study, when its results are fully published,
will likely contribute further evidence for a positive correlation of faculty pay and working conditions to a range of student outcomes.
Lest we doubt the
effectiveness of confusing this issue, consider this piece by Cedar Riener that apeared today
on The Atlantic's website. Misconstruing the Northwestern study as showing that adjuncts are
better teachers than tenure-line faculty, the author argues that we should stop
studying “university salaries or labor practices” or trying to argue that pay
correlates to performance. Rather, he claims, we need to make a purely moral
argument for paying adjunct faculty better.
In other words, Riener is asking us to throw out some of the strongest arguments we have for
de-adjunctification in favor of one that is unlikely to move any administrator
or policy maker—let alone to advance the cause of college faculty of any
description in the larger political arena.
Apparently, the Provost of Providence College, Hugh F. Lena. Lena canceled a scheduled speaking engagement by Corvino. The Chroniclereports:
[Lena] cited a statement issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004 called “Catholics in Political Life,”
which says that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act
in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” He also said that
college policy “dictates that both sides of a controversial issue are to
be presented fairly and equally.”
Mr. Corvino, in a response on his Web site
to the cancellation, suggested that the 2004 document that Mr. Lena
cited was inappropriate in this situation. “I am an academic speaker,”
not a politician, he wrote. “Both the person introducing me and I would
state clearly that my views were not those of the Catholic Church;
moreover, a respondent from the Providence College theology department,
Dr. Dana Dillon, would follow immediately to explain the church’s
position on marriage. Far from suggesting ‘support’ for my views, the
college would have ample opportunity to express precisely the opposite.”
Shame on Providence College!
Corvino responded in conciliatory fashion: “Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s new leader, has been justly
celebrated for his welcoming tone toward gays and lesbians,” he wrote.
“Notwithstanding my abrupt dis-invitation, I remain hopeful that
Providence College may soon better reflect that tone.”