Plato’s suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Julian Baggini discusses the issue of philanthropy and asks whether there is an ethical problem when it verges on sheer self-promotion.

Interesting analysis of the Byzantine way in which the GOP conducts its primaries, and of the surprising effects it may have during the upcoming Presidential campaign.

I may be particularly dense, scientistic even, but I just don’t think Markus Gabriel’s book on why the world doesn’t exist is what contemporary metaphysics needs. Then again, it’s apparently selling like hot cakes…

Yet another analysis of the puzzling (just kidding) mystery of why there are so few conservative university professors. This one, for a change, is from a progressive perspective.

I’m getting fed up with both techno-optimists and techno-phobes. You tell me what you think.

27 thoughts on “Plato’s suggestions

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Quick takes:

    1. Baggini? Utilitarianism applies on the receiver, the cause, etc., while trying to ignore or mask the self-promotion, which is clearly involved. Massimo, you know that from the “buying” of endowed chairs in academia. That said, when said donor also tries to influence an issue?

    2. 538? Overrated, IMO.

    3. Gabriel, I’ll look at it and Philips link later, but meh is probably the word.

    4. Agreed with Linker as a partial, but not total, explanation. The natural sciences also “tilt liberal,” after all.

    5. Jimi Hendrix is an author/journalist? More seriously, utilitarianism is the issue. I bought my first CD player back at the start of the 1990s when they first were cheap enough I could afford. Still have a “dumbphone” because I have little need for a smartphone, have no desire to be “always on” and have no desire for either Big Government or Big Biz to have the more precise geodata etc off a smartphone.


  2. Thomas Jones

    I think, at this point in my life, it best for me to stay away from the likes of Prof Gabriel. My first encounter with him was via a 3am Magazine interview between Richard Marshall and him (link to follow). Now, I can honestly say that I turn to these interviews mostly for Marshall’s entertaining introductions and for the response to his first question which is usually some variation on what occurs in this one: “What made you become a philosopher?”

    I usually enjoy the responses, then get lost further along, and then skip to Marshall’s last question which always asks the interviewee to list five books he might recommend to the reader. I challenge any reader here to say that he can read this interview in its entirety and in one sitting without suffering brain-lock.

    In my case, it brought back a memory of an episode from my graduate school days when a group of us were indulging in a long night of substance abuse and disjointed commentary on literary criticism. As a few were finally leaving, someone in our party in exasperation said to another, “You are the kind of person who likes to argue about what to call cheese with holes in it.” And before the other had a chance to respond, she added, “And I just call it Swiss.” We all had a good laugh and then someone else wisely changed the subject.


  3. Thomas Jones

    One might think that Hendrix’s “Ghost in the Machine” would be my sort of thing given my formal educational background. Hendrix demonstrates a remarkably even-tempered approach in her review of Sven Birkerts’s book and, it seems to me, a command of the subject matter. But I would have been happier if she found a way to shorten this piece and had just ended the matter with:

    “On its face, Birkerts’s critique is a fairly common one. Perhaps he knows this and so trades sweeping judgments for interrogations of his own vague sense of anxiety, his email use, his skimming of articles online. The pronouns are often plural, suggesting universalism, but the arguments are subjective: “The existence of the medium has created an unremitting low-intensity neural disquiet that we somehow feel only the medium can allay,” he writes. “We are on the run from the anxious vibration of our living.” Close-reading his own responses, though, he finds himself groping to describe what he is running toward.”

    I remember some serious conversation years ago about the deleterious effects that hand-held calculators would have on young minds and their ability to perform rudimentary math. My then wife and I had to make allowances in our budget to purchase an $80 Bowen calculator. She was majoring in accounting and passed her CPA exam on her first attempt. She was just really smart, and the calculator had little to do with this fact.

    I remember examining black and white photos of subway riders in their private worlds heading to or from work. Now I examine color photos of subway riders in their private worlds heading to or from work. If a few of the riders are using smart phones, the story line is largely the same for me as it was in the black and white photos.

    Like Socratic, I only have a flip phone because it serves a need. I have no need of a smart phone. At the same time, if I become annoyed while driving behind someone who is multi-tasking with a smart phone, it’s not because I fear he is doing damage to his soul. Rather, it’s because he is risking physical damage to himself and others *and* he is slowing me down. 🙂

    I don’t think I would enjoy Mr. Birkert’s self-indulgence, but then that may be because he is not self-indulgent in the way I want to be self-indulgent. Anyway, good luck to both Birkert and Hendrix.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Christian Giliberto

    Call me a fellow dense scientismist, but I’m not particularly impressed with the sort of thing Gabriel is doing either. Between the 3am interview that Thomas Jones linked and reviews, I have the same reaction to Gabriel’s work that I usually have to that sort of metaphysics; some of it is very clever, much of it is very muddled, and I see no reason to accept any of it. I am sympathetic to Gabriel on one specific topic, namely the idea that to exist is to be a spatiotemporal object, but this seems to be more a pathology of analytic metaphysics than naturalism or science, as people like Ladyman & Ross, Maudlin etc. argue.

    I also didn’t think Jeffries’ review was very good qua review, and not simply because it’s sympathetic to Gabriel. He spends the first third-to-half of the review throwing out Dawkins-bashing red meat (not that I have any problem with criticizing Dawkins on philosophical grounds, but to me it reads as simply an easy/cheap way to score points here) and he seems to regard the book primarily as a salvo in Science Wars 2: The Revenge. I got the sense, however, that Gabriel is trying to criticize what he sees as a recurring metaphysical theme in the history of philosophy, of which scientific naturalism is simply the most philosophically influential contemporary example. I could be wrong about this, of course, not having read the book, but I got very different senses of Gabriel’s work from the Guardian review and the 3am interview.

    Changing tracks, Massimo, I’m with you 100% on being tired both of glib techno-optimists and romanticist technophobes. The technophiles sometimes come off as very, sometimes dangerously naive, but the technophobes often come off as just rationalizing their own dislikes and discomforts.


  5. Massimo Post author


    “some of it is very clever, much of it is very muddled, and I see no reason to accept any of it”

    Yeah, that retry much sums it up for me!

    And we agree also on the techno-phobic/philiacs.


  6. brodix

    At the risk of appearing obsessive, I did find the essay on liberal versus conservative academia a clear expression of a point I keep making about these political polarities and how they reflect the binary nature of energy and form. In that liberalism is the dynamic expansion that propels toward the future, while conservatism is the form that settles out as the past.
    The irony here is that what starts as radical and new, eventually becomes settled and established. The classic example being that Jesus was certainly a radical in his day, but is bedrock to western conservatism today.
    There are many aspects of this, such as libertarianism as a form of economic expansionism, often in a predatory manner not particularly appealing to more social liberals.
    Think of it in terms of the seasons, with liberalism as the spring bursting forth, while conservatism as the the hard cold winter setting in. The effect being a bit of a pendulum swinging between these poles and creating a layering effect over time.
    This would also explain why conservatives tend to be better at organization. Though without a significant understanding of where they are going, since order tends toward stagnation and needs some vitalizing energy.
    So yes, those professions which tend toward exploring the potential are naturally liberal, while those which are more structured are more likely to be conservative minded.
    It should also be noted though, often seemingly liberal academics will get stuck in ruts that become effectively conservative over time, given that the nature of the institution requires structure.
    As Robert Frost said, If you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart and if you are not conservative when you are old, you have no head.
    Energy and form.


  7. Bob Calder

    While the argument for liberal versus conservative is comforting, I wonder if the effect strength of _decline_ of conservative orientation is more important than reassuring us. It’s certainly troubling to see him dismiss the corpus of _recent research_ in support of research.


  8. Daniel Kaufman

    Yet another analysis of the puzzling (just kidding) mystery of why there are so few conservative university professors.


    I think that even this perception reflects a somewhat skewed viewpoint.

    My university — not small — has tons of conservative, even fundamentalist Christian, professors. Indeed, they populate much of the Business School.

    In town is also an evangelical college, which is part of the ultra Right Wing Assemblies of God. I am pretty confident that many of their professors are conservatives.

    There are a lot of towns like mine, in the US, and lots of universities and colleges as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. SocraticGadfly

    Dan, it’s not just small or private schools, either. There are larger universities deliberately working, in multiple departments, to expand their attractiveness to the right wing world. U of Chicago and George Mason come immediately to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. brodix

    Then again, what do liberalism versus conservatism currently have on offer? What are the grand schemes for the future, arising from the progressive point of view? Other than various group identity causes, the only actual light I see seems to be coming from the Saunders, Warren direction and various blogs supporting them. Thomas Pikkety is the closest to left thinking, that takes a broader sweep of the actual conditions and the processes leading to them. As it is, all the identity movements, from refugees to gay rights, have no great intellectual vision, just empathy for the downtrodden. At least conservatism has structures of the past to point to, even though they are usually just cover for the powers that be.
    The natural dynamic does strongly suggest that some significant break with the past is on the verge of occurring, whether entirely negative, or leading to some further progression of humanity, but there doesn’t seem to be much debate from an academic community that seems mostly concerned with job security and layering on ever more layers of analysis and debate over subjects that some of which have been discussed for literally millennia.


  11. Robin Herbert

    I don’t think there is a universe either (or at least I don’t think that there is a reason to suppose there is one), but I don’t think I am ready for Po Po Mo (why do I suddenly have this Beach Boys earworm, I wonder?)..

    Then again I don’t think modern physics actually rules out the possibility of unicorns on the other side of the moon. With numberless infinities of infinite multiverses, there must surely be somewhere just like this but with unicorns on the moon who always migrate to stay on the side facing away from the Earth.

    Of course it would be crushingly unlikely that we could be in that world. But then again, probabilities among infinite things is a bit tricky, so you never know.

    Maybe there is a happy meeting place between scientism and Po Po Mo after all.


  12. Philip Thrift

    At this point I think that Gabriel’s “fields of sense” (Fields of Sense: A New Realist Ontology by Markus Gabriel, Reviewed by Tom Sparrow) is, from a codicalistic view, another confusing of (one of our babel of) languages with substrate: sense fields is just another language (instrument) invented to try to make sense of the extralinguistic (extracodical, noumenic) substrate (reality) of nature.


  13. Coel

    Just seen on Richard Dawkins’s twitter feed:

    “Spent the eve with 4 philosophers trying to convince myself we need them. Surely we can all think clearly anyway? Then I remembered Twitter.”

    [Shameless attempt to liven this thread up 🙂 Can claim it is vaguely on-topic since Dawkins and philosophy are mentioned in the Markus Gabriel book review.]


  14. Massimo Post author


    On a more serious note, that comment by Dawkins, which was uttered after an evening spent with Philosophy Bites host Nigel Warburton was, well, foolish. Surely Dawkins has met plenty of people who cannot think clearly, even outside Twitter…


  15. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    It may not be sense to over-interpret a flippant tweet, however:

    I presume what he was asking himself was whether we need philosophers as a separate group of people, and whether philosophy itself is a distinct discipline, as oppose to the critical thinking being done as part of and in conjunction with other disciplines.

    As I’ve said before, from my scientistic perspective, “philosophy” is not something different from broad-definition science, but is rather a style of doing science, in the same way that experiment, observation, theorising, and computational modelling, are all different styles of doing science.

    The point then is that all of these styles are best done in close conjunction with the others, and are worst done if they see themselves as distinct and so head off on their own.


  16. Massimo Post author


    Seems much more obvious to me, both historically and conceptually, that it is science that is a particular style of doing philosophy, not the other way around…

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    … it is science that is a particular style of doing philosophy, not the other way around…

    Sure, I’m ok with that. The difference is largely labeling. And it is indeed true that the “modern scientific method” was developed and honed over time through finding out what methods of enquiry work, and thus “natural philosophy” could be said to have arisen from philosophy.

    The important issue is whether there are big epistemological divides between different areas of knowledge that have different “ways of knowing”; or whether the world, and thus knowledge, is essentially unified. If one accepts the latter then I’m not too fussed what one calls the ensemble.

    A related epistemological issue is whether we can can learn anything about the world other than by empirical contact with the world (again, are there other “ways of knowing”, which scientism rejects).


  18. Philip Thrift

    “As Robert Frost said, If you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart and if you are not conservative when you are old, you have no head.”

    Apparently John Adams said it first, but even so, today it is the opposite.

    The juvenile is represented by today’s conservatives (the “Freedom Caucus” Republicans), steeped in the radical Atlas Shrugged libertarian philosophy of teenaged boys, while the mature is represented by today’s liberals (the “Progressive Caucus” Democrats), defending and preserving the programs and goals of the social-democratic welfare state.


  19. Philosopher Eric

    Well Coel has once again livened things up, or at least for me.


    Seems much more obvious to me, both historically and conceptually, that it is science that is a particular style of doing philosophy, not the other way around…

    Massimo, I also find your observation useful. I just hope you’re ready for charges that you’re a “philosophyismist.” 🙂 But as long as all topics addressing “reality” are considered together as one interrelated entity, and so we get away from childish duels for respect among various specialists, then I am pleased. I believe we must formally acknowledge that without various generally accepted philosophical understandings, our mental and behavioral sciences shall remain quite primitive. This is why I’m here, and certainly hope that each of us does seek progress…

    I’m sure you didn’t realize it Massimo, but including a Julian Baggini essay might be construed as a trap. Didn’t I read somewhere that he was something like a mentor to you? If true, then great piece! Of course I do tend to jump into difficult situations regardless. I actually consider us to all be selfish beings, and even the most liberal subscriber to “The Guardian.” Some of us are simply better liars than others of us. Is it true that some demand profitable recognition for “charitably” parting themselves with millions? Well then off with their heads!

    As far as Markus Gabriel’s book goes, I don’t get much further than René Descartes — yes I do know that I exist, though I can’t be sure that anything else does.

    No smart phones? Well that’s just silly talk. They’ve satisfied most all of my own computing needs since 2007. The only problem I see in this regard, is the legacy of Steve Jobs which mandates that keyboards shall remain “virtual” rather than “hard.” I consider this to be a horrible turn of events for the industry. This has forced me to milk a 4g slide out Motorola for years (my third one) with no sign of a reasonable keyboarded replacement.


  20. brodix


    It did seem much more clear in the 60’s and 70’s… Then the cycle set in and the pendulum swung back the other way. Of course, Reagan as a conservative, i.e., put it all on the credit card and lets party, aka voodoo economics…. is a total joke to someone with any degree of fiscal sanity.
    Though it likely did drain excess wealth out of the system far quicker than Volcker’s higher interest rates, but only served to kick the can of excess wealth distorting the larger economy much further down the road and creating a far larger problem, which is another topic altogether…

    Coel, Massimo,

    “The important issue is whether there are big epistemological divides between different areas of knowledge that have different “ways of knowing”; or whether the world, and thus knowledge, is essentially unified. If one accepts the latter then I’m not too fussed what one calls the ensemble.”

    What if there are two aspects of gaining knowledge; The additive, exploratory expanding aspect and the reductive, descriptive, analytical side, which then distills out the most critical aspects of the masses of information being generated by the additive functions?

    Consequently setting up tension or outright conflict between those posing answers and those asking questions of these possibilities.

    Cycles of expansion and consolidation.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Robin Herbert

    The problem with flip phones is that they can only do the thing I need a phone for the least – making phone calls.

    The bottom line for me is that I had gotten to a stage where I was hardly ever reading. Then I started reading books on my phone and suddenly I am reading more than I ever have.


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