Philosophy

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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Speaking the truth and exposing the bunk

February 2, 2010
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Speaking the truth and exposing the bunk

Here’s a link to one of the more interesting blogs we’ve stumbled across lately. Rationally Speaking, a blog managed by Massimo Pigliucci, CUNY philosopher and author of Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology, as well as the forthcoming Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, is a spin off Pigliucci’s work on the philosophy of science with a focus on debunking virtually everything from Google, to the idea of American democracy itself. Recently, they’ve started up a new podcast, with the inaugural episode titled “Can history be a science?” and a special Valentines’ day episode on the science and philosophy of love right around the corner. Listen and read at http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/. . . .

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Quote if the Week: Reinhold Niebuhr

December 18, 2009
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Quote if the Week: Reinhold Niebuhr

Meanwhile we are drawn into an historic situation in which the paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a hell of global insecurity; and the conviction of the perfect compatibility of virtue and prosperity which we have inherited from both our Calvinist and our Jeffersonian ancestors is challenged by the cruel facts of history. For our sense of responsibility to a world community beyond our own borders is a virtue, even though it is partly derived from the prudent understanding of our own interests. But this virtue does not guarantee our ease, comfort, or prosperity. We are the poorer for the global responsibilities which we bear. And the fulfillments of our desires are mixed with frustrations and vexations. —Reinhold Niebuhr, from The Irony of American History Reinhold Niebuhr (1892—1971) was one of the most influential American theologians of the twentieth century, best known for relating the Christian faith to the realities of modern politics and diplomacy. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, he is the author of many books, including The Nature and Destiny of Man. Ever since Barack Obama called him “one of my favorite philosophers” Niebuhr’s work has enjoyed renewed attention, most recently . . .

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Stephen Edelston Toulmin, 1922-2009

December 9, 2009
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Stephen Edelston Toulmin, 1922-2009

Stephen Edelston Toulmin—philosopher, educator, and author—passed away last Friday, the fourth of December, 2009 at the age of 87. A highly influential figure in his field, Toulmin held distinguished professorships at numerous universities including including Columbia, Dartmouth, Michigan State, Northwestern, Stanford, USC and Chicago, where he was a professor in the Committee on Social Thought from 1973 to 1986. Throughout his distinguished career Toulmin also produced a number of important works on ethics, international relations, the history and philosophy of the physical and social sciences, and the history of ideas. Some of these include The Uses of Argument, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (with Alan Janik), The Architecture of Matter, and Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, the latter two of which which the press is proud to have published in 1982 and 1990 respectively. Other books by Toulmin published by the press include: The Discovery of Time and The Fabric of the Heavens: The Development of Astronomy and Dynamics. Read the obituary notice on the University of Southern California’s website. . . .

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Press Release: Klotz and Sylvester, Breeding Bio Insecurity

November 2, 2009
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Press Release: Klotz and Sylvester, Breeding Bio Insecurity

In the tense months that followed the 9/11 attacks, the public’s fears of further terrorism were fanned by the deadly anthrax letters, which seemed to symbolize the ease with which terrorists could kill using biological weapons. But in the subsequent years the United States government has spent billions of dollars on combating bioweapons—so citizens can rest easy, knowing we’re much safer. Or are we? Far from it, say Lynn Klotz and Edward Sylvester, and with Breeding Bio Insecurity they make a forceful case that not only has all of that money and research not made us safer, it’s made us far more vulnerable. Laying out their case clearly and carefully, they show how the veil of secrecy in which biosecurity researchers have been forced to work—in hundreds of locations across the country, unable to properly share research or compare findings—has caused no end of delays and waste, while vastly multiplying the odds of theft, sabotage, or lethal accident. Meanwhile, our refusal to make this work public causes our allies and enemies alike to regard U.S. biodefense with suspicion. True biosecurity, Klotz and Sylvester explain, will require that the federal government replace fearmongering with a true analysis of risk, while openly . . .

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Scott McLemee on the passing of Jim Carroll and Ricoeur’s Living Up to Death

September 17, 2009
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Scott McLemee on the passing of Jim Carroll and Ricoeur’s Living Up to Death

With the flurry of celebrity deaths appearing in the newspapers lately you might think the grim reaper had taken up residence in Hollywood for the season, but in an article for the September 16th Inside Higher Ed Scott McLemee takes note of the passing of a pop cultural icon from the opposite coast in a piece that uses the recent death of author, poet, autobiographer, and punk musician Jim Carroll as a segue into an insightful review of Paul Ricoeur’s Living Up to Death—the philosopher’s posthumously published meditation on the subject of mortality. Consisting of one complete essay likely inspired by his wife’s approaching death in 1996, and a series of fragments written during the author’s own final days, as McLemee notes, the material in Living up to Death is less focused upon an individual’s personal experience of dying as it is about “how an individual’s death echoes in the memory of others”—a topic particularly relevant to the passing of so many, Jim Carroll included, whose work will likely live on well past their deaths. So for a slightly more insightful perspective on death and dying than most articles on “The Summer of Celebrity Deaths” are likely to offer, read . . .

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