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Review of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s “What Darwin Got Wrong”

Jerry Fodor is known for flouting convention. In a somewhat backhanded complement, Steven Pinker (through the voice of Daniel Dennett) says this about Fodor in his The Stuff of Thought, :

It is to Fodor’s credit that he pursues his claims to their logical consequences, regardless of how unconventional they may be. As fellow philosopher Dan Dennett puts it, “Most philosophers are like old beds: you jump on them and sink deep into qualifications, revisions, addenda. But Fodor is like a trampoline: you jump on him and he springs back, presenting claims twice as trenchant and outrageous. If some of us can see further, it’s from jumping on Jerry.”

Based on John Horgan’s review of Fodor’s new book which he co-authored with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, critics of Darwinian theory are about to get a significant boost upward. While Horgan appears to be somewhat sympathetic to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s project, he struggles to find much coherence among their arguments. Horgan criticizes the authors for drawing grand, non sequitur conclusions from paltry evidence (ironically, this is something many Darwinians are guilty of, but I digress). For example, apparently the authors draw an analogy between Skinnerian behaviorism and natural selection and then conclude the latter must be false because many psychologists find the former flawed. Horgan also finds issue with the authors’ critique of the common Darwinian use of anthropomorphic language to describe the mechanism of natural selection noting that “Idioms such as selfish genes simply reveal our dependence on metaphor (which was probably bred into us by natural selection).”

This latter argument seems to me to have some teeth, however, if no satisfactory, non-metaphorical descriptions can be put in place of the anthropomorphisms. While I haven’t read the book yet, if the authors argue against the use of intentional language by Darwinists because metaphorical descriptions turn out not to stand for any other description, then responding that the use of metaphor is a literary device is itself a non starter. It’s one thing to say that nature doesn’t really select for the most fit, or that this is just metaphorical term to make some concept clearer. But it’s another to say that we can’t come up with any other, non-intentional description for what nature actually does. It does seem that few Darwinists are up to the task and if Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are making this claim, that would have some substance.

It would be premature to “critique the critic” prior to having read the actual work the critic is critiquing. So I’ve put What Darwin Got Wrong” on my reading list. I’ll revisit Horgan’s review when I’ve finished (and write a few words of my own).

Nussbaum and Huckabee? Really?

Just saying those two names in the same sentence seems inordinately incongruous. But apparently the two are in a bit of a spat. It’s sort of like the old joke about the Pope and Raquel Welch in a boat. Part of what makes the joke funny is that the Pope and Raquel Welch would never get in a boat together. While I can see a politician like Mike Huckabee improperly using Nussbaum’s name to bolster some argument he’s making, it strikes me as odd that Nussbaum would engage at any level with Huckabee. In matters like these, academics generally rely upon their fan base to correct politically-driven misstatements or factual errors. If someone religious leader misquotes Richard Dawkins for example, the blogosphere lights up with corrections and invective. But in this case, Nussbaum corrected Huckabee herself and then went on to ask for an apology. We’ll see how this plays out.

Descartes Letter Back in the Hands of the French

An undergraduate at Haverford College discovered—or rather uncovered—a letter the famous philosopher wrote to Count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja about his most famous opus, Meditations on First Philosophy. The letter was a part of a number of items stolen by the infamous scientist and will be included in a collection scheduled to be published later this year.

See this article in The Guardian for details.

Ranking Philosophy Journals: Pros and Cons (Mostly Cons)

In this interesting article, Jeffrey R. Di Leo considers the problems in ranking philosophy journals for a broad audience. Most rankings, he argues, are done by specialists and the rank given by those specialists would only be meaningful for other specialists. While rankings can provide some insight in the the overall quality of the journal, they do probably don’t help all that much when attempting to determine the relevance of the material for interdisciplinary study.

The majority of the philosophy journals in print speak more strongly to sub-groups of philosophers than to all professional philosophers. The scholarly narrowness or philosophical focus of these journals is necessary to advance scholarship in their sub-field or sub-discipline – which in turn, advances scholarship in the discipline of philosophy at large. However, this situation makes it very difficult (if not impossible) to provide a general ranking of philosophy journals that has any real merit or validity for all professional philosophers.

What Does It All Mean? Philosophy Can Help

Dr. Larry Dossey for The Huffington Post considers the question of meaninglessness and the science that appears to drive it. A strict read of many of the conclusions of science would seem to demand that life is ultimately meaningless and that the human brain creates meaning where none exists ostensibly as a survival mechanism. But if the human brain creates meaning, then there is meaning in the universe even if there is no meaning to the universe. Dossey’s article bounces from a survey of theistic articles based on the anthropic principle to questions about consciousness. Perhaps, he concludes, science cannot answer the question of meaning and this presents a boundary for the types of questions science should even attempt to consider.

Purists insist that science is neutral on matters of meaning; the world is what it is. Whatever meaning we find in the world comes from us, not the world itself. We read meaning into the world, not from it. This sword cuts two ways; if meaning should not be imputed to the universe, neither should meaninglessness.

As science continues to assert its dominance in just about every academic endeavor, questions about boundaries are coming more to the fore. Philosophers specifically are considering ways to create a rapprochement by carving out a niche here and there. There seems something psychologically dishonest (and certainly sociologically suicidal) about imposing a priori limits on the explanatory power of science and I think these drive the modern conversation about limits. In many ways, science is taking the place religion held for centuries. As Dennett has said in Breaking the Spell, religion has had a very special explanatory status culturally and he, along with many others, believes it’s time to break the hold religion has had. 


Philosophy opening, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

The Department of Philosophy, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, is looking to appoint a Lecturer (i.e., Assistant Professor) in Philosophy. The successful applicant will join a strong team of philosophers, beginning in early 2011 (or earler, by arrangement).

Applications are invited from specialists in any field of Philosophy. The successful candidate will each broadly in undergraduate courses, offer more specialised higher-level courses, and supervise doctoral and other postgraduate research. A PhD in Philosophy is required, as well as good teaching shills. The applicant must be actively involved in research and publication.

The Philosophy Department has a strong commitment to research. The programme received an exceptional score in the recent National Performance-Based Research Rankings, making it the top-ranking programme in the University and one of the two top-ranked programmes nationally across all subjects.

Salary will be at the level of Lecturer/Assistant Professor. The University of Canterbury offers superannuation benefits, assistance with relocation expenses, and generous sabbatical leave provisions. Philosophers are also eligible for additional periods of overseas leave thanks to a substantial bequest to the University (the Erskine Fund).

UC's beautiful campus is situated in Christchurch, a culturally diverse city of 350,000 people. Known as the "Garden City", Christchurch is well stocked with art galleries, museums, theatres, cafes and parks, and the city's many lifestyle benefits include the relatively low cost of housing, short commuting times, a sunny climate, and a geographical location close to the Southern Alps and the Pacific Ocean, affording easy access to ski slopes, beaches, vineyards, forests, lakes, rivers, and thermal pools. The city offers a thriving art and music scene as well as excellent sporting and recreational opportunities. Christchurch is a great place to raise a family.

Enquiries may be made to Professor Jack Copeland, Head of Humanities

Apply on line at


Prof. Denis Dutton

Department of Philosophy

University of Canterbury

Christchurch 8004

New Zealand

Interested in Montaigne? This Series is for You

Sarah Bakewell has written a 7-part series on the philosopher (or sort-of philosopher) who she calls the “philosopher of life.” Below is a list of the parts in the series and the link to the index follows. Bakewell has authored a book on Montaigne which is due out in October 2010 titled, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.


Part 1: How to live

Part 2: Learning not to be afraid

Part 3: Believer and doubter

Part 4: Borrowing the cat's point of view

Part 5: Humanity, cruelty and fellow-feeling

Part 6: The moment is everything

Part 7: What can we learn from Montaigne?

Clickable index at The Guardian

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?
Reviewed by Alan Millar, University of Stirling

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
Reviewed by Bob Vallier, DePaul University

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
Reviewed by Cian Dorr, Oxford University

Michael R. Slater
William James on Ethics and Faith
Reviewed by Ellen Kappy Suckiel, University of California, Santa Cruz

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.

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