You can’t fight in here. This is the Seminar Room.

Hunter S. Thompson takes aim at a typewriter.

Clearly, this man should never be allowed to get near a university.

It is now possible to have a really bad, no good, terrible day that the whole world can witness and that you can never take back. I tell my students that I’m eternally grateful that I was able to be young prior to the proliferation of digital cameras and the development of the world wide web because my youthful indiscretions aren’t preserved for posterity. Even beyond the hormone-fuelled irrationality of youth, I’ve surely been a jerk and fired off inappropriate emails (or ruined more than my share of dinner conversations) even after receiving my PhD.1 Digital communication platforms not only enable us to give in to snap judgements and jerkish responses, some reward and encourage it. It is really easy to be flip in 140 characters, and it is extraordinarily difficult to be deep or insightful within the constraints of Twitter. Whatever we make of the Steven Salaita case case itself, it seems to me that this issue is something we, the scholarly community, need to think through and come to some sort of consensus on because it is only going to loom larger as younger scholars who grew up with social media enter academia.

I want to suggest that there are two problems facing academia: first, the regulative ideal of scholarly behavior arose at a time when it was substantially more difficult to engage in the sort of bad behavior that various information technology platforms enable and enourage. Second, there is a culture clash between scholarly endeavours and information technology practices; whereas the former is (or aspires to be) permanent, considered, careful, and thoughtful, the latter includes uses that are way more ephemeral, instantaneous, off-the-cuff, and “uncareful” (precisely because it can be corrected or updated for little to no cost).
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Every discipline gets the public discourse it deserves

Senor Love Daddy in the booth.

Attention, colleague. Perchance might I suggest that you are obligated to reduce the temperature.

I wasn’t going to write this piece. Indeed, I was hoping to finish a really nice piece about the impact of the Steven Salaita case on the norms of public behavior for academics in the age of instantaneous, mass publishing. But I woke up this morning to a ton of commentary, polls, snark, and accusations—all in the philosophical part of the interwebs.1 I actually am not inclined to link to any of it because (i) boy howdy does so much of it make academic philosophy look bad, (ii) much of the discussion takes place in walled gardens anyhow, and (iii) other people are better situated to address issues of responsibility and blame. Naturally I have views about many of these issues, but I am more strongly committed to the idea that much of those discussions haven’t been—and likely aren’t going to be—constructive; they don’t do much to fix the discipline. I mean, yeah, not everyone is equally to blame, but there is a lot of blame to go around.2

While the current unpleasantnesses online and in meatspace might just be growing pains of a field with a long history of problems with structural violence coming to grips with changes in demographics, methods, institutions, conceptions of professionalism, communication technologies, and the like, I worry that treating these unpleasantnesses as something that will just work itself out is a mistake.

The public faces of philosophy

Given the siloed and specialized nature of academic disciplines, few outside of philosophy read philosophy. As a result, they aren’t likely to have a rich understanding of what it is we do, the value of our labor, and our place in a university. Folks outside of philosophy periodically deride the importance of philosophy, and a standard—though inadequate or incomplete—response to such attacks is the suggestion that we are experts in argumentation. After all, we’re the ones who teach logic and critical thinking courses, and we frequently provide the critical analysis for other fields.

But when kerfuffles . . . erm, kerfuff, attention is drawn to our public face. Sure, there are folks who say all the right things about the dignified traditions that philosophers steward. Being what it is, hyperlinked media might lead folks who are noodling around on the internet in the aftermath of kerfuffles to places that suggest that maybe philosophers aren’t really that good with arguments, are subject to the same sorts of bad behavior in online fora that everyone else is, tend to overestimate their epistemic position, and the like. A perfectly natural response for an outsider to have to this sort of bad behavior is: “Well, if they don’t actually argue well, what the hell is it that they do? Is philosophy just an inferior kind of literary scholarship—like what we study in a literature class, but with strict rules about what counts as a good response to a text and a preference for stultifying or opaque prose? What good is that?”

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What do philosophers do?

This is not a philosopher.  [These are philosophers](

This is not a philosopher.
These are philosophers.

Given the recent negative attention given to “philosophy” by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a perspective on what it is that professional philosophers do qua philosopher.1 To streamline the discussion, my focus will be on academics, though it is possible to be a professional philosopher outside of the academy.

What is philosophy?

Unlike many academic endeavors, specifying what it is that we’re doing when we do philosophy is a problematic task: there are contentious disagreements among philosophers about what they do, what methods are appropriate, who counts as a philosopher, and the like. My plan is to come at this a few different ways: examining the kind of inquiry that philosophers work on, the source materials they use for that inquiry, and the nuts-and-bolts of their labor. (The latter two will appear in subsequent posts.)

So, let’s begin with a formulation from Wilfrid Sellars, the protagonist of my dissertation:

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. — “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man

Perhaps that sentence, by itself, isn’t all that helpful—though right away we can see that philosophy involves a kind of abstract thinking. The claim Sellars makes is that the goal of this abstract thought is to understand . . . well, what exactly is it that we’re supposed to understand? It turns out, everything:

Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings’, but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. (ibid)

That’s a mighty big—and vaguely specified—task. But we can put some flesh on these bones. The general picture is that we have a whole bunch of things we believe and do. Some of these beliefs we hold explicitly, while others we hold merely implicitly in our doings; some we hold for good reasons, while others we hold for bad reasons or for no reason at all. What philosophers do, then, is try to work out how all of these beliefs and doings work—spelling out how they might reinforce or contradict one another, specifying or clarifying the concepts that the beliefs are made of, making explicit presuppositions, working out consequences, analyzing our doings, and the like.

So, philosophy is, in part, a mode of inquiring about our world. It is an attempt to clarify, explain, or analyze concepts, institutions, practices, texts, arguments, etc. as well as their relationship to one another. We can get clearer about what philosophy is by looking at what philosophers inquire about.

Some questions that philosophers attempt to answer

Since philosophy is a mode of inquiry, it might help to understand what sorts of questions philosophers try to answer. The website philpapers, which is (among other things) a comprehensive index of the research literature in philosophy, maintains a bibliography with 4963 categories of material. I, uh, won’t go into all of those. Instead, I’ll select a few parts of philosophy and give some example questions that philosophers working in those parts might ask.

The highest-level categories of questions are, roughly:

  1. Metaphysics
  2. Epistemology
  3. Value Theory
  4. Logic
  5. History of Western Philosophy

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with questions about the “fundamental” nature of reality. Some questions a metaphysician might ask would include: “what is a mind, and how is it related to a body?”; “is the apparent “flow” of time a feature of reality or an illusion?”; and “is there a conception of “free will” that is compatible with the causal worldview depicted in physics?”

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with questions about knowledge. Some questions that an epistemologist might ask would include: “does knowledge have a foundation?”; “can we know anything, given that our experiences could be the result of a sophisticated simulation (as in The Matrix)?”; and “what, if anything, makes scientific inquiry epistemically special?”

Value Theory is a broad category that includes the subfields that inquire into aspects of reality involving values:2 aesthetics (understanding art), ethics (rules governing individual action), political philosophy (rules governing collective action), and social thought (understanding how social institutions like race and gender work). Questions that value theorists are interested in would include: “what is the relationship between beauty and truth?”; “what makes an action the morally right one?”; and “how do institutions structure our existence?”

Logic is the branch of philosophy that examines the formal structures we use in reasoning. This might include material that overlaps with mathematics or with science. Questions that logicians might ask include: “how can we (re)solve a paradox?”; “are there true contradictions?”; and “what explains objectivity in mathematics?”

History of Western Philosophy is the branch of Western philosophy that actively, deeply, and systematically engages in the philosophical work of previous periods so as to gain a deeper understanding of the arguments that earlier philosophers have made and to see if there are any insights relevant to contemporary debates.3 Typically, the history is divided into Ancient (usually Greek and Roman), Medieval (roughly Augustine (354-430 CE) through Suarez (1548-1617 CE), and Modern (1620-1850)—though there are historians who work on 19th and 20th century philosophers. Questions that historians of philosophy might ask are: “how did Aristotle understand perceptual judgment?”; “how best are we to understand the Thomistic “five ways” of proving the existence of god?”; and “does Riemannian geometry undermine Kant’s work in Critique of Pure Reason?”

Next time

In my next post about philosophy, I’ll talk about the sources that philosophers use for their work and the typical activities that philosophers undertake in their work lives.

  1. One thing we do is use the term ‘qua‘. Also, too, footnotes. 
  2. This way of talking suggests a problematic dualism of fact and value—a dualism that I reject for many reasons. However, this way of talking is standard within philosophical circles, and so I’ll begrudgingly use it here. 
  3. I have specified “History of Philosophy” as “History of Western Philosophy,” since virtually all of what is labeled as the former in the West really is the latter. In my next post, about the sources of philosophy, I’ll talk about the divide between “Eastern” and “Western” philosophy. For now, it will suffice to say that “Eastern Philosophy” is generally considered a separate specialization, even if the authors are addressing core metaphysical or epistemological questions. 

Moral Dimensions of Power: An annotated syllabus


We are quite familiar with many of the obvious ways in which power operates: a campus police officer confiscates a case of beer, a professor assigns grades, one boxer defeats another, someone lifts a heavy object, a commuter avails herself of a secret shortcut, and the like. Are these forms of power “the same”? Who has power? Are there constraints on what one may do with one’s power, however it is constituted? This is the subject matter of my course, “Moral Dimensions of Power.”

Overview of the course

I’ve taught several versions of this course since 2002 or so. Its first incarnation was as “The Moral Dimensions of Wealth and Power,” which was a surprisingly popular course.1 Much of the same material appeared as “Social Philosophy” at Pitt-Johnstown and as “Moral Dimensions of Power” at Washington and Lee. This syllabus reflects the totality of material that I’ve taught plus some material that I’ve been interested in and had queued up but lacked the time to use.

The course covers themes I’ve been exploring in my (unpublished) scholarly work during the last few years: determining the extent and manner in which power, institutions, and norms create persons. The class has three sections:

  1. Philosophical analyses of power: accounts of power provided by Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault.
  2. Applications of these analyses: examining the how the insights of Nietzsche and Foucault play out in various contexts. Topics that we look at include wealth, gender, race, ability, size, discourse, classrooms, and software distribution.
  3. Understanding transgression: in the shortest of the three sections, we start to think about how one might go about resisting morally problematic institutions and forms of power.

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How not to write a trigger policy


There has been much press about the growing movement to mandate (either as formal requirements or as “strong encouragement”) the addition of trigger warnings to syllabi. I think that we ought to resist allowing colleges and universities to set trigger warning policies, though I am supportive of the use of such warnings by individual faculty members. I have used such warnings myself over the years, though never specifically under the description of “trigger warning.” Here, I will not defend the stronger claim that we ought to resist such policies; instead, I want to highlight the profound failures of the actual proposal that has been put forward.

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