The mysterious island

Deep within these grooves of Academe,
In quiet cubicles, white and bare,
Hunched homunculi strain and labor
(Like monks of old in cloistered cells
Balancing angels on needles’ points)
At tasks bizarre with tools outrageous
Through days and nights of anguish unrelenting.

Edith Eliot1
Continue reading “The mysterious island”

Theory of knowledge done and gone

Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.

I just turned in grades for my Theory of Knowledge course. It’s only the second time I’ve taught the course, and it’s been more than a decade since the first time. I didn’t do any of the same readings, so it might as well have been a new prep.

From my point of view, the course was a grab bag of issues about knowledge. I didn’t have a narrative arch that held it all together. However, one of my standard last-day discussion exercises is to have students break into groups and try to describe what the course was about. One stage of this is to have them state the essentials in one sentence.

Here was one answer: “We looked at what knowledge is and how that knowledge can be applicable to everyday life, including skepticism about knowledge, whether context matters when understanding knowledge, and the relationship between ethics and knowledge.”

Here is another: “The course is about if we can know some things, how we might come to know those things, and when we are justified in believing said things (including the testimony of others).”

And a third: “Theory of knowledge addresses the skeptical challenge of explaining how humans can know anything by offering accounts of how knowledge claims can be justified.”

As they were working out their sentence, I overheard a member of the third group comment, “Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.” This struck me as being a fair summary of the course.

I structured the course around recent rather than historical literature. We read parts of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, and it was a big hit with students.

I feel like it would have helped to have an article that actually advocated for scepticism, but I’m not sure what the candidate would be. Without such a reading, it’s too easy to treat scepticism as a rhetorical bugbear. We can’t accept that (an author writes) because it would be tantamount to scepticism— but so what?

There were no topics or readings which students really hated. That’s good in one sense, but it doesn’t provide any guidance about what to drop. And I feel like it would make sense to swap some of the topics next time.

Only tenuously related to the post: The Salmon of Knowledge (Wikimedia Commons)

Rationality nihilism

I’ve been teaching epistemology this semester, and we’ve recently been talking about permissivism. The setup is this: Let E be the total evidence, and let P be some claim. One might believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgement; call these doxastic attitudes towards P.

With that formalism in place, we can define Uniqueness: Given E, there is exactly one doxastic attitude that one may rationally adopt toward P.

In the article I’d assigned for class, Permissivism is defined as the negation of Uniqueness. The idea is that there are at least some situations in which, given E, one might rationally adopt different doxastic attitudes.1 For example, it might be rational to find the evidence convincing (and believe P) but also rational to be unconvinced (and suspend judgement).

Students found the readings less than clear, and I was trying to concisely formulate the opposition on the whiteboard. I stopped mid-sentence when I realized that I couldn’t just define Permissivism as the negation of Uniqueness. There’s a third possibility!

Call this Nihilism: Given E, there is no rationally permitted doxastic attitude that one may adopt.

I don’t know of an epistemologist who explicitly formulates Nihilism, nonetheless one who advocates it. I have a perverse impulse to write something arguing for it, just because it is a logically possible position, but that way lies madness.2

Picture: Some logic books.

Pedagogy and the early modern syllabus

Ruth Boeker’s syllabus for teaching early modern philosophy is featured today at the Blog of the APA.

Ruth was a visiting assistant professor here in Albany several years ago, and her current practice reflects things she did here. Our campus teaching center has been a big promoter of Team-Based Learning for many years. She first encoutnered it here and recommends, as further reading on TBL for anyone interested, a pair of articles written by our local experts. (One of whom is Philosophy PhD alum Kimberly Van Orman.)

So, yay! Cheers to all.

Revising details in forall x

I’m teaching Introduction to Logic for the first time in several years. The course text is my own forall x. It’s always been an open textbook, even back before I had good vocabulary for explaining what that means. But now it’s available from SUNY OER Services, and they’ve partnered with SUNY Press so that my students are able to buy a hardcopy from the campus bookstore for just $8.50.

Working through it this time, I’ve hit a couple of things which I am considering changing.

Continue reading “Revising details in forall x”

What might be said about pragmatism

Today was the last class meeting of my pragmatism seminar. I had the students each make a presentation on their seminar papers in-progress. Some students were further along in their thinking others, but it gave everyone a chance to try out arguments and to exchange ideas.

The course syllabus covered more than 20 authors, but student interest was fairly focused.

  • 2 students are writing on issues of truth and objectivity.
  • 3 students are writing on Jane Addams and ethical method.
  • 2 students are writing on issues of ethical method and objectivity, one with an eye toward Nelson Goodman and the other by way of C.I. Lewis.

All the projects sound interesting, but I wouldn’t have expected this distribution.

Because this was me, the readings were weighted more toward philosophy of science and epistemology than toward ethics and value theory. But nobody is writing about philosophy of science. 😒

Jane Addams was a late addition to the syllabus, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out until the class meeting on her work. She was a hit. 😃

Now it’s just grading and administrative work between me and the end of the semester. 😰

Obliterative and therapeutic pragmatisms

I’ve been blogging recently about whether “pragmatism” is a sufficiently precise term to be one which we ought to use, apart from its being historically entrenched. In the course of reading Dewey again, I’m thinking about another aspect of the pragmatist tradition.

James says that pragmatism is, in one sense, a method. It’s typically expressed by the pragmatic maxim that discovering the meaning of a concept is best done by tracing out its practical consequences.

This method alone can still lead to abstruse metaphysics. Continue reading “Obliterative and therapeutic pragmatisms”

Boyd’s pragmatist theory of reference, maybe

In the previous post, I suggested that there might be no unified “pragmatism”. By this I meant that we wouldn’t (as a matter of philosophical method) want to invent the term if it weren’t (as a matter of the history of philosophy) already entrenched and an actors’ category. I’m not sure if I want to take that back, but I do want to talk about something in the neighborhood of “pragmatism” that probably deserves a name.

In the Pragmatism lectures, William James insists that pragmatism makes meaning and truth a matter of what will happen in the future. Continue reading “Boyd’s pragmatist theory of reference, maybe”

Emerson and the philosophy guru

On Facebook, Clayton Littlejohn posts this question:

Imagine there were a philosophy guru. You could ask the guru questions, get the guru’s answer, the answers would always be right, but the answers wouldn’t come with arguments or explanations. … If you wrote those answers down … would you be doing philosophy?

Numerous respondents say NO, on the grounds that philosophy involves giving arguments. It’s the game of giving and asking for reasons. Mere answers aren’t reasons.1

I’ve been mulling over related issues because I taught Emerson last week in my pragmatism seminar. Continue reading “Emerson and the philosophy guru”