Monday, 26 December 2011
Thursday, 8 December 2011
Sunday, 4 December 2011
Thursday, 24 November 2011
Embedded cognition occurs when we outsource cognitive work: when we write things down instead of remembering them, or use a calculator to do sums. One of Brian's other examples was the organisation of orchestras: the players outsource the cognitive work of keeping a beat, moving together, balancing different instruments, and musical interpretation, to a conductor; they outsource thinking about what notes to play, in what order, to a score.
I frivolously suggested that this explains why jazz is better than orchestral music. That claim is silly as it stands, of course, and I don't mean it. But there is an interesting difference here: jazz players do far less outsourcing than orchestral players. Jazz is centrally music in which the players are individually doing the cognitive work to produce a communal piece, without conductors or scores. (Not entirely: several features of jazz can be thought of as outsourcing techniques, or at least as techniques for reducing cognitive load. Part of a jazz musician's education, for example, is learning heads and changes - snippets of melody and sequences of chords which shape improvisation. That's what a jazz standard like 'Body and Soul' or 'Stella by Starlight' is: a melodic head plus chords over which players improvise, often in an alternating chorus/solo form. Free jazz, if we think this way about it, is an attempt to outsource as little as possible: to return all of the work of music-creation to individual cognition.)
That difference between jazz and orchestral music offers a way to defend a less silly version of my silly claim: jazz is better than orchestral music at engaging and interconnecting the many different cognitive capacities involved in music-creation. Where an orchestral player is using just some of her own musical faculties (at a very high level of skill and effort), a jazz player is using many more of those faculties, as well as meta-cognitive faculties to organise and coordinate them. So, if we think that the purpose of playing music, like the purpose of other human activities, is fully to express human and individual faculties, and jazz is better than orchestral music at fulfilling that purpose, then jazz is better than orchestral music.
That's a big 'if', of course...
Wednesday, 23 November 2011
What should I have done instead? I now think I ought to have gone back to basics: returned to the question at hand - what is the good life? - and the answers in play - hedonism, desire-satisfaction, perfectionism; insisted on the precise use of terms in discussing them. I'm wary of doing that kind of remedial work in seminars, because it too often reinforces the unfortunate impression that many students have of seminars as revision classes on the 'points' in the lecture. But perhaps I was too wary in this case.
For this particular group next week, I'm going to be rather more directive and careful about these basics, and see if that improves the quality of discussion.
Monday, 21 November 2011
Monday, 14 November 2011
Tuesday, 8 November 2011
Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Tuesday, 1 November 2011
What's wrong with Battlefield 3's 'simulation' of modern, small-unit infantry and vehicle warfare is that it's dishonest. It's represented as realistic, but it isn't. It misrepresents the actual experience of war in at least these ways:
- It creates a myth of individual agency, in which a soldier or a small group can, by choice, make a decisive difference. Compare the actual passivity, control by impersonal forces, and subjection to luck of actual soldiers.
- It misrepresents warfare as individualistic. Compare the deeply communal nature of actual small-unit infantry fighting.
- It misrepresents warfare as costless - one can always restart or respawn. Compare the terrible costs of violence on both perpetrators and victims.
- Its 'wars' are implausibly narrative in form. Compare the actual fragmentary experience of soldiers.
- Games aren't art, and therefore aren't subject to this criticism. I reply: I'd like to see the plausible account of art which excludes them.
- Unrealism is necessary in an entertainment: an actually realistic game about warfare would be dull apart from the 1% of the time it was unbearably horrific, just as an actually realistic war film would be. I reply: this just means that these games are necessarily, not contingently, dishonest, and that's no defence. No-one has to make such games.
- The makers of these games are just responding to market demand: don't blame them. I reply: demand for these games is not an eternal feature of human nature, it's deliberately created by advertising in a culture burdened with a fantastical notion of individualistic, effective, consequence-free violence. And even it were natural and unavoidable, that wouldn't require anyone to pander to it.
Wednesday, 26 October 2011
Sunday, 23 October 2011
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
For my ethics course this term I'm experimentally turning the dial a couple of clicks towards (1). I'm offering quite a lot of prompts, and using lectures to explain problematic contexts: free will; consequentialism, deontology, virtue. And in particular, I'm doing more explicit meta-analysis of philosophical practice. I'm spending time in seminars identifying different kinds of task as we engage in them - exposition of the text, argumentative response to it, imagination in constructing replies to objections on Hume's behalf. I'm saying out loud that what we're doing now is trying to make Hume's argument clear in our own words, and what we'll do next is see why we might disagree with it. This is in contrast to the rather more free-wheeling, student-led, and demonstrative rather than self-descriptive seminar style that I've adopted over the last few years.
I'll be interested to see how it pans out...
Monday, 17 October 2011
Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Thursday, 6 October 2011
Thursday, 29 September 2011
Wednesday, 28 September 2011
Saturday, 10 September 2011
Thursday, 25 August 2011
My interest here is what it suggests about the perception of value. Mountains of the Mind shows, by well-chosen anecdote and readings of travel-writing, that several values we might now take to be central to human flourishing - discovery, originality, the experience of wild beauty - have short, local histories. Quite recently, mountains were experienced as ugly wastes, not as provocations to Romantic emotion or heroic effort. How should we react to this revelation of contingency in our ways of valuing mountains, and in our forms of valuing generally? Here are four possibilities:
1) Profanation The discovery that others valued differently in the past, and that our own values have a history, throws all value into doubt. My perceptions of value are just what my history has made me perceive, not access to anything real.
Response: of course our value-judgements don't meet the impossible standard of being without history, but that doesn't show that they aren't true. One of the shifts in understanding Macfarlane maps is the discovery of deep time: the world is ancient, and mountains, far from being permanent, are brief by comparison to it. They're thrown up and worn down by vast geological processes operating over millions of years. But that mountains are temporary doesn't show that they aren't real.
2) Fluidity Human flourishing, and our experiences of value, are infinitely, culturally variable.
Response: we don't have evidence for infinite variability, only for difference within a range, and a pretty narrow range at that. Our shared nature as talkative, tool-using, child-rearing East African plains apes with a very recent common ancestor suggests that our possibilities have limits. The interesting problem is to map the range of difference and the loci of similarity.
3) Multiple expressions There are many ways to enact core human activities and passions, and different cultures have accessed and expressed that core differently. Mountaineering is our way of approaching what others approached through bullfighting or spiritual exercises: triumph, the numinous, addictive terror.
Response: this could be true, but it needn't be. There are some new things under the sun: contour maps aren't just an alternative way of describing mountains, they're a better way. Some forms of expression may be deeper and clearer than others.
4) Discovery Rousseau, Coleridge, and other central figures in the history of understanding mountains uncovered something latent in human nature. What we now recognise in wild beauty wakes something in us which, before them, was much harder to bring to fruition. These pioneers may also have discovered new forms of corruption: Macfarlane is very clear on the addict's selfishness of the mountaineer.
Response: but how are we to tell that some new experience of value is a discovery, rather than just another one of the nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right? I don't know. Much of my thinking at the moment - including this post - is about that question.
Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Monday, 15 August 2011
how did fish become not meat? Whether Catholics or quasi-vegetarians who occasionally eat fish, how did we make a distinction between the dead flesh of a land animal versus the dead flesh of an ocean animal? It makes absolutely no sense.Me:
It makes sense if, like me, your problem with eating meat is complicity with the suffering and premature death of creatures who understand themselves as selves over time, make plans, recognise other individuals, and love their children. ‘Fish’ is too broad a category to make judgements here, but I think it very unlikely that tuna have those capacities, and very likely that pigs do. So I’m OK with eating tuna but not pigs.
That doesn’t answer your main point about the destructive impact of fishing technology, which has given me pause. But the distinction between fish on one hand and cows, pigs, etc. on the other does make sense.
* Harry G. Frankfurt, 'On Bullshit' in The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge University Press 1998).
For myself, the only conclusion I've come to is that simple-minded 'they're all criminals' explanations won't do. 'The rioters' are not a homogenous group, and the reasons why one person gets involved - smashes a shop window, grabs a pair of trainers from a window already smashed, throws rocks at the police, gets in a fight, watches a fire without trying to put it out, starts a fire - may be quite different from the reasons another does. Some have grievances - against the police, against particular austerities, against the political and social conditions of their lives; some have just had it up to here, and grabbed an opportunity to express their anger; some are more-or-less opportunistic thieves; some see other people getting everything they've been taught to value while they have nothing, and think it's only fair to rebalance things; some are bored kids excited by destruction and communal action; some just got caught up in a crowd.
My main worry is a turn towards authoritarianism: the current government will sell what any big constituency wants to buy, and just now it looks like that's revenge and security theatre. So, more money and powers for the police; collective punishment for the families of people accused (not even convicted) of rioting; the usual bullshit about responsibility.
Sunday, 14 August 2011
1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert (the first two, anyway)
5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
6. 1984, by George Orwell
7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein (I've started this, but couldn't stand it, and I'm a Heinlein fan)
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King (lost interest somewhere in the middle)
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
25. The Stand, by Stephen King
26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein (not even slightly like the film)
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings (I think; can't remember anything about them, though)
42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis
(Hat tip: Siris)
Friday, 5 August 2011
Monday, 1 August 2011
Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Tuesday, 12 July 2011
1) You’re probably right that there will be more pressure from students to choose what modules to study in the future. This change is part of the wider transformation of universities towards a more commercial, ‘customer-focussed’ style. But I’m not sure that it implies demand for a more international political theory: some of the most successful courses I’ve taught – according to student feedback – have been very traditional close reading courses, in small groups, on canonical texts. My attempts to introduce non-canonical texts have been often resisted and resented by my students, many of whom have an instrumental, performative attitude to their studies. They know what to do with Mill’s On Liberty, they have a context and prior acquaintance, they understand (or think they understand) what’s expected of them. They’re quite unwilling to engage with the unfamiliar, because it’s too open-ended and risky.
[Later: I should have made two things clearer here: (1) that this is true only of some of my students; many are pleasingly independent; (2) that I don't blame the more instrumentalist students - they've been poorly served by A-levels, and in any case have good reasons for regarding a degree as a necessary passport to the lives they want, not as anything worth doing for its own sake].
2) Again, you’re right that higher education increasingly operates in a global market. But British Universities’ pursuit of international students is at least partly the product of a particular funding regime which incentivised, especially, efforts to recruit non-EU postgraduate students. That funding regime is being dismantled as we speak, and it’s very unclear what the effects of its replacement will be. It might, for example, shift recruitment efforts much more towards the most well-qualified of UK undergraduates (students with AAB or above at A-level), because there will no longer be a cap imposed on how many of them we can take, and each will be worth £9,000/year.
3) I and many other political theorists/philosophers are humanists deeply committed to the value of reading, interpreting, and arguing with great texts. We’ve invested a great deal in learning the skills involved in that kind of work, and in understanding particular texts through it. I teach John Stuart Mill, for example, because I’ve spent some years and effort becoming an expert on him, and I did so because I love both his work and the particular kind of investigation involved in understanding it. So I’m not sure that the changes you look forward to will be made easily, especially in an environment where we’ll be under student/customer pressure to teach more contact hours on more familiar material. When am I going to have the time to become an expert on Lao Tzu, for example? Would anyone take my course on him even if I did?
4) I’m not to be honest sure that political theory’s ‘place in the discipline’ is ‘advancing cross-cultural communication and understanding’. In the first place, which discipline? In the second, the obvious role of political theory – like any other academic discipline – is to expand our understanding of the world. If that fosters good things like cross-cultural communication, great, but it isn’t really my, or political theory’s, job.
Shorter me: I can see why lots of people find this and other Fowles novels annoying, but it might have been written specially for me.
* Samuel Clark, 'Kicking Against the Pricks: Anarchist Perfectionism & the Conditions of Independence' in Benjamin Franks & Matthew Wilson eds, Anarchism & Moral Philosophy (Palgrave 2010).
Monday, 11 July 2011
Saturday, 2 July 2011
Sunday, 26 June 2011
I have no problem with there being academic jobs focussed on teaching out of scholarship, rather than on publishing original research; but there does need to be a career structure attached.
Saturday, 25 June 2011
The aim of the workshop is to consider the persistent gap between the demands generated by our best theoretical accounts of global justice and the action in support of global justice that real world agents are motivated to take; and to advance normative research on global justice that is sensitive to, and informed by, empirical questions.That is: we rich people ought to do far more for the global poor, and many of us know it, but we still mostly don't. Why not, and what can be done about it?
Several kinds of response were offered. Perhaps our solidarity, compassion, and sympathy are poorly developed, and need to be educated (Kerri Woods, Carol Gould). Perhaps our complicity with the economic and political system which creates poverty renders us liable to what would otherwise be illegitimate manipulation by charities, by analogy with the way an attacker renders herself liable to self-defensive violence (Graham Long). Perhaps, as Sue Mendus suggested, fulfilling our responsibilities to the poor would require such a radical loss of our way of life - not just wealth, but liberal politics and the right to children - that we can't imagine it. We're not just unmotivated, but immobilised, the way Bernard Williams suggested the ancient Greeks were about slavery.
I found myself wanting to raise another possibility: what actually motivates much human action is habit and institution. We act out the scripts we've internalised for our social roles. We take the opportunities presented to us by our local institutions (governments, work-places, cities...), pay attention to what they make salient, ignore what they don't, and rarely push back against the limits they impose.
So, what we need to motivate the huge and systematic action our best theories of global justice require is not (just) solidarity or compassion: it's new habits and institutions. And we have a good historical example of an available set of habits and institutions which could do the global job: empire. To deal with global poverty, we need to create a system of institutional roles which makes dealing with it habitual and easy: a global imperial bureaucracy. This has the further advantage that it could recruit some very powerful human sentiments to the cause: desire for status, recognition, security, and a place for me and my children. A letter from Oxfam, no matter how heartrending, is a much less effective motivation than a secure job managing the distribution of generic medicines, steady career progress, and a decent pension at 65.
Kerri and others took this as an attempted reductio: if that's where our theories of global justice take us, there must be something wrong with them. I admit that I did have my tongue partly in my cheek. But I'm not sure the reductio goes through: the Roman, Austro-Hungarian, or British empires had good features (the rule of law, peace-keeping, religious toleration, opportunities for locals to enter the middle classes by joining the bureaucracy) as well as bad ones, and it's at least not obvious that an empire of this sort would be worse than the current world system.
Sunday, 19 June 2011
A parallel point can be made about markets in healthcare: the US system does exceptionally well at the top end of provision, but does no better than the NHS on average, costs a lot more, and maintains huge inequalities (see references below).
Some places to start on markets in healthcare, and especially the NHS:
- Ben Goldacre's summary of NHS reform
- The Commonwealth Fund's comparison of health care systems
- OECD comparative data
- Cost vs outcome analysis of the NHS vs the US health system, based on OECD data: (i) life expectancy; (ii) low infant birth weight
- US healthcare inequalities
- Civitas's summary of recent empirical work on the effects of internal competition in the NHS
Friday, 10 June 2011
Zimoun : Compilation Video V2.8 | Sound Sculptures & Installations from ZIMOUN VIDEO ARCHIVE on Vimeo.
I like this a lot, I think because it hits a couple of my buttons at once: (1) art as an environment to explore. I felt the same way about Rothko at the Tate Modern a couple of years ago - all those pieces together worked as a machine for engaging my senses and adjusting my mood by moving around the space. (2) noise as music - I'd happily listen to the sound these things make on (not too isolating) headphones, while walking around a city; environmental noise would add to it.
(Hat tip: BLDGBLOG.)
Tuesday, 7 June 2011
Monday, 6 June 2011
Saturday, 4 June 2011
Friday, 3 June 2011
Like many universities, Lancaster has systematic student evaluation: at the end of a module, our students are invited to fill in an online form mixing Likert-type questions (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) with free comment boxes. Any good teacher wants to know how well her teaching is going, but here are three reasons to doubt that forms like this are going to tell her.
1. Irrelevant correlations: many studies suggest that evaluation scores don’t reliably track teaching quality. For example, high scores are correlated with teachers who: (a) match gender stereotypes in dress, mien, and social behaviour ; (b) mark generously, or more generously than students expect ; and (c) present in an enthusiastic style, regardless of content .
2. Anonymity breeds contempt: as anyone who’s read youtube comments knows, anonymity encourages some people to speak expressively and without normal filters: to say things they’d never say to your face, haven’t really thought about, and couldn’t defend. There’s good reason to make anonymous channels of communication available to our students, but not owning their words in evaluations may not promote honesty or usefulness, let alone civility [4, 5].
3. Competent judges? Evaluations may tell us whether our students like us and our teaching or not. But if we want to know whether we’re good teachers of our subjects, why think our students are competent to judge? They typically have no teaching experience. They don’t know what they don’t know, or what they need to know, or how to gain that knowledge. The best learning is often unsettling, inconclusive, and not what we expected. Perhaps someone in the middle of that difficult process of development isn’t in the best position to judge how well it’s going.
None of these are reasons to stop listening and responding to our students. But they are reasons to wonder whether the evaluation tools we use actually tell us what we want to know.
- Kierstead, D., D’Agostino, P., & Dill, H., ‘Sex Role Stereotyping of College Professors: Bias in Students’ Ratings of Instructors’, Journal of Educational Psychology 80(1988): 342-4.
- Greenwald, A. & Gillmore, G., ‘Grading Leniency is a Removable Contaminant of Student Ratings’, American Psychologist 11(1997): 1209-17.
- Naftulin, D., Ware, J., & Donnelly, F., ‘The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction’, Journal of Medical Education 48(1973): 630-5.
- Penny Arcade
- John Adams, ‘Student Evaluations: The Ratings Game’
- Clark Glymour, ‘Why the University Should Abolish Faculty Course Evaluations’
- Michael Heumer, ‘Student Evaluations: A Critical Review’
- several posts at In Socrates' Wake: this post links to the others.
- a post with a long, contentious comments thread at Philosophers Anonymous.