Thinking in Slow Motion
March 6, 2016 9:25 AM   Subscribe

 
Life is too short to try to explain or justify philosophy to people who don't get it.

It's bad enough dealing with the ones who do.
posted by Segundus at 9:31 AM on March 6, 2016 [42 favorites]


I grew up in a family of scientists and studied philosophy in college, and I definitely had that "oh" moment of realizing that people who are very good at analyzing data are not necessarily as effective when they turn that laser beam back on themselves.

Being a scientist sometimes seems to involve building up an intense confidence in your own intelligence and capability so that you can bridge the confidence gap between having a theory and proving it, and this has side effects.

I think the most important thing that philosophy (and spirituality, to some extent) have to contribute to our society today is this idea of "slow thinking". If nothing else, I think that being uncertain and confused and comfortable in that space is really good for your mental health.
posted by selfnoise at 9:38 AM on March 6, 2016 [61 favorites]


Dunning-Kruger is all.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:41 AM on March 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


Any far-out, mind-bending, LSD-induced epiphany that’s ever been had has already been ripped apart and taken even further in sober-looking philosophy books.

This certainly makes me want to take the topic more seriously.

But as a not very smart layman that occasionally dips a pinky just a tiny way into the subject I just can not tell if contemporary philosophers are just obfuscating deconstructions of obscure details of issues that will be handled by actual science (cognitive, math, physics) or if there is really a way to just think about the world without experiments or demonstrable analysis (math of some flavor).

yikes that sounds almost filisoficalish
posted by sammyo at 9:43 AM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, there's this tendency to hold public figures to ridiculous standards and I don't think we should expect Bill Nye the Science Guy to be the perfect, enlightened polymath.
posted by selfnoise at 9:45 AM on March 6, 2016 [19 favorites]


Philosophy is, arguably, what we don't know, while scientists seem to be asserting some sort of knowledge, if their moniker is taken at face value. It would be a rare person who was comfortable in both camps. Cheers to those.
posted by Brian B. at 9:46 AM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Is the Quartz piece supposed to be a parody? Because it starts off with ad hominem and appeal to authority (from a Harvard professor, no less) and goes downhill from there. There's a strong defense of philosophy to be made, but this is absolutely not it.
posted by phooky at 9:46 AM on March 6, 2016 [40 favorites]


"Philosophy is important for more than just a while, and has serious, practical uses for all of society."

One of the things I always tried to do with 101 students (which I wish my philosophy profs in college had done for me and which would have illuminated so much of "why do we study this boring shit?" for me if they had) was connect abstract philosophical questions to live societal issues. Like, when we talked about Cartesian dualism, we talked about the implications of your mind being different from your body, and about the implications of the "youness" of you being contained in the mind rather than the body -- implications like women accessing higher education; the Americans with Disabilities Act; voter access laws; etc. Because once we say that the BODY isn't what makes a person, that a mind makes a person, even if the body is female, or imperfect, or injured, we have to reckon with that seriously in our lawmaking, and in the US, Cartesian dualism leads us to a whole host of access laws that ensure everyone has access to basic rights of citizenship. That makes the study of Descartes suddenly a lot more interesting to noobs and non-majors, when you can see that it matters how you conceive of the mind and the body.

selfnoise: "I think the most important thing that philosophy (and spirituality, to some extent) have to contribute to our society today is this idea of "slow thinking"."

I would suggest also human-centering; it's too easy in science (and engineering) to get fixated on doing the thing, or doing the thing better, or discovering the thing, without considering the practical and ethical implications of the work on human beings. The world would be such a better place if more STEM folks had more appreciation for the liberal arts. (Some have plenty and they are great!) It renders them such lazy, narrow thinkers when they can't be arsed.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:50 AM on March 6, 2016 [108 favorites]


I think at least a couple things contribute:

First, society as a *whole* doesn't really value this. Like, it's not just smart people who have this idea philosophy is pointless and disconnected from day-to-day living, it's a very mainstream perspective that is rarely challenged. I think that's terrible, personally - if nothing else, I feel like discussions of ethics are especially weak just about everywhere - but it's an extremely common notion. I'm not sure what to suggest to combat that.

Second, when you grow up smarter than most of the people you interact with, poor socialization can happen. I've talked about that a time or two in other contexts, but it's true here too: it can lead to an unhealthy willingness to dismiss the perspectives of other people because they're not 'equals.' Philosophy is a topic that is particularly harmed by that, I think: listening to other people and considering their points of view is important to it in a way that isn't as true in 'hard' disciplines. (I wouldn't want to accuse anyone in particular of behaving that way - I have no idea what Nye's experience was like, growing up - but this is something that I had to recognize in myself to engage with a variety of topics in a healthy manner.)
posted by mordax at 10:03 AM on March 6, 2016 [11 favorites]


Being a scientist sometimes seems to involve building up an intense confidence in your own intelligence and capability so that you can bridge the confidence gap between having a theory and proving it, and this has side effects.

I would replace the word "confidence" with "dependence." Some people memorize facts and then think it can replace truth. Reality and truth are no interchangeable, and philosophy involves emotional intelligence that cannot be replaced with logical or intellectual intelligence.

Many people think they can just rely on one, but it has to be a balance.

Thank you for the interesting link.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:14 AM on March 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


One could make the case that philosophy is effectively complete, and that what remains is its application to practice, principally in science.
posted by No Robots at 10:15 AM on March 6, 2016


Philisophy is just not a part of standard public school curriculum in the US, and in college you'll only encounter it in a meaningful way if you want to. It is therefore unlikely that your average person will have anything more than a superficial understanding of even the concept of philosophy, let alone the reality of the discipline.

It is also an extremely mentally taxing discipline.

Ethics, though, is a critical subject where the populace would do well to be more fluent.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:15 AM on March 6, 2016 [17 favorites]


The title seems to inadvertently touch on a problem: when someone questions the value of philosophy, is the answer to say they're stupid or to instead talk about what philosophy is doing right now that's relevant? To someone who isn't already familiar with the field, that article doesn't seem persuasive with lots of dancing around, mostly in the pre/early-scientific era, but ultimately not much substance for anyone genuinely curious.

I used to work in a neuroscience research lab with, among other people, a dual-neuroscience/philosophy grad student who I quite respected and was trying to bridge the fields, being quite patient with hardline empiricists & the occasional skeptical sysadmin, so in part I'm upset because the author just assumed everyone else already agreed rather than really trying to make the point. As an example, if we want to talk about causation, why is it just a given that none of the physics or neuroscience we've learned since the 18th century is a better starting point than Hume? Philosophers certainly contributed greatly to starting the discussion about the differences between sensory input and the world our mind constructs, but is that still ongoing even after huge advances in our understanding of the underlying biology?

Finally, trying to claim formal logic for philosophy actually made the point seem weaker to me — yes, if we go back to when natural philosophy was the term, all of science and math can be claimed but that doesn't seem particularly helpful for a 21st-century reader wondering where the field is going and it really contributed to the feeling that this article was written for people who already believe.
posted by adamsc at 10:18 AM on March 6, 2016 [26 favorites]


philosophy involves emotional intelligence

I don't think this is particularly true. A lot of great philosophers have been emotionally very limited people.

One could make the case that philosophy is effectively complete, and that what remains is its application to practice, principally in science.

But making the case would, itself, be a philosophical endeavour. You can't just assert it and expect people to think it's true. I, personally, don't think it's true in any significant sense.
posted by howfar at 10:20 AM on March 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'll admit that I struggle sometimes to see why philosophy (especially Anglo-American analytic philosophy) is relevant, but most of my skepticism arises from encounters with one or two obnoxious philosophers who seemed to think they could figure out everything (in the context of an interdisciplinary discussion of environmental) from first principles. Mostly that seemed to consist of them assuming their own moral intuitions as a kind of universal and suggesting that other people needed to start thinking as rigorously as philosophers. (I don't have a chip on my shoulder about these encounters, oh no I don't.)

There are absolutely fruitful discussions to be had between the humanities (and critical social sciences) and scientific practitioners. But I think those discussions are often more likely to arise with humanists who combine theory with an empirical method--like historians, ethnographers, or even textual scholars like literary critics. g
posted by col_pogo at 10:28 AM on March 6, 2016 [18 favorites]


if nothing else, that Bill Nye clip is a pretty solid example of Engineer's Disease. If the guy had just prefaced his response with something like, "First off, everything I know is probably wrong, because well, that's the nature of reality -- hard to really know what anything actually is when you're stuck in the middle of it. That said, here's a few thoughts ... "
posted by philip-random at 10:30 AM on March 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


Seconding grumpybear. Philosophy is hard and makes your my brain hurt.

Everyone should get a minimum of both vitamins and philosphy for a healthy life. Eating your vegtables and thinking deeply is good for you.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:34 AM on March 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Nye’s skepticism is an empty response to the question of whether we can trust our senses. “If you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real?” he asks. “Or is it just your imagination?” Then he goes on to suggest that the young philosophy student explore the question by dropping a hammer on his own foot. But such a painful experiment would not actually address the underlying question, and this approach—simply mocking the argument rather than addressing it—is so infamous that, as CUNY philosophy professor Kaikhosrov Irani points out on his blog, it has its own name: argumentum ad lapidem—”appeal to a stone.”
It seems to me that Nye is saying the same thing that G. E. Moore was when he asserted "Here is a hand" to refute the idea that your whole experience is a dream, simulation, or other deception. Or when Samuel Johnson disputed Bishop Berkeley's claim that only ideas exist by kicking a stone and saying "I refute it thus!" Basically, wordy arguments can be persuasive and finding their flaws might be difficult, but if an argument is contradicting some really obvious fact—like "I have a hand" or "Here is a rock"—then you're entitled to reject it.

If the guy had just prefaced his response with something like, "First off, everything I know is probably wrong, because well, that's the nature of reality -- hard to really know what anything actually is when you're stuck in the middle of it. That said, here's a few thoughts ... "

That would be too humble. Saying the Earth is a sphere is "wrong" in that it's an oblate spheroid, and saying that is "wrong" in that it's a geoid, but either statement is a lot less wrong than saying "it's a flat plane".
posted by Rangi at 10:36 AM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


In the interest of doing something more constructive than grumping about the original article, I'll just suggest that you could do many worse things than learning about Pat Churchland.

The Intersection of Neuroscience and Philosophy - On Our Mind

From the engine of reason to the seat of the soul: A brain-wise conversation

(The rest of the TSN philosophy archive might be of interest, too. In the interest of full disclosure, I used to work on their website but haven't been involved for nearly a decade)
posted by adamsc at 10:37 AM on March 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


Beats me. Many people seem to view it as a series of superficial puzzles, that, fortunately, can be dispelled, five minutes after you hear them for the first time, by high school debate tactics.
posted by thelonius at 10:37 AM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


"most of my skepticism arises from encounters with one or two obnoxious philosophers "

Philosophers are, sadly, often the worst possible ambassadors for their own discipline. It takes a particular sort of mind to realize at 18 that you want to major in philosophy, go to grad school in philosophy, become a professor of philosophy, etc., and those are often people who, because they grasp philosophy so intuitively, are very, very bad at explaining it to others who lack that intuitive understanding. And (like many smart people) they assume other people are dumb for not being able to make the same intuitive leaps.

People who come to philosophy a little later in life, or in a more roundabout fashion, or with more struggle, often are better at explaining and illuminating what's interesting and important about it to laymen (or students).

(And a lot of philosophers -- mostly men, and mostly in relation to female subordinates and students -- seem bent on using their lives to disprove the ancient Greek idea that studying philosophy can make you a virtuous or good person. Which also really doesn't help.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:40 AM on March 6, 2016 [40 favorites]


I think, overall, there is a tendency for people like Nye to have a certain dismissiveness (or willful ignorance) toward anything that trades on ambiguity, human emotion and personal reflection. If it can't be measured or dissected scientifically, it isn't valuable or valid. See also: Certain denizens of geek/nerd culture v. modern art.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:49 AM on March 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


My dad is a philosopher of science and I grew up surrounded by philosophers of biology, philosophers of physics, and medical ethicists, so I find the assertion that there is some vast chasm in between philosophy and science to be a little odd. There's a whole discipline that interrogates the intersection of the two.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:51 AM on March 6, 2016 [22 favorites]


To expand on that: I think one factor is that people doing hard laboratory science at the graduate or post-doctoral level barely have time enough to breathe let alone be widely read in intersecting disciplines. People studying philosophy who find that they have an abiding interest in science have more of an opportunity to direct their studies that way. But certainly my pop has taught a fair number of people who already have advanced degrees in STEM disciplines who then decided to put that on pause and return to study of philosophy of science for a while and direct their energies that way. But I'm not sure you can really do both things at the same time in the current research science climate. Hell, you barely have enough time to do nutty things like propagate the species.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:56 AM on March 6, 2016 [16 favorites]


I'm an ordinary biomedical scientist working at a research university and I find the assertions about this huge chasm to be flat out wrong. But I don't consider someone like Bill Nye a peer exactly, he's not an actual research scientist as far as I can tell.
posted by shelleycat at 10:59 AM on March 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


Philosophers are, sadly, often the worst possible ambassadors for their own discipline. It takes a particular sort of mind to realize at 18 that you want to major in philosophy, go to grad school in philosophy, become a professor of philosophy, etc., and those are often people who, because they grasp philosophy so intuitively, are very, very bad at explaining it to others who lack that intuitive understanding. And (like many smart people) they assume other people are dumb for not being able to make the same intuitive leaps.

I think that this might be an issue in other domains as well. I just started teaching sociology at the undergrad level, and although there's more than one thing I need to work on to be a better teacher, one definite area for improvement is seeing the material from the perspective of someone who wants to understand but who needs to spend much more time parsing first-order meaning. I have this bad habit of jumping straight to application and interpretation, which was honed considerably in graduate school but is not always helpful for my students.
posted by clockzero at 11:07 AM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ah, the fundamental "has totally different point of view" and "idiot" divide.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:09 AM on March 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


You know how there's a group of people that has a very vocal minority you just really dislike? You have one, admit it. Could be anything. Now, the group is, on average, good, smart people, but there's two percent of them that are such loud, aggressive jackasses, that everybody dismisses the work of the other 98 percent. And you wonder, wow, why doesn't the 98 percent rise up and wrest control of the group's image, pull it out of the hands of the jackasses? Do they not see the problem themselves? Are there really no strong voices in that 98 percent? Or is this only confirming the fear that led you to dismiss the whole group in the first place -- that the two percent jackass contingent really does accurately represent the whole. Or is it indicative of some kind of navel-gazing apathy that's inherent to the culture of the group, so the jackasses get a free pass from their peers to continue being jackasses.

So, yeah. Philosophy professors.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:15 AM on March 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


As an example, if we want to talk about causation, why is it just a given that none of the physics or neuroscience we've learned since the 18th century is a better starting point than Hume?

This wasn't the point that the article was making about causation. In fact, if I were personally to recommend a starting point for thinking about causation it would be something much more recent that takes into account modern work on causation, such as Paul and Hall's Causation: a user's guide. Or maybe Pearl's book for a more math-based approach, though it's a bit old now. But the point that the article was making is that you can't presume that just because something is "science" and is about causation that it actually does or can solve hard problems such as the one that Hume raised.

Or more accurately, that point that the article was making was about a cheap shot that Nye took on the topic of causation that in fact revealed a deep, and in fact embarrassing, ignorance about the difficulties of the topic, including non-philosophy work. I say this not as a philosopher, but as someone in a cognate scientific field who has occasionally worked on causation.
posted by advil at 11:30 AM on March 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


It's amazing to me that scientists (and many of their philosopher-respondents) just equate philosophy with metaphysics and epistemology. There is so much more to it than that.

Logic, of course, is a branch of philosophy, and logicians are still found in philosophy departments (with some in Math, too).

But more importantly, as has been mentioned a couple of times already, Ethics is a field of philosophy. One that has shaped modern society in profound ways. Go no further than Beauvoir for proof.

This is to say nothing of the fifth traditional branch, aesthetics, or many of the subfields.
posted by oddman at 11:37 AM on March 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


I once heard someone describe it this way: Science asks, "What is the Universe?" while Philosophy asks, "What does it mean to be 'human' in the Universe?"
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:43 AM on March 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Bill Nye was a funny TV science guy with a degree in mechanical engineering. Then, unable to get a science job, he decided to skip that and promote himself to Grand Inquisitor of Science. At which point he fully enabled his inner asshole, ferociously going after people like Edgar Mitchell (on Larry King, q.v.).

So now he's the Rash Lintbomb of Science. And I intuitively feel that professionals everywhere wish he'd just shut the hell up.
posted by Twang at 12:05 PM on March 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


Having wrestled with epistemology (via Bateson, Maturana, et al), I had to at least peak into philosophy. As a woman, this became a soul-scorching experience ... I had to expose myself to the arrogant distain of white men taught by white men taught by white men ... ad nauseam.

So, Bill Nye isn't part of this club? Take it as a sign ... the world is not your club anymore.
posted by Surfurrus at 12:17 PM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


People interpret the world in different ways. They’re all wrong.
posted by bongo_x at 12:17 PM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Wittgenstein a philosopher, right? A really good one? And he says philosophy is all bunk, doesn't he? So even philosophers think philosophy is a bit wanky. After all, we had philosophy for 2,500 years, and it wasn't much use. Lots of pontificating about ethics while your slaves and women do all the work. Then the Huns come over the horizon.

Oh, and Heidegger and Neitzche are important philosophers. And we Europeans are big on philosophy, aren't we? So given we're the worst bunch of shits that ever tried to kill all the Jews/Communists/Priests/Arabs/Native North Americans in the world, I think that speaks against philosophy being any use for morality.
posted by alasdair at 12:17 PM on March 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


Pirsig made a useful (if a little axe-grindy) distinction between philosophy and philosophology in his book Lila. From memory he characterises Philosophology as the study of philosophers, with a side order of looking down on people who haven't studied as many philosophers as you.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:34 PM on March 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


quite patient with hardline empiricists & the occasional skeptical sysadmin, so in part I'm upset because the author just assumed everyone else already agreed rather than really trying to make the point. As an example, if we want to talk about causation, why is it just a given that none of the physics or neuroscience we've learned since the 18th century is a better starting point than Hume? Philosophers certainly contributed greatly to starting the discussion about the differences between sensory input and the world our mind constructs, but is that still ongoing even after huge advances in our understanding of the underlying biology?

Finally, trying to claim formal logic for philosophy actually made the point seem weaker to me — yes, if we go back to when natural philosophy was the term, all of science and math can be claimed but that doesn't seem particularly helpful for a 21st-century reader wondering where the field is going and it really contributed to the feeling that this article was written for people who already believe.


there are very few, if any "hardline empiricists" in the sciences, I mean, that would really involve discarding any priors. most scientists are naive materialists, naive because, given the scholastic nature of the sciences at this point, it's possible to crank out research within a certain narrow domain, without thinking to hard about all the implications of your assumptions.

this is especially jarring in physics, which has the added overlay of the ability to crank through equations without doing much thinking at all...
posted by ennui.bz at 12:38 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think there's one thing you can definitely learn from philosophy, which is that thinking well is freaking *hard*. And I'm sure you can learn that from other disciplines, although maybe not in the same way.
Apart from that, I kind of wish people would stop trying to defend philosophy by showing how it can be useful in practical terms...nobody ever asks this question ("what's the point/what's it good for/why study it") about, say, music. It's understood that you study music because you're really into it, and maybe you'll become a composer or performer whose work affects people in some undefined way, or maybe you won't...but in general, people understand the idea of just being really into music, and I don't see a lot of attempts to "justify" music (although there are some "it'll improve your brain [thereby making you a better worker]" articles out there).
As with music, some people are just really into philosophy. Should there be university departments of philosophy (or music) just for that reason? I guess it depends what you think universities are for. But that's a philosophical question, not a scientific one.
I've also noticed that some of the very best scientists in the world really don't "get" philosophy, presumably because they've (rightly) been trained to think, and have spent their entire careers thinking, "how would one design a test for that?" the moment any question comes up. And that's not how philosophical questions work.
posted by uosuaq at 12:40 PM on March 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


The quickest justification for philosophy that I can think of: If you think questions like- what is good? what is rational? what is possible? how do we reconcile the subjective and objective? are questions it's worthwhile to pursue, then you must think philosophy is worthwhile.

That's all we're trying to do really- answer these most profound and urgent questions. And we use whatever data or methods can possibly be brought to bear upon them. Certain traditions have developed of course. But it's completely up for grabs.

Honestly I don't know how anyone interested in the world can fail to be interested by philosophy.
posted by leibniz at 12:51 PM on March 6, 2016 [21 favorites]


As pointed out up thread Nye is really an engineer - stereotypically more attached to concrete answers than a research scientist. In my experience a many scientists do have some sense of e.g. the epistemological limits of the scientific enterprise though they probably haven't read a lot of books about it - probably because no one ever makes you read any books about that - but don't consider it that relevant to what they actually do every day.
posted by atoxyl at 12:51 PM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


alasdair: “Wittgenstein a philosopher, right? A really good one?”

No. It's pretty cleary that Wittgenstein knew almost nothing about philosophy. Experts agree on this. He had some ideas that are interesting in the context of philosophy, but he knew very little himself about what philosophy is or what it's concerned with; he hadn't spent any time reading the works of philosophers of the past or working through the thoughts of current thinkers. He was utterly outside the tradition, and deigned it beneath him to spend any time interacting with the thoughts of others. So: it should be said plainly that Wittgenstein was not a philosopher, and not a really good one; he was a thinker, a self-contradictory, but interesting thinker, with some ideas that were of some use to philosophy, but he was absolutely not a philosopher.

“After all, we had philosophy for 2,500 years, and it wasn't much use. Lots of pontificating about ethics while your slaves and women do all the work. Then the Huns come over the horizon... So given we're the worst bunch of shits that ever tried to kill all the Jews/Communists/Priests/Arabs/Native North Americans in the world, I think that speaks against philosophy being any use for morality.”

That would work as a picture of philosophy if most of the influential philosophers were incredibly wealthy slave-owning Roman senators or something. I'm not entirely sure that's true.

Regardless of anything else, let go of the word "philosophy," I guess, since it's been sullied by modern academic philosophy (which has its problems, I grant.) The key is: you say philosophy might not be any use for morality. Okay, then. What is? An assumption that all morality is simple and obvious? Some people fall back on that – call it a "conscience," this belief that there's some innate morality and sense of justice, and all anybody has to do is follow that. But then the world gets complicated, and suddenly it's hard to sort out what justice really is, what the right thing to do in a given situation is. You have to decide whether you should kill people to stop them from killing other people. You have to decide whether you should eat meat. You have to decide whether it's all right to violate a law if the law is stupid.

For a millennium and a half – from Plato to ibn Rushd – philosophy was a positive tradition concerned centrally with political good. It discussed the nature of the world, the possible existence of god, the best organization of a political regime, the vicissitudes and qualities of love and friendship, and the way to lead a good and happy life. It was a tradition in a very real sense – a collection of works and thoughts passed down from teacher to teacher for fifteen centuries. And, as is obvious, it had a clear practical content and application; it confronted and wrestled with religious beliefs, it debated concerning the rights and duties of kings and of democratic populaces, it asked questions that human beings have to ask in order to survive and live worthwhile lives.

After that, philosophy sort of fell apart; it was transmitted to the west, but largely in a form more conducive to religion; even in its watered-down form, it provided enough content for the enlightenment to rebel against religious strictures and build a rising tide of egalitarian societies, the benefits of which we enjoy today. But philosophy, as it existed, is gone. So you shouldn't judge the early part of the tradition by looking to what we call philosophers today; the tradition, as it was, has altered fundamentally. It became a tool of the powerful and a mark of elite distinction; it because a badge of the monied classes, a pastime of the wealthy who didn't examine their lives.

Anyway: I'm not so interested in proving that Bill Nye is wrong about philosophy as I am in proving that he contradicts himself pretty badly. He says he wants people to trust their senses, to trust in the things they see and hear and feel; and yet he, more than any philosopher, asks them to do the opposite every single day of his professional life. We pick up that hammer he's talking about (perhaps after dropping it on our foot) and sense hard wood and forged metal, solid, flat surfaces that glisten in the light. But he would like us to understand that this object is not a solid thing with a flat surface, but is mostly composed of space – space interspersed with tiny particles which interact through charges. That's entirely counter to our physical experience of objects. He wants us to look around at this flat land in which we find ourselves and believe that it's actually round – also counter to our immediate senses. He wants us to believe the sun and stars are the same size – that some of the stars are bigger than the sun – and that all are absolutely massive balls of plasma and fire. That seems insane – utterly outside the frame of our physical experience. Science asks us to suspend our faith in our senses much more than philosophy ever did. It generally turns out to be right to do so, too.

It's curious and a bit humorous for a modern scientist – who must be aware of whole realms of science where the use of physical tools like microscopes and telescopes fell by the wayside decades ago, and all the work is done now by theoretical speculation – to insist that science is really purely about trusting your senses.
posted by koeselitz at 12:53 PM on March 6, 2016 [30 favorites]


I'm a scientist living with a philosopher. Although I try to read a little philosophy just to be neighborly, it has never been a great help in what I do, which, as uosong suggests above, is to design tests for small hypotheses. However, what impresses me about my SO is that he's the only person I know who can argue with someone and have that person change his or her mind. If you looked at my Facebook page, you would see that I have had precious little success changing anyone's mind about GMOs or climate change. The SO and I have had two big philosophical fights (on whether numbers were 'real" and about whether Free Will exists) and I caved on both of them. I don't consider Bill Nye a colleague or anything, but I think he'd be fine if he sat down with a philosopher and chatted a while.
posted by acrasis at 12:53 PM on March 6, 2016 [11 favorites]


"Apart from that, I kind of wish people would stop trying to defend philosophy by showing how it can be useful in practical terms"

If that's directed at me, I'm not trying to show how it can be useful; I'm trying to show 101 students who aren't philosophy students and are taking a distribution requirement how it matters. You gotta hook 'em any way you can, so they can appreciate the beauty of it for its own sake.

And I mean, I used to teach a mandatory philosophy requirement in a diesel engine repair certificate program. None of those guys (one girl in three years) wanted to be there, but we were spending a semester together regardless. I used every trick in the book to engage them so they came out of it going, "Wow, Plato is fucking awesome" rather than "OH GOD I JUST WASTED TWELVE WEEKS OF MY LIFE."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:55 PM on March 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


Oh! It wasn't directed at you at all, Eyebrows. Just something I've been thinking about lately as someone who used to study philosophy and now occasionally sees articles trying to defend the "utility" of philosophy or even the humanities in general.
posted by uosuaq at 12:58 PM on March 6, 2016


uosuaq: “I kind of wish people would stop trying to defend philosophy by showing how it can be useful in practical terms...nobody ever asks this question about, say, music.”

What are "practical terms"?
posted by koeselitz at 12:59 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


(Sorry, that was a bit abstruse. What I mean is: philosophy is absolutely, fundamentally different from music, and it must be understood as such. First of all, philosophy, unlike music, is a way of life. Second of all, philosophy, as a way of life, demands questions about what practical terms are, and what is useful – questions about what is actually beneficial, and why it's beneficial. People tend to assume they already know the answers to these questions; science, in general, is a proceeding from completely unquestioned first principles, so it never gets around to asking what the good is or what the nature of the world is, and can't say anything about these subjects.)
posted by koeselitz at 1:02 PM on March 6, 2016


Most of the best philosophers I know don't do work that is recognizably philosophy. They're all doing work at cool intersections of other disciplines, cross-pollinating and forcing scientists (or politicians!) to confront contradictions and justify unstated assumptions. Perhaps they're not philosophers at all, or perhaps that's just what philosophy should be.

The top book published in the discipline last year was Stanley's How Propaganda Works. How is that irrelevant?

Meanwhile, the folks who take themselves to be engaged in some fundamentally different enterprise than other scientific research, something they excel at that other parts of the university can't ever hope to understand, usually seem to me to do shallow work and often to be assholes to boot.

There's a third group, historians of philosophy, who seem relatively boring in comparison: working out what texts mean and keeping track of influences and first mentions of ideas, reminding us of forgotten figures, and tracing relationships between intellectual traditions. Which is groovy, but it does have an element of deliberate uselessness, kind of like being a rabbi, studying the Torah daily and gradually deepening your understanding through debate with others engaged in the same pursuit over a lifetime. That seems to me to be pretty close to a life well lived (so long as I can do it with other books than the Torah) but it's not exactly what I think the discipline should aspire to.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:03 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


In all honesty if you can't figure out how being as good as you can be at evaluating, critiquing, and defending claims is useful, I don't know what to tell you. There's a reason virtually every law school will recommend philosophy as a strong pre-law major.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:10 PM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


People interpret the world in different ways. They’re all wrong.

No, they're all only partly right. They can't see the entire picture clearly from their uniquely situated angle on the world, but they're all seeing one small, unique angle on an enormously complicated, multidimensional picture from a particular POV.

Philosophy is everybody's favorite whipping boy these days. I do think the academic culture around philosophy contributes. I almost went into grad work in philosophy of mind, but ultimately (apart from economic considerations), certain ugly aspects of the academic culture turned me off to the idea (like the fact a visiting prof from Oxford I visited after class couldn't stop himself from leering and drooling over me long enough to engage with the subject matter I wanted to discuss with him).
posted by saulgoodman at 1:12 PM on March 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


I strongly object to the implication that philosophy is the best (let alone only) place to become "as good as you can be at evaluating, critiquing, and defending claims." Any good liberal arts discipline should drum that into you. Philosophy has a particular mode of inquiry, and a claim on being fundamental in a way that history, sociology, anthropology, literature, etc don't, but those other disciplines have modes of inquiry all their own. And if you take that claim philosophy's claim to being fundamental at face value, without an eye to the history, sociology, and (perhaps even!) philosophy of philosophy--then I don't know what to tell you.
posted by col_pogo at 1:14 PM on March 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


That is, philosophy is all well and good. People should study it, departments should be funded, and philosophers should be treated with respect. But I don't think it's helpful to set them up as superior to the other humanities in terms of providing insight that the broader public in general or scientists in particular need to pay attention to.

In my opinion, there should be more mutual respect, and more traffic of ideas in both directions, between science, the public, and all the humanities.
posted by col_pogo at 1:17 PM on March 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


anotherpanacea: “Meanwhile, the folks who take themselves to be engaged in some fundamentally different enterprise than other scientific research, something they excel at that other parts of the university can't ever hope to understand, usually seem to me to do shallow work and often to be assholes to boot.”

This is in general unfortunately sadly true. I mention this because I want to be clear: many of the "flashiest" "professional philosophers" these days are really insufferable. It's very sad, because the majority of people in philosophy departments that I know are very nice people working hard to teach and to put their ideas out there. But it's a tough discipline largely because there are a number of celebrities and personalities there who make it hard for the rest of the people. And, yes, they are often the ones insisting loudly that they are better than scientists and better than everybody else.

“Most of the best philosophers I know don't do work that is recognizably philosophy. They're all doing work at cool intersections of other disciplines, cross-pollinating and forcing scientists (or politicians!) to confront contradictions and justify unstated assumptions. Perhaps they're not philosophers at all, or perhaps that's just what philosophy should be... There's a third group, historians of philosophy, who seem relatively boring in comparison: working out what texts mean and keeping track of influences and first mentions of ideas, reminding us of forgotten figures, and tracing relationships between intellectual traditions. Which is groovy, but it does have an element of deliberate uselessness, kind of like being a rabbi, studying the Torah daily and gradually deepening your understanding through debate with others engaged in the same pursuit over a lifetime. That seems to me to be pretty close to a life well lived (so long as I can do it with other books than the Torah) but it's not exactly what I think the discipline should aspire to.”

You might count me in the latter group, I guess – or not, I don't know, I only know that my principle interests are the period from Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle through al-Farabi and ibn Rushd – so I guess I'll say something here, not so much in defense of my approach but more as an observation:

This is a fundamental change that's happened in the history of philosophy, and one I don't think we can take lightly. You talk about philosophy as a "discipline" – as a place where people "do work," and as such parallel in some sense to mathematics, science, music, art, poetry, pottery, fashion design, etc. But this is a very new way of seeing philosophy. For fifteen hundred years, philosophy was firmly and distinctly known as a way of life. Catherine Zuckert says in her Plato's Philosophers (the best book on Plato in a generation, in my estimation) that Plato's Socrates discourses with two Pythagoreans on the last day of his life specifically because he wanted to underline and reassert the status of philosophy specifically as a way of life, with its own rituals and practices which must be followed (the Pythagoreans being very much enamored with rituals and practices staunchly followed.) Twelve hundred years later, the direct descendant of the tradition Plato founded, al-Farabi, wrote in his Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (the book that revived Greek thinking in the middle east and eventually the west and thus gave rise to the high medieval period and the renaissance) that the attainment of happiness requires a way of life, and that philosophy is that way of life without which happiness is not possible. These are strong statements, and they reflect a way of thinking about philosophy that was maintained for more than a thousand years.

So – I'm not sure what to do with this, except to say: I think there's a lot of neat inter-disciplinary stuff being done in "philosophy," as a discipline, nowadays; and I'm open-minded and rational enough to appreciate that for what it is. But maybe at least a little acquaintance with the tradition has something to offer, if only in order to point out where mistakes might have been made, or even to show where we took one path but could just have easily taken another. Otherwise we're blind to the possibilities, really. And philosophy as I understand it – philosophy, that is, as a way of life – requires as much willingness to "take up the book and read" and confront actively the notions of past thinkers as it does willingness to speak and interact with those around us today.
posted by koeselitz at 1:31 PM on March 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:34 PM on March 6, 2016 [14 favorites]


col_pogo: “That is, philosophy is all well and good. People should study it, departments should be funded, and philosophers should be treated with respect. But I don't think it's helpful to set them up as superior to the other humanities in terms of providing insight that the broader public in general or scientists in particular need to pay attention to. In my opinion, there should be more mutual respect, and more traffic of ideas in both directions, between science, the public, and all the humanities.”

This is, at least, an attitude attested from the early days of philosophy. This was a common Socratic utterance in the dialogues of Plato, actually. Socrates said many times that, while there are many studies, there must be one study that decides among them – one study that chooses which is most worthwhile in which situation, one study that helps us decide the best way to live – and he called that study "philosophy," the love and pursuit of wisdom. Philosophy was supposed to be the glue that held all these things together, the way of life standing over science and medicine and art and architecture and music and everything else, helping us determine the good and helping us aim toward the just.

So: it might be that you feel that there needs to be an egalitarianism, and an assimilation of philosophy as just one of the many disciplines at the university. But it's hard not to sense that Socrates might then ask: how do you decide? What discipline, what study, exists to distinguish between the disciplines, to judge the right way of life and the best way to be happy?

If you really don't think that's necessary, I can understand rejecting the inquiry as an unnecessary inquiry. But even so, it might be worthwhile to point out that all of the disciplines we're talking about here – science, sociology, literature, music, medicine, etc – would not exist as they are without philosophy, which way of life birthed the university. It makes sense for philosophy to stand over all these things, if not just because something must if we are to find happiness in life.
posted by koeselitz at 1:39 PM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


I don't see what they mean about smart people being stupid about philosophy. Logic is a branch of philosophy, and Vulcans are into logic, and they're the smartest guys around.

Also, philosophy is vitally important in case I ever get put in prison with a partner, if I have to save an out-of control trolley, or, if I ever have to talk a bomb out of exploding by convincing it the universe doesn't exist. So how can people denigrate it?
posted by happyroach at 1:46 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Koeslitz, in some ways this is of course reasonable. But I don't see why universities should pay us to study philosophy as a way of life, nor I think is there much evidence that a few courses with faculty teaching philosophy as a way of life are likely to be beneficial to the students: that way lies Straussianism. At its best--and in historical context--that older sense of philosophy was caught up with claims about privileged access to the nature of reality that might have justified daily study of Aristotle or Hegel, but no longer can, and especially can't justify daily study of Heidegger or Deleuze.

Today, I think that is untenable, even if I think a 2/2 teaching Plato sounds something close to heavenly: the teacher gets too much of the value out of that experience, the students too little.

Of course, if we can eke out happiness teaching a 4/4 of intros that feature large doses of Plato, Augustine, and Maimonides I think we should do it. But that suggests our role is not primarily as researchers (does every generation need a best Plato book?) but as scholar-teachers.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:47 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


advil: the point I was trying to make was simply that this piece was written for a general audience but seemed to assume that you share a great deal of belief and background information with the author. Bill Nye is a public science educator, not an academic, and I find it somewhat unlikely that anyone who listened to his piece would learn much from this article or be convinced that his statement was in anyway disproven.

Since we were just talking about it:
So, for example, in the video Nye mockingly expresses his confidence that the sun will come up tomorrow. Philosophers are confident of this too, but few feel certain that they can explain exactly what causes this daily phenomenon—or any event. The 18th century philosopher David Hume’s argument that we don’t have a reasonable understanding of causation at all, but only presume cause and effect when two things have been observed as conjoined in the past, is notoriously difficult to refute.
If you're not already so familiar with the discussion that you find this article unnecessary, how likely is it that you're going to read that and be convinced that there's still a useful question to be asked over two centuries later? It seems to me like the average Quartz reader is most likely to read this, maybe even follow the link to a rather dense block of text, and then say “FFS, I just watched HD movies from Pluto, I think we have a reasonable understanding of cause and effect” and close the tab.

(To be clear: I'm not saying that's a fair treatment for the field, only that it seems like a missed opportunity to really pitch why it's still relevant to a general audience. I think a reader with limited time would do better to skip the article and read the comments here.)
posted by adamsc at 1:47 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


[Wittgenstein] was absolutely not a philosopher.

But...but...he's in the song!
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:54 PM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Becoming a tenured philosopher is the ultimate acknowledgement of smartness for a person whose main reward and interest in their own smartness has always been the satisfaction of being smart and being seen as being smart. Those guys are always going to have time promoting themselves because from their own perspective they're being asked to sell something the world has already bought from them at a very nice price.
posted by MattD at 1:59 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


My radical take, and why I never justified my choice (now abandoned to the reality of capitalism) to study or teach philosophy is that philosophy is the highest exercise of the human mind, and the culmination of the human function. We are beings of thought and philosophy is the most advanced form of thinking. It is the good life and requires no justification for itself, and hence I don't argue about its value, which is intrinsic. The Greeks thought this, but my former colleagues in academic philosophy thought I was kind of nutty when I started talking like this.
posted by dis_integration at 2:00 PM on March 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


There's a third group, historians of philosophy, who seem relatively boring in comparison: working out what texts mean and keeping track of influences and first mentions of ideas, reminding us of forgotten figures, and tracing relationships between intellectual traditions. Which is groovy, but it does have an element of deliberate uselessness, kind of like being a rabbi, studying the Torah daily and gradually deepening your understanding through debate with others engaged in the same pursuit over a lifetime. That seems to me to be pretty close to a life well lived (so long as I can do it with other books than the Torah) but it's not exactly what I think the discipline should aspire to.

You realize you've just written off the entire concept of law, yeah?
posted by Sys Rq at 2:01 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I don't think I follow, Sys Rq. First, I don't think I write off history of philosophy: my training was in the history of philosophy and I honestly did think it was pretty great. Second, this doesn't sound at all like what my wife, a lawyer, does every day.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:17 PM on March 6, 2016


(And a lot of philosophers -- mostly men, and mostly in relation to female subordinates and students -- seem bent on using their lives to disprove the ancient Greek idea that studying philosophy can make you a virtuous or good person. Which also really doesn't help.)

I would argue that we see this supercilious and often sexually predatory elitism on the part of some contemporary philosophers not in spite of the examples set by the virtuous Greeks, but at least in part because the most revered Greeks, Plato and Socrates, were, in fact, authoritarian elitists of the most pernicious sort and sexual predators to boot.

Take a few steps back from the Dialogues, and they develop an unmistakable overtone of a gnarled and physically repulsive old guru or cult leader beguiling -- that is to say grooming -- the much younger objects of his sexual interest.

At least two of his most prominent students, Critias and Alcibiades (of whose sexual attractiveness much is made in the Dialogues, as I recall) did go on to key leadership roles in the rather Stalin-like and utterly anti-democratic reign of the Thirty Tyrants, during which more than 1000 Athenians were executed for their political beliefs and 10% of the entire population of Athens was forced out or fled.

Which doesn't make a particularly good case for the benefits of a philosophical education, I would say.
posted by jamjam at 2:17 PM on March 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


working out what texts mean and keeping track of influences and first mentions of ideas

gradually deepening your understanding through debate with others engaged in the same pursuit over a lifetime

this doesn't sound at all like what my wife, a lawyer, does every day


I've never met your wife, but I have a feeling she might disagree with you about that.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:29 PM on March 6, 2016


Something that totally baffles me is how many lovers of science also love science fiction, but then turn around and shit on fields like philosophy, the social sciences, or whatever falls under the institutionalized 'arts' umbrella. Like, so many of the most respected, loved, valued science fiction novels and films are not just "science and technology are the coolest, check it out", but serious ruminations on the nature of humanity, on the dangers of science and technology going unchecked, on issues of race and gender, and so on. What are they actually getting from these stories??
posted by thebots at 2:29 PM on March 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


Wittgenstein a philosopher, right? A really good one? And he says philosophy is all bunk, doesn't he?

iirc, he told his students to get jobs working in the dockyard instead of becoming professors
posted by thelonius at 2:32 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sys Rq, the way in which you are being rude right now is kind of the problem I think a lot of folks have with philosophy. My wife is not a historian of philosophy. The fact that she reads texts and discusses them with other professionals is not at all dispositive of whether she is in fact a historian of philosophy. Yes, reading Kant and Liebniz is a bit like reading statutes and legal briefs, insofar as they are both acts of close reading.

But why would anyone think they are the same? You're pretending they're the same in order to be insulting. You're not offering even a modicum of interpretive charity. That may win arguments someplace, but why would you, yourself, think that it is persuasive?
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:57 PM on March 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


[...] that way lies Straussianism. At its best--and in historical context--that older sense of philosophy was caught up with claims about privileged access to the nature of reality that might have justified daily study of Aristotle or Hegel, but no longer can, and especially can't justify daily study of Heidegger or Deleuze.

Today, I think that is untenable, even if I think a 2/2 teaching Plato sounds something close to heavenly [...]


Nothing personal, but the above is illustrative of the sort of thing that has pushed me away from philosophy whenever I've attempted to dip a toe in. Writers of philosophy all too often don't traffic in ideas, but rather in surnames and in shibboleth jargon invented by the people bearing those surnames. I'm sure it's a useful shorthand for people in the know, but it's infuriatingly impenetrable to a layman.

Philosophy would be a lot more worthwhile to humanity, and far less misunderstood, if its practitioners were capable of articulating any of the secret knowledge contained therein without constantly resorting to insider shorthand. To talk up how vitally important all these ideas are, only to reduce each to a single word, is just... What's the deal with that? If it's important that we understand it, it's important that they explain it.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:13 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sys Rq, the way in which you are being rude right now is kind of the problem I think a lot of folks have with philosophy.

Okie-dokie. *shrug*
posted by Sys Rq at 3:17 PM on March 6, 2016


Having read the piece and the comments in this thread, I've been sitting here for the last two hours thinking about what I could usefully say in defense of my life's work. Thinking about which (if any) of the comments here I should engage directly, since I so strongly disagree with so many. I feel like I should say something. But what?

I am a philosopher of science by training and a professor of philosophy at a research university. It's fair to say that I love philosophy. So I find it hurtful when people say ignorant, dismissive things about philosophy. I find it hurtful in the way that you might find it hurtful for someone to insult your best friend without reason or basis. Have you actually met my friend? Perhaps you have only seen her at a distance or heard about her on the radio. She's not really like that when you get to know her.

[Sigh.]

I wonder, sometimes, if it's a case of mistaken identity.

I had a conversation recently with a professor in comparative literature. We were standing around at a "majors and minors fair," waiting for students to come and talk with us about our fields (which was itself horribly depressing, let me tell you). When she found out I was a philosopher, she said that philosophy was so abstract that she didn't really get it. She laughed about how they had talked about the tableness of tables in an introductory philosophy course she had taken. Classical metaphysics. But as our conversation went on, I found that she did, in fact, care about exactly that sort of philosophical question! She regularly teaches a course on comics, and she asks her students what it is that makes a comic a comic. Is it just pictures together with words? It seems not, since there are flyers with pictures and words that are clearly not comics. Perhaps the pictures need to be indispensable to understanding the story. And on it goes. Fascinating! She spends an entire semester illustrating for her students how many different things fall under the heading "comics." I wonder if there is anything that unified them. Perhaps, as Wittgenstein would probably say, they have only a family resemblance. Of course there was much more to her course than that one philosophical question. But the question was clearly there. And she was clearly engaging it.

I have many interactions like this. A couple years ago, I was invited to give a talk to the animal sciences department here. I think they expected me to talk about bioethics, but I gave a talk on the metaphysics and epistemology of causation. At the end, a professor sitting in the back said (roughly), "I thought philosophy was bullshit, but this is really interesting; I'll have to rethink." I'm fairly confident that he wouldn't have recognized my talk as philosophy if I hadn't introduced it that way.

So these kinds of things make me sad. I quite like Bill Nye. I wish he knew more about philosophy. I wish he wanted to know more. And in the absence of that, I wish he had the courage to simply say that he didn't know much about it. But I also think that the couple of articles I've seen replying to his remarks (including the one linked here) have been pretty unhelpful. I wish we could all do better than this.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:29 PM on March 6, 2016 [49 favorites]


The "arts" are typically not what people shit on, its the "institutions". This happens even within the "non-arts" fields.

There is a lot of gate-keeping in academia revolving around disciplines that are just names on a piece of paper. Saying one studies "philosophy" is about as useful as saying one studies "engineering" -- it is credentialism, not truth.

Contrary to popular belief here, I've not found those with a philosophy background, in general, to have jedi reasoning skills, because honestly, a lot of the history of philosophy is just filled to the brim with papered over nonsense where reasoning ran its course. And, of course, one has to publish that book, by hook or crook. I will concede, however, that philosophy training does make you an excellent debater/convincer, because you get practice in debating concepts which turn out to be null in the end.

Same with engineering -- just because you solved tensor equations in class, doesn't really tell me anything about how you incorporated the gestalt of engineering practice into your own professional practice when a real bridge is involved.

And, yes, Wittgenstein certainly is a philosopher, it's just that the academic community is somewhat allergic to those to who don't pretend to need it.
posted by smidgen at 3:33 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, there's this tendency to hold public figures to ridiculous standards and I don't think we should expect Bill Nye the Science Guy to be the perfect, enlightened polymath.

Sure, but it's not unreasonable to expect public figures to simply not speak on topics of which they have a poor grasp.

Example:

Q: Mr. Nye, what you think is the [insert philosophy question here]?

A: Well, as a science expert I don't really know too much about philosophy, so can't adequately answer your question.

(Bonus possible addition: I do know several excellent philosophy experts, however, and I'll pass your question along to them and share what I learn with you.)
posted by LooseFilter at 3:46 PM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


And, yes, Wittgenstein certainly is a philosopher, it's just that the academic community is somewhat allergic to those to who don't pretend to need it.

Wittgenstein is one in a long line of philosophers (beginning at least with Descartes) who thought they had somehow come to the end of it (as Wittgenstein would say, his spade hit hard rock), completed philosophy, and rendered it unnecessary. Philosophy goes on however, despite how many times it has been put to rest.
posted by dis_integration at 3:49 PM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


So I find it hurtful when people say ignorant, dismissive things about philosophy.

Once I accused a roommate of being paranoid. Me not being in that 'field' he got awfully defensive. It was hard, yea impossible, to explain that I was not making a clinical diagnosis.

Experts in any "hyper" technical field that has a popular element do need some patience with "cocktail party" level discussion, it's actually a good thing culturally that folks have an actual interest, even if not accurate in technical detail.

(and the roommate was worried about aliens so there was a kernel of accuracy to my accusation :-)

I found that she did, in fact, care about exactly that sort of philosophical question!

We care and are fascinated with ideas. Deeply, madly in love with what the meaning of the world. So many of the ideas of philosophy have seeped into the culture that they are very familiar, whether accurately or with misunderstandings. And so many of us would totally lurv to hear more of contemporaneous ideas, ideally with as little jargon obfuscating what is essential. We get that new ideas can be really hard, but I have found that where there is something real and essential the folks that really know it, whether it's rocket science or genetics or yep even math can get the essences of what it's about across.

Please please please, make serious posts on hard topics.
posted by sammyo at 4:02 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Philosophy definitely struggles with severe jargon-creep. I'm not a classically trained philosopher, but sometimes I like reading bits of it, and I've had serious difficulty discussing philosophy with people who will essentially make sentences of jargon, and who seem unwilling (incapable?) of connecting them up to lived, shared reality. I think this exacerbates the perception that philosophy is less about the shared world be live in and how we view it and more about building up walls against that world breaking through.

This is an extension of what Eyebrows McGee said about not connecting philosophy up with actual ethical issues (and not addressing actual ethical issues within philosophy - it matters that Nietzsche explicitly excludes women from being people in his writing). I wonder how much of it is a result of powerful philosophers being relatively wealthy, white men and power begating power upon the similar over generations and begrudging anyone who might challenge their appeals to authority. I'll read Socrates and Nietzsche and Aristotle and Machiavelli but I won't do so blindly accepting them as an authority I have to respect.

One of my biggest insights into Socrates was after an extended rant about the crap logic in his treatise on friendship, and how after an extended period of time where Socrates said stupid things and his audience said he was brilliant, he ended by saying we can't actually understand friendship. I had the great luck of ranting about how stupid he was and sycophantic his audience were to someone with a philosophy degree, and he pointed out the meta-narrative of these people claiming to be friends of Socrates and Socrates essentially taking the piss at their expense. No one presents Socrates as "fundamentally wrong, occasionally brilliant, and a total troll," though, which is what I now view him as, and I think that's a flaw in the valourization of authorities.


Apart from that, I kind of wish people would stop trying to defend philosophy by showing how it can be useful in practical terms...nobody ever asks this question ("what's the point/what's it good for/why study it") about, say, music.

Personally, I'd argue that's because music is very relative to most peoples lives and those who don't care are usually aware of this, so people can easily understand why one would want to spend more time in the contexts of music. I don't think most people feel philosophy is personal, indeed the approach of a lot of people called philosophers is deliberately alienating to the layperson as well as the practice of philosophy being one of slowing down while the aesthetic of the US is hurry hurry hurry.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:15 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Nothing personal, but the above is illustrative of the sort of thing that has pushed me away from philosophy whenever I've attempted to dip a toe in. Writers of philosophy all too often don't traffic in ideas, but rather in surnames and in shibboleth jargon invented by the people bearing those surnames. I'm sure it's a useful shorthand for people in the know, but it's infuriatingly impenetrable to a layman.

Philosophology.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:26 PM on March 6, 2016


No one presents Socrates as "fundamentally wrong, occasionally brilliant, and a total troll," though, which is what I now view him as, and I think that's a flaw in the valourization of authorities.

Socrates was the original sealion.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:27 PM on March 6, 2016


And... just to inject a bit of snark: Why are we getting Trump and not a Philosopher King?
posted by sammyo at 4:31 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Another thought - I wonder how much of this has to do with the human tendency to admire without understanding. I've been thinking this more in relation to why one unique movie triggers a thousand knockoffs that duplicate only it's shallowest conventions, but I think it applies in philosophy and other fields as well.

I've also been thinking about it in relation to what I call secondary and tertiary fandoms - secondary is where one creates reactions to a source, and tertiary is when people become fans of the creations without necessarily being a fan of the source. Of course, this would make any fan of Socrates have to be tertiary, since we tend to be fans of Plato's version of Socrates... does this undermine my point or reinforce it?
posted by Deoridhe at 4:39 PM on March 6, 2016


I adore science, engineering, design, mechanics, and an empircal understanding of the world around me, but when it comes to a personal philosophical framework, I landed, mostly by happenstance, in a school of philosophy authored by a man who may or may not of existed (even adherents seem uncommitted to the answer), written in a language that I don't speak, and translated into one I do speak by dozens of translators of varying degrees of skill and artifice, who all inspire raging arguments in any discussion of such things.

Philosophy teaches me the skill of patience, which is a primary tool I can use to help me answer questions that require precision and scientific observation. Quiet, and stillness, and open awareness, too, aid this pursuit, and make purely mechanical projects like replacing the cruciform selector in the gear stack of a Vespa into a meditative, exploratory state of being present. When not just following rules and instructions, I can lay open an engine's case and think in a state of flow, furthering my understanding of how all the parts work together, and sharpen my vision for little marks and patterns that indicate where other things may be wearing, or in need of adjustment.

If anything, philosophy should engage one's humility, and encourage our learning to occasionally see the world in a soft enough focus as to let us stop obsessing about nuts and bolts and dollars and doughnuts long enough to be able to toy with ideas and concepts.

When it comes to philosophy, alas, scientists seem to invert the thing they hate when it's practiced by lay people—when people outside science pick up on vague and juicy ideas like quantum entanglement and the uncertainty principle and use these things to invent all sorts of dreamy nonsense magick as a validation of their need to reconcile the unprovable instead of just letting some details remain an act of faith. People in the sciences seem as willing to latch onto philosophy, too, by way of either reinforcement, when there's some irresistable Einstein quote available, or as an opportunity for mockery of all but the current thinking on the state of acceptable truth.

We love our ardent dichotomies, though, like science vs philosophy, economics vs art, truth vs falsehoods, hard reality vs perception, almost as much as we love people who so fully meet our criteria for being able to speak to any subject with style and aplomb that we think that merely being smart is enough to make one a genuine polymath, so we're destined to be forever suprised when it turns out that someone who can speak with genuine eloquence about atmospheric carbon can do little but flail when trying to sum up a whole unfamiliar universe of thought in a single disjointed pitch about something sort of like phenomenology with an unhelpful dash of well-bless-your-heart.

Any pursuit that rejects the value of all other pursuits seems troublesome, at least.
posted by sonascope at 4:42 PM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Philosophy is hard. I've been doing it daily for 25 years. And it's still hard. And lots of people are very smart, even in abstract sorts of areas (like math), and still can't do philosophy well.

I agree with the post though: it's one thing to not be good at it. It's another to dismiss it when you haven't taken the time to learn it. Lots of scientistic types do that.

Eyebrows: can you say more about how you think Cartesian dualism has policy implications? I'm having trouble seeing it.
posted by persona au gratin at 5:09 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Jonathan Livengood: I've not seen any science types who have seen M&E/core done well who think it's bullshit. Usually they've seen obscurantism (e.g. Feynman saw process stuff) or intuition mongering with no arguments (as often happens with much very applied stuff). Your results are consistent with my own experiences.
posted by persona au gratin at 5:31 PM on March 6, 2016


If you like to read about people on the internet talking about the nature of philosophy (if you've scrolled this far down maybe you do?), then there's a relatively interesting discussion thread about this article on reddit /r/philosophy. The prevailing theme is that the original article doesn't make a very elegant argument, while agreeing with the basic premise that Bill Nye is lacking in insight here.

For me philosophy is loosely defined as the interpretation of ideas, and is woven into many things and often taken for granted. Many of the current hard-headed popular science writers merely spout their personal opinions re-framed as concrete facts from their point of view. But it's also a recurring theme in the history of thought that a purely reductive materialist view of the universe is blind to many important things in life.
posted by ovvl at 5:32 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Apart from that, I kind of wish people would stop trying to defend philosophy by showing how it can be useful in practical terms...nobody ever asks this question ("what's the point/what's it good for/why study it") about, say, music.

People do that all the time with music, especially classical music. That's why you have all those stupid Baby Mozart CDs, and studies about the "Mozart effect" (citing studies that showed how listening to Mozart can help improve certain mental abilities for a short time). There's a lot of reasons for this, and at least part of it is a kind of elitism; I know a lot of professional and university-level classical musicians, and there certainly can be snobbery. But there's also a sense of classical music being under attack: people defend the usefulness of music because other people explicitly call it out for being useless.

How many times have you heard that for the arts? How many times have we heard about why everyone should study STEM, or that the only reasonable degree to get is [non-arts field] if you want to do good in the world? I can say that I've come across it a lot as a musician. It's infecting everything that isn't science: we now have people working on their PhDs in English studying the cognitive effects of certain prose styles, and so on. Non-sciences feel very much under attack at the academic level, and outside of that as well, I'm sure.

I'm sure there are other reasons philosophers might feel there's utility, so I don't want to chalk it all up to defensiveness. But I can say that we seem to have a very STEM-obsessed world right now, and I've come across a lot of hostility towards philosophy (to say nothing of hostility towards religion) from hard-science types at my research university. Sometimes you find yourself in the position of justifying the basic existence of the field, to say nothing of its usefulness. I mean, the whole context of this thread is a very prominent advocate for science saying that philosophy is useless.
posted by teponaztli at 5:38 PM on March 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


teponaztli: yep. I argue for philosophy with our Dean not because it is the oldest intellectual discipline that allows one to think clearly about fundamental questions in life, but because it leads to good test scores on the LSAT and GMAT.

If "stem" weren't a word in English, we'd have much less of the STEM obsession bullshit we have now. (Then again, if we didn't have all the people with advanced degrees in education and MBAs running universities, we'd also have less of it. Nothing against either degree! They have their places. But it's not good when those degrees saturate academic administration.)
posted by persona au gratin at 6:28 PM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


Imagine my internal reaction when during therapy, my therapist--a white-collar, presumably highly educated, doctorate-holding professional-- construed my expressions and questions as outside the scope of therapeutic discussion and exasperatingly or frustratedly claimed because "I am not a philosopher!" [The therapist said this to me.]

I cringed on the inside (What have I done or said to cause that?!), and replied sheepishly, "Haha, yea I'm not a philosopher either!"

Shouldn't this interaction suggest something about how and why society needs philosophy more than ever?

My upbringing groomed me to perform well in the scientific and applied scientific fields. But that sort of analytic training has only served to encourage my interest in understanding philosophy better.

But I am not a philosopher, whereas various people have often accused me of being one, or trying pretentiously to be one. No; I am simply asking the same questions as I did about my scientific research, just in a different context. If you find that threatening, it's maybe on you. That's the idea I'd like to convey, in this space.

Example. Albert Einstein was foremost a philosopher--just look up the essay he wrote where he basically comes out as one. Being a gay person, this narrative is doubly resonant for me. Validating.

I don't yet have a satisfactory answer to philosophers and thinkers/intellectuals being self-selected and/or privileged to occupy their roles, statuses, and identities. How can philosophy claim to be about life, if its stewards are so specialised?

But I do gave an answer to the culture war which is the elephant in the room for articles like these. If either side wins, everyone loses.

Jonathan Livengood, unlike you I am not invested in philosophy-the-discipline that you are as professor. My first exposure to academic philosophy was rhetoric department class where my instructor said, rhetoric and philosophy exist in a tension to each other. What I'm really saying here is, when I pretend to be antiphilosophical, when I take a public or interpersonal stance that I am not a philosopher nor interested in it per se, it allows me to sidestep accusations and dismissiveness. For me, the harm is still there--harm is transmitted by antiintellectual attitudes (or, is manifest by it)--but for me it seems to feel less hurtful. After all, the politics of it is that lack of respect for philosophy, or the continued marginalization
of it, the prejudices really, is one of the societal constants for the foreseeable future. And I can say all this, again, because I am not socially required to be a good, capital-P philosopher.
posted by polymodus at 6:31 PM on March 6, 2016


Deoridhe: “One of my biggest insights into Socrates was after an extended rant about the crap logic in his treatise on friendship, and how after an extended period of time where Socrates said stupid things and his audience said he was brilliant, he ended by saying we can't actually understand friendship. I had the great luck of ranting about how stupid he was and sycophantic his audience were to someone with a philosophy degree, and he pointed out the meta-narrative of these people claiming to be friends of Socrates and Socrates essentially taking the piss at their expense. No one presents Socrates as 'fundamentally wrong, occasionally brilliant, and a total troll,' though, which is what I now view him as, and I think that's a flaw in the valourization of authorities.”

Look, I really don't want to turn this into something weird, and it would be really off of me to ask how exactly Plato's Socrates is "fundamentally wrong," but I will say this:

Socrates never wrote anything, much less a treatise; you're probably speaking of a dialogue written by Plato, in which Socrates was a character, but even that wasn't a treatise at all. The Lysis is Plato's dialogue on friendship, so I'm guessing that's what you meant. Plato's dialogues are conversations, not treatises, so they're not logical at all; the whole point, the interesting thing, is the way they're not logical. Socrates was never an authority at all during his lifetime, and he certainly isn't one now. Most people who read Plato nowadays seem to hate Socrates. I count that as a tragedy of our time, but I guess there's not a lot I can do about that. In any case, you might call it "sycophancy" or "the valorization of authorities" when characters in Plato's dialogues love Socrates, but it's really just love and affection. Love and affection can seem terrible, I know; still, they can be useful for some things.
posted by koeselitz at 6:38 PM on March 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


I love Nye. He's obviously completely off-the-rails wrong here, but as selfnoise noted above, we can't expect the guy to be perfect at everything.

The bit here that drives me crazy though is Nye's description of the consciousness question, as if all of Philosophy, or even just Philosophy of Mind, were about defining what consciousness is, when that's basically saying that Biology is chiefly concerned with finding a clean definition for what "life" is. Like, yes, in both cases there's that sort of big, central, possibly unknowable hole in the center of all of the actual work being done, but that's not, at all, really, what it's about in practice.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:55 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, philosophy is vitally important in case I ever get put in prison with a partner, if I have to save an out-of control trolley [...]

Dismissing the relevance of philosophy to everyday life would be like dismissing the relevance of economics – economics can't tell you which chemical processes occur, but it can certainly tell you which ones are useful on an industrial scale. You don't avoid economics by ignoring it; similarly, philosophical questions aren't avoided just by ignoring them. The trolley problem is a good example. It's often treated as a cliché, but in the past few years it has turned out to be very relevant – or rather, we can now see that it was always very relevant, and we were just ignoring it.

Google and other people are making self-driving cars. As the number of these cars increases, the trolley problem will be played out on a a daily (hourly?) basis. For instance, suppose a child runs into the street and the car can only stop by braking suddenly. The occupants will arguably be injured by this, so should the car brake? We'd almost certainly expect a human to do so, so let's say "yes". What if the car can only stop by steering into a brick wall? The occupants have airbags, they'll probably live ... What if there are six people in the car versus one person in the street, and the expected mortality from a hard impact is more than one? Or suppose that we're talking about damage to the car. Is it OK for a car to injure a pedestrian in order to avoid minor damage to the bodywork (which can still be thousands of dollars' worth)? How about if the pedestrian is a demonstrator who's blocking the car? What if the pedestrian is the one causing the damage, should the car accelerate away while driving over the pedestrian's foot?

I don't think any of these questions can be easily dismissed, but more importantly: engineers need to realise that they are answering those questions; their answers are implicit in the software they produce. If they decide to make a car that will never harm the driver, they create a monster that runs people down rather than give the driver a nosebleed. If they decide to make a car that will never choose to harm a pedestrian, they make a car that can be hijacked by anyone who stands in front of it. I won't speculate about the possibility of designing a car that can assign moral blame - would even strong AI proponents believe this is possible in the short term, or even desirable?

So I'm going to turn the stereotype around: anyone who dismisses philosophy in favor of science and engineering is living in an abstruse ivory tower, separate from the real world. Their philosophical positions are locked into the devices and processes they create, but because they haven't considered them it's hard to tell what they are and what implications they have. It's the equivalent of creating uncommented software with hard-coded pseudo-variables: the only way to tell what the failure modes are is to do the very same analysis that should have been done in the first place.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:57 PM on March 6, 2016 [20 favorites]


jamjam: “I would argue that we see this supercilious and often sexually predatory elitism on the part of some contemporary philosophers not in spite of the examples set by the virtuous Greeks, but at least in part because the most revered Greeks, Plato and Socrates, were, in fact, authoritarian elitists of the most pernicious sort and sexual predators to boot. Take a few steps back from the Dialogues, and they develop an unmistakable overtone of a gnarled and physically repulsive old guru or cult leader beguiling -- that is to say grooming -- the much younger objects of his sexual interest. At least two of his most prominent students, Critias and Alcibiades (of whose sexual attractiveness much is made in the Dialogues, as I recall) did go on to key leadership roles in the rather Stalin-like and utterly anti-democratic reign of the Thirty Tyrants, during which more than 1000 Athenians were executed for their political beliefs and 10% of the entire population of Athens was forced out or fled. Which doesn't make a particularly good case for the benefits of a philosophical education, I would say.”

The trouble with this reading of the dialogues is that it requires us to assume they mean the opposite of what they say. Socrates literally says that teachers shouldn't take sexual advantage of their students, and that it's not only wrong but terribly wrong to do so; you could assume that he means the exact opposite of what he says, but that would seem like a bit of a stretch. In Plato's Laws, the closest he ever came to offering actual suggestions for laws of real nations, he went against the whims of the elites of most cities in Greece at the time and outright banned paedophilia, saying it was destructive to the souls of the young, and demanding that sex must be between consenting adults.

Alcibiades had nothing to do with the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, but he was not a great person in life; Plato's theme in the Socratic dialogues featuring him is the tragic fact that, while Socrates tried his hardest to prevent this from happening, he failed. I'm working my way through the first Alcibiades dialogue right now with some friends. It's a conversation where an uncharacteristically aggressive Socrates insists that Alcibiades, a young man who is very ambitious, doesn't know anything about what justice is, and has no right to try to impose his will on the Athenian people. Critias, on the other hand, can hardly be called a student of Socrates, I think, and was more of a general associate, Xenophon's accusers' claims to the contrary. But the whole point is that a teacher who wants to do good spends time with the powerful. This fact carries with it danger. Socrates himself very decisively stood against the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, disobeying its commands at great personal risk to himself. So it can't really be said that Socrates was the voice of elitism or sexual predation, when he stood against the injustices of the elite and against the rot of sexual predators.
posted by koeselitz at 7:03 PM on March 6, 2016 [11 favorites]


Wittengenstein bears a family resemblance to philosophers.
posted by srboisvert at 7:09 PM on March 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


anotherpanacea: “... that way lies Straussianism...”

Heh. I guess I should cop to Straussianism, if you're going to mention it. Strauss was a great thinker – one of the greatest – and while I don't agree with him on everything, his quiet style of teaching as much as possible and fighting to cultivate the spiritual and intellectual growth of students is something I would aspire to.

“Of course, if we can eke out happiness teaching a 4/4 of intros that feature large doses of Plato, Augustine, and Maimonides I think we should do it. But that suggests our role is not primarily as researchers (does every generation need a best Plato book?) but as scholar-teachers.”

If it hasn't become clear yet, in my world, that's absolutely the only role for philosophy, yes. "Research" might be a thing that makes sense in the context of science, but it barely makes sense in the context of the humanities, as much as the modern university may be bent toward it. Teaching is the soul of the life of philosophy, not writing. Not to be annoyingly repetitive, but that is rather a Socratic lesson, too. I'm still in daily contact with people in academia, and the best and most fruitful are teachers first and writers last.

And it's worth mentioning, though it's not strictly a propos, that teaching makes the most money for the university – more money by far than (for example) university-driven scientific research, which actually costs much more than people seem to want to admit, and the benefits of which the university sees not a penny.
posted by koeselitz at 7:11 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I find Kristie Dotson captures my anxiety on this score quite well in her paper, "How is this paper philosophy?" There she worries that the lack of standards for philosophical quality leads to a kind of cool kids club where (mostly) white men make arbitrary decisions to preserve the amorphous boundaries of the discipline.

Dotson's view was popularized by Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel recently in the LA Times:
It's almost aesthetic, the assessment of philosophical quality.And like aesthetic judgments, it's shaped by a huge range of factors — how well the view fits with your hopes and preconceptions, whether it's argued with confidence and flair, how clever or wise the author seems, how much other people admire the author.[...]

To a substantial extent, what we assess is whether the person who is expressing the ideas in question sounds smart. If you're going to convince someone to take your perplexing, paradoxical ideas seriously, or if you're going to convince them that your impenetrable prose is worth the struggle, you had better first convince them that you're wicked smart. Being good at seeming smart is perhaps the central disciplinary skill for philosophers.
That sounds smart to me, but more to the point there's substantial evidence from social psychology that this effect has a hold on our discipline in uncomfortably racist and sexist ways. Which makes me want to participate in disciplines where there ARE standards of quality other than "sounding smart." Even the history of philosophy at least sets textual accuracy as a kind of barometer: inaccuracies are detectable even though there's a whole lot of "brilliant and productive misreading" going on sometimes.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:28 PM on March 6, 2016 [4 favorites]



So I'm going to turn the stereotype around: anyone who dismisses philosophy in favor of science and engineering is living in an abstruse ivory tower, separate from the real world. Their philosophical positions are locked into the devices and processes they create, but because they haven't considered them it's hard to tell what they are and what implications they have. It's the equivalent of creating uncommented software with hard-coded pseudo-variables: the only way to tell what the failure modes are is to do the very same analysis that should have been done in the first place.
What do you think the practice of engineering is? The reason society allows engineers to function as a protected self-regulating guild in most jurisdictions is that they're legally required to behave ethically. Nobody is going to take personal legal responsibility for a self driving car or a bridge or an electrical system without having considered the risk to the public in depth.

I think the fact that philosophers haven't managed to insert themselves in the process the way they have in the medical field is a function of how jealously engineers guard this prerogative.
posted by zymil at 8:31 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


There's basically two answers:

1. Even philosophers are idiots about philosophy. If you put together a survey asking for the answers to 30 fundamental questions in philosophy, and you ask a bunch of philosophy faculty and PhDs, you'll get 75% agreement for only one question, and for more than half the questions you won't even get a solid majority. It's hard to get a good solid holier-than-thou going against the engineers across the street when you haven't yet managed solidarity with your colleagues across the hall.

2. The explanation for (1) is probably that we keep raising the bar as to what qualifies as "philosophy". The earliest logicians and mathematicians and physicists and so on really did think of what they were doing as "philosophy", but once they started making progress then those specific endeavors got renamed. After a few millennia of renaming every subfield of philosophy where we've made excellent progress, selection bias makes the remaining philosophical endeavors seem downright impossible by comparison.

You could turn that around on the modern philosophers: are they really the equivalent of pre-modern philosophers, if the latter roamed into all these "other" fields whereas the former focus stubbornly on proven-less-productive questions? But just because a question has historically been less productive doesn't mean it's less important, and it may be a good thing that not all intellectuals are metaphorically looking for their car keys under the streetlight.
posted by roystgnr at 8:33 PM on March 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Wittgenstein, the Chuck Palahniuk of philosophers - The first rule of philosophy is we can't speak about philosophy.
posted by Chitownfats at 9:15 PM on March 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


But I can say that we seem to have a very STEM-obsessed world right now,

It seems to me that it’s a symptom of the worship of Capitalism. We live a productivity, or profit obsessed world. If you’re doing something isn’t directly related to one of those two things it’s considered folly if not worthless.
posted by bongo_x at 9:21 PM on March 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


bongo_x: “It seems to me that it’s a symptom of the worship of Capitalism. We live a productivity, or profit obsessed world. If you’re doing something isn’t directly related to one of those two things it’s considered folly if not worthless.”

The hilarious thing of it is: if we're trying to be a thoroughly capitalist society, and bend our universities toward making money, then we're doing an absolutely terrible job of it. As I said above, so-called "STEM" disciplines actually are a huge drain of resources in most modern universities. Universities are wowed by the glitter of the huge grants that scientists sometimes pull in, but almost every academic science grant is a matching grant that requires the university to put in just as much money; and at the end of the day, universities make any money off of scientific discoveries at all. Their students, who go off and form companies to monetize their work, make plenty, but unless they're giving a whole lot during alumni pledge drives, the university sees nothing.

You know where universities make a whole lot of money? They make money when students pay them for the privilege of going to class, and they in particular make money when there's no laboratory overhead on those classes. In other words - they make money when so-called "humanities" professors do a great job of teaching and bring in students who want to learn from them.

So even in the event that we might happen to be purely capitalistic about this situation, it makes a lot more sense to focus our universities in the direction of the Liberal Arts – with science as a necessary part, but also including philosophy, mathematics, literature, poetry, and music – if we want to build a university system that will thrive.

(Of course, we don't merely care about money – but that's a whole 'nother argument.)
posted by koeselitz at 9:41 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]



So even in the event that we might happen to be purely capitalistic about this situation, it makes a lot more sense to focus our universities in the direction of the Liberal Arts – with science as a necessary part, but also including philosophy, mathematics, literature, poetry, and music – if we want to build a university system that will thrive.
Hundreds of well regarded non profit universities significantly expanded their law student intake in the last decade for this exact reason and while it generated windfall profits it led to widespread unemployment for graduates and eventually faculty layoffs.
posted by zymil at 10:11 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


People interpret the world in different ways. They’re all wrong.

But some of them are useful.

Philosophy would be a lot more worthwhile to humanity, and far less misunderstood, if its practitioners were capable of articulating any of the secret knowledge contained therein without constantly resorting to insider shorthand. To talk up how vitally important all these ideas are, only to reduce each to a single word, is just... What's the deal with that?

You could make exactly the same claim about mathematics. There is a level of discussion you only get to make meaningful and useful contributions to when you've done enough work to know what the words mean.

Like, yes, in both cases there's that sort of big, central, possibly unknowable hole in the center of all of the actual work being done, but that's not, at all, really, what it's about in practice.

Consider the Mandelbrot set. All the pretty stuff is near the edge.

In the words of the philosopher Douglas Adams:
“Are you trying to tell me,” said Arthur, slowly and with control, “that you originally… made the Earth?”

“Oh yes,” said Slartibartfast. “Did you ever go to a place… I think it was called Norway?”

“No,” said Arthur, “no, I didn’t.”

“Pity,” said Slartibartfast, “that was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges. I was most upset to hear about its destruction. … Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I always think the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say ‘hang the sense of it’ and just keep yourself occupied. Look at me – I design coastlines. I got an award for Norway. I’ve been doing fjords all my life… for a fleeting moment they became fashionable and I got a major award.”
posted by flabdablet at 10:26 PM on March 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


A large fraction of people are devoted to nothing but naked greed, blind belief in an ancient book, or both. At some point the discussion of ethics becomes pointless when logic is replaced by tribalism.
posted by benzenedream at 12:51 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


A large fraction of people are devoted to nothing but naked greed, blind belief in an ancient book, or both.

Can't that kind of reductionism end up sounding like a kind of tribalism of its own?
posted by teponaztli at 1:07 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


The anti-intellectualism from Nye, Tyson et al. would be bad enough on its own. But these are public figures supposedly advertising the critical reasoning skills necessary for understanding the value of pure scientific research, the implications of climate change, etc.

Guess what guys? Philosophy at its core is dedicated to imparting those very reasoning skills and you're continually shitting all over allies that should be as natural as they come -- allies that teach millions of college kids every year and promote the rational organization of society.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 2:19 AM on March 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


My sophomore year at university I took Philosophy 101 and hated it. The professor was an older gentleman whose sole attempt at irreverence was to sit on his desk, legs dangling, and conduct the entire class in that manner.

And that's what the entire 50 minutes was, week to week: this guy sitting on his desk, talking. More or less nonstop. Never used the board, never directly referred to any reading passages, never asked us any questions, never had us discuss amongst ourselves. Just stream of consciousness thoughts on...something. Looking back, I'm not sure at all now what he was talking about, and at the time I was pretty confused as well. Mentally I simply checked out after 15 minutes or so. I managed to finish the class and get a decent grade, but man did that class put me off even thinking about philosophy for years.

Not sure if I have a point with this, just that I always feel a twinge of jealousy when I hear friends say something along the lines of "I had the most interesting Philosophy 101 professor/class!" Yeah, well, good for you; I sure didn't. In hindsight I think I was just too immature and it was at least in part my fault for not getting it. If I took that same class now, I wonder just how much I would get out of it.
posted by zardoz at 2:23 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


zardoz: If I took that same class now, I wonder just how much I would get out of it.

Since zardoz was an awesomely philosophical movie, I'd bet a floating head that spews guns you'd enjoy studying it with a better teacher.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 2:40 AM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


but almost every academic science grant is a matching grant that requires the university to put in just as much money;

I don't necessarily disagree with your general point, but in my experience this statement is far from the mark. Only an extreme minority of academic science grants require matching funds. It's far more the exception than the rule.
posted by BlueDuke at 3:57 AM on March 7, 2016


As I said above, so-called "STEM" disciplines actually are a huge drain of resources in most modern universities. Universities are wowed by the glitter of the huge grants that scientists sometimes pull in, but almost every academic science grant is a matching grant that requires the university to put in just as much money; and at the end of the day, universities make any money off of scientific discoveries at all.

I really appreciate a lot of things you've said about philosophy in this thread, koeselitz, but I would really like to see a citation for this one. In my experience, there is no match for scientific grants from NIH, NSF, EPA, DOE, etc. Instead, the university takes overhead off of each grant--usually around 40% (up to 95%) of each grant goes not to the lab to do research but to the university to do things like pay the power bill and pay for the administrative paperwork to get done. I know there is some debate between scientists and administrators about the amount of overhead and how much is needed to actually cover the administrative and facility cost of research, but I also think that the way you have described it here is misleading to folks who don't know how the system works.

I say this as someone who receives daily pressure from her employer to start bringing in grants with 40% overhead even though we receive negligible support (i.e., facilities) for research. As a biology professor at a public liberal arts college, I loathe scientism and vocationalism, and love to talk philosophy of science. Please don't blame me for the downfall of the education system.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:00 AM on March 7, 2016 [8 favorites]


I mean, what really puts the lie to the whole capitalistic profit-generation aspect of the modern college is college sports. Which do make money, but mainly for the folks building the stadiums, not the schools.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:02 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


The importance of thinking about thinking, particularly knowing, can never be overstated - but a lot of it has been overtaken by empirical science (which is itself a wildly successful branch of philosophy, never forget). Unknowable answers to the human condition are actually knowable and testable, and in some cases treatable, in the singular or in the aggregate. Psychology and sociology and neurology and probability/statistical analysis, even linguistics, now have a firm claim on ground once staked out by philosophy and some of the most heralded philosophers. This is a good thing, but there's some resistance to the notion that Cartesian duality is a vastly incomplete and unsuitable model of the mind.

Even so, epistemology and logic are the backbone of mathematics and science, disciplines with many questions remaining unanswered and unanswerable by math or empirical inquiry. My favorite subset of these fields is when they address the mechanics of knowledge directly - the philosophy of mathematics, for instance. I love the idea of fictionalism, that numbers and other mathematical entities are a human abstraction and may not exist in and of themselves. The arguments for and against shed a lot of light on the base assumptions of a fundamental field of human endeavor, and allows us to look at it in new and useful ways.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:36 AM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


In my experience, there is no match for scientific grants from NIH, NSF, EPA, DOE, etc. Instead, the university takes overhead off of each grant--usually around 40% (up to 95%) of each grant goes not to the lab to do research but to the university to do things like pay the power bill and pay for the administrative paperwork to get done.

While I am not the world's foremost expert on grants administration, I spent over a decade working research support in cognitive science and this was my experience as well. All our grants were funded entirely by the funding entity (NSF, NIH) and the university took 50% of each for overhead.

There was recently a dust-up at Vanderbilt (I think? Memory is hazy) where the president of the university tried to claim that the reason college tuition are so high is because of mandated compliance stemming from the administration of federal research grants (little things like, oh, the ADA). This was, in fact, monumentally dishonest, as the president of an R1 institution knows full well that 50%+ of each grant his faculty receive goes directly to the university itself, and is used for paying the cost of the administration of the grants (including compliance). It was a brazen attempt by someone earning seven figures to tell students LOOK! OVER THERE! IT'S NOT MY FAULT, IT'S THEM! And it was a lie.

The reason college tuition is so high is because universities used to receive a great deal of support from state and federal governments, and they don't so much any more. (Hell, my state doesn't even have a budget right now. It's 8 months overdue. All the state institutions of higher education are freaking out.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:44 AM on March 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


I think the fact that philosophers haven't managed to insert themselves in the process the way they have in the medical field is a function of how jealously engineers guard this prerogative.

zymil, would you mind expanding on that a bit? Is it because of the guarding of the prerogative (which goes on in other disciplines too) or because Medicine has a directly personal dimension that Engineering lacks? It seems to me that the wall around professional engineering is built out of liability control, but medicine is (supposedly) an empirical science dealing with a much wider range of behaviours. So it advances along different lines. Bioethics, as opposed to professional ethics (ethics of economic matters).
posted by sneebler at 7:37 AM on March 7, 2016


hey Bill. Don't look for meaning, look for use...
posted by judson at 7:41 AM on March 7, 2016


Wittgenstein could certainly help scientists and philosophers learn how to talk about their disciplines more succinctly...
posted by judson at 7:53 AM on March 7, 2016


Luckily I've just finished writing a thesis which categorically proves that all philosophy is useless. The thesis consists of a close reading of and response to the whole canon of Western (and many non-Western) philosophers, from pre-socratic times to the modern day. It carefully and methodically explains and then refutes all their arguments about all philosophical matters. I'm now teaching a 3-year degree course on this work which should satisfy interested students that all philosophy is total bunk, equipping them with the intellectual and research tools necessary to utterly refute all "philosophy" and keep our society safe from that sort of useless thinking. I just need a name for this new field of study that I've invented ... I guess I should probably choose a name with greek roots, because those guys killed Socrates and he was a "philosopher". And this study is really a study of wisdom, which people should love because it's all wise an' stuff. Maybe ... "Wisdomology"? I dunno, something like that.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 8:03 AM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


Oooh, the quidinunc kid! [best angry dean voice]
posted by No Robots at 8:06 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


me: “As I said above, so-called ‘STEM’ disciplines actually are a huge drain of resources in most modern universities. Universities are wowed by the glitter of the huge grants that scientists sometimes pull in, but almost every academic science grant is a matching grant that requires the university to put in just as much money; and at the end of the day, universities make any money off of scientific discoveries at all.”

hydropsyche: “I really appreciate a lot of things you've said about philosophy in this thread, koeselitz, but I would really like to see a citation for this one. In my experience, there is no match for scientific grants from NIH, NSF, EPA, DOE, etc. Instead, the university takes overhead off of each grant--usually around 40% (up to 95%) of each grant goes not to the lab to do research but to the university to do things like pay the power bill and pay for the administrative paperwork to get done. I know there is some debate between scientists and administrators about the amount of overhead and how much is needed to actually cover the administrative and facility cost of research, but I also think that the way you have described it here is misleading to folks who don't know how the system works. ¶ I say this as someone who receives daily pressure from her employer to start bringing in grants with 40% overhead even though we receive negligible support (i.e., facilities) for research. As a biology professor at a public liberal arts college, I loathe scientism and vocationalism, and love to talk philosophy of science. Please don't blame me for the downfall of the education system.”

soren_lorensen: “While I am not the world's foremost expert on grants administration, I spent over a decade working research support in cognitive science and this was my experience as well. All our grants were funded entirely by the funding entity (NSF, NIH) and the university took 50% of each for overhead. ¶ There was recently a dust-up at Vanderbilt (I think? Memory is hazy) where the president of the university tried to claim that the reason college tuition are so high is because of mandated compliance stemming from the administration of federal research grants (little things like, oh, the ADA). This was, in fact, monumentally dishonest, as the president of an R1 institution knows full well that 50%+ of each grant his faculty receive goes directly to the university itself, and is used for paying the cost of the administration of the grants (including compliance). It was a brazen attempt by someone earning seven figures to tell students LOOK! OVER THERE! IT'S NOT MY FAULT, IT'S THEM! And it was a lie. ¶ The reason college tuition is so high is because universities used to receive a great deal of support from state and federal governments, and they don't so much any more.”

I should start by saying that my vague numbers above were probably very wrong, and for that I apologize. It's a lesson to anyone who has a pretense to rigorous thought: it's always good to check your sources to make sure you're remembering things correctly. I didn't do that.

That said: soren_lorensen, I actually believe the President of that university was telling the truth, at least to a certain degree. The costs of research are actually not generally covered by the huge grants science academics are pressured so hard to win. Here's a better rundown of the economics of the situation than I can give – one backed up, thankfully, by a lot of evidence:
The second strategy that universities use to exaggerate their ROI is to ignore their institutional subsidies for extramural research. Federal contracts and grants are counted as income rather than as taxpayer investments that would need to be returned with interest in a market enterprise system. (The battle to account for federal taxpayers as investors in R and D was fought and lost long ago.) STEM faculty members knock themselves out getting these grants—funding rates by most federal programs are at all-time lows—but the funding agencies do not cover the full costs of research. Universities must therefore make up the difference, which usually comes to about 20% of the grant total (Newfield,“How Can Public Universities”; COGR Costing Committee). Universities get that money from endowment or other fund interest or, in larger amounts, from state allocations and student tuition. This means that French majors at SUNY Albany (and at nearly all other research universities) are paying into institutional funds that go to STEM research rather than to SASH instruction or research. In the process, they are supplying the dark pool that artificially elevates STEM ROI.

The actual subsidy situation is different. Once the research of STEM fields has led, after much postuniversity effort, to a product, it may generate enormous positive revenues, but for a private firm rather than for the university. At the university, which performs basic and applied R and D, the ostensible moneymakers are busy losing money. Their annual deficits are in stark contrast to SASH fields, especially the social sciences and business components, which teach large numbers of students without much labor-intensive craft training. The senior managers at ASU, like everywhere else, keep the university solvent by taking the SASH surpluses on the right and using them to fill the STEM budget holes on the left.

The conclusion here is that STEM profits depend on SASH subsidies. Ignoring subsidies artificially elevates ROI.
This is from Christopher Newfield's excellent piece on university budgets, "The Humanities as Service Departments: Facing the Budget Logic."

His general conclusion is that budget problems in humanities departments (and elsewhere at universities) are caused not by underperforming academic departments, but rather by widespread confusions and misconceptions amongst administrators and trustees, who are generally making decisions without data based on preconceived notions about what university activities seem profitable to them. STEM sounds profitable these days – because, let's be fair, a lot of people are making money in STEM fields outside the university – so administrators and trustees weight STEM disciplines and make them central, as though they were likely to make the university more money. And what happens when STEM fields don't magically produce all that money that administrators and trustees assume they inevitably will? Huge pressure must be brought to bear to force science academics to pull in more grants – meanwhile (as Newfield said in the bit I quoted above) grant funding rates are generally at record lows, so it's harder and harder to pull in those huge grants.

That pressure on so-called "STEM" disciplines, stemming from a confusion about what is profitable and what isn't, is mirrored in the weirdly dismissive treatment of so-called "SASH" disciplines, which are cast off, rather than being given a central place as they probably should be. When that happens, the university's real sources of funding start to dwindle, and academics in all departments suffer.

I have strong opinions about how important the Liberal Arts are for our essential non-profit universities; I have strong opinions about how education must be grounded and focused on the Liberal Arts. But even leaving those thoughts aside, the numbers that university administrators are putting out there just don't make sense, and indicate a lot of real confusion about how universities are funded among those who are ostensibly supposed to be in charge of making sure they stay afloat.
posted by koeselitz at 8:32 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


(And I will add: every science academic I know has experienced the same tremendous pressure to win grants, and the same constant reminders from administrators and such that those grants are the reason that they as academics are given the privilege to work at the university. But as far as I can tell that pressure is a ridiculous waste driven by either confusion or lies. There are probably people who benefit mightily from the grants science academics win; but they certainly aren't the academics themselves, who might win some accolades and professional merit through the grants but little to no actual money they can personally spend, nor the university itself, which spends whatever it gets on upkeep and on maintaining staffing levels and keeping classes running. An argument could be made that these grants are ultimately just subsidizing the glut of administration positions at most universities; but overall it probably makes more sense just to say that the whole model is a wash. Universities should drop the charade, put their accounts in order themselves, and stop putting so much pressure on their scholars, who ought to be allowed to get back to doing their actual work – teaching and doing research.)
posted by koeselitz at 8:39 AM on March 7, 2016


Sys Rq, the way in which you are being rude right now is kind of the problem I think a lot of folks have with philosophy. My wife is not a historian of philosophy. [...] But why would anyone think they are the same? You're pretending they're the same in order to be insulting.

You seem to be going very literal on the analogy, anotherpanacea, and I think you're being unfair at best and at worst are just proving why philosophy is a useful discipline.

I certainly don't read Sys Rq as deliberately setting out to insult you; more that he's trying to highlight how in seeking to dismiss as useless a certain strand of philosophy you are discounting precisely the same sorts of activities that are unquestionably useful when deployed in the context of law.
posted by bonaldi at 8:52 AM on March 7, 2016


Look, I'm not discounting the activities of the historian of philosophy. I'm a fan.

I am, however, uncomfortable with the idea that philosophy should limit itself to the study of its own history. I have a lot of colleagues with that precise self-conception, so I understand it! But I am committed to a more engaged style of scholarship, one that applies philosophical techniques and analysis to issues of contemporary concern.

The problem with historicism is that it can turn into romanticism. It also tends to be inherently conservative: Plato and Aristotle (and Spinoza and Hume) have a lot to teach us, but they didn't exhaust the conceptual space and there is room for new approaches to a life well lived that they couldn't conceive of.

Just as an example, I'm teaching a course this semester on Forgiveness and Revenge, and the vast majority of the texts I'm teaching would not be a part of a standard education in the history of philosophy. Most of the texts weren't even written by scholars employed in philosophy departments, with the exception of Susan Brison's book Aftermath. Yet I think forgiveness and revenge are eminently "philosophical" topics about which too little has been written by the major figures in the canon, in part because large parts of the canon are captured by Christian theology.

Scott Soames has a nice piece in the New York Times today on these themes.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:37 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


But as far as I can tell that pressure is a ridiculous waste driven by either confusion or lies. There are probably people who benefit mightily from the grants science academics win; but they certainly aren't the academics themselves, who might win some accolades and professional merit through the grants but little to no actual money they can personally spend, nor the university itself, which spends whatever it gets on upkeep and on maintaining staffing levels and keeping classes running.

Most people that I know who are under pressure to get grant money need it to fund grad students (which in many fields is necessary to keep a research program going), or to get access to expensive equipment (such as fMRI). We could talk about whether the overall scheme of things is a good structure for funding these (it probably isn't), and we could talk about whether the way overhead works is sane (it is probably not), but the way things are structured now most research programs outside of humanities at your typical R1 would be effectively impossible without grant money. The prestige/pressure issue is there too but I don't actually think that's the primary reason. To put it politely, I think that calling this situation "a ridiculous waste driven by either confusion or lies" can't really be based on a lot of first-hand information.

(Also, yeah, matching grants are basically unheard of w.r.t. any of the funding agencies I have dealt with. The only cases I've heard of that are structured like this at my R1 involve money from donors, and it's usually either to try to encourage donors on the smaller end of the pond to contribute, or part of the strings donors of very large amounts can attach to their money.)
posted by advil at 9:56 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Most of the best philosophers I know don't do work that is recognizably philosophy. They're all doing work at cool intersections of other disciplines, cross-pollinating and forcing scientists (or politicians!) to confront contradictions and justify unstated assumptions. Perhaps they're not philosophers at all, or perhaps that's just what philosophy should be.

The top book published in the discipline last year was Stanley's How Propaganda Works. How is that irrelevant?

Meanwhile, the folks who take themselves to be engaged in some fundamentally different enterprise than other scientific research, something they excel at that other parts of the university can't ever hope to understand, usually seem to me to do shallow work and often to be assholes to boot.


QFT.

There are two academic disciplines I'm aware of where I've yet to read anyone who treats them as a primary thing in the past 100 years has anything relevant to say - but there is no first rate mind in any field that does not have interesting things to say about those two disciplines. Those are philosophy and ethics.

Ethics is the easy one. The attitude that "Once the rockets are up who cares where they come down? That's not my department" demonstrates that someone is not and can not be first rate. Any rocket scientist who does not think about the uses and consequences of rockets is someone who isn't genuinely thinking about the field of rocketry. They are technicians at best. And anyone who cares about a subject will have an interest in and basic understanding of that subject. Of course they often suffer from tunnel vision (I don't say that experts make the best ethicists, merely that all of them including von Braun have interesting things to say).

On the other hand people who are primarily ethicists are in my experience interfering busybodies who get into ethics as a field because they want to be interfering busybodies and want a stick to beat people with. I'm sure most of us have met them. On the other hand Ethics should be a part of every study.

So too with philosophy. No first rate individual in a subject is or even can be uninterested in the philosophy of that subject. Philosophy is important.

Even on supposedly their own turf, either the limits of consciousness or those of thought, the philosophy department is not somewhere I would choose to go. Instead I'd look to neuroscience about consciousness - where they actually test and discard ideas. And for thought, the discipline that explores the boundaries of what we can know and does it rigorously isn't philosophy and hasn't been for over 100 years. It's pure mathematics and computer science.

For that matter Godel's Incompleteness Theorems* place an upper bound on that which is rationally knowable (you can not have a system that (a) is large enough to contain arithmetic, is (b) consistent, and (c) complete). And Chaos Theory and iterative computer models have fascinating implications on the limits of thought.

When you combine Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and Chaos Theory you show rationalist inward-looking philosophy departments to be near useless. Godel's Incompleteness Theorem says that you can't have a system that is complete, consistent, and large enough to contain arithmetic. And Chaos Theory says that if you have even the smallest mistake in iterative systems (philosophers arguing with each other is an iterative system or they are wasting time) and they are more than very basic and without a simple static solution . (Yes I'm simplifying the conditions required for a system to become chaotic).

So philosophy in recognisable departments is frequently intellectual masturbation to the point that even if it does come up with anything worthwhile is epistemologically unable to demonstrate that it does so. Because it is impossible to have internal validation on any complex system (as demonstrated above) and that even trivial inaccuracies can lead you anywhere, philosophy as its own independent field unattached to that which is is worth approximately as much as youtube comments.

And to put it bluntly philosophy on its own is frequently a rump subject. Every time you've got something useful or worthwhile it's split off from philosophy. Yes, the natural sciences were once part of philosophy - that isn't so any longer. Logic and the limits of logic? That might be on the maths/philosophy border, but it's the mathematicians who've taken that ball and run with it. What is consciousness? Anyone interested in that is probably a philosopher, but they need to spend more time in both the neuroscience department and the computer science department than they do in the philosophy department because those are where we are actually gathering data on the subject. For another example Adam Smith was a moral philosopher - but economics has moved past being part of the philosophy department.

Does this mean that philosophy and philosophy departments are useless? Far from it. All it means is that any attempt for philosophy to be self-validating is a dead end. We need philosophy in every discipline otherwise we don't actually know what we are doing. And the philosophy department should be a central hub.

Philosophy of Science in specific is in a bad place. If you're not familiar with the slightly overblown reuputation of the Social Text Affair it underlies a lot of the scientists (I'm referring to a social grouping here) response to modern philosophy of science. A lot of scientists suffer from what is sometimes known as Engineer's Disease (which I'm aware that I may be displaying here) in that they think because they know about their field they are experts everywhere. A lot of supposed philosophers of science either are trying to win points by blinding people with science (and actual scientists see supposed emperors running around stark naked - see a lot of Sokal's references) or are actively opposed to science. Which means that there's a lot of border fire from both philosophers and scientists that simply shouldn't be there.

* Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is an interesting reflection on Wittgenstein (and there are questions about Wittgenstein's understanding of it). It is an utterly revolutionary concept that came from the realms of pure thought ... and is generally treated as a pretty important result in mathematics rather than an amazing bit of philosophy that should have provided the same correction that post-modernism is frequently a hypercorrection for**.

** And this can of worms is best left closed.
posted by Francis at 10:17 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


The reason society allows engineers to function as a protected self-regulating guild in most jurisdictions is that they're legally required to behave ethically.

This is where math, and the philosophy of pure obstruction come in, as the corporations who use the talents of engineers, bend language and words such as legal, responsibility, liability, harm. These concepts, philosophical or not, are kept at bay outside the tiny boxes, the engineers are allowed to work in. Corporate philosophy becomes a target pistol, and ethics the target, in the hands of shareholders, boards, CFO's and their cronies. This whole comment is probably off topic, sorry.

The other problem is the work around, where industry uses the clever, rather than the licensed. Under loose supervision, you find later that vision was not so super.

Philosophy with regard to politics, "Philosophy is the tiny armored room, outside of which the masses stand _____ name your situation, hungry, dispossessed, enraged, mute, or worse, terminally zealous.
posted by Oyéah at 10:22 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oooh, the quidinunc kid! [best angry dean voice]

That guy is on double secret probation.
posted by flabdablet at 10:24 AM on March 7, 2016


This is where math, and the philosophy of pure obstruction come in, as the corporations who use the talents of engineers, bend language and words such as legal, responsibility, liability, harm.

I remember once talking to someone who urged me to go into industrial psychology, when they found out I was a philosophy student. That really seemed like missing the point to me, at the time....
posted by thelonius at 10:26 AM on March 7, 2016


Saying Wittgenstein was not a philosopher is kind of like saying Chuck Berry wasn't a musician.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:13 AM on March 7, 2016


Not really. Chuck Berry liked listening to music.
posted by koeselitz at 11:23 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


advil: “Most people that I know who are under pressure to get grant money need it to fund grad students (which in many fields is necessary to keep a research program going), or to get access to expensive equipment (such as fMRI). We could talk about whether the overall scheme of things is a good structure for funding these (it probably isn't), and we could talk about whether the way overhead works is sane (it is probably not), but the way things are structured now most research programs outside of humanities at your typical R1 would be effectively impossible without grant money.”

They're impossible with grant money. That's kind of the point. R1 universities with significant STEM commitments are bleeding money; there is no way to make the grant system workable economically. The only thing keeping them afloat is tuition from classes.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that we should be doing less research and more teaching at the university level, even leaving aside petty squabbles about "STEM"/"SASH"/whatever.

“Also, yeah, matching grants are basically unheard of w.r.t. any of the funding agencies I have dealt with”

"Matching" grants, yes, but big chunks of academic grants almost invariably go to supporting universities, and are utterly insufficient to do so. When scholars take in grants, universities are expected to support the research those grants are supposed to pay for. Which costs money. That may not technically be a "matching grant," but the fact of the matter on the ground is: scholars who take in grant money cost the university money. The only thing preventing anyone from accepting that on its face is a general willful ignorance about how grants and their funding actually work. You could say that these expenses are down to the fact that universities cost altogether too much to run – and you'd probably be right on that, administrative bloat and so forth being what they are – but this is how university funding works. See the link I gave above for hard numbers if you want them.
posted by koeselitz at 11:34 AM on March 7, 2016


"Matching" grants, yes, but big chunks of academic grants almost invariably go to supporting universities, and are utterly insufficient to do so. When scholars take in grants, universities are expected to support the research those grants are supposed to pay for. Which costs money. That may not technically be a "matching grant," but the fact of the matter on the ground is: scholars who take in grant money cost the university money. The only thing preventing anyone from accepting that on its face is a general willful ignorance about how grants and their funding actually work.

I'll cop to some general ignorance about what my university does specifically with the overhead it takes out of my grants (which is substantial, a negotiated rate higher than what is the norm for most funders). I'll also cop to being in an extremely privileged position money-wise, as my institution is not poor by any means, is not public, and does not resemble suny albany in just about any respect (which is, as far as I can see, where the only "hard numbers" [meaning non-public summary budget information from one public institution] come from). But these claims just don't apply generally, and I can't figure out where the apparently extreme level of certainty and scorn in these comments is coming from. Like, I get that you have strong beliefs about this, but what do you know about what I (and others) know about the budget structure that our grants exist in? Or what research and research support is like in various extremely different fields?
posted by advil at 12:28 PM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


I just ran across this quote:
Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow–it is a goldsmith's art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it enchant and entice us most, in the midst of an age of 'work,' that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once, including every old or new book:–this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers . . .

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Preface (to the 2nd ed., 1887)
Applies just as well to philosophy, if you ask me.
posted by languagehat at 12:56 PM on March 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


advil: “But these claims just don't apply generally...”

They seem to apply at every university or institution of higher learning I've been associated with, but my experience is obviously not universal. I am really hoping to expand my data here, though. The trouble is that these kinds of numbers are, as far as I can tell, hard to come by. If you have a better source, I'd be very grateful.

“... and I can't figure out where the apparently extreme level of certainty and scorn in these comments is coming from.”

That was my fault, and I need to apologize. I'm sorry; I don't want to sound scornful; universities need people in every discipline, and I think they're all essential. And I want to clarify something I should have said a long time ago in this thread: I don't think moneymaking is a metric in any way of the usefulness or importance of a field. Research costs money (wherever we might decide that money actually comes from or gets spent); that doesn't mean it's a bad thing – on the contrary, that's why universities exist: to provide a framework for the funding and facilitation of research and other activities of benefit in themselves.

There is probably some frustration among people in philosophy, arts, and other so-called "SASH" disciplines when it comes to these things – because they're constantly being told that their departments are nonessential, that they are not the heart of the university, that research grants are keeping them afloat and supporting them, and ultimately that shutting down their departments is probably the best financial call. My fiancee, an esteemed art historian working on medieval Cyprus, was once told by a trustee that she "made a bad career choice" in choosing to be in a non-STEM field. That kind of condescending nonsense is tough to deal with regularly.

But it must be remembered that that kind of static is just the tactic management uses to set workers off against each other in order to encourage complacency. It is absolutely not the fault of scientists and other "STEM" academics that humanities departments are being squeezed and even shut down. Heck, that's happening to the "STEM" academics more and more now, too.

If I have any point here, it's that all parts of the university interact together, and all are necessary in order to maintain higher education. There are a lot of people involved in administrating universities now who have this fever dream of a university cleansed of humanities which exists solely to do hard scientific research and provide training via apprenticeship for scientific researchers. That dream is silly, and it's extraordinarily damaging, because it's leading them to strip down and even dismantle programs and departments that interact with each other and with "STEM" disciplines in ways they don't seem to want to notice.

“Like, I get that you have strong beliefs about this, but what do you know about what I (and others) know about the budget structure that our grants exist in? Or what research and research support is like in various extremely different fields?”

Obviously I can't tell anyone what you know about these things. But I think it's in everybody's best interest to share that knowledge; because only by actually talking about it can we actually try to save the university from the current crisis and improve it for the future. As it is, the current paradigm seems to be obstruction by administrations and a moratorium on the release of vital information about budgets, apparently in the interest of pushing through whatever changes administrations deem useful. On the surface, that might seem to benefit "STEM" disciplines – but I don't think it does; again, my experience is not universal, but I don't know any "STEM" researchers at public universities who are comfortable with where their discipline is. Most of them are under enormous pressure to win grants from the dwindling pool of those that still exist, and are having trouble figuring out ways to do so. (And, of course, as you say, many "STEM" disciplines don't even have that kind of structure at all. But I think budget crunches are hurting everybody.)
posted by koeselitz at 1:46 PM on March 7, 2016


If I have any point here, it's that all parts of the university interact together, and all are necessary in order to maintain higher education. There are a lot of people involved in administrating universities now who have this fever dream of a university cleansed of humanities which exists solely to do hard scientific research and provide training via apprenticeship for scientific researchers. That dream is silly, and it's extraordinarily damaging, because it's leading them to strip down and even dismantle programs and departments that interact with each other and with "STEM" disciplines in ways they don't seem to want to notice.

Ok, thanks for the detailed reply, and I appreciate the apology. I'm on the same page with respect to this, and I would be happy if part of my grant overhead goes to support philosophy grad students (etc). I have no idea if it specifically does, but philosophy (and I believe all humanities) grad students here are paid for by the division somehow, in contrast to e.g. engineering/natural science departments, where they largely aren't. Even though I'm in a (marginally) STEM department now, my Ph.D is in a field that is traditionally humanities so I've been on both sides of this. We are under pressure to pull in more grants, but as I said before it's the fact that grants pay for (and they really do) stuff like fMRI time, that otherwise simply wouldn't be paid for, that is driving most people I know at my level to try to get them. I guess if your point is that for someone like me, their total cost is not at all balanced out by what they bring in in grants, that is certainly true -- I cover very little of my salary (including research time) from grants and there's no way the overhead would either. In this respect I'm nearly on the same page as any humanities faculty.

The trouble is that these kinds of numbers are, as far as I can tell, hard to come by. If you have a better source, I'd be very grateful.

Yeah, unfortunately what I know is based on budget information I'm not comfortable talking much about, but as far as we've been told (it could all be lies, but our current dean does share this information with us) the cases where our budget has gaps don't have much to do with spending related to research. I more or less agree that things would be better if this kind of information were generally public, but I'm not personally in a position to make that happen.
posted by advil at 3:37 PM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


zymil, would you mind expanding on that a bit? Is it because of the guarding of the prerogative (which goes on in other disciplines too) or because Medicine has a directly personal dimension that Engineering lacks? It seems to me that the wall around professional engineering is built out of liability control, but medicine is (supposedly) an empirical science dealing with a much wider range of behaviours. So it advances along different lines. Bioethics, as opposed to professional ethics (ethics of economic matters).
I'm not too familiar with how Bioethicist became an actual job you can get at some hospitals and I'd love to learn more about it myself.

On the engineering side there's really three functions in the design process of a new thing like say a self driving car an ethicist could have input into the process:

  • Developing the ethical code and legislation of the local body that regulates engineers
  • Developing the relevant technical standards
  • Contributing to the design itself

    Ethicists are usually frozen out of the latter two due to the culture of engineering.

    If you want to sit on a peak standards body committee you need to be a recognised technical expert working at a stakeholder to the standard. This takes most people at least a decade of engineering research and practice in which time you're very unlikely to pick up formal philosophical training unless its something you did before a career switch.

    Input into the actual design would require the engineering firm or client to value formal ethics training enough to hire someone who is going to have to earn the respect of the actual designers before they're going to meaningfully contribute to the project. I'm sure it happens occasionally on blue sky projects like a self driving car but in almost all projects its going to be seen as useless overhead.

  • posted by zymil at 6:55 PM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


    This is related to the moment when I realized Metafilter was great.

    I am one of those science people who is kind of obnoxious about not understanding philosophy. (Sorry!)

    The first and, I believe, only time I had a comment deleted so far here on Metafilter was shortly after I joined. It was Ask Metafilter and someone had asked a detailed question about the theory of some particular philosopher and, feeling particularly obnoxious, I made a 100% snark comment like "Please tell me this question is satire".

    The comment was promptly deleted, the thread continued immune from my attempted derail, I felt duly ashamed, and that's when I started evangelizing Metafilter to other people.
    posted by hAndrew at 8:38 PM on March 7, 2016


    This little, totality is good,

    "colleagues in academic philosophy thought I was kind of nutty when I started talking like this.
    posted by dis_integration at 2:00 PM"


    Now if they totally disintegrated while talking this way....
    posted by Oyéah at 9:32 PM on March 7, 2016


    Socrates never wrote anything, much less a treatise; you're probably speaking of a dialogue written by Plato, in which Socrates was a character, but even that wasn't a treatise at all. The Lysis is Plato's dialogue on friendship, so I'm guessing that's what you meant.

    Thanks for putting me in my place and reminding me why I stopped discussing philosophy in public.
    posted by Deoridhe at 10:03 PM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


    You went out of your way to tell me that the stuff I really love is shit. Was I suppose to agree?
    posted by koeselitz at 10:20 PM on March 7, 2016


    • Developing the ethical code and legislation of the local body that regulates engineers
    • Developing the relevant technical standards
    • Contributing to the design itself
    At what stage of the process would someone determine when it's OK for a car to brake suddenly, given that it may cause vehicles behind it to crash?
    posted by Joe in Australia at 10:49 PM on March 7, 2016


    At what stage of the process would someone determine when it's OK for a car to brake suddenly, given that it may cause vehicles behind it to crash?
    Given how early we are in the development of self driving cars I'd be surprised if there were any formal standards yet for how cars should handle situations where an accident is inevitable given the slow pace standards develop at.

    That leaves the people programming them with all the liability, so I'm sure a lot of effort has gone into trawling research on car accidents and motorist codes from different authorities to identify best practices. Companies are also going to share data and research each others products to make sure they're all roughly on the same page.

    I suspect that the PR disaster potential of a bad response to trolley problem type situation as judged by the public combined with the rarity of these situations means that they won't be addressed initially beyond the car attempting to minimise the total severity of an accident using simple measures like collision speed and collision type.

    As the public responds to self driving car accidents and the cars record a ton of high quality data the companies will update and improve the way the car judges accident severity.
    posted by zymil at 1:45 AM on March 8, 2016


    If you want to sit on a peak standards body committee you need to be a recognised technical expert working at a stakeholder to the standard. This takes most people at least a decade of engineering research and practice in which time you're very unlikely to pick up formal philosophical training unless its something you did before a career switch.

    OK. Let's break that down a second.

    It seems to me that you are saying "An alternative way of sitting on a peak standards body committee other than gaining the expertise and putting in the time and effort to get to the peak of a professional field should be by becoming an ethicist." Or in other words becoming an ethicist should be a shortcut to professional status in a field you don't have experience in.

    And if it isn't obvious how this undermines the respect ethicists and even ethics in general receive then it should be. Allowing shortcuts like this is also a question of ethics.

    Now let's double back to the start of the comment:
    On the engineering side there's really three functions in the design process of a new thing like say a self driving car an ethicist could have input into the process:

    •Developing the ethical code and legislation of the local body that regulates engineers
    •Developing the relevant technical standards
    •Contributing to the design itself

    Ethicists are usually frozen out of the latter two due to the culture of engineering.


    First, again there is the assumption not just that an ethicist can have input but that they should by virtue of the fact that they are ethicists. While not providing anything practical - instead they should be brought in for their ivory tower experience and ethics not just can but should be divorced from the field of study in question.

    On the other hand every time a designer makes a decision about anything like breaking distances or when to use the headlights that is an ethical decision. Is the car going to stick to the speed limit as precisely as possible or is it going to slow down further in residential zones - or at what point? Ethical decision. How does it balance speed vs fuel efficiency? Ethical decision. So is willingly every smaller decision that has any sort of cost/benefit tradeoff. And the designers aren't going to stop at each of those points to bring in an ethicist (for one thing that would be painfully slow).

    There are four basic positions in large organisations as far as ethicists are concerned.
    • No ethicist involved
    • An ethical organisation in which the ethicist is on the way to working themselves out of a job because people in the organisation have a strong sense of ethics and keen insight
    • An unethical organisation which the ethicist may be a PR feature but does not change the culture towards making themelves redundant.
    • An ethicist who works on making themselves indispensible because only they can handle the ethics of situations, so they become a bottleneck
    And there we once again have a problem with the idea of a professional ethicist rather than ethics being a supplementary profession.

    If ethicists are frozen out of engineering due to a cultural clash and engineers are still producing things, then why is it necessarily the culture of engineering that is seen as the problem by ethicists? What is it that ethicists find problematic about meeting people on their own terms, paying dues that members of the culture they want to influence respect, and being the ones who change their culture?
    posted by Francis at 3:52 AM on March 8, 2016


    What is it that ethicists find problematic about meeting people on their own terms, paying dues that members of the culture they want to influence respect, and being the ones who change their culture?

    Yeah, no.

    If we need a bridge, we put together a team that may include economists, accountants, town planners and a host of other specialties including engineers. We don't say that accountants need to do something to get engineers to "respect" them; it's taken for granted that accountants have a separate specialty and that they bring their own expertise to the table.

    Ethics isn't about instructing people to be good any more than engineering is about building bridges that are strong. Rather, ethics is a systematic approach to determining what is good and how that good can be incorporated into our behavior. Your examples of "ethical" questions are really just economic ones: what is the cost, versus what is the benefit. There's an entire branch of philosophy that considers things in that light; it's called Utilitarianism. Other philosophers would say that (e.g.) a cost you incur isn't the same as a cost you inflict on someone else; that it's wrong to harm people. Others would say that we generally accept a certain amount of harm as the cost of living in a society; we just need to establish rules that people can follow. And so on. So, stipulating that engineers wish to behave ethically - what is the ethical path they should follow? What is the "good" they are designing into their products?

    Engineers and other hard-science types need to recognise that there are questions they don't even recognise; that the study of asking questions is valuable in itself. If they do, when a Google car kills a child (or whatever) they'll be able to say that it was a tragic death, that their AI was confronted with a situation in which there were potentially many deaths and it chose the course that minimised casualties. Or that the AI was at fault, it should have accepted a small risk to many people rather than certain death to one person. Or whatever. But if they don't ask the question at all, there will probably be more deaths, and the defense will be along the lines of "a child's life is valued at $X, and our AI saves much more than that every day by avoiding scratches and damage to bodywork ..."
    posted by Joe in Australia at 5:01 AM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


    If we need a bridge, we put together a team that may include economists, accountants, town planners and a host of other specialties including engineers. We don't say that accountants need to do something to get engineers to "respect" them; it's taken for granted that accountants have a separate specialty and that they bring their own expertise to the table.

    It's not taken for granted that accountants have a separate specialty and that they bring their own expertise to the table. It is demonstrable that accountants have a separate specialty, expertise, and a standards body or two that they bring to the table.

    What standards body do ethicists follow? Not even bioethicists have one as far as I'm aware. You can be struck off as an accountant for gross misconduct - but you can't be struck off as an ethicist.

    So, comparing an ethicist to an accountant: The accountant walks in with institutional respect and oversight and having demonstrably paid their dues. The ethicist, having none of this, complains they don't get the role based respect of an accountant but have to earn it at an individual level.

    Engineers and other hard-science types need to recognise that there are questions they don't even recognise; that the study of asking questions is valuable in itself.

    Ethicists need to recognise that they do not have and have never had a monopoly on the ability to ask questions. And that knowing about the subject under discussion is almost essential for asking questions that aren't taken from a checklist (and if you're merely taking questions from a checklist, just give me the checklist and go away).

    And they need to learn that "They don't accept our expertise, what's wrong with them?" is almost never as useful as "They don't accept our expertise, what can we do to change that?"

    And yes, I'm aware of various branches of ethics and that utilitarianism (never mind that those questions were consequentialist without necessarily being utilitarian) is far from the only one. But the sentence "Other philosophers would say that ..." is another reason that ethicists get so little respect. It shows a lack of useful outcomes. "Hey guys. We want to ask you the same questions we've been asking for the past few centuries and never come up with any sort of good answer to. Therefore you should respect our expertise precisely because we can't provide solutions or fix problems."
    posted by Francis at 6:05 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


    It shows a lack of useful outcomes.

    That's kind of missing the point though. One of the reasons bioethicists have found a place in medical/health discussions is that there is good evidence that research organizations, drug manufacturers, and insurance providers, just to name a few, have worked to bias various healthcare systems to their own financial advantage. In the process, they've actively killed patients, and created measurable new risks for people buying their services. Quantifying "useful outcomes" only in financial terms is one cause of this situation.

    (Then there's a range of public health issues where ethicists and philosophers can help the public frame the discussion, like the one about dying with dignity in Canada right now, for example. Do we call it "dying with dignity" or "assisted suicide"? What's a "useful outcome" in this context?)

    The issue of ethics in engineering is maybe more dramatic. To take a possibly extreme example, Canada's largest engineering company, SNC-Lavalin spends CDN $160 million bribing the Libyan government for contracts. What's going on here? This is Canada, where we frown on corruption, and the engineering discipline is structured to be transparent and to explicitly account for risk. We need some philosophers over here, stat!

    Another other aspect of this is how governments have tried to legislate the outcomes of engineering projects. It's easy to focus on financial outcomes during a construction project and all the wonderful economic spin-offs, but recent history is littered with the unintended consequences of projects. Engineering companies design, build and manage the project, and define the scope of their responsibility. Which makes sense as far as it goes, but it's also a handy mechanism to avoid responsibility for unintended consequences. When mistakes occur, who picks up the tab? Environmental regulations too onerous? We'll just move the project somewhere else where they appreciate the benefit of free markets. Here's a place where some formal discussion about ethics and social responsibility might make for broadly better outcomes. (I'm not an engineer, but I work for an engineering department...)
    posted by sneebler at 8:13 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


    me: “You went out of your way to tell me that the stuff I really love is shit. Was I suppose to agree?”

    Okay, so: this was probably taking things a smidgen too personally. And I'm sorry about that, Deoridhe. You absolutely were not "going out of your way to tell me that the stuff I really love is shit." I don't have the right to tell people what they are and are not allowed to like, and I need to be better about accepting it when people I respect say that they aren't into the things I spend my time on. I apologize for acting in such a shitty way.

    me: “Socrates never wrote anything, much less a treatise; you're probably speaking of a dialogue written by Plato, in which Socrates was a character, but even that wasn't a treatise at all. The Lysis is Plato's dialogue on friendship, so I'm guessing that's what you meant.”

    Deoridhe: “Thanks for putting me in my place and reminding me why I stopped discussing philosophy in public.”

    I know I was a little emotional when I first responded to you above (another mistake) but I honestly didn't mean to "put you in your place" or just tell you you're wrong or something. I really expressed myself poorly. What I was trying to say was: the whole point of Plato's dialogues is crap logic. They're supposed to be conversations, not treatises. Socrates' audience never thought he was brilliant; they were annoyed by him, and they killed him. What I love about reading Plato is this interplay between characters, the most "minor" of whom is really well-drawn and fully-formed, I think; they're like little plays where people spar back and forth. So I really just meant: the contradictions are part of the essential character of these very literary works, and that's what makes them different from treatises, and what makes them so enjoyable (to me at least.) I often feel strongly what you mentioned earlier, the fact that philosophy has become really full of jargon, and I find refreshing the idea of people just sitting and talking about things, without the pretentious need to make up buzzwords to communicate about it.

    Socrates is playful, but he's ultimately most interested in (a) helping young people be better human beings and (b) helping the city as a whole become a happier and more just place. I honestly and steadfastly believe that he never once mocks anyone in a condescending way; there are very rare times when he will openly say that an idea is terrible and associate it with things that are terrible, for example when Callicles tells him that there is no such thing as justice and that the point of life is to become strong enough to do anything you want to anyone you want to, but I think it's clear he's doing that to try to fight injustice in the city.

    But I could very easily be wrong. Just because I love Plato doesn't mean I'm right about him; I could just be blinded by my affection for him, after all. And it's crap of me to take it personally when you don't like him, and to get all crude and confrontational when you happen to say you dislike his style. I'm sorry for reacting the way I did.
    posted by koeselitz at 8:14 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


    aspersioncast: “Saying Wittgenstein was not a philosopher is kind of like saying Chuck Berry wasn't a musician.”

    me: “Not really. Chuck Berry liked listening to music.”

    This was a crappy, dismissive thing to say. It seems like I've been rather pushy and obnoxious in this thread. Sorry, aspersioncast.

    To try to do your comment a little more justice:

    Wittgenstein himself claimed he "never read a word of Aristotle," and the evidence suggests that he didn't read much Hegel, either, although he made dismissive remarks about him. Stern and Szabados' "Reading Wittgenstein (on) Reading: An Introduction" seems like a great little piece that discusses his interests and influences. It quotes an important editor: "Wittgenstein had done no systematic reading in the classics of philosophy. He could read only what he could wholeheartedly assimilate. We have seen that as a young man he read Schopenhauer. From Spinoza, Hume, and Kant he said that he could get only glimpses of understanding."

    I don't think he regarded himself entirely as within the tradition. My feeling is that his work is intended to overthrow something essential within philosophy that holds it back from true insight, at least about whether insight is possible. So when I say I don't think he's a philosopher, and that (as I said above) he's a thinker with lots of ideas interesting to philosophers but not one himself, I mean more that – I think his work is supposed to transcend that idiom. But that might not be entirely fair, and I want to be clear that I'm not actually just trying to say that philosophy is a club, and we're not letting him join. I am no expert on Wittgenstein, but I always feel like he would have felt as though these discussions about what philosophy is are rather boring and pointless, and that he would have preferred to wander off and think about something more interesting. So that's really more what I mean.

    If I'm honest, I probably do dislike Wittgenstein for this ultimately. I feel as though he was dismissive of a very, very broad tradition, in a way that is difficult unless you've very carefully studied all of it. I do feel as though that was a mistake on Wittgenstein's part: his assumption that everyone in the past must have thought the way he apparently assumes they thought. I think he was brilliant enough that that kind of mistake came naturally to him. But labeling him "not a philosopher" is not the best way of saying that.
    posted by koeselitz at 8:47 AM on March 8, 2016


    That's kind of missing the point though. One of the reasons bioethicists have found a place in medical/health discussions is that there is good evidence that research organizations, drug manufacturers, and insurance providers, just to name a few, have worked to bias various healthcare systems to their own financial advantage. In the process, they've actively killed patients, and created measurable new risks for people buying their services. Quantifying "useful outcomes" only in financial terms is one cause of this situation.

    Bioethicists have been around those discussions, granted. But the conversations have been driven by actual statisticians, medical researchers, and demographers. People with a technical knowledge of the fields being twisted and the ability to expose where and how they have been twisted. And the ability to show, demonstrate, and quantify the new risks that have been created.

    On the other hand there is no one as useful as an ethicist if you want to defend wrongdoing (except possibly a three ring circus somewhere nearby). All types of philosopher are, when they choose, amazing at muddying the waters. And saying you are hiring a bioethics team is a way to say you are doing something about a problem without doing anything about it.

    Bioethicists are not the people opening these conversations. They are not the people revealing what is going on in these conversations. And they have skills suited to be people brought in to defend the continuation of the problems in public (I don't mean to say or even imply that all bioethicists are corrupt or anything like - they aren't, but some are). So yes they have found a place due to such problems being revealed - but that doesn't mean that it's necessarily useful that they have done so.

    Then there's a range of public health issues where ethicists and philosophers can help the public frame the discussion, like the one about dying with dignity in Canada right now, for example. Do we call it "dying with dignity" or "assisted suicide"? What's a "useful outcome" in this context?

    Normally when someone is framing a political debate in favour of one side or the other they are a spin doctor or PR person. Last time I heard a major debate in Britain involving bioethicists (I'm not a Canadian) the bioethicists were generally that and a significant proportion of them want to let the morality of one of the churches that's against women's healthcare dictate medical practice. Again, spin doctoring and PR.

    The issue of ethics in engineering is maybe more dramatic. To take a possibly extreme example, Canada's largest engineering company, SNC-Lavalin spends CDN $160 million bribing the Libyan government for contracts. What's going on here? This is Canada, where we frown on corruption, and the engineering discipline is structured to be transparent and to explicitly account for risk. We need some philosophers over here, stat!

    Why? Me, I'd call in the auditors if I actually wanted to find out what was going on. Then psychologists to find out what they were thinking. And probably economists or even game theorists.

    Here's a place where some formal discussion about ethics and social responsibility might make for broadly better outcomes.

    And this is ducking the question. Which is "Why do we think that adding an ethicist is going to be productive rather than a distraction on any practical ethical subject unless the ethicist themself has a demonstrable grounding in that subject?" There is, as I have mentioned, no external standards body for ethicists. Even they can't work out basic principles for their own subject as someone else mentioned and they provide no special expertise outside this subject.
    posted by Francis at 9:42 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


    Francis: “For that matter Godel's Incompleteness Theorems* place an upper bound on that which is rationally knowable (you can not have a system that (a) is large enough to contain arithmetic, is (b) consistent, and (c) complete).”

    This is a fundamentally incorrect thing to say about Gödel and his work, I think. He was at pains to say, over and over and over again, that his work on incompleteness applied only to Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, and only on the basis of that document, as logic, attempting to prove that document's own first principles. Generalizing it to say that Gödel thoroughly established the incompleteness of all systems is – problematic, to say the least.

    “And to put it bluntly philosophy on its own is frequently a rump subject. Every time you've got something useful or worthwhile it's split off from philosophy.”

    What do you mean by "useful or worthwhile"?
    posted by koeselitz at 10:17 AM on March 8, 2016


    This is a fundamentally incorrect thing to say about Gödel and his work, I think. He was at pains to say, over and over and over again, that his work on incompleteness applied only to Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, and only on the basis of that document, as logic, attempting to prove that document's own first principles. Generalizing it to say that Gödel thoroughly established the incompleteness of all systems is – problematic, to say the least.

    Um... the actual title of his paper translates to "On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems". It is explicitly not restricted only to the Principia Mathematica. And to quote the first paragraph of the introduction in translation:
    The development of mathematics towards greater exactness has, as is well-known, lead to formalization of large areas of it such that you can carry out proofs by following a few mechanical rules. The most comprehensive current formal systems are the system of Principia Mathematica (PM) on the one hand, the Zermelo-Fraenkelian axiom-system of set theory on the other hand. These two systems are so far developed that you can formalize in them all proof methods that are currently in use in mathematics, i.e. you can reduce these proof methods to a few axioms and deduction rules. Therefore, the conclusion seems plausible that these deduction rules are sucient to decide all mathematical questions expressible in those systems. We will show that this is not true, but that there are even relatively easy problem in the theory of ordinary whole numbers that can not be decided from the axioms. This is not due to the nature of these systems, but it is true for a very wide class of formal systems, which in particular includes all those that you get by adding a fnite number of axioms to the above mentioned systems, provided the additional axioms don't make false theorems provable.
    And I didn't say he established the incompleteness of all systems. Merely those large enough to contain arithmetic.
    posted by Francis at 11:00 AM on March 8, 2016


    And on two other points:
    curious and a bit humorous for a modern scientist – who must be aware of whole realms of science where the use of physical tools like microscopes and telescopes fell by the wayside decades ago, and all the work is done now by theoretical speculation – to insist that science is really purely about trusting your senses.

    I'm trying to think of one realm of science where all the work is done by theoretical speculation. Rather than a lot of theoretical speculation and then hoping you get some useful results from the particle accelerator. Theoretical physics is trying to work out what we will find when we are able to look - but looking is absolutely essential.

    What do you mean by "useful or worthwhile"?

    If something is useful it's because it makes predictions about the world that can be used to act on. If it makes predictions about the world you can act on then it makes predictions about the world you can test. And then you're into the realms of an empirical, testable subject and no longer in the realms of pure philosophy. You might still have philosophy of your new subject - but everyone should study the philosophy of their own subject.
    posted by Francis at 11:13 AM on March 8, 2016


    Francis: “If something is useful it's because it makes predictions about the world that can be used to act on. If it makes predictions about the world you can act on then it makes predictions about the world you can test. And then you're into the realms of an empirical, testable subject and no longer in the realms of pure philosophy. You might still have philosophy of your new subject - but everyone should study the philosophy of their own subject.”

    Why would we want to act on predictions about the world? Why would we want to act at all?
    posted by koeselitz at 11:32 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


    This is a good thread. Thanks :)
    posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:28 PM on March 8, 2016


    resistance to the notion that Cartesian duality is a vastly incomplete and unsuitable model of the mind.

    People are resistant to this? At least in its purest form, dualism is kind of nonsensical (e.g souls existing without reference to the physical world at all).

    I could see a reduced form (is there a more precise philosophical term for this?) where you consider the mind to be running on the substrate of the brain, but I didn't think that counted as dualism exactly because the mind is still dependent on the brain existing (until better technology comes around).
    posted by smidgen at 3:03 PM on March 8, 2016


    That is, we are limited as minds, and the nature of our limitations precedes from physical limitations (the size and nature of the substrate).
    posted by smidgen at 3:09 PM on March 8, 2016


    People are resistant to this?

    Yes. This completely awesome video involving badly animated cartoons and Star Trek helps explain why.

    Also, those who doubt, they've never JUST discovered aged scotch back when it was ungodly cheap as everyone was into obscure wines at the time, JUST as they landed a major new gig with a huge paybump vlidating their entire career path JUST as the depressive phase hit, and hard. The lengths my brain tried to tell me I should be sad... and then it gave up, and just made me bawl for a bit.

    Maybe this depression thing is real and not actually an excuse for fucking up my whole life, as I am clearly not fucking up anything now? Apart from bawling and being miserable and self-loathing for reasons that my brain just stopped trying to provide. You. Are. Feeling. This. It's utterly real, as you are feeling it. It's still bullshit. A (metaphorical, I hope) demon was feeding me on the sly a dram or two of distilled Sad, and I recognize the effect, as I prefer what aged scotch does to me more. I will take distilled dirt-roasted waste-grass left alone for two decades in a barrel over "sad for no reason" everytime.

    My brain exists in the tangible universe. So do I. This isn't a supportable philosophical premise, alack, but it gives me an observation I can use to build testable hypotheses from, and both science and philosophy forget they are one and the same. Empiricism is philosophy in action.
    posted by Slap*Happy at 6:03 PM on March 8, 2016


    If something is useful it's because it makes predictions about the world that can be used to act on. If it makes predictions about the world you can act on then it makes predictions about the world you can test. And then you're into the realms of an empirical, testable subject and no longer in the realms of pure philosophy. You might still have philosophy of your new subject - but everyone should study the philosophy of their own subject.

    Ethics: useless.
    posted by Pope Guilty at 6:04 PM on March 8, 2016


    First grub, then ethics. But after that, more grub.
    posted by anotherpanacea at 7:47 PM on March 8, 2016


    You went out of your way to tell me that the stuff I really love is shit.

    Ironically, I love Socrates; he is a stellar troll and his dialogue on friendship is a perfect example of why he was trolling the people sucking up to him. It's part of why I reread it every now and then - he plays it so straight he could be Jane Austen. It's epic.
    posted by Deoridhe at 8:50 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


    I didn't say he established the incompleteness of all systems. Merely those large enough to contain arithmetic.

    Surely any formal system not large enough to contain arithmetic is incomplete by inspection? After all, it's missing at least arithmetic.
    posted by flabdablet at 9:24 PM on March 8, 2016


    Completeness has a specific technical meaning. First order logic is complete and consistent (this is Gödel's completeness theorem).
    posted by eruonna at 11:20 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


    Why would we want to act on predictions about the world? Why would we want to act at all?

    Thank you for the demonstration of why people like Bill Nye have no respect for philosophy as a distinct discipline. Now if you were to ask "Why would a disembodied brain with no ability to feel either pain or pleasure and no need for any sort of nuitrients or fear of death want to act?" you might have a question worth discussing. But to ignore counter-factuals when posting a philosophical question is at best to waste everyone's time. At worst by not stating your counter-factuals it opens you to there being a contradiction in your premises and, as Russell (probably) demonstrated by proving that if 4=5 then he was the pope, you can "prove" anything if you start with contradictory premises.

    Ethics: useless.

    By my definition that holds if and only if you narrow down ethics to exclude any form of consequentialism, any form of reciprocity, and any predictions about the difference between ethical and unethical behaviour, yes it possibly is useless.
    posted by Francis at 3:34 AM on March 9, 2016


    This is like how people who claim to be staunchly apolitical always end up being super political, they just frame whatever their personal politics are as "common sense". Exactly the same. You're just asserting your priors over here and using them to conclude that philosophy is useless.

    Why is philosophy useful? Because it helps us know when people are full of shit in this manner.
    posted by tobascodagama at 5:09 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


    To be clear: What I mean is that you're exhibiting all the signs of naive materialism, which is indeed a philosophical stance, but you haven't done any of the work to get there and you're acting like it's a self-evident conclusion when it isn't.
    posted by tobascodagama at 5:11 AM on March 9, 2016


    This is like how people who claim to be staunchly apolitical always end up being super political, they just frame whatever their personal politics are as "common sense". Exactly the same. You're just asserting your priors over here and using them to conclude that philosophy is useless.

    Why is philosophy useful? Because it helps us know when people are full of shit in this manner.


    When have I ever said that philosophy is useless? If it's not perfectly obvious that I have a pretty good grounding in philosophy then you haven't been reading. If you haven't seen that I have stated that the philosophy of any given subject enhances that subject (and I'd go further and say it's necessary for mastery of that subject)? The problem is twofold. The first is that philosophy is too important to be left to philosophers. The second is that pure philosophers have nothing to ground them and so produce meaningless castles in the air.

    But go on arguing with your strawmen and bringing your scatological complaints about them onto the field of discussion. If you get covered in the contents of those strawmen it's because you brought them there.

    As for naive materialism, you'll note the word naive in there. This makes it a good starting assumption - and the entire canon of philosophical thought has never managed to disprove it. Or even done that much to undermine it - while at the same time working from naive materialistic premises has gone a long way.

    If you want a discussion involving non naive premises then state your premises upfront. You've done nothing to establish that any other set of premises are better than naive ones - so naive is the default. And this claim that you shouldn't start at naive positions is the sort of autoproctology that makes pure philosophers get treated as seriously by many outside their disciplines as homeopaths are in most professional medical circles.
    posted by Francis at 5:54 AM on March 9, 2016


    Francis: “When have I ever said that philosophy is useless? If it's not perfectly obvious that I have a pretty good grounding in philosophy then you haven't been reading.”

    Up above, when I asked you what "useful and worthwhile" was, you said that "useful" was when something makes predictions about the worth that can be used to act on, predictions you can test. You said this was outside the realm of what you call "pure philosophy." I think anyone could be forgiven for thinking that you mean that what you call "pure philosophy" is useless. You seem to have a definition of philosophy which allows it to be attached to other subjects, though, which you distinguish from philosophy alone by calling it "pure philosophy."

    This may be a common way of talking about things, but I'm not sure it makes sense. As far as I can tell, when you say you have a "pretty good grounding in philosophy," you mean modern philosophy, and specifically a philosophy which is divided into two things; "pure philosophy" on the one hand, which seems to deal almost solely with questions about cognition, and philosophies of various subjects on the other hand, which are useful on their own but not as any part of a whole. You also distinguish "philosophy" from "ethics," apparently for the same reason. Again, these are common ways of talking about things, but I am not convinced they make sense.

    me: “Why would we want to act on predictions about the world? Why would we want to act at all?”

    Francis: “Thank you for the demonstration of why people like Bill Nye have no respect for philosophy as a distinct discipline.”

    I don't understand this. "People like Bill Nye" don't like questions? It was not a dishonest question, for whatever it's worth – nor was it supposed to be some sort of trick. I really meant it.

    “Now if you were to ask ‘Why would a disembodied brain with no ability to feel either pain or pleasure and no need for any sort of nuitrients or fear of death want to act?’ you might have a question worth discussing. But to ignore counter-factuals when posting a philosophical question is at best to waste everyone's time. At worst by not stating your counter-factuals it opens you to there being a contradiction in your premises and, as Russell (probably) demonstrated by proving that if 4=5 then he was the pope, you can "prove" anything if you start with contradictory premises.”

    I don't understand this, either. I'm sorry. I'll admit that I'm very rusty where modern philosophy is concerned; it's not at all my area of expertise. So probably you can explain this to me. I don't understand why a question about a disembodied brain with no need for nutrients – which is a weird thing that's never happened to anybody – would be more worthy of discussion than a simple question that seems to make sense and seems to be a real question about the world, at least in my own view – why do people do what they do? You said above that "naive materialism" is a good place to start from, and I wholly agree on that: we should start from the simple basics of the world as we human beings find it. But esoteric discussions about disembodied brains don't have anything to do with the simple basics of the world as we humans find it, do they? If you think those esoteric discussions constitute "pure philosophy," I can see why you'd dismiss "pure philosophy" as not useful.

    When I asked what usefulness was, and what the point of acting at all is, you said that my question was why Bill Nye and others like him have no respect for philosophy. I guess that what you meant was: the answer to this question is so obvious that it's a stupid question, a question that shouldn't be asked, and when Bill Nye and others like him hear people asking stupid, obvious questions under the name of "philosophy," they get frustrated and turn away. But – forgive me for my dullness if I'm just being ridiculous here – it does not seem obvious to me why people act the way they do. The way we ought to act actually seems like a very difficult question to me, and perhaps the most important.

    And I don't ask these questions like some sort of proud young teacher, just itching to show you that I have an answer to a question that you don't. I don't know the answer. I don't know how we should live. I ask the question honestly. What I do know is this: this is the founding question of philosophy – how should we live, and why? – and it animates everything useful and worthwhile in that discipline.

    Socrates founded the tradition of philosophy by asking: how should we live? What is the purpose of living? He asked many questions subordinate to this pursuit, such as: should we live virtuously? Would living virtuously make us happy? Is happiness within our control, or does it depend on things beyond our reach? Is virtue, what we would call "being a good person," an actual thing, a state humans can attain – or is it a lie told by people in power in order to keep us in line? What is friendship? Can friendship or love make us happy? If so, how? The tradition which Socrates founded by asking these questions and living a life of inquiry lasted sixteen hundred years; al-Farabi, who initiated its great revival, was confident in saying emphatically in his most important work (Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle) that there is no other way that people and cities can attain supreme happiness except by what he called philosophy, which was identical to what both Plato and Aristotle also called philosophy: a disciplined inquiry, lived as a way of life, into what constitutes human happiness.

    To my mind, so-called utilitarianism has one great defect: it never asks the fundamental question about how we should live, generally taking the answer to be obvious. But I don't think it is. If it were obvious, all people would live in precisely the same way, and there would be no heated arguments about what we ought to do in any given circumstance – the world would be very different from the way it is now.

    All this is why, incidentally, I don't see any difference between "philosophy" and "ethics," and why I don't really see any way of distinguishing "pure philosophy." The pursuit of knowledge of particulars through systematic testing is philosophy, no matter what anyone may wish to call it; if it is divorced from its animating questions, it's a sort of stunted philosophy, but it is philosophy nonetheless.
    posted by koeselitz at 10:31 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


    I'm going to cut the points of disagreement and get to the points of near-agreement. Not that I don't have more to say, but I think this is the actually interesting part.

    And I don't ask these questions like some sort of proud young teacher, just itching to show you that I have an answer to a question that you don't. I don't know the answer. I don't know how we should live. I ask the question honestly. What I do know is this: this is the founding question of philosophy – how should we live, and why? – and it animates everything useful and worthwhile in that discipline.

    Ah, the quest for the good life. Now we're coming close to being on the same page.

    To my mind, so-called utilitarianism has one great defect: it never asks the fundamental question about how we should live, generally taking the answer to be obvious. But I don't think it is. If it were obvious, all people would live in precisely the same way, and there would be no heated arguments about what we ought to do in any given circumstance – the world would be very different from the way it is now.

    And here I think that you are massively incorrect. For starters you are assuming both homogeneity and lossless transmission of information - and both of these are empirically demonstrable to be incorrect. I am not you. I do not have the needs of e.g. my sister with congenital cardiac problems or my ageing parents. For that matter my mother is old enough to remember rationing - I'm not sure how many tins were around the house when I was growing up. A response to a stress I simply didn't have, so there's almost no food in my house. People learn based on stimuli. Also I've seen and believe (but have been unable to track down the source paper) that people underestimate pain to others and overestimate it to themselves by about a total margin of 40%. Everyone sees their own perspective first.

    Any utilitarianism that denies naive empirical results is utilitarianism done badly. For that matter any eudaimonaic philosophy of any sort that requires that we redesign humanity (both Homo Economicus and the New Soviet Man spring to mind) is a bad one - while the greatest good for the greatest number requires accepting that people are different. Well done utilitarian approaches need to allow space for people to be themselves. (I absolutely consider healthcare free at the point of delivery and a basic income to be utilitarian, and part of the point of the second is that it doesn't force everyone to live the same way).

    Finally any utilitarian approach needs to work out how to deal with those who won't play nice - and to be truly utilitarian how to separate those from incomplete transmission of information.

    All this is why, incidentally, I don't see any difference between "philosophy" and "ethics," and why I don't really see any way of distinguishing "pure philosophy." The pursuit of knowledge of particulars through systematic testing is philosophy, no matter what anyone may wish to call it; if it is divorced from its animating questions, it's a sort of stunted philosophy, but it is philosophy nonetheless.

    In short philosophy is too important to leave to those who would call themselves philosophers. Something I've been saying throughout :)

    The thing I'd add about this is that almost all the testing of solutions comes from outside the direct realm of philosophy, as do the practical recommendations - indeed those actually trying to get to the useful ends in my experience aren't those who call themselves philosophers. The self-proclaimed philosophers in my experience are the group who object to practical answers on the grounds that they are naive materialism.
    posted by Francis at 12:13 PM on March 9, 2016


    The quickest justification for philosophy that I can think of ...

    ... is that it's a hell of a lot more noble than spending every day thinking of ways to prey on your fellow human beings without giving a rats ass about how it affects their lives or whether you're giving them any value.

    There are plenty of assholes in the world, on all levels. But you can go for a very long time without running into someone with a point of view that can help you get past the damage they've done. That someone - who may save your life - may not be an academic philosopher, or even distinguishable from a bum.

    Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
    Mock on, Mock on, 'tis all in vain.
    You throw the sand against the wind,
    And the wind blows it back again.

    posted by Twang at 1:24 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


    Philosophy of the Recreation

    Strawmen well,
    Straw people to be
    Gender neutral, or not to be;
    Set off my allergies.
    I do not tread
    On thee.
    Well, certainty not
    On the disembodied
    Head.
    Don't get me started
    On which snide
    The air is better parted.
    I am not the droid
    To beat the go master.
    In theory I should be
    Cheery, but my hunger so vast
    Must outlast and be faster
    Than the blackest of holes
    Hungry for my light.
    But choking on my mass
    Devouring first the m,
    The rest disaster. Just an
    Infinitely shrinking question,
    Down a spiral implosion, going nowhere
    Known, stopped then in
    The maw of a glancing last
    Realization; this hole is
    Full of fatheads,
    On their way to populate
    Other universes, water planets
    With sticky underwater carpets
    Full of ideas about how
    To move again, to ambulate
    To taste a fine wine,
    To speak, opine, to lie to, and with,
    A freshman, one more time.
    posted by Oyéah at 7:42 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]




    The pursuit of knowledge of particulars through systematic testing is philosophy, no matter what anyone may wish to call it

    Wasn't it you who said, earlier, that Wittgenstein was not a philosopher, because he didn't engage with the tradition of philosophy?
    posted by LogicalDash at 10:25 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


    Aha. That was probably a mistake, although it could be said that Wittgenstein pointedly does not seek knowledge of anything, and I would bet he'd agree.
    posted by koeselitz at 5:42 AM on March 10, 2016


    but you haven't done any of the work to get there

    what would you say is the philosophical basis for the binary division you just imposed on humanity?
    posted by Sebmojo at 2:16 PM on March 10, 2016


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