Philosophy

The Idea of Nature, the Nature of Ideas

July 17, 2013
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The Idea of Nature, the Nature of Ideas

Guest blogger: Ryo Yamaguchi It is hard to imagine the world—or ourselves for that matter —without DNA, but for most of our intellectual history we knew nothing about those slender molecules. The modern microscope was invented near the beginning of the seventeenth century, with Friedrich Miescher isolating DNA in the late nineteenth, and between those times theories regarding biological formation and reproduction were explored by Enlightenment thinkers and scientists such as John Locke, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, Carl Linnaeus, and Comte de Buffon. We overlook it now as common knowledge, but biological reproduction was something these people had to think through, to explain without DNA, and the debates between concepts such as God, mechanics, fermentation, homunculi—and how they could inform life’s larger lineages, of the differences between species, of a natural history as a whole—abounded. Enter Immanuel Kant. Many of us do not think of Kant as a biologist, but he was deeply interested in natural history throughout his career, an interest that Jennifer Mensch takes up in Kant’s Organicism, published last month. Situating Kant among the above thinkers, she shows not only that Kant had theories of his own on the generation of life but that he applied these theories . . .

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PODCASTS: A not-quite episodic series

February 7, 2013
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PODCASTS: A not-quite episodic series

The phonograph predates the podcast by about 125 years, but theoretically any device used to reproduce sound could carry the moniker. So we say: ready your zonographs and talking machines—as part of our ongoing podcast series, hosted by Chris Gondek of Heron & Crane, we’re delivering a fresh batch from some of our Fall 2012 and Spring 2013 favorites. More information and links for listening below. *** Stephen T. Asma’s Against Fairness vindicates our unspoken and undeniable instinct to favor—and makes the case for favoring favoritism, so to speak. In this podcast interview, Asma considers where preferential bias fits in our utilitarian construction of fairness—and what this might have to say about our larger ethical worldview. The job of the philosopher, the evolutionary advantages of favoritism, Confucian thought, quotable Gandhi, the multinational politics of maternity leave, and the ideology of equality all make an appearance in a larger discussion about what might lead us to happier, more productive lives. Listen to the podcast here. *** First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley has already been heralded by Publishers Weekly as “compelling,” “dynamic,” “highly focused” and “meticulous.” In his discussion of the sometimes Shakespearean, sometimes Machiavellian life of the American . . .

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Joseph Cropsey, political philosopher (1919-2012)

July 9, 2012
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Joseph Cropsey, political philosopher (1919-2012)

Joseph Cropsey—American political philosopher; distinguished service professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago; dedicated teacher; and coeditor of the “Strauss–Cropsey Reader” (History of Political Philosophy), a staple in universities for fifty years—died last week at the age of 92. Cropsey completed his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1952, with a dissertation on the work of Adam Smith, one of his lifelong scholarly interests (in addition to interstitial aspects in the works of Plato and Karl Marx, the figure of Socrates and issues of philosophical sobriety, and the limitations and entrapments of modern liberalism). By 1957, Cropsey was at the University of Chicago (after stints at the CCNY and the New School) as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, following Leo Strauss, who would become his most significant collaborator, and assist in his intellectual turn from economics to political philosphy. The University of Chicago News Office reports on their intellectual partnership: Strauss encouraged Cropsey to examine texts deeply. “When Strauss was at the head of his class, sitting up there, he would at a certain point say, ‘What does this mean?’ When I have to deal with a text of Plato, I have constantly to be asking . . .

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In Search of Goodness

March 31, 2011
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In Search of Goodness

“Be good and you will be lonesome.”—Mark Twain What constitutes goodness? For Twain, there’s humor in how we uphold the idea of the “good” alongside an exalted code of social behavior. Follow it too righteously and you might miss out on the fun, something quite literally suggested by Katharine Hepburn in an often-quoted line: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” But is goodness really about the nature of our actions? What does a good life look like? How does one become good? And how is a good life involved with the lives of others? In Search of Goodness, a new collection edited by Ruth W. Grant, grapples with just these questions. Contributors explore the concept of the good from diverse angles and multiple approaches, from film and literature to cognitive psychology and moral philosophy, all while enlisting a cast of characters that includes Billy Budd, Shel Silverstein, Iris Murdoch, Achilles, and Oskar Schindler, among others. In Search of Goodness problematizes the dichotomies that have long governed our discussions of the good while at the same time offering an array of insights which help us to understand this complex ideal. Grant, a professor of political science . . .

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Richard McKeon: Twentieth-Century Man

March 22, 2011
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Richard McKeon: Twentieth-Century Man

By all accounts, philosopher Richard McKeon (1900-85) was a legend in the classroom. The list of students for whom McKeon shepherded an academic pursuit or two reads like a roster of the twentieth-century’s most noted cultural figures: Robert Coover, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Richard Rorty, Paul Rabinow, and Wayne Booth, among them. But McKeon never quite knocked out the one bankable work that makes an intellectual’s name. Instead, his contributions—to everything from human rights, medieval philosophy, and the history of science to dialectics, literary criticism, and rhetoric—remain as diverse as the pluralist approach he helped espouse. ** Our own executive editor Doug Mitchell shares the following thoughts about McKeon’s contributions to twentieth-century thought: The University of Chicago Press has been home to many publications by and about Richard McKeon, going back to editions of Cicero and Aristotle and up to an ongoing series of Selected Papers in three volumes, of which two are already published, with a third due in 2013. McKeon’s range as a philosopher was enormous (from metaphysics and philosophy of science to ethics and international politics to aesthetics, education, and the philosophic arts, with special emphasis on the arts of logic and rhetoric). His participation in curriculum-building . . .

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William James, 100 years gone

August 23, 2010
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William James, 100 years gone

This Thursday, August 26th, will mark the centenary of the death of William James, and to mark that date the online literary site The Second Pass has declared this William James Week. In an introductory post, the site’s editor, John Williams, writes, I read The Varieties of Religious Experience for the first time about four years ago, and I quickly became a James fanatic.… I’ve found since discovering his work for myself that fellow fans share my affection for him, my sense that he is almost a real friend—a remarkable feeling to have for any author, much less one who has been gone for a century. It’s a feeling that is far from uncommon from those who read James—in many ways he is the opposite of his brother Henry, warm where Henry is cerebral, accessible where Henry is occluded, open and even friendly where Henry is stand-offish. On a recent episode of Melvyn Bragg’s BBC show “In Our Time,” philosopher Jonathan Ree described James in similar terms: First of all, I think William James is one of the greatest philosophers ever, and he’s untypical. Twentieth-century philosophers, I think, fall into two groups: they’re either nitpicking, pettifogging bureaucrats or else they’re . . .

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On the Nature of Science and Psuedoscience

April 29, 2010
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On the Nature of Science and Psuedoscience

Climate change—and the debate about its causes or validity—is a subject of perpetual interest. Recently, we told you about the chasm between meteorologists—who predict short-term weather patterns and remain skeptical about long-term change—and climatologists—who, as the New York Times reported, “almost universally endorse the view that the earth is warming and that humans have contributed to climate change.” (Stephen Colbert also recently covered in conflict with an amusing “Science Catfight” between Joe Bastardi, a weather forcaster, and Brenda Ekwurzel, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.) Now the UK’s Independent has offered an overview of books that “separate global warming fact from fiction.” And Massimo Pigliucci’s Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk get singled out as “entertaining and valuable guide to sorting the scientific grain from the chaff of pseudoscience.” He makes a distinction that clarifies some of our current problems. There are two kinds of bone fide science: one is law-based and experimental, cut-and-dried as a crystal chalice or a perfect intertwined double helix of DNA. Then there are historical sciences such as evolution or climate research that employ “the methods of a crime detective.” .… As Pigliucci points out, what happened happened, and can be deduced . . .

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Massimo Pigliucci on “radical life extension”

March 16, 2010
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Massimo Pigliucci on “radical life extension”

The New York Times has posted a video from Bloggingheads.tv featuring Mike Treder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at CUNY and author of the forthcoming Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk in an fascinating debate about “radical life extension.” A skeptic, perennial critic of creationism, and outspoken advocate of science education, Massimo Pigliucci is the author of many books and articles on science and its role in society, frequently engaging in heated debate with “deniers of evolution” and “intelligent design proponents.” (Though I don’t believe Mr. Treder is either of these, sorry.) Click the link above for more on his forthcoming volume or find out more about his previous work published by the press, Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology. Also check out Pigliucci’s blog Rationally Speaking at http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/. . . .

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On the Origins of Altruism

March 15, 2010
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On the Origins of Altruism

Sure, evolution explains how modern humans have come to look as we do, but can it explain how we act? What can Darwinian thought tell us about altruism and morality? This is the question posed this week by the Guardian as part of its fascinating “The Question” series. Is merely a trick played on us by our genes? Or is that in turn an incoherent idea? Can science naturalise morality, and show that there are certain good ends which come naturally to the sort of animals we are? Where, in that case, is the belief that we are free too choose our own ends? Does an evolutionary account of human nature challenge liberalism as much as it challenges conservatism? The first respondent is University of Chicago Press author Michael Ruse, a philosopher of biology, who writes that morality is a product of natural selection: Morality then is not something handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection. It is as much a natural human adaptation as our ears or noses or teeth or penises or vaginas. It works and it has no meaning over . . .

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BHL the Botulist

February 17, 2010
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BHL the Botulist

In popular American culture, French philosophers might be said to have a bit of a reputation as all style and no substance. But in France itself, philosophers have long enjoyed media attention that typically casts these thinkers in a more flattering light—that is until recently, when one of France’s most popular public intellectuals, Bernard-Henri Lévy—in France often referred only by his initials BHL—made the error of citing the work of a made-up philosopher in his latest book, De la Guerre en Philosophie. As a story in the Telegraph notes: In his book, which has received lavish praise from some quarters, the open-shirted Mr Lévy lays into the philosopher Immanuel Kant as being unhinged and a “fake”. To support his claims, he cites a certain Jean-Baptiste Botul, whom he describes as a post-War authority on Kant. But the chorus of approval turned to laughter after a journalist from Le Nouvel Observateur pointed out that Mr Botul does not exist: he is a fictional character created by a contemporary satirical journalist, Frédéric Pagès.… He has even given rise to a school of philosophical thought called Botulism—a play on words with the lethal disease—and has created a theory of “La Metaphysique du Mou” . . .

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