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The Danger of Philosophy

Tania Lambrozo recently argued that philosophy’s “tools for critical evaluation run counter to another valuable set of tools: our tools for effective social engagement.” Philosophers’ training teaches them to critically analyze statements, which is a degree of scrutiny that most statements made in typical, social conversation are not meant to withstand. Applying our philosophical tools outside of philosophy, Lambrozo argues, is socially determinantal. Danielle Wenner, while agreeing with Lambrozo’s hypothesis, contends that philosophers should not learn to “turn it off” sometimes (at least outside of academic settings). Continue reading

Strength of a Democracy

democracyChurchill did warn us, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Plato warned us, too: “So tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.”

Something I take away from these thoughts is that necessarily democracies have a non-zero chance of producing a demagogue. Any democracy, given a long enough time will produce a leader that rises to power by whipping up the base fears and prejudices of the mob. It will eventually happen.

There are, therefore, two tests of a democracy: (1) How often does any particular democracy allow such a demagogue to rise to the heights of power? (2) How does the state/society respond when (1) occurs? Together, these questions ask how well a democracy does at preserving itself, at prevent itself from devolving into any of “those other forms” of government.  Continue reading

Character, Caricature, and Gossip

My  article “Character, Caricature, and Gossip” is now available in the new edition of The Monist. Here’s the abstract:

Gossip is rarely praised. There seems little virtuous that is about talking behind someone’s back. Whether there is anything virtuous about gossip, however, depends on the kind of gossip. Some gossip is idle, but some evaluative gossip promulgates and enforces norms. When properly motivated, such gossip effects positive change in society and counts as gossiping well. The virtue of gossiping well even includes some kinds of false gossip, namely the sort that exaggerates a pre-existing trait, thereby creating a caricature of a person’s character in order to establish a moral exemplar (or anti-exemplar).

Forthcoming publications

Two articles of mine are set to come out in the next month or three. I’m excited and proud of both and will share more when they actually become available. In the meantime, here’s a brief overview (or teaser) of what’s to come:

Character, Caricature, and GossipThe Monist – Gossip doesn’t get much attention and has traditionally been regarded as universally bad. (Just call someone a gossip and see how they react.) In this paper, I focused on trait-based gossip, specifically gossip that attributes virtues or vices. In that context, I argue that there is such as thing as gossiping well. It can rightly be considered a virtue, even though such gossip often creates a caricature of the person gossiped about; typically they are not as villainous or vicious as the gossip makes them out to be.

Human Values and the Value of Humanities in Interdisciplinary Research, Cogent Arts & Humanities (lead author, with S. E. Vasko, C. Gonnerman, M. Christen, and M. O’Rourke) – Research integrating the perspectives of different disciplines, or interdisciplinary research, has become increasingly common in academia and is considered important for its ability to address complex questions and problems. This mode of research aims to leverage differences among disciplines in generating a more complex understanding of the research landscape. To interact successfully with other disciplines, researchers must appreciate their differences, and this requires recognizing how the research landscape looks from the perspective of other disciplines. One central aspect of these disciplinary perspectives involves values, and more specifically, the roles that values do, may, and should play in research practice. It is reasonable to think that disciplines differ in part because of the different views that their practitioners have on these roles. This paper represents a step in the direction of evaluating this thought. Operating at the level of academic branches, which comprise relevantly similar disciplines (e.g., social and behavioral sciences), this paper uses quantitative techniques to investigate whether academic branches differ in terms views on the impact of values on research. Somewhat surprisingly, we find very little relation between differences in these views and differences in academic branch. We discuss these findings from a philosophical perspective to conclude the paper.

Publication in Clinical and Translational Science

In January, Michael O’Rourke and I traveled to Columbia University to conduct Toolbox workshops with graduate students in the College of Nursing taking the Building Interdisciplinary Research Models. We partnered with Amanda Hessels, Elaine Larson, and Melissa Begg, who continued to use the Toolbox Health Science Instrument in the course for the remainder of the term. We collectively wrote up how the Toolbox was deployed in that course and our findings from the student’s responses, which has just been published in Clinical and Translational ScienceWood burn

Last Minute Epistemology

No, this post is not on the epistemology of the last minute (though in the framework of epistemic contextualism, that could be interesting). Rather, this is about the Epistemology course I picked up at the last minute. One of my colleague’s here at Michigan State was unexpectedly buried in a heap of administrative work and could no longer teach PHL 460: Epistemology. I agreed to take the course on as an overload assignment on top of my research duties for the Toolbox Project.

Classes started today and I am excited to be back in the classroom again. I’m also trying a few new things in this class. First, I’m adopting and adapting the Toolbox dialogue method for use in the classroom, as first ruminated here last year. In the Toolbox Project, we use philosophically focused dialogue to foster improved communication and collaboration among interdisciplinary research teams. To do this, we first present these teams with a set of modules, each with a set of prompts on a common theme or question. Participants in our workshops first respond to each prompt by marking their agreement or disagreement with each prompt. They then dialogue as a team about their responses to these prompts.

In the classroom, this method looks a bit different. Today, after going over the syllabus, I handed out one module on an introduction to epistemology. It had 6 prompts, including “You can know something without believing it,” and “Whether something counts as knowledge depends on how sure you are about it.” Since it was the start of term, most students had zero background in epistemology. But by giving them simple statements in terms they can understand from the outset, they were able to from views on these prompts. Then I set them to discussing the prompts with each other. I often heard students working to come up with examples to support the views they had.

The point of this exercise was threefold. First, it introduced them to topics will be covering in the next few weeks, so that when they start doing the readings, they feel like they have some conception of what is being discussed. Second, it got them teaching each other through dialogue. Due to my academic roots in Classics (especially Plato), I still think dialogue is where a lot of the best philosophy happens. Third, they and I can track any changes in their views. I collected their initial responses and gave them the same prompts again after the dialogue. I will give it to them again at the end of this first section of the course.

That is just one of the new and fun things going on in Epistemology this term. I may post more as the course progresses.

Off Topic: Greek and German Debts

6a00d8341d417153ef014e893bd4de970d-800wiOff Topic is a new series where I discuss matters not immediately pertaining to philosophy. For the first installment, I want to discuss a particular aspect of the current Greek Debt Crisis.

This week, Greece’s MPs approved another austerity package in order to receive another round of bailout loans. Prior to this vote, however, the IMF said that Greece needs debt relief. In other words, the Troika must recognize that in order to save Greece, the current Eurozone, and be repaid by Greece, they must let Greece off for some of what it owes.

As has been widely covered, the German government have been one of the main sources of demands for more austerity (including higher taxes, more cuts in spending, and pension cuts). Germany has strongly resisted any call for Greek debt relief, in part because they are the ones who’ll lose the most by writing off some of the debt. Greece owes them €56bn. While I understand that they want their money back, the fact that they are so unwilling to offer any debt relief is quite the historical irony.

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Self-Promotion in the Age of the Unread

Two interesting posts appeared on Daily Nous this week. First, there was the depressing-but-not-surprising news that for most humanities articles simply aren’t read or cited (No One is Listening). Second, there was a legitimate question on the permissibilityOld_book_bindings of self-promotion in philosophy (Norms of Self-Promotion).They’re both worth reading on their own. But I want to focus now on the relationship between academic self-promotion and living in the age of the unread (articles). A big part of the reason that self-promotion has become more of the norm is to try to get one’s scholarship read.

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