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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

When a Fundamentalist Finds Philosophy

Paul Pardi

I was rummaging through some stacks of stuff in the garage today sorting through items that needed to be recycled, discarded, and saved. I found an old, dust-covered briefcase that I used as a student, locked tight with long-forgotten combinations on the clasps. After trying various three-digit combinations that might have meant something to me back then, I gave up and grabbed the biggest screwdriver I could find and pried the locks loose. Among some dried up pens, an old notebook, and some tissues, I found a purple Pee-Chee with two dozen or so papers—obviously important since they were set aside from the reams of notes I have in an old metal filing cabinet at the rear of the garage. In back of the handwritten notes on epistemology and the dot matrix printout of reference materials I grabbed from the library, I found a single page on which I had written some lines in red ink. It’s dated June 1995 which makes it just a touch over 20 years old almost to the day.

In June 1995 I was scouting graduate schools with the goal of studying philosophy. I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist who generally had the world figured out by the time I was a teen and had my eyes firmly set on full time ministry. I took a required intro to philosophy class during my senior year at an ultra-conservative Baptist college by a professor who was not so conservative (and not so Baptist it turns out). I would never be the same. For the first time in my college experience, I had found myself with questions. Real questions, not the kind you’re taught to ask knowing you already have the answer. And there was something else. For the first time in my life, a small seed of doubt had been planted. I found myself with the terrifying consideration that some items in my worldview may not have been as iron-clad and irresistibly true as I had been led to believe they were. That seed flowered and by the end of the summer I had, for the first time, started reading to try to discover the truth rather than to reaffirm it.

Three years later, my worldview was in shambles and I knew I needed more training. Graduate school seemed like the best option and I headed to southern California to check out the program at Biola University. I stayed at a friends house not knowing who I was or where I was headed. I was alone and contemplative, one foot in the warm, comfortable old world and one out in the frigid unknown. Thoughts flooded into my head in that quiet room on that hot summer June evening and I jotted down these words.

At the top of the page, I simply wrote,


Look inside, outside, through pages of endless thought
endless mind in weary, dreary droll.

A slight glimpse a shadow vague—a stick, a nail
a jury-rigged edifice growing on the knoll.

Take, steal, beg, borrow desperately humbled
to light (or dark) not quite my own.

But shoulders are strong and tall enough
to bring heaven closer, nearer (not alone).

Secluded so it seems. A bubble impenetrable or only slightly visible.
A flame to few.

Half moon—silly half as many see it. Intelligence and genius reign
for those outside the pew.

Taste it. Good? You know it now. Ghosts haunt my mansion.
You live in an exorcised house.

Empty though it is, free, loose, explode! What’s beyond? Look!
The heres and nows.

Hand in hand we stand? Confusion with glasses on. Look closer.
More, heavier pages.

It squiggles and squirms. Can you catch it?
Not for all the stacks filled with sages.

Posted in Philosophy News

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Philosophical Basis of Science

Go back far enough in history and you’ll find the point where science emerged from philosophy. Indeed for most of history, science was known as natural philosophy.

As Mark Vernon writes in his delightful new book, The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy:
The presocratic philosophers were those individuals who began to ask the kind of questions that cause a certain distance to open between the individual and the world in which they had felt immersed. They began to create a mentality that feels more familiar to us, one that planted the seeds of the modern. We know one of those queries left by Anaxamines of Miletus, one of the earliest philosophers of the sixth century (B.C.E.) He thought to blow on his hand in two ways. First with his mouth wide open. Then, with his lips pursed. He noticed a difference. Try it.
When blowing with his mouth wide open, Anaxamines found that his breath felt warm. With his lips pursed, it felt cold on his hand. And then he thought to ask why.

That small question, Vernon writes, represents a massive leap of mind. “It wonders if the difference might have a physical reason, a proto-scientific explanation. We now describe the effect as a result of Boyle’s law.”
Read it all here.

Mark Vernon is a former Anglican Church priest. His Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy grew out of lectures he delivered at the New Academy based in Notting Hill, London.

Related reading: Ancient Wisdom, Science and TechnologyPlato's Debt to Ancient Egypt

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Chinese Philosophy in the Western Classroom

Philosophy professors in the United States have all heard of Confucius and the Daoist Laozi. Many have also heard of their approximate contemporaries in ancient China: the later Confucians Mencius and Xunzi; the easygoing skeptic Zhuangzi; Mozi, the advocate of impartial concern for everyone; and Han Feizi, the authoritarian legalist. But most of us have not read their works.

As a result, most U.S. university students are not exposed to Chinese thinkers in their philosophy classes. Looking at the course catalogs of three major universities in Los Angeles — UCLA, USC and Cal State L.A. — I find 23 philosophy department course listings that mention ancient Greek philosophy or specific ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle. Four such classes are on the fall 2015 course schedule. In contrast, neither USC nor Cal State L.A. has a single philosophy catalog listing that mentions ancient China or a specific ancient Chinese philosopher. UCLA has one listing — for a class that was last taught in 2009.

In the United States, there are about 100 doctorate-granting programs in philosophy. By my count, only seven have a permanent member of the philosophy faculty who specializes in Chinese philosophy. Ancient Chinese philosophers are more commonly taught in departments of history, religious studies, Asian studies and comparative literature than in departments of philosophy. The same is true — even more so — for Indian and other non-Western philosophers.

Our neglect of ancient Chinese philosophers in U.S. philosophy departments is partly a remnant of our European colonial past. But is it justifiable on academic grounds?

Read it all here.

Related reading: The West Fails to Engage the East; Dr. David Bradshaw, St. Cyril's Philosophical Theology

Monday, September 7, 2015

Progressives enjoy attacking Kim Davis

What follows is an excerpt from a piece written by a philosopher who is less concerned about the question of homosex than about fallacious reasoning on the part of so-called "Progressives."

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, has been the focus of national media because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As this is being written, Davis has been sent to jail for disobeying a court order.

As should be expected, opponents of same-sex marriage have tended to focus on the claim that Davis’ religious liberty is being violated. As should also be expected, her critics sought and found evidence of what seems to be her hypocrisy: Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth marriage. Some bloggers, eager to attack her, have claimed that she is guilty of adultery. These attacks can be relevant to certain issues, but they are also irrelevant in important ways. It is certainly worth sorting between the relevant and the irrelevant.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is consistent in her professed religious values, then her actions are clearly relevant.

Read it all here.

In the ancient world, she would have been stoned to death by these people. That way everyone was seen to be in agreement about her guilt and nobody could be identified as her killer. Progressives are not progressive when it comes to breaking ranks.

As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "He is only a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of the Conservative." (Varied Types, 1903)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Dearth of Women in Philosophy

Martha Nussbaum in 2008

Women occupy 25 per cent of the posts in university philosophy departments across the United Kingdom. The figures are similar throughout the anglophone world. In the United States the proportion is 21 per cent, while Canada, Australia and New Zealand all have fewer than 30 per cent women philosophers. This makes philosophy an outlier among humanities subjects. Half a century ago, all university departments employed far fewer women than men. But this kind of imbalance has all but disappeared from areas such as English literature and history, and is nowadays largely restricted to the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Philosophy stands out in continuing to appoint about three times as many men as women to academic posts.

What is the explanation for this peculiarity, and should it be a matter of concern? These two questions are interlinked. How far philosophy’s gender imbalance is bad depends on its causes. If it were the result of simple discrimination against women, for instance, then it would not only be unjust, but it would also be preventing some of the best-suited people from working as philosophers. But it is not obvious that discrimination is the right explanation, and it should not be taken for granted that any other causes for the imbalance would be similarly unacceptable.

There certainly was a time when prejudice kept women out of philosophy. When I was a student in Cambridge at the end of the 1960s, we agitated for various academic changes, including the replacement of unseen examinations by assessed coursework. The suave senior philosopher deputed to serve on our reform committee was sympathetic, but felt that there was no way round what he was pleased to dub the “boyfriend problem” – what was to stop some female undergraduate getting her cleverer male companion to write her papers for her? Another of our teachers was blunter. “Women are no good at philosophy”, he told one of my female friends, who understandably left the field to forge a career as a distinguished journalist.

Read it all here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Philosophy Professors on "Irrational Man"

"Irrational Man" is a movie, directed by Woody Allen, about a despondent philosophy professor who takes a position at a small-town college where he finds "the will to live.” Films featuring philosophy professors are rare, and though the movie is getting mixed reviews, it may signal a growing interest in philosophy. One can hope!

The Daily Nous has a post on what some philosophy professors think about a movie. Marcus Hedahl (US Naval Academy), Kristina Meshelski (CSU Northridge), James South (Marquette), and Daniel Weinstock (McGill) share thoughts about the movie. If you haven't seen it yet, beware! There are a few spoilers.

Read the conversation here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

University of KY's Philosophy Summer Camp

By Rachel Lorch

(July, 28, 2015) - Students participating in the Department of Philosophy’s inaugural summer camp tackled a wide range of topics including the differences between animals and people, ethics and the self and the nature of change.

Sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and supported by the College of Arts and Sciences, the week-long camp was run by four Ph.D. students passionate about the field and eager to share their love for philosophy with others. The camp drew a group of students ranging from 11 to 17-years-old who possessed a variety of backgrounds.

Caroline Buchanan, a Ph.D. student in the UK Department of Philosophy, spearheaded the camp’s creation. Outlining her main goals for the camp, Buchanan stated that she wanted to expose kids to the field, to show them what philosophy does and what questions it asks. Buchanan was also interested in giving students a chance to dig in and do a little philosophy of their own, bringing their questions and perspectives to the table.

“We encouraged them on the first day to think of a question that had been bothering them, a question about anything at all that they were just kind of stuck on, or that they thought was interesting and would like to try to figure out,” Buchanan said.

Read it all here.

What a terrific idea!