The neap semester 
Pardon a cranky blog post.

Classes start this week. I am teaching two courses which I have taught before, so I am patching together syllabuses, pushing and pulling to make them fit. I am intentionally changing the courses some, in incremental ways. And the topics must be nudged to fit the calendar of this semester, to convert from topics grouped into two days a week (which I taught last time) to three, shorter days.

All of that is inevitable.

What is utterly evitable is the fact that this semester has 14 and a half weeks, which is a different total amount of time than last time I taught these courses. When I taught 17th and 18th Century Philosophy in Spring 2011, it was low tide for total hours of instruction with only 13 and a half weeks. So that course needs to either dwell on things for longer or have some extra material. When I taught Understanding Science last Fall, it was high tide with 15 and half weeks. So that course needs to sprint through some topics or drop something entirely.

I say it could be avoided, because it is the result of planning at the institutional level. Is oscillating semester length peculiar to UAlbany?

As a student, I never paid careful attention to the precise length of the semester. And there were few courses which I saw more than once. So I can't say whether it's a common phenomenon.

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Planet? I just make et up as I go along! 
In my discussion about whether planet is a natural kind, I focus just on our solar system. Although we expect there to be planets around other stars as well, I say we don't know enough about the structure of other solar systems to generalize too much. I also comment that a gas giant which didn't orbit a star would not be a planet.

There's lots of interesting recent astronomy which makes my claims about the details out of date.

Further work has allowed astronomers to identify dozens of planets orbiting other stars, so-called exoplanets. The amateur techniques for discovery are sufficiently routine that many of the discoveries have been made by amateur astronomers. Of course, we don't have - and may never have - ways of detecting smaller objects like Trojan asteroids in the orbits of exoplanets.

Last Fall, astronomers discovered what most news sources have described as a "rogue planet" and which the paper announcing it calls a "free-floating planet". Despite such loose talk, sources are clear that it is still an open question whether the object formed around a star (and so was born like a planet) or formed out on its own (and lacked sufficient mass to ignite as a star). In the introduction to the paper, the authors use the more cautious phrase 'Isolated Planetary Mass Object' (IPMO).

These are cool findings which I would discuss if I were writing the book now, rather than two years ago. The difference would just be in the details, though, and I think my general conclusions still hold.

Since natural kinds are contingent and identifying them is fallible, though, I fully expect there to eventually be some discoveries which entirely undo something that I say in the book. I would be deeply suspicious of any philosophy of science which was immunized against such revision.

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Meet the new problems, same as the old problems 
In a recent item at 3 Quarks Daily under the title The Problems of Philosophy, philosophers Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse lament that (according to them) contemporary professional philosophers are too worried about what's wrong with professional philosophy and pay too little attention to genuine philosophical problems. They mark this distinction by writing lower-case-p "philosophy" for the activity of thinking about hard problems and upper-case-P "Philosophy" for the profession. After starting with a poorly-adapted joke,* they pose their worry this way:
It should come as no surprise that philosophy should still be in the business of self-examination. But one may be stunned to find that, perhaps more than ever, the profession of Philosophy is fixed on questions of its existence. ... So, why does Philosophy - capital "P" – exist?


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Bizarro am always been realist 
The 50th anniversary of the publication of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has prompted numerous authors to write pieces about what we really learned from Kuhn. Reading two of these, I am struck by the sense of having been whisked away to Bizarro world.

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Debriefing * science 
The last day of classes for the semester was yesterday. I was teaching Understanding Science (an intro to science studies course) and Philosophy of Science (a survey for advanced undergrad and grad students). As is my usual practice, I asked students which topics I definitely should include when I teach the course again and which I should omit. This is partly to focus their attention on which topics were substantively rewarding and which not, but I also take it into account when revising a course.

To me surprise, there was not a groundswell of dissatisfaction for any of the topics in either course. This is somewhat reassuring to me, because I have taught both courses many times now. I have made piecemeal changes to them over time. Although every change was meant to make them better, I often feel as if the syllabuses have become patchwork monsters.

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