November 27, 2004

What you are waiting for and what I have to say

"First you have the ideas, and then you find a place to express them." Maybe, but I doubt it. Compare: "first you invent something, and then you find a part of some civilization to which it might be of use." I am sure that happens, but I doubt that happens very often.

The usual pattern is that we craft our ideas for the available means of expression, the available audience. If I am limited to academic articles, I will have ideas in academic article shape. If I have more informal outlets, I will have informal ideas. If someone listens to my half-baked stuff, I will produce half-baked stuff. If Aunt Mary likes funny cat stories, I will be on the lookout for funny behavior in cats.

When one starts a new journal, or makes blogs an option for a university community, or provides a new conversational forum, or -- perhaps most radical of all -- licenses a new conversational style, one transforms the intellectual scene - the broad possibilities for speech. (Think of what Henry James, Martha Nussbaum, John Wisdom made possible.) Also, if one closes down some option, one makes a certain kind of speech less likely to survive. (We have lost, I think, the medieval disputation, the climate that produced the Summa. We are perhaps on the way to losing some styles of anti-Semitic discourse.)

It's one of those paradox thingees: speech begins with listening, and listening begins with speech.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:59 AM

November 26, 2004

Public person, naked always underneath, goes naked

Here's a case. A Cleveland woman news anchor got naked last June for a Spenser Tunick installation. The station squirreled away the footage until sweeps week, then ran it with many a cautionary warning -- just the tasteful bits, of course. Ratings jumped.

Here's a little piece of the New York Times report pf November 25: "Mr. Tunick, who cooperated with Ms. Reed on the report, was unhappy with it, saying that his nonsexual approach to photographing hundreds of nude people in public places - in this case, an installation sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland - had been hijacked to achieve big numbers for a local news broadcast.

"It doesn't do any good for me or for the work," said Mr. Tunick, who has also photographed naked groups in front of the United Nations and inside Grand Central Terminal in New York. "It brings people down to the level of looking at art through the eyes of an 11-year-old. I don't think that people should be teased in a provocative way."

In painting, people after death are naked. This is a universal way of talking about what people are and about what people share. The resonance of that image in sex is one way sex is interesting.

I am not sure Tunick is right, about this doing no good for his work. A lot of 11-year-olds in Cleveland were invited to grow up, to see a celebrity as part of an anonymous naked pile. And the nude in art is often a battleground for the souls of 11-year-olds, a standing invitation to grow up.

Look at the documentary of Tunick's work, Naked States, for a helpful account of how lots of people respond to the request to take their clothes off.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:54 AM

November 25, 2004

The foundations of generosity

When the plate tectonics theory emerged, geologists had a picture of the world that made it clear how the contributions of many different, previously isolated, specialists might contribute to a very large common project. Each specialist had new ideas about how his or her work mattered. Everybody had enduring reasons to listen closely to everybody else.

Inclusion, generosity, concern, hospitality -- all are lovely sentiments, and also they may have foundations.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:45 AM

November 24, 2004

One way that intellectual life is exciting

In Annals of a Former World, John McPhee quotes a scientist about the plate tectonics revolution. In philosophy and in ordinary life also, some of us keep rearranging facts into new patterns, hoping to be "free and flying:"

From a letter by Tanya Atwater, a marine geologist, to Allan Cox: “Seafloor spreading was a wonderful concept because it could explain so much of what we knew, but plate tectonics really set us free and flying. It gave us firm rules so that we could predict what we should find in unknown places….From the moment the plate concept was introduced, the geometry of the San Andreas system was an obviously interesting example. The night Dan McKenzie and Bob Parker told me the idea, a bunch of us were drinking beer at the Little Bavaria in La Jolla. Dan sketched it on a napkin. ‘Aha!’ said I, ‘but what about the Mendocino trend?’ ‘Easy!’ and he showed me three plates. As simple as that! The simplicity and power of the geometry of those three plates captured my mind that night and has never let go since. It is a wondrous thing to have the random facts in one’s head suddenly fall into slots of an orderly framework. It is like an explosion inside. That is what happened that night and that I often felt happen to me and others as I was working out (and talking out) the geometry of the Western U. S. The best part of the plate business is that it has made us all start communicating. People who squeeze rocks and people who identify deep-sea nannofossils and people who map faults in Montana suddenly all care about each other’s work. I think I spend half my time just talking and listening to people from many fields, searching together for how it might all fit together. And when something does fall into place, there is that mental explosion and the wondrous excitement. I think the human mind must love order. Annals of a Former World, 134-135.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:51 PM

Evaluating changes in one's life

Part of my job is to urge philosophy faculty to try out new technological teaching tricks (like blogs, for example). But the unholy secret is that most new tricks don't work. That is, if one keeps one's goals fixed and one's other procedures, requirements, routines fixed, any new trick is likely to be strangled in its cradle. The only way new tricks get a fair test is if one lets them nudge one's goals a bit and nudge one's procedures a bit. And of course if one lets those nudges happen, one loses the chance to scientifically compare the old way and the new way, in the same framework, addressing the same goals. One must instead do a qualitative comparison of the new way and the old way -- a very much more complex intellectual operation.

I was reading today in the New York Times about Vioxx and other drugs that promise (for a hefty price) to relieve pain as well as over-the-counter medications without promoting gastro-intestinal bleeding. These drugs have not been proven to work any better than the older and cheaper drugs for those people taking low dose aspirin. And lots of older people take low dose aspirin. Again, it turns out to be very difficult to evaluate the effect of a single factor, and, in practical terms, one may end up evaluating two incommenurable packages: "cheap drugs and more bleeding" versus "expensive drugs and less bleeding and no aspirin-protection."

There's a lesson here: it is easy to imagine the task of practical reason as a task of evaluating means to an end: which means gets me most of what I am aiming for? But the question that actually confronts us, in many forms, is this: which complex package of means and ends is all things considered the best package?

When people have contempt for biography and autobiography, for the documentation of lives, their problem is sometimes that such documentation is too messy to give clear guidance. But it may be that messy guidance is the only guidance we can hope for on large questions, that our only plausible job is to compare versions of teaching, versions of health, versions of relationship -- where each version is a package of means and ends that cannot be put on any common scale with any other package. And ethical philosophy faces just this challenge: does it dignify this sort of evaluation as ethical thinking or hold up some other, more scientific, model as "the real, careful stuff."

A weblog faithfully maintained will often present or betray the compromises and trade-offs of a particular life, over the long term. That is its strength, as an ethical document.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:17 AM

November 23, 2004

New tools and philosophic reflection

We form our ideas about what information we need under assumptions about what information is available. We form our ideas about what to tell people under assumptions about what means of communication are available. We form our ideas about clear and adequate expression under assumptions about what forms of expression are available. Those assumptions are very rarely acknowledged, except in science fiction, but they are real constraints on our imagination. So, as tools change, our basic notions of knowledge, communication, and expression are up for re-evaluation. We may have defined "necessary information" to exclude information that was unavailable, but now is easy to find. We may have accepted as adequate communication modes that are simply outmoded.

An example: weblogs themselves, snapshots of thought that track people's biographies, giving the reader a look at how thinking evolves and intersects with life. This information was until recently mostly available for high energy public figures, whose letters and memos allowed one to put together a rich biographical record. It is now much easier to generate -- through weblog technology -- and ethics is in front of the question: "Does this information matter?" How are people helped by tracking the twists and turns of an individual mind, as that mind copes with various events? Does it matter, for example, who one's teachers are, at this fine-grained level of analysis, or is it enough to know what they think, in their polished, finished, public productions? One can imagine a university requiring that all its philosophy faculty publish a regular weblog. One can also imagine a university discouraging that practice. And behind each policy would stand a whole conception of moral evaluation and documentation.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:06 AM

November 22, 2004


I get 4 requests a day to be the agent of a multi-million dollar money transfer. The writers try all the angles: dear brother in Christ, dear friend, I'm dying of cancer, my family is destitute, villains killed my father, I want to build an orphanage. There are always a few million dollars in it for me, personally. Mass mailings offer me or my dog a credit card, in case the transferred millions don't stretch far enough to pay for the siding job I buy on the phone.

Pretty soon, I start to see predation everywhere: "What do you mean, my dog needs a blood test, my brakes need new calipers, I should take a science class? What you are really telling me is that you just bought a new rug and you can't quite afford a sofa to match it, and I'm the mark who's going to make the difference." "What do you mean, you love me? You just want safe sex and two incomes."

There's a literature out there in game theory about something called the prisoner's dilemma, an elegant demonstration of a quite general truth: when people work entirely for their own good, when cooperation and mutual benefit disappear, the outcomes become pretty bad for everybody. When folks cooperate and trust each other and think about each other's welfare, massive efficiencies result, the wealth of nations starts to flow toward the cooperators. It's an automatic and entirely secular process.

Let us get very straight what ethical work is about. It is not a matter of preventing bad things from happening. Many bad things will happen. But if the literature of predation comes to dominate the consciousness of America, if elementary cooperation comes to seem naive, quaint (like the Geneva Conventions), charming even -- then a machine has been set in motion that will produce evil as clouds produce rain, naturally, inexorably, steadily, pervasively.

The work is -- that that not happen, that structures of cooperation be preserved.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:00 PM

November 20, 2004

Our rabbit died, and the dog is in mourning.

Rufus lies by the empty cage, plastered to the floor. He refuses to eat. He drags himself outside slowly. He won't go on walks.

When Mr. Bun was alive, Rufus would sometimes lick between his ears. He consumed occasional rabbit pellets. He would chase the other dog away from the cage. We joked that he was worried that Chance was making time with the bunny.

In "nature," a rabbit seems not to matter to a dog, except as prey.

There's a lot we don't know.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:00 AM

November 19, 2004

International gatherings

I returned last week from the 30th Anniversary Conference on Philosophy for Children in Mendham, New Jersey. Since philosophy for children has become an international movement, with significant activity in 40 countries, the conference was an international gathering, in which native English speakers were the dominant group but not quite a majority. I was surprised at how valuable an international gathering can be. There are strains, of course. For the U.S. delegation: trying to hear the different versions of English and trying to communicate in a style clear enough to be readily understood by non-native speakers. For visitors: all the problems of being away from home, adjusting to a different cultural set, taking risks in a strange language. But the value outweighed the problems. It is so obviously valuable to work with people who assume what one would never even entertain, who have as part of their basic intellectual canon books one has never read, whose natural style is unfamiliar. Such an environment forces one to rethink many things that would just pass in a more uniform cultural setting, to put reasons behind stuff that has never before needed reasons. A genuine multi-cultural setting, in which all participants expect and are given respect and attention and equal standing, is about as good a stimulus for intelligence as can be imagined.

I think that discussions of multi-culturalism in education should take better account of one simple fact: for lots of what we do, multi-cultural education will automatically be critical and imaginative and open to alternatives. All these "higher order" features we try to build into teaching are present automatically as soon as one brings together a group with enough diversity and a sense of dignity.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:56 PM

November 17, 2004

Public objects

(Still thinking about the subway) -- Any public object -- a building, a fence, a rule, a tool -- gets used and tested and pressed to its various limits by lots of people, and that using and testing and pressing changes, humanizes the object. You build a fence of a certain height. Most people don't bother to climb it. A few do. You decide whether keeping that few out is worth the trouble of revising the fence. If not, the fence becomes, de facto, a different sort of barrier than you initially intended, a barrier for the most part. You make a rule against eating on the bus. Lots of people ignore it in sneaky ways that end up not leaving messes. The rule worked, in a slightly different way than you intended it to work. You build a park with concrete benches. People use them to do skateboard tricks. You decide whether that makes sense, given what else that park is for.

In a place where people have been working on buildings and rules and barriers and institutions for a long time, the public things have undergone interesting evolution, have shaken down to some generally acceptable arrangement, in many cases. New things may still not be tamed. In old cultures, the institutions and technology and rules may have attained a kind of perfection -- and understanding them may require just that one understand what kind of perfection they have.

I was at a workshop today to train university instructors in using Vista, a new web-based course management tool. It was clearly wet behind the ears -- too many bells and whistles, no priorities. If it were a piece of public technology that could evolve, it would pretty quickly be tamed by use. But with this sort of software, new products are introduced before the old products have been humanized, and the natural humane evolution of the thing is interrupted by the much faster advance of technological possibility.

I think what is needed in electronic technology is stuff flexible enough to evolve naturally as users use it, so that development happens constantly and continuously.

Posted by shea0017 at 5:56 PM

November 16, 2004

Politics and chess, six moves ahead

Colin Powell resigned today. Is this man a good enough President? He will very likely have the high ground in four years, the unbeatable combination of Eisenhower and "I told you so," in a very pleasant package. If he is not good enough, somebody needs to say so soon, before he is unstopable. If he is good enough, progressives need to find a candidate for 8 to 12 years in the future -- the next JFK. One optimistic point: Powell's VP can be a person of substance -- if events play out in likely ways, Powell can carry the election himself. This VP choice will be an authentic political opportunity, an opening for someone without wealth or connections or political capital.

Powell is 67; he'll be 71 at the next election. A lot depends on his health and his energy. We need to decide whether to send him carrots or Twinkies for Christmas.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:26 PM

Teaching machines: thoughts about the New York subway

My uncle Evan pioneered studies of teaching machines, machines specifically designed to drill math facts or grammar. Lately, I have been thinking that every machine of any complexity is a teaching machine: a machine that makes some ways of organizing information and action and research seem natural and makes other ways seem odd. Take the New York subway: a giant machine that provides a simplified version of the city, enough for most normal purposes -- a kind of theory. One goes down from the booming, buzzing confusion of the street into a Platonic world, governed by an elegant diagram. As one masters the subway map, the city then organizes itself in one's mind around subway stops; between the stops one uses there is -- one feels -- just black space.

Also, the subway is safe because it is crowded -- and because many people are packing cell phones. People = safety. Being alone = being in danger.

An experienced rider who seldom needs to consult the diagram has a model of success in his or her head for learning the next thing in life. And that person has learned when to be confident and when to be afraid.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:10 PM

November 4, 2004

Mr. Magic and Mr. Moose

My progressive friends are appraising bridges for jumping potential, so I feel a bit of obligation to continue supplying arguments about why it isn't so bad, from a progressive point of view, that Bush won. The country has become predictable -- a predictable early to mid-stage empire. Lots of people are willing to adopt the natural attitudes of what Carol Bly calls "lucky predators." Our only long term hope is shaking the nation out of that, into an historically unprecedented sanity and breadth of spirit and greatness of heart. John Kerry was simply not the man to do that shaking . He was decent and plausible and, I think, better than the other guy, but he wasn't anywhere near magic, and his commitments on taxes and on the military would have locked him into some of the most dangerous directions in current foreign and domestic policy. He essentially gave up the right to raise enough money to do anything new.

We need magic, we need several rare qualities to come together in one person, and then we need to elect that person president. We will not likely get two chances. For now, until we find that person, Bush holds the space.

Until then, I think of my Uncle Jack, a very sweet guy who got his language centers damaged early, so that he was mostly restricted to two phrases, "By hell!!" and "I don't know." I can't think of a better summary of the current situation, right off.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:15 PM

November 3, 2004

A post-election sermon

Yesterday, the kids were in charge, money talked and big money talked decisively, the huge environmental and social problems brought about by rapid technical progress and heartless politics were being ignored at the highest levels, and only some very new thoughts could shore up the walls of the humane world. Today, that's all still true. Let's get busy.

Posted by shea0017 at 3:23 PM

November 2, 2004

Causality, again

In a piece "Alzheimers Steals More than Memory" in today's New York Times, Lon Schneider, a doctor who studies the disease, says, "Whenever you see a long list of drugs of different classes, you know there's no good treatment. You get a high degree of uncertainty, and companies hyping their antipsychotics." This is a very interesting thing to say. For lots of things that go wrong, those responsible respond with "drugs of different classes" -- and also, for lots of things that go wrong, the belief is widespread that a shotgun response is a sign of not knowing what's going on really, a sign that we have "no good treatment." Behind this statement is a model of how things are supposed to work -- the stuff of metaphysics. And a responsible philosophic practice would look at that model very carefully, asking why it seems obviously right sometimes and less obviously right other times.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:05 AM

What just the body might teach us

I have had a cough for a few weeks, and the doctor prescribed a short course of steroids. On the initial, high dose, I became unusually optimistic, idea-rich, and chatty. While in this odd state, I picked up an issue of People (August 20, 04) and found a short account of Jane Pauley's steroid experience. She took steroids to control a rash, experienced some of this "hypomania" high -- including the temptation to start her own clothing line -- and ended up hospitalized for three weeks, on a wild emotional ride between high ups and deep downs: the steroids had apparently provided an opening for an underlying bipolar disorder. She was behaving most of the time within the normal range for high energy, high salary smart women from New York, and yet her husband and boss both decided there was something wrong here and encouraged her to seek aggressive treatment. She said after things were more or less under control that the experience taught her some things about herself.

There is ethics encoded in this story. Lying about on the ground of many traditions is the advice: not everything that feels good is good, not everything that leads to improved performance is good. But to describe a syndrome like this, involving so many different points of decision: treating the rash aggressively or moderately, enjoying the new Jane or sending her off to the hospital, using up the the new energy in new projects or questioning its source and trajectory -- that all is real ethical progress, or analogical ethical progress. Jane experienced a biochemical event that tracks very closely morally significant events in our lives that we don't immediately describe as biochemical. There are very interesting crossover suggestions here.

One example: I love to watch the MTV bios of rock stars and Hollywood folks and their marriage and spending antics. Recently, I was remembering some stories by Paul Linebarger (aka "Cordwainer Smith") about an effective government in the far future that has identified a few real threats to humanity, against which it proceeds with unimaginable ruthlessness. In these stories, one of the most terrible, edgy moves that the government makes is to refrain from curing someone's mental illness because some of the manifestations of that illness are very useful. In Linebarger's world, this is a last resort, a truly terrifying choice. In this society, people do it for amusement and they do it to themselves. Jane was remarkably lucky.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:43 AM