Aside from the nauseating mythological reminiscences of the Kennedy presidency, news today is dominated by discussion of the US Senate's decision to eliminate the possibility of filibuster for certain nomination votes. All manner of dire consequence has been suggested on both sides of this procedural issue. (Has there ever been a more hyperbolic characterization of anything than calling this change in voting procedures a "nuclear option"?) It seems to me that there is a deeper issue here that points to a rather depressingly misguided focus of intellectual thought on collective rationality, one that cuts across a wide variety of disciplines.
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.
I want to offer a reading of the classic film Casablanca through the lens of a conception of love developed in bell hooks's All About Love. In that series of essays, hooks picks up on ideas of M. Scott Peck's in The Road Less Traveled. Peck, whether explicitly or not - I haven't read that book - is developing Aristotelian notions. Leaving that aside, and taking a few liberties with what hooks has to say, the concept of love that I want to make use of here is roughly this: a mutual social-psychological orientation between a group of people through which they systematically contribute to each other's spiritual growth. (Here 'spiritual' can be given a more directly Aristotelian reading in terms of virtue, or others. These differences do not matter for present purposes.)
A few quick points: this is meant in the sense of concept crafting. That is, the claim is not that this notion captures the (all, even some) commonsense usage of 'love' but that it is a useful concept for cutting some aspects of moral-social-psychological reality at the joints. Note as well that this notion of love is not at all essentially tied to romantic love. It applies as well to friendship, parenting, political comreades, members of a close social group, etc. Importantly, this sense of love is not equated with affect or emotion, though some sorts of emotional engagement may be necessary. It is essentially measured by effect. Love is a relationship that leads to mutual growth, reinforced by the relationships that nurture it. Finally, note the emphasis on mutuality - which is not to say symmetry. A loving relationship is one in which each nurtures the growth of the others. There may be healthy relationships that nurture growth in one direction, but that is something different, and something that is very likely to quickly become unhealthy.
Consider the typical way we grade students in a course. We give a number of assignments. We grade each. Then we average those grades to get a course grade. That course grade is then taken by various outside agents - employers, grad schools, etc. - to be a measure of accomplishment. But there is one very obvious irrationality in this system. Consider two students: student 1 has had the benefit of excellent prior training at, say, a top private HS. 2 has gone to much weaker schools. Maybe 1 has already had some philosophy and certainly has good training in writing papers. 2 does not. Thus, on the first assignment, 1 ends up with a much better grade than 2 because the paper is just plain better. Over the course of the term, however, 2 improves at a vastly higher rate and by the end of the term they are doing work at the same level. Even those professors who include "improvement" as a factor in the final grade are likely to give 1 a higher grade than 2. (Let's assume that 1 does better on all assignments up to the final one, but stipulate that one's assessment at the end of the course is that they are now producing work of equal quality.)
Following on Eric's post about the Nobel in economics, a brief comment on the latest Peace Prize. A number of recent prizes have been truly bizarre - given to Obama in 2009 for, I guess, getting elected and not being Bush; to the EU in 2012 for, I guess, not totally dissolving, and now to the UNs Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for, I guess, being pressed into service in Syria where they might, at some future date, possibly do something useful as that country dissolves into chaos and mass death. But as an award to the person (well, nevermind) who "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses" color me skeptical. In particular, it is worth remembering the role this body was assigned by the UN in the leadup to the criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In a recent post I introduced a distinction between two types of pragmatic functions corresponding to two
directions of fit with social norms. An invocative function was one whereby a
properly performed speech act contributed to the institution of a social norm -
say, giving a warranted order - and a reflective function - that asserts the
(prior) existence of norm. Here, I first mention two other independent
dimensions of variation and develop a single example that has been on my mind
It is familiar to categorize speech acts according to "direction of fit". Normal empirical assertions have word to (fit) world direction of fit, in that what you say is correct or incorrect insofar as the world is as you say. If the world isn't, then you are wrong. On the other hand, a claim like "it ought to be the case that P" has world to (fit) word direction of fit. If the world isn't as described - P is false - then the purport of the sentence is that the world is wrong.
In this note, I suggest an emendation of this schematic framework that I think is fruitful for understanding the complex function of a wide range of speech act types.
Post WWII, Hanah Arendt made a valiant effort to turn moral and political attention to the ways that unexceptional individuals performing actions that, when looked at locally, were unexceptional yet contributed to exceptionally evil systems. Sadly, current attitudes across the professions, literature, the press, and philosophical ethics suggest that her efforts were a failure. And that is, in my view, a bad thing. The overwhelming majority of the violence in the world today is what Galtung has labeled "structural violence" - roughly, the point is that far greater harm is done to people as the result of complex social forces than by individual actors. And in my view it is a scandal of philosophy that this is not a central issue in applied moral and political philosophy. (Of course there are philosophers who address such things. But I doubt that anyone could claim that such work is generally treated as central to philosophy.)
Suppose that you want to defend someone or some institution from criticism that it has engaged in unacceptable behavior of type t. Here's a common rhetorical strategy understood by all professional pundits: First, you define some spectrum, relevant to t. Then you find a way to identify demons at the right and left-hand ends of that spectrum that will allow you to place your hero in the rational middle. It helps if one of the demons can be associated - even if unfairly - with actual people, preferably people that are already demonized by your likely readers. Balancing that first demon needn't actually be real people. Rather, you can use some vague phrase that suggests demonizable extremism. Such non-referential vaguery is useful because it allows you to suggest to readers that real critics fit this extreme, without having to actually defend claims about what they really say. Next you assume the middle, with high fanfare and moral certainty. Finally, you rhetorically assimilate your spectrum to three discrete points: point occupied by you and your hero; the crazies on one end, and all critics on the other.
Voila: Hero defended without having to actually address any of the substantive criticisms. No one who is a crazy spectrum-ending demon needs to be engaged with seriously.
Julian Young has now forthrightly corrected passages from his biography Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2010), discussed here a while ago. In two pages of Errata inserted in unsold copies of the book, he writes:
The author wishes to correct an oversight on his part in omitting to provide appropriate acknowledgement of
material reproduced from, and references made to, the late Curtis Cate’s biography, Friedrich Nietzsche (London:
He writes (in correspondence):
I went through my biography with a fine tooth comb and identified every occasion there was a phrase that overlapped with the earlier biography, changed the phrase, and inserted a footnote to the earlier biography. The foreign translators were informed of this.
Kim sympathizes with his frustrated colleagues, but suggests a
different reason for the rancor. “It really is painful to read other
people’s work,” he says. “That’s all it is… All of us are just too lazy
to read them.” Kim is also quick to defend his friend. He says Mochizuki’s reticence
is due to being a “slightly shy character” as well as his assiduous
work ethic. “He’s a very hard working guy and he just doesn’t want to
spend time on airplanes and hotels and so on.” O’Neil, however, holds Mochizuki accountable, saying that his refusal to cooperate places an unfair burden on his colleagues. “You don’t get to say you’ve proved something if you haven’t
explained it,” she says. “A proof is a social construct. If the
community doesn’t understand it, you haven’t done your job.”--Has the ABC Conjecture been solved? [HT: Clerk Shaw on Facebook]
This piece is a nice inside perspective on the 'political economy' and social epistemology of mathematical proof.
Various sorts of attacks on academia have been a theme at Newapps since the beginning: Increasing corporatization of the university, growth of administration, take-over of administration by non-academics, funding cuts, increasing student debt, uses of MOOCS that are contrary to goals of education, increasing use and abuse of adjuncts, hyper-emphasis on "evaluation", anti-intellectualism, federal attacks on academic freedom and research independence, legal attacks on faculty and graduate student organizing, and here's a new one - "outsourcing" grading to Bangalore (coming in a pilot project from a director of business law and ethics studies, as probably was just inevitable.)
Anyway, I've been saying for some time that I'd start a thread in which we might think collectively about what can be done. Should we work within existing organizations like AAUP and APA, or give them up as hopeless? Should we take an activist/organizing approach or focus on legislation and lobbying? Should unionization be a focus - whether legally or not? Creative new ideas would be most welcome.
An annoyingly inaccurate, but touching obituary in the Washington Post. Not only did he solve one of the grand conjectures - and one of the easiest to explain to non-mathematicians - but he launched a subliterature in epistemology, by providing the classic case of indirect evidence of the existence of a proof.
The eloquent and well argued letter is here. I do not think they are being alarmist in their diagnosis of the ultimate function of this and other attacks on the traditional university. (Let's keep discussion here to the open letter and the function of MOOCs specifically. I'm going to start another thread today for discussion of things that we might organize publicly to resist these trends.)
Here is a truly appalling story concerning the rise of corporatism in America. The general issue I want to raise is this: most of those who defend capitalism in the sense that includes allowing for private ownership of the means of production, wage labor, and massive wealth disparities as a result, typically claim that genuine capitalism must be distinguished from "crony-capitalism" and that we cannot allow the government to become an organ for the support of the most economically powerful. But I've simply never understood how this was supposed to work. The whole theory of the beast presupposes that people are self-interested maximizers. Does that not apply to those in government? And if it does, then how exactly do we prevent their corruption? Is there some magical way to take the possibility of graft in all its myriad forms from bending government to the will of those with the most money? In short, if the watchdogs of the level playingfield are just people like us, growing up in a system that encourages self-interest and greed, why would one think there was any hope of stopping the slide from capitalism to corporatism.
Anyway, even if you don't share my concerns about the general issue, I trust that this story is revolting enough to be worth a post on its own.
There seems to be a strong societal push for "metrics" which means, as best as I can tell, limiting our reasons to ones that can be uncontroversially translated into something numerical, ignoring other facotrs, and then drawing conclusions. OK. That is probably a caricature, but I suspect not much.
In any event, here, by GS, is another metric-driven ranking of philosophy journals. It has some rankings that strike me, at least, as rather different from how an expert in the field would rank on the basis of quality, prestige, significance, etc. So, for example, Synthese and Phil Studies are 1 and 2 (certainly both good journals, but I suspect few philosophers would rank them 1 and 2.) Or consider that Journal of Consciousness Studies is 7 and Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences is 10. By contrast, we have Ethics 14, Phil Review 17, and Journal of Philosophical Logic 20.
One brother is dead and the other is in custody in a hospital. Obviously I loathe what they did. Obviously my thoughts are with the victims and their families. Obviously I would have stopped them if I could have, by any means whatsoever. But I also feel enormously sad that a 19 year old boy could come to this. And being a naturalist - that is not believing that things happen magically because of some supernatural force for evil - I believe that there is some explanation for why this happened. Maybe his brain chemicals are at different levels from ours. Maybe he underwent some trauma - either acute or chronic. Maybe he was taken in by an irrational ideology or systematically trained as are government torturers. Maybe all of these. I have no idea, and neither do you. Probably we would never fully understand even if we tried. But something happened, something contingent and potentially avoidable. And I hope that there is a way to redeem some modicum of life for this boy also. I hope that there is a way for all to find restorative, rather than vindictive, justice in this. I hope we can do better than toss one more body on the pile.
I haven't yet been through this in anything like the detail it deserves, but this new website by my colleague Madison Powers, looks like a wonderful site for teachers, activists, cross-disciplinary researchers and just those who care about the future.
Here is a song by David Rovics that tells the story of some noble and actual Irish history that is worth keeping in mind on this day based around green beer and, shall we say, a questionable historical figure.
We certainly devote enough time at this blog to criticizing universities and aspects of university culture. So just for a change of pace, here's a local feel-good story.
Georgetown, like most universities, has some budgetary worries. We've been through an economic crash, are in the midst of governmental cutbacks, etc. In response to moderate short-term deficits, the administration developed a 5 year plan that called for various savings. Among these were limits on salary: specifically no cuts to the faculty raise pool, but an elimination of all raises for staff this year. This was presented to us as a done deal. When announced in the college Exco - a committee of reps from each program and department that advise the dean - I suggested that this sucked, more specifically that placing the burden of lower salary on those already lowest paid in our community did not represent the values we purported to live by as an institution. Not one person in the group of about 30 disagreed. After some crafting of word choice, a motion was passed unanimously expressing the sense of the exco that this was not the way GU should deal with budget cuts. Shortly after this, someone introduced the same motion at the faculty senate. I'm not sure if it was unanimous, but it passed with an overwhelming majority there as well.
And the administration listened. Staff increases are reinstated. In the new proposal announced today, there will be no raises for senior administration, and faculty will have raises delayed for 6 months. This will generate the same savings, but with a very different distribution according to need.
I relay this not (just) to brag on the GU community, but to remind people that even in these uber-corporatist times, and even in the context of the increasingly corporate university, people sometimes manage to think in collective, communitarian, social, or just moral terms. We manage to make collective decisions on the basis of fairness and concern for each other, rather than our own narrow economic interest. In a time in which one dimension of the uber-corporatism is a constant drum-beat of propaganda suggesting that economic self-interest is inevitable, it is important to keep reminding oneself of examples to the contrary.
Imagine what might be possible if we organized our work differently.