Room for Uncertainty in Online Philosophical Communities

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 22/10/2018 - 3:30pm in

“Uncertainty, I once thought, is what philosophers do. Now I have doubts.” 

Those are the words of Amy Olberding, professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and one of the most thoughtful observers of the philosophy profession, in an essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education. (The essay is paywalled but may be accessible through your library’s website.)

Professor Olberding is one of the most thoughtful observers of the philosophy profession. The current essay builds on themes she has discussed earlier.

She observes the “pugilistic practices” of philosophers interacting on social media and blogs:

Philosophers of all stripes wield the heavy weaponry of scorn, derision, and insult online. The rhetorical assaults take a couple of general forms: assailing the basic competence and intelligence of one’s opponent or assailing her moral scruples and humanity. Though the rhetoric typically includes lively flourishes, much of it amounts to slinging charges of stupidity or hatred back and forth. And, because this is philosophy, the slinging can go meta: Philosophers will not only rhetorically punch an opponent—when challenged they may justify their punching with elaborate claims that he needed punching and, by the by, if you’re doubting this, maybe you need punching, too. This is where our online conversations are most demoralizing: Certainty of one’s own views transforms into cruelty cast in self-valorizing terms. Cruelty becomes righteous, the cruel heroic.

She notes how the results of these practices run counter to the pursuit of wisdom, with discourse that is limited and, in an important way, unphilosophical:

The casualties of these pugilistic practices are many, but the one I mourn the most is uncertainty. Philosophers who harbor uncertainty are simply unlikely to participate in online dialogue. The fervent antagonism of the interaction selects against those who have no “side,” so we will rarely hear from the importantly perplexed or learn what new complexities they might discern. But more than this, I think the nature of online dialogue distorts and corrupts uncertainty itself, though I struggle to say just how.

I suspect that uncertainty cannot be effectively expressed. Trepidation, doubt, hesitation—these can be leveraged by the insincere as subtle weapons of attack. A posture of “uncertainty” is sometimes but a battle pose, simulated confusion just one more way to lash and thrash. It is only the woefully naïve who can read a philosopher say, “What I really don’t understand is …” and expect what follows to reliably reflect honest confusion. (In this sort of counterfeit confusion, too many philosophers do indeed follow ironic old Socrates, and more’s the pity. He was cleverer than most and at least he had his daemon—we have only each other.)

If sincere uncertainty may be received as but one more salvo in the escalating wars, better, then, to keep it to oneself. So, too, it’s not clear what one would win if one were taken as sincere. For in our online dialogues, to be found uncertain can itself invite contempt. When dialogue is driven by those not only certain of their views but agonistically scornful of those who think otherwise, harboring doubts and reservations is a form of “otherwise”—in failing to agree outright, one might as well be foe… 

But we could do better:

The complexities that each could bring to each would have us tarry long and carefully. We could then be better on our guard, not against being called stupid or hateful, but against being so. We would want each other’s reservations and hesitations because these would make us better, not only smarter but more humane.

The full essay is here.

Discussion is welcome, but please do take care not to exhibit here the problems Professor Olberding identifies in her essay. Thank you.

Alex Hall, “Proelium”

Related: “Commenting Here: Some Advice“; “A Note on Making Discussions Here Better“; “Comments Policy

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A Reputational Survey of Philosophy Programs Plotted Against Program Placement Data

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 22/10/2018 - 2:14pm in



To what extent does getting one’s PhD in philosophy from a program that does well in a reputational survey increase one’s chances of finding a permanent academic position?

That is the question that Spencer Hey (Research Scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Co-Director of Research Ethics at the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School) recently took up, and he has now presented the results of his inquiry in an interactive graph.

He plotted along one axis the rankings PhD programs received in the latest Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR), a controversial reputational survey of the faculty at the programs, and along the other axis data on the programs’ placing of their PhDs in permanent jobs from Academic Placement Data and Analysis (APDA).

Here’s a snapshot of the graph and its key:

from Aero Data Lab (Spencer Hey)

On the interactive version of the graph, mousing over the nodes will reveal the names of the plotted programs as well as the relevant data.

Professor Hey observes:

Roughly speaking, for every 1 point increase in a program’s mean PGR score, there is a 10% increase in its placement rate for recent graduates. However, that trend is really only a small part of the story here…

For example, the 60-40% placement range is populated by programs from across the PGR-score spectrum. This shows that getting into a top-scoring program is by no means a slam dunk for a future job in academia. It also shows that many lower-scoring programs do just as well as higher-scoring programs at placing their graduates—and some even better. UC Riverside, Irvine, and University of Virginia really stand out as “overperforming” based on their PGR score. Notably, NYU, which has been the top-ranked PGR program for several years, is very middle-of-the-pack in terms of placement.

In general, I think the programs falling into the upper left and lower right quadrants raise the most interesting questions. What are some of these lower-scoring programs doing (or what areas do they specialize in) that helps them to place their graduates so well? And conversely: What aren’t some of these top-scoring programs doing? Obviously, getting your graduates jobs in academia isn’t the only measure of a program, but the PGR survey is ostensibly supposed to be tracking the ability of the program to train successful academic philosophers. So it seems to me that some of the “underperformers” here should raise an eyebrow—and students applying to graduate school would do well to probe the APDA data more closely (and ask their advisors lots of questions) before placing too much stock in a program’s PGR rank.

More here.

For an earlier look at the relation between PGR rank and placement, see this post.

Related: “The PGR’s Technical Problems“; “The Specialty Rankings“; “What Do PGR Evaluators Need To Know?“; “Broader Effects of the PGR“; “Leiter to Step Down from PGR / The New Consensus

The post A Reputational Survey of Philosophy Programs Plotted Against Program Placement Data appeared first on Daily Nous.

Teaching Gen Ed Students the Value of Philosophy (guest post by Andrew P. Mills)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 19/10/2018 - 11:10pm in

Earlier this year, Andrew P. Mills , professor of philosophy and director of the Integrative Studies Program at Otterbein University, and president of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers,  conducted a survey about teaching non-philosophy majors and getting them to see the value of philosophy.

In the following guest post, which initially appeared at the Blog of the APA, Professor Mills reports on his findings.

Teaching Gen Ed Students the Value of Philosophy
by Andrew P. Mills

The news of philosophy departments under threat is disturbingly familiar to many of us. We bemoan the latest news of the elimination of a philosophy major (see herehere, and here) or the slashing of faculty positions (see here, and here) and wonder why our ‘stakeholders’ can’t see the value of what we do. Indeed, the APA has recently developed a “Department Advocacy Toolkit” to help departments at risk of reduction or elimination.

At the same time, it is worth reflecting that the vast bulk of what we do when we are in the classroom is teach students whom we will likely never teach again. We try to “convert” some of them to majors or minors (the APA’s Toolkit has tools for that), yet the truth is that our missionary work fails much more than it succeeds. Since these “one-and-done” students who are in our classes to meet university general education requirements are the vast majority of the students we teach (more on this below), they are our ambassadors to the rest of the university: if we teach them well, other students, faculty, administrators (and maybe others beyond the university walls) will know. And if we teach them poorly, even more so. Yet so many of these students arrive in our classes resistant not just to the idea of having to take another required course, but resistant to the philosophical enterprise itself. Perhaps if we can help those students come to see the value of philosophy, we can help change public opinion about our discipline.

How might we do that? There are some ideas in the results of a survey I conducted this past spring of 280 or so North American philosophy faculty on just this question. (I don’t want to clutter this post with demographic data regarding the survey respondents, but I do believe that, at least in terms of rank and institution type–the two demographic factors I asked about–the survey respondents are fairly representative of the universe of those who teach philosophy at the college level in North America. In what I say below, I will assume, therefore, that the results from my survey sample are an accurate representation of North American college philosophy instructors generally. Those who are interested in the demographic issues can raise those questions in the comments.)

Philosophy departments (along with departments of English, modern languages, math, chemistry and physics, among others) are heavily “service” departments. We are departments with relatively few majors but lots of students who take our classes because the are required by university general education requirements or because they are required by the students’ major (nursing majors, for example, take chemistry courses and engineering majors take physics). My survey confirms not only that we all teach a lot of these “Gen Ed” students, but that a high percentage of the students we teach each year are Gen Ed students (as opposed to majors, minors, or graduate students). Over 75% of us teach at least 50 Gen Ed students each year and 41% teach at least 100. (Figure 1) More interesting, perhaps is the data the percentage of the students we teach each year who are Gen Ed students. (Figure 2) For nearly 80% percent of us, at least 61% of the students we teach in a typical year are Gen Ed students. And, perhaps more shockingly, for nearly half of us, over 80% of the students we teach each year are Gen Ed students.

Figure 1: Number of Gen Ed Students Taught per Year

Figure 2: Percentage of Gen Ed Students Taught per Year

Given these results, it stands to reason that we should think carefully and intentionally about how we teach those students who form the bulk of the people we teach each year. There are many questions we might ask about teaching Gen Ed students, from pedagogical approaches, to topics, to readings, to the kind of assignments we would ask them to complete. The question I am interested in here, however is how we can teach our Gen Ed students about the value of the philosophical enterprise.

A satisfyingly large number (82%) of us said that it was either “extremely” or “very” important that our Gen Ed students come to value philosophy as a result of taking our classes (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The importance of Gen Ed students valuing philosophy

Philosophy is multi-faceted, though, and so I identified aspects of philosophy and asked respondents to think about which of these aspects they want their Gen Ed students to value. While my identification of the “aspects” of philosophy is by no means canonical, I hope readers will see that it captures much, if not all, of what we think philosophy is (especially as we teach it to our Gen Ed students):

  • The questions philosophy tends to ask (e.g., What makes an action right? What are the conditions of knowledge? Is the mind identical to the body?)
  • The answers philosophy gives to its questions (e.g., Utilitarianism, Substance Dualism, Skepticism)
  • Philosophy’s canonical texts (e.g., ApologyMeditations on First PhilosophyThe Analects, etc.)
  • Philosophical Methodology (e.g., Thought experiments, conceptual analysis, drawing distinctions, reconstructing arguments, formal logical methods, understanding informal fallacies)
  • Philosophy’s intellectual virtues (e.g., openness to criticism, precision, commitment to truth, adopting the principle of charity, intellectual humility)
  • The ways philosophers write (e.g., argumentative essays)

I asked this question twice, first allowing respondents to choose as many aspects as they wanted, and then asking them to choose the aspect they most wanted their Gen Ed students to value. The results here surprised me (see Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Valuable Aspect (choose many)

Given the chance to choose as many aspects as they wanted, more than 75% chose Methodology, more than 80% chose Questions and more than 90% chose Intellectual Virtues. Again, this is not a question about the most important learning goal in our classes, but rather a question about which aspect(s) of philosophy we think it is important for our Gen Ed students to come to value.

These same three aspects were most preferred when respondents were asked to choose the one aspect that was most important (Figure 5) with more than 45% choosing the Intellectual Virtues, far and away the most popular choice.

Figure 5: Valuable Aspect (choose one)

Two things stand out to me here. One is how strongly we want our students to value the intellectual virtues. Has this always been so, or is it a product of our particular political moment? Do those of us who want our students to value the intellectual virtues of philosophy make the acquisition of those virtues an explicit learning goal in their classes. And, if so, what we do in order to help students acquire those virtues? (Though I haven’t used it in my classes, I recently became aware of Jason Baehr’s project on teaching the intellectual virtues, and it looks to be an amazing resource.)

The second surprising result is the low scores for Answers and Canon. So many of us feel a strong attachment to the “content” of our classes: we worry about “covering” all the content, we are dismayed when we didn’t “get to” that last reading, and resist spending class time helping students improve their writing or in small group tasks (for instance) because we fear doing so means less time where we can lecture on the content. Yet the two aspects most closely connected to content–Answers and Canon–are the ones that scored the lowest when faculty were asked to select the aspect of philosophy they most want their students to value. They even scored low when faculty were allowed to choose as many aspects as they wanted (Figure 4). There may be other reasons why faculty think philosophy’s “answers” and canonical texts should play a central role in their Gen Ed classes, but they don’t seem to be aspects of our discipline we think students should most value.

Once faculty selected the aspect of philosophy they most wanted their students to value, I asked them (in a free-response question) why they wanted their students to value that aspect. Coding the free-response questions is still a work in progress, but three reasons are, and likely will remain, prominent: (a) that the relevant aspect is foundational for work in other courses and/or for life after college (24% of respondents said this); (b) that the relevant aspect is conducive to students’ happiness; (21%) and (c) that the relevant aspect will enable the student to improve the lives of others (17%). The raw counts, not the percentages, are in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Prominent Reasons

These three reasons in defense of philosophy are common ones. How many of us talk up philosophy because it will help students in law school? Or tout the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living? Or that epistemically humble people who are open to diverse points of view, can engage in reasoned debate, and can speak truth to power strengthen our democracy? And while some of these reasons support some of the six aspects more than others, it was interesting to note that among those who selected intellectual virtues as the most important aspect, all three reasons were equally prominent.  The survey covered more territory (about the obstacles to students’ valuing philosophy, and about what we do to help our students see philosophy’s value), but I want to draw some conclusions from even this snapshot of the results.

What I’ve said so far suggests that, if we find ourselves in line with the plurality of respondents to my survey, we should loosen our attachment to our treasured content, make acquisition of the intellectual virtues a prominent learning goal in our Gen Ed courses, and figure out ways to teach our students so that they might acquire them. If we think the acquisition of the intellectual virtues (for instance) is valuable because it will make our students happier, what are we doing in class to help our students make that connection? If we believe that mastering philosophical methodology will help our students in their other classes and/or in their lives after college, are we enabling them see how? But even if you would choose a different aspect, and defend it with a different reason, it’s critical, I believe, that we be explicit with our Gen Ed students about what is valuable about what they are learning in our courses, why, and help them see that reasoning for themselves.

I’m well aware that there are other outcomes for our classes besides the one regarding valuing philosophy (many of these outcomes might be imposed upon our classes by our departments or universities), and it is challenging to help our students meet all the learning outcomes, but helping our Gen Ed students come to see the value of philosophy needs to be a priority for all of us. I’m eager to hear how you rise to that challenge in your own Gen Ed teaching.

Art: Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, “Philosophy” (mural at Boston Public Library)

The post Teaching Gen Ed Students the Value of Philosophy (guest post by Andrew P. Mills) appeared first on Daily Nous.


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 18/10/2018 - 11:12pm in


Links, philosophy

Here’s the latest Mini-Heap!

  1. Challenges confronting the online philosophy community — remarks from Adriel Trott (Wabash)
  2. We should think of philosophy talks as taking place in “intellectual safe spaces” — “where one’s ideas are bracketed from certain social contexts in order to examine them simply as ideas,” says Bharath Vallabha
  3. The creation of a database of materials on Zhu Xi is underway — estimated to be completed in 5 years, it will contain books, videos, audio, academic articles, and other items related to Zhu Xi and those influenced by him
  4. “How does one decide the potential of an as yet un-had dialogue?” — Liam Kofi Bright (LSE) on disputes over the absurdity and/or plausibility of ideas (and the recent academic hoax)
  5. Is Bojack Horseman a story about Stoicism? — an interesting look at the acclaimed television show (but too many spoilers if you haven’t watched through season 4) (via Chike Jeffers)
  6. The American Society for Aesthetics issues an apology for its handling of a sexual harassment allegation — and has appointed an ombudsperson
  7. Figuring out the costs and benefits of cognitive biases in light of the multiplicity of epistemic goals and different types of epistemic agents — it’s complicated, as Lisa Bortolotti, Andrea Polonioli, and Sophie Stammers explain
  8. “What is particularly troubling about some societal disagreements is that they concern factual matters that tend to be almost impossible to resolve” — Klemens Kappel (Copenhagen) on the problem of “deep disagreement”
  9. How to recognize fascism before it’s too late — a brief video primer from Jason Stanley (Yale)
  10. In support of the college lecture — new study finds that undergrads taught via lecture are less likely to drop out

Mini-Heap posts appear when about 10 new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, the ever-growing collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers.

The Heap of Links consists partly of suggestions from readers; if you find something online that you think would be of interest to the philosophical community, please send it in for consideration for the Heap. Thanks!


The post Mini-Heap appeared first on Daily Nous.

MIT Launches Billion Dollar Ethics-Oriented AI Initiative

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 18/10/2018 - 1:42am in

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is establishing a new college focused on the development and “ethical application” artificial intelligence.

The Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will be the centerpiece of MIT’s $1 billion initiative “to address the global opportunities and challenges presented by the prevalence of computing and the rise of artificial intelligence.”

A press release from the university states that, among other things, the new college will strengthen MIT’s role in “the responsible and ethical evolution of technologies that are poised to fundamentally transform society” and be “a place for teaching and research on relevant policy and ethics to better ensure that the groundbreaking technologies of the future are responsibly implemented in support of the greater good.”

Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of Blackstone, an investment firm, made a $350 million donation that led to the establishment of the new college that bears his name. He says, “The College’s attention to ethics matters enormously to me, because we will never realize the full potential of these advancements unless they are guided by a shared understanding of their moral implications for society.”

The new college will include existing MIT faculty from a variety of disciplines as well as 50 new faculty positions, graduate fellowships in ethics and AI, forums to bring together academics, government officials, business leaders, and media to discuss AI-related policy matters, and a curriculum that brings computer science together with other areas of inquiry. In an email, Alex Byrne, head of the Department of Philosophy at MIT, said that he expects the department to be significantly involved in the new college.

You can read more about it at MIT’s site.

Elias Sime, “Tightrope: Internalized”

Related: “Computer Science Ethics: A Growth Area for Philosophy?“, “Nearly $15m For Philosopher-Led Artificial Intelligence Center“, “Patent Pending for Philosopher and Astrophysicist-Designed Artificial Consciousness Test“, “Philosophers Appointed To High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence“, “Will Computers Do Philosophy?” “Philanthropy for Philosophy: Fleeting Fad or Fertile Future?“, “Philosophy in 10 Years

The post MIT Launches Billion Dollar Ethics-Oriented AI Initiative appeared first on Daily Nous.

Visualizing the Structure of Philosophy from the 1950s to Today

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/10/2018 - 2:40am in


philosophy, art, data

Maximilian Noichl has designed a beautiful visualization of philosophy from the 1950s to today.

Looking somewhat like a map, the visualization is based on 55,327 papers in philosophy from the Web Of Science collection. Noichl says: “the papers were determined by snowball-sampling: I started with a small sample (a few thousand papers), and extended from there by repeatedly looking at the most cited publications.”

This is how the image was put together:

Articles from various philosophy journals were spatially distributed according to their citation-patterns. Every point represents one of these papers. The papers were then grouped by a clustering-algorithm into 42 clusters which are represented by the colored shapes, and which are labeled around the graphic. 

Here’s the result:

The original version of “The Structure of Recent Philosophy from the 1950s to this day” is on his site and is accompanied by some explanatory text. Here’s an excerpt in which Noichl discusses what he thinks can be seen in the visualization:

The clusters are a bit heterogenic in their nature: while some are thematic, others are determined strongly by specific persons or eras, which seems in itself to be an interesting observation about the structure of the literature. But we can discover more: there is, for example, a remarkable cleft between theory of science and epistemology. And the way various historical clusters group themselves around moral philosophy suggests an internal relation. We can also observe that continental philosophy is a distinct cluster that seems to split into two halves, but is well-formed and not that far away from the rest of philosophy.

You can see other visualization Noichl has created at his website, including a delightful depiction of the interrelation of the ideas of ancient philosophers over time, a graph charting recent trends in philosophy, and an alternate version of the one featured in this post

(via Daniel Brunson)

The post Visualizing the Structure of Philosophy from the 1950s to Today appeared first on Daily Nous.


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/10/2018 - 11:05pm in


Links, philosophy

Here’s the latest Mini-Heap!

  1. A look at what’s happening to our reading brains at this historic juncture between the old ways and the new” — what does it mean for the future of reading, learning, and teaching that the average person now reads 100,000 words a day on electronic devices?
  2. A philosopher is the first transgender athlete to win a world championship cycling event — Rachel McKinnon (Charleston) won the gold in the sprint at the 2018 UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championships. See her Twitter for an informative discussion.
  3. Kindness in academic philosophy — Em Walsh (McGill) on why and how
  4. “To fight fake news, we need to take the same norms that keep us (relatively) honest over cocktails, and apply them to social media” — Regina Rini (York) on a way to do that
  5. “Critical theories of the post–Frankfurt School period… can be viewed as plausible rearticulations of a project of critique initiated by Kant” — Seyla Benhabib (Yale) on the “illuminating pluralization of critical theories”
  6. An esoteric reading of “The Good Place” — Robin James (UNC Charlotte) thinks the show is more progressive than it appears
  7. Human experience in the aggregate — “more of human experience has happened recently than time would suggest”; what should we take from that? (via MR)
  8. Political success is not moral victory nor legal vindication — Jacob Levy (McGill) on Kavanaugh, with the help of Bernard Williams
  9. Philosophy and race in South Africa? — David Benatar (Cape Town) responds to a recent article in Quartz
  10. “What does philosophy have to teach us about running a business?” “Oh, I think everything…” — a discussion with a philosopher-turned-plumber (who still teaches some philosophy courses part time)

Mini-Heap posts appear when about 10 new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, the ever-growing collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers.

The Heap of Links consists partly of suggestions from readers; if you find something online that you think would be of interest to the philosophical community, please send it in for consideration for the Heap. Thanks!


The post Mini-Heap appeared first on Daily Nous.

Thinking As Complex as the World: an Obituary for Mary Midgley (guest post by Ian James Kidd)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/10/2018 - 3:15am in

The following is an obituary for philosopher Mary Midgley, who died last week, written by Ian James Kidd (Nottingham). It first appeared on the SWIP-UK website.

Thinking As Complex as the World:
an Obituary for Mary Midgley (1919-2018)
by Ian James Kidd

Mary Beatrice Midgley died last week, aged ninety-nine, after a sixty-nine career as lecturer, researcher, and respected and admired public intellectual. She was the last living member of a remarkable group of British women philosophers, whose other members were Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, and Philippa Foot—a group whose intermingled lives and careers are explored by the In Parenthesis project, based jointly at the Universities of Durham and Liverpool.

Mary was born in 1919, inheriting a life-long love of literature, classics, and philosophy from encouraging teachers and her father, a curate at Kings College Cambridge. Studying Mods and Greats and graduating with first-class honours, she dabbled in socialist politics, then, after a stint in the Civil Service during the War, returned for graduate studies in 1947. Although her thesis—on Plotinus—was never finished, Mary never regretted her lack of a doctorate; years later, she explained that doctoral training of the time tended to focus myopically on arguments, ignoring the wider contexts which lent them salience. (In any case, Durham awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1995, followed by another from Newcastle in 2008). A sense of the importance of the big picture, as well as the little details, was to recur in her later emphases on the importance of ‘myths’ and ‘imaginative visions’ (which was what attracted her to Plotinus in the first place).

In 1949, Mary took up a lectureship at the University of Reading, after a tip-off from Foot about the job. In those days, academic salaries increased, the further one went from Oxbridge. A good salary was compensation for the necessary self-exile from the centre of intellectual life. Reading was a smaller, newer university, whose climate was much more to Mary’s taste. Collegiality and informality were the rule, creating a receptive atmosphere, where one could float ideas without their being shot down straightaway by sharp-eyed cognitive snipers:

If someone said, ‘That’s really a biological question’, this did not lead to an anguish-ridden silence, but to finding a biologist at once and asking him about it. Nobody seemed frightened of having their reputation destroyed; nobody considered that a chance question over a coffee cup demanded an ex cathedra pronouncement […] I cannot express how much I liked this.

Collegial encouragement and collaborative enquiry would be a theme of Mary’s style of thinking, whether in person—with colleagues at Newcastle, her subsequent professional home, during talks and in correspondence. In her autobiography, The Owl of Minerva, she speculated on the underlying sources of the aggressive, adversarial climate of post-war Oxford philosophy. “It stuck out a mile”, she later recalled, “that what really frightened analytic philosophers of that time was the danger of being thought weak—vague, credulous, sentimental, superstitious, or simply too wider in their sympathies.” If one is tough-minded, then one can stay safe, albeit at the cost of sealing oneself off from dimensions of life that one really cannot do without. One can survive in such a chilly climate, but not flourish—as Mary put it, though Oxford “never managed to stop my mouth”, it came “very near to freezing up my pen.”

Iris Murdoch—her contemporary and friend—shared this sense that fear played a deep role in the thinking of the Oxford philosophers of the time. As she advised in Existentialists and Mystics, “it is often revealing to ask of a philosopher, ‘What is he afraid of’”, a remark that could have easily been made by Mary. Since our fears are personal, a good philosopher should scrutinise their own, not least when it comes to moral matters. Emotion, feeling, love, uncertainty, worry, concern—all these play a vital role in our life, even if they complicate our efforts to sense of that life. Much of Mary’s writing is driven by an unflagging effort to assure us that—to quote one of her slogans—“complexity is not a sin”. Such feelings, fears, and concerns are constitutive of human life, so we should feel neither guilt nor shame when we try to put them back into the picture.

Mary’s efforts to scrutinise major prevailing “visions” and “myths” had to wait, though, since there were important developments in her own life. In 1950, she married Geoffrey Midgley, a fellow philosopher, and took five years off to raise her three sons, Tom, David, and Martin. ‘Time off’, though, was never a concept that fitted Mary Midgley. Bottle-feeding and playtime was punctuated by reviews of novels for The Listener and The Twentieth Century, later followed by writing talks for the radio, the early groundwork for her later career as a public philosopher. (Only one radio script was ever rejected, entitled ‘Rings and Books’, a reflection on fact that almost all the great philosophers of history had no first-hand experience of living with women and children. Luckily, the script has been recovered and made available by the In Parenthesis project.)

By 1964, her time of babies and book reviews completed, Mary had resumed lecturing duties at Newcastle. She found it friendly and congenial, much like the city itself, and her many recollections of her colleagues, friends, and students are striking for their acute sensitivity to their characters—their particular and often charming little habits, quirks, and preoccupations. Such attentive sensitivity finds expression in her philosophising, too, as when she warned of the all-too-easy dangers of getting lost in a tangling web of abstraction, theory, and other “narrowings” of our vision. Mary never argued that there was any sin in narrowing one’s vision—in reducing wholes to parts, or simplifying the complex—just as long as one remembers that is what one was doing. Problems only arise when abstraction or reduction stop halfway, thereby leaving out the concrete complexity.

Mary was at her best when engaged in her determined efforts to expose and combat various efforts to “narrow” our visions and imagination. Across her most famous books, the bête noires were broad ‘isms’, such as reductionism and scientism: their titles often announce the target—Evolution as a Religion, Science as Salvation, or The Solitary Self, an attack on ‘social atomism’. Other books focus on her positive theses, such as Animals and Why They Matter—radical, at the time, for affirming that they do—and Science and Poetry. Unlike some attacks on these ‘isms’, Mary preferred to target their specific forms, using the big-picture perspective to approach recent or emerging problems. This is the strategy of her first book, Beast and Man, which appeared in 1978, at the height of the sociobiology debate spurred by E.O. Wilson. Immersed in ethology and other sciences, Mary’s criticisms were met as a welcome alternative to extravagant, overexcited talk of finally replacing ethics with biology. Some critics painted her as anti-scientific, although anyone who reads her sees that isn’t at all true. Sciences have an important role to play in studying human nature, but aren’t the only stars of the show—a fact we forget or ignore at our peril. Subsequent work by philosophers of science endorsed this pluralism, and I’m always struck by how ahead of the game Mary’s views on science were. (Think of her prescient emphasis on the pluralistic, disunified, value-charged nature of the sciences, which came to be a major theme of 1990s philosophy of science.) Although she always described herself as a moral philosopher, though she was also a full-time philosopher of science, even if few of them read or know her work.

The same impulse to rescue complexity from abstraction is also the abiding theme of Mary’s work on animal ethics. A lot of work on non-human animals tends to ignore or downplay our actual relations to animals, which jeopardises our ability to grasp fully why they matter morally. Some are pets, some pests, some ‘companions’—terms that register a range of subtly textured forms of affective, personal, and cultural significance. Trying to theorise about animals means attending to our actual relationships with them, not talking grandly but vacuously of their moral ‘rights’ and ‘status’. Start from our “actual arrangements”, as they are ordered by practices and animated for us by poetry, seeking out those people with expert insights into those arrangements—a tendency that, in turn, helps attract allies to one’s cause, such as Mary’s friend and admirer, Jane Goodall. If these lessons sound obvious, the reply is that they’re too easily forgotten. Much of Mary’s work is characterised by a patient, almost plodding determination to steer clear of the dramatism of dogmatism, to stay close to what actually goes on, to try to restore calm to an overexcited arena. Let’s employ abstraction, but only as long as we remember to go back and restore what we had to take out in order to get started. Attend to the small details, but step back, at least at times, to look at the big picture.

It is this moderate, pragmatic, careful spirit that is most characteristic of Mary’s work. We can see it in her earliest article, although it’s at its clearest in her books, where she had space to explore a theme across its different aspects. She was born to write books, even if she waited a long time to start writing them; she once famously explained, “I wrote no books until I was a good 50, and I’m jolly glad because I didn’t know what I thought before then”. Luckily for us, once she got going, she wasted no time in saying what she thought. In the thirty-year eight years since her retirement, she wrote over two hundred books, articles, and chapters, for philosophy journals and environmental magazines, for New Scientist (for whom she was the go-to philosopher), and for The Guardian and the UK’s newsstand magazine, Philosophy Now. (You can find a full bibliography of her works here).

By the early 1980s, Mary’s reputation grew in line with her productivity, even as she made her plans for retirement. Despite the upturn in her own fortunes, the wider situation for British philosophy had taken a turn for the worst. The Newcastle department was one of half a dozen earmarked for closure, victims of Thatcher’s animus against the universities: an article published the year before the Iron Lady was forced out was defiantly entitled, ‘The Value of “Useless” Research’. Before retiring, though, Mary wrote letters to “all the distinguished philosophers I could think of”, pleading for their support in defending their beleaguered colleagues. Only one did so—A.J. Ayer. Worse, though, some responded by denying any need for action, with Michael Dummett and Peter Strawson replying that they “really did not see the need for all these departments”, since philosophy was only worth doing if done well, which clearly wasn’t possible in the north-east of England. (Some years later, David E. Cooper pointed out that many of the politicians        and civil servants who presided over these closures would have done PPE at Oxford in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where their tutors taught them—too well, it seems—that philosophy was ‘useless’).

Mary retired from Newcastle in 1980, aged sixty-one, and the department was closed after an enforced battle for survival with the Department of Music. ‘Retire’, though, seems the wrong word. The survivors of the department formed a discussion group, APIS—the Applied Philosophy Ideas Section—whose would meet at Mary’s home in Jesmond on Wednesday evenings. I spoke there a couple of times, well-supplied with tea and biscuits, among philosophers, poets, artists, and interested and interesting others. Mary would hold court, eyes tight shut in thought, concentrating through a furrowed brow, her questions afterwards invariably always straight to the point, often prefaced by a favourite line, “There’s a lot of muddled thinking, here…”

Many philosophers are rightly impressed that she remained so philosophically active, even as an advanced nonagenarian. An astonishingly prolific writer, she was still working the day she died, having just finished a new book. Much of Mary’s reputation as a public philosopher is due to her clear and accessible philosophical writing. (All but one of her books—1983’s Womens Choices, co-authored with Judith Hughes—is still in print.) Unlike the ponderous tone of some philosophy books written for the public, her writing is crisp and clear, with an attractive economy and lightness of style coupled to a talent for apt images and metaphors. Her unfussy, unaffected attitude to philosophy is clear in her characterisation of it as ‘plumbing’, each being complex systems, serving vital needs, although usually unnoticed until something goes wrong. At that point, we must take up the floorboards—or examine our concepts—and set about trying to find and fix the problem. ‘Philosophical plumbing’ might lack the glamour and grandeur of other, more popular visions of our disciplinary enterprise. But that’s precisely what made it attractive to Mary and accessible to so many of her readers.

I suspect some people underrate her work because of its readability. It’s easy for academically trained readers to mistakenly think that simplicity of style can’t mean depth of thinking. It’s of course possible, if difficult, to think and write well at the same time—to achieve rigour, without rigor mortis. Mary did it exceptionally well, marked by her characteristic virtues of modesty, good sense, straightforwardness, and a pleasing sardonic wit—not to mention her tenacity, precision, and unwillingness to suffer fools. Most of her interviewers remarked on the latter, as when a Guardian reporter once described her as “the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool”. The tender-hearted virtues like modesty enjoy less prestige in a lot of academic philosophy than the tough-minded, ‘masculine’ ones like tenacity. Mary often protested that imbalance, warning that too much that matters is lost if one has a well-developed critical spirit without a similarly nurtured collegial disposition. Such restless criticality makes one into a sort of solitary self which privileges egoism over enquiry. We should try to help one another advance, not stamp one another. What’s really needed is for our thinking to be as wide and complex as the world that stands in need of understanding, which can’t be achieved by oneself. What we need is balance. Reason alone just won’t do, without emotion playing its role. Science cannot fulfil its functions without its guiding imaginative myths. Philosophy stumbles when it closes its eyes to the wider scene of human life.

Mary’s work was, in a sense, a continuous effort to point out these injurious tendencies. We’re at constant risk of lapsing into dogmatism, rigidity, simplification. Simple stories travel faster. Easier explanations are easier to sell. It therefore takes real effort to keep bringing oneself back to the complexity of the world, to attend to “actual arrangements”, to step back and look at the big picture. Throughout her writing, we are offered a vision of philosophy as one way—or a set of ways—for trying to help us resist the “narrowing” of our hearts and minds. If done well, we are reconnected with those profound goods celebrated in the titles of her books—the varieties of moral experience, the myths we live by, and science and poetry. But philosophy can be corrupted, until it cuts itself off from everyday experience and human relationships and the arts and the sciences. It’s therefore fitting that Mary gave us a crisp statement of a richer, soberer vision of philosophy in her most recent published book, What Is Philosophy For?, published this year by Bloomsbury:

Philosophising, in fact, is not a matter of solving one fixed set of puzzles. Instead, it involves finding the many particular ways of thinking that will be the most helpful as we try to explore this constantly changing world. Because the world—including human life—does constantly change, philosophical thoughts are never final. Their aim is always to help us through the present difficulty.

With the sad death of Mary Midgley, we are deprived of a wise, sensible, very humane philosopher. She was a most wonderful exemplar of a philosopher, who wrote clearly, read widely, and thought deeply about our nature and situation within the world. It’s an irony that the upcoming year sees a set of events intended to celebrate, that will now do double duty to commemorate. The Mary and Geoffrey Midgley papers are held by the University of Durham and will be officially opened this November, organised by the In Parenthesis project, which itself offers an invaluable body of videos, interviews, and other resources. Scholars and admirers of Mary’s work owe deep thanks to the project director, Clare MacCumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. In 2019, the first book-length study of Mary’s work is due to appear, authored by Gregory MacElwain. The current London Lecture series of the Royal Institute of Philosophy is devoted to Murdoch, Midgley, Anscombe, and Foot.

The best tribute to her, though, is to carry on the sort of work she exemplified and encouraged. At the International Women’s Day Conference at Durham in 2016, Liz McKinnell and I formally presented Mary with a copy of the festschrift we co-edited for her, entitled Science and the Self: Animals, Evolution, and Ethics: Essays in Honour of Mary Midgley. Duly grateful, she offered her thanks, then turned to us and asked, “So, what’s next?” I don’t recall our answer, but it ought to be been a promise that we would crack on with the philosophical plumbing and do our best to help stop the flood of “muddled thinking”.

The post Thinking As Complex as the World: an Obituary for Mary Midgley (guest post by Ian James Kidd) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Online Philosophy Resources Weekly Update

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/10/2018 - 1:12am in

Happy Monday! Here’s the weekly report on new entries in online philosophical resources and new reviews of philosophy books. 

As you may have noticed, we have started including links in these posts to reviews of philosophy books in the popular press. I have no doubt that we’re missing some of them (none are listed for this past week), so please do help us out. If you see a review, please email me the link. Thanks!

And now, without further ado, below are recent updates to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), 1000-Word PhilosophyWireless Philosophy (Wi-Phi), as well as new book reviews at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (NDPR).



  1. Analytic Philosophy in Latin America, by Diana Ines Perez (Buenos Aires).
  2. The Neuroscience of Consciousness, by Wayne Wu (Carnegie Mellon).


  1. Herbert Feigl, by Matthias Neuber (Tuebingen).
  2. Feminist Political Philosophy, by Noëlle McAfee (Emory) and Katie B. Howard (Emory).
  3. Mohist Canons, by Chris Fraser (Hong Kong).
  4. Intellectual Property, by Adam Moore (Washington) and Ken Himma (Washington).
  5. Mental Causation, by David Robb (Davidson) and John Heil (Western University St. Louis).
  6. Imagination, by Shen-yi Liao (Puget Sound) and Tamar Gendler (Yale).


  1. What Else Science Requires of Time, by Bradley Dowden (California-Sacramento).


  1. Jason W. Carter (Exeter College-Oxford) reviews On the Soul and Other Psychological Works (Oxford), by Aristotle.
  2. Nicholas Agar (Wellington) reviews New Methuselahs: The Ethics of Life Extension (MIT), by John K. Davis.
  3. Anna Corrias (Queensland) reviews Plato’s Persona: Marsilio Ficino, Renaissance Humanism, and Platonic Traditions (Pennsylvania), by Denis J. J. Robichaud.
  4. Trevor Pearce (North Carolina-Charlotte) reviews Belief: A Pragmatic Picture (Oxford), by Aaron Z. Zimmerman.
  5. Brian Hepburn (Wichita State) reviews Niels Bohr and the Philosophy of Physics: Twenty-First-Century Perspectives (Bloomsbury), by Jan Faye and Henry J. Folse (eds.).
  6. Christel Fricke (Oslo) reviews The Opinion of Mankind: Sociability and the Theory of the State from Hobbes to Smith (Princeton), by Paul Sagar.
  7. Vincent M. Colapietro (Pennsylvania State & Rhode Island) reviews Consciousness and the Philosophy of Signs: How Peircean Semiotics Combines Phenomenal Qualia and Practical Effects (Springer), by Marc Champagne.
  8. Allan Hazlett (Washington-St. Louis) reviews To the Best of Our Knowledge: Social Expectations and Epistemic Normativity (Oxford), by Sanford C. Goldberg.

1000-Word Philosophy

  1. Evolution and Ethics, by Michael Klenk (Delft).
  2. Social Contract Theory, by David Antonini (Clemson).

Wireless Philosophy

Recent Philosophy Book Reviews in Non-Academic Media ∅

 Compiled by @MichaelGlawson (University of South Carolina)

The post Online Philosophy Resources Weekly Update appeared first on Daily Nous.

Philosophy Game Jam

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/10/2018 - 11:22pm in



What’s a game jam and what could it possibly have to do with philosophy?

A game jam is a competition in which participants create video games based on a select theme in a short amount of time. At least that’s what Zack Garrett, a philosophy graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, tells me.

Mr. Garrett is hosting an upcoming philosophy game jam, in which people will have a week to “create games that can either spread interest in philosophy or be used with the aim of teaching philosophy.”

Games will be judged along several criteria, including how well philosophy is incorporated into the game, how engaging a game it is, and how it looks and sounds.

You can learn more about the game jam here. It will be taking place January 5th through 12th, but it’s not too early to start brainstorming ideas. You can also follow developments about the event on Twitter via #philosophygamejam.

from “Sisyphus” by George Prosser

(And in case you missed it in the Heap of Links a few months ago: Socrates is in the latest version of Assassin’s Creed.)

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