September 22, 2003
The University of Chicago has begun to offer minors, but currently only in Germanic Studies, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Romance Languages and Literatures, and Slavic Languages and Literature (see p. 8 of the pdf avaliable under I. Liberal Education at Chicago: The Curriculum).
Some concentrations offer minors to students in other fields of study. (Requirements will be avaliable online in September under descriptions of the concentrations noted above.) A minor requires five to seven courses. Courses in a minor cannot be (1) double-counted with concentration courses or with other minors or (2) counted toward general education requirements. They must be taken for quality grades and at least half must be taken in residence on the University of Chicago campus.
This is a shock. We've never had minors. Triple-majors in econ, poli sci, and law,letters,&society, yes (well, perhaps not plural, but I've met one), and we're fairly snobby about saying that the degree is granted in one with requirements fufilled in the others.
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Well I'm currently watching the streaming video of the 9th Circuit Recall Oral Arguments. You can join me and watch them here. You can also read Lawrence Solum's thoughts on the claim-preclusion here. You can also read Dahlia Lithwick's Slate essay here.
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Template hounds will note that we have a new blogger, my sister Leora Baude who will be posting soon, and also that Lileks has been added to my (and Amy's) blogroll. His post today is after my own heart:
Iíve never understood why nations with great cheese donít have better armies. Right now to my left I have a plate that contains six chunks of Stravecchoio Grana Padano, each wrapped in a gossamer-thin scarf of prosciutto. Any Italian worth his mettle would take one bite, contemplate the perfection this combination represents, and decide that his nation should - no, must muster the forces required to repulse anyone who would take such cheese from his countrymen. Cheese this fine would cause armies to cross the Alps to have it; surely they demand armies sufficient to protect it.
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An interesting post by Steve Dunn over at Begging to Differ about super-precocious kids, including a discussion of the youngest blogger. He notes several people who have been blogging since birth. He misses, though Maximus Stefanescu, who Kate Duree (who I met this summer in the Koch program) calls "The First Fetus with a Blog!!!". I haven't found any other blogging fetuses yet, and I can't verify Kate's statement for sure, but he looks like a strong contender to me.
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This week brings yet another installment in our now quite recurrent feature-- 20 Questions. This week we've asked questions of Brian Weatherson at Brown University, who blogs both at Crooked Timberand at his own blog: Thoughts, Arguments, Rants. Below he answers questions about The Matrix, getting into graduate school, comments, the Boston Red Sox, and much much more. Enjoy.
1: What made you decide to start blogging?
I decided that it would be fun to put some of my sketchy thoughts online. At the first it was just reading notes, ideas for short papers and so on. It didn't really look like a blog at first, because it had hardly any links. Eventually I started writing comments about other blogs, political comments and so on, but the core idea - this is somewhere to write about what I'm thinking about - has remained.
I don't think all blogs should have comments. Some blogs just have one or two line entries, and comments don't seem that important in that case. But I think Volokh should have comments.
There's two bad things that can happen with comments. First there can be flame wars. I don't mind those too much. Occasionally good points can come out of those. What's worse is when you get a cycle of people trying to outdo each other for who can be the most over-the-top. I stopped reading Atrios's comments board when that kind of thing started happening too often. From what I hear about some of the right-wing comments boards they aren't much better, but I've never felt the best use of my time is to find out.
CT's comments are very good I think - I'd be very disappointed if we didn't have them.
3: Do you think it's accurate to describe Crooked Timber as the left's answer to The Volokh Conspiracy?
That's a bit grandiose, but I think Volokh was certainly part of the inspiration for CT. If people end up thinking of us as a lefty Volokh, I'd be pretty happy with how we're going.
4: You blog not only at Crooked Timber but also at your own blog-- Thoughts, Arguments, Rants. Why do you maintain a dual-blog presence, and how do you decide which of your posts to put in which place, and when-- if ever-- to duplicate?
I have this image of what kind of interests the readers of the two blogs have. TAR readers are usually philosophers, either grad students or professors, or occasionally undergraduates, so philosophy stuff goes there. CT readers (or at least some of them) are interested in ethics and political philosophy, and the important issues in other areas of philosophy, but they probably don't care too much about the details of where the variables go in various contextualist semantics for epistemic modals. So I'm probably not going to send posts on questions like that to CT.
Obviously there's some overlap there, not just about ethics and political but about issues relating to academic life generally. So those posts go to both.
I worry occasionally about lowering the tone too much on CT. I wouldn't use 'fcuk' as an illustration of the irrelevance of letter order to word interpretation on CT for that kind of reason. It's one of the things about a group blog - if you screw things up it affects other people so I'm a bit careful there.
5: Are group blogs the wave of the future?
They have some advantages. It's easier to take a week off without the blog collapsing. On the other hand, one big reason for TAR was to make sure I was constantly producing stuff, so having it be a group blog would defeat the purpose a little. Normally I could take a month or two off research without anyone noticing. That's a bit harder on a solo blog, so it's a good spur to work.
6: You admit to what some might call an unhealthy obsession with the Boston Red Sox. Why the Red Sox?
Don't know really. I was more interested in baseball than any other American sport because it's the only one I played as a kid (I was *really* bad by the way) so it was going to be some baseball team. I think I liked the romance of the stories about the Sox. And the fact that when I moved to the states the Sox had Pedro pitching for them didn't hurt either.
7: Following up on that, how well will the Sox have to do this year to preserve your emotional well-being?
Winning the World Series in 6 games would do. I don't think I'd really handle game 7 very well given the history.
8: How about how much jargon should philosophical writing contain? How should a philosopher balance his need for precision with the barriers jargon creates for the uninitiated but interested?
It depends on what you are writing for. If you're writing for other professionals then you should just use all the tools you've got. I wouldn't want economists to be backing off using complicated mathematical tools because economics needs to be accessible, and sometimes I think philosophy should be the same. On the other hand, and the analogy holds up well here, sometimes jargon can hide bad mistakes that you're making and clear writing can be useful in seeing that.
Some people can do innovative work while writing clearly enough that a mass audience can follow your arguments. Dave Chalmers's book on consciousness is probably the best contemporary example of that. But it's hard, and I think for most of us it's best to use everything you've got, including jargon, to get to the right answers and then try translating it back into accessible English without losing too much of the important detail.
9: What do you think of the philosophy in pop culture works with philosophical pretensions (like, say, The Matrix or Ender's Game)? Is learning philosophy from pop culture like trying to get water from a stone, or merely from, say, a sponge?
I don't think you're going to learn much philosophy from just watching or reading bits of pop culture. But I think those stories can be a really good way to see what's an issue in some philosophical debates. So some of the philosophy papers that are on the Matrix website are really good philosophical work, both in terms of quality and accessibility, because they show the reader some useful ways to think about what's going on in the movie.
It's interesting that the stories that seem to be the most useful don't go out of their way to be philosophical. In Matrix II there's all those philosophical speeches, which aren't really very good, and I suspect it will be much less useful at stimulating debate than the first movie. Once you start making speeches like that, you stop telling stories that can be interpreted in useful ways, and start telling people how to interpret them. That's much less useful because it's less flexible.
10: I'm going to pose to you a question your co-blogger Chris Bertram has asked; Is philosophy more like mathematics or like creative writing?
I think philosophy is *much* more like mathematics. I think most of the philosophical questions we try and consider have objective answers and collective effort can move us towards the right answers. Of course the areas I work in, especially semantics and philosophical logic, look more like mathematics than creative writing so take my views here with a grain of salt.
And we shouldn't think that philosophers don't need some of the same skills as writers. We obviously have to express our theories in writing, and there isn't a clear enough divide between form and content that we can ignore than fact when theorising. In some areas of philosophy, especially moral philosophy, you can't really do good work unless you have a decent understanding of human nature. And that kind of understanding is often associated with the very best writers. And the kind of imagination that leads to philosophical advance is also more of a writer's skill than a mathematician's skill. I still think the objective, truth-directed features of philosophy make it more like mathematical theorising than creative writing, but it's not like there's nothing in common with writing.
11: You're teaching a course on Time Travel; in your view, is time one-dimensional?
I think 'one-dimensional' was the wrong term for me to use in setting up the problems. Slightly more precisely, I think there is a single space-time continuum and there is a consistency restriction on time travel (if x is F at t then time travel can't make it the case that x is not F at t), which is what I originally meant by one-dimensional.
12: In your experience, are Australian universities appreciably different from American universities in any articulable way?
There's a bunch of little differences.
Australian students generally go to university in their home town, and they aren't required to live on campus, so dorm life is a much smaller part of the university experience than in America. (I think at Monash it's under 10% of the student body in dorms, but I'm not certain of that.)
The drinking age in Australia is 18, so there's *much* more booze on Australian campuses. Or, more precisely, there's much more overt drinking.
This isn't really striking about Brown, but many big courses in Australian universities have no distributional requirements, or very few distributional requirements. When I got to Brown and people were saying it's such a big deal that students can take whatever courses they want, I couldn't really figure out what the big deal was meant to be, because it's no different to what every Australian university does. But I guess it's very different to the American norm.
And the basic degree in Australia is 3 years. (Or at least it's meant to be 3 years. When I was going through people often took 4, 5 or 6 years. I hear it's more common to complete in regulation time these days.) The first year courses there are often as hard, I think, as sophomore courses here so the final result is fairly similar.
I'm not an undergrad here so I can't really tell, but my impression is that the combination of these facts means there is much greater sense of community over here. If you're taking the same courses, living together, moving through at the same time (the idea that you could specify your graduation date when you enroll in college would have struck most of my fellow students as an odd joke) you probably get to know people a lot better.
13: Having served on Brown's graduate admissions committee, what advice do you have for those who want to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy?
The four things I paid most attention to were GREs, grades in philosophy (I didn't pay much attention to grades in other areas), reference letters and the writing sample. The GREs and grades are used to make a first cut - separate out those you'll look at really closely from those you think are unlikely to make it. The sample and the letters are then used to split the good ones into who we accept and who gets left out.
One thing to look for, and it's hard to find this out discreetly, is some faculty will write glowing recommendations for absolutely everyone. Don't get letters from them, because people know what's going on and will discount what they say. There aren't many such faculty, maybe only a handful in the country, but letters do get calibrated to what the standard letter from Professor X says.
14: What do you think is the most persuasive objection to Logical Positivism, the claim that "a statement is meaningful if and only if it is either verifiable or tautological."
I think what positivism says about religious statements is just wildly implausible. If someone says "God exists" I think I know what they are saying, what the world would have to be like for their statement to be true or false, and so on. Positivists used to go around denying all of that. So Ayer would not say he's an atheist because atheists deny theistic statements and he didn't think they rose to the level of deniability. That's just very bizarre to me.
I also think it isn't clear that "a statement is meaningful if and only if it is either verifiable or tautological" is either verifiable or tautological.
15: Are there (true) a priori synthetic propositions?
I think some anti-sceptical propositions, like "I'm not a brain in a vat being deceived into thinking I'm writing an email" are synthetic a priori. The reasoning here's actually pretty simple. I know that proposition is true, but all my evidence seems to point towards it being false. (It's not like my evidence is as of watching a Sox game, which would conclusively show it is true.) So it must be knowable a priori. But it's clearly synthetic.
I should add that practically no philosophers believe in this kind of argument, but it looks pretty compelling to me.
16: There's a lot of (rather gloomy) advice out there for prospective graduate students in the humanities (I'm thinking here largely of Invisible Adjunct and those linked to her). How hard is it to get an academic appointment in philosophy, and is the risk generally worth the investment?
Compared to the horror stories, it's actually not that hard to get some philosophical job or other if (a) you're prepared to move far enough, (b) you are only looking for a single job, (c) you don't have excessively high standards for which kind of university you're going to, and (d) you went to a pretty good (top 20, or top 5 in your area) department. That might look like a lot of qualifications, but actually a lot of people meet those conditions. I think 80, 90 percent of people meeting those conditions get jobs.
Whether it's worth it depends a lot I think on how much you enjoy grad school. A lot of people I know love it, so it isn't really a high cost investment. If you're not enjoying grad school at all, it's unlikely you'll enjoy academia much more, after all what you do isn't that much different even though you get a bit more money, so you might want to reconsider what you're doing.
17: What sort of instruction, if any, do you think students should have in philosophy in high school (or elementary school)?
I think it would be good to start teaching ethical theory in high school. It's good to have students thinking about tensions between the different views they hold, and about how they could justify some of the foundational principles they accept. And I think a course in critical reasoning, some intro logic and maybe some intro probability stuff, would be very helpful. I suspect both of those kinds of courses provide just as much assistance for people wanting to be involved in civic life, as citizens in a democracy should be involved, as the kind of civics courses students actually take.
18: Philosophically speaking, what is vagueness, and why should people care about it?
Well, that's a contentious topic, but we can illustrate by examples. Yao Ming is tall. Danny DeVito is not tall. If you line up 10000 guys from Yao to DeVito in order of height, where is the first tall guy going to be? It's hard to say, because there's only 0.1mm or so between consecutive guys. It's easier to say who is the first guy whose height is above 1800mm, or at least it's just a measurement problem in finding out who that is. It's much harder to find the first tall guy is. We'll say in those cases it is vague where the boundary between 'tall' and 'not tall' is.
I think it's important because there are some interesting arguments that the existence of vagueness should make us reconsider what the right logic for natural language arguments is, and because it makes us reconsider what kinds of entities go into the semantics for natural languages. But generally I think most things to do with formal properties of languages are interesting, and vagueness fits into that category.
19: Do you read fiction? If so, what sort of fiction do you read?
Not as much as I'd like to. Recently I've been alternating between reading contemporary stuff (Zadie Smith, Chuck Palahnuik, etc) and classics (Homer, Cervantes, etc.)
20: When not blogging, what do you do for fun?
Watching the Red Sox! I like to travel a lot, but that's an expensive habit.
When not on the road I try reading and writing lots of philosophy, and the blog has been a great help in helping that habit along.
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A fair warning to readers that blogging will be catch-as-catch can (at least from me) over the next week or so. I'll be hosting a friend from out of town, then making a trip to Chicago and flying from there to England for the year. I suspect that blogging will continue at my usual sporadic pace, but just in case a random weekday passes by, you'll know what's going on. I spent today learning to ride a bicycle (I know, I know) and this evening excavating my boxes of books from my closet and trying to get them on shelves or at least into neat stacks. I shipped about 300 pounds of books home from school at the end of the year and they were sitting in rather intimidating boxes in my closet. Now they can be in slightly less-intimidating piles.
In any case, in the process of doing that, I found two of my books of poetry that will give me the chance to tie up a few poetry-related loose ends from some of my recent posts. The first has to do with memorization, which I blogged on here in response to Kathleen's post here. I mentioned there a passage by W.S. Merwin from the introduction to his translation of Dante's Purgatorio. Here it is:
For in the years of my reading Dante, after the first overwhelming reverberating spell of the Inferno, which I think never leaves one afterward, it was the Purgatorio that I had found myself returning to with a different, deepening attachment, until I reached a point when it was never far from me; I always had a copy within reach, and often seemed to be trying to recall part of a line, like some half-remembered song.
The other poetic loose end is an Elizabeth Bishop poem. Last Wednesday I posted a very good villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop (which Eugene Volokh linked to!). While I think that poem is really, really, good, as is her "Sestina," I have always had a soft spot in my heart for another poem of hers, though it's not nearly as popular. Maybe it's some subjective emotional connection (gasp), maybe just something about the lilt and rhythm, or maybe it's because in less than two weeks I'll be leaving the country for much longer than I ever have before. In any case, I present Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel:
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
--For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
--Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
--A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
--Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
--Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
--And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:
"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"
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