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Philosophers as “Public Intellectuals”

In a recent article for, Paul Gillespie explores the work of Jürgen Habermas and the role the man has played as cultural polemicist. Gillespie focuses on Habermas (who he calls “one of the worlds leading philosophers”) as purveyor of the “critical theory agenda” in which the philosopher focuses on “criticizing and changing the world as a whole.” Drawing off of Marx’s observation that, “philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it,” Habermas views the primary role of philosophy as that of awareness raiser in which the issues that matter most mainly through political analysis and polemical engagement. The article surveys Habermas’s philosophical development over the years and his writings that have caused a stir primarily in Europe.

The article—which illustrates the very point Gillespie appears to be making--raises some important questions about how philosophy and philosophers should function in the world. This becomes even more relevant as scientists largely have displaced philosophers as the voice of culture authority and action. Certainly practical philosophy in the Western tradition has always sought to be practical. Socrates’ model was nothing if not practical. Indeed the very etymology of the word ‘philosophy’ implies that better living is the goal not merely abstract analysis. Gillespie presents Habermas as an embodiment of that ideal.

Still, do philosophers sacrifice something if they not only analyze and teach but proscribe and declare? One may argue that the complexities of life demand that philosophers go beyond mere analysis to clear declarations of how that analysis ought to be applied. And doing so will inevitably keep the discipline relevant to more people—at the very least, it will keep people talking. But it also could be argued that it is precisely because life is complex that a deep analysis of some issue should provide the foundation for pragmatics and not include practical proscriptions. Philosophers provide the critical foundation for politics but should leave the politicizing to the scores of individuals that are closest to the situations that politics affects.

In reality, any theory worth anything has practical implications. But implication is the operative word. A robust epistemology for example may not directly tell the consumer of that epistemology what he or she should believe about a given subject. But it most likely will provide a foundation for how to think about one’s beliefs or the way one forms beliefs, or what types of epistemic pursuits are worth following or all of the above. There’s an analogue in the sciences. Suppose science tells us that human nature is fully and exhaustively a product of our genes and environment and that free will is merely an appearance—a phenomenological product of the complexity of our brains—but isn’t “real” in the classical sense. Should science then tell us that current judicial systems like those found in the West are ill-conceived and wrongly applied? That prisons are evil? That society should not judge those who commit crimes like theft or rape as culpable?

“Well no,” the response may quickly come, “that’s for the philosophers.” And here is the rub. Is the role of the philosopher to take “raw facts” about the world and tell people what to do with them? Perhaps there is one more layer of abstraction that the philosopher provides. Instead of determining that the prison system is evil, the philosopher may question the conclusions of the scientist or point out logical problems within a nexus of factual information on the topic. Or the philosopher may agree with the findings of science and describe abstractly their implications (e.g. holding a person entirely culpable for their actions is inconsistent with what we know is true about the moral make up of the individual). Once a philosopher (or scientist) makes particular, practical claims about specific scenarios, hasn’t he or she abandoned the pure role of the discipline and crossed over into politics or law as the outworking of the analysis? And once this is done, doesn’t it become more difficult to view the philosopher (or scientist) as dispassionately analyzing an issue for its own sake—at least insofar as that’s desirable and possible?

This, it seems to me, is why politicians “take sides” and can’t approach political issues “philosophically.” I recall the drumming John Kerry took in the 2004 elections in the United States as a clear example of this dynamic. He was called too cerebral and a “flip-flopper” being caricatured as one who couldn’t make up his mind. He saw, to his detriment, that complex issues don’t have easy or simple answers and may require an ongoing change in one’s position as one learns more or analyzes more deeply. While this is fine for a scientist or philosopher, for a politician, it’s an easy path to losing elections. (I should add that many intellectuals excoriated George W. Bush—Kerry’s rival--on this very point. His “You’re either with us or you’re against us” claim was seen as too dogmatic, too inflexible, too morally assured, though his confident position did seem to resonate with many citizens. This may be because the West is rapidly shifting to a postmodern epistemology in politics—embodied in my ways by Barack Obama—which still requires surety but reduces the scope about what one can make hard-and-fast claims.) Philosophers by nature are expected to come to conclusions tentatively and to be very careful about hard and fast proscriptions for complicated situations. Philosophers and scientists are expected to provide the fuel but the engine of change is driven by “the people” or “the representatives” or whomever else is seen as the appointed decision-maker.

Modern atheists have seen this problem of late and have stepped over that pure analytical line and seen the need for active cultural engagement. Richard Dawkins spent most of his career working to disseminate the factual truth of evolution and largely left it up to the people to come around. But many people haven’t come around. He viewed with disgust the challenges to evolution in American schools in the early 2000s and the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It was then that the proverbial gloves had to come off and he made a dramatic switch from merely claiming what is true to telling people what they must do with that truth.

Philosophers are experiencing the same dynamic. As Gillespie notes in his article, Habermas’s approach has wide “appeal to students in an era of such arcane specialisation in philosophy and other disciplines that renders their subjects incomprehensible to other students and researchers, not to mention ordinary citizens.” If philosophical topics aren’t made explicitly practical, nobody will listen. This is indeed a problem. I worry that the solution many philosophers are choosing will cost a bit too much.

6/16/10: NDPR–Latest Reviews

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Brady Bowman (ed.), Allen Speight (ed.)
Heidelberg Writings: Journal Publications
Reviewed by Martin Donougho, University of South Carolina-Columbia

Markus Patrick Hess
Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal?
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Bennett W. Helm
Love, Friendship, & the Self: Intimacy, Identification, & the Social Nature of Persons
Reviewed by Erica Lucast Stonestreet, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University

Jason D. Hill
Beyond Blood Identities: Posthumanity in the Twenty-First Century
Reviewed by Serena Parekh, University of Connecticut

Franck Grammont, Dorothée Legrand, Pierre Livet (eds.)
Naturalizing Intention in Action
Reviewed by Neil Levy, Florey Neuroscience Institutes and Oxford Centre for Neuroscience

Ari Hirvonen, Janne Porttikivi (eds.)
Law and Evil: Philosophy, Politics, Psychoanalysis
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Allen Buchanan
Human Rights, Legitimacy, and the Use of Force
Reviewed by Helena de Bres, Wellesley College

Clancy Martin (ed.)
The Philosophy of Deception
Reviewed by Dion Scott-Kakures, Scripps College

James Ladyman, Don Ross
Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized
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Michael R. Slater
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Thomas Aquinas on Theology and Philosophy

Pope Benedict in a recent address attempts to make room for faith in a world dominated by science by turning to the works of Thomas Aquinas. He finds  a clear distinction in St. Thomas between knowledge gained by reason and knowledge as a product of faith. These two approaches to knowledge are uniquely different, and appear to be isolated ways of coming to truth according to the Pope’s read of Thomas. The description appears to be similar to Stephen J. Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria. Both faith and reason are important but remain within their own polemical and rhetorical boundaries. See the MetroCatholic news article here.

Coincidentally, Michael Craven comes to a similar conclusion touting the epistemic challenge postmodernism brings to rationalism (and the criticism of religion that is borne out of it). Faith and reason do no overlap and as such, one cannot criticize the “conclusions” of religion by argument and evidence.

Waking Up Now Found Linked to Death

Olympia, WA – For most of us, getting a good eight hours of sleep is an important part of our daily routine for maintaining mental and physical health. We as a species love our sleep. In fact, we dread the morning alarm and the chore of dragging our crusty-eyed, pasty-mouthed selves out of bed day after day. Researchers may now know why.

sleepHealth professionals around the world are being awakened to a sober and shocking health crisis. Researchers have found that 100% of people that wake up at least once a day will die at some point in their lives and there’s currently very little the health community can do about it. “We’ve been sleeping on the job on this one.” said doctor Blakely Skinnard of the World Health Organization. “We should have found this correlation a lot sooner.” Doctors are calling the problem Sleep Arousal Death Syndrome or SADS.

The research is showing that waking up at least once a day is correlated with universal mortality and that persons who wake up more frequently are more prone to heart problems, mental disorders, cancers and other maladies that lead to death than those who don’t. There is very little data to suggest that not waking up will actually improve your chances of immortality but the evidence for the opposite conclusion is clear.

Legislation Pending?

Politicians have already gotten in bed with the research and are promoting what some see as drastic legislation in hopes of averting the crisis. Congressman Paul Paulson of Poulsbo Washington is leading the charge. “The research is clear and the time to act is now. The Sandman Cometh.” Paulson said. Paulson believes that education along with legislation is the key to arousing the American public to the danger of SADS.

In Washington, which has by far the most aggressive laws against sleep arousal, legislation is already on the books to prevent vagrants from napping 20 yards from the entrance to any business. “I’m glad for the law.” said Amy Tipper, who works in downtown Seattle. “If bums want to wake up 5-10 times a day, that’s their prerogative but they don’t have to do it where the rest of us have to be exposed to it.” Paulson is also calling for an increase on taxes associated with alarm clocks in hopes of curbing their use. Residents in Washington State have already seen a 12% spike in alarm clock taxes with most of the money going towards educating elementary school children on the dangers of SADS.

New legislation is being brought before the state congress that will affect what goes inside businesses as well. “Nap rooms need to go.” Paulson said. “A healthy workplace environment does not include rooms where people can wake up 2-3 times a day. It’s just not reasonable given what we now know.” Paulson also is working on legislation that will make it illegal for employers to reprimand or otherwise punish employees for being late to work or for not showing up at all due to oversleeping. This is a part of the Evergreen state’s “Nap . . .Not!” program which encourages businesses like coffee shops, lounges, and bookstores to disallow napping as the practice has been linked to subsequent sleep arousal. Napping also has been shown to be contagious. Laboratory experiments have shown that mice cohabitating with other mice that are napping will soon fall into a deep slumber themselves. The program is currently voluntary but activists hope to get a proposition on the ballot soon that will bring huge fines for anyone caught napping in a public place.

Harmon Lemongello, who recently was fired for extreme and frequent tardiness from MicroSource Computers is overjoyed. “All those SOBs care about is making money. They couldn’t care less that forcing me to be to work on time is slowly killing me. I hope this law puts them in their place.” When asked if he was planning a lawsuit, Lemongello, who now boasts 14-16 hour sleep marathons affirmed given his new-found time, “If this law passes, you bet I’ll sue.”

The Evergreen state is also first in handing out fines for yawning in public. A recent study has shown that yawning is highly contagious and may encourage individuals who were not considering a siesta to drift off into frequent bouts of sleep which eventually leads to waking. “Yawning in public will result in immediate fines. Citizens that yawn more than three times in a row, particularly around children, could get hefty tickets. Yawn and it will hurt.” Paulson said.

Strong Evidence for Secondary Effects

New research is also showing that homes which include family members that are early or frequent risers can negatively effect the sound sleepers. It could take as little as a slamming door or a creaking floor for an early riser to wake up everyone in a small house or apartment. “It’s clearly a problem when the choices of one person put the health of an entire family or housing community at risk.” Paulson said. Additionally Paulson is encouraging insurance companies to include treatment for victims of snoring as a part of the illnesses they’ll cover.

California, which is ahead of Washington on this problem, recently passed a law allowing persons in high-density housing to sue neighbors who accidentally or intentionally wake them. This weekend the governor, who pushed the legislation through, remarked proudly, “Other states have laws that prevent inordinate noise during set hours of the evening. Our law is much more aggressive in that any cause for sleep arousal at any time of the day, can be grounds for reparations. I never dreamed we could get so far so soon on this issue.”

Not Everyone is Buying It

Not everyone is convinced however. “Kraka” Dawn Wilson of Portland, Oregon calls the story a “snoozer” and finds the evidence bogus. “I’ve been waking up for years and feel the best now that I’ve ever felt.” she said. “B-freakin-S!” was the response of Daniel Swooton. “My mother woke up frequently [which Dan attributed to her craving for pepperoncini ] when she was pregnant with me and my two brothers and we’re all fine. Someone is getting paid off big time for this research. Follow the money.”

There is a growing scientific community that is also questioning the research. Dr. Sarah Lollard of the Bugord Commission on Sleep and Death and sponsor of the “Live Every Day Awake” program questioned the findings. “Correlation is not causation. Simply because people that have woken up have also died, does not entail that the sleep arousal is causing people to die.” Skinnard disagrees. “Regardless of the incontrovertible nature of the evidence, there’s always some naysayer trying to make a name for himself. The evidence speaks for itself.”

Lollard believes that problems like SIDS which seems to link sleeping to death, is an important counter-example to SADS. The American Dental Association too has gotten behind the resistance citing the increase in teeth-grinding related dental problems in states where the legislation is the most aggressive. “There’s a lot of work yet to do.” Skinnard said in response.

Copyright © Philosophy News Service

When Worlds Collide: Philosophy and Soccer

If an earmark of comedic genius is the longevity of a one’s work, Monty Python’s Flying Circus stands out as brilliant. Every few years, the titanic battle between the Greeks and the Germans on the soccer field surfaces and reminds of the fact. Though produced and first aired in 1972, the sketch still makes the rounds and if YouTube statistics are to be believed, there are over 3 different posts of the sketch with almost a billion views between them. The sketch is funny even if one is not a philosopher because it plays off of common perceptions of both philosophy and soccer and this is part of what makes it brilliant. It reminds me of the philosophy light bulb jokes I received in email a few years ago that attempted to capture the essence of various philosophies by describing how many representatives of that philosophy it would take to change a light bulb. 

By putting famous philosophers on a soccer field and toying around with how they would play the game, the Flying Circus juxtaposed two seemingly opposing worlds. Philosophy by nature is slow, methodical, introspective, and analytical. How would people who spend their days in this type of activity do in a game that is faced-paced, requires immediate decisions, and physical? Clearly not very well (and it’s no accident that the game-winning goal is a head shot). While Monty Python did an hilariously fine job of show why the two disciplines should never mix, a new book edited by by Ted Richards titled Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game attempts to bridge the gap.

A review by John Heilpern for The Wall Street Journal briefly explores the book and some of the topics it raises. As a truly global sport, soccer (football) does have wide appeal and a book that explores philosophical topics under the rubric of the game may resonate with many. Heilpern concludes,

But from the fan's point of view, the secular religion of football is all about mad, obsessive love and awesome bias, it is about irresistible skill and glory and, yes, a certain divine, beautiful transcendence. All the rest, according to the rewarding "Soccer and Philosophy," is thinking aloud enthusiastically.

Should You Care What Others Do?

In the first installment of our new Table Talk series, Rick Pimentel considers when someone’s personal life should become the public’s business. It’s common sense that in general a person’s actions should remain private unless they want it to become public. But this general rule seems to have important exceptions as in cases of a terrorists decision to cause public harm or a public employee’s infelicities. But what about the private actions of a sports figure or movie star? Does the public have the “right to know” what these people do off the field or off the screen? Rick surveys three ethical theories that may help answer questions like these.

Thinking If you knew that Tiger was committing adultery, do you confront Tiger? Or do you tell his wife? Or do nothing? On the surface, it surely seems correct that people should not be meddling in the lives of others but is this rule applicable to all situations? In other words, are there exceptions to this rule? If yes, what criteria should be used to determine these exceptions?


See the full article here.

First Zombies, Now Vampires. What’s up Tom?

Tom Morris is at it again this time interviewing Rebecca Housel on her recent books on Twilight and Philosophy and True Blood and Philosophy. The … and Philosophy books are intended to bridge the gab between the mainstream and the sublime and vampire talk certainly is all the rage. I haven’t read any of these types of books mainly because I’m reluctant to spend my precious time reading what most likely is a to dumbing down  of philosophy (which, of course, is different than making philosophical topics accessible). But Tom Morris is attempting to get inside the heads of these authors with his interviews and perhaps show why these books are worth considering.

To the question, “So you're saying that the recent obsession with vampires may feel empowering to some at a subliminal level, but might also be a kind of dangerous empowerment?” Housel responds,

Buddhists recommend accepting impermanence in life to get closer to enlightenment. But when the simulacra or artificial realities of pop culture get involved--we might begin to romanticize our own realities in a delusional way. Suddenly, nothing is impermanent when you're an immortal vampire, especially a vampire from today's pop culture. Maybe it becomes easier to excuse violent behavior. Maybe the idea of dying in order to live doesn't sound so crazy anymore....

Maybe there are better ways to consider these questions. But maybe these books can have value if used as gateway literature to the hard stuff. I suppose if they get people to consider philosophical topics they otherwise would not consider, that’s valuable.

Read the full interview here.

Books covered in the interview:

Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality

True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You

6/6/2010: Latest Reviews at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Adrian Haddock, Alan Millar, Duncan Pritchard (eds.)
Epistemic Value
Reviewed by Joshue Orozco, Whitworth University

C. Mantzavinos
Philosophy of the Social Sciences: Philosophical Theory and Scientific Practice
Reviewed by Warren Schmaus, Illinois Institute of Technology

Axel Honneth
The Pathologies of Individual Freedom: Hegel's Social Theory
Reviewed by J. M. Bernstein, New School for Social Research

Make the World a Better Place: Don’t Have Kids

Awareness raiser Peter Singer has written an article for the New York Times new blog The Stone. Singer typically goes where few dare to and in this provocative article he considers the question whether the current generation should be the last. Picking up on a Schopenhaurian theme present in a book by South African philosopher David Benatar, Singer asks,

Is a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species — that’s a different issue. Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

Articles written for The Stone are meant to be discussion starters so Singer doesn’t spend anytime considering answers for these questions. And typically Singer’s approach to moral problems are so radical that they can only be taken seriously by future generations. Still, he has done the job philosophers should be doing and asks questions few think to answer.

Full article.

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