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Am I understanding this right? A teacher starts talking to a guy in a bar, tells him a story about how another teacher used the word “nigger,” and this results in the storyteller getting into trouble?

The intuitive sense of unfairness comes from the fact that we all understand the difference between genuinely asserting and using the same language in a way that doesn’t assert. You might overhear me utter the phrase “Ari is so handsome” as I’m in the midst of saying “Only Mrs. Kelman could think that Ari is so handsome,” for example. While the phrase itself retains its meaning in the two contexts, the sentences mean very different things.

As I recall, Frege’s general point about this is that there’s no operator that indicates what follows is being asserted. Phrases like “I’m genuinely asserting that….” are themselves subject to the same problem– they can be put in contexts where they aren’t asserted. Geach seizes on this to develop a really interesting objection to expressivism, the thesis that moral judgments are expressions of noncognitive states such as emotions, rather than statements of (moral) fact.

On the expressivist view, “lying is wrong” is doing the work of “boo lying!” But notice how “lying is wrong” appears in contexts where it’s genuinely asserted and in contexts where it isn’t. Canonical example:

1. Lying is wrong.
2. If lying is wrong, getting your little brother to lie is wrong.
3. Hence, getting your little brother to lie is wrong.

This argument looks good (by which I mean deductively valid). In order to be good, though, “lying is wrong” has to mean the same thing in (1) and (2). Wrinkle: in (1) it’s being asserted, in (2) it’s not. Even if (1) makes sense as the expression of a boo-attitude toward lying, (2) doesn’t. You’re not booing lying because you’re not saying lying is wrong, when you assert (2). So it looks like the expressivist is stuck. (Stuck in two related ways: first, it’s a problem that the expressivist hasn’t given us an account of (2), and second it’s a problem that, whatever an account of (2) would be, it won’t preserve the meaning of “lying is wrong,” and that’s needed to make sense of the validity of the argument.)

Simon Blackburn has a go at this by trying to understand (2) as something like “boo for the following conjunction of attitudes: booing lying while not booing getting little brother to lie.” Not really convincing, but a nice attempt.

There’s lots more to say, but now you’re equipped to utter “The latest O’Keefe shenanigans got me musing about old Gottlob Frege” and that will make you sound erudite.


I am not teaching Hume on miracles for the foreseeable future, but if you are, here is a doozy of a toy example to make you with it and hip:

Time travel may be possible, but epistemology is a bitch.

A neat project at the behest of the Women in Philosophy Task Force: stories of what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy.  If you’re a woman and you have a story to share, you can submit it here.

What’s interesting is that while some of the stories are overtly horrid, some are cases where there are good intentions that don’t lead to good results.  Maybe this should go under Neddy’s request for “facts about human nature that explain a lot”, but I think there’s a strong tendency for people to imagine discrimination as something that goes on not only overtly, but with lots of bells and whistles and an identifiable villain snarling on screen, so that if there is discrimination occurring, it will be obvious to the casual (male) observer.   Thus, if he doesn’t see the problem, it must not exist.

It’s striking, when one reads female philosophers from the early modern period, how little the arguments that a given trait belongs solely to women or to men have changed over the years.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, no one used the term “genetic” or “evolutionary” or “long end of the tail” or “back on Ye Olde Veldte”, but instead argued in terms of “natural” or “innate” differences.  What particular traits belong in the set “innate to women” or “innate to men” have changed according to social fashion, but what’s curious is that the form of the argument hasn’t:

Girls are from their earliest infancy fond of dress.  Not content with being pretty, they are desirous of being thought so; we see, by all their little airs, that this thought engages their attention; and they are hardly capable of understanding what is said to them, before they are to be governed by talking to them of what people will think of their behavior.

That’s Mary Wollstonecraft quoting Rousseau in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  If you insert “princess dresses” and update the language, it would not be out of place in the mouth of someone blathering on today about how natural it is that little girls play with dolls rather than trucks.

Of course, she has a response to Rousseau and all the other writers who gave advice to young ladies!  Here’s a hint from the chapter title. The Effect Which An Early Association of Ideas Has Upon the Character:

Every thing that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind.

And of course, as girls are cherished for being fearful, and delicate, and forbidden to run around and play, later:

..when all their ingenuity is called forth to adjust their dress, ‘a passion for a scarlet coat’, is so natural, that it never surprised me…

I am proposing a new maxim: those who wish to argue from personal anecdote that a certain character trait is dictated by evolution should endeavor to advance the argument beyond 1792.

I’ve been enjoying the NYT series The Stone, but not primarily for the quality of its articles, which both have been good introductory nibbles  and have in general satisfied my selfish requirement: if my mother reads this, will she be assured that it is still unlikely that my discipline requires hallucinogenic drugs?

Rather, I have enjoyed the comments to the articles, for amidst the gloaming where philosophy and philosophers are condemned as of little interest, reasons glimmer like fireflies.  But the writer didn’t think of… What about this?… You’ve overlooked…. Maybe this shows that instead we should…

It makes me smile.  Thou art the man, thou art the man.

A friend passed on some survey results about philosophers’ opinions on Big Issues. Some surprises: a full 66% accept or lean toward accepting a priori knowledge! Only 30% accept or lean toward moral anti-realism! These are sublime and funky results indeed.

Epictetus warned us not to go to graduate school twenty centuries ago — even if we could always go to law school become tax men as a back-up:

Thus, some people, when they have seen a philosopher… wish to philosophize themselves.  Man, first consider what kind of business this is.  And then learn what your own nature is; can you bear it?… Do you suppose you can do these things and keep on eating and drinking and enthusing and sulking just as you do now?  You will have to go without sleep, labor, leave home, be despised by a slave, have everyone laugh at you, have the worse in everything, in jobs, in lawsuits, in every trifle.

Encheiridion, 29.

Oh, Holbo.  I know you’re not baiting me, but it feels like you are.

John has a problem that everyone who has to teach history of early modern has to face.  The standard story explains 17th and 18th century philosophy as a debate between two epistemological factions.  The rationalists Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz meet the empiricists Locke, Berkeley, and Hume in the octagon!   Who will emerge victorious?  KANT!  Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

The virtues of the standard story are these.  Having a narrative that unites the whole period and builds towards contemporary thought helps give a survey course some thematic unity, which is important given the difficulty of the readings.  It’s also the standard story that almost every practicing philosopher has encountered, which makes it both very easy to teach and the conservative option.  Given that the students are almost certainly going to forget about most of the particulars after the final exam, if they’re left with a vague idea that Descartes is like the Matrix and Hume is like modern science and Kant said something but damned if I was doing the reading a week before finals, there’s not too much harm done.

The vice of the standard story is that it’s false.  As Holbo notes, Descartes’ philosophy, far from springing full-born from the head of Socrates, has much in common with the musty medieval theologians he criticizes.   None of the rationalists shunned empirical study, and the empiricists include Berkeley (which always struck me as a stretch of the framework.)  Making the whole period about warring factions in epistemology also means that certain writings of the moderns that don’t fit easily into that framework tend to get ignored.

So, Holbo’s solution:  frame the class on “Everything I Am Supposed To Teach You About [Early Modern Philosopher] is Wrong”, and mix contemporary treatments of similar problems into the early modern syllabus. He asks for inexpensive reading suggestions.

My criticisms and suggestions, mostly constructive but not sparing the snark, after the jump.

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I enjoyed this outburst.

I just don’t get it. I give up. I’m, like, off the bus.

However, a confession: It struck me as I was writing this that Tye simply couldn’t be saying what I was taking him to say… It struck me that nobody could believe that. So I went and tried it out on a couple of philosophy friends … and they agreed that nobody could believe what I was writing that Tye believes. Fair enough, but then, what is one to make of such a passage as this: “An object’s looking F . . . [isn’t] a matter of an object’s causing an experience which represents simply that something is F [sic]. The experience one has of the seen object is one into whose content the seen object itself enters” (my emphasis)….

Now, I’m kind of a Tarskian about meaning. I don’t do “radical interpretation”. So, when someone writes “the experience one has of the seen object is one into whose content the seen object itself enters” I suppose that he is probably saying that the experience one has of the seen object is one into whose content the seen object itself enters. Perhaps someone of a more hermeneutical temperament than mine will correct this reading in next week’s Letters page in the TLS, and I will then feel a perfect goose. For now, however, I shall proceed on the assumption that I have got Tye more or less right.

I’m sure it’s wrong of me to like this passage, not least because I know I would hate anything like it to appear in a review of a book I’d written. And I know full well that could happen—which means I keenly feel how unfair it is. Yet we read reviews with the morals we have, not the morals we might want or wish to have.1

1And yes, I also feel bad about quoting Donald Rumsfeld, but I enjoy that too. I’m really quite morally indefensible.

Body-building philosophy professor.

Thanks to everyone who voted Dana’s treatment of Leibniz and Spinoza for the Quark; she came in fourth and is a semifinalist. Next,

The daily editors of 3 Quarks Daily will now pick the top six entries from these, and after possibly adding up to three “wildcard” entries, will send that list of finalists to Professor Dan Dennett on September 11. We will also post the list of finalists here on that date.

Cross your fingers.

Today  I:

1.  Thought of Aristotle’s failure to succeed Plato at the Academy in terms of a proto-tenure-denial, which makes the founding of the Lyceum a totally sweet vindication.

2. Reflected further that if Aristotle didn’t get tenure, it was probably due to teaching and not scholarship (“Outside letters compared his writing to rivers of gold.”)  Pondered what his evaluations must have been like  (“Paces too much during lecture.”)

3. Recalled, while reading Plato, a theory expounded by one of my undergraduate professors that, according to some scholars of ancient philosophy, Plato’s dialogues were originally intended to be performed.  This theory permits the interpretation of some parts of Plato as addressing the audience directly, and allows bits of dialogue to be taken as asides to the audience, or read as intended primarily for humorous effect rather than philosophical value (N.B. no clue whether this is a serious theory or even if I am remembering it properly.)

4. Reflected that as an undergraduate, I imagined the performance of Plato’s dialogues to be grand affairs like productions of Hamlet or Othello.  Declaim!  Expound!  By Zeus, Socrates, I know no longer what I did say!

5.  Thought that perhaps a classic multi-camera sitcom might be the more appropriate analogue.  This makes the Socratic elenchus, for example, sort of like a character’s trademarked walk or entry line, something Socrates did that was fresh in the first few seasons, but later he had to do it once per episode to keep the diehard fans happy.  (“I dunno, Plato, throw in something about flute-playing or doctoring, we’re on a deadline here.”)

6. Tried to figure out where the laugh track would go.

ALCIBIADES (bursting in, drunk)

O Socrates, come squish in between me and Agathon, you lover of boys you!



A great illustration of an urban legend I’ve heard in various forms since, oh, sometime in high school.   This is one of those things meant to show the power of the noble Christian David over the godless academy Goliath.  I’ve heard it set in a philosophy classroom, in an evolutionist’s class room, in a  chemistry classroom, at Harvard, Yale, Berkeley.   I had it told to me in church youth group.  I had it told to me by friends, and by professors who had heard the story set at their PhD granting institution.

(Sobering thought:  perhaps this Wandering Atheist Professor is an adjunct…)

I think the course is clear.

Next semester, I’m getting some chalk….

(So, originally, this post was supposed to follow the other post by one week.  Life got in the way.  Spring turned into summer, gave autumn a miss, &c.  This post contains no camera angles or rightwing lunacy.  Part 2 of 2.)

Let me jog your memory.   A month and a half ago, I described the challenges facing the professor who wants to avoid giving the impression that Spinoza’s Ethics is really just metaphysics. I promised a solution, or at least a suggestion.  I believe this can be done in the couple of weeks normally spent on Spinoza in a history of early modern survey course.

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(After the Sullivanche of the past two days, I now do my best to drive away the traffic armed only with the PSR.  Part 1 of 2.)

The American Association of Philosophy Teachers recently sent around an e-mail inviting papers on how to teach early modern philosophy and suggested the following question:

Can one include Spinoza’s “Ethics” without creating the impression that his “Ethics” is mere metaphysics?

The AAPT wants experienced professors of many years to present so that younger professors may learn.  That rules me out from presenting,  but I still have an answer to that question, and, hmm, is this a blog I see before me?

The short answer:  Yes, but it takes a little bit of work.  Today I’ll describe the problem; later (probably next Monday) I’ll give my steps towards a solution.

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Leiter asks, considering this Kristof piece:

Why do members of the educated public think that it is an objection to philosophical inquiry that it is unintelligible to them (or that it does not have immediate application to the quality of life of pigs, say), whereas no one would think to put such objections against esoteric work in the natural sciences?  Are other humanities subjected to this same expectation of “practical relevance and intelligibility”?

From discussions with other colleagues in the humanities, they are subject to the same expectation, one as old as the hills, or at least the Gorgias: how is that going to make money and benefit society?   (I think philosophers get more questions about pot.) Yet I think there’s an explanation specific to philosophy in the answer to the first question.

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Next in our spring speakers’ series, a talk on how we know we’re right when we argue with smart people who disagree with us in interesting ways. Does it affect our ability to justify our beliefs? How do we reckon with the irreconcilable?

Like all CHSC talks, it’s free and open to the public; please come. It’s a categorical imperative.

Since it’s midterm time, you might find yourself on the business end of a request to improve a grade because “it’s really important that I get an A!” (I got one of these a little while ago: “I need to do well in your class because I’m not doing well in orgo!” My reply– why don’t you solve that problem by doing better in orgo?– was deemed unhelpful.) And you might be tempted to respond: that’s stupid, go away. Here’s how you can say something even better, namely, “I’d love to help you out, but the very nature of rational agency forbids it.” Or, here’s why Kant would tell you not to raise the grade.
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In the comments to this post on last week’s Fish column, Jesse asks:

I read Fish often, but only from an uninformed perspective. I’m not an academic, so reading his pieces (and moreso the comments they elicit) provides a rare point of access into discussions on topics that otherwise I don’t get to discuss, quite frankly. But the comments reflect a consensus of Fish-crit. Can anyone offer a few bullet point criticisms of Fish or his most recurrent views? Is it mostly his pathos, or his actual positions? I may be begging “how” to read Fish, but only in the sense of a “how” among other “how’s”. Thanks!

Happy to oblige.   And since Fish has yet another poorly-argued barrel of drivel up today, timely, too!

The shortest way to express my annoyance with Fish is to say simply that he doesn’t answer Jesse’s fundamental question: what’s the academy like?   He has a rare opportunity and platform to explain the academy to laypeople, and he does it poorly.   The way I am going to describe this today: Fish consistently conflates tenure, academic freedom, and institutional culture.

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What better way to commemorate Valentine’s Day (um…again) by reading Plato’s dialogue concerning erotic love, Symposium? As an undergraduate in my very first philosophy class, I read the Symposium and the professor explained that not only did “symposium” mean something like “drinking party”, but that he had discovered in graduate school that the progression of speeches in praise of Love made more sense if accompanied by a bottle of wine or several.

Socrates and his interlocutors are celebrating the poet Agathon’s first victorious production with plans to get very drunk.   Hindering these plans are the fact that half the crowd is quite hungover, and so they decide instead to give speeches in praise of love.

The brilliance of this dialogue, to me, is in the wonderful characterization of all of the party guests.  Phaedrus, young and with an affect I’d describe as ‘airheaded’, begins with a rather simplistic praise of Love, as it makes everyone noble and brave and self-sacrificing and kind and virtuous!   (Ponycorns!) Older Pausanius distinguishes between common vulgar love and Heavenly Love.  The first is about sex; the second is about responsible sex where a man cares for his youthful intelligent beloved, does not take advantage of him, acts honorably, and acceptance of this Love is the sign of an enlightened society.

It is surely notable that Pausanius is Agathon’s lover.   (Come on, baby, I’m not like those other men…)

The physician Eryximachus delivers a very dry lecture that treats Love medically.  Hot, and cold, wet and dry.    Agathon composes a beautiful prose peroration on the spot.  And Socrates tells of what he learned of the form of Beauty from a wiser older woman, Mrs. Robinson, Diotima.    Then Alcibiades stumbles in drunk and hits on Socrates.

But on Valentine’s Day, I present to you the jewel (as far as I’m concerned) of the dialogue, Aristophanes’ speech, part just-so story, part a story of bumbling gods.  (Quotes below drawn from what I affectionately call Boy’s Own Monster Book of Plato, e.g., the giant Cooper anthology suitable both for the study of Plato and as a 1800 paged bludgeoning weapon.)

How were things back in the day, Aristophanes?

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