Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

What Do Simone de Beauvoir, Patricia Churchland, and Philippa Foot Have in Common?

The obvious answer is that they’re all women philosophers. But another commonality is that, as professional philosophers, they’re also rare. A recent Sydney Morning Herald headline asks, “why aren’t more women philosophers?” According to the article, women tend not to like the combativeness of academic philosophy nor can they reconcile the apparently misogynistic views of the many dead white guys in philosophy. Sociology not natural interest is the culprit. Oddly, the article appears to be saying not that men have kept women out of the discipline but that women somehow keep themselves out because they don’t like (can’t deal with) what men are doing in the discipline. I’m fairly sure that’s not only inaccurate but itself mildly disrespectful. Regardless, the University of NSW is doing something about it.

The Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference at the University of NSW this month unveiled a database and website to increase students' awareness of women's contributions to philosophy, and enhance the diversity of philosophy curricula.

Where Have All the Philosophy Programs Gone?

Professor Andrew Baker bemoans the continued commercialization of universities evident in the ongoing closure of programs in the humanities (particularly philosophy and history). He worries that without strong history and philosophy programs, universities will lose their intellectual diversity and students will not be challenged to think rigorously in areas of great concern, namely, morality. He cites Harvard professor Michael Sandel who also addressed the issue at some length in his recent book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (Justice, by the way, is a fine, albeit popularly written and somewhat narrowly focused primer on various theories of justice and criticisms of those theories.)

Paul Bloom’s classic, The Closing of the American Mind addressed similar issues and Louis Menand explores some of these topics at some length in his short but intriguing The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. Baker focuses on particular moral issues that he believes pose serious problems for society. The removal of history and philosophy from the university will only cause these issues to fester as students will not get the moral instruction necessary to deal with them.

In the principal arenas of intellectual exploration, universities, we have closed down entire programs within the arts (philosophy, history) and rationalised the length and breadth of undergraduate and postgraduate study programs across the board….Higher degree courses are shortened and narrowed; where is the time or place for philosophical thought in a PhD program?

But even more insidious in the removal or reduction of particularly philosophy programs is the impact the absence will have on the “optimized” university’s ability to train students how to think. In my opinion, no other discipline can do more to train the mind than philosophy.

Freedom of Speech or Hate Speech?

Hardly a week goes by without news that some professor or other is being disciplined, fired, marginalized, or otherwise shut up for making some politically incorrect statement in his or her classroom. This time, University of Illinois lecturer Kenneth Howell apparently was fired for describing and then siding with the Catholic church’s stance against homosexuality. Professor Howell was teaching a course titled, “Introduction to Catholicism” when he made the controversial statement and then followed up his in-class comments with an email that further elaborated the thought.

Based on what has been published, the email does not appear to be hateful or even judgmental though it is not ambiguous about the topic Howell discusses. Regardless of the subject matter, the issue that makes this story news is whether professor Howell was wrongly dismissed from his teaching position for articulating a position that runs counter to the stated inclusive policy and actually engaged in “hate speech” as the university claims he has. I’m also continuously struck when a professor is fired for making statements that a university deems intolerant. I’m not always certain about the logic that could justify such an action.

See more details at the Huffington Post here. This piece links to other analyses (many critical of Howell).

Also see this spirited defense of Professor Howell.

The New Atheism and the Ever-shrinking Circle of Explanatory Power

Reza Aslan concludes a recent article for The Washington Post with is critique:

What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims--be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth--are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science.

Aslan’s brief article, titled “Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett: Evangelical atheists?”, focuses on what he sees as a fundamental (pun not intended) weakness in the new atheism: it’s proponents don’t understand religion as an idea “occupied with transcendence.” Aslan views modern atheists as ill-informed and well outside their area of expertise. Their inordinate focus on scientific explanation has made them ill-equipped to treat matters of religion. For Aslan, religion is not about the manifest world but about how a “universal recognition of human contingency, finitude, and material existence has become formalized through ecclesiastical institutions and dogmatic formulae.” And religion is about “modalities,” pardigmatic gestures,” “spiritual dimensions,” and “archetypes.” The New Atheists, he says, don’t understand this (neither, I’m fairly certain, do too many religious people but that’s another matter).

He also criticizes the new atheism, as a movement, of being too close minded, too absolutist, too  proselytical  -- in a word, too fundamentalist. Yet in reading his polemic, particularly when he accuses the movement of being under-informed and populist, I found Aslan himself to be too narrow in how he is defining the new atheism. If scoped merely to the four authors in the article’s title, then certainly the criticism holds. But anyone aware of the movement knows that Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris (and we might throw in Dan Brown for good measure), widely known in the movement as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—a name they wear proudly—is just the marketing arm of a much larger phenomenon. The new atheism (no caps) is a broad shift in the way many are thinking about religion. The New Atheists (limiting that term to The Four Horsemen) are a small, but vocal and largely populist exemplification of that shift. Restricting the movement to those four men would be similar to saying Dinesh D’Souza, Tim LaHaye, Rick Warren, and Glen Beck constitute the whole of modern Christian thought.

This failure to recognize the scope of and breadth of the shift away from traditional theistic belief is in no small part contributing to the breakdowns we’re seeing in certain pockets of Western Christianity (I wrote briefly about this breakdown here). There have been some powerful and important treatments and analysis of religious belief that take the material written at the popular level to great depths. Books like J.L. Schellenberg’s Cornell trilogy (see information on the books Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion ), Robert McKim’s excellent and necessary Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity, Robert Wright’s, The Evolution of God, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. I’m not making any claims about whether these books do or do not make their respective cases. I’m simply observing that anyone engaging what should broadly be called the new atheism, should content with the ideas presented in these and a substantive number of other books and articles. It’s unclear whether Aslan is aware of this growing body of fine literature and the impact this literature is having. 

On the other side, Aslan doesn’t seem to account for many of the excellent books being written by analytical philosophers and theologians which attempt to defend the rationality of belief in God without buying fully into Aslan’s “non-overlapping magisteria” sentiment. The quote with which I began this article seemed to me on a first read to be an admission of defeat: the God hypothesis can’t hold explanatory water to a scientific analysis so it’s best to separate theism from science and relegate God and his actions to an unknowable metaphysical realm. I’ll plainly acknowledge that I haven’t read any of Aslan’s book-length treatments of the topics he sketches in the short Washington Post piece. But if his books essentially are an extrapolation of this article in which he seems to espouse what I see as a growing acknowledgement that theism has little explanatory power left, I’m confident this sentiment will continue to marginalize religion and further aid in the removal of it’s seat from the cultural adult table.

Religion and Polite Conversation

Should topics of religion be avoided in casual conversation? No, says Rick Pimentel in the latest article for Table Talk. Religion is a topic of “ultimate concern” as Paul Tillich argued and such topics should be discussed and debated. Many of us may avoid topics of religion is polite conversation because the topic consists of ideas we may know little about or believe can never be settled. But the focus of religion concerns ideas that many of us care deeply about. What does it all mean? Is there an afterlife? Are we alone in the universe? These concerns are profound and, while we may seek to avoid them, we cannot escape them. Rick writes,

Religion’s importance lies in the fact that it deals with ultimate issues; matters that are fundamental to human life such as the existence of God, death, morality, meaning of life and human behavior. These issues are a fundamental concern and understanding them appear to be necessary for flourishing in this life. . . . Religion can be hotly disputed and sometimes this can be discouraging or even repulsive to some but the fact that it is hotly disputed should not excuse us from pursuing an understanding of religion and how it fundamentally affects our lives.

Read the full article here.

Helen Brown Talks to Slavoj Žižek for the Telegraph

“Spluttering, lisping and pawing frantically at his face, he can spin you from Heidegger to Hershey bars (by way of Hitchcock and Hizbollah) in synapse-shortcircuiting seconds. He is, by turns, a brilliant and buffoonish critic of global capitalism. Once he winds himself into an intellectual whirlwind you just have to sit back and wait while he sucks up and spits out 21st century culture.”


The God Debate: From Bumper Stickers to Smartphone Apps

For years if you drove along just about any freeway for any length of time you’d most likely see a car with a “Jesus fish” (a named coined by the sitcom Seinfeld as far as I know). These stickers are small, fish-shaped emblems that signify that the driver of the vehicle is a Christian. But atheists have struck back. Since the late 90s, “Darwin fish” have become popular. These are modified Jesus fish that sport four small legs. Not to be outdone, manufacturers of Christian paraphernalia  (“holy hardware” as we used to call it as teenagers) came out with Jesus fish with the words “TRUTH” in the body and eating a Darwin fish. And on it goes (incidentally, an author appears to have noticed the same phenomenon and based a book around it).

Now, apparently this battle has gone digital. Programmers, students, and publishers are coming out with religious and atheist software for smartphones that keep important “truths” right at one's fingertips. Apparently sound logic and rock-solid argumentation is a key driver for many of these apps:

In a dozen new phone applications, whether faith-based or faith-bashing, the prospective debater is given a primer on the basic rules of engagement — how to parry the circular argument, the false dichotomy, the ad hominem attack, the straw man — and then coached on all the likely flashpoints of contention.

A Christian publisher apparently concerned with the way believers are addressing the resurging atheism even claims that these types of apps are a way to "deal with" Christians “who seem dogmatic and insecure about their convictions.” From a purely capitalist perspective, if these things are selling, why not. Philosophically, whipping out a smartphone to pull up a retort to an argument doesn’t strike me as dealing with dogmatism. It strikes me more as a guaranteed way to foster it.

Philosophers Help Doctors with Ethical Questions

Medical professionals are calling on philosophers in the UK to help answer questions involving personal autonomy and mental health. Some of these questions are being raised by a supposed conflict between the Medical Health Act and the Mental Capacity Act. According to the Guardian:

The Mental Health Act says intervention is required where a mentally-ill individual is a danger to themselves (or to the public). But the Mental Capacity Act (2007) is organised around a very different legal principle: it says that if someone passes a legal test of their capacity to make a decision, then they cannot be treated without their consent – even if they suffer from a major mental disorder.

See the full article here.

St. Olaf Focuses on Kierkegaard

From their website:

More than 160 scholars, pastors, and those who are simply fans of the 19th-century Danish philosopher flocked to campus for the largest meeting of Kierkegaard scholars in history. The Sixth International Kierkegaard Conference drew attendees from all over the globe to examine "Why Kierkegaard Still Matters" and discuss issues of morality, religion, and philosophy.

See the full report here.

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