The Love of Wisdom


I have nothing to add about the facts in this case of University of Miami “star” philosophy professor Colin McGinn and his alleged sexual harassment of one of his women graduate students. But as someone who—despite quite enjoying reading philosophy occasionally—has always believed that the ironies of actual situations reveal truth better than abstract reasoning does, I found the following fitting, satisfyingly just, and even a little bit funny:

The case, which was first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, has set off voluminous chatter among philosophers on blogs and social media. The discussion has been fueled partly by Mr. McGinn’s own blog, where his use of the cryptic language of analytic philosophy in attempts to defend himself seems to have backfired.

Two open letters, posted online in mid-July and signed by more than 100 philosophers, including a majority of Mr. McGinn’s colleagues at Miami, criticized some of the posts on his blog as “retaliation” against the student.

Meanwhile, some of Mr. McGinn’s posts —  including one meditating on the difference between “suggesting” an action and “entertaining” it, and another (since removed) riffing on alternate meanings of a crude term for masturbation — have struck even some of Mr. McGinn’s onetime supporters as less philosophical than self-incriminating.

Writing always reveals more about us than we think we’re revealing, but professional thinkers and writers are often the least aware of its slipperiness because they think they’ve mastered it. The cleverest among us are quite good at fooling ourselves, probably better at it than those of us who aren’t so clever.

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Think Like an Animal

I’ve always found the problems raised by anthropomorphism interesting. When a dog looks at us with a seemingly quizzical expression, are we actually reading the dog’s true state of mind or are we “projecting” our own understanding of human expressions onto the dog? My own unscientific guess is that it’s probably a bit of both. We tend to think of dogs, especially, as such a part of our families that we’re shocked on the occasions they behave like the wolf-cousins they are and snap at strangers. (As Chris Rock said about the tiger that attacked Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy, “That tiger didn’t go crazy! That tiger went tiger!”)

Nevertheless, the fact that we share, basically, a similar physiological structure with other chordates (four limbs, a dorsal nerve chord, bilateral symmetry, etc.) has always suggested to me that we have a pretty good chance of “reading” animals emotions accurately in many situations. Their brains, though not identical to ours, must work similarly to ours at least some of the time, because their bodies do.

Fortunately for me, there are people who have actually begun to study how animals’ brains work in a more rigorous fashion than me musing on whether my friend’s dog is smiling at me. National Geographic has an article online about some of these scientists’ work. It’s accompanied by a set of animal portraits that bring up the anthropomorphism question beautifully. Can we really read the expressions of these animals, or are we deceiving ourselves?

The portrait of “JB,” a Giant Pacific Octopus, is especially strange and beautiful, and perhaps the most prone to my anthropomorphizing instinct, as it’s so different from us it seems a much greater leap to imagine that we can know what it’s feeling. But maybe it’s not so different after all. It turns out, according to this article on ScientificBlogging, that octopi are among the most intelligent of the invertebrates, but their relatively large brains are structured more simply and have fewer nerve cells than ours, so they are perfect for studying how brains, even our brains, memorize and learn things.


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More Grist for the Mill

Daniel Dennett, Colin McGinn, and Massimo Pigliucci have a new blog, Secular Philosophy, which unsurprisingly will cover “all things secular with an emphasis on philosophy.” They’ll also stream a weekly podcast from the Center for Inquiry, “Point of Inquiry,” which will have “live interviews with Nobel Prize-winning scientists, social critics and theorists, as well as renowned artists and entertainers.” Sounds good, though I might have to cut back on my Fark reading time to fit it in.

(Via Norm via Andrew Sullivan.)


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Truly Truly Truly Outrageous

Via Butterflies and Wheels, a philosophy blog on the silliness (well, it’s a philosophy blog, so rather the unreasonableness) of imagining that being offended—even deeply offended—gives one the right to demand that offending statements cease:

The underlying problem, I suspect, is that our public culture has become so infected with subjectivist assumptions that people don’t realize that there’s a difference between desires and reasons. Sentiments are taken as given; no-one ever stops to question whether their reactive attitudes are warranted. Any kind of negative emotion is not just evidence, but constitutive, of suffering injustice. You’re offended, therefore they’re in the wrong.

A similar phenomenon, perhaps the flipside of this unquestioned subjectivism, is the way people seem to believe that their own anger about an issue is some sort of proof that they’re right about it. Very often among left-wing “viewers with alarm,” and probably among right-wingers, too, though I don’t pay as much attention, we hear that the country needs to see how angry they are. It’s summed up perfectly in the bumper sticker I’ve made fun of before: “If you’re not completely outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Those who are outraged are obviously the best informed, and if you’re not exploding with anger, well, you must not know what you’re talking about.

But isn’t anger generally an unreliable guide to what’s right? Certainly you can be outraged over true cases of injustice, but if I were to look over all the times I’ve been angry and the proximate causes thereof, I’m quite sure I’d find that often I was angry for no good reason at all. Anger and passion can certainly motivate (though they can also exhaust and depress), but they’re only worth celebrating if they’re motivating something worthwhile.


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