Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Question About Endnotes

Endnotes have been bugging me forever, and I am wondering if anyone can give me a remotely plausible explanation for their existence. Obviously papers need notes, but footnotes seem to do the job just as well as endnotes. Yet most academic books and journals continue using endnotes; many even require them. This annoys me to no end.

Here's the thing: reading a book or a print article with endnotes is a pain, because I basically have to use two bookmarks and constantly flip back and forth (depending on the number of notes), which makes me lose the thread and forces me to constantly reread paragraphs (it's also impossible to do when reading with one hand while trapped in a crowded subway car). Nowadays, more and more journals are going electronic, and reading endnotes in a .pdf file, or an html without hyperlinks, is pretty much the dictionary definition of "pain in the ass." So why do so many publishers insist on endnotes?

The only reason I can think of is that footnotes make a text less aesthetically pleasing, particularly with authors whose notes take up half of every page. Thus, one might think, it's better to have a pretty text and let those who are interested in further reading go to the endnotes. But this reasoning makes approximately zero sense when it comes to academic work, particularly journal articles. Sure, some people might enjoy skimming journal articles without paying attention to the notes; but it isn't possible to read an article seriously without consulting the notes, and it makes a lot more sense to tailor the layout of academic journals to serious readers than to skimmers.

So, thoughts or explanations, anyone? Ideas on how to get the journals to stop using unreadable formats?

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Problems in Defining Phenomenology

I am going through John Davenport's massive Will as Commitment and Resolve. It’s a pretty crazy book, in an exciting but also intimidating way. Davenport’s express purpose is to update Existentialism as a viable competitor in today’s philosophical marketplace by bringing it to bear critically on contemporary ethics, action theory, and philosophy of mind, among other things. That’s the exciting part. Here’s the intimidating and slightly monstrous part: the book is 550 pages or so, plus another 100 pages of notes, of very small print, and covers theories of motivation from Plato to Frankfurt and beyond. Additionally, Davenport goes out of his way to stress that this gigantic tome is merely a preface to much grander things: accounts of normativity, liberal political theory, mind, and theology, to name just a few. I’m sure I’ll be commenting on it more in the near future. For now, I just want to take up a brief note from the preface.

Davenport points out that, while much of what he writes will be in a style familiar to Anglophone philosophers, his method will be “broadly speaking phenomenological.” Here's his explanation:

In general, by a phenomenological approach I mean one that distinguishes between the primary phenomena to be explained in some area of philosophy and the rival theoretical explanations that construe these phenomena in different ways. The phenomenological approach presumes that we usually can discern, however imperfectly, some important phenomena that serve as paradigm cases or fixed points of reference for analyzing a particular problem or concept. This evidence or experience functions as an initial clue or proleptic outline of the concept at issue. The task of theoretical explanation is then to provide as convincing an account of these phenomena and their grounds of possibility as can be given, where what counts as “convincing” is itself guided by the shape of the phenomena that present themselves more or less clearly in common human experience. Thus the first aim of theoretical explanation is to follow where the phenomena lead rather than to make them fit the mold of a metaphysics to which one is antecedently committed. This principle, which corresponds both to Husserlian eidetic science and to the Habermasian communicative ideal of reaching conclusions based solely on the force of the better argument alone, is important in my case for deciphering how we can even begin to analyze concepts such as the will, volitional identification, and freedom. (xxii)

Aside from a very quick defense of this approach against three typical criticisms, this is pretty much the whole explanation of what the phenomenological method comes to. My initial reaction to it, I confess, was one of mild disappointment. Given that Davenport’s express purpose is to provide a theory that can enter into dialogue with Anglo-American philosophy, one might hope for an explanation of the method that would make sense to practitioners of that philosophy. And by make sense, I mean not just that readers from outside phenomenology would be able to understand the words in that particular order, but that they would see this method as, well, a distinct method. I am not sure that this description does that. The crucial notion that phenomena are normative guides for theory is there, of course, but whatever is unique about the phenomenological attempt to satisfy this normative constraint seems to get lost. Here are two initial concerns.

(1) Try the following exercise: read that paragraph again, substituting “intuitions” for every occurrence of “phenomena.” If you do so, it seems to me, what you have is a fairly reasonable—though somewhat unfamiliar—account of how Anglo-American philosophy is largely practiced; it sounds much like what the x-phi people have been arguing against, in fact. Thought experiments, after all, are generally aimed at using intuitions as evidence for a particular theory. A common concern about thought experiments—one that I share—is that they are raised from within specific theoretical commitments and are often designed not so much to get at our intuitions, as to distort those intuitions; they seem to guide us into accepting a theory instead of guiding us into coming to a theory by first correctly and painstakingly assessing our intuitions. And in this sense, of course, the thought-experiment-dropping brand of philosophy is quite different from phenomenology as described here. So Davenport’s description does correctly distinguish the phenomenological use of evidence from this use of it, one that takes our intuitions as evidence for a theory rather than as a starting point for theorizing.

But what about more honest thought experiments, the sort that try to bring out our intuitions in order to explain them rather than manipulating them? Certainly there is quite a bit of that going around as well. Is that approach phenomenological? What are phenomena in the first place? Are they different from intuitions? Are intuitions just the ways in which phenomena “pre-theoretically” manifest themselves? (In a note on p. 547, Davenport, without mentioning intuitions, suggests that folk-psychology serves to demarcate the phenomena that need explaining.) Without an explanation of what phenomena are and how they relate to intuitions, there is not much more of a distinction to be made, though the point about uses of evidence is an important one.

(2) Perhaps because I've never been supremely confident, especially with my Gadamerian bent, about what the phenomena/theory distinction is really supposed to establish, this account seems too vague to distinguish phenomenology from much of philosophy; indeed, from norm-governed human thought as such. After all, doesn't pretty much every decent philosopher claim to be trying to develop theoretical approaches that are true to the phenomena rather than the reverse? Not in that language, to be sure, and maybe there are different conceptions of what this means, but certainly most philosophers are more likely to describe their task as “developing a theory that is close to the phenomena” than as “interpreting phenomena in such a way as to fit pre-existing theoretical commitments” (the concordance between Husserl and Habermas on this point seems to reinforce the impression that the account is overly general). Consider: gathering evidence in order to support a theory, a theory not itself grounded in evidence, is the sort of thing that gets defendants off in murder trials. The need to fit theory to evidence before searching for new evidence to support the theory seems to me to be a constitutive requirement of human rationality. No doubt one can fail to meet these norms, but someone who entirely disregards them (as, for example, when ID proponents display material “evidence” that humans and dinosaurs co-existed) is in the business of con-artistry rather than theoretical thought. But phenomenology, one might think, is not methodologically identical to correct thinking.

There are certainly many cases where it might seem like philosophers disregard the evidence of phenomena for the sake of a theory: physicalists, for example, might seem to be disregarding the evidence of conscious phenomena; relativists might likewise seem to overlook deep underlying agreements. But I doubt these examples really suggest cases where phenomena are overlooked for the sake of a theory; rather, what seems to me to be central here is the issue of what phenomena one takes most seriously. The physicalist mindset arises out of certain phenomena, such as the longstanding history of success in predicting and manipulating the works of nature. The relativistic mindset, in turn, owes much to the phenomena involved in widespread cultural difference. Faced with seemingly conflicting phenomena, rational subjects might well build their theory on the phenomena that strike them as the most compelling, attempting to explain the less compelling phenomena away. Again, then, I worry that an overly broad account of phenomenology seems to extend its methodology to all, or almost all rational theoretical thought; only the outliers—ones that clearly violate or disregard the norms of thought—seem to be excluded.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

The Seventy First Philosophers' Karneval!

Alaaf, and welcome to the Philosophers’ Karneval, sometimes mistakenly called the Philosophers’ Carnival. For this edition Michael and I scoured the net, seeking philosophical floats for a proper parade in Köln. Apologies to those whose submissions didn't make it in, as we applied some strict Kölsch purity laws; we hope you'll enjoy the festivities anyway, and feel free to submit to the next edition. We attempted to do something a little different this time around, giving both short summaries of each post and some comments to get discussion rolling.

Weiberfastnacht Ethics: Let the festivities begin with a bang!

John Milanese tries to decode Plato in “Is Mathematical Knowledge Ethical Knowledge?” He argues that mathematics is, for Plato, not instrumental to, but constitutive of ethical knowledge, which requires a fine grasp of harmony. While this position seems closer to Plato’s intent than the alternatives, one might wonder whether it also serves to make Plato’s account of virtue completely implausible.

Tomkow brings us “A Solution to the Trolley Problem”, which attempts to address the difference between the switch-flipping intuitions and the fat-man-tossing intuitions by presenting a barrage of alternate scenarios designed to show that it’s always the fat man doing the trolley stopping. But one might wonder whether the fat man is really the “who” of the most relevant scenario, since the fat man is not the agent of his own tossing. And if not, the problem seems to remain unresolved.

At Pea Soup, Douglas Portmore suggests an interesting ambiguity in "the Too Demanding Objection" often leveled against moral theories. The comments, excellent as always, help clarify the difference. The interpretation on which a theory demands more than we have “sufficient reason to give” seems especially problematic. While Portmore has almost certainly pinpointed an important ambiguity, figuring out its terms will take more fine tuning.

Freitag Language and Logic

Shawn Standefer brings us a look at three different kinds of formality and asks where Wittgenstein’s “Tractarian Formality” fits in. He examines MacFarlane’s distinction between 1-formality, 2-formality and 3-formality in light of the Tractatus. He recognizes that these distinctions might help to fill out the role played by the Tractatus in the story of how we got from Kant and Frege to Tarski, Carnap and Quine. Apparently, this story might include a good argument for how to maintain Kantian formalism without Kant’s transcendental idealism. Of course, there’s a lot more to say about formality than is included in this famous history, but Standefer acknowledges so much.

N.N. at Methods of Projection looks at “Davidson and Meaning”. The broad matter is Davidson’s tête-à-tête with Dummett over the role of convention in meaning. As Dummett sees it, speakers use words as they do because those words mean what they do, whereas Davidson defends the converse: words mean what they do because speakers use them as they do. N.N. sniffs something amiss in Davidson’s account. For instance, N.N. is puzzled when Davidson suggests that, in a case of miscommunication, a speaker’s utterance only “sort-of” has meaning. As I read him, Davidson is asking, what is our meaning theory supposed to be a theory of? What is it trying to explain? His answer is, communication. Meanings, to the extent that they are theoretically useful at all, are to be judged by how well they explain successful communication, and communication has two non-reducible aspects: speaker intention and semantic role. Thus, an intention that fails to be expressed through the conventional use of a term only ‘sort of’ has meaning.

Colin Caret goes “From Mysticism to Paraconsistency” by taking on the tired old argument that we can disregard mystical claims out of hand, since mysticism is committed to contradictory propositions, and contradiction logically entails the truth of anything. Rejecting attempts to make mystical claims consistent, Colin instead argues that mystics intend their claims to be contradictory, and that the Principle of Charity requires us to understand such contradictions as nevertheless rational. He argues that a paraconsistent logic can allow for the meaningful, yet ostensibly inconsitent claims served up by the mystics. I would like to see this approach developed further, but find his way of motivating it here compelling.

Sammstag Epistemology

Eric Schwitzgebel takes on the possibility of Self-Blindness, where a person is in a mental state but lacks introspective access to it, by focusing on pain and belief. He argues that self-blindness in both cases seems unlikely, but for different reasons: in the case of pain, one might expect biological mechanisms to take over to compensate for any lack of introspection; in the case of belief, on the other hand, there seems to be a conceptual connection between having a belief and ascribing that belief to oneself. I would like to see in this connection a treatment of normative approaches to belief, according to which self-ascription of belief rests on entailment of a subject’s commitments to the evidence for that belief. Such a view maintains the conceptual link between being in a state and instrospecting it, while allowing for the possibility of introspective error.

Richard Brown, considering Armstrong on Naturalism, gives us a defense of both naturalism and empiricism. Empiricists, he argues, should accept naturalism, and everyone should accept empiricism over rationalism if evolution is true. I remain skeptical: the evolutionary argument doesn’t exclude the emergence of faculties that yield knowledge going beyond nature (e.g., Reason); nor is it entirely clear how we should justify our belief in evolution without from the start presupposing some normative commitments.

Sonntag Epistemology (a day much like Saturday, but with some unexpected surprises, small parades, and masked balls breaking out)

Brandon asks “Whatever Happened to Sublimity?” He reminds us that the concept of the sublime in the early modern period had as much to do with epistemology as with aesthetics, and that "sublime ideas" were taken to be ideas that exceeded the abilities of the human mind. Brandon suggests that the neglect of the sublime on the contemporary scene arises from our parsing of the world into little ideas. I am sympathetic to this project, but worry whether the contemporary scene can competently tend to the sublime: the French flirtation with sublimity in the late '80s, one might recall, was short-lived and not wholly productive.

Kenny Pearce examines “Realism, Phenomenalism and ‘Physical-Talk’” in a rare defense of Berkeley's phenomenalism against representational realism, in both its causal and mysterian varieties. He argues that phenomenalism can give a better analysis of our "physical talk" than the competition. While this is certainly a legitimate and interesting approach, however, one might wonder whether Kantian or Husserlian approaches cannot better do justice to physical talk; such talk might derive its evidence from our sense experience, but it is still talk about real objects, rather than the modes in which we experience them.

Rosenmontag Metaphysics

Andrew Bacon takes a stab at “Generalized Supertasks.” Just when many philosophers and mathematicians have come around to accepting that some supertasks are possible, Bacon argues that a large number are not. So, Zeno may have been wrong about motion, but the general problem persists.

Ever wonder what a formalized ‘Being and Time’ might look like? Jeff Rubard in “Heidegger’s Temporal Logic" at The Fortunes of the Dialectic suggests that it might look something like Hans Kamp’s tense logic. This connection is intriguing, but it would have to be worked out in some detail before it becomes compelling.

Fastnachtdienstag, the final day, is a good time to look at what’s left and perhaps burn one’s background commitments:

Avery Archer continues digging through “Davidson on Weakness of Will” and comes up with a criticism: Davidson's attempt to make sense of akrasia seems to succeed only by virtue of driving a wedge between reason and motivation, which is certainly a problematic conclusion given Davidson's insistence that reasons are the causes of our actions. While I tend to think that such gaps might be problematic for Davidson, I am not sure that Avery has quite found source of the difficulty: Davidson takes reasons to be belief-desire complexes, and certainly one can act on a belief-desire complex (in the right way) without that action being caused by the complete totality of the agent's relevant beliefs and desires. An akratic action is still a rational action, and an action properly motivated by reasons; it does violate a meta-principle of rationality, the "principle of continence," but it is precisely because akratic agents (like continent ones) are motivated by their reasons that their actions can be understood as failing to pass a meta-rationality test. Otherwise, irrationality would not even pose a problem. (Davidson's "Paradoxes of Irrationality" develops the account in more detail.)

Ever wonder why you’re not an anarchist? Paul Gowder over at Laws and Letters has had the opportunity, and shares his thoughts here. Gowder’s post takes up a challenge by Crispin Sartwell, who has decided ‘Enough with subtlety, just give me one good reason why the State, morally, should exist?’ Gowder’s one good reason seems to be: since most people as a matter of fact will spend time under the power of a state, and since there are any number of normative theories that justify this state of affairs, states can be justified by any such theory that doesn’t demand the impossible. Oddly, there's not much about what we are supposed to understand by a ‘State’. Was ancient Athens a state? What about medieval England? Or renaissance Genoa? Sartwell worries about the destructive potential that modern States have engendered, but I’d point out that, in tribal societies, the likelihood of violent death is much higher than any of us will ever see. Sartwell, and others, respond in the comments.

Alexei at Now Timesin “Background Committments: Style & Contentaddresses Brian Leiter’s insistence that a core set of philosophical propositions can be smelted down from Nietzsche’s affective stylings. Leiter makes an insightful comparison between transference in psychoanalysis and the affective charge of Nietzsche’s writings vis-à-vis the ‘revaluation of all values.’ Just as the theory of transference is separate from actually undergoing the experience, so too is the philosophical theory underwriting Nietzsche’s books. Alexei tries to one-up Leiter, by pointing out that the theory/practice distinction in analysis is not nearly as cleanly cut as Leiter is presuming. I’m not sure that Leiter will be convinced, because it still seems as though Freud’s theory of the psyche could be articulated without ever being practiced, but Alexei’s sophisticated and compelling post proves that the question is much more complicated than one might presume.

That’s it, readers and revelers! This Karneval is at an end. Nothing left to do but wait out the hangover and enjoy your Aschermittwoch Brathering. ‘Til next time, Alaaf!

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Philosophers' Carnival

The new Philosophers' Carnival is now up at Big Ideas.

In two weeks, we'll be hosting the next Carnival (or, as I prefer, Karneval) right here. Submissions on any philosophical topic are of course welcome (though I'll be trolling around looking for unsubmitted entries as well), but particular attention will be given to anything on action theory (including free will and moral psychology) and/or phenomenology.

And if someone can put up a post clearly explaining why someone might take the content of a mental state to be entirely linguistic and how this view can be squared with our experience, I'll be particularly thrilled.

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