2011 Fall Proseminar Professor Blog

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1st Class: August 30, 2011

Class:

Thanks for helping the course get off to a good start last night. I'm really looking forward to our philosophical work together. As I said last night, this class offers you some great opportunities to get the big picture on the range of philosophical projects going on today (at least in the English speaking philosophical community). It's also a class that encourages you to pursue topics of your own choice, and practice research skills in pursuing them. We'll look at some crucial "turning points" in philosophy of the last 400 years, but we will also fill out our schedule with topics like the ones you all mentioned last night.

No matter what the topic or problem under discussion (and it's hard to avoid thinking about philosophy as posing problems), we should always be self-conscious about our methods and approaches in doing philosophy. In the early weeks of the semester, I hope you'll try to notice (in this class and others) how you are using (or not using) particular methods in constructing philosophical points of view. See the two versions of the article on philosophical methods on the course wiki for more information about this. In any case, content and method are dual concerns of the course. Sometimes we focus too much on teaching you lots of philosophy without making sure that your ability to practice philosophy is developing as well. Conversation and writing are the main occasions for practicing method and philosophy. Isn't it wonderful that philosophy is so social?!

The reading packets for next week are outside my door. I'll try to have them to distribute in class in the future.

We do try to have deserts for class, but maybe we'll organize that next week.

Looking forward to our first working class next week.

Alfino

2nd Class: September 6, 2011

Thanks for a good class. I thought the reading level was good and most or all of you were engaged in the topics and issues. We need to get more of you on record ahead of the class meeting through the wiki. I hope the range of useful posts is becoming clearer. Let's try to get reading for next week done soon enough to post to the wiki by Sunday night. That allows everyone to read what's posted on Monday and Tuesday. Once we get this right, class discussions start at a more advanced level because the general level of understanding going into the class has been enhanced by the posts.

On topics, I think lots of you resonated with Hadot. That's great. I think we could have spent more time thinking about how "spiritual exercises" really work and why it's reasonable to expect philosophical activities to produce such exercises, such as mindfulness, but that would have required more depth in Hellenistic schools. I think also we appreciated how you could be a philosopher and not focus on spiritual exercises or even think them important.

Wiredu continues to provide a challenging perspective. Maybe some of you will want to do more comparative work. I don't agree with logical positivism (look it up -- the wikipedia has a good page on it), but I take his point that African philosophy should not be identified with magic and animism (since we don't observe the parallel practice when talking about Western thought). I liked the way several of you wanted a "both and" solution here, but there are tensions.

Finally, I hope we got some sense of what alternative styles of writing philosophy might look like. I've got lots more of this, so if you sign up for it in your grading scheme I'll make you a packet of additional examples, which could be models for your writing.

Could someone post links on the wiki (main page) for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Routledge (through foley) Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Please use them as study aids and to fill in terms and figures you don't know anything about.

Ok, I've got to pack and catch an early plane. Good luck with your reading and grading schemes. Please let me know if you can volunteer for dessert/snacks. Given our class size we might want a couple of volunteers for each week. I'm glad to make sure there are plates and utensils, just let me know what you're planning.

Alfino

3rd Class: September 13, 2011

Thanks for a really good class, folks. I think we're getting some momentum on the whole "seminar" dimension of the class. I meant to spend a bit more time acknowledging the wiki posts for last night. They were good. Check out the article by Singer that Ted linked, for example. As you think about Wiki posts, this week's batch is a good model.

A goal we could have for next week would be to try to get posts up a bit earlier so others have time to read them before class. But I realize time conspires against us. Also, don't overlook other goals for your posts, like summary, critical perspectives, etc.

One of the general goals of the course is to put philosophical culture "in motion" for you. So seeing turning points in the kinds of ethics questions ethicists ask is an example of that. I hope the early/late Singer contrast illustrated it, along with the goofy trolley video. I hope that didn't cause any nightmares.

Some housekeeping:

  • Could someone(s) volunteer for dessert/ouere derves next week? email me.
  • Read only first three items in packet (follow course website schedule).
  • Review sub docs under Instructional Notes on Method
  • Review the two lists of Philosophical Methods for next week.

Also, on the wiki I started a list of "Resources for Quick Understanding of terms and ideas." I put the Stanford Encyclopedia up. Could some of you add items? There's Internet Encyclopedia, Episteme links, etc. Let's see what you guys come up with and then I'll add to it if necessary.

Thanks again. Please dig into your readings for next week soon!

Alfino

4th Class: September 20, 2011

Thanks for a good class. The treatment of Giere seemed thorough enough and you all latched onto the issues (metaphysical and epistemological) raised by this characterization of science. My rationale for the Barnes reading was that there seemed to be an analogy between the picture of science in the case study and the picture of science in Barnes treatment. In both cases you see what Giere called "scientific episodes" which develop the model, poses theoretical hypotheses, make new models, do calculation, make prediction, etc. In fact, one way to characterize the scientific revolution is by saying there was an "epidemic" of such episodes. The Barnes narrative, for all of its potential offense, was accurate in characterizing the modern period in terms of the great philosophical challenge of rethinking the basis of traditional ideas. As I pointed out last night, we should avoid characterizing this as challenge between "belief and dis-belief" (though modern atheism is a product of the period). The challenge was to traditional belief and many enlightenment philosophers tried to re-ground their faith commitments in light of the new sciences. That challenge is still with us, so looking at the intial upheavals in thought from science in the 17th century seems pretty relevant. We'll be working with these issues more later in the course under the heading of "faith and reason" and when we look at contemporary naturalism.

In any case, sorry if the Barnes was a slog. You're reading a different intellectual historian as part of your reading next week, so I'll be interested in your comparisons. There's a whole question about the relationship between intellectual history and philosophy, but we should do more of each before we tackle that one.

On your to do list for this course in the coming 1-2 weeks: work out your grading schemes and maybe visit with me about them and about your topical interests. Also, order your copy of Husserl, Origin of Geometry (amazon link on the wiki). Order that soon.

As I said in class, if 9-10 m-th office hours don't work, just email a couple of times that do. If you liked any of the stuff in those books I passed around, let's see if there's an assignment there. I started Logicomix last night. It's pretty fun so far.

We have one more week of history-heavy work and then back to applied topics -- genetic engineering and transhumanism. Other topics I'm working on including (sampling really) in the course based in part on your suggestions and past experience: philosophy of mind, something eastern, shopclass, faith&reason, game theory. That's in addition to tacking a couple of more "turning points" like phenomenology (Husserl) and naturalism. By the end of the course, you should have a nice backpack full of philosophy knowledge and skills for your hike through the major.

Don't forget to check out Philosophy Club. It's a great place to practice philosophy and, as you know, your extra-curricular philosophical lives should be a source of great satisfaction, philosophical development, and pleasure.

Alfino

5th Class: September 27, 2011

We had a pretty successful class in the sense that the main learning goals were presented and discussed. We worked on the concept of validity, reviewed the definitions chapter, and briefly discussed the role of definition in philosophy. We started our research skills work with a look at Philosopher's Index, the Foley site, JStor, including some killer search techniques. We also worked on the reading about the Scottish Enlightenment. Part of the goal there was to see how intellectual societies operate, understand some of the unique issues of the SE, and see the SE in connection with the general problems of Modern Philosophy. Our consideration of Hume's actual epistemology was necessarily brief, but I hope we got a sense of the radicalness of it and how it constitutes a "turning point." When I said that Hume's philosophy was "noisy," I was making reference to a famous comment by Kant, that Hume woke him from his "dogmatic slumber." Hume is loud and we keep trace cool new ideas back to him. Like game theory.

I do think we have some issues to consider as a class. We had a couple of absences from illness and for test preparation, and maybe a couple of more for other reasons. All that is understandable, of course. Of those who showed up, many had prepared well. I don't think we could have accomplished the goals of that class if many of you hadn't. But the wiki posts have not developed much in the last few weeks, and too many of you didn't arrive last night with ideas and questions about the reading. One of the key features of the seminar environment is a higher level of preparation and engagement than you might see in a straight "readings" class. We have the luxury of attempting such an atmosphere because the department's goals for this class, to prepare you, with skills and information about philosophy and philosophical method, for a deeper experience of the major, can be met with a wide variety of content and does not necessarily require content testing.

If we don't get some momentum with the seminar style, we could reassess at mid-terms and change the format of the class to the more traditional reading/study question/exam model. I think it would be better if we could achieve a seminar style class, because there's a bit less freedom in the traditional model, but I don't mind being realistic about it. After all, seminars tend to work when there's a high motivation and you get reading and thinking going ahead of the class meeting. It's really hard or impossible to make that happen with exams. They also work when seminarians have independent interests to pursue in projects and papers. So let's shoot for a higher level of pre-class reflection, evidenced in part by wiki posts and a higher level of informed preparation for discussions. You all should be using your reference sources (encyclopedias, etc., see wiki) to get more out of these readings, for example. On a bright note, I do think you guys are starting to come forward with interesting grading schemes and projects, but I'd like to get more office visits from you in the coming two weeks about your projects to make that generalization true.

Please pick up a reading packet from my office door if you missed class. Don't forget Philosophy Club on Thursday at 5:30pm. This may not be the Scottish Enlightenment, but Philosophy Club is a real way to participate in philosophical culture. I thought our question, "What are the issues of the contemporary intellectual "salon"?" was a good one. Maybe Philosophy Club knows.

So get in touch for an appointment, read everything and think about it more. Sketch arguments for your view, take some notes, share some things with the class online. Then come to class ready to make some philosophical moves! If 1/2 the class achieved this level of preparation (and the rest at least read and reflected a bit), we'd have a taste of philosophical nirvana. There's no shame in failing at that, but let's go for it. And dessert.

Alfino

6th Class: October 4, 2011

Thanks for a really great class, folks. I know the topics are high-interest and that helped, but I also thought the online posts and the live discussions were really productive. Your small groups seemed to be tracking more information from the readings, which is great. We're definitely out of our slump, so let's keep up the momentum this week.

Following Tuesday's class I also had some good follow-ups with several of you about the topics and your grading schemes. I've got plenty of time for office visits from you about your research and writing in the seminar, and I've really enjoyed the meetings I've been having. As I mentioned in class, this is the time to bring the Methods & Research tips together with your interests and plan some of your philosophical work. I'd like you to try to get the formal writing and research done by Thanksgiving, if possible. Yikes! That's not so many weeks away.

Don't forget to grab the packet for next Tuesday outside my office door. The building is open all day today (and tonight for PHILCLUB), so get yours soon. We'll spend about equal time figuring out how Kant creates a "turning point" in philosophy and on Crawford's argument about intellectual labor. A little searching on reactions to Crawford (and related authors like Pirsig) would be great. Someone should post the 3-minute philosophers on Kant and other, even better! video and online material for understanding Kant's major contributions.

Dessert volunteers welcome. Maybe some more of the guys in the class want to step up on that.

Have a great, philosophical weekend.

7th Class: October 11, 2011

Good class, gang. I hope you got a sense of the "narrative of Modern Philosophy" and the way Kant plays the role of a "turning point" as you head into the 19th century in both philosophy and intellectual (european) culture generally. Thanks to our Modern Philosophy students for their help. The Crawford argument was hard to assess, and I'll be interested to see if he drops in the "topic poll" we'll do at the end of the semester. There are significant problems with his specific argument, but his argumentative goals could be refined in a way that would open up lots of argumentative resources to him. For example, instead of categorically preferring physical to mental objects, he could have focused his thesis on the "loss of craft" -- that might include the "craft" of writing a paper or computer code or doing a computation manually. I like the suggestion that the attention we give our bodies (in workouts and sports) might fit his thesis, though I think he'd resist the idea.

Email me if you don't have a faith and reason packet. I'll get a couple more made. Please make an appointment with me about your research if you haven't already!

Looking forward to our next class.

Alfino

8th Class: October 18, 2011

Thanks for some good philosophical work last night. The discussion groups seemed productive, but also demonstrated the difficulty of the topic area. At this point, if someone asks your view on the problem of faith and reason, I hope you'll ask, "Which problem of faith and reason?" Last night we delineated the pre-modern, modern, and, if Barrett & others have anything to contribute, a "contemporary" version of the problem, I think. For Barrett, cognitive psychologists, and the anthropologists, religion is real and rational quite apart from the question of the rationality of believing in the existence of supernatural objects, such as ancestors, deities, etc. We explored some ways of thinking about that with the disctinctio between "language of persons" and "language of bodies." Ultimately, I would recommend that any position you work out give you clear answers to a set of questions such as we were exploring last night. "What is faith if it is completely rational?" "What account should we give of the rationality/reasonableness of believing/not believing in supernatural objects?" Is it irrational to acknowledge an aspect of a- / non-rationality in faith. Does that make you a bad fideist? "Is NOMA a good strategy for f/r discussions?" The list goes on. Sometimes you can develop your position by setting these kinds of questions and figuring out the right order to answer them. That's not a method on the list, but I hope you did see a number of philosophical methods in our work last night: drawing distinctions, defining terms and positions, producing reconstructions of core arguments and explanations, drawing on the work of other disciplines, etc.

Please remember to update your grading schemes with notes about your research and writing projects. Then, in a few days, look at what your fellow seminarians are up to. We're getting some great topic interests. One of the pleasures of this format is to hear about the independent work of others in the class, so think about what you might share from your research or thinking about your topic if asked.

Have a great week. Get to your reading early so it doesn't get ditched for methods test preparation (which should only take an hour or two!).

Alfino

11th Class: November 8, 2011

Thanks for the good philosophical work last night. I thought the discussion of physicalism was especially lively. I wonder if that had to do with the fact that we listened to the audio together and developed a pretty careful reconstruction of the argument. Of course, I'm walking you straight into one of the major philosophical issues of the day -- how to respond to the latest form of physicalism/materialism.

With Dennett, I feel that we're just getting started, but please give attention to chapters 2 and 3 (alfino.org/ereserves/400). Dennett can be read in small chunks, especially if you keep track of the main point.

More really interesting projects. One of the exciting things about the seminar for me (if I may), is that I get to see what your curiosity turns to when it's not constrained (as it too often is!) by the teacher's choice of topic. Often it's something from another class that you want to think about philosophically, or something that came up in this or an earlier philosophy class, or it may be something like the DMT topic, that raises important philosophical questions about the range of our experience.

Again, my apologies for the inconsistencies on the course website about assignments. I hope we straightened it out. Please put consistent effort into all your assignments, especially your two formal writing assignments, the research assignment and the thesis-driven paper assignment. Let's consult by email and in person over the next few weeks to get good results on these assignments.

Alfino

12th Class: November 15th, 2011

Thanks for some hard work on contemporary naturalism, as represented by Dennett. It's difficult material, as was the Phenomenology. In this case, the writing is easier to understand, but I think the viewpoint leaves many of you cold. Taking "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" seriously -- the idea that the algorithmic level is often the explanatory one -- (meditate on that -- not that it's the only level) seems to take something special out of creation. In our discussion, we gravitated toward the free will problem. Philosophers might say algorithmic thinking is "deflationary" because it tells us that mindless processes are churning out their results and somehow, on another level, there's experience, which seems to operate by different rules and language (recall the language of persons -- respect, etc.) So that's a reasonable complaint. And Reductionism is another area of critical work, which might help you locate what's unsatisfying about the view. There's also a worry that naturalism is toxic to religion, but that goes back to the question of whether a dualism (say the Christian medieval synthesis) is the only metaphysics possible for religion, or for Christianity. That's a related topic that we might address under postmodernism, but I hope the answer to that question isn't "yes, yes." Personally, I think the "naturalist" perspective represented here actually helps me appreciate the way something as complex as things in my experience, such as a social morality or religion, might have developed. I don't think having a compelling explanation of something "diminishes" it, but maybe it does from some perspectives. In any case, I encourage you to engage naturalist thinking because it plays a role in many philosophical discussions today. If you're philosophically "uneasy" with it, you try to develop your thinking about that. There's a lot of philosophy out there to work with!

Thanks for the presentations. More interesting topics. I'm looking forward to some great reading. As I mentioned in class, I'm available to consult with you about your projects as they are coming along, in "real time" as it were. If you want to show up next Tuesday to do that, great. But you can also email about your project or make an appointment. I'd really like to support you to produce something that is distinctive in terms of both your philosophical interests and the quality of argument and research.

I'll post the post-modernism readings for our post-Thanksgiving class (that's a lot of posts) soon.

Alfino

13th Class: November 29th, 2011

Sorry I'm late getting this blog and notes to you. I always feel the class after Thanksgiving has a big disadvantage in this course since you should all be pretty focused on your writing. I hope me treatment of postmodernism and Foucault and Derrida in particular helped you get some bearing on this development (which takes us present darn close to the present in our "turning points" theme). It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's clear now that postmodernism is (or was) a widespread movement across many domains of culture. That's interesting in itself. How does that happen? What is culture such that there can be "general" cultural developments that show up in fields as diverse as philosophy and architecture. You can think about that until Saturday night.

So for next week I'm really looking forward to your "end of semester statements" -- please take some time to think about them and post. Humor is welcome, but try to respond to the prompt seriously as well (see wiki).

For the class itself, I thought we would share a meal and some cheer and then share our statements in small and large groups. I can get a couple of pizzas, but if someone wants to cook something in addition, bring extras like salad, bread, beverages, that would be great. Let me know what you can do and I'll fill in around that.

Good luck with your papers and projects.

Alfino

14th Class: December 7, 2011

Thanks for a nice ending, gang. I appreciate your work in the seminar and the energy you each contributed to our "philosophical society" this term. Ideally, we'd take three more weeks to read and comment on each others' work, but we're only allowed so much fun each semester. As a group, you show the diversity and range of interests that can really enhance the experience of the major for all of you. So maintain your camaraderie and good fellowship as philosophers, be ready to play mid-wife to each others ideas and theories, and practice philosophical methods self-consciously and with increasing expertise. The next step for many of you is trying to figure out when a particular method is best one to go to to advance your inquiry. You can see different traditions in philosophy (phenomenology, naturalism, etc.) as having different models of method.

Two quick notices:

1. When I get back from sabbatical, I'm planning to teach the Happiness and Wisdom courses (Fall and Spring). Because of the topics, these are popular courses, but they have benefited from increasing numbers of majors lately. If you want take Happiness in the Fall (and this advice applies to any other 400 level courses that you hear fill up) please let me know right before Spring registration and I will hold a spot for you.

2. I'd really like to take a few of you philosophers to Benin me in August of 2012. I meant to use some class time to plug this program, but never got to it. You can check out the details at the study abroad page (just google "benin" and "gonzaga"), but here's the short version. The Benin Program is a small group program (compared to the other Africa Programs, for example). We do an online readings course (which I've worked on over the last year) which mixes anthropology, history, politics, and development studies about Benin. Then we're in-country for two weeks in August engaged in some well-defined service projects, some cultural travel, and some fun. The course includes some West African literature and music.

The program is meant to appeal to a wide range of students, but as a philosopher, what draws me to this project is an ongoing interest in philosophy of culture (which I'm developing a course in for about 2015). Lots of development projects in poor cultures fail because of the inability of donor countries to understand the culture they are trying to interact with. This program takes place on the site of The Songhai Center, a 100 acre campus for promoting sustainable farming in Benin. It was started by an African American Dominican priest, Father Nzama Joe, who was an engineering professor at Santa Clara in the 80s before dedicating himself to raising the productivity of subsistence farmers. He's a remarkable and charismatic guy whose favorite Jesus story is the one about Christ multiplying loaves and fishes. Gonzaga has contributed two service projects to Songhai, a water filter production technology (which they now operate as a business), and ongoing health education to the farm interns who spend 3-9 months at Songhai learning new techniques. They've asked us to develop that curriculum further. Also, Songhai has asked us to help them document the progress of their interns after they leave. So we have the beginnings of a small video and journalism crew (which you are welcome to contribute to) that will begin this service work in 2012. There's another service project too, but space is short. So one philosophical challenge of the program is trying to understand a new a different host culture even as you are engaged in short term development work within it.

But Benin fascinates me as a philosopher for other reasons. Benin avoided civil war in its transition from Marxist dictatorship and there is little to no religious violence in Benin, even though it is periodic and brutal in neighboring Nigeria. Beninoise practice vodoo alongside Catholicism, Islam, and a variety of Protestant denominations. What's up with that? I'll have readings in anthropology of religion in the course, but I'd like to have further interaction with people there about their faith experience. There is a beauty and complexity to spirituality in West Africa and Benin offers a great example. Benin is a political entity which includes many diverse tribes and cultures. The philosophical challenge is to gain a deep understanding and appreciation of our hosts. In the process we'll help them with their work, see some of the country, and hang out a bit.

Ok, philosophers, don't slow down now. Give me your best work and we'll take it from there. Thanks for a great semester.

Alfino