Saturday, October 6, 2012

Choosing Our Motives

Leiter has a new post with a poll about the breakdown between vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores in philosophy. While this is interesting information to have, I guess, I wonder about the second part of the poll, the one that asks people whether their eating is shaped by ethics. First, I have no idea how philosophers can still believe that any of us have access to our motives, so I'm generally skeptical of people who claim to be vegetarians for ethical reasons (apologies to those of you who do so claim, but I think you're wrong). Let's say that you believe eating meat is wrong. You also find it easy and convenient, for whatever reason, not to eat meat. There's a correlation. You know that there is a correlation. But how could you possibly establish that there is a causal connection? Of course if you believe that you ought to X, and you do in fact X, it's extremely tempting to pat yourself on the back for a job well done. But how do you know that you've done the job? I think we in general have reason to be suspicious of ascribing efficacious motives to ourselves, especially in cases where we are likely particularly prone to self-deception. And so we should, perhaps, try to avoid encouraging the practice. Here I am only making an epistemic point: there is no introspective method for determining which of your motives in fact caused your action (especially since (i) we do not know all our motives, and (ii) we need not be aware of those motives in order for them to have causal efficacy). But I think there is also an important point about the metaphysics of agency: we tend to think that we have a power to choose between our motives (some--mistakenly, in my view--call this power "free will"). But why should we think we have this power?

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

We're Ranking Non-Continental Continental Journals Now?

Ah, a lovely new Leiter poll, this time ranking "the best journals for scholarship on the post-Kantian traditions in Continental philosophy." Very sensible results, aside from EJP and Inquiry, if you assume that the best way to do scholarship on Continental philosophy is not to do it at all. Oh, sorry, PPR is in second place. I assume because having the word "Phenomenology" in your title means that your content is continental. And as for those silly journals that do publish on continental philosophy, well it doesn't matter if we call them "International Journal of Philosophical Studies" or something else that they aren't called, since most of the people voting most likely don't read continental philosophy in the first place.


I actually did look through the TOC's of the journals listed for the past few years, so I think my assessment of the current tally (namely, that those voting mostly don't read continental philosophy) has to be accurate, since most of the journals Leiter lists haven't published a single continental paper paper in the past two years, or perhaps only a single continental paper. So it's hard to imagine what this exercise is supposed to prove, unless Leiter is literally looking for confirmation that good continental philosophy is done only in analytic contexts. The contest seems a little rigged, though.

For those who have difficulty with online sarcasm, by the way: I take it that EJP and Inquiry are obviously the two best journals in the category. PPR, on the other hand, has no reason to be there (despite recently publishing Katsafanas's awesome article on Nietzsche and constitutivism; that only shows that PPR will occasionally publish good papers, not that it's any more a reasonable place to go look for scholarship in continental philosophy than NYU is a reasonable place to go study continental philosophy).

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Belated Note on Gutting on the Analytic-Continental Divide

I'm guessing everyone who might read this blog caught Gutting's piece on Bridging the Analytic-Continental Divide when it first appeared in The Stone way back. I'm a fan of Gutting, generally, but have to say that something about this piece didn't quite work for me: if Gutting is right about what continental philosophy is about, in any case, it seems like it can't be written more clearly. That's upsetting.

The problem is this. If, as Gutting says, there is a powerful current of continental philosophy that tries "to think what is impossible" (and, for that matter, if the aim of phenomenology is to get beneath the concepts of common sense and find their conditions of possibility), it seems to follow that much continental philosophy cannot be written clearly. What is impossible to think in principle cannot be thought clearly. And whatever involves expanding, or getting beneath our concepts, cannot be clearly thought until it has become common sense--that is, until our conceptual apparatus has managed to absorb it. (Incidentally, this is why I'm a bit confused by Gutting's suggestion that the phenomenological and post-phenomenological approaches, the philosophies of experience and imagination, as he terms them, are in tension with each other.)

So if one takes these continental tasks to be worthwhile, then one cannot simply say that continental thinkers need to write more clearly so analytic thinkers can understand them. Rather, if these tasks really are worthwhile, then analytic philosophers must get better at understanding them on their own terms, or at least they must meet halfway. For that matter, what are we to make of the claim that not "much of serious philosophical value is lost in the clarity of analytic commentaries on Heidegger, Derrida, et al."? I can't speak about Derrida, et al., but quite a bit is lost in most analytic commentaries on Heidegger that I've read--temporality, for example! Of course continental commentaries have their own serious problems (why would you need a commentary on Heidegger that is even more opaque than the original?). This is exactly why it's generally important to read original sources. Of course I applaud Gutting's pragmatic streak here--it's better for analytic philosophers to read analytic commentaries on the continentals than not to read them at all. The problem is that we can't tell what is lost without checking for ourselves.

But the more significant problem remains this: that if Gutting is right about what is truly valuable in continental philosophy, I can't see how it could be made clear. And while I agree with his insistence that continental philosophy could and should be more clearly written, I can't see how that could be possible given his characterization of it.

And speaking of The Stone, our most recent disaster is Julian Friedland making a mockery of the pretty obvious--from a semantic standpoint, anyway--claim that philosophy is not a science. Another one of Critchley's friends? Who still thinks that psychologists can work from armchairs with their eyes closed? Post 19th Century? Really?

Ending on a more positive note, Iskra Fileva's recent piece on Character and its Discontents was good, though I worry slightly that she might be conflating two senses of character that really should be sharply distinguished--the sense in which having a character means resisting external influences (or, more felicitously, maintaining one's way of behaving despite external incentives to deviate), and the sense in which having a character just means being disposed to respond to external influences (otherwise known as motives). I hope she gets that essay prize!

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

APA Savings

From a recent IHE article about the smoker at the APA (for background on the most recent criticisms of the smoker, see here):
[APA executive director David Schrader] noted the concerns of some women and said there had been informal discussions at the APA. Some had suggested a cash bar instead of free alcohol as a way of tempering bad behavior by making it a bit difficult to drink too much.
Seriously? Their plan is to save money on alcohol (keep in mind that this year the only free alcoholic alternatives were Budweiser and Bud Light) and spin it as a way of being more welcoming to women in philosophy? Does anybody else find this suspicious?

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Personal Identity, Duplication, and Divine Justice

One standard criticism of the memory (or virtually any psychological continuity) account of personal identity is that it is vulnerable to duplication. If person A is somehow duplicated, so that the resulting persons are B and C, and both have A’s memories and are otherwise psychologically continuous with A, this shows that psychological continuity cannot be the bearer of personal identity. After all, in this case, B would be identical with A, and C would be identical with A, so by the transitivity of identity, B would be identical with C. But since B and C are, ex hypothesi, two distinct persons, they cannot both be the same person as A. I have never found this argument convincing or relevant—it seems to me to miss what personal identity is about, because “same person” doesn’t mean “same variable” and personal identity involves temporal considerations that the duplication argument simply ignores. If we want to insist on using personal identity for a formal, atemporal, relation, my sense is that Parfit is right—personal identity isn’t a real property to begin with and we should switch to a different word that will be less confusing to metaphysicians. But I was just reading Lynne Rudder Baker’s summary of Gareth Matthews’ religiously motivated attempt to save the memory criterion and it strikes me as completely off track; let’s hope psychological continuity theorists don’t need to appeal to intuitions this vague!

I haven’t read Mathews’ argument, but only Baker’s short summary of it. Presumably he defends some of his premises, though I can’t imagine how. Here I will just quote Baker’s summary in full (from her “Death and the Afterlife” (p. 380); there is no citation for Mathews, so I’m not sure where he discusses this):

The reason it would be metaphysically impossible for B and C to have A’s memories is this: A deserves punishment. God is essentially just and judges everyone. Suppose that B and C both had A’s memories (caused in the right way). Whom does God punish? If God punished B but not C, or C but not B, then God would not be essentially just: B and C are related to A in exactly the same way; it is impossible to be just and to judge B and C differently. On the other hand, if God punished both B and C, then there would be twice the punishment that A deserved, and again God would not be essentially just. Either way, supposing that B and C both had A’s memories (caused in the right way) violates God’s essential justice in judgment. Because God is essentially just, if A deserves punishment, it is metaphysically impossible for God to bring it about that B and C both have A’s memories.

Now there are all sorts of problems—the reliance on theological premises, for example, or on the idea that despite being a “loving” God, He is preoccupied with making sure everyone gets to suffer for their sins (I’ve always wondered how much of the psychological pull towards such views is about love, and how much—pace Nietzsche—is just about sticking it to the people you don’t like). But here it’s the conception of justice I don’t buy. I get that, if God is all about punishing, it would be unjust of him to punish B but not C. Sure, ok, both of them deserve it equally (though—pace Anselm, this time—we could insist that God doesn’t necessarily punish everyone based exclusively on their desert, since God must also be just to Himself, and we don’t have any idea how that works; I’m pretty sure Anselm’s view of divine justice would undermine this prong of the dilemma).

But I’m willing to accept this. It’s the second prong that smells fishy. “If God punishes both B and C, then there would be twice the punishment that A deserved, and again God would not be essentially just.” Wait. Come again? This seems to me obviously, and trivially, wrong at best. First, there seems to be something very weird going on: the argument assumes that there is a fixed ratio between the amount of guilt and the amount of appropriate punishment. So if, say, someone commits crime X, which deserves Y amount of punishment, then it would be unjust to meet out more (or less, I suppose) than Y amount of punishment. But this can’t be the whole story. For surely if A commits crime X, it would be unjust to meet out Y amount of punishment to Z, a completely different person. So it matters not simply how much punishment is meted out, but to whom it is meted out—the right person has to be punished. And that person is A. So on the argument as given, it seems like there are two criteria in play: (1) Punishment must be meted out to the person who deserves it, and (2) the amount of punishment for crime X in the universe must be proportional to the severity of crime X. Now, (2) may be a modification of a reasonable assumption, (3) the amount of punishment must be proportional to the severity of the crime. But (3) is perfectly compatible with duplication—if both B and C are psychologically continuous with A, then both B and C deserve the amount of punishment proportional to A’s crime.

The difference between (2) and (3) should be clear enough. (3) insists that everyone get what they deserve, but no more. But (2) insist that in the universe as a whole, there not be meted out more than the number of people who initially deserved it now deserve. In other words: the assumption of (2) is that, if only one person committed crime X deserving Y punishment, then at any time after X is committed, only Y and no more may be justly doled out in the universe. But I haven’t got a clue why we should believe that. It makes sense, of course, to say—with (3)—that if A committed crime X, which deserves Y punishment, then it would be unjust to punish A with more than Y. But if, as we are assuming, A is split into B and C, where both remember committing the crime, both remember thinking beforehand about the consequences, etc., I can see no reason why Y punishment would not be appropriate to each person who committed the crime. Why should the universe demand—if one person committed a crime, but now two people stand in that one person’s place—that only one of them may be punished? Whatever the idea behind this, it doesn’t seem to me to be related to any conception of justice.

Perhaps the idea is this: since only one person committed the crime, only one person may be punished. This is still dubious, but it’s also irrelevant: if, at the time of crime X, one person committed the crime, but now there are two people responsible, to insist that only one of them deserves punishment would be question begging. The argument must assume, it seems to me, that two people cannot both be the same as one person that used to be. Perhaps that isn’t question-begging: the argument isn’t supposed to show that if A is duplicated into B and C, then B and C are not identical with A. The argument simply assumes this. It is supposed to show only that God could not allow both B and C to be duplicates of A. But that isn’t right—if B and C were both duplicates of A but were not the same person, then there would be no problem here at all, because neither B nor C would deserve punishment. So in that case, God would have no reason to prevent the duplication. He would have reason to prevent the duplication only if B and C in fact were the same person as A. But then it seems perfectly reasonable to think that both B and C deserve the punishment for A’s crime, since it is also B’s crime and C’s crime. So Mathews’ argument is either question-begging, or involves saddling justice with a weird assumption that is foreign to the idea of justice, since it isn’t germane to the issue of what punishment anyone who committed a crime deserves.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Bother Talking to Analytic Philosophers?

Continental philosophers interested in communicating with their analytic analytic counterparts sometimes express frustration: why should they have to do all the work? It sometimes seems as if, in such situations, continental philosophers have to completely translate someone like Heidegger into analytic-speak and then relate the translation to clear, current problems in the analytic literature. That’s a lot of work! And for what? To get people who refuse to read Heidegger—obstinately, it seems—to accept that yes, maybe Heidegger had one good idea somewhere? At least, that’s what it can look like, and in light of this it isn’t surprising that so many continental philosophers want to retreat into an echo chamber of textual exegesis. Why bother to explain something, one might ask, to people who seem to have no interest in what you’re explaining, and who certainly won’t meet you halfway, but expect you to come to them? This isn’t helped by the fact that some analytic philosophers—though I think significantly fewer than one might expect—are actively hostile to continental thought. Consider, for example, this missive on Heidegger by Simon Blackburn, who seems to have skimmed Heidegger for the explicit purpose of criticizing him (to balance things, it may be worth noting that Blackburn did something similar with regard to Donald Davidson, though I’m not sure how comparable that hatchet job is). Or, perhaps even worse, Paul Edwards’s seemingly intentional misreading of Heidegger (there are few authors one can’t perversely misread if one sets one’s mind to it and if one’s colleagues will praise—rather than condemn—one for doing so). Ugliest of all, perhaps, a blurb from J.J.C. Smart on the back of the Edwards book claims that Edwards “explains clearly why those of us who are repelled by Heidegger’s style of philosophizing are right not to read him.” With garbage like this in the air, a Heidegger scholar might be excused for thinking that these here analytic fellows just aren’t worth talking to.

Thankfully, much of that is old news, and my sense—though I could be wrong—is that the sort of hostility evidenced by Blackburn, Edwards, and Smart, is significantly less common. Far more commonly, I’ve run into indifference, incomprehension, and even interest coupled with uncertainty about just how—even if this stuff is interesting—one could say something philosophical about it. These attitudes are far more reasonable. But so what? Why, continental philosophers might ask, is it worth doing all the work for these people? Well, it is pretty common for continental philosophers to complain about being marginalized, and consequently many will insist that the analytic/continental divide—a condition if not the only source of the marginalization—needs to be done away with. (Of course there is also another tendency: a tendency to complain that analytics aren’t doing real, deep, profound philosophy; that sort of garbage exists on both sides of the divide, and is usually backed up by a complete ignorance of what the other side has been doing for the past 10-100 years.) The divide, clearly, will not go away unless continental philosophers take analytic work seriously and vice versa. Now, those on the continental side clearly have it in their power to start reading analytic work, but just how would they get those on the analytic side to start reading continental work? What, short of complaining about how analytics are all closed-minded throwbacks, are they to do? Or, to put it another way: if you are a continental philosopher, and you think analytic philosophers ought to be reading work from the continent, just how do you imagine this might happen?

Well, it won’t happen magically, and it won’t happen through attempts to “shame” analytic philosophers into wanting to learn more continental philosophy, and the reason is simple: the incentives to do so are very small. Given the way academic philosophy is structured, and given that continental writing has a tendency to be impermeable without the proper background, analytic philosophers—even those who are not hostile to continental thought—just have no real incentive to delve into it. (This isn’t helped by the fact that, if you are used to reading 20 page papers that make very clear points, reading 400 page tomes that make rather nebulous points, which are hard to pick out or explain in concrete terms, is likely to be a hard sell. Several exceptionally good philosophers have told me, with no condescension or hostility, that they just can’t make sense of Heidegger.) If that situation is to change at all, how? That is, how can the incentive structure be changed? I doubt it can be changed first at the institutional level—i.e., by restructuring departments to train students more broadly—because that would require first changing the incentives of the people responsible for structuring departments. So, how to do that?

Well, one incentive to read work is that reading it and writing about it gets one published; but that's not an incentive continental philosophers have much control over, and it would take a sea-change for this to become a relevant incentive—writing on continental philosophy is among the surest ways, at the moment, to exclude oneself from publishing in most highly ranked journals. Another incentive is to convince people that they need to understand something because it can contribute to their work. Many philosophers are, I think (or like to think), intellectually curious and intellectually honest (at least to an extent), and if they are convinced that reading something will help them think through a problem they are working on, this will give them an incentive to read it. Think, for example, about what Rawls and his students did for Kant: virtually nobody was reading Kant, at least in anything but an absurdly superficial way, until Rawls and his students showed that everyone, even committed Humeans, simply has to read Kant in order to make any sense of normativity and the special status of morality (if there is such) among other normative claims. Similarly, telling people, "Hey, you should really read Heidegger because he's soooooo deep" isn't going to get them to read him (it is more common for people to believe that this might work than you’d expect; especially, I think, among grad students, and especially among grad students who are very into Heidegger—and this isn’t meant as a condescending jab at all; I certainly used to think like this). Even if they believe you, they have a lot of other crap to read, arranged in not so neat piles all over their desks, floors, and perhaps beds. But if you show them how Heidegger can speak to their own interests, in their own words (or at least words they can understand), you have a shot at getting them to read him.

This is all pretty obvious, I think. So what’s the point of bringing it up? Well, the main point is simply this: complaints that analytic philosophers need to just stop being mean to continental philosophy and start reading it are off the mark. Given existing incentive structures, analytic philosophers are, for the most part, perfectly rational in not reading continental philosophy. (There are cautionary tales about going back and forth: I jumped from largely continental to largely analytic reading at the dissertation stage… and that’s how I spent nine years in grad school, boys and girls.) So railing at analytic philosophers and calling them names because they aren’t running out to get a copy of Being and Time, Difference and Repetition, or Oneself as Another isn’t just unproductive—it’s completely mistaken. It assumes that, if people aren’t reading something you find important, those people must be intentionally obstinate jerks, determined to remain in the dark ages and perversely persecuting you and your favorite philosophers for being so enlightened. But that’s not it at all. Nobody can read every book out there, and most people are going to read what they need to in order to make sense of the projects they are working on. So why not try to explain to them why they should be working the projects you are interested in? And if they don’t understand a word coming out of your mouth, instead of taking this as further proof of their inferior philosophical acumen, why not take it as a sign that maybe you’re not being quite as clear as an expert like yourself ought to be, and that maybe that’s something to work on?

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why is so much Continental Philosophy so Bad?

Given the recent discussions over at the New Apps blog, I want to briefly comment on a question in some ways at the heart of things: why is so much continental philosophy so bad?

I think there are at least two reasons. The first is sociological. Given the professional rift between analytic and continental philosophers, and given that the dominant side of that rift has little interest in talking to the other, often enough bashing it openly, there is little incentive for continental philosophers to talk across the divide or to try to engage with the “other side.” This is a shame. It rests on the idea that philosophy consists of “figures,” owned by “sides,” so that the “figures” studied by the “other side” don’t need to be read (this is particularly ironic, given the continental trope of emphasizing the significance of the Other!). The refusal to speak across traditions undermines the idea of philosophy as universal, instead seeing it as consisting of parochial local traditions. I am still old-school enough to think that, although obviously much of what philosophers do addresses local, parochial concerns, good philosophy must aim to speak with a universal import. When philosophers cannot make themselves understandable by other philosophers, there is a breakdown. When philosophers do not care about making themselves understandable by other philosophers, they are no longer doing philosophy. The sociological effect of the analytic/continental divide is thus two-fold. On the one hand, it leads analytic philosophers to ignore, and feel fully content and justified in ignoring, much of the philosophy produced on the continent over the last century or more. On the other hand, it lowers the quality of much work on that philosophy by eliminating the need to approach it clearly, rigorously, and critically. The last part is especially important. Being critical means not simply finding the limits of someone’s thought (oh, look, there’s an aporia! How profound!), but also clearing away the chaff covering over the kernel of truth, and bringing that kernel to fruition: criticism involves a certain amount of disrespect, a willingness to challenge some of a thinker’s ideas as obvious bullshit in order to salvage what has genuine value. I believe Nietzsche once ridiculed philosophers for thinking that their systems would survive the test of time, when in fact only the building bricks of those systems had any chance of making it. It is crucial for thinkers immersed in, say, Derrida to be able to find the core worth preserving and to be willing to ruthlessly excise the rest.

This leads to the second reason. The 20th Century saw a deep skepticism about the system-building of the (early) 19th Century. But a key component of that system-building remained in place to some extent, and came back with a vengeance in Heidegger and, more importantly, in the French philosophy of the ‘60s. Take Kant: it is now widely alleged that he invented the empiricist/rationalist distinction, cleaving philosophers with similar concerns and orientations into two distinct camps. As a result of this reading of the history of philosophy, Kant could reconcile the two sides. (I am not, of course, implying that Kant only solved—or attempted to solve—a problem of his own making. But the reading of history was instrumental to framing the problem in the particular way that Kant did.) Thus, idiosyncratically interpreting the history of philosophy became a centerpiece of system-building, with pernicious effects. Giving one’s own interpretation of a history allows one to set one’s own rules for doing philosophy: to set up certain problems as central, to invent a specialized terminology for addressing them, to provide a foundation for further investigation. Kant clearly succeeded: his vision of history, and consequently his view of the central problems and his terminology (if not his actual system) pervaded Western philosophy and became inextricable from it. Heidegger attempted something similar—a reinterpretation of history that highlighted the question of being—with somewhat more mixed results: his terminology was adopted on much of the European continent, but rejected by Anglophone philosophers as excessive and nonsensical. But the adoption in Europe had serious effects: in the ‘60s and after, it began to seem as if every French philosopher was compelled to invent his or her own reading of history, view of central problems, and specialized vocabulary. Take a look, for just one admirably clear example, at Latour’s 1991 We Have Never Been Modern, where he bolsters his network theory by—you guessed it—giving a selective reading of the history of Western philosophy!

What is the result? Keep in mind that the entire point of giving one’s own version of the history of philosophy is to foreground particular problems and to (attempt to) standardize a particular terminology. Two people from different traditions are unlikely to share a vocabulary or common views of key problems. But the result of the French appropriation of (especially later) Heidegger was just to create a distinct tradition as a bubble around every philosopher. In a 2005 interview, Baudrillard said that, “There are no more French intellectuals. What you call French intellectuals have been destroyed by the media. They talk on television, they talk to the press and they are no longer talking among themselves.” His view is no doubt clearer than mine, but it is an interesting development. To my mind, we cannot overlook the importance of the following fact: the vast majority of French intellectuals, philosophers in particular, attended a single institution of higher learning: the École normale supérieure. Imagine if the only people for whom you wrote, to whom you hoped to make your thinking clear, had virtually the same education as you, the same teachers, the same readings of history of philosophy. The result would be that you would belong to a group that had its own tradition, separated by terminological (and other) gulfs from other traditions that, nevertheless, shared the same “history,” in the sense of the same objective set of historical references. But then imagine if part of this tradition was that each member of it were to go their own way by reinterpreting the history in their own, idiosyncratic way, against an already idiosyncratic background! Each would construct, in effect, their own tradition. It is not only the media, in other words, that is responsible for French intellectuals not talking to each other, as Baudrillard suggested. It is the fact that, in a real sense, when a group of individuals each have their own sense of tradition, their own terminology, and their own “central” concerns, there is a sense in which they cannot talk to each other (though of course their readings of history, their “traditions,” are likely to have enough of a family resemblance to allow for a fair bit of communication at times)—and talking to anyone outside the group becomes virtually impossible!

A result of this was that philosophers who wanted to study the French philosophy of the ‘60s had no choice but to immerse themselves in a new terminology, a new reading of history, a new understanding of central problems. To understand someone like Derrida, there is a sense that one must immerse themselves in his “world” or “tradition” to such an extent that one’s new understanding has little in common with anything outside that tradition. Bridge-building becomes exceptionally difficult, and can be overtaken in the first place only by someone who sees the value of interacting with other traditions, thus, someone who respects and recognizes the value of those other traditions themselves. (You will have no incentive to make yourself understood to analytic philosophers if you haven’t bothered to understand any of the analytic core issues or why they are interesting—and in fact we do find, in continental circles, some typical primitive misunderstandings of analytic philosophy as retrograde, simplistic, and “subjectivist”, without a clear understanding of what one is so opposed to and why, aside from the fact that some of the assumptions of this tradition still make sense, and thus seem to be conservative, not up to date with the great shifts of the ‘60s; the irony, of course, is that so much “continental” philosophy these days is immensely retrograde, focusing entirely on interpretation of texts that are 40 years old, with little by way of progress! This in addition to the aforementioned irony that people so frequently interested in the Other should be so unwilling to actually encounter and address the Other.) Continental philosophy, under current sociological divides, and given the interest in making sense of the primary sources in such a way that almost precludes making sense of them to others outside the tradition, is thus almost fated to be, for the most part, quite bad. Even when it strives for clarity—and I want to commend here Gary Gutting’s spectacular history of French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century—massive problems remain in terms of making sense of how these thinkers or anything they say could be made relevant to analytic philosophy today. This is the problem. People like Gutting, Lee Braver, Linda Alcoff, and many others have tried seriously to undertake such tasks. This is the kind of “continental” philosophy worth supporting, with the hope that it will transcend the parochial divides and challenge the self-enclosed continental establishment in order to make it better, to force it to do philosophy rather than focusing too exclusively on how others have done philosophy, and to bring it to the fold of the universal.

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

X-Phi, True Selves, and what Philosophy is Actually About: Knobe Again

Unlike certain elements in the philosophy blogosphere, I've been pretty happy with New York Times' The Stone. True, a few of the articles have been pretty bad, some haven't been all that enlightening, and I've made my views of the Stone's editor, Simon Critchley's, contributions to the column known (as well as the view that Critchley can be great in other contexts). But overall, I think it's had great stuff—I was happy to see Strawson featured, interested to read Priest, and—frankly—I liked that Bernstein piece about the tea party (I still don't know why Leiter hated it); with Burge, Pippin, Clark, Nussbaum, Railton, Bauer (writing about Beauvoir and Gaga—I threw that one right at my students) and that neat Gutting piece on religion, you have to be a bit near-sighted to condemn the whole enterprise because of a few pieces that fail. But what I really don't get is why Knobe just got his second piece (this time about the "true self") in the Stone. And I'm going to complain about it, because that's what blogs are for. And then, at the end, I'm going to say something about what I'd really like to see in a piece on the "true self" written by a philosopher for a popular audience, something that would give an indication of what philosophy is actually about.

I'm often puzzled by experimental philosophy—given some solid philosophical theories, each with its own problems and benefits, just what does the "experimental" part add? Imagine the following: you are teaching an ethics class, and your students keep throwing out relativist intuitions, despite the fact that you just had them read three texts excoriating relativism. Now, I think most philosophy professors (though of course I can't be sure without taking a survey) would, in this situation, attempt to point out to the students that they need to come up with responses to the points raised against relativism in the readings. Relativism, which today has come to seem like common-sense, turns out to have pretty serious philosophical shortcomings, and part of the job of an ethics class, I should think, is to point out those problems. If your students stay relativists—well, fine, whatever; some quite good philosophers are in that camp, after all. But what you should hope for, as someone trying to teach them ethics, is that at the very least they come to see the problems with relativism as serious problems worth taking up, so at the very least they can have some idea of why it might have been wrong to burn witches in Salem.

That's one idea of what to do in a philosophy class. Here's another one: you could have your students take a survey that would show that hey, maybe the way that "people actually use these concepts"—say, morality, right, wrong, objective, relative, etc.—actually show that morality just is a relative concept. Those weird guys with beards and wigs—you know, the philosophers—have just been using their terms in ways that are foreign to the way the terms are commonly used; John Austin was right all along—you can't trust philosophers to use everyday language correctly, and everyday language gets the final say! So now you've done some surveys, and it turns out that all that stuff you've had your students read about relativism is wrong-headed: the arguments against relativism must rest on strange, non-standard uses of the terms involved, or on bizarre and uncommon intuitions (say, the bizarre and uncommon intuition that feeding people to lions was somehow wrong in a society that thought it was great entertainment).

Granted, I'm being unfair to experimental philosophy. But it's worth pointing out that virtually every single explanation or defense of X-Phi out there starts with something like this:

  • Philosophers tend to rely on their intuitions. But many people might not share those intuitions.

Or, in more concrete cases, like this:

  • Philosophers tend to hold view A about topic T. But many people don't hold view A at all!

So if the standard response to X-Phi is a cheap shot, it's because the most ardent proponents of X-Phi tend to motivate the project with a pretty ridiculous claim. It's that claim, grown ever so stale in the history of philosophy, that one is doing something oh-so-new, something that flies in the face of tradition, something that changes how philosophy is done! (Of course the next step is often just the opposite: in response to charges that X-Phi is not philosophy, we are often told that no, really X-Phi is fully continuous with the history of philosophy. So that cake's been regurgitated a few times, which is what happens when you try to have your cake and…)

The problem, of course, is that challenging the intuitions of "the philosophers" by contrasting them with the intuitions of "the public" (i.e., whoever your survey takers happen to be—usually students, and I've been trying to point out what's just a bit weird about that), is precisely not the strong point of X-Phi. One clear reason for this is that the experiments are set up by people trying to test a theory; the experiments are often set up to support a particular view (even if the view is just that, hey, some people disagree with intuition A about topic T). Another reason is that the enterprise as a whole is pretty odd: common-sense concepts are confused. Arguably, that's why we have philosophy in the first place—to note the confusions and try to straighten them out. If the point of X-Phi just is to figure out what the common-sense intuitions are, so we can then go on to clarify, critique, and refine them, great! But since the experimental set-up already lays out the possible intuitions, it's not very clear just what it adds to the project to then see what percentage of your respondents holds each of the options. Why not, instead, just see what other commitments the options are consistent with?

So let's turn to the Knobe post. Since, as I've suggested, the motivation for many X-Phi projects seems to be a sort of "hey, let's challenge the tradition" project, one often finds the attempt to present a weak, often false, view of what something called "the philosophical tradition" believes, and then an attempt to see whether this is what the population at large (that is, college students) believes. Yes, I realize that this is a New York Times piece, directed at a general audience; but I've seen this move before, in less popular expositions, and in any case: there is a sense in which higher standards of accuracy seem important precisely when engaged in popular expositions.

So Knobe tells us, here, that something called "the philosophical tradition" gives us an answer to the problem of what "the true self" is: it's reason! So when you're faced with desires of all sorts, you reflect on them, endorse them (though Knobe doesn't use this terminology here, it is pretty prevalent in the literature at this point), and those constitute your true self. This is option one. Option Two, Knobe tells us, is the option that non-philosophers tend to give him: a person's true self is expressed in those moments of drunkenness or passion when our rational self-censoring mechanism is peeled away, and our "deeper" desires flow to the surface.

Now something strange happens. It's strange because Knobe seems to be suggesting that he is proposing a new idea, which is distinct from that one, monolithic thing that the entire philosophical tradition has been telling us. And here is that new idea: "People's ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living." Call this Option Three. Knobe tests Option Three by asking people to self-identify as liberal or conservative, and then giving them vignettes with questions like this:

Jim used to be homosexual. However, now Jim is married to a woman and no longer has sex with men.

How much do you agree with the following statement?

At his very essence, there was always something deep within Jim, calling him to stop having sex with men, and then this true self emerged.

And this:

Ralph used to make a lot of money and prioritized his financial success above all else. However, now Ralph works in a job where he does not make a lot of money and benefits others.

How much do you agree with the following statement? At his very essence, there was always something deep within Ralph, calling him to stop prioritizing his financial success above all else, and then this true self emerged.

Knobe found something surprising. Conservatives tended to think that Jim's true self emerges in the first vignette. Liberals tended to think that Ralph's true self emerges in the second. This might be because conservatives value resisting homosexual urges, whereas liberals value benefitting others over financial success. Oh, wait, that wasn't surprising. That was actually the whole point of the survey set-up. But there is funding for this, so it's obviously worth doing!

Now, aside from being snarky, I should note that I'm thoroughly puzzled (yet again) by what is supposed to be going on here. I have no intuition about either vignette, for the simple reason that I don't know jack about Jim or Ralph. If somebody tells me that I have to agree or disagree, I guess I could try; if I'm given a scale of agreement, I could randomly pick a number, but I don't have a clue. This isn't to say that I don't have intuitions about "true selves" (though I also think it's damn good to be skeptical about those intuitions); only that to form a judgment about either Jim or Ralph, I might need to read a pretty long novel about each of them—preferably one that chronicles their entire life, and not just from their own perspective or the perspective of their present self. And even that might not help. After all, I've read Hamlet, and if you ask me whether his "true self" is thirsting to avenge his father, or to sit back and think about it until the problem somehow resolves itself, I'll have to take a pass. Of course many people have immediate intuitions about "true self" cases that they can reach without knowing a great deal about the people involved, and without thinking too much about counter-examples. Obviously the judgments of those people are the best suited to "give us a better sense of how people actually use these concepts."

Now, part of my point has been that it's not really clear why this needed to be an actual study—the researchers had a pretty good, solid thought about how people might make judgments about "true selves," and the study confirmed something that was likely to be pretty obvious anyway. The further issue, though, is that if you want to defend Option Three as a theory of what "the true self" is, you're going to have to actually provide arguments for it, address problems for it, etc; the experimental results are going to be pretty pointless. Unless, of course, all you are trying to show is that people's intuitions tend to track Option Three. In which case you've got a study that tells you nothing about "the true self" or what that is, but tells you—for some as yet unrevealed purpose—how a lot of people tend to use the term in a particular experimental set-up. (Of course there are ways to make it more interesting. For example, in expounding Option One Knobe used the trope of the unwilling addict; insofar as she doesn't want to be swayed by her addiction, it seems like in acting on her desires she is actually betraying her true self. Anyone who thinks that the true self lies in a person's desires is going to have to be able to deal with such cases. But, again, I'm not clear on what relevance surveys on this would have to philosophical debates on the issue.)

But now, let's ask: how is Option Three different from Option One? In one sense, it really isn't. On one reading, Option Three just is Option One. Notice that Knobe lays out the distinction thus: on Option One, a person's true self is identified with her reflective judgment. As Knobe puts it in pointing out the problems with Options One and Two, "The trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person's psychology." This is confusing, because I don't see a good way of making Option One identify the true self with "one particular part of a person's psychology." The "capacity for rational reflection" isn't straightforwardly such a part; and, in any case, what Knobe's explanation seems to suggest—in line with the endorsement account—is that the person's "true self" isn't the capacity as such, but rather the piece of the person's psychology that that capacity picks out. So on Option One, a person's true self isn't just some piece of psychology—rather, it's the piece of psychology that is supported by reflection, i.e., by endorsement or valuation. And on Option Three, judgments about a person's true self constitute a judgment not about which aspect of a person's psychology serves that role, but rather about which part of the person's psychology has greater value. So Option One looks a heck of a lot like Option Three.

Of course this is only on one reading of Option One. Here is another, and seems to get closer to what Knobe is driving at. Option One makes judgments about what the person's true self is depend on that person's psychology. Option Three, on the other hand, makes those judgments relative to the values not of the person in question, but of the person doing the judging. So I don't see at all how this survey—as Knobe describes it—shows us anything opposed to either Option One or Option Two. Instead, it changes the topic: it shows that our judgments track a different option. It shows that, when we have to make snap-decisions about someone's "true self" on the basis of scant information—something we do in real life—we are tempted to make those decisions on the basis of our values. This might say something interesting about our moral psychology, no doubt, but it says very little about the concept of the true self. So Knobe seems to set up the motivation for the survey by talking about one thing, and then carrying out the survey on a different topic. That doesn't seem enlightening.

Here's what would be enlightening, and what would be worth seeing in a philosophical discussion of "the true self" written for a popular audience: an actual examination of the confused common-sense view of the concept. First, we might note that Option Two is obviously not absent from the tradition, although few philosophers have held it as is, and for a good reason: if you're going to give all our desires equal weight, it's not going to make a hell of a lot of sense for you to talk about a "true self" in the first place; you'd have to see the self as a multiplicity of varied, disconnected, often conflicting and incoherent desires. But if you do give desires a central place in constituting the self, you're likely going to establish some sort of hierarchy, so that some desires—say, volitional necessities—have a special place, and other desires, ones that conflict with the volitional necessities, are going to be in some sense alienated or external desires.

There is a second point worth making about Option Two, one that comes up nicely in existentialist take-downs of the idea that being authentic or true to yourself just involves acting on your desires, or even finding your deep desires and acting on those. Namely, that your desires are no more "you" than whatever social norms you absorb. This is, in part, because many of our desires—on some views, all of them—just are socially constructed or shaped. Maybe you really want to get married, and have a nice picket fence and a three car garage and a bunch of toddlers running around. But you have to be crazy to think that this desire is any more "authentic" or any more "yours" than, say, an ad-induced craving for Sprite. And, in part, there's the Kantian point: that while you might think that your desires show the "true" you, it's hard to see why this "you" is something you should be particularly attached to; if your desires aren't things that constitute you because you value them, or because you chose them, or because you created them in some way, then why should you give them any privileged place? How are they any more you, or any more valuable to you, than any other natural feature about you, like that ingrown toenail?

But now—and this is one of the important things to note—Knobe points out, without examining, that this idea of a true or authentic self "is, perhaps, one of the distinctive ideals of modern life." Well, yeah. It really is. It's one of those things the post-Kantian revolt against reason managed to bring out, and merge nicely with the obsessive modern Western trend toward individualism, bolstered by our now common belief that we are all so very special and so gosh darn unique. And sure, if you think you're a special, unique individual, and that this really matters, then it's going to suddenly be very important to figure out just what your unique individuality consists of. But this desire to be unique and special may well exercise a distorting influence on our judgments about what our "true self" is. And critique of this is, in fact, pretty common to the tradition.

Let's revisit Option One, on which the true self is identified with "the capacity for rational reflection." What does that really mean? Well, on one popular historical view, the capacity is universal, in that it is a capacity shared by all rational beings. It is a capacity for rational reflection, and reason is universal. In fact, all that stuff about individuality is, on this view, problematic: we deviate from the universal just to the extent that we deviate from reason. And we do so insofar as we are misled by our desires and our sense-perceptions. And why would anybody value that? In one sense, it is a tautology to say that valuing deviation from reason is an error: it's just saying that it is irrational to value deviating from reason. So on this view—and we find various approaches to it in Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Kant—your "true self" is exactly the same as everybody else's "true self": it's the self that is aligned with Reason or Truth. From this vantage point, the different views about the "true self" that Knobe is discussing are all completely off the mark; it's also no wonder that people who are raised to think of themselves as unique individuals are likely to be systematically off the mark in this way. In a sense, whatever the survey respondents might say may be just as indicative of a widespread pathology as any insight into our concepts. And diagnosing such pathologies is—isn't it?—one of the key functions of philosophy. What does X-Phi contribute?

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Friday, April 22, 2011

CFP: Time and Agency


George Washington University

November, 18-19 2011

Invited Speakers:

J. David Velleman, New York University

Lynne Rudder Baker, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida

John J. Drummond, Fordham University

Actions have a duration, they sometimes follow on intentions directed toward the future and are themselves sometimes directed toward bringing about future events. They may also be caused by past events, or be brought on by motives or reasons. Actions are also individuated from within a temporally extended continuous stream of activity. They are performed by agents, whose selves or practical identities may or may not be unified through psychological continuity, through their standing plans for the future, or through narratives. Agents inhabit a world that is temporally ordered, and that ordering is reflected in action. In seeing themselves as standing under an obligation, agents recognize reasons for future actions, and in judging them responsible for those actions we in turn trace their agency to past decisions on their part.

Whatever perspective one takes on the above issues, it is clear that action and agency cannot be understood apart from time. We are soliciting strong papers in both the analytic and continental traditions. Papers will ideally be written in a manner that will be clear and accessible to scholars from different backgrounds working on the philosophy of action.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

Causal and teleological theories of action.

Action individuation within a stream of activity.

Future-directed intention, intention in action, and the temporality of directions of fit.

Plans, personal policies, and other diachronic volitional states.

Diachronic personal identity, practical identity, continuity, and narrative.

Historical and time-slice views of moral responsibility.

Temporality, movement and the life world.

Temporal aspects of free will, determinism, and fatalism.

Narrative time and the explanation of action.

Retention and protention in agency.

Heidegger on conscience, being-toward-death, or the relation between mood and action.

Ricoeur on birth, life, character, habit, and consent to the involuntary.

Psychoanalysis on deferred action.

Please send papers or abstracts for a talk of approximately 40 minutes. Ideally, submissions should not be under review for publication. Abstracts should be around 1,500 words, although complete papers (with a brief abstract) will receive priority in consideration. Please include a short CV or author bio (these will be used to interest possible publishers and will not be involved in selection of papers for the conference). Abstracts, papers, bios, and correspondence should be sent to the conference organizers, Michael Sigrist, and Roman Altshuler, Please indicate with your submission whether you would be willing to serve as a commentator.

Deadline for submissions: July 1

Decisions will be sent out by: August 31

Sponsored by The George Washington University Department of Philosophy

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Naive Action Theory: First Replies

Roman has some of the same questions I have. I’ll leave (1) until Chapter 8, ‘Action and Time.’ I think I know the answer to (2), but then again Thompson’s larger points get lost on me if I’m not paying sustained concentration, which is often enough that, well, Thompson’s larger points get lost on me at times.

Roman’s question, as I understand it, is as follows, but broken up: a) sometimes we rationalize (explain) an action by reference to another action. ‘Why are you going to Chicago?’ Answer: ‘Because I’m traveling to Evanston.’ But other times we don’t. ‘Why are you eating that?’ Answer: ‘Because I’m hungry.’ Being hungry isn’t an action. Nor is it a wanting/desiring, but it is more easily explicable in those terms, eg., I want to sate my hunger and believe that eating this will so sate, and so I sate myself. b) What is the relation between the trip to Evanston and the trip to Chicago. Going to Chicago appears at the same time to be both dependent and independent on the trip to Evanston. On a trip to Evanston, it would make sense to tell a friend, I went to Chicago.

As for (a), I still have to wait and see. Thompson has yet to deliver, from what I’ve read, on the claim that “a sophisticated position [SAT] cannot be defended...and that the role played by wanting...really is taken what we might call the progress of the deed itself” (90). I am intrigued by his suggestion, on page 92, that we might build up from NAT to an SAT much like Sellars’ Jones graduates from the Rylean world to mind-reading. This seems promising, and I’m looking forward to seeing if Thompson can deliver. That said, with respect to the Sellarsian parallel, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the difference between explanatory and conceptual priority as they figure in Sellars’ argumentative strategy: overt behaviors (among the Ryleans) have conceptual priority to nonexpressed, nonovert mental states in the sense that a) they can be described independently of mental talk, and b) they provide the model for mental states as theoretical posits. However, once the theory is online, as it were, mental episodes have an explanatory priority for behavior: behavior is explained as resulting from inner mental states. Maybe more to the point, Sellars believed that there really are mental states, but Thompson seems to be telling us that wantings/intendings are “really taken what we might call the progress of the deed itself.” (I can't yet make sense of that.) So the analogy potentially breaks down here: for Sellars, thinkings are modelled on speech-acts, but inner states motivating actions can't be modeled on the actions themselves, and so I don't see how naive actions can play the explanatory role that overt speech acts play for Sellars. Also, Thompson claims, again much like the Ryleans, that we can conceive of a form of life that explains itself solely in a naive fashion. Like Roman, I’m a little skeptical of this, but withholding judgment. I think we have to withhold judgment because if Thompson fails to deliver on this claim, then really his whole project fails (it would turn out that he is just analyzing a peculiar sub-species of action rationalization rather than action itself).

Which leads to (b). Naive rationalization explains smaller phases of an action by placing them in mereological fashion in a larger whole action. If I’m reading him right, maybe we can say the following: going to Chicago is an intentional action but is not an independent act? I’m not sure. This at first confused me: suppose I am moving a stone from point A to point E (in order maybe to open the door to Ganon’s lair). This is an intentional action (I intend to open the door so that I can kill Ganon and save the princess). Thompson wants to say that moving the stone from A to C is alsointentional. That doesn’t comport with my folk understanding of ‘intend.’ Of course I have to go through point C to get the stone to point E, and of course, since I mean to move the stone to point E, in some sense I do mean to move it over point C, but I wouldn’t describe that action as ‘intentional’ because that description (“I should move the block to point C”) never passed through my mind. Ah ha! I am being too sophisticated, Thompson tells me. That was my problem. The notion that, for an action to count as intentional, the concept expressed by its intentional description must have passed through the mind of the agent is, he says, “a prejudice” (108). So, an action is intentional just in case it is explicable as being part of a larger action. I am lifting the fork. Why? Because I am eating. I intend to sate my hunger, but as Thompson is using the term, in so doing, I intend to lift my fork even though no such thought ‘lift the fork’ passes through my mind and the fork may not even ever serve as an object of attentional awareness. All the same, I do seem to remember him writing that each of the ‘organs’ of a whole action are independent--I”ll have to go back and check. If not, then I think this review is fair, and maybe even right.

But this then leads to (3) in Rom’s list. What is it that explains a single whole action? So far Thompson has said that explicability is accomplished by explaining sub-actions as being parts of larger actions, but he hasn’t really said what a whole action itself is. And my folk intuitions tell me that he’s helpfully explained how I can be said to have intentionally lifted the fork in feeding myself, but he hasn’t explained what it means to eat dinner as such. Wouldn’t NAT require explicating that action in terms of another--but which one? Why am I eating dinner? Just because! Or, because I’m hungry, where hungry isn’t something else that I’m doing. Remember: Thompson is claiming that NAT is independent, and I think he also means adequate, in the sense that I should be able, with NAT, to describe something like just eating dinner--but how, if eating dinner is not itself a part of some larger doing?

I imagine these are obvious questions, and that Thompson has answers to them, so I’ll be on the look out. Let me quickly just mention three ideas I like: 1) there is a hint that Thompson is saying that actions are meaningful insofar as they are part of and presuppose something like a life-world or ‘form of life’ (his phrase; i don’t know if he means it in a technical sense). Obviously my interest in phenomenology explains why it’s interesting to perhaps find Thompson striking upon an idea already quite developed by that school. 2) not unrelated to (1), I’m interested in his claim that actions are essentially temporally stretched. As I said in my past post, this I think is something that the historian implicitly assumes, but is not something I find central to the action theory I have read (maybe it’s more common than I’ve seen; i haven’t read gobs.). 3) Actions are causes of themselves. This is the closest Thompson gets in what I’ve read so far addressing Roman’s (3) above. He says, eg., that building a house is intentional just in case it is a cause of its own parts (temporal phases or organs), eg., laying pipe becomes intentional because it is explicable as part of the act of building a house. But then--in what he acknowledges is cavalier--since everything, including an action, just constituted by its parts, that actions are therefore causes of themselves. This is clever, but I’m waiting to see it filled in.

Question: Think you can explain what exactly is at stake in the 'minimum movible,' 'minimum sensible' and 'maximum insensible' discussion? Why can't it be the case that actions bottom out into non-action-parts? Was that even the point?

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