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Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 7:27 pm  Comments (1)  

Thick and many-legged

“Cruel” simply ignores the supposed fact / value dichotomy and cheerfully allows itself to be used sometimes for a normative purpose and sometimes as a descriptive term. (Indeed, the same is true of the term “crime”.) In the literature, such concepts are often referred to as “thick concepts”.

Hilary Putnam, The Collapse of the Fact / Value Distinction (“FV”), Harvard, 2002, p. 35.

It is as if they wanted to see ethics as a noble statue standing at the top of a single pillar. My image is rather different. My image would be a table with many legs. We all know that a table with many legs wobbles when the floor on which it stands is not even, but such a table is very hard to turn over, and that is how I see ethics…..

Hilary Putnam, Ethics Without Ontology (“EO”), Harvard, 2004, p. 28.

Reason has its use not only in the pursuit of a given set of objectives and values, but also in scrutinizing the objectives and values themselves.

Amartya Sen, Rationality and Freedom (“R&F”), p.39.

Like Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Hilary Putnam and Amartya Sen propose new directions for their disciplines, and Sen (the instigator) goes further and actually begins doing the ethically thick economics work he advocates. The sad thing is that these authors are really only saying that we should begin to repair the damage done by 70 years or more of positivist dominance. Their thesis — that valid ethical discourse is possible and not inimical to science — is actually revolutionary only for a few contemporary academic disciplines, and was taken for granted by most philosophers and economics before about 1930 (as it still is today by most non-experts). (more…)

Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 3:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Les Érudits Maudits

Les Érudits Maudits: Education and Class

Part One: Humanities Education Today

For liberals, one of the goals of education is to make upward mobility possible, and upward mobility is usually though of as somehow egalitarian. There are two problems with this way of thinking.   First, while all egalitarians and populists initially agree that the lower classes (however they might be named) should have the same opportunities as the upper classes, every individual wants their own children to have only the best. Neither the old middle class nor the newly-arrived upward-mobile middle class is willing to take the chance that their children might end up spending their lives as truck drivers or as fast food workers.

Second, all schemes for upward mobility through education implicitly recognize that some will be left behind. Some of the children of truck drivers will drive trucks too. If the whole working class at any given time were raised up into the middle class, someone else would have to do the working-class work that still needed to be done. (The academic grading function exists for the primary purpose of separating the sheep and the goats, sending some students into the upper class while other fall into the working class). (more…)

Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  


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Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 3:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why the Mongols?

The real question  about the Mongols is, “Why did they win, and why did they win so big?” The Mongol empire is the great singularity in human history, though I’m sure that there are others in human prehistory: how did two or three million nomads — a nation without cities or writing — manage to conquer over half of Eurasia in less than a century? Invasions and raids on wealthy states by their poorer neighbors are a historical constant, but nobody asks “Why the Petchenegs?” or “Why the Xianbei?”, or “Why the Sarmatians?”.  Genghis Khan’s Mongols were a real puzzle, like nothing that had ever been seen before.

The military advantages of nomad armies

It begins with the military advantages of the steppe. The harsh, dry climate of inner Eurasia is agriculturally much less productive than that of the sedentary world, so the vast interior spaces of the content are extremely thinly populated, and the population is small even in absolute numbers. (It has been estimated that the Chinese outnumbered the Xiongnu and their allies 30 to 1, but the Xiongnu were a thorn in China’s side for centuries). But the agricultural wealth which the nomads lacked was compensated for by huge numbers of sheep and horses, which made possible enormous cavalry armies which the sedentary world could not come close to matching. Furthermore, pastoralism is not labor-intensive, especially not in the fall when wars are usually fought, and the Mongols could mobilize 10% of their total population on an ongoing basis, and as much as 30% for a brief period. (more…)

Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 2:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Attendant Lords

“I said I never read anyone who takes philosophy personally or confuses philosophy with things that matter in their little lives”

– Philosopher cited in Wilshire, 2002, p. 1, explaining why he never read William James

Over the last several decades many books, often by insiders in the discipline, have have been written to argue that American philosophy is in trouble1. It has been argued that its dominant school, analytic philosophy, “has done its work” and that philosophy is thus left without tasks to accomplish. Some even argue that analytic philosophy ceased to exist at the very moment when it became institutionally dominant, by which time the analytic philosophers themselves had refuted most of the core principles of the school’s founders.

Brian Leiter claims that that this is all irrelevant and maybe even a good thing — “analytic philosophy” is no longer a restrictive term, and “analytic philosophy is just good philosophy”2. But this is unconvincing: contemporary academic philosophy is still dominated by the the supposedly non-existent analytic style, tendency, school, stance, paradigm, or whatever you want to call it, and academic philosophy still excludes philosophers who are too far removed from the analytic tradition. And despite all the books talking about a crisis of identity or the need to find a new direction, the rebellions have all been quashed, and the philosophy biz still proceeds imperturbably on its way, steadily continuing to train, certify, hire, promote, and tenure new analytic philosophers. (more…)

Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 2:43 am  Leave a Comment