Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Brilliant Piece on Empathy by the Ever-Engaging Paul Bloom

here.

I can't wait for the book.

Bloom argues against giving empathy a central role in normative moral psychology. But by defining "empathy" somewhat narrowly, he perhaps makes his thesis a little easier to defend, and less radical, than if he were to come out against strong feelings of compassion generally.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On the Boycott of Urbana-Champaign

I rarely post on hot political topics (unless quantitative analysis of philosophers' lack of diversity counts), but one hot political topic has been very much in my mind this week: the boycott of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I've been forced to consider the issue especially carefully because I was scheduled to give a talk to the Philosophy Department there in December, and UIUC was starting to invite speakers for a proposed mini-conference on experimental philosophy the next day, where I would give the keynote address.

The boycott arose after Steven Salaita, who had been scheduled to start teaching at UIUC this term, was summarily dismissed by the chancellor of UIUC in the wake of some controversial tweets about Israel and Zionism. (His contract had not been completely finalized yet; sometimes they aren't until after one has already started teaching.) His old tweets can be found here.

Much has been said on both sides (e.g., against Salaita 1, 2, 3; in defense of Salaita 1, 2, 3). My opinion is that the pro-boycott case is stronger than the anti-boycott case: Salaita's tweets were not sufficient grounds for the chancellor's extreme and unusual action; and even if they were sufficient to justify revoking his position, Salaita did not receive due process. A strong response is warranted.

However, I do feel compelled to add two points that haven't been as clearly acknowledged by the pro-boycott side as I would have liked to see:

(1.) Given the recent and not-so-recent history of extreme violence against Jews and journalists, reasonable people reading Salaita's tweets might understandably be upset to see these public statements coming from a senior scholar in a position of trust and authority -- even if carefully reading the tweets in context might show them to be less hateful than they at first seem.

(2.) The argument that the UIUC chancellor behaved wrongly in canceling Salaita's appointment is not identical to the argument that a boycott is the best response. A boycott sends a strong statement; but it also harms many people who have done no wrong. I believe that graduate students are especially harmed, since interacting with visiting scholars and speakers is central to their education, exposing them to views other than their professors' own and putting them in contact with the larger scholarly community.

With heavy heart, I am honoring the boycott. I have canceled my talk and abandoned my conference plans.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines

... in the English language, at least as implied by certain awards nominations and "best of" placements.

Okay, I'm a dork. I want to apologize right away for this list, for two reasons, but then also excuse myself for two reasons.

First apology: It's a little weird for me to occupy space in a philosophy blog with talk about science fiction magazines. I know! Excuse: I've come to think that science fiction, and other types of "speculative fiction" (e.g., Borges), is an interesting and valuable way to explore the metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological dimensions of various "what-if" possibilities. The concreteness of speculative fiction, and the way the stories engage the emotions and imagination, has I think both epistemic virtues (you think through the specific scenario somewhat better) and shortcomings (you might be too influenced by particular incidental features). Serious speculative fiction belongs in the philosopher's toolbox.

Second apology: It's silly to take rankings like this very seriously; and also, in certain respects, such rankings tend to reinforce the privilege of the status quo. Excuse: However, in another respect, lists level the playing field. I've started publishing science fiction, and until recently I had no idea where to send things. So I started looking at the original venues for some of the stories I liked in the "Best of" anthologies I'd been reading. This seemed better than just searching "science fiction magazines" on the web and seeing what popped up. The list below is really just a systematization of my efforts, as an outsider without word-of-mouth connections. It magnifies the advantage of insiders if outsiders are at sea about what is read and respected by those at the top of the sci-fi publishing hierarchy. (The SFWA list of qualifying markets isn't necessarily a good guide.)

Okay, I know, I'm still a dork. Feel free to stop reading now, lest you become a dork too!

Method and Caveats:

  • I gave each magazine one hit every time it had a story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, or World Fantasy award (at short story, novelette, or novella length), 2004-2013.
  • Each magazine also got one hit every time a story was included in the Dozois, Horton, or Strahan "Best of" anthologies, 2004-2013 (Horton starting 2006, Strahan starting 2007). I would have included the Hartwell-Cramer anthologies too, but I didn't have access to the full lists. (I might update if I can get access.)
  • I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, or other related genres, except incidentally as those other genres happen to appear in Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Dozois, Horton, or Strahan.
  • Prose only, not poetry.
  • I'm not including edited anthologies -- only regular magazines -- though about half of all nominated stories and "Best of" selections appear in edited anthologies.
  • I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication. (Notably, GigaNotoSaurus publishes only one story a month.)
  • I also don't attempt to correct for a magazine's only having published during part of 2004-2013. Reputations of defunct magazines (e.g., SciFiction) slowly fade, and they are sometimes restarted. (Weird Tales!) Reputations of new magazines (e.g., Lightspeed) slowly build. A ten year window seems right.
  • I take the list down to magazines with two hits. One hit might be a fluke. But actually there are some very good magazines with only two or three hits. A bit more about that at the end.
  • I welcome corrections.

  • Results:

    1. Asimov's (197 hits)
    2. Fantasy & Science Fiction (146)
    3. Subterranean (47) (started 2007)
    4. Clarkesworld (43) (started 2006)
    5. Analog (38)
    6. Tor.com (33) (started 2008)
    7. Strange Horizons (32)
    8. Interzone (31)
    9. SciFiction (26) (ceased 2005)
    10. Lightspeed (25) (started 2010)
    11. Fantasy Magazine (16) (started 2005, merged into Lightspeed, 2012)
    12. Postscripts (11)
    13. Jim Baen's Universe (10) (ran 2006-2010)
    13. Realms of Fantasy (10) (ceased 2011)
    15. Apex (6) (started 2005)
    16. Helix SF (5) (ran 2006-2008)
    17. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (4) (started 2008)
    17. Electric Velocipede (4) (ceased 2013)
    19. Black Gate (3)
    19. Black Static (3) (started 2007)
    19. Cosmos (3) (started 2005)
    19. Flurb (3) (ran 2006-2012)
    19. The New Yorker (3)
    19. GigaNotoSaurus (3) (started 2010)
    25. Aeon Speculative Fiction (2) (ceased 2008)
    25. Conjunctions (2)
    25. Futurismic (2) (ceased 2010)
    25. Lone Star Stories (2) (ceased 2009)
    25. Weird Tales (2) (off and on throughout period)
    --------------------------------------------------

    Two things are immediately striking about this list:

    First, really just a few magazines dominate the nominations and "best of" selections -- especially Asimov's and F&SF. Given the chanciness and subjectivity and imperfections of the submission and selection process, and given the fact that excellent authors might sometimes prefer venues other than the top few on this list, I find it difficult to believe that those few magazines really have that proportion of the highest quality stories. Almost half of the hits are from the top two, and 83% are from the top ten. And there are very good magazines that don't appear on this list at all (Nature's "Futures" series, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex...).

    The graph below captures this distribution visually (click to enlarge):

    Second, excluding the two prestigious "literary fiction" magazines on the list (The New Yorker and Conjunctions) 20 of the 27 magazines either started or ceased publication during this ten year period. It's a troubled industry. All but a few magazines fail after a few or several years, but dedicated editors regularly launch new magazines (or scoop up the right to old titles) and try again.

    [BTW, the Pushcart Rankings served as a partial model.]

    Update, Aug. 20:

    In the comments, Sean Wallace suggests re-analyzing with a five-year window to see if the dominance patterns are shifting. The results, through 5 hits:

    1. Asimov's (100)
    2. F&SF (66)
    3. Clarkesworld (42)
    3. Subterranean (42)
    5. Tor.com (33)
    6. Lightspeed (25)
    7. Interzone (21)
    8. Strange Horizons (18)
    9. Analog (16)
    10. Fantasy (14)
    11. Apex (6)
    11. Postscripts (6)
    12. Realms of Fantasy (5)

    Not radically different, though as Sean suggests, it does show some broadening away from Asimov's and F&SF toward others in the top ten.

    Second update, Aug. 20:

    Following another suggestion of Sean's, I looked at five and ten years' selections of novelettes and short stories from the Locus Recommended Reading List (no novellas this time).

    Over a five-year window, the spread is considerably flatter than my original ten-year list above, with the number one Asimov's (60) approximately doubling the number 5 Subterranean (25) and five times the number 10 Beneath Ceaseless skies (13). Also Intergalatic Medicine Show, Interfictions, Nightmare, The Dark, and Tin House now appear (2-3 hits each).

    Over a ten-year window, the top-ranked magazines start to pull away again, with Asimov's (164) and F&SF (142) well ahead of the 3rd to 7th ranked (all 31-40 hits). Magazines on this list that are not mentioned above are Argosy, MIT Techology Review, Harper's, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (2-3 hits each).

    See The Underblog for my full Locus ranking lists.

    Monday, August 18, 2014

    Why Don't We* Know Our Chinese Philosophy?

    (* "we" U.S.-based philosophy professors)

    In 2001, I published a piece in the American Philosophical Association's Newsletter on the Status of Asian & Asian-American Philosophers & Philosophies. In light of my recent reflections about the visibility of non-Western philosophy and philosophers, and especially this remarkable piece from an Asian-American who left philosophy, I thought I'd reproduce a revised version of the essay here. I've appended two new substantive notes at the end.

    -----------------------------------------------------

    Why Don't We Know Our Chinese Philosophy?

    APA Newsletter on the Status of Asian & Asian-American Philosophers & Philosophies, 1 (2001), 26-27; revised 2014.

    Philosophers in the United States have all heard of Confucius (Kongzi) and Laozi (Lao Tzu). Some have also heard of their approximate contemporaries in classical China: Mencius (Mengzi), Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), Mozi (Mo Tzu), Xunzi (Hsün Tzu), and Han Feizi (Han Fei Tzu). So why haven't most of us read any of their works?

    Are they not really philosophers? Even applying the narrowest criteria for what counts as a "philosopher", it would be strange to deny that Mozi and Xunzi are philosophers. Both produced long, discursive works on ethics and political philosophy; both support their views with reasoned arguments; both offer counter-arguments to opponents' views. Han Feizi is similar in structure, though more narrowly focused, like Machiavelli, on advice for achieving political power. Mencius and Zhuangzi did not write in standard philosophical essay format, but both offer persuasive arguments for positions in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of mind, and epistemology. Unconventional format should no more disqualify Mencius and Zhuangzi than it does Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Confucius and Laozi are more fragmentary and less argumentative; but many ancient Greek philosophers are even more fragmentary than Confucius and Laozi.

    Nor do these philosophers rely on any narrowly religious dogma; rather, they start from considerations that are for the most part intuitive and widely acceptable even in the contemporary United States. Despite the fact that their works are more often taught in Religious Studies than in Philosophy departments, their religious commitments are less invasive and dogmatic than the religious commitments of many European philosophers. Mengzi's and Xunzi's arguments are far more secular than Descartes's and Berkeley's.

    Perhaps, then, these classical Chinese philosophers are insufficiently important to warrant broader attention in the United States? If "important" means good, it's not clear that this is so. Although to some extent such judgments are a matter of taste, in my estimation Mengzi and Xunzi's views of moral psychology are as good as anything we have going now [note 1], and their debate about whether human nature is good or bad is considerably more sophisticated than the corresponding debate between Hobbes and Rousseau. Zhuangzi's skeptical and relativist arguments are as lively and challenging as Descartes' first two Meditations, Sextus Empiricus, or Peter Unger, and his positive vision is interestingly distinct from that of any major philosopher in the West.

    If we assess importance by historical influence, different potential criteria come into competition. Considered globally, Confucius, Laozi, and to a lesser extent the other major classical Chinese philosophers have been enormously influential, probably more influential in Eastern Asia than Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have been in Europe and the Americas. Even in the United States among the general population Confucius and Laozi are better known and more broadly discussed than any but a handful of European philosophers.

    Still, perhaps the proper measure of historical importance for us philosophy professors in the U.S. in deciding what to teach and read is the influence that a particular philosopher has had on contemporary philosophy in the United States. Here, finally, we might have a justification for our ignorance of classical Chinese philosophy.

    But it is then worth inquiring why classical Chinese philosophers are not especially influential in contemporary U.S. philosophy. One possibility is historical accident: Because the dominant culture in the United States traces back to Europe, the classical Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don't know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy; because they have little impact on our philosophy, we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.

    That seems like a regrettable state of affairs, unless we already know that these philosophers wouldn't have much positive influence on our thinking even if we did read them. But if they are as good as I know them to be, it's hard to see why reading them wouldn't have a positive influence on us -- not unless our education has so distorted us that we are unprepared to learn what they have to teach. [note 2]

    -----------------------------------------------------

    Further thoughts, 2014:

    Note 1: When I wrote this in 2001, empirical moral psychology was still dominated by intellectualistic models that left little room for emotion and spontaneous reaction, and seemed really to be measures of how good a moral philosopher one was (esp. Lawrence Kohlberg's stage theory). Philosophical moral psychology was not, in my view, a whole lot better. The intervening years have seen a huge surge of interest in morality as a phenomenon in which emotional and intellectual processes, spontaneous reactions, habit, and more thoughtful reflection, all come together in complicated ways. We are finally starting to catch up with Mengzi and Xunzi! (In this one respect at least.) If you had been reading ancient Chinese philosophy in the 1990s, you might have been surprised that the field hadn't moved past Kohlberg even sooner. My own reaction was to criticize intellectualist models of moral psychology by close empirical examination of the moral behavior of ethics professors -- a project that grew directly out of my work on Mengzi and Xunzi.

    One huge advantage of reading outside of the dominant tradition, in my view, is that it helps you see past the narrow trends and presuppositions of your current cultural situation -- and the farther out of the mainstream you go, the more so.

    Note 2: In this piece I didn't comment on the possibility of implicit bias (or even explicit bias) against Asians in U.S. philosophy departments, but I have become increasingly convinced that it plays an important role.

    -----------------------------------------------------

    Readers might also be interested in these items, brought to my attention by Daily Nous:

  • More on Philosophy's "White Man" Problem
  • The Embodied Mind: An Interview with Philosopher Evan Thompson
  • Thursday, August 14, 2014

    SEP Citation Analysis Continued: Jewish, Non-Anglophone, Queer, and Disabled Philosophers

    Last week, I created a list of the 267 most-cited philosophers in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I analyzed this group by gender and ethnicity, finding only 10% women and 3% ethnic minority. I've done some further analyses, but several people have urged me also to look at some other groups that might suffer prejudice, to see how they show on the list.

    Before getting into that, let me emphasize: I regard this list as a rough metric of a sociological phenomenon, mainstream visibility in recent Anglophone/analytic philosophy. I do not regard it as a metric of objective quality or importance from a global perspective.

    Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Philosophers:

    Judith Butler, David Hull, and Kwame Anthony Appiah are pretty visible members of this group. Among philosophers deceased 20 years or more ago, H.L.A. Hart and Richard Montague are also widely viewed as LGBT. I am hesitant to name living or recently deceased philosophers, even if they are "out", unless they seem willing to put themselves forward publicly as examples, but based on conversations I've had with others in the discipline, I estimate a minimum of 2-4 additional LGBT philosophers among the 267. It's perhaps also worth noting that two of the most famous gay men of the 20th century almost make the list, Michel Foucault (20 entries) and Alan Turing (19). I welcome further information, but only if consistent with respecting people's privacy. It's an interesting question to what extent current Anglophone philosophy exhibits prejudice against this group (and whether perhaps there is more prejudice against transgender people than against other LGBT people).

    Disabled Philosophers:

    I know no philosophers on this list who have a very visibly obvious physical disability (excepting those who acquired disability later in life, often due to ageing, after their reputation was established), unless we include Paul Feyerabend, who walked heavily on a cane due to a war injury. Please correct me if I am mistaken! Less obvious disabilities are of course more difficult to identify, and it's not clear exactly how to categorize disability. I am aware of a couple philosophers on this list who have disvalued speech patterns such as stuttering. I hesitate to spotlight individual living or recently deceased people in this category unless they put themselves forward, but the ancient Chinese philosopher Han Feizi is interesting in this connection: He is said to have stuttered so much that he turned to writing so that his opinions would be taken seriously. Certainly, too, there are at least a few philosophers on this list with histories of depression, severe anxiety, and/or alcoholism, as well as serious chronic physical diseases, though my information here is too sketchy to warrant quantitative analysis. Shelley Tremain has recently presented data suggesting that in North America the percentage of employable disabled people in philosophy departments is very much less than the percentage in the general population.

    Non-Anglophone Philosophers:

    I have already commented on how Anglophone this list is. Foucault, for example, at 20 entries by my method, doesn't even rank. (He does have his own dedicated entry, though.) Anglophone/analytic philosophers just don't cite recent European philosophers very much. (Here's one analysis I did in 2012 that shows the amazing magnitude of this tendency in the top-ranked journals.) Can we quantify this a bit more?

    I've done some quick biographical searches of the top 50 philosophers on this list (actually 53, given ties). If my biographical information is correct, only nine (17%) were born in non-Anglophone countries. But actually that substantially underestimates Anglophone dominance. Derek Parfit was born in China, but to English parents who returned to England when he was still an infant. Thomas Nagel was born in Yugoslavia but was educated at Cornell, Oxford, and Harvard. Bas van Fraassen was born in Netherlands but emigrated with his family to Canada when he was 14 or 15. Timothy Williamson was born in Sweden but went to grammar school in England, and then Oxford. Nicholas Rescher was born in Germany but came to the U.S. at age ten. Joseph Raz was born in Mandate Palestine and got a Magister Juris at Hebrew University, but then went to Oxford for his doctorate and publishes entirely or almost entirely in English. That leaves Alfred Tarski (Polish), Karl Popper (Austrian), and Jaakko Hintikka (Finnish) as the least Anglophone members of the group, though both Popper and Hintikka still published mostly in English. Worth noting, too: All three are in the oldest generation I analyzed (born 1900-1930).

    Among the top ten philosophers on the list, eight were born in the U.S., one in Britain (Bernard Williams), and Nagel went from Yugoslavia to the U.S.

    Again, please correct me if I have committed any errors.

    I doubt that the proper moral to draw is that Heidegger was right that philosophy is best done in certain languages but wrong about which particular language is the best.

    Jewish Philosophers:

    Eric Schliesser comments that this list "is a testament to the successful emancipation of Jewish men in the Anglophone world". And maybe that's right. Fully half of the top ten philosophers on this list are Jewish or have Jewish backgrounds: Putnam, Kripke, Nozick, Nagel, and Nussbaum. (I'm relying on internet sources of iffy reliability for Nagel and Nussbaum, so I welcome confirmation or correction.) A quick-and-dirty count using personal knowledge and Wikipedia's list of Jewish philosophers (except in one case where I doubt Wikipedia's accuracy), I count 35/267 (13%), which is probably an underestimate. But even going with that low-ball estimate, the proportion of Jews on this list substantially exceeds the proportion of Jews in the population as a whole (2% of the U.S. population, for example).

    But before we hasten too quickly to the conclusion that there is no prejudice against Jewish philosophers, it's worth noting that early 20th century Germany, despite outrageous levels of antisemitism, also had an impressive number of very influential Jewish philosophers, including Edmund Husserl, Ernst Cassirer, Hermann Cohen, Max Scheler, Walter Benjamin and Martin Buber.

    [Updated Aug. 15, Aug. 18]

    SEP Citation Patterns: Further Analysis and Thoughts

    Last week I posted a list of the 267 most-cited contemporary philosophers in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, including a gender and ethnicity analysis. I've been fiddling around with the data a bit more (as well as correcting a few errors).

    Comparing my 2014 analysis with my 2010 analysis:

    * In 2010, I posted a similar list. The biggest methodological difference is that I included historical entries in 2014, while I had excluded them in 2010. Thus, Jonathan Barnes (71st), Julia Annas (81st), Anthony Kenny (95th), and many other historians appear on the 2014 list but not in the 2010; and Martha Nussbaum, Jonathan Bennett, Christine Korsgaard, for example, appear higher up the 2014 list (9th, 30th, and 58th, respectively) than the 2010 list (19th, 52nd, and 99th).

    * Another striking difference is several logicians' much higher ranking in 2014. For example, Jaakko Hintikka rose from 76th to 30th, Alfred Tarksi from 72nd to 46th, Kit Fine from 82nd to 48th, and Nicholas Rescher from 72nd to 48th. My first thought was that this might reflect a large number of new SEP entries in logic and philosophy of math. And maybe that is part of the story, but a quick perusal of the SEP entries published between 2010 and 2014 does not show a particularly striking trend in that direction.

    * I was also struck by Stephen Darwall's shift from 156th (21 qualifying entries in 2010) to 66th (48 qualifying entries in 2014), despite the fact that there was no general rise in ethicists' rankings.

    Year of Publication:

    I searched each bibliographic line for four-string digits "1900", "1901", etc., assuming that virtually all such strings will be publication years of cited work. On that assumption, the most cited year is 2003 and the runner-up is 1999. The citation advantage of publication about 10-15 years ago is very strong, as is evident from this figure:

    The peak citation year was 2000 in my 2010 analysis.

    Also, if you squint at the graph above, you'll notice what seems to be dips in the production of cited work during the two world wars.

    The Baby Boom Philosophy Bust?

    In 2011, I conjectured that the generation of philosophers hired during the 1960s to teach the baby boomers -- the depression-war generation -- sat atop the social hierarchy in philosophy through the 1990s and prevented the baby boomers from attaining as much visibility as they otherwise would have. If so, this would explain the relative paucity of boomers in the topmost slots: Nussbaum is the only boomer in the top twenty, whereas depression-war babies occupy ten of the top twenty slots (Lewis, Kripke, Nozick, Nagel, Searle, Fodor, Dennett, Harman, Jackson, and van Fraassen). Now another possibility is that the baby boomers have not yet had time for their influence to be fully felt and reflected in the SEP. Indeed, this is quite possibly the case. Even the older boomers are still in their 60s and philosophers often produce very influential work late in their careers. On the other hand, the SEP's bias toward recent work, as reflected in the chart above, would seem if anything to favor the boomers over the older generations. Also, in an earlier analysis of Philosopher's Index, I found that philosophers tend to receive peak professional attention (in the form of mentions in the abstracts of philosophy articles) around ages 55-70, which is the current age range of the baby boomers. Then again (back on the first hand), if we look at the entire 267 and not just the top 20 -- still a very select group! -- the boomers are about as well represented as the previous generation.

    Methodology: Second Authors and Multiple Citations per Entry:

    My technique (as mentioned in the post) was to only count first authors. Second authors proved computationally intractable. I did keep noticing names of some people who were often appearing as second authors and who thus deserve to show higher on the list. Let me apologize for the unfairness of this. I'm tempted to list some names, but since I can't do so systematically I fear compounding the unfairness toward the regularly appearing second authors who didn't happen to come to my attention. If someone wants to attempt a systematic repair, I would welcome that.

    My technique was only to count the number of front-page entries in which the author's work is cited, not total number of citations. Prepping my 2010 analysis, I tried it both ways, and counting total SEP entries rather than total bibligraphic lines produced a list with better face validity as a measure of visibility in Anglophone philosophy. My impression is that this was because although having four different works cited in one entry probably does tend to reflect more visibility on the topic than having only one work cited, it probably doesn't reflect four times as much visibility. (For example, Kaplan and Soames have four bibliographic lines each in the entry on names, while Kripke only has one line.)

    Re-analyses: Schliesser and Leiter:

    Eric Schliesser suggests an interesting measure of closeness to the sociological core of Anglophone/analytic philosophy by considering what percentage of the list you can count as former teachers of yours. (I, like Schliesser, count 4 [1.5%].) Another measure might be how many of the authors on the list you recognize well enough to be able to say in what subfield they made their main contribution. (For me, this would have been maybe all but ten.) Eric also makes an interesting point about Jewish philosophers, which I'll discuss in a follow-up post.

    Brian Leiter re-analyzes the data to rank departments by summing the entry count of the faculty appearing on the list. Interestingly, there is considerable overlap between the rankings derived by this SEP-based method and Leiter's 2011 Gourmet Report rankings of philosophy departments in the English-speaking world. All but three departments in this "SEP top twenty" appear in the top twenty of the Gourmet Report's rankings, and those three (UT Austin, Notre Dame, and Duke) all appear in the Gourmet top 30. Conversely, all but three of the Gourmet top 20 departments appear in this SEP-based top twenty, with the exceptions (Cornell, Arizona, and Toronto) all in the last spot among the Gourmet's top 20 (a 5-way tie for 15th). I find it very striking that these two superficially very different methods yield such similar results. It suggests, to me, that whatever sociological phenomenon the Leiter rankings capture is also captured pretty well by looking at SEP citation rates. There is much less overlap, in contrast, between the top scoring schools in the 2010 NRC research rankings and either the Leiter or SEP rankings (e.g., CUNY, Yale, USC, and UCLA, in this SEP-based top-twenty, are all 50th or lower in the NRC if one sorts by the average of the high and low research scores).

    More Group Analyses:

    A number of people have urged that I look at potentially disadvantaged groups besides women and ethnic minorities, especially queer, disabled, Jewish, and non-native English speaker. So I'm working a follow-up post about that, hopefully up later today.

    Update: I've posted the analyses.

    Thursday, August 07, 2014

    The 267 Most-Cited Contemporary Authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    As I mentioned Monday, my son sent me a list of bibliographical entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, so I thought I'd update some of the citation analyses I did in 2010-2011. Below is an ordered list of the most-cited contemporary authors.

    Some caveats:

    * "Contemporary" means born 1900 or later.

    * Each author is counted only once per entry, and then only if that author receives a bibliographical line as the first-listed author on the entry's main page. Evaluating second authorship proved intractable. Sorry! I recognize that this results in substantial underestimation of second-listed authors, which is especially regrettable when authorship order is determined alphabetically rather than by magnitude of contribution.

    * Unlike my 2010 list, this list includes the historical entries.

    * The SEP has a strongly "analytic"/Anglophone perspective. So Foucault, for example, at 20 entries, didn't quite make the cutoff.

    * If you just plug the author's name as search term into SEP's front page, you'll get substantially more page hits than my method delivers (e.g., people in editing roles, or as second authors, on in subentries, or as false positives). So please don't critique my numbers via that method! I do welcome more thoughtful corrections.

    * After computerized sort, I hand-coded the data, in some cases correcting misspellings and merging authors (e.g., Ruth Barcan = Ruth Marcus), more often separating authors with similar names (e.g., various A. Goldman's). I estimate coding error of up to about +/- 2 entries.

    * Unsurprisingly, given the state of the discipline, it's overwhelmingly white men. For more details, see my gender and ethnicity analysis.

    1. Lewis, David (214)
    2. Quine, W.V.O. (164)
    3. Putnam, Hilary (131)
    4. Davidson, Donald (120)
    4. Rawls, John (120)
    6. Kripke, Saul (117)
    7. Williams, Bernard (104)
    8. Nozick, Robert (96)
    9. Nagel, Thomas (94)
    9. Nussbaum, Martha C. (94)
    11. Searle, John (93)
    12. Chisholm, Roderick M. (92)
    13. Armstrong, David M. (87)
    14. Fodor, Jerry (86)
    15. Dummett, Michael (84)
    16. Dennett, Daniel (83)
    16. Harman, Gilbert (83)
    16. Jackson, Frank (83)
    19. Strawson, P. F. (82)
    20. van Fraassen, Bas C. (77)
    21. Dworkin, Ronald (74)
    22. Williamson, Timothy (72)
    23. Geach, Peter T. (71)
    24. Chalmers, David J. (70)
    24. Kitcher, Philip S. (70)
    26. McDowell, John (69)
    26. van Inwagen, Peter (69)
    28. Sober, Elliott (66)
    28. Stalnaker, Robert (66)
    30. Bennett, Jonathan (65)
    30. Hintikka, Jaakko (65)
    30. Mackie, John L. (65)
    30. Plantinga, Alvin (65)
    30. Raz, Joseph (65)
    35. Parfit, Derek (64)
    35. Scanlon, T. M. (64)
    37. Adams, Robert M. (63)
    37. Goldman, Alvin I. (63)
    37. Popper, Karl (63)
    40. Ayer, A. J. (60)
    40. Dretske, Fred (60)
    40. Hacking, Ian (60)
    43. Feinberg, Joel (57)
    43. Gibbard, Allan (57)
    43. Goodman, Nelson (57)
    46. Burge, Tyler (55)
    46. Tarski, Alfred (55)
    48. Alston, William P. (54)
    48. Earman, John (54)
    48. Fine, Kit (54)
    48. Frankfurt, Harry G. (54)
    48. Rescher, Nicholas (54)
    48. Wright, Crispin (54)
    .
    .
    .
    Continued on the Underblog.

    [Corrected Aug 8 - Aug 14.]

    Citation of Women and Ethnic Minorities in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    I've just posted a list of the 267 contemporary authors (born 1900 or after) who are most cited in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Unsurprisingly, given the state of the discipline, the list is dominated by white men. How much so?

    I count 27 women on the list: 10% of the total. There is only one woman in the top 50 (Martha Nussbaum, ranked 9th), and seven in the top 100 (Nussbaum, Korsgaard, Anscombe, Anderson, Annas, Thomson, and Young).

    Impressionistically, it has seemed to me that female philosophers have been more likely to go into ethics, political philosophy, or history of philosophy than into metaphysics, epistemology, mind, logic, or language; and some of Josh Rust's and my data (from five U.S. states) partially support that generalization (28% of sampled ethicists were women, vs. 17% of non-ethicist philosophers). So I coded each philosopher as ethics/political/history or not, based on where their primary influence has so far been. (There were a few close calls, but mostly it was pretty clear.) My impression was strikingly confirmed: 16/27 (59%) of the women had their primary influence in ethics, political philosophy, or history of philosophy, compared to 77/240 (32%) of the men (Z = 2.7, p = .006).

    I'm not sure what the explanation for this is, assuming that my analysis here is correct. I welcome your thoughts.

    We can also examine gender distribution by age. I was able to find birth year data for most of the philosophers on the list, and I estimated the remaining 45 based on year of bachelor's degree, PhD, or first publication. I created four age groups: birth year 1900-1929, 1930-1945, 1946-1959, 1960-present. Women constituted 5/58 (9%) of the oldest generation, 5/102 (5%) of the depression-war generation, 15/88 (17%) of the pre-1960 baby boomers, and 2/19 (11%) of the youngest group. This suggests some increase in the representation of women over time, but hardly an overwhelming shift. (To put some inferential statistics on it: mean male birth year 1939 vs. mean female 1945, t = -2.3, p = .03.)

    How about ethnic minorities? That's much harder to judge. The list looks very white, but names and physical appearance can sometimes be misleading. Also ethnic categories are somewhat labile, and it's not clear how to think about mixed-ethnicity cases. Among the top 100, there's only one person I'd be inclined to think of as other than non-Hispanic white: the Korean-American philosopher Jaegwon Kim, tied for 61st. [Updated Aug. 8: Due to a transcription error, I left one name out of the top 100, and that shifted Sorabji down to 101.] (Please correct me if I've missed someone!) The rest of the list isn't a whole lot more diverse -- maybe seven members of ethnic minorities total among the whole 267 (3%)? (If you have specific knowledge about people on the list who identify as ethnic minorities, I'd be interested to hear.)

    Summarizing these estimates, then:

    Top 50: 2% female, 0% minority,
    Top 100: 7% female, 1% minority,
    Top 267: 10% female, 3% minority.
    I regard these data as broad confirmation of what we all already knew -- perhaps a little more systematic and depressingly specific. At the highest levels of visibility in contemporary mainstream Anglophone analytic philosophy (as measured by citation in the discipline's leading reference source), men vastly outnumber women, and ethnic minorities are virtually absent. The effect appears to be larger the greater the visibility. The effect might also be larger among our older and recently deceased contemporaries than it is in the younger generations, but even if that is so, it remains very large in all groups.

    [Updated Aug. 8 - Aug. 14]

    Wednesday, August 06, 2014

    Academic Urban Legends

    Interesting piece on academic urban legends here, featuring a convoluted and deliciously ironic analysis of the rumor that spinach is a good source of iron.

    HT Charlie Tyson in Inside Higher Ed, who offers further reflections on the issue, including the on ethics of citation.

    Monday, August 04, 2014

    Citation Patterns in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Part 1

    My fourteen-year-old son Davy is teaching himself to program, so for fun last week I had him pull all the reference sections out of the 1422 front-page entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In 2010-2011, I'd written a few posts analyzing SEP bibliographies. But my selection at the time had excluded entries on particular individuals and historical eras, and the SEP has grown and updated quite a bit, so I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of those analyses.

    [The picture above shows Davy appreciating the SEP's clean html.]

    Let's start with an easy analysis before I try to wrangle order out of the 137,000 rows of data Davy sent me. In 2009, Brian Leiter conducted an (unscientific) website poll of his readership, asking them to rank dozens of famous philosophers in order of "importance". The resulting top 20 were:

    1. Plato
    2. Aristotle
    3. Kant
    4. Hume
    5. Descartes
    6. Socrates
    7. Wittgenstein
    8. Locke
    9. Frege
    10. Aquinas
    11. Hegel
    12. Leibniz
    13. Spinoza
    14. Mill
    15. Hobbes
    16. Augustine
    17. Marx
    18. Nietzsche
    19. Kierkegaard
    20. Rousseau
    For quick and dirty fun, we can toss these names in the SEP search engine and see how many different entries get hits, ranking the philosophers accordingly.

    The results:

    1. Aristotle
    2. Plato
    3. Kant
    4. Hume
    5. Descartes
    6. Locke
    7. Leibniz
    8. Frege
    9. Socrates
    10. Wittgenstein
    11. Mill
    12. Aquinas
    13. Hobbes
    14. Augustine
    15. Hegel
    16. Spinoza
    17. Marx
    18. Rousseau
    19. Nietzsche
    20. Kierkegaard
    Interestingly similar -- and thus partly validating each other, in a way. For example, the top five are the same, only with Aristotle and Plato swapping the two top spots. Leibniz shows the biggest difference in rank -- 7 in the SEP vs. 12 in the Leiter poll. Hegel is next, 15 in the SEP vs. 11 in the Leiter. All the others are within 3 places, most within 0-2. Mill is a bit higher in the SEP perhaps partly due to attracting more false positives than the others. Overall, the rank correlation is a solid .92.

    Might there be others in the SEP top twenty that weren't in Leiter's top-twenty poll results? Well, actually things get messy outside the top 20. Berkeley is Leiter's 21, but he's hard to pull out of the SEP because of false positives from the university of the same name. Epicurus, 22nd in Leiter's poll, would slightly edge Kierkegaard, but not in a worrisome way (66 entries vs. 63). Russell is ranked 23rd in Leiter's poll -- also a lot of false positives there, plus possibly a recency bias. (See these old data on recency bias in the SEP, which I plan to update soon.) Then Rawls, Bacon, Smith (Adam), Quine, Kripke -- all also either too recent or drawing too many false positives. Thus, keeping comparisons within Leiter's top 20 seems the best plan.

    Where are the Asian philosophers, you might ask. Well, Brian did include Confucius in his poll. Confucius pulled 32nd place, edging out Heidegger and Machiavelli, and just below Parmenides and Anselm. (Mencius didn't make it out of the qualifying heats.)

    Now, Confucius is one of the most important figures in the history of Asia, both specifically in Asian philosophy but also more broadly in East Asian culture. Perhaps no philosopher in the history of the world has had more influence than he. So I find the poll result odd! But Confucius fares even less well in an SEP hit count than in the Leiter poll: Heidegger and Anselm both appear in many more entries than does Confucius.

    This is my way of saying, I suppose, that these types of analyses capture a certain sociological phenomenon among the Leiter Reports readership and the SEP authors and editors.

    But I happen to find the sociology of philosophy very interesting!

    Wednesday, July 30, 2014

    Moral Self-Knowledge by Looking at Others' Faces

    Our own moral character is largely unknown to us. Lots of jerks think they're just swell. Lots of saints and sweethearts suffer from moral self-doubt. But a formulaic inversion of one's moral self-opinion doesn't work either: Moral pride and moral self-condemnation sometimes fit the facts quite well. I conjecture approximately a zero correlation between people's moral self-opinions and their actual moral character.

    Moral self-knowledge is an unruly beast that cannot, I think, be trapped and held still for systematic examination, partly because moral self-examination is itself a moral act, tangled up with the very traits under consideration. The jerk will tend toward a biased self-examination; the sweetheart will be biased in a different way; and the conclusions one habitually reaches, on either side, can reinforce or undercut the very traits self-ascribed. "Oh, I'm such a sweetheart, so much nicer than everyone else around me" is not, in most circumstances, a thought that sits very comfortably on its bearer.

    The usual method by which we consider our moral character -- trying an adjective on for size, as it were, and asking, "Is that me? Am I trustworthy? Am I kind? Am I gentle?" -- is, as suggested by both informal observation and psychological research, a method of little probative value. Maybe somewhat better is taking an icy look at objective data about yourself or asking for the frank opinion of someone whose judgment you trust -- but both of those approaches are also seriously flawed.

    So here's another approach to add to the stock -- an approach that is also flawed, but which deserves attention because its potential power hasn't yet, I think, been widely enough recognized. Look at the faces of the people around you. Central to our moral character is how we tend to view others nearby. The jerk sees himself as surrounded by fools and losers. The sweetheart vividly appreciates the unique talents and virtues of whomever he's with. The avaricious person sees the people around her as a threat to her resources (time, money, but also possibly space in the subway, position in line, praise from her peers). The person obsessed with social position sees people who vary finely in their relative social standing. Or consider: What do you notice about others' physical appearance? This reveals something morally important about you -- something not directly under your control, a kind of psychological tell.

    Or so I think it's reasonable to suppose. I'm open to counterevidence, e.g., by experience sampling beeper methods, combined with some plausible related measures of moral character. But psychological science isn't there yet.

    Of course you can game it. You can sit around and work yourself into a blissed-out appreciation of all those wonderful people around you, congratulating yourself on your sage-like moral awesomeness. This is a misfire, especially if there's an implicit (or explicit) comparative dimension to your moral self-assessment as you do this. (If only everyone were as good at me at seeing how wonderful everyone is!) Or you can choose to recall situations, or choose to put yourself in situations, disproportionately suggestive of the type of moral character you'd like to see yourself as having.

    But I don't think it's inevitable that we game the method. I find it interestingly revealing (and disappointing) to look at strangers in the store or acquaintances at a party, letting my relatively uncensored assessments of them float up as an indication not of anything about them but rather as an indication of something about me, that I view them that way.

    You can also notice things post-hoc: You can catch yourself viewing people in the way characteristic of the jerk, or in the way characteristic of the avaricious person, or of the person focused on status or sexual attractiveness.

    It needn't always be negative. Sometimes you can congratulate yourself on being the one person in line who seemed to treat the cashier as a person. Sometimes you can feel good about the fact that you find yourself feeling good about the people around you. But I emphasize the negative for two reasons. First, I suspect that non-depressed people -- perhaps, especially, relatively affluent Western men? -- tend to err toward having too high an opinion of their moral character. Second, there's probably something cognitively or morally unstable, as I've gestured at a couple times above, about using this technique primarily for moral self-congratulation.

    [Jeanette McMullin King has reminded me of the poem "The Right Kind of People", which fits nicely with this post.]

    Wednesday, July 23, 2014

    Wildcard Skepticism

    Might there be excellent reasons to embrace radical skepticism, of which we are entirely unaware?

    You know brain-in-a-vat skepticism -- the view that maybe last night while I was sleeping, alien superscientists removed my brain, envatted it, and are now stimulating it to create the false impression that I'm still living a normal life. I see no reason to regard that scenario as at all likely. Somewhat more likely, I argue -- not very likely, but I think reasonably drawing a wee smidgen of doubt -- are dream skepticism (might I now be asleep and dreaming?), simulation skepticism (might I be an artificial intelligence living in a small, simulated world?), and cosmological skepticism (might the cosmos in general, or my position in it, be radically different than I think, e.g., might I be a Boltzmann brain?).


    "1% skepticism", as I define it, is the view that it's reasonable for me to assign about a 1% credence to the possibility that I am actually now enduring some radically skeptical scenario of this sort (and thus about a 99% credence in non-skeptical realism, the view that the world is more or less how I think it is).

    Now, how do I arrive at this "about 1%" skeptical credence? Although the only skeptical possibilities to which I am inclined to assign non-trivial credence are the three just mentioned (dream, simulation, and cosmological), it also seems reasonable for me to reserve a bit of my credence space, a bit of room for doubt, for the possibility that there is some skeptical scenario that I haven't yet considered, or that I've considered but dismissed and should take more seriously than I do. I'll call this wildcard skepticism. It's a kind of meta-level doubt. It's a recognition of the possibility that I might be underappreciating the skeptical possibilities. This recognition, this wildcard skepticism, should slightly increase my credence that I am currently in a radically skeptical scenario.

    You might object that I could equally well be over-estimating the skeptical possibilities, and that in recognition of that possibility, I should slightly decrease my credence that I am currently in a radically skeptical scenario; and thus the possibilities of over- and underestimation should cancel out. I do grant that I might as easily be overestimating as underestimating the skeptical possibilities. But over- and underestimation do not normally cancel out in the way this objection supposes. Near confidence ceilings (my 99% credence in non-skeptical realism), meta-level doubt should tend overall to shift one's credence down.

    To see this, consider a cartoon case. Suppose I would ordinarily have a 99% credence that it won't rain tomorrow afternoon (hey, it's July in southern California), but I also know one further thing about my situation: There's a 50% chance that God has set things up so that from now on the weather will always be whatever I think is most likely, and there's a 50% chance that God has set things up so that whenever I have an opinion about the weather he'll flip a coin to make it only 50% likely that I'm right. In other words, there's a meta-level reason to think that my 99% credence might be an underestimation of the conformity of my opinions to reality or equally well might be an overestimation. What should my final credence in sunshine tomorrow be? Well, 50% times 100% (God will make it sunny for me) plus 50% times 50% (God will flip the coin) = 75%. In meta-level doubt, the down weighs more than the up.

    Consider the history of skepticism. In Descartes's day, a red-blooded skeptic might have reasonably invested a smidgen more doubt in the possibility that she was being deceived by a demon than it would be reasonable to invest in that possibility today, given the advance of a science that leaves little room for demons. On the other hand, a skeptic in that era could not even have conceived of the possibility that she might be an artificial intelligence inside a computer simulation. It would be epistemically unfair to such a skeptic to call her irrational for not considering specific scenarios beyond her society's conceptual ken, but it would not be epistemically unfair to think she should recognize that given her limited conceptual resources and limited understanding of the universe, she might be underestimating the range of possible skeptical scenarios.

    So now us too. That's wildcard skepticism.

    [image source]

    Eric Kaplan's Blog

    Eric Kaplan, who overlapped with me in grad school at Berkeley but who is now much more famous as a comedy writer for Big Bang Theory, Futurama, and several other shows, has been cooking up weird philosophical-comical blog posts since March at his Wordpress blog here.

    Check it out!

    Wednesday, July 16, 2014

    Tononi's Exclusion Postulate Would Make Consciousness (Nearly) Irrelevant

    One of the most prominent theories of consciousness is Guilio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory. The theory is elegant and interesting, if a bit strange. Strangeness is not necessarily a defeater if, as I argue, something strange must be true about consciousness. One of its stranger features is what Tononi calls the Exclusion Postulate. The Exclusion Postulate appears to render the presence or absence of consciousness almost irrelevant to a system's behavior.

    Here's one statement of the Exclusion Postulate:

    The conceptual structure specified by the system must be singular: the one that is maximally irreducible (Φ max). That is, there can be no superposition of conceptual structures over elements and spatio-temporal grain. The system of mechanisms that generates a maximally irreducible conceptual structure is called a complex... complexes cannot overlap (Tononi & Koch 2014, p. 5).
    The basic idea here is that conscious systems cannot nest or overlap. Whenever two information-integrating systems share any parts, consciousness attaches to the one that is the most informationally integrated, and the other system is not conscious -- and this applies regardless of temporal grain.

    The principle is appealing in a certain way. There seem to be lots of information-integrating subsystems in the human brain; if we deny exclusion, we face the possibility that the human mind contains many different nesting and overlapping conscious streams. (And we can tell by introspection that this is not so -- or can we?) Also, groups of people integrate information in social networks, and it seems bizarre to suppose that groups of people might have conscious experience over and above the individual conscious experiences of the members of the groups (though see my recent work on the possibility that the United States is conscious). So the Exclusion Postulate allows Integrated Information Theory to dodge what might otherwise be some strange-seeming implications. But I'd suggest that there is a major price to pay: the near epiphenomenality of consciousness.

    Consider an electoral system that works like this: On Day 0, ten million people vote yes/no on 20 different ballot measures. On Day 1, each of those ten million people gets the breakdown of exactly how many people voted yes on each measure. If we want to keep the system running, we can have a new election every day and individual voters can be influenced in their Day N+1 votes by the Day N results (via their own internal information integrating systems, which are subparts of the larger social system). Surely this is society-level information integration if anything is. Now according to the Exclusion Postulate, whether the individual people are conscious or instead the societal system is conscious will depend on how much information is integrated at the person level vs. the societal level. Since "greater than" is sharply dichotomous, there must be an exact point at which societal-level information integration exceeds the person-level information integration. Tononi and Koch appear to accept a version of this idea in 2014, endnote xii [draft of 26 May 2014]. As soon as this crucial point is reached, all the individual people in the system will suddenly lose consciousness. However, there is no reason to think that this sudden loss of consciousness would have any appreciable effect on their behavior. All their interior networks and local outputs might continue to operate in virtually the same way, locally inputting and outputting very much as before. The only difference might be that individual people hear back about X+1 votes on the Y ballot measures instead of X votes. (X and Y here can be arbitrarily large, to ensure sufficient informational flow between individuals and the system as a whole. We can also allow individuals to share opinions via widely-read social networks, if that increases information integration.) Tononi offers no reason to think that a small threshold-crossing increase in the amount of integrated information (Φ) at the societal level would profoundly influence the lower-level behavior of individuals. Φ is just a summary number that falls out mathematically from the behavioral interactions of the individual nodes in the network; it is not some additional thing with direct causal power to affect the behavior of those nodes.

    I can make the point more vivid. Suppose that the highest-level Φ in the system belongs to Jamie. Jamie has a Φ of X. The societal system as a whole has a Φ of X-1. The highest-Φ individual person other than Jamie has a Φ of X-2. Because Jamie's Φ is higher than the societal system's, the societal system is not a conscious complex. Because the societal system is not a conscious complex, all those other individual people with Φ of X-2 or less can be conscious without violating the Exclusion Postulate. But Tononi holds that a person's Φ can vary over the course of the day -- declining in sleep, for example. So suppose Jamie goes to sleep. Now the societal system has the highest Φ and no individual human being in the system is conscious. Now Jamie wakes and suddenly everyone is conscious again! This might happen even if most or all of the people in the society have no knowledge of whether Jamie is asleep or awake and exhibit no changes in their behavior, including in their self-reports of consciousness.

    More abstractly, if you are familiar with Tononi's node-network pictures, imagine two very similar largish systems, both containing a largish subsystem. In one of the two systems, the Φ of the whole system is slightly less than that of the subsystem. In the other, the Φ of the whole system is slightly more. The node-by-node input-output functioning of the subsystem might be virtually identical in the two cases, but in the first case, it would have consciousness -- maybe even a huge amount of consciousness if it's large and well-integrated enough! -- and in the other case it would have none at all. So its consciousness or lack thereof would be virtually irrelevant to its functioning.

    It doesn't seem to me that this is a result that Tononi would or should want. If Tononi wants consciousness to matter, given the Exclusion Postulate, he needs to show why slight changes of Φ, up or down at the higher level, would reliably cause major changes in the behavior of the subsystems whenever the Φ(max) threshold is crossed at the higher level. There seems to be no mechanism that ensures this.

    Thursday, July 10, 2014

    Confessional Philosophy (repost)

    I'm in Florida with glitchy internet and a 102-degree fever, so now seems like a good day to fall back on the old blogger's privilege of a repost from the past (Sept 15, 2009).

    --------------------------------

    Usually, philosophy is advocacy. Sometimes it's disruption without a positive thesis in mind. More rarely, it's confession.

    The aim of the confessional philosopher is not the same as that of someone who confesses to a spouse or priest, nor quite the same (though perhaps closer) as that of a confessional poet. It is rather this: to display oneself as a model of a certain sort of thinking, while not necessarily endorsing that style of thinking or the conclusions that flow from it. Confessional philosophy tends to center on skepticism and sin.

    Consider, in Augustine's Confessions the famous discussion of stealing pears, wherein Augustine displays the sinful pattern of his youthful mind. Augustine's aim is not so much, it seems to me, to advocate a certain position (such as that sinful thoughts tend to take such-and-such a form) as to offer the episode for contemplation by others, with no pre-packaged conclusion, and perhaps also to induce humility in both the reader and himself. He offers an analysis of his motives -- that he was trying to simulate freedom by getting away with something forbidden (which would fit with his general theory of sin, that it involves trying to possess something that can only be given by god) -- but then he undercuts that analysis by noting that he would definitely not have stolen the pears alone. Was it then that he valued the camraderie of his sinful friends? He rejects that explanation also -- "that gang-mentality too was a nothing" -- and after waffling over various possibilities he concludes "It was a seduction of the mind hard to understand.... Who can unravel this most snarled, knotty tangle?" (4th c. CE/1997, p. 72-73)

    Descartes's Meditations, especially the first two, are presented as confessional -- perhaps partly to display an actual pattern in his past thinking, but perhaps also partly as a pose. Here we see or seem to see the struggles and confusions of a man bent on finding a secure foundation for his thought. Hume's skeptical conclusion to Book One of his Treatise seems to me more genuinely confessional, when he asks how he can dare to "venture upon such bold enterprizes when beside those numberless infirmities peculiar to myself, I find so many which are common to human nature" (1739/1978, p. 265). "The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning.... I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter them and farther (p. 268-269). We see how the skeptic writhes. Hume displays his pattern of skeptical thought, but offers no way out, nor chooses between embracing his skeptical arguments and rejecting them. Nonetheless, in books two and three he's back in the business of philosophical argumentation.

    Generally, it's better to offer a tight, polished exposition or argument than to display one's thoughts, errors, and uncertainties. That partly explains the rarity of confessional philosophy. But sometimes, no model of error or uncertainty will serve better than oneself.

    [for some discussion, see the comments section of the original post]

    Monday, June 30, 2014

    SpaceTimeMind Podcasts: Alien and Machine Minds, Death and Logic

    A couple of months ago, I had some great fun chatting with Richard Brown and Pete Mandik at SpaceTimeMind. Pete has now edited our conversation into two podcasts in their engaging, energetic style:

    Part One: Death and Logic

    Part Two: Alien and Machine Minds

    The episodes are free-standing, so if the topic of Part Two interests you more, feel free to skip straight to it. There will be a few quick references back to our Part One discussion of modality and hypotheticals, but nothing essential.

    Although I think Part Two is a very interesting conversation, I do have one regret about it: It took me so long to gather Richard's view about alien consciousness that I didn't manage to articulate very well my reasons for disagreeing. Something early in the conversation led me to think that Richard was allowing that probably there are (somewhere in the wide, wide universe) aliens constructed very differently from us, without brains, who have highly sophisticated behavior -- behavior as sophisticated as our own -- and that his view is that such beings have no conscious experience. By the end of the episode, it became clear to me that his view, instead, is that there probably aren't such beings (but if there were, we would have good reason to regard them as conscious). He offered empirical evidence for this conclusion: that all beings on Earth that are capable of highly sophisticated behavior have brains like ours.

    If I had understood his view earlier in the conversation, I might have offered him something like this reply:

    (1.) Another possible explanation for the fact that all (or most?) highly intelligent Earthlings have brains structured like ours is that we share ancestry. It remains open that in a very different evolutionary context, drawing upon different phylogenetic resources, a very different set of structures might be able to ground highly intelligent (e.g. sophisticated linguistic, technology-building) behavior.

    (2.) Empirical evidence on Earth suggests that at least moderately complicated systems can be designed with very different material structures (e.g., gas vs. battery cars, magnetic tape drives vs. laser drives; insect locomotion vs. human locomotion). I see no reason not to extrapolate such potential diversity to more complex cognitive systems.

    (3.) If the universe is vast enough -- maybe even infinite, as many cosmologists now think -- then even extremely low probability events and systems will be actualized somewhere.

    Anyhow, Richard and Pete's podcasts have a great energy and humor, and they dive fearlessly into big-picture issues in philosophy of mind. I highly recommend their podcasts.

    (For Splintered Mind readers more interested in moral psychology, I recommend the similarly fun and fearless Very Bad Wizards podcast with David Pizarro and (former Splintered Mind guest blogger) Tamler Sommers.)

    Monday, June 23, 2014

    The Calibration View of Moral Reflection

    Oh, when the saints go marching in
    Oh, when the saints go marching in
    Lord, I want to be in that number
    When the saints go marching in.
    No. No you don't, Louis. Not really.

    If you want to be a saint, dear reader, or the secular equivalent, then you know what to do: Abandon those selfish pleasures, give your life over to the best cause you know (or if not a single great cause then a multitude of small ones) -- all your money, all your time. Maybe you'll misfire, but at least we'll see you trying. But I don't think we see you trying.

    Closer to you what you really want, I suspect, is this: Grab whatever pleasures you can here on Earth consistent with just squeaking through the pearly gates. More secularly: Be good enough to meet some threshold, but not better, not a full-on saint, not at the cost of your cappuccino and car and easy Sundays. Aim to be just a little bit better, maybe, in your own estimation, than your neighbor.

    Here's where philosophical moral reflection can come in very handy!

    As regular readers will know, Joshua Rust and I have done a number of studies -- eighteen different measures in all -- consistently finding that professors of ethics behave no morally better than do socially similar comparison groups. These findings create a challenge for what we call the booster view of philosophical moral reflection. On the booster view, philosophical moral reflection reveals moral truths, which the person is then motivated to act on, thereby becoming a better person. Versions of the booster view were common in both the Eastern and the Western philosophical traditions until the 19th century, at least as a normative aim for the discipline: From Confucius and Socrates through at least Wang Yangming and Kant, philosophy done right was held to be morally improving.

    Now, there are a variety of ways to duck this conclusion: Maybe philosophical ethics neither does nor should have any practical relevance to the philosophers expert in it; or maybe most ethics professors are actually philosophizing badly; or.... But what I'll call the calibration view is, I think, among the more interesting possibilities. On the calibration view, the proper role of philosophical moral theorizing is not moral self-improvement but rather more precisely targeting the (possibly quite mediocre) moral level you're aiming for. This could often involve consciously deciding to act morally worse.

    Consider moral licensing in social psychology and behavioral economics. When people do a good deed, they then seem to behave worse in follow-up measures than people who had no opportunity to do a good deed first. One possible explanation is something like calibration: You want to be only so good and not more. A unusually good deed inflates you past your moral target; you can adjust back down by acting a bit jerkishly later.

    Why engage in philosophical moral reflection, then? To see if you're on target. Are you acting more jerkishly than you'd like? Seems worth figuring out. Or maybe, instead, are you really behaving too much like a sweetheart/sucker/do-gooder and really you would feel okay taking more goodies for yourself? That could be worth figuring out, too. Do I really need to give X amount to charity to be the not-too-bad person I'd like to think I am? Could I maybe even give less? Do I really need to serve again on such-and-such worthwhile-but-boring committee, or to be a vegetarian, or do such-and-such chore rather than pushing it off on my wife? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. When the answer is no, my applied philosophical moral insight will lead me to behave morally worse than I otherwise would have, in full knowledge that this is what I'm doing -- not because I'm a skeptic about morality but because I have a clear-eyed vision of how to achieve exactly my own low moral standards and nothing more.

    If this is right, then two further things might follow.

    First, if calibration is relative to peers rather than absolute, then embracing more stringent moral norms might not lead to improvements in moral behavior in line with those more stringent norms. If one's peers aren't living up to those standards, one is no worse relative to them if one also declines to do so. This could explain the cheeseburger ethicist phenomenon -- the phenomenon of ethicists tending to embrace stringent moral norms (such as that eating meat is morally bad) while not being especially prone to act in accord with those stringent norms.

    Second, if one is skilled at self-serving rationalization, then attempts at calibration might tend to misfire toward the low side, leading one on average away from morality. The motivated, toxic rationalizer can deploy her philosophical tools to falsely convince herself that although X would be morally good (e.g., not blowing off responsibilities, lending a helping hand) it's really not required to meet the mediocre standards she sets herself and the mediocre behavior she sees in her peers. But in fact, she's fooling herself and going even lower than she thinks. When professional ethicists behave in crappy ways, such mis-aimed low-calibration rationalizing is, I suspect, often exactly what's going on.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2014

    Against Those Year-End Faculty Meetings to Discuss the Graduate Students

    Every year's end at UC Riverside, the philosophy faculty meet for three hours "to discuss the graduate students". Back in the 1990s when I was a grad student, I seem to recall the Berkeley faculty doing the same thing. The practice appears to be fairly widespread. After years of feeling somewhat uncomfortable with it, I've tentatively decided I'm opposed. I'd be interested to hear from others with positive or negative views about it.

    Now, there are some good things about these year-end meetings. Let's start with those.

    At UCR, the formal purpose of the meeting is to give general faculty input to the graduate advisor, who can use that input to help her advising. The idea is that if the faculty as a whole think that a student is doing well and on track, the graduate advisor can communicate that encouraging news to the student; and also, when there are opportunities for awards and fellowships, the graduate advisor can consider those highly regarded students as candidates. And if the faculty as a whole think that a student is struggling, the faculty can diagnose the student's weaknesses and help the graduate advisor give the student advice that might help the student improve. Hypothetical examples (not direct quotes): "Some faculty were concerned about your inconsistent attendance at seminar meetings." "The sense of the faculty is that while you have considerable promise, your writing would be improved if you were more charitable toward the views of philosophers you disagree with."

    Other benefits are these: It helps the faculty gain a sense of the various graduate students and how they are doing, presumably a good thing. If a student has struggled in one of your classes but seems to be well regarded by other faculty, that can help you see the student in a better light. It's an opportunity to correct misapprehensions. In the rare case of a student with very serious problems (e.g., mental health issues), it can sometimes be useful for the faculty as a whole to be aware of those issues.

    But in my mind, all of those advantages are outweighed by the tendency of these discussions to create a culture in which there's a generally accepted consensus opinion about which students are doing well and which students are not doing so well. I would prefer, and I think for good reason, to look at the graduate students in my seminar the first day, or to look at a graduate student who asks me to be on her dissertation committee, without the burden of knowing what the other faculty think about her. It's widely accepted in educational psychology that teachers' initial impressions about which students are likely to succeed and fail have a substantial influence on student performance (the Pygmalion Effect). I want each student to meet each professor with a chance to make a new first impression. Sometimes students struggle early but then end up doing a terrific job. Within reason, we should do what we can to give students the chance to leave early poor performance behind them, rather than reiterate and generally communicate a negative perception (especially if that negative perception might partly be grounded in implicit bias or in vague impressions about who "seems smart"). Also, some students will have conflicts with some of their professors, either due to personality differences or due to differences in philosophical style or interests, and it's somewhat unfair to such students for a professor to have a platform to communicate a negative opinion without the student's having a similar platform.

    I don't want to give the impression that these faculty meetings are about bad-mouthing students. At UCR, the opposite is closer to the truth. Faculty are eager to pipe in with praise for the students who have done well in their courses, and negative remarks are usually couched very carefully and moderately. We like our students and we want them to do well! The UCR Philosophy Department has a reputation for being good to its graduate students -- a reputation which is, in my biased view, well deserved. (This makes me somewhat hesitant to express my concerns about these year-end meetings, out of fear that my remarks will be misinterpreted.) But despite the faculty's evident well-meaning concern for, and praise of, and only muted criticism of, our graduate students in these year-end meetings, I retain my concerns. I imagine the situation is considerably worse, and maybe even seriously morally problematic, at departments with toxic faculty-student relations.

    What's to be done instead?

    One possibility is that the graduate advisor get input privately from the other faculty (either face to face or by email), in light of which she can give feedback to her advisees. In fact, private communication might be epistemically better, since communicating opinions independently, rather than in a group context, will presumably reduce the problematic human tendency toward groupthink -- though there's also the disadvantage that private input is less subject to correction, and perhaps (depending on the interpersonal dynamics) less likely to be thoughtfully restrained, than comments made in a faculty meeting.

    Another possibility is to drop the goal of having the faculty attempt an overall summary assessment of the quality of the students. For awards and fellowships, early-career students can be assessed based on grades and timely completion of requirements. And advanced students can be nominated for awards and fellowships directly by their supervising faculty without the filter of impressions that other faculty might have of that student based on the student's coursework from years ago. And students can, and presumably do, hear feedback from individual faculty separately, a practice that can be further encouraged.

    As I mentioned, my opinion is only tentative and I'd be interested to hear others' impressions. Please, however, no comments that reveal the identity of particular people.

    [image source]

    Wednesday, June 11, 2014

    Philosopher's Carnival #164

    The Philosophers' Carnival, as you probably know, posts links to selected posts from around the blogosphere, chosen and hosted by a different blogger every month. Since philosophers are basically just children in grown-up bodies (as a Gopnik student, I intend this as flattery), I use a playground theme.

    The Philosophy of Mind Sandpit:
    I charge into the sandpit. There's David Papineau with his cricket bat staring at me, incredibly focused -- but why does a batter need to be focused if batting is just reflex responsiveness? There must be something more. But we don't know what it is, says R. Scott Bakker, most of whose Three Pound Brain is, he admits, a mystery to him. We're all blind (to the machinery of our cognitive activity) but we're blind to this blindness, and so invent dualist ontologies. Why am I digging here, then? I don't know. Why do I believe he might be wrong? I don't know that either! Scott agrees: I have no idea why I believe he might be wrong. But at least, says Wolfgang Schwarz, my disbelief is very fine-grained, you know, like this sand right here.

    The Curving Tunnel of Logic and Language:
    Into the darkness we go, with Jason Zarri's fuzzy argument for crisp negation. I seem to be turned around, in a half-true circle! Worse still, I seem to be stuck with a correspondence theory of truth, since Tristan Haze is telling me that my projective-based skepticism about facts is itself a projective-fallacy. Oy, this is dizzier than a whirligig! I try to get out of the tunnel, but here comes Eli Sennesh with two boxes and a nearly-omniscient demon and he's trying to get me the million dollars instead of the thousand I thought I knew I was rationally doomed to.

    The Epistemic Slide:
    Hi, Richard Chappell! Would you like to play this little non-normative game with me, called "seeking the truth"? No? You say that my continued attachment to such a game is arbitrary by my own lights? Wah! Good thing I don't believe that your criticism has any objective normative merit. La-la-la. Meanwhile, Ralph Wedgwood from Certain Doubts is trying to get things -- pieces of knowledge, or is it gum? -- to adhere to me, as long as they adhere in the sense that if and only if the case were sufficiently similar with respect to what makes it rational for me to believe P1 in C1 would I also believe P2 in C2. Good thing Richard Pettigrew has given me a metric for determining how inaccurate my total doxastic state is!

    The Moral Teeter-Totter:
    Look over there! Jonny Pugh is bouncing up and down, tip, don't tip, tip, don't tip -- I think he might tip right over on the question of whether new technologies that make the option to tip more salient will and should change the culture of tipping. Stacey Goguen at Feminist Philosophers has a nice compilation of recent reflections on the ups and downs of "trigger warnings" in the classroom. And now here's Alexander Pruss telling me that intentionally making babies is morally wrong because I can't have any specific baby's good in mind and I shouldn't make a baby for reasons that don't include the specific baby's own good. Fine with me! Making babies is gross. And if some of us kids do it anyway, it was only by accident, when we were playing doctor.

    The Philosophy of Science Picnic Table:
    Ah, there's Scott Aaronson, looking skeptically at the consciousness sandwich Guilio Tononi gave him. Evidently, Guilio told him the moon is made of peanut butter. But Dick Dorkins at Genotopia isn't worried. In fact, he's pleased that he finally has really scientifically solid evidence, that the scientists themselves (but not the Wall Street Journal) are too wimpy to embrace, that his British marmite-and-lard is superior to the tawnier sandwiches of people from more southerly continents or subcontinents or whatever they are. (Do I see his tongue in his cheek?)

    The Historical Jungle Gym:
    Lunch is over. Time to climb around and get sick! Barry Stocker at NewAPPS is on top of the jungle gym, wondering why more people aren't thinking about the ancient skeptic Sextus Empiricus as a virtue ethicist. I don't know! A dubious proposition. But I'm at peace with that.

    Fingerpainting Aesthetics on the Playground Walls:
    See that familiar avian aesthetician over there, drawing pictures of Christopher Nolan's cinematic femmes fatales? They might not be what they seem! Wait, does that woman have two faces?

    Metaphilosophical/Issues-in-the-Profession Party Poopers:
    Look, I just want to pick a side, say something that makes sense, and stop, okay John Holbo. All this thinking is too hard. So don't try to diagnose why all the kids around here are such bad philosophical writers. It's because Aunt Flo can't buy me enough electric blue Gogurt on minimum wage. And here is Eric Schliesser, criticizing poor Slavoj Zizek just for telling his students "if you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A". Slavoj wants to be nice. He really does. Really, really, he does. And he would be nice if he weren't always surrounded by stupid, incompetent jerks unlike himself.

    The next carnival will be hosted in a month at Siris. You may submit suggestions for inclusion in the next carnival (from your own blog or favorite posts from others' blogs) at the Philosopher's Carnival homepage.

    [Revised 2:22 pm.]

    Monday, June 09, 2014

    Comic Schadenfreude and the Schadenfreude of Grace (by Jason Gray and Eric Schwitzgebel)

    There isn't a lot of philosophical (or even psychological) work on schadenfreude -- the pleasure people sometimes feel at witnessing or hearing about (but not personally causing) the suffering of others. But the most prominent analyses treat it as a type of pleasure one feels seeing someone get their comeuppance. John Portman calls schadenfreude "an emotional corollary of justice" (2000, p. 197*). Aaron Ben-Ze'ev suggests that a typical feature is that the sufferer deserves the misfortune (1992, p. 41). Frans de Waal suggests that schadenfreude "derives from a sense of fairness" (1996, p. 85).

    We could define schadenfreude as involving just deserts, for the sake of philosophical analysis. But doing so misses, we think, central cases that should be within the term's scope and which give it its uncomfortable moral coloring.

    Consider that staple of "America's Funniest Videos", the groin shot:


    And the trampoline accident:

    It doesn't seem that these are instances of justice delivered. We are laughing at -- seemingly enjoying -- pain, indifferent to whether it is deserved. If we stipulate that schadenfreude requires desert, we would need a different name for this interesting phenomenon. But rather than do that, let's acknowledge that there are at least two different types of schadenfreude: just-deserts schadenfreude, when the bad guy finally gets what's coming to him, and the comic schadenfreude of America's Funniest Videos and FailBlog. Comic schadenfreude seems to require not justice but rather a kind of absurdity involving pain as an integral component. And unlike the schadenfreude of just deserts, where pleasure can sometimes be found when inexpiable wrongdoing is met with severe pain, comic schadenfreude might require that the injury (or pain) not be too serious.

    Still another species of the genus seems to involve neither comic absurdity nor justice: the schadenfreude of grace.

    Here's Lucretius:

    Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters, to gaze from the land on another's great struggles; not because it is pleasure or joy that any one should be distressed, but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortune you yourself are free. Sweet is it too, to behold great contests of war in full array over the plains, when you have no part in the danger (On the Nature of Things, Book II.1ff., Bailey trans.).
    And Hobbes:
    from what passion proceedeth it, that men take pleasure to behold from the shore the danger of them that are at sea in a tempest, or in fight, or from a safe castle to behold two armies charge one another in the field? It is certainly in the whole sum joy, else men would never flock to such a spectacle. Nevertheless there is in it both joy and grief. For as there is a novelty and remembrance of own security present, which is delight; so is there also pity, which is grief. But the delight is so far predominant, that men usually are content in such a case to be spectators of the misery of their friends (Human Nature, IX.19).

    Evidently, people throughout the ages have found great pleasure standing atop the bluff in a storm, watching sailors below die on the rocks. Lucretius and Hobbes suggest, plausibly we think, that for many viewers an important part of the the pleasure derives from how salient another’s suffering makes your own safety by comparison. Similarly, perhaps, reading a history of war and genocide can put into perspective one's own complaints about the erroneous telephone bill and the journal rejections.

    Indeed, the very fact that the suffering of the others is undeserved lends the schadenfreude of grace its particular bittersweet flavor. If the sailors or soldiers were fools or villains then it's maybe just harsh justice to see them die from their bad choices, and we have something closer to the schadenfreude of just deserts; but if they did nothing wrong or foolish and it could just as easily have been you, then it's both more a shame for them (the bitter) and also more vividly pleasing how lucky you yourself are (the sweet): There but for undeserved grace go I.

    The schadenfreude of just deserts, comic schadenfreude, and the schadenfreude of grace do not exhaust the list of schadenfreudes, we think. There are at least two more: the schadenfreude of envy, and pathological forms of erotic schadenfreude (not to be confused with consensual play-acting sadism). We also suspect that these different types of schadenfreude can sometimes merge into a single complex emotion.

    Probably no unified analysis of the psychological mechanisms suffices to cover all types, and they differ substantially in what they reveal about the moral character of the person who is moved by them. Comeuppance is only the start of it.

    ---------------------------------------------------

    * Though comeuppance seems to be Portman's take-home message, his overall view is nuanced and anticipates some of the points of this post.