2014 Fall Proseminar Professor Blog

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Thanks for a good start. I hope the structure and goals of the course are clear and that we can get right to the fun part -- doing philosophy and getting better at doing philosophy. From class and from reading through your introductions this morning, I see that we have a nice diversity of intellectual interests and motivations. Your suggestions for topics were very helpful. I think we can implement a couple of them.

Some details: You should have received an invitation to share a google docs folder with me. Start keeping a log in Word or Google Doc format. My main interest is in tracking your reading experience prior to each class and having a sense of the browsing you are doing.

Next week we'll make sure everyone can add content to the wiki. For next week, I'll supply some notes. Just enjoy your reading and browsing.

Also, feel free to set up a time to come by the office and talk about about your philosophical interests. The more I know about your motivations and interests in philosophy the better!



I hope the class went well for all of you. The topic of the nature of philosophy can be a bit slippery and daunting at the same time, so don't feel like there is something here to master. Hopefully, discussing it will keep you wondering a bit, as you go through the major, just what you think philosophy does and can do. So the goal here doesn't need to be defining philosophy so much as having a sense of the range of its employment.

Next week we have a somewhat ambitious task: to consolidate a view of the nature of science and its relationship to philosophy. I want to throw in a chapter or two of Bill Bryson's "A History of Nearly Everything," so I will send an email when that's posted to ereserves.

Thanks for starting the "email logs." I'm looking forward to following your interests and getting a sense of your responses to course reading prior to each class. The logs can also include exchanges on research.


SEP 16


Thanks for your good work last night. Between the argument theory and the nature of science we looked at a lot of questions and information. I hope the contrast between the theoretical nature of science to the actual social history of science was fruitful. The task of understanding the limits of scientific knowledge and what to call everything else (non-scientific knowledge or something other than knowledge) is very live in philosophy today. Finally, we just scratched the surface of what to do with writing like Bryson. In a sense, the new cosmology is perhaps almost as radical to us as the Copernican revolution was in its time. While there hasn't been a similar revolution in neuroscience, the progress there is impressive as well and motivates lots of contemporary philosophy from epistemology to moral psychology.

Next week's readings are pretty diverse. You essentially have to short anthologies to browse and read through. Consider printing, but bring some version of them to class. Our goal will be to understand some borderlines between philosophy and non-philosophy and the extent to which non-academic writing (both creative fiction and creative non-fiction) can be used to accomplish the goals of philosophy.

Enjoy your reading and thanks for sending me you logs.


SEP 23

Thanks for a fun and, I hope, useful class. I think we're back on more recognizable philosophy terrain next week, but I find it useful to think about what philosophy is by some of its limit conditions. So I do think a story can not only make a philosophical point, but "work out" an issue in a concrete instance. Sartre's Nausea is a classic to recommend in this regard. So I go beyond "illustration" on the continuum, but you should each make your own choices. In any case, I think we were looking at some of the "edges" of what counts as philosophy and that might help you identify more clearly what it means to make a philosophical point, for example.

On a practical level, I hope some of you will consider adding an assignment to your grading scheme which allows you to explore creative fiction or non-fiction as a tool for doing philosophy.

I hope you'll come forward if the argument theory isn't settling well or if you're not sure about the reconstruction. It's an exercise. Also, a reminder to think about your views on our obligations to the absolutely poor as you work through next week's readings. That will be the prompt for our first peer review exercise. Feel free to go beyond the resources I've provided, and perhaps (in the style of a seminar) you could bring some of your own information and viewpoints (post to wiki?) to class on this question. We will write our 2.5 page philosophical responses after next week's class. I'll also have a rubric to guide the writing assignment.

Thanks again for great snacks and coffee. A snack wiki page? Now, we've never had one of those, but it's a very good idea.


SEP 30

Thanks for your work last night, gang. I have some regrets about not structuring things with more small group work, but I got it into my head that we were going to connect a bunch of questions together a bit more systematically than we in fact did. In spite of this, I hope you got a glimpse at several levels in which theorizing and empirical investigation could enter into philosophical work in ethics, especially involving aid and globalism in politics. The obligation to aid discussion has changed in important ways since the time of Singer's original article, "Rich and Poor." A question I was left with from last night was, "To what extent are obligations to aid reinforced by the growing sophistication of the "aid industry," from which we might eventually learn better and more effective methods of promoting well-being in countries that struggle with low development indicators.

I'm grateful for the group dynamic we have in the class. Thanks. That should help us as we attempt to become a more critical group in upcoming assignments like the reconstructions and the short paper you are uploading to the peer review program by Friday evening (say 8:30pm). It's a real challenge to say helpful things about other people's work, but trying to do this also helps you think about your own work.

I'll make short audio comments on the reconstructions I've received and post them and a pdf of the work itself for your review. You might find it helpful to look at a couple and listen to the comments.

Looking forward to next week's work on Thought Experiments, which will also take us into some applied ethics topics. Feel free to volunteer to present key ideas from the reading. It's good practice and it reminds me not to talk the whole time!



Thanks for your energy and hard work last night. I noticed that our discussions are focused enough to have noticeable digressions and tangents (such as the focus on immortality in the early transhumanism discussion). Also, there's a bit more comfort in sharing different views, asking critical questions (in the spirit of the midwife), and outright disagreeing. The sheer number and quality of rationales that were flying around was encouraging. On top of that you all seem to be taking pretty good care of each other.

That's important, of course, in any case, but also because we're now engaging in critical work by looking at writing and showing understanding through the logs (some missing and some noticeably more general this week -- please use your calendars and philosophical superpowers to spread the work out over the week). Of course, Socrates would be thrilled with us since we're also making some fun out of this.

With the History of Philosophy focus next week, jot down some names along the way, a couple of dates, and a couple of ideas. We'll try to put the story of modern philosophy together so that you can feel the importance of Kant's "Copernican Revolution." This is a pretty big structure in the history of philosophy but to see it you have to appreciate the problems philosophers were wrestling with since Descartes.

I would very much like to meet with each of you in the next couple of weeks about how your browsing interests might turn into research interests (keep on browsing) and about your philosophical writing. We can also talk about your grading scheme. Just email me with times that work for you. My new drop in office hours are M-W 11-1, but I still advise making an appointment. Other times that are good include MWF mornings and afternoons.

Have a great week, spread out the joy of reading for the proseminar, and write those logs a bit earlier if you would.


OCT 14

Hey Guys,

Thanks for focusing on that two hour enactment of the drama of Modern Philosophy (with pizza interlude). Like I said, I think it gives you a way of seeing Kant as the monumental turning point that he is. One thing that struck me this time through is that the Modern Philosophy Drama is about watching an enormous and subtle sea change that includes much more than the change in our view of the physical world. By the end of the story, metaphysics is either constrained (no access to Noumenal) or on its way to being ridiculed (Russell and Co.). No one is talking about the soul (except maybe in in the Romantic literary sense) by the 19th century.

I'd like to work with some of you on your writing, especially now that we have a couple of pieces to look at. Also, I'm enjoying meeting some of you to talk about your interests and how the course is going for you. New office hours are MW 11-1 (text or email first for better service) and lots of hours by appointment.

Have a great week. Let's see if we can raise the log submission percentage in the coming week. Calendars (and virtue) are wonderful tools for this.


OCT 21


Just a short blog this time since midterm week has me busy too. The main point I came away from our work on faith and reason with is that you have to be clear whose faith and reason problem you're talking about -- the one that the person of religious faith experiences and the one that the spiritual or non-spiritual scientific person experiences. That was the main contrast in the readings, of course. And, as I pointed out, I think revealed religions have particular challenges in figuring out which truths from the revelation need to be conserved. We didn't go there last night, but clearly an argument can be made that if a church holds outdated views on sexuality and orientation, for example, it might not honor its other values (for justice and respect). By the end of the night, I hope our list of hypotheses made sense. Personally, I feel that faith should follow reason, so for me "Fides et Ratio" has things exactly backwards (with due respect to Pope John Paul II). For example, religions ought to adapt their beliefs to honor human rights and incorporate our best confirmed view of the cosmos into our spirituality. But it should be clear how difficult a position this is for a revealed religion in particular.

I really enjoy our class atmosphere, which was in evidence during a couple of really funny moments, at least one of which completely derailed us with humor (apologies to Patrick). You guys are great at breaks, too. (Thanks again to Holli). With midterms receding, let's make sure we combine this wonderful esprit d'coeur with good reading and concentration.

See you next week.


OCT 28

Thanks for a good class. The analytic continental divide is clearly a big structure in the history of Western philosophy. Of course how big a difference it is for you is something you may need some time and coursework to figure out. I should qualify our treatment by saying that the continental tradition is much bigger and more diverse than it's founder's influence, great as it is. For example, you don't have to agree with Husserl's critique of science to argue that there are ways of attending to phenomena that open up an interpretive field of inquiry. Husserl makes some of the strongest and boldest claims. A minority philosophers who consider themselves phenomenologists consider themselves Husserlians, but he's the daddy/mommy of phenomenology. On Nov 11, we'll have a chance to look at some representative work from the analytic/naturalist traditions.

While the methodological differences and assumptions of these traditions are quite distinct, I should add that from the standpoint of today, there are many many interactions and many philosophers would agree with me that there is no ultimate choice to be made between these traditions and their methods. In general we don't have good opportunities to apply analysis or naturalistic approaches to complex problems of culture and the human good. With problems like these, which are highly structured by subjectivity, we seem to get insights from interpretive theories. That's why in cultural studies and anthropology, we still use interpretive frameworks like Marxism or Freudianism. They seem to open up culture like they open up texts. That doesn't mean you can't use scientific work and theory (like moral psychology or game theory) to understand complex phenomenon. It's just that there is a kind of "meaning structure" to culture and self-reflection (thought about the nature of the self) that phenomenological methods are good at getting at. On the other hand, phenomenology might play a more minor role in other philosophical problems, which have often progressed because of scientific discovery (which has often upset the very terms of the traditional philosophical problems). Examples would include cosmology, ethics, and philosophy of mind.

Thanks for your logs. Looking forward to next week.



Thanks for your work on these problems in Philosophy of Law. I thought we had a pretty vigorous discussion. Hopefully, we also encountered some of the dynamics and reference points for argumentation about the nature of the law (the explorers) and about specific legal doctrines (such as felony murder). In particular, I think felony murder gives us a glimpse at the relationship between culture and law since felony murder is an Anglo-American doctrine that only the US has held on to.

I'm planning to update the rubric you use on the upcoming peer review paper exercise, so I should probably mention some of the new language now. Currently, the rubric mentions:

1. "Provide feedback on how well the author organized his or her essay. Be specific about how the writer could improve his or her essay organization and provide suggestions for improvements." and

2. "Comment on the content of the author's philosophical point of view. What is being claimed and how well is it supported? Is the viewpoint clearly philosophical? Has the author fairly interpreted related views and considered objections to his/her view?"

I will add number something like "presents and handles rationales well, reconstructs viewpoints effectively, shows awareness of counterarguments."

With this second paper, you have a good opportunity to think about your peer audience and, now that you have been a reviewer, to take into account the sorts of things you noticed from that experience. Growing philosophers have special challenges to clarify of expression because they are encountering new and complex ideas along with new capacities for analyzing them.

Good luck. I'm looking forward to reading your papers, which are due on Sunday night.


NOV 11

NOV 18

NOV 25


Well, that was a memorable class, thanks. I really appreciate the chance to debut some food philosophy. The course I'm working on is for 2016, but I find it important to get a feel for where students are on this. Food issues are very hot for your generation, and that's a good thing from my perspective. On top of the long history of anxiety and identity connected to food, there's the shorter history which includes the amazing breakthroughs in food science and agriculture (which we didn't discuss), but also the application of that knowledge to food industry in ways that have jeopardized our national health, economy, and environment. My generation has left you with quite a mess, so good luck with that! My role will be to teach the problem.

I'd welcome your ideas for things you would want to see in a course length treatment. I have a long list of topics. Carrie pointed out that the environmental impact of food systems should be prominent in the study, and I agree. That's something I'm still collecting on, but you all know, right, that it takes phenomenally environmental inputs to raise 17 billion animals a year to eat. And the environmental effects of animal and industrial crop production are extraordinary and borne largely by the public. In the course I will invite voluntary "practica" in which people learn enough nutrition science to evaluate their diets (there are some interesting websites developing now to help you do that, but we will study some nutrition science too) and explore their emerging (early 20's) food practices and culture. (In this regard, I found it interesting how many food practices and stories we wound up exchanging during discussion.) One practical exercise I would recommend for you if you want to try it, is to go some period of time without eating any processed foods. It's somewhat challenging.

Here's the prompt again from the wiki:

Evaluate the critique of the modern American food system implicit in the video and reading for today's class. Is there a problem with our food system? If so, what are the main sources of the problem and what should be done about it. If not, where do you find a basis for skepticism or criticism of the critics?

By "American food system" let's include not just the food industry, but American food culture. Thanks to Connor for prompting a clarification.