February 28, 2006

American philosophy as an intro to philosophy

The country had huge resources for making war, and those on both sides were very sure that they were right and that their cause mattered. So they went at it bloody, in the Civil War, and afterward some of the people who were in the thick of it said to themselves, "If this is what comes of being very sure about things, maybe we shouldn't be so sure."

That's a capsule of one point Louis Menand makes in his fine book The Metaphysical Club, explaining where American philosophy partly came from.

In Europe, after the reformation, preachers on the Protestant and Catholic sides went after each other's first principles, seeking to erode each other's certainty. The people watching all this took it that their eternal salvation depended on believing right, and the confusion just kept getting louder.

That's a capsule of one point William Abraham made, in an interview some years ago, explaining where Cartesian philosophy partly came from.

There's French epistemology and there's American epistemology, and both raise puzzles and suggest solutions. Is it more helpful for Americans to begin with the American stuff, because the Civil War is on our national timeline and somehow in our national consciousness? Or are these questions timeless, so that you can start anywhere?

Posted by shea0017 at 6:27 PM

February 25, 2006

Father mother son daughter

I do interviews with people who think for a living, and I am coming to a suspicion. What makes the diverse material fall into place is that people are always in dialogue with somebody in their past, usually in their family, very often their father. I mean, they are constantly in this dialogue, their fundamental decisions are part of this dialogue, and any shift in their basic relation to this figure is a truly important shift in their lives and in their thinking. One consequence of that: if the relationship to father or mother or other big figure has fallen into some kind of routine, thinking will be routine as well. If that relationship is charged, thinking will be charged. If one is deceiving oneself about that relationship, one's thinking will likely have something false in it.

I am not sure that people very often have more than one such reference figure in their intellectual lives. They may, and that would give rise to all sorts of interesting conflict. But I think these structures may tend to be very simple and pervasive, the plates underlying the surface geology. So, there's a simple formula for understanding someone: find out with whom that person is in deep dialogue, find out what the issues are, and find out how settled that dialogue is. Everything important will just fall out of the answers to those questions.

For those of you, dear readers, who actually track this blog with care over time, a couple of connections: this is the sort of structure that makes family dynasties such powerful moral engines. Also, W.B. Gallie addresses the way that the attempt to imitate a life gives rise sometimes to endless and fruitful controversy. That line of thought makes Gallie an important thinker, bridging history, psychology, education, and philosophy in an astonishing way. The search function on the blog will connect you to other notes on these matters.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:41 PM

February 24, 2006

Discrimination and racism

People are saying that, if the U.S. doesn't give harbor security over to an Arab country that survived normal scrutiny, that's racism, discrimination, all those things. I think not. If the White House doesn't give a janitorial job to a person who survived normal scrutiny, once they determine that he or she is of Arab descent, that's racism, that's discrimination. But a huge company with many ways of making money is not just a janitor only larger. It is a different sort of animal altogether.There's some legitimate discretion here that's not proper in the janitor's case.

It is like the issue of a public official indicted for a crime. It seems to me quite proper for that person's superiors to say: the shadow of suspicion over this person, while his or her case proceeds through the legal system, will compromise the person's ability to do this sort of job. He or she has to go. Again, if the person is a janitor, other rules apply.

For some public roles, confidence without shadows is a job requirement, just as good teeth are a job requirement for modeling. It isn't fair, but this isn't the sort of issue where fairness rules.

I don't know what to say, finally, about the harbor control matter. I would hate to have this case taken as an excuse to fire Arab janitors, and I fear that that is how it will be taken. I also think it likely that, in the event of a terrorist incident, for all sorts of reasons, those in charge of investigating that incident and managing its results will not be happy to have port security under foreign administration, especially under Arab administration. And the sources of that unhappiness will have very little to do with the competence of decency of the company involved. Issues about Arab administration may be red herrings, but, if so, they are red herrings that will confuse the bloodhounds after a serious disaster.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:20 AM

February 22, 2006

Who manages harbor security?

Suppose an atomic weapon makes it through harbor security and takes out Boston. Suppose that a company from the United Arab Emirates is managing harbor security at several major ports, including Boston. What questions would have to be answered, different from the questions that would have to be answered if a U.S. company handled security? Would the official response be different? Would the public response be different?

After a major attack on the U.S., there would be plenty for intelligence agencies to check, and likely not much time to do the checking. It seems important to evaluate harbor management decisions by working backward from a disaster.

Posted by shea0017 at 7:11 PM

February 21, 2006

The varieties of phones

It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro. -- Ludwig Wittgenstein, talking about words, in the Philosophical Investigations..

There are traditional land-line phones, land-line phones with caller-id, and cell phones. They all look alike. But my unanswered call to a traditional phone leaves no trace. If I choose not to leave a message, the recipient doesn't know that I called. If the recipient has caller-id, however, my call leaves a record. And, if the recipient phone is a cell phone, the missed call generates a beep. The recipient has to consciously decide not to return my call. This means that it is a much bigger deal to call a cell phone than to call any sort of traditional phone, and a bigger deal to call a traditional phone with caller-id than one that keeps no such record. How does this matter? Suppose I am trying to get a speaker for an event. I call Jones, get his cell phone, then try Smith, get Smith, ask Smith to speak. I am certain to have to explain to Jones why I called, telling him that he was the first choice in a hierarchy that then went on to Smith. Or I make up some story, and thereby tell Jones that I have something to hide, if Jones is good at detecting lies.

To put it more generally, when I call a phone that keeps a record of my call, I am giving far more information than I gave when I called a traditional phone. And, when I call a cell phone, I am asking a question that I am not asking with any other phone device: is this person willing to call me back. These odd little facts change seriously the place of phone devices in communication strategy.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:40 PM

February 20, 2006

Reading internet things

After years of squinting at webpages and blogs, I finally did the obvious: went to "View" in the Explorer menu, selected "Text Size," and clicked "Largest." It made my day, maybe even my month.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:05 PM

February 18, 2006

Torture chambers, normal prisons, and cruel punishment

Alfred McCoy from the U of Wisconsin at Madison was a guest on Democracy Now last night. He has studied the history of CIA interrogation experiments and the practices that proved successful -- practices he regards as psychologically destructive torture. He makes three points, worth investigating: (1) psychological stress techniques are explicitly excepted from U.S. agreements to refrain from torture, although there is good reason to believe they do as much or more long-term damage than more familiar tactics. (2) The sensational photos we see on television are read by people who understand history as clear, central cases of the implementation of long-established policies and techniques. They are not rogue, outlaw incidents but just what the manuals call for. (3) Torture tends to spread widely and quickly beyond its initial uses. These techniques are deeply tempting, and, once they are allowed in one place, for one sort of suspect, for one kind of interrogator, they quickly spread to other places, other suspects, other interrogators and even prison guards. These claims are worth following up.

My question is just this: suppose I am called to serve on a jury. In the normal case, my responsibility is limited to deciding the facts of the case in conformity to the judge's instructions. But, in a legal system in which torture has been condoned at the highest levels, can I assume that interrogators and prison guards and police will respect the constitutional rights of those entrusted to them, or that courts will enforce that respect. And, if I cannot assume that prisoners will be protected from torture, is it my constitutional responsibility as a juror to take responsibility for protecting them, by refraining from convicting?

Posted by shea0017 at 10:51 AM

February 17, 2006

Shooting somebody on private land

Mary Lou Egan is quoted today in the Strib asking the best question I have heard on Vice President Cheney's shooting of a lawyer in Texas: what if the other guy had shot Cheney? This is exactly the right question. The answer is, I think, that if the other guy had shot Cheney, everybody official in the business would have stopped being a buddy and started being concerned with law enforcement. They would have asked a lot of miserable questions. Were there any causes for antagonism between Cheney and the victim, or between Cheney and any member of the party? What was everybody's blood chemistry like at the time of the shooting? What exactly does the 24 hour delay in notification mean about the motivation of the hunting party? (Imagine that Cheney had been shot in Texas and that law enforcement folks had been notified 24 hours later.)

I have this fantasy about a call to the police in North Minneapolis: "Hello. Officer, I had a party last night and one of my guests shot his wife. She's doing ok. He didn't mean to do it. He was shooting at rats and she got in the way. I guess she should have yelled out 'I am not a rat' before she came into the kitchen. Anyway, he's pretty broken up about it. We cleaned up the kitchen real good though, and you can question any of us. We have been going over the details together so we are real sure what happened."

This whole matter is not fundamentally about Cheney. It is about law enforcement. Note to the world: if somebody shoots me, in any situation whatever, I would like it if the police would assume it's some sort of crime until thay have evidence that it's an accident. Sure, everybody knows that accidents happen when people hunt; that's one reason I don't hunt. It's also the reason that, if I was planning to eliminate my old buddy Joe so I could comfort his wife in Acupulco, I would invite him deer hunting and suggest he wear his old brown coat.

I think it is very very very likely that all that went on in Texas was a miserable, embarrassing accident, totally explainable and totally forgiveable, and that any serious investigation of it as a possible crime would put all concerned through a lot of needless pain. But if police refrain from investigating possible crimes because the investigation will make people uncomfortable, they might as well give up on investigating anything. And, police ask lots and lots of questions when the suspects are poor and powerless. People who are poor and powerless have noticed that, and they have also noticed how Texas police respected the various borders of the Armstrong ranch.

By the way, why does everybody keep mentioning the Aaron Burr analogy; Chappaquidick is much closer.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:01 AM

February 8, 2006

Premature research investment

In From Eros to Gaia, Freeman Dyson criticizes big scientific research projects with huge price tags.His argument is simple: by the time these big things get built, the science that justified them has shifted. They aren't quite what is needed, but, given the enormous amount of money already spent, they have to be built anyway. He was thinking about major astronomy projects, mainly, but it seems that his warning applies also to major public health studies. Today's papers reported that a very large (and so not repeatable) study has shown that there is no connection between a low-fat diet and decreased risk of heart attacks and cancer. Critics charge that the study did not consider a low enough fat target, that it did not distinguish among kinds of fat (as recent research suggests it should have done) and that it did not consider the effect of combining a low fat diet with regular exercise.

One can't help thinking that this big, conclusive, never to be repeated study was done way too early, and that it was way too big and too long. It answered conclusively a question that many researchers have come to think is just the wrong question to ask, and it suggested to lots of people a result quite different from the one it actually established, "Don't worry about dietary fat."

One sees a place for good screening of big, expensive science -- and for a kind of research conservatism.

Beyond that, I think this story has some lessons about major research efforts and conclusive refutations in general. They are always tempting: one wants to do one's best, to get it really right -- for all sorts of "its." But there will be revenge effects for almost any major research effort, and for almost any conclusive proof. One's over-all epistemological situation may be better when one rests satisfied with "pretty good reason," especially if one has "pretty good reason" to believe lots of things and if one revisits one's "pretty good reasons" pretty frequently.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:30 AM

February 3, 2006

Jeeves and Wooster -- Wodehouse as moralist

Wittgenstein asked, "Could one explain what modesty is by pointing at someone and saying, 'That man is not modest?'" I just discovered P.G. Wodehouse. I'm midway through The Mating Season, a dangerously funny book. I think I might die laughing. But, strangely from a book I wanted just for fun, I am having so many thoughts about morality, reading this. These are guys who do whatever it takes to get themselves out of whatever jam their last lie got them into. They exist just for this split second. They don't think ahead or around or deeply. And they lie, constantly, frivolously, ineptly. And that tickles the moral nose.

Partly what they are up to is sort of ok. They don't treat the dramas around them very seriously, and the dramas around them don't really demand seriousness. People can live like that for awhile, and then not anymore. In Schnitzler's dramas, folks this care-free and rich and frivolous end up making tragedy. That's in one way better writing, and lots of people who have done comedy with a real odor of Wodehouse -- think Dorothy Sayers, think Robertson Davies -- have tried also to show that goofiness has its limits, to find a place for goofy guys in an ungoofy world. (It is very instructive to read Davies' Tempest Tost in contrast to The Mating Season. Davies cares about his characters, however silly they get, and he keeps reminding the reader that they can really get hurt. In one way, that makes Davies a much bigger novelist.)

But Wodehouse's greatness is different -- a philosophic greatness, I think. He draws a very appealing world in which moral seriousness is totally absent. One gets drawn in, begins to talk like that, enters the world, and then -- one notices that something is missing. And as one notices that, one begins to ask quite seriously: what is it exactly, that this world lacks? And that question persists.

This is just my take, for now, as a baby Wodehousian. But I'd be happy if I gave somebody dour an excuse to read The Mating Season. Just, don't read and eat at the same time.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:51 PM

February 1, 2006

Odd crimes

School shootings, parent shootings by kids -- where do they come from? These repeated instances of people in rural towns trying to find someone to kill their spouse. It feels like that sort of crime needs a long leadup, a whole history of progressive violence. But sometimes there doesn't seem to be that history. People just get this idea and go do it, because they can't think of anything else to do, maybe. And the neighbors always say the murderers were nice, polite, normal. What is it that is built up in some people that makes killing unthinkable, that in others is absent, so killing is just one more option. And how widespread is the absence of insides in people? And how can one know whether one has insides, oneself?

Posted by shea0017 at 7:55 PM