Thursday, September 29, 2011

The philosophical life

I think of Paul Livingston as a philosopher I very much admire although, oddly, I can't remember why. I've read something he wrote that struck me as very good, but I can't name it. It might even have been a syllabus or some lecture notes. Anyway, I was excited to see an interview with him at New APPS.

In the interview he describes a disappointing but all too believable undergraduate experience:

I went to Harvard as an undergraduate and honestly found it, given the background I had [he went to a great high school], disappointing -- not that there weren’t great people there and some amazing lecturers, but there were a lot of factors that made it difficult for me to learn in a real way. For instance, I found professors intimidating – I don’t think I ever once visited a professor’s office hours during my whole time there.

I realize now that there were a lot of resources there that I probably missed out on. But there was also a very “sink-or-swim” kind of attitude, both among faculty and undergraduates…seminar discussions were often sort of competitive, and didn’t do much to encourage creative thought (or confidence). 
The intimidation (intimidatingness?) of the professors and the sink-or-swim competitiveness of the students seem related. And these relate too, of course, to things like rankings. To some extent academics have little choice but to compete if they want to get a job and then tenure. And to some extent things like annual evaluations keep this going even after tenure. But to some extent I think we do it to ourselves .

Some of the discussion of this post on what it's like to be a professional philosopher with kids is (or seems to be) revealing. I was going to quote a passage or two, but I think there are too many to choose from, and the context of the whole is important too. So (pretend you have) read the whole thing. A lot of people reveal the very natural desire to be a great philosopher, and to want to publish well (i.e. a lot and in good places) for this reason. Everyone agrees that quality matters more than quantity, but people still seem to focus on quantity quite a bit. People talk about wanting to produce two papers a year, or only one every 18 months, and so on. I do this too, but in a much less regular way than I used to. I used to try to write or revise a draft of a paper every month, present at least one paper at a conference each year, and publish at least one paper every year. Now I just try to do what I can when I can. I don't think the results are any better or worse as a consequence, although I hope my work is getting better as I learn and understand more.

But the overall results seem bad. Lots of imperfect papers get published, lots of people live less happy lives because, say, they are working on papers instead of spending time with their families, and the profession becomes a competition for prestige rather than a science or a humanity. A friend of mine talks about the desire to do research in terms of not being dead inside, and he has a point. But if philosophical research is just another rat race, then joining in seems like a kind of death. And it's not as if anyone can really win. That is, it doesn't look as though there will be any great philosophers any more. Or at least not Great Philosophers. Any more than anyone will be able to get away with dedicating a musical composition to the greater glory of God.

On the other hand, maybe quitting the race is a recipe for the Blue Valentine problem. Maybe a good domestic life requires a successful (and hence competitive) working life. Round here there are people who sit for hours on their porches watching whatever goes by. I could never do that, but I often wonder whether that's a sign of virtue or vice on my part. Should we give up the idea that "I could have been a contender" or should we never be satisfied with what we have and always strive for more? Is it good or bad to be content just to sit? If you think it's good, go to Video A below. If you think it's bad, go to Video B.

Video A:

Video B: 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Novels as metaphors

William Egginton doesn't do his side any favors when he writes that:
The literary historian Luiz Costa Lima has argued that prior to the invention of fiction, narratives were largely measured against one overriding standard: the perceived truthfulness of their relation to the world. That truth was often a moral or theological one, and to the extent that narratives related the deeds of men, proximity to an image of virtue or holiness would be considered worthy of imitation, and distance from it worthy of opprobrium.
Shifting from "perceived truthfulness" to "truth" (when what seems to be meant is "truth", not truth) is shifty, and the kind of either sloppiness or playfulness that encourages others to regard literary theory as providing fun but not knowledge.

This is much better:
For a prose narrative to be fictional it must be written for a reader who knows it is untrue and yet treats it for a time as if it were true. The reader knows, in other words, not to apply the traditional measure of truthfulness for judging a narrative; he or she suspends that judgment for a time, in a move that Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized as “the willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith.” Another way of putting this is to say that a reader must be able to occupy two opposed identities simultaneously: a naïve reader who believes what he is being told, and a savvy one who knows it is untrue.
Compare Davidson on metaphor:
The most obvious semantic difference between simile and metaphor is that all similes are true and most metaphors are false.  The earth is like a floor, the Assyrian did come down like a wolf on the fold, because everything is like everything.  But turn these sentences into metaphors, and you turn them false; the earth is like a floor, but it is not a floor; Tolstoy, grown up, was like an infant, but he wasn’t one.
Most fiction is false, but not all of it. There are novels closely based on fact, after all, and at least some sentences in such novels are probably quite true. This might seem to be a difference between metaphors and novels though:
A metaphor makes us attend to some likeness, often a novel or surprising  likeness,  between two or more things
But a) is this claim of Davidson's really true?, and b) don't novels do something like this as well? Metaphors do not usually make us attend to the likeness they imply. "All the world's a stage" might make us stop and think about how life is like a play, but "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life" does not, surely, make us stop and think about how similar something (what?) is to dust. Maybe that's a sign that this isn't a good metaphor, but then most metaphors are not likely to be very good. What I want to say is this: most metaphors do not make us attend to a likeness in the sense of stopping and thinking about it. Shakespeare's do not do that. If they did, we would not be able to follow the plays. Usually we take metaphors in our stride, which is a point I think Davidson himself makes. Metaphors show or present things in a certain way, as like this or that, but we see without having to stop and make out what we are being shown. And novels do something similar. They show us the world as being like this, like themselves.

There is at most one world, as Davidson has said, so fictional claims about what happened (i.e. what we typically get in novels) are not about some other world. They are false claims about this world. (I realize that this is, shall we say, an odd thing to say, but I'm trying to speak Davidsonian here.) But we all know that they are false, so they aren't lies or mistakes. They are like the sentence "Jones is a pig," metaphorical. Being false, I suppose that novels don't provide us with knowledge in any obvious or simple sense. But can't it be true that Jones is a pig? Must we think that such expressions are nothing but fun ways of saying things that ought to be expressed without metaphor? We can think that, I think, but to do so is to insist on using only a very limited range of linguistic possibilities. Why would we do that? It seems very much like the insanity that Chesterton sees in materialism:
As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out... His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cogwheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seem unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the Earth...
I don't know how to argue about such things though. Egginton is responding to Alex Rosenberg's appalling defense of naturalism. (I don't mean that Rosenberg argued appallingly badly but that the view he defends is appalling. Witness the appalled reactions here.) It's like Schopenhauer's contrasting of two nothings:
we freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is, for all those who are still full of will, certainly nothing; but conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world which is so real, with all its suns and Milky Ways, is nothing.
What apparently appears as nothing to Rosenberg (nothing but fun, at least) seems like pretty much everything to me. And what seems like everything to him is as nothing to me. But perhaps I'm exaggerating, blinded by the worst things Rosenberg says.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hume on miracles

More shooting from the hip, but it seems to produce interesting results (at least for me) and this is only a blog after all.

The last time I discussed Hume on miracles with other real philosophers the majority of the group seemed to think his argument was pretty hopeless. I think that view goes something like this:

Hume says it's irrational to believe in miracles because, by (his) definition, a miracle violates a law of nature. But Hume of all people shouldn't be saying that it's rational to believe that laws of nature are never violated! The evidence for each alleged miracle is some kind of testimony, the evidence against, he says, is universal experience. But experience does not tell us that what usually happens must always happen, nor even that it probably always happens. So the evidence against is very weak, perhaps even non-existent.

The Bible says that the Red Sea parted. Evidence for this being true: the Bible says it happened. Evidence against: seas don't part. But, according to Hume, it is not rational to believe that seas don't part. It is only rational to believe that  observed seas don't part (and not because they are observed). Or even: observed seas with the possible exception of the Red Sea on one occasion don't part. But that tells us nothing about what the Red Sea did when none of us was there to observe it. Hume has blundered!

I don't think that's right. For one thing, if a miracle is a violation of a law of nature and there are no laws of nature, then there cannot be any miracles. If there are laws of nature but it is not rational to believe in them, then it is also not rational to believe in miracles thus defined. No laws of nature violated without laws of nature. This might be cheating, but it isn't a blunder.

Secondly, although Hume does not believe it is rational to believe in laws of nature he does think it is normal, natural, and pretty much inevitable (for human beings, at least). So we can take laws of nature as given. Once we do this miracles are possible after all. But is it ever wise to believe in any given miracle? That is his question. We have some evidence in favor of each alleged miracle, namely the allegation or claim that it happened. Against this we have not so much evidence that it didn't as a kind of posit or presupposition that it could not have happened. Can it be wise to reject this dictate of human-nature-plus-experience? Hume thinks not.

As he sees it we cannot help but think inductively, so belief in the violation of a natural law is almost impossible. If it is possible, it comes at a price. Wittgenstein asks whether we would still stay in the saddle no matter how much the facts bucked (his love of Westerns showing through?) and Hume's concern is with something like staying in the saddle, holding on to our natural common sense. If miracle stories are facts then they are bucking facts, and it cannot (he thinks) be wise to let them unseat us.

It seems to me that Christians might agree with this. Some of them accept that their beliefs are not prudent or strictly rational. Kierkegaard and Chesterton, for instance, are more passionate than that. Hume is presumably teasing when he talks of faith in miracles as a miracle, but believers might say that this is exactly what it is.        

Friday, September 23, 2011

I could have been wild and I could have been free, but nature played this trick on me

This is part III of an irregular series of posts in which I take a famous passage from a work of philosophy and talk about it without taking its context much into account or doing more than glance at a tiny fraction of the secondary literature on it. That's pretty inexcusable, but I enjoy it and the results have been OK so far. (This is the kind of thing people say before a terrible crash.)

Today my victim is Hume. He is famously a compatibilist, believing that free will is compatible with determinism. But is this really what he believes? It isn't clear to me that he believes in either free will or determinism, and 'neither...nor' is not 'both...and.' If we define determinism, as I believe Tommi Uschanov once did, as the theory that every event has a cause, then Hume would not be a determinist if he did not believe that any event has a cause. And surely some people read him this way. Certainly some people read him as denying that we have free will, since he talks about the liberty of not being in chains rather than freedom of the will, and this (our not being in chains) is not what defenders of free will typically have in mind.

So, what does he actually say? This sounds pretty deterministic:
Everyone agrees that matter in all its operations is driven by a necessary force, and that every natural effect is so exactly settled by the energy of its cause that in those particular circumstances no other effect could possibly have resulted from that cause.
But he also says this:
The necessity of any physical or mental action is not, strictly speaking, a quality in the agent; rather, it resides in the thinking or intelligent onlooker, and consists chiefly in the determination of the onlooker's thoughts to infer the occurrence of that action from some preceding events
Which sounds as though he is denying that there is any necessary force in any matter that drives its operations. The necessity is in the mind of the beholder, much as the badness of murder lies not in the act, according to Hume, but is a kind of function of the heart of those who contemplate the act. Because we all have much the same minds we all agree that murder is bad and that determinism is true. But it isn't really. (Kant then tries to solve this problem by claiming that the matter in question also exists only in the mind.)

And what of liberty or free will? Everyone knows that Hume says this:
By ‘liberty’, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting according to the determinations of the will; i.e. if we choose to stay still we may do so, and if we choose to move we may do that. This hypothetical liberty—·‘hypothetical’ because it concerns what we may do if we so choose·—is universally agreed to belong to everyone who isn’t a prisoner and in chains. There’s nothing to disagree about here.
I think less attention is paid to this passage:
liberty, when opposed to necessity, is nothing but the absence of that determination ·in the onlooker’s thought· and a certain looseness or indifference which the onlooker feels in passing or not passing from the idea of one event to the idea of a following event. 
Liberty, too, is in the mind of the beholder, according to this. Hume seems to think it is rather illusory, but that is what he says it is. If this is right then liberty is not compatible with necessity at all. The onlooker's thoughts either have the determination in question or they don't. If they do, the agent's actions are necessary. If they don't, they are free.

I'm sure this has all been said before unless it is just badly wrong. But I wonder whether it relates to why (as I recall) Wittgenstein, in writing about free will, focuses so much on predictability.  

Thursday, September 22, 2011


One of the questions I was asked at the NEH Institute for high school teachers over the summer was what high schools could do better to prepare their students for college. I couldn't think of anything, but Brie Gertler suggested that students seemed not to know how to read properly, and that maybe something could be done about this. I was skeptical at the time, thinking that students might know perfectly well how to read carefully but might not bother to do so when they believed they could get away with it. Now I'm not so sure.

This essay at Inside Higher Ed might be of interest to anyone who reads this blog. It talks about Hadji Murat (one of Wittgenstein's favorites), Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, and disappointing works of contemporary, popular non-fiction. The author, Brendan Boyle, says that his students read Eating Animals but not only found it unmoving, they also failed to understand it. J. M. Coetzee has said of this book:
The everyday horrors of factory farming are evoked so vividly, and the case against the people who run the system is presented so convincingly, that anyone who, after reading Foer’s book, continues to consume the industry’s products must be without a heart, or impervious to reason, or both.
Boyle's students are at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, considered one of the best universities in the country. He believes that they read the book, but reports sadly that:
None of the 20 who came to the seminar became a vegetarian. The best I got were vague professions about more ethical eating. "I’ll only eat free-range," said one student. "I’m only eating chicken from now on," said another. These sound like good outcomes, consistent with the aims of a program designed to get students to "think more deeply" about the topic at hand. But they are incoherent things to say after reading Safran Foer’s book, which memorably demolishes the meaningless moniker "free range." And if there were one animal you would not want to eat after reading the book, it is the chicken.
From this he concludes that his students did not understand the book, which I think might be the wrong conclusion to draw. Knowing that meat comes from a "free range" animal is not knowing very much about its life, but the book is mostly against factory farming, so that if you knew that the meat came from an animal that had lived outside without significant confinement or crowding then you might agree with the book and still think it was OK to eat this meat. But to only eat chicken would be a very strange reaction, as Boyle points out. So I think he is probably right that his students really are not very good at reading with comprehension. Those who came away thinking they would only eat free-range might have understood it. The rest might lack a heart, be impervious to reason, or simply be incapable of reading properly.

In conclusion: Brie seems to have been right, you should read Boyle's essay, and even some very good students still seem to need to learn how to read. I hope we can teach them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reasons and knowledge

Jean Kazez posts an interesting passage from Derek Parfit's On What Matters:
It is sometimes claimed that we have reasons to enjoy, or be thrilled or in other ways moved by, great artistic works. In many cases, I believe, this claim is false. We can have reasons to want to enjoy, or be thrilled or moved by, these artistic works. But these are not reasons to enjoy, or to be thrilled or moved by, these works.  We do have reasons to admire some novels, plays or poems, given the importance of some of the ideas that they express. But poetry is what gets lost in the translation, even if this translation expresses the same ideas. And we never have reasons to enjoy, or be moved by, great music.   If we ask what makes some musical passage so marvellous, the answer might be ‘Three modulations to distant keys’. This answer describes a cause of our response to this music, not a reason. Modulations to distant keys are like the herbs, spices, or other ingredients that can make food delicious. When someone neither enjoys nor is moved by some great musical work, this person is not in any way less than fully rational, by failing to respond to certain reasons.
This seems an odd way to talk about literature. Let's say a novel expresses the idea that racism is evil. Is that a reason to admire the novel? If the book is badly written then I think it might be a reason to it, or at least not to be too harsh in our criticism of it. "Although the author plainly means well, I'm afraid that I cannot recommend..." Is that admiration? I think that what I admire in a case like this is the author's intention or sentiments, not the novel itself.

It's also an odd way to talk about music. We never have reasons to enjoy great music? I imagine that Parfit would agree we have reasons to listen to great music. What would a reason to enjoy it be? Maybe that is Parfit's point. But I think a reason might be "this bit" or "the bit with the flute" or "the way the guitar sounds like a bagpipe." Then Parfit might say that those are the reasons why someone likes the music, they are what someone likes in it, but they are not reasons for liking it or to like it. The bit with the flute, or the flute playing, is the bit you like best, just as someone might like the cilantro most in a dish of food. So "it's got cilantro in it" might be one's reason for liking a dish, but it is not a reason to like it. It is more like a cause than a reason in the relevant sense. I wonder though. Can I know what causes me to like things, necessarily? Or rather, is my knowing what I like about something the same as knowing what causes me to like it? It doesn't seem like it to me. You can know what you like without having a clue why you like it.

The important idea for Parfit, I think, is that it is not irrational to dislike cilantro or the flutey bit or whatever. But I'm not sure it is as simple as that. Is it rational to admire great ideas? Is it more rational to do so than it is to admire great musicianship or composition or cooking or any kind of artistry? Anyone who does not enjoy or feel moved by these things is missing something. If they are, say, deaf then this has nothing to do with their rationality, but otherwise I think it does. What the connection is, exactly, I am deliberately leaving vague. But I think there is one.

I was reminded of all this by Alex Rosenberg's piece in The Stone, in which he suggests that neither literary criticism nor fiction (nor history!) provides knowledge. He ends with an interesting use of what I will call the second-person 'we':
What naturalists really fear is not becoming dogmatic or giving up the scientific spirit. It’s the threat that the science will end up showing that much of what we cherish as meaningful in human life is illusory.
It is clear enough that Rosenberg does not exactly cherish the work he describes as "fun, but not knowledge." At least this is clear to anyone who reads the post and comments on this at New APPS. As Jon Cogburn says there:
Has Rosenberg ever even read the Times Literary Supplement or the New York or London Reviews of Books? When did this casual philistinism combined with such unjustified, blanket dismissals of the life works of others become acceptable enough for one of our brethren to manifest it in the New York Times of all places? Has he even ever seriously read an issue of the Sunday Times, which includes its fair share of literary criticism? How could, barring radical skepticism which would entail that science doesn’t deliver knowledge, one possibly say that the epistemic standards of these publications don’t deliver knowledge? And the same holds for the parade of intellectual bogeymen that precedes his idiotic statement about literary criticism. Shame!
My suspicion is that behind Rosenberg's apparent philistinism and Parfit's obscure thoughts (obscure to me, not having read his very long book in which, perhaps, he explains them very well) is a vestige of the old distinction between the cognitive and the emotive. So poetry, as Parfit seems to see it, can contain ideas, but these are expressible in prose and what gets lots in the translation is only the poetry, not the ideas. (He doesn't quite say that, but that's what I suspect he means.) And Rosenberg distinguishes science, which gives us knowledge, from the cherished fun of literature or rather what sounds an awful lot like continental philosophy (frighteningly referring to all the liberal arts while having the emotive meaning: Boooo!!!).

Here, as elsewhere, we seem to me to have the phenomenon of one group looking at the ends of the spaghetti (or the heads of the hydra) and seeing their obvious distinctness while another group looks further down, perhaps missing the ends or heads completely, and insisting that the distinction is illusory. Less metaphorically, there is an obvious difference between straightforward expressions of facts, on the one hand, and music or highly poetic language on the other, but seeing this difference should not blind us to the similarities and connections that might nevertheless exist and even matter. It might not even be possible to separate the two completely without killing the beast we want to understand.

Not getting a fact or not seeing is truth is missing something about the world. So is not seeing what is good about a piece of music. (And so is thinking you're hearing a flute when perhaps it's just a man going "woo woo".)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Wittgenstein blogs

Thanks to the Philosophers' Carnival I see that there is a blog called Philosophical Investigations, which looks worth investigating (ho ho).

And thanks to it, I see that Paul Johnston has a blog (his Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy in typescript form was a sort of Bible for me when I was an undergraduate). This is bound to be worth reading.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Thinking about what motivates us (desire, moral beliefs, etc.) led me to think of a more or less restless sea inside each person, a bit like the surface of the planet Solaris. We can call the whole sea "desire" if we want to, was my thought, but why would we want to do that, when there is so much we want to be able to say about different kinds of motivation?

I've also been wondering whether the kestrel in Kes is a reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins' windhover. And looking into that led me to discover Hopkins' idea of inscape. According to The Victorian Web, Hopkins wrote: "Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/ . . myself it speaks and spells,/ Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came." Tolkein expressed Hopkins' idea by saying that, "Each being in the universe 'selves,' that is, enacts its identity." This is not exactly "The Nothing noths," but it isn't a million miles away from "The World worlds," it seems to me.  

Apparently the idea comes from Duns Scotus, and I don't have much to say except that I like it. Here's Hopkins on a tree:
There is one notable dead tree . . . the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.
This is quite different from Sartre. If Anthony Rudd ever wanted to write about more people looking at a tree he might do well to include Hopkins.

The Windhover
To Christ Our Lord
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
      dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! 

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

The way of the world

Computer problems at home (now partly fixed) have meant I was unable to waste spend nearly as much time online as I normally would. And that means I missed my email and the good blogs I like to read, but it also means I spent less time aimlessly surfing and reading trivia. One morning I actually read bits of a real magazine over breakfast, including a short article by Marshall Poe in The Atlantic about how someone with an idea might go about turning that idea into a best-selling book:
I could get a book deal with a big New York trade publisher.
This is what I had to do. First, I needed to have a platform. A platform is something you stand on. It makes you taller than you are. In trade publishing, a platform is the same, but it’s a prestigious brand. I had two: from a trade editor’s point of view, I had been a “professor” at the big university and a “writer” at the big magazine. Second, I needed a big idea. A big idea is an enthusiastically stated thesis, usually taking the form of “This changes everything and will make you rich, happy, and beautiful.” A big idea must be counterintuitive: the this that changes everything must be something everyone thinks is trivial, but in fact matters a great deal. In my case, the this had to be Wikipedia, so my big idea was “Wikipedia changes everything.” I had done no research to substantiate such a claim. Third, I needed a catchphrase title like The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, or The Long Tail. The title had to be the kind of thing that becomes a cliché.
I was going to describe this as revealing, but it pretty much just confirms what I already thought. Poe concludes:
I couldn’t write a big-idea book, because, as it turned out, I didn’t believe in big ideas. By my lights, they almost had to be wrong. Years of academic research taught me two things. First, reality is as complicated as it is, not as complicated as we want it to be. Some phenomena have an irreducible complexity that will defeat any big-idea effort at simplification. Detailed research has, not surprisingly, cast doubt on the reality of wise crowds, tipping points, and long tails. Second, most of the easy big questions about the way the world works have been answered. The questions that remain are really hard. Big ideas, then, can only reinvent the wheel or make magical claims.
My first reaction was to feel contempt for the people who sell these big ideas, but maybe the people who buy them are more of a problem. These, after all, are in some sense the intellectuals of our society. Not the leading intellectuals, mostly, of course, but the people who buy books and take an interest in ideas. If what goes over best with them is ideas that are almost guaranteed to be false then there is a problem with our intellectual life, with our culture. (This problem, of course, might be no worse now than ever before.) Perhaps that goes without saying, but it makes me wonder about the value of democracy. Perhaps that kind of questioning is also just obviously called for, or already too late. But then what?

One thing that might help would be a reduction in the power of individuals like Rupert Murdoch to wield so much influence over how people think. But it's not hard to imagine the media being dominated by multiple people who all think along the same lines as Murdoch. There aren't that many people rich enough to be media moguls who are politically neutral or who think the rich have too much power. Strengthening disinterested news sources, e.g. PBS and NPR, might help, but I don't know how likely this is to happen, and it will never be a solution in itself.

Two other things that occur to me I associate with Martha Nussbaum, no doubt partly because I'm currently reading her Creating Capabilities. The first would be to guarantee the provision of certain basic capabilities or rights, so that these would be protected no matter what crazy people got elected. This would limit the damage that could be done by rule of the stupid by the stupid.

The other is Nussbaum's idea (which, of course, she shares with others) of educating people for citizenship by teaching them things like philosophy and thus developing their critical thinking skills (among much else, no doubt). This seems idealistic in both the good and the bad sense. It's worthy and admirably optimistic, but it also seems unlikely to work. Partly because some very powerful people would surely not want it to work. If an educated electorate started electing people other than those who are currently paid for by the power elite then this elite would do something, surely, to stop them.

I feel as though, in thinking all this (or thinking there is a need for the capabilities part of it, at least), I'm being elitist and anti-democratic, neither of which sounds or feels good. So it would be nice to see some alternative. But I'm not sure I do right now.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I'm reading through the comments on Brian Leiter's blog about APA interviews and whether they are worth doing or not. It brings back memories of the interviews I had, and brings up some surprises too. For instance: 
Even $1800 is a lot of money for anyone who does not have a tenure track job.
It's not a lot of money for anyone else? I guess what is a lot depends on what you get for it, and a job is a big deal, but still. Perhaps more to the point there are also comments like this:
The interview should provide the department with other kinds of information about the candidate, which may be important to the department. For example, whether or not the candidate is amiable, or presentable, or a confident public speaker, say. In short, what might be called a candidate's personality.
How important is it to be amiable, I wonder? And how much can be told about someone amiability in a job interview? Everyone will surely try to behave as if they are amiable, but some people are better actors than others. Likewise, some people will get help making them look presentable, while others won't. What does this tell about how the person will appear in future? Not much, it seems to me. And such things are very easy to fix. Why not just hire the un-presentable person anyway and tell them to get a haircut or whatever? The reference to confident public speaking worries me. Many academics are shy and rather un-confident, especially during stressful interviews. This does not mean they are bad teachers. All in all, the information interviews are being said to provide seems largely irrelevant, as some people have pointed out over at Leiter's site.

We will not be doing first-round interviews at all (i.e. we won't be doing any but on-campus interviews), for what it's worth, not because we are too smart to think such interviews have value but, I believe, simply to save money. But I haven't tried to fight this because I'm really not sure what value such interviews have.

My first APA interview was a nightmare that still haunts me. I probably was not a great candidate for the job, but the interview was a nerves-induced humiliation. My second one was better, although I did trip over an ottoman in the bedroom where it was conducted. I have not applied to any other jobs since getting the one I currently have, partly, if not entirely, so as to avoid having to go through that kind of thing again. The interview at VMI went better, but it was hardly an interview at all. I spent most of the day with the head of the department, who was not a philosopher. As I recall we pretty much chatted, and I think he liked my accent. I also had to teach a class, and because not everyone could make it at the same time I had to teach the same class twice. The first time went very well, the second time didn't. I was the same person presenting the same material in the same way, but with one group of students it captured their interest and with the other it didn't. I suspect that the people who only saw the second class thought I shouldn't get the offer. But I did.

From what I've seen of the process the key things are not to shoot yourself in the foot (e.g. by being rude to the administrative assistant or saying explicitly that the job you're being interviewed for is not your first choice) and hope that your teaching goes the way it goes on your best days. It really is kind of a crap-shoot though.  Good luck to everyone reading this who is on the market this year.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Yo no soy marinero

I know it's a well known passage, but I still don't know what to make of this from Descartes (in Jonathan Bennett's translation):
Nature also teaches me, through these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I (a thinking thing) am not merely in my body as a sailor is in a ship. Rather, I am closely joined to it—intermingled with it, so to speak—so that it and I form a unit. If this were not so, I wouldn’t feel pain when the body was hurt but would perceive the damage in an intellectual way, like a sailor seeing that his ship needs repairs. And when the body needed food or drink I would intellectually understand this fact instead of (as I do) having confused sensations of hunger and thirst. These sensations are confused mental events that arise from the union—the intermingling, as it were—of the mind with the body.
This related passage is curious too:
Again, why should that curious tugging in the stomach that I call ‘hunger’ tell me that I should eat, or a dryness of the throat tell me to drink, and so on? I couldn’t explain any of this, except to say that nature taught me so. For there is no connection (or none that I understand) between the tugging sensation and the decision to eat, or between the sensation of something causing pain and the mental distress that arises from it. It seems that nature taught me to make these judgments about objects of the senses, for I was making them before I had any arguments to support them.
The words "(or none that I understand)" are surely crucial here, since there is a connection between hunger and wanting to eat, and another "between the sensation of something causing pain and the mental distress that arises from it" (although I'm really not sure how there can be two things in this case). It seems to me that there is a continuum (perhaps even a discontinuous one, if that makes any sense), from symptoms that one must learn are removable by, say, drinking water to painful knowledge of thirst. So I might cough a little, or feel vaguely like coughing, and diagnose that I should go to the water fountain. A baby would have no clue what was wrong, and perhaps little sense that anything was wrong, if it felt the same sensation in its throat. But at the extreme of thirst the knowledge that one needs water and the feeling of discomfort are, I imagine, indistinguishable. (I think Schopenhauer is good on this sort of thing, the dry throat as thirst embodied. And thirst is for water, so the concept of water is, so to speak, embodied in the throat and tongue.) So we can perceive something like mild thirst or pre-thirst in an intellectual, sailor-in-a-ship kind of way (which I suppose is what enables us to distinguish between the intellectual and the sensory or bodily), but we also sometimes experience "mental events" that are confusions of the intellectual and the bodily.

In the Third Meditation, Descartes says that "nature taught me to believe" means "I have a strong impulse to believe," but if God is no deceiver then, by Descartes's lights, these impulses should be true. So I am an intermingled unit of body and mind. We can conceptually distinguish the bodily from the intellectual, and so God could keep the mind going after the death of the body, but this mind would have no sensations (because sensations are, effectively, proof of the intermingling of mind and body). Nor would it be me in the full sense.

Gordon Baker and Katherine Morris (p. 153) say that Descartes means to say that the connection between the "tugging sensation" and the decision to eat is inexplicable, incapable of being understood, because it involves an apparently causal connection between something physical and something mental. But it only appears impossible when viewed from the sailor's perspective, it seems to me. And I am not a sailor.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Blaming the bad guys

I feel as though I've talked about this before, perhaps more than once, but here it is again. Christopher Hitchens, talking about the "simply evil" attacks of 9/11, writes:
That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist "targets," was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali. There was always some "intellectual," however, to argue in each case that the policy of Tony Blair, or George Bush, or the Spanish government, was the "root cause" of the broad-daylight slaughter of civilians. Responsibility, somehow, never lay squarely with the perpetrators.
So here's what I've said before and am going to say again: responsibility can (and in this case certainly does) lie squarely with the perpetrators of a crime without this meaning that there is no point in looking elsewhere for any root cause. This root cause is unlikely to be anything so simple as the policy of this or that government, but only careful investigation will show whether it is or not. The point I want to make is that to identify a root cause of some class of actions is not to deny that agents are wholly responsible for their own actions. The same kind of point applies, I think, to unemployment and rioting (or looting). That is, the unemployed are likely to be on average lazier (not necessarily by much) than the employed, and when rioting or looting is going on you can expect it to attract a bad crowd. Similarly, as far as I know, the people who ran the Nazi death camps tended to be sadists and psychopaths.

But no one would blame the Holocaust on a few bad apples. Not everyone directly involved was unusually sadistic or psychopathic before they got involved. And why people like this were ever put in a position to commit their crimes with the acceptance of (most of) the rest of their society surely calls for explanation. The same kind of thing goes for unemployment, I would think. In a world with no unemployment everyone will work, except the very lazy. In a world with some unemployment those very lazy people will still not work and some others won't either. These others will include some (maybe very many) people who are just unlucky, but they will probably also include some people who are a bit lazier than average. When being a Nazi in power is an option, this option will be popular with sadists. When being unemployed is one of the paths facing people, this will be popular with relatively lazy people. And when rioting and looting are going on, thieves are likely to want to join in more than other people. So the popular, conservative view that rioters are thieves, the unemployed are lazy, and so on, is likely to have a grain of truth in it. (I should stress in the case of unemployment that it might well be no more than a grain. In the 1980s in Britain whole factories, mines, etc. were closed own, leaving their workers unemployed. Of course these people were not lazy. And the same kind of thing is happening now in the U.S.) But this does not explain why being a Nazi in power, or being unemployed, or joining a riot is even an option in the first place. Factories don't close down because their workers choose not to work, preferring leisure over income as I'm pretty sure one of my old economics textbooks implied.

And so with Al Qaeda. I accept Hitchens' characterization of them as:
a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and "unbelievers," and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.  
But this does not explain why the group has ever got as far as it has toward achieving its aims. Saying, however truly, that it and its actions are simply evil does not explain all that needs to be explained. For that we need a more sophisticated analysis, of the kind offered here by Peter Bergen. And given this, assertions like Hitchens', implying that to identify root causes is to let the terrorists off the hook, are either propaganda for the popular, conservative view that we have been involved since 9/11 in a simple war of good against evil, and that it is not only unnecessary but morally wrong to consider the possibility that things might be more complicated than this, or else simply mistaken.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Most of all you've got to hide it from the kids

It can be tempting to be skeptical, to believe that all the best things in life are little more than fairy tales we tell to children or, as Lou Reed put it, that "everything is just dirt." Kant's response to this kind of thing is epistemological humility. How could you know that villains always blink their eyes? How could you know that life is just to die? In a similar vein, William James argues that an optimistic faith is justified by its beneficial effects, given our ignorance about the ultimate nature of reality.

This is too convenient for the likes of Nietzsche. If we don't know, we don't know, and we shouldn't help ourselves to any cozy faith. Instead we should boldly face the uncomforting reality, such as it is and so far as we can.

But this kind of thing can be a fantasy, and childish, too. At least the rugged cowboy fantasy part of this piece by John Holbo is right:
When Americans dream about something ideal, politically, that they kind of know they aren’t going to get, they dream a conservative dream. Since conservatism is, officially, an anti-utopian philosophy, this creates the odd situation of collective dreams of anti-utopian utopianism. But people are funny that way. (It’s sort of the opposite of the famous ‘and a pony’ strategy for wishes. Namely, since wishes are free, you might as well ask for absolutely everything. But, then again, sometimes it’s more appealing to think of being a rugged cowboy, with nothing but your pony, riding off into the Western sunset. Something like that.)
And the fantasy that it takes courage to face reality or the truth or life, boldly going into the known unknown, isn't only an American fantasy, as Michael Moorcock's sci-fi poem "The Black Corridor" shows. (That's pretty obscure. Here's what I'm thinking: the Starship Enterprise goes "where no man has gone before," so its crew knows that it is heading into the unknown, like Vikings heading across the Atlantic. They have already sailed on part of that ocean, and now they are heading for more. What Nietzsche has in mind is not quite clear to me, but I think he means something completely unknown and perhaps even unknowable, yet he uses images of something much less uncanny than that.) Anyway, here's the poem:

This poem embodies a mistake, it seems to me. Space is remorseless, but only because it would make no sense to attribute remorse to it. It isn't heartless in any but the literal sense. And maybe Nietzsche makes a similar mistake when he talks about the daring lover of knowledge who sets out to face any danger on the open sea. When voyaging into the completely unknown and unknowable isn't it a fantasy to talk of "our sea" and to characterize oneself as daring rather than, say, insane? If God is dead and the old values we have grown up with no longer have any value, no longer make any sense, then why do we need daring? A world without values in this sense is not an evil or especially dangerous world (even though such a world might also be described as being without values). Nietzsche seems to be putting a heroic spin on something that is barely conceivable (the revaluation of all values) let alone plainly heroic. Perhaps positive thinking is healthy, but then what makes Nietzsche's optimism better than James's or Kant's?

Kant might offer a fantasy of what is 'out there', but Nietzsche offers a fantasy of the philosopher as Jason or Captain Kirk. The fantasy-free philosopher, it seems to me, retains Kant's humility but refuses his particular faith. She has a positive attitude, like Nietzsche, but not because she has such a high opinion of herself. Rather she is impressed by the very unknown quality of the world. Her 'Why?' and her 'How?' are not so much questions as intakes of breath. And of course she has no answers. Least of all those of the cynic. Or, at any rate, no more those of the cynic than those of the worst dogmatist. In a way, the philosopher is like a child in a fairy tale, but not naively so. She is the least deceived of all, because she is not fantasizing about what might be out there, nor about her heroic relation to it. She focuses instead on what she knows, namely what she does not know or understand. 

(This is probably too twee and the real work, if I am right, is actually doing philosophy, not talking in admiring terms about what philosophers do. But I think it might be one way of getting at what the greatest philosophers of the last century tried to do. And what they do, on this account, is find things to wonder at and then fight the urge to explain or reduce them. Finding might be only a matter of noticing, but that isn't always easy. You don't notice anything when you're asleep, and waking oneself up is not a simple matter. And the urge to explain or reduce probably needs to be felt and fought, not simply ignored or shrugged off.)  


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thought I'd something more to say

By way of In Socrates' Wake I found Mark Edmundson's essay on how to get the most out of college. He paints a pretty accurate picture, I think, of what college is like. Administrators want to attract and retain students, and to avoid law suits. Professors want to do research to get tenure and promotion, to make a name for themselves, and maybe to get a better job offer somewhere else (either so they can go there or else to get paid more where they are). Students want to have a good time and get a credential that will lead to a lucrative job. In short, no one is focused on education.

This is an exaggeration, of course. Few professors want to spend their lives teaching badly. Few students don't care at all whether they get anything but a good grade from each course they take. Even administrators probably like to think that they are doing more than managing the accounts of a business. But all the material forces are set up to push and pull people away from the business (as in busy-ness, not profit-seeking) of learning. So what Edmundson presents is an exaggeration, not a myth.

Near the middle of his essay, Edmundson writes this:
The quest at the center of a liberal-arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation—maybe quiet, maybe, in time, very loud—and I am not exaggerating. For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are, which, in the long run, is killing.
I sympathize, but I don't know whether I agree. There is no guarantee that a liberal arts education will save you from a life of desperation. There might not even be a possibility of its doing so. I don't mean that despair is inevitable, or that reading books and thinking about them is a waste of time. It's more that the problem and the prescription seem to pass each other by. Edmundson's advice, after all, seems to be not to try to be someone else. So: be yourself. But what does that mean? Does being yourself guarantee that you will not live in desperation? And are the liberal arts the recipe for finding out who you are?

Some people see the self as nothing, or next to nothing. Some see the nature of life as suffering. Some believe that if there is a meaning or point to life it certainly does not consist in having a good time. All this suggests a kind of despair to me, although perhaps not desperation. 'Desperation' suggests a lack of resignation in a way that 'despair' does not. Maybe reading the right books could help someone move from desperation to despair.   But you don't need to go to college to read these books. And college-age people are probably too young, at least for the most part, to benefit from books like these.

Others, of course, have a much happier view of life. But does that come from books? I doubt it. Brain chemistry might be more relevant. As might religious faith, friends, family, material well-being, and so on. And you don't need education to have these things.

In the end I'm tempted to say that the point of reading books is reading books. Or pleasure. Be an English major if that's what you want to do because that is what you want to do. Not because it will pay in the long run. If a book is "not a textbook.—Its end would be reached if it gave pleasure to one person who read it with understanding." Or at any rate: less consequentialism, please.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Adventures in advertising

People sometimes wonder why job ads in philosophy are so oddly (or badly) worded. Our ad finally appeared today and I was surprised to see that it was not what I had written. It turns out that several cooks (human resources and the Dean's Office as well as my department head and me) get to add to, and subtract from, the broth. The result is not necessarily very elegant. I hope I won't embarrass or insult anybody if I explain here some of the contents (both what is there and what is not) of what I believe to be the final version of the ad.

Here it is:
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE, LEXINGTON, VA.  Asst. Prof., five-year renewable position, beginning fall semester, 2012.  3 sections/semester.  Ph.D. prior to appointment.  AOS: Open.  Performance will be evaluated on the basis of teaching, scholarly engagement, and cadet development.  VMI is a nationally ranked, public liberal arts college run on military lines.  Prior military experience is not required. Salary commensurate with experience. Submit cover letter, CV, three letters of recommendation, and contact information for referees to: Search Committee, Department of Psychology and Philosophy, VMI, Lexington, VA 24450, or email to Deadline for applications: November 1, 2011.   VMI is an EEO employer.
The first part follows the guidelines of the American Philosophical Association. The original draft of the ad explained that the sections are usually of 10-20 students each, but this was cut in order to keep to a limit of 100 words (thereby saving money). The original then explained that the courses to be taught would mostly be introductory surveys of the history of Western philosophy and a course in the philosophy of mind. This was cut to reduce the word count and because the ideal candidate would be able to teach a broad range of courses, not just those mentioned in the original draft.

The Area of Specialization is open because I think of one's AOS as being subjects one could teach at graduate level, and we don't have graduate students. No Areas of Competence are specified because the original ad had already said by this point what courses a qualified candidate would be able to teach.

I think it was someone in the Dean's Office who wanted the areas in which faculty members at VMI are evaluated to be specified. In fact there are four of these: teaching (most important), scholarly engagement (aka research), cadet development (advising, working with students outside the classroom), and professional citizenship (committee work, reviewing for journals, etc.). Why professional citizenship was left out I don't know.

Next we try to explain briefly in what ways VMI is and is not a military school. It isn't like West Point, where every student is an Army officer, but it probably has a similar look and feel to it. (I say 'probably' because I've never been to West Point.) It isn't a boarding school for troubled teens either. It's a real college. But the students and most of the faculty wear military uniforms. This takes some getting used to, and anyone we interview is likely to be asked how they feel about it.

"Salary commensurate with experience." Don't ask me what this means: it's an entry-level job. I'm sure the statement is true, of course.

I don't know why we specified that the letters of recommendation should include the contact information of their authors. Just in case, I suppose. Why no writing sample requested? Because few if any of us will have the time and inclination to read them. Why no evidence of teaching excellence requested? Because we wanted to keep to that 100-word limit.

As long as I don't get overwhelmed by them I'll be happy to answer questions about the job.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The possibility of an island

Kelly Jolley reminds us of Kant's island of truth in an ocean of illusion:
We have now not merely explored the territory of pure understanding, and carefully surveyed every part of it, but have also measured its extent, and assigned to everything in it its rightful place.  This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limits.  It is the land of truth–enchanting name!–surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion. (Critique of Pure Reason, A235/B294)
Similar images occur elsewhere. Nietzsche, as j. reminds us, uses related language:
…Indeed, at hearing the news that ‘the old god is dead’, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel illuminated by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, forebodings, expectation – finally the horizon seems clear again, even if not bright; finally our ships may set out again, set out to face any danger; every daring of the lover of knowledge is allowed again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; maybe there has never been such an ‘open sea’ (The Gay Science §343, ed. Williams).
Then there is Wittgenstein on Heidegger:
Anyone who speaks of the opposition of being and the nothing, and of the nothing as something primary in contrast to negation, has in mind, I think, a picture of an island of being which is being washed by an infinite ocean of the nothing.  Whatever we throw into this ocean will be dissolved in its water and annihilated.  But the ocean itself is endlessly restless like the waves on the sea.  It exists, it is, and we say: ‘it noths.’  (The Voices of Wittgenstein, pp. 69-71)
And H. P. Lovecraft:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
I'm not sure that the Wittgenstein passage belongs here, but it's hard to think that it wasn't somewhat influenced by Kant's image, however indirectly or unimportantly. That is, I'm not claiming that he is referring to Kant here. Mostly I just want to bring these passages together, but I intend to return to some of their themes in a future post.

Monday, September 5, 2011

We're hiring

VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE, LEXINGTON, VA.  Asst. Prof., five-year renewable position, beginning fall semester, 2012.  3 sections/semester.  Ph.D. prior to appointment.  AOS: Open.  Performance will be evaluated on the basis of teaching, scholarly engagement, and cadet development.  VMI is a nationally ranked, public liberal arts college run on military lines.  Prior military experience is not required. Salary commensurate with experience. Submit cover letter, CV, three letters of recommendation, and contact information for referees to: Search Committee, Department of Psychology and Philosophy, VMI, Lexington, VA 24450, or email to Deadline for applications: November 1, 2011.   VMI is an EEO employer.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Fish Tank

The best film I've seen in some time (is that vague enough?) is Fish Tank. In The New Yorker David Denby writes that, "Fish Tank” may begin as a patch of lower-class chaos, but it turns into a commanding, emotionally satisfying movie, comparable to such youth-in-trouble classics as “The 400 Blows.”

It reminds me a little of Terrence Malick's work in terms of its artful (rarely distractingly so) photography and tendency to cut away from the human drama to show (a little of) what's going on in the natural world beyond it. Otherwise it mostly reminds me of Kes. Both films are about English 15-year-olds who seem trapped in working class worlds without hope. Or with little hope. In Kes, Billy Casper finds a kind of freedom through a kestrel that he finds and tames. What hope there is for him lies in the possibility that he might be able to experience something similar when he grows up. In Fish Tank, Mia Williams finds a horse that she plans to free, but her own freedom looks as though it will only come, if at all, by way of an escape to some other place.

Although Kes is basically a story of despair it is loved by many people (mostly men from the north of England) because it strikes them as an unusually realistic and sympathetic portrayal of their childhoods. I can't see anyone loving Fish Tank in the same way, but that might be because it's about a girl in the south of England growing up in the 21st century. It's a different world from the one I grew up in (so is Kes, but less dramatically so). Non-English people sometimes struggle with the accents in Kes. I think that will less of a problem with Fish Tank, but there is still a danger with cockney accents:


Thursday, September 1, 2011

And you may say to yourself, "My God, what have I done?"

I'm interested in the idea of human rights as a necessary or useful fiction, or something like that. But I don't like the word 'fiction' because it seems to undermine the sense that such rights are important. (This issue reminds me of the debate about the word 'superstition' in Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion. Some people claim that certain types of belief, associated with fundamentalism, just are superstitious. Others, notably Brian Clack, object that a philosophy that only describes ought not to use such pejorative terms. I don't agree with him on everything, but I certainly think Clack has a point here. I'm not at all sure that a purely neutral description (as distinct from a mutually acceptable and non-controversial one) is possible.)

Various kinds of rights talk have existed for a long time, but it has been argued (see here, for instance) that the concept of human rights as we know it is only as old as the 1970s. It isn't timeless or universal, and I don't think we can explain why something is wrong by appealing to a human right that it violates. Rather, we should identify rights (if we're going to do so at all) by thinking about what is unjust or unacceptable. And I think that we should try to identify human rights and protect them. Basically I think the work of such groups as Human Rights Watch (formerly Helsinki Watch) is valuable and that they should not feel that they ought to change their names (no offense to Helsinki!). To my ears these are pretty minimal claims, and they might not sound worth defending. But my sense is that they need to be defended.

I won't go into why I have this sense here (although I could if anyone wanted me to), nor will I spend much time on arguments against rights talk. Instead, I'll mention a couple of apparent problems with the notion of human rights, and say a little about why I don't think these are major concerns for a certain kind of metaphysically innocent talk about rights.

Tommi Uschanov, in a comment on a previous post, brought up this passage from Raimond Gaita, and suggested that talk about violating someone's rights would be right at home in the list of parodies:
[...] if one puts in the mouth of the remorseful person many of the philosophical accounts of what makes an obligation a moral obligation or a principle a moral principle, of the nature of morality and of its authority, we get parody. 'My God what I have done? I have violated the social compact, agreed behind a veil of ignorance.' 'My God what have I done? I have ruined my best chances of flourishing.' 'My God what have I done? I have violated rational nature in another.' 'My God what have I done? I have diminished the stock of happiness.' 'My God what have I done? I have violated my freely chosen principles.' An answer must surely be given to why, at one of the most critical moments of moral sobriety, so many of the official accounts of what it is for something to be of moral concern, the accounts of the connection between obligation and what it means to wrong someone, appear like parodies. (Gaita, Good and Evil, 2nd edn., p. xxi) 
I agree that "My God, what have I done? I have violated someone's human rights" sounds like a parody. But all of these examples seem to sound ridiculous because they substitute an account of why an act might be wrong for a description of the wrong act. Think of murder. What belongs after "What have I done?" is something like "I have killed a man. Someone's husband. Someone's father. Someone's son. I have ended, taken, a human life." Perhaps what belongs is also a certain amount of incoherence. Weeping and wailing would not be out of place. Rational accounts of why murder is wrong would be. I think that Gaita has a point, but it would be unfair (or simply a mistake) to dismiss all attempts to explain the wrongness of killing out of hand.

I think that killing people is always bad (that doesn't sound strong enough, but I hesitate to say 'evil' because it sounds both melodramatic (and what does that say?) and religious), even if sometimes it is the least bad thing one can do. Why it is bad is hard to say, just as why life is good is hard to say. Killing someone harms them, of course (at least usually), but it also harms the world. It is like an anti-miracle. So it isn't only bad because of what it does to the victim. And reference to the victim's rights will not explain what is so bad about it. Such reference is only a kind of shorthand for talking about this badness. But shorthand has its uses.

What about rights violations other than murder? Rape and torture are morally similar to murder, I think. Arguably not as bad, but in their worst forms probably just as bad, and maybe even worse. I don't know how much sense it makes (nor how decent it is) to make comparisons like this among them, which is partly why I put them in the same ballpark or category. I'm not sure that anything else belongs here, that anything else is as bad as murder, rape, and torture, but it doesn't follow that the only rights are those not to suffer these things. As to what other rights there might be, I can't do better than Mill's idea that rights concern the essentials of human well-being. What these are needs to be seen.

Some are obvious. Not to everyone, of course, but almost nothing is obvious to babies and animals. It takes education to learn to see what's obvious. This does not mean that it isn't obvious after all. It just means that what is obvious is relative in some sense. 'Obvious' means something like very easy to discern, but discernment is not possible for every being (a slug could not have a discerning eye for fake Dalis) and takes training, education, or acculturation for everyone. Discernment, even of the very easy kind, is for the connoisseur. The very basic requirements of human well-being ought to be pretty obvious things, but a) they need not therefore be obvious to everyone, and b) they might only be obvious after they have been pointed out. This is, I think, how Wittgenstein describes Indian mathematics somewhere. A demonstration is written or drawn and the words "Look at this" are added. Once seen there is no need for any further proof of the truth demonstrated, but the demonstration presupposes that what is there to be seen will not already have been seen by everyone. And it might take some looking even then to see it, I imagine.