Nov 302012

A good new-to-me web find today is The UnderstandingSociety blog from U. of Michigan-Dearborn’s Daniel Little, who writes about philsoophy from a sociological perspective. This is very relevant to our recent discussion of fame among philosophers on our Lucy Lawless episode, and in this article, Little reflects on why it might be that Wittgenstein is so famous, given, as I’ve commented, his scant published output and self-absorbed style and behavior. Little comments a bit on the circumstances of Wittgenstein’s rise, and presents a good general picture for how fame works an academic context:
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Nov 292012

Drawing of Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), will be celebrated at Montana State University in Bozeman on the weekend of December 7th and 8th. On December 15th, during their commencement ceremonies, he will receive an honorary Doctorate from MSU.

These events offer some sweet redemption for Pirsig both personally and philosophically. In terms of his own philosophical journey, as his readers will know, Bozeman is ground zero. His quest for “Quality” began on the campus of MSU and led him to enroll in a Doctoral program at the University of Chicago, which then led him into madness and/or enlightenment. (Pirsig himself does not dispute either interpretation.)

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Nov 262012

QUIIINNNNEEEEE!!!!!Joining Mark’s reading of Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empricism” on our member site, I’ve added the other essay we read for Episode 66, “On What There Is” to the lot.

Due to copyright issues, I can’t just put this on our public site, nor can I sell it as a one-off item, so the member site is the only way we can currently distribute this. Learn more about membership and sign up.


(The Shatner image came from here.)

Nov 262012

Image from NYTimes.comA friend of the podcast pointed me to today’s column in the NYTimes Gray Matter by Alisa Quart about a backlash against neuroscience, particularly popular accounts of it throughout mainstream media from Malcom Gladwell on tipping points to Chris Mooney on the “republican brain” to Eben Alexander on the neuroscience of heaven. These all follow the general theme of over-simplification and over-extrapolation of, in this case, neuro-scientific studies. (Alexander would seem to be something of an exception here. He’s using his cred as a scientist to give authority to his personal testimony regarding a near-death experience. He’s not pointing to a double-blind study or anything. He’s just saying “I saw heaven when I was in a coma and since I’m smart and I’m a neuro-scientist, you should believe me.”)

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Nov 252012

Philosophy for Theologians podcastIn our Quine episode, I mentioned a religious podcast where the participants used Quine’s undermining of verificationism to argue that any secular-based knowledge is groundless, and thus that we need revelation in order to have knowledge at all. The podcast in question was this Philosophy for Theologians episode on “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” (I’ve blogged on this podcast before.) The episode starts off with an explanation of the difference between analytic and continental philosophy, with the ultimate tack of arguing that while Quine writes like an analytic philosopher, his findings are similar to the post-modern continentals.

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Nov 232012

As mentioned on the Quine episode, I’m proposing a Not School reading group on Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Christos H. Papadimitriou, Apostolos Doxiadis, and some fine illustrators, which is about Russell and Wittgenstein, with some cameos by Frege, Gödel, and other names dropped during our analytic episodes. It’s a graphic novel, running 300+ pages, and seems comfortably readable within the month of December. Here’s a review from the NY Times that talks about how much of the book is accurate vs. dramatic license. To join, sign up to be a PEL Citizen.

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Nov 212012
W.V.O. Quine

On W.V.O. Quine’s “On What There Is” (1948) and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951).

What kind of metaphysics is compatible with science? Quine sees science and philosophy as one and the same enterprise, and objects to ontologies that include types of entities that science can’t, even in principle, study. In these two highly influential essays, he first tells how to determine what ontological commitments your philosophical theory is making, and he advocates for one that, for instance, doesn’t allow talk of the “possible twin sister” that you could have had but didn’t. In particular, Quine doesn’t want an ontology to have linguistic meanings in it. Sure, sentences can be meaningful, but that doesn’t mean that the sentence refers to or makes use of some entity, the meaning, that must exist (as Frege thought) outside of the head of any speaker.

In “Two Dogmas,” he takes on a related point: the concept of synonymy, or “same meaning.” We think that some sentences are true by definition (“Bachelors are unmarried”) or true in virtue of logic alone (“x=x,” “2+2=4″), while others (“my dog is on fire”) require that we go out and look at the world to determine their truth. Quine challenges this distinction, arguing instead that our truths don’t get individually verified by experience, but “face the court of experience as corporate body.” So if I have an experience that seems to violate an established scientific law, I have leeway in which part of the “web of belief” can be adjusted to accommodate the new information. The statements we might have thought are analytically true (true by definition or logic) are really just those which most resist change. Quine drives us to this conclusion by allegedly showing that “true by definition” can’t be explained without circularity: we always end up referring to some version of “same meaning,” like synonymy or analyticity or a priori or necessarily true, and it’s this set of terms that we’re trying to give an account for.

Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan are joined by Matt Teichman of the Elucidations Podcast. Read more about the topic and get the texts.

End song: “Granted” by Mark Lint (2012).

This episode is sponsored in part by Audible: get a free audiobook at

Audio versions of the Quine essays, as well as another essay relevant to this topic, “On Denoting,” by Bertrand Russell, are available free to PEL Citizens, along with other bonus content, access to Not School discussion groups, text chat office hours with the podcasters, and more. Sign up. You can also get the Russell audio from our shop/donate page. Please help support our continued efforts!

Nov 202012

Bertrand RussellI’ve released a new recording: me reading Bertrand Russell’s essay, “On Denoting”. It’s available free to members, or (since it’s public domain), anyone can purchase it here, for a suggested price of $2.99, but you can choose during checkout to pay as little as 99 cents or as much as you want if you’re feeling generous.

A key point of transition between our Frege episode and our very-soon-to-be-released Quine episode is Russell’s theory of definite descriptions. In “On Denoting” from 1905, which you can read here, Russell argues that it’s not necessary to have entities like “senses” as Frege does.

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Nov 192012

I saw this Opinionator article from Christy Wampole in the New York Times: “How to Live Without Irony.” It condemns the ironic lifestyle of Generation Y as terminally inauthentic, avoiding real commitments, making us (them) incapable of dealing with the world at hand and with each other.

Central to Wampole’s critique is a standard “I don’t understand the younger generation” vibe, which now looks at the 90s (which kicked off the age of irony) as “relatively irony free” with “a combative stance against authority.” She admits that her recollection may be “over-nostalgic,” and I’ll grant her that all such generalizations about the spirit of generations are basically bullshitting, or, at best, some weird kind of pseudo-psychological account that can “make ya think” but isn’t really putting forward a philosophical thesis. The guts of Wampole’s story has to be an ideological critique, which is to say that if you are acting in such and such a way (“How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? …Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly?”), then you’re screwed up. (This is, for example, how we can charitably interpret Nietzsche’s comments on any number of groups: not as a condemnation of a group of people, but as an argument against an ideology which he thinks is explicitly or implicitly professed by some group.)

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Nov 152012

Roger Nygard’s documentary The Nature of Existence (2010; Netflix link) was the second film selected for our October “Netflix Philosophy Movies” Not School study group, and it was the decisive element in my not proposing that the group continue into November. Here’s the trailer, which very much gives the flavor of the film, in that the film itself is edited like a trailer:

Watch trailer on YouTube.

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Nov 142012

[This is a post from Kevin Jobe, friend of Law Ware and the podcast.  It is part of a longer paper which we will make available in our Community forum.]
i] Introduction. “This book is about space, about language, and about death; it is about the act of seeing, the gaze.” (ix) So begins The Birth of the Clinic: an Archaeology of Medical Perception by Michel Foucault. As he often begins his histories, Foucault reminds us of an important fact about our contemporary understanding of life, death and disease: that each of these are historically contingent and are bound up with other seemingly disparate discourses of social reality: biology, to be sure, but also economics, politics,  geography, and language itself.

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Nov 132012

During our recording on the Federalist Papers, we mentioned at some point Schoolhouse Rock, a PBS television series that ran regularly when I was a child. For anyone who doesn’t know, it was a cartoon with skits and songs about grammar, science, civics, American History and some other topics.  In addition to state and federal civics classes in junior high and high school (do they still teach these) it was a primary learning aid for my generation.

While I’m more familiar with Conjunction Junction and A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing there are some salient little ditties about the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence and even a musical version of the Preamble to the Constitution (which is how I and I suspect many of my peers know it – I can’t recite it, only sing it). Continue reading »

Nov 122012

On 11/15/12 we recorded a discussion of Rudolph Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World (1928), often referred to as “the Aufbau,” because it sounds cool, and the German title is Der Logische Aufbau der Welt. Listen to the episode. To get a good sense of Carnap’s project, we read pages 1-136, plus the subsequent chapter summaries: pages 166-171, 240-243, 298-300. The project requires some background explanation:

As long-time listeners may recall, Carnap was a leading figure in the Vienna Circle, known as the logical positivists, though in Carnap’s case, a more accurate and charitable description would be logical empiricists. In our early Wittgenstein episodes, we discussed how the logical positivists denied that metaphysical claims were meaningful, that, ultimately following Hume, all knowledge has to refer to some experiences, some basic impressions.

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Nov 102012

Software design[Editor's Note: This is a guest blog from our supporter Michael Rissman. Enjoy!]

Philosophy doesn’t make me a better software designer. It does help me reflect on what I do when I am designing. A few podcast episodes are germane here: the ones on Pirsig, Wittgenstien and Goodman. Donald Schön in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action described design as a process of naming and framing, and that’s an excellent place to start.

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Nov 092012

Chat interface
We’ve put some of your PEL Citizen money into adding text chatting capabilities to the member site. You can schedule Not School gatherings for real-time interaction, initiate new chat rooms (public or invitation-only) on the fly, and see which other members are on for you to ask urgent questions about what the hell Deleuze is talking about.

You can use the chat window in full-screen mode, and it even has this weird handwriting interface so you could get a funky digital pen or something to do it that way, and it would be sort of like when Harry Potter is writing but it’s etching the marks right INTO HIS HAND except not at all like that. Join Now!

Nov 082012

Thanks to all you listeners who have brought us to the milestone of approximately two million downloads. In celebration, we thought we’d share our highlight reel, our clip show, our demo for various business uses, our oeuvre gougé, if you will. Will you? You will not.

This was edited together by Erik Jourgensen, with a some additional bits tracked down and/or inserted by the podcasters. It draws heavily on our Episode 0, but includes clips from guests and other things to reflect where we’re at now.

May I suggest this as a good URL to send to people whom you’d like to talk into making PEL a part of their diet? May I? I may.

Nov 072012

electoral collegeIt’s morning in America, as it is every morning, and despite the glow many of us are feeling due to the outcome of yesterday’s elections, the systemic problems, many of which were recognized by the authors of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, remain. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of focusing solely on trying to stimulate the economy and balance our budget, some immediate legislative attention was given to reflecting on and cleaning up the political system itself? Let me throw out a few issues for us to discuss here that were raised or alluded to on our podcast episode:

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Nov 062012

South ParkPer Wes’s election post, not voting because you don’t like the available options fails to grasp the reality of our situation. There are plenty of principled rationales for ruling out both candidates, and you may think that not voting, or voting for a third-party candidate, will send some kind of message that the system is too flawed for you to dirty your hands with. There are plenty of online versions of this, though since one of our listeners sent me one from Aladsair MacIntyre from eight years ago, I’ll refer you to that as one example.

The ethical tussle here is as old as principled Kantianism vs. calculating utilitarianism, where followers of the latter ridicule the former for their naïveté and/or their stubbornness. Certainly in our episode about the American founding I was in despair about a system that seems to have failed to live up to Madison’s hope to reign in factionalism.

To balance my attitude there, I feel the need to point out that today’s political parties are not factions, but are already coalitions between factions. Continue reading »

Nov 052012

Every once in a while, a listener of The Partially Examined Life complains that that our liberal political proclivities — and occasional outright partisanship — are not consistent with our being philosophical, which should make us more neutral about such matters.

I disagree.

I do agree – after listening recently to the first few PEL episodes – that in the wrong context, political opinions are neither entertaining nor pretty. Absent a context of justification or an audience that feels precisely the same way, they will seem  irrational and ugly, merely brute expression of preference. If good reasons led to these opinions, these reasons are lost in the expression of the result. We might say this even about political opinions with which we agree, for example when expressed as slogans on signs at a political protest.

We could broaden this conclusion to opinions in general: “opinions are like assholes,” the saying goes. We all have them, but having does not entail showing. Opinions are, in a sense, indecent, when they concern anything more controversial than the weather. People refrain from talking about them in the polite company of strangers in the same way they avoid getting naked, barring certain dis-inhibiting rituals. We are told not to talk about religion and politics with people we don’t know well. This means, ironically: don’t get too personal. Such opinions are in one sense about the most public of things; in another, they simply reveal too much.

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