Wednesday, January 07, 2015

I doubt anyone is trying to keep up with me here, but in case anyone finds their way to this blog, I wanted to let you know where you can actually find me these days:

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

philosophy of technology postmortem

Last week was the last week of teaching for Spring semester. I asked the students in my Philosophy of Technology course P.D.'s end of term questions:

What authors from the course would you strongly recommending keeping? Which are particularly insightful and valuable to read now?

Which authors would you recommend leaving out next time? Which seem like historical relics with nothing insightful to offer?

(Here's my syllabus for comparison.)

Here are the highlights:
             yay   boo
Heidegger 12 2
Kurzweil 12 6
Dewey 11 1
Mitcham 11 1
Marcuse 9 1
D. Haraway 7 2
Latour 6 3
A. Borgmann 6 0
W. Berry 6 7
H. Dreyfus 1 5

L. Winner 5 2
Habermas 4 1
Ellul 2 3
Feenberg 2 5
Ortega 1 4

D. Browning 4 3
McDermott 3 4
Hickman 1 5
A few interesting things show up, here. I'm rather impressed by the allegiance to Heidegger, given how much we all struggled with it. And the Dreyfus essay we read on Heidegger, which I thought did a lot to help make Heidegger clear, was pretty much panned! (In the same vein, Dewey did well, but Hickman didn't.)

The popularity of Kurzweil is no surprise, as it was a very accessible and exciting book; nor is the fact that a number of students disliked it. I'm really surprised by the number of people who like Carl Mitcham's book. I thought it was a terrible mess myself, full of too-brief summaries of too many figures in a loose organization. Perhaps it is just a reflection of how important it is to have a general secondary source book in a course like this. My inclination is to try to find a better one.

Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway both did remarkably well, considering, especially since I spent very little time on Haraway.

Of the readings that got 12+ responses, Wendell Berry's short piece, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer" was clearly the most controversial. This may be a result of the fact that few students agreed with Berry, but we had a pretty good discussion.

I put that second group aside to show how the "major" philosophers of technology tended to get a fairly lukewarm response. Heidegger, Dewey, Mitcham, Marcuse, and Borgmann are all canonical figures (such as they are) that did fairly well. Winner did okay, and Habermas, Ellul, Feenberg, and Ortega y Gasset didn't do so hot. Likewise, the third group, which are the Americanists (besides Dewey), didn't do so hot.

I haven't talked much to P.D. about how he's used the results of these little questionnaires, but I'm sort of more inclined to keep the controversial or even negatively-ranked authors if they got a very high response rate – it means they had an impact – while junking those that got very low responses, suggesting that students weren't made to care one way or the other.

Also, one student wrote in that next time I should add McLuhan and Derrida to the list.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Opportunity Lost

I received the following unfortunate announcement in my inbox today:
Following nearly fifty years of self-publication, The Southern Journal of Philosophy now appears under the imprint of its new publisher, Wiley-Blackwell. Through increased exposure and assorted logistical and cosmetic updates, the partnership with Wiley-Blackwell promises to broaden the appeal and deepen the impact of the work published in the SJP.
This seems like a move in precisely the wrong direction! I don't have anything personal or professional invested in SJP (I've read a couple of good articles originally printed there, I think), but going from self-publication to a major publishing house is terrible news (whatever one things of Wiley-Blackwell compared to other such publishers). This is a time when the field really needs high-quality, open access journals. It is a time when whole electronic systems for manuscript submission and review can be got cheaply, if not free via open source software. It is a time when online publication is free and easy, and print-on-demand publishing can be had at a reasonable price if a paper copy of the journal is a must. And, as ever, all of the substantive intellectual labor of review and editing is done more or less pro bono by the editorial staff and volunteer referees, and perhaps a couple of meagerly-rewarded graduate students.

So it's really unfortunate in this situation that SJP is going in the direction of more traditional publishing. What a lost opportunity.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Dewey's child-raising practices

One "liberated" practice that would surely have shocked their Ann Arbor neighbors, had they known of it, was alluded to much later in a letter by Dewey to W.E. Hocking. He told the somewhat genteel philosopher that "during the critical years of the sex-development of their children, Mrs. Dewey and he would go around the house in the nude." (Joseph Ratner believed that this was the reason the children talked about sex so freely.)
Jay Martin, The Education of John Dewey, 132-3.

For Sabrina

I am thinking of you, and my darling I do want you so this evening.... Oh, sweetheart, you are the centre of everything, so that my being would be torn by its attraction to its centre, were you not the circumference of everything also. My own self, I love you---and it is hard to be without one's self. My own life, I love you---and it is hard to live without one's life. But darling you are my self and my life and so I can be and live.... Darling, how did you ever manage to do away with and put out of sight so thoroughly my old doing & my old thinking, and fill my self so full of you? [You] ... found a home for me, who had been homeless before, because I was always looking for you.
-- John Dewey to Alice Chipman, Christmas 1885, quoted in Jay Martin, The Education of John Dewey, pp. 91-2.
Sweetheart, I have found that I am only an abstractly subjective standpoint without you.
-- John Dewey to Alice Chipman, Christmas 1885 (?), quoted in Martin p. 103

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dewey Birthday Conference, Day II, part 1

This is my second post about the Dewey sesquicentennial conference. Read day 1 here.

Yesterday began with Ruth Anna Putnam on "Dewey's Faith," continuing the discussion from last night by Larry Hickman. Overall, the conversation convinced me that I need to read and take more seriously Dewey's A Common Faith.

Putnam started with a general description of Dewey's naturalism:
  1. No appeal to supernatural entities could play a role in solving philosophical problem.
  2. Belief in a supernatural being had pernicious effects on one's ability to deal with personal and social problems.

Then she argued that Dewey, following James, thought that experiences appropriately called "religious" are found in all communities. Such experience is valuable, and would be moreso if free from traditional religion & the supernaturalism, which simply hinder what is valuable in genuine religious experience and religious practice.

What is valuable about the religious experience? Not its cause or quality, but its effects. It leads to positive readjustment in one's attitude to life. Such an adjustment is very important. One sees the things one values forming a unified whole, in terms of a unified and unifying ideal. Such ideals, Dewey was always keen to argue, have important effects in concrete life, by which we judge them.

Examples of the "religious life," in Dewey's sense, can be found in art, science, and good citizenship. That's because all of these ways of life are guided by ideal ends. Dewey wrote A Common Faith to make explicit the implicit "religious" values (ideal ends) in science and our common life, especially democracy. We seek truth, beauty, justice, a common good. We have faith in the world's amenability to scientific inquiry; we have faith in the power of democracy. We learn these faiths, not blindly, but slowly, given their value as organizing principles in out lives.

Next up, I'll talk about the panel sessions...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dewey Birthday Conference, Day I

Today was the first day of the Dewey Sesquicentennial Conference. You can see my play-by-play thoughts on my Twitter account, but I thought I'd do a quick wrap-up of my thoughts before hitting the bed. Of course, I'm paraphrasing what I took them to be saying, and I may have gotten it quite wrong. This is how it sounded to me and what I thought.

Paul Kurtz gave the first lecture, "Looking Ahead: What are the Prospects for Dewey’s Philosophy in the Future?" This was full of personal anecdotes about Dewey (Kurtz met Dewey when Kurtz was a grad student at Columbia), some quite general comments about Dewey's philosophy, and some reflections on how our current situation, especially the difference in our scientific knowledge after the last 50 years or so, changes the way that we think about Dewey's philosophy.

What Kurtz said was that we know much more about just how contingent the evolution of the human species has been, and now that we have a less romantic account of it than even the early Darwinians, we can see just how uncertain human prospects are. What will come hinges on unpredictable contingencies. Dewey's philosophy gives us a way of understanding ourselves and the world that gives full credence to this, while nevertheless providing some sense of hope.

I would add that most philosophers, who fail to recognize the degree of precariousness and uncertainty in nature, and who give a relatively rosy picture of the likelihood of the growth of knowledge and justice, are deluding themselves.

What Kurtz thinks we need to add to Dewey is a kind of "planetary ethos," which seems like it combines universal empathy for all human beings, and something like a Leopoldian "land ethic," a sense of our responsibility to the natural world.

Larry Hickman then gave a talk on "John Dewey's Spiritual Values." I've heard Hickman speak before and I always consider it a pleasure. At the beginning, he mentioned several projects ongoing at the Center for Dewey Studies. Most exciting, from my perspective, is that they're going to be publishing a bunch of Dewey's lecture notes. Apparently, Dewey's students hired professional stenographers, and the Center has that stuff.

According to Hickman, Dewey was opposed militant atheism and militant supernaturalism. If we understand "atheism" to mean simply, not a theist, then Dewey admits that he is an atheist. But, Dewey said, the popular meaning of atheism is denial of all ideal values, and I'm not an atheist in that sense. Dewey's "spirituality" is thus a kind of "moral idealism," an insistence on the reality of moral ideals.

Now, Dewey was aware that "spiritual" is a problematic term, with a long history of abuse. The problem is that there has been an unwarranted separation of spiritual from material. So spiritual/ideal values are seen as separate from material world. Dewey thinks there is something to our use of "spirituality" that is important, that militant atheism doesn't capture.

According to Hickman, Dewey's conception of spiritual values are just as relevant today, situated as we are in the cultural battleground between religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists.

There was some really interesting discussion after this, though I must admit it was getting a bit late in the day for me to process it very well. I'll just reproduce the notes I have on three key points, paraphrasing what I took them to be saying:

Paul Kurtz: There's a crisis in secular humanism. We need a "natural reverence" that the New Atheists cannot capture.

Larry Hickman: There's "spirituality" in the sense of moral ideals, and in the sense of wonder. Dewey wanted to capture both. And "spiritual" can act as an important talisman for coalition building with religious humanists.

Philip Kitcher: Values aren't beliefs; commitments, promises, hopes, emotions are the right cognitive attitudes. The problem with the New Atheism is they identify religion w/ a set of beliefs. But it's also community structure, values, hopes, etc. James and Dewey saw this clearly. This is one reason that A Common Faith is so valuable.

Looking forward to a full day tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

John Dewey's 150th Birthday Celebration (10/22-24)

This weekend, I'm going to be at John Dewey's 150th Birthday Celebration: An International Conference on Dewey's Impact on America and the World. I'm going to be presenting a paper, "Dewey on Science", which lays out some of the key features of Dewey's philosophy of science, with some special reference to issues of concern for contemporary debates about science. Largely, the focus will be on giving a systematic explanation of the core of Dewey's philosophy of science, though of course in a 20 minute conference paper, some important stuff will be left out.

I'll be blogging about the conference live, here and on twitter, as much as possible.