May 7, 2018
There is a kind of embarrassing silence if one tries to state why philosophy, or the Humanities more generally, have intrinsic value – that is, value beyond the merely instrumental, like getting you into law school. One generally fumbles around in vague generalities that convince no one, speaking of the clarity of analytical thinking, the advantages of critical reflection, or the enjoyments of intellectual thought. But these phrases sound hollow, often even to those who utter them.
April 21, 2018
There’s an industry in moral philosophy in the muddy business of digging out intuitions. Imagine, advocates of this industry say, that you hold this-or-that moral principle. Some principle which claims, for example, that you can kill people under these-and-those circumstances. But then there’s an important counterexample. In this-or-that scenario (which is almost always hypothetical), the principle gives the wrong result. The principle “violates our intuitions”. (It’s almost always some very unspecified “we” whose intuitions are violated.) Perhaps, however, if we moved to some slightly alternative moral principle, which slightly changed under which circumstances we can kill, we could explain this case away—the principle would “fit” our intuitions better. But here’s another counterexample which this principle cannot explain! And so the dialectical machinery runs on. Normally, a satisfyingly solution is found within around 20 pages, which happens to be the length of a publishable article.
January 24, 2018
I have recently finished another iteration of my undergraduate writing guide. It started as a two-page document born out of rage and disappointment with recurring essay failures. It has now ballooned into a nine-page document written in a slightly more relaxed tone. Still, the guide doesn’t even come close to saying everything I have to say! (I could include pages of ranting about layout alone…) So I have found myself working on a follow-up guide, cautiously titled “Details of Good Writing”. The rough idea was to provide a more hands-on, detailed guide to writing—one that looked at details such as how to use the words “subjective” and “objective” in philosophical writing, or the proper use of the semicolon. Such a guide would accompany the general advice of the first guide which often seemed to me too generic (“be precise!”, “structure your essay well!”, etc.).
I quickly encountered a problem though: that second guide started to look incredibly pedantic. Now I am a pedant, and being overly pedantic with undergraduates can be a plausible pedagogical strategy. Still, the authoritative know-it-all tone of the guide made me feel uncomfortable. After all, the one piece that has influenced my writing the most is actually a piece of anti-advice: Geoffrey Pullum’s withering critique of Strunk and White’s famous The Elements of Style, aptly titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”. Pullum has consistently attacked “zombie rules” in his and his co-authors’ excellent blog, Language Log. It is hard to read Pullum’s contributions without coming to think that almost all advice on writing is too dogmatically prescriptive. It insists on highly specific rules which are pointless at best, contradict the usage of even highly respect writers, are almost always simply made up, and sometimes even harmful to good writing.
January 24, 2018
I’ve been keeping somewhat quiet recently, but I’ll try to add some new content to the blog in the new year. Meanwhile, there has been some new material on the main website. A newer version of my writing guide is out: it is not on its fourth iteration. The syllabi for two courses I am giving at the University of Virginia are also online now: one on the philosophy of democracy (given in Fall), the other a thesis (capstone) course (given this spring). For the former course, I have also uploaded most of the handouts I used for the course, which some might find useful. Check them out!
October 21, 2017
This might sound like a silly question, but I’ve recently come across an old article by Deirdre McCloskey, who, asking the same question about economics, answers “No” (Pointer from Tyler Cowen, some brief discussion). McCloskey’s argument, liberally reconstructed, is the following:
- There is a difference between teaching about economics, and teaching students how to do economics. The first, while not trivial, can be done; the second, she claims, is almost impossible to do.
- No matter how she modifies her teaching, very few of her students genuinely learn How To Think Like Economists—even if they learn how to regurgitate various facts about economics.
- Even from her own experience, she has fully learned the economic way of thinking only many years after finishing school. Only a few “naturals” get economics outright.
- She tentatively suggests an explanation: most students have protected, care-free middle-class upbringings, which makes it hard for them to fully understand the scarcity- and choice-based discipline of economics.
- On this basis, McCloskey tentatively suggests, perhaps the emphasis in teaching should be shifted towards teaching about economics. This would make economics more akin to the literary sciences (which teach you about literature, but not how to write it yourself).
It’s not hard to think of an analogous argument for why it’s impossible to teach philosophy to undergraduates. Indeed, McCloskey mentions philosophy in an off-hand remark (“economics, like philosophy, cannot be taught to nineteen-year olds”), so she seems to think the case applies here, too. (Given the age of the piece, McCloskey of course might no longer be committed to the claims contained within it.)
October 15, 2017
The following review spoilers various plot points of the movie, though doesn’t give away any major twists. In writing this review, I have profitted from an interview with philosophy professor Timothy Shanahan on the movie.
This film is a splendid spectacle of overflowing visual imagination. If for nothing else, the film is worth seeing. More importantly, Blade Runner 2049 also manages to capture the mood of its predecessor—a bleak universe in which intensely lonely people, powerless in the face of a corporatist police society that controls and destroys them at will, face their own existential despair. Like Blade Runner, this film does not depict a primarily social or political dystopia; what we first and foremost see is a dystopia of human existence: an unflinching assessment of what it means to be an anonymous no one in the face of a hostile mass society, existentially powerless in the face of death and forces that seem to determine one’s life, and deeply uncertain about one’s individuality.
Combined with its circling, slow approach to its central themes, Blade Runner 2049 has ensured that it won’t be a great commercial success. The film has avoided the obvious temptation to turn itself into yet another action film franchise, distinguished from, say, Captain America only by being a bit darker and more broody. For that itself it deserves high praise. In short, this is a very good sequel, one that does justice to the original, and is faithful (perhaps even overly so) to its aesthetics and mood. If a sequel had to be made, it is unlikely that one could have hoped for a better one.
October 11, 2017
This post expands on themes from a previous series of blog posts, “The Demands of Political Competence”.
No one person knows how to put someone on the moon, but the brilliant minds at NASA, as a collective, do. Similarly, one might suggest, while no one person is politically competent, the electorate as a whole possesses the necessary competence. If this can be established, one might argue, we should worry less, or not at all, about individuals not knowing much about politics, and not being individually competent to make political decisions. After all, we do not think it surprising or troubling that no individual NASA employee knows how to put someone on the moon; what matters is that NASA as a whole can. This analogy provides us with a comforting and appealing way to think about democracy. But is it true?
June 2, 2017
Hayek’s Road to Serfdom still takes a regular place on undergraduate reading lists, is placed on lists of intellectually important books, and it still plays the role as a prophetic warning against socialism for many libertarians (see e.g., Glenn Beck). There’s no question that Road to Serfdom has been a historically important book. But like its rough contemporary The Open Society and Its Enemies, it’s a book which hasn’t aged well. The Constitution of Liberty is a much more timeless book, and also the philosophically much more sophisticated one. Here are some scattered observations on the book, and what’s worth reading in Hayek.
(The following is based on notes for teaching, and many of the points I’ll make can be found in secondary literature on Hayek. But the reader might find it useful to have some of it assembled in one place.)
May 30, 2017
I’ve recently found myself revisiting topics from Gaus’s Tyranny of the Ideal, which I’ve written about here. This is an area where recent literature has exploded. Instead of trying to do justice to the multitude of issues that have arisen in that literature, I’ll approach the topic idiosyncratically to order some of my thoughts.
In particular, I’ll look at the issue through the lens of a relatively simple metaphor. Like all metaphors, it obscures some issues and sheds light on others. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the degree to which it succeeds, but I found worth thinking about.