Archive for October, 2007

Here today, gone tomorrow….

From W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian:

The reason…widespread misbeliefs can thrive is that the ignorance of relevant truths is often accompanied by ignorance of that ignorance.  So we must recognize that there are almost certain to be many items of today’s so-called common knowledge, some springing directly from science and some not, that will illustrate the follies of our age in the next century’s textbooks.  We like to believe that much of what we hold in common is firmly established and will stand as long as there are people to believe it.  Probably we are justified in such confidence.  But almost certainly too, if the intellectual history of our species be any guide at all, much of what we hold in common will come to be repudiated.  The lesson is one not of despair, but of humility.

The Web of Belief, p. 59.


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A Pair of Jacques?

Fresh back from the 31st annual American Maritain Association meeting at Notre Dame University.  I heard a number of interesting papers, including contributions by John Deely, Jean de Groot, Benedict Ashley, Lawrence Dewan, Raymond Dennehy, Glenn Statile, Greg Kerr, Peter Pagan, John Hittinger, Richard Cain, Giuseppe Butera, Romanus Cessario, David Solomon, and the ever-entertaining Ralph McInerny.  This was my first time among the Thomists, and I would like to offer the following observation: I believe I understood every paper I heard.  This is remarkable.  I can assure you this was not the case at the other “professional philosophy” meetings I’ve attended (which shall remain nameless)–and that’s not just because I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer or because those other guys are smarter than Thomists.  The papers I heard at the AMA meeting were written clearly and with minimal jargon.  There were arguments–reasons were offered in support of conclusions.  And the papers were delivered in such a way as to convey that the authors actually believed their views to be true (and not just clever).  I found that refreshing.

This is not to say that I found all these papers persuasive.  On more than one occasion I rose in defense of Jacques Derrida (the “presence” of an attendee who has actually read some postmodern writers may have been a first for the AMA…and did you catch the scare-quotes around “presence”?  See, I am a postmodern!)

My view is that Aristotelian-Thomism is both an expression of the perennial philosophy and a version of the working views of most everyone not deranged by a doctorate in philosophy.  I won’t defend that claim now, just assert it.  But I would also claim that postmodern thought–specifically deconstruction–is not just a nihilistic waste of breath (as it was frequently pronounced to be at the AMA conference).  The peripatetic praxis I am interested in re-engages the pursuit of perennial philosophy while being appropriately chastened by postmodern thought (as Augustinianism was by Aristotelian thought once upon a time).  Aristotle was the “Jacques Derrida” of St. Thomas’ day.  Today’s Thomists and others in pursuit of the perennial philosophy ought to realize that Jacques Derrida is the “Aristotle”–albeit a very, very different “Aristotle”–of our day.  Derrida’s thought disrupts our certitudes just as Aristotle disrupted the certitudes of the middle ages.

But just as the “doctrine of two truths” was unacceptable to Thomas, there is no question of “no truth, only perspective” for us.  Peripatetic praxis, if there is to be such a thing, must be post-modern and not nostalgically pre-modern, in its pursuit of truth…in order to do the truth (facere veritatem).  Those of us who would learn from Jacques Maritain must also learn from Jacques Derrida.  Certainly, this “pair of Jacques” is not “two of a kind.”  But both would point us to a certain understanding of making our way that would have us learn something of Aristotelian phronesis, of a certain kind of practical wisdom.


Jacques Maritain         Jacques Derrida

Jacques Maritain and Jacques Derrida


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Check out this cartoon.  A good idea whose time will/has come….

(Thanks to The Garden of Forking Paths for finding it…)

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Animals and Selves

Leslie Irvine weighs in on the sociological study of animal selves[pdf].  The paper appears in a special issue of the Qualitative Sociology Review (published at Lodz University, Poland) on Animals and People.

Here is the abstract:

The question of whether sociologists should investigate the subjective experience of non-human others arises regularly in discussions of research on animals. Recent criticism of this research agenda as speculative and therefore unproductive is examined and found wanting. Ample evidence indicates that animals have the capacity to see themselves as objects, which meets sociological criteria for selfhood. Resistance to this possibility highlights the discipline’s entrenched anthropocentrism rather than lack of evidence. Sociological study of the moral status of animals, based on the presence of the self, is warranted because our treatment of animals is connected with numerous “mainstream” sociological issues. As knowledge has brought other forms of oppression to light, it has also helped to challenge and transform oppressive conditions. Consequently, sociologists have an obligation to challenge speciesism as part of a larger system of oppression.

Before commenting on Irvine’s thesis, a word about this journal. Its mission statement reads:

Respecting a tradition in the social sciences of gaining an interpretive understanding (verstehen) of social phenomena, we are continuing to cultivate and develop the use of qualitative research as a tool of sociological inquiry. Cooperation, integration and the development of a scientific community are our core aims. As such, our journal exemplifies the following values:

of every scientist, whose work is a way of developing knowledge about the world and improving himself/ herself as a penetrating observer of this world.

Equality and Tolerance
which manifest themselves in a respect for every human being and an interest in every opinion and mode of information, as the best way to discover the truth.

of qualitative researchers who integrate through a common conception of science and through the discovery and explanation of social phenomena.

which takes advantage of pluralism and diversity to accumulate knowledge about society that is available universally and is used to influence the integration and development of various aspects of society.

integrating through a qualitative way of understanding social action, where humans are treated as subjects who create and change the social world around them.

Now, I love the idea of an academic journal that dares to have a moral mission, and this journal’s mission is quite admirable.  Of course, there remains the imperative to keep distinct (at least conceptually) the objectivity of the research and the moral force which may motivate that research.  While science may never be completely disentangled from ideology, it is not mere ideology.

Irvine’s essay concludes:

Finally, some might argue that when one considers all the problems in the world, sociologists should devote our considerable research energies to solving some of the significant human issues. Poverty, environmental degradation, homelessness, war, and the threat of terrorism are all high on the social agenda. Some would argue that they are more pressing than the well-being of animals. The flaw in this argument is that all problems are connected, and the segmenting of issues is both illogical and morally questionable. For example, the moral status of animals as property justifies institutionalized cruelty on the basis that we humans can use them as we see fit. The ideology of superiority, coupled with “might makes right,” also underpins sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Clearly, Irvine’s essay presents a challenge to the very interpretation of the mission of the journal in which her piece is published, which is robustly humanistic.  As an unabashed anthropocentric speciesist, I am one who would argue that poverty, environmental degradation, homelessness, war, and the threat of terrorism are more pressing problems than the well-being of animals (much as I love animals).  And I believe I could happily endorse the mission of the Qualitative Sociology Review without having to change my stripes.  I doubt a majority of subscribers would hold to the view that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” as PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk infamously put it.

Let me quickly add that Newkirk’s quote reads in full:  “When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”  If Newkirk means that rats, pigs, dogs, and boys are all sentient beings that can feel pain, hunger, and thirst, then who could disagree?  But Newkirk means that since rats, pigs, dogs, and boys are all sentient there is therefore a moral equivalence between them.  But can rats and boys generate and honor commitments to each other?  Can rats and pigs, for that matter?  Certainly, there is no moral equivalence.  Sociology does not study rats as if there were, and the following is no counter-argument:

As Arluke points out, the neglect of animals in sociology “is strikingly ironic, given the discipline’s willingness in recent years to consider the plight of virtually every human minority” (Arluke 2003: 26, 2002).


We can grant Irvine that study of animals may greatly enrich the study of human beings (we are, after all, also animals)…see pp 13-14 for her documentation.  But Irvine wants to take this research further:

My intention here is not to reinvent this wheel by providing yet more examples of how animals can enrich our knowledge. Rather, I want to emphasize that enriched knowledge brings increased responsibility. The question is not only, “what can animals do for sociology?” It is also one of “what can sociology do for animals?” … After several decades of systematic sociological research on interaction with non-human animals, it is time to put those research findings into practice. In the context of this paper, research that documents the accomplishment of selfhood among animals carries the obligation to recognize animals’ moral standing.

Irvine argues that the case for animals is equivalent to the case for women.  When feminist insights began to inform sociological study, the moral status of women changed for the better.  The argument runs: “a rat is a pig is a dog is a girl,” too.  But again, Irvine confuses moral status or standing with what appears at every turn to be a moral equivalence.  However liberated women have become, they still have moral obligations to men and to each other.  Dogs, however talented at sniffing out bombs or cocaine, cannot be thought to be burdened by any moral obligations whatsoever.

But maybe I am failing to understand or reading too much into it.  Irvine would like us to stop eating and wearing animals because such practices cause suffering to the animals involved.  Although I haven’t stopped these practices myself, maybe she will convince me to do so.  However, I think she has a better shot at that by convincing me to rethink my own moral self-conception (“a guy who tries not to inflict any suffering”) rather than having me think that rats are morally equivalent to my daughter.  I fear that in promoting moral equivalence more people will end up treating people (even more) like animals, rather than people treating animals more like people.

I also have to question wisdom of holding that the bedrock foundation of morality is the fact of suffering, the moral imperative being: diminish suffering to zero.  Are Richard Rorty and Judith Shklar, for instance, right in saying that (for liberals, anyway), “cruelty is the worst thing we do”?  For an alternate view, see John Kekes, “Cruelty and Liberalism,” Ethics, Vol. 106, No. 4 (July 1996) pp. 834-844.

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Are you what you think you are?

…politically, that is.  Why not try the World’s Smallest Political Quiz and see?

But maybe we should stop using political labels all together.  Mark Skousen thinks so.  And just what is left and what is right, anyway?  Maybe there is more to the “middle of the road” than yellow stripes and dead armadillos, as populist (oops…labeling!) Jim Hightower puts it.  Then again, maybe distinctions do matter.  In any event, wisdom comes in part through self-reflection, and label-using can often deflect thought and judgment.


“Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath”

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In recovery

“University training has its strengths [but] it is at the same time a terrible disease from which it takes a long time to recover.”

Emmanuel Mounier

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Just two things…

There are just two things that I really, really hate.  One is the intolerance people show towards other countries and cultures different from their own. And the other is the French.  (Hey, I’m kidding…it’s a joke….but if you were going to hate the French, some Brits offer 30 reasons….)

Mon dieu!  But on the other hand, have you ever seen the Brits on their stag-party trips to Krakow?!  Whoa…!

Anyway, as one of my favorite philosophers, Rodney King, asks:  “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”

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Hardly Formulaic

The Edge is asking:  What’s Your Formula? Your Equation? Your Algorithm?  You have to check these out!  Here’s Stephen Pinker’s.  It helps explain the others….  (click it to make it easier to read)

Pinker’s Formula

Here’s mine.  It doesn’t explain a thing…but it rhymes!


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Peripatetic Potpourri

A review of Anthony T. Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.  (This reviewer is a bit crabby on the “political correctness” issue, and he misses the exact point Kronman goes off the rails in an otherwise very thoughtful and provocative point.)

And here is Julie A. Reuben’s similarly constructed history of where colleges and universities have lost the moral thread.  No solutions are offered, just the invitation to think it over….

You can listen in on some worthies arguing in defence of academic freedom (Chomsky, Bligrami, Judt, Mearsheimer).  And have a look at the AAUP’s “Freedom in the Classroom.”  For another view, see the “Academic Bill of Rights.”

You can also listen to philosophers on “bite-sized topics” at philosophy bites.  For instance, have a listen to Sir Anthony Kenny on his recent multi-volume history of Western philosophy (“more  accurate the Russell’s, more entertaining than Copleston’s“).  Or how about John Cottingham on the “meaning of life“?

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Science and (Losing My) Religion…

The New Republic has a “pithy, yet degenerate” piece by Stephen Pinker on cussin’.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!…maybe science really can explain why I keep “losing my religion“….

Or maybe it’s the meaninglessness of it all.  Er, I don’t mean the Universe; I mean this (more or less mere) opinion by Barbara Ehrenreich in The Nation about the John Templeton Foundation.

Speaking of which, here’s an informative audio interview with JTF’s Charles Harper on what the Foundation is up to.

And speaking of whom, you can hear Harper’s contribution–along with many others–at the Singularity Summit 2007, sponsored by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

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