Monday, May 17, 2010

What is a philosopher?

The latest New York Times Opinionator column features Simon Critchley's op-ed, "What Is a Philosopher?"

Kuddos to Professor Critchley for both reflecting on the nature of time, and referencing Monty Python!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another one bites the dust?

It was recently announced by the Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities at Middlesex University plans to cut the entire philosophy program, a simple cost-cutting measure. Lombard Street blog published the following email:

Dear colleagues,
Late on Monday 26 April, the Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities, Ed Esche, informed staff in Philosophy that the University executive had ‘accepted his recommendation’ to close all Philosophy programmes: undergraduate, postgraduate and
Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject in the University. Building on its grade 5 rating in RAE2001, it was awarded a score of 2.8 on the new RAE scale in 2008, with 65% of its research activity judged ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. It is now widely recognised as one of the most important centres for the study of modern European philosophy anywhere in the English-speaking world. The MA programmes in Philosophy at Middlesex have grown in recent years to become the largest in the UK, with 42 new students admitted in September 2009.
The Dean explained that the decision to terminate recruitment and close the programmes was ’simply financial’, and based on the fact that the University believes that it may be able to generate more revenue if it shifts its resources to other subjects – from ‘Band D’ to ‘Band C’ students.

As you may know, the University currently expects each academic unit to contribute 55% of its gross income to the central administration. As it stands (by the credit count method of calculation), Philosophy and Religious Studies contributes 53%, after the deduction of School admin costs. According to the figures for projected recruitment from admissions (with Philosophy undergraduate applications up 118% for 2010-11), if programmes had remained open, the contribution from Philosophy and Religious Studies would have risen to 59% (with Philosophy’s contribution, considered on its own, at 53%).

In a meeting with Philosophy staff, the Dean acknowledged the excellent research reputation of Philosophy at Middlesex, but said that it made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University.

Needless to say, we very much regret this decision to terminate Philosophy, and its likely consequences for the School and our University and for the teaching of our subject in the UK.

· Professor Peter Hallward, Programme Leader for the MA programmes in Philosophy,
· Professor Peter Osborne, Director, Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy,
· Dr. Stella Sandford, Director of Programmes, Philosophy

 Outrage has been expressed by this decision all over the blogosophere. Nick Srnicek at Speculative Heresy puts this situation into perspective, stating that "the Middlesex philosophy department is world-class and possibly the premiere place for English-language continental philosophy. To cut it will be a significant blow to philosophy worldwide." Several sites have already been established to convince administration to overturn this decision, including a Facebook group which has already garnered over 1,500 members.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Filmosophy: Star Trek Through Time

By Hanno

The Philosophy Club will host two Filmosophies this year. This is our discussion of film and philosophy, showing some philosophical issues depicted in popular films. The first one we will present, on a day still to be determined, but soon, is on Star Trek, and conceptions of time.

A famous argument about the possibility of time travel rests on the so called "Grandfather's Paradox." It is argued that time travel is impossible. Suppose someone [a] could go back in time, to a time before their father was born. Suppose that either by accident or by choice [though it would be strange choice], the person going back in time kills their own grandfather. Then it is impossible for a to have ever been born, and thus that a went back in time to kill his grandfather. But if time travel is possible, it seems odd to think some power keeps him from killing his own grandfather. The possibility of time travel thus creates the possibility of inconsistent self-reference, like the liars paradox ["I always lie. Even that is a lie."] But that is impossible, so time travel is impossible.

Many works of science fiction present time travel as a real possibility, however. Some movies which do this include Back to the Future, the original Star Trek series, The Terminator, and the new Star Trek movie. All three attempt to deal with the grandfather's paradox in different ways.

In Back to the Future, McFly goes back into time, and alters it. He meets his mother, instead of his father. His mother develops a crush on him, instead of developing a crush on his father. As the movie continues, the effects of this change continue to develop. While looking at a picture, McFly's brother and sister start to disappear. Because the situation is impossible, one horn of the dilemma is physically eliminated. But oddly, this happens slowly, so that the future is half there, half not, like in some quantum state. This, if we stop and think about it, is very odd. If McFly's actions eliminate the future he knew, how could it still be half there? Why would it eliminate the lower half of someone? And how could that affect a picture taken in the future? Some sort of reverse causation would have to be in effect. The absence of something [McFly's brother] would cause an independnent thing [the picture of McFly] to cease to exist. By 'independent, I mean under normal circumstances, the picture can continue to exist even if the object of the picture does not, and vise versa.

The old Star Trek series used time travel serveral times, and each time the Grandfather paradox plays a central role. In one episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever," involves a McCoy who accidentally injects himself with a serum that drives him insane, and jumps into a time travel machine, where he changes history, making the Enterprise immediately disappear. McCoy apparently saves the life of someone who keeps The USA out of WWII for too long, making Nazi Germany win the war, and history to change. [Interestingly enough, though the Enterprise disappears, the members of Kirk's landing party do not.] Here, the grandfather paradox still works itself out by eliminating one future, and replacing it with another, but inconsistently does not apply itself to itself, eliminating the self reference. Kirk is still there, even though he cannot be if the Enterprise is not in orbit around the planet. The same is true for McCoy. But if McCoy does not jump into the time machine, then how did the past unfold? Someone changed history. Where did that someone come from, if there is no Enterprise?

In the Terminator, the machines attempt to use the Grandfather paradox to eliminate the person who threatens their victory. But it is not clear what happens to the reality that the cyborg and John Conner's world if the cyborg wins. Be that as it may, the Terminator suggests a strongly deterministic view, where the changes that someone appears to make actually are the things which happened to lead to the future that 'really' happens. Here time travel is possible, and does not lead to the paradox. Instead, Like Oedipus Rex, attempting to avoid our fate leads us right to it. I suppose that if we were to go back and kill our grandfather, we may only discover that he was not our grandfather, but that our grandmother had an affair, so that we are still born, and can still go back in time. Time becomes something that has an endless loop within, as each time the future reaches the point where someone goes back in time, they go back, and do the exact same things.

More next week.

Friday, March 5, 2010

MSU Philosophy Club Meeting Today, 1:00

There will be a meeting of the philosophy club, Friday March 5th, 1:00 in Kaufman 241. Everyone is welcome.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sports and Bands

By Hanno

OK, as I went to work today, I started thinking about something quite different from what I promised. OK, Krista, I always promise*, and I promise* I will return to Rousseau and the state of Nature next time.

Instead, I want to talk about a strange phenomenon, which we might call 'sport team identification.' The phenomenon to which I refer is when a fan so identifies with the team she follows, that she starts referring to the team in the first person plural. This does not happen for the causal observer. So, when the casual observer watches a team win, he may say to a friend 'They won.' But when a fan watches the same team play, they will describe it as "We won," this despite the fact that the fan knows they contributed absolutely nothing to the victory, and indeed, is embarrassed about that when it is pointed out. And make no mistake, the wins and loses feel personal. To the fan, they really did win and lose, in a certain sense.

But the same identification does not occur in other similar phenomenon. No one watches a band, say the Grateful Dead, and describes it in the first person plural. no one says "We were awesome!" after the show. If an identification is made, it is of a different sort. The fans experience of the show is different from the casual observer, but not in a way that inspires identification.

My question: Why do we identify with sports teams? How does it become personal? And why does that not happen in other similar circumstances?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Philosophy Club Meeting Tomorrow [Friday]

Meeting in Kaufman 241 at 1:00. All are welcome.

Monday, February 22, 2010

State of Nature

By Hanno

Dr. Thomason suggested that one way Kant can answer the Gestapo problem [that on Kant's view, it is immoral to lie to the Gestapo even to save innocent lives, which appears to be a reductio, since it obviously is not only moral, but morally praiseworthy] was by claiming that people in Nazi germany were in effect living in a state of nature, and in the state of nature, there are no moral rules. Such a view has a long history, but it is not usually associated with Kant. Kant famously insists that morality is contextless, absolute duty, that applies everywhere all the time. Dr. Thomason is arguing that the usual interpretations are incorrect.

An essential feature of almost all conceptions of morality that descended from the Greeks [and that includes every major philosopher in the West through Nietzsche] is that morality is rational. One ought to act morally because it is rational to act morally. Unless you are an anti-moralist, or an anti-rationalist, there is good reason to accept this view: to deny it is to somehow make it that you ought to do something that literally makes no sense. Morality would be indistinguishable from taboo, and the answer to the question: why should I be moral? would get the answer: no reason. It is easy to see that such a view would immediately undercut any motive to be moral, and since morality is frequently burdensome [where it is not, there is no need for it], people would simply walk away from all talk of moral duty.

That kind of view, possible after Nietzsche, but at a price, was never an option before. Instead, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant, etc., etc., all agree that an action is good if and only if it is rational, and if something is moral then it must be good.

Hobbes began the state of nature view with these assumptions in mind. If some act was not rational, then it could not be good. In trying to develop the basis of political authority, he imagines the world without "a common power to keep us in awe," i.e. a world without government. He argues that in such a world, three motives would force us to do what is rationally in our self interest, anything. First, competition would drive us to be enemies, and since it is irrational to leave an enemy alive to wreak havoc on us later, it is rational to eliminate the opposition. Second, since striking first is always be best strategy, as in battles to the death, the person who would strike second may already be dead, self-defense makes enemies of us all. If we knew who was an enemy, we might avoid this problem, but as we do not, this becomes a serious problem. Even people who seem trust worthy may abuse our trust, and that would put ourselves at risk, something never rational. Co-operation becomes impossible.

To make an agreement where we depend on the co-operation of others is to put yourself in the same danger, and that is never rational. And if it is not rational, it is not good. If morality binds us to that agreement, then it is still not rational, and not good. So morality would be neither, which seems clearly wrong.

An agreement becomes rational only when there is sufficient reason to believe the other person will stick to the agreement. In the state of nature, there is no such reason, and hence agreements are irrational. Once there is a social agreement to abide by agreements, and sufficient coercive powers to bind people to their agreements, all agreements ["contracts"] not expressly forbidden by the common power to keep us in awe are binding and rational. This allows us to be moral agents: now that it is rational to keep agreements, we are morally bound to do so.

If Nazi Germany were the state of nature, then there would be no moral rules. It would be perfectly rational to lie to the Gestapo. It would be good to do so, then, though not morally good to do so. But the cost of such a view is high: it would also not be wrong for the Gestapo to murder innocent people. Such moral restraints are also part of the social agreement, and the assumption is that there is no such agreement. We would then have to say that is is not immoral to lie in that circumstance, but also that it is not immoral to kill. And this applies equally to all.

Nor would it be morally praiseworthy to aid others at risk to yourself. Indeed. this would, on Hobbes view, be irrational, too. It brings no good to yourself, and puts you at risk. Hence, on a Hobbesian view, we have several counter intuitive results. The person who aids a Jew is not being rational, and not doing a good thing. The Gestapo agent, who murders both the Jew and the protector, is also not doing a morally bad thing.

Moreover, to have this position, we would also need some argument to show that Nazi Germany was in fact the state of nature. There is no reason to think so on Hobbes view, at least. The common power did keep everyone in awe. Life was not solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, unless you were an enemy of the state. Those people would not be bound by the agreement, and not bound by morality. That is, Jews in the Third Reich could rationally resist, and use all the means of war to do so. But the people protected by the authority have no such philosophical recourse. We need some reason to think that the state of nature, and hence, a state of war, existed between the people hiding Jews and others. Only then can Kant claim that the moral imperative "do not lie" does not apply to those people living in Nazi Germany.

Other conceptions next

Friday, February 12, 2010

Next Weeks Post

I promised to post about Kant again on Monday, but I forgot that Monday is a holiday here at McNeese. So that post will be delayed till after the Mardi Gras break. for those of you who do not get a break for Mardi Gras, ha ha.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Philosophy Club Meeting

We have started again. We now meet in Kaufman, 241, Fridays at 12:00. Anyone welcome. Even c.e.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

Kant and the Holocaust

By Hanno

After last weeks discussion, I wanted to investigate the Kantian response to the Gestapo argument. It may be, perhaps, that Dr. Furman's and Dr. Thomason's moral views are radically different than mine, that our intuitions are so far off, there is nothing really to discuss. That in and of itself raises some interesting questions about how philosophy works: what are the conditions under which discussion is fruitful? When does it descend into two ships passing in the night?

On the other hand, my colleagues could suffering from what my professors at Penn called "being caught in the gripes of a philosophical position." This means that someone has been working so long with a view that they stick to the implications of the view in the face of obvious counter intuitive results. They either bite the bullet, and accept the absurdity, or pretend to bite the bullet, and maintain what they no longer really believe. They remain consistent, but consistency is easy. Truth? Not so much.

So here we have the argument: it is 1941, Eastern Galicia. Jews in Jewish neighborhoods are routinely rounded up and shot. People who talk to them are shot. People who help them are shot. People in Germany may not have known yet what is happening. But no one in any community with a substantial number of Jews in the former state of Poland, or the newly conquered territory in the Ukraine, Russia, Belorussia, the Latvian states, etc., can have any doubts.

And here are two real examples, not made up for phil 201: "Not far from Trembowla, in a small town of Budzananow, a Roman Catholic Priest, Father Ufryjewicz, saved a whole Jewish family by baptizing them and giving them baptismal certificates, and forging his parish records in such a way that he created for them a complete set of Christian forebears. With false identities that he had created they were able to move from place to place, away from those who might know their real identities, and thus to survive.

In Turka, on the eve of deportation of the Jews in August 19442, sister Jadwiga, a nun who was also the head nurse of the local hospital, hid 12 year old Lidia Klieman in the cubicles of the men's bathroom, which was used as a broom closet. Lidia stayed hidden in the hospital for several weeks. Sister Jedwiga put her in a Catholic orphanage under the care of Sister Blanka Piglowska, who knew she was Jewish. When a suspicion arose in the orphanage that Lidia might be Jewish, it was Sister Blanka who obtained new false papers for her with a new name, Maria Wolosyznska. She then transferred the girl to another orphanage where the mother superior was hiding many Jewish girls. ... Lidia's mother had been denounced to the Gestapo while traveling on false papers, arrested and killed."

I use both of these examples, there are many others, because it is clear the people doing the rescuing had to lie, lie often and frequently, to save the lives of these girls, whose only 'crimes' were that they were Jewish.

On my own intution, these people, called the righteous among the nations, a title bestowed on Non-Jewish people who act righteously, and used now to designate people who put there lives on the line to save Jews with benefit to themselves, are heroes. They have 'moral courage,' the courage to do the right thing even if it may mean, and frequently did mean, very bad things will happen if discovered. I regard these actions as truly morally good and praiseworthy. Indeed, I wish I possessed that sort of courage, and hope never to be placed in a situation where the limits of my own moral courage are tested.

Now on Dr. Furman's account, because these people had to lie to save the lives of the innocent, they are not righteous at all, but are doing something wrong. To lie is always wrong. Our duty to save lives is 'imperfect' meaning it does not always apply. Only when the means are moral ought we do our imperfect duty. Since lying is against a perfect duty, it is wrong. These people, therefore, are not doing something praiseworthy and admirable, but morally wrong. they ought to have told the truth, that the girls and families in question were Jewish. It is true that they will all most likely perish, but that changes nothing. Bad things can happen when you cat morally.

I have no idea why he insists that lying is always bad, unless he sticks to it because lying fails the categorical imperative, that is, the maxim 'If I want x, I ought to lie' cannot be consistently universalized. That is, it is wrong because Kant says so. But I simply refuse to believe that TMF really believes the priest and the Sisters ought to have told the truth, that they would be doing the right thing if they had told the truth, but have in fact done something bad.

On my view if there is a day of judgment, it is the Righteous among the Nations who will have good things happened to them, not the truth tellers. If you really disagree, then our intuitions are so far from each other, there is little to discuss.

Next Week: Dr. Thomason: Kant's State of Nature Defense.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Kant and the Truth, the whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

By Hanno

Dr. Thomason, Dr. Butkus and I were having a discussion at Darrell's [blessed be his place] about Kant and his ethics. At the heart of the discussion was Kant's defense of the absolute requirements of the moral law. In particular, Kant argues that the moral law commands what we ought to do under any circumstances. One of those requirements is truth-telling: we ought to always tell the truth, in any possible situation.

There are two standard objections, though they have a similar structure. Each flows, as I discovered in our conversation, from a moral dilemma created from other moral duties that we have. The first is the classic, phil 101 example of the Gestapo knocking on the door of someone who is hiding Jews in the attic. The Gestapo asks 'Are you hiding any Jews?' The truthful answer is 'yes', which would result in your immediate execution, and the transfer of the hidden Jews to a concentration camp, where they, too, will face almost certain death. On the face of it, one can argue, this cannot be the moral thing to do. It may be argued, correctly, on Kant's view, that there is a moral duty to preserve one's life, and that there is a moral duty to preserve the life of others. Hence, there is reason to think you have a moral duty to lie.

This creates two problems for Kant. If so, the moral duty to always tell the truth is not absolute. There are circumstances where you ought not tell the truth, and the whole picture looks shaky. Second, on Kant's view, reason respects consistency. It is because the maxims can be consistently universalized that they carry the moral 'ought.' Reason has its own motive, separate from the desires of the appetites, which is respect for the moral law, and this respect is grounded in the consistency of moral laws. Just as reason is in awe of the axioms of geometry because they are consistent, and the laws of Physics because they are consistent, so too with the moral law. If this objection is right, the moral laws are in fact not consistent. There are real moral dilemmas. If you tell the truth, you violate one moral law, and if you do not, you violate another. The existence of moral dilemmas thus poses an existential problem for Kant's view: if the system is inconsistent, there is no reason whatsoever to always follow the moral law. Indeed, if the moral law is in fact universal, there may be no moral law at all.

There is another standard objection: the little white lie. Here, lives are not at stake. Indeed, something as trivial [!] as feelings are at play. We picture a situation where truth telling does no one any good whatsoever. In fact, it just creates misery. Telling the truth will make someone feel miserable, and will not make you feel good either. One need not be a consequentialist to accept such a situation. That is, one need not think that only the consequences of an action determine its moral worth. Instead, one need only accept that at least part of the moral worth of an action depends on its consequences [and not the whole]. In our discussion, it became clear that this, too, rests on conflicting moral duties [though I am this minimum consequentialist: if there is no consequence whatsoever, I see no reason why I ought to do as told.] The dilemma for Kant comes from a competing moral duty: kindness. We ought to be kind. But the truth is not always kind, it would seem. Indeed, Nietzsche stated that there is a cruel streak in always telling the truth, a cruel streak which is cloaked in moral righteousness. "I am just telling the truth: you are a horrible lay, and not really smart either." I think Niezsche was correct.

The response to these objections was to insist that there must be a way to tell the truth and meet the moral law. That is, perhaps there is a way you can both tell the truth and be kind. I am not sure how such a response works with the Nazi example, but if true, it works with the kindness example. But I will note: this seems to be an empirical question: is there a way of telling the truth in all circumstances while at the same time being kind? The global claim, yes, there must be, needs a defense, and if Kant is right, an a priori defense.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Yes.... I am still planning on posting concerning my analysis of knowledge --to take some of the burden off of Hanno. I will start doing so as soon as I over come some technical difficulties regarding the inclusion of various diagrams.

Todd Furman

Monday, January 25, 2010


by Hanno

I read a recent analysis of Avatar [it seems the popular thing in some quarters] where people are offened by the movie for a variety of reasons, both on the left and the right. The criticism on the left deals with its treatment of indigenous cultures, and the need for a white savior. The criticism on the right deals with the bad guys being corporate imperialists, stereotypical businessmen and mercenaries using violence to rape the planet, kill the natives and make lots of money.

First, these may be worth thinking about, and the critiques may be on target. But anyone who describes their feelings about the movie as 'offensive' has serious problems. Lets save 'offensive' for things that are really disturbing, where great emotional pain is inflicted. Feigned offense, Michael Kinesley has pointed out, is a favorite political move to highlight something stupid someone else has said, but it allows people to avoid speaking about real issues.

Second, there is some truth to the criticism from the left, but it is easy to overstate, and misses some more important classic themes. The movie actually resembles quite a few movies and books over the past several centuries, with a common theme which has been called 'going native.' To truly appreciate this theme, you need to come from a racist or Eurocentric culture [we need a good word for the belief that one culture is superior to all others, similar to racism, but tied explicitly to culture instead of the quasi biological category of race.] And the culture of the heart of Europe in the 16-1900's fits the bill. On this view, native people are primitive, ignorant, savage and dumb, worthy only either of being used for the superior culture, being brought to the light of the superior culture, or of extermination. It is the backwards nature of the indigenous culture which then makes abusing its people, sometimes for their own good, justifiable.

Since the discovery of the Native American tribes, there was also a minority contrary view: some people discovered that the supposedly saveage and backwards culturee/people were not as backwards as thought by the majority, that the European [be it Dutch, English, French, Spanish, etc] culture has something perhaps to learn from the indigenous culture. And historically, some of these people were part of the military organization used to suppress the indigenous people. Only an Ameri-centric person would think this is talking about the US, though of course it applies to them, too. The English in India and other places, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Americans in the Dakotas are all examples. At times, people in that setting leave not just their country, but their culture behind, and adopt the indigenous ways. This was common enough to get a name, derisive among the racist mainstream, 'going native.' An officer who went native was likely to be ostracized. After all, such a person would not do as commanded, would not support the imperialist nature of the regime he was defending, and mocked the supposed superioty of the home culture. Usually, such people were recalled, and replaced by someone more trustworthy.

In Holland, there was a novel made into a movie about just this type of person called 'Max Havilaar,' and, of course, in the States, this dynamic was portrayed in 'Dances with Wolves.' The theme is prominent in English writing about the Empire. 'Avatar' fits thus in a long line of such books and movies. In 'Avatar,' an American is able to physically embody an alien, and comes to understand the natives, then to appreciate the natives, then to become one of the natives. By exhibiting his transformation, we come to follow his footsteps. The reader, or viewer, too, comes to understand and appreciate the indigenous culture. We thus learn the lesson, as readers and viewers, that the notion of cultural superiority is problematic, and leads to great moral problems, as we can be asked to condone or to participate in the destruction of a worthy people/culture.

For this to work, you must have a person from the non-indigenous culture as the proponent. Following someone else's discovery of another culture allows us to discover it, too. And so while it may be odd to have the savior of the Navi be a white American, the anti-imperialist point could not really be conveyed in other ways.

And I will say this about the criticism of the right, that the movie makes capitalism the bad guy: hit a dog and it barks.