Thursday, December 24, 2009

Come Along, Inspector Jesus?

When my youngest son was still quite small, he loved the Advent hymn, "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus."  We think he loved it in part because he loved the movie "Inspector Gadget," and he thought the words were "Come Along, Inspector Jesus."  (We had several such mis-hearings of hymns, it turns out.  Another favorite was the second line of "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," which my son heard not as "Let me to thy bosom fly" but "Let me chew thy apple pie." I think of apple pie as a gift from God, so I have no problem with this.)

I'm not sure why, but this year I've been more conscious than ever of Advent.  It seems that everywhere I go I hear Christmas music during Advent, which has been striking me like Christmas carols on the fourth of July - a confusion of holidays.  Liturgical calendars have left a shadow-impression of themselves on cultural calendars, but much of their detail has been lost.  Who celebrates Pentecost, for instance?  Yet it used to be one of the most important of Christian holidays.  Christmas and Easter are great gift-giving holidays, but Lent's main appearance seems to be in Mardi Gras.

I don't plan to be a curmudgeon about this, and lament that we've lost the "good old days" of piety and that today's culture is somehow more degenerate than yesterday's.  I'm quite fond of today, actually.  (It's where I live, after all!)  I don't dislike being wished a "Merry Christmas" in Advent any more than I disliked hearing my son sing "Come along, Inspector Jesus!"  (And no, I don't mind being wished "Happy Holidays" either.  Anyone who wants to wish me well on any given day is always welcome to do so!)

But I do think that it's worth revisiting old ideas to see if we've "mis-heard" them.  For myself, it has been a delight to be in Advent this year.  When I've heard Christmas carols (as early as November!) I've tried to think of Advent hymns instead.  The result has been that I've been nurturing the pleasure of expectation and anticipation, and, now that Christmas is upon us, singing those Christmas hymns is going to be a real treat.

However you celebrate these days, whether you distinguish Advent from Christmas and Epiphany, or celebrate Christmas from Hallowe'en to Mardi Gras, or if you just finished celebrating Hanukkah, or are enjoying some other holiday, I wish you all the best that holiday has to offer.  And if you celebrate no holy-days, but are only having some time off, I wish you good rest in that.  And for all of us, I wish us good hearing, joy in mis-hearings, and better ears to hear in the future.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More on Letters of Recommendation and Lying

I've been busy this month with writing letters of recommendation for my students - more than I've ever written before, by a long shot. 

I just submitted one letter using an online form that asked me to rank this student.  I was given four choices for the ranking:
[ ] Best student this year
[ ] Best student in five years
[ ] Not applicable
[ ] Best student in [ ] years

I guess this means that if my student is anything less than "best student in X years" then I'm supposed to say that her/his ranking is "not applicable."  This is the ranking equivalent of fast food drink sizes: do you want big, really big, or enormous?  Is there something wrong with small?  More to the point, is there something wrong with simply having been a good student, one who will flourish in grad school?  How am I supposed to compare my students in this way?  And isn't this inviting me to either lie by making them all "best in show" or damn my student by failing to praise him/her?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Do Philosophy Classes Have "Labs"?

When I was preparing to go to grad school I was torn between two choices: Ph.D. in marine/riparian biology, or Ph.D. in philosophy?  I love fish, aquatic invertebrates,

(well, most of them, anyway) and the environments they live in.  Wouldn't it be great to make freestone streams and tidal pools into my classrooms?

But I also love philosophy.  Philosophy has connections to every other discipline; it offers a unique perspective on human activities; and it promotes some of the most interesting and fruitful conversations I know of.  (Yes, I admit some professional bias here, and don't begrudge others a similar bias towards what they love.)  Philosophy classes take on questions about truth, value, meaning, religion, justice, science, language, reason, history, relationships, and much more.  It can be very difficult, but there's usually a huge payoff for the effort you put into it.

Now that I teach philosophy, I often find myself lurking around the biology department at my school, to read their journals, to talk with the professors there (who patiently put up with my presence there), and to eye their labs with envy.

Now, I think bio labs are great places, but it's not the places themselves that I most like.  It's rather the idea of the place.  Labs are spaces set apart for learning by experience.  We have labs for the sciences, and we have labs for the arts as well (though we usually call those "studios").  In the social sciences they use labs for observing human activities, and foreign languages have (or ought to have) labs for practicing language.  Writers have workshops, historians have museums and archives, and other disciplines have internships.

Philosophy, unlike all these other disciplines, does not appear to have any labs at all.  At least, not at first glance.

Partly this is due to the reflective nature of philosophy: philosophers have often understood our discipline as a step back from experience in order to gain a cool, disinterested view of the world.  To some degree, we still think that, but that idea of having a privileged access to reality through the use of the right kind of language, or through a scientific worldview, has fallen under suspicion.  Pace Descartes, we don't necessarily understand the world better by turning completely away from it.

Contrary to popular opinion, "philosophy" is not a synonym for "opinion."  Nor is it a synonym for "doctrines."  Philosophy has grown and changed quite a lot in the last few centuries, which means that is not always easy to define.  One thing that is common to all philosophers, however, is that philosophy is an activity.  Doing philosophy is not the mere rehearsal of past views, nor is it merely an attempt to present our already established opinions in clearer or more persuasive language.

Philosophers do, in fact, set aside spaces and times for practicing philosophy.  One important kind of lab philosophers have is the seminar, which has its roots in Plato's practice of philosophy.  Whatever else we might say about Plato, he knew how important good conversation is to advancing philosophy.  In his dialogues, Plato uses conversation to illustrate two points:  first, we need to spend at least some of our time in serious, sustained conversation and reflection with others.  Second, when we do so, we need to follow the argument where it leads and not just where we want it to go.

A brook trout I photographed in Maine.
In future posts I'll take up several other kinds of "labs" philosophers use, which I'll mention briefly here.  First, recently, some philosophers have begun doing what they call "experimental philosophy."  Second, I find that teaching philosophy "in the field" (for environmental philosophy or ethics, for instance) or teaching abroad provides a special experience for animating philosophical conversations.  Third, I've come up with several "hands-on" (or, just as often, "eyes-on") projects for my classes in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Environmental Philosophy that are helpful pedagogical tools.


[Images: Raphael's "School of Athens," showing famous Greek philosophers "at work"; two mayflies photgraphed in the summer of 2009 in Gravenhurst, Ontario; one of the tributaries to Lake Muskoka in Ontario; a brook trout photographed on the Magalloway River in Maine, 2009 while fishing and doing some research with Matt Dickerson.  The Raphael image is in the public domain; the others are my own photos.  I think mayflies are especially lovely creatures.  The adult stage shown above is a very brief period of their lives; most of their lives are spent underwater, and their appearance is quite different then from what it is as adults.] 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mike Wanous, Great Professor!

Augustana College Biology Professor Mike Wanous has once again lived up to Augie's slogan "Great Professors." challenged his lab sections to raise money for microlending website this year.  Between the two sections, they raised over $3000.  The payoff?  The winning lab section won the right to style Dr. Wanous' hair. Here's the coiffure he was sporting last week:

He tells me that my haircut last spring served as an inspiration.  (I let the Colleges Against Cancer group I advise do the same thing with my hair.  They also raised quite a lot of money for cancer research and prevention - we have very philanthropic students!)  Frankly, I don't see the resemblance at all:


Friday, December 11, 2009

Google Wave and My Course in Greece

Each year I teach a course in Greece, and I require my students to make presentations at a variety of archaeological and cultural sites.

This year I am playing around with Google Wave's map feature and wondering if I can use Wave to help prepare my students to make the most of our limited time in Greece.

Do you have suggestions for how I can use this for my course?  Are you also new to Wave and interested in Greece?  If so, send me a wave at and I'll include you in my "sandbox" where I'm playing around with the possibilities.

(Photo credit: Dr. Jeffrey A. Johnson, Providence College)

IAPS meeting at APA in NYC, December 2009

In case you're interested in the philosophy of sport:

IAPS meeting at APA in NYC

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

John E. Smith, RIP

I just heard the very sad news that John E. Smith, a past president of the Charles S. Peirce Society, died last night.  The few times I corresponded with him, he was remarkably generous with his time.  As a graduate student I spoke with him about Peirce and about the philosophy of religion.  Rather than speaking down to me as was his right, he spoke to me as a fellow inquirer, and his words were both words of wisdom and words of welcome.  Later, as a young professor, I corresponded with him about one of his books when I was teaching my first seminar in American philosophy.  He wrote back quickly and offered me both help and encouragement.  The world was better for having him in it, and I am deeply saddened by his passing.  I hope one day to meet him again, if only to thank him once again for all he did for me.  May he rest in peace, enfolded to the Bosom of Abraham.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I Cannot Tell A Lie

American mythology tells us that Washington said that.  Of course, if someone says "I never lie," you cannot tell from that statement whether it is true or not.  And if they say "I always lie," it's hard to make sense of what they are saying.  But that is beside my point here.  There are a number of ethicists and theologians who tell us that we should never lie.  Kant, for instance, says that lying is a violation of the Categorical Imperative.  That is, when you lie you are acting according to a rule that you wouldn't want others to adhere to, and you're manipulating what others believe, which is a way of using them as means rather than respecting them as ends.  Augustine and Aquinas both tell us that all lies, even "jocose" or humorous lies, are sinful because they are ways of bearing false witness, something we're commanded not to do.

Are they right?  Is there never a time when lying is justified?  What do you think?

Socrates and the Trees

It's always dangerous to assume one knows what Plato thinks, since Plato goes out of his way not to tell us what he thinks.  Nevertheless, inasmuch as Socrates is his mouthpiece, here is one place where I think Socrates is mistaken.  Socrates, speaking to Phaedrus, says, "I'm a lover of learning, and trees and open country won't teach me anything, whereas men in the town do." (230d)

I disagree with what Socrates says here, and it is an unfortunate fact of history that many Platonists have taken a similar position to this one.  I just read this line in an otherwise very good book, David Keller and Frank Golley's The Philosophy of Ecology: From Science To Synthesis.

It's a fine collection of key articles in environmental philosophy.  In the introduction, however, they contrast Socrates with Thoreau - something Thoreau himself did - and make Thoreau out to be the one more interested in trees.  Thoreau was interested in trees, especially at the end of his life, but that does not make the comparison apt.

The irony of this line is that it comes from a dialogue in which Socrates continues to point out to his interlocutor just how much one can learn from a close observation of nature.  He repeatedly draws attention to the trees, the water, and the cicadas.  Socrates and Plato are not known as fathers of empiricism, but the view that their heads are so far in the Clouds that they cannot see the well they're about to step into has occupied too much of our attention.  We would do better to notice that Socrates pays attention to the trees.  We would do better still to pay some attention to the trees ourselves.

Lying and Letters of Recommendation

Each fall I write a lot of letters of recommendation for my students.  This fall is no exception.  In fact, I'm writing more this fall than ever before, and I'm happy to report that I think all the students I'm writing for are in fact worthy of strong recommendations.

I'm also reading Sissela Bok's book Lying, in which she has a sub-chapter on letters of recommendation.  She makes the very sensible point that inflated letters of recommendation do some harm to everyone involved, and urges us to consider being far more honest than we tend to be in such letters.  The problem is that as this kind of letter has become mandatory, there has been something like "grade-inflation" across the board with these letters.  Arguably, no one expects letters to do much more than give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.  But the form of the letter implies that the recommendation is not a binary decision but a nuanced exposition of the character of the recommendee.

Now, my principle has been to avoid saying behind someone's back what I would not say to their face.  But maybe I have the wrong orientation; maybe I should be more concerned about the person to whom the letter is addressed than the one about whom it is written.

I take my role as an advocate for my students seriously, and I attempt to do so with integrity.  I will not lie about my students, or so I tell myself.  But if I fail to point out small character flaws, does that count as a lie?  Am I obligated to make letters of recommendation into tell-all sessions?  What obligation do I have to scrutinize my students' weaknesses for future employers and for graduate schools?  What do you think?

Friday, November 27, 2009

More fun with logic

Here's another little bit of fun with logic for my students.  What, if anything, is wrong with this argument?

1) Nothing is better than good coffee.
2) A crust of bread is better than nothing.
3) A crust of bread is better than good coffee.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

How can you know that someone is contrite?

For the last few weeks my ethics students have been studying forgiveness.  One of the persistent questions about forgiveness is whether, in order to be forgiven, one must first be contrite or repentant.  (We have not been speaking of the idea of God forgiving people; we've limited our discussion to the possibility of people forgiving other people.)

I have to confess that this posting was prompted as much by my viewing, last night, of Battlestar Galactica as by our readings.  In season 3, Laura Roslin calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (like South Africa's after Apartheid) after some human-on-human atrocities.  That got me thinking once again about Desmond Tutu and Simon Wiesenthal, and their respective books on forgiveness.

The easy answer to my question is to say that one does not need to be contrite to be forgiven.  This is easy, but not simple, because it raises other questions about the nature of forgiveness.  And it brings along with it the possibility of depriving someone of their moral agency by denying the reality of their choices.

Most of us are inclined to give the opposite answer, namely that it does not make sense to forgive those who are not sorry for their offenses.

But this raises another difficulty: how do we know when people are adequately sorry?  Additionally, does this position make it more likely that we will forgive those people who only seem sorry?  What if someone has expressed their contrition to the best of their ability but we have not been able to perceive it, for cultural or other reasons?  What if someone is not at all sorry, but has made a convincing public show of contrition?

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


It being Thanksgiving, I'm doing some reading about gratitude.  Just read through part of Norman Wirzba's Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight.  Chapter 1 has a section on food - very apropos for Americans this week - and in particular on the production of food.

Wirzba's contention, one that strikes me as probably right, is that the way we produce meat is violent and alienating, and that our willingness to accept food that comes to us this way is symptomatic of a culture that is more motivated by fear than by gratitude.

This could turn into a rant about locavorism, but I don't want to go there right now.  My point - and Wirzba's, I think - is not that we need to change our food production, but that we need to ask ourselves why we produce food as we do.  And that we ought to ask ourselves if we - and our world - wouldn't be better off if we received what we have with gratitude.  I find this very difficult, but I'm going to give it a try.

Reading the Holidays

This Thanksgiving holiday I've just re-read Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation of Thanksgiving and I might read some of the Puritans this weekend as well*, or perhaps Washington.

This practice of reading the holidays began for me about ten years ago on July 4th.   I decided then that I'd re-read the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  I was guessing that it had been so long since I'd read them, I'd probably forgotten much of what they say.  My experiment proved my guess to be right.

I was struck, as I read them, just how remarkable these documents are.  Since then, I've repeated this almost every year.  Each time I re-read these documents, I find them moving.  They're beautifully written, and they strive for things that are, in my estimation, praiseworthy.

I've begun to add other readings for other holidays as well.  On MLK, Jr. Day, (and sometimes on April 4, the anniversary of his death) I listen to his "I Have A Dream" speech or read his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."  I admit it: both of these regularly make me cry.

Of course, I also read the appointed Scriptures for Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and for some other feast days as well.  But here I'm interested in those holidays that are not holy-days but secular feasts.  How about you?  Do you have readings you associate with such holidays?  What do you recommend?


* (If you're interested, you can see my article on Puritanism by clicking here and searching for pp 631-632)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Love Is In The Air

For my students, a little fun with logic. Consider the following syllogism. Does the conclusion (3) follow from the premises (1, 2)?

1) Everyone loves a lover;
2) John loves Jane;
3) Therefore, everyone loves everyone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Two kinds of ducks

Recently I was speaking with some students about environmental philosophy, and about the ethical dimensions of hunting and fishing. Most of those students were not hunters, but all of them seemed to care about the environment.  I asked them at one point if they knew how many species of ducks live in our region.  I think the best (and most entertaining) answer I got was "Two: mallards and non-mallards."

What struck me was how little, in general, my conservation-minded students know about the wildlife around them.  And I think they are not unique in this.  In fact, they may know a good deal more about nature than most of their generation.

Recently, Smithsonian published an article about conservation ecologist Patricia Zaradic.  Zaradic worries that we are becoming ever more attached to video screens, and that, as a result, our knowledge of the natural world is suffering.

My fear is that we are, in a way, becoming modern-day Gnostics.  (Gnostics hope to liberate the spirit from materiality by means of esoteric knowledge.)

But this is dangerous.  Rejecting materiality--rejecting the body, its world, and its boundaries--seems like a bad idea.  Maybe I'm wrong, and the transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil and his disciples have it right.  But the body, it seems to me, is just as ethically significant as the soul or mind.

Losing touch with the material world makes it harder for us to notice when ecosystems are suffering.  It also might make it easier for us to undervalue the bodily suffering of other people.  And, speaking for myself, at least, I know that the pleasures of video screens are almost always more alluring than taking care of my own body.  In fact, I'd be exercising right now--or duck hunting--but it has been a while since I checked in with my Facebook friends.  I wonder if any of them can help me learn about ducks.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Desmond Tutu and The Most Subversive Thing Around

"We were inspired not by political motives.  No, we were fired by our biblical faith.  The Bible turned out to be the most subversive thing around in a situation of injustice and oppression.  We were involved in the struggle because we were being religious, not political.  It was because we were obeying the imperatives of our faith.”  (No Future Without Forgiveness, 93) 

Tutu is making a peculiar claim here, and I can't entirely tell if he's serious.  He says they weren't motivated by politics, but by the Bible; but then he says the Bible was subversive.   Does he mean that it was politically subversive, or is he talking about some other kind of subversion - spiritual or moral or psychological subversion, perhaps?  I guess the question is this: what exactly was being subverted?  He says plainly that it was "injustice and oppression."  But what is not so plain is whether the injustice and oppression were primarily political; or if the political was only a sign or symptom of something else.

I've also been reading a lot of William James this week, especially The Varieties of Religious Experience.  James argues that we should not judge religion a priori but rather a posteriori.  As James puts it, "not by its roots, but by its fruits."

In that book and elsewhere, James argues that we are wrong to think that reason's chief role in religious experience is to judge the truth-claims of religion.  Rather, religion is to be understood as playing a role within reason itself.  Religion "is something more, namely, a postulator of new facts as well" as being a means of "illumination of facts already elsewhere given."

James and Tutu both offer religion as more than simply another second-string player on an already deep bench, and as more than a degenerate form of political reasoning.  For both of them, religion is a source of insight that cannot be had in other ways.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Best Rule in Writing

"The best maxim in writing, perhaps, is really to love your reader for his own sake."  Charles S. Peirce, "Private Thoughts: Chiefly On The Conduct Of Life," lxxv, March 17, 1888.

I've been editing the Religious Writings of Charles Peirce for a few years now -- hopefully will publish them within the next few years -- and this is one of the passages I love coming back to.  I'm not always sure how to put it into practice, but the idea of writing out of love for my reader reminds me that there is precious little that we do or say or make that does not affect the lives of others.  Even this "private thought" from Peirce's journal, written a century ago, has shaped my thinking.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Every Time You Open A Prison... close a school."  - Victor Hugo.

"Why is it considered morally offensive and economically unwise in this country to give a poor person a few dollars more than $13.22 per day, but ethically appropriate and fiscally sensible to incarcerate a poor person at an average cost of $55.18 per day?" - Jens Soering, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse(Click here for Wikipedia's article on Jens Soering.)

Hugo is obviously being provocative; education does not guarantee moral goodness.  And Soering is similarly making a comparison that leaves out the important fact that criminals freely choose to commit their crimes.  Nevertheless, good education does create opportunity, whereas inequality in education seems like an invitation to the poor to continue to consider themselves to be perpetually unequal to the wealthy and so perpetually unable to advance economically without crime.


Using God As A Weapon?

Gandhi once wrote that "the Satyagrahi's only weapon is God."  (A Satyagrahi is one who practices Satyagraha, Gandhi's peaceful and powerful version of civil disobedience.)

Some of religion's most vocal (I do not say best) contemporary critics argue that religion is either irrelevant or dangerous.  It's irrelevant, they say, because it is just an evolutionary holdover that we no longer need.  It's dangerous, they say, because it allows people to use God as a weapon.

Gandhi and many others remind us that there are two ways of using God as a weapon.  If we use God to justify using other weapons to kill or oppress people, we turn God into a tool or an idol.  At that point, religious people would do well to ask just what it is they're fighting for, since it can no longer be piety.

Gandhi illustrates the other way, in which God is that which can never be taken away from us, and that which is ultimately worth living and dying for.  In this way, God is not a "weapon" we wield to harm people, but one that serves to fight against injustice.

Tyrants set themselves up as gods on earth; belief in a God above the tyrant can deflate the tyrant's power and give the Satyagrahi the necessary soul-force to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with her God."  Against such things, it seems to me, only would-be tyrants and their servants will argue.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Russell Frank and the 4/40 Program

One semester when I was in grad school at Penn State I was assigned to teach a course called "Media Ethics."  I had no idea how to teach such a course, so I called up Dr. Russell Frank to ask him for a textbook recommendation.

Frank wrote a weekly column for the Centre Daily Times.  At the time, he was an untenured professor in the Department of Communications at Penn State.  Even though he did not know me, and surely had many demands on his time, Frank offered to meet me for coffee.

We met for three hours that day, during which I took pages of notes and basically wrote my syllabus for the course.  He also gave me a stack of textbooks from his office, offered to guest-lecture in my class (which he later did, several times) and then, to top it all off, he paid for the coffee.

I protested that I was getting all the benefit from this and that I should pay.  He replied, "My rule is this: the student never pays."  Instead of paying him back, he said, I could "pay it forward" to some of my students.

So I began what I now call The 4/40 program.  Whenever I meet students for a meal or coffee, I explain this to them: during their four years of undergraduate study with me (and if they visit me while they're in grad school) I pay.  If they want, then they can visit me sometime in the next forty years and take me out for a meal or, better yet, they can use the next forty years to take someone else out for a meal.

I find these meals are always worthwhile.  Much of the best learning in college happens outside the classroom, in informal conversations, often while breaking bread together.  I teach because I love teaching, and these meals or coffees have provided me with some of my favorite classrooms: coffee shops, restaurants, the dining room table or kitchen in our home.

So to any of my students who may be reading this: don't thank me, thank Russell Frank (you can find his email at the link above or right here if you want).  And if you benefited from the coffee, or the meal, pay it forward to someone else.  

And come back and visit sometime.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Philosophy and Empty Deceit

From today's Lectionary, a reading from Colossians 2:

"See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ."

Good advice and sound.  Of course, one of the best ways to make sure no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit is to study philosophy yourself so you can learn to distinguish bad thinking from good.  At any rate, I am not aware of anyone ever successfully and consistently avoiding bad thinking by avoiding thinking altogether.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Latin American Philosophy Online

Soon I hope to be able to point you to the online presence of the Inter-American Philosophic Review, edited by Gregorio Pappas at Texas A&M.  For now, I'll begin with two other sites of interest: La red filosófica de Costa Rica, edited by Jethro Masís, and Cognitio Estudos, published at the Pontifical University of São Paulo.

Pappas has been instrumental in putting together an upcoming conference in February of 2010, the First International Conference on Pragmatism and the Hispanic/Latino World. It looks like it will be especially good.

Here's a link to the Centro de estudios de filosofía analítica.

And while this doesn't count as Latin American, the Grupo de Estudios Peirceanos at the Universidad de Navarra, in Pamplona, Spain, does a nice job of linking together other Spanish-speaking philosophers, especially those interested in Pragmatism.

I welcome comments making additions to this list.