23 June 2008

A Sad, Sad Day

SteveG says it better than I'd ever be able to.

For my part, I'll just say that I'm definitely going to miss his incredibly intelligent, absolutely hilarious commentary on American life. The first real exposure to Carlin I can recall is on a field trip to Chicago in 8th grade where my roommates and I sat up until 3 or 4 in the morning watching a marathon of Carlin specials on HBO...quite possibly the beginning of my love of stand-up comedy. I had the chance about two years ago to see the master at work at Warner Theater here in DC, and I'm glad that wasn't an opportunity missed. George, we'll miss you.

20 June 2008

Just Scattered Thoughts

Nothing coherent to say today, but there are some interesting things floating around in cyberworld that have got my mind churning:

This morning on NPR, there was a piece on "no email Fridays," which has sent the tone for today's thoughts about our "connectedness" and what this might mean for epistemological inquiry.

Following this same line of thought is a piece in a new-ish blog called The Scholarly Kitchen linked to by Inside Higher Ed. Philip Davis ponders whether or not Google is making him more stupid and concludes that it has, to the contrary, made him smarter by giving him more connections to "more documents, artifacts, and people" that, in turn, have an influence on his thinking and writing.

The post is in response to another very interesting article in Atlantic Monthly titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?". Nicholas Carr, the author of this article, reaches a different conclusion from Davis, claiming that "the Net" has led us away from deep thinking and brought about a sort of attention deficit disorder in us all. My favorite line: "My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Finally, Piss Poor Prof at Burnt Out Adjunct connects to this theme with thoughts on an Inside Higher Ed story about "Googling" and undergrad research: "Google is not research."

I can't pretend to tie all this together in a coherent way, but, for my benefit more than yours (whoever you are) here are some questions I see lurking that I might pursue further down the line:

Does the old definition of knowledge (some variation on "justified true belief") still work in the internet paradigm? Knowledge in this way assumes an individual knower, but there seems to be a vast resource of social knowledge that is literally at our fingertips. When I'm asked "Do you know X?," I no longer need to answer "No, I don't know," now I can answer "I'll Google (or Wikipedia) it." Is this different than being able to recall from one's memory? When information is accessed instantaneously on a laptop or BlackBerry, it seems much closer to memory than to a book found in the library stacks. What kind of work are social epistemologists doing here?

What's the difference between knowledge and information? Is it the structure, the undergirding? Is it that knowledge is believed or justified that sets it apart? We can believe information or disbelieve it. Information can be true or false. But it does seem to have justification (or warrant, or something of this sort).

What's the difference between knowing and understanding? I know the equation for energy (energy=mass x the square of the speed of light), but I don't really understand how/why that equation works. Do know things that I access online as soon as I access them if I'm warranted in believing them? Even if I don't understand them?

How are all of these questions touched by the vast amounts of information we can access at a moment's notice on the internet?

17 June 2008

Taxation and Republican Talking Points

On her show yesterday morning, Diane Rehm had a conversation with Rep. Tom Cole (R - Oklahoma), the current Deputy Whip and Chair of the NRCC. As expected, he stuck to the talking points without the slightest deviation. The one that caught my attention this go-round was his insistence that American voters have a simple decision to make when it comes to tax policy and the presidential election. I won't deny that in my mind this decision is fairly simple, but I do question his framing of the discussion. According to Cole:
Option 1: A vote for Barack Obama amounts to a vote to raise the aggregate tax burden on the tax-paying population. Irrespective of the portion of the population that is asked to bear this burden, Cole claims, increased taxes will stagnate economic growth.

Option 2: A vote for John McCain amounts to a vote for lower the tax burden across the board. This move stimulates consumption in the lower-to-middle income brackets and investment in the upper income brackets thus stimulating economic growth.
The gist of it is something like this: Obama = higher total tax burden = slow down; McCain = lower total tax burden = growth. The problem here is with the middle term, a total or aggregate tax burden really doesn't tell us much about possibilities for economic growth. On the surface, it assumes that the burden is evenly distributed (or, maybe equitably distributed) and that more money in consumer/investor pockets means higher consumption/investment and economic growth.

Digging a little deeper, though, there's a further assumption in the Republican rhetoric that really drives this type of tax policy. This is the assumption that it's really the upper echelon of income earners who drive the economy. Their investment leads to job growth and rising incomes across the board. If this is the case, a lower tax burden on them will mean that they have more money to invest which will spur economic growth. This is supply side economics.

The trouble is that effective demand, not supply, drives the markets. Greater investment in times of economic slowdown would be an irrational investment strategy. Investors can't expect returns on their investments, and, if they did invest and supply did rise, there would be a glut of overproduction and a downward economic spiral would ensue. Cutting taxes on the rich in an economic downturn doesn't spur the economy, it just makes them richer. They won't invest in projects that spur the economy or innovation (they know it's irrational), instead they'll save (effectively, by investing in government securities and other stable assets).

Raising the aggregate tax burden by targeting taxes at the wealthy will not harm economic growth, but lower taxes on the middle and lower classes (as well as better government services) made up for by higher taxes on the richest of the rich will increase effective demand and ease an economy out of recession. Rehm tried to say something like this to Cole, but being a Party loyalist, he didn't budge and continued to insist that aggregate tax burdens have some meaning beyond rhetoric. He's wrong.

11 June 2008

A Little Meta-Philosophy

Brian Leiter links to an interesting Eurozine article entitled "Modes of Philosophizing: A Round Table Debate." The article portrays a Q&A between Cogito (apparently Eurozines in-house philosopher extraordinaire) and Raymond Geuss (Cambridge), Jonathan Barnes (emeritus Paris-Sorbonne), Myles Burnyeat (Cambridge/emeritus Oxford), and Barry Stroud (Berkeley). The answers are fairly interesting all around, though, as Leiter points out, a few are dismissive (he thinks appropriately so, I think not). In any case, I don't want to take issue here with what was said by these respected Professors and Emeruti. Instead, I'd like to put my novice skills to use and see if a newbie like myself can say anything interesting in response to these questions:

Question one:
Do you think that philosophy as pursued by philosophers has something to say which is, or should be, of some relevance to the way non-philosophers think about the world and their life? Is it desirable that philosophers make an effort to make those aspects of philosophy which are relevant in this way available to non-philosophers?
The short answer: Yes and yes. But it's more complicated than that. (We're philosophers, why wouldn't it be?) We must first clarify just who these non-philosophers are. There are some who have much to learn from philosophy in their professional lives: lawyers, judges, research scientists, doctors, legislators...all of these professions - just to name a few - can take something away from studies in different areas of philosophy. Philosophy of science, philosophy of law, ethics...the way philosophers go about doing work in these fields sheds light on questions that are very pertinent in some professional endeavors. I have a hunch, though, that this isn't what the question is really asking.

Now, if we're talking about whether philosophy has something to offer outside of certain professional endeavors the answers get a bit murky, and one's definition of philosophy has much to do with it. Logic chopping and exegesis on arcane texts has little if any value to non-philosopher folks. It seems that sometimes we work ourselves into tight little corners where we ourselves have trouble seeing the relevance of the work we're doing. But this isn't all that there is to academic philosophy, there are also those working in fields that do address (directly or indirectly) the "big questions" about life, god, etc, that we all - human beings, not just philosophers - come to wonder about from time to time. Philosophers and the work we do can, I think, provide new and interesting ways for everyone to approach these ponderings. And, of course, there's also critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, successor system theory, deconstructionism, etc, that all have strong philosophical theory underpinning them which find mainstream popularity and are useful when accompanied by real-world practice.

As for the second part...OF COURSE! All philosophy should be made accessible to non-philosophers. All information of this sort should be made accessible...and free.

Question two:
Should philosophy be pursued only by those trained in philosophy? Are there clear criteria that have to be observed and respected by anyone outside the academic institutions who wants to claim that he/she is engaged in doing philosophy?
Again, this is going to hinge on our definition of philosophy. If we define it only as the academic endeavor of reading, studying, contemplating, writing, and getting published...well, it's hard to do that if you're untrained in the field. You're also likely to re-invent the wheel...or, you know, something more philosophically useful than a wheel, hopefully...if you're not familiar with the field. However, if we go broader and think of philosophy as the love of wisdom as the word's etymology would have us do, then anyone who's struck by the profundity and baffled by the complexity of life's great questions can be engaged in a philosophical endeavor. Why should we be so elitist? Many of the greatest among philosophers weren't trained in the field: Socrates and Wittgenstein to name a couple.

Question three:
Should academic teachers of philosophy consider themselves philosophers in virtue of the fact that they teach philosophy? Or should we reserve the title of a philosopher only for Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein, and the like?
Those who teach philosophy are likely much better at teaching it if they are actively engaged in it (and, please, tell me how they got a job if they're not). How is one to get students engaged if you yourself are not interested and working on answering some questions. If we restate the question and ask whether all of those who do think of themselves as philosophers (those who are teaching, publishing, engaged in the dialog, etc.) actually are philosophers we might have a more interesting discussion.

One way to think about this restated question is in reference to Kuhn's paradigm shift theory of scientific progress. Plato, Kant, Wittgenstein, and the rest of those big names where doing what we might call revolutionary philosophy (though it's obviously up for debate how revolutionary any of them really were) much like the revolutionary science of a Newton or Einstein. This doesn't mean that the rest of us poor schmucks aren't doing philosophy at all. They've set the paradigms, we're solving the puzzles in them...doing "normal philosophy," if you will. Now, I'm sure some would disagree with this analogy, but there are other ways to think through this and still come up with the answer that, of course, philosophy profs (and grad students?) are philosophers, too.

Question four:
"Although the history of philosophy – despite what many historians like to say – is no more a part of philosophy than the history of mathematics is a part of mathematics, nonetheless you can't do anything much in the history of a subject without having some sort of acquaintance with the subject itself." (J. Barnes) Do you agree?
Are historians of philosophy philosophers, too? Sure they are. I agree with Barnes that to do history of philosophy (or any subject, for that matter) one must be at least somewhat familiar and skilled with philosophy itself. One needs to understand the questions being asked in order to understand the history of their asking.

Question five:
What about the reverse? Can one do anything much in philosophy without having some sort of acquaintance with its history?
One can, most can't. There are those brilliant few who can just see the logical structure of a language, perceive the misunderstandings in a theory, or grasp what knowledge is without doing the difficult work of figuring out what everyone before her thought, but there are many of those. Even they will, at some point, need to acquaint themselves with some of the history if they want to be at all sure that their brilliant breakthrough wasn't accomplished 200 years prior.
The rest of us, we don't stand a chance without learning a good deal of the history.

Question six:
Many philosophers nowadays work in particular areas of philosophy without taking an active interest, or without being interested at all in others. To make it clearer, philosophers working on ethics or political philosophy often do not concern themselves with, or even express an aversion to, areas of philosophy such as philosophy of logic or language, and the other way around. What do you think about this compartmentalization of philosophy?
In one respect, compartmentalization is unavoidable. There's simply too much literature out there and too much new stuff being produced for one person to keep up on the whole of philosophy. One needs to keep a keen eye on one's areas of specialization in order to be able to contribute to the discussion. It's understandable that one would then not keep on top of developments in other areas, as there are only 24 hours in a day.

On the other hand, it's important to not lose sight of the forest for the trees, as they say. Developments in other areas may be of interest in one's own, and even if they are not, some are of enough general interest that one ought to be aware of them (if not well-read on them). I think that we all have a lot to learn from each other, and to spurn an entire branch of the field is to preempt the opportunity for possible fruitful developments. You'll also be better at small talk at the APA.

Question seven:
During the last decades there has been a debate, sometimes quite polemical, between the so-called "analytical" and "continental" philosophers. Should one say that the representatives of the one or the other tradition are not philosophers at all, or do they represent different modes of philosophizing?
I'm not sure I know what "modes of philosophizing" means. Continentals and analytics tend to approach the world in different ways, but let's not get confused, both are doing something called philosophy. I can look at a ball and call it red, you can look at it and call it round...we've both had a sense experience of the ball. The world's a tricky thing to observe and grasp, and no one can say that their way is the absolute only way to do it. Until one can, then we're all doing philosophy. Again, we have a lot to learn from each other.

And the finale:
Throughout the history of philosophy philosophers have used different forms of expressing their views such as dialogues, letters, poems, questions and answers, commentaries, aphorisms. It seems that we have long stopped experimenting in this area and most philosophers choose to write articles and books of a standard form. Does this standardization involve a loss?
Whether or not standardization involves a loss in the sense of meaningful philosophical inquiry is a question far beyond my reach, but I do think that we've lost some style, some panache, if you will. Philosophy, like all academic disciplines, has had to fall in line with the capitalistic paradigm of be productive or be gone. For the philosopher it's a matter of publish or perish, and no journals are publishing poems these days. In my opinion, the discipline has become to corporate, all of academia has. But I don't know if that involves a meaningful loss of content.

09 June 2008

State Games: An Incredible Experience

KM and I made the trip this weekend up to State College, PA, to see her sister play and her parents coach at the Pennsylvania Special Olympics State Games. KM's an old pro at these events, but I was a first timer for something of this size and caliber. I've volunteered at a basketball event before and a few weekly bowling practices, but I've never before had the privelage of being surrounded by so many amazing athletes and volunteers. The atmosphere, the competition, the sportsmanship, and so many other aspects just blew me away.

KM's little sister, CM, is the catcher for our hometown's softball team (her Dad's the coach), and when we arrived just after the start of the first game, CM and the team were excited to see us. Most of the athletes already new KM and a few recognized me, but we both got a warm welcome even though they were in the heat of competition with the team recognized as one of the best in the state. CM's team, unfortunately, lost this game, but they'd won two on Friday. Their 2-2 record was enough to get them the Silver Medal this year, but this weekend wasn't just about winning.

I work in a strange amorphous area between the for-profit and non-profit sectors, so I spend a good portion of my day dealing with and thinking about charitable organizations. I'd come to believe that the gifts that do the greatest good are the gifts that produce tangible benefit for the greatest number of individuals in need, but after this weekend's experiences I have a newfound appreciation for the amazing work that organizations can do in making what look to be small differences in a few people's lives. Special Olympics is one of these organizations. They don't build homes, help disaster victims, or feed the hungry, but they make a significant and incredible contribution to the wellbeing of both the individuals who get a chance to compete and the coaches and families who are priveleged to be a part of the experience.

Special Olympics athletes get more out of competing (on a team or as individuals) than just the thrill of a victory. These athletes get to be a part of something in a way that they don't normally get to experience. They are the in-crowd for a few days, the centers of attention in a very meaningful way. Coaches and families witness a personality change when these athletes take the field. They become competitive, but at the same time they look out for one another and pick eachother up. They cheer on their teammates and they cheer on those with whom they're competing - even if it means a run is going to be scored against them. Some of them take leadership roles: they keep up team morale, help coaches keep the team organized, pick up teammates after a tough play and congratulate them after a great one. These athletes don't have this opportunity anywhere else in their lives, and the responsibility that comes with being a leader shows through in their held-high heads and light-up the room smiles. They thrive - like so many of us do - on being the go-to-person.

Not everyone's a leader, though. Those that aren't still support their teammates and fellow competitors and play just as hard. We saw a few homeruns and some great catches made that become the talk of the rest of the afternoon - proud smiles and high fives all around. These athletes gain self-esteem, learn to cope with losses and be humble in victory, learn to be good sports and work their hardest for the win and for eachother. These are life lessons that many of us who have played a sport take for granted, but lessons many of these amazing athletes never had the chance to learn. Special Olympics gives them that.

Beyond the field of competition, there's also an incredible comradery that arises among these athletes. Most of them compete year after year and shouted "Hello"s and big hugs abound around the Olympic Village. Some incredible benefactors provide all sorts of games, prizes, and free food and drinks for the athletes as they hang out and spend time with their friends. There was even a dunking booth and karaoke - there was no shyness here as some of the athletes belted out their favorite 80s rock tunes.

All in all, I'm so glad that KM and I were able to make the trip. CM and her teammates appreciated having us there, but I also gained a new appreciation and respect for the organization, the hundreds of volunteers and coaches, and the many benefactors who make this type of event a possibility. No, they're not building houses or handing out food, but they're building self-esteem, strengthening personalities, providing an athletic outlet, and providing an incredible form of positive feedback for individuals who wouldn't ordinarily have this opportunity. The Special Olympics is an amazing organization.

05 June 2008

We Are Creatures of Habit

Honestely, what did they expect to find? Of course people travel the same routes day after day, frequent the same locations, and communicate with many of the same people. Habit seems too simplistic a term to describe what's happening here, however. Social relations seem to be one place to turn for an explanation, but digging deeper, economics is what these researchers are really observing.

Why do people travel the same route fairly consistently? Well, as my friend aptly put it: "I go home because that's where my stuff is. I go to work so I can buy more stuff." What's important to realize, however, is that though this is a charecteristic pattern that's likely to emerge to some degree in any economic system (that is, we are likely to still travel within a fairly limited degree of variation) it's one that is exaggerated in the capitalist economic order by a number of factors:

1) Capitalism requires long working hours that decrease "leisure" time in which we might travel or veer from our normal patterns.

2) We are typically confined to working in a specialized job with little chance for learning new skills or variation in our days.

3) We are constrained by the need to always be productive in order to provide for basic needs of survival. This decreases "leisure" time and also dictates the patterns in which we travel: work, home, work, home, etc.

There are many other factors at play here, of course, but Marx envisioned a socialist working environment that allowed for flexibility (a laborer might fish in the morning, weave baskets in the afternoon, and write a book in the evening...of course, update this for today's technology, but you get the picture) that capitalism simply cannot facilitate.

Just something to ponder...the patterns of our lives are governed by economic principles, i.e., capitalist economic principles.

03 June 2008

Loyalty in Politics

A friend said something along these lines in a conversation today: ideals such as loyalty and truth have no place in American politics.

Thinking about this sentiment, I question whether loyalty ever really has (or ought to have) a place in politics (where politics is the work of governing and legislating, not simply running for office). Loyalty, it seems, is the quality of being in some way devoted to the well-being/good of another person or persons. This is not some mysterious quality, though, that is hidden from our view. We recognize it through certain characteristics that are outwardly observable. That is, we call someone loyal when she has demonstrated her loyalty to another in some real situation. It makes no sense, then, to talk of loyalty as if it is some indwelling or inherent quality of a person; some constituent of a virtuous character. Loyalty lies in the act of being loyal to someone or something.

It seems that talk of a "loyal person" is confused and misleading for that person is loyaly only when loyalty is directed at someone or something. "She is loyal to...", etc. But not simply "she is loyal." A loyal person may be labelled as such when she is loyal to me, or loyal to her friends, loyal to her country, or loyal to the crown, but she cannot just be loyal.

But, then, why oughtn't loyalty be a political virtue? Do we not desire those in office to be devoted to the good and well-being of some other? ...These are the wrong questions, I think. Instead, ask to whom or what politicians ought to display this devotion. Should a politician be loyal to her constituents? To those who gave large donations and supported her campaign? To those who have voted with her in the past? To her party? To her family? To her own ideals? To her country as an idea? To the country's citizenry as a whole? When we ask the question this way, it becomes clear that loyalty to one might very well be inimical to loyalty to another. The interests of all of these factions do not often align, yet each seems to have a claim to the politician's loyalty for some legitimite reasons.

Loyalty seems to be the wrong virtue here, as it must always be directed at someone or something and in being such, it must always be directed at the expense of someone or something else. Loyalty might actually be a political vice in this light. There are many other virtues we might ask of our politicians: honesty, commitment to the best course of action for all parties involved (utility), patience, etc; but loyalty does not seem, in my mind, to fit among these.

Now, I would not go so far to question whether loyalty is ever a virtuous quality. In a platoon on a battle field, in a friendship, on a team...in these situations it plays an important role. What is different here is the game. The games played in these latter situations is one in which the object of loyalty is already defined; it is set forth before the game begins. In politics, this is not so. Here many interests are competing, and it would be detrimental for the politician to declare loyalty to one at the cost of all the others.