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Philosophy and Obscurity

In the 20 or so years I’ve spent trying to get people to appreciate philosophy, I’ve learned that most people find the discipline irrelevant, obscure, and kind of pointless. The general idea is that philosophy may be fun for some people but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter all that much to how people live and that’s where we really should put our energy. I tend to get verbal pats on the head, and the kind of smiles that one gives to small children who think they are doing something important. Few people I’ve met who aren’t in the discipline think philosophy has any bearing on the things that really matter in life.

I’ve kind of gotten used to it. I’m attempting to write an article for the Huffington Post and had a friend read my draft. His feedback was typical of what I usually get: you don’t draw any conclusions, you don’t take a position, you use a lot of big words that I don’t understand and the like. Of course he was absolutely right—all those things were true. But as I thought about his feedback, I had to admit that they were somewhat intentional. Philosophy is like that. It’s hard to take a hard-and-fast position on topics for which there shouldn’t be hard and fast positions. Big words help consolidate ideas that might take 2 or 3 sentences to describe. Opinions are legion so I try to avoid them. But in order to make my article palatable and relevant to a larger audience I have to break all the rules of philosophy (or become a better writer which is something I know I need to do).

I was browsing through my RSS feeds this evening and I came across a quote that somewhat summarizes the situation. The quote applies to poetry—an equally obscure discipline—but it applies to philosophy just was well. Paul Dirac said:

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite."

In philosophy its exactly the opposite as well. Philosophy attempts to dig into things most of us know and “unpack” them. It tries to go beyond the surface and bring clarity to ideas with a goal of understanding them better. What it ends up doing much of the time is bringing clarity only to other philosophers. Non-philosophers typically ask for a common sense rewording of the philosophical jargon and then respond with, “Oh, I already knew that. You needed all those big words to say that?” followed by the polite and slightly irritated smile and a request for more wine.

In response to the feedback on my paper, I joked to my reviewer that I would just add longer and deeper quotes. “So you like obscurity then . . .” he replied. Maybe I should look into poetry.

CFP: Extended Cognition and Epistemic Action

Special Issue of Philosophical Explorations on “Extended Cognition and Epistemic Action”

Guest Editors: Andy Clark (University of Edinburgh), Duncan Pritchard (University of Edinburgh) and Krist Vaesen (Eindhoven University of Technology)

Submission Deadline: September 15, 2011

Invited Contributors: Fred Adams (University of Delaware) & Ken Aizawa (Centenary College of Louisiana), Ronald Giere (University of Minnesota), Sanford Goldberg (Northwestern University), Richard Menary (University of Wollongong) and Kim Sterelny (Australian National University and Victoria University).

Background and Aim
According to the thesis of extended cognition, cognitive processes do not need to be located inside the skin of the cognizing agent. Humans routinely engage their wider artifactual environment to extend the capacities of their naked brain. They often rely so much on external aids (notebooks, watches, smartphones) that the latter become a proper part of a hybrid (human-artifact) cognitive system.

The thesis of extended cognition has been influential in the philosophy of mind, cognitive science, linguistics, informatics, and ethics, but, surprisingly, not in epistemology. The discipline concerned with one of the most remarkable products of human cognition, viz. knowledge, has largely ignored the suggestion that her main object of study might be produced by processes outside the human skin.

In this special issue of Philosophical Explorations we therefore are looking for papers that explore the ramifications of the thesis of extended cognition for contemporary epistemology in general, and for conceptualizations of epistemic action in particular. The special issue will include five invited papers (by Fred Adams & Kenneth Aizawa, Ronald Giere, Sanford Goldberg, Richard Menary and Kim Sterelny), plus two contributions selected from the papers submitted in response to this open call for papers.

We expect contributions discussing the impact of extended cognition on issues as: epistemic agency and responsibility, cognitive ability, ownership of belief, the distribution of epistemic credit, the sources of belief, artifactual testimony, the growth of knowledge, non-propositional knowledge, the evolution and reliability of extended cognitive processes, the varieties of extended epistemic action.

Submission Details
Please send a pdf-version of your paper (max. 8000 words) to Krist Vaesen, ( Contributions that do not make it to the special issue may be considered for publication in one of the regular issues of Philosophical Explorations.

Further Inquiries
Please direct any inquiries about this call for papers to Krist Vaesen, (

Talk About Love

Listening to Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, is a great experience. He is witty, engaging, and informative. His many years of experience are evidenced by his ability to explain complex concepts in terms that can be understood. Recently, he spoke at a Catholic church in an adjacent town on the topic of divine love. The speech was a mixture of philosophy and Christian theology. From the nature of the Christian God to modern societal perspectives on love, Kreeft’s lecture contained numerous compelling observations about divine and personal love. His speech got me thinking about the notion of love, particularly personal love. What is striking is how frequently the word “love” is used today but yet there exists various perceptions about this concept. Polling people about the meaning of love would produce interesting responses simply because of this diversity.

Phrases such as “I love you,” “I love my wife,” “ I love my dog,” “I love the Boston Celtics,” “I love chocolate,” and “I am in love” are frequently uttered but may have very different meaning. “Love” is a big part of everyday life. Some die for it, some live for it. Whole industries, such as music and greeting cards, owe much of its success to what probably is a manufactured definition of love. Dr. Kreeft’s lecture got me thinking about modern perceptions of love: how people talk about it, what people think it is, and the like.

Aristotle wrote numerous classics in philosophy but it was Nicomachean Ethics which touched upon the concept of love. The main focus of the book was the achievement of happiness, its relationship to virtue, and the resultant benefits to one’s political community. According to Aristotle, virtue is essential to the pursuit of happiness. When it came to love, Aristotle believed that self-love is a prerequisite to loving others. For some, this may not sound right. Your first impression could be that Aristotle is promoting selfishness. He is clear in Nicomachean Ethics that self-love is an entirely proper emotion provided it is expressed in the love of virtue. As long as you love yourself, not just for the sake of loving yourself but for the benefit of others. Aristotle made it clear that if self-love led one to acquire goods such as wealth and power then this is immoral because of the damage that it would cause to the community. Aristotle argued, “The defining features of friendship that are found in friendships to one’s neighbors would seem to be derived from features of friendship toward oneself. For a friend is taken to be someone who wishes and does goods or apparent goods to his friend for the friend’s own sake.”

Aristotle uses the term “love” synonymously with “friendship” because the English rendering of the Greek word, philia, can be translated into friendship or love. We see two important elements that comprise the Aristotelian view of love – self love and doing good for the other’s sake and for no other reason. Aristotle goes on to describe friendships of utility and pleasure and argues that these friendships do not demonstrate the true nature of love because one who truly loves themselves would not enter into a friendship that is merely concerned with using the other person as a means to an end. Aristotle’s ideas on self-love has caused some to consider him an ethical egoist. However, ethical egoism argues that one should pursue their own interests exclusively with no obligations to others. Aristotle viewed love and its prerequisite of self-love in quite a different fashion. His focus was what is best for the other not simply what is best for ourselves only; the community over the individual. Aristotle’s self-lover was considered noble because he thought of himself first in order to love others properly.

The recent cinematic release of Atlas Shrugged got me thinking about Ayn Rand and her view on love. Unlike Aristotle, her philosophy was driven by individualism rather than Aristotle’s communitarianism. Here is what Rand had to say about love in a 1964 interview:

Selfless love would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you. I don’t have to point out to you that no one would be flattered by, nor would accept, a concept of that kind. Love is not self-sacrifice, but the most profound assertion of your own needs and values. It is for your own happiness that you need the person you love, and that is the greatest compliment, the greatest tribute you can pay to that person.

Interesting perspective from Rand but it is in line with her objectivist philosophy--particularly her view of man. Rand argued that man is an end in himself and not the means to the ends of others. He must not sacrifice himself to others and the pursuit of his own happiness is man’s chief purpose. The idea that love is selfless is considered anathema by adherents of objectivism. One such adherent, Gary Hull, argues that it is a philosophical crime to advance the idea that love is selfless. He contends that love is not based on self-sacrifice but rather self-interest. Genuine love is the most selfish experience possible and one in which no sacrifice is involved. Rand felt that one must regard themselves as worthy of being loved in order for genuine love to exist. You should expect to be loved because you offer positive value to another. Without this, no genuine love can exist.

It is interesting to note that Rand praised Aristotle and considered him as her favorite philosopher. Although they may agree on the necessary role of self-love, Randian ethics was driven by selfishness as the driving force behind pursuing one’s happiness. Aristotelian ethics was known for its emphasis on eudamonia built from the habitual practice of virtue in one’s life. In addition, the individual’s social life in a community is a necessary condition for a man’s complete flourishing. However, compare this with Rand who argued that emphasis must be placed on the individual’s pursuit of their own happiness with no regard to others. Randian love starts with yourself and ends with yourself. This pursuit of individualism can be seen in her famous characters such as Harold Roark, John Galt, and Dagny Taggart.

Love: so many great thinkers have talked about it and written about it and yet so many still strive to comprehend it.

New Books in Philosophy

The New Books Network has launched a new channel focusing on philosophy. “New Books in Philosophy features peer-to-peer discussions with philosophers about their new ideas as expressed in their newly published books. The program is co-hosted by Carrie Figdor (University of Iowa) and Robert Talisse (Vanderbilt University). Between the two of us, we will be exploring new books in ethics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, philosophy of science, social and political philosophy, history of philosophy, philosophy of language, and many other subfields.”

Info here.

Formal and Experimental Philosophy Workshop

This coming fall, Tilburg University (The Netherlands) will host a two day workshop titled, “Formal Epistemology Meets Experimental Philosophy.”  From the workshop’s website:

Over the years, the methodological toolbox of philosophers of science has widened considerably. Today, formal and experimental methods importantly complement more traditional methods such as conceptual analysis and case studies. So far, however, there has not been much interaction between the corresponding communities. Formal work is all too often conducted in an a priori fashion, drawing on intuitions to substantiate various assumptions and to test their consequences. Experimental work, on the other hand, is often limited to testing various assumptions and intuitions, and often does not identify or create new phenomena that can subsequently be integrated into a formal framework. The working assumption of this workshop is that philosophy of science can gain a lot from combining formal and experimental studies. By doing so, philosophy of science will become increasingly scientific as a crucial aspect of the scientific endeavor lies in the combination of formal theories and experimental insights.

This workshop aims to explore the relation between formal and experimental approaches to the philosophy of science. We invite meta-theoretical papers, but especially papers that fruitfully combine both methods to problems from the philosophy of science. This first Pittsburgh-Tilburg workshop will pay special attention to the philosophy of the social sciences, but a focus on other subfields of philosophy of science is also welcome.

Workshop info and call for papers here.

CFP: Formal Epistemology Week

Call for Papers
Formal Epistemology Week
Konstanz, June 4-6, 2012

Organized by Rachael Briggs (Sydney), Kenny Easwaran (USC), Franz Huber (Konstanz), Jonathan Weisberg (Toronto).
Speakers include Jeff Barrett (UCI/Konstanz), Joe Halpern (Cornell/Konstanz), and the organizers.

The Formal Epistemology Week is not a formal event. Nor is it exclusively devoted to epistemology. Nor will it last a week. It is, however, caused by the fact that formal methods have contributed to progress in philosophy, the fiction that epistemology studies only knowledge, and the forecast that it will be such a great event that everybody wishes it would last another week.

Please submit full papers prepared for blind-review to: by November 30, 2011. Notification of acceptance: December 31, 2011.

Speakers have a total of 90mins to present their papers (including Q&A) and will be reimbursed for travel and lodging expenses.

Fordham Epistemology and Ethics Workshop

Starting next year, Fordham will be hosting a series of epistemology and ethics workshops at its Lincoln Center Campus in Manhattan.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, speakers will include: Macalester Bell (Columbia), Lara Buchak (Berkeley), Ruth Chang (Rutgers), Trent Dougherty (Baylor), Bennett Foddy (Oxford), Allan Hazlett (Edinburgh), Stephen Hetherington (New South Wales), Thomas Kelly (Princeton), Ram Neta (North Carolina), Japa Pallikkathayil (NYU), Michael Smith (Princeton), Ernest Sosa (Rutgers), and Sharon Street (NYU).

For information about location and dates, please click here:

If you are interested in attending, please contact Stephen Grimm at:

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