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Research Institute for Humanity and Nature

RIHN-posterMichael O’Rourke and I just returned from Kyoto, Japan, where we spoke and conducted Toolbox workshops with the environmental researchers at the national Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN).

On the first day, we spoke on problems of communication and collaboration in cross-disciplinary research. As a way of introducing the problem, I compared inter- and transdisciplinary research (collectively cross-disciplinary research, CDR) to the game Double Cranko, which comes from an old episode of M*A*S*H. The game is a cross between chess, checker, poker, and gin (both the drink and the rummy).RIHN2There are no rules; players make them up as they go along. The problem for CDR is much worse. Imagine 2 scientists from different disciplines working on a research project and 2 non-research stakeholders in that project (say one from government and another from business). Each knows one game only, and all the rules, terms, and objectives of that game. In collaborating on this project, they have to develop a way to integrate 4 different games (chess, checker, poker, and gin) into one game. But they don’t even speak the same game language. A point we emphasized over the two days with the RIHN researchers is the need for a co-creation of meaning of ambiguous terms or concepts for effective collaboration.

In the morning workshop of the first day, we facilitated dialogues among the researchers to begin that process of co-creation of meaning. They had to negotiate various ambiguous terms that we gave them in a set of prompts. In the afternoon session, the researchers broke into their research teams to produce a concept map of their projects from which to find project-specific ambiguous terms or concepts that will have to be negotiated with their projects’ non-research stakeholders.

[cross-posted at]

Gossip and Its Limits

The timing was rather fortuitous that as I finish final revisions for my forthcoming article on gossip in The Monist (“Character, Caricature, and Gossip”), news breaks about soon-to-be-released app Peeple. The Washington Post billed it as “Yelp, but for humans.”

This is a terrible idea, as the internet quickly pointed out [here, here, here, here, and here]. Others can review you whether or not you’ve created a profile on the site. You can’t opt-out. You can dispute a negative comment or rating, but not remove it.

Rather than rehashing all reasons that Peeple is a terrible idea (and see here for a prior comedic exploration of why it is), I want to focus on what this tells us about the importance of context for gossip.

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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.

Showing the Greats (a Thing or Two)

Sometimes as I stare at the blinking cursor while waiting for the coffee to kick in so I can write, I end up daydreaming a bit. At times the daydream takes the form of imagining I were conversing with various “great” philosophers from various points in history. I always end up wondering if they would understand or recognize as philosophy any number of contemporary philosophical methods, ideas, arguments, or positions. What would Plato, for instance, think of contemporary modal logic? How well would Kant or Anselm receive an explanation of Kripke’s Naming and Necessity? Or what would Aristotle think of feminist work in ethics of care?

Recently, there has been posts on Daily Nous and The Philosophers’ Cocoon on what contemporary philosophy should the “greats” read. The ensuing discussion has brought these daydreams to my mind’s surface. I agree that it’s a fun question to ask, since often imagine conversations with the “greats.” But if this question is to serve as a proxy for what works in contemporary philosophy are good or demonstrate progress in the field, then this is the right question. Instead I think there is a better question to ask, one that is more enlightening, even if unanswerable. What contemporary philosophy should the next great philosophers read? 

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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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Flags, Racism, and Mixed Messages

The “Confederate Flag”1 should be taken down immediately, at the South Carolina capitol and on any other state grounds (in SC or elsewhere). That it took a racist terrorist attack on Emanuel AME Church and the death of nine people to bring this point into the national conversation is a lamentable and reprehensible. I’m hardly alone in this call. There are a number of petitions ( here, here, and here for instance) that one can sign (and I urge you to do so). Here I want to offer a philosophical analysis and rejection of a common argument against removing it.

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Back from the NIH

I just returned from SciTS 2015 at the National Institutes of Health, where I represented the Toolbox Project (along with Stephen Crowley). I presented some of my ongoing research on philosophical distinctions between various branches of science. In our role working with a wide variety of scientists on interdisciplinary research teams, we have found that differences in worldviews often differ by disciplines. And many of these differences are philosophical in nature.

This research in philosophy of science is continuing to progress. I am lead author on two papers in the works right now on this topic, so I expect I will have more to say about it soon (I hope) after additional presentations and publications.

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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The myth of unified philosophy

maxresdefaultOf late, there has been an interest in our online community on the status of philosophy. Harry Frankfurt and Brian Leiter believe philosophy is in the doldrums, lacking any “agenda-setters” to unify the discipline and create significant movement or progress. I disagreed. Zachary Ernst, formerly an associate professor of philosophy, contends that philosophy lacks unity as a discipline; philosophy is a magpie collections of questions, methods, texts, topics, and thinkers. And he takes this to be a lamentable state for the field. Both of these views, I believe, are based on the myth of a unified philosophy. Ernst is right: philosophy is not unified. But it has not been, will not be, and should not be unified. This lack of unity is a virtue of philosophy, not a vice.

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Philosophy in the Doldrums? Hardly

Brian Leiter recently shared this excerpt from Harry Frankfurt’s contribution to Portraits of American Philosophy:

Harry FrankfurtI believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts.  In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines–and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded.  We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing  us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet.  We seem, more or less, to be marking time.  (pp. 125-126)

With respect, I think Frankfurt couldn’t be more wrong. Philosophy is hardly in the doldrums. This comment both misrepresents the contemporary status of our discipline and typifies an antiquated notion of what constitutes non-doldrum, energetic, thriving, and creative philosophy.

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