Tuesday, May 26, 2009
For those of you unfamiliar with the Letter, it is written to "Those Most Wise and Distinguished Men, the Dean and Doctors of the Faculty of Sacred Theology at Paris." After positing the clear superiority of philosophy over theology for establishing things like the existence of God and the eternality of the human soul, and after claiming that unbelievers will only be convinced by his arguments and their appeal to natural reason (since atheists don't listen to religious folk anyway), and after suggesting that his arguments "equal or even surpass" those of geometry in "certitude and obviousness," after all that, poor little Descartes still finds it necessary to solicit ecclesiastical sanction for his Meditations. Why? You can almost hear Rene's sigh of resignation when he explains:
And therefore, regardless of the force of my arguments, because they are of a philosophical nature I do not anticipate that what I will have accomplished through them will be very worthwhile unless you assist me with your patronage.
I must have read this very sentence hundreds of times before, but for some reason today it cracked me up. It read just like it could've been written by Eeyore ("It's not much of tail. I'll likely lose it again...")
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Now, I should say, in full disclsoure, that I'm not a classicist and I don't read Greek. So, for me at least, the choice between these texts is mostly determined, first, by my familiarity with one or the other of them and, second, by what I judge to be their "readability" from the students' perspective. Because the course we are discussing is a "great books"-type course, meaning that we read a tremendous amount of material at a very fast pace, I am less inclined to consider some of the more minute differences in the actual translations, since we aren't able to spend the time with any one of these texts to make those issues really significant. However, I recognize that, for those who have a knowledge of and investment in the similarity between the translation and the original text, there is a lot at stake in the decision between translations.
One proposal that was floated was to allow each individual professor to choose the translation he or she prefers to use in his or her particular "section" of the course. This would be a significant departure from the past, when all students purchased and used the same versions of the same texts throughout the course. In principle, using "common" texts is more consistent with the spirit of the program, which is meant to provide first-year students with a "common" learning experience... something I very much support. However, given the seeming intractability of some of our instructors' preferences for differing translations, I was persuaded over the course of the discussion to seriously consider the possibility of allowing for more flexibility with regard to translations.
The way I see it, many of the texts we use in this course are texts with which (some) students are already familiar and, consequently, they already have their own copies. When this has been the case in my sections in the past, I have not insisted that those students go back to the bookstore and get a copy of the book the rest of us were using. I just told them that it was their responsibility to pay attention to the differences and make sure that they stay on the same "page," so to speak, as the rest of the class. This is particularly easy to do with Plato, for example, since all references are usually made to the Stephanus numbers anyway, but it requires a bit more vigilance on the student's part with Homer and Thucydides. However, I learned that many professors do insist that all of their students read from the same text.
So, my question is this: how do you deal with different translations in your classes? what are the real problems that arise with students using different versions of the same text?
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
It turns out that this year marks the 30th aniversary of the invention of the Sony Walkman, what A. N. Wilson terms "the gadget that helped break Britain." That's right, 30 years ago we saw the forbear of the now-ubiquitous iPod, which made it possible for all of us to mindlessly "tune out" the mindless distractions of the rest of the world. Anyone who bothers to interact with other human beings these days is surely familiar with the characteristic white-ear-plugged-being that we now recognize as the hipster. Only now, the iPod nation is not (merely) limited to wannabe hipsters anymore, as almost anyone and everyone (including my otherwise-technophobic mother) owns some version of this super-individuating device. Personal MP3 players have made it possible to avoid all kinds of human interaction these days, hemming us into a kind of well-orchestrated solipsistic universe from which, in all honesty, many of us have no intention of leaving. What's funny about the iPod nation, of course, is that despite its apparent homogeneity, its constituents view themselves as radically individuated, what with all their individual "playlists" and such. And both sides of this seeming paradox are equally true: it is the case (as pictured above) that everyone looks the same when plugged-in to the iPod, but it is also true that what the iPod is feeding into the ears of this allegedly homogeneous population is radically heterogeneous. The iPod makes us all different, together.
I'm a deeply committed (and passionately opinionated) lover of music myself, and I have no complaints about the proliferation of iPodders. In my mind, it's as good as having a proliferation of avid readers. That is, what we have here are a people committed to and convicted by their own standards of taste and meaning, and who have demonstrated that commitment in an actual investment in the products of those tastes and meanings. For all of the complaints about the iPod nation, of which there are many, I think there are a lot of benefits as well. If you're a true music-lover, you have surely enjoyed (like me) the many and varied improvements in musical taste and sophistication that iPods have enabled. I suppose it's possible that iPods have also decreased our general conversation/interaction with one another, but they have enabled interaction/conversation with a much wider audience than was previously possible. (One of the podcasts on my iPod is Philosophy Bites, which not only connects me with ideas and persons that interest me, but also those who are of professional interest to me.) So, I say, stop griping abou the iPod nation. What we have now is more sophisticated music lovers, more informed intellectuals, more people exposed to the thoughts and imaginations and creations of more people over a greater (time and space) distance.
It is, in my view, the first truly "cosmopolitan" device. Far be it from me to blindly advocate individuating devices (which, as a rule, I view as a part of the Neoliberal Conspiracy), but the merits of iPods don't get as much press as its demerits, in my view.
Long live the iPod nation!
Monday, May 18, 2009
I HATE "small groups." I hate being put into them and I hate putting others into them. I never, EVER use "small groups" in my classes. And I'm starting to think I'm all alone in this.
In sum, here are my problems with "small groups":
(1) I don't find that there is anything that "small groups" can do that I can't do just as well in the "big group" (i.e., the whole class).
(2) Small groups take up too much class-time, and whatever benefits come out of that don't seem equal to the time spent on it.
(3) My experience is that all of the problems that "small groups" are meant to remedy also manifest themselves in "small groups." For example, a lot of people claim that "small groups" are a way to get quiet or shy students to talk. But I find that the dynamics of the "small groups" usually just mirror the dynamics of the large group. Some students in the small group will be more dominant, others will be more passive... just like in discussions that involve the whole class.
(4) I never can figure out what to do with myself during "small group" time. If I just let the groups go about their business without any interference, I feel like I'm not doing anything. (When I was a student and my professor broke us up into small groups, I always had the sneaking suspicion that s/he was unprepared or just taking the day off.) If I walk around the room and oversee their activities, I either feel like, well, an "overseer" or else I feel like I'm doing the same thing I would do if we were all having the discussion together, only in a more disjointed and unorganized way.
(5) When "small groups" report back to the whole class after their time together, I find that the products of their discussions are usually very similar, which makes the ensuing "large group" discussion redundant and repetitive.
And, finally, (6) there's just something about "small groups" that seems very grade-school-y to me. Or, similarly, it seems too corporate-business-model-ish. I have the same feelings about the word (and the practice of) "workshopping." It just feels fundamentally at odds with the vision and the aesthetic that I imagine for my classroom.
I voiced some of these problems in our session (or "workshop", ahem) this afternoon. Our facilitator suggested to me that the problem may be with me, and not with "small groups." He said that most professors' "teaching styles" are aimed at fostering the "learning style" of students who are very much like them when they were students. So, I avoid "small groups" now as a professor because I didn't like them when I was a student. But I should be aware that not everyone learns in the same way, and so I should give "small groups" a chance for the students who might benefit the most from that pedagogical technique.
Okay, so here I am now trying to be open-minded and acknowledge that maybe it is just me. I'm open to hearing other testimonies in favor of "small groups" or accounts of how I have misunderstood what they're all about or how they work best. However, before I concede this point, I'm curious to know: am I really the only one? Isn't there anyone else out there who finds "small groups" difficult to integrate into the classroom or, what's worse, unproductive? In the words of Marvin Gaye:
Can I get a witness?
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Many academics use the term "philosopher" not as a description of the people working on the set of problems that occupy our time, but rather as a certain kind of honorific. As far as I can tell, on this usage, a philosopher is someone who constructs some kind of admirable general theory about a discipline - be it cultural criticism, history, literature, or politics. So while it would be odd for a philosopher to call themselves a literary critic because they work on interpretation, it is not unusual for English professors to describe themselves as philosophers. In contrast, we philosophers do not regard the term "philosopher" as an honorific. We tend to think that there are many people who are really truly philosophers, but are pretty bad at what they do. We also think that there are many brilliant thinkers who are not philosophers. This difference in usage has ruined many a dinner party for me.
In order to illustrate this distinction between "honorific" philosophers and "real" philosophers, Stanley cites an interview with Hannah Arendt. Before getting to what Arendt actually said on the matter, I should note that Arendt is widely considered a philosopher. Her work (which includes several "major" texts of the 20th C., including The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the ever-so-philosophically-titled The Life of the Mind) are all regularly taught in philosophy courses, and many a philosophy dissertation has been written on Arendt. So, Arendt is a far cry from other folks that we might think of as being somewhat suspiciously labeled "philosophers." But as it turns out, Arendt herself excepted herself from the set of proper "philosophers" in this interview (in German, sorry). Stanley writes:
The interviewer asks Arendt what she thinks about being a woman in the traditionally male circle of philosophers. Arendt is bemused by the question - she protests that she does not belong to the circle of philosophers, and in no way feels herself to be a philosopher. Her "job" is political theory. She points out that just because she studied philosophy, that doesn't mean that she stayed with it. Arendt obviously doesn't think she is a worse thinker for not being a philosopher. She is just baffled that the interviewer confuses the kind of qualitative political and cultural theory Arendt built her career around with philosophy. Arendt knew enough traditional philosophy to understand the contours of the discipline; it might prevent some misunderstanding if our fellow humanists did as well.
It was quite a surprise for me to learn that Arendt didn't consider herself a "philosopher"... even more so that her decision was a consequence of this bizarre separation of "philosophy" from "political theory." I'm actually sympathetic with Stanley's concern as he originally stated it, namely, the tendency to use "philosopher" as some sort of vague honorific. But I find the distinction that he (and Arendt) wants to make between political theory and philosophy very strange. Is Hobbes a philosopher? or Machiavelli? or Montesquieu? The questions of political theory, in my mind, are entirely consonant with archetypical philosophical questions: what is the nature of the human being? what is the best way to organize human communities? how can we achieve the sorts of institutions and practices that we consider prerequisites for "the good life"? what is justice? what are rights? what, if anything, do we owe one another?
Now, I'm willing to concede that there are a battery of ways to address these questions that are not, properly speaking, "philosophical." For example, the largely quantitative work that political scientists do (as opposed to political theorists) isn't, in my view, philosophical work, even though much of that work does address the same issues and problems as the work of political theorists. And I also think that (sometimes, though not all the time) there is a real difference between the kind of political theory that one finds being done by people in political science departments and the political theory done by people in philosophy departments. I'm not sure that I have a litmus test for telling the difference, but my main point here is that it seems terribly prejudicial and largely inaccurate to categorically proscribe the inclusion of political theorists in the more general category of philosophers.
So, what is the prejudice that motivates this proscription? I suspect that it may be a peculiarly 20th C. prejudice, a result of the "split" between Continental/European philosophy and Analytic/Anglo-American philosophy. My suspicion is that what Stanley (and perhaps Arendt) really think is that real philosophy is the work typically done by "analytic" philosophers-- metaphysics, epistemology, and logic, mostly. That is, "philosophical" work is "analytical" work; it's not interpretive or hermeneutic work, it's not speculative or prescriptive work, and it's not historical or political or scientific work. By those measures, I would likely have to excuse myself from the set of putative philosophers as well, which I am disinclined to do. Perhaps that's because (despite its frequent misuse) I am inclined to think that "philosopher" does have some legitimate use as an honorific, inasmuch as it is meant to describe a person who is a lover of wisdom, who frames his or her problems/questions/theories in the broadest possible context of what we know and seek to know, who hearkens back to the days before disciplinary specialization, when philosophy was the grand synoptic discipline, the "science of sciences." Certainly, that sense of what philosophy is would include lots of people who work outside of philosophy departments, and would likely exclude lots of people who work in them.
So, all due respect to Arendt, I don't think I'm going to just take her word on this one. Not any more than I'm going to (simply) take the word of Nietzsche when he calls himself a psychologist, or Kierkegaard when he calls himself a poet... or, for that matter, Socrates when he calls himself an ignorant gadfly.
Friday, May 15, 2009
As regular readers of this blog know, I wrote my dissertation on truth commissions, which are the political bodies set up to aid governments transitioning from periods of internal conflict, civil war, dictatorship, and/or gross violations of human rights to a (hopefully) more peaceful and democratic social, civic and political order. One of the principal (and principled) assumptions of truth commissions is that errors of the past cannot be overcome unless the full truth of that past is brought to light and, furthermore, that polities and peoples are almost certainly destined to repeat the same errors without such disclosure. In the words of Maya Angelou: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again." The aim of truth commissions is to make possible the courage to face the ugly truth of the past, as well as to facilitate the sorts of changes that guard against its repetition. What history has shown us, again and again, is that silence about injustice is tantamount to complicity with injustice. As injustices are concealed, they are both enabled and perpetuated. My many years of research on this topic has convinced me that Senator Leahy's call for a truth commission to address the injustices committed and allowed by our previous administration is a necessary and indispensible tool for our nation's progress away from such illegal and immoral politics-as-usual.
President Obama's decision to squash the release of the new torture photos is not only disappointing, but also seriously alarming. It signals a gross misunderstanding of the nature of our problem and a willing blindness to the steps necessary for its remedy. Obama's claim that the release of these photos might "inflame anti-American opinion" simply fails to recognize that much (if not most) of the "anti-American sentiment" of which he speaks is directed against our nation's exercise of a presumed (but merely presumptive) unilateral control over what counts as politically and morally significant truths. It seems relatively safe to assume that the sorts of people who have "anti-American opinions" already know that America tortures, and has repeatedly justified these activities, and I doubt that more photos that testify to this (because we already have plenty) are going to "inflame" those opinions any more than they already are. So, who are the putative opiners whose sentiments we are trying to assuage by withholding these photos? Most certainly, it's NOT "Muslim extremists" or "terrorists" or any others who might already harbor resentment about our government's clandestine activities. It must be, then, the people who don't know, or who still don't believe, that America tortures...
And those are precisely the people whose sentiments need to be inflamed.
In his State of the Union Address just a couple of months ago, President Obama said: "I can stand here today and say without exception or equivocation that the United States does not torture." Ten years ago, that statement would have been a given... but, unfortunately, it was a contestable, and thus required, avowal on the part of our new President. What better way to confirm that things have changed, that things are different, that we really do believe (again, to use President Obama's words) that "living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us stronger and safer" than to demonstate that we are unashamed to acknowledge our shame? We ought to be ashamed that torture was justified in our name. We ought to disavow that practice and its justification. We ought to lay bare all of the ugly truths, in all the words and images that we have at our disposal, as testimony to the sincerity of our commitment to "change."
Or, in all honesty, we ought not to pretend that we have learned anything at all from the past that has so regrettably stained our reputation and our conscience.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Of course, if you read the earlier post, you know it's not so much that I don't care about cheating as it is that I don't care about policing cheaters. (Read linked blog-post for my amazing argument in support of said apathy.) Anyway, I found myself caught in another conversation about the "pandemic" of cheating/plagiarizing again today. (Snore.) The discussion was, per usual, framed as one of those "how concerned should we be about this?"-type discussions. (My answer: on a scale of one to ten, about a 3.) It didn't seem like a good use of my time to unpack my whole diatribe again, so I pretty much played the spectator in today's deliberations. The funny thing was, though, that the longer the conversation went on, the more it sounded to me exactly like the recent discussions of swine flu. (Yeah, yeah, I know. It's "H1N1." Whatev.) That is, it sounded hyperbolic, conspiratorial, millenialist almost, too in thrall with its own fear and trepidation. In sum, a little crazy.
Now, I'm not saying that cheating isn't a serious problem, nor am I saying that swine flu isn't serious... but it seems to me that the language in which these phenomena are discussed is WAY out of whack with the phenomena themselves. Thank goodness for Theory Teacher, who just today posted a great analysis of the swine flu craze. (From Tokyo, no less!) Theory Teacher suspects (and I suspect right along with him) that swine flu is a distraction-- "a metonymic displacement and metaphoric condensation"-- helping us to relieve a little pressure from the over-worked valves that regulate our feelings of control. It's a good hypothesis, in my view, especially since we have no shortage of anxiety to displace at the moment.
What a nice change to be laughing with our Commander-in-Chief, instead of laughing at him.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
When making changes to a large text, a redactor may occasionally overlook a piece of text that conflicts with the redactional goals. Since many important ancient texts are likely to have been redacted at least once, such snippets open a window into an earlier form of the text. The nature of the conflict between the bulk of a redacted text and the contradictory windows can suggest what the goals of the redactor might have been.
If you've taken a glance at any of the variously-redacted (not-so-ancient) texts known as the "torture memos," you may have wondered to yourself about the "redactional goals" of their editors. Exposing as many "contradictory windows" as possible seems of the utmost importance with regard to these texts. Not only are such exposures an excellent practice in deconstruction, but they may actually bring us closer to understanding something about what the various memo-authors (Bybee, Bradbury, Yoo) were really intending to justify and allow.
Again, if you haven't signed Senator Leahy's petition to create a truth commission to investigate these sorts of activities, you can do so here.
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
This verse is especially inspirational:
Keep movin', movin', movin'
Though they're disapprovin'
Keep them dogies movin'
Don't try to understand 'em
Just rope, throw, and brand 'em
Soon we'll be living high and wide.
Good luck to the rest of you out there on the same rugged trails. Cowboy up!
Saturday, May 02, 2009
Like my colleague, I also find myself frustrated by many of these conversations. I want to say: "But it's just WRONG! Why are we even HAVING this discussion!" And when I'm sitting at home by myself, listening to the news reports and commentaries, I often do just that. But the more and more research I do on torture, the more I realize that it may be to the advantage of "my" side of the argument (that is, the torture-is-always-wrong side) to re-frame the discussion as something other than a contest of ethical standards. For one thing, doing so avoids the inevitable name-calling contest ("You're a heartless monster!" "Well, you're soft on terror!" "You don't care about human rights!" "Well, you're willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds/thousands/millions for one criminal!"), which are never very productive and very seldom change anyone's mind. So, for those of you who are finding youself similarly frustrated, here are some valuable nuggets to use in your future tête-à-têtes:
1. Torture doesn't "work."
The idea that torture is an effective means of obtaining information is the single biggest falsehood employed by people who want to defend the practice of torture. Their argument will almost always involve some reference to 24 or to the ticking time-bomb scenario. If you encounter either of these arguments, you might first point out that both are FICTION! But, if you need something more, try pointing your interlocutor to the study cosponsored by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity (full report here), which concluded that torture has NEVER been proven an effective interrogative device. Or you could point out actual examples of bad information produced by coercive interrogations (like the Al Qaeda-Iraq link) that have resulted in thousands of lost lives in a war begun as a result of that bad information. Most veteran CIA operatives and military personnel agree that torture only produces bad information, as torture victims will say anything to make their suffering stop. For the record, torture victims (like Sen. John McCain) have said the same thing. The important point is that none of this information is hard to find, an oft-overlooked fact elaborated by Soviet human rights expert Vladimir Bukovsky, who wrote an op-ed in for the Washington Post showing that even governments that have first-hand knowledge that torture doesn't work still use it. You may also point out that, even on the television show 24, torture rarely "works."
2. There is no such thing as a "science" of pain.
When we think of torture, we tend to revert back to the imaginative sci-fi version of it, in which a victim is placed on a table while some torturer stands by a machine with his hand on an ominous-looking numbered dial. As the victim resists, the torturer cranks the dial higher, increasing the suffering bit by numbered-bit. The problem is, pain doesn't happen that way. The way people experience pain (physical and psychological) is radically, unpredictably idiosyncratic. It doesn't increase in numbered increments to some pre-designed "breaking point." Our bodies have all sorts of ways of managing pain; our minds even more. This creates immense problems for the practice of torture. First, there's no way for the torturer to know what he can do, short of death, to get the information he wants... so he is naturally inclined to go to the furthest extreme that he "guesses" will be effective and to do so the quickest. (Hence, there cannot be a "controlled" or "restrained" practice of torture.) Second, the imagined "breaking point" is different for everyone, which forces torturers to get creative. (Hence, regulatory "codes" for torture are ALWAYS violated.) Third, by the time the torture victim gets to his or her "breaking point," both the mind and the body have been broken and are at that point entirely unreliable. (Hence, torture produces bad information.) Finally, torture requires that the torturer make himself immune to the suffering of others and, consequently, requires that he make himself the least qualified person to spot the "truth" or to know when to stop. We've got to stop believing what Darius Rejali calls "the folklore of pain." There are no such things as torture "dials" and, even if there were, there is no number on them that could mean anything definitively knowable. The purpose of torture is to produce pain at the furthest extremes of human tolerance, and that sort of pain is an almost entirely unscientific phenomenon.
3. No, you probably wouldn't do it.
When discussing torture, you will often hear people say something like: "Well, if I were in a situation where someone was threatening my child/brother/parent/wife/etc., I would do anything necessary to stop them... even if that meant torture." The truth is, most of us not only wouldn't, but couldn't. Despite the oft-cited phenomena of the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment, studies show that it's not so easy for most people to cause pain to others. It's important to remember also that those experiments showed that under certain conditions--primarily conditions that exploited our trust and confidence in authority figures-- some people might forego their independent moral standards. The studies did not show that we all could do it, nor did they show that any of us could do it in a situation in which we had to make the independent decision to do so. In fact, an ABCNews poll showed that the majority of Americans oppose torture. Further, the majority of Americans know very little about the ugly, messy, protracted, bloody, horrible details of torture. Torture requires that the torturer disengage from almost all of his or her normal (and normative) assumptions about morality, sociality, and humanity. It requires that he or she suppress or ignore most of his or her natural revulsions to horrific sights, sounds, smells and (tactile) feelings. And then there's the matter of the non-tactile "feelings," which the torturer must betray or restrain. In most cases, the likelihood that your interlocutor possesses the discipline and callousness required for torture is almost nil. My suggestion would be that you encourage them to actually read the accounts of torturers, then to read the accounts of the tortured... and only then to come back and try to make their heroic argument again.
4. It doesn't matter if torture works (which it doesn't). It doesn't matter if polls support it (which they don't). It doesn't matter if you would do it (which you probably wouldn't). TORTURE IS ILLEGAL!
I like the argument made by constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley on the Rachel Maddow show, when he said: "It’s obviously disturbing to hear torture still referred to by the president as a “technique.” That’s like saying bank robbery is a “technique” for withdrawing money from a bank. It’s not a “technique”, it’s a crime…" According to Marjorie Cohn, what torture has in common with genocide, slavery and wars of aggression is that they are all matters of jus cogens (Latin for "higher law" or "compelling law"). That is why no country can ever pass a law that allows for torture, slavery or genocide. That is why we have federal laws that criminalize torture, why it is forbidden by our Constitution, why we have signed international agreements like the Geneva Convention. That is also why, unfortunately, we have seen our federal government (not to mention some of our friends) twist themselves into ideological pretzels trying to redefine torture, or to justify it, or to call forth exceptional circumstances. For all of the arguments in favor of torture, none of them are framed as they should be, which would require FIRST explaining how breaking the law is permissable. And, also unfortunately, none of the arguments for torture follow the logic all the way through, which would require making torture legal. If you want to really challenge your interlocutor in a debate about torture, ask them to try drafting that law that makes torture legal. In what circumstances? To what extent? Using what "techniques"? For what purposes? Then, ready yourself to grab them as they begin to slip down that very, very slippery slope...