Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Bad Literature is the New Philosophy

This delightful New York Times piece by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction portrays the dismantling of philosophy by postmodernist literature departments. Modern literature has abandoned its true calling of unwrapping the life’s intricacies through well-written narrative and replacing it with a pseudo-philosophy of cultural analysis and construction. It makes universal pronouncements of the death of universality and lofty arguments which conclude that logic is irrelevant.

Descartes Scholar Paul Hoffman Dies

The UCR Highlander reports that Paul Hoffman passed away on Thursday, May 13th suddenly. Eric Schwitzgebel of UCR who writes the Splintered Mind blog reports that Hoffman died of a heart attack. Hoffman is best known for his work on Descartes but he also wrote in other areas notably metaphysics and epistemology. A student blog has a statement from UCR Chancellor Timothy White here on Professor Hoffman.

What Do American Funk, Cornel West, and the Environment Have in Common?

Socrates apparently. Oh and George Clinton. Well George Clinton has a “connection” to Socrates and Cornel West studies Socrates and both are environmental activists. Something like that. But no matter. West and Clinton honored a new New Jersey charter school called the “Barack Obama Green Charter School” whose stated mission is to “create independent critical thinkers capable of applying the principles of sustainability for the development of themselves, the community and the environment.” (school’s web page). The wording of the schools mission statement and the fact that its oriented around a specific ideology reminds me of the many religious private schools I’ve encountered over the years. (I’ve long held that environmentalism is a surrogate religious ideology for the theologically disenfranchised and this is another small bit of evidence. See my post here for another example.). I attended Saint Mary of Mount Caramel Catholic School for example. The charter school West and Clinton honored has a familiar ring. That aside, it appears that Cornel West cannot only philosophize but jam: Clinton, absent his famous dreads, even let West have the microphone during a typically stretched-out performance of the Funkadelic classic “I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody’s Got a Thing.” (Considering his lyrical speaking style, the professor’s funk vocals were unsurprisingly right on the money.) The musician and the scholar traded lines like they’d been singing together for years. I wonder what Socrates would have done. See full article here.

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

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."

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