Archive for October, 2007

The scholar

October 21, 2007

The scholar as in “Kant-scholar”, “Descartes-scholar”… most often used in negative contexts, i.e. “He’s not a Kant-scholar (but still writes about Kant, sometimes)”. A scholar might innocently look just like an expert on a particular subject matter: just like the metaethicist is an expert on metaethics, the Aristotle-scholar is an expert on Aristotle. But things aren’t that easy. For metaethics is straightforwardly identified as a subfield of philosophy, whereas Aristotle is a philosopher, and a dead one, too. So unlike the metaethicist, it seems, the scholar is not doing research in an area of philosophy, but in the history of philosophy, and more specifically: about a particular philosopher.

But for this purpose the scholar, qua philosopher, might seem ill-equipped. After all, philosophy teaches you to argue with almost nothing to go by and to analyze and criticize arguments of the same type. A scholar, on the other hand, must have skills more easily acquired in philology, like the ability to read in a foreign, potentially dead, language, comparison of manuscripts, evaluation of sources.

So why is the Aristotle-scholar a philosopher then, rather than a classicist? Sometimes they are both. But crucially, the philosophical scholar is attempting to make a dead philosopher a potential partner for philosophical dialog. Because of the particular interest philosophers have in arguments qua arguments, claims as conclusions and principles as premises, to make a text accessible for a contemporary philosopher takes more than philology. In fact, the philosophical scholar has to willfully ignore certain aspects of the context, in order to bring out the argument as an accessible one. As much as Plato’s philosophy may have been inspired by religious motivations, the key point is: do his arguments support his conclusions? And can they be rendered such that the conclusions follow without reference to further background assumptions we might be disinclined to believe?

Got problems?

October 20, 2007

What is a good philosophical problem? This question is very different from the question what a philosophical problem is. A philosophical problem is a problem of philosophy, i.e. the sort of problem professional philosophers investigate. Unfortunately, it is not the case that all of these problems are good philosophical problems.

This complaint is of course not just a recent one. Carnap is famous for his polemic against metaphysical pseudo-problems. Carnap’s complaint is primarily that metaphysical propositions are meaningless. For decades metaphysics became a dirty word amongst those philosophers who liked to call themselves ‘analytic’.

At some point they must have gotten bored. For recently metaphysics seems to have become acceptable again even for the analytic tradition. And indeed, the problem is no longer Heidegger-speak. On the face of it, the problems and arguments in the new metaphysics can be stated in perfectly clear terms, and you can even add quantifiers as desired. So it seems that the original Carnapian attack has lost much of its bite. Add to this that verificationism has long since fallen out of favor, and the cause for the anti-metaphysician seems hopeless. Or does it?

For it still seems that there is something wrong with metaphysics. While the statements of metaphysicians might not be meaningless, they still seem somewhat pointless. Even to the neutral observer (and maybe especially to the neutral observer) analytic metaphysics looks very much like verbal chess. You have to be clever to play, but it’s a mere game, with no effect on anything else, inside or outside philosophy.


October 17, 2007

Spam can work (or attempt to work) in a number of different ways. Recently there seems to be trend towards one-word subject-lines, for example: “leg”. The email content is not in any way related to the subject line. It seems clear that this works well for things people might actually be looking for, like “car” or “job”. But the words are quite obviously put in there at random.

Interestingly, though, they succeed in evoking images, stories, thoughts quite related to the products advertised indirectly. This is because you don’t just get one such email, but dozens in a row. So instead of being left with the unhelpful “leg”, you end up with, for example, this:

Arrange Leg Straight. Force Sister Wrong. Rock, Rain, Gone.

Which seems suggestive enough for the purpose.


October 16, 2007

“Some abstracta come higher up on the list than others, not in the sense of being more abstract than other abstracta, since the distinction of abstract and concrete is one of kind, not degree, but rather in the sense of being more paradigmatically abstract. “[A subject with no objects  – Burgess and Rosen, Introduction, p. 14, my bold, original italics]

Now, why would that be? Why can this distinction not be one in degree? Why can’t irrational numbers be more abstract than natural numbers? The property of being a cat more concrete than the property of being a physical object? The situation is made worse by the fact that Burgess and Rosen admit to not having anything close to a definition of abstractness…


October 15, 2007

Economics, in the first half of the 20th century, was clearly a developing discipline. At the turn of the century, only a handful of countries were seriously industrializing, with Britain being the farthest along. How serious a problem economic naiveté can be, only became clear in the 1920ies. Even before the infamous crash in ’29, politics seemed insufficiently prepared to handle the new economic dynamics of industrialized nations.

Take war reparations, for example. Whether or not reparations in general are a good idea is debatable. It is widely acknowledged, however, that the reparation policies after WW I were disastrous. Set at 269 billion gold marks (roughly: $23 billion then, $393.6 billion these days) in 1921, they fueled hyper-inflation in the Weimar Republic, despite being lowered in subsequent negotiations. Notice the naiveté in requiring an already damaged economy to pay outrageous sums of money, but notice also the naive response of the Weimar politicians: just print more money.

One of the few good outcomes of the reparation policies was the LZ-126 (later: USS-Los Angeles) – a zeppelin built as part of the German reparations to the US. Hugo Eckener, chairman of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, got the German government to pay for the airship, and this contract saved the zeppelins. Military zeppelins were not allowed in post-war Germany, and there was certainly no money for civil airships. You maybe don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out such a deal (or fly a zeppelin across the Atlantic, for that matter), but it should be noted that Hugo Eckener had a PhD. In philosophy.

Oh the humanity!

October 13, 2007

6,624,177,565, roughly. That’s the number of people living on this planet right now! Luckily, most of them live in developing countries, with no chance of ever living the kind of lifestyle most of us, with easy access to a computer, indulge in. Lucky us. For, if they did, very soon nobody would live that life anymore.

It’s not just Climate Change, although that’s a huge factor. It’s also resources. Already we see China’s hunger for growth on the markets. Metals and coal are becoming more expensive. So is food. Some say that’s Climate Change, other’s say it’s China. Either way, it means more mouths need to be fed, and not just that. They want cell-phones, cars, computers. Good for growth, but can we sustain that? Do we really want the third world to catch up to the first? There might not be much left of the first world after that.

So do we really think that falling birth-rates in developed countries are worrisome? That China’s brutal one-child policy was a bad idea? That aborting female fetuses in India is a bad thing?