Some tunes for the weekend, courtesy of Santigold:
Donald specializes in the history of philosophy, metaphysics, and philosophy of language, and has published in Analysis, Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophia, and Phronesis.
Pierre is a PhD student at the University of Sherbrooke, and does work on egalitarianism and anti-egalitarianism in political philosophy.
It has been difficult for me to find much time to blog this summer. As readers may (or, more likely, may not!) recall, I began drafting a book manuscript last summer. Since then, I've been invited to submit a full manuscript for review at a good press, with a deadline of the end of this June. Accordingly, I have been basically spending all day, every day this summer revising it. Although it is still rough in many places -- and although even final pieces of work are always far from perfect -- I feel good about how things are proceeding.
Two things, however, have been sort of nagging me. First, as I mentioned previously, I haven't had much time to blog, which means things have slowed a bit around here. Second, although a couple of people gave me some helpful comments on a few very early chapter drafts last summer, I haven't had any outside readers since then (which, for obvious reasons, I could probably use at this point!).
So, then, I had the following thought: perhaps I could post chapter drafts here every several days the next few weeks, behind a password-protected site such as dropbox (as we've done before in our Working Paper Series), for constructive comments. The purpose of this blog, after all, was to help early-career scholars, and if anyone could use a bit of help right now, it's me! :)
What does everyone think of the idea? First, would anyone be interested in reading and commenting on chapter drafts (I know summer's a busy time to do one's own work, and of course, enjoy summer!)? Also, are there drawbacks/good reasons for me not to do it? My initial thought is this: I want to write the best darn book I can, and soliciting constructive comments from the community would almost certainly help me improve the manuscript. On the other hand, as we all know paper drafts tend to be pretty rough, and sometimes can border on embarrassingly rough -- embarassing in ways one might not want to make public. ;) Finally, I suppose posting drafts, even behind a password protected site, could prejudice reviewers (though, as I understand it, book manuscripts aren't reviewed anonymously anyway). Does anyone with any experience publishing books have any thoughts on this?
In any case, what does everyone think? I certainly think manuscript could benefit from outside readers, and this could be a fun way to work out the kinks -- but I also don't want to try it if it would be a bad idea. Any thoughts?
Speaking of papers worth reading, I’d like to recommend to you, fellow Cocooners, Marcus’ paper “A New Theory of Free Will.” It is quite long. (You obviously didn’t like my “Keep It Short” rule, Marcus!) But it is well worth reading. There is so much in it: from physics to metaphysics, and everything in between, including morality and, of course, free will.
What I like the most about Marcus’ paper is that it makes no appeals to intuitions and other such nonsense. Instead, it offers a systematic and scientifically informed argument for a theory of free will (namely, Libertarian Compatibilism). For this reason, I think that Marcus makes a more convincing case for (a version of) the simulation hypothesis--which is an integral part of Marcus’ argument--than either Bostrom or Chalmers do. Check it out!
I was about to write a couple of papers on why we have no good evidence for determinism/physical-causal-closure and why the compatibilism debate is metaphysically irrelevant...until I discovered the papers were already written by Mark Balaguer!
(2009). The Metaphysical Irrelevance of the Compatibilism Debate (and, More Generally, of Conceptual Analysis), Southern Journal of Philosophy.
(2009). Why there are no good arguments for any interesting version of determinism, Synthese.
Although I was planning to argue for the same conclusions a bit differently -- I wanted to argue that we have no evidence for causal closure by way of various Simulation Hypotheses (existing online simulations, for instance, are almost entirely causally closed...except for the actions of the characters we make choices for) -- I'm very sympathetic with Balaguer's arguments, and encourage everyone to check them out, as well as his recent book through MIT Press, Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem.
We haven't had one of these in a while, but the Cocoon has a long-running Working Paper Group wherein members of the community share working-papers via dropbox.com, and we provide feedback here in the comments section.
Fortunately, we've just had a new submission by Adam (A.P.) Taylor on the moral implications of four-dimensionalism in metaphysics (I've chosen not to post the paper's title, so as to preserve the future prospect of anonymous review for Adam). Anyway, it's interesting-looking paper, so let's help Adam out!
Here, as before, are the working-paper-group rules/guidelines:
Please do email me to read and comment!
My father's mother was a "clean-freak." She assiduously covered all of her furniture, for instance, with polyurethane, as if in an attempt to hermetically seal if from the outside world. Sometimes it is hard not to get a similar impression when reading academic philosophy. So much of it sometimes seems sealed off from real life. When I think, for instance, of hard-core moral realism -- with all of the philosophical ink spilt on "moral facts" -- I can't help but think to myself: this does not answer the questions that I, or my students, ultimately want answered. I want to know why I should do what's right, and how there can be moral facts in a natural world that seems to admit no such thing -- and yet...moral realists give me, and my students, what seem to me to be entirely disappointing answers to these questions (there just are moral facts, darn it -- deal with it!). And this is far from the most egregious case. When I read Richard Swinburne on the Problem of Evil -- or really, anyone on that problem -- I can't help but think to myself, "What world are they living in?" Swinburne begings his paper, "Why God Allows Evil", by writing:
It is inevitable that any attempt by myself or anyone else to construct a theodicy will sound callous, indeed totally insensitive to human suffering. Many theists, as well as atheists, have felt that any attempt to construct a theodicy evinces an immoral approach to suffering. I can only ask the reader to believe that I am not totally insensitive to human suffering, and that I do mind about the agony of poisoning, child abuse, bereavement, solitary imprisonment, and marital infidelity as much as anyone else.
Swinburne, however, then goes on to give a theodicy -- his famous "soul making" theodicy -- that seems (to me, and many of my students, at any rate) to be completely callous and lacking an appropriate level appreciation for human and animal suffering, and indeed, in a way that does make one wonder whether he "minds" agony and suffering "as much as anyone else" (even the language he uses here seems callous! One shouldn't just "mind" agony and suffering. One should feel it, empathizing with the sufferer). Basically (although this is to simplify), Swinburne's idea is that a perfect (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent) God gave us a world flush with so many horrors to "challenge our souls" -- and unfortunately, it's a part of such a challenging world that some people and animals have to suffer without recompense. How anyone could not regard this as a totally callous (not to mention implausible) answer to the Problem of Evil is simply beyond me. For instance, I read this story in The New York Times the other day, "The Day I Started Lying to Ruth", about a man's experience seeing his cancer-stricken wife through to the very end, and it was one of the most devastating things I've ever read. "Just try to tell me", I wanted to say to Swinburne, "that that is necessary for 'soul-making' -- that a perfect God could not do better than that." This, of course, is just one story. There are countless others -- lives of abject horror and pain: genocide, etc. The idea that all of this is justified as a "challenge for our souls" seems to me offensive -- and callous -- in the extreme. If this is what philosophy leads to -- rationalizing a horrible world through some kind of bizarre Stockholm Syndrome (viz. being thankful to our Captor for giving us such a world of suffering so that we can "make our souls") -- then, I say, philosophy has led us far astray. It lacks soul.
"Philosophy", or so we are told, comes from the Greek roots meaning love of wisdom. Yet, all too often, philosophy seems to lack it -- and not only that, to venerate its lack. I've mentioned the following example before, but I have to mention it again because it was such an eye-opening, insightful moment on the part of one my students, and which in turn led me to wonder deeply about a lot of philosophy. It was in my undergraduate Ancient Philosophy class, and we were working through Plato's Apology, then Crito, then Phaedo, etc. Most of my students seemed quite taken by Socrates, as many philosophers. "What a paragon of critical thinking and integrity!", many of them seemed to think. Well, until a female student of mine chimed in, when we were reading the part of the Phaedo where Socrates has his weeping wife, Xanthippe and her children, summarily escorted out of his sight so that he can spend his dying moments talking metaphysics with young male followers. "What a monster he is", my student said (to paraphrase), "His philosophy, his 'critical thinking', has led him to value death over life, Forms over flesh and blood people, and metaphysics over his wife. If that is not a reductio of everything he is about, I don't know what is." Damn, I thought to myself, this student has it. She was right, I thought. The character Socrates, for all his 'critical thinking', was an emotional monster. He had literally thought himself into such a rationalistic fervour that he had rendered himself emotionally insensitive to his wife -- a flesh and blood person who loved him -- as well as his children. And out of what? A belief in crazy things -- a realm of Ethereal Forms and life after death -- that not even his arguments supported. Abstract philosophical thought can be taken too far, and I would say, philosophers take it too far, far too often.
Consider, for instance, Epicurus' dictum that if we just make the proper distinctions -- if we realize that one's handsome horse is just a handsome horse, or that one's Ferrari is just a car -- then we can handle whatever life throws at us with equanimity: we do not have to let the death of our horse or the repossession of our Ferrari bother us. Notice, of course, that from a certain standpoint -- the standpoint of perfectly dispassionate reason ("making distinctions") -- the reasoning holds up: your horse really is just a horse, your Ferrari just a car (in which case, indeed, what should it matter to you whether they are destroyed). But now notice: once we are willing to make these distinctions, it is only a short step -- a few more distinctions -- to the conclusion that our fellow human beings don't really matter: that is, to the conclusion, "Don't perturb yourself about your wife or children. They are just human beings, after all" (which, of course, Epicurus basically did say, see The Enchiridon 14-15).
Making too many distinctions, in other words, seems to me something that can comprise a moral and philosophical failing. Psychopaths make distinctions, after all -- and the distinctions they make aren't all that different than the ones Epicurus made (viz. "Why shouldn't I kill this person? They are just a human being, after all!"). Distinctions are important, but unless they are made with moral and emotional wisdom, they can lead us -- as individuals, and as a discipline -- down a bad path. And, it seems to me, we go down this path far too often. Kant went down it, into the bowels of trying to found moral philosophy in "noumenal freedom" outside the physical order. I could go on. It all just seems so...bloodless.
How, then, can we do better? I do not have a simple, pat answer, but I've come to believe more and more that philosophy done well has to engage with everyday experience, including emotional experience, and always "hold its feet" to these things. The further we get away from lived experience, the worse off -- the more horribly abstract, hermetically sealed, byzantine, and scholastic -- philosophy becomes. How, though, do we do it? I revising a book manuscript right now (which I might share with you all; more on this in a future post) where I always try to come back to lived experience: with what it is to be a husband, or a son, or teacher, dealing with real people. I think this is a good way to go, "keeping things real" to use a common phrase. But, let me also suggest something else. When I was in graduate school -- particularly early on -- I was struck by just how immersed in philosophy many people are, to the detriment of other parts of their lives (little time for friendships, hobbies, etc.). I get it, philosophy is hard. It takes immersion, and concentration. But, I want to say, it needs to be informed by life -- and the more we live, and engage with life, examining the emotions we have, how they move us, etc. the more real -- and useful -- philosophy is liable to become.
Allow me to close by sharing a brief story. The Problem of Evil (which I referenced earlier) has always fascinated me, not the least because it was the very first problem I was ever introduced to and wrote my first undergraduate paper on. Although for most of my graduate school and professional career I've set the problem aside (like most do), it's an issue that has always knawed away at me. It hit me deeply, for instance, the first time I had a family member die (when I was a teenager). How could a good, or even minimally decent Creator, make a world like this? And, in one way or another, the problem -- as, I suspect is also the case with most other philosophers -- has never left me. It is near inevitable, when some kind of tragedy happens, that you think yourself, "What kind of world is this that I live in? A horrible one." And so you try -- again -- to make sense of it (and, of course, if you're a human being, invariably you fail; the problem of evil and suffering remains, right there, staring you in the soul).
But my perspective on the problem suddenly changed one day. It didn't change as a result of doing philosophy -- though I have thought philosophically a lot about it since. It changed as a result of experiences. I'm not much of a spiritual person, but I have had what I would say are at least a good half-dozen quasi-mystical experiences in my life -- experiences where I felt that I had tapped some part of my soul, or part of the world, that I had never touched before. One was dancing with my mom to Tony Bennett's version of, "If I Ruled the World", at my wedding, looking in the eyes of this wonderful, imperfect woman who had given birth to me, raised me, and loved me. I can hardly described what I felt at that moment, but it was a mixture of love and sadness -- all of the love and sadness in the world mixed into one. It seemed to me then, as it still does now, a deeply important emotional experience, one that I struggled to understand...until I had another experience.
I was in Tucson a couple of years ago visiting friends, and had just purchased a hard copy of one of my favorite CDs -- the album "Frengers" by the Danish rock band Mew (who I also posted music by here). I had heard most of the songs previously, but there, on my drive to the airport, I heard one of their most beloved songs, "Comforting Sounds", for the very first time. It's a beautiful song -- the last 5 minutes of it or so are absolutely breathtaking -- and I heard it that day, for the first time, at just the right instant. I drove a route to the airport I had never taken before, and as "Conforting Sounds" began playing, I began driving past something I had never seen before: Tucson's airplane "boneyard" -- a several mile long airplane graveyard that includes rows upon rows of retired airforce planes; bombers, reconnaissance vehicles, fighters, etc. There were so many of them, these remnants of wars past (indeed, I read somewhere that the planes on the ground there would alone comprise the second-largest airforce in the world...behind our actual one. To get a sense of scale, see here, here, here).
So, there I was, driving past these Machines of Death, and I was listening to this wistful song I had never heard before. Although I don't know what inspired the song's composers, I listened to it many times and it has always seemed to me, lyrically and musically, to be a worn-out soul pleading with God for answers as to why the world is so hard, why we make so many mistakes, why everything is so messed up. And, then, just as the lyrics end, the "answer" comes in the form of no words at all, but rather a slowly growing crescendo -- 3 repeating eight-measure musical patterns -- reflecting, in that moment, as I drove past those bombers, the relentless march of time and the world we live in, with all its joys and sorrows. During those moments, the world seemed to come to a standstill. It was just me, the music, and rows of planes -- and feeling. It felt like I felt every emotion all at once; that emotion I felt staring into my mother's eyes while dancing to "If I Ruled the World." And I felt a kind of answer to the Problem of Evil. It wasn't the answer I wanted, or that Swinburne or other proponents of a Perfect God want. It was a feeling. I felt sorry for whoever created this world, and, in a way, I empathized with it. I imagined to myself that if I were in a Creator's shoes, an imperfect person with a decision to Create something simultaneously horrible and beautiful -- a world just like this, if it were the best I could do -- I don't know what I would do. Would I create a world with so much beauty, but so much horror? Or, would I create nothing at all? The answer was not obvious to me...and so, finally, I felt like I had my answer -- the only answer that, at any rate, has even made half a bit of sense to me.
I hope to write on it someday, but if not, I guess my message is this: I believe that philosophy could stand to be more engaged with the emotional -- the human (and indeed, animal) -- side of life. And I believe that music, and art, and rich lives -- lives of sorrow, and joy, etc. -- can and should play a role in what we write and think about, and how we go about it. I don't know quite know how else to put it that that, but in any case, I hope to put into more practice in my own work.
Finally, although you obviously can't have been there driving past the airplane graveyard with me, here's a beautiful cover of "Comforting Sounds" recorded by a then-16-year-old English musician Birdy (oh how I wish I had such musical taste at 16, not to mention her musical gifts!), as well as the original version by Mew. Last, but not least, I have also attached an aerial video of the boneyard, just in case you might want to watch it on silent to the music. :)
In this TED talk, Michael Huemer proposes the following signs that one might be irrational about politics.
Signs that you might be irrational about politics:
I think that Huemer’s signs apply, mutatis mutandis, to whether one might be irrational about philosophy.
Signs that you might be irrational about philosophy:
Recently, Daily Nous posed a question to its readers, "Would you do it over again?" (the "over again" being going into academic philosophy). I have to confess that when I first came across the post, I was a bit irritated by it, and for essentially reasons implied by "Jeb's" comment, "Asking a tenured prof if they would do it again is like asking a lottery winner if they’d buy a ticket again." Basically, the discussion bore out Jeb's claim: people who did not make it in academic philosophy almost all said they wouldn't do it again, and all those who made it said they would. Ah, to the victors go the spoils...
Anyway, I don't have a good answer that question. Academic philosophy is a hard road, and, many would tell you, there is a lot of luck involved. What I do know, however -- and what I like to share from time to time, as a kind of encouragement to those who find themselves struggling (in grad school or beyond); since I could have really used some such encouragement during my more difficult times -- is that it can get better. I remember reading Ruth Millikan's astonishing Dewey Lecture recently -- it's astonishing for many reasons, but most of all for reporting her considerable personal-professional struggles -- and thinking to myself, "And I thought I went through a lot." Millikan endured a divorce, time in a mental institution, a severe back injury, a dissertation advisor who begged off to another university, and many other issues...and yet she made it.
Things were not quite so bad for me, though at times they were close. Among other things, late in grad school and early in my career as an Assistant Professor I developed severe congenital insomnia -- it runs in the family -- and often didn't sleep for days on end (teaching, you can imagine, was quite an adventure; and research was going terribly. It is well-treated now, thank goodness - I sleep like a baby.;)). I also had the unlucky experience of moving into what appeared to be a luxury apartment building when I got to Tampa, but which was actually a slum not built to code, with paper thin walls, in a very dangerous neighborhood, with unruly tenants up partying until 6 in the morning, and unethical landlords who bullied tenants. Finally, I also made mistakes in grad school, isolating myself when I should have been asking for help -- until it was almost too late.
These were not easy times. There were times I feared (not unreasonably) that I wouldn't make it through grad school. There were times I feared I would never publish. There have been times I have feared I would never get a tenure-track job (which I still do not have, but don't worry about so much anymore). It has not been an easy road. And while I would like to say, definitively, that it was all worth it, in some regards the jury is still out. Suppose five years from now I find myself still not having a TT job or tenure, or whatever. Would I be happy with my choice? In all honesty, I don't know! But what I do know is this. Whatever trials and tribulations you may be going through in academic philosophy, it can get better. If you work your tail off as a researcher, teacher, and colleague; if you put yourself out there and ask for help; if you're good to yourself; if you just try to enjoy your work as a teacher, colleague, and researcher for their own sake; and if you show good will to others -- then things can get better. There are of course no guarantees in life, well except for taxes (I, for one, am not sure about the whole death part of the common saying!). But still, for all that, things can get better. So, if you're struggling, know that there are others who have been through similar things. Know that there's only so much you can do, but whatever you can do, do it. If you want to be a philosopher, give it your all, keep your chin up in the hard times, and don't give up -- well, at least until they throw you out. That, at least, is my plan. I'm enjoying philosophy -- all of it, the research, the teaching, the student -- today more than I ever have, and the hard times have made it all the more worth it. :) Anyway, that's my pep talk for the day. :)
Megan Delahanty from the University of Calgary has asked me to post this CFP:
The Calgary Summit of Philosophers of Science will be held September 26-27, 2014. The topic of the Summit will be future approaches for philosophy of biology. Six extensive discussions will start with talks by John Dupré, Philip Kitcher, Helen E. Longino, Elliott Sober, C. Kenneth Waters, and William Wimsatt and comments by John Beatty, Marc Ereshefsky, Carla Fehr, Lisa Gannett, Denis Walsh, and Robert Wilson. The Summit will include a poster forum where Canadian students and postdoctoral fellows can present their research. All students, scholars, and scientists are welcome to attend. For more information about the Summit, and for those students and postdoctoral fellows interested in presenting their research at the Summit, please visit www.phil.ucalgary.ca/summit2014
Looks like a great conference!
I've been thinking more about the question Assaf Weksler asked me to post about getting scooped and posting online. In brief, the question was this: is there any way to post unpublished work online so as to effectively establish priority on being the first person to give a particular argument/defend a particular thesis? I think this is an important issue to continue to think about for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, there have been many priority disputes in the history of ideas: the Hilbert/Einstein dispute on the field equations of General Relativity (along with other priority disputes on Special Relativity), the Netwon/Leibniz dispute on Calculus, and well, all these notable disputes. Second, early career scholars -- people "trying to make a name for themselves" -- are often at the center of these disputes (and, obviously, may be in particularly vulnerable stages of their career). Third, for the first time in history really, we have a publicly accessible medium -- the internet -- which could, in principle, definitively resolve such disputes. If researchers posted their unpublished work online, they could have a publicly accessible date-stamp to establish priority.
For all of these reasons, I think it would be good -- as I mentioned in my previous post -- to have particular online fora by academic discipline (the arxiv for physics, philpapers for philosophers, etc.) for establishing priority, and to have it be standard practice for people to upload unpublished papers for that purpose. If people were encouraged to do this -- and if the online fora were truly recognized as priority-establishing -- this would insulate everyone, particularly early-career people, from getting "scooped" on new discoveries/arguments. Well, except there are a couple of issues!
First, and most obviously, posting unpublished stuff online can break anonymous peer-review (well, at least, if journal referees "Google review", something which reviewers are known to do). I've personally faced this dilemma many times, and in fact, face it right now. For years, I lived in near-constant anxiety that someone would publish an article defending something like the argument I defend in my now-finally-forthcoming paper, "First Steps Toward a Nonideal Theory of Justice." I had good reasons to worry. More and more papers were getting published on nonideal theory by the year, with some of them seemingly getting incrementally closer to the ideas that I had spent years on. Because of this, I uploaded a few copies of the paper online to try to establish priority...but you, guessed it, almost every time I submitted the paper for review at a journal, my website's analytics program indicated one or more people had searched the paper's title (and found my webpage) just after I submitted the paper (suggesting that, indeed, some reviewer somewhere was "Google reviewing" it). Because of this, I have all kinds of other unpublished -- including a few that did get "scooped" -- that I never uploaded. Which begs the question: if (1) we have good reasons to post stuff online to establish priority, but (2) we also have good reasons to want anonymous review at journals, and (3) posting stuff online undermines anonymous review, how should we proceed? Should we post online and run the risk of undermining peer-review, or should we not post online and run the risk of getting scooped and having no public, online record of priority?
Notice that we can ask this question both at an individual level (viz. what should you do?), but also at a disciplinary level (viz. what should we do to address the problem?). At the individual level, I go back and forth -- but the more I think about it, the more I want to say one should post unpublished work online. Getting scooped, after all -- particularly if you have a really good idea/argument -- is a complete disaster. Could you imagine, for instance, how different Einstein's life might have been if he got to relativity first but someone else was lucky to publish on it first? At the same time, if only things were so straightforward. Because the person who publishes an important idea first is seemingly far more likely to get cited for the idea than someone who merely uploads and unpublished paper online, posting an unpublished paper online -- even if it technically establishes priority -- may, if the person is Google reviewed, cause them to still get scooped in terms of an official publication. And indeed, things are even worse than this. By publishing things online, one runs the risk of one's idea getting wrongly appropriated -- either consciously or unconsciously -- by other researchers (just ask the band Spirit about the opening guitar line of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" or Joe Satriani about Coldplay's "Viva La Vida", to take a few examples from music).
Because these seem to me essentially unanswerable dilemmas -- no matter what one does as an individual (posting unpublished stuff online or not), one runs serious risks -- this suggests to me that what we really need is a disciplinary solution to the issue. We need an official system of professional norms and practices (I would say, one sanctioned by the APA) for how to treat matters of priority and citation. For instance, in physics, the arxiv is now considered the "gold standard." Just about everyone uploads unpublished work to the arxiv before even sending it to a journal, and everyone cited arxiv papers -- precisely in order to have a system that fairly and accurately establishes priority. If someone has something on the arxiv, then even if someone else publishes the same idea/finding in a peer-reviewed journal, the expectation (as I understand it) is that both must be cited.
I believe something like this is the only way to resolve the problems of priority and citations properly in philosophy, as well. Although publishing in peer-reviewed journals is an important matter of professional recognition (peer-reviewed journals are "gatekeepers" of a certain sort), official peer-reviewed publication should no longer be the "gold standard" for priority or citations. Philpapers.org should play that role. We should treat it as establishing priority, and index citation-practice norms to it, as well (expecting people to cite relevant recent work from philpapers even if it has not yet appeared in a journal). Although I expect some resistance to this idea (viz. "you really expect people to cite unpublished work"), it works in physics, and I see no reason why it shouldn't work here.
Anyway, these are my thoughts. What are yours?
I know that other blogs have music features, but I have decided to start one of my own this summer for several related reasons. First and foremost, it's summer, and summer is a great time for music! ;) Second, I've been reflecting quite a bit lately on Anna Christina Ribeiro's recent post over at Aesthetics for Birds, "The Philosophical Importance of Aesthetics", and, more recently, Peter Kivy's 3AM interview about the philosophy of music -- both of which reminded me of just how central aesthetic experience is in my own life, and how unfortunate it is that aesthetics has increasingly been relegated to the backwaters of philosophical discourse. As Ribeiro points out, aesthetic experience is a significant part of human life. Almost all of us find ourselves deeply moved, at one time or another, by aesthetic experience -- whether it is the experience of a great song, a beautiful sunset, or a beautiful passing moment. And yet, Ribeiro points out, we hardly ever discuss these things philosophically. Finally, it has occurred to me, more and more recently, just how much of a role music has played in my life as a philosopher. Music has increasingly inspired my philosophical thinking on everything from free will to the philosophy of religion and morality. And yet, although music moves me personally and philosophically, I've never really had the opportunity to discuss it with any other philosophers (well, besides my wife!).
For all of these reasons, I thought it might be good to bring some music and aesthetic discussion to the blog. Aesthetics is something that I have neglected as a professional philosopher, and it is something that I -- following Ribeiro -- would really like to see return to prominence in philosophical discussion. Perhaps we can contribute to that, at least in a small way! Anyway, I hope to post music quite regularly, and ocassionally discuss it philosophy. I'd also like to encourage reader submissions discussing aesthetic experience, whether on music, visual art, or whatever! :) (Interested readers should send submissions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
In any case, I'm going to start off easy. No pretentious philosophical theorizing today. Just a couple of songs I like by the group Phantogram. I'll save the pretention for later. :)
I came across this Slate article, "Confessions of a Grade Inflator", which I imagine is now making the rounds on educators' Twitter and facebook feeds, and I started thinking about both how I deal with grade inflation, as well as about how it might be ameliorated.
The basic premise of the Slate article is that college instructors inflate grades because, quite literally, our jobs depend on it. If we get low teaching evaluations or poor enrollment for grading too harshly, we may easily be out of a job. This is especially true, obviously, of part-time faculty and other non-tenured faculty -- but really, we all face it. And because there is so much pressure -- and because students basically expect A's -- average grades in college courses are now absurdly high: often at least in the B+/A- range. I've even heard of courses where 24 out of 25 student received a perfect A. No joke.
But now how should we deal with this? One way is to just cave in and be a grade-inflator. Be entertaining, put on a show, give good grades, get evals. Apparently, some people do this. Me? I tried to get creative. Early on in my career, I just graded harshly...and I got absolutely brutal teaching reviews. "That won't work", I decided -- but I also didn't want to give into the pressure to be a mere entertainer; so I tried to think creatively about how I might turn grade inflation to my advantage.
Here, in brief, is how I've done it. I've continued to be an absolutely brutal grader. Early on in my courses -- really, at least halfway through them -- I have students going absolutely nuts because of how low their grades are. However, I tell them, I have a "no student left behind" policy. First, I have daily reading response and in-class group assignments, so that they get several types of daily feedback on how they're screwing up. Second, I allow (and encourage) them to rewrite all of their term-papers as many times as they want (except for the final ones), again giving them detailed comments on how they messed up and how to improve their work. Long story short, although I'm really tough on them, since most of them don't want low grades, they tend to put the work in, revise their papers multiple times, and come out the other end with decent grades (and demonstrable improvement they can see and be proud of). I imagine that some of you might think I've just given in and am a grade-inflator (after all, most of my students do get pretty good grades in the end). But, I don't think this is right. I think my aim as a professor should be for the vast majority of my students to finish my courses successfully. The trick is actually getting them to put in the work and improve -- and, in my experience, it is possible; if not for all, then for many. Oh, and if you doubt that I am tough on them, here are a few comments from my recent student evals and ratemyprofessors page:
So, that's one way to go. However, I want to also suggest another possibility: that grade-grubbing should be against university policy. I mean it. As the author of the Slate article points out, students put a great deal of pressure on instructors to go easy on them. They ask things like, "Can I do extra work?", "I know I missed the exam, but can I take a make-up?"; they send panicked emails after their final grades are posted in attempt to get them changed, etc. And of course instructors have self-interested reasons to give in. They may well think to themselves, "Shoot, if I don't accede to this student's request, they may give me a bad eval." I've confronted this myself -- and I don't think we should have to. The power should not be in students' hands to pressure their instructors to give them better grades and unfair opportunities. It should be against university rules for students to engage in any kind of grade-grubbing behavior. It's high time that college instructors have their authority to assign grades defended by university policy.
Or so say I. What say you?
Richard Brown and Pete Mandik have just posted the newest episode of my favorite new philosophy podcast, SpaceTimeMind. Here is the capsule-summary of the new episode, "Transhumanism and Existentialism":
Neurophilosophers Pete Mandik and Richard Brown wax futurological on whether the post-human future will be populated by Kantian superheroes or Sartrean sociopaths. Other questions addressed include: Is your brain a douchebag? Are “uplifted" monkeys happy monkeys or sad monkeys? Is it OK to torture sims? And if so, what’s the best way to do it? Musical interludes provided by the New York Consciousness Collective and Quiet Karate Reflex.
I'm happy to welcome Guglielmo Feis to the Cocoon as our newest contributor. Guglielmo recently finished his PhD in Philosophy of Law at Università degli Studi di Milano in Milan, and works on, among other things, collective intentionality and the principles of "ought implies can." Welcome!
I received the following query from a reader today:
In one of your posts some months ago at the Cocoon, you discussed a dilemma about not getting scooped. You asked whether one should try to publish in a very good venue and risk getting scooped or instead publish in a low-ranked journal. Concerning this issue, here is something I thought about, which might be of interest to you or to readers of your blog. It might be that I’m simply confused about something here. If so, apologies for taking up your time.
I wish there were a way of simply putting one’s paper on some on-line storage place (like philpapers, but not exactly), in such a way that it would count for issues of "who published this idea first". In this way I could put my paper there, and then send it to (e.g.) Mind, without worrying about the fact that it takes them a year to review papers. If I'm not mistaken, in physics and math (also biology, computer science) they have this thing called "arxiv.org" for something like this purpose. When a physicist makes a discovery, she immediately puts it there, thereby publishing it (cf. some episodes of the sitcom "the big bang theory"), and only later worries about sending it to peer-reviewed journals. Putting a paper in arxiv counts as "publishing it first".
Consequently, I think, in the sciences, getting scooped means that while you are working on some project , someone else, who works on a similar project, gets the results first. The competition is about obtaining the results first, not about passing the peer-review process first, which is how it should be, no? In philosophy, somehow the situation is different (perhaps strange): even though you got your results years before another philosopher, she might pass the peer-review process first and thereby scoop you.
As far as I understand, unlike the situation with arxiv, putting a paper in philpapers does not count for purposes of “who published this idea first”. Is this true? If so, why? I wonder if you or your readership can shed some light on this.
As readers may recall, I've worried about this issue for a long time. I've been scooped a few times, and it is incredibly awful to work on something for a long time only to see someone else publish it before you -- perhaps only because of the vicissitudes of the peer-review process. And, of course, this has always been a problem in academia. David Hilbert almost scooped Einstein on General Relativity's field equations. Then there is the Newton-Leibniz priority dispute with calculus. Etc.
In today's day and age, one would think we'd have a good solution to it by now. As our reader notes, physicists have the arxiv -- which I believe they use to settle notions of priority. But of course priority is not the only issue. Citations are a major problem too. It hardly matters if Physicist1 puts theory X on the arxiv first if Physicist2 publishes it first in the Annals of Physics and everyone cites Physicist2.
I think this is an important issue. People should get credit for their work, regardless of whether they published it first, or even if they never published it at all. If an idea truly is groundbreaking, the people who got there first -- whoever they are -- should be recognized. So, what can we do?
I would like to propose that philpapers be treated as establishing priority. Perhaps, in addition, the area editors could even create database links to papers by (A) thesis defended, and (B) date uploaded. This might help a great deal with the citation issue that I've gone on about recently (I've been frustrated, for instance, to see my 2012 paper, "Unifying the Categorical Imperative", not cited in several papers that have come out since defending very similar arguments). Anyway, such a Philosophical Thesis Categorized by Date Uploaded on Philpapers would immediately enable anyone who wants to write on that thesis to see who has posted a paper on that thesis to philpapers, and when. We could then perhaps have a common disciplinary standard for how priority is to be understood, at least vis-a-vis philpapers.
What does everyone think?
In response to my previous post, wherein I recounted that I now write while listening to music, 'S' asked me in the comments section:
What do you prefer to groove to while writing? I have been experimenting on and off with listening to music while writing, though I still write in near complete silence, aside from the sounds that travel in from the world outside my window. I find that it is not so much that I can't write with music on, it is that I can't find the right volume to write at. If the music is too loud, no good. If it is too soft I find that I will intuitively become more aware of the music as I try to pick out faint notes.
I was going to simply respond by way of a comment, but the more I thought about, the more I thought it might be worth writing a stand alone post on -- for I had S's problem for a long time, too (finding the "right" stuff to listen to, etc.). For a long time, I couldn't write to music. It always seemed to distract me. But then, one morning, I listened to a particular playlist, and all of sudden it just worked. The music inspired me to write with an unusual amount of energy and focus, and in a kind of counterintuitive way...which is why I thought it might be worth sharing.
At least offhand, you might think that soft, unobtrusive music might be the best to write to. After all, as S's comment indicates, "if the music is too loud, no good." But then, as S notes, if the music is too soft, one can get distracted by that. Further, I've noted that "easy-listening" music does not contribute to the kind of energy that (in my case, at least) motivates highly focused, efficient work. Easy-listening music can relax one too much. You can kind of get into a lazy state of mind where you're sort of enjoying the music, but not focusing that intensely.
So, then, how do you figure out the right stuff to listen to, and at the right volume? In my experience, it's not volume that matters. It's all in the music selection. You need to find work that impels you, that gets in your bones and just drives you to focus and have fun. For me, at least since 2012, it's been three albums by the Danish rock group, Mew. Super early one morning after a Skype interview, at a time when I didn't write to music, I was tired and decided just to throw them on repeat in my office. The next four hours were by far the most fun and productive hours I have ever had doing philosophy (I popped out the final 30 pages or so of "A New Theory of Free Will"). Ever since then, I've just popped them Mew in on repeat, and it never fails. I can play it at any volume, and it just gets my creative juices flowing. You'd think they'd get old, right? Nope, I love them as artists and can listen to them all day long! For some reason, listening to them gives me energy and focus, and makes writing fun. I suppose sooner or later I'll have to find something new, but for now, I go with them.
So, anyway, that's what I'd suggest. It's not about finding the right volume (at least for me). It's about finding that artist or artists that simply inspire a certain kind of energy, focus, and fun. I have no idea if this is true of everyone, but it can't hurt to try. So, I say, experiment! Maybe you'll find an artist that works for you. :)
Anyway, to answer S's question, here's what I "groove" to. What do you groove to?
I came across this funny (NSFW!) article, "How to write", today through my facebook feed (thanks to Victor Kumar). Basically, the message is: to be an effective writer you need to wake up super-early in the morning and be near-psychotic in your level of devotion to getting words out on the page, ignoring everthing and everyone during "writing time." Finally, about 3/4 of the way down the article, the author writes what I expect just about every reader is thinking:
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "This person is kind of an asshole. If I become a professional writer, I won't be so discombobulated and distracted and self-hating." That's what I used to think...
Be that as it may, I think there's some real truth to the post. I was a really ineffective writer throughout much of grad school. I slept in, tried to write in the afternoon or evening, slaved away on papers, and tooks weeks or even months on end to get stuff into shape. Then, late in my graduate career -- as I've discussed many times before -- I found an unsolicited book in my grad school mailbox on "how to write a dissertation" (I still can't remember its exact title!). Anyway, the book said basically what this author says: wake up early, write first thing in the morning while is your brain is fresh (or even tired!-more on this momentarily), force yourself to get stuff out of your head and onto paper, etc. Although I had never been an "early riser" before, I was desperate, so I tried it out. I work up early, wrote first thing in the morning, etc...and just like that, I was suddenly far more productive.
What was it? Strangely, I think being tired has something to do with it. I read somewhere not too long ago (I can't recall where) that people are actually more creative when they tired, in part because our inner "censor" is weak when we're tired. The more that I've worked in the morning, the more true this seems to me. Stuff just flows out in the morning because I'm tired, whereas later in the day, when I'm much more self-critical, I linger on things, obsessing over whether I've got things right. The great thing about writing in the morning is that you can do both. For instance, I've just started revising my book manuscript from page 1 and am revising a couple of R&R's as well as a couple of new articles to send off to journals. Here's what I do: I wake up the morning and write new stuff non-stop from about 9am-noon. Then, after lunch, I may write some more new stuff, but around 2-3pm, I'm tired of it, and I turn to revising old stuff. It's at this point in the afternoon that I no longer feel "fresh" -- or able to really spit out a lot of new stuff -- but I still have plenty of energy to work old stuff through the ringer.
Anyway, I know I've talked about this stuff before, but if you've never tried it -- and you're someone who struggles with writing efficiently -- I really advocate giving a real shot. I never would have imagined any of it would work as well as it does, but it does work, at least for me -- and there were others I gave the book to for whom it seemed to work wonders for, as well.
One final thing that occurred to me while reading the above article is also how important it is to be in a non-distractable environment -- no email, no internet, etc. I do almost all of my paper-writing at the dog park. I find that when I do stuff other places -- my office, Starbucks, whatever -- I get distracted by things. I check my email. I check this blog, etc. At the dog park, nothing bugs me. I put in my headphones, blast my music (I always write to music now), and get on with writing. Then, if I need sources, I'll head to my office for them in the afternoon. Here again, this was sort of a lucky accident on my part. I never had a dog before, but once I had him, I just started writing at the park by accident, and strangely, it seemed to work wonders.
So, I guess that's what I'd suggest too: if you have trouble writing, don't just try to write first thing in the morning; try to write somewhere you don't normally write -- a park, etc.; and, by all means, turn your internet and cell phone off! :) I have no idea whether these things will work for everyone or even most people, but I thought they might be worth sharing.
For years I provided very extensive comments on students’ papers. What stopped me was one of them, finally, saying “thank you.” It immediately struck me that hundreds of students over many semesters hadn’t cared enough to say anything to me about the comments, and in fact probably hadn’t cared about them at all. I switched to a more minimal commenting approach, at least on lower level courses.
But perhaps we can forgo nearly all written comments. That is what Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate and adjunct professor, suggests as an option. She uses a rubric that includes pre-written statements with grades and weights for various parts of the assignment. She checks off boxes on the rubric, thereby “commenting” and grading the assignment. She provides no line or marginal comments. Instead, she says: “Pass it back with a two-line summary about the paper in general, and then this note: ‘I would be delighted to give this paper an extensive line-by-line reading in my office hours, or by appointment!’ The students who want this will come to you. For me, it’s between one and ten students per paper, out of 35-60 total. This method is unassailable, because any student who wishes to have line comments gets them–they just have to make a slight time commitment about it, too, which every Dean would think is fair.” Schuman’s account of the process, along with examples of her rubrics, are over at her blog.
I was all the more horrified to see that almost all of the (six) people who commented on the post voiced approval for the method.
Why am I horrified? With all due respect to people who want to take these "grading shortcuts", I think it sends a terrible message to students. We don't want them to take shortcuts -- to write half-baked papers with poor grammar, no references, etc. -- but then we turn around and take shortcuts ourselves? And out of a belief that students don't read of care about our comments? This is, in my view, an incredibly short-sighted way to look at the matter (not to mention false-see below). Even if only a few students read or appreciate your comments, your students see the overall level of effort you do or do not put into your teaching. They see whether you give your best: whether you care about them enough to put all the hard work in regardless. And I believe they pick up on it. If students see that you are willing to take shortcuts, why shouldn't they? But if, on the contrary, you show them you are not willing to take shortcuts, and that you will not accept shortcuts from them, this -- in my experience -- has a real impact. If you show students that you are willing to work for them, they will be willing to work for you -- and for themselves.
When I started out as a professor, I took the half-baked approach, writing some comments in the margins, etc. -- and I was so darn frustrated with how disengaged and careless students were. Then I tried something: I tried the method that my very first philosophy professor, Daniel Dennett, did in my class. I attached a cover page or two with single-spaced, detailed comments referring to passages in the text explaining what, exactly, the student did well or poorly, and what they need to do to improve. I also include a section of "final comments" telling them how the paper succeeded/failed, and finally, a breakdown of grades into five areas: (1) introduction, (2) summary, (3) objections motivated, (4) critical discussion, and (5) miscellaneous [grammar, editing, page#s], etc.; each with comments of their own. This may sound like a lot, but I have gotten incredibly efficient at it, and the response from students has been outstanding. Here are just a few comments from my recent evaluations:
I realize this may come across as self-congratulatory, but what the heck: I am proud of it. ;) And I think it shows -- contrary to the comments over at Daily Nous -- that it is simply false that only "few" students appreciate feedback.
We owe our students better than taking shortcuts. It is high time we stopped criticizing students for being "disengaged" and worked harder to inspire them by going the extra mile ourselves.
As I mentioned last week, I thought it might be a good idea to start a "Cocoon Fund" to help people with travel funding to our annual conference (there are at least two people whose papers were accepted to this year's conference who informed me that they would not be able to attend for financial reasons), as well as occasional Cocoon expenses (e.g. expenses for our annual conference and APA party). Given that a couple of people voiced approval for the proposal, and no one voiced disapproval, I would like to give it a try.
Here is how I would like to proceed. First, I really liked David Morrow's suggestion here that instead of having an ongoing fund, we adopt a "piecemeal" approach, soliciting donations from the community on a case-by-case basis with a particular goal in mind (e.g. travel funding for our annual conference, etc.). The benefits of this approach seem to me to be obvious: it would set clear funding goals (which I hope will motivate people to contribute), and, obviously, it would save me from having to manage an ongoing stream of money (since I will end the relevant donation period as soon as the goals are met). Finally, as I mentioned in my previous post, I will manage the Cocoon Fund complete above board, posting official PayPal statements so that the community can see precisely what comes into and goes out of the fund, and for which purposes (for example, I will announce who receives travel awards, and in what amount).
Sound good? I hope so! As I mentioned above, there are two individuals whose papers were accepted to this year's conference who informed me that they would need travel funding to attend. One individual has requested $350 and the other $200.
Here, then, is what I would like to do. I have now posted a DONATE button to the left of the daily posts (above the contributors list), and would like to encourage everyone -- contributors and readers alike -- to help out, if only in a small way (small donations are encouraged and much appreciated; every dollar and every cent helps out!). Anyway, the button will stay up until (hopefully!) we meet our $550 goal, and depending on how things go, I may write a post or two updating the fund's progress. As soon as we meet the goal, I will take the button down and post that we've met it -- and, of course, thank everyone who contributed. I will also state who the travel award winners are, and finally, post the Cocoon Fund's Paypal ledger, so that everyone can see what money has been collected (I will then post another ledger when the funds are disbursed to the travel award recipients).
Finally, I'd like to thank everyone in advance who contributes. Helping people attend our conference is a really cool thing to do. :)
Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted physicist and host of the new Cosmos series, made some rather disparaging remarks about the study of philosophy the other day. This, not surprisingly, ruffled some feathers (see here, here, and here) -- including mine! Unfortunately, this sort of thing seems to be becoming ever more common. Steven Hawking has said (and written) that "philosophy is dead", and Lawrence Krauss has not only claimed that physics has made philosophy obsolete; he's done so while calling philosopher of physics David Albert "moronic" (this despite making some pretty moronic philosophical claims himself in his recent book, "A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing").
But, now how should we respond to all this? One way to respond is to circle the wagons and say that philosophy is unfairly maligned. However, I want to suggest that we should take this as an opportunity to reflect on what we are doing, and what we might do to improve how philosophy is perceived both by scientists and by the public at large.
In an open letter to deGrasse-Tyson, Lewis Powell writes:
...I don’t think valuing philosophical inquiry is at odds with valuing scientific inquiry. Firstly, the whole idea of even treating them as distinct from each other is a fairly recent shift. As an early modernist, the list of philosophers I study has pretty striking overlap with lists of early modern chemists, physicists, and biologists.
There is, I think, something instructive about this passage that Powell does not discuss. On the one hand, Powell says that philosophy and science have been deeply intertwined throughout history. Philosophers were scientists, and scientists were philosophers (Descartes, Pascal, Hume, and Locke are just a few who immediately come to mind). However, Powell also implicitly concedes that philosophy has in recent years become less engaged with science (viz. "the whole idea of even treating them as distinct...is fairly recent").
This is hard to deny. Whereas philosophy and science seem deeply intertwined throughout history, 20th Century Analytic Philosophy seemed to move our discipline firmly in the direction of a priori, non-scientifically-engaged thinking. Analytic epistemologists, for instance, spent decades trying (unsuccessfully) to define knowledge. Similarly, the vast majority of analytic metaphysics has been done from the armchair -- reflecting in an a priori fashion on our concepts of (and intuitions about) causation, material constitution, or free will.
Now, to be sure, some philosophers are involved in the science of these things. There are philosophers of science who engage with causation as it is understood in the sciences, metaphysicians who engage with the science on free will; philosophers of mind who engage with cognitive science; and philosophers of language who engage with computational linguistics. However, these are not the dominant strands of our discipline -- nor are they the dominant approach to educating budding philosophers. While there are a few science-based PhD programs in philosophy (Washington U's PNP program immediately comes to mind), the vast plurality of top philosophy programs appear to focus on educating MA and PhD students in "traditional" philosophical methods (i.e. conceptual analysis, a priori argumentation, etc.).
While I do not think a priori philosophy is a waste of time (I do a fair amount of it myself!), I want to suggest -- again -- that we do our discipline no favors by focusing in such an overwhelming way on a priori methods like conceptual analysis (something which Ruth Millikan has also raised concerns about). Philosophy would be much more productive, and I think well-respected, if it were more balanced: if more philosophers engaged more with cutting-edge science; if moral philosophers, for instance, engaged more with emerging sciences on moral cognition; if philosophers of free will engaged more with neurobiology and physics; etc.
Yet, I find, whenever I (or anyone else) makes suggestions like this, the most immediate response is that of resistance. So, for instance, in response to a recent post in which I said similar things, the first comment was this:
Engaging with the science is much easier said than done; it takes a lot of science education to be up to snuff, which takes a lot of time and effort.
As a result, incentive-structures come into play. For instance, why spend years making up for the physics education I never had in college if I can just hammer out a few articles on the (a priori) possibility of gunk (i.e., an atomless, infinitely divisible universe), and get a tenure-track job somewhere with AOS metaphysics?
(Aiming at truth, alas, is not enough; in a competitive market with scarce resources/jobs, one who takes extra time to learn extra material is penalized for lack of specialization/publication…)
If knowing logic or Ancient Greek is a prerequisite for being a good professional philosopher, then grad programs have logic or Greek requirements. If a working knowledge of contemporary science is a prerequisite, however, do you expect philosophy programs to have some sort of science requirement?
And if so, is there just one course- “science for philosophers”? Too superficial, likely. So then what: specialists in phil bio must enroll in an actual bio class? Fine, but will you learn all you need to know in one bio class? No. Besides, maybe you can’t even enroll without undergrad or other bio prereqs… so what do you do?
The more science philosophers have to add to their education in order to be good naturalist philosophers, the longer the degree will take, or the less time one will spend on reading Kant or Aristotle or whatever… and then what do philosophy departments look like 30 years down the road…?
I've heard similar things from people in person (and, in some cases, I've even heard empirically-engaged philosophy derided for "not being philosophy"). But now if this is how we answer the worry that our discipline is out of touch with the real world and with science -- if our response is, "Educating ourselves in the sciences takes too much time and effort!" -- should we really be that surprised when scientists and laypeople look at us a bit askance? Can we blame them -- when we speculate about the mind without engaging with the science of the mind; when we speculate about free will without engaging in the science of physics and the brain; etc.? Maybe we can...but should we perhaps blame ourselves a bit, too? I'll leave it for you to think about and discuss, but in closing, I'll say this: I believe scientifically-engaged philosophy is the wave of the future. Scientifically-engaged philosophy attracts resources and public interest. It might just save our discipline.
In a recent article at the Huffington Post, Galanty Miller offers the following "5 Tips for becoming a better college professor":
I probably wouldn't respond to the piece were it not for the fact that I've seen so many people share the piece in my Facebook feed, and were it not for the fact that, in my experence, almost all of the advice is wrong! But, since both of these things are the case -- and I fear that some people might actually believe some of the things Galanty writes -- I'll respond. :)
In support of claim (1) ("No group assignments"), Gallanty writes:
The four words college students most dread? "Everyone get into groups."
Not since non-alcoholic beer has there been a more worthless addition to the college experience than group assignments, group projects, and group presentations.
You know who hates 'group projects' the most? The intelligent, 'A' students who work hard and make an effort. Because you've just doubled their workload. Now they have to pick up the slack caused by the jerk-offs who forgot to buy the posterboard and didn't realize the presentation was today. By assigning group projects, you're pissing off the few dedicated students who actually like you.
There's only one problem with this entire line of argument: everything in it is false. ;) Seriously, though, in the three years since I started interspersing my lectures with group assignments, (A) my student reviews have skyrocketed, (B) my students are more engaged, and (C) from my perspective, they are clearly learning more and becoming better students -- and all because group assignments require them to actively do work in the classroom.
Again, Galanty claims that the four words every college student dreads the most are, "Everyone get into groups." Well, about that...Here are just a few examples of student comments I have received in response to the question, "What aspects of your classroom experience (course, professor, etc.) helped your learning most?":
So much for Galanty's argument against group work. Group assignments can work wonders in the classroom, and if done right, students enjoy them. Finally, a simple practice ensures that everyone puts in roughly equal work in groups: just state on your syllabus that anyone who does not pull their fair share in the group assignment gets their name left off the assignment for zero credit, and actively police it in the classroom. Trust me, it works like a charm.
As for (2) ("Don't have students write papers longer than 5 pages"), Gallanty writes:
There is no undergraduate class topic that requires more than five pages to explain, and this includes the unnecessary long opening paragraph and the pointless closing paragraph, because undergraduate papers have two basic objectives- to strengthen a student's writing skills and to assess the student's basic comprehension of a subject or issue that is generally related to the course and this never takes more than five pages to accomplish, and when you assign an essay that forces the students to write seven or ten or twelve pages, rather than focus on strong writing and a grasp of the topic, their paper-writing goal switches to "filling up enough pages to complete the assignment" and this leads to ludicrously long quotes from other sources, hoping to fool you into thinking the paper is longer than it is by using wider indentations, and, worst of all, run-on sentences that go on and on and on and end up being, like, 167 words long...
Here again, most if not all of this is false. First, good upper-level undergraduate paper on many philosophical topics -- say, the Theories of Justice seminar I taught this term -- cannot be written in 5 pages. Sorry, but no. A paper on Rawls, for instance, will need at least that many pages to simply summarize major parts of some argument(s), and then at least 5 pages of original argument. Second, it is false that "the only aims" of an undergraduate paper are to improve student writing and display comprehension of course material. Um, original, well-defended arguments also are sort of important! And yes, while undergraduates do have a certain tendency to "pad" papers, there is an easy way to deter them from doing so: give them instructions that you will penalize their grade severely if they do. Trust me, it works!
I could go on, but I won't. Online activities can work, review sheets can encourage students to study (and, if you make them difficult, study a lot), and, if you teach your tail off, you can look like a hobo for all your students care.
Apologies for no posts the past couple of days. The end of the semester has been super busy, and I've already begun getting immersed in summer writing (I have to rewrite an entire book manuscript in the next 1&3/4 month!) -- both of which have prevented me from thinking up new posts. Because the next couple of months will be very research-intensive for me, but I do not want to let the blog languish (at least on my part), I would like to solicit topic suggestions that you, the Cocoon's readers, might be interested in seeing posts on.
So, then, are there any particular issues -- related to the discipline, to teaching, to writing, etc. -- that you would like to see addressed, but which we haven't addressed previously? If so, please let me (and the rest of our contributors) know!
As a follow-up to our two earlier discussions, I hereby propose that we begin a campaign to encourage better citation practices in philosophy. Here, I propose, is how the campaign will work. Starting today, readers may email submissions to me at email@example.com. Submissions may:
The guiding aim of the campaign, as I mentioned before, will not be to "name and shame." Rather, the aim will be to suggest ways we, individually and collectively, might improve citation practices in philosophy.
Finally, given that different people have different conceptions of what it is to cite appropriately, I propose to leave it up to each submitter to make the case for the suggestion(s) they submit. I ask, in other words, that submissions to the Campaign not only state what they think could be improved (viz. a given article is under-cited, etc.), but to make a brief case for their submission.
If all goes well -- if, that is, enough people take part -- I hope to provide a monthly Campaign Report presenting the submissions I receive and accept. The report will preserve the anonymity of submitters, and I reserve the right to reject/edit submissions that I judge not to conform to this blog's safe and supportive mission. Submissions may of course be critical of submission practices, but should aim to be suggestive and helpful rather than engage in "naming and shaming."
Sound okay to everyone? If so, I propose we begin! Are there articles you believe to be systematically under-cited? Are there articles you believe should have cited the literature more widely? Are there particular articles you think do a great job citing the literature. Now is your chance to make the case!
For the past two years, the Philosophers' Cocoon and its various events have been funded by my pocketbook. I haven't minded this in the slightest, as it hasn't been very expensive (there's just the monthy Typepad fee, a holiday party or conference here and there, etc.). However, in organizing this summer's 2nd Annual Philosophers' Cocoon Philosophy Conference -- a conference that aims to be welcome to grad students, adjuncts, and others without much in the way of travel funding -- I've already had a couple of people tell me they cannot attend due to funding reasons. I think this is really unfortunate, and that if we could do something to help, it would be a really nice gesture.
Anyway, for this, and for other reasons -- I expect the Cocoon to continue growing, and have more events! -- I wanted to see whether the community would be interested in setting up a "Cocoon Fund": a way of making donations to the Cocoon for the purposes of providing travel funding, party funding, etc. If everyone (or most people) think it would be a bad idea, I'm more than happy to respect the community's decision. But, let me say this: if people think it is potentially a good idea, I would do it complete above board. I'd be happy to post complete monthly statements showing which funds have been collected, and how they are used. I would also be happy, when posting statements, to explain in the associated blog posts which funds have been used and for what purpose. Finally, I would be more than happy to survey the community for how relevant funds should be used (viz. how many people should we provide travel funds to for our annual conference) in advance of funding decisions being made.
Again, this is just a proposal -- but I think it might be really good if we could help our members travel to our annual conference, etc. Please let me know what you think!
Two years ago today, I started the Cocoon. My aim in starting it was simple. As a recent grad student and new faculty member, I knew first-hand how difficult navigating graduate school, dissertations, teaching, work-life balance, publishing, etc., can be. I also knew just how difficult it can be for people in these precarious, early career-stages to reach out of help and guidance, and how few resources there were for this. "How nice it would have been", I thought to myself, "if there were some kind of supportive online forum for discussing these things when I was in grad school." And so, I thought to myself, "What the heck - maybe someone else would like such a forum too!" And so, the Cocoon came to be.
Now, just two years later, the Cocoon is flourishing. We are averaging between 1,200-1,500 site visits a day, and more importantly, we have great people, and great discussions. We've discussed everything from the job market to trends in the profession, to our discipline's climate, to teaching, research, publishing, and many other things to boot. Oh, and did I mention we also discuss philosophy? We also have an annual conference, and an annual party at the Eastern APA (the "Non-Smoker"). Am I forgetting anything?
Anyway, I'd like to thank all of you -- the Cocoon's contributors and readers -- for making the blog such a great place to be!
I want to engage in a bit of evangelism inspired by a piece in the CHE and a book review I recently read in NDPR. They both got me thinking about my own experiences co-writing philosophy as a grad student and visiting faculty member. Co-authorship is an approach to writing that philosophers don’t do enough of. Nonetheless it has been an important part of my own development as a philosopher, such as it is, and I want to preach on its behalf.
I think of philosophy as a social activity; as more fun and fruitful when done with others. The discipline would be far worse off if we didn’t get together at conferences, share projects, read each others’ work, exchange ideas, and become friends. We don’t just teach using the Socratic method, we also interact that way. We interrogate one another about our intuitions, we instinctively respond with counterexamples, and bounce arguments off those whose skills we trust. Thus, in inception, our work is collaborative. Yet, as compared to many other disciplines, there appears to be far fewer co-authored works in philosophy.
We need to work with different people, scholars from other disciplines - for one. We claim that our discipline is relevant to others - we do bioethics; philosophy of mathematics, law, and mind; military, engineering, computer, and research ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, etc. While I know enough to write a philosophy article, there is only so much I can master about another field. To be relevant outside philosophy we need to work with their practitioners and scholars (though be forewarned, interdisciplinarity has its price). It used to be said that philosophers learn physics from each other instead of from physicists. If we learn to collaborate we can rid ourselves of such embarrassing stereotypes. There is no reason that philosophers and practitioners of other fields should not be able to attend one anothers’ conferences and take each other seriously. We have all read too much philosophy about other things that reflects either a poor understanding of philosophy or the field under consideration.
I’m not yet at the point where I have written much, but so far I have had three coauthors and I’m now working with others. Each experience co-writing has been rewarding in its own way.
The writing process was different each time and each set of coauthors should see what works best for them. I have heard of coauthors writing a few paragraphs then handing off the paper to the other person to write a few more. I can’t imagine how something like that can work; but, hey, why not? Experiment and discover the best way to divide the work.
I was also lucky (very lucky) to have worked with extremely generous and smart people who have radically different skill sets than I have (and all with names earlier in the alphabet than mine, so I never feel bad about being the last author). I worked with a philosopher who was the chair of my department when I was a graduate student and an adjunct. He knew an enormous amount about the subject going in, guided me through a ton of unfamiliar literature, took me seriously even when my ideas sounded seriously crazy, and agreed to undertake a massive project with me that generated after a number of years first a paper and now more. My co-authors outside philosophy in literature and psychology (and now math) worked with me (in different ways) to hash out ideas that we each had part of. I think neither of us could have done it alone and I am grateful that they all took chances on me.
There is a downside. I work quite hard on scholarship that will net me less credit than work I’d do myself. But I can live with that. I have learned an incredible amount and enjoyed it immensely. (Fair warning: collaboration worked for people like Paul Erdős though not Zachary Ernst. Anyone want a Zelcer-number?)
Of course I still find my own projects very rewarding. Also, some work I co-authored begat offshoots that I undertook on my own (as did my co-authors). I would recommend to anyone that part of your portfolio reflects some co-authorship, not because I think it will make your CV better, but because it will make philosophy more enjoyable for you.
Ralph Wedgwood has a new blog where, in his first post, he argues "Against Ideal Theory." For those of you who may not know much about the distinction between "ideal theory" and "nonideal theory", the distinction, very roughly, is this: ideal theory deals with what it is to be fully just, or virtuous, or rational, or whatever (depending on one's area of inquiry), whereas nonideal theory deals with what justice, or virtue, or whatever requires in some domain short of that ideal. Now, the distinction is actually much more contentious than this (see e.g. my discussion in section 1 of this paper, where I argue that the distinction has been misdrawn in the Rawlsian literature). But, let us set this aside.
Although I agree with Wedgwood that ideal theory has often seriously led philosophers astray -- for about 40 years, Rawlsian philosophers often argued about what "justice requires" in our world, this despite the fact that Rawls' arguments for his principles of (domestic and international) justice abstract away from the nonideal, and no bridging argument was ever given for extending his arguments to nonideal theory -- I think Wedgwood's critique of ideal theory is misguided, and promises to mislead philosophers in the opposite direction: the direction of thinking that they can say sensible things about the nonideal world without first defining an appropriate ideal. This is a popular new move in political philosophy, and it is one that I believe is deeply mistaken.
Wedgwood's critique begins with a "methodological problem." He writes:
An ideal F is one of the F's that are, in the relevant respect, the best possible F's. So, e.g., an ideally virtuous agent is one of the best (i.e. most virtuous) possible agents; to think in an ideally rational way is to think in the best (i.e. most rational) possible way; an ideally just society is one of the best (i.e. most just) possible societies.
So, to determine what an ideal F would be like, one has to answer two quite different questions:
- What F’s are (in the relevant sense) possible?
- What is it for one F to be (in the relevant respect) better than another?
Surely it is clear that these two questions belong to entirely different categories.
- The first question is a modal question, about what is possible. Normally, the relevant sense of ‘possibility’ will make this an empirical question.
- The second question is a normative or evaluative question, about what is better and what isworse in the relevant respect. Normally, the relevant sense of ‘better’ will make this a purelyphilosophical non-empirical question.
Clearly, it is dangerous to try to answer these two very different questions simultaneously. Unarticulated assumptions are liable to get smuggled in, without receiving adequate scrutiny.
It seems to be for this reason that it is almost never explained exactly what the relevant notion of ‘possibility’ is, and hardly ever argued that the ideal is indeed “possible” in that sense. (One honourable exception is Plato’s discussion of the sense in which the ideal state is “possible” in Republic 471c-473e.)
Instead, philosophers all too often shift back and forth: when they want to suggest that their “ideal” has some practical relevance, they strengthen the sense of ‘possibility’, in order to suggest that the ideal might be practically within reach; when they want to defend their ideal against objections, they weaken the sense of ‘possibility’, in order to suggest that the worlds where the ideal is realized are remote from our non-ideal actual world.
Wedgwood's argument here, as far as I can tell, is essentially this:
This is fallacious. I entirely agree that it is important not to confuse the things that Wedgwood mentions, and that philosophers who work in ideal theory often do confuse those things -- but none of this shows that ideal theory is methodologically flawed. It shows, at most, that many people have done it badly!
Wedgwood then writes of certain "theoretical mistakes" he sees in ideal theory:
For evaluative and normative theorizing, what is most important is to articulate a plausible conception of what it is for one item in the relevant category to be better than another.
I think this is just wrong. I don't think "the most important thing" in normative theorizing is to know "what is better than what." That is an important thing to know, but to say it is the most important thing -- without argument -- is simply an assertion. Here, instead, is what I want to say: There are many important things in normative theorizing. We should want to know what is better than what. But that is not all. We have every reason to want to know what would be best. To ignore ideal theory -- without argument for why "what is best" is not something worth knowing -- is to arbitrarily set aside an important question as irrelevant.
Second, I do not think that we can specify what is better than what without at least some ideal in the background. To say that it would be better for people of different races to have equal rights than for one race to have more than others is to say that it is more ideal. But, what is it to say that something is more ideal? It is to say that it is closer to some ideal. Thus, I say (along with Rawls), the idea what we can do "nonideal theory" without ideal theory is nonsense. Any attempt to do nonideal theory inevitably -- if only tacitly -- appeals to ideals.
Wedgwood then adds:
Ideal theorists may assume that their description of the ideal gives us an easy way of articulating such a conception of what it is for one item x to be better than another item y: x is better than y if and only if xis closer to the ideal than y.
However, simply describing an ideal does not determine a unique metric of closeness to the ideal. This point has recently come to be appreciated within formal epistemology: even if perfect probabilistic coherence is part of being ideally rational, there are many different ways of measuring how closely an incoherent set of beliefs approximates to being perfectly coherent. Further substantive discussion is required to see which is the appropriate metric. The same point surely applies to ideal theories of individual virtue or of social justice: just describing an ideally just society will not in itself give us a way of measuring how closely a less-than-perfectly just society approximates to ideal justice.
In this way, a focus on ideal theory has obscured one of the crucial tasks of evaluative and normative theories – viz. to articulate an account of degrees of justice, or degrees of virtue or of rationality (i.e. an account of what it is for x to be more just, or more virtuous or rational, than y).
But now notice: this commits the same error as before. When Wedgwood says that, "Ideal theorists may assume that...", he is saying ideal theorists can theorize badly about nonideal conditions. This is certainly correct, and ideal theorists are guilty of it. But, just because something has been done wrongly, that does not mean that it should not be done, or that it is methodologically flawed. Wedgwood is right than describing an ideal alone does not determine a unique metric of closeness, and that "a focus on ideal theory has obscured one of the crucial tasks of evaluative normative theories...to articulate an account of degrees of justice...". But, here again, it is fallacious to reason from this to the conclusion that ideal theory should not be done. A better way to go would be to do ideal theory correctly, and then correctly extend one's normative reasoning to the nonideal.
Finally, Wedgwood gives several cases of how, "[A] focus on ideal theory can also lead to mistaken evaluations of particular states of affairs. Here there are mistakes both on the right (the mistakes of conservatives), and on the left (the mistakes of revolutionaries)." I totally agree that the mistakes he then lays out have been made -- but still, the fact that people have made mistakes doing something does not establish that that thing should not be done. As I have explained above, we have reasons to do both things -- ideal and nonideal theory -- correctly. Thus, I submit, Wedgwood's proposed solution is not a solution. Wedgwood writes, "The fundamental normative and evaluative questions are not about what is ideal, but about what is better and what is worse." No, the fundamental normative and evaluative questions are two:
And this is just to say that the ideal theorists were right all along.
Ruth Millikan's 2012 Dewey Lecture, which I first posted a link to the other day, has generated quite a stir on other philosophy blogs and social media. I have seen people urging one another to read it, and I've heard some people describe parts of it as "explosive." In this post, I want to follow up on Millikan's claim that encouraging philosophers to publish early and often is "genocidal" -- that it threatens to destroy the vitality and depth of our discipline from within. (p. 11)
When I began graduate school, 300-500 page dissertations systematically developing and defending "one big idea" were the rule. One simply could not receive one's PhD without coming up with "a great idea", and developing something like a systematic theory of that idea. I distinctly remember sitting in our grad lounge at the University of Arizona and reading some of the dissertations that were kept there. I was astonished. "How", I thought to myself, "could I ever climb a mountain like that?" The amount of thought, work, determination, and systematic thought it took to produce dissertations like those, I thought to myself, was truly impressive and important.
And indeed, it seems to me, there are a number of reasons why 300-500 page dissertations systematically developing new theories were once the rule.
The first thought, I think, was simply that the aim of a PhD program should be to create great (rather than merely good) philosophers, and that great philosophy requires the ability to develop new systems of thought. If, for instance, we look at the greatest contributions to philosophy in history -- whether we are talking about Kant's Critiques or whatever -- those contributions, by and large, were not "a handful of papers." They were wide-ranging, systematic theories.
The second thought, I take is, is that unless the ability to think systematically in this kind of way is developed (and incentivized!) early -- in grad school, etc. -- it is unlikely to develop on its own. Habits are habits, and if one is merely taught (by one's mentors--leaders in the field!) to publish papers in grad school and then incentivized to publish papers or books based on papers in the years leading up to tenure, when will one learn how to think deeply, and systematically? Again, if all the incentive is to publish papers in Phil Review and then maybe a book (based on those papers) with OUP, but one is never taught or given any incentive to create something systematic like A Theory of Justice or the Critique of Pure Reason, the likelihood that one will ever learn how to create something like that diminishes.
The third thought, I take it, is that in order to think really systematically about ideas, and to develop new ideas that might "change the philosophical world", one needs to be steeped in philosophical history. The 300-500 page dissertations I read when I started grad school did not just deal with the last 10 years of the literature on, say, practical reasons or whatever. No, they went much farther than this: locating the theories they developed in history, often returning to some idea (from maybe 100 years ago) and attempting to rescue or revitalize it. And knowing the history of philosophy (and science) is profoundly important. As just one example of how not knowing history can lead philosophy astray, consider this recent article by Brogaard and Marlow (in Analysis!) claiming to refute a central element of Einstein's theory of relativity. The kinds of concerns Brogaard and Marlow raise in the paper were raised and definitively refuted almost 100 years ago. It shouldn't have taken these two follow-up articles to refute the worries again, but, unless we pay attention to history, these are precisely the kinds of things that can happen!
So, I say, there are a lot of (good) reasons for 300-500 page, systematic dissertations. These reasons were conveyed to me at one point by my dissertation advisor, Tom Christiano. Yet, as I progressed in grad school, Tom became a lone voice in the wilderness. Budget cuts and concerns about how long grad students were taking to finish their degrees were increasingly leading my, and other grad programs to scrap the requirement for massive dissertations in favor of another alternative: dissertations consisting of several related "star papers", papers which may be closely related, but not necessarily develop any systematic theory of anything. The important thing now was that one's "star papers" were "potentially publishable." And so it went. As time has gone on, I have come across more and more 100-120 page dissertations. Oftentimes, these dissertations consist of several good or great papers. But, is that all we should be demanding of grad students? And to what end? Does it incentivize deeply understanding the history of philosophical ideas, or does it mostly incentivize contributing in some new way to some "hot" trend in the literature? Does it incentivize the development of systematic thought -- the kind of thought that has, historically, led to great philosophical innovation and theorizing? Or, does it incentivize something less?
I leave it to you to think about and discuss. :)
The following works were published or posted to philpapers by Cocoon contributors during the month of April:
Tuomas Tahko w/Donnchadh O'Conaill (forthcoming). "Minimal Truthmakers", Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.
Paul Gowder (2014). "Institutional Corruption and the Rule of Law", The Ethics Forum.
Andrew Rotondo (2014). "The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays by Christensen, David and Lackey, Jennifer," [book review] Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
Clayton Littlejohn (forthcoming). "Epistemological Disjunctivism by Duncan Pritchard" [book review], Mind.
A.P. Taylor w/David Hershenoz (forthcoming). "Split Brains: No Headache for the Soul Theorist", Religious Studies.
Congrats to everyone! Any additions/omissions? Let me know, and I will add them below!
Clayton Littlejohn (forthcoming). "The Unity of Reason."