A bad diagnosis [or] Autism implies canism 
The New York Times has an item by Andy Martin which suggests that philosophy and autism are somehow connected. The idea is that "autism can be defined, at one level, by a lack of understanding" and that "given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. ... [T]he possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence." Reading Martin unsympathetically, I might reconstruct the line of thought as the following fallacious syllogism:

1. Autism involves not understanding.
2. Philosophy involves not understanding.
3. Therefore, autism is philosophy.

A more sympathetic reconstruction is this: Because of the limitations of language and comprehension, there is always a limit to understanding. Philosophers, especially the ones he mentions, are concerned with this phenomenon. We can never fully understand one another, so (Martin suggests) we are always somewhere along the autism spectrum.

Martin's central example is Wittgenstein, who was certainly a pathological case. He gives the following as an example of Wittgenstein's inability to understand people:
An illustrative true story: he is dying of cancer; it is his birthday; his cheerful landlady comes in and wishes him "Many happy returns, Mr. Wittgenstein"; he snaps back, "There will be no returns."

This is a story about a bitter, dying misanthrope. I find it charming, in a way. Some anecdotes are revealing of a person's character, and there must be space in the world for some people to be bitter misanthropes. For Martin, however, it becomes a symptom Asperger's Syndrome. By diagnosing Wittgenstein's condition, Martin domesticates the uncomfortable Wittgenstein. He suggests that we can understand Wittgenstein as afflicted.

In this respect, however, Martin's own practice overturns his thesis. If understanding is really impossible, then the feeling of familiarity and safety we get by diagnosing someone is just an illusion. If a deep metaphysical fact blocks us from understanding a philosopher by doing philosophy, then doing clinical psychology won't do any better.

Martin also gives the example of Sartre:
Consider, for example, Sartre's classic one-liner, "Hell is other people." Wouldn't autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that?

Ack! The "one-liner" is not just a free-floating bon mot that appears in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It's the punch-line of the play No Exit, and, in the play, it is not just any other people that are hell. Rather, there are three specific characters who constitute hell for one another. As the characters say explicitly, the problem is that they understand one another too well. Martin's interpretive framework misses the whole point of the play. He misunderstands, not because the metaphysical form of autism as such precludes understanding, but just because he's obsessed with the rubric of 'autism'.

As a footnote: As Carl Sachs points out (in a FaceBook thread) there is also a sexist middle-bit to Martin's rambling article. Martin uses the fact that more men than women are autistic to explain why more men than women have been philosophers. As Carl notes, however, this elides the oppressive politics which have kept women out of academia.

Addendum: Brian Leiter rounds up other excoriating comments about Martin's piece.

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A note on Alice and Paul 
Jender points to "The Royal Society's lost women scientists", an interesting article in today's Guardian by historian Richard Holmes. He mentions, among other people, "Alice Bodington, the fearless Darwinian author of Studies in Evolution."

My curiosity piqued, I searched the web to see if Bodington's Studies was available on-line. The first page of links was mostly to Holmes' article and mirrors of it. A bit further on, there was a mention of Bodington in Philosophy as a science: a synopsis of writings of Dr. Paul Carus. Carus is an american philosopher whose fame is preserved mostly because the Carus Lectures are named for him. The volume that includes abstracts of his entire corpus is available via Google Books; the essay that addresses Bodington is summarized thusly:
In answer to Mrs. Alice Bodington, an agnostic. The nature of our religious ideal is as much predetermined as man's reason...

I'll explicitly mention the irony of dressing down Mrs. Bodington for violating man's reason; I'm heavy handed like that.

To be fair, a different search term eventually turned up excerpts from Bodington's Studies.

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A prickly example [or] Cholla at ya' later 
I began working on several papers when I arrived in Pittsburgh. They have spiraled out of control and - gathering mass like the proverbial snowball - are on their way to being a book manuscript. The draft now totals up to about 50K words.

Even in a book, there are nice bits that do not fit in. One of these is about T.E. Wilkerson, an essentialist who insists that biological species are characterized entirely by intrinsic and essential properties. When he first advocated this position (in the 1980s) John Dupré replied with standard examples of how the biological world does not line up as neatly as the periodic table. Rather than adjusting his metaphysics to better fit the science, Wilkerson bites the bullet and spins out a wacky view according to which only genetic individuals constitute proper kinds.

Wilkerson does not actually seem to look at biology, and instead takes all of his examples from Dupré. For example, "Americans easily distinguish between prickly pears and chollas, but the distinction corresponds to no taxonomic division."* It is nice to note, although I don't see a sensible place to do so in the book, that biologists have changed the taxonomy to acknowledge just this distinction.


* 'Species, essences and the names of natural kinds', The Philosophical Quarterly, January 1993, p. 4

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Metaphysics grad conference 
The UAlbany philosophy grad students have announced the theme and date for this year's grad philosophy conference. This is their 4th annual conference.

These conferences are pretty much entirely student organized, and they have worked well. The students (both ours and the ones who come to give papers) seem to get a lot out of it. I have attended most of the papers in past years and plan to do so again. It's a good way to spend a day.

The keynote this year will be Ted Sider (NYU). The CFP is below the fold.
Read More...

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Montreal, ho! 
I leave tomorrow for the PSA in Montreal. In between deep thought and bottomless beer, I'll be giving a paper. So I posted a draft.

It's a brief discussion of Eric Barnes' Paradox of Predictivism, focusing especially on arguments that (a) successful prediction is some reason to trust experts and (b) anti-realists have a hard time making sense of this.

Update Nov8: Oops. I forgot to put the actual PDF on the server. It's actually available now.

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