Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

The Philosophy of Porn

If the word ‘philosophy’ in the title didn’t get your attention, most likely the word ‘porn’ did. Like a bad accident, porn is one of those things at which we shouldn’t stare but just can’t help it. Analyzing porn philosophical almost strikes me as activity that in and of itself misses the point. But philosophers are delving into the subject not merely as voyeurs (or so they can “read the articles” in Playboy) but apparently as serious research.

Tom Morris, for the Huffington Post recently interviewed Jacob Held on his philosophy class on porn which he teaches at The University of Central Arkansas. In the interview he relates many of the challenges he encountered in setting up and then teaching a philosophy class on pornography. The most notable issue was that porn is treated very differently from other cultural taboos like violence.

I had to interview all potential students and get them to sign a waiver before they could be admitted to the course. I had several meetings about content, books, and so forth. And the interesting thing is, it was all because of the sexual nature of the content. I've taught on torture and war, but no question was ever raised about student exposure to violence.

The course examine the subject from a variety of angles including free speech as well as “civil rights, sexual violence, exploitation, women in media, [and] gender.”

For New York Times’ The Stone column, philosopher Nancy Bauer (Tufts) who is completing a book entitled How to Do Things With Pornography, wrote an article on Lady Gaga and what she represents. Actually the article is only tangentially on Lady Gaga and more about the shifting sexual norms of our society and an emerging feminism.

Jean-Paul Sartre, taking a cue from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, proposed in “Being and Nothingness” that what moves human beings to do things that don’t quite square with one another is that we are metaphysical amalgams.  Like everything else in the world, we have a nature:  we’re bodily, we can’t control what happens around us, and we are constantly the objects of other people’s judgments.

Apparently, some took issue with the article and saw it as another demonstration of the irrelevancy (or at least trivialization) of philosophy. See Bauer’s response here.

6/30/2010 NDPR-Latest Reviews

Raffaella De Rosa
Descartes and the Puzzle of Sensory Representation
Reviewed by David Clemenson, University of St. Thomas (Minnesota)
John Cottingham, Peter Hacker (eds.)
Mind, Method, and Morality: Essays in Honour of Anthony Kenny
Reviewed by Robert Pasnau, University of Colorado at Boulder
Geert Roskam
Plutarch's "Maxime cum principibus philosopho esse disserendum": An Interpretation with Commentary
Reviewed by Myrto Hatzimichali, University College London
Michael Strevens
Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation
Reviewed by Stephan Hartmann, Tilburg University and Jonah N. Schupbach, University of Pittsburgh
Stephen Salkever (ed.)
The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Political Thought
Reviewed by Steven Skultety, University of Mississippi-Oxford
Nicolas de Warren
Husserl and the Promise of Time: Subjectivity in Transcendental Phenomenology
Reviewed by Kenneth Knies, Husserl Archives, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Samuel Gregg, James Stoner (eds.)
Profit, Prudence and Virtue: Essays in Ethics, Business and Management
Reviewed by John R. Boatright, Loyola University Chicago
Neven Leddy, Avi S. Lifschitz (eds.)
Epicurus in the Enlightenment
Reviewed by Michael W. Hickson, University of Winnipeg
Niccolò Guicciardini
Isaac Newton on Mathematical Certainty and Method
Reviewed by Michael Nauenberg, University of California, Santa Cruz
George G. Brenkert, Tom L. Beauchamp (eds.)
The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics
Reviewed by Matt Zwolinski, University of San Diego

The ‘Plato’ Code?

An historian and philosopher of science at the University of Manchester, after a five-year study, has apparently uncovered some hidden symbolism in Plato. The essence of the message, according to Gawker, is that Plato believed that the universe was essentially mathematical. But Gawker demurs:

But millions of people have "cracked the code" of Plato, already, by reading Plato and thinking about what the words might mean. It isn't that hard, and you don't need some kind of absurd pretend "secret" message to have an opinion about Plato or his ideas. . . . All this does is warp everyone's sense of how to engage with philosophy, or literature, or art, and produce shoddy Dan Brown ripoffs.


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

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