Monday, August 28, 2006

Soames on Analytic Philosophy in America

Scott Soames has posted a piece on the history of analytic philosophy in the U.S. (here). There's been some discussion of it on the Leiter blog, as well.

At first I was going to write a critical post, but then I read some of the comments on the Leiter blog and decided not to play that game.

So here's one thing I like a lot about Soames' piece, and a couple of points where he gets things wrong.

First, I appreciate the space he devotes to pragmatism as laying the foundation for analytic philosophy in the U.S. The affinities between pragmatism and analytic philosophy all too often get short shrift.

But, second, my points of disagreement.

1) Soames says that "Peirce had little patience with...grand metaphysical systems." Well, not quite: Peirce wasn't above metaphysical system building of his own (his essay "Evolutionary Love", e.g., is an especially wacky example).

2) Soames passes over James' theory of truth way too fast. Soames leaves us with the impression that James believes that truth = what is beneficial to believe. But that's an over-simplification, as even James realized.

3) Soames also misrepresents Dewey's theory of truth, writing that for Dewey truth = warranted assertibility. There's a lot more to say on this point, but again this over-simplifies matters. Dewey claimed that warranted assertibility served the same function in inquiry that had, traditionally, been assigned to truth. He didn't equate the two.

4) Soames shies away from discussing the political pressures that led to analytic philosophy's dominance in the U.S. This has led to some sharp words on the Leiter blog - but it certainly deserves explanation how philosophy became depoliticized in the U.S.

5) Finally, it's worth emphasizing how pragmatism remains a resource for analytic philosophy. E.g. Quine, Putnam, and Rorty all identify themselves as pragmatists - and you'd have to place those three high on your list of influential American philosophers. Strangely, though, Rorty isn't even mentioned in Soames' piece.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Evolution and Cognitive Dissonance

There's an interesting article in this week's Science about evolution. The article compares acceptance of evolution across nations (focusing on Europe, the US, and Japan). Sadly, the U.S. comes at the bottom of the list, just above Turkey and just below Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria.

The article's authors examine a number of reasons for this result. One reason is the U.S.'s unique form of Protestant fundamentalism. In other countries there isn't the same tension between conservative Protestantism and the theory of evolution.

Another reason is that many Americans just don't understand contemporary biology and genetics. And this leads people to hold inconsistent beliefs. E.g., according to this article 78% of U.S. adults will agree with a description of evolution that doesn' use the word "evolution." At the same time 62% of U.S. adults believe that God created humans in their present form, without evolution. Obviously these two beliefs are inconsistent. And that means that a lot of people are in a state of cognitive dissonance when it comes to evolution.

I teach a "Critical Thinking" course pretty regularly, and I always emphasize the importance of getting one's belief-system consistent. It seems simple, but people have inconsistent beliefs all the time: it's just that they are about personal matters that would never register on a survey. It's nice, for that reason, to see such a clear example where people do hold inconsistent beliefs. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Richard Hofstadter

Sam Tanenhaus has a review of a new biography of Richard Hofstadter, in the New York Times. Hofstadter is a favorite of mine, for two of his books: Social Darwinism in American Thought and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Not only are they impressive pieces of historical scholarship, but they remain relevant today.

To wit, we might have thought that Social Darwinism petered out in the 1930's but, of course, it didn't. One only has to look at the domestic policies of Ronald Reagan and Bush II to see that Social Darwinism still influences policy makers.

Likewise, Anti-Intellectualism is as much a problem today as when Hofstadter wrote in the early 1930's. While I don't agree entirely with that book (in particular, his treatment of some of the pragmatists), there's no question that Anti-Intellectualism is well entrenched in American culture. Not only is it well-entrenched, it's even glorified and often rewarded. On a practical and political level, we see this whenever politically appointed ideologues reject the expertise of career government employees (at NASA, the CIA, EPA, etc.)

Thursday, August 03, 2006


This week's New Yorker has an excellent piece by Hendrik Hertzberg. It's about the tendency of many conservatives to refer to the Democratic Party as "the Democrat party".

Now on one level this is just playground tactics: refusing to call your adversary by its real name and instead using a name that is somehow mocking or derogatory. Hertzberg does a nice job of tracing this practice back to the 1920s and through the Cold War period (McCarthy liked to do it). It's interesting, too, to see that William F. Buckley has written against conservatives who substitute "Democrat" for "Democratic".

I'd add one point to what Hertzberg writes. One advantage the Democrats have is that their name means something to most people. Its sort of a truth in advertising issue. If you're a Democrat then you must be in favor of democracy, and everyone knows what that is, right? (Well, not right, I guess, but everyone thinks they know what democracy means, and that's what matters here.)

But what if you're a Republican? How many people, off the top of their heads, can say that being a Republican means being in favor of a republican government and that means a government where supreme power is held by the people and not by a monarch (say)?

The problem for Republicans is that the name of their party doesn't really convey all that much. And it certainly doesn't connect up with what the Republican party is now known for: lower taxes, pro-business, anti-abortion, etc. In fact, some of those commitments are arguably in conflict with republicanism. (Being pro-business may take power from the people and give it to business interests.) Since that's the case, it's easy to see why some Republicans would be anxious to undermine and mock the name of the opposing party.

Two final points.

First, a good case can be made that Democrats are committed to protecting democracy. That's in part what all the fuss in Florida (in 2000) and Ohio (in 2004) was all about.

Second, what would be a better name for the Republican Party? The obvious choice would be the "Conservative Party" (unfortunately there's already a pretty powerful Conservative Party in New York and it's hard to see them giving up their name). But that's problematic, too, since many conservatives, especially small government, libertarian conservatives, would argue that the current Republican party has betrayed the conservative cause as well.