Archive for March, 2012

Modest Birding Milestone

This weekend, after 1 year 7 months & 20 days, we saw our 200th life bird – the Eurasian Collard Dove (which may be common where you are, but not so much in Cape May, NJ). We saw all three that have been hanging around town recently.  It was a great weekend, despite rain on Saturday and generally overcast skies the rest of the time.  We clocked about 17 hours in all and were rewarded with 75 birds (76 if you count the Guinea Fowl we saw on the road; 76 if you count the roosters that also wandered onto the road). Included were a dozen Glossy Ibises, a half-dozen Snowy Egrets, an adult American Bald Eagle, a Northern Harrier, several Red-Headed Woodpeckers (a target bird for us, and our 201st lifer), a dozen+ Ring Necked Ducks (our 202nd lifer), the first Chipping Sparrows of spring, and some other new birds for us: Northern Gannet, Black Scoter, Red Breasted Merganser, and Red Throated Loon. Lots of Yellow Rumped Warblers, of course. The Piping Plovers were active along with the Sanderlings. In all, we had lots of fun and our feet are tired.

And now for some pics.  As always, you can click them once or twice to enlarge them.

First up, our #200 – the Eurasian Collard Dove:

And our most recent “most wanted” – the Red Headed Woodpecker:

(I’ll have some more pics of this bird and his friends soon…).

How about a Red Throated Loon?

(There’ll be some more of this one, too.)

You know I like the Red Tailed Hawks. Here’s a nice one:

A Piping Plover:

How about a creepy Northern Mockingbird?

(I actually like the Mockingbirds a lot, but this one…yikes!)

This Great Egret is a bit more pleasantly situated:

Here’s a flock of Glossy Ibises:

A Great Black Backed Gull:

Northern Gannet:

American Coot:

American Oystercatchers:

Brown Thrasher:

Mute Swan, up close and personal:

Northern Harrier:

What’s this thing doing here? (Guinea Fowl)

Two pairs of male & female Ring Necked Ducks:

The first (more or less) Snowy Egrets of spring:

I named this Tree Swallow “Thomas Nagel,” as the bird is clearly wondering, “What is it like to be a bat?” (pdf):

(Pardon the philosophy reference….)

Okay, one more. Since we’ve been wanting to see a Red Headed Woodpecker for so long, here’s how we saw it for the first time:

I’ll post some more pics in the near future.

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New Bird Pics

Some from around here, and some from our recent trip to Florida.

First up, the Carolina Wren:

Belted Kingfishers in flight:

A Red-Tailed Hawk overhead:

A Wood Duck on the pond at Okehocking:

And, for you non-birders, a chipmunk, just for fun:

And from Florida, a Common Moorhen (or Common Gallinule):

A Black-Crowned Night Heron:

And a Palm Warbler:

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Milton Greenberg on Tenure’s Dirty Little Secret

The fact is that nontenured and non-tenure-track faculty are toiling in undesirable positions at low pay and subsidizing the interests and security of tenured faculty members whose performance is not necessarily superior to nontenured faculty or even compatible with the needs and interests of students or the institutional mission.

Read more here.

Dispute it… if you can….

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Kingfisher Couple

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Okehocking Today

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“Ontics” vs. Philosophy

Colin McGinn has positioned himself as leader of the C.R.A.P. movement (er, pardon the pun), that is, the Campaign for Renaming Academic Philosophy. His suggested new moniker: “Ontics,” which he defines as “the study of the fundamental nature of what is – being.” I was alerted to this post by philosopher Graham Harman, who offers his not uncertain no, thank you, to McGinn. But I have to say McGinn’s suggestion is, well, suggestive. What should we make of it?

First, it may come as a shock to all those included by his “we” – i.e., academic philosophers – that what “we” do is study the fundamental nature of what is, i.e, being. It seems to me that anyone in academic philosophy not named Colin McGinn would know that the study of the fundamental nature of what is, i.e., being, is traditionally called metaphysics, and metaphysics as been anathema to academic philosophers, both continental and analytic alike, post-Hegel, and only very recently has been making something of a come-back (as it always will, by the way; Gilson said that philosophy – which is metaphysics – always buries its undertakers). So my first point is this: if McGinn is right about what academic philosophers are generally doing, then I say in this respect hallelujah! It’s about time. As a proponent of studying the basic nature of what is, i.e., being; i.e., as a proponent of metaphysics, I am heartened by this self-description of what “we” do. Here’s hoping McGinn is right.

Second, McGinn doesn’t address this directly but perhaps he does not want to call academic philosophy “metaphysics” because he worries that the term “metaphysics” has the lexical connotation of “beyond the physical” and he doesn’t want what “we” do mixed up with the stuff you’ll find in the “metaphysics” section of your local Barnes and Noble (if you still have one). That’s a genuine concern. However, if the fundamental nature of what is, i.e., being, is purely material or can only be considered on the basis of materialism, then the study of the fundamental nature of what is, i.e., being, is completely covered by physics.  To put it in old-school language, on this view metaphysics is physics. This is a widely held position (prejudice, really), and it is one of the reasons metaphysics fell into disrepute – there would be nothing for it to do. I don’t know McGinn’s work to be able to comment on it, but I am guessing from this piece he sees a difference between “ontics” and physics (as would I, as would any old-school metaphysician). So I would also want endorse the idea that there would be something for “ontics” to do, and that physics is not metaphysics.

Third, McGinn objects to philosophy’s being housed in academia under arts and humanities, both of which to him have to do with the study of human culture. He says,

Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.

I am also in agreement that metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of physics are not (or are not fundamentally) determined by “human culture,” if there is one such thing, and certainly ought not to be thought of as purely culturally relative. There is a drive to universality in these pursuits, just as there is in physics, math, and biology, for instances. Some commentators on McGinn’s piece took him to task on this point, saying (the obvious truth) that both metaphysics and physics are cultural productions and that cultures are real things. Neither of these truths touch on McGinn’s point, which is that philosophy is studying what is (and not just what we say) and he believes that a systematically organized body of knowledge has been generated over time as a result of this study, and this is what it means to be a science. Thus, philosophy is a science on his view. In one sense, this is indisputable. There is a body of knowledge that one can learn and be certified to have learned. This would include the history of what has gone on under the name philosophy, its practitioners and their ideas, terminology, arguments, etc. However, it is not obvious that there is a systematically organized body of knowledge that has been making a kind of progress over time, as we see in physics, chemistry, and biology. McGinn’s critics would be right to press him on this. Now, it may not be a devastating criticism of philosophy that it does not make progress in the same way as the natural science – see a piece by John Lachs on the matter here – but perhaps this is a warning not to hitch philosophy’s (or “ontic’s”) wagon too exclusively to science’s star.

So why does McGinn suggest a name change? Literally, philosophy means “love of wisdom.” He wonders whether this enough of a description to determine a field of inquiry. He asks rhetorically whether we should not assume that everyone in an educational institution is a lover of wisdom. And he also wonders if by “wisdom” we mean something like practical advice for living. If so, this is not usually the work-product of the academic philosopher (McGinn excepts ethics and political philosophy, but even there these days practical advice is rarely offered, making ethics and political philosophy more like sociology than what it once was). I think McGinn is right about this: academic philosophers are not at all interested in wisdom in this sense.  To that I say: too bad for “us”.

Or let me broaden my lament. I don’t think education in general is interested in wisdom, however much it may pay it lip service. It is interested in occupational competence, technological prowess, and economic relevance, but not in wisdom. On the contrary, the watchword is “value free science.” Who are “we” to teach ethics? And we don’t. We teach about ethics, as if we were sociologists or literary critics and not traditional philosophers interested in the Good. When we grade students in an ethics course, do we grade them on how good they’ve become? No, of course not. We wouldn’t dare. We grade them on how much they know about what others have said about ethics and how well they piece together an argument without regard to its conclusion. And this points to the function of education generally: certification. We are interested in what we can certify, in what we can give a grade for. Philosophy – in the sense that McGinn says is not what “we” do – is not something that can be certified and graded. How would we certify or grade either “love” or “wisdom”? We can’t and don’t. If philosophy, in this sense, is not the sort of thing that can be certified and graded, then McGinn is right that we ought not to be advertising that philosophy is our offering. It really ought to be called something else, perhaps “ontics.”

But if we cannot legitimately explore in an academic setting how it is best for us to be (knowing which would constitute the highest wisdom), then where should we explore it? Where is wisdom to be found? Not in an academic philosophy department, to be sure. But where…?

Actually, the problem is inherent to philosophy itself. A distinction might be kept in mind between the presocratic philosophers and their lineage (so to speak), on the one hand, and Socrates and his lineage, on the other. The presocratic philosophers were, in effect, proto-scientists attempting to move beyond the myths to find explanations of the physical world by way of observation (Thales, for instance) and experimentation (Anaximenes, for instance), who sought rational explanations that might even be at odds with perception and common sense (Pythagoras and Parmenides, for examples). Socrates, on the other hand, was interested in understanding how it is best for human beings to be. He did not find materialist explanations sufficient (consider his disappointment with Anaxogoras as reported in the Phaedo). The presocratic line is of the sort that can be legitimately taught and certified, but the Socratic line is much trickier, if not impossible to institutionalize. In fact, it is inherently destabilizing of institutions. It is all about the dangerous question, and not about a growing organized body of knowledge.

Of course, this is just a rough distinction offered to make a point; reality is, as it always is, more complicated. Socrates, in order to know how it is best for humans to be, had also to be interested in how it was best for anything at all to be.  And in which group would one place Aristotle? On the one hand, much of what he studied is still studied by modern natural science (which was, in fact, built on his foundations, at least initially). On the other hand, in the Nicomachean Ethics he reminds students that the point is not to know about the Good but to be good – not the sort of thing we’re comfortable grading. Aristotle says of his own work in Book II chapter 2:

the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use).

Now we have more of a dilemma. Aristotle is saying that just knowing about the good is of no use! One could conclude, then, that what goes on in academic philosophy courses in terms of ethics is useless. Food for thought, anyway, but the point is that wisdom would be knowing how to be good, and not just about what the good is in a “theoretical” sense, and so academic philosophy is not about wisdom.

At this juncture, one could ask: should we rename academic philosophy for reasons of truth in advertising, or should we remake academic philosophy such that it is actually philosophical?

McGinn wouldn’t like this question, and he thinks that calling what “we” do “Ontics” would get us out of this jam once and for all. He writes:

…“ontics” will certainly not be confused with “philosophy” in the vernacular sense — so no more of that tedious linguistic wrangling about what a “philosopher” is or should be.

We can then leave the word “philosophy” to those practical sages, reputable or disreputable, that tell people how best to live, proudly calling ourselves by a name far more appropriate to what we actually do.

Maybe. I’m interested to how Graham Harman would define philosophy, whether he sees it as the “advice giving” enterprise McGinn wants reserve for that title or as something else. Harman’s blog entry just insists that philosophy is not a science, without saying what he means by that. I would say there is an organized body of knowledge about philosophy, that is, there is a “science” of philosophy. But just as, although there is a science of nature, nature is not a science, so too philosophy is not a science. Or, as I like to put it, philosophy is not an academic discipline like physics or biology is an academic discipline. The discipline we call “philosophy” is mainly about philosophy without being philosophy, just like the discipline called “ethics” is not inherently ethical, nor are ethics professors inherently ethical, or more ethical than others.

I find myself very much interested in undisciplined philosophy. Academic philosophy is certifiable – and where I come from to call someone “certifiable” is to call him crazy. There is a certain insanity in academic rationalism, with all its testing, grading, tenuring, border-patrolling, legalistic legitimizing, and certifying. Now, hey, I’m all for a little craziness now and then myself. But there is also a kind of sanity and reasonableness that comes only from the uncertifiable, anarchic, undisciplined way of living a life that has always been called philosophical. Many of those “we” study couldn’t and still wouldn’t get academic jobs – they wouldn’t get past the gatekeepers. We take up their thoughts, cauterize them (close the wound that gave rise to them), sanitize them, standardize them, embalm them, and plug them into our scientific discipline called “philosophy”? What have we lost of the living philosophy? One wonders….

I’ll close with this: I am all for doing “ontics” (I’m happy just to keep calling it metaphysics, though) in a rigorous, systematic, and even academic manner (so long as we keep loose or porous borders). But philosophy has always, in part but fundamentally, had itself as an object of inquiry. McGinn wants to put a stop to that, it seems. I believe that way lies hybris.

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