Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 115

Jews and jokesHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Jews and their jokes, a natural history.

The problem with self-help, philosophically speaking.

Does philosophy make progress? Yes. No. (And a different answer here.)

An Ancient Greek idea could have foiled Brexit’s democratic tragedy. And maybe even Trumpism.

Welcome to the democracy-poisoning golden age of free speech.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

31 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 115

  1. saphsin


    I think you’re devising a problem that doesn’t need to be there. Is the development of Nuclear Weapons “progress”? It’s technological progress in terms of adding onto pure scientific understanding, it’s regression in terms of ethical considerations. Should that be considered “progress overall?” Depends on what interests we should consider more important. I think most people should recognize how to answer the question of whether the introduction of nuclear weapons counts as progress when asked.


  2. Alan White

    In regard to the Tufeki piece, I can understand that we need to try and do something legislatively to push social media towards truth-aptness/tracking. But how can we do that? Social media seems to me to be a complex system in the sense of so-called “chaotic” systems. Sure, we can legislate our contributions to global warming, but that can’t insure that we achieve our goals (even setting aside the rampant deregulation the Trump administration is pursuing).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. valariansteel

    On the democracy-poisoning free speech article, I agree with his general drift. He makes a number of salient observations. Sometimes you go to the movies, watch a fine movie, but you end up being “let down” by a “Hollywood” ending, being defined here as an inappropriate ending, given the plot and themes propelling the movie along. As if the ending was “tacked off” (from a different bolt of cloth), just to end on a “positive note”, & please the audience. So also with his article, when he concludes as follows:

    With New Deal firmly in the rear view mirror of history, the US has slowly but now rapidly lurked toward the sewer we find ourselves in today. Any suggestion that social media (Google, Facebook, Twitter) would usher in an age of free speech seems naively ignorant of the reality of the situation. Public relations, which is propaganda in disguise, and now labeled fake news, dominated the old media outlets, and it was only a matter of time before social media would be commandeered to the same purpose. The Internet ushered in an age of disinformation, which overwhelms its huge potential for beneficial influence.

    It’s the system, stupid (and this term is not directed toward anyone reading this blog — I do respect those who post here, regardless of our differences). As long as we ride the profit pony, we will continue to slog through the mud. And to quickly tie this thought in with the Brexit article, Brexit will not stop Britain’s declining fortunes. The problem with Britain isn’t its loss of autonomy to the EU (though that may be an exacerbating factor); its decline –stagnate wages, increasing public and private debt, social fragmentation, poverty) is from neoliberal economic policies, which will not be curbed by cutting ties with the EU.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. SocraticGadfly

    Saph: On the first of my two “meta” questions, Massimo himself had a whole series of posts, about a year ago, at least tangentially related. On the second, I’m not a Luddite, but per the “salvific technologism” tag on my blog, I don’t cut blank checks to the idea of progress, either. Technologism in that sense runs parallel to scientism, as I see it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Philip Thrift

    Philosophy of Language is an area of philosophy where there is demonstrable progress, a progress that has led to results in computer science (natural language processing, artificial intelligence, programming language theory, …), but also perhaps in political science (e.g. “How Propaganda Works”, Jason Stanley). Even if one had a good model of how propaganda works, I don’t how it would help.


  6. Bunsen Burner


    ‘Philosophy of Language is an area of philosophy where there is demonstrable progress, a progress that has led to results in computer science …’

    Is this correct though? I’m in the industry and so have done more than my share of implementation of natural languages and AI algorithms. Reading the papers, stuff got referenced from Linguistics and Mathematics, but I don’t remember seeing anything from the philosophy of language. Do you know of anything done in the subject in the last 20 years or so that you can point to actually being used in IT?


  7. SocraticGadfly

    ON the “democracy-poisoning,” per a WSJ story I read related to it, even worse than Trump’s campaign using Facebook that way is Facebook “embedding” paid staff with Trump’s campaign — or ANY campaign.


  8. saphsin

    Bunsen, Philip

    I remember hearing from people who specialize in linguistics that have said that much of philosophy of language looks more like semiotics to them, because they don’t take into account enough the rules of language as scientifically investigated in how meaning is determined by by a sentence’s syntactic and phonetic structure, and that much of 20th century philosophy language use a simplistic analysis of how words within sentences refer to concepts. From what I understand though, much of modern philosophy is trying to keep up with these developments, or at least is should.


  9. saphsin


    What bothers me is the fact that democratic progress isn’t keeping up with technological progress, so that even much of the scientific progress I would consider good is just feeding the exploitative capabilities of powerful people. I mean one could point to China’s new surveillance system but that would be missing the big picture. Much of the world’s population doesn’t even have access to proper medicine for peets sake.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. SocraticGadfly

    How can Rodney Dangerfield not be mentioned by name among greatest Jewish stand-up comics?

    And, the version of the Goldberg/Iceberg-Titanic joke I’ve heard is interethnic, with a Chinese person on the other end and Japanese/Chinese-Pearl Harbor as a dueling punchline.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. labnut

    Ian Ground said this of Wittgenstein:
    For Wittgenstein, the aim of philosophy is not truth, but clarity

    Progress in philosophy is therefore measured in a way that is incommensurate with science. Therefore to ask whether there has been progress in philosophy is to ask the wrong question.

    Philosophy enables us to make progress in our own lives by clarifying our understanding of life. Therefore the right question to ask is this – Have we made progress in our own lives by clarifying our thoughts about and understanding of life?

    Philosophy is like a plumber’s wrench(sorry Massimo!). Has it made progress by fixing my plumbing? No! But I have made progress by using the wrench to fix my plumbing.


  12. Helen P

    I found out this -quite interesting- blog only recently, due to the multiverse post, and I’ve already been back for other pages a number of times. I hope this qualifies me for writing the following 😉

    On the progress of philosophy, I seriously wonder whether philosophy has taken modern science into account at all. Millennia-long questions on the nature of things received huge insights during the previous century. (And imho most of the guys who originally discussed them would have been ferociously happy to learn that we know the answers instead of dragging on the discussion.) If you can provide a couple of links of older posts here for a new visitor I’d be grateful (a quick search was overwhelming and I’m not sure I was looking in the right direction.)

    About Brexit. I’m not in UK, I support immigration, and I have very strong feelings against the EU based on political criteria. Why do I have to hear about a “democratic tragedy” for one and a half year now? Why has nobody asked for the repetition of the referendum which approved UK’s participation in the EU (other than because there’s never been such a thing)?

    Excuse my tone because my questions are in earnest. I’ve been trying to find a British person to explain to me why we should be lamenting. The best answers I’ve received refer to a lot of misinformation during the campaign. Still, this doesn’t explain why this should be called a tragedy, all the time, by all media, as if the 50+% who voted for it aren’t in the room, and as if a commercial union personifies humanistic ideals.


    Liked by 1 person

  13. Bunsen Burner


    The problem with Brexit is that the UK is situated in Europe with the EU as our most important trading partner. Throwing all that away means we now lose all that trade, we need to run a Customs Union, we need to somehow deal with our border with Ireland, we need to somehow manage the lack of interest in Agricultural work, and many other things. The EU is not some club that you can just throw your membership away and face no consequences. Thousands of jobs that depended on us being in the EU have moved overseas. Many universities are losing funding on projects undertaken with EU bodies, and the pound has been steadily declining. Our political system is a chaotic mess because no one had a clue how to actually implement a Brexit, and there is now serious warfare going on between the various factions.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Massimo Post author


    Welcome to the blog! Yes, philosophers do keep up with all fields of science, and you’ll find a comprehensive series of posts on that topic, and the broader one of progress in philosophy, here:

    As for Brexit, the consequences will be significant for the British economy, not to mention that it will make the whole project of European unification more difficult. The latter is necessary, I think, so that Europe can truly counterbalance the global power of the US, Russia and China. Moreover, British citizens will lose a lot of benefits they currently get from the EU. And it’s a “tragedy of democracy” precisely because all of this will happen thanks to deceptive tactics and straight out lies by the Brexit camp during the campaign.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Philip Thrift

    “much of philosophy of language looks more like semiotics”

    I don’t know currently, but just as there is computational semantics (“the study of how to automate the process of constructing and reasoning with meaning representations of natural language expressions”) there is computational semiotics (“the adoption of a sign-theoretic perspective on issues of artificial intelligence and knowledge representation”).


  16. saphsin

    Daniel Kaufman

    I personally wouldn’t call it semiotics (After Peirce & Saussure, semiotics seem to have largely been taken over by post-structuralism, not in a good state…) but I can sort of see why some people express their feelings about it that way, at least the earlier variety. If we want to learn how meaning results from language as an activity, we probably should do it from our knowledge of how language as a scientific phenomenon operates. It’s kind of strange that a good number of people don’t, we no longer find it acceptable to talk about the metaphysics of time without always being in the context of the developments of 20th century physics (or we shouldn’t at least…)


  17. Philosopher Eric

    Hello Helen,
    I’d also like to welcome you here, as well as provide my own assessment of the situation in philosophy and science as they stand today.

    It’s undeniable to virtually all educated people how far (hard) science has come in a very short period of time. The problem however is that some people on “team science” have used this situation to be quite disrespectful of “team philosophy”, thus creating a state of war between them. Radicals from the science faction dismiss the entire endeavor of philosophy as useless, while radicals from the philosophy faction try to deflect such criticism by positioning philosophy as more of an art to be appreciated rather than an expertise from which to provide humanity with consensus functional understandings. Of course there are professionals like Massimo in the middle, but I think that things have become so polarized that it can be difficult for them to sufficiently question various detrimental paradigms inherited over the millennia. Meanwhile today scientists like Sabine Hossenfelder must fight off hordes of quasi scientific work amongst their colleagues given that philosophy remains far too weak to provide sufficient leadership in questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and value.

    Whether I’ve pegged this right or not however, I certainly hope that you’ll find Massimo’s blog to be no less stimulating than I have!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Robin Herbert

    Hi Helen

    The ancients would certainly have been ferociouslt happy with the march of science.

    They might also be somewhat bemused to find that the controversies that divided them still divide physicists today, the nature of time for example.

    And I imagine that Aristotle might raise an eyebrow at Lawrence Krauss giving basically the same answer to the “something from nothing” question as he had given in “Physics” some 2.3 millenia earlier and without the benefit of modern science, especially as Krauss seemed to be under the impression that no philosopher could possibly have thought of it.

    In general philosophers don’t seem to have concerned themselves with questions of that nature for some time now.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Bradley Sherman

    Apropos of nothing except stoicism (so no offense will be taken if you delete this comment) Netflix now has the movie Acts of Vengeance(2017) in which the protagonist is converted to stoicism when he is stabbed in the leg and thrown through the plate glass window of a used book store, and uses a hurriedly grabbed paperback of the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius to staunch the flow of blood. No, I’m not joking. I’m also not recommending the movie.

    Liked by 3 people

  20. Philip Thrift

    An example of the reverse, computer science into philosophy of language: “In recent years, I’ve also been cultivating some work in philosophy of language, especially concerning the use of concepts from computer science like mutation, monads, and continuations.” (Jim Pryor, NYU Dept of Philosophy)

    Liked by 1 person

  21. wtc48

    Given the shifting status of the balance of power in recent years, this doesn’t seem like a good time for separatist movements of any sort. Where I live, in southern Oregon, something called the State of Jefferson (comprising the mostly rural parts of southern Oregon and northern California) has been a perennial cause for over a century. The disintegrative tendencies of the Trump movement have given hope to ideas like this, but so far it seems that most people realize that furthering the autonomy of states (and weakening the central government) is a dangerous trend, given the presence of autocratic regimes in Russia and China.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. synred

    The state of Jefferson is amusing.

    However, they don’t seem to realize that the money flows from La La Land and the Bay Area to them.

    W/o us they’d be even poorer.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Robin Herbert

    Incidentally, on the subject of philosophy and science (and correcting my earlier comments), I was looking at the Norton’s Dome paradox and it appears to me that he simply has his maths wrong. The height of his dome is a function of ‘g’ but ‘g’ is obviously a function of the height of the dome and so the function describing the shape of the dome does not make sense. If you use a value of ‘g’ from some point on the dome then the calculations will be wrong, even if just infinitessimally. But those tiny differences make a difference in this context. If you try to adapt the problem to take this into account (for example the dome as a uniformly accelerated object outside any gravitational field) the problem just goes away, at least as any issue with Newtonian physics.

    Norton appears to have a number of interesting papers on the philosophy and history of science, but I fear that here he has possibly strayed outside his area of expertise.


  24. synred

    The math is a red herring. Any unstable equilibrium point will have the same kind of behavior.

    If you put the ball exactly on top, it will NOT move — Newton’s second law, no force no acceleration.

    The equations of motion are time-symmetric, but the solutions need not be. They depend on ‘initial conditions’ or more generally conditions at some time.


  25. synred

    ‘Stare of Jefferson’ redux.

    Another example. When Margaret and I lived in Champaign-Urbana we used to going driving about sometimes in the winter (that’s how boring the midwest can be). Indiana was not far away.

    When you crossed the border, the snow would suddenly cover the roads, unplowed.

    In Indiana they thought plowing the roads was ‘creeping socialism’


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