Hunting the essence of existentialism 
'Existentialism' has been a bit of vexed jargon in the 20th century. Teaching existentialism this term, I put some thought into the matter. I have started several times to blog about it (eg) but often my ruminations have threatened to overrun the borders of any reasonable blog post.

It is possible to use the term "existentialism" merely as a historical category, to refer to the rogues' gallery of moody philosophers in black turtlenecks who are typically included in anthologies of existentialist writing. Yet this would entirely ignore the reasons why these anthologies were collected in the first place. Although a new collection might include Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and who all else just because the previous collection did, the reading lists were not handed down from heaven on stone tablets. In Existential America-- my bedtime reading earlier this term-- George Cotkin does a nice job of documenting how the canon was formed. It is not merely an accidental grouping of some continental thinkers.

It is also possible to be a nihilist about "existentialism" and suppose that the term means nothing. Yet I would be pulling a bait and switch on students if I my "existentialism" course was mostly about Rawlsian political liberalism, to take an arbitrary non-existentialist topic. So I conclude that term cannot be entirely empty. And even if it were empty in its usual use, one might wonder whether there is any interesting thread running through the thought of the various so-called existentialists.

Steven Crowell, in his Stanford Encyclopedia entry, offers one such thread:
On the existential view, to understand what a human being is it is not enough to know all the truths that natural science... could tell us. ... Nor will it suffice to adopt the point of view of practice and add categories drawn from moral theory: neither scientific nor moral inquiry can fully capture what it is that makes me myself, my "ownmost" self. Without denying the validity of scientific categories (governed by the norm of truth) or moral categories (governed by norms of the good and the right), "existentialism" may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence.
This seems partly right to me, but too broad. Thoreau and Emerson thought that human existence was not exhausted by the analysis that science or ethics could give of it, and both were concerned with authenticity. Yet there are important differences between the transcendentalists' authenticity and the existentialists'.

So what's existentialism? For years, I've had an answer. But now I think there is an alternate answer that is just as good. It's uncomfortable, because the two answers underwrite different judgments about who is or isn't an existentialist.

I'll say more in another post.

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Existential notes from the campaign 
Via Leiter and Erfani, this curious little gem from Bloomberg columnist Jeremy Gerard describing the debate:
As the world burned, the presidential candidates were sober, lucid, rarely off topic and always in character last night. Watching it was like having to read Sartre on the first day of spring.

This is a curious metaphor, but he probably just means to say that it is something tediously calm in the midst of much activity. Alternately, it may be a reference to the climax of Sartre's Nausea; Sartre wrote as part of a summary of the book:
Roquentin wanders the streets, voluminous and unjustifiable. And then, on the first day of spring, he grasps the meaning of his adventure: Nausea is existence revealing itself -- and existence is not pleasant to see.

The debate (one may say) is the candidates revealing themselves -- and there is much on the present scene that is voluminous and unjustifiable.

In a somewhat related note, Ron mentions to me that he's been noticing the phrase "existential threat" coming up in the campaign; as in the sentence, "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel." The OED informs me that the sense of "existential" meaning simply pertaining to existence dates back at least to 1693. It does seem a bit archaic or jargony, though. In the 21st-century, the word raises connotations of angst, berets, and black turtlenecks. (Unbidden, one imagines a nuclear Iran laying siege to Israeli cafes. Those guys take up tables all day, never tip, and nihilate their own Nothingness.) I'm not sure why "existential threat" is being used rather than "a threat to the existence of", but puzzling out political idioms is like writing a blog post on a Sunday in October.

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Induction by any other name would smell 
My paper on demonstrative theories of induction is now forthcoming in International Studies in the Philosophy of Science. I just sent off my formatted final draft, which I've mirrored on the website.

A couple of years ago, I blogged about the worry that putting papers on-line might wreck the blind review process. My decision then was to post papers on-line under dummy titles, so that referees who were sent my paper would not be confronted by a headline that they might have innocently encountered on-line. I rejected more severe measures, because referees who deliberately violate blinding can probably figure out who I am anyway. I could only avoid that by being so secretive that no one in the field knew about me, but for obvious reasons that is a non-optimal strategy career-wise.

This paper was posted before that decision, but the original title ("Eliminating induction") was too cute and misleading. I changed the title after having decided to use dummy titles, so I kept the original title for the version on my website. The real, final title is "Demonstrative induction and the skeleton of inference." (More accurate. Still somewhat pithy.)

The cost of this dummy-title strategy, which I did not appreciate before, is that dummy titles gain traction in Google Scholar. Since the search engine is not clever enough to tell that a later version is just the same paper under a different title, Google Scholar's information about me gets cluttered with a lot of drafts.

I will persist with the dummy title strategy, however, because the Google Scholar clutter pathology will arise unless the first version I post has exactly the same title as the final version. I am not sure if that has happened with any paper I've written. In this case, for example, I presented an earlier version at a conference under the original title. In other cases, journal referees have asked me to change the title. And (to end with a zinger) E J Udokang can make a whole new article by changing the title's punctuation or spelling.

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Happy third blogiversary!  
Thus concludes year three of the blog. The statistics stand at 137 entries using 58,868 words. About 14k of those words were from the previous year. If you plot words blogged per year and draw a best fit line, the output reaches zero at the end of the fifth year. However, even if output decreases monotonically, it is unlikely to be linear. I have no plans to stop blogging.

I discovered recently that the blog software I use here is deleting some comments. I think it only happens when there are spam comments; I delete the spam, and the software gets too exuberant. I do appreciate any comments, and I'm looking for the source of the problem.

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Playing telephone with the echo chamber 
There's been some blog reaction to my fibs in Wikipedia paper. That's unsurprising, since the paper is freely available on-line and addresses a topic close to some bloggers' hearts.

What surprises me a bit is that all of the reactions interpret my study as vindicating Wikipedia. My result is certainly a midpoint between despair and celebration for Wikipedia; about a third of the fibs were fixed in the studied time window, but (it follows) about two-thirds of them were not. Since there is good reason to think that the probability of being fixed falls of rapidly after the edit is made, this figure does not allow us to extrapolate a half life for fibs. Nonetheless, Jason Pannone mentions my study and says, "I'm not sure that this article will sway skeptics, but it does offer some additional empirical evidence that minor errors in Wikipedia are corrected quickly."

Kent Anderson points to my paper and briefly summarizes the result. He misinterprets it slightly, taking 1/3 of the fibs fixed to include only those cases in which the fib was removed entirely. This allows him to give the optimistic spin that "additional entries were flagged with 'need citation,' indicating that they had been caught and the time to correction was near." Blogging librarian Rhondda read about my paper in Anderson's blog and summarizes it this way: "The study showed that Wikipedia's methods for checking for small inaccuracies are validated. ... Within 48 hours, those that had not been corrected, had been flagged as needing adjustment." Some others were flagged (Anderson's error) becomes all others were flagged, so that every single fib was caught by someone. If the game of telephone continued, someone down the line might summarize my study as showing that Wikipedia fixes errors with divine inerrancy, before they occur.

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