Jul 312012
 

We built this city...In this Washington Post editorial on Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog by Dylan Matthews, we get an attempt to connect philosophy to current political discourse, with the conclusion “…which is perhaps why, in general, politicians don’t spend a lot of time listening to philosophers.”

The issue is desert, as in “do rich people deserve to keep their money?” Matthews characterizes the majority opinion among philosophers on this issue as being that some kind of determinism, whether hard or soft, is true, so the notion of “desert” doesn’t make sense, and thus philosophy is so divorced from common sense, i.e. the terms in which ordinary people couch their arguments, that we can presumably just ignore philosophers altogether.

Very relevant to Chapter 17 of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, “Justice as a Virtue: Changing Conceptions,” Matthews brings up both John Rawls and Robert Nozick, who, as MacIntyre also points out, have opposite views about the directives of social justice but neither of which couches their argument in terms of desert. MacIntyre states (p. 249-250):
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Jul 312012
 

Evolutionary psychologists seem to assume that all of an organism’s traits must be the result of natural selection. This is not the case. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, it is entirely possible that a given trait is merely a by-product of another trait that is adaptive. This by-product may in fact thwart reproductivity (“fitness”) as long as this is outweighed by the benefits of adaptive trait with which it is associated.

Further, we know little about our ancestral environment and its selective pressures, and consequently the claims of evolutionary psychology cannot (excepted for more generic and less controversial cross-species claims) be tested. So when someone excitedly tells you that some human behavior evolved for such and such a reason, you should keep in mind that you’re being fed a great big heap of unscientific bullshit disguised as science. Is rape a “secondary sexual strategy” that evolved in disadvantaged males, or is it the by-product of aggressive human behavior that serves a variety of adaptive functions in human beings? Continue reading »

Jul 302012
 

A PEL fan pointed us to the work of the recently deceased philosopher Paul Cilliers from South Africa, particularly to a short paper he wrote for  ”On the Importance of  a Certain Slowness.” (published as a chapter in Worldviews, Science, and Us: Philosophy and Complexity ). In the essay, Cilliers points to the various “slow” movements that have been cropping up around the world from slow food, to slow cities, to slow schooling to slow sex and looks to focus

on the underlying principles which make the debate on slowness an important one. Through an analysis of the temporal nature of complex systems, it will be shown that the cult of speed, and especially the understanding that speed is related to efficiency, is a destructive one.

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Jul 302012
 

On Friday, Aug. 3rd we recorded a discussion of the satirical novel Candide, written in 1751 by Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie d’Arouet.

While the book is widely known for its take on the problem of evil, we’re not in this discussion giving a sophisticated treatment of the historical arguments by Leibniz and others, as Voltaire certainly doesn’t do this. In fact, he sees getting caught in the dialectical snares of such long-running historical debates as one of the chief problems to defeat in philosophy, and his choice of this mode of communication, the novel, is all about showing instead of telling. The Leibniz stand-in character in the novel, Pangloss, has a name that means “all talk” or “all tongue,” whereas Voltaire wants us primarily to act, and he was known for his advocacy of anti-authoritarian social reforms.

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Jul 292012
 

Courtesy of edudemic.com

So the perception is that the college/university system is dying, or at least anachronistic and a new model of learning is needed.  Every other TEDx talk is by an entrepreneur who thinks education is a barrier to creative thinking and a waste of productive years.  Economic analyses show the ROI of attending college isn’t worth it for many graduates.  The government funded primary school system is severely mismanaged.  That thing that Aristotle thought was the foundation for a virtuous life is in shambles.

Witness the rise of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Coursera, Udemy, MITx aka edX which now includes Berkeley and Harvard are all different implementations of online learning systems intended to address the problem statement above.  There are others.  (Udacity) Udemy is a free market of instruction, allowing anyone to be an instructor or student, in any subject.  Teach what you want, charge what you want and if someone is interested, great.  It has a less traditional course structure focusing on skill development. Continue reading »

Jul 282012
 

Han shot first

The Philosopher’s Zone is now publishing repeats in light of Alan Saunders’s passing, but one of the most recent of these is more or less on target for us: “Aristotle on Aristotle,” an interview with Han Baltussen that gives a quick overview of his life, the preservation of his works (i.e. most of the best-written ones have not survived), and a glimpse of his doctrines in various areas. (We do plan on covering both De Anima and the Metaphysics ourselves, with the former at least coming before the end of 2012.)

The second half of the podcast brings in some post-Aristotelians like Theophrastus, Eudemus of Rhodes, and the Hellenists. (We plan on doing some Stoics and Epicurus, at least, but will never get into the depth that Peter Adamson on the Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast has, so you might want to dive into that.)

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jul 282012
 

On a regular basis someone publishes a book in which they attempt to apply neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, or the social sciences to questions that the humanities are actually better equipped to address. As a consequence, such authors typically end up dressing up their embarrassingly sophomoric musings related to philosophy, literature, and culture in the trappings of scientific rigor. Meanwhile, they ignore — and show themselves to be thoroughly unacquainted with — the thousands of years of excellent work that might have deepened their approach. A case in point is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works, which Isaac Chotiner savages in words that could have been written about any number of these books:

What his book has to teach, and by example, is the fetishization of brain science, and the anxious need for easy answers to complex questions.

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Jul 272012
 

As mentioned in the episode, Mark Vernon recorded a series of lectures on Aristotle’s philosophy of friendship (listen to the lectures on iTunes). These were published in 2006 in conjunction with his book, The Meaning of Friendship. As stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s account of Aristotle’s view, the source material in Aristotle seems to be Books VII and IX of the Nichomachean Ethics.

Here’s Vernon being interviewed about the book:

Watch on YouTube.

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Jul 262012
 

Dennis Overbye has a nice article this week in the NYTimes on the recently published explanation of the Pioneer Anomaly. As he explains,

The story starts with the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes, which went past Jupiter and Saturn in the late 1970s and now are on their way out of the solar system. In the 1980s it became apparent that a mysterious force was slowing them down a little more than should have been expected from gravity of the Sun and planets.

Was there an unknown planet or asteroid out there tugging on the spacecraft? Was it drag from interplanetary gas or dust? Something weird about the spacecraft? Or was something wrong in our calculation of gravity out there in the dark?

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Jul 242012
 

Given how helpful Steven B. Smith (of Yale) was on the Republic, I had to check him out this time around for Aristotle’s Politics.

Watch the first Aristotle lecture on YouTube.
Get the audio from iTunes.

In Smith’s three lectures, you can learn:
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Jul 242012
 

Via Jonathan Swift, Lee Perlman reflects on the importance of lying to the human condition. Gulliver’s Travels turns out not to be a defense of enlightenment ideals but a critique, with a subtle defense of untruth reminiscent of Nietzsche :

In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift challenges the idea — advanced by his Enlightenment contemporaries — that truth, including the truth about human nature, is best understood as a matter of simple factual claims. Swift’s view, as we shall see, was that dedication to this rising scientific view of truth as synonymous with fact precisely misses the very essence of human nature.

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Jul 222012
 
Aristotle

On Aristotle’s Politics (350 BCE), books 1 (ch 1-2), 3, 4 (ch 1-3), 5 (ch 1-2), 6 (ch 1-6), and 7 (ch. 1-3, 13-15).

Aristotle provides both a taxonomy of the types of government, based on observations of numerous constitutions of the states of his time, and prescriptions on how to best order a state. These are meant to be practical; though he does spend some time on the “ideal” government, he recognizes that that’s going to be very rare, given that it requires those in charge to be virtuous according to his stringent standards. He provides advice for all the types, whether rule by one, or the few, or the many, to help keep them stable and from drifting into their corrupt forms. He sees the state as a natural outgrowth of human nature, and that one can characterize the health of a state in much the way one can describe the health (i.e. virtue, happiness) of an individual. Yes, he’s a major league elitist, but there’s still some good stuff here, applicable even to modern times. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Don’t Forget Where You Are,” from the Mark Linsenmayer album Spanish Armada, Songs of Love and Related Neuroses (1993), newly remixed/remastered.

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Jul 222012
 

Guest BloggingDo you have philosophically interesting links to share? Do you listen to our episodes and feel like you have things you’re familiar with that could be usefully related to what we talked about? Do you have some experience writing philosophically, whether in grad school or upper-level undergrad courses; or alternately do you have some other professional writing experience that you can apply to introducing people to philosophical resources? Maybe you’d like to review some books or movies or songs or live, nude, porcupine-intensive performance art, hmmmm?

We’re looking to add some new blood to this blog, so if you read these posts and think, “I could do that,” or maybe you even have your own philosophy blog already that, let’s face it, is probably not getting as much traffic as PEL… that would be the time to submit some of your ideas to us. How do you do it? Write up one post that you judge to be PEL-ready (which really need not have anything to do with anything we’ve recorded), and send it on to PEL@partiallyexaminedlife.com.

If it’s not for us, don’t feel bad; we don’t have a lot of time to work on editing or massaging your writing. We’ll have some more opportunities on the site for audience participation in the future.

Jul 222012
 

FortunaTowards the end of the episode, I brought up MacIntyre’s thesis for chapter 8, “The Character of Generalizations in Social Science,” that the findings of a science like sociology can’t be scientific in the way that those in physics are. Now, laws in physics may be probabilistic, but they are so in a precise way, because you know where the imprecision is coming from or at least can define exactly how it works mathematically.

With generalizations about, say, how revolutions start or of steps to take to improve the economy, there is no such hope, according to MacIntyre. Starting around p. 94 (in the second edition), he lays out systematic sources of unpredictability in human affairs:

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Jul 212012
 

Apparently public forums for the discussion of philosophy are on the rise:

The London Philosophy Club, of which I am an organiser, is the biggest in the UK. Our 2,000 members include bankers, lawyers, therapists, advertising people and a few academics looking for a more social form of philosophy. We hold free monthly meetings in pubs, cafés, galleries, parks and restaurants. Sometimes we try to match the topic to the venue: last week a group met to discuss Italian philosophy in a pizza restaurant by the River Thames.

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Jul 202012
 

Last year I posted on psychopathy and moral sentiment. This week Cosmos magazine reports that researchers from the Netherlands have determined that psychopaths can ‘turn on’ empathy on demand.  In short, a study was structured that measured psychopath’s empathy for others (not explained how) and then the subjects were told that the study was designed to measure empathy.  After which a surprising thing happened.  Their empathy ‘normalized’.

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Jul 192012
 

In the 1860s, the naturalist (advocate of evolutionary theory) Thomas Huxley looked at chalk under a microscope. Here’s what he found, according to Robert Krulwich:

Chalk is composed of extremely small white globules. They look, up close, like snowballs made from brittle paper plates. Those plates, it turns out, are part of ancient skeletons that once belonged to roundish little critters that lived and floated in the sea, captured a little sunshine and carbon, then died and sank to the bottom. Continue reading »

Jul 182012
 

I think during the episode we were too busy trying to understand After Virtue to just say straight out that the attempt to ground morality solely on cultural narratives just doesn’t work, at least not to any more determinate degree than some of the other moral theories that MacIntyre suggests. In the Kant episode, I suggested that we need to use the principle of charity to apply the categorical imperative intelligently. One might well use Aristotle’s term phrónēsis (practical wisdom) instead. In short, no rule can determine its own applications; we need smart people to do that, and in tough ethical dilemmas, wise people won’t always make the same call. MacIntyre saw that underdetermination of actions by rules and declared that people will abuse that to then make the rules justify whatever they wanted to do anyway, i.e. as emotivists. In the episode, we really couldn’t see how his own system got around this problem such that “the right thing to do” would be objective, even for one person embedded in a particular culture and circumstance, such that everyone with the relevant competence would judge the same way. The nagging threat of existentialism remains, i.e. that all such choices involve a creative act and not just astute obedience to an objective prescription.

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Jul 172012
 

Mavericks!I made the point both on the episode and in a recent post that I thought MacIntyre to be a better model of the outsider philosopher than Pirsig. This is not a point I really want to hammer, as I like Pirsig and I don’t relish dissing someone that many of our listeners have a great appreciation for. So let me just clarify what I mean re. this “maverick philosopher” designation. As someone who didn’t see the rigors of academia as worth the effort professionally, this is obviously of pretty paramount importance for me as I’ve been sucked back into philosophy with this podcast. In addition to MacIntyre’s comments on academia, we linked to an article a while back that gives a pretty stark case for the philosophy profession being a bad deal.

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Jul 172012
 

Marie Rutkowski  has written a very nice piece on the role of nature in fairy tales:

The effect, I think, is to make nature seem to be in collusion with love. One message in some versions of the tale, particularly Grimm’s, is that love is like a force of nature, and nature will take its revenge on those who stand in its way. Many of the various cruel stepmothers and stepsisters meet violent ends. While Lin Lan’s ugly stepsister Pock Face is boiled in oil due to her own choice, in several tales her counterpart is punished by animals. The stepmother and stepsisters are pulled apart by wild horses in a Filipino version, and in the Grimm’s tale, birds pluck out the stepsisters’ eyes.

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