October 21, 2017
Can We Teach Philosophy to Undergraduates?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)

(more…)

October 15, 2017
“Blade Runner 2049”

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.

(more…)

October 11, 2017
Collective Competence: Some Initial Thoughts

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?

(more…)

June 2, 2017
On Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

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.)

(more…)

May 30, 2017
Some Thoughts on Ideal Theory (part 1)

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.

(more…)

May 27, 2017
Some Notes on the Culture Wars

From some perspectives, things are looking bleak for progressive causes. Trump’s presidency, the Brexit campaign, and the various populist right-wing movements across Europe can easily look like an unholy trinity of isolationist nationalism. It seems that politics has taken a sharp turn to the right, however precisely you want to label these changes (the rise of anti-globalism, tribalism, racism, etc.).

I am not going to downplay the importance of these political transformations. There’s little reason to think that these political forces will vanish soon. Indeed, let’s be pessimistic about Trump et al. – assume that various Western democracies will slide into a dysfunctional twilight of continual populist rage for the foreseeable future, and that the political atmosphere will be poisoned by nativist prejudices for perhaps longer than that. Assume that the various “open-minded” political projects – multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, the European Union – are in for a very rough ride, if not totally finished.

Even if this is your outlook for the near political future, I think progressives also have reason for optimism. If you zoom out, historically and socially, I think you will find that while right-wing causes might win various political battles at the moment, the progressives are winning the cultural war – by which I mean the larger social contest for determining the social conventions and evaluative rules by which we’re assessing our society.

(more…)

April 29, 2017
A Hundred Days of Incompetence

What political movement is Donald Trump heading? After we’ve seen him a hundred days governing, the answer is still unclear. Many call Trump a populist. But there’s no sign of the wall, the immigration ban seems dead for now, China is not called a currency manipulator, Hillary Clinton is not in prison, and it seems NAFTA is here to stay. Neither, it seems, is economic populism on the menu.

(more…)

April 25, 2017
The Ubiquity of Shallow Relativism

The Annoying Dinner Conversation

There’s a repeating social experience I’ve made. It happens during conversation with non-philosophers—say, at a dinner, especially at the Oxford formal dinner table. I explain that I am (or rather, was) doing philosophy—political philosophy even, which to many sounds interesting enough. Conversation then often drifts on to some broadly political topic. But surprisingly often, the conversation takes a turn to debating moral relativism. I’ve had it dozens of times, enough to extrapolate the generic form this conversation takes. (To a lesser degree, it’s a conversation that I’ve had with new undergraduates and undergraduate interviewees.)

(more…)

April 7, 2017
“Ghost in the Shell” (2017)

(This review spoilers both the 1995 and 2017 films.)

Ghost in the Shell comes in several instantiations—the original manga, two movies, two anime series, and now the Hollywood movie. The outstandingly best of these is the first movie, also named Ghost in the Shell (1995). The 1995 movie follows an elite Japanese security unit, Section 9, that tracks a mysterious hacker, the Puppetmaster. After a series of dead ends—witnesses who have been “ghost-hacked”, their cyber-brains stripped of their memories and identity—the Puppetmaster presents himself to Section 9 in a cyborg body, claiming to be a computer program that has gained consciousness—a “ghost” in the series’ terminology—on the net, and asks for asylum. The Puppetmaster’s body is whisked away by a competing government agency, Section 6.

(more…)