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

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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.

“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.

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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.

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A column, an address, a garden

  • A public-facing article that I wrote about cover songs appeared today at Psyche under the title They’re playing our song! The philosophical puzzle of cover songs. I was prompted to focus on just a single example, so most of my discussion revolves around “‘Crazy’ – not the Gnarls Barkley song, but the Patsy Cline song.” There’s some new stuff in it, although nothing that wasn’t at least anticipated in my earlier work.
  • Given the much-discussed mishegas, I’ve stopped using Twitter. My idle moments scrolling and posting have moved to Mastadon, where I’m @news4wombats@mastodon.social
  • My Philosophy of Art class is winding down, so I’m getting some summary student feedback. I asked students which of the artworks that we discussed was their favourite. The winner, by a large margin, was Martha Schwartz’s Bagel Garden.
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What to call the fact that science traffics in assumptions?

I regularly teach a course called Understanding Science, an introduction to some issues in philosophy of science and science studies. One topic is the nature of inference: deduction, the fact that scientific inference is (largely) non-deductive, and the problem of induction.1

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Robot overlords win blue ribbon (not really)

I’m teaching Philosophy of Art this semester, and a student pointed me to an Ars Technica story with the headline AI wins state fair art contest, annoys humans. Jason Allen used Midjourney (the same AI that I was playing with recently) to make some images and enter them in the Colorado State Fair art contest. One of those images won first place in the Digital Arts/Digitally Manipulated Photography category.

There’s lots of discussion about whether this is the end for human artists (it’s not), whether this shows that AI are now making real art (no), and whether the submission of AI-generated images to the State Fair was dishonest (maybe).

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Icons and symbols

Two unrelated things.

One of my longest-running things on the internet is The God-Man Fan Page. I updated it today with a recent adventure— by my count, the 74th appearance of the character.

In preparing for tomorrow’s class, I discovered Raphaël Julliard’s 2005 work 1000 Chinese Paintings. She commissioned a Chinese factory to make square canvases painted a uniform shade of red and reserved a booth at a Paris art fair to sell them. All of the canvasses were sold by the end of the pre-show, so the result was an empty booth during the fair.

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Some thoughts about Epistemic Hiding

I’m teaching Theory of Knowledge this semester, and last week we discussed Nathan Ballantyne’s “Epistemic Trespassing.” The title refers to when an expert makes claims outside their field of expertise. Ballantyne gives the example of the chemist Linus Pauling making strong claims about the value of Vitamin C. Pauling’s claims were influential even though he was making false claims well outside his speciality.

A student pointed out that trespassing is a matter of overconfidence, so there may be a counterpart problem resulting from insufficient confidence. That is, an expert might decline to make claims within their field of expertise because of an excess of epistemic modesty. In our conversation, I called this the problem of Hiding in Your Epistemic Attic. For the sake of brevity, call this Epistemic Hiding.1

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The fixation of lecture notes

My general workflow is to write notes by hand the first time I teach something. If I teach it again, I type up those notes— making changes as I do— and print them out. When I teach it the time after that, I pencil in revisions on the print out from the time before. For things I teach many times, I eventually incorporate the revisions into the file and print a fresh copy.

This means that I’m not just phoning in the same lecture every time, but I’m also not starting from scratch every time. Incremental refinement.

Today I’m teaching Peirce’s essay “The Fixation of Belief” in my Understanding Science class. I was preparing for class and realized that my marked printout was originally composed for Understanding Science in Fall 2012. Since it’s been almost ten years, I figure it’s time to revise the file and print a fresh one.