Thursday, October 31, 2013

An emotion in need of further study

This post by Helen De Cruz at NewAPPS rubs me the wrong way, but I'm not quite sure why (or whether) it should. I've been asked to give a lecture next year on Peter Winch and the idea of a social science, so I'm starting to think more about psychology's status as a science, and this seems like a good opportunity to get some practice.

De Cruz asks:  "Why do we sometimes delight in natural disasters? And is it morally appropriate to do so?"

My initial response is something like the following: We don't, and of course not. But that on its own won't really do. Why does De Cruz think that we sometimes delight in natural disasters? She mentions Miyazaki's Ponyo (which I don't remember well enough to comment on) and says that several times in the movie he expresses his "aesthetic delight in natural disasters." She also links to this article which talks of the Japanese as celebrating nature in spite of (my emphasis) its destructive power (not quite the same thing as delighting in disaster) and quotes Miyazaki saying that natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes are a given in Japan and must be accepted as part of life. Again, this is a long way from celebrating disaster. De Cruz also says that Turner's painting of a steamboat in a storm is done "with gusto," which strikes me as an inaccurate description of the painting. Turner has a sense of awe, an important concept for De Cruz, but I don't sense any relish in his portrayal of the boat's fate. If he is enthusiastic at all it isn't about what is happening to the boat, let alone to the people on it, but about the amazing power of the storm.       

De Cruz goes on to discuss the sublime and awe:
The prototype model of awe by Keltner and Haidt suggests that awe - the emotion most commonly associated with the sublime - is elicited by stimuli that are vast and that prompt a need for psychological accommodation. Keltner and Haidt see awe as an adaptive emotion that arose in our primate ancestry, in particular, in the need for lower-status individuals to recognize the status of higher-status individuals within the group: by feeling awe for an alpha individual, one would desist in fruitlessly trying to challenge his or her authority, which would have been adaptive. Keltner and Haidt propose that the primordial form of awe is the emotions a low status individual feels towards a powerful one.
As she says, "To me, this is quite a stretch." 

Rather than propose an alternative theory she raises the questions: why do we feel awe, and is it morally objectionable to do so? Here's an example (from Job) of which she says that, "One cannot help but feel how insensitive and morally objectionable Elihu is when he says this":
God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways;
    he does great things beyond our understanding.
 He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’
    and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’
 So that everyone he has made may know his work,
    he stops all people from their labor.
 The animals take cover;
    they remain in their dens.
 The tempest comes out from its chamber,
    the cold from the driving winds.
 The breath of God produces ice,
    and the broad waters become frozen.
 He loads the clouds with moisture;
    he scatters his lightning through them.
 At his direction they swirl around
    over the face of the whole earth
    to do whatever he commands them.
 He brings the clouds to punish people,
    or to water his earth and show his love.

Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders.
Do you know how God controls the clouds
     and makes his lightning flash?
Do you know how the clouds hang poised, 
     those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?
You who swelter in your clothes 
     when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
Can you join him in spreading out the skies, 
     hard as a mirror of cast bronze?   

One can help feeling that this is insensitive and morally objectionable, even if one knows that Job's house and children have been destroyed by the storms and floods being described. I agree that it could be very objectionable to tell sufferers that their loss is all part of God's plan or that whatever doesn't kill them will make them stronger. But Elihu's words are powerful, and spoken to a man who does not want to give up his faith in God. I don't see things the same way, but I don't find these words objectionable. Delighting in disaster qua disaster is obviously no good, but seeing a disaster under some different aspect and delighting in, or just being impressed by, that is surely OK. Imagine you see a volcano erupt and enjoy the spectacle, but later find out that someone was killed by it. Your previous enjoyment doesn't suddenly become wicked (assuming you weren't reveling in the thought of someone's possibly being killed by the lava or a hail of rocks).

One way to understand the question "Why do we feel awe?" is to take it as asking what it is about a particular phenomenon that is awe-inspiring. This calls for aesthetic criticism and careful attention to the phenomenon in question. De Cruz means something else though. She wants to know why human beings evolved to feel awe. This calls for little attention to particular phenomena (although examples and counterexamples must be considered) and requires us to try to fit awe into an existing framework that accounts for emotions. What could be wrong with that?

There are several possibilities. One might reject the framework (evolutionary psychology). One might reject the project of trying to fit emotions (or 'mental states' in general) into that framework. Or one might reject the idea that this emotion, awe, fits the framework. Or all of the above. And perhaps more as well.

I'm not qualified to comment on the merits of evolutionary psychology, but it certainly has its critics, and Wittgenstein's skepticism about psychology as a science might be a source of additional criticisms. As far as I know psychologists today mostly study brains and behavior. Presumably brains evolved: animals with brains that helped them survive would tend to survive longer and reproduce more, and their offspring would be expected to have somewhat similar brains. Behavior seems like a different matter. I don't inherit my parents' behavior in the way that I might inherit their curly hair or straight teeth. But we're talking about emotions, so perhaps behavior is not really relevant. Wittgenstein thinks of emotions as something like aspects of human life or modes of our complicated form of life. Does it make sense to think of such things as evolving? In some sense it must, I think. Anything self-destructive is likely to die out, and anything life-preserving is likely to thrive. But, again, I don't inherit emotions from my parents in the way that I inherit purely biological traits. And if an emotion or form of behavior dies out it does not do so in the same literal way that a species of animals dies out. Animals die, behavior does not. Nor do emotions. So there are questions to be asked about the very idea that emotions are part of evolution. That's all I'll say about that for now. (By which I don't mean to imply that there is no more to be said.)

What about the project of fitting emotions into the evolutionary psychology framework? Part of me thinks this cannot possibly be wrong. It's like a game, and if you don't want to play it you don't have to. But it's possible to disapprove of certain games. And this one asks us to adopt a certain perspective on such things as awe, wonder, and love. This could be regarded as a kind of blasphemy. It could also be regarded as dangerous, as likely to undermine ways of thinking, feeling, and living that are important. It might, for instance, trick us into thinking that we understand more than we do (e.g. what love really is), or that what we value is actually not so special after all. A dangerous game is not wrong per se, of course, (it's possible to gamble and win) but we still might object to its being played.  

And in the particular case of awe we might well feel that there is something both misguided and dangerous about the attempt to fit it into a pre-existing theoretical framework. For one thing, the fact that we have a word does not mean that we have a thing for which that word stands. And awe seems like an especially pronounced case of this. It surely isn't a Cartesian entity, and I can't really imagine someone feeling awe except in the presence of something properly awe-inspiring. Drug-induced awe, for instance, would not (it seems to me) be real awe at all. It only make sense to talk of awe in certain kinds of context, and that makes awe unlike standard objects, including heritable biological traits. Perhaps the biological basis that gives us the ability to feel awe is heritable, but that's a different matter. We might have evolved to have this capacity for reasons that have nothing to do with awe.

Why do we feel awe? What evolutionary advantage might it have given us? If awe combines fear of dangerous things (which sounds like a useful emotion) with a funny kind of pleasure at the thought of great power then this doesn't seem so mysterious. Power is a useful thing, so contemplating power that does us no harm might well trigger a positive reaction. But all this seems like a strange line of inquiry. Why turn away from the awesome to think about the evolution of awe? It's like pointing to some fantastic sight and finding your audience looking at your pointing finger. I think that's what feels wrong about De Cruz's questions. It shows a preference for the uninspiring over the inspiring, like a student choosing to major in something 'practical' rather than something that really interests them. It's a bit depressing. And the question doesn't only show an interest in the wrong things. It also directs our attention towards those things (our awe or its biological basis) and away from the awesome. And that seems not just depressing but bad.

I don't mean to exaggerate. De Cruz is not a monster, and her questions are in some sense legitimate (how generous of me!). But I think it is thoughts along the lines that I have sketched above that make me less than enthusiastic about her project. If we're going to study psychology I much prefer this kind of approach (h/t dmf). It may not be about the awesome directly, but it is about people behaving in interesting ways, and it's quite different from the evolutionary psychology approach to explanation of such behavior. It keeps everything within the human sphere. Attempts to explain the human in terms of the non-human seem to leave out everything that really matters. Which I suppose is the kind of point Winch might make.

Pembroke College philosophers in the news

Peter J. King is in trouble for his comments on stereotypically obnoxious behavior from rugby players here. It looks as though there was some plan, or a "funny" pretend plan, by one or more members of the Pembroke rugby club to spike women's drinks or at least get them drunk in order to have sex with them. The latter used to be considered acceptable behavior in some circles but is now generally regarded as rape. King's reference to the idea as a "bit of unpleasant undergraduate stupidity" is not going down well. It is unpleasant and stupid, so I wouldn't be too hard on him over this. If it was a real conspiracy to rape then of course it's far worse than stupid, but it's not clear to me that it was ever anything more than a poorly executed attempt at a bad (both offensive and unfunny) joke. And perhaps dismissive condescension is more likely to discourage this kind of thing in future than more earnest criticism. I don't know.

King also says: 
I consider the notion of epistemic injustice a pseudo-philosophical concept designed to enable people to publish more empty articles and organise more empty conferences for the purposes of career advancement.    
No one seems to have pointed out (although the article has been edited and perhaps some comments have been removed) that it was a Pembroke alumna (before King's time there) who wrote the book on the subject. Well, it's been pointed out now.  

Nonsense and art

I've been half-thinking of writing something about the nonsensicality of heavy metal lyrics. For instance,
And I say, "Ooh ooh, I'm a robot man."
Why do you say the "ooh" part of that? There's some vague kind of story that the song implies, but no one would listen to the song for the sake of that story. The point of the lyrics is pretty much just to say "robot man." It's like Motörhead singing "It's a bomber" or Girlschool getting right to the point and having the one word chorus: "Demolition." It's also very much like my son when he was little smashing two toy cars together and shouting "Powers!" A movie version of this sort of thing would be all explosions. It doesn't make any sense but it appeals to something very primitive in (some of) us.    

And then I read a review of a book about Picasso that got me thinking. What can we make of this?
He observes that most of Picasso’s paintings employ what he calls a “room space”, self-contained, intimate and able to provide a setting for the expression of powerful feelings. He considers this room space to be a basic premiss of how Picasso treats beauty and subjectivity – what Clark calls the artist’s “truth-condition”. Such a space, he feels, is integral to the artist’s world view. It is not merely a medium or a vehicle, such as a grammatical or structural device, but a “semantics”, the creation of a new kind of reality.
Although some of this may seem self-evident,...
The review, by Jack Flam, goes on to criticize T. J. Clark for bringing Wittgenstein and Nietzsche into the attempt to appreciate Picasso's work. I can imagine that Clark's discussion of Wittgenstein helps little. But what about Flam's account of Clark above? How is a "room space" (Clark's expression) different from either a room or a space? How can such a space be a premise or a truth-condition? I think this just means that it is something like a presupposition or fundamental element. But then how can it be a semantics? And in what sense is a semantics the creation of a new kind of reality? Picasso has a new vision of reality--that's about all I can wring out of this, and we knew that already. The rest, as far as I can tell, is an attempt to sound clever by using philosophical vocabulary. Which is what Flam criticizes Clark for doing. Maybe they are all at it.

Heavy metal is a kind of nonsense, but it's honest nonsense. The best of it has no pretensions whatsoever (although there is something a bit Häagen-Dazs about the umlaut in Motörhead). The nonsense that comes from trying to sound smart is a different matter. Saying nothing because you aren't trying to say anything is better than saying nothing because you have nothing to say but either think you do or else want to appear as if you do. But I suppose everyone agrees with that, and I might have missed something (or a lot) in what Flam says about Clark.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

New Wittgenstein-related blogs, etc.

There's a new Wittgenstein blog here. It looks worth following.

Although readers of this blog probably already know about them, just in case anyone missed them here are two more recent appearances in the blogosphere. The unfortunately named (for those of us who don't like raisins) A Bag of Raisins (Sean Stidd on Wittgenstein) and Thinking Film (Phil Hutchinson, Rupert Read, and others on popular films as philosophy).

And Emanations (a literary project with Wittgenstein sympathies) has a new call for submissions.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Gravity is good. I'll try not to spoil it in what follows, but I can't promise anything. Before I saw it I had heard from friends that it was a great spectacle but ultimately empty and that it was really about God. Both are partly right. Whether they are all intended or not (and I suspect that most of them are) the movie points to several things outside itself that help give it meaning.

For one thing there's the title. 'Gravity' means both seriousness and what brings us down to Earth. It's also the force that makes things come together (which might make us think of The Beatles and Primal Scream, but that's probably just me). The movie is a plea for seriousness, for a fantasy-free vision of what matters (especially our planet and life itself) and what we are doing to it (especially through violence and disregard for the environment), and for a sense of international unity. The life-threatening problems faced by astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are caused by the shooting down of a spy satellite creating a domino effect with other junk in space breaking up and smashing into still more satellites and debris. Hope comes (practically) in the form of the Americans' being able to use Russian and Chinese spacecraft, and (spiritually) in the form of Jesus and the Buddha. We all need to help each other despite national differences, in other words, and a little faith wouldn't hurt.    

Secondly there's Clooney himself, who starred in the re-make of Solaris. Of course Gravity isn't as good as the Tarkovsky original, and the reference to a cover version of one of his films only emphasizes the point. But still, the fact that Clooney is there in space makes you think of Solaris and therefore of both the mysteries of Tarkovsky's film and the inferiority of the Clooney version. The deep and the second-rate, the artistic and the commercial. Like it or not, the film calls these thoughts to mind (unintentionally, I would think, although maybe it's a brave confession that it is all these things).  

Third, Clooney's character is called Kowalsky. So we're in Vanishing Point territory--the individual versus the world (or at least the man), the quest for freedom, "the last American hero." He is heroic and American, but the reference doesn't do much except give the character what little bit of a third dimension he has. (It might make you think of Primal Scream again, but I doubt that's intended.)

Finally, The Smiths. In a moment of despair Bullock's character (Ryan Stone, presumably meant to be as generic a name as could be found) asks someone to "sing me to sleep." (I assume this is a deliberate reference, but who knows?) There is some treatment then of the ethics of giving up, the problem of evil, etc. Against the pain of pointless suffering is weighed the beauty of the Earth. Beauty wins.

And that's about it. It's a nice-looking film, with fun 3-D effects, and a very noticeable soundtrack. It gets loud right at the end, but mostly it sounds like the kind of orchestral sound you get on some Spiritualized songs. Which is kind of appropriate.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Papineau on Ramsey

David Papineau's review of a book about Frank Ramsey has been getting attention and praise. But it isn't all good. Papineau says the following about Wittgenstein:
Ramsey’s death coincided with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge after his reclusive years in the Austrian Alps. The cult surrounding Wittgenstein quickly caught fire, and for the next fifty years dominated philosophy throughout the English-speaking world.
Philosophy throughout the English-speaking world was dominated by a cult for fifty years? Bollocks. Surely not. And then:
Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, added a powerful dose of mysticism to his analysis of language, and this gnostic strain became even more pronounced in the neo-idealism of his later philosophy. Ramsey, by contrast, saw the world through the lens of mathematics and fundamental physics. For Wittgenstein, science was an enemy that threatened to coarsen the human spirit.
Wide of the mark again.

It must be possible to praise Ramsey without trying to do so at someone else's expense. And it doesn't help to make Ramsey seem under-appreciated if he is praised by way of false claims about Wittgenstein. Having made this appeal for our all getting along and being nice it is inappropriate of me to include the following video of someone spectacularly messing up twice. It's not a fair comment on Papineau, but it is funny.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The invisible boot

Adam Smith has been something of a hero of mine ever since I read Samuel Fleischacker's book on distributive justice. Not because of his famous idea that selfish actions by the rich result in a beneficial trickling down of wealth to the poor but because he was among the first people in the West to recognize and promote the fact that poor people are human and deserve help. (I suppose Jesus and others had similar ideas, but they do not seem to have caught on as much as one might have hoped. In Fleischacker's story Smith is a key player.)

But what about that invisible hand? As I understand it, the idea is roughly this. If I buy a laptop, for instance, then although I am only interested in myself I accidentally pass on some of my wealth to the employees of the laptop shop, some shipping company, people who manufacture laptops, people who make or mine laptop components, and so on. Mostly this is a good thing. But some of those components come from mines run by gangsters and warlords. The same invisible hand that helps some workers also encourages rape and slavery (or at least forced labor and extortion, which sounds like the same thing to me). I don't deny Smith's insight, but the fact that the invisible hand gives the finger to so many should not be ignored either.

And I always link this in my mind with George Orwell's essay on politics and language. Orwell writes that:
In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.
This is questionable, of course, but the idea that honesty and clarity are related to concreteness seems important and true. When someone is suspected of speaking bull it can be very useful to try to trace their words to some concrete particular to which they refer. This is a lesson from Hume, I suppose, and it's one I think of when I think about Frege and Wittgenstein, even if Orwell, Hume, Frege, and Wittgenstein don't exactly say the same thing. They all favor clarity of meaning in their various ways, and connect this with distinguishing what only superficially appears to have meaning from the genuinely meaningful, as revealed by deeper investigation. It's hard to make Wittgenstein sound as though he belongs in the same camp as Hume and Orwell on this, but morally he does, even if his philosophy of language is very different. In a word what they all oppose is bullshit.

In the cases of both words and objects one can, and should, dig a bit, or think a bit, or do whatever it takes, to see their true meaning, their place in the workings of human life. Like language, bullshit is things we do. And when we see these workings clearly, when we achieve an overview of the whole machine, as it were, there are some things we will not say. And some things we will not buy or perhaps even use. The point seems obvious to me, and I wouldn't be surprised if it had been made before and often, but I don't remember coming across it. Not the point that consumption should be ethical, that is, but the point that exposing and avoiding bullshit involves not only analysis of language but analysis of economics, politics, and, in short, behavior. I should probably read Gavin Kitching's and Nigel Pleasants' book (actually there's no 'probably' about it), but if anyone in that collection makes the point I haven't heard about it. And it seems like the kind of thing that ought to be huge: that what (good, Wittgensteinian) philosophy aims to do with/for language (clarification through analysis of use, roughly speaking) could and should be done for economics. This isn't what I understand economists or sociologists or political theorists to do, but maybe outside what I know as the mainstream there are great things being done.  

It's (perhaps not really) surprisingly hard to find information about what our purchasing choices mean on the ground. Occasionally you hear that buying drugs helps fund terrorists or that there are sweat shops in Asia or that animals are badly treated on factory farms, but it seems to me that all this information and more ought to be gathered together and publicized widely. Perhaps even studied in schools and colleges. Is anyone doing this? Are there books or websites I should know about? I hope so. There are organizations and publications like Ethical Consumer, but their work seems a little haphazard to me. A quick look at their website shows that they don't like corrupt banks and they do like badgers, but I don't see anything that would help prioritize these matters. Where is the most harm being done? If I have limited outrage or limited patience for researching the ethics of consumption, where should I focus my energy?
Let me say in more concrete terms what I have in mind. I'm looking for the following kinds of information:
  • in what industries (the biggest ten or twenty, for instance) is most money made and are most people employed?
  • what are the benefits and harms, the pros and the cons, of these industries?
  • what can we do to reduce or remove the worst harms?
That's really about it. A lot of effort has been put into identifying the most worthwhile charitable organizations to give to. I'm looking for something similar as far as politics and economics goes. What are the most important companies to boycott and, at least as importantly, to support? That all sounds very utilitarian, but a question that seems related to me is: why aren't there more papers like Cora Diamond's "Eating Meat and Eating People"? This is a defence of vegetarianism at least in part on the basis of pointing out "a kind of inconsistency, or confusion mixed with hypocrisy [...] in our ordinary ways of thinking about animals..." There is, I think, a lot of inconsistency like this. Maybe not of the kind that takes sophisticated thinking to bring out, but inconsistency that could do with being brought out all the same. So I might be asking for better journalism, not more Cora Diamonds. Is it too clunkingly practical to want a list of the worst inconsistencies, and to want this list made very prominent along with practical advice about what one can do about it? I'm sure these things can get very complicated, but that's not an excuse for doing nothing.     

Apparently it's very hard to say what the biggest industries are because "biggest" can refer to profits or turnover or number of employees, and doubtless other things too, and there are questions like whether a gas station is part of the retail industry or the oil industry, and so on. But we surely could agree on some reasonable if imperfect standard if we wanted to. And people often do want to make claims about what the biggest industry in the world is, or what the top ten are (especially if they want to claim that some illegal industry is one of the top ten, for instance). So why not agree on some standard and go from there? At the moment people seem to choose arbitrarily to get worked up about, say, the environment or Wall Street or drugs or the sex industry, or try vainly to battle every evil in the world simultaneously. No doubt there is some vague feeling that it's arbitrary which causes one chooses to champion, but we ought to (and do really, I think) care about which causes are more important than others, which affect more people more seriously.

As silly and superficial as my desire for rankings might seem, or be, another way to say what I mean is to talk about depth or thinking things through. We might know about blood diamonds and avoid buying them, but many people don't. And does anyone (including me) seriously consider going without electronic devices because of the conflict minerals most of them include? It's easy to avoid blood diamonds if gemstones don't regularly feature on your shopping list, but give up my iPod? No way. And yet we claim to care about human rights a lot, as if nothing matters more. Why isn't our hypocrisy pointed out more loudly? Because it's boring, I suppose. What does that say about us?

I could go on. People disagree about whether drugs, or which drugs, should be legal, but why so many people take drugs in the first place seems to be largely ignored. Is it just because it's hard to answer the question? Or do we not want to think about despair? It's not so much the digging that I think we're reluctant to do. It's the hardness of the reality we would find if we dug deep enough. But aren't we ashamed of this cowardice/dishonesty?

We have a market for news and opinion, and bad news doesn't sell. What I'm asking for is basically a more nagging kind of NPR or PBS. It's no mystery why we don't have that. But it still seems symptomatic of something bad that we don't have it, and I think there really would be a market for practical advice about the biggest problems facing the world and what consumers can do to help. Maybe I should start up a website called "Degrees of Obscenity" that would rank the worst evils encouraged by our way of life and suggest practical steps we could take to reduce them.

I feel as though this is all half-baked but I haven't posted anything for a week so maybe it's time to hit 'publish' and see what happens.     

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sketches of blurred landscapes

I'm off to the 5th Annual Regional Wittgenstein Workshop today, where I'll be presenting this paper.  It's about ethics in the Philosophical Investigations, and relates what Wittgenstein says to Aristotle, Moore, Sidgwick, and Brentano.  I ended up writing it in a bit of a rush, so it's roughly the quality of a long blog post rather than a polished paper, but I don't see any harm in linking to it as long as everyone is forewarned.

Read at your peril. Comments welcome.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Asian philosophy

A couple of interesting articles: this, on a course at Harvard on Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory, and this, which I've only skimmed, on whether Buddhism is a religion or "a philosophy." I don't agree with it, but I'm glad that the Guardian is doing a series on the subject.

I was surprised to see one reason for the Harvard course's popularity with students:
Why are so many undergraduates spending a semester poring over abstruse Chinese philosophy by scholars who lived thousands of years ago? For one thing, the class fulfills one of Harvard's more challenging core requirements, Ethical Reasoning. 
Doesn't Sandel's course do that? Yes it does. It seems worth noting that perhaps large numbers of students are not turned on by his approach to ethical and political theory. I quite like Sandel's stuff myself, but I would far rather take a course on Daoism and Confucianism. Good to see I'm not alone.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How to get a job in philosophy

This information about philosophy programs' placement records has been getting attention. I was surprised to see that my alma mater, the University of Virginia, comes second (behind CUNY) in the category "Which school's graduates work in academic philosophy the most upon graduation?" That's pretty impressive. 

There are all sorts of questions about the data so far, which might mean that UVA (currently ranked 37 in the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which is slightly higher, I think, than it used to be) should really be nowhere near second place in this category but if it does belong near the top, why might this be? I can think of a few possible reasons:

  1. luck (if this can count as a reason)
  2. the weight of a few big names--specialty rankings seem to matter, and UVA might not have the highest overall ranking but it does have, and has had, some great individual professors. His time at UVA (1982-1997) probably means he didn't affect these figures much (the report is based on data from 2000 on), but I'm sure having worked with Richard Rorty helped some people get jobs. (I worked with a brilliant philosopher, but her name meant nothing to the non-philosophers who hired me. It may have helped impress my predecessor, though, and his recommendation would have counted for something.)
  3. being in a state with other good schools--I don't know how many UVA PhDs have jobs elsewhere in the state, but I'm sure I'm not the only one. And I (think I) know that I got my job partly because I got my PhD in this state. The head of my department when I was hired wanted to hire someone solid rather than flashy (Harvard PhDs need not apply) perhaps because he was afraid of hiring someone who might then leave for greener pastures and certainly because he thought a real egghead would not be able to relate to our students. He also thought, incorrectly, that someone from UVA would have heard of VMI and so would know about its unique qualities. All three of the short-listed candidates had a UVA connection (two of us got our PhDs there and the other had been a visiting professor there, if I recall correctly). I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of CUNY PhDs get jobs in New York for similar kinds of reasons, i.e. they are considered local (which is a consideration as far as "fit" goes) and good enough without being off-puttingly fancy. Hiring locally also makes it cheaper to bring in candidates for interviews.   
First of all I should say that I don't think this kind of reasoning is good. Smart people can relate to less smart people. Graduates of "solid" PhD programs can be quite brilliant. "Fit" is a very suspect notion. But some people do reason in this kind of way, and this makes a difference to who gets hired where. If most jobs are at non-fancy places, it really might be an advantage to get a PhD from somewhere perceived to be non-fancy. Especially if, unbeknownst to the general public, that non-fancy place actually has a surprisingly good philosophy department or specialty in your area.

Then again, philosophy jobs in general are seemingly drying up. The more this happens the fewer people are likely to get PhDs. Then there won't be so many people qualified to be TAs or adjuncts or graders for MOOCs. I don't know what will happen to liberal arts education then. Probably it will partly go away and partly just get worse. There will be a few superstar types, many more low-paid MAs and failed superstars, and not much in between. And for the low-paid MOOC-grading MAs a "solid," regional school is probably either the best bet or at least good enough. 

In short: aim low. Or at least, don't aim too high in terms of programs with Leiterific rankings.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Growing up

I would like to write a sort of mini review of three books I've read or started reading lately, but that's not what this is going to be. The books are Wittgenstein's Nephew by Thomas Bernhard, Witold Gombrowicz's Diary, and Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus. OK, here's a mini review: I don't get the first of these at all, but the other two are great. Bernhard's book is full of repetition, which did nothing that I could see except irritate, and occasional bits of what seem like attempts at humor. The part of the book I find hardest to forget is the repetition of the names of two building, the Ludwig Pavilion and the Hermann Pavilion. Bernhard never seems to use a pronoun instead of proper nouns (I assume the problem exists in the original and not just the translation):
While I myself saw Professor Salzer at least once a week, though at first only through the crack of the door, my friend Paul, who was after all his nephew, never saw him once during all the months he spent in the Ludwig Pavilion, although Professor Salzer certainly knew of his nephew's presence and it would have been the easiest thing in the world, as I thought at the time, for him to walk the few yards from the Hermann Pavilion to the Ludwig Pavilion. I do not know what reasons he had for not visiting Paul; perhaps they were weighty reasons, or perhaps he simply found it too much trouble to visit his nephew, who had frequently been a patient in the Ludwig Pavilion, whereas this was my first visit to the Hermann Pavilion.
That might not be enough to make the point, but I found the repetition painful and pointless. Is it meant to be making some clever point about language? It doesn't do so as far as I can see. And then there are (what I take to be) jokes like this:
He had in fact two passions, which were at the same time his two main diseases—music and motor racing. In the first half of his life it was motor racing that meant everything to him; in the second half it was music. And sailing.
This reminded me of something out of Monty Python, except that they did it earlier and better. I feel as though I'm missing the point of the book, but the reviews I've read shed no light on what is supposed to be good about it.

But here's what I really want to say. Gombrowicz's diary (warning: I'm less than a hundred pages in) strikes me as marvelously grownup. It isn't written well in the sense of being full of memorable phrases, although if I kept a commonplace book I think I would have copied out about one part per page for the first fifty pages or so. (It goes a little downhill after that, it seems to me.) And it's not that what he says seems so true. A lot of it is about Polish literature that I haven't read, so it's not that I agree with him about it. But he sounds perceptive, as though he is actually seeing things and calling them as they are when no one else is. Like a rock that is not carried by the current of the stream. I wonder how you get like this.

Coetzee's novel is one of his best (or so it seems after one reading and very few days of digesting it). It's full of Wittgenstein references too, including Cavellian vertigo. And it's about growing up, among other things. The boy at the center of the story isn't like other boys, or other people. What's obvious to him is not obvious to us, and vice versa. He does not react to the methods of teachers as most of us do. But the people of this world are not quite like us either. They are blandly good, and have no sense of irony. The book feels like a riddle but I doubt there is any solution to it, some idea that, once had, acts like a key to open up the book's secret meaning. I certainly hope it isn't a puzzle like that.

Part of growing up, in the sense that Gombrowicz strikes me as grownup, is learning to see through or past the conventions that both guide and pass for thinking in most people's cases. (I'm not claiming to be grownup myself, at least not in any infallible way. Maybe I think of myself as one of the less deceived, but then anyone who thinks does that.) And learning to see these conventions as conventions, not necessities or falsehoods. But it seems as though you have to be able to succumb to these conventions in the first place to get anywhere. Coetzee's boy (he isn't called Jesus in the novel) almost doesn't get an education because he is so difficult to teach. To grow up, or to be a grownup (is it something one grows into?), you have to be different but not too different. Or maybe not really different at all until later. So it's a bit mysterious how one would either acquire this differentness or else maintain it, protect it, through all the years of socialization and education (which doesn't only draw out in a Socratic, midwifing way but draws us into a set of more or less fixed ways of doing things and of thinking). It almost seems as though philosophy is a recipe for growing up, since it teaches us to question conventional wisdom. But I doubt Gombrowicz needed philosophy to think as he does. And it's hardly as if every philosopher is self-aware or genuinely unconventional. Nor as if all questioning of conventional wisdom is wise or mature.

What's needed is a kind of intellectual virtue, it seems to me, combining the ability to sniff out cant and bullshit with the courage or obliviousness that it takes to speak honestly. The kind of philosophy that focuses on language and texts (as in primary sources expressing the author's own views, not as in "everything's a text, if you think about it") could help a lot with the former, I think. The kind of philosophy, that is, that focuses on what people say and mean rather than on problems that are no one's in particular and then tries to solve these problems in a quasi-scientific, methodical way. (I'm not saying that that kind of philosophy is necessarily useless, only that doing it is not especially likely to make anyone better at detecting bull.) Some kinds of literature would probably help as well. The kind that uses language carefully or that draws attention to bullshit and bullshitters. (So not the kind, for instance, that aims at sounding good without having any precise meaning, or that aims at telling a ripping yarn without much concern for wording, or that aims to be a fictional version of journalism or sociology, or that aims to raise and explore impersonal philosophical questions. Again, not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that kind of thing in itself. I like a ripping yarn.) How you learn courage or independence is beyond me though. Perhaps by being surrounded by people who are bravely independent. That would be a good education for grownups, I think.