The Ad Hominem

Do you know an ad hominem when you see one?

A description of what is and is not an instance of the ad hominem argument. Apparently this has been around for a while and has been discussed at length. I’m not sure all the examples the author cites as ad hominems are ad hominems (for example, B’s reply, “Yet another ad hominem argument. Ignore this one, folks.” isn’t really attacking A but is attempting to divert the attention from the actual argument A is making and so might be more of a straw man argument (or perhaps an ignoratio elenchi)). But in general, the author’s point is a good one. An ad hominem ignores the actual argument being made and attempts to undermine the conclusion of the argument by attacking the person.

Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

The Logician’s Liberation League Manifesto

Presented at the close of a Philosophy seminar given by Professor Paul Eisenberg, to the Department of Philosophy, Indiana University, in the (northern) autumn of 1969.

Presented at the close of a Philosophy seminar given by Professor Paul Eisenberg, to the Department of Philosophy, Indiana University, in the (northern) autumn of 1969.

Thanks to Tedla Woldeyohannes for the link.

CsFP on Experimental Philosophy and Epistemology

Two calls for papers. One for a new OUP series on Experimental Philosophy and the other for the Ediburgh Graduate Epistemology conference.

These two news items come from Certain Doubts.

Oxford University Press has started up the new series Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy. Each volume will consist of a series of new papers in the field of experimental philosophy.

The Call for Abstracts for the first volume is now available. If you are interested in contributing, all you need to do is send in a brief (less than 1,000 word) abstract by Dec. 15. Papers can present new experimental findings or examine the philosophical implications of existing studies. Criticisms of experimental philosophy are always welcome.

The last few years have seen a surge of interesting experimental studies in epistemology, including studies about contextualism and interest-relativity, about differences between demographic groups, about whether knowledge entails belief, and about the impact of moral judgments on knowledge ascriptions. (Links to these papers are available here.) It would be wonderful to see further work on some of these topics in this new volume!

The 2nd annual Edinburgh Graduate Epistemology conference is being held on June 8th-9th 2012. The keynote speakers will be John Greco and Crispin Wright. There is also a call for papers. For more details, see the website here.

Workshop and Conference on Teaching Philosophy

The International Workshop-Conference on Teaching Philosophy (IWCTP) is a family-friendly 4 1/2- day conference for philosophy teachers at every educational level.

The American Association of Philosophy Teachers

St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas
July 25 – July 29, 2012

Proposals for interactive workshops and panels related to teaching and learning philosophy at any educational level are welcome.  We especially encourage workshops and panels on the following topics:

  • innovative and successful teaching strategies
  • professional issues connected to teaching
  • how work in other disciplines can improve the teaching of philosophy
  • engaging students outside the classroom
  • innovative uses of instructional technologies
  • the challenge of teaching in new settings
  • methods to improve student learning


Send Submissions, via email, to Russell Marcus:  Submissions should be received by Monday, January 9, 2012.

Each submission must contain, as attachments, both a proposal and a cover sheet in Word (.doc or .docx), PDF (.pdf), or WordPerfect (.wpd) format.  Please label attachments with your name (e.g., Doe-Proposal.doc and Doe-Cover.doc).

The Proposal should include:

  • the session title
  • a one-to-three page description of what the presentation will cover, what participants will do during the session, and what the session seeks to achieve
  • a list of references, especially to relevant pedagogical literature
  • descriptions of any useful handouts to be provided
  • a list of equipment needed
  • To facilitate blind review, no identifying information should appear in the Proposal.

The Cover Sheet should include:

  • the session title
  • a 100-200 word abstract for use in the printed conference program
  • each presenter’s name, institutional affiliation (if any), and contact information
  • the length of the presentation (60 or 90 minutes)
  • the format of the presentation (workshop, panel, discussion, or demonstration)

Visit for additional information about AAPT or the workshop-conference.

Midwest Epistemology Workshop

The 5th annual Midwest Epistemology Workshop (MEW) will be held in Iowa City, Iowa, on October 7 and 8, 2011. The keynote speaker is Richard Foley (NYU), and the chair of local arrangments is Richard Fumerton (University of Iowa).

The 5th annual Midwest Epistemology Workshop (MEW) will be held in Iowa City, Iowa, on October 7 and 8, 2011.  The keynote speaker is Richard Foley (NYU), and the chair of local arrangments is Richard Fumerton (University of Iowa).

Naturalism Verses the Scientific Spirit

In a provocative article for the New York Times, philosopher Timothy Williamson considers whether naturalism as popularly conceived is at best self-refuting and at worst religious dogma.

Tim_WilliamsonIn a provocative article for the New York Times, philosopher Timothy Williamson considers whether naturalism as popularly conceived is at best self-refuting and at worst religious dogma. Williamson is clear that his critique is not the product of a religious position (he’s an atheist) and is not a critique of science. Rather, he’s critical of the idea that what commonly passes for naturalism is so restrictive that it doesn’t provide enough intellectual headroom for things as foundational as mathematics – something upon which science entirely depends. He says, “The dilemma for naturalists is this. If they are too inclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its bite….But if they are too exclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its credibility, by imposing a method appropriate to natural science on areas where it is inappropriate.”

As a framework, the standard definition of naturalism and the “enthusiasm” that surrounds it by some of its adherents, creates an intellectual framework which makes it impossible to fully explore the world. Naturalists (like many religious ideologies) describe the way the world is first and tell us what we’re allowed to find in that world. He writes, “I don’t call myself a naturalist because I don’t want to be implicated in equivocal dogma. Dismissing an idea as ‘inconsistent with naturalism’ is little better than dismissing it as ‘inconsistent with Christianity.’” I think he’s right. (As an example of what Williamson’s is criticizing, I came across this rather amusing article in which the author attempts to argue using a symbolic language that philosophy should be subsumed under science because it’s imprecise.)

What Williamson does promote is the scientific spirit. This, he says is a discipline that focuses on “curiosity, honesty, accuracy, precision and rigor” and those are qualities that any discipline can and every discipline should espouse. If we promote the scientific spirit over naturalism or any other ontological dogma, we allow ourselves to explore the world as it “carve it up at the joints” as it were drawing conclusions based on our findings not on what we’ve already assumed must be true.

Well said. For my own take on the value of philosophy, see this article.

Link to Williamson’s NYT piece here.

Are You Sure?

Dean Nelson, the author of an upcoming book on Polkinghorne wrote a nice piece for USA Today in which he touches on the subject of certainty and how good science (and religion) can do without it.

Dean Nelson, the author of an upcoming book on Polkinghorne (see below) wrote a nice piece for USA Today in which he touches on the subject of certainty and how good science (and religion) can do without it. I think his assertions are on the right track and I look forward to the book.

People of science are motivated to believe certain things as they proceed with their experiments, and people of faith are motivated to believe certain things as they proceed with their beliefs. Living with doubt leaves one open to additional discovery, both in science and faith.

Article here.

Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion

The Value of Philosophy

I’ve found the study of philosophy to be life changing. This isn’t a slogan for me. Philosophy has proven to be immensely satisfying and valuable. Here are seven reasons why.

To many, philosophy* is an obscure and largely outdated discipline that has little relevance in the real world. I’ve taught an introductory philosophy course for many years and many of my students come into the course with the idea that philosophy is little more than opinions wrapped in big words and focuses on topics that have no bearing on practical matters like paying for school or landing a job. So what’s the point? Why do people study philosophy and what, if any, value does it have?

I’ve found the study of philosophy to be life changing. This isn’t a slogan for me. Philosophy has proven to be immensely satisfying and valuable. Here are seven reasons why.

It broadens my world

Like the freed prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave, studying philosophy forced me to think differently about the world around me. Prior to studying philosophy, the world was simple, dogmatism came cheap, and frankly, the world was pretty bland. Don’t get me wrong, simplicity is great when things are simple. Few of us seek to make life needlessly more complicated. But complexity can actually be quite wonderful when it opens up new vistas. As I’ve aged, I’ve learned to appreciate fine cooking and all the adornments that go along with it (like a good wine and an enveloping atmosphere). As many an epicurean will tell you, the best cooking is generally not simple cooking. Tasting excellent food that has layers of perfectly balanced flavors that were prepared over hours or days and that come alive with the right wine or a hand-crafted bread is among the most enriching experiences one can have. Philosophy does the same for me with ideas. Getting past the boxed mac-and-cheese simple answers to a feast of nuanced philosophy is, simply, wonderful.

It trains my mind

The mind is in many ways like a muscle. It needs to be exercised, stretched, and pushed to the limit to be at its best. Philosophy can be very tough. As Alvin Plantinga has said, “Philosophy is just thinking hard.” Philosophy as a discipline has forced me to think more precisely and carefully. It is teaching me me how to frame problems and where to go to make better sense of those problems. It always pushes me to be a better thinker. For me, there was an unexpected outcome to stretching my mind to my intellectual limits. It makes many of the more mundane, daily challenges I face much easier to handle. Training your body to bench press two hundred pounds makes opening the pickle jar quite a bit easier.

It continually challenges me

This probably goes without saying and is closely related to the point above. Philosophy is challenging not only because it tackles hard problems, but because it unrelenting in its demand for clarity. A friend of mine who was struggling with the question of God’s existence once expressed exasperation with the unsettled nature of the philosophical literature on the question. “If you read a good argument for one position one month, the next month there will be three journal articles with counterarguments that show why the first argument was wrong.” This constant dialogue with no clear end can be very frustrating. But it also forces us to learn how to evaluate what we’re thinking about and synthesize it. This challenge is something I find invigorating. I expect it to last a lifetime.

It makes me careful

One of the greatest lessons I’m learning from studying philosophy is that there are very few easy answers to life’s intractable problems. Philosophy has pushed me to labor over the nuance of a word or phrase. It encourages me to constantly challenge my assumptions and to slow down and be patient while looking for something that might resemble an answer. Finishing a great book in philosophy most of the time means concluding with more questions than I started with. While this can sound frustrating to some, it has brought a great deal of peace to me. I’m learning that when it comes to ideas, the journey is quite a bit more enjoyable than the destination.

It changes my point of view

There’s a popular bumper sticker that reads, “Hire a teenager while he still knows everything.” It’s funny--at least to everyone but teenagers--because with age we come to learn that life is nuanced and requires changing our minds about a great many things. Philosophy provides the means by which I can consider view points I would not otherwise consider and to look in a different way at problems I once thought were solved. Think of where’d you’d be if you still believed all the things you were certain of when you were twelve. Healthy change generally means growth and that’s a good thing.

It tempers dogmatism

I’m learning that dogmatism may partly be rooted in a desire to be secure. While security generally is something to be prized, when it comes to the life of the mind, too much security can actually be a detriment. Because logic is so central to philosophy, it’s natural to think that intellectual problems all have hard-and-fast logical outcomes and the goal is to find those irrefutable conclusions. If this were the case, dogmatism would be hard to avoid. But philosophy, taken holistically, has led me in the opposite direction. The ambiguity of words, the fuzzy nature of our knowledge of the truth of many facts, the influence of the passions and desires, the imprecision of experience, and the obvious limitations of our mind should introduce a great deal of intellectual humility and tentativeness to our worldview. Philosophy as a discipline (and, in my opinion, when done properly) exposes both the power and the limitations of logic. As G.K. Chesterton rightly observed, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

It puts things in perspective

As I alluded to above, philosophy is teaching me how to understand the relative importance of ideas. It’s all too easy to view every idea as equally important and to want to “go to the mat” for every idea we find disagreeable. But by having to go deep on concepts, I’ve learned that some ideas are worth wrestling with and others are not. There are a lot of very interesting ideas to labor over, argue about, and spend time on. There are a lot of others that aren’t. Philosophy is helping me figure out which are which.

*If you don’t feel you have a good grasp of what philosophy is, try this short introduction.

For Further Reading

Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason (Vintage)
Shorto, R. (2008). New York: Random House
An enjoyable, accessible story about the history of the tension between faith and reason using the bones of the famous philosopher Descartes as the focal point.
The Abolition of Man
Lewis, C.S. (1974). New York: HarperCollins
A Lewis classic in which he attempts to identify problems with modern (at the time of writing) education. The book stands the test of time and though Lewis was a Christian theist, his polemic is instructive and interesting regardless of your worldview.
grossman The Existence of the World : An Introduction to Ontology (The Problems of Philosophy)
Grossman, R. (1994). New York: Routledge
A fine introduction of the philosophical discipline of metaphysics. A bit challenging for the beginner but worth the effort.
Free Will and Determinism: A Dialogue
Williams, C. (1980). Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett
The Hackett dialogue series are good primers on the topics they cover. This book addresses problems of free will in an accessible and enjoyable way.
How to Do Things with Words: Second Edition
Austin, J.L. (1975). Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard
A classic in linguistic and the philosophy of language. Should be fairly accessible to the general reader though have a good philosophical dictionary on hand.
The Problems Of Philosophy : Complete And Unabridged
Russell, B. (1997). Oxford: Oxford University Press
A fine introduction to philosophy by one of philosophy’s modern heavyweights.
A Primer on Postmodernism
Grentz, S. (1996). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans
One of the better introductions to postmodernism that I’ve read. Though Grentz is a theist and not a postmodernist strictly speaking, his primer is not agenda-driven or ideological in its perspective. It’s is well written and very accessible.

What is Philosophy?

Defining philosophy, like defining any complex subject, is challenging. It’s challenging partly because it’s been around so long but also because it has many parts. But plenty of people have attempted to define the discipline and I’m going to take a stab at it in this article.

Philosophy is the study of the fundamental structure of the universe. How’s that for not burying the lead? Actually, defining philosophy, like defining any complex subject, is challenging. It’s challenging partly because it’s been around so long but also because it has many parts. But plenty of people have attempted to define the discipline and I’m going to take a stab at it here.

Some stuff defies definition.  Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 couldn’t define pornography to anyone’s satisfaction, “But I know it when I see it.” he said in his opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. But in general, any time we use a word to refer to something, the definition of that word not only singles out what the thing is but it also implies what the thing isn’t. A dog isn’t a cat. By calling something a dog, we’re implying it has stuff that cats don’t. That’s partly why we don’t call it a cat.

So in defining philosophy, I’ll describe what I think it is and also what I think it isn’t. If you’re reading ahead, you may get the sense that I’m already in trouble. In order to describe what philosophy isn’t, I must assume that my reader understands all these other things I’m comparing philosophy to. It’s wholly unhelpful to say philosophy isn’t x if you don’t know what x is.

So I’ll admit up front that my assumption is that you, dear reader, don’t have a good working definition of philosophy but that you do have some understanding of what these other things are. If that’s true, then by comparing what you don’t know to what you do know, you’ll know that what you don’t know isn’t what you do know and that will help you come to know what you don’t know. Make sense?

What Philosophy Isn’t

Philosophy is not science. Philosophy is a kind of science in the general sense of that term (as philosopher Bertrand Russell noted in the introduction to his famous A History of Western Philosophy): there are procedures to follow, hypotheses to test, outcomes to work towards, and experiments to run. By saying philosophy is not science, I mean that philosophy doesn’t study the things the hard sciences—chemistry, biology, some disciplines in physics—studies. The methodology might be similar in some respects but the objects of study are different.

Philosophy is not psychology. One of my graduate school professors frequently would ask people what they think philosophy is. One of his favorite answers was, “psychology misspelled.” The more philosophy I study, the more affinity I see between it and psychology. Both are generally focused on the mind and what it does, both worry about how the mind relates to the world around it, both are interested in behavior. But philosophy focuses less on how to live in the world as a thinking thing and spends more energy on what it means to be a mind. Philosophy also studies the mind’s contents--ideas or concepts. Psychology helps humans to understand why things go wrong and how to make them right again (and what that means) while philosophy is concerned with understanding the structure of things like beliefs, a moral behavior, and sense experience.

Philosophy is not linguistics. This one may be a bit controversial since philosophers spend a lot of time with words. Philosophy isn’t really about the structure of language but it is does focus on the content of words. Put differently, philosophers don’t care too much about why there should be number agreement between nouns and verbs in English sentences or why the nouns in Latin-based languages have a gender. But they do care what the definition of “existence” means and the difference between believing “God exists necessarily” and “Necessarily, God exists.”

Philosophy is not theology. Thomas Aquinas famously stated that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. While I certainly would not want to attempt to cross intellectual swords with someone like Aquinas, I respectfully see things the other way around. The study of questions like, “Is there a god?,”What is good and evil?,”Do humans have a soul?” have all been studied by theologians but those theologians have been doing philosophy. Theology is particularly concerned with the nature of God (assuming God exists—a question philosophy tries to answer) and his relationship to the universe. Philosophy tends not to deal with such questions (though some philosophers play around in this space) and is concerned with whether a being like God is an idea that makes sense given everything else we think we know.

What Philosophy Is

Philosophy is the foundation of all subjects. When my kids were younger, they would yell “jinx!” when one or more of them said the same word at the same time. Often, they would all yell “jinx!” at the same time which would demand the necessary “double-jinx!” Simultaneous “double-jinx!” obviously meant they’d need to race to the “triple-jinx!” “Quadruple-jinx!” is beyond the pale so finally one would squeak out more quickly than the others: “jinx! to infinity!”

A philosopher saying philosophy is the foundation of all other subjects may sound at first like a “jinx! to infinity!” – a small-man's way of saying, “my discipline is the most important!” But saying philosophy is at the root of everything else we study isn’t so much a race to top as it is an observation. Philosophy studies concepts and the relations those concepts have to one other. It studies the meaning of terms, and the structure of the world around us. In this sense, all other disciplines must assume some framework before it can begin (philosophy, of course, does too and philosophers study that!). Whenever you start asking questions about the foundation of what you’re studying, you’ve entered the wide world of philosophy. Thomas Nagel once wrote, “We couldn’t get along in life without taking the ideas of time, number knowledge, language, right and wrong for granted most of the time; but in philosophy we investigate those things themselves.” (Nagel, What Does It All Mean?) That’s the general idea.

Philosophy is a framework. This means that philosophy is an approach to questions rather than a bunch of answers to the questions themselves. Logic, a sub-discipline in philosophy, gives us a way to frame ideas so we talk about things more orderly. For example, if I said, “I’m not voting for that politician.” You could reasonably ask why. Suppose my response was, “I don’t know, I’m just not.” You would know that I probably wouldn’t be voting for the politician but you wouldn’t know much else. You wouldn’t know whether my claim was reasonable or not or if you shouldn’t vote for that politician. If I want to convince you that something is true, I offer reasons to support the thing I want you to believe and you can either accept my reasons or offer some reasons for a different conclusion. This method of “argumentation” is a framework for discussion and has formed the basis of rational discourse since recorded time. This framework is based in philosophy.

Philosophy is practical. This one may surprise you a bit but I’ve found philosophy to be immensely practical. Humans exist in a sea of ideas and concepts. We live and die by them. We discuss them and work on problems involving them. We exchange ideas at work, at home, in relationships, and politics. We are constantly trying to bridge communication gaps and refine ideas and get more precise about them. In short, humans existence is wholly dependent on ideas (jinx! to infinity!). Philosophy, as a discipline that is all-consumed with better understanding ideas, affects every area of life. The better we can get at framing and discussing ideas, the better and more precise our definitions, the clearer we can become about the limits of our knowledge and the importance (or unimportance) of the things we believe, the better we might be at living. That seems pretty practical to me.

Philosophy is truth-conducive. Sorry about the technical term (I need it to maintain my ‘philosophy is’ list). “Truth conducive” simply means that philosophy can help get us nearer to what is true about the world. When I say that to people who aren’t professional philosophers, I typically get a raised eyebrow and a smirk. After all, aren’t philosophers still studying the problems that Plato was dealing with 2500 years ago? Yes and that’s partly why I used the phrase nearer to what is true. Philosophers attempt to study the structure of the world and insofar as we make progress on that task, we learn stuff about how the world works. For example, philosophers study beliefs. We want to know what a belief is, how it works, how it relates to other things in the world and so on. When philosophers chip away at that problem and come up with some good ideas about it, we are actually uncovering facts about the world that we otherwise would not know.

Disciplines in Philosophy

In this section, I describe a handful of sub-disciplines in philosophy to give you an idea of the areas of study professional philosophers focus on.

  • Epistemology – this is the study of the scope, limits, and possibility of knowledge. Epistemologists wrestle with questions like, “what can I know?,” “what is knowledge?,” “what are the limits of what I can know?,” “how do beliefs work?,” and “how are beliefs related to other things in the world?”
  • Metaphysics – metaphysics has taken on a kind of new age meaning in modern society. But metaphysics in philosophy is generally the study of the structure of the world. For example, metaphysicians study the nature of existence. Have you ever wondered what it means for something to exist? Can “square circles” exist? If not, why not? Can you understand what it would mean to exist without a body (is this even possible)? What is a physical object as opposed to other types of objects? Metaphysics tackles these questions.
  • Philosophy of Mind – here we attempt to look at what it means to say something has a mind. Philosophers of mind also wrestle with topics like whether the mind and the body are distinct things or whether other animals like fish or “inanimate” things like computers have minds. You most likely have opinions about these questions and in philosophy of mind, you create a framework for those opinions and are able to test them.
  • Ethics – ethicists study the nature of the good and how humans should live based on how the good is defined. Talk about practical.
  • Philosophy of Religion – philosophers in this discipline attempt to tackle questions like, “does God exist?,” “is there life after death?,” “is any religion true?” and “how can we believe in a good God with so much evil in the world?”
  • Logic – Logicians study arguments and the relationship between ideas.

As you probably notice, each of these disciplines relate to each other and there is a lot of overlap. That’s partly why philosophy can be so time consuming and difficult. But I hope you also get the idea that the payoff for investing time in these subjects can be immense.

For Further Reading

*By purchasing books through the links below, you help support Philosophy News.

Irrational Man a Study in Existential Philosophy
Barrett, W. (1963). Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.
The Denial of Death
Becker, E. (1973). New York: The Free Press.
A History of Philosophy
Frederick Copleston, S. (1993-1994). A History of Philosophy (Vols. I-IX). New York: Image Books.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
Menand, L. (2001). New York: Farrar, Straus, Ciroux.
What Does It All Mean?
Nagel, T. (2004). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Theory of Knowledge: Classic and Contemporary Readings
Pojman, L. P. (1993). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings
Solomon, R. C. (2001). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
image Talking Philosophy: A Wordbook
Sparkes, A. W. (1991). London: Routledge.
Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America
Turner, J. (1985). Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
A Rulebook for Arguments
Weston, A. (2008). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Workshop on Religious Toleration

Brian Leiter is leading a workshop during October 2011 in Milan titled, “Why Tolerate Religion?”

Brian Leiter is leading a workshop during October 2011 in Milan titled, “Why Tolerate Religion?” Topic titles include, “Religious Pluralism and Toleration,” “Religion in the Age of Naturalism,” and “How Should We Respect Conscience?”

Flyer here.