2010 Fall Proseminar Professor Blog

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On this page, you'll find my "after class" blogs for the course. I'll send them as email to the class.

1st Class, August 31, 2010

Great start gang. I hope you feel oriented to the course and have a sense of the possibilities for our work. It's great to be underway, and you all seem ready for some kind of philosophical adventure! Thanks for the helpful information about your interests, which I'll be working on.

I hope you found the fist discussion useful for thinking about assumptions we have about philosophy. Definition turns out to be a focus in some of our work on method, so don't stop thinking about how you define philosophy. Consider a "thin" definition, like "evaluation of arguments and points of views on basic questions of reality and existence" as well as "thicker" ones, like "the love of wisdom". Maybe the definition you gravitate toward tells you something about your focus. The article by Hadot for next week should also connect with this issue.

Please start your browsing, along with the reading for next week. It's not too early to rough in your grading scheme on the course website. And feel free to stop by during office hours or by appointment to talk about your interests.

2nd Class, September 7, 2010

Thanks for a good class last night. We're still settling in with each other and next week class should feel more like a seminar. If the class seemed a tiny bit random or digressive, don't worry, we'll start to focus more. Early on I want to motivate you to explore your interests and base some of your work on this exploration. You have discretion about the work your do in the course. Certainly, we all need to be committed to prepping for each week's seminar, (and I don't think we've reached our peak there yet), but beyond that, you should still have room in your time budget for the course to explore specific interests you might have and even write about them. As the seminar progresses, though, you'll notice that I'll be less digressive and we'll focus on positions, claims, arguments, explanations, and interpretations. Of course, we don't want to get rid of all the digressions!

My summary of class topics this morning goes like this: We used the Hadot reading to look at both a definition of philosophy (as therapeutic / related to living a good life) and an interpretation of a period of philosophy. Hadot's reading is intrinsically interesting, but it also challenges our intuitions about the nature of philosophy. I heard many of you agree that you expect philosophy to help you live life better (whether it's "learning to die" or not), but we also acknowledged that academic philosophy's contribution to that might be indirect. Knowing about the Hellenistic period helps us imagine how philosophy might accomplish its academic aims while providing real, knowledge-based, guidance about life. We'll also explore this by reading some non-academic philosophy.

In the next part of class, we started our work on philosophical method by introducing some terms and a theory of rationales. Some of this will feel like review, but soon we'll attack those lists of philosophical methods on the wiki. We'll start pointing out the methods as they are occurring in our readings, but please try to notice the methods as you do reading in your other philosophy classes as well.

The final chunk of the class involved the reading by Haidt about the brain. We detailed the discrepancies between our contemporary understanding of the brain and typical philosophical assumptions about consciousness. I hope we started to sketch the competing intuitions that philosophers have about this. In the extreme, that "psychology and neurology don't matter" to philosophical accounts of consciousness and that, at the other end, that they are at the center of knowledge and therefore central to a knowledge-based philosophy. We're going to see this dynamic in more readings in the coming weeks and then in historical context in November.

Ok, gang, that's what I recall. For next week, we're going to work toward more of a seminar style, so please recall the list of suggested ways for you to develop content and reflection for the class. Let's agree that those who are posting content for this week do so by Sunday night (again we're shooting for 1/3 to 1/2), but everybody should try to study the readings in sufficient depth that you have a good initial sketch of the central arguments and things you found interesting. I gather we couldn't have done that last night, but we're just getting started. Getting this to work will require some planning, so please put course prep time on your calendar!

Looking forward to our seminar next week.


3rd Class, September 14, 2010

That was a really good class, thanks. The energy level is great, we had good discussion, and even ice cream (there's more in the freezer if you want to drop by Rebmann for some). As you could tell from the second installment of "method," I'd like you all to practice good reconstruction skills. Posting a reconstruction of the reading is a good thing to do, but hold off putting those up until Sunday night. That way we get more than one and you're encouraged to read the text before reading someone's summary of the rationales. If you practice the discipline of giving good reconstructions, it will help you become wise. So post a reconstruction of a part or whole of next week's reading to the wiki.

Speaking of wiki posts, I think we could increase the number and diversity of posts from this week. In addition to posting a critical comment or reconstruction, you can find out more about the authors and let us know something about them. Next week that's Dennett and Nagel. Dennett is a big controversial philosopher so I'd like someone to represent some of his views and controversies. How about a link to a video segment of the dude? He's all over. Then don't forget we're talking about theory of consciousness (philosophy of mind). Someone should go do some browsing on this. What are the main positions? Where does Dennett's fit into the landscape of thought on the nature of mind? All that is great stuff for posts. Remember that without a final, it's your preparation of each class that becomes a focus. That's all to the good, since we can achieve even greater heights of philosophical progress and pleasure if we really take the seminar aspect of the class seriously, as I sense you guys are doing.

Don't forget to post your examples of method from other readings. I assume you all have the two documents on method taped above your workspace, right?

Thanks to Samantha for bringing dessert next week.


Return to Philosophy Proseminar

On this page, you'll find my "after class" blogs for the course. I'll send them as email to the class.

4th Class, September 21, 2010

Thanks for a really good class. I thought we did well in trying to follow this discussion pattern in which you get start with a general description of what's important to the author, what they are driving at, and then try to formulate that into distinct rationales and articulate more precisely their overall conclusion (reconstruction), and from there move to assessment. I know it's a bit formulaic, but it's good for a seminar because it allows us to work through issues of understanding cooperatively. At least that's the ideal.

In terms of key ideas, I hope this week's seminar readings on Dennett and Nagel made it clear how basic philosophical differences can arise over how one understands the relationship between 1st person (subjective) experience and 3rd person (objective) experience. The stakes are high in this discussion; they include your view of the nature of consciousness and the relative priority of different ways of relating experience to knowledge. By the end of the night, the whole religion and science conflict (one of the major public philosophical issues of our time, by the way) was peeking it's gnarly head around the corner.

Going into this week, two of our readings are more historical than argumentative, so we'll focus our reconstruction skills on the third reading (Shop Class). For the first two readings, keep track of things that you found interesting about the philosophers and historical narrative you read. Since this is just an overview, don't expect too much, but try to pose additional questions about the thinkers or times and that will be the basis of our discussion of that part.

I just remembered a posting opportunity from last year that was popular. It's called "Second Thoughts". So, for example, right now you could go to the wiki for Sept 28 and post some second thoughts on last night's issues. I posted a couple of questions, but just suggestions. This kind of post is especially helpful if you feel that you have more to say after the seminar than before it. Still, let's keep posting ahead of the meetings as well.

Wonderful brownies. Thanks, Samantha. If someone wants to offer a dessert for 9/28th, let me know by email.

Have a great week everyone.


5th Class, September 28, 2010


Maybe it was cool night air distorting my judgement, but I thought you all did really well with the Crawford discussion. Sometimes you have to remind philosophy majors that doing philosophy isn't just "target practice" -- not just about refuting whatever you read. Crawford's argument has some weaknesses that could have set him up for the "kill," but I thought you made measured criticisms and tried to save the insights that would otherwise have been lost. Lots of balance, though I probably talked too much!

On the "fly over" of Modern Philosophy: I hope you all found value in that. Sometimes it's good to read for the big connections because it helps give you intuitions about the current scene and where philosophy is heading. But I agree it's pretty general. Glad I don't have to test you on it.

About next week's topic and packet: You'll notice that after the long article "The Ways of Taoism," (Schwarz) there is a third article, not listed on the cover. It's "The Way of Nature and Mind as Aspect and Perspective," Chapter 10 of Walter Bensch's Introduction to Comparative Philosophy. Please read this before Schwartz. Also, on the Course Schedule for next week you'll notice a selection from a primary text, Chuang Tzu's "The Autumn Floods," which is Chapter 17 from a text called the "Chuang Tzu". By the way. This would be a great time to get your Lao Tzu and you Chuang Tzu and a bunch of other dates sorted out, so here's a collaboration assignment: Please post 10 dates related to any major Asian philosophical traditions (yoga, buddhism, confucianism, hinduism, etc.) in the Ancient world, say. There's a link on the Student Work wiki page for posting your dates. Please do this in the next couple of days, if you would. It will take you about 10-15 minutes. Less time if you get to it soon!

Also, please read the Thompson piece. It's going to give us a bunch of interesting method points, including a major recent example of the use of thought experiments (very controversial, but we're ready).

Ok, gang, this is a bucket of reading, but use your "reference" research skills first (wikipedia, encyclopedias of phil, etc.) to soften the terrain. YOu'll find it speeds the reading and increases retention. And start tonight for next Tuesday!

I'm grateful that we have a such a talented, interesting, and enjoyable group in this seminar. We've done some good philosophy in the first month. Let's not lose momentum through mid terms! And what's the desert plan next week? Volunteers?


6th Class, October 6, 2010

First, before I forget. I'd like to meet with each of you about your work in the course sometime in the next two weeks. It's a good opportunity to talk about work that you're planning for Oct in the course and about how things are going, philosophy-wise. In addition to office hours, I've got time around mid-day and after 2 most days. Please suggest a time or two by email and I'll reply.

I hope the Taoism discussion worked well for all of you. I felt like we built up a view from particular stories and details from the text. I won't try to reduce that to a few conclusions here, but in the discussion I thought we were able to link the points made by the various stories to larger claims about the Tao and the relation of language to it. As with Greek thought, we find philosophy and religion mixed here, as it probably naturally was in history. I hope we brought out some of the philosophical themes that resonate between Taoism and Greek thought, such as scepticism, a sense of a natural order to the cosmos, and some of the big differences, such as conventionalism, a more Heraclitean model of reality (also, perhaps a "process philosophy" model), and a very different view of the reality of the individual.

On Thompson, our primary goal was to complete our study of method with an article famous (or infamous) for its thought experiments. I hope we were able to see how the different positions philosophers take on thought experiments (see wiki notes) could be applied to the article. Don't forget Thompson's article is also a good example of applied ethics work.

We've got a bit of a challenge in next week's class since we're going into our prep time with only one required article, Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism". I'll post some other things, but I would like all of you to add your own preparation based on some browsing in reference sources. Then find something to contribute to the seminar. It could be a recommendation that we watch or read something and/or you could post a summary and response of things you have read. There are "prompts" or suggestions on the Class Notes page for thing you should look into. Try to come back to the wiki on Friday or Saturday to pick up things from others in the class. This method can produce a great seminar experience, but you need to put in some time. You should have budgeted six hours for this class each week in prep time. Please keep track of this time. I think you'll find that with about four hours of work spread out over the week, you can make a good contribution.

Maybe we should make some coffee next week for the Methods Test. You looked like tired puppies at 8:30 last night. But I can't say I wasn't either.

Have a great week and exploration of existentialism. I'm already looking forward to it!


7th Class, October 12, 2010

Sorry I'm late with this. I hope you all survived the rest of your exams, and that you didn't find the Methods test too hard. I thought we did ok with our treatment of existentialism given the other pressures in our lives. Your wiki posts were interesting and added alot of different resources and even quirky facts to the mix.

I've posted readings for next week to the wiki. We're going to get some depth on the question of naturalism next week, but I realized we also need to get a basic understanding of phenomenology as we head into more continental work. So don't miss the short secondary reading on Phenomenology.

Please also think about a collaborative research topic for us to start next week.


8th Class, October 19, 2010

Well, in spite of some pedagogical mistakes on my part, I hope we were able to consolidate a basic appreciation of what it is to "naturalize" a philosophical problem and to naturalize epistemology. The contemporary naturalist does have a radical critique of the project of modern philosophy and epistemology, and you all we right to see that if the naturalists are correct about the way we should think about knowledge and explanation, then the job description of being a philosopher looks very different. That's true even if you take one of the milder positions we hinted at earlier. Personally, I think it affirms the position of philosophers as "omnivores" in intellectual life. Philosophy loses its position as "queen of the sciences" or "foundation builders for science" (which it never really succeeded at). But connecting philosophy to all forms of scientific and cultural production also ends the isolation of philosophers within the academy, which is an effect of believing in a "first philosophy" that entails unique methods and results (that others can't understand!). But then if you have a really broad conception of philosophy, no one revolution disturbs it too much.

I think we're doing a good job in the Proseminar in achieving some of the goals from the beginning of the semester. I think you all have a good sense of argument theory and philosophical method. I think we've "exposed" you to lots of information about philosophy, some good historical overviews, and some good topics (including some that are coming up). However, I do think I've let a couple of other goals fall by the side a bit and I'd like to make some adjustments to focus on them. If I can get you all to start visiting me about your work (research and formal writing) and if we follow up on your projects through the rest of the semester, I think we can realize the goals of having a significant research experience and developing your philosophical writing. Those are both really important goals to me and to the department and things we can afford to do individually due to our class size.

The other goal that might get shortshrifted if we don't do something about it is the goal of getting us doing philosophy together. I realized this a bit when I noticed how comfortable you all have gotten with each other. That's a good sign that you'd produce some good philoosphical discussion if I just got out of the way long enough. So I think we're spending too much time trying to digest information that would normally take weeks of preparation to really follow closely. I'm not going to give up on the goal of exposing you to lots of developments in philosophy, but I'd like to carve out more class time for us to do philosophy together and in small groups. I think I see how to do that with next week's class, and I'll say more about that when I get the readings ready for next week, probably by tomorrow. Feel free to offer some suggestions about this.

Have a great week and weekend. Thanks to those who agreed to put something short together for next week.


9th Class, October 26, 2010

Well, we could be criticized for not getting through all of the details of Rorty's use of Freud, or the interesting relationship Nietzsche bears to postmodernism, but we did do two other things well that I hope you found valuable: we manage to develop an inductive sense of postmodernism from diverse cultural production, including thought about language, what might be called the "culture of meaning". (Very good job with presentations. Thanks.) That related directly to the problem Rorty started with -- how a self achieves meaning or fulfillment in a modern or postmodern environment. The second thing we did well, and which I found really motivating, is that we did some philosophy working from the concerns that we brought to the table, or could summon from memory and our wits. I hope you appreciated the intention behind showing you that rather cynical video, but it happened to illustrate an aspect of the problem of self that I think we all face -- roughly, putting yourself out in the world as something or in some way of living. This is an anxious and existentially charged situation in my opinion. In both groups, I thought you made good progress in giving yourself "cases" and in identifying further questions. Some good use of methods.

I think we also appreciated the problem that both existentialists and postmoderns (who are also existentialists of a sort) have in establishing a view of the self. One possibility I thought about later last night was that postmoderns could "ground" a life on a quest for truth and some kind of union with reality, even if the status of truth and the possibility of connection (with others and/or ultimate reality, such as God) have to be "redescribed" in postmodernism. Part of that redescription might connect with buddhist thought on the impermanence of self or contemporary thought on multiple selves. You might occupy your ambitions with more irony or self-effacement as a postmodern, but that doesn't mean that you can't develop meaning in your life through your public ambitions (job, roles) and personal desires (as for love and friendship, and "union" with reality). But in the end you might decide that the difficulties postmoderns face are "so much the worse for them" and that they are telling against the point of view. So, in spite of being surrounded by postmodern buildings or images, you can decide that at some basic level you don't share their description of meaning and reality. (Of course, that gets you back to square one.)

If you are interested in pursuing this topic, you might look at de Botton's "Status Anxiety," but there are lots of roads into this topic. It's not quite the problem of personal identity in philosophy, but that literature is relevant. Developmental psychology is broadly relevant if you want to pursue a naturalist approach as at least part of your inquiry. But certainly it's important to keep the phenomenological frame in there. As Nagel might have put it, "There's something it is like to develop a human self."

Ok, gang, thanks for the great presentations and discussion. I'll have the reading for next week up within 24 hours. Please send me an email if you want to help take another run at some kind of philosophical club or society that might, for example, provide a venue for doing more of your own philosophy (though there are lots of things a philosophical group might get up to). We could try finding a time to meet to plan a club meeting and take it from there. (There's some pretty cool philosophy video at this page [1]. Check out the Bloom video on multiple selves!) Something like that could start a good discussion.

Also, could someone volunteer to bring desert next week?

Finally, sorry to repeat myself, but please stay on top of your work for the seminar (outside of reading for class). You've all "claimed" some great research and philosophical space for yourselves in your grading schemes. Now it's important to schedule some of the steps and stay in touch about your progress. I really like hearing about your projects "in media res" and looking at rough drafts, so don't feel that you have to figure out your work on your own.

Have a great week.


10th Class, November 2, 2010

Thanks for the high energy level and interesting discussion on Haidt. Also, you did a great job demonstrating your interest and familiarity with the readings Dr. Henning selected for you. You asked great questions that allowed him to develop his position. A good mix of critical and exploratory questions.

On Haidt, I enjoyed our discussion as well. I think lots of you have the philosopher's typical discomfort trying to figure out how to integrate science of moral psychology with the traditional questions that are asked in philosophical ethics. It's really quite challenging, especially if you don't just throw out the traditional questions indiscriminately. (You should throw some of them out, but discriminately.) Haidt gets you to think about understanding how it is that we are moral in roughly the same way that Saxe wanted to understand how we recognize others as selves. You can still ask whether we should resist an evolutionarily available strategy (like war or rape), but you also wind up re-describing moral concepts like altruism in ways that fit with what we know about it's emergence in nature. Also, you pay more attention to what humans are likely to be capable of doing, by way of moral agreement. Behavioral economics gets at this as well.

Like I said, great reception for Dr. Henning. I hope you got a good sense of his project and the motivations for it. You also got to see something of the "landscape of discussion" in environmental ethics and a report from the field from someone active in it.

On other business, there's the movie night tomorrow hosted by Lars and Kennedy. Enjoy that. A few of you seem game to try doing a Philosophy Club session using a "video/audio prompt" and open discussion format that we've been exploring (or whatever else you want to try). Someone pointed out that Thursday 5-6pm might be a good time slot. Should we try that for November 11th? Let me know if that interests any of you. I'd just do the logistics (email publicity to majors, minors, and grads, reserving the room, unlocking the door, snacks) and ask one or more of you to run it. So if you're interested, let me know. We'd need to pick the prompt. I have some links to suggest, but I'll take that up with the group that comes forward. I think it's great that some of you want to give this a try.

Ok, readings and resource for next week will be up by Thursday. I can almost taste the waffles. I'll bring a bowl of strawberries.


11th Class, November 9, 2010

Thanks for two really good discussions and some great waffles. You all are pretty self-aware about discussion dynamics, which you don't always find with philosophers. I thought we were venturing into some really tough topics. Physicalism is best thought of not as something provable (maybe it could be), but as a likely objective truth about nature. There's lots of evidence favoring it and slim to none against. Still, it is a claim within science, and if it seems to threaten religion, it would only do so if you had already decided that religious discourse was necessarily realist and object (basically on a par with science). I think this assumption needs more thought before decide, say, that we can't accept physicalism because it leaves no room for religion. It may just leave no room for religion understood as science. After all, as students of religion, you know that Christianity took on a philosophy and metaphysics as part of its institutional development. As the theologian Don Cupitt (http://philosophybites.libsyn.com/index.php?post_category=Don%20Cupitt) points out, why would we want to privilege the metaphysics of the medieval world (to over simplify) in Christianity's reconstruction of its deepest commitments? One way to look at physicalism is that it gets us to ask this question.

At some point we were talking about whether knowing that something has its origin wholly in the physical diminished its value. I suggested that case of a lawyer who becomes convinced that our morals (and rights, and law) are all just the clever concoction of a bunch of latter day primates, that is, a product of nature and evolution. Suppose that formerly she had believed that rights were part of "natural law," part of objective reality. Would her commitment to rights be less strong in light of her new naturalistic explanation? Most of you said no. But when we substituted God for rights, most of us said yes. Try "love". Would love be less noble and valuable if we became convinced it was a contingent cultural ideology that served the interests of reproduction by promoting pair bonding and long term investment in child rearing? Does the fact that you can experience it without the underlying project of reproduction make it less special? Finally, we looked (obscurely) at postmodern phenomenology for alternatives to thinking about "mind products" (culture, ideas of justice, love, God) as either objectively real or objectively unreal. We could adopt the standpoint of subjectivity cultivated by phenomenology to describe these objects of consciousness in hopes of appreciating their role in our "language of persons and value". A postmodern phenomenologist might think wondering about the ultimate reality of any of these objects is misguided. After all, the contemporary (scientific) naturalist would say that. Science never finally "proves" the existence of its theoretical objects, but that's not a cause of crisis for the practice of science.

Ok, I'd better break off. I've got to get ready for class today. I'll see some of you at the meeting tonight.


12th Class, November 16, 2010

Thanks for a great discussion on a really difficult topic. They were pretty dense texts, and you might just wonder, "Where did the philosophy go?" We weren't exactly reading philosophers last night, but once again looking at how researchers are offering potentially testable theories about things that philosophers thought were their "domain," such as religion. I thought we figured out pretty well that none of our authors want to be identified with "origin theories" of religion, especially evolutionary origins. There are just too many difficulties in making a case that some part of culture is adaptive, as Atran discusses. Boyer cautions us in particular against origins stories for religion. And yet these guys are evolutionists. So what do they suggest instead? They want to examine the cognitive structures from which religious concepts emerge and which make them possible.

At that point, we had two questions to explore: Do the theoretical concepts they propose and show research on provide a substantial basis for the research program they advocate? What are the implications for religious belief? I thought we had some good probing on the first question, but we'd really need to study this over a longer period to give an assessment. This is a young subfield (CSR) of a very active and well established field (cognitive science). It may or may not produce more results.

On the second question, the implications of this, I really believe that it shouldn't diminish the experience of religion for the believer to know the underlying physical structures that enable him to have religious experience. However it feels, the CSR researcher has an in principle indifference about the truth of particular religions. Yet, our discussion acknowledged that it does feel like an encroachment. The more of my experience of the supernatural that you can explain without the supernatural, the more it looks like there's no supernatural. But in the analogy to love, we had a case in which learning what's happening on the objective level doesn't interrupt the cultural inference machine. We can still believe in the specialness of the experience of love even if the elaborate metaphysics (of, say, romanticism --- Goethe's Young Werther, for example) that we project from that turns out to be something of a trick of nature in the service of sexual selection. Even if it's really just your pair bonding self running the program nature gave us, the underlying experience of intimacy, combined with our facility for structuring our subjectivity through culture, provides pretty compelling 1st person experience. And don't forget we have to maintain the "epidemic of representations" (say, about love) through books and movies, so we get to shape that. We're not stuck with Goethe, as poignant as his lovelorn hero's suicide is.

The after break discussion was meant to broaden our focus from religion to culture and self. Suppose some kind of cultural transmission process such as these researchers favor turns out to be true. How, if at all, does that help us think about the way culture influences us, providing a flood (lately) of representations from which many aspects of the self can be fashioned? One way to explore this hypothetically is to heighten your awareness of the contingency of your self by imagining the probable outcomes from small changes (ancestors didn't emmigrate, you went to a different school, met different people). If you're open to the possibility that small changes might make big differences, then you might give culture a broader role in your thinking about self.

Ok, gang. There's alot of time to work with between now and Thanksgiving, so please make progress on your research and papers, and, if you would, update your research pages (or send me an update by email). There's a dozen great projects out there and it would be great to consult with some of you on your particular work before the holiday.


13th Class, November 30, 2010

Thanks for a good symposium on fair trade and food ethics. Dr. Maccarone appreciated your preparation and discussion questions. I realize it's not everyone's topics but you did a good job with it as a class. I thought the evening also brought out some important features of applied ethics, especially the need to immersion one's self in concrete factual and political information and to make comparisons of cases and models (in this case for "helping" and "doing justice"). Here's some additional information Dr. Maccarone wanted to pass along: "Here’s a fair trade coffee/tea/chocolate company where you can learn some about where that extra money goes: http://www.equalexchange.coop/. I buy their fair trade chocolate and cocoa powder for baking often. Here’s also the relationship coffee roaster in town I mentioned: http://roasthouse.net/. And of course, http://www.goodguide.com/, in case any of your students were asking about it."

Well, let's work hard on those philosophy projects and please take me up on the offer to consult.

For next week I would suggest that you each try to identify some events from the semester that were significant for your own approach to philosophy or the major. That could be something factual you learned, some philosophies you were exposed to that were influential for you, or it could be something you see about the nature of philosophy (positive, negative, or neutral) in light of the semester. Feel free to use the seminar or other philosophy classes to make your point. Recall that one of our goals was to "find your people" in philosophy. Did you? You could also identify some questions or interests you have going forward into the major. My suggestion would be that we share some of these before the party and some during. Looking forward to it!