Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

New Review on Recent Book on Searle’s Philosophy

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews has posted a review of Joshua Rust’s biography of John Searle. The book is published as a part of Continuum’s Contemporary American Thinkers series.

“Rust gives his readers a grand overview of Searle's many philosophic activities. In doing so¸ he protects those who might have read one or two of Searle's books and articles from being misled as to what Searle is up to. Rust's overview is systematic.”

See the review here.

Philosopher Eschews Reflexivity

“I had a terrible education,” Woody  Allen quips, “I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers.” Excoriating academics has always been a favorite pastime of those with common sense and philosophers have often been at the whipping post. The larger the word an academic uses to describe a seemingly simple concept, the larger the dose of vitriol administered. Just in this past week, I’ve read or been sent an abnormal amount of tomes rebuffing the well-degreed. I wrote a post by neuroscientist Sam Harris in which he said, “I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ ‘noncognitivism,’ ‘anti-realism,’ ‘emotivism,’ and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” Yesterday I was sent a link to this popular piece in American Thinker titled “America’s Death by Professor” in which the author (who clearly shares Allen’s sentiment), writing against the apparent intellectual elitism of the Obama cabinet opines, “Inside the Beltway, "Harvard know-it-allness" is a prized commodity; outside, its practitioners are largely regarded as "obnoxious and arrogant" in the classroom and "jaw-droppingly incompetent" out of it. Small wonder trust in government has hit a fifty-year low.”

Now, apparently, philosophers are getting into the mix. The Catholic magazine America reviews a new book by philosopher A.C. Grayling called Ideas that Matter. According to the review, Grayling doesn’t much care for the ostensive hoity-toityness of academic philosophers. The review quotes Grayling as saying,

Ever in search of justification for their existence, academics then poach the new debates, and drag them into the dessicating atmosphere of their studies, there to render them impotent and irrelevant again by means of polysyllabic refinements, distinctions, trifling objections, counter-theories, improbable counter-examples, pedantic minutiae, and a drowning flood of neologisms.

I haven’t read Grayling’s book yet so I can’t comment on the merits of the review. Certainly it takes no effort to poo-poo many academic philosophers (as one of my graduate professors once said, “Some philosophers are poo-pooable.”). And I’m a strong supporter of efforts to make philosophy more practical and relevant. But I also strongly believe that popular philosophy would be vacuous without the rigorous, seemingly pedantic work being done by those in the academy. It would be just as foundationless as popular Darwinism would be without the hard work of paleobiologists who spend hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars digging up bones or popular theology would be without the voluminous linguistic refinements of professional theologians (unfortunately we all know far too many cases when both Darwinism and theology are done without the benefit these foundations).

There are some very bad academics. But any discipline has its poor representatives who shouldn’t be called out as representatives of the entire field. In my own case, the difficult, pedantic, minutiae of academic philosophy has been instrumental in improving my thinking in thousands of practical ways. It may take hundreds of pages of text on a given subject that finally provides a key nugget of insight into a difficult problem that has significant pragmatic application. The men and women who labor over that text may never see the result of their labor. Even (especially) in work that I find deeply erroneous do I find a useful foil to my own irrepressible dogmatism and intractability.

Practical philosophy is not only an ideal but a necessity (it’s almost definitional). But in striving for good ideas that make life worth living, we shouldn’t forget that behind every idea that matters there’s a good philosopher.

Scientists Create Synthetic Bacterium

The organism is controlled by entirely synthetic DNA developed in the lab. The research will most likely have negative ethical implications (real or imagined) but also significant potential for good.

‘This is literally a turning point in the relationship between man and nature,’ said molecular biologist Richard Ebright at Rutgers University, who wasn't involved in the project. ‘For the first time, someone has generated an entire artificial cell with predetermined properties.’

Read full article.

Tom Morris on the Popularity of Philosophy

headshot[1] Morris, in an article for the Huffington Post, picks up on the new New York Times blog on philosophy and spends some time defining the discipline and explaining why everyone one should be doing it. It seems philosophy is striking some chords with the wider population.

"Journalists have called me to tell me that, suddenly, philosophy is hot. It often seems to cool off very quickly, but then it heats back up again. Some of the issues it grapples with just won't go away. It's not science. It's not exactly literature. Most people are not quite sure what it is. And to crack open the door of many philosophy classrooms around the nation and listen for a few minutes, you might come away convinced that it's merely a complex intellectual game, played almost as blood-sport, that involves creating apparently endless arguments for possible answers to unsolvable problems."

Philosophy Lecture at CSULA

Those in the Los Angeles, CA area may be interested in a lecture being given by Mariana Ortega, Shula Chair and Professor of Philosophy at John Carroll University. Her talk is titled, “Home, Belonging, and Multiplicitous Subjectivity” and will cover the notion of “home” in terms of a politics of location, a notion of belonging that accompanies such a politics, and a view of multiplicitous subjectivity.

The talk is being given on Thursday, May 20, 2010 from 3:15-5:15p in the San Gabriel Room.

More information here.

Words Matter

Noam Chomsky, that innovative linguistic, is not known for mincing words. Now it seems language—his raison d'etre—is keeping him out of the West Bank. Chomsky was set to give a lecture at Birzeit University when he was stopped at the Jordan border. According to the professor, “the government did not like the kinds of things I say and they did not like that I was only talking at Birzeit and not at an Israeli university too.” For a linguist, that seems somewhat fitting. See full article.

Philosophy Goes Mainstream

Philosophy has long been out of vogue. Mainly relegated either to ivory towers or to mainstream books with titles like [Your Favorite Cultural Icon] and Philosophy, it’s now showing up alongside All the News That’s Fit to Print. The New York Times has just launched a new forum on philosophy called The Stone--an opinion series moderated by Simon Critchley. According to the editorial introduction,

thestone45_1[1] The Stone is a new opinion series that will feature the writings of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless — art, war, ethics, gender, popular culture and more.

Good for philosophy or another trivialization? Time (or The Times) will tell.

Epistemology: Just the Facts?

I recently bemoaned the misuse of important philosophical concepts by the blogosphere. I came across another article that uses the term epistemic closure and the usage in this article is even more puzzling than in the first. While this article by Rod Dreher is no more about epistemology in a philosophical rigorous sense than Christian Science is about Christianity or science, Dreher, through his autobiographical mea culpa does touch on some topics that epistemologists do find interesting.

The first is the relationship between epistemology and psychology. Philosophers tend to study knowledge and belief in the abstract—what these things are or what ought they to be. It’s rare for an epistemologist to do actual clinical studies of specific belief states and draw hard analytic data from them. Surely actual beliefs are considered but they tend to become the fodder for abstract cases that can then be analyzed and discussed. (Incidentally this level of abstraction seems to be attractive only for purely academic philosophers. Will Durant found the discipline so disconnected from reality that he called it “that dismal science” and purposefully neglected it in his popular work The Story of Philosophy (Preface to the Second Edition, xix)). Even so, philosophical epistemology and epistemic psychology ought to be joined at the hip.

Dreher observes that actual belief formation isn’t a pure assimilation of the facts which are then run through an impassioned logical framework which produces beliefs and knowledge. Beliefs are formed in the nexus of a variety of intentional states including desires, fears, hopes, and the like. An analysis of the actual process of belief formation must include these dynamics if it is going to be at all accurate. Dreher writes in reference to his belief that the war in Iraq was justified,

As longtime readers will remember, I've written about how I ignored or otherwise dismissed all arguments and information contrary to what I wanted to believe. I was entirely closed to any contrary viewpoint. But here's the thing: I thought I was the one with the open mind, and all the naysayers were so blinded by ideology, fear or cowardice that they couldn't see what was plainly true. In retrospect, I have been able to see how the strong post-9/11 emotions I had conditioned all the information I took in the march up to war.

His belief about his beliefs about the war were that they were not the product of a “pure” analysis. Rather, intentional states like desires and fear played a strong role. And certainly this is true for a lot of the beliefs we hold. John Searle, in my opinion, has done some of the more significant recent work on intentionality in his book by the same name (he started this project in his book Speech Acts). Searle defines intentionality as a property of mental states (not sentences) in which the content of that mental state has as its referent some object or state of affairs ("the specification of the mental state . . . requires the specification of some object or state of affairs") which is not identical with the mental state (182). Intentionality is a primitive in Searle's ontology.It is how the mind grasps things in the world.

He contrasts intentionality with intensionality. The latter “Intentionality-with-a-t is, so to speak, a ground floor property of the mind. It is how the mind grasps other things. But intensionality-with-an-s is primarily a property of sentences and other forms of representation. Some though not all intensional sentences are about intentionality-with-a-t.” (189). Searle describes two essential concepts important to intentionality.

Representation. He emphasizes that his use of this term is logical not ontological. By this he means that representation does not mean a picture of the belief or 'meaning' or the like. Rather, representative content means that the Intentional state has propositional content which determines a set of conditions of satisfaction that its mode (Intentional states are in a psychological mode which I take to mean the type of thing it is) which determines the direction of fit (mind to world) of the propositional content (12). But representation is not the only aspect to an intentional state. "The key to understanding representation is conditions of satisfaction."

Conditions of Satisfaction. Conditions of satisfaction are "those conditions which, as determined by the Intentional content, must obtain if the state is to be satisfied….Thus, if I have a belief that it is raining, the content of my belief is: that it is raining. And the conditions of satisfaction are: that it is raining--and not, for example, that the ground is wet or that water is falling out of the sky." In traditional epistemology, the conditions of satisfaction would be similar to the correspondence relation between a proposition and a state of affairs in the world (the Correspondence Theory of truth).

Given this, he describes belief as “a propositional content in a certain psychological mode, its mode determines a mind-to-world direction of fit, and its propositional content determines a set of conditions of satisfaction." (15) Searle attempts to sidestep the mind-body problem by addressing Intentionality in terms of its logical properties and then rely on a separately-argued worldview (or better, metaphysic) to solve the ontological problem: how the logical properties of Intentionality are realized in the world (see Intentionality, 15). Intentional states then make up the basic framework of thought and the content of the mind can be described in terms of the intentional states it has at any given moment. Belief is just one intentional state among many and the content of the mind is a matrix of these states in dynamic interplay.

Dreher’s article focuses on specific issues the Catholic church is dealing with and how much the leadership of the church actually knew regarding those issues. Dreher takes a guess. But I wonder if he misses another crucial point about epistemology and psychology: knowledge probably is irreducibly first person which makes it very difficult to make statements from a distance about what another person actually believes (or believed). If Dreher’s analysis of Ratzinger is solely based on what he reads in the media, he’s largely reading words used by an editor that publicize his beliefs about what his writer wrote down about his beliefs about what people largely removed from the Pope believed about what the Pope believed. This is not skepticism about knowledge. It is an acknowledgement that epistemology is a tough business.

Philosophy Students Balk at Department Closures

Due to financial difficulties, Middlesex University has decided to close the philosophy department. Students of that department are pushing back.

However, the Middlesex decision has not been justified to students. A meeting to brief the students about the closure was postponed, says the university, because of pressing coursework deadlines. Perhaps trying to justify the decision to 60 students well versed in the art of logic was too daunting for the university authorities.

Full article

new_news_image **Update (5/17/2010): See this interesting article by Inside Higher Ed on the subject. Apparently, the news of the closure set off a firestorm of opposition across the pond.

Hell, Fire, and (Global) Warming

I came across this op-ed piece in the New York Times today by Al Gore on global warming. While there’s little of obvious philosophical value in this article, as one who grew up in a very conservative Christian church, I’ve been struck by the similarities between the language Gore uses to articulate his cause and that used by leaders in my conservative upbringing. What struck me most about his article (and Gore’s whole campaign on this topic) is how brilliantly it functions as an alternative to the Christian narrative for those in the West.

  • It has a “transcendent,” largely ineffable object towards which we must direct our energy: the planet and “the life of future generations”,
  • It’s largely unproved and un-provable (this is an important epistemic feature in my opinion),
  • It has skeptics to give the faithful wagons to circle: “climate deniers”,image-burning-planet
  • It provides a path to redemption (“From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption.”),
  • It provides a strong locus of guilt as a motivator: “We would no longer have to worry that our grandchildren would one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands.”,
  • It has a religious text, a church, and an apologist defending the apparent mistakes of both: “the reality of the danger we are courting has not been changed by the discovery of at least two mistakes in the thousands of pages of careful scientific work over the last 22 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”,
  • It has missionaries and priests: “Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate”, and
  • It employs a tacit use of fear to incite action; the threat of a future “hell” if you will: “[a failure to fight global warming will result in] the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, civil unrest, chaos and the collapse of governance in many developing countries, large-scale crop failures and the spread of deadly diseases.”

With the narrative of Christian theism largely displaced among the educated and affluent in the West, this narrative has stepped in filling the gap and is does so with aplomb. Based on the behavior of educated professionals I work with and the attention given to this issue by those in the popular media, Gore’s apologetic has many devoted disciples. They faithfully are shedding their worldly possessions in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, they attempt to live modestly (apparently so they don’t take up more than their fair share), they are religious about recycling which appears to be their version of being good stewards of the planet, and they look askance and incredulous towards anyone who does not share the faith.

I suppose the important take-away is that Ernest Becker was right. Human beings need religion or a worthwhile surrogate. It’s life or death to us.

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