2009 Fall Proseminar Professor Blog

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I'll send these out as emails too, but here's my blog for the course:

1st Meeting: September 1st, 2009

It was great to finally meet you all the other day. Naturally, we had to spend a lot of time on introductory matters. We'll get down to the philosophy from here on out. Here are a couple of follow up items from class:

1. Packets are ready at 10am. Pick up yours at Rebman 203, during business hours today and Friday.

2. Browsing Exercise: I would like you to use some of the reference sources we mentioned(Routledge Encyclopedia (through Foley), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Wikipedia) to spend time browsing. Give it about 2 hours if you can. You might start with two or three terms or concept from Tuesday night that you have heard of but don't know much about. Then explore links from reference sources. Keep track of what your browse and a few details that stood out from your reading. Feel free to look at lots of things briefly or a few things in more depth. Then write up a two page log of where you've been and what stood out for you.

3. "Interests and Preferences" emails due Friday. At Tuesday's class, we mentioned A LOT of things that you all might be interested in knowing or exploring about philosophy. Send me an email (put "Pro-seminar: my interests" in the subject line) in which you identify particular topics or issues in philosophy that you would like to work on during the seminar. Your emails will help me fill in the course schedule. They will also help you identify individual projects that you might work on and bring back to the seminar in some form, such as a presentation.

4. 1st Reconstruction due Tuesday night. The course schedule shows that your readings include pieces from Dennett and Nagel. Choose one of the readings and then summarize the main arguments, starting with the broadest claim that you think the author is supporting. We'll use the term "reconstruction" to refer to a logical summary of the rationales (arguments and explanations) in a piece or reflective speech or writing. Complete your reconstruction in no more than 1 and 1/2 pages.

That's about it. Have a great Labor Day weekend. Please come to class with ideas and comments on the readings!


2nd Meeting: September 8th, 2009


Good meeting last night. Thanks. I think we made a good start on both our practice of discussion and writing. We're not trying to adopt a single model for discussion, but I do want you to consider the value of really getting a good sympathetic reading of the text in place prior to critical evaluation. One of the strengths of your discussion last night was that you really seemed to be listening to each other, and the group did a pretty good job of "self-correcting" -- a couple of times someone suggested a different focus or emphasis in the reading and it seemed like lots of people were following and weighing in non-verbally. Sometimes it takes longer to get that going. We need to work on isolating specific arguments more quickly (first criterion of good reconstruction!) and of course, we have a lot of cool philosophical methods and tricks of the trade to learn.

Many of you wrote good summaries and I'll try to have those commented for you by Thursday. Now that we've introduced a somewhat structured understanding of what a "reconstruction" is, let's try to practice that. Please write your reconstruction next week (1 page) on the Singer chapter, remembering that, as with the Dennett reading, you're only getting the first chapter of a book. There will be lots of rationales in it, but many of them will require more of the book to fill in. Just note in your reconstruction when you're getting the whole argument and when you're not.

I'm also working on the next few weeks of readings. You may need to pick up some xeroxing on Thursday of this week, but I'll let you know. My sense is that the group wouldn't mind a few more chapters of Dennett at some point, but I didn't sense lots of people who wanted to rush to buy the book or never look at it again. Tell me if I'm getting the vibe right.

Don't forget, office hours are M-Th 9-11. Drop by, especially if you have questions about your grading scheme. (I've added a new assignment that allows you to earn up to 10% of your informal grade by posting significant information to the course wiki. For example, next week it would be great for someone to do a page on Singer which explains his basic positions and notes some of the controversial positions he has taken. You can do some of this with cut and paste from other online sources or by adding links, but you could also write a little text with your take on things. The Assignment is called "wiki posts".)

Oh, apologies to a couple of you who started your grading scheme. Since I had to edit the assignments, I needed to reset the grading scheme records. Please go ahead and set up your grading schemes. I'm eager to see what you want to do.


3rd Meeting: September 15th, 2009

Thanks for a good class. I hope you all feel that we are officially under way and even (nearly) up to cruising speed. We do have a tremendous variety of things to look at this semester, but I hope that's a strength of our approach.

Our discussion work was pretty good. I noticed more agreement about the conclusions that people found in the reading. I do think more of you could experiment with using the language of "rationales" and "reconstruction" in your discussion comments. Also, I noticed that we not asking each other alot of questions during discussion. That could just be the newness of the group, but alot of philosophical moves happen while developing a line of questioning (think Socrates, but don't do it that way, exactly!). So there's a couple of things to keep in mind for next week.

The biggest (little) insight I can offer you from last night is (to repeat) that you need "entertain" views more. This isn't target practice. Let the view's potential insights emerge from an initially sympathetic treatment. When you offer critiques, try to detrmine whether the theory has resources for responding or try to modify the theory (even if its not your own theory) to see how it might respond to criticisms. This is really important.

Looking ahead to next week. Please write two pages giving both a reconstruction and critique of Dennett's idea that evolution is a universal algorithm that may explain more than just variation among species. Try to give a page to each task. Of course, only the main lines of your reasoning will fit in this pages limit, but please know that you are welcome to develop your ideas further in a longer paper. Also, we'll need to collect some information on reductionism. I've set up a page for that and I'll certainly contribute to it, but please start by browsing reference resources on this topic. It's will play a significant role in our discussion.

oops. Just noticed the print job on Dennett was botched. I'll go scan it. ... Ok, it's on the wiki under Readings.

Please stop by in the next two weeks or so if you'd like to discuss your grading scheme or anything else in the course.


4th Meeting: September 22th, 2009


That was probably our best discussion to date. Thanks so much. I thought many of you took time to try to understand Dennett (which isn't easy) and then critically assess his views. We didn't rush the criticism, but people put forward some good criticisms while recognizing the theory's force. I'll read your reconstructions, but I gathered we had pretty good overlap in how we were seeing the rationales.

I hope you're all ready for a change of pace. We have an interesting diversity of readings for next week. We'll get back to talking about method and sample a few interesting pieces.

Let me know if you are planning to attend the NW Philosophy conference.

Please send in a brief email about how the course is going.

Nothing to write for the seminar for next week. Come prepared, please.



5th Meeting: September 29th, 2009

Good class, gang.

Some really good discussion on postmodern philosophy. I thought all of the small groups gravitated toward similar kinds of questions about how postmodern philosophers look at meaning and truth. I've always found that a useful place to dig in as well. Think about the basis of your confidence in the "UPS model" of meaning. Does it really describe meaning formation? Or is the stability of meaning in that model (everything reliably coded, transmitted, and delivered) a relatively specific achievement in an otherwise chaotic and complex process of meaning formation which always defers meaning? See. I still remember how to talk like that. I think F, D, and R are generally right about the instability of meaning and "immanence" (that we don't get outside language), but I want to encourage you to develop your skepticism.

I hope the logic lesson on validity was helpful. I'll start compiling study questions for the Philosophical Methods test.

After the break, we had a large group discussion about Wiredu. I have to thank you guys for that. This discussion sharpened for me the tension between thinking about philosophy as universal and as culture. I take Wiredu's general point pretty seriously -- we shouldn't compare traditional spiritualism and animism with Western European/Anglo-American philosophy (really, philosophy). But it did seem after our discussion (especially with the scent of postmodernism still in the air) that it might be naive to think of philosophy as completely like math and science. Is there something it is like to be a German philosopher? But then I pull back. Is that something just the contingent history of philosophy in that culture, or does it run into ethnicity, even a tiny bit?

I'm still not sure how de Botton went over. We were tired. But I think we did see what a little postmodern playfulness can do to the story of Socrates, our putative martyr and hero of philosophy. It's kind of like Southpark got a hold of him.

Ok, that should do it. I'll try to get some of the registration fee from the department for those of you going to the NW conference. You might want to compare notes with each other on travel and places to stay.

Start printing or downloading the articles for next week. It's going to be a good one!


6th Meeting: October 6th, 2009


I hope you feel that we opened up the faith and reason topic in some interesting ways. One thing that stood out from our discussion for me was how much one's position on the issue depends upon specific commitments about the nature of reason (can it be plural?) and the relationships among theology, philosophy, and science. Also, I think we recognized the importance to faith about belief in the truths of one's faith, but we did not settle the question of whether it is rational (or natural) for humans to use different ways of assessing radically different kinds of beliefs. Of course, the traditionalist/realist will point out that all belief is about the same reality, which is a fair point. But what if there's really good evidence that we're selected for cognitive capacities that makes religion possible and that we use those capacities to treat religious belief differently from beliefs about bodies? (Recall the "persons/bodies" argument.)

While we didn't talk about method last night, I did want to make one comment about method in our discussions. In addition to the formal methods we are discussing for our philosophical methods test, there are methods in philosophy that include creating puzzles or paradoxes for a position (Isn't it a puzzle that rational theology doesn't work as a method for adjudicating better and worse theologies the way scientific method and practice does?) or even using drama and emotion -- teasing, joking, even exaggerating! It's something we can do only over a basis of trust that we're helping each other develop our own philosophical views. I'll be pretty candid with you about my views and try to use humor when I can to make a point, but I really am your faithful philosophy coach, and I'm here to help you develop your position. At the end of the day, Socrates is right about the whole mid-wife metaphor. That's how it works, I think.

After the break, I thought people were noticeably more tired. My pitch was that CSR and related developments allow us to pose the question of faith and reason in a specific and recently productive way, "How can scientific reason study faith?" That turns out to be a really fruitful question, in my opinion. I don't think it reduces or disproves faith. In fact, it makes a case for the naturalness of religious experience. The fact that it doesn't address the objective truth of actual religious beliefs can be construed as a weakness of this approach, but I think it's actually quite a productive strategy. It allows researchers to pay attention to how we cognitively process religious claims and experience, and that evidence seems to be revealing interesting and stable structures, many of which are trans cultural. The case for evolutionary accounts of religion is different, but also has the effect of "naturalizing" at least the visible and measurable part of religious practice. Right down to "neurotheology" (yes, there is such a thing), the naturalist study of religion in the last twenty years helps explain how religion may work psychologically and how it may have emerged. Religion in general comes out looking pretty good -- something Marx, Freud, and the early Darwinists might not have predicted. Many intellectuals (whose religion switch is off) still believe that religion is just an error or accident of our history that we'll correct soon. Naturalist accounts leave that possibility open as well, since the structures it discloses might just be vestiges of capacities (like predator detection)selected for another purpose. But this might actually be a question that can actually be investigated naturalistically -- something I wouldn't have imagined twenty years ago.

If you're going to the Northwest Philosophy Conference, please get on their website and register. They need an accurate count for things. I'll work on getting the registration subsidy by the time we get there, which is when you would have to pay.

Take care and have a great week. Please in during stop office hours or make an appointment to talk about your work in the course. It really helps to discuss the things you've agreed to do. And it's fun!

Alfino 16:17, 7 October 2009 (UTC)

7th Meeting: October 13th, 2009

Well, I was bragging about you guys to my 201 class and it actually seemed to motivate them! Seriously, you guys made a pretty significant "turn" in my opinion from generating a few pretty good ideas about the material to using philosophical methods more actively to turn up lots and lots of rationales, points of view, and questions. This is an important development because I think it involves using methods more than just general intuitive responses. Also, at some point, we start asking what philosophers from different viewpoints would say, argue, or ask about the idea under discussion instead of just responding with your immediate point of view (which is still very valuable, of course!). You get so much more material to work with when you use method in this way and that usually improves the philosophical outcome of your work.

The other dimension of progress Tuesday night in my opinion was that you all reached a nice level of comfort in doing philosophy with each other. As we noted in class, the ability to have a good philosophical discussion with someone requires a kind of trust and at least partial openness to disclose your thinking and views. There is a kind of closeness to this relationship which philosophers have long described and which you have a great opportunity to experience in a Gonzaga philosophy program. We've got a wonderful variety of philosophers in the seminar, which can also be a challenge, but you guys seem to be figuring it out. Bravo!

Alfino 16:29, 15 October 2009 (UTC)

8th Meeting: October 20th, 2009

Just a brief note, folks. I hope you found Dr. Liu's introduction to philosophical problems in comparative philosophy informative and thought provoking. It was interesting to see how interpretive theories come into play in this work. You will pick up more resources for this when we talk about hermeneutics latter in the semester. Also, I found last night's class a good counterpoint to Wiredu. I guess I still agree with his basic point, but it may turn out that some parts of philosophy are more embedded in traditional culture than he allows.

Please make good use of the next week or two to organize your upcoming work in the course, and make an office visit. I'm starting to get more writing from you all, and I hope that keeps coming in. You're welcome to submit drafts on everything.

Well, see you next week for the Methods test and public talk. By the way, you guys are starting to look like a fine bunch of philosophers!

Alfino 15:45, 21 October 2009 (UTC)

9th Meeting: October 27th, 2009

I hope you all found the Philosophical Methods test reasonable, and that you enjoyed, "What Can We Learn from Sartre and Camus?" I thought Ted's talk was really clear and got the audience ready to talk about a lot of interesting issues and problems. Notice how well he uses reconstruction to communicate Sartre's views in rationales!

1. Next Week's Class: Well, we're heading into some regular reading weeks, and most of you are working on papers or projects in addition to this. For next week's class on game theory, I will ask you to write up a preliminary reaction to bring next Tuesday. To help with that, over the next few days, I'll send an email out calling your attention to some specific concepts you should try to get from the main reading for next week: the Game Theory article from Stanford Encyclopedia. (So start reading it!) I added the famous article by David Gauthier, "Morality and Advantage" as an optional reading next week. It's a little tough, but the style of reasoning is worth noting and the argument is really tight! Anyway, I'll call your attention to some things in the Stanford article and you should have no trouble developing a response in a couple of pages. I really want Dr. Schmidt to be impressed by you, as was our last visitor -- I hope that's not vain on my part?

2. Rethinking Nov. 10th class: Last night's talk did get me to start rethinking our November 10th class. Right now we are planning to get after the comparative philosophy topic again, but I've been thinking we need more depth in continental in our buffet and to get more out of the Dec. Hermeneutics session. So I might redo Nov. 10 as a Heidegger/Husserl/Primer on Phenomenology class. Let me know if that fills you with existential angst(sorry) or happiness.

3. Audio comments on papers: Last semester, I started experimenting with audio comments on your papers and the initial results were promising. I'll resume the experiment this semester. When you get your papers back (rough drafts or final) you will see a three digit number on the top of the paper. That's all you need to figure out the filename you need to browse to for the comments. For example, if you are Joe Smith and the number is 384, then you browse to: alfino.org/comments/smith384.mp3. I'll be surveying you for your satisfaction about audio comments, so please think about what you like or dislike about them. If you forget this, information, it's on the wiki main page.

Looks like I've got meetings with some of you this week. That's great. I hope to have seen all of you in office visits by the end of next week.


10th Meeting: November 3, 2009

Just a short note this week. I hope you enjoyed the Game Theory presentation. I thought Dr. Schmidt did a great job of leading us through some basic concepts with the purpose of showing how Game Theory affects traditional philosophical goals, such as giving an account of values and a way of thinking about promoting better values and outcomes. Some really good initial responses from you guys at the end.

So next week we take a very different turn to the origins and development of phenomenology. Some of you will like this alot, while others may find it a bit obscure. I'm going through the Stanford article on Phenomenology and I should have readings from a couple of the colleagues here in the next day or two. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, please contribute some work to the Collaborative Research Exercise. I really think this will be a useful skill for you to have in the major and in general.

I'm having extra office hours this Friday, and I'm available by appointment, so let's talk about your work as you feel the need.


11th Meeting: November 10, 2009

Thanks for your good work last night, especially under the pressure of stardom. By the end of the evening, I sensed that some of you found some value in a phenomenological approach. As you know, the philosophers in this tradition that I value are the ones that sort of turn on in in the postmodern critique, say, of Husserl by Derrida. Still, it's important to point out that Derrida is heavily influenced by Heidegger, who in turn is influenced by Husserl. I think it's fair to say that fewer phenomenologists today defend Husserl's foundationalism, though the method has developed and influenced a number of traditions inside and outside of academic philosophy.

One difficulty of having an initial class on Husserl, is that we want a concrete example of the method in an applied case, but that comes later in the tradition. Husserl's writing is focused on establishing basic structures and on the method. By the time you get some really good writers in this tradition (only a generation later), like Sartre, the project has changed somewhat.

There's a short excerpt on the wiki reading list from a secondary text that walks you through a major passage of Nausea, which you can use as an example of phenomenological seeing in the form of a literary narrative describing the human condition. I recommend it.

I hope the research lesson is clear. I'm working with many of you on research for papers or annotated bibliographies, so that's probably the right place to focus for more research instruction.

I should have readings (or video) posted for next week by Friday. Looking forward to our next class and visits from some of you in the mean while.


12th Meeting: November 17, 2009

Thanks for a lively class. I think we worked through some challenging topics. I noticed that all of the work we looked at was pretty recently produced. I apologize for the difficulty level of some of this. At some point we stopped reading so many encyclopedia articles (as primary readings), and I just started dropping you in the deep end of the pool! One of the compensations of this strategy is that you have a sense of where philosophy is today, something that's very hard to convey at the beginning of the study of the major. However, I think it's important to try to get a sense of this because it can enrich your experience of the story that will unfold in your history of philosophy classes. Also, I think you could see from the Maddy article that even if you are a very hip and cutting edge philosopher of science, you can still present your case in relation to major works in the history of philosophy.

On a substantive level, I understanding that all of this work (Haidt, Papineau, and Maddy) challenges metaphysical beliefs that are connected for many of you to religious beliefs. I don't think the challenge is necessary (you can always naturalized part of your religious belief), but it's likely for many Christians. In addition to rejecting the philosopher's arguments (something philosophers do, of course!), there are other strategies for dealing with this. Not surprisingly, you can go to contemporary theology for solutions to problems posed by contemporary philosophy (or contemporary culture itself). But the suitability of this will depend upon your view of the commitment of theology to its own history, and to the history traditional philosophical foundations. This kind of historical philosophical commitment is obviously stronger in Catholicism than many Protestant faiths, but it also reduces flexibility in Catholicism, in my humble opinion. It might also help to reflect on the claim that revealed religions have an inevitable commitment to the history within the revelation occurs, but science and philosophy (when not done in the service of religion) base their commitments on the best available contemporary arguments. There are lots of choices about how to reconcile developments in moral psychology, physicalism, and contemporary naturalism with faith commitment, in my opinion, especially if you have some flexibility about how you think of the truth claims of faith vis a via science. More and more I'm surprised that people want to make them equivalent. But that would take us back to the faith and reason topic!

Please make use of next week's optional and informal class to bring by work in progress. It would be great to see some partially completed timelines, for example. We could even just talk philosophy.

Readings for the Dec 1st class on Hermeneutic will be posted by this Friday.

If I don't see you before the Thanksgiving holiday, have a good time and please work on your papers!


13th Meeting: December 1, 2009

I'm grateful to Dr. Dan Bradley last night's class. I hope we were able to connect some dots between Husserl and Heidegger, understand Heidegger's existential phenomenology a bit, and see how phenomenology and theology work together in Ricoeur. That's a handful of philosophy for two hours. My hope was that after we looked at these more recent phenomenologists, we might get some sense of the practicality of phenomenological method. Heidegger's analysis of Dasein in terms of temporality, for example, makes it possible for him to talk about topics like anxiety, care, death and other topics from within the "meaning structures" of our being, without automatically reducing the human being to physics. I really think this approach does some justice to the way we partially structure meaning through language (and are partially structured by language in return). I also like the way Heidegger captures the "thrownness" of our existence. This is something that Derrida also expresses in his philosophy.

Please feel free to come by this week to talk about your work in progress. I'm looking forward to reading what some of you turned in last night.

Don't forget to put some thought into your post (or email) on the "End of Semester Student Statements" I would like to get some papers as well. These papers might be used for short discussion next week either in groups or by the class. If you'd rather your paper be used in a small group setting just let me know that. I would like to pick a few papers for discussion next week along with your posts to the "End of Semester Student Statements".

We also need to organize food and beverages for next week's final symposium. Could we get a few volunteers to bring or make things? Let me know if there's something you can contribute. After we see what we've got we could fill in with pizza.

Thanks for preparing for class last night. I thought the level of questioning and tracking of ideas was really good, especially considering the difficulty level of the reading. You're a good bunch of philosophers already. Three semesters from now, you'll be dangerous.

Ok, gang. Let's follow up on food, papers, and other details.