Funny Words: Philosophers Write Mysteries

Found this great column by philosopher Jonathan Wolff, who has the goods on academic writing.

“At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: “In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.” The rest will be just filling in the details.”

Worth reading the whole thing if you are in the academic game.

Reasonable Words: “They don’t make movies about philosophers”

Sophie's World
A best-seller, but no Harry Potter.

A very sweet interchange between an academic and his 9-year-old daughter.

This actually happened earlier this week.

The Girl and I were in the car, driving home after a school event. She’s nine, and she was in the back seat.

TG (unprompted): How do philosophers make a living?

DD (laughs): Where did that come from?

TG: Well, if I want to be a philosopher, how will I make a living?

Hit the link for the full dialogue:

MOOC Words: Philosophers Respond

A philosophy blog I read, Leiter Reports, has an interesting thread on MOOCs and their discontents. Rebecca Kukla, a Georgetown Prof, and guest blogger, opened the topic as she is doing a MOOC at her institution.

Many familiar issues from other reporting and commentary on MOOCS: IP and editorial control/ownership, equity, future of f2f, pedagogical concerns,, but exceptionally well expressed. One of the comments mentions David Gelerntner predicting a lot of this in 1984–a claim I need to research. Anand Vaidya, among the profs who objected to the distribution of the Michael Sandel Justice course via Harvardx, weighs in too.

The thread is here

Some interesting bits:

Kukla’s prompt:

In short, I think that when it comes to MOOCs we need to be having hard conversations about intellectual property, ownership of the means of production, privacy, and other complicated issues in applied ethics. And I am sure there are other hard conversations to be had as well. Mostly, my sense is that our technological capacity here is outpacing our capacity to establish thoughtful practical norms and ethical constraints on the use of this technology. Thoughts?

Part of Vaidya’s post

One point of our letter (whether or not it was clear) is that faculty with the relevant expertise in an area should have the right to be involved in the conversation and decision over whether using a MOOC at their institution for the purposes of educating the students at their university is in fact a good thing. We were not consulted in an advisory capacity over whether Justice should be taught through a MOOC, nor were we asked to make one as a way of improving education. We are against the idea that university administrators should have the power to override faculty expertise and consultation in determining course content for students. Faculty are charged with the task of debating and deciding what is best for the student population…

One thing that occurs to me is that somehow MOOCS have become a sort of “fetish object” for a range of disparate issues in education, and maybe even society at large. They are interesting in themselves, I admit, but the intensity and volume of discussion seems to me wildly disproportionate. They are vessel into which a bunch of worries, about ethics, the purpose of higher education, ownership, control, access, technology can be poured, most avidly by those who haven’t ever taken or taught an online course and have no intention of ever doing so. I’m guessing Stanley Fish falls into that category, and he added his bleating, amusing if garbled, to the fray in a NYTimes op-ed a few days back.

He closes by railing generally against social media courtesy of a bad 90s film:

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 5.56.47 PM

“See how isolating and empty modern life has become is the acidly comic message of the director [of Denise Calls Up]. Isn’t that great and can we please have more of it is the messianic message of Daphne Koller. O brave new world.”

I guess he won’t be accepting my FB effort to friend him any time soon. 😦

Quotable Words: John Dewey on Getting Over Things

Philosopher John Dewey (he of “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”) on the questions we find ourselves vexed over.

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 10.17.29 AM“Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, predispositions, deeply ingrained attitudes of aversion and preference. Moreover, the conviction persists — though history shows it to be a hallucination — that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both alternatives they assume — an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them.”

–John Dewey: The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy

Which for some reason (obscure to me at just this moment) seems to echo this line of Ernest Hemingway’s:

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.

Commonplace Book: Some Philosophical Giggles

Tipped by Leiter Reports, some nice bits from a Kindle Commonplace book on philosophy:


   “Mind is classified by the US Post Office as Second Class Matter”–From the front cover of Mind

   “Philosophy is to the real world as masturbation is to sex.” –Marx

   “I like to do all the talking. It saves times and prevents arguments.” –Oscar Wilde

   Heidegger has been mistranslated. His major work is really “Being on Time.”

Not Dead Yet? Philosophy?

The Guardian has (a seemingly straight-faced) think piece by Raymond Tallis about why science really, really needs philosophy these days.

“…there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them.”

From my (admittedly long ago) philosophy studies, it seems that physics’ “metaphysical mess” is always with us, and that the results, if that’s the right word, that philosophy offers are illuminating complications, not solutions. Still it’s a nice wish that physics and philosophy make shared humanistic concerns more visible. Tallis’ argument in part seems to be that contemporary physics is soullessly technical, not a charge that philosophy escapes. To wit, here’s an abstract from the current issue of Philosophical Review,

A dynamic semantics for epistemically modalized sentences is an attractive alternative to the orthodox view that our best theory of meaning ascribes to such sentences truth-conditions relative to what is known. This essay demonstrates that a dynamic theory about might and must offers elegant explanations of a range of puzzling observations about epistemic modals.

Those philosophical greats, Monty Python, in “Not Dead Yet” (the Spamalot version). Perhaps they are really singing about philosophy.

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