Thursday, December 25, 2008

Undergraduate Events and Calls for Papers

by MAB

We get periodic calls for undergraduate paper submissions for publication or prizes. I'm happy to post them when I get them.


Ephemeris Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy

Ephemeris is an undergraduate journal of philosophy published at Union College and student-run. The purpose of Ephemeris is to harvest exceptional undergraduate writing grounded in the distinct value and interest of the philosophical endeavor. Contributions are solicited in all areas of the philosophical discipline. Contributions should take the form of essay, article, or short note. Responses to previously published articles are also welcome. Be sure to include your name, postal and email addresses, and theuniversity or college in which you are enrolled as an undergraduate. Email: Please send your work to Deadline for submissions March 2 2009. Please visit the website for further important details



The Interlocutor: Sewanee Philosophical Review is pleased to announce its most recent volume and its first call for high quality undergraduate essays for its upcoming volume. Please send this announcement to students who might have an interest in this opportunity.

Our call for essays and instructions for submissions can be viewed at

The most recent volume is available at

If you or your students have questions, please feel free to contact


The Second Annual Southeast Philosophy Congress invites submissions from undergraduate and graduate students in any area of philosophy. The Congress, hosted by Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, runs February 13-14, 2009, with keynote speaker Jack Zupko from Emory University. Presented papers will be published in online and print proceedings.Talks run 20 minutes, followed by a 10 minute question/answer period. Please email papers, accompanied by a brief abstract, to Dr. Todd Janke: Submission deadline is January 31, 2009. To allow time to plan travel, speakers will be notified immediately upon acceptance and selection will close when all slots are filled. The registration fee of $45.00 includes lunch both days and a print copy of the proceedings.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ethics and Subjectivism

By Hanno

I just finished teaching Ethical Theory for the nth time, and this time I was struck by the (in)consistency of the finals I received. After going through several conceptions of ethics, I introduce my students to Logical Postivism, the critique of philosophy through the verificationist theory of meaning. On this view, a claim is meaning if and only if it is verifiable, i.e. if and only if there is some empirical test to determine if the claim is true or false. AJ Ayer defends this view and uses it to develop his own anti-ethical theory, namely that almost all claims in ethical theory are either non-verifiable nonsense, or empirical claims suitable more for psychology or sociology than ethical theory. The view Ayer ends with he refers to as "hyper-subjectivism," namely the view that "Theft is bad" expresses a subjective feeling, but makes no claim at all. It is like someone saying "ice cream, mmmmm" with all sorts of yummy sounds, which Ayer claims does not make any claim about ice cream, not even that I like it. Instead, it evinces a feeling.

Subjectivism is the view that the claim "x is good" means "I like x." It is properly an ethical theory. Such a theory makes criticism of ethical claims moot, since no one can show that someone else ought to like ice cream. It is just what they feel. There are many critiques of subjectivism, but that is not what I want to discuss.

Instead, on my finals, I ask my students to consider the critique and then answer the question of whether ethical theory is worth studying. If we only make nonsensical claims where there is no way of determining who is right, what is the point? Now in this particular class, the response was overwhelming: The all said Ayer was right, more or less, both that ethical theory was non-verfiable, and in his hyper subjectivist analysis of ethical claims. But they also all claimed that ethical theory was still worthwhile as an activity, pointing to how much they got out of the course, for example. Other than that, however, they argued passionately that there was no right answer to which ethical theory was correct, that each individual had to decide for themselves (on the basis of what, if Ayer is right, they did not say). At the same time, they said frequently that you can be either Kantian or Humean about ethics, since it is all subjective. But Kant or Hume's theory is not subjective. If either are right, the subjectivist is wrong, as is Ayer, since accoring to Ayer, Kant and Hume are being nonsensical.

So how can all these differing opinions fit? How is ethical theory worthwhile if ethical claims just say what you feel? How can you be a subjectivist and a Kantian? I think I know the answer.

Philosophers separate the theory from a "meta" theory. The words come from advanced logic, where Tarski overcame problems in theories of truth (like the liars paradox) by separating claims within a theory, and claims about a theory, similar to questions within a game, to questions about a game. According to Tarski, "Grass is green" is a statement within a language. But the claim "Grass is green is true" is properly a statement about a statement, and hence is properly written "The sentence "Grass is green" is true." Truth is a meta concept, part of a theory about theories. Armed with this view, he showed that the liar's paradox ("This sentence is false") is rooted in an ill formed sentence.

So now here is my thesis: My students may think Kant is right about ethics, or Hume is right, but they are subjectivists at a meta level. That is, they think which theory you adopt is a subjective choice, and hence there is no theoretical criteria for choosing which theory you adopt. Hence you are perfectly free to be a Humean as well. But within the theory, you are bound to its dictates. Ethical theory may then be worth while to spell out the details of each particular choice, but do not confuse that somehow getting to the truth. Within a framework, you can determine what is ethical, and what that means, but there is no outside framework to choose which theory to choose, since that is all a purely subjective matter of choice. So Ayer is right in part. Its not that ethical claims are nonsense. Within a framework, they make sense. What is nonsensical is to argue about which framework is right. And that was part of the non-sense Ayer objected to: arguing about things where there is no way of determining who is right.

I plan on taking this blog up again at the beginning of the next semester. Enjoy the break.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thank you....

I would like to thank everyone in the Philosophy Club for an amazing first year of being official. Next semester will prove to be a lot of work, but I am fairly certain that it will be worth it in the end. I look forward to seeing all of you at the first meeting next semester.

PS: Everyone make sure to tell Hanno how much you enjoyed his presentation. It was an acceptable alternative for a Friday Night.

- Mikey C and the Phurious Phive

Friday, December 5, 2008

New information regarding the planned philosophy major and minor (by MAB)

I have just updated the Philosophy website to reflect the discussion I had with Ray Miles earlier this week. While we cannot get anything on the books for the 2009-2010 catalogue, we will be able to get programs listed for 2010-2011.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Appeal of Existentialism

Here is a link to the discussion I referenced in yesterday's philosophy club:

Filmosophy: "Starship Troopers: The New Republic"

Friday, December 5, 2008

4:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.

Hardtner Hall, Room 128

Dr. Bulhof will present a discussion of Plato's conception of the Republic.

You can access the official poster here

Monday, December 1, 2008

The New Republic

by Hanno

In Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven shows a society split into three groups. We are shown the prosperous family of the main star, Rico. His family plan for him to attend Harvard, but Rico chooses instead to join the military. His family is in shock by his choice. They do not understand, and think he is making a foolish choice, throwing away his future. The wealth of the family show that the society as a whole is prosperous, for only prosperous societies can produce great wealth. The society also produces enough wealth to arm and train an army with the highest level of technology, and to fight a never ending war of expansion. There may well be poverty and misery, but we never see it. the point, however, is that the family represents a class of people driven by love of money, and the drive of the whole class creates the prosperity in the society. This mirrors Plato's conception that we read about last week.

The ends of the money lovers are different from the ends of the honor lovers. They want different things in life. What they place value upon are different as well. It comes as no surprise that the choices they make will be looked upon with contempt. the money lover cannot understand why the honor lover chooses a life path that promises only pain and sacrifice, and no luxuries. The honor lover, on the other hand, has nothing but contempt for the soft pleasures that drive the money lover. Those people cannot are self-centered, and cannot handle pain. Sacrifice has no meaning for them. This split is mirrored then in the movie as well, with one key difference. Rico enters the military not out of the love of honor, but the lust for a girl who enters the military. But in Boot camp, the martial spirited soldiers are separated from the ones who cannot handle it. While this separation is being made, the new soldiers are taught their craft, they are shaped to fight a military ethos. Plato spends much time in the republic describing the education which makes the best most virtuous soldiers. Boot camp is that in the film. By the end, the soldiers have a love of honor, sacrifice and display a certain kind of contempt for civilians. Now the soldiers recognize something more important than themselves, and are willing to die for it.

So we have in the movie a class split, between the military and the civilians, between the defenders of the society and its producers. And we have people whose natures determine to which part they belong, and an educational structure which develops those natures along the lines of virtue. In short, we have the Republic.

Now the the last class for Plato was the ruling class. These were people chosen from the military class who put the good of the community above anything else, even above their love of honor. In the movie, the ruling class comes from the military class as well. When the war goes badly, the leadership resigns, and new leadership is installed, new strategies are put in place. In short, wiser policies and policy makers are put into place. This, too, then matches the film.

For both Plato and Verhoeven, society is split into three distinct classes, each with different aims and desires, each content with their own lot in life, and each working in their own way for the good of the whole. The society works when each part does its part. The New Republic looks much like the Old Republic.