Friday, April 29, 2005

Matt's Theory of Time

Matt does ancient philosophy, but is nevertheless a pretty good guy.
Unlike me, he's got a tenure-track position, so I'm a bit envious of
him. He's got this idea about time which I've never quite got. The
idea is that while space is purely relational, temporal relations are
actually physically present. I don't do philosophy of physics, but
somehow this doesn't make any sense to me. I mean, time can't be
substantival if space is. After all isn't our whole grasp on what's
substantival based on the idea of substantival SPACE? I tried to
explain this to him, but he doesn't seem to get it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

philosophy after hours

so after a hard night's drinking with Zane and Matt--more about the
latter to come--here's a late night's blog entry.

values are real. moral emotions are relations to values. sometimes,
though, its tough to relate to values in the right way, especially when
one's mind is related to things like sylvia. nonetheless, one can,
through the right sorts of thought, relate to values in the right way.

okay, sleep for me now.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Externalism and Attraction

Well, the truth about my not blogging last weeks isn't what I said in
my last post, that I'd been busy grading papers--though, I had been
quite busy grading papers (p.s. I just found about the difference
between "quite" in British English, where it de-emphasizes, and
American English, where it emphasizes---incredible!). The truth is I'd
been thinking about the header comment. The truth is things didn't
quite work out with Sylvia (American sense), and that's had me down for
awhile. Like all the hurdles one reaches in life, however, it's made
me reflect, and reflection is my job, so it makes me do my job better.
What I've been reflecting on is what attraction consists of.
Internalists, are, of course, tempted to say it is just a state of
mind. So it is just the emotions I feel when I drink a nice Pinot and
think about her. ( And wow, is a nice Pinot nice!--thanks to Sideways
for letting out the secret of California's best grape!) This
comforting thought, which got me through the end of my last
relationship, no longer seems true to me. Sylvia is a part of my
thought. I may be able to get her out of my head, but she is
constitutive of my mental. Externalism about the mental, while it may
make epistemology a little easier, certainly makes the romantic life a
bit harder.

Well, this blog is getting to be a bit more sappy than I intended
I've actually pretty much recovered from that little burst of
post-romantic melancholy and am back in the game, philosophically
speaking. In fact, at a colloqium on rights yesterday I mopped the
floor with a few questions about the relationship between persons and
their desires.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

pace Wittgenstein

I've been away for awhile, mostly doing some grading. Recently, I've
been thinking a lot about Wittgensteinian philosophical methodology.
I'm certainly no Wittgenstein scholar, but, like many philosophers, I
often think about whether our business is more about solving puzzles
that in certain lights should never have arised--shewing the fly out of
the fly-bottle--or rather than tracking substantive new areas of
knowledge. My thought is that philosophy is neither one nor the other.
Rather certain areas--say for instance certain parts of philosophy of
language (say the discussion of truth) are Wittgensteinian areas
whereas others like, say, the discussion of free-will or knowledge,
involve substantive discoveries sometimes. This doesn't make
philosophy much different from other disciplines, where some issues are
just conceptual disputes and some involve substantive new discoveries.
So I don't think we should be concerned that there is anything
particularly fly-bottlish about philosophy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Sylvia and I went somewhere more respectable this time, a local mexican place with some serious charm. I had thought before of explaining to her that there was no philosopically respectable view which reconciled the naive conception of human agency with the basic facts about our material being, and that even denying determinism by quantum mechanics was of little help. But, thinking better of it, I decided that all this could do was throw her, like me, into a depression from which there was no escape. So instead, we talked again about virtue ethics. I wonder if one is morally obliged to cite one sources in conversations with non-philosophers. I think I may have (unintentionally!) given Sylvia the idea had thought up the whole idea of virtue ethics myself.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Analytic Philosophy Meets Freud

As I said I was in Toronto this weekend for a conference and happened to see Jonathan Lear give a talk at the Plato and the Divided Soul conference. It's wonderful to see the techniques of analytic philosophy applied to such basic questions as "how we should live?" and "how can mere talk help us be better people?" Lear began by posing the very deep of how a "conversation" can make structural change to the soul. He gave quite a spectacular answer, though there was so much Plato, psychoanalysis and subtle analytic probing involved that I can't quite reconstruct it. The picture I got from him was that both Plato and Freud saw the soul as structured into different parts (i.e. the famous tri-partite soul from Plato and Freud's Ego, Superego, and Id (which Lear charmingly compared to Cookie-Monster). The question is how mere talk can affect serious change to the soul. As I understand it he was really asking the fundamental question of how we as philosophers by our mere "talk" (which this blog is just one example of) can really change the way people think. He compared recieving words to digestion and said the question was how one form of food (i.e. conversation) could change someone's metabolism (i.e. way of taking in conversation). I was told that Lear is a psycho-analyst himself which makes him uniquely qualified to discuss a "talking cure", I guess.

I have to say, though, I'm somewhat skeptical of all this soul-talk. I mean, I've learned my lessons from Fodor and Putnam on reductionism about the mental (i.e. that it's bad). But still, I can't help thinking that these divided souls/minds of Plato and Freud with their automous parts battling it out is going a bit far...

Sylvia (mentioned here), and I are having dinner again tomorrow, and she told me that I must tell her all about the problem of free will... If anybody has on any advice on the best way to approach topic in an engaging way with a bright philosophical novice, I'm all ears.

Saturday, April 16, 2005


In Toronto where I just saw a terrific talk by Jonathan Lear. More on that when I get a chance.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

What Accounts for Progress?

At the end of Reasons and Persons Derek Parfit makes some very poignant comments about the development of moral philosophy. (I’m not sure why I keep talking about this book I haven’t read it in years and don’t even work on Ethics. Indeed, I lent my last copy to my ex-girlfriend who lost it promptly after deciding not to read it.). He claims, though, that owing to the domination of ethical thought by religion there has been little opportunity for ethical theory to advance. Freed from this constraint there has been a real rise in our understanding of the ethical predicament of contemporary times. Indeed with some hard-headed thinking and a few rhetorical flourishes, a new breed of ethical philosophers could change the face of Western ethical thought. (In fact Parfit suggests, I seem to recall, that the East is already ahead of us in its understanding of personal non-identity.)

Metaphysics and epistemology has bloomed as much as moral philosophy has in the twentieth century--if not more!, but not because of the decline of religious influence. Indeed it’s widely acknowledged that since Descartes the place of Theistic beliefs in M&E has been relatively minor. So what explains the twentieth century blooming of metaphysics and epistemology (broadly conceived to include the philosophy of language)? You might think I'm wrong here but, I challenge anyone to argue that M&E didn't bloom in the second half of the 20th century: just think about the sophistication of current debates on such topics as causation, knowledge, possibilia, logical form, temporal parts, laws etc.

I think the simple claim is answer that there are more good philosophers than ever, and that this applies to moral philosophy also. The truth is that the problems are just really tough and require a lot of great minds not just a few. Of course, the social support structure of the university, communication about ideas also helps, but I think the big improvement isn’t the decline of religious thinking but just the increase in numbers. If we can multiply even further, perhaps even the problem of free will or the surprise exam will be mere curiosity pieces.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


It's an occupational hazard that one comes out of the process of inquiry holding many beliefs on topics one did not have beliefs on before:


Numbers exist.
Beings are composed of temporal parts.
Pereception is simply becoming aware of facts.
Counterfactuals involve what is true at the nearest possible world.

I often wonder what to do with these beliefs, however. Clearly one can write about them and various implications they may have in professional context. But what about the old Socratic question, how should one live one's life? I'd like to think that philosophy teaches one a respect for truth and accuracy. However, these seem to be very outdated things these days.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Just a thought experiment....

As I,mentioned in the last post, Zane, my friend and colleague from the English department has been reading Parfit lately. We had a drink this evening...

Zane: Why would someone want to reproduce assexually using Star Trek technology? You know I'm not a Freudian, but some times these things are just too obvious.
Simeon: He doesn't want to reproduce assexually it's just a thought experiment.
Zane: Yeah, just like Oedipus Rex was a Sophocles's 'thought experiment' about sleeping with your mother and killing your father...

Now he wants to know what other twentieth-century philosophy to read. Says it's like primitive art or something... I hope he doesn't get wind of the fat man in front of the trolley case or the rapist's pleasure objection to utilitarianism. Not to mention Jim and the Indians... (perhaps native-americans would have been more sensitive)

This Blog Title

I've been wondering today whether this blog should really be called metathought. I haven't really had many thoughts about thoughts lately. I think rather the purpose of this blog is to analyze the role of philosophy in A) contemporary intellectual life, and, well, B) my personal life. It is deal with the intrinsic difficulty of reconciling pure thought with well the realities of a complex and difficult world. So perhaps the blog should be called metaphilosophy, but, frankly, that sounds too post-modern. I'm not really interested in the self-conscious reflection on philosophy per se (what one might call the philosophy of philosophy) but rather simply the relation of philosophy to other thing. But no name can quite capture that in a very pithy way, so I may as well stick with metathought. After all it is a form of talking about a form of thought, so it is one partiuclar form of metathought, or perhaps metapractice as really philosophy is a practice.

By the way more on Zane in a bit. Apparently our little "conversation" about the self has piqued his interest in analytic philosophy. I saw him this evening walking home with "Reasons and Persons" which he said was very "Freudian"...

The Olive Garden

I’ve talked to many other philosophers about, what literary critics might call, “the other”. That is, of course, talking to non-philosophers. I mean it’s easy if you’re on some safe topic like politics or The Sopranos, but there’s only so much mileage that can be gotten from them…

Yesterday I went out with a friend (let’s call her Sylvia) to our local trattoria, the Olive Garden. (I tried to explain to Sylvia that it was partly an ironic tribute to middle america and partly because I have a deep affection for their calamari.)

After the appetizers and a couple glasses of white Sylvia asked the Question: “What exactly do you philosophers do?” Indeed. I told her of course that we try, to the best of our meager abilities, to analyze the basic nature of such things as knowledge, thought, substance, truth etc. She perked up a bit at that, having suffered from the commmon Historical Confusion--i.e. the idea that contemporary philosophers only discuss dead philosophers--and asked me to give an example.

I have to say I’d been quite looking forward to this dinner, and now I realized that the Moment of Truth had come. Could I, like Socrates or Alain de Botton, coherently relate the world of THOUGHT to LIFE and thereby win myself the affection of my own (slightly more effeminate) Alcibiades?

I decided to start out simple. I said, “Well, for example, how many things do you think are on your plate.”

She looked at me somewhat blankly and said, “Do you want me to count the fusilli?”
Simeon: Let’s just stipulate that there are 34 pieces of Fusilli on the plate.
Sylvia: Why don’t we make it easier and just stipulate that there is ONE thing on the plate, a pasta dish. (Her eyes veritably sparkled here.)
Simeon: Well, if we did that there wouldn’t be much to discuss… So let’s say, to put in a non-question begging terminology if you counted the fusilli you would count 34 pieces, whether there really are 34 pieces we’ll leave undecided.
Sylvia: Alright then there’s 35 THINGS on the plate.
Simeon: What things?
Sylvia: Well, there’s 34 pieces of pasta and then there’s the sauce.
Simeon: But didn’t you already say there was the whole pasta dish also? Shouldn’t that make it 36: 34 pieces of pasta, the sauce, and the whole dish.

She looked slightly confused but nonetheless interested. Anyway, the dinner went quite well, and I’m hoping that there will be some more philosophical conversations with Sylvia to report.

Philosophical Blogging

Gillian Russell has posted an intriguing question: which great philosophers of the past had the blog-lust? Indeed it seems to me that she misses out on some obvious examples by forgetting that the public correspondances of the past were essentially blogs--so we've got to include Leibniz and Descartes and give them credit for getting non-philosophers--indeed non-philosopher royalty--to make appearances on their blogs. You don't see any European nobility contributing even to Weatherson!

But that reminds me of the question I addressed and never answered, i.e. the academic isolation of philosophy today. Before I suggested that it was perhaps just too hard--technical and specialized. Maybe so, but then lot's of other things are pretty hard--like Finnegan's Wake and Derrida--and that doesn't stop people from reading them. Since teenagers are interested in philosophy, it can't just be that people don't find philosophy interesting, like they might not find fluid mechanics very interesting. So that leaves two hypothesese: either what we do is boring or its wrong. But neither one of these is remotely plausible. Clearly I need to have my coffee.

Monday, April 11, 2005


So, I know, it's my first day with my new blog and I'm getting a little over-excited. I was reading this student's paper on Wittgenstein. He/she/it writes,

"Wittgenstein didn't think pain was nothing but he also didn't think it was something. This implies that Wittgenstein thought that there were "things" with an intermediate status between proper thinghood and proper nothinghood. I think Wittgenstein was right because my that's like that woman Schiavo was before she died."

Pretty clever for a Freshmen in my intro to analysis class, a class with smart jocks from less harsh sports (like tennis players who have a real knack for ontology--has any body else noticed that?). But I like the idea here that thoughts can be thought of as things with intermediate ontological status. It's a bit like David Lewis's naturalness by degrees. Perhaps we can think of properties (like thought-properties) that are less natural as being less ontologically real. So for instance, electrons are totally really real. But washing machines are a little less real--still very real, but a little less. You might think that's crazy, but afterall what exactly is a washing machine? For instance, which electrons belong to it rather than to the air around it (air is another not quite real thing.) So that's the Schiavo-theory of thoughts. Of course, it's just what W. says, but only if you take him literally and not try to think he was just "throwing down the ladder".

The Self

Yesterday, in the faculty club, a colleague form an unnamed rival department in the humanities asked me if philosophers have actually had any interesting things to say about the "self". He said this with a jeering tone, as if we were too busy discussing counterfactual causation to think about the self. The food may be palatable but there's no way to avoid indigestion if one has to deal with all this sort of nonsense. I mean, does Daniel Dennett ring and bells? Does Derek Parfit or Thomas Nagel mean anything to you? Probably most of genuine insights into self-hood around are from twentieth century philosophers. I mean, did Shakespeare ever think about fission? (Not to say this colleague was from the English department...but not to deny it either.)

This led me to wonder--how come no one outside philosophy departments reads contemporary philosophy? You might think this is a bad question: after all I don't really care what the latest bit of Gertrude Stein criticism is, so why should Zane Appleby (the misguided English Professor who interrupted my pasta primavera) read any of the new J Phil (more on THAT later)? But when you think about it, while we (philosophers, that is) are not professionally obliged to concern ourselves with the intricacies of post-modernist reflections of Chaucer, they (the post-modernist Chaucer scholars, like Assistant Professor Appleby) ARE professionally obliged to have views or at least views on what views they might have on topics of current philosophical interest.

Let me explain by noting why various recent philosophical discussions are relevant to literary criticism.
1st example: the self. I mean this is pretty obvious. The kinds of main critical questions and foundational issues are exactly ones about personal identity: who is the Author? When is a fictional representation of a real person actually the real person and not just a parody of the real person, etc.
2nd example: counterfactuals and metaphysical possibility. It seems to me a like a major question in understanding what the author is trying to do is figuring out whether she/he/it is writing about an EPISTEMIC possibility or a COUNTERFACTUAL possibility. Literary critics never seem to address this question. Perhaps its because they think it's obvious that books are intended to describe counterfactual possibilities... This might be the case with MOST fiction, but isn't it possible that some authors are intending to describe a world that might be actual for all they know. This seems especially true when the work is about the future. In this case 1984 has gone from being an epistemic possibility to an epistemic impossibility.

I could go on. Some examples include, parthood, realism/anti-realism, theory of reference... Any comments of the following form are welcome: describe how a major current topic in philosophy relates (or, Zane, doesn't relate) to literary criticism.

This leaves me with the question of why, given the RELEVANCE of analytic philosophy for literary studies (not to mention other fields across the spectrum) is philosophy so unread. Maybe because it's just too hard?


Here I am--this is a token linguistic representation of a thought about a thought.