What's the opposite of philosophically conservative? 
In summarizing his philosophical approach to the photographer Steve Pyke, David Lewis said, "I am philosophically conservative: I think philosophy cannot credibly challenge either the positive convictions of common sense or the established theses of the natural sciences and mathematics."*

This seems like an odd thing to say, and I suspect that it summarizes why David Lewis' work has always made me a little uneasy. He conceives of philosophy as doing something separate and outside ordinary or scientific enquiry. Such an approach makes metaphysics a matter of window dressing our beliefs, without any possible influence on what the main doxastic inventory is.

Of course, this kind of conservatism is not unique to Lewis. I gave a job talk once and, during the question and answer period, an epistemologist in the audience objected to my argument on the grounds that it might lead us to disagree with scientists about some things and (he said) he would not want to tell scientists that they were wrong. The best reply to such an objection: But what about when scientists are wrong? It would be perverse not to point that out.**

Diametrically opposed to Lewis' approach is a kind of eliminativist naturalism according to which responsible philosophy is just science that happens to be done in a department called 'Philosophy'. Quine is the posterboy for such an approach. This kind of eliminativism is conservative in its own way, because it means that there is nothing that philosophy as such can add to science. There ends up being no philosophy as such at all.

A natural middle position is to say that philosophers typically address different questions than scientists do. Moreover, the methods appropriate to those questions are not identical to methods appropriate to the natural sciences. There is no sharp boundary between the scientific and the philosophical (Quine is right about that) but there is sufficient difference on either side of the boundary that the existence of philosophy departments is not just as arbitrary administrative fact about universities. Yet the porous nature of the boundary means that the enquiries can have things to say to one another.

Philosophy of science must accept science as for the most part OK. If it yielded total, utter scepticism, then it would stop being philosophy of science and becomes something else. (Mysticism, maybe.) But the qualifier 'for the most part' is important. Philosophers can call into question parts of science. Philosophers of science might even challenge and overturn some canonical examples of good science; what they can't do is overturn all of them.


A further aside: It's odd that Lewis invokes the "convictions of common sense", as if common sense consists primarily of a paddock of inviolate beliefs. As I have argued elsewhere it is better to think of common sense as a commitment to giving prima facie trust to certain methods and inferences. For example, seeing x is prima facie reason to believe that x exists. The same holds for the sciences: They are in the first place a matter of method rather than a matter of conviction.


* HT: Steinblog.
** I do not recall what answer I actually gave. I recall being shocked by the objection, and I might just have said "Really?!?"

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No clever title, this 
Here is a despairing rant about the cost of textbooks and how my attempts to do something about it have been frustrated by bullshit:

I wrote forall x because existing logic textbooks were ridiculously expensive and were rapidly reissued in new editions so as to kill the market for cheaper, used copies. My book is written to be a physical book. It has practice problems, solutions in the back, reference tables, and content which is best accessed by thumbing back and forth between various sections. So I allowed students to buy it as a course packet, paying only the printing cost.

Because other people beyond just my students might want to use it, I made it available for download on the internet. Faculty at dozens of schools have used it as a course text, and lots of people have used it for independent study. To reiterate, electronic availability was just for distribution to the broader world.

When the copy shop across the street from campus closed, I let the campus bookstore sell the course packet. The first semester I did this, they charged a reasonable $10. The second semester, they jacked that up to $20 without letting me know. So I started using the copy center on campus instead. Last year, the copy center closed. The only place that will sell course packets off campus is several miles away, and students grouse if I ask them to schlepp over there.

So for this coming semester, I asked the campus bookstore to determine how much they would charge. The answer: $27.15. For 160 pages. That are covered by an open license. I was told, "That price is solely based on production costs."

My reply: "The course packet service you are using simply lies about production costs. It's the worst kind of bullshit."

So I am just going to point students to the PDF and encourage them to print their own copy. Many of them won't, which will be a mistake. They would do better in the course if they had the textbook in an accessible form. Working practice problems on scratch paper is easier with a workbook than in front of a computer screen. But they could pay 15 cents a page for printing and still save money over what the bookstore would have charged.

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Two data points on brevity 
Regarding the lengths of things that I've written, the manuscript for the unstably named book on natural kinds is about 75K words. My dissertation was just 43K words.

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Title bout, round two 
My book on natural kinds is in the hands of the publisher. It was to have been titled Carving up the world: Scientific enquiry and natural kinds, but yesterday I learned about a just-published collection of essays titled Carving nature at its joints: Natural kinds in metaphysics and science.

The collection from MIT Press includes a wide range of essays from the 11th Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference, so it really isn't direct competition for my focused monograph on natural kinds. Yet the title, as my publisher says, is "a little close for comfort."

In short, I need a new title.

Brainstorming this morning led to the following list, plus others too terrible to record. Do any of these sound like books you would want to read?

1. The philosophy of Planets, mallards, and other natural kinds

2. Natural kinds and the structure of the world

3. Pragmatism, realism, and natural kinds

4. What about natural kinds?

5. Science, philosophy, and natural kinds

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The FOE digest for 2011 
I continue the tradition of taking the first sentence from the first post of every month in order to generate a summary of the year's blogging; cf. 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

I: One thing that commentators on Descartes fret about is who the "I" is who narrates the meditations.

II: In elementary school, there was a unit on letter writing.

III: When writing problem sets for Intro Logic, I try to use interesting topics.

IV: Brian Leiter is calling for a boycott of Synthese.

V: Last week we had the final class meeting for my 17th+18th Century Philosophy course.

VI: Last month, I discussed the unprofessional and craven reply by the editors of Synthese to the petition protesting their unprofessional and craven behaviour.

VII: When there were first calls to boycott Synthese, I was in a bit of a bind.

VIII: Two computer scientists at Stanford are going to be teaching a free on-line course in AI.

IX: I have played around with Google's Ngram Viewer before.

X: Today marks the end of this blog's year six.

XI: A few weeks ago, I did an exercise in my intro course in which students read descriptions of two scenarios, answered some multiple choice questions individually.

XII: I have just sent off the final manuscript for my book, Carving up the world: Scientific enquiry and natural kinds.

Teaching (in general) and the Synthese debacle (in particular) dominate the round-up, with the usual smattering of stuff about life on-line.

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