The philosophy papers blog is

The philosophy papers blog is up, with the most interesting updates being a new issue of Metaphilosophy (subscribers only) with several fascinating looking papers, and John Carroll’s entry for the Stanford Encyclopaedia on laws of nature. Unlike some Stanford authors (including I guess me) Carroll does not try to make himself the hero of the piece, and the result is a pretty good survey of the field. I normally try to provide the good survey, but set up in such a way that I’ll end up being the hero of the story. It’s not clear this is ideal.

Methodology, Movies and Imaginative Resistance

Matthew Yglesias made the following observation about how philosophy gets taught at Harvard, and I suspect what he says is true of lots of other places.

One of the things that’s dawned on me as I approach graduation is that for all the hours I’ve put into listening to lectures and participating in seminars on philosophy, I’ve never really had anyone speak to me on the topic of how, in practice, philosophy is done. In part, I suppose, this is just because the research methods of a discipline without any facts to research are intrinsically mysterious, but that seems to be all the more reason why a teacher would want to spend some time talking about how one would go about trying to do some original philosophy. Indeed, it would appear that the main advantage of combining the roles of teacher and scholar in one person — the university professor — would be that a professor is in a position to impart precisely that sort of knowledge.

As some people noted in the (very interesting) comments thread on that post, the main way one learns to do philosophy, like the way one learns to ride a bike or speak a language or write a blog, is by just doing it. Every comment a professor, or fellow student, provides on what is good or bad philosophy is part of the knowledge one picks up on how to do philosophy. (Here I’m basically echoing what JW said in that comments thread.)

In interests of community service, though, I thought I might make a little bit of that tacit knowledge more explicit.

A lot of what many of us (at least many of my peers) do in philosophical research is apply old ideas to new fields. The danger of this is that a lot of work ends up sounding like the caricature one hears of Hollywood movie pitches. ("It’s Full Metal Jacket meets Sleepless in Seattle.") The upside is that when it works we get really interesting new results. A cheesy example of this is my using Goodman’s important discovery, that gruelike predicates exist, to make trouble for Nick Bostrom’s indifference principle. A more serious example is Ted Sider’s using a variant of David Lewis’s argument for mereological universalism to argue for the existence of temporal parts. A more recent (and more bloggish) example is Matt’s question from yesterday about whether the causal exclusion argument shows that ethical properties are either epiphenomenal or reducible to physical properties.

(Answer: it would if causal exclusion arguments were any good. But they’re not so it doesn’t. I think the great final drive-a-stake-through-the-heart-of-causal-exclusion-arguments paper is yet to be written, and despite some early delusions to the contrary I’m not the one to write it, but this note by Ted is a pretty good start. Roughly, I think causal exclusion arguments that show there are no baseballs are as good as any other causal exclusion arguments, but there are baseballs, so these causal exclusion arguments are no good, so no causal exclusion arguments are any good.)

And sometimes we do philosophy by having fertile imaginations and catching lucky breaks. In Cleveland I was flipping through the menu at a bar/restaurant when something in one of the music reviews of the regular bar bands there caught my eye. The critic said that they made complicated time signatures sound as easy as 4/4. I was reading this all quickly, it was a music review on a menu after all, so at first I thought it said that they made complicated time signatures sound like 4/4. And I was worried whether that really could be true. In fact, it seemed to be that taken literally it was something that couldn’t even be true in a story.

That linked to one of my little obsessions this year, finding out the limits of what can and can’t be represented in fiction, and how this relates to the limits on imagination. It seemed, that is, that the following little story should generate imaginative resistance. (Andy Egan provided good advice on each of the following stories – at least on the bits that aren’t obviously mistaken.)

The band played Waltzing Matilda twice over, once as a waltz, and the second as a march, and it sounded exactly the same both times. Indeed, later phonological analysis revealed that duplicate sound waves were emitted from the speakers on the two run-throughs.

I think this can’t be true, even in the story. If it was a waltz the first time and a march the second, and least one of the sounds better have been different. More evidence I think that imaginative resistance has nothing to do particularly with moral properties, and everything to do with ‘higher-level’ properties.

The methodological lesson was that I was able to get a philosophical example from a dinner menu. I hope that means I can claim the meal in question as a tax deduction. To continue the story, I was then struck by the ways in which a review of a blues band is like a scouting report on a young pitcher. Reflecting on this, I started working on a similar example, and got roughly this:

Like many of his countrymen, Mardo Petrinez relies on deception to hide which kind of pitch he throws. Many pitchers use the same delivery motion for their fastball and changeup. Petrinez goes several steps further. All four of his pitches – fastball, curveball, sinker, slider – use the same grip, the same arm motion, the same hand motion and are delivered with the same speed and same trajectory. Needless to say, batters have no idea which pitch they are seeing at any one time. Somehow this hasn’t prevented a few of them from hitting said pitches very very hard.

Again, this can’t even be true in the fiction. I don’t want to try and give a reductive analysis of ‘curveball’ in terms of speed, trajectory etc, but suffice to say that if two pitches are identical from the time the ball goes into the pitching hand to the time it hits the catchers glove (or in this case the bat) then it cannot be true that one’s a fastball and the other’s a curveball, even in the fiction.

The takehome lesson from all this is that there are philosophical examples everywhere. All one needs is to have a stock of philosophical puzzles in mind, so it is easier to recognise examples when they come up. And being the kind of person who misreads menus doesn’t hurt either.

Timothy Burke and Kieran Healy

Timothy Burke and Kieran Healy have some interesting posts about specialisation in contemporary academia. Burke is bemoaning the domination of the specialistists, Healy offers some words in their defence. I may have mentioned this before, but right now I’m an interesting little experiment in how far one can go as a non-specialist. How non-specialist you ask? Well, I’m currently affiliated with programs other than my home department (linguistic & cognitive sciences and brain sciences) and even within philosophy this year I’ve worked on language, literature and logic and perception, probability and politics. So, in helpful contrarian spirit, I hope Burke and Healy are both wrong. Burke about how specialists dominate the top of the profession, and Healy about why they should.


The philosophy papers blog is up, with a new paper by Peter Godfrey-Smith on folk psychology, and new entries in my two most reliable sources, the Stanford Encyclopaedia and the Notre Dame Reviews, today both publishing on ethics.

Some informants tell me that Midwest might be close to an example of a vague term with some sharp boundaries. Close, because these informants say that while Midwest actually has no sharp boundaries, Determinately Midwest does. In particular the Ohio-Pennsylvania border is such a boundary. Everywhere in Ohio is determinately part of the Midwest, and nowhere in Pennsylvania is determinately part of it. Some parts of western Pennsylvania may be penumbral cases, Pittsburgh some say is a paradigm penumbral case, but nowhere is determinately in.

Things might be even more interesting towards the northern edge of that border. Arguably, everywhere in New York is determinately not part of the Midwest, though everywhere in Western Pennsylvania is penumbrally Midwestern. In that case, as I was driving along Highway 90 Sunday, listening to Odysseus’s tale of his trip to Hell and back, I crossed two sharp, and knowable, boundaries associated with the vague term Midwest. The first such boundary is the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, where one crosses from the determinate cases to the penumbra, and the second the Pennsylvania-New York border where one crosses from the penumbra to the determinate non-cases.

I suspect this is all exceptionally good news for supervaluational-like theories (like mine!) and bad news for epistemic theories, but I can’t quite yet see how that argument is going to run.

UPDATE: I should have thanked Andy Egan for alerting me to the interesting cases here. Er, consider that belatedly done.


In her Carus lectures, Judith Thomson mentioned that ought seems to be ambiguous between a reading meaning, very roughly, probably and a more normative reading. So, for instance, if Jack is a regular party attender, and Jill has promised to attend this party, (1) is true on the first reading, and (2) on the second. But we have an ambiguity here, as evidenced by the fact that (3) is rather odd.
(1) Jack ought to be dropping by soon.
(2) Jill ought to be dropping by soon.
(3) ??Jack and Jill each ought to be dropping by soon.

I thought this was all terribly interesting, and pretty convincing, but I’m told (by Chris Kane) that it has been discussed a bit in the epistemic deontology literature. (Since I heard the Carus lectures, not read them, I haven’t seen the footnotes where this is probably mentioned. And it might have been mentioned in the lecture too, but I’m not the most attentive of listeners, especially when trying to listen and deal with a mild case of black death or whatever I was suffering from in Cleveland.) So rather than write up all of my thoughts, which included ripping off some of Thomson’s jokes about people falling from the Empire State Building, I just have two quick questions.

First, does anyone have good references on this ambiguity?

Second, does anyone know how widespread this ambiguity is in other languages? Since it appears twice over in English (for should as well as ought) I wouldn’t be surprised if it is widespread. And that would be a neat result I think, since it would undermine a view that is rather widespread in philosophy. The view in question, which is made most explicit in Kripke’s response to Donnellan, is that ambiguity is always a matter of coincidence, so we should assume that English ambiguities will not appear in other languages, especially those not closely related to English. (Actually, Kripke isn’t very clear on the last qualification, so I’m possibly been generous in stating his view here.)

This was probably a priori

This was probably a priori to everyone at MIT, but the picture associated with this NY Times story rather strongly suggests that not all frigid designators are rigid designators, received wisdom notwithstanding.

Actually, the online caption doesn’t quite indicate how unKaplanian the sign itself is. The caption from the dead tree version (New England edition) was “A mock pole hints at how the sea ice shifts several miles a day.”

The philosophy papers blog is

The philosophy papers blog is up, with lots of new stuff while I was away in Cleveland.

One final note re my self-congratulatory post from last night. There’s been some discussion about whether having a blog is a good thing or bad thing from the point of view of getting tenure. (This is relevant because it seems that quite a few academic blogs, by which I don’t just mean blogs run by academics, but blogs run by academics focussing on work-related matters, are run by untenured faculty.) Of course, if people can turn blog entries into publications, then they are very good for tenure prospects. I don’t know how well this generalises, but in philosophy at least one easy way to fall into a rut is to stop writing. There’s so much to read and so many interesting people to talk to that it’s very easy to forget to write. Well, it’s easy that is unless you have a blog. I do think it’s quite good advice for untenured philosophers to be writing quite a lot – even if it just is notes to oneself or to the few the proud who may actually want to read your notes to yourself.

Having said that, blogging may return to light pace the next few days because I managed to agree to three different refereeing tasks in the last week, so I have to go back to spending a little more time (carefully) reading rather than writing. (And I’m pretty sure blogging about papers I’m refereeing is pretty poor form, fun as it may be.)

Gratuitous Self-Promotion Post

My little, and entirely negative, paper on land disputes was accepted by Analysis. A few more things like this and I really will be able to pretend I’m an Ethicist. For followers of this blog, it is perhaps worth noting that this is the first paper to derive from a post to this blog. (Two other papers derived from posts to the self-managed blog I used to run, but those are no longer even archived, so by internet standards they may as well have not happened.)

The APA Central was fun until I got sick on the last day and spent more of it in bed watching the NFL Draft than watching philosophy papers. Feeling mostly better now, hope I didn’t contaminate too many people. A full report will have to wait until I am a little more awake and healthy.

More links to Princeton students, especially since the last link seemed so popular. Antony Eagle has a pretty good website up (as you’d expect from a Melbournian), including a very useful links connection (if not entirely ideologically sound), lots of papers on metaphysics and probability and even original music.

The philosophy papers blog is

The philosophy papers blog is up, with three new papers (on tropes, truth and a three-dimensionalist account of meaning) headlining.

The last of these papers is by Gillian Russell, who has a new homepage posted. (A homepage that already seems to get more traffic than my homepage.) If you look at her site, try and guess just what is depicted by the pictures without looking up the answer (which can be found by clicking on said pictures).

See you all in Cleveland who’ll be in Cleveland.

Blogging may be light the

Blogging may be light the next few days because I’m off to the APA Central. From the looks of things it will be less exciting than the APA Pacific, largely because there will be many fewer people attending. For various reasons, perhaps just the relevant seductiveness of San Francisco and Cleveland, OH, many people from the east and west coasts seem to skip the Central in favour of the Pacific. As they put it in economics, this conference will have many more sweet-water philosophers than salt-water philosophers.

There are some good papers to look forward to. Sadly, the two super-highlights of the program – Frank Jackson’s paper on representation and the food fight paper Andy and I will be starting – are on at the same time. The trick I think will be to go to Frank’s paper, which is on 2.30-5.30 Friday, for the first two hours, then follow the crowds (or at least the speakers) to our paper at 4.30.

At many sessions the relative thinness of the program means that there’s only one “Can’t miss” paper on at a given hour, rather than 3 or 4 as is standard at the Pacific. Some may not take this to be a cost. (And the program is still light-years ahead of the average Eastern conference. But going to the Eastern for the philosophy is like reading the Wall Street Journal for the pictures.)

I’ll be co-hosting a party at the conference (time and place to be confirmed) and if you’re there you’re invited, so hopefully that’ll be fun. (–But how can I go to the party if I don’t know where or when it is? –Er, if you run into me, or Andy Egan or Adam Elga, at the conference, ask any of us for details and we’ll provide them. Provided we are organised enough to do so by then.)