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.)


February 18, 2017
Six Years of Living in Substandard British (Student) Housing

Inevitably, there comes the point where you wish to complain about British plumbing to your fellow Germans or Italians or Romanians behind your hosts’ back. The time-honoured opening move for this conversation is to raise the enigma of the double taps. The British, you see, do not seem to know about mixer taps, insisting instead on two taps, one giving scalding hot water, the other freezing cold. This is one of the few instances in practical life where one solution is simply inferior in any respect—there’s no instance where two taps can do what a mixer tap can’t. Still, one finds separate taps installed even in renovated or modern homes, where neither tradition nor price can justify them.

There’s more wrong with the taps as well. Often the taps have insufficient clearance, both vertically and horizontally, from the wash basin. This means that you must wash your hands by holding them close to, sometimes really pressing them against, the ceramic of the basin. The experience is uncomfortable. Of course you can clean your hands; but it feels awkward, unsatisfying, suboptimal, as if someone slightly incompetent had designed the whole experience.


January 23, 2017
Defining “fact”

Kellyanne Conway has termed a new, 1984-style neologism, that of “alternative facts”. That’s as silly as it is outrageous. But the response to Conway hasn’t been always intellectually up to par. Here’s Politico:

Merriam-Webster poked at the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, appearing to take senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to task for saying that press secretary Sean Spicer was offering up “alternative facts” about the crowd size at the inauguration.

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a pinned tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how lookups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

Unfortunately, “a piece of information presented as having objective reality” is an outright terrible definition of “fact”. Indeed, the claim that 1.5 million people attended Trump’s inauguration can well be a fact on this definition, as long as it is “presented as” having “objective reality”, which Trump’s press secretary might well have. And some things which are clearly facts—e.g., that I own a copy of Ulysses—fail to be facts on this definition, as they are not presented as anything to anyone. That’s because facts are facts: they just are, independent from whether they are presented in some context or not.

This is not an exception. I tell undergraduates over and over again not to use dictionaries for serious intellectual work. This is because dictionary definitions, while good for obscure words and teaching usage, are normally sloppy, often outright terrible at accuracy, at least the kind of accuracy needed for academic writing. Generally, dictionaries are poor guides to resolve intellectual disagreements; they are normally not even good guides to resolve disagreements over definitions. Bashing Conway & Co. is one thing—but at least you should get your facts (ahem) straight.

January 3, 2017
The Madness of American College Admissions

When I finished high school, I wasn’t a particularly interesting person. I didn’t have many discernible hobbies or interests. I played chess, but not very enthusiastically; I wasn’t even in the better half of chess players in my own club. I liked “reading”, but my tastes were eclectic and protean. I played no instrument. I proudly detested sports. I didn’t take part in any foreign exchange, and never visited foreign countries beyond family trips. I learned no foreign languages beyond English, and even that I dropped in favour of Latin. I took part in one summer school, only because my high school pushed me into it. I won a state Latin competition, but wasn’t particularly invested in Latin. I did no meaningful amount of “volunteer” or charitable work. I spent lots of time with my local church, where I helped organise events for children and teenagers. But that’s just what our church did; it wasn’t particularly glamorous.

So when I finished high school, my list of provable life achievements was remarkably short. But luckily that didn’t matter, because German universities do not care. I did well in school, and I could cobble together a not-terrible letter explaining why I liked philosophy. Most German universities simply select on the basis of GPA (Abiturnote), and I got places at all the universities I wanted to go. (Indeed, I only applied to three.) Because the system is transparent and uncomplicated, I never much worried about my “CV” before university. I didn’t have to; the system of applying to university wasn’t mad.