Joho the Blog » philosophy

June 25, 2011

Interesting reading abounds

Ever since I ended my paper-based relationship with the Boston Globe, I’ve done my breakfast reading in front of a monitor on our kitchen table. Today, I spent a little longer, and read some excellent articles:

  • Stephen Metcalf writes about Robert Nozick’s legitimizing effect on Libertarianism, and the philosophical weakness of the case he made for it. I have not heard anyone else make Metcalf’s critique of the Wilt Chamberlain argument (so far as I recall).

  • In Scientific American, John Horgan defends Stephen Jay Gould from the charge that his brilliant example of personal bias affecting scientific outcomes was itself based on Gould’s own biases. It’s actually a weak defense, with Horgan instead defending a related point SJG was making: “Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology.” By coincidence, a couple of days ago I came across my old copy of an anthology titled “The Sociobiology Debate” that was compiled in 1978 when the idea that evolution shape ours our social behavior was not just controversial, but to many of us (including me) seemed quite threatening: it implied a lack of free will (which I no longer care about) and it was sometimes used to give a sheen of inevitability to the most conservative and even oppressive of social behaviors. Unfortunately, Horgan’s argument against sociobiology consists of the following single paragraph:

    “Biological determinism is a blight on science. It implies that the way things are is the way they must be. We have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do. This position is wrong, both empirically and morally. If you doubt me on this point, read [Gould’s] Mismeasure [of Man], which, even discounting the chapter on Morton, abounds in evidence of how science can become an instrument of malignant ideologies.”

  • Also in Slate, I disagree so sharply with Jack Shafer’s criticism of Jose Antonio Vargas that I think I must be missing something obvious. Jose is the former Washington Post and Huffington Post journalist (and Pulitzer-prize winner, by the way) who came out as an undocumented immigrant in an article in tomorrow’s NY Times Magazine. Shafer declares himself to be an “immigration dove”: “I believe in open borders and detest our current laws and their enforcement.” If you hate the law’s enforcement, how can you also get in a snit about someone who lies to evade that enforcement? Or perhaps it’s only journalists who shouldn’t lie to their employers about their immigration status because there needs to be a special bond of trust between the editor and the journalist. So, which jobs does Shafer think do not require trust? Or is this just journalism dealing with its self-esteem issues again? Jose didn’t lie about his credentials, and he didn’t lie in his stories. He lied about the thing the bad laws Shafer “detests” made him lie about, just as forty years ago he likely would have had to lie about his sexual preferences. If Shafer thinks Jose’s admission makes him unreliable, then go through his work and find where this lack of reliablity manifests itself. If it doesn’t, then salute Jose for his honesty and courage. (Disclosure: Although I haven’t talked with him in a year or two, I count Jose as a friend, beginning in his pre-Pulitzer WaPo days. He has struck me as an honest, open-minded, and impassioned inquirer. I like him a lot.)

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June 8, 2011

Six degress of philosophy

In what is certainly the coolest proof that philosophy is the Queen of the Sciences, and also the Duke and all of the in-laws, xefer shows the relation of any Wikipedia topic to its “Philosophy” article. (Hat tip to Hal Roberts.)

Kevin Bacon to Philosophy

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May 30, 2011

The titles of philosophy

Philosophers Carnival at Philosophy, etc. points to philosophical posts from around the Web over the past three months. Many of them weigh in on age old questions about the continuity of consciousness, whether objective morality is possible without Heaven and Hell, and whether time travel is possible.

But I was especially struck by the online sites and journals where the articles were posted:

This is a far cry from titles such as the Review of Metaphysics and Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies typical of the printed output of the old school. (Browse a list here.) The new titles seem to mock the academy, even though many of the papers would be at home in its traditional publications. But slowly the wrapped will take on the properties of the wrapper…

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March 13, 2011

Former philosophy majors

Here’s a list of famous people who started out as philosophy majors.

You can take this either as evidence of the utility of majoring in philosophy, or as evidence that if you want to succeed, you should flee from your background as a philosophy major.

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August 25, 2010

[2b2k] Philosophy as writing, science as publishing

I’ve been struggling with a section of my book that maintains that science is a form of publishing. It’s a useful lens, I think, for understanding some of the ways the Net is changing science.

This morning, I went for a book to read on the bus and came across Richard Rorty‘s Consequences of Pragmatism, a collection of essays that I had read half of and put aside about six months ago. And what’s the very next essay I was up to in it? “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Here is one way to look at physics: there are some invisible things which are parts of everything else and whose behavior determines the way everything else works. Physics is the search for an accurate description of those invisible things, and it proceeds by finding better and better explanations of the visible. …

Here is another way of looking at physics: the physicists are men looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature. After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model …. and then they announce that the true meaning of the Book has been discovered. But, of course, it never is, any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations. What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are someow “talking about the same thing,” the same invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.

Rorty’s essay applies the same distinction to philosophy as a way of explicating Derrida … and it is one of the clearest, most sympathetic, and most delightful explanations I’ve encountered.

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July 21, 2010

Iris Murdoch on studying as a virtue

I’ve been reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignity of Good. The first two essays are written a little too much (for me) within the particular philosophical debates of the 1960s, but the third remains pretty wonderful. Here’s a short paragraph that is not central, but that I really like:

If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar …[A]part from special contexts, studying is normally an exercise of virtue as well as of talent, and shows us a fundamental way in which virtue is related to the real world.

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May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner should not have been possible

The world is less curious, reasonable, fun and awesome now that Martin Gardner has died.

The Nature of Things / Martin Gardner from Wagner Brenner on Vimeo.

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April 22, 2010

Heidegger film’s reception

A mailing list I’m on had a discussion about the movie “Only a God Can Save Us” (amazon) about Martin Heidegger’s Nazism. One of the contributors to the mailing list quoted a length from a personal communication with Jeffrey Van Davis, the creator of the film. I wrote to Jeffrey and asked permission to post the following lightly edited version (removing some of the comments that pertained to the person who posted it to the list), because I thought it might be of interest to others. (I have not seen the film.)

The film premiered in the Aula (auditorium) of Freiburg University on July 23 of this year. The response was phenomenal and I was invited back by popular demand to show the film again in Freiburg on October 21. The Heidegger family came and caused quite an incident. Hermann Heidegger kept yelling out during the film “Lüge, alles Lüge.” (Lies, all lies!”) and “nicht Wahr!” (“not true!”). People began yelling back at him to shut up. During the postfilm panel discussion which included Hugo Ott, Bernd Martin, Rainer Marten, Silke Seemann, Tom Rockmore and myself, Herman Heidegger insisted on coming up to the podium to speak. We said yes and even helped him up the steps to the stage. He is over 90 and recently had a serious cancer operation. He immediately began to attack the Freiburg philosophers and historians on the stage and myself for our lies and deceit. Things almost got out of hand with people from the audience yelling “Nazi” at Heidegger. After the discussion the Heidegger family descended upon me with all their complaints and criticism. I know Hermann Heidegger and spent over six hours with him doing an interview, but he wouldn’t allow it on film. He told me he liked the first part of the film but thinks that I came under the influence of Ott, Marten, and Rockmore too much. He told me that film was too one-sided and that outside of Alfred Denker there were no pro-Heideggerians in the film. I pointed out to him that Iain Thomson was in the film as well as Ted Kisiel. He doesn’t think you are pro enough Heidegger, I guess. … An interview of Hermann Heidegger which is in the Heidegger archive in Messkirch, I was not allowed to use. I do have a copy of it, however.

Frankly I could write a book about the city of Freiburg and how it has tried to deal with the Heidegger scandal, the whole Nazi past. There are powerful Freiburg families some affiliated with the university who have swept a lot under the rug in part because many members of these families were enthusiastic Nazis themselves. There were so many records and documents destroyed or stolen from the university archives, libraries, etc. Hugo Ott told me that many times files would be missing in the archive, yet he knew which families had taken them and he was able to get some of his information through these kinds of unofficial back channels. Anger, resentment, guilt and shame are alive and well among many in Freiburg. 60 plus years after the end of World War II, my film presentation and post film discussion at Freiburg University showed only too clearly how just below the surface these emotions are still boiling. I was surprised to see the vindictive, angry and sometimes out of control verbal attacks between the different camps in an audience of over 400 people. One man got so angry he left the Aula screaming and the audience applauded his exit. I have attended many academic conferences, film showings, etc and never experienced what I did in Freiburg. The response was so great that I was invited back to show the film again to an even larger audience on Oct. 21. Hermann brought more friends and allies and the discussion was just as lively as the first. Sorry, I begin to ramble. I have so many stories and anecdotes to tell from the many years I spent making my film. I interviewed over 25 people, each interview 2 to 3 hours long. I am now in discussion with a publisher about writing a book which would include all the interviews unedited with hundreds of photographs.

… I was an enthusiastic Heideggerian as a young man, but I have to tell you that based upon the interviews I have in my film and the research that I have done, I find it difficult to see Heidegger in a positive light. I know that you and many other excellent scholars have found Emmanuel Faye’s book to be shoddy, terrible, and down right bad scholarship…. I have recently finished reading it and I find it quite disturbing. Faye is also in my film and although one may find my film one-sided, no one can deny that the film is a good jumping off place to intense discussion of Heidegger and his thought.

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April 10, 2010

Natural disasters and the absence of G-d

I woke up this morning with an odd tweet in my head: Just about everything in the universe is bigger than we are.

I didn’t tweet it because it’s false: There’s an awful lot of dust in the universe. But I was pleasantly surprised to find (via Leiter Reports) an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, by Samuel Newlands, sort of on that topic. It’s about Haiti, Leibniz, and the problem of evil.

The problem of evil is the philosophical way of referring to the fact that an awful lot of bad sh*t happens to innocent people for a world supposedly watched over by a benevolent deity. Traditionally, there are a number of ways to resolve the problem. You can say that people get what they deserve, so that what looks unfair in fact is not. That’s a little hard to square with the death of babies, but people have certainly tried. Then there are the big three properties of G-d: All powerful, all knowing, all loving. Take away one of those three, and you can explain why bad things happen to good people: G-d is powerless to prevent it (Leibniz’s answer, in a clever form), G-d can’t predict it, or G-d just doesn’t care.

If I were to believe in a god, I think the only one I could muster up any loyalty to would be one who created us but not the universe. The Earth looked like a good place to plant us, so the Deity set us down carefully, gave us some useful texts to get us started, and then left us on our own.

Beyond that, it’s a mystery to me. But, then, it’s supposed to be a mystery. After all, most of the universe is bigger than we are.

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January 26, 2010

[berkman] Julie Cohen on networked selves

Julie Cohen is giving a Berkman lunch on “configuring the networked self.” She’s working on a book that “explores the effects of expanding copyright, pervasive surveillance, and the increasingly opaque design of network architectures in the emerging networked information society.” She’s going to talk about a chapter that “argues that “access to knowledge” is a necessary but insufficient condition for human flourishing, and adds two additional conditions.” (Quotes are from the Berkman site.) [NOTE: Ethan Zuckerman’s far superior livebloggage is here.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The book is motivated by two observations of the discourse around the Net, law, and policy in the U.S.

1. We make grandiose announcements about designing infrastructures that enable free speech and free markets, but at the end of the day, many of the results are antithetical to the interests of the individuals in that space by limiting what they can do with the materials they encounter.

2. There’s a disconnect between the copyright debate and the privacy debate. The free culture debate is about openness, but that can make it hard to reconcile privacy claims. We discuss these issues within a political framework with assumptions about autonomous choice made by disembodied individuals…a worldview that doesn’t have much to do with reality, she says. It would be better to focus on the information flows among embodied, real people who experience the network as mediated by devices and interfaces. The liberal theory framework doesn’t give us good tools. E.g., it treats individuals as separate from culture.

Julie says lots of people are asking these questions. They just happen not to be in legal studies. One purpose of her book is to unpack post modern literature to see how situated, embodied users of networks experience technology, and to see how that affects information law and policy. Her normative framework is informed by Martha Nussbaum‘s ideas about human flourishing: How can information law and policy help human flourishing by providing information to information and knowledge? Intellectual property laws should take this into account, she says. But, she says, this has been situated within the liberal tradition, which leads to indeterminate results. You lend it content by looking at the post modern literature that tells us important things about the relationship between self and culture, self and community, etc. By knowing how those relationships work, you can give content to human flourishing, which informs which laws and policies we need.

[I’m having trouble hearing her. She’s given two “political reference points,” but I couldn’t hear either. :(]

[I think one of them is everyday practice.] Everyday practice is not linear, often not animated by overarching strategies.

The third political reference point is play. Play is an important concept, but the discussion of intentional play needs to be expanded to include “the play of circumstances.” Life puts random stuff in your way. That type of play is often the actual source of creativity. We should be seeking to foster play in our information policy; it is a structural condition of human flourishing.

Access to knowledge isn’t enough to supply a base for human flourishing because it doesn’t get you everything you need, e.g., right to re-use works. We also need operational transparency: We need to know how these digital architectures work. We need to know how the collected data will be used. And we also need semantic discontinuity: Formal incompleteness in legal and technical infrastructures. E.g., wrt copyright to reuse works you shouldn’t have to invoke a legal defense such as fair use; there should be space left over for play. E.g., in privacy, rigid arbitrary rules against transacting and aggregating personal data so that there is space left over for people to play with identity. E.g., in architecture, question the norm that seamless interoperability makes life better, because it means that data about you moves around without your having the ability to stop it. E.g., interoperability among social networks changes the nature of social networks. We need some discontinuity for flourishing.

Q: People need the freedom to have multiple personas. We need more open territory.
A: Yes. The common pushback is that if you restrict the flow of info in any way, we’ll slide down the slippery slope of censorship. But that’s not true and it gets in the way of the conversation we need to have.

Q: [charlie nesson] How do you create this space of playfulness when it comes to copyright?
A: In part, look at the copyright law of 1909. It’s reviled by copyright holders, but there’s lots of good in it. It set up categories that determined if you could get the rights, and the rights were much more narrowly defined. We should define rights to reproduction and adaptation that gives certain significant rights to copyright holders, but that quite clearly and unambiguously reserves lots to users, with reference to the possible market effect that is used by courts to defend the owners’ rights.
Q: [charlie] But you run up against the pocketbooks of the copyright holders…
A: Yes, there’s a limit to what a scholar can do. Getting there is no mean feat, but it begins with a discourse about the value of play and that everyone benefits from it, not just crazy youtube posters, even the content creators.

JPalfrey asks CNesson what he thinks. Charlie says that having to assert fair use, to fend off lawsuits, is wrong. Fair uyse ought to be the presumption.

Q: [csandvig] Fascinating. The literature that lawyers denigrate as pomo makes me think of a book by an anthropologist and sociologist called “The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach.” It’s about embodied, local, enculturated understanding of the Net. Their book was about Trinidad, arguing that if you’re in Trinidad, the Net is one thing, and if you’re not, it’s another thing. And, they say, we need many of these cultural understandings. But it hasn’t happened. Can you say more about the lit you referred to?
A: Within mainstream US legal and policy scholarship, there’s no recognition of this. They’re focused on overcoming the digital divide. That’s fine, but it would be better not to have a broadband policy that thinks it’s the same in all cultures. [Note: I’m paraphrasing, as I am throughout this post. Just a reminder.]

A: [I missed salil’s question; sorry] We could build a system of randomized incompatibilities, but there’s value in having them emerge otherwise than by design, and there’s value to not fixing some of the ones that exist in the world. The challenge is how to design gaps.
Q: The gaps you have in mind are not ones that can be designed the way a computer scientist might…
A: Yes. Open source forks, but that’s at war with the idea that everything should be able to speak to everything else. It’d

Q: [me] I used to be a technodeterminist; I recognize the profound importance of cultural understandings/experience. So, the Internet is different in Trinidad than in Beijing or Cambridge. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking that some experiences of the Net are important and cross cultural, e.g., that Ideas are linked, there’s lots to see, people disagree, people like me can publish, etc.
A: You can say general things about the Net if you go to a high enough level of abstraction. You’re only a technodeterminist if you think there’s only way to get there, only one set of rules that get you there. Is that what you mean?
Q: Not quite. I’m asking if there’s a residue of important characteristics of the experience of the Net that cuts across all cultures. “Ideas are linked” or “I can contribute” may be abstractions, but they’re also important and can be culturally transformative, so the lessons we learn from the Net aren’t unactionably general.
A: Liberalism creeps back in. It’s acrappy descriptional tool, but a good aspirational one. The free spread of a corpus of existing knowledge…imagine a universal digital library with open access. That would be a universal good. I’m not saying I have a neutral prescription upon which any vision of human flourishing would work. I’m looking for critical subjectivity.

A: Network space changes based on what networks can do. 200 yrs ago, you wouldn’t have said PAris is closer to NY than Williamsburg VA, but today you might because lots of people go NY – Paris.

Q: [doc] You use geographic metaphors. Much of the understanding of the Net is based on plumbing metaphors.
A: The privacy issues make it clear it’s a geography, not a plumbing system. [Except for leaks :) ]

[Missed a couple of questions]

A: Any good educator will have opinions about how certain things are best reserved for closed environments, e.g., in-class discussions, what sorts of drafts to share with which other people, etc. There’s a value to questioning the assumption that everything ought to be open and shared.

Q: [wseltzer] Why is it so clear that it the Net isn’t plumbing? We make bulges in the pipe as spaces where we can be more private…
A: I suppose it depends on your POV. If you run a data aggregation biz, it will look like that. But if you ask someone who owns such a biz how s/he feels about privacy in her/his own life, that person will have opinions at odds with his/her professional existence.

Q: [jpalfrey] You’re saying that much of what we take as apple pie is in conflict, but that if we had the right toolset, we could make progress…
A: There isn’t a single unifying framework that can make it all make sense. You need the discontinuities to manage that. Dispute arise, but we have a way to muddle along. One of my favorite books: How We Became Post-Human. She writes about the Macy conferences out of which came out of cybernetics, including the idea that info is info no matter how it’s embodied. I think that’s wrong. We’re analog in important ways.

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