Saturday, December 22, 2012

LCR: One Reason Logic is Hard

Chris Mooney writes about the relationship between reason and emotion:
     "Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
     "We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about."
Read the whole article at:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

CD: Noncooperation in War

In an essay on the career of General David Petraeus in the current New Yorker magazine, Dexter Filkins describes a fascinating example of the way resistance movements sometimes arise even within military hierarchies. Describing the first year of American occupation of Iraq, Filkins paraphrases Fred Kaplan's forthcoming book The Insurgents: "... a small group of men, with Petraeus the most prominent, found one another and mounted an end-run around the military bureauracy, thereby saving Iraq, and probably the entire Middle East, from a war even more cataclysmic than the one we already had."

WR: Dueling Literalisms

In Friday's New York Times, the anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann discusses two distinct styles of Christian biblical interpretation, which we might characterize as textually reductive vs. imaginative or experiential. Neither has a tremendous amount of patience for historical scholarship, or even close, informed reading of scriptural texts, but both are interesting for what motivates them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Fin de Semestre

Thank you all for many interesting conversations this semester. I will undertake the unpleasant and anti-educational task of assigning grades next week. When you receive them, if you think they are unfair or might be in error please send me a polite query by email  -- you will want to save your anger, vituperation, and righteous indignation for the corporate plutocracy -- and I will re-evaluate. If you are unsatisfied with my response, you then have the prerogative to file an appeal through the registrar's office.

I wish you all a pleasant and convivial winter break.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

CLP: Ronald Dworkin on Affirmative Action

Those of you getting a running start on next semester's Contemporary Legal Philosophy might be interested in this article in the New York Review of Books (available in the library, and online for a small fee: by leading legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin: "The Case Against Colorblind Admissions." It is a very clear example of how legal reasoning works: the use of precedent, constitutional interpretation, etc.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

CD, LCR: Blogging This Week

Those of you who are game to continue blogging are welcome to do so this week. Consider it an opportunity to make up a little lost ground if you have been less than diligent at any point earlier in the semester.

CD: Further Reading

A couple of articles in the current issue of the New York Review of Books (available in the library, or online for a small fee) speak usefully to claims in Chenoweth and Stephan.
One, on the American Revolution (, lends some specificity to the claim that the successful violent insurgency "...was preceded by a decade of parallel institution building, nonviolent boycotts, civil disobedience, noncooperation, and other nation-building methods" (p. 222).
The other, reviewing several books on Germany in the second world war ( -- this one is available free online), details the way in which the destruction of social and governmental institutions preceded mass killing, helping to explain why the holocaust as such was largely confined to Eastern Europe. This somewhat obliquely speaks to Chenoweth and Stephan's observation that "Genocidaires are only as powerful as the henchmen and underlings who carry out their orders" (p. 221).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Updating Thoreau

Regarding the questions about moral purity we have been discussing in class and on blogs, here is an excerpt from this week's "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times Sunday magazine:
I learned that a local business, which I patronize perhaps twice a month for lunch, has been in trouble for employing undocumented workers. I’m not sure what to think of the ethics of that, though the illegality is clear. I’m wondering whether I have any ethical obligation as a citizen and customer to stop going there. LAURIE HURSHMAN, NEW HAVEN, CONN.
It’s true that employing undocumented workers is illegal, and it’s possible you don’t wish to be involved with any organization that breaks the law. But this kind of law operates outside the boundaries of traditional ethics. Obviously, this is not true for all laws: if murder were somehow legalized, killing innocent people would still be morally wrong, based on an ingrained belief in the sanctity of human life. But this is a different kind of statute. If the laws governing undocumented workers were suddenly reversed, it would be seen merely as a policy change. Some people would agree with the modification and others would not, but both sides of the argument would be almost entirely political. Undocumented workers take potential jobs from U.S. citizens, but who is to say citizenship is a moral justification for employment?
Undocumented workers don’t always contribute to the tax base, but they also put themselves in a precarious, unprotected position where they can be underpaid in cash, to the nefarious benefit of the employer. An illegal immigrant can’t legally work at a restaurant to support his family, but his 16-year-old son can, if he happened to be born here. There are contradictions on both sides. You admit you’re “not sure what to think” about this restaurant’s employment practice, which is an acceptable way to feel about an issue that lacks a straightforward moral answer; you’re aware of the illegality, but those laws apply only to the owner and the workers (not the consumer). So if you can’t personally isolate why it’s ethically wrong, there’s no reason to stop eating there.
But let’s take this further. Let’s say you thought about this problem deeply and came to the conclusion that it was unethical for restaurants to employ undocumented workers. This prompts one of the more difficult questions in modern living: Is it wrong to contribute — in any way — to businesses or organizations that contradict your ethical beliefs? There is a mode of thinking that insists that it is and that living ethically requires us to assess every day-to-day decision through the prism of its impact on the wider world. But what that entails in a practical sense is pretty unreasonable, unless “living ethically” is the only thing you care about. To do so would paralyze every moment of every day and consume you entirely. For example, let’s say you view military drone strikes as unethical (an issue far graver than restaurant employees). The U.S. government regularly conducts drone strikes. Does this mean that you should not support any business that pays federal taxes (and thereby provides support for military activities)? Does it mean you should not pay income tax because that makes you part of the problem? Does it mean you need to consider every single extension of the government, weigh their ethical merits against your own and then decide whether you still support the idea of living in America? These are all interesting questions to ask yourself while eating at this restaurant.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CD: Chenoweth & Stephan on Values

After reading King, Gandhi, and others who undertake change through nonviolent action, as well as a number of philosophers who think about it deeply, it is interesting to notice the different intellectual style these political scientists bring to the issue. While they are not uninterested in morality -- noting for example that one reason nonviolent movements can gather more active supporters is that so many people have moral qualms about participating in violence -- they treat morality simply as another sociological fact, and studiously avoid making any value-claims themselves. They seem to be arguing that their objective analysis shows nonviolent action to be superior for one reason only: that it tends to be more effective.

Powerful as such reasoning seems on the surface, in its vigorous avoidance of any (subjective or objective) assessment of the rather different values underlying violent and nonviolent choices of method, it feels oddly dissociated from the intentions that motivate most campaigns. This work might well encourage people to undertake nonviolent campaigns who would otherwise be doubtful of its efficacy, but it's hard to see how it can inspire the sort of commitment to nonviolence that Gandhi thought was so important.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

LCR: Alan Turing and Deductive Logic

This year is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, the British logician and cryptographer who cracked the Nazi "Enigma" code and almost certainly shortened WWII, perhaps by several years. Turing happened to be gay, and after the war was persecuted for it, which probably led to his death by accidental poisoning (or suicide, as some people think). Here is a short article on the role of deductive logic in his work, and its under-appreciated value for biomedical research.
An excerpt:
"Even though all deductive conclusions are logically implicit in the premises, they are not necessarily obvious, and they can require immense intellectual effort to generate. For example, in order to successfully decipher encrypted Nazi dispatches, Turing and his WWII colleagues had to make virtually every deductive inference permitted by the information in hand, what I call “maximum deduction.” As an ideal, maximum deduction is of potential relevance to today’s biomedical researchers, as deeper reasoning could help avoid fruitless lines of investigation while pointing to previously unrecognized but potentially valuable experiments. But as cognition expert Daniel Kahneman recently noted, rigorous reasoning is energy-intensive and the default choice for many individuals is to minimize cognitive effort.  Biomedical investigators frequently fail to make all of the inferences that are possible with the data available to them, whether derived from their own investigations or from studies by others."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

CD: Raz on legal protest

I'm struggling with Joseph Raz's analysis of the right to civil disobedience, and a piece of what's bothering me shows up in this paragraph:  "Liberal states do not make the legitimacy of political action dependent on the cause it is meant to serve. People may support political aims of all complexions. But the right to political action is circumscribed in such states by limitations as the form of the permissible actions. Given that we are used to thinking in this way of lawful political action, it is only natural to extend the same approach to unlawful political activity."
But this seems seriously to miss the point. The "form of the permissible actions" is, precisely and reductively, a legal form. Illegal action, by definition, departs from legality, so it seems to me we really would be correct to hold it to a different, and presumably higher, moral standard. Thoughts?

Monday, October 29, 2012

CD: Confucian Rectification of Names

Rebecca Solnit on climate change, activism, and the 'rectification of names:'
"Let's rectify some names ourselves. We often speak as though the source of so many of our problems is complex and even mysterious. I'm not sure it is. You can blame it all on greed: the refusal to do anything about climate change, the attempts by the .01% to destroy our democracy, the constant robbing of the poor, the resultant starving children, the war against most of what is beautiful on this Earth.

"Calling lies "lies" and theft "theft" and violence "violence," loudly, clearly, and consistently, until truth becomes more than a bump in the road, is a powerful aspect of political activism. Much of the work around human rights begins with accurately and aggressively reframing the status quo as an outrage, whether it's misogyny or racism or poisoning the environment. What protects an outrage are disguises, circumlocutions, and euphemisms -- "enhanced interrogation techniques" for torture, "collateral damage" for killing civilians, "the war on terror" for the war against you and me and our Bill of Rights.

"One of the great accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street was this rectification of names. Those who came together under that rubric named the greed, inequality, and injustice in our system; they made the brutality of debt and the subjugation of the debtors visible; they called out Wall Street's crimes; they labeled the wealthiest among us the "1%," those who have made a profession out of pumping great sums of our wealth upwards (quite a different kind of tax). It was a label that made instant sense across much of the political spectrum. It was a good beginning. But there's so much more to do."

Friday, October 26, 2012

CD: Democratic Decline

A thoughtful piece by Mike Lofgren about our nation's current plight, which is not without historical precedent:
Can we imagine how we might organize resistance to such a situation?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

CD: Living on Earth

Here's the transcript of a short radio interview with UVM law professor James Gustave Speth, author of America the Possible, in which he discusses among other things the importance of civil disobedience (he was arrested last year in Washington, D.C. to protest the XL pipeline) to revitalize the environmental movement in the face of catastrophic climate change:

LCR: New Blogging Benchmark

The Thursday post/Saturday comment strategy seems to be working pretty well. 87% of the class blogged this week (a new record!), and a third of you actually met the minimum standard of one post and two comments. Blogward and upward!

LCR: Rorty on Truth, Rationality, and Solidarity

Bridget raises a useful question about the first quiz question:

“The first sentence says that truth is “entirely” a matter of solidarity, so would that not mean that there cannot be truth without solidarity, that truth implies solidarity? Further, with the second statement, there is nothing of truth or rationality that is outside of “the familiar procedures of justification which a given society uses,” which I took to mean “solidarity.” Therefore there is nothing in truth or rationality that is not a matter of solidarity.”

Bridget thus symbolizes the passage as (T & R) --> S. Since there is no indication of a conditional statement in the passage, I don't think this will work. However, she correctly interprets Rorty's sense of 'solidarity,' and it is possible (though hard to tell without more context) that he intends an inference here between the two sentences. If so the first sentence would surely be the conclusion. So we would say T & R, therefore S. To make this formally valid we would have to symbolize Bridget's interpretation as [T --> S] as a tacit premise, clearly intended if she is right about how Rorty is using the word 'solidarity.' Hence:

1) [T --> S]  Tacit Prem.
2) T & R  Prem  /:. S
3) T  2 Simp
4) S  1, 3 MP  QED

 I'm afraid this argument would be viciously circular, however, since it sneakily assumes what it sets out to prove. As Peirce understands, truth had better mean more than solidarity, or all inquiry would be a sham, and whatever most people were convinced of would be true by definition -- if we all thought the earth was flat, it would be!

Friday, October 19, 2012

LCR: Lizard Brain Politics

Columbia Law professor Patricia J. Williams:
"The virtual absence of prefrontal cortical activity in post-debate analyses should remind us that without critical thinking, we are not much more than that little nub of neurons that constitutes the lizard's entire brain.
   "Critical Thinking is the most valuable product of a good education. It allows us to negotiate the world using both the executive functions of our prefrontal lobes as well as the emotional intelligence  of our limbic system. A psychologist friend says it's akin to the power of metaphor: being able to understand comparisons at a deep level means we must be neither hyper-scientistically literal nor awash in our feelings, but able to make creative connections among different experiences, languages, and worlds."
Read the whole article at:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

LCR: On Shyness in the Classroom

Check out the extended discussion on Bridget's blog of my comment in class on Friday about shyness. Here is a slightly revised argument that I present in the comments there:

1) Shyness is a habit. (definition, excluding pathological conditions that can present similarly)
2) It is possible in principle to change habits. (abundant observation; e.g. my mother managed to quit smoking after 25 years)
3) Shyness interferes with effective learning. (abundant research data regarding the ineffectiveness of passive learning strategies)
4) Anything that interferes with effective learning is bad for students. (definition)
(therefore) 5) Shyness is a bad habit for students.

CD: The Good Fight

As most of you know I abhor grades and the common obsession with them, believing them an anti-educational distraction that infantilizes students and drains learning of its inherent joy. I build them into my courses only because the institutional structure demands it.

Imagine my delight, then, to find that even though you are all aware blogging constitutes a substantial component of the course, so many of you have chosen to ignore the consequences for your grades, presumably on principle, by declining to do it. Of course, I think blogging can foster and amplify engagement with the material and each other in a low-pressure and enjoyable manner, and would like to see it catch on in my courses. However, I cannot but admire many of you for the price you are prepared to pay to resist the assignment.

As you collectively pursue this virtuous campaign against the manifest injustice of being asked to blog, I do hope you’ll keep the rest of us informed of your efforts. Hey, you could even blog about it!

Monday, October 8, 2012

CD: OWS and Police Intelligence

Michael Greenberg's "The Problem of the New York Police" in the current New York Review of Books is a must-read for anyone concerned about the Occupy movement and its hopes to snatch democracy from the jaws of oligarchy and a police state. An excerpt:
     "The culture of surveillance that has arisen at New York’s police department during the past decade has likely been enhanced by the unspoken rule of self-perpetuation that seems to govern most entrenched bureaucracies. Once you have a working unit of two thousand trained employees, with a budget in the hundreds of millions, broad public support, and no political checks or oversight, the temptation to extend your reach, to keep the machine in motion and identify more targets for investigation and create more and more files, is enormous.
     "Occupy Wall Street protesters have been especially vulnerable targets. Gideon Oliver, president of the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which, in partnership with the Legal Aid Society, has been providing free counsel to OWS arrestees, told me that in criminal court he and others have increasingly seen signs that peaceful political activists are landing on terrorist watch lists. Martin Stolar recently was defending an Occupy client in court for trespassing. In pre-trial proceedings evidence came from an Intel detective, implying, Stolar told me, that his client, a well-known activist within the Occupy movement, had been under surveillance and singled out for arrest. “At trial,” Stolar said, “they put a lowly uniform cop on the stand, to shield Intel.”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

CD: Dharampal on two concepts of law

One thing to notice in Dharampal's account of the events at Banares in the early 19th century is that there are, as it were, two legal operating systems in play. One is the apparently traditional relationship between a region or town and its local rulers, where protest of great hardship or (perceived or real)  injustice (including sit-downs, hunger strikes, commercial shut-downs, etc.) were understood as legitimate modes of expression, and sometimes led to negotiated changes in policy. The other is an essentially Roman notion of law as absolutely obligatory, in which any capitulation to such tactics is unacceptable because it would erode respect for law -- the subtext being that without it there would be chaos. The contrast is compounded by distant authority (Calcutta, London), whereby the local magistrate has very limited authority to negotiate or compromise without a lengthy delay while he checks with his superiors. It's like watching a conceptual train-wreck.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

CD: Solnit on Bitterness and Hope

Rebecca Solnit is at it again: Much that she says here reminds me of issues we were discussing in class today. An excerpt:
    "At a demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption "Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils." It behooves us not to use the dead for our own devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy.  Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.
    "You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all U.S. presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.
    "You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness."

Native Heritage

In response to an editorial in Wednesday's Berkshire Eagle, (, I submitted this letter:

To the Editor,
       I honestly do not understand William Lee’s reasoning about his and Elizabeth Warren’s ethnic heritage (“Integrity Really Does Matter,” Op/Ed Wednesday, September 26, 2012). Like Lee, Elizabeth Warren has excellent reasons for thinking that she has Native American ancestry, and when asked her ethnicity she proudly and honestly checked the “Native American” box. There is no evidence that she did this in the expectation of special treatment, and there is no evidence that she received any such treatment on account of it. She has said she did not, and with what documentary evidence do Lee, or Scott Brown, challenge her word? More importantly, on what basis does Lee describe his own reticence as integrity, and Warren’s frankness as dishonesty?
        Far more Americans have Native American ancestry than know about it, just as far more of us have African-Americans in our lineage than we are ready to acknowledge. This is particularly so in the state of Oklahoma, where for generations many “white” families have massaged the illusion of their racial purity for fear of racist stigma, or out of their own racial animus. Formal records of intermarriage are scarce, for the obvious reason that nobody wanted to admit to it. Given that history, which our nation has far from completely outgrown, the courageous and honest thing to do is to own up to one’s native roots, as Warren has.

Monday, September 24, 2012

LCR: Political inferences

Last July, candidate Romney said, in response to a question about his taxes: "I don't pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president," Romney said. "I'd think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires." This past Thursday, by contrast, Romney released his 2011 tax returns, which show that he opted out of several deductions to which he was entitled, and so paid about $250,000 more than he needed to (on income of about $13 million). It would probably be uncharitable to draw the inference here, though it certainly looks like a valid one.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

CD: Greenham Common

Here is an excellent website about the women's occupation of Greenham Common in the early 1980s in protest against the siting of U.S. Cruise Missiles in Britain. This was a remarkably courageous and persistent anti-cold-war, anti-nuclear action, which was almost entirely nonviolent (depending, I think, on whether tearing down a fence qualifies as violence).

Monday, September 17, 2012

CD: Solnit on Occupy

Check out this short essay by noted author Rebecca Solnit (e.g.: Paradise Made in Hell, about how natural disasters tend to be nothing at all like what the press and officials anticipate and report). She thinks Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs are far more successful than we've yet acknowledged, and far more promising for future systemic change than most people expect. Of course, we will want to talk later about OWS's ideas and tactics, and whether they are all 'civil' and 'nonviolent' in the relevant sense (there are some reasonable concerns about the "black bloc" anarchists), but this is pretty important and interesting stuff.

LCR: Economic Logic

"If you believe that the iphone 5 can give the economy a lift, you've already conceded both that the total amount of spending in the economy isn't a fixed number, and that more spending is what we need. And there is no reason this spending has to be private." -- Paul Krugman, NY Times 9/17/12

Here Krugman reasons that those who welcome the new iphone as economic stimulus have tacitly accepted the three premises he articulates, thus undermining their own case against government spending as a way to ease unemployment. This is good reasoning so far as it goes, but as often happens it may operate inside a bubble of short- and medium-term assumptions -- unlimited growth for its own sake, as Wendell Berry has observed, is the ideology of the cancer cell. Krugman and his opponents all agree that we need more economic growth; they disagree only about how to do this and who should benefit. Perhaps we need to craft a different vision altogether, while the planet is still habitable.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

CD: Serious Courage

In general it's hard to learn about civilly disobedient actions and arrests when they happen; they normally don't make the national news. If you dig around, though, quite a few people are regularly risking arrest -- and in this case deportation -- trying to make their concerns heard. This one took some guts:

LCR: Moral Judgments

We have learned that pieces of advice and commands are not generally statements, as they have no propositional content, can't be true or false, and thus can't serve as premises or conclusions in logical arguments. But you might wonder about certain common moral or ethical utterances, such as "You ought to call your mother." Is this advice, an order, or might it have propositional content? Context is important in such cases, and the question turns on whether there are objective criteria we might use to determine whether it is true or false. (See the Philosophy Toolkit for what I mean by 'objective' here). If, for example, your mother is ill, and left a message asking you to call her, we have grounds for thinking you really do have a strong obligation -- and a good reason -- to call her (she is, after all, your mother). In this case, it seems, "You ought to call your mother" is true. If, on the other hand, she died two years ago, it is clearly false, since you can't have an obligation to do something impossible. Either way, we're dealing with a bona fide statement.

As in determining whether a passage contains an argument, the intention of the speaker/writer is paramount to determining whether a string of words constitutes a statement, but other things equal it is generally best to treat moral or ethical pronouncements as statements, unless you have strong reasons not to in a specific case.

Friday, September 7, 2012

CD: Things to watch for in Crito

As you read Plato's Crito for next week, pay close attention to a couple of arguments, one explicit and one tacit. The first involves the claim that it is always wrong to cause harm. We will need to look closely for the stated and assumed premises in support of this conclusion, as well as observing some of its potentially radical implications. The second, largely tacit argument involves the idea, which the historical Socrates (or at least Plato's character of the same name, who is based on him) may be the first to articulate: that one acquires a duty of obedience to a legal/political/social order not by nature but by consent. We will likewise want to investigate the merits of all potential reasons for this claim.

LCR: Amphibolies

Later in the course we will discuss fallacies that arise from grammatical ambiguities. One such is called an amphiboly, which sounds like a wiggly amphibian, but is actually a case of drawing a conclusion based on the wrong horn of an interpretive dilemma. This morning's paper suggested one such to my warped eye. The caption to a photograph on the front page of the Berkshire Eagle reads in part:  "Drew Peterson Convicted; The former police officer is found guilty of murdering his third wife..." and it occurred to me immediately to wonder why they hadn't done anything about it when he murdered the first two (if you said "I just ate my third cookie," people would naturally assume you had in fact eaten the other two...). Of course, so far as we know he did not murder his first two wives, though as it turns out this case was launched only after his fourth wife disappeared, leading to suspicions about the death of the third. It would probably be a strong induction, and not a fallacy, to conclude that if he were to propose to a prospective fifth wife, she should just say no.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fall Semester

Welcome students, new and returning. I will be posting from time to time matters of interest to our courses, as well as occasional matters of general interest. Comments specific to courses I will label in the title -- CD for Civil Disobedience, LCR for Logic and Critical reasoning. You will want to be sure to read those that are specific to your course, and you are welcome to comment on any of them. I look forward to lots of lively conversations, both in class and on our blogs.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Course Grading

Thanks to all of my students for a stimulating semester. I will be posting grades for my courses in a few days. When you retrieve them, please let me know if you think yours might be in error for any reason (a polite inquiry on email is sufficient; save the anger and righteous indignation for economic inequality, patriarchy, and the fossil fuel industry). I wish you all a pleasant and productive summer.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Honors Logic

I am offering an Honors section of PHIL 200 in the fall for the first time, and I want to let people know that it is nothing at all like the logic course we have been offering for several years. I'll be using a different book, a completely different approach, and an accelerated pace (it is an Honors course, after all). This would be a good course for philosophy students, honors students from any discipline, and anyone who wants to score well on the law school entrance exam. Even if you've already taken logic, this will be valuable intellectual training.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Melville's America

In Sunday's NY Times, Canadian author Margaret Atwood shows Moby Dick to some Martians, who interpret America through it, at
Here's their analysis:
“ ‘Moby-Dick’ is about the oil industry,” they said. “And the Ship of American State. The owners of the Pequod are rapacious and stingy religious hypocrites. The ship’s business is to butcher whales and turn them into an industrial energy product. The mates are the middle management. The harpooners, who are from races colonized by America one way or another, are supplying the expert tech labor... Ahab, is a megalomaniac who wants to annihilate nature.
 “Nature is symbolized by a big white whale, which has interfered with Ahab’s personal freedom by biting off his leg and refusing to be slaughtered and boiled. The narrator, Ishmael, represents journalists; his job is to warn America that it’s controlled by psychotics who will destroy it, because they hate the natural world and don’t grasp the fact that without it they will die. That’s enough literature for now. Can we have popcorn?”

Sunday, April 29, 2012

(WP) Motherhood and Work

The inimitable Katha Pollitt takes on the micro-tempest over Ann Romney's work history: 
You will want to read the whole piece, but here is an excerpt:
We talk about employment or staying home as a matter of choice, which obscures what it takes to make that choice: money and a mate. Do books praising the stay-home life ever suggest that if it’s really best for children, the government, which supposedly cares about their well-being, should make that possible for every family? The extraordinary hostility aimed at low-income and single mothers shows that what’s at issue is not children—who can thrive under many different arrangements as long as they have love, safety, respect, a reasonable standard of living. It’s women. Rich ones like Ann Romney are lauded for staying home. Poor ones need the “dignity of work”—ideally “from day one.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Freedom and Art

A lovely, and somewhat convoluted, essay by Charles Rosen in the current New York Review of Books about language, music, art, and freedom:
After pithily observing how confining language can be: 
"Of all the constraints imposed on us that restrict our freedom—constraints of morality and decorum, constraints of class and finance—one of the earliest that is forced upon us is the constraint of a language that we are forced to learn so that others can talk to us and tell us things we do not wish to know."
 Rosen argues that the the meaning-indeterminacy of the arts, and in particular music, give us latitude for innovation and play:
"The partial freedom of, and from, meaning that is the natural result of aesthetic form is made possible by the exploitation of an inherent fluidity, or looseness of significance, naturally present in both language and social organization. This is a freedom often repressed, and attempts at repression and conformity are an inevitable part of experience. That is why aesthetic form—in poetry, music, and the visual arts—has so often been considered subversive and corrupting from Plato to the present day."

Thursday, April 12, 2012

(WR) Mecca Today

Excellent article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books (available in good old paper in the library, or electronically:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How is Registration like Global Warming?

Registration for fall courses is upon us, and as always some students are dragging their feet meeting with their advisers and signing up for classes. Beyond getting a seat in each of the classes you want, there is a larger reason to take this process seriously: the Dean often cancels smaller classes on the basis of those registration numbers. This means that the aggregate consequences of students' individual choices adversely affect the curriculum, at everyone's expense. If, say, 20% don't bother to register because they feel sure they'll get into the classes they want, the result is that some of those classes may not be there in September, which serves no-one's interest.

Monday, April 9, 2012

(WP) The Latest from Carol Gilligan

In the current Nation magazine, Carol Gilligan pointedly asks whether the Republicans think they can win without women. Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall online, but it's on the shelf in the library.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

(WR) Documentary

There will be a screening of the documentary Koran by Heart on Thursday, April 19 at 7:30 PM at Mass MoCA. The timing is perfect for our course, and I strongly encourage everyone in World Religions to attend, as this will give a very vivid face to some of the issues we will be studying. Student tickets are just $5.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

(WP) Pay and Status

Here's a sharp little essay by author and editor Gloria Steinem (founding editor of Ms. Magazine) about how the social status (and gender) of workers, rather than the skill level or social importance of the work, defines pay scales.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gopnik Strikes Again

Why is it that every few weeks this guy produces one of the best things I've read on almost every subject he takes up? I don't know whether to be impressed or annoyed. In the April 9th New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has some unusually thoughtful and pithy things to say about Albert Camus. It's not available online unless you want to pay for it, but you can stroll right over to the library (remember those?) and read it. Here's an excerpt:

"What Camus wanted wasn't new: just liberty, equality, and fraternity. But he found a new way to say it. Tone was what mattered. He discovered a way of speaking on the page that was unlike either the violent rhetorical cliches of Communism or the ponderous abstractions of the Catholic right. He struck a tone not of Voltairean Parisian rancor but of melancholic loft. Camus sounds serious, but he also sounds sad -- he added the authority of sadness to the activity of political writing. He wrote with dignity, at a moment when restoring dignity to public language was necessary, and he slowed public language at a time when history was moving too fast."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

(WR) Religion and College

Candidate Rick Santorum recently went on record as being against college (or at least against government encouraging it), for fear it will brainwash students into becoming thoughtful liberals, as many of their professors are. This is hogwash. College students are adults who do not brainwash easily -- it would take more than a light rinse -- and most professors are not in the brainwashing business in any case. While it is true that a majority of university professors are political liberals in their personal lives, this is mostly an artifact of being the sort of people who choose interesting and challenging professions that are not very remunerative; it has little or nothing to do with discrimination against those with other perspectives, as some have charged.

But thankfully there are at least some cases where what people learn in college -- not dogmas from their profs, but things like thinking critically, questioning assumptions, discovering the richness and complexity of the world -- opens them up to new and liberatory perspectives. Here is one such story by Frank Bruni in today's Times.

(WP) Mad Women

Here's a thoughtful reflection on the current nostalgia in popular culture for the bad old days of gender relations:
An excerpt:

     "Mad Men" made my mother remember life in her 20s -- too clearly. When the show focused on Don Draper's wife, Betty, a repressed housewife in suburbia, my mom visibly cringed. "During Betty's scenes," she told me, "I felt this pain, right in my gut." She took a breath and explained that she loved her life and her marriage now, but when she watched Betty say she just wants to serve Don, it took her back to when she and my father were first married. "That's the way I thought. I lived to serve. I wanted to make him happy."
     It was odd to hear my mom compare her relationship to the Drapers'. My parents split the household duties, held jobs in teaching and systems administration and pursued their interests in meditation and aikido. What I was coming to understand, thought, was that my mother did not come into the world fully formed in 1981, when I was born, that there was a complicated and somehow painful life that predated me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

(WP) Gloria Steinem

Interesting article in Sunday's Times about second-wave feminist leader Gloria Steinem, which is also a meditation on the vagaries of political organizing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

(WR) Revelations of Revelation

Critic Adam Gopnik reviews biblical scholar Elaine Pagels's new book on Revelation in the current New Yorker:
An excerpt:
Pagels then shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look. “When John says that ‘the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth,’ he revises Daniel’s vision to picture Rome as the worst empire of all,” Pagels writes. “When he says that the beast’s seven heads are ‘seven kings,’ John probably means the Roman emperors who ruled from the time of Augustus until his own time.” As for the creepy 666, the “number of the beast,” the original text adds, helpfully, “Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person.” This almost certainly refers—by way of Gematria, the Jewish numerological system—to the contemporary Emperor Nero. Even John’s vision of a great mountain exploding is a topical reference to the recent eruption of Vesuvius, in C.E. 79. Revelation is a highly colored picture of the present, not a prophecy of the future.