Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

In 1985, Robert Brandom gave a graduate course in Metaphysics and Epistemology in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh.

I was in my first year as a graduate student, and attended the course along with most graduate students from my year group and many from the previous intake.

Pittsburgh’s philosophy department at the time was rated as one of the very best in the U.S., indeed the world, and it had many top notch faculty, including eminences such as Carl Hempel. However Brandom’s M&E course had a reputation as the premier event in the postgraduate coursework program.  It was deemed – and for many it was – a transformational experience.

Although Brandom was a relatively young philosopher who hadn’t yet attained his exalted status in the profession, we graduate students regarded him with awe and reverence.  We felt that being able to participate in Brandom’s seminar made us something of a special breed.

The lectures were three hours each, held once a week for a semester, in the seminar room on the tenth floor of the Cathedral of Learning.  We sat around a long boardroom-type table, with Brandom standing to deliver his lengthy, dense presentations.

Many of us took copious notes.  In most seminars you would try to understand the lecturer’s main points and succinctly distil them into your own words.  With Brandom, it seemed every sentence was expressed with such eloquence and insight it needed to be captured verbatim. I particularly remember his habit of expressing a point three times in a row, in three consecutive sentences, each with different shades and nuances.

After each lecture, I would go home and immediately start transcribing our notes on my new Macintosh (original 1984 model; 128k RAM, 400k floppy, no hard drive, 9″ screen). I vaguely recall relying on three sets of handwritten notes: mine, and probably those made by Sonia Sedivy and Irad Kimhi; though I possibly also used notes by Alisa Carse and Bill Blattner.  The notes, and my fresh memories of what was said, were merged into what ended up being fairly complete transcriptions.

These were then printed out on my original Mac dot matrix printer. Sometime after the end of the semester, I bound all the lecture transcriptions into a green plastic folder.

I also made detailed notes on many of the course readings, and these were included.img_1847

I kept that folder to this day, though I’ve rarely opened it, and certainly never read or studied its contents.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the only benefit I would get was from the act of synthesis, not from the result.

In 1994, Brandom published Making It Explicit, which covered much of the same territory and a great deal more, and rendered the lecture notes obsolete.

This year, I’ve been slowly discarding a lot of the “baggage” I’ve accumulated over the years, including lots of books and papers I know I’ll never read again.

Its time for the Brandom notes to go.

It is a bit hard to part with these yellowing, dot-matrix pages which represent such hard work and earnest enthusiasm.

So, I ran the notes through the scanner.

Here they are: Brandom M&E Lectures 1985 (30mb, pdf).

I can’t really imagine that anyone will ever want to read them. There might be a few people, perhaps some Pitt students from the 80s, who’d be interested to glance at them.

Here’s a sample page:


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All Wikipedia Roads Lead to Philosophy is a brief discussion of the initially surprising fact that if you click the first link in any Wikipedia article, you’ll eventually arrive on the page for Philosophy.  It is worth trying yourself to experience why this happens: most first sentences on Wikipedia pages relate the page topic to some larger topic, e.g. “Geranium argenteum (silvery crane’s bill) is an ornamental plant…”.   This is a very cute way of revealing something important about how knowledge is organised, and how we explain things to each other.

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What if nobody came?

There’s been a mildly interesting thread on the Australian philosopher’s email list (aphil-l) lately. Apparently some fellow paid his own way to the annual conference being held in a small, remote town in NSW all prepared to give his ground-breaking talk on some obscure topic in aesthetics. On the day, nobody showed up to listen – not even a chairperson for the session. The fellow left town immediately, and sometime later complained loudly to the list. There’s been about twenty posts since, most revolving around the difficulty of scheduling minnows against “heavyweights”.

Nobody’s commented on the real source of the difficulty – which is that the conference is a kind of “special olympics” for philosophers, in which everyone who shows up gets a medal (i.e., is able to present). Partly this is a misguided attempt at “inclusiveness”. Partly it is due to the reality that Australian academics are so dismally funded that they can only get meagre contributions to their costs if they are presenting. Hence it is tacitly understood that everyone who registers must be able to present; no work is too ordinary to be included on the program. The result is six or eight parallel sessions for five days in a row, in a conference whose total attendence is only a few hundred people.

Another interesting ommission in the discussion is the larger picture. Just as nobody showed up to this poor fellow’s talk, so nobody *outside* this inbred band showed up at the conference as a whole. (I wasn’t there, so I might be a little bit wrong about this. But I have been in the past, and going by that experience…). In other words, perhaps the discussants on the list would be better focusing their attention not on why philosophical minnows get so little audience at the conference, but on why philosophy itself attracts so little attention even from the rest of the academic world, let alone the larger cultural environment.

I’m reminded of a cartoon from Leunig’s early days, when he still did interesting and original work. A lonely fellow was looking up a drainpipe, which did a dogleg over his head, down behind and up to his rear. All he could see at the end of his telescope was his own…

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Paul Graham has an interesting post, Is It Worth Being Wise?, where he addresses what wisdom is, and how it differs from (“merely”) being smart or intelligent. He dismisses two supposedly-popular accounts:

  • wisdom applies to human problems, and intelligence to abstract ones
  • wisdom comes from experience, while intelligence is innate.

He suggests an alternative:

  • “wise” means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and “smart” means one does spectacularly well in a few.

Without discussing each in detail, I’d say that we have here what JS Mill regarded as the most common situation, i.e., each of a set of apparently conflicting opinions has some part of the truth:

the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part. Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited. (On Liberty, Ch.2)

Graham’s own suggestion seems to me not quite right, not least because it will be hard to distinguish being smart from being lucky, which on occasion makes some decision turn out spectacularly well. Indeed, in non-trivial domains (“subjects not palpable to sense”), luck is plausibly the operative factor in most decisions which turn out spectacularly well. Curiously, the words “luck” and “fortune” don’t appear in Graham’s essay.

Having had a career in academic philosophy, hanging out at times with people at the top levels, and now having spent a few years in business, I have my own hunch about the difference between wisdom and smartness. It is probably only part of the truth, but worth throwing into the mix.

Academic philosophers are often smart – sometimes spectacularly so – but are rarely wise. Hence, for example, the proliferation of inane opinions supported by powerful-seeming arguments. Meanwhile, in my limited experience of business, the proportion of people who strike me as very smart seems rather less than in academia – but at the same time there seems to be somewhat more wisdom around.

As the “CEO” of a small software enterprise, I’ve found that one of the most demanding parts of the job is being required so often to make decisions on matters where the consequences may be quite large, but there are multiple relevant factors, huge unknowns, and no reliable method of making a decision, at least in any reasonable time-frame.

Wisdom is being able to generally make good choices when confronted with such decisions.

Smartness, on the other hand, is being able to “figure things out.” A good example in our company is when Dan, our lead programmer, figured out the mathematical equations governing the elegant shape of the curvy lines in analysis mode. (I’m not suggesting that Dan isn’t wise, only that he is smart.)

In business decisions, very often you’re simply not able to figure things out. You don’t have the information, the time, or even a reliable method or tools. All you can really go by are your hunches, which are grounded in

  • your own personal experience of similar situations
  • your general background knowledge. For example, you may learn quite a lot from reading books, blogs, etc.
  • relevant insight you can glean from discussions you have with colleagues, company directors, friends etc.

From these sources you get a vague “sense” of the situation which recommends (for better or worse) a way to go. Wise people have more experience (from which they’ve been able to learn); more background knowledge; good colleagues etc; and are able to exploit these resources by synthesizing relevant parts of it into a reasonable “take” on the problem.

Practically speaking, to go beyond just relying on the intuitive hunch based on a sense of the situation, there seem to be two strategies:

  1. Apply some simple decision structuring framework – SWOT, multi-attribute utility matrix, etc.
  2. Follow an “ideology” – a prior commitment to a strategy, goal or approach which simplifies and guides the decision.

“Smart” people will of course dismiss both of these as being intellectually childish. But people who are merely smart have the luxury of being smart because, generally, they don’t have to be wise. If they were required to be wise, my guess is they’d end up doing much the same thing, and wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss apparently simplistic approaches.

So in short, being wise is making a reasonable choice in an inherently speculative or vague situation, a choice guided by a good sense of the situation which in turn is based on the knowledge one has immediately at hand – prior experience, background knowledge, and the people around you.  Often, with decisions demanding wisdom, you’ll never really know ifyou were right, i.e., if one of the other choices would have been better.  Being smart is being able to apply general intellectual resources to “think through” a problem and arrive at a recognisably “right” answer.

Being wise is not intrinsically better than being smart. Both have their place, and of course one would like to be both.

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Anyone likely to be in Melbourne on Feb 19 is welcome to join the Victorian Skeptics for an informal talk:


The abstract is

Academic philosophers, like most professionals, think they’re pretty good at what they do. I’ll present some general reasons for scepticism on this score. Then I’ll focus on one particular respect in which philosophers think they’re pretty good – teaching critical thinking. I’ll show detailed empirical evidence on critical thinking skills gains, which suggests that if you want students to get better at critical thinking, you should teach them critical thinking (not philosophy) and if you want them to get even better, you should teach them using argument mapping.

The talk is a blending of two things. First, a talk I gave about five years ago to various philosophy departments in Australia, in which I challenged the audience to come up with positive reasons to think that they are, in their core professional activities, any better than investment professionals such as stockbrokers, fund managers and the ilk, which have been shown by mountains of evidence to be useless at choosing superior investments, even if they are quite good at skimming vast sums of money from the savings of others. In response, philosophers generally came up with, at best, the kind of lame arguments they’d instantly ridicule others for making; the main outcome of all this, as far as I could tell, was resentment towards me for even raising the topic, which may partly explain why I haven’t been invited to talk at any philosophy department ever since.

The second thing is the work of a Masters student at the University of Melbourne, Claudia Alvarez, who has written on whether studying philosophy is, as philosophers claim, especially effective in developing critical thinking skills. Claudia did (or at least, carried through to completion) a meta-analysis which gives us the best available fix on whether this claim is true. In fact, if you make reasonable comparisons, it is hard to make a strong case that philosophy is especially effective, and it is markedly less effective than certain other strategies, such as… teaching critical thinking. The thesis will be completed and available very soon. (I’m happy to give a talk on this material at philosophy departments, but I don’t expect to be swamped with offers.)

It should be fun…

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Ask a philosopher why one should study philosophy, and you’re likely to get an answer only a philosopher would pretend to understand:

“If you ought to philosophize you ought to philosophize; and if you ought not to philosophize you ought to philosophize: therefore, in any case you ought to philosophize. For if philosophy exists, we certainly ought to philosophize, since it exists; and if it does not exist, in that case too we ought to inquire why philosophy does not exist — and by inquiring we philosophize; for inquiry is the cause of philosophy.”

– Aristotle, allegedly.

What rubbish.

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