What pragmatism is today

Every time I teach pragmatism, I reread some of the canonical sources and rethink what “pragmatism” means. Several years ago, I suggested that the term might just be a mistake— that there is too much difference between the so-called pragmatists, making the word more confusing than helpful. Some years later, I softened this view. Now I find myself thinking that there are a few core commitments which can be definitive of pragmatism.1

Continue reading “What pragmatism is today”

Pragmatism and current events

On Wednesday in my pragmatism class, we discussed Jane Addams’ Democracy and Social Ethics. In one chapter, Addams’ central example is the Pullman strike of 1894. Writing circa 1900, she relies on readers remembering how that went down. She writes, “Let us recall the facts, not as they have been investigated and printed, but as they remain in our memories.”

So I asked the class whether there were any current events that might have a similar structure. I suggested Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, from a certain point of view. Insofar as Musk was motivated by thoughts about how this locus of public discourse could be better, he was motivated by his own personal conception of what’s good. He was not concerned with what Twitter users might actually want or with their actual lived situations.

It is not a perfect parallel, I conceded. Addams’ example works especially because Pullman owned the whole town. Twitter, even for its most avid users, is just one corner of their lives.

Yesterday, I woke to headlines like Elon Musk Is Planning a ‘Utopian’ Company Town. It’s the 1890s all over again, man.

In which I am almost Wittgenstein

I am teaching pragmatism this semester, and we are just getting to Quine. So I had cause to open my old file cabinet and take out the hanging file full of Quine related notes and articles.1 In it was a scrap of paper, ripped from the corner of the program for a non-philosophical event I attended. I had scribbled in the corner,

Consider the difference b/n ‘p does not mean q’ if p and q are or are not homophones— correcting usage vs. discussing a language

Readers familiar with Quine can probably reconstruct what I had in mind, but whatever. Imagine this zettel joined with a hundred others like it, passed around as grainy scans and acquiring a moniker like The Taupe Book.2

AI is a joke

The genre of post that echoes an interaction with ChatGPT is stale and tedious. As Tom Scott comments, “Telling someone about your fascinating AI conversation is like telling someone about your dreams. They don’t care, it just sounds like you’re hallucinating nonsense.” I swore back in December that I wouldn’t make another post like that, but this one has jokes.

Continue reading “AI is a joke”

Network theology

There’s a rush now at Google and Microsoft to incorporate chatbots into their search engines, which seems apt to undercut the usefulness of search engines.

Suppose you want a list of Ruben Bolling’s God-Man comics. The words that a large-language model will string together about God-Man, based on having taking the whole internet as its corpus, will be nonspecific, incomplete, and probably error-ridden. The best source on this topic would be an official webpage or a fan page. There is no official God-Man episode guide, but I happen to maintain what is probably the only God-Man fan page. The best answer to the query is not to digest my page along with ten thousand others, but just to link to my page.

For lots of perfectly ordinary queries, one wants a dedicated webpage or site rather than the word-salad gestalt of a general purpose tool. So a traditional search engine can provide answers that a chatbot will only obscure.

This post was prompted by OmnipotentFriends, the latest adventure of God-Man and the cause of an update to the fan page.

The paradox of edited volumes

Consider these facts:

When discussing another scholar’s research record, it is common to not give full credit for essays in edited volumes. Some people disregard book chapters entirely when assessing a CV. But it is more common to give a kind of discounted credit, counting a chapter in an edited volume as less than a journal article. Mindful of this, some people list journal articles and book chapters under separate headings in their CV.

When discussing their own productivity, philosophers are quick to mention collections that they have edited. It is common, on a CV, to see edited volumes under the heading of books alongside monographs. Even though philosophy is no longer a book-driven discipline, a monograph carries more weight than a journal article. So putting the edited volume under the heading of books puts it where important things go.

The puzzle is how assembling an edited volume can be prestigious and important work if the chapters assembled in them are insignificant. If it is not quite a paradox, it is at least a tension our professional norms.

Everyone is risk-averse; and not

Over at Daily Nous, there’s discussion of an argument by John Symons that academic philosophy has become more risk-averse. Symons writes that

…the current incentive structure of academic philosophy in the United States favors cautious and modest research agendas for early career philosophers. Philosophical inquiry thrives when it is conducted in a spirit that risks overreaching a bit and welcomes criticism. Philosophy thrives when its creative, skeptical, and self-critical core is not subordinated to excessively cautious American-style professionalism…

The trick, though, is that any system where there are more researchers than jobs must hire some of them but not others. This creates an incentive structure for scholars to do work that tends to get people hired.

In a system which rewards provocative overreaching, a risk-averse young scholar who wanted to maximize their chance of a job would portray their work as provocative overreach. This would probably mean not citing too much other work (so as not to make one’s project look too in-the-box) and, when citing things, doing so only with disapproval (so as to suggest that one is against the system). Someone who is genuinely interested in formalizing the context sensitivity of epistemic modals would have to include a fiery introduction that explains why their work sticks it to the man.

Ultimately, risk-aversion can arise in any incentive structure.

Moreover, no young philosophers are truly risk-averse. They have spent years of their life pursuing a PhD in Philosophy, which is a risky proposition regardless of the research topic. The genuinely risk averse young adults didn’t become philosophers.

“Transcendentalism” and other free stuff

In my Pragmatism course, I spend a week on the transcendentalists before getting to pragmatism as such. Setting things up this time, I realized that I’m still using the PDF of Theodore Parker’s “Transcendentalism” lecture which I scanned back in 2003. It’s not pretty. Since the essay is in the public domain, there should be something better. So I started from the OCR text, cleaned it up, set it up in LaTeX, and generated a nice PDF.

I have posted it as part of my repository of free texts in pragmatism and American philosophy.

Continue reading ““Transcendentalism” and other free stuff”

How blogging went in 2022

I’ve been blogging since the mid-aughts. When it started, it seemed like I was a late adopter. Then it seemed like blogging died. Now, with exodus from Twitter, some people are looking at blogging again. It’s been here the whole time, man.

Last year, I wrote 12,701 words across 35 posts. Eye-balling the graph, a best-line fit has me writing zero words when I die of old age.

A graph of blog output per year in words and entries.
Blog output per year, normalized so that entries and words can go on the same axis. The green bar is the transition from the old blog to this one.

AI can’t let me see Karl Marx

Back in September, I wrote a post about generative AI and photographic transparency. The gist of it was this: Kendall Walton famously argued that I actually see Karl Marx when I look at a photograph of him, in a way I don’t when I look at a painting. The painting is mediated by the beliefs of the painter in a way that the photograph is not mediated by the photographer’s beliefs. So, I asked, what about an AI-generated image of Marx?

As I said in a footnote to that post, I wasn’t very happy with my answer to the question. As it happens, my Philosophy of Art class got interested in photographic transparency all on their own. So I made a mid-semester adjustment, added it to the syllabus, reread the Walton essay, and taught it to students in October. It turns out there was a part of the essay that I had forgotten when I wrote my post in September, and Walton gives us the resources for a better answer to the puzzle of AI-generated images.

Continue reading “AI can’t let me see Karl Marx”