Monday, May 21, 2018


[NB: I offer no explanation for my lengthy absence from this space, or for my return.]

I tried, and mostly failed, to exercise my honors class this spring about the topic: what is a fact? (Every handful of years, a cohort passes through this class with little enthusiasm for the course. This was the year.)

There is, of course, a current semi-academic discourse about the issue. Many critics disparage “alternative facts” as cherry-picked, phony, or simply lies. More strategic critics counterattack campaigns that enlist alleged facts in the prosecution of ideological warfare. Still more sophisticated critics debate the meaning of facts in what some call a possibly “post-fact” political era.

On the whole, the discussion is premised on the notion that facts are patent, objective, knowable truths that exist in the world. According to this notion, facts are discovered, as though they were mineral deposits simply to be found. They are the antibody of fabrication—any artifice or production rules out a thing being a fact.

This positivism is found in fringes of the fact discussion, where it crosses the border into academic discourse, and the demise of facts is blamed on one or another development of social, literary, and philosophical thought—“postmodernism” or “deconstruction” or even “feminism” or “gender studies.” Generally, this charge is made by academics who have not read the main texts attributed to these developments, but have the vague idea that they all spell doom for scientific knowledge, truth, and disciplinary method—if not also for cardinal direction, physical laws, and matter. (I used to try to educate my colleagues about these “movements,” even going so far as to suggest that they try reading Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, a report commissioned by the government of Québec and published in 1977. It would seem odd that it took 40-50 years for deconstruction and postmodernism to destroy facts, but perhaps the US is just that much in the intellectual rear-guard.)

The fact is, facts are produced. They are assembled from observation, hypothesis, theory, and, often enough, “common sense.” They are debated, using methods of inquiry, by experts in every discipline. They are never final, even when they are firmly established. Everyone who understands any form of respectable method of inquiry should know this.

Instead, the discussion of facts usually takes the treacherous shortcut of assertion: there are facts, there are no “alternative facts,” there are multiple versions of facts, there are no facts, there is no difference between facts and opinions, etc. None of these assertions acknowledges the complexity of facts themselves. That’s too bad, especially for critics of the current President and the “alt-right,” since it is precisely the lack of any reasonable methodology for establishing their assertions of fact that is most vexing. (Hint: someone saying it on Fox News does not count as a reasonable methodology.) The political left has its (smaller) share of those who seek to establish facts through bald assertion, too, and these people are not helping.

I don’t have a lot of confidence that an honest discussion of the construction of facts would improve the political situation. Too many people have been trained to react to the dog whistles of demagogues and advertisers. But the movement of high school students demanding that elected representatives enact legislation that would make schools safer from gun violence might make us optimistic. They have realized that thoughts and prayers are not making them safer, and they seem to want change based on what to many seems like a clear pattern of facts. They are much smarter than the dominating elite in the country credit them to be. Perhaps there is a larger interest in rational discussion of debatable facts, and debatable hypotheses to explain those facts.

On the other hand, that didn't move my students this term.

Friday, September 08, 2017

a disabled man riding a bicycle

I had to cancel class yesterday, at nearly the last minute. Symptoms from Ménière's came on, over a one-hour period, and I was unable to stand much sound or understand much speech. I wrote up a prompt for an online threaded discussion, based on the structure I had set up for the class session. Then I drove up to a fruit stand and bought some stuff.

That afternoon, we took a bike ride. I had intended to ride around 20 miles or so that afternoon anyway, but the loss of good hearing, and especially the differential head pressure from one side to the other, made it seem like that was a bad idea.

This morning, I have canceled my face-to-face class sessions for the day. I've again posted online discussions for the classes. My head is more evenly pressured and my ears are more equally hearingless, and that makes a longer bike ride more viable.

Cycling is the best thing I do for my physical and mental health. It reduces anxiety and depression -- a lot. Even when I have some symptoms, the change in my blood pressure while I'm on the bike reduces them, and usually for at least an hour or so afterwards. I am also trying to get stronger and faster. All good reasons to go.

I have a serious qualm about going, which is that a student in one of my classes might happen to see me, zooming by, apparently healthy. I might appear to be malingering.

In fact, I am struggling with an internal accusation that I am malingering. I'm not "sick" in a typical sense, after all. I'm not bed-ridden, debilitated by a vertigo attack. I believe I'm thinking fairly clearly. I can write and read -- hell, I've just read about 40 pages of Ernesto Laclau's On Populist Reason. If my mood wasn't so sour, I'd probably be capable of making jokes.

Yet, I am disabled, in the sense that my job normally requires vocal/aural interaction, or at least physical presence in a place where I am subject to people talking to me, crowd noise, and the various sounds of HVAC plants, landscapers' equipment, vehicles, and so on. (In fact, yesterday it was the HVAC system on top of the building housing our natural science departments that told me I wasn't teaching face-to-face. What is usually an obnoxious squeal and rattle was a screaming, percussive detonation.)

I've asked for, and have been granted, having my classes scheduled as "hybrid" in person/online courses, in order to inform students enrolling that this is part of what they'll be dealing with. And by posting the assignments and setting up the discussion fora I'll be reading and commenting on for hours later, I'm doing my job. Still, nagging at me, is the wonder about how this will be perceived.

Is that going to stop me getting on the bike? Not today.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

setting limits

Faculty work is open-ended, and difficult to quantify. This creates a number of tensions in labor relations between faculty and administration, and where there are labor relations tensions, you can bet there are ethical issues as well.

The work faculty do is mostly invisible to most people, because it is outside the classroom. Scholarly work happens in any place that it makes sense: the field of study determines that it might be a library, or one's living room chair, or a literal field. The work can arise in odd hours, and some faculty also choose to work in odd hours, and most of us work on weekends during the academic year.

We could measure faculty work by simply counting up all the hours, but I believe that would miss an important feature of the kind of work faculty do. Because much of it is intellectual work, and because we have our brains with us most of the time, faculty work can happen when faculty are not expressly working. When I'm riding my bike, my mind wanders all over the place, but often splurts out stuff I need to do with classes or something scholarly I'm writing.

Faculty also usually do committee work in their departments, colleges, and the university at large, and work in professional or community organizations. Faculty are often assigned work that is atypical of what we think is faculty work, e.g., directing a program, designing a course, or facilitating an internship. These tasks seem to generate more than their share of conflicts between faculty and administration over the limits of faculty work. I want to argue that a key reason for this is because of a faculty ethic of caring or of donation.

If faculty are expected to work during the academic year, but not required to work during the summer, it might seem obvious that they cannot be called on to perform a task for their university employer during the summer. They are "off contract." Yet frequently enough, faculty give their time and energy to the university even then, or during the academic year, add to their workload by assuming additional tasks, committee responsibilities, etc. Faculty tend to identify very strongly with and care a great deal for their disciplines, their departments, their colleagues, and their universities. They give a lot of themselves, even within the minimum required work of teaching, research, and service. When the call comes to do even more, we tend to do it, if sometimes begrudgingly, because of that identity and caring.

When a faculty member says "no" to the administration, or to fellow faculty, this is a claim to setting a limit to work. It's difficult to understand the claim, though, because of the open-endedness of faculty work in general and because of the faculty ethic of caring and donation. In fact, "no" seems to require justification, even "off contract."

At their worst, the tensions this provokes become serious conflicts. For instance, someone with an academic-year "director" position may be called upon by the administration to do that work during the summer, under the presumption that the "director" gig implies being on-call--even if the job description explicitly says it is an academic-year only position.

Some administrators may take cynical advantage of the faculty ethic of caring and donation, and manipulate faculty into volunteering work without pay. Some fellow faculty may do this as well. But when it isn't cynical, the problem can still arise, which tells me that the ethic itself is part of the problem.

Faculty are not generally very good at saying "no," and not very good at understanding the limits of what they can do. The faculty who have arrived in their positions by way of being successful undergraduate and graduate students have developed capacities to work tremendous amounts under high levels of stress. Some of us may be hooked on it. Some of us use it as an escape. Some of us may take it as a point of pride. Saying "no" seems to be an admission that one is not superhuman after all.

What I think is called for is articulating the ethic of caring and donation, trying to distinguish it from some of the behaviors that lead to the attitude that saying "no" is somehow wrong, and using this articulated ethic to consider the problem of limits. So, more on this to come, I guess.

Friday, April 28, 2017

"something happened between us"

Let's say there were only the two of us there, or at least that only the two of us were witnesses to what happened. Anyone else would have seen whatever was objectively observable, but could not have been witnesses to what happened, because what happened was "between us."

Now, what happened? If what happened "between us" is different for each of us, then what did happen? Even more: if what I say happened you say did not happen, then what did happen? Did our intentions pass by each other without engaging each other "like gears" (Merleau-Ponty)? Or are our present intentions, to deny or remember, now passing by each other? Or are we each intending something different?

If you deny that anything happened, or deny what I say happened, and if I take your word for your intention, then I am stuck without the reality of anything happening at all. It could be, or it is, only my imagination, my own denial, bad faith, or fantasy. It can't be real as long as you deny it, because I can't determine what really happened between us. And this includes meaning, affect, history, futurity, facticity, morality.

Still more. You are the only other person in the world who was witness to what happened. You are the only one I could possibly talk to about it. If you deny that it happened, that is, deny what I say happened, then we will not be able to talk about it as though it were the same. If you won't talk about it, I can't know even whether you deny it, let alone whether there ever was a moment when our intentions engaged each other.

But why should I know? What difference would it make, for instance, if I were "right" or "wrong"? The urge to know what happened seems possessive, not only of what happened but of our intentions, that is, of us, that is, of you. And so, I haven't talked to you about it. I haven't been able to choose between permanent irreality perpetually wanting a witness to become real and to take on a meaning, and violating you and what happened between us by demanding to know.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Descartes in love

Descartes is bugging me. In the second meditation, he argues that because he is able to perceive and judge that he perceives wax, this demonstrates (1) that he exists, and (2) that his knowledge of himself is more certain than his knowledge of the wax. Whether or not he perceives and judges the wax accurately, that he perceives and judges shows that he must be capable of so doing, and therefore, that his mind “exists.”

I understand the argument for (1) as a proof that subjectivity as such must be, in order for there to be experience, sensation, perception, judgment, etc. One could be deceived by absolutely everything that one encounters, but never be wrong in concluding that one has a subjective being, because otherwise, one could not be either wrong or right, about anything. This position opens the door to transcendental philosophy, and seems to me simply to be the correct position. I cannot fathom an alternative to the transcendental philosophical idea that there must be a subject for whom there are experiences, in order for us to make sense of any experience, or in order for us to understand anything about understanding or knowing.

But the argument for (2) is unclear. In Cress’ translation: “… if my perception of the wax seemed more distinct after it became known to me not only on account of sight or touch, but on account of many reasons, one has to admit how much more distinctly I am known to myself. For there is not a single consideration that can aid in my perception of the wax or of any other body that ails to make even more manifest the nature of my mind.” Descartes does not claim merely that he knows that his mind exists, but that he knows about it more than he knows about the wax, and this seems also to be the case regardless of whether he is deceived about his supposed perceptions of supposed external objects. Now, what exactly tells him this?

Let’s imagine that Descartes has badly misconstrued his experience, and that he is nothing other than a figment of the imagination of his notorious “evil genius.” The argument for (1) is that, if he can be deceived in this way, and if he can undergo being deceived, he must exist as, minimally, something that can be deceived: a mind. But the argument for (2) seems to me to say that he knows about himself more than about any of his experiences, on the basis of this same evidence. How can he know that he is not a figment of the evil genius’ imagination? What about his experience, his subjectivity, could tell him so?

This is the starting point of Hilary Putnam’s “brain in a vat” image. Putnam proposed this as a challenge to the unity of mind and body: if we can imagine ourselves as properly hooked-up brains in vats, through which hookings-up these brains are fed what they interpret as “experiences” of wax, fires, copies of Descartes’ Meditations, or whatever, then we will have a hard time proving that our minds/brains are “in” our bodies.

But Putnam is not answering the more fundamental question, which is, what is the source of, the evidence for, and the basis of judgments about our self-knowing? Do we know our own minds?

One of my favorite approaches to this question is a very uncomfortable one. Every once in a while, we hear someone declare something like “I thought I was in love, but I was wrong.” Well, how about that?

Here you are, merrily going about your fawning and praising of this god in human form with whom you are thoroughly and terminally smitten, and then, one day, you awake to a different set of circumstances, a different alignment of stars perhaps, and realize that your undying love was in fact stillborn all along. How does that happen? Are you wrong about your judgment of the things—the person, that person’s charms, etc.—or are you wrong about yourself, about your judgment, about your own perceptions? What is the difference?

That we are capable of self-consciousness of our own subjectivity seems to me patent and undeniable. That we are capable of self-knowledge in any deep sense seems to me uncertain, at best.

Where does this leave old René? Those of us who read this crapola know that he will use the self-knowledge idea in order to construct “certainty” a bit later on in the text. Uh oh.

I used to think I was in love with Descartes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

philosophy of mind -- yeah, right

I’m teaching Philosophy of Mind this semester. It’s odd that the philosophy department has a course called Philosophy of Mind. It’s throwing me for a bit of a loop, despite the fact that I’ve taught the course several times.

The phrase “philosophy of mind” connotes, at least to me, an analytical philosophy approach, which here means an approach that takes up philosophical “problems” to be “solved.” Among the problems in philosophy of mind are such matters as the “mind-body problem” and the “other minds problem.” The debates include whether “mind” can be reduced to physical brain events, whether we can have definitive proof that other minds exist, and so forth.

But the Cow State Santa Claus philosophy department is, and has been for many years, a continental philosophy department. Unlike analytical philosophy, continental philosophy emphasizes “questions” that elicit “answers,” but more importantly issue more questions.

The big difference between the analytical and continental approaches to philosophy is really this: analytical philosophy regards “mind” as a set of problems, and continental philosophy regards “mind” as a tradition of ideas dating to… Maybe Descartes? Maybe Parmenides?

That’s what’s driving me as I teach this thing. I don’t know what “Philosophy of Mind” is supposed to be. I believe I have a duty to provide my students some basic background in the debates about the analytical philosophical “problems,” because anyone looking at an undergrad transcript would think that’s what “Philosophy of Mind” would be about. But I’m also trying to undermine that containment, to question what I think is a broad petitio principii at the root of “Philosophy of Mind.”

In effect, I plan to teach a course in opposition to itself. I’m doomed.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

an old poem

Every so often something overtakes me and I try to write poetry, or, more accurately, something like the following happens. This is from about 12 years ago. It is about a life I left behind. I just re-read it and a few others from that period, and I think some of it is kinda okay. So, for what it's worth...

I’d tried a thousand ways 
to worry through life,
caught in the romantic 
allure of despair, bemoaning 
our Heehaw anxieties,
bad luck and gloom, the 
cartoon violence of drunks 
bouncing each other off 
the walls or searching 
for mermaids in the bay 
like Prufrock heroes.

But I gave up on the ghost 
at last, and tossed out spare 
skeletons to boot, and if I 
didn’t smile at least I felt it.

Not all those empty bottles lined 
up beside the sink belonged to me,
lest you forget; and you know 
the dirty plates aren’t mine; but if 
you insist we both spoiled the nest 
at least we worked together. I’ll 
cop to that, alright. And I’ll take 
some blame for wreckage, and 
that will surely make me smile.
I can’t be made to fret about it.

What’s fair, what’s deserved, what’s 
to be done, what’s to come - I used 
to believe in answers to these 
unlucky questions, but I was 
older then and felt the stakes 
driven further and further up. 
I’ve wised up to the risk.
Now I’m never certain and 
I’m certain that it’s best.

I’m not alone. I’m not weary.
I’m living off the dividends 
of misspent youth: pointless 
delight and days with no end,
careless concern and grave hope.