After the Kipnis fiasco several weeks ago, one in which, unfortunately, philosophers played a starring role, a law colleague asked me "Are all philosophers nuts?" Well, not all, but certainly plenty of them lack professional judgment, as we have had occasion to note before. Still, given the awful publicity for academic philosophy, one might hope that philosophers would think twice before providing further evidence to an unflattering narrative about the field. But, as Sartre said, one must live without hope.
Toronto's Joseph Heath wrote an insightful and sensible piece about the overblown rhetoric in the media about "political correctness," but then identified a more serious problem with one current of academic work:
Often when journalists talk about [political correctness], what they have in mind is old-fashioned language policing. Now I must admit, it is still possible to find this sort of thing in the nooks and crannies of academia. For example, one academic reviewer took exception to a line on the dust-jacket of my recent book: “Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the Western world have become increasingly divided—not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy,” condemning my use of the term “crazy.” Apparently it is “ableist.”
So yeah, this sort of thing still exists. What’s important is that it is no longer taken very seriously. This sort of verbal policing is the academic equivalent of a stupid pet trick – one that everyone knows how to do, and most people get over by end of undergraduate. In mixed company, using a term like “ableist” provokes a lot of eyeball-rolling, and is generally recognized as a good way of ensuring that no one outside your own very small circle will take you seriously.
There is, however, a deeper problem that has not gone away. This is the phenomenon that we refer to as “me” studies....
[S]ome people take the advice, to “follow your passion,” as an invitation to choose a thesis project that is essentially about themselves. For example, an old friend of mine in Montreal studying anthropology wrote her Master’s thesis on, I can’t remember the exact title, but it was something like, “Negotiations of difference in Quebecois-Jewish couples on the Montreal Plateau.” At the time, she was living with a Jewish guy on – you guessed it – the Plateau. So she basically wrote an MA thesis about issues in her own relationship. This is classic “me” studies....
Where “me” studies can easily become more problematic is when people decide to study, not their own lives per se, but rather their own oppression. Now of course oppression, in its various forms, is a perfectly legitimate topic of inquiry. Indeed, many of the forms of social inequality that we tried to eliminate, over the course of the 20th 1century, have proven remarkably recalcitrant in the face of our efforts....
[W]ho is best positioned to study these various forms of oppression. After all, we all live in the same world that we are studying. So who is best positioned – those who suffer from it, or those who do not? The inevitable conclusion is that neither are particularly well-positioned, since both will be biased in the direction of producing theories that are, at some level, self-serving, or self-exculpatory. Thus the best arrangement will be one in which lots of different people study these questions, then challenge one another to robust debate, which will tend to correct the various biases. This is, unfortunately, not how things usually play out. Instead, the field of study tends to attract, sometimes overwhelmingly, people who suffer from the relevant form of oppression – partly just for the obvious “me” studies reason, that the issue is greater interest to them, because it speaks to their personal ambitions and frustrations. But it can also set in motion a dynamic that can crowd out everyone who does not suffer from that particular form of oppression.
In terms of the quality of academic work, the results of this can be really disastrous. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met, who specialize in some form or another of “critical studies,” who are among the worst critical thinkers I’ve met. It’s because they lack the most important skill in critical thinking, which is self-criticism – the capacity to question one’s own view, and correct one’s own biases. And the reason that they’re so bad at it is that they have never had their views seriously challenged....
The problem is that, when you’re studying your own oppression, and you’re obviously a member of the oppressed group in question, people who are basically sympathetic to your situation, but who disagree with your specific claims, are going to be extremely hesitant to challenge you, because they don’t want to appear unsympathetic.....So you are only going to hear from two types of people – those who are sympathetic but want to take a more radical stance, and those who we might label, for convenience, “jerks,” which is to say, people who are both unsympathetic and who are, for one reason or another, immune to any consideration of what others think of them....
I don’t know how many talks I’ve been to where the question period goes this way. Someone presents a view that a solid majority of people in the room think is totally wrong-headed. But no one is willing to say things like: “I don’t think that what you are saying makes any sense” or “you have no evidence to support this contention” or “the policies you are promoting are excessively self-serving.” The questions that will be asked come in only two flavours: “I’m concerned that your analysis is unable to sustain a truly emancipatory social praxis” (i.e. “I don’t think you’re left-wing enough”), or else “you people are always whingeing about your problems” (i.e. “I’m a huge, insensitive jerk”).
Then of course, out in the hallway after the talk, people say what they really thought of the presentation – at this point, a whole bunch of entirely reasonable criticisms will get made, points that probably would have been really helpful to the presenter had they been communicated. The end result is a perfect example of what Timur Kuran refers to as belief falsification (not a great term, but Kuran’s work on this is very interesting). So basically, practitioners of “me” studies suffer from a huge handicap, when it comes to improving the quality of their work, which is that only people who are extremists of one sort or another are willing to give them honest feedback....
This dynamic may help to explain why the reaction that so many “me” studies practitioners have to criticism becomes so highly moralized. They begin to think that all criticism of their views arises from some morally suspect motive. This is what then gets referred to as “political correctness,” namely, the tendency to moralize all disagreement, so that, instead of engaging with intellectual criticism intellectually, they respond to it punitively.
At the FP blog, Jenny Saul (Sheffield) then called attention to a "great piece" by philosopher Audrey Yap (Victoria) responding to Heath; Saul singled out this passage in particular as evidence of the "greatness":
Western philosophy in general has too much in the way of “me” studies, namely straight, upper-middle-class, cis, heterosexual white men studying other straight, upper-middle-class, cis, heterosexual white men. This, as far as I can tell, has narrowed the discipline in general, much to its detriment.
This was such an obvious non-sequitur on Heath's argument, that I originally thought it had to be misquotation, but, alas, it was not. Apparently the author thinks that the philosophical systems of Descartes, Hume, and Kant are usefully explained as being about their own experience as "straight, upper-middle-class, cis, heterosexual white men." This kind of mindless identity politics is not the face that philosophy should put before the world.
UPDATE: Reader S. Wallerstein writes:
In fact, contrary to what Audrey Yap claims, traditional philosophy does not represent the point of view of heterosexual males, because so many famous philosophers were probably gay (if that term has any meaning before the mid 20th century) or did not marry (were they asexual or homosexual?). Philosophy begins with Plato, who seems not to have been heterosexual. The term "upper middle class" refers to mid 20th century and early 21th century social conditions and I doubt that anyone would call Plato "upper middle class" nor could they call Hume "upper middle class" nor Descartes nor Nietzsche nor Marx nor Engels nor Spinoza. Professor Yap should study some history and she would learn that "white, heterosexual upper-middle-class" is a category that only makes sense within the context of contemporary U.S. and Western European societies.
By the way, it's Foucault, whom I always thought was beloved by the "me studies" crowd, who points out that the term "gay" (and hence, the term "heterosexual") has no meaning before the late 19th century, that's there a history of sexuality, of how we categorize these things. I don't know if Foucault's research can always be relied on, but it's obvious that the Greeks had no idea of "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" in our sense and it seems that in Shakespeare's time, in England at least, they didn't see things that way either.
Some entity called "TrueSciPhil" tweeted to me the following list of philosophers on Twitter based on their total followers. The total number of followers is a bit misleading, since it seems to be affected by how many other twitter users the philosopher follows (if you follow someone, they often follow you in return, or so it appears). By the ratio of "followers" to "following," Daniel Dennett is far and away the most genuinely "followed" twitter philosopher, with a ratio of 3,231 followers for each person Dennett follows. Alain de Botton, by contrast, comes in at 649 followers for each person he follows. Peter Singer does better than that, with a ratio of 898 to 1. Patricia Churchland clocks in at 163 to 1, Peter Boghossian at 261 to 1, and A.C. Grayling at 98 to 1. I clock in at 113 to 1, while Luciano Floridi registers at about 2 to 1.
From this, I think it's safe to include that this list is meaningless.
...in The Guardian. I was astonished that Baggini asserts that, "Another priority is to make philosophers understand better the psychological effects which interfere with their supposedly clear, rational thinking. They should all know, for example, about Sally Haslanger and Jennifer Saul’s work on how psychological phenomena such as implicit bias and stereotype threat might be at work in their subject." But as we saw in an earlier discussion, it's not clear stereotype threat in the gender case is even real (there have been failures to replicate, and worries about publication bias in the results that are out there); implicit bias, by contrast, is real, but the scope of the effect is also quite unclear. It seems well-established that implicit bias influences superficial evaluations (e.g., skimming CVs and evaluating them), less clear that it influences careful reading and scholarly assessment. That some philosophers have effectively misrepresented the state of the psychological research is now fairly clear, but that should not lead the community to ignore more obvious problems affecting the number of women in philosophy, like explicit bias and sexism, as well as sexual harassment.
Reader Jason Palma kindly sends along this link (which I may have posted before) which is relevant to the "Effective [sic] Altruism" movement we've been discussing; this may be the most honest thing any member of the ruling class ever published in The New York Times:
Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. There are plenty of statistics that tell us that inequality is continually rising. At the same time, according to the Urban Institute, the nonprofit sector has been steadily growing. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent. Their growth rate now exceeds that of both the business and government sectors. It’s a massive business, with approximately $316 billion given away in 2012 in the United States alone and more than 9.4 million employed.
Philanthropy has become the “it” vehicle to level the playing field and has generated a growing number of gatherings, workshops and affinity groups.
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
We noted in the Spring, that the University of Chicago was making a bid for Clinton Tolley (Kant, history of analytic philosophy, philosophy of logic and math) at the University of California, San Diego. Tolley has now declined the offer, and will remain at UCSD. With Tolley and Eric Watkins full-time, and Lucy Allais part-time, UCSD will continue to have one of the strongest Kant groups in the country.
In other offer news: Chicago still has an offer outstanding to Matt Boyle (philosophy of mind and action, Kant, Hegel) at Harvard, while Harvard has senior offers outstanding to both A.J. Julius (ethics, political philosophy) at UCLA and Sharon Street (ethics, metaethics) at NYU.
From the "Critique of the Kantian Philosophy," an Appendix to The World as Will and Representation:
[T]he most injurious result of Kant's occasionally obscure language is, that it acted as exemplar vitiis imitabile; indeed, it was misconstrued as a pernicious authorisation. The public was compelled to see that what is obscure is not always without significance; consequently, what was without significance took refuge behind obscure language. Fichte was the first to seize this new privilege and use it vigorously; Schelling at least equalled him; and a host of hungry scribblers, without talent and without honesty, soon outbade them both. But the height of audacity, in serving up sheer nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously only been heard in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most ponderous general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a lasting monument of German stupidity.
Here. Selected papers will appear in Inquiry in late 2016. Anyone may submit papers, per the instructions on the site. We will be able to cover most travel and lodging costs for those without a tenure-stream position whose papers are accepted.
...and gives money to charity and now feels good about himself. How much harm is he doing by working at the hedge fund? I guess that doesn't count. How much good would he and the hedge fund managers do if they gave all their money to Bernie Sanders? Can't be measured effectively, so doesn't count.
I first began tweeting my support of Donald Trump for the Republican nomination a few days ago and now the latest poll shows that Trump has surged to the head of the Republican pack. Well done philosophers!
UPDATE: Reader Howard Berman writes: "You know of course, if Trump actually gets elected, he’ll redo the Whitehouse into the Taj Mahal financed by a regressive tax on the middle class and poor. People I know in the business class detest him, perhaps for them he's like their reflection in a funhouse mirror. I recall the late Roman Empire had her Trumps too."
ANOTHER: I was startled that some readers think the Trump Bump in the polls was due to his rude remarks about Senator McCain, rather than my endorsement. I realize the American electorate is an appalling sewer of stupidity, but, let's be real: the idea that even Republican voters would gravitate towards a draft-dodging rich kid who insults a veteran, well that's insulting. Seriously, do you think Republican voters are that base and stupid? If you do, you probably believe in the Marxian theory of false consciousness. Jeez.
I agree with most of what Pete Mills writes here (scroll to page 4); some excerpts (sorry about the font problems):
In practice...80,000 Hours has one dominant answer to the problems of the worst-off: in most cases, it turns out the right thing to do will be to embark on a high-paying career, get rich, and donate some of the proceeds to particularly efficient charities. What 80k offers is not neutrality, but a degree of certainty. It gives you a metric, a number – of lives saved – which you can use to evaluate your career choices. In fact, this method makes the ostensibly difficult ethical decision about what to do with your life rather simple. For the vast majority, the best choice proves to be what 80k calls “professional philanthropy”: a long march through the banking institutions. That is the novelty of 80k. The problem is political. 80k’s avowed neutrality serves to conceal the political logic of its practice. Professional philanthropy does not just involve making your peace with the system – it means embracing it. The unstated imperative: don’t rock the boat. As a banker, or a corporate lawyer, or a management consultant, what enriches you is your position in a set of profoundly exploitative social relations, which we might label capitalism....
The result is a toxic political quietism. As a professional philanthropist, the size of your donations depends on the size of your company’s profits. Your interests are aligned with the interests of capital. Anything that might disrupt production – from taxes on the wealthy at home to a strike of factory workers abroad – is potentially suspect. It is no accident that 80k’s professionalised account of political change is limited to lobbying within the system....
Once the assumptions which allow the precise calculation of the benefits of professional philanthropy – 2,000 lives saved – are in place, it is difficult to see how 80k’s other career suggestions can be much more than an afterthought (save, perhaps, persuading other people to do it). The dubious precision of these calculations and the rhetoric of efficiency obscure the real uncertainty that surrounds these decisions. In practice, if people follow 80k’s logic to its conclusion, only those supremely confident in their own abilities will opt for something else....
80k makes much of replaceability: “the job will exist whatever you do.” This is stronger than the claim that someone else will become a banker; rather, it states that there will always be bankers, that there will always be exploitation. Nothing can change. This is what I mean when I say professional philanthropy is dependent on perpetuating capitalism. Capitalism is not a policy programme which you are for or against but a set of social relations; taking a low-paid job, or no job at all, does not mean you somehow live outside the system. But professional philanthropy needs exploitation in order to mitigate the effects of exploitation. That is why it cannot address the causes of the world’s problems. 80k collapses the question of what is to be done into the individualist framework of career choice....
The language of probability will always fail to capture the possibility of system change. What was the expected value of the civil rights movement, or the campaign for universal suffrage, or anti-colonial struggles for independence? As we have seen most recently with the Arab Spring, every revolution is impossible, until it is inevitable.
The Babylonian calculations that constitute 80k’s careers research exclude these possibilities by design. 80k addresses its subject as a participant in exchange, a future employee – and nothing more. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy of impotence. Without any concept of society as a collective endeavour, we cannot address problems at their root but only those symptoms which are tractable on an atomised, individual level.
There are also responses from the charity crowd; readers may judge for themselves.
(Thanks to Pablo Zendejas Medina for the pointer.)
Demand for my endorsement has come earlier than usual, but since so much is at stake, I feel I should speak out now: Trump is clearly the most qualified of the Republican Presidential candidates, in terms of intelligence, good judgment, and accomplishments. I give him my unqualified support for the Republican nomination. Please join me.
ADDENDUM: You can start by joining me on Twitter to spread the word. The philosophy vote could be crucial in this primary season.
A philosopher in the University of Wisconsin sytem writes:
I'm writing to ask if you'd be willing to host a thread focused specifically on the question about strategy, raised by harry b in a comment on The Republican war on public higher education: it's now the law in Wisconsin, concerning "what we [who want to protect public higher education] should be doing to change the minds of voters so that they put the break on the politicians." I'd be very interested to see discussion of this pressing issue, which should be of broad interest and concern.
And so defenses like this are silly. Who, besides Ayn Rand, isn't in favor of improving the well-being of others? The problem has to do with the way the EA folks interpret "effective," which guarantees that it will be both ineffective and very appealing to the capitalist media, which loves moral self-congratulation that is utterly unthreatening to capitalist relations of production and the ruling class.
I want to be clear: those philosophers giving their money to charities are not acting wrongfully in my view. They are acting wrongfully, however, in pretending that this is what one ought to do, that somehow the catastrophic harms that afflict large segments of humanity are in any meaningful way addressed by their charitable contributions.
...again at Boston Review; an excerpt, but do read the whole thing, especially if you're on the verge of falling for the "effective altruism" sales pitch:
[R]andomized controlled trial (RCT) field experiments...are designed to make the complex social world as much like a scientific laboratory as possible in order to isolate the effect of a particular intervention. The focus on impact makes RCTs appealing to effective altruists. Indeed, organizations like GiveWell and Giving What We Can rely heavily on these studies as the “best available evidence” to recommend top charities.
As in medical studies, RCT researchers randomly assign subjects to treatment and control groups to ensure that the two groups are roughly identical prior to the experiment. Then they administer the intervention—mosquito bed nets, de-worming pills, curriculum interventions, eye surgeries—only to those in the treatment group. Any differences in outcomes (malaria rates, parasite infection incidence, literacy levels, vision) between the treatment and control groups are attributed to the intervention. The clean research design makes researchers confident they have correctly identified whether a program has had the intended impact....
However, this approach to assessment has a serious downside: RCTs only capture a narrow view of impact. While they are good at measuring the proximate effects of a program on its immediate target subjects, RCTs are bad at detecting any unintended effects of a program, especially those effects that fall outside the population or timeframe that the organization or researchers had in mind. For example, an RCT might determine whether a bed net distribution program lowered the incidence of malaria among its target population. But it would be less likely to capture whether the program unintentionally demobilized political pressures on the government to build a more effective malaria eradication program, one that would ultimately affect more people....
Effective altruists are committed to evidence-based selection of charities, but in interpreting RCTs as the “best available evidence” they have prioritized certainty, narrowing the scope of impact they consider in identifying top charities.
This choice has built political and institutional blind spots into the way the effective altruism movement redistributes money. All charities exist within a broader ecosystem of service providers that includes the welfare state. NGOs that distribute bed nets and provide vaccinations operate alongside an array of public health programs run by the state. NGO-run schools operate up the road from government-run schools. While these state-run programs may be performing poorly and lack resources, they are still the core provider for the majority of the poor in many developing countries....
[U]nintended institutional effects on government welfare programs are seldom incorporated into effective altruists’ calculations about worthwhile charities to fund.
Yet any scholar of the political economy of development would be skeptical of the assumption that the welfare state in poor countries would remain unaffected by a sizeable influx of resources into a parallel set of institutions....
In the worst case, the presence of NGOs induces exit from the state sector. When relatively efficient, well-functioning NGOs enter a health or education market, for example, citizens in that market who are paying attention are likely to switch from government services to NGO services. The result is a disengagement of the most mobilized, discerning poor citizens from the state. These are the citizens most likely to have played a previous role in monitoring the quality of state services and advocating for improvements. Once they exit, the pressure on the government to maintain and improve services eases, and the quality of government provision is likely to fall.
This dynamic, sometimes called skimming, has unfortunate consequences for those most in need of services.
I'm very pleased to announce an exciting new scholarly initiative, the International Society for Nietzsche Studies. The inaugural conference will be at the University of Bonn in late June 2016, and a Call for Papers will be issued soon; Bonn will be able to offer financial support to grad students or non-tenure-stream faculty whose papers are accepted. All conference papers will appear in a special issue of Inquiry each year.
Nietzsche studies is at a particularly fertile moment, with an unusually strong cohort of talented younger philosophers around the world working on Nietzsche, in whole or in part. The existing Nietzsche societies are, in my personal opinion, somewhere on the spectrum from moribund to uneven. I am hopeful this new initiative will provide an attractive alternative.
I usually ignore the generally awful Stone Blog, but Alex Rosenberg sent along his nice piece on a topic I'm quite interested in. I particularly liked this succinct rejoinder to those who like to compare mathematical and moral knowledge:
A few philosophers claimed that we have a moral sense that perceives the moral rightness or wrongness of things directly and immediately. This theory might be worth taking seriously if morality were like mathematics. Mathematicians all agree that we know with certainty a large number of mathematical truths. Since experiment and observation could never be the source of such certainty, we (or at least mathematicians) must have some other way of knowing mathematical truths — a mathematical sense that directly perceives them. For this argument to work in ethics, there would have to be little or no ethical disagreement to begin with. Since many moral disagreements seem intractable even among experts, the hypothesis that we are equipped to know moral truths directly is very difficult to sustain.
Since the comments at the Stone Blog are generally worthless, I thought I would open comments here for those who want to discuss the philosophical issues raised by Rosenberg's piece.
This case from California. Unfortunately, we'll no doubt be seeing more such cases once professional jurists with some regard for process are increasingly asked to scrutinize how universities (mis)handle these matters.
There was a flurry of purchases in the last couple of weeks by MIT, Princeton, OUP, Routledge, and others, so this is where things stand: the top two spots on both sides for September are sold out, but there remains one third spot available ($500/each); the top three spots on both sides for October are sold out, but there remains one 4th from the top spot ($450/each). November and December remain wide open. There is still one each of a top, 2nd and 3rd spot in August, which will continue to be a lighter blogging month (so prices are $300, $250, and $200 respectively). E-mail me at bleiter-at-uchicago-dot-edu for more information, thanks.
Schwitzgebel comments. I confess it's one of my favorite words--what other word, after all, can be in various forms and contexts a verb, noun, adjective and adverb?
UPDATE: Reader Henry Cohen writes: "Perhaps you are aware of the four-word sentence consisting solely of those four uses of the word. It was supposedly said by an auto mechanic to an unfortunate customer: 'Fucking fucker's fucking fucked.'"
Continental Philosophy Farhang Erfani, a philosopher at American University, provides a useful set of links to news, events, interviews, reviews, videos, etc. related to "Continental philosophy" (broadly construed)