We continue awaiting the decision of a grand jury on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, exactly 15 weeks ago today on a suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri. News reporters from across the globe have been camped out in Ferguson for months, their expectation of an announcement teased and disappointed several times in the last week alone. On Monday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in advance of the grand jury's decision. Yesterday, President Barack Obama, in what can only be judged to be an anticipation of Wilson's non-indictment, preemptively urged protesters not to use Ferguson as an "excuse for violence." In the meantime, demonstrators of various ilk remain on standby, rallying their troops, refining their organizational strategies, painting their oppositional signs, standing vigilantly at the ready for whatever may come.
But what are we waiting for, really, as we wait for Ferguson?
As someone who has spent the better part of her career researching, analyzing and teaching not only about the structure and nature of oppressive power regimes, but also better and worse ways to resist or transform such regimes, I've nevertheless been unable to settle in my own mind, to my own satisfaction, my position with regard to the moral or political value of revolutionary violence. I can say that my core moral intuitions (for whatever those are worth) definitely incline me toward favoring nonviolence as a principled ethical commitment... though, over the years, I have found those intuitive inclinations fading in both intensity and persuasiveness. As a philosopher, a citizen and a moral agent, I continue to be deeply unsettled by my own ambivalence on this matter.
First, a preliminary autobiographical anecdote: I spent a year between undergraduate and gradate school in the nonprofit sector, as the Director of the M.K.Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. (That was back in 2000, when the Gandhi Institute was still housed at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, which is now my academic home, evidencing the kind of bizarro turn-of-fate that can only be credited to some particularly clever-- or ironically humorous-- supernatural bureaucrat.) I went to the Gandhi Institute initially because nonviolence was an all-but-unquestioned moral virtue for me at the time. But, after a few years in graduate school and consistently since, the many and varied until-then-unposed questions about the moral or political legitimacy of violence pressed their way to the fore of my mind. In roughly chronological order, I'd say that the combination of (1) my first real engagement with Frantz Fanon's argument in "Concerning Violence" (from his Wretched of the Earth), the arguments by Marx (and Marxists) in various texts advocating more or less violent revolution, and Noam Chomsky's considerations of the same, (2) my extensive research into human rights violations, transitional justice and transitional democracies, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and critical race theory, which collectively constituted the subject of my dissertation, (3) the radically dramatic shift in what counts as properly-speaking "political" and/or "revolutionary" violence in the post-9/11 world and (4) my own experiences, from near and afar, with the increasing number of (threatened, proto-, aborted, defeated and/or more-or-less successful) revolutions taking place in my adult lifetime (e.g., OWS, the Arab Spring and, much closer to home and far less violent, the current and ongoing academic revolution surrounding the Salaita case), all worked together to contribute to my rethinking the merits and demerits of violence as a way of resisting/combatting/correcting oppressive, exclusionary or otherwise unjust power regimes.
There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm. Case in point: Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance. I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether. I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation." Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.
James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis."
I have nothing particularly interesting to say on the topic, but this account of recent science on the migration of people to the Americas is fascinating. What is most cool is the way that three distinct scientific routes - genetics, archeology, and linguistics - are converging on an account.
I'm thinking (again) about beeping people during aesthetic experiences. The idea is this. Someone is reading a story, or watching a play, or listening to music. She has been told in advance that a beep will sound at some unexpected time, and when the beep sounds, she is to immediately stop attending to the book, play, or whatever, and note what was in her stream of experience at the last undisturbed moment before the beep, as best she can tell. (See Hurlburt 2011 for extensive discussion of such "experience sampling" methods.)
[E]veryone who works as a mathematical philosopher [a] knows some papers in which the respective authors hide behind the symbols—where mathematical clothing is meant to conceal lack of philosophical content. Or [b] where mathematics does not do much other than complicate some states of affairs that could, and should, have been described in more elementary terms. Or [c] where a mathematical method is applied blindly without any awareness of its potential limitations. In other words: just like all other tools, mathematical methods can be abused. But clearly that should not stop us from putting them to good use in philosophy. (Leitgeb, "SCIENTIFIC PHILOSOPHY, MATHEMATICAL PHILOSOPHY, AND ALL THAT" 274-5) [a-c, added to facilitate discussion.--ES]
The forthright paragraph above is the main one devoted to substantiating one of the aims announced in the abstract of Leitgeb's (2013) nine-page manifesto, that is: "it aims to undermine some worries about mathematical philosophy."* Clearly, Leitgeb's "clearly" skips over an argument and a lot of potential concerns. For, the potential abuses of mathematical methods developed, explored, and taught in philosophical circles are not exhausted by [a-c]. (To be clear: elsewhere in his piece, Leitgeb addresses other concerns about the use of mathematical methods in philosophy -- including a very interesting engagement with Kantian concerns -- , but these do not concern me here.) Moreover, without evaluating the significance or costs/benefits of the unmentioned potential abuses, it is unclear how clear Leitgeb's "clearly" really is. (Note, too, that even if one were to grant that mathematical methods primarily have good uses inside philosophy (and we ignore concerns over non-philosophical abuses/applications), it still might be the case that they displace better methods within philosophy, or are oversold. I leave this aside.) First a brief historical detour.
Formal philosophy has a long-standing relationship with the war-making machinery of the modern state. During the cold-war the main conduit for this activity was the Rand Corporation, when it was primarily funded by, first, the Douglas aircraft corporation and then the U.S. department of defense (I think it still is); many of the most celebrated formal philosophers (and economists, artificial intelligence, operations researchers, cybernetics etc.) passed through Rand at point or another. (This started, I think, with Olaf Helmer -- a student of Reichenbach [later also prominently involved at Rand] and a member of the original die Berliner Gruppe.) Even today, if you scan the CVs of senior figures in the field you will find stints as visiting reseacher, fellow, (etc) at Rand. Undoubtedly, in addition to a nice pay-check and a wonderful research environment, for many it must have seem a noble calling in the fight against Totalitarianism. For some it meant working on topics related to improving education, linguistics, data-storage and other potentially beneficial civilian enterprises. To the best of my knowledge, Daniel Ellsberg (the great decision-theorist and leaker of the Pentagon papers) was the first of the Rand-funded insiders to question publicly this cozy nexus during the Vietnam war.
Some of this history has been told (by Amadae, Mirowksi, and more focused on philosophy, George Reisch, who is also philosophically sophisticated), but the full story of scientific philosophy's entanglement with the military-industrial complex has not been explored either from within formal philosophy or without. (I would love to learn otherwise.) This is not to deny -- on the contrary -- that there have not been conscientious and heroic formal philosophers who have individually distanced themselves from such funding. I was raised philosophically on inspiring, even heroic accounts about Carnap's pacificism and resistance to loyalty oaths, and about Malament's stance during the Vietnam War. (I would love to learn more!) Clearly, there is nothing within formal approaches that prevents a politically self-aware stance; in fact, I am very impressed by the ongoing, political role of some formal philosophers in their attempts to warn about and limit the reach of the surveillance state.
One of the saddest and scariest things about human beings is how we can work so damned hard for year after year and then derive so little satisfaction when things actually come to fruition. I don't know how ubiquitous this is, but it is somewhat pronounced both in academia and the music world, two fields that typically require a nauseating amount of effort for years on end just to make a bare living.
Consider music. There's an overwhelmingly affecting point in the recent Ramones documentary where the original bassist and songwriter (who later died of a heroin overdose) is reflecting on his bulimia and massive intake of anti-anxiety medication; he says something to the effect of "All my dreams came true. Why can't I be happy?" This isn't just rock music either. There is a small literature suggesting that successful orchestra musicians (with a job market very similar to academia) have pretty low job satisfaction when compared to other fields.
In academia I've noticed in particular two kinds of virulently unhappy successful people. The first is the person who just got tenure and all of the sudden faces an overwhelming existential crises, analogous to when deep sea divers come up too fast and their bodies can't handle the depressurization. That is, at every point prior to tenure, from gradeschool through being an Assistant Professor, there is ususally a ton of outside pressure to do specific tasks to get to the next point. And some people who thrive when being told what to do find it horrifying to be any other way.
This is a weird thing, because the pressure of going through tenure review is itself so harsh. I know plenty of people who actually went on prescription happy pills for the first time in their life during tenure review, only to get off them after the tenure was resolved and move on unscathed. But two people I cherish did just fine during the tenure review only to completely fall apart afterwards. One was institutionalized and is no longer an academic and the other is dead.
Brian Leiter comments
in typical acerbic style on an excerpt in the Guardian from Daniel Dennett’s latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for
Thinking, titled “Daniel Dennett’s Seven Tools for Thinking:” “A curious list; not clear Dennett has always
honored all of them!”
What Leiter doesn’t notice, though, is that Dennett violates one of his
principles in explaining another! Dennett's last tool is “beware of deepities.” He
explains a deepity as
“a proposition that seems both
important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being
ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be
earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial.
The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and
the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a
Dennett then offers two
examples. The first is the claim that “love is just a word.” The second, he
says, is not “quite so easily analyzed:” “Richard Dawkins recently alerted me
to a fine deepity by Rowan Williams, the then archbishop of Canterbury, who
described his faith as ‘a silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and
breathing in the presence of the question mark’.” Dennett concludes “I leave
the analysis of this as an exercise for you.”
Undoubtedly, there are still blessed people that come out of graduate school and find a job on the strength of letters of recommendation and a forthcoming paper in The Philosophical Review. Maybe some perfectionists can still attain tenure in a decent place by publishing a beautifully crafted piece every other year (I doubt it). So, for the rest of the young people looking to be hired in places where some research is taken seriously, here's an important bit of unsolicited advice:
critical to have multiple pieces under review at a time, and to be
constantly writing while pieces are under review (so that as pieces
become accepted, you have more to send out). I also think there's a
skill to develop here, because it requires working on more than one
project at a time."--Rachel McKinnon (offered in response to this post.)
Before "Larry Summers" became synonymous with expert for hire by Wall Street, he was the Harvard President, who suggested, while claiming that he wished to "provoke," that "there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude," that might explain the relatively low presence of women "in high-end scientific professions." Summers insisted that his is an "entirely positive" not "normative approach." (Summer 2005; he is deploying a standard distinction among economists.) The lecture set off a furore that contributed to his eventual resignation from Harvard (it surely did not help he was in charge of a nearly US$ 1 Billion loss on speculative investments). But...before his notoriety Summers was one of those economists that effortlessly move between academia and government (while generally serving the interests of the wealthy). Such folk become prominent within public policy economics through highly regarded academic work, which won Summers the John Bates Clark Medal (1993) and which partially accounted for his selection as Chief economist at The World Bank (1991-3). As the politically influential, but nevertheless academic Vice-President of the World Bank, Summers was invited to Pakistan to give The Quaid-i-Azam Lecture in 1992, "Investing in All the People," to the Pakistan Society of Development Economists. The main point of Summers' lecture, which has been cited close to 300 times and is easily found on the internet, is:
Investing in the education of girls may well be the highest return
investment available in the developing world. As such, increasing the
level of female education is an especially high priority in Pakistan.
So, before Summers became synonymous with sexism in academia he was an advocate of underprivileged women's education. (A topic Summers continues to talk about.) The paper was admiringly profiled in Business Week, and created the meme of Summers as "iconoclastic Liberal." For those that like their irony fully symmetric, I note that the 1992 magazine article treats Summers as an academic "provocateur." Summers' Pakistani hosts asked a mathematical economist hailing from Waziristan, MA Khan (then as now at Johns Hopkins), to offer comments (see here). Rather than dazzle his famous American colleague and "the Pakistani Minister of Defence and Minister of Water and Power" (quoted from Richard H. Sabot's response to Summers) with state of the art mathematical technique, Khan quotes Derrida and Clifford Geertz in the process of calling Summers "reckless."
Here is an excellent interview with Jesse Prinz (H/T Markus Schlosser) on the
themes of his new book, Beyond Human
Nature (which I still haven’t gotten around to reading). The main idea of the book is
that experience and culture, as opposed to genetic and biology, play a much larger
role in determining our behavior than is often thought. Some excerpts:
“If we are interested in differences in intelligence, the
thing we should be interested in is learning and culture.”
“Brazilians are super-nice.”
I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything that
Prinz says in the interview (including the bit about Brazilians…), which is not
so surprising, given that, like him, I am very much of a ‘nurture-culture’
person on the nature-nurture dimension. (A bit of self-promotion: here is a recent paper of mine, "A dialogical account of deductive reasoning as a case study for how culture shapes cognition", forthcoming in the Journal of Cognition and Culture.) But more importantly, to my mind he
manages to set up the debate in a very subtle and informative way, so I very
much recommend the interview to anyone interested in this debate. (Btw, I’ve posted
on my enthusiasm for his work before.)
Let's stipulate an expansive notion of 'technology' such that (a) linguistic, mathematical, and logical
developments also count as 'technology' and, thus, (b) a lot of philosophical
breakthroughs are preceded by technological ruptures. (Sometimes they redefine philosophy so much that we do not recognize the successor disciplines as "philosophy.") If so, is the web transforming or about to transform philosophical praxis? I use "praxis" to distinguish this question from the one about to what degree professional philosophy is being transformed by the web.
Let me first say what I do not mean with this question. The web *is* transforming philosophical scholarship by facilitating amazing storage & information retrieval (etc.) capacities. I used to spend huge amount of time in libraries (to look at old books and and to scan journals)--now I am genuinely surprised when I enter a library. There are regular on-line/skype seminars on papers, books, topics, etc. The web brings together distributed audiences previously unknown to each other. Blogs have created dedicated intellectual communities, and spawned philosophical movements and catapulted some echo-chambers to professional prominence. (We are probably living in a new golden age of philosophical correspondence--I bet Leibniz would have adored email.) Citation practices are
being influenced by blog communities, phil papers, and google.scholar., etc. All of this is swell, but it does not challenge what we mean by "philosophy." (So here I am also ignoring all the exciting ways the web changes how we teach philosophy, and maybe I shouldn't.)
(OK, so it looks
like I’m over-posting a bit today… Just one more!)
Between today and
tomorrow, the workshop ‘Groundedness in Semantics and Beyond’ is taking place
at MCMP in Munich, co-organized with the the ERC project Plurals,
Predicates, and Paradox led by Øystein
Linnebo. The workshop’s program seems excellent across the board, but the
opening talk is what really caught my attention: Patrick Suppes on ‘A
neuroscience perspective on the foundations of mathematics’. The abstract:
I mainly ask and partially answer three questions. First,
what is a number? Second, how does the brain process numbers? Third, what are
the brain processes by which mathematicians discover new theorems about
numbers? Of course, these three questions generalize immediately to mathematical
objects and processes of a more general nature. Typical examples are abstract
groups, high dimensional spaces or probability structures. But my emphasis is
not on these mathematical structures as such, but how we think about them. For the grounding of mathematics, I argue
that understanding how we think about mathematics and discover new results is
as important as foundations of mathematics in the traditional sense.
A few days ago, Berit posted on the virtue of philosophers collaborating with psychologists. I've thought a bit about collaboration over the last 5-10 years, and I want to suggest some reasons why I think it is far more important than is generally recognized.
We have witnessed a growing interest in experimental philosophy in recent years. The
field that has commonly been referred to as "experimental philosophy"
has so far been taken to include empirical tests of intuitions
concerning philosophical concepts, such as knowledge and intentional
action. There are lots of other areas of philosophy that rely on
empirical data and even studies and experiments. Several years ago, it
became slightly uncool to do philosophy of language in complete
isolation from the empirical findings in linguistics. Many philosophers of
language decided to conduct their own tests of certain word groups or
word constructions. There are also several folks working in philosophy
of mind who take empirical data in neuroscience and psychology seriously. Some of us
also conduct our own studies in these areas.