The business of philosophy 
I was recently reading an intellectual biography of William James. It quotes from his journals, in the 1870s when he was deciding whether or not to take a position teaching physiology at Harvard.* James writes:
Philosophical activity as a business is not normal for most men, and not for me. ... Of course my deepest interest will, as ever, lie with the most general problems. But ... my strongest moral and intellectual craving is for some stable reality to lean upon...

He elaborates:
The concrete facts in which a biologist's responsibilities lie form a fixed basis from which to aspire as much as he pleases to the mastery of universal questions when the gallant mood is on him.

I am struck by two things.

First, it's interesting that James should characterize philosophy simultaneously as having a business and as being utterly general. To have a business is precisely to be interested in your portfolio rather than in other things.

Second, it highlights the tendency for experienced scientists to make pronouncements on philosophical matters when "the gallant mood" strikes them. It is not uncommon for scientists to do so without any sensitivity to the complexity of the philosophical issues, perhaps while simultaneously announcing that "philosophy" is dead. The excessively gallant scientist is the counterpart of the philosopher who pronounces on matters with proud ignorance of the empirical facts.


Notes:
* Lots of different sources cite different bits of this. Some cite longer stretches, but none the whole passage including all the bits I've quoted here. Because I'm just musing about it, I haven't consulted anything that's not on the internet.

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Hidebound steepness 
Eric Schwitzgebel recently compiled a list of the 267 most-cited contemporary authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Eric Schliesser suggests that it might be used as a measure of one's saturation in conventional wisdom by tallying up how many of the authors were once one's teachers. Schliesser reports that he scores 4 and so identifies his "personal Schwitzgebel-SEP-index" as about 1.5% (4/267). Schwitzgebel also scores 4. [1]

I score 4, and there are another 2 who were were faculty at UCSD while I was a grad student but with whom I didn't actually take a course.

Other measures that they suggest are how many of the authors one knows about or for how many one can identify the area of philosophy to which the author most contributed. However, those are measures of propositional knowledge rather than of sociological connection to the discipline. A hermit who reads a lot could score highly.

We might instead tally the number of authors on the list with whom one talked philosophy while one was a student. Let's set the bar low and say that asking the author a question at a public talk counts, but merely seeing the author give a public talk or exchanging pleasantries does not. The well-read hermit would score nullity on this, and so it is perhaps a more interesting sociological metric.

In addition to the 6 UCSD faculty, I score at least another 29 on this measure. [2] A couple were while I was still an undergraduate and a few were at conferences, but most were because the author was a visiting speaker at UCSD. I attended colloquia religiously and participated avidly, so I came close to maxing out the possible score given the opportunities I had. But it reminds me how lucky I was to be at a place where there were those opportunities.

It is well known from science studies that social connections serve to transmit tacit knowledge in important ways, so I am surely a different philosopher than I would have been than if I had been taught the same material in a more isolated place. I think it's a difference for the better, but perhaps it has made me so steeped in orthodoxy that I am a bitter cup of hidebound philosophical tea.

So let's call this measure the SEP-hidebound-steepness score.

My SEP-h-s is 35. I probably won't put that on my business cards.

Notes:
[1] Schliesser writes that there must be somebody who was taught by 25 or more of the philosophers on the list, but I doubt it. One can only take classes with some many different people, and one tends to take classes at only a few institutions before one stops being a student.
[2] The number would be higher still if it included people on the list with whom I've talked philosophy since graduating and becoming a professor. But construing it so that I get the biggest number possible makes it look less like a measure of sociological position and more like bragging.

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100^3 
Aesthetics for Birds is running a series of posts called "100 Philosophers 100 Artworks 100 Words", the premise of which is probably evident from the title: A philosopher identifies their favorite art work and writes 100 words about it.

Several of the posts have rhapsodized about classic paintings or works of literature. Allen Hazlett set a precedent for a less obvious choice by writing about a mouthful of lamb bacon.

So I considered writing something about Picasso's "Portrait of Ambroise Vollard" or Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, because I adore them both.

The Picasso painting resonates with me for entirely personal reasons. I had seen it in books and talked about it in a humanities class, and I liked it. It had never occurred to me to consider where the actual physical painting was, though, so I was gobsmacked when turned a corner at the Pushkin museum and came face-to-face with it. So thinking of the painting now reminds me of a pleasant summer in Moscow twenty years ago.

I probably would have picked the movie version of R&G rather than the original play. It is fun and clever, both in what it does on its own and what it does to Hamlet. But I don't know how to write about it without starting to sound pretentious.

I ultimately wrote about a relic from my childhood. It resonates for me because of my personal history, sure, but in a way that's shared with many gamers of my generation.

Link:
My 100x100x100 contribution

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Twitter buzz 
My department has a widget on its homepage which lists recent department news, and I came in today to find that something had broken in the string of tin cans which I had relied upon turn the Facebook feed to RSS to Javascript to a news box. So the other things I had to do got put on hold while I tried to unbreak our website.

After some searching, I gave up on finding a solution that mirrors the Facebook feed. The same information, more or less, is posted to Twitter. And Twitter provides widgets for mirroring feeds.

However, actually getting one of the Twitter widgets required registering for Twitter. So I did. I had no interest in having a Twitter account for actually tweeting, but whatever.

Almost immediately, I got a notification that someone I know is now following me on Twitter.

[Insert hold music: dum dah dum, doo doo]

I got distracted mid rant. Returning to finish the post, I realized that I might actually prefer Twitter to social microblogging alternatives like posting on Facebook or Google+.

Twitter posts are in many ways like tiny webpages: You can get at them with third-party clients. They are public things that you can link to. You can aggregate or sort them in different ways.

Those are things which are good about the web.

Facebook posts and comments, in contrast, are kept inside Facebook's private garden. You can't link to them. You're at the mercy of Facebook's interface. And Facebook will filter what you and others see in whatever ways they decide to use for now.

So maybe I should use my Twitter account.

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Epicycle on footnotes 
via Leiter, I read a long story by Charlie Tyson at Inside Higher Ed about sloppy citation practice in academic articles.

It's a popular item prompted by Ole Bjørn Rekdal's recent article Academic urban legends, which is specifically about the phenomenon in scientific articles of only citing a recent source for a factoid rather than following that source's reference to the primary source. The result, as his title suggests, is misinformation or misattribution that gathers a veneer of academic authority as it becomes cited and recited.

Tyson takes the occasion to talk about citation practices more broadly, including in the humanities. Historians, he tells us, are scrupulous. Philosophers, not so much. He writes:
Philosophers, by contrast, may be the worst of the lot, one philosopher and journal editor said. "This is part and parcel of the attitude of most philosophers these days," said J. Angelo Corlett, a philosophy professor at San Diego State University and the editor of The Journal of Ethics. "That scholarship matters nothing. That what really matters is the cleverness of your ideas and how you articulate them."

This strikes me as unfair to philosophers.

It is true that academic philosophy is not as dense with citations as writing in many other fields. Many academic fields write with clouds of spurious references. A sentence which makes a general claim often ends with citations to three or more different articles. And often the cited articles only tangentially relate to the point being made. This is why my articles at the boundary of other disciplines are among my most cited work. It would make philosophical writing worse, rather than better, if philosophers were to adopt this practice.

Moreover, an argument is different than a fact. If I present a philosophical argument in a paper, I need to make the case entirely within the paper itself. References might indicate where similar arguments have been made or what earlier work inspired the present argument. For example, it is the standard lazy citation practice to cite Laudan's "Confutation of convergent realism" as the source for the Pessimistic Metainduction. This promulgates a myth, because Laudan means to undercut an argument for realism rather than provide a direct argument for anti-realism.[1] But that's a myth about who said what, rather than (as in a scientific case) what the world outside academia is like.

Furthermore, practices differ within different subfields of philosophy. Historians of philosophy tend to be much more scrupulous. When I am doing exegetical work, attributing specific arguments to other philosophers rather than using their work as the occasion to talk about issues, I am more cautious.


[1] I'm guilty of propagating that myth myself in a paper with Craig Callendar, although we write somewhat cautiously that "Contemporary discussions of this argument begin with Laudan." Juha Saatsi clears it up in his "On the Pessimistic Induction and Two Fallacies". I was going to just assert that I was straightened out by Juha, because I heard his paper first as a conference presentation, but I thought I should provide a reference in this of all posts!

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