Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Philosophers and Fellowships III

Oh, dear. More from the Leiter Report that philosophers aren't getting the fellowships they deserve:

The 2006 winners of American Council of Learned Society Fellowships have been named. Only one philosopher was a winner this year (out of sixty awards): Steven Crowell from Rice University for a project on "Heidegger and the Claims of Reason." A rather large number of historians (I haven't counted them all up) were winners. Two or three philosophers have usually won ACLS Fellowships in recent years.

I'd be interested in hearing from philosophers ... who applied during the 2005-06 cycle and weren't chosen. I'll keep this information confidential, but I may post in a general way about some of the issues that Jason Stanley and I have raised in prior posts ... if it turns out that there is an area bias at work here too.

OK, I've already commented on this topic here and here.

Three points:

1) "If it turns out that there is an area bias at work here too." Too? That's highly debatable. In fact, most of those who commented on earlier postings at the Leiter Report thought that the philosophical profession was at least partly complicit in its own marginalization. See here.

2) What can this sort of informal survey possibly accomplish? First, it depends on rejected applicants reading Brian Leiter's post (maybe they will, maybe not, but that's hardly a reliable way to gather data). Second, to find signs of bias it would be necessary to know the acceptance rate of other disciplines. Without that information, I don't see how it is possible to determine whether the ACLS is being biased or not.

3) What is it with the History bashing? Why single out the number of historians receiving awards? Is that supposed to be self evidently suspicious? (And if so, why? Is it because philosophers are entitled to a certain number of fellowships?) That aside really confuses me (to be charitable).
Joe Lieberman and the Basis of Morality

A lot has been written recently about Joe Lieberman and his primary opponent, Ned Lamont. Lieberman has been under fire for his support of the Iraq war and for being "Bush's favorite democrat." So he's facing a strong primary challenge and it's not clear that he will win the Democratic nomination for Senate.


Reading all this has reminded me of the 2000 election, when Lieberman was already beginning to annoy me. (Since then Gore's done a lot to redeem himself; Lieberman, not so much.)

In particular, what set me off was Lieberman's linkage of morality with religion. In August 2000, Lieberman quoted George Washington who, he said, warned us "never to indulge the supposition ‘that morality can be maintained without religion.’"

(You can see what Jacob Sullum and Bruce Gottlieb wrote at the time.)

That's poppycock on two levels. First, it's laughably false, since it ignores millennia of work in philosophical ethics. So I take exception to Lieberman pretending as if a non-religious basis for ethics is impossible.

Second, as Sullum pointed out, Lieberman was also distorting Washington's words:

Washington’s actual words were not quite that strong. "Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion," he said in his 1796 Farewell Address. "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
Washington's point was that, with a "refined education" individuals could be both ethical and areligious, but that this was not realistic for an entire nation.

So, two strikes against Lieberman.

What annoyed me in 2000, and still does, is Lieberman's sanctimony. When you get right down to it, what he said was the same as what evangelical Christians say all the time. I can't support an evangelical Christian running for Senate, and for the same reasons I won't support Lieberman.







Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Epistemology Course Readings

I've finished the reading list for my fall course on Theories of Knowledge. This is a survey course so it contains the following:
1) A little history
2) A taste of truth theories
3) A glance at Gettier problems
4) A jot of justification theories
5) A soupçon of skepticism
6) A healthy dose of naturalism
This is for a 10 week quarter, so we're riding the express train here.

I like these readings (and I guess I should, having chosen them) because they combine some of the usual suspects with work that deserves to be more widely anthologized but isn't: that is, work that I think is profoundly, importantly right yet falls outside the mainstream for one reason or another.

There's one book on the list: Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout's Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment. I try to assign a recent book every time I teach this course, and this one fits in nicely with the other themes - besides being a great read, packed with interesting observations, and, even better, a book I'm largely in agreement with. I was also thinking about using Miriam Solomon's Social Empiricism, but it doesn't seem to be in paperback and MIT Press seemed to be remaindering the hardback edition - so I wasn't sure if it would be available.

One final gripe. I tried to find an epistemology textbook to use since that would have saved me a lot of time photocopying and uploading articles, and that turned out to be an exercise in frustration. And here's my complaint: there are entire anthologies, 500 pages long, without a single article by a woman. My reading list isn't exactly a model of diversity, either (though there are five women on it, which I think is pretty good in this area), but I can't bring myself to assign a textbook that's just a boy's club.

Well, without further ado, here's the reading list as it currently stands:

9/4 Introductory remarks
9/6 Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy (on line)


9/11 Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (on line)
Goodman: “The New Riddle of Induction” (on line)
9/13 Tarski: “Truth and Proof” (on line)


9/18 Misak: “Deflating Truth: Pragmatism vs. Disquotationalism” (on line)
9/20 Gettier: “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” (on line)
Fogelin: “Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification” (on line)


9/25 Code: “Taking Subjectivity Into Account” (on line)
9/27 Goldman: “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge” (on line)

10/2 Price: “The Given” (on line)
Sellars: “Does Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation?” (on line)
10/4 DeRose: “Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense” (on line)

10/9 Putnam: “Brains in a Vat” (on line)
10/11 Haslanger: “What Knowledge Is and What It Ought to Be” (on line)

10/16 Quine: “Epistemology Naturalized” (on line)
10/18 Rooney: “Putting Naturalized Epistemology to Work” (on line)

10/23 Weinberg et al.: “Normativity and Epistemic Intuitions” (on line)
10/25 Boyd & Trout: Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, chs. 1-2

10/30 Boyd & Trout: Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, chs. 3-5
11/1 Elgin: “The Epistemic Efficacy of Stupidity” (online)

11/6 Boyd & Trout: Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, chs. 6-8
11/8 Boyd & Trout: Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, chs. 9-10 + Appendix, §1, §3, §11

Monday, July 24, 2006

Ramin Jahanbegloo and Rorty


3 Quarks Daily has a link to an interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo. Jahanbegloo is an Iranian philosopher (trained at the Sorbonne) who since April has been imprisoned in Tehran for political reasons. The interview, with Danny Postel, is from January and February of this year.

Jahanbegloo brought many American and European philosophers to Tehran and it is interesting to get his take on the kind of philosophy that resonates with young Iranians.

Jahanbegloo describes Richard Rorty's visit to Tehran in June 2004. Rorty argued that human rights don't require any sort of universal, philosophical foundation. This is part-and-parcel of Rorty's general anti-foundationalism and anti-universalism.

Jahanbegloo reponds to Rorty with a distinction between "soft" and "hard" universalism. As he says:

“Soft” universalism applies the universal right to reciprocity in a world of plural values in order to allow people with different values to accept one another.
I see “soft” universalism as the only hope for promoting democracy in non-democratic cultures.

If I understand him correctly (and this sounds vaguely Habermasian to me), Jahanbegloo posits a general, universal framework committed to "reciprocity", which is then the means for debating particular values. Here he doesn't say how this universal framework can be justified. But he does say this:

I think it would be extremely dangerous to have a dialogical exchange among cultures without a structure of shared universal values. In other words, I do not believe in international relations without an international ethics, especially in situations of power, violence and crisis. But going back to Rorty, I believe that his take on the desirability of human rights free of claims to their naturalness is an open-ended debate. But it certainly requires a long process of political and cultural argumentation and persuasion, one which many non-democratic societies, like ours, cannot afford for the time being. (emphasis added)
In short, Jahanbegloo concludes that universal foundations are necessary in situations of "power, violence and crisis" and in many "non-democratic societies."

I'm intrigued by that claim because it is, on its face, so pragmatic: an "international ethics" is justified by its success in dealing with dangerous situations.

This philosophical point is all the more poignant given Jahanbegloo's current imprisonment. How does one protest his imprisonment (which seems entirely trumped up): does one appeal to universal standards of justice, or does one appeal to the sort of pragmatic considerations Rorty (e.g.) favors?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Complexity, good; inconsistency, bad.

I had one more thought about complexity. I consider myself a contextualist in philosophy, which means taking issues in context, which means trying to do some justice to their complexity rather than artificially simplifying matters. But the danger is that by recognizing complexity one is given a free pass to wallow in uncertainty, and that doesn't get us anywhere, not at all.

[There's also complexity for complexity's sake, of which in my opinion we see all too much. But that's different from recognizing a kind of real-world complexity, which is what I'm talking about here.]

But, again, there's an important difference between complexity and inconsistency. In my earlier post, I suggested that the architect of the Guantanamo force feedings is confusing the two: using the complexity of the situation to justify an inconsistent policy. Of course, he could argue that the policy isn't inconsistent - but I can't imagine anyone defending inconsistency as a good thing.

The reason inconsistency is bad is because it is constitutive of both rationality and justice: being rational means drawing similar conclusions from similar cases, just as being just means treating people fairly. That's an over-simplification, but I think the general idea is right. Inconsistency is just bad, bad, bad.

I can't make such a strong positive case for complexity - there are plenty of circumstances, after all, when simplicity is better - but I do believe that a certain receptiveness to real-world complexity is a sign of maturity, both philosophically and intellectually.
Moral Complexity

Luke Mitchell has a thought provoking essay in the current (August 2006) issue of Harper's (though I don't believe the essay is posted on the website).

The essay is entitled "God Mode" and refers to a feature in shoot-'em-up video games that allows the player to play on endlessly. Mitchell uses this as a metaphor for current U.S. foreign policy:
We, as a nation, seem to be seeking a technological circumstance that allows the United States not just to dominate but to dominate so absolutely and effortlessly that we need not even think about our enemies, much less fear them.

Mitchell's example is the force-feeding of prisoners in Guantanamo. The force-feedings raise ethical questions: on the one hand, there is a medical responsibility to preserve life; on the other hand, there is a moral imperative to respect the prisoners' autonomy and right to protest their incarceration, in perhaps the only way still left open to them.

Mitchell describes his conversation with Dr. William Winkenwerder, an assistant secretary of defense and "chief architect" of the force-feeding policy. Like other aspects of U.S. foreign policy, the force feedings are pre-emptive: fasting prisoners are force fed in advance of any specific medical problems.

Winkenwerder tells Mitchell that the policy isn't to prevent hunger strikes, but rather to prevent deaths as a result of hunger striking. Mitchell, rightly, I think, sees this as inconsistent, since preventing the deaths means preventing the hunger strikes. But Mitchell also concedes that Winkenwerder is completely sincere, despite the inconsistency, and that his sincerity depends on the inconsistency. It's because the situation is complex that Winkenwerder can sincerely endorse a policy that, on the face of it, is inconsistent.

Winkenwerder never did make clear to me what was so complex about the decision to force a man to eat. Maybe he couldn't. Or maybe he conceived of that complexity as a final form of defense.
I feel for Winkenwerder because he's not pretending that there's a simple black-and-white answer to this problem. (I disagree with Mitchell that force-feeding isn't a complex decision.)

Historically, philosophers have pretended that these issues are black-and-white, so I'm all in favor of recognizing the complexity and ambiguity of real-life moral dilemmas. But Mitchell is right that recognizing the complexity can also be a dodge, a way of shrugging one's shoulders and doing whatever one would have done anyway. And, of course, a kind of ethical relativism is the next logical step (which puts us all in "God mode").

So, while it is important to recognize complexity, to look at the specifics of the case, etc., it's just as important to make sure that this doesn't lead to moral paralysis. Complexity isn't the same as inconsistency, so recognizing the former doesn't entail embracing the latter.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Learning and Doing

From 3QuarksDaily, this article from Seed Magazine: "How We Know" by Jonah Lehrer. It begins by describing the Algebra Project and its founder, Bob Moses:

Instead of confronting students with abstract equations, Moses took them out into the real world, traveling around Boston in search of experiences that could demonstrate the practical uses of math. A ride on the T became a lesson in coordinate graphing and negative numbers. Neighborhood landmarks stood in for integers. When Moses taught students about displacement, he had them measure the dimensions of their own bodies. The first rule of Moses' math class was that students always had to "participate in a physical event."
In short, students were learning math by doing things. Math wasn't an abstract topic but rather a way of solving real life problems:

By taking his students outside the classroom, Moses made math a part of everyday life: He realized that the brain wasn't designed to deal with abstractions it doesn't know how to use, or to solve variables while sitting at a desk. Our knowledge, Moses intuited, is a by-product of activity. What we end up knowing is what we can learn how to use. We learn by doing.

Moreover, this is supported by brain science:

The human mind understands the world by interacting with it. When we see an inanimate object that we are familiar with, our mirror neurons instinctively imagine what they could do with that object. A tennis racquet causes our cells to imagine swinging it; a violin causes our cells to imagine playing it. If you happen to be taught algebra by Bob Moses, a math equation might trigger thoughts of taking the subway.

What does this have to do with American philosophy? Well, a lot. The connection between learning and doing was championed by John Dewey over a century ago.

[Dewey's] mission was to "reinstate experience into education"; as a result, Laboratory students spent most of their day outside the classroom, engaging in activities such as sewing, carpentry and cooking. But these activities weren't simply exercises in manual labor. Rather, they were demonstrations of "active learning."
But sadly a scientifically supported, Deweyan educational philosophy runs afoul of standardized testing:

Dewey's insights are needed now more than ever. His curriculum, by collapsing what he called "the invidious distinction between learning and doing," took full advantage of our mirror neuron circuit. Unfortunately, in the age of standardized testing, US schools have given up on Dewey's experiential approach—and the difficulties faced by the Algebra Project exemplify this trend. Even in districts where the curriculum has been an unambiguous success, it has fallen victim to standardized testing. Not long after the Cambridge public schools reported two-fold increases in advanced math enrollment among Algebra Project graduates, the project was quietly shut down. "It's really a tragedy," says Lynne Godfrey, who is still a math teacher in Cambridge."
The rest of the article is well worth reading. One of Lehrer's examples is Toyota, which appears to have incorporated Dewey's insights into its manufacturing plants. This, Lehrer suggests, goes a long way to explaining why Toyota is making record profits while companies like Ford and GM are closing plants.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Rorty on The Moral Purposes of Universities

Richard Rorty has written a number of thought-provoking essays about American universities. One of my favorites is "Education as Socialization and as Individualization," published in Philosophy and Social Hope.

I've recently come across another essay - and was it ever hard to get! I ordered it through Inter-Library Loan, and they're normally super fast, but this took 3 months to receive. Anyway, it's an article entitled "The Moral Purposes of the University" published in The Hedgehog Review (Fall 2000, pp, 106-119).

Rorty begins by arguing that very few religious communities qualify as "constructive subtraditions" in American society (apologies that these selections begin and end in mid-sentence):











Instead, it is universities that function as "the conscience of the nation":







So what's a professor to do?














That sound like a pretty modest proposal - but in Rorty's defense it may well be more than what many academics presently do. There are lots of important points in this essay.

Monday, July 17, 2006

APA Representation

One final thought while it's on my mind: the matter of representation on APA nominating committees. Now, normally, the candidates for the nominating committee teach at Ph.D granting institutions (or at top-flight Northeastern liberal arts colleges). And I'd guess that it is one's stature as a member of a Ph.D granting institution that gets one elected to the nominating committee (at least in part).

But here's the problem. Without begrudging the service that the nominating committee provides, it's obvious that its membership doesn't accurately reflect the profession as a whole: e.g., those of us who teach primarily undergraduates, who teach at less than flag-ship institutions, whose responsibilities are primarily teaching, not research, who don't have TAs, etc.

When I look at the thumbnail CVs of the candidates for APA posts (helpfully provided with the ballots), it's clear that few, if any, have any experience teaching at the sort of institutions where most of the rest of us teach. And then I wonder how well their concerns match those of the rank and file.

And that's one reason I have serious doubts about the APA's ability to represent academic philosophers.

My solution? I'd like to see at least one slot reserved for philosophers teaching at non-Ph.D granting institutions, or at an institution that, say, falls within the appropriate Carnegie Foundation classification.
Misidentification

Several year ago I remember reading about how Americans tend to identify with higher socio-economic classes. A recent example of this is the brouhaha over the estate tax (aka the "death tax"). Lots of people oppose the estate tax even though it only affects a really small number of people. So one explanation is that people oppose the estate tax because they subconsciously identify with the wealthy, maybe thinking "yeah, someday that could be me."

I think something similar happens in academia. People get riled up about issues that really only affect a small number of academics teaching at high-profile institutions. That's part of what is going on with the whole question of "are philosophers winning their share of MacArthur prizes?" Again, that's not the real question: the real question is why anyone (other than a potential candidate) should care.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Philosophers Outside Philosophy Departments

Continuing on the topic of MacArthur "Genius" awards: this list shows winners by category. There are a few philosophers who've won in related areas - as Sharon Crasnow points out, Nancy Cartwright under "History and Philosophy of Science" (also Evelyn Fox Keller, in the same category).

Lisa Shapiro made a similar point: that if we look at a range of categories, philosophers do quite well. Here's how Jason Stanley responded:

It is also the case that a substantial minority of those listed under philosophy are not people who philosophers would classify as fellow philosophers. I assume a similar situation is true of other disciplines. So a few philosophers occur under other categories, and a few of the people who appear under 'philosophy' aren't philosophers. (Link here, then scroll down.)
Here's the list of MacArthur winners for "Philosophy": Cavell, Patricia Churchland, Kolakowski, Rorty, Scanlon, Shklar. Now I'm wondering which of these don't count as "philosophers." It's one thing to be blasé about their work, but who in their right mind could deny that each of these is a philosopher?

Likewise, who are these "philosophers" who are entitled to pass judgment on who is and is not a "fellow philosopher"? Are we talking about the rank-and-file here? (I don't think so.) Or are we talking about some smug, entitled subset of the profession? (More likely.)

To sum up: 1) I don't see the point in complaining about philosophers not winning MacArthurs when the philosophers who do are dismissed as not being real philosophers. 2) I'm still not sure why anyone should care.

But here's a related topic. Consider the number of philosophers who aren't associated with philosophy departments (or who aren't primarily associated with philosophy departments): Rorty, of course, but also Martha Nussbaum, Peter Singer, Judith Butler. I think I'm right about those four, and there are others I've no doubt missed. (Again, the only reason for denying that they are philosophers is if being a philosopher means being associated primarily with a philosophy department - which would be absurd.)

So this raises the question: why are some of the most prominent contemporary philosophers not in philosophy departments? And how much of this is due to attitudes like the one above?

























Saturday, July 15, 2006

Fellowships for Philosophers

There's been a discussion lately on the Leiter Report blog about the small number of philosophers receiving prestigious awards (MacArthur, Guggenheim, etc.). I commented on this post. My argument is that it has as much (or more) to do with dysfunction within the philosophical profession as it has to do with animus directed toward philosophers by others.

Now, some seem to believe that those philosophers who do win MacArthurs, etc., aren't really philosophers or aren't working in the core areas of philosophy. That is, they're either Rorty or Patricia Churchland, or they do applied or cross-disciplinary work, which isn't as valuable as the real stuff namely metaphysics, epistemology, and logic. I think that line of thinking is rubbish and further indicates the dysfunction in our discipline.

There's a lot more to say about this, but one quick question: why should I care whether philosophers are winning MacArthurs? I'm not going to win a MacArthur, and I've learned to live with that, and so I'm sure philosophers at Harvard, Princeton, NYU, etc., can learn to live with it too. I mean, I'm sorry if you don't win the MacArthur, but if you teach at Harvard (or wherever) it's difficult to feel too sorry.

I suppose the response is that it's good for the profession (and for me) if philosophers are winning awards, and so I should care for that reason. But philosophers are winning the awards - they just happen to be philosophers like Rorty and Churchland and people who do applied or cross-disciplinary work. So, really, the gripe is that the winners aren't the right kind of philosophers: i.e., they're not analytic epistemologists, metaphysicians, and logicians. But then I really fail to see how having more analytic epistemologists winning awards would help the profession (and I speak as an analytic epistemologist). Rather, it's precisely people like Rorty, and Churchland, and Peter Singer who've done a great job of raising the profession's profile - and good for them: if they win awards, I have no problem with that.

So I still don't see why I should care if (certain kinds of) philosophers aren't winning the big prizes.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lachs on Philosophers Committing Disciplinary Suicide

I'd heard this story before, but it took a mention by Jason (on the Leiter blog) for me to track it down. It comes from a longer letter by John Lachs, printed in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association.

The contempt philosophers feel for colleagues who do not share their values and techniques is nothing short of bizarre and has served to undermine the honor and integrity of the discipline. In serving on National Endowment for the Humanities committees, I noted that members of the panel from English and history and anthropology tended to support applicants from their fields. Philosophers, by contrast, couldn’t wait to light into their colleagues; they tore research proposals apart, presenting their authors as fools or as championing out-of-date, inferior ideas and methods. As a result, scholars from other fields garnered much of the money that would, under normal circumstances, have gone to philosophy. These gatekeepers to our profession thought their actions were justified by the imperative to maintain high standards; in fact, they often undertook to judge work they did not understand, and condemned styles of thought and topics of investigation simply because they had no sympathy with them.
The rest of the letter is worth reading (here).

I was glad, too, to see that it was a distinguished scholar of American Philosophy who made this point.
Rooney on Naturalized Epistemology

Phyllis Rooney in "Putting Naturalized Epistemology to Work" (in Epistemology: The Big Questions, ed. Alcoff):
Naturalist epistemologists are committed to a particular way of doing epistemology without in many cases actually doing it. An examination of most papers on naturalized epistemology reveals bibliographies with references mainly or exclusively to other philosophers published in philosophy journals and anthologies. In effect, these epistemologists are agreed that one ought to do epistemology in a certain way even if they are not actually doing it. (285)
That seems right to me - though there some hopeful signs. Maybe experimental philosophy is one of these though I think the jury is still out.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Vision's Veritas

Still on the topic of truth - whether jokes can be truly funny, for example - I've been looking at Gerald Vision's Veritas.

It's a defense of the correspondence theory: roughly, that the truth of a proposition is the result of the world being the way the proposition says it is. (Vision is cagey at the beginning about avoiding problematic, difficult to define, concepts like "facts.")

I don't know what it is about the correspondence theory, but I have a hard time accepting it. Maybe it's just not sexy enough: deflationary theories certainly win on that score. Or maybe it's because I'm too much of a pragmatist to be able to accept the correspondence theory, which carries a lot of metaphysical baggage. Or maybe it's that something so obvious (on the face of it) just can't be right.

Vision mentions two platitudes that get his account of truth going: one is that the truth of propositions must vary with the world (if the world changes so does the truth); the second is that truth is "cognition independent" - i.e., that there may be truths that transcend recognition.

Back on the theme of pragmatism, Vision has a handy taxonomy that shows how the different theories of truth are related to each other (11). I have some quibbles with how he places pragmatism, but I was mostly peeved that it shows "Pierce" (not "Peirce") as a pragmatist. I get really tired of seeing that mistake. I don't think it is Vision's mistake (MIT Press is notorious for poor typesetting) but it still galls me. Of course, "Hempel" is also misspelled, even more egregiously: with an epsilon in place of the first "e".

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jokes and Truth

Lately I've been thinking about the relation between jokes and "critical thinking." There's a natural connection since jokes often depend on the same failures of rationality that we try to teach in critical thinking classes. Plus, I think this would be a fun way of discussing the material. I'd like to see a short book come out of this - maybe a companion that could be assigned in critical thinking classes.

As I think about this there are so many connections and interesting issues that come up once one starts thinking about jokes. For example, when is a joke really funny? And is it right to even talk about a joke being truly funny? This gets into issues having to do with truth-conditions, and whether there are conditions that allow us to say "That joke was truly funny."

I'm willing to bet, based on experience, that 95-100% of my students would say that whether a joke is funny is merely "subjective", a matter of "opinion", etc. That's what a lot of people think, anyway. But I'm not so sure. Of course a lot depends on how you understand truth, but I don't see much of a difference between humor and other areas where we have no hesitation saying that something is "truly" one way or another.

Let's face it: some jokes just aren't funny. And other jokes are really, really funny. Moreover, if someone doesn't get a joke, doesn't find it funny, that doesn't mean there's no truth there: it's just as likely, I think (at least in some situations) that they just don't have a sense of humor. Just like if I met someone who didn't think that lying was wrong. That doesn't mean that there's no truth here; rather it means that they have some lack, some deficiency.

Jokes, I'd like to think, shed some good light here. Today, it doesn't matter much to me if someone doesn't share my general aesthetic taste. I don't care, much, if someone doesn't have my taste in music or art or architecture. But jokes are different. While I can brush off someone's different taste in music, if I tell a joke and someone doesn't get it, then that bothers me. That this bothers me is a piece of raw data that needs to be explained, and this can be the entering wedge in considering whether the language of truth extends farther than many people think.

What's the connection with critical thinking? This: critical thinking is about examining the reasons one has for believing that something is true. If we expand the range of what can be true - to include whether a joke is funny, say, but also issues in ethics, politics, aesthetics, etc. - then we can see how it is possible and worthwhile to hold a lot of things up for scrutiny. And this means that we are entitled to argue, debate, and discuss a wider range of topics than we normally do.

As Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living" so by expanding the circle of true statements we are able to examine more of our life. Ironically, since Plato seemed to have a low opinion of laughter (Cohen refers to some passages in The Republic), jokes seem one way of encouraging this examination.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

More on Ted Cohen: Jokes

Cohen argues that a major function of some jokes is the acceptance of absurdity. In fact, he says this is a major part of Jewish jokes and hence a large part of American jokes.

For example (the actual joke is much too long): a NY cabbie who is finally convinced to drive a fare to Chicago, through PA, OH, IN, IL, Lake Shore Drive, etc., two days and one night. So he drops the fare off at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago and two women get in his cab and ask to be taken to Flatbush Ave. "Sorry, I don't drive to Brooklyn," he says.
(48)

Cohen writes:

Those of us who laugh at these jokes are all laughing at the same kind of thing. It is something not fully comprehensible, and our laughter is an acceptance of the thing in its incomprehensibility. It is the acceptance of the world, of a world that is endlessly incomprehensible, always baffling, a world that is beyond us and yet our world. (60)

That seems to much to me. Perhaps some jokes are like this (and Cohen has many other examples). But just as often, and I think this is the really important point, we tell jokes not because we accept absurdity but because we criticize it. That's the case with the cabbie joke, above. We tell a joke to point out that something is absurd and hence wrong.

Two further points. First, this aspect of joke telling butts up against another, less appealing type of joke: ethnic jokes, e.g. Ethnic jokes often make fun of a person because of their ethnicity (not always, but often). Likewise, the type of joke I'm interested in makes fun of a person for not thinking straight.

Second, it isn't always failures of rationality that are the butt of jokes. Sometimes it is hyper-rationality that comes in for criticism. And how better to criticize hyper-rationality than with a joke? (After all, can you argue with the hyper-rational?)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Philosophy of Science Association - Is this any way to run an organization?

The Philosophy of Science Association meets every two years and is the main professional organization for philosophers of science. I'm not a member but I know people who are, and the more I hear about the Association the angrier I get.

The biennial meeting is taking place this fall and the submission and review process for papers has been a complete travesty:

1) People who submitted workshop and symposium proposals (which were due eleven months before the conference) were not given a decision by the promised date. But even when the promised date had passed, there was no communication with people who'd submitted proposals.

2) As a result, the program committee had to extend the deadline for contributed papers. They had to do this to give people time to revise rejected workshop and symposium proposals into contributed paper format.

3) The program committee promised to make a decision on contributed papers by "mid June". They blew that deadline, too, again without informing anyone what was up. You'd think that common courtesy would dictate an e-mail saying "we're going to miss our deadline, please bear with us."

4) After all, how hard is it to send an e-mail? (Well, harder than you might imagine: see below.)

5) Part of what galls me is that the requirements for submission are pretty strict. If you're late sending in your paper, tough luck. So if the organizers are holding people to a high standard, then they should hold themselves to a similar standard.

6) So, finally, as we enter the second week of July, an e-mail goes out informing people that their papers haven't been accepted. The e-mail goes out to about 160 people, and the list isn't suppressed! You can look at this list and see exactly whose paper got rejected.

7) That's bad because it is a breach of confidentiality: no one agreed to have their rejection letter made public. But it's also bad because a lot of people need acceptances for the job-market and for tenure and promotion, and the public nature of this rejection amounts to a kind of "bad press." There are lots of people in this profession who don't have secure positions, and the last thing they need is bad press and the possible shame that goes with it. Thanks, PSA.

8) 30 minutes after the mass rejection e-mail there's a follow-up from the "assistant" (a TA? an undergrad? the neighbor's kid?) who forgot to suppress the list of recipients. But why should the assistant apologize? Was it really her fault? Why was she put in the position of handling these communications? Why didn't the co-chair of the program committee (whose e-mail account was used) apologize for foisting this off on someone else? After all, that's where the real responsibility lies. The co-chair should apologize for not caring enough to send the e-mail herself.

9) Again, how difficult is it to use e-mail? Was the co-chair so busy that she couldn't press "send" and had her assistant do it instead?

10) All of this just stinks of laziness and disorganization. If there's an alternate explanation I'd love to hear it.

11) Finally, looking over the list of rejected people, I immediately thought: "you know, they would make a great conference." The PSA only meets every other year. I think it's time for an alternative that could meet during the PSA's off years. There's obviously a lot of good work out there, and I'd have no confidence that PSA is able to function as a fair judge of quality.

12) And last of all, this is just one more example of professional philosophers being their own worst enemies. What possible good does it do the profession when a major organization is so incompetent? And, again, it isn't just the organization that suffers, but everyone whose career depends on the organization and its meetings.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ted Cohen: Jokes

After reading Critchley's On Humour, I've turned to Ted Cohen's Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. My interest here is in the relationship between jokes and "critical thinking" - or how jokes shed light on rationality and common sense.

First of all, Cohen's jokes are better than Critchley's, and there are lots of them. Even the groaners ("What's big and gray and wrote gloomy poetry? T.S. Elephant.") are there for a reason. And Cohen doesn't shy away from telling jokes that can be admittedly offensive - again, if there is a good reason for doing so.

Second, Cohen's approach is refreshingly non-theoretical. He writes:

Only a fool, or one of those who believe in "theories," would presume to say, in general, what the purpose of joking is....I will attempt nothing global or universal; there will be no comprehensive theory of jokes or their purpose, not only because I have no such theory but also because I believe there could be no such theory. (9, 10)
This seems broadly Wittgensteinian to me - and also exactly right. It's a fine expression of philosophical modesty, and honesty.

Third, Cohen's avoidance of big "theory" doesn't prevent him from making many important observations. In his second chapter he observes how jokes are "conditional" on a shared background of knowledge. If someone doesn't get a joke, then it's probably because they don't have the same background knowledge that people who do get the joke have.

This, according to Cohen, explains why we're bothered when someone doesn't get our jokes. The reason is that jokes provide reassurance that we are like each other, and that we have similar values and interests and find the same things funny. Cohen points out that we worry more about whether someone finds our jokes funny than whether we are the victims of an evil demon - a problem with a long and respectable philosophical tradition (32).

Here's what I would add to this. So jokes are often a way of reinforcing social bonds, of strengthening community. Sometimes they do this by ridiculing outsiders - Poles, Jews, the Irish, etc. But sometimes they reinforce norms of rationality too: a joke that brings an absurdity to light strengthens a kind of cognitive (as opposed to ethnic) community.

Sometimes, when we tell a joke it's to make sure that what seems rational to us seems rational to others: e.g., "here's a story I think is crazy and I hope you will agree."

Here's an example, from Cohen:

A turtle was mugged and robbed by a gang of snails. When the police asked for a description of the villains, the turtle replied, "I'm sorry, but I just don't remember. It all happened so fast." (39)

What makes this funny? I think it's that the turtle uses a cliché ("It all happened so fast") even though, of course, being robbed by snails isn't fast at all. In fact, what the joke reveals is that this is a cliché, even though it might be the sort of thing we can easily imagine saying, in some circumstances. So, at the risk of absolutely killing this joke, I'd say that it is really akin to saying "Gosh, isn't it sometimes absurd when someone says 'it all happened so fast'? What does that mean? Isn't that sometimes just an excuse for failing to pay attention?"

In other words, this joke is actually making a point - and if someone laughs at the joke, then that signals agreement with the underlying point: that sometimes it's irrational or meaningless or clichéd to say "it all happened so fast."

Of course that's not all that makes the joke funny (part of it is just the absurdity of the premise) but I do think that the humor of this joke is at least partly a function of (what we hope) is a shared background of rationality.

Monday, July 03, 2006

More on Critchley

Despite my earlier comments on Simon Critchley's On Humour - namely that it isn't very funny and that it over-theorizes its subject - he does make some very nice points. One is his highlighting of a particular type of humor:

...a more secular, democratic use of wit and humour as that which can encourage the use of reason and guide the sociability of sensus communis. (83)
That's an important point about humor and joking: that being able to tell a joke presupposes a shared social background, and that humor can actually foster a deeper sense of shared sociability.

But I'm still bothered that Critchley's conception of humor is so different from mine. A couple more examples:

1) Near the end of the book Critchley gives some anecdotes. One tells of Levinas turning down a second cup of tea because he is, he says, a "mono-thé-iste." The other ("the great Tommy Cooper gag") goes "So I got home, and the phone was ringing. I picked it up and said 'Who's speaking please?' And a voice said 'You are.'" (107)

Critchley then says "Such anecdotes, it is true, make us laugh out loud." Really ?! They are mildly amusing, sure, but laugh out loud? This convinces me that my sense of humor and Critchley's are wildly different.

2) The book ends on a real downer: "Melancholy creatures that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness." (111)

That's the last sentence of the book. (Which I might remind you, is called On Humour.) I don't deny Critchley his right to find the coal-black lining in humor, but again this seems to miss the joy, the fun, the hilarity of good humor. And so, once again, I'm struck by how different my sense of humor, or sense of what's funny, is from Critchley's. There's something odd going on here when intuitions about humor are so wildly divergent, and it makes me seriously doubt Critchley's conclusions.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Simon Critchley on Humor


Lately I've been reading Simon Critchley's book On Humour. The reason is that I'm interested in the relation between jokes and rationality - and how jokes can shed light on what we call "critical thinking."

Critchley's book is pretty interesting - but it isn't very funny. Why is that? For one thing, I think there's a general tendency to treat humor itself very seriously. Second, there's a tendency among philosophers to over-theorize and that's what I think is going on here. So, while he makes some interesting points, they don't always correspond to what I think of as humor. In fact, many of his examples are only marginally humorous. Almost none are out-and-out funny; many are witty, or clever, or droll but, again, I don't think many of his examples (often drawn from Swift, or classical sources) are good examples of humor.

Plus, there are a couple of places where I think he is just mistaken. For example, he writes:

In my view, true humour does not wound a specific victim and always contains self-mockery. (14)
That's just not right. A few weeks ago a video made the rounds of Stephen Colbert interviewing Lynn Westmoreland, a congressman from Georgia. Westmoreland has sponsored a bill to post the Ten Commandments in court houses, and he was passionate about the cultural and moral importance of doing so. So Colbert asked him to name the Ten Commandments - and Westmoreland could only name three. Very funny! But this certainly had a specific victim - Westmoreland - since it made him look like a total fool. And I think it's very debatable whether there was any self-mockery in Colbert's interview. So, I disagree with Critchley's idea of "true" humor.

Here's another quote:

As the example from Beckett indicates, when the laughter dies away, we sense, with a sadness...that is always the dark heart of humour, what an oddity the human being is in the universe. (50)
Well, maybe, sometimes. There's nothing wrong with mentioning this "dark heart of humour" but I don't think it is right to say that this is always the case. Many jokes are just that: funny, but it over-intellectualizes matters to think that they say anything about our place in the universe. Of course, if you use Beckett to illustrate humor, that's exactly the sort of conclusion you'll reach - and that's why Beckett isn't the first person to come to mind when one thinks about humor.

The root problem, here, is that Critchley is treating certain examples as paradigms of humor when they really aren't. Becaue he uses these as paradigms he's able to suggest big philosophical conclusions. But that making too big a deal both of these examples (which aren't really all that funny) and of what philosophy can contribute to an understanding of humor.

To link up with an earlier post, Critchley seems to be approaching humor as a big problem that needs to be addressed by using heavy-duty philosophical machinery. But as Wittgenstein points out, often the best solution is to see how these apparent problems are actually caused by too much philosophizing.