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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 30/07/2021 - 6:38pm in


Links, philosophy

New links added lately to the Heap…

  1. “A box much lighter than the others, nearly falling to pieces with a red cloth hanging out on all sides, caught my attention. Opening it gently, I was met with a face” — the discovery of Spinoza’s death mask
  2. “The unlived life is not worth examining” — aphorisms of the late great popularizer of philosophy, Bryan Magee
  3. John Locke’s pancake recipe. Seriously. — be warned: between the cream, freshly grated nutmeg, and orangeflower water it will be hard to leave enough and as good for others
  4. In development: “Nietzsche! The Musical” — “Time and again, he reached for a way to love life… His story of struggle and affirmation carries relevance for our time”
  5. Experimental confirmation of Hume’s ideas about imagination and perception? — “reality and imagination are completely intermixed in our brain which means that the separation between our inner world and the outside world is not as clear as we might like to think”
  6. “The result is an agent with the ability to succeed at a wide spectrum of tasks” — Google’s significant progress training AI agents in a multiplayer environment “meant to simulate the physical world” and that involves “complex, non-linear interactions” (via MR)
  7. “Long Covid” raises issues in bio-medical ethics, philosophy of medicine, philosophy of disability, business ethics — Gregory Pence (Alabama) surveys some of the facts and questions related to a condition millions are suffering from

Mini-Heap posts usually appear when 7 or so new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, the collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers. Discussion welcome.

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!


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 28/07/2021 - 11:59pm in


Links, philosophy

Philosophy-related links…

  1. “In Socrates’s late-night imagination, sex ought to benefit neither church nor common good but philosophy students” — Mary Townsend (St. John’s) on eugenics, Socrates, and the “rationalization of eros”
  2. Suppose there’s only a 1% chance that bugs are sentient — despite that small chance, we ought to support “a moral presumption against harming insects,” argue Jeff Sebo (NYU) & Jason Schukraft (Rethink Priorities)
  3. “All the liars are calling me one” — The Taylor Swift Paradox, as unpacked and analyzed by Theresa Helke (Smith)
  4. “Socrates’s method eschewed the pressure to persuade… His politics of humility involved genuinely opening up the question under dispute” — Agnes Callard (Chicago) appreciates Socrates’ spirit of collaborative inquiry
  5. “They hated it” — Patricia Churchland (UCSD) interviewed about her work on the mind on Ideas Roadshow
  6. Bob Moses, “a soft-spoken pioneer of the civil rights movement who faced relentless intimidation and brutal violence to register Black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s, and who later started a national organization devoted to teaching math as a means to a more equal society,” has died — he majored in philosophy at Hamilton College and was working on his PhD in philosophy at Harvard “when he was forced to leave because of the death of his mother and the hospitalization of his father”
  7. “Banded mongooses, acting from behind a veil of ignorance over kinship, allocate postnatal care in a way that reduces inequality among offspring, in the manner predicted by a Rawlsian model of cooperation” — Rawlsianism in the wild

Mini-Heap posts usually appear when 7 or so new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, the collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers. Discussion welcome.

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!

Evil and the philosophy of history

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 28/07/2021 - 7:09am in

images: Two residents of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad)
Vast numbers of words have been written about the atrocities of the twentieth century -- about the Holocaust, about Stalin's war of starvation against Ukraine's peasants, about the Gulag, and about other periods of unimaginable and deliberate mass suffering throughout the century. First-person accounts, historians' narratives, sociologists' and psychologists' studies of perpetrators' behavior, novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights, exhibition curators ... all of these kinds of works are available to us as vehicles for understanding what happened, and -- perhaps -- why. So perhaps, we might agree with Zygmunt Bauman in an early stage of his development and judge that the job has been done: we know what we need to know about the terrible twentieth century.

I do not agree with that view. I believe another perspective will be helpful -- even necessary -- if we are to encompass this century of horror into our understanding of our human past and be prepared for a better future. This is the perspective of the philosopher -- in particular, the philosopher of history. But why so? Why is it urgent for philosophy to confront the Holocaust? And what insight can philosophers bring to the rest of us about the particular evils that the twentieth century involved?

Let's begin with the question, why does philosophy need to confront the Holocaust? Here there seem to be at least two important reasons. First, philosophy is almost always about rationality and the good. Philosophers want to know what conditions constitute a happy human life, a just state, and a harmonious society. And we usually work on assumptions that lead, eventually, back to the idea of human rationality and a degree of benevolence. Human beings are deliberative about their own lives and courses of action; they want to live in a harmonious society; they are capable of recognizing "fair" social arrangements and institutions, and have some degree of motivation to support such institutions. These assumptions attach especially strongly to philosophers such as Aristotle, Seneca, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel; less strongly to Hobbes and Nietzsche; and perhaps not at all to Heidegger. But there is a strong and recurrent theme of rationality and benevolence that underlies much of the tradition of Western philosophy. The facts about the Holocaust -- or the Holodomor, or the Armenian genocide, or Rwanda -- do not conform to this assumption of rational human goodness. Rather, rationality and benevolence fall apart; instrumental rationality is divorced from a common attachment to the human good, and rational means are chosen to bring about suffering, enslavement, and death to millions of individual human beings. The Holocaust, then, forces philosophers to ask themselves: what is a human being, if groups of human beings are capable of such destruction and murder of their fellows?

The two ideas highlighted here -- rationality and benevolence -- need some further explication. Philosophers are not economists; they do not and have not thought of rationality as purely a matter of instrumental cleverness in fitting means to achieving one's ends. Rather, much of our tradition of philosophy has a more substantive understanding of rationality: to be rational is, among other things, to recognize the reality of other human beings; to recognize the reality of their aspirations and vulnerabilities; and to have a degree of motivation to contribute to their thriving. Thomas Nagel describes this view of rationality in The Possibility of Altruism; but likewise, Amartya Sen embraces a conception of reason that includes sociality and a recognition of the reality of other human beings.

Benevolence too requires comment. Benevolence -- or what Nagel refers to as altruism -- is a rational motivation that derives from a recognition of the reality of other people's life -- their life plans, their happiness and suffering, their fulfillment. To be benevolent is to have a degree of motivation to care about the lives of others, and to contribute to social arrangements that serve everyone to some degree. As Kant puts the point in one version of the categorical imperative in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, "treat others as ends, not merely as means". And the point of this principle is fundamental: rationality requires recognition of the fundamental reality of the lives, experiences, and fulfillment of others. Benevolence does not mean that one must become Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov, selflessly devoted to the needs of others. But it does mean that the happiness and misery, life and death, of the other is important to oneself. Nagel puts the point very strongly: strict egoism is as irrational as solipsism.

But here is the crucial point: the anti-Semitism of the Nazi period, the dehumanization of Jews, the deliberate and rational plan to exterminate the Jews from all of Europe, and the racism of European colonialism -- all of this is fundamentally incompatible with the idea that human beings are invariably and by their nature "rationally benevolent". Ordinary German policemen were indeed willing to kill Jews at the instruction of their superiors, and then enjoy the evening singing beer songs with their friends. Ordinary Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were prepared to serve as policemen, carrying out Nazi plans for Aktion against thousands of other residents of the ghetto. Ordinary Poles were willing to assault and kill their neighbors. Ordinary French citizens were willing to betray their Jewish neighbors. How can philosophy come to grips with these basic facts from the twentieth century?

The second reason that philosophy needs to be ready to confront the facts of the twentieth century honestly is a bit more constructive. Perhaps philosophy has some of the resources needed to construct a better vision of the world for the future, that will make the ideal of a society of rationally benevolent citizens more feasible and stable. Perhaps, by once recognizing the terrible traps that Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Soviet citizens were led into, social and political philosophy can modestly contribution to a vision of a more stable future in which genocide, enslavement, and extermination are no longer possible. Perhaps there is a constructive role for political and social philosophy 2.0.

And there is another side of this coin: perhaps the history of philosophy is itself interspersed with a philosophical anthropology that perpetuated racism and anti-Semitism -- and thereby contributed to the evils of the twentieth century. This is an argument made in detail by Michael Mack in German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, who finds that negative assumptions about Jews come into Kant's writings in a very deep way: Jews are "heteronomous", whereas ethical life requires "autonomy". These statements are anti-Semitic on their face, and Mack argues that they are not simply superficial prejudices of the age, but rather are premises that Kant is happy to argue for. Bernard Boxill makes similar claims about Kant's moral philosophy when it comes to racism. Boxill believes that Kant's deep philosophical assumptions within his philosophical anthropology lead him to a position that is committed to racial hierarchies among human beings ("Kantian Racism and Kantian Teleology"; link). These concerns show that philosophy needs to be self-critical; we need to ask about some of the sources of twentieth-century evil that are embedded in the tradition of philosophy itself. Slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, gender oppression, colonial rule, and violence against colonial subjects all seem to have cognates within the traditions of philosophy. (In an important article that warrants careful reading, Laurie Shrage raises important questions about the social context and content of American philosophy -- and the discipline's reluctance to engage in its social presuppositions; "Will Philosophers Study Their History, Or Become History?" (link). She writes, "By understanding the history of our field as a social and cultural phenomenon, and not as a set of ideas that transcend their human contexts, we will be in a better position to set a future course for our discipline"(125).)

There is a yet another reason why philosophy needs to engage seriously with evil in the twentieth century: philosophy is meant to matter in human life. The hope for philosophy, offered by Socrates and Seneca, Hume and Kant, is that the explorations of philosophers can contribute to better lives and greater human fulfillment. But this suggests that philosophy has a duty to engage with the most difficult challenges in human life, throughout history, and to do so in ways that help to clarify and enhance human values. The evils of the twentieth century create an enormous problem of understanding for every thoughtful person. This is not primarily a theological challenge -- "How could a benevolent deity permit such atrocities?" -- but rather a philosophical challenge -- "How can we as full human beings, with our moral and imaginative capacities, confront these evils honestly, and have hope for the future?". If philosophy cannot contribute to answering this question, then perhaps it is no longer needed. (This is the subtext of Shrage's concerns in the article mentioned above.)

I'd like to position this question within the philosophy of history. The Holocaust and the Holodomor are events of history, after all, and history seeks to understand the past. And our understanding of history is also our understanding of our own humanity. But if this question belongs there, it suggests a rather different view of the philosophy of history than either analytic or hermeneutic philosophers have generally taken. Analytic philosophers -- myself included -- have generally approached the topic of the philosophy of history from an epistemological point of view: what can we know about the past, and how? And hermeneutic philosophers (as well as speculative and theological philosophers) have offered large theories of "history" ("Does history have meaning?" "Does history have direction?") that have little to do with the concrete understandings that we need to gain from specific historical investigations. So the philosophy of history that considers the conundrum of the Holocaust and the pervasive footprint of evil in the twentieth century will need to be one that incorporates the best thinking by gifted historians, as well as reflective deliberation about circumstances of the human condition that made these horrible historical outcomes possible. It must join philosophy and history. But it is possible, I hope, that philosophers can help to formulate new questions and new perspectives on the great evils of the twentieth century, and assist global society in moving towards a more harmonious and morally acceptable world.

One additional point is relevant here: the pernicious role that all-encompassing ideologies have played in the previous century. And, regrettably, philosophy often gives rise to such ideologies. Both Stalinism and Nazism were driven by totalizing ideologies, subordinating ordinary human beings for "the attainment of true socialism" or "Lebensraum and racial purity". And these ideologies succeeded in bringing along vast numbers of followers, leading to political ascendancy of totalitarian parties and leaders. The odious slogan, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs", led to horrific sacrifices in the Soviet Empire and in China; and the willingness to subordinate the whole population to the will of the Leader led to the evils of the Nazi regime. Whatever philosophy can usefully contribute in the coming century, it cannot be a totalizing theory of "the perfect society". It must involve a fundamental commitment to the moral importance and equality of all human beings and to democracy in collective decision-making. A decent human future can only be made piecemeal, not according to a comprehensive blueprint. The future must be made by ordinary human beings, not ideologues, revolutionaries, or philosophers. 

$1 Million Grant for Work on Philosophy of Contemporary and Future Science

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 27/07/2021 - 6:00pm in

Darrell Rowbottom, professor of philosophy at Lingnan University, has been awarded a grant of approximately $1 million for his project, “Philosophy of Contemporary and Future Science.”

Awarded by Hong Kong’s Research Grants Council, the Senior Research Fellowship—the first ever given for work in philosophy—will provide five years of support for the project, which will include philosophers and scientists collaborating on questions about changes the future may hold for scientific practices:

Science has changed considerably in recent decades and continues to change at a remarkable rate. Many of the changes concern how science is done. Computer simulations are used to make predictions and to propose explanations. Gigantic databases of information—collections of ‘big data’—are analyzed for patterns, to generate and test hypotheses. New areas of interdisciplinary science are forming, which involve attempts to integrate approaches from the older natural scientific disciplines of chemistry, physics, and biology. And artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to perform tasks that humans simply cannot. On the horizon are AI scientists.

This project will involve philosophers and scientists working together. It will examine some of the difficulties created by these new approaches and emerging developments, and tackle some of the interesting questions that they raise about the future of science. Some of the results will be of practical significance for science, e.g. concern how problems in collaborations involving different areas of science may be addressed, and other results will be of intellectual significance, e.g. in understanding the limits of current and future science.

Some of the specific questions this project will address are as follows. To what extent can experiments done on computers—computer simulations—stand in for experiments done ‘for real’, in the laboratory or the field? How can conflicts about what counts as a good method of inquiry, between scientists working in different areas, be resolved effectively? How does the changing social structure of science bear on what we should expect future science to produce? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having AI perform specific functions in future science? How might AI best be deployed?

The funds will support, among other things, postdocs and a PhD scholarship, each of which will involve placements with scientists in Hong Kong and the UK.

Overlooked Originators in Philosophy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 26/07/2021 - 10:51pm in

Sometimes, one person comes up with an idea, but the idea later comes to commonly be attributed to someone else. When has this happened in philosophy?

[Hilma af Klint, “Series VIII – Picture of the Starting Point”]

In a recent post at his blog, Stephen Mumford (Durham), provides some historical examples of this phenomenon:

Take Descartes, for instance, who everyone knows as the creator of the Cogito argument. But this argument appeared in Augustine’s City of God a thousand years before. Augustine wrote: “I am certain that I am, that I know that I am, and that I love to be and to know. In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force.  If they say: ‘What if you are mistaken?—well, if I am mistaken, I am. For, if one does not exist, he can by no means be mistaken. Therefore, I am, if I am mistaken. Because, therefore, I am, if I am mistaken, how can I be mistaken that I am, since it is certain that I am, if I am mistaken?'”…

Locke is often considered to be the founder of the movement because he so clearly articulated the empiricist principle. Yet reading Hobbes, I found exactly the same principle in his Leviathan: “For there is no conception in a mans mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of Sense. The rest are derived from that Originall.” Now this might only be a coincidence, you could say. Or perhaps Augustine “anticipated” Descartes just as Hobbes “anticipated” Locke. But in both instances, we have a plausible explanation of how the later writers would have known the work of the earlier. In Locke’s case, this came to light only recently when evidence emerged proving that he had read Hobbes closely.

What are some other examples of “overlooked originators” of ideas, arguments, examples, etc., in philosophy? The examples need not be from the distant past. Perhaps there’s a misattribution gaining momentum right now that you know of, that you can mumford* by letting us know about. (And if you yourself are an overlooked originator, let’s hear the details.)

In Professor Mumford’s examples, there is the suggestion that those historically credited with the ideas were aware of where they had appeared earlier. We need not limit ourselves to cases in which we think that’s true. We have an interest in an accurate account of the origins of ideas regardless of whether misconceptions about them were introduced intentionally.

* mumford. (verb) — to correct the record of who gets credit for which philosophical idea.


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 25/07/2021 - 11:53pm in


Links, philosophy

New additions to the Heap of Links…

  1. A philosopher teams up with the biggest art festival in Britain — Vid Simoniti (Liverpool) and the Liverpool Biennial produce a series: “Art Against the World”
  2. The Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory is “unquestionably the real deal” — Vogue profiles Amia Srinivasan (Oxford)
  3. “Panpsychism’s appeal may stem partly from the fact that scientists currently can not explain what consciousness actually is” — philosophy of mind covered at Salon
  4. “There are grounds for doubt… about the power of comedy to effect social change. But I don’t think that robs it of social value. We need to revise our expectations” — Kieran Setiya (MIT) on political comedy
  5. “This was a matter of redeeming humanity, of whether mathematics is what we always thought it was” — why logicians and mathematicians are excited about a new proof about the sizes of infinity
  6. Using the capabilities approach to assess the wellbeing of renters — a report from the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence makes use of Martha Nussbaum’s ideas
  7. A new series interviews scientists and philosophers on questions about consciousness — hosted by Philip Goff (Durham) and Keith Frankish (Sheffield)

Mini-Heap posts usually appear when 7 or so new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, the collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers. Discussion welcome.

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!

Book at Lunchtime: Jews, Liberalism, Antisemitism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 24/07/2021 - 1:34am in

Book at Lunchtime is a series of bite-sized book discussions held weekly during term-time, with commentators from a range of disciplines. The events are free to attend and open to all. About the book:

The emancipatory promise of liberalism - and its exclusionary qualities - shaped the fate of Jews in many parts of the world during the age of empire. Yet historians have mostly understood the relationship between Jews, liberalism and antisemitism as a European story, defined by the collapse of liberalism and the Holocaust. This volume challenges that perspective by taking a global approach. It takes account of recent historical work that explores issues of race, discrimination and hybrid identities in colonial and postcolonial settings, but which has done so without taking much account of Jews. Individual essays explore how liberalism, citizenship, nationality, gender, religion, race functioned differently in European Jewish heartlands, in the Mediterranean peripheries of Spain and the Ottoman empire, and in the North American Atlantic world.


Professor Abigail Green is Professor of Modern European History at Brasenose College, Oxford. Her recent work focuses on international Jewish history and transnational humanitarian activism. She is currently completing a three year Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship, working on a new book on liberalism and the Jews, tentatively titled Children of 1848: Liberalism and the Jews from the Revolutions to Human Rights. Working in partnership with colleagues in the heritage sector, she is also leading a major four year AHRC-funded project on Jewish country houses.

Professor Simon Levis Sullam is Associate Professor of Modern History at Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice, Italy. His fields of interest include the history of ideas and culture in Europe between the Nineteenth and the Twentieth century, with a particular focus on nationalisms and fascism; the history of the Jews and of Anti-Semitism; the history of the Holocaust; the history of historiography, and questions of historical method. His many publications include, most recently, The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy.

Professor Adam Sutcliffe is Professor of European History and co-director of the Centre for Enlightenment Studies at King’s College London. His research has focused on in the intellectual history of Western Europe between approximately 1650 and 1850, and on the history of Jews, Judaism and Jewish/non-Jewish relations in Europe from 1600 to the present. Professor Sutcliffe’s most recent publication, What Are Jews For? History, Peoplehood and Purpose, is a wide-ranging look at the history of Western thinking on the purpose of the Jewish people.

Dr Kei Hiruta is Assistant Professor and AIAS-COFUND Fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark. His research lies at the intersection of political philosophy and intellectual history, with particular interest in theories of freedom in modern political thought. His book Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity will be published from Princeton University Press in autumn 2021.

Strange Philosophical Claims By Scientists

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 24/07/2021 - 12:56am in

Did you know that the brain cortex has “an amount of free will exceeding 96 terabytes per second”? No? Is it because… umm… you thought it was some other number of terabytes?

[“Head Instructor” by Thomas Medicus]

This claim is made in a recent paper published in Biosystems, “Quantum propensities in the brain cortex and free will” (ungated manuscript), by Danko D. Georgiev, an MD/PhD (pharmaceutical sciences) who writes about quantum information theory as applied to brain functions, among other things. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

Inherent biases in the quantum propensities for alternative physical outcomes provide varying amounts of free will, which can be quantified with the expected information gain from learning the actual course of action chosen by the nervous system. For example, neuronal electric spikes evoke deterministic synaptic vesicle release in the synapses of sensory or somatomotor pathways, with no free will manifested. In cortical synapses, however, vesicle release is triggered indeterministically with probability of 0.35 per spike. This grants the brain cortex, with its over 100 trillion synapses, an amount of free will exceeding 96 terabytes per second. 

Now perhaps free will can be measured in terabytes. I’m skeptical, but I don’t intend for this post to be an occasion for picking apart the argument and evidence for that.

Rather, Georgiev’s claim seemed like a good starting example for a collection of philosophical statements made by scientists that strike philosophers as bizarre. Please share other examples in the comments. Such a collection might not only be amusing, but informative, perhaps revealing common misunderstandings. Of course, the possibility for misunderstandings is a two way street, as some things said by scientists that sound strange to philosophers might nonetheless be true, and examples to that effect are welcome, as well.

(Thanks to Matt King for the tip.)

[More about “Head Instructor”]

Some related posts: Which Scientific Disciplines Cite Philosophy of Science?Needed: A Philosophy Cheat Sheet for ScientistsWhen Scientists Read Philosophy, Are They Reading The “Wrong Philosophers”?

click to learn more

Philosopher Awarded Nearly $1 Million Grant for Memory and Forgiveness Project

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/07/2021 - 9:18pm in

Felipe De Brigard, associate professor of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience at Duke University, and leader of the Imagination and Modal Cognition Lab there, has been awarded a grant of $988,602 for his project, “Forgetting and Forgiving: Exploring the Connections between Memory and Forgiveness.”

The grant is from the John Templeton Foundation.

The project takes philosophical and empirical approaches to conceptual and psychological questions related to forgiveness, emotions, and memory, focusing on victims of political violence:

People who have suffered wrongdoings are often urged to “forgive and forget”. Indeed, forgetting the details of past experiences that elicit painful, sometimes debilitating, feelings of resentment, anger and hate, seems necessary in order to replace those negative feelings with more positive ones. However, remembering the details of past wrongdoing also seems necessary for forgiveness. If a person’s memory of a past offense were somehow deleted from her mind, we wouldn’t say that she had forgiven the offender. Forgiveness, then, seems to require a contradiction: one must both remember and forget to forgive. How should we understand the precise relationship between forgiving and forgetting to resolve this paradox? Despite a growing body of research on forgiveness, the relationship between memory and forgiveness remains unclear.

The current project seeks to explore this relationship both empirically and theoretically. Based upon the working hypothesis that forgiveness prompts a psychological process of emotional reappraisal of memories of past wrongdoing, the experimental aspect of the project aims to investigate the effects of forgiving on subsequent recollection, as well as the effects that different reappraisal techniques may have on people’s tendency to forgive offenses. The empirical investigation will be conducted across three different populations: a sample of direct victims of political violence from Montes de Maria, a rural region in the north of Colombia, an urban sample of indirect victims from Bogota, and a comparison sample from individuals in the United States. Clarifying the role that memory plays on forgiveness will not only advance our understanding of this notion, but it will also provide a solid empirical basis upon which to build a theory of forgiveness’ emotional change.

You can learn more about the project here, and you can follow Dr. De Brigard on Twitter here.

Philosophy Labs: Some Recommendations (guest post)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 21/07/2021 - 8:00pm in

The “lonely-armchair methodology” is one way of approaching philosophy, but it’s not the only way.

In this guest post*, Joseph Vukov (Loyola University Chicago), Kit Rempala (Loyola University Chicago), and Katrina Sifferd (Elmhurst University) discuss an alternative, the philosophy lab, which they recently wrote about in their article, “Philosophy Labs: Bringing Pedagogy and Research Together,” in Teaching Philosophy.

(You can follow the authors on Twitter: @JosephVukov, @The_Kit_Effect, and @Ksifferd.)

[Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Spatial Construction No. 12”]

Philosophy Labs: Some Recommendations
by Joseph Vukov, Kit Rampala, and Katrina Sifferd

Philosophers often adhere to what we could call ‘lonely-armchair methodology.’ Sit in your chair; or take a walk; or drink a coffee. Read related work to see what others have said; stew on an idea for a week or a month or a year. Then write it up. Send it off. Desk reject. Stew some more. Revise and resubmit. Stew some more. Accepted. Submit the proofs. Repeat.

That’s a tried and true model of doing philosophy. And it is a model that we follow a lot of the time. We’re fans of lonely-armchair methodology, and we see no reason to abandon it.

In a recent article in Teaching Philosophy, however, we argue this isn’t the only way to do philosophy well. In fact, we suspect there are myriad ways of doing philosophy well. We focus on one: philosophy labs.

Philosophy labs are modeled on labs in STEM fields. No, philosophy labs typically won’t need a budget for beakers or Bunsen burners. Rather, philosophy labs follow the model provided by STEM labs in bringing together researchers at various stages of development—faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students—to work collaboratively on professional-level projects. Philosophy labs are not merely independent studies or reading groups or research assistantships. They are instead research teams that include students and aim at professional goals: publications, fellowships, grant support, etc. Experimental philosophers have been using a lab-based model for years. We believe it is more broadly applicable within the discipline.

In a previous post at Imperfect Cognitions and in our article at Teaching Philosophy, we argued in favor of philosophy labs and explored the model using the framework provided by Positive Interdependence Theory. Here, we take a different tack, and provide concrete recommendations for setting up and operating a philosophy lab, and some reasons you might want to do so.

Prep Work

Setting up a philosophy lab doesn’t rival the complexity of setting up a STEM lab: no need to purchase $100K of equipment or wrangle with facilities administrators to secure extra space on campus. Still, some initial leg work is necessary. Here are some steps we recommend:

  1. Survey campus resources: many campuses offer resources that are easily incorporated into a lab. Each campus is set up differently, but these could include: funding for graduate research assistants, undergraduate research programming, independent studies, and faculty research support. Philosophy labs also provide a solid launchpad for external grant applications, and—if the lab is interdisciplinary—funding streams and administrative support available to more well-heeled departments. Our suggestion: get creative in finding campus resources that might be leveraged to support a lab on your campus.
  2. Determine the interests and goals of faculty and students: your interests and goals are likely easy to determine. They may include: more meaningful interactions with students, higher-impact research, external support, an expedited timeline for your research program, and so on. The goals of your students may be more variable: admission to law or medical or grad school, a position in top internship, or training in how to become excellent teachers themselves, for example. Philosophy labs, if they are to be genuinely collaborative, must serve the interests and goals of all members. You’d be well served by reflecting on these before setting one up.
  3. Disaggregate your research process: a well-run STEM lab divides work among its members. A novice undergraduate might get participants’ consent while an advanced undergraduate oversees a simple research protocol. Meanwhile, a graduate student and postdoc might run a statistical analysis, while the faculty PI begins drafting a manuscript. A well-run philosophy lab will resemble a STEM lab in its disaggregated approach to the research process. What steps such a process will include will differ from philosopher to philosopher and from project to project. For some of us, the research process includes translation work, for others, statistical analysis,  for still others, time-intensive database research, and for all of us, the careful review of relevant literature and polishing of prose. Faculty will need to take the lead in some of these steps. For other steps, however, a student may be perfectly capable. Setting up a lab requires an initial period of reflecting on your research process and identifying the essential steps. From there, tasks can be divided up and distributed to lab members.
  4. Identify partner disciplines: philosophy labs need not be interdisciplinary in their goals or membership, but lend themselves well to interdisciplinary scholarship. You would be served well to reflect on which disciplines might be relevant to the interests and goals of you and your students. One of our labs involved faculty from the psychology and criminal justice departments; another brought in faculty from neuroscience and biology. But another still might include history or classics faculty.

How to Operate a Lab

  1. Ask students to apply: in our labs, we have found that a formal application process is crucial. Submitting an application selects for the most interested students, gives you a snapshot of a student’s background and skill sets, and gives the application more professional heft. Some campuses have infrastructure for a formal application process for student research, though we have found a less formal cover letter and CV submission to be sufficient.
  2. Hold regular meetings: our colleagues in STEM fields often hold weekly lab meetings. Weekly meetings may not be necessary. But regular lab meetings are essential to moving projects forward. And Zoom provides a convenient platform for members who are studying abroad or away for the summer.
  3. Assign tasks: you’ve disaggregated your research process, right? The next step is the painful one: assigning tasks you would have carried out yourself to capable students. Not all the tasks: that would be inappropriate, leave students in over their heads, and remove you from your own research. We have found, however, that students are fully capable of accomplishing large parts of the research process. At the same time, students may also pursue research-related projects of their own and get feedback from the lab group.
  4. Pursue concrete goals: one thing that makes a philosophy lab differ from a directed reading or independent study is its pursuit of concrete, professional goals, such as published commentaries or book reviews, funded scholarships, or the development of an article manuscript. What those goals are will differ from lab to lab, but without them, the lab loses the primary ends towards which it should be striving.

Reasons to Set Up a Lab

  1. A pedagogically-rich experience for students: as teachers, we pursue moments in which students own the pursuit of philosophical questions for themselves. Philosophy labs don’t guarantee those kinds of experiences, but in our work with labs, we have observed them with greater frequency. We also believe philosophy labs are based on best pedagogical practices, and refer you to our article in Teaching Philosophy for the argument.
  2. Attract students to philosophy: if you are like us, you regularly bemoan the relatively low number of philosophy majors at your school. We all would like to see more philosophy majors, both for the intrinsic goods that philosophy confers and also to help make our annual requests to the dean a little more convincing. But there’s a stumbling block to wooing majors away from rival departments. Other departments provide students with concrete opportunities as part of departmental life: biology students can work in a lab; business majors can pursue an internship; education majors can teach at local high schools. Philosophy majors are more rarely granted these kinds of opportunities. Philosophy labs provide one concrete opportunity for philosophy majors to pursue (no doubt there are others as well), and thus another reason to choose the major.
  3. Increased research productivity: allow us to describe one way a well-run lab might look. You, as the faculty PI, identify a potentially interesting research project and a tentative thesis. You assign some undergraduates to background reading. Two weeks later, they share a well-annotated bibliography. You read through it, and learn quite a bit. You hone the direction of the research. From there, a graduate student begins developing a manuscript. The draft hits a hiccup. You step in, and move the process forward. The grad student finishes the draft. You then hone it into something more polished.  The entire lab then reads through the draft, and an undergraduate identifies an important objection. You work it into the manuscript, along with a reply (formulated by the graduate student). The manuscript is finished. You submit. It is as good (or better) as something you would have developed on your own, and you were able to get it under review in half the time it would typically take. Generally, we have found that philosophy labs increase research productivity, without loss in research quality.
  4. Running a philosophy lab is a blast. Lonely-armchair methodology works but can be, well… lonely. Philosophy labs are many things, but they are definitely not lonely. If they are run well, and if you’ve selected excellent students, philosophy labs provide a meaningful experience for both faculty and students who are involved. Think of the best conversations you’ve had in the philosophy lounge. Then, make those conversations regular and add in the possibility of publishing the results, and you get a picture of what working in a philosophy lab can look like.

Should we completely ditch lonely-armchair methodology in favor of a more collaborative research? Easy answer: no. Moreover, philosophy labs are not for everyone. We believe, however, that the model we have described provides a valuable model for philosophical research and pedagogy, and would welcome broader implementation of it in the field.

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