Poor Russell

I have long thought Russell underrated, for the following reason: his technical work in philosophy strikes people who do technical philosophy as less promising than later people. This illustrates nicely the lack of historical self-awareness in philosophers of an analytic persuasion, since he invented most of those problems he didn’t solve. When kings construct, carters find work.

But the most remarkable comment along these lines I’ve ever heard was Brian Weatherson’s “Principia Mathematica was a great project, but it does seem to have ended in failure.”

As opposed to all the other ones that ended in success?

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me

So the good people at Pew did another survey, this time on religious knowledge. I did pretty well (I missed one question: thinking that the Second Great Awakening was the only one, I reasoned that Billy Graham was too late for it and Jonathan Edwards too early, and so guessed that the remaining name I did not recognize was the figure associated with “The First Great Awakening”). I can’t claim any special abilities here, as I am a lapsed Baha’i, and have almost toxic levels of higher education, and thus pick up all sorts of arcana by osmosis. I do wonder about the 1% who got them all right.

Now I really would like to have a rant here about religious literacy, which is one of my hobby-horses, but my expectations were low, so I can’t complain. Unsurprisingly, people know what a Koran is, though they are perhaps of two minds about what to do with them. Unsurprisingly, lots of people don’t know even the first thing about their own traditions (e. g., Catholics not knowing that they are committed to transubstantiation; Protestants not knowing who Martin Luther is). This does not trouble me much. I have no idea what the capital of North Dakota is.

There were some disturbing results. Hispanic Catholics do remarkably poorly on just about all the questions religious and non-religious, which suggests to me that we have a serious education policy problem going unaddressed related to English language fluency. Thanks to the near monopoly on citizen self-knowledge maintained by the law schools, many Americans still know next to nothing about their own constitutional order, thinking Brown v. Board of Education was about Darwinism, or that one is not permitted to learn about religion in public schools. This would go some distance toward explaining resentment over religion being driven from the public schools, widespread beliefs that the courts have betrayed the Founders (to what degree they have is another question, but alienation rooted in ignorance is unhealthy for the polity) or bizarre episodes like the recent one in which a Republican politician attributed the concept of separation of church and state to Hitler. And something very odd is going on indeed among the 28% who have no idea what political party is in power, but whatever it is, at least you can’t blame Fox News. But that there are even only 4% who believe Moby Dick was written by Stephen King makes me want to weep.

More With The Worship Words

Obviously I make no comparison of circumstances or stature, but a fellow blogger faces the death penalty for political speech. He is a Canadian citizen who has criticized U. S. foreign policy and defended Iran’s nuclear program for strategic reasons. How can this be? Who could possibly want him dead? Ah, but he is also an Iranian citizen who said on his blog that Israel isn’t so very terrible.* Don’t agree with him; defend to the death his right to speak, for what this characterization shows is that he lives in a state in which nothing short of complete agreement, publicly expressed, can keep you alive.

Agreement not important. Only life important.
The voice is the outward form of the soul.
Bullying is weakness, and despicable.
The worship words are for everybody, or they mean nothing.

If you share my faith that the worship words are for everybody, please sign the petition.

*Or, if you prefer, “cooperation with enemy states, propaganda against the Islamic regime, promoting anti-Revolutionary groups, insulting sanctities, launching and managing vulgar and obscene sites.”


Update: check this out on contagious tumors (the story titled “Devil Tumors”) which I heard on NPR yesterday. It’s a Cronenbergian.

Someone I recall reading years ago, I think it was Lewis Thomas, suggested that one possible etiology for heart disease that we may have overlooked is infection. I was reminded of this upon reading this morning that obese people may be obese because of a viral infection that causes cellular differentiation in adipose tissue, as many as 30% of them. This made me wonder, in my amateurish way, if it might turn out that “metabolic syndrome,” insulin resistance and, ultimately, type 2 diabetes are not be traceable to the same cause. That’s right: adult onset diabetes might be contagious.

We find notions like this difficult to get our heads around. There is still a tendency to think that certain conditions are either hereditary, and thus a part of the person’s nature and destiny, or an ethical failing on their part. Psychological explanations for asthma and stomach ulcers dominated medical thought about these conditions until it was discovered that one was caused by a normal immune response to an abnormally clean environment, and the other was caused by bacterial infection. (Even more terrifying is recent research suggesting that schizophrenia may be transmitted by a parasite through contact with cat feces.) It seems likely to me that a predisposition to regard conditions caused by undiscovered infectious agents as caused by ethical shortcomings instead delays discovery of the infectious agent.

The interesting question, then, is: why do we have a desire to blame ourselves and others in this way? Is it that the thought that your very nature might be changed by being sneezed at by a stranger on a bus too terrifying? Is it that, as Nietzsche said, “man would rather will nothing than not will?”

So You Want To Be A Philosopher, Ctd.

Continued? What? As if that wasn’t long enough! [Also note: this could be regarded as an annex to the “Philosophy is Dead” post.]

First, on reflection I see that I should’ve made clear that the essay was written over a decade ago (though lightly edited just now), during one of my six years on the job market (I’m fine now, thanks for asking). And the tone reflects in part the rude awakening involved in discovering that what you thought you were preparing for is not in fact what you’ve been preparing for. My purpose then, and now, was to provide information useful to job candidates. God knows your home department won’t do it. If these expressions “home department”, “job candidates” and the like mean nothing to you, there’s nothing for you to see here. Move along.

Now several years on, and having been involved in a number of searches on the hiring end, things look quite different. So if you have tolerated the length of the last post, I beg your indulgence a bit longer.

The title, a recent addition, was of course meant to be ironic. It shouldn’t be necessary to state this, but I fear that for all too many pursuing an academic career that the following has not yet occurred to them. If you are among them, harken and heed.

Each person seeks fulfillment, but almost no one is in a position to do so alone. So we divide the labor and ideally do something which is in the intersection of an activity we find satisfying and activities others need done. A combination of market and political action hooks up the activity with the need or desire. Stripped of all ideological fluff and narcissistic delusion, what the young man who wrote that essay was doing was seeking a job as a teacher, teaching what the market or the state deemed desirable. Partly because education involves a considerable amount of economic rent, and partly because it is enshrouded in an ideology designed to justify the rent-seeking, even people in the very heart of the beast, or who aspire to be in the heart of the beast, fail to grasp that their social function is undergraduate education manufacture and delivery.

It is from this perspective that the remarks about styling yourself Sandra Bullock if they are hiring a Julia Roberts type should be seen. If I had said that one should style oneself a high school math teacher if one expected to be taken to be a high school math teacher that would sound vaguely tautological, not ironically polemical. So, our society has decided that there will be more education beyond the 12th grade, perhaps not for all, and that it will consist of a finite number of permutations of curricular possibilities. If we were to sit down with a college catalogue, we would in principle be able to produce a model of every possible way one could string together courses and graduate. We could do the same with every accredited school in America. The set of all those possible educational trajectories culminating in bachelor’s degrees would be the undergraduate education that we have decided to make available. Somewhere near the finest grain of administrative detail is the course. These courses are the product. When a college hires a professor, ultimately they are hiring someone who can deliver a certain set of courses.

The tiresome saw goes: those who can’t do, teach. Now there are certainly disciplines where this makes sense. Someone who teaches a course on the Napoleonic Wars probably stands little chance of being able to conquer Europe. But philosophy is somewhat unusual (I make no effort here to determine which other academic disciplines are similar). You cannot teach it unless you understand it, and you cannot understand it without actually doing it. You need not do it importantly, originally or well, but you must at least do it well enough to be able to retrace the footsteps of the figures you teach, or to recreate the arguments that appear in the topics you teach. To see why this is, observe sometime a professor of history, literature or a foreign language teach a history of philosophy course. They can’t. As a rule, they don’t even know that they can’t. But you need a Sixth Sense to be able to see this, and that comes from first hand experience philosophizing.

Philosophy graduate programs, as best as they know how (that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion) teach philosophizing. The way they do this, in essence, is to provide a refuge for people who philosophize, and allow younger people to hang around in that refuge for a time (often an ungodly long time) picking it up by practice and osmosis. In the course of this, a certain amount of tacit ideology circulates about how all-fired important philosophy is as an end in itself. This is a complicated error difficult to set oneself and others straight on—philosophy is both less and more important than we were led to think.

After a certain amount of time, the now less young person is turned loose in the world to do what they were, willy-nilly, trained to do: be a part of the higher education industry. It is only now that the shock begins to set in that society’s higher education production needs do not altogether correspond to what goes on the market, either as to character or quantity. This is only the fault of the world if there is some basis for the claim that how one philosophizes, or, much of the time, how one consumes the philosophizing of others, objectively ought to be subsidized. This at the very least remains to be seen. If America were to become the ideal planned socialist economy tomorrow, and the Department of Economic Planning were to address the question “how many experts on theory of reference who can teach do we need over the next five years” (assuming the answer isn’t “none, really”), I have no idea how one would go about answering that question, let alone answering it well.

What about research though? One possible purpose of having philosophy professors publish zillions of journal articles might be because it realizes symbolic or prestige or entertainment value for the polity, in much the same way that a polity having some of its people walk on the Moon does. The problem is that the Humboldtian model of “research” really makes very little sense here (send a philosophy department and a computer science department out into the larger world seeking “partnerships with industry” and see who comes back with something). Symbolic value? Well, perhaps. Entertainment value? Only for the professors themselves, and perhaps not even then.

So what the hell were we doing writing those articles, books, etc.? Well, the lawyers among you will understand me if I say: these are our CLEs. If I am correct that you cannot teach philosophy unless you can, in your own small way, philosophize, then like any other activity, that activity must be kept fresh, and requiring publication, which is to say, requiring that one engage in some recognizable, assessed philosophical activity from time to time is a very good idea; nowadays, not even the trees need be harmed. One of the harms of the tenure system in its current form (there are many) is that this recertification aspect of the paper chase stops, typically well before it should.

But for those of us in academia, the harm, if there is a harm, is that teaching suffers, and because of that, less philosophy is learned. That, in the end, is the only justification for our existence. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either. Why philosophy itself circulates, and why that is something that is good for us, is a question I began to answer in my rant against Hawking, and which I resume next time.