Extra-Curricular Activities

One of the complaints about contemporary philosophy that seems to me to have some merit is that we (as a profession) don’t engage sufficiently with other disciplines.[1] I think this has gotten better in some ways, and worse in other ways, over the last generation or so.

It’s gotten better in that there are more philosophers whose work is informed by, and relevant to, another discipline within which they’re deeply entrenched. My paradigm of this is Brennan and Pettit’s The Economy of Esteem, though I’m sure you can think of many more.

It’s gotten worse in that fewer philosophers have a general sense of what’s going across the university. That’s not surprising – fewer academics in general have a good sense of what’s going on across the university. But it affects philosophy more, since a higher percentage of that work is philosophically relevant.

So here’s a small attempt to do something about this harnessing the wisdom of (small) crowds.

Which works by non-philosophers do you think it would be good for more philosophers to read?

Leave answers in comments, please!

Here’s my suggestion:

“The General Theory of Second Best”, by R. G. Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster, in The Review of Economic Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1956 – 1957), pp. 11-32, available at JSTOR

Lipsey and Lancaster discuss what happens when we know that the optimal circumstances are reached when a set of parameters take a particular ideal distribution, and we know that one of the parameters is not going to be set to the ideal value. The result, in general, is that if we set the value of that parameter as a constraint, we’re not best off setting all the other parameters to ideal values.

This is relevant to a whole host of issues in philosophy where we discuss the nature of ideals. Let’s say a philosopher has an argument that, say, the ideal agent’s credence distribution is a probability function. Does that mean that we should try to make our credences into probability functions, or that there’s something wrong with an agent whose credences are not probability functions? Not on its own – it might be that given physical constraints, the best outcome (by the very same measures that say the probability functions are absolutely best) are not probability functions. Or say that a philosopher shows that ideal agents only assert what they know. Does it follow that the fewer things one asserts but does not know the better? Obviously not – the second best solution (which might be all that’s attainable) might involve quite a bit of assertion without knowledge. In general, the implication from “The ideal has feature F“ to “What you do should have feature F“ is invalid, and in some circumstances the premise isn’t even a particularly strong reason to believe the conclusion. I’ve seen several philosophers miss this point, and others that appreciate it often ignore the fact that they’re working over material that had been well worked out by economists several decades ago.

So that’s my suggestion, but I’m sure you can come up with better.

UPDATE: I’ll keep a list of the suggestions here, with the suggestor in parentheses after the suggestion.

1. This point has comes up in the discussion on Jason Stanley’s IHE piece and in discussions about the state of philosophy on Daniel Davies’ blog. I was reminded of the Lipsey/Lancaster piece by something else Daniel said recently, but I can’t find the exact link for that. The connections between it and the threads on this blog over the last week, both about justification and pragmatics, and about irrational agents and Equal Weight, are hopefully clear enough, even if I didn’t make them explicit to begin with.

8 Replies to “Extra-Curricular Activities”

  1. Here are a few of my favorites books relating to probability (written by non-philosophers):

    (1) The Physics of Chance: From Blaise Pascal to Niels Bohr (Ruhla)
    (2) Statistical Evidence: A Likelihood Paradigm (Royall)
    (3) Statistical Reasoning with Imprecise Probabilities (Walley)
    (4) Theories of Probability (Fine)

  2. My main recommendation is ‘Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour, I and II’, W. D. Hamilton, J. of Theoretical Biology 7 (1964): 1–16, 17–52 [link] (reprinted with a context-setting introduction in his Narrow Roads of Gene Land, volume 1—in fact almost every paper in that volume and its sequel is completely fascinating).

    More a piece for philosophers as academics than as a piece of philosophy itself, but I have found this article useful in understanding/modifying certain of my widely shared bad habits: ‘Procrastination, busyness and bingeing’, Robert Boice, Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27 (1989): 605–11 [link].

  3. A good book to turn one’s views 180 degrees is Hrdy, S. (1999) Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection Link

    To get a sense of the history of creating and structuring knowledge, read Yates, F.A. The Art of Memory Link

  4. Good philosophy is sustained by rich examples drawn from others subjects, varying from branch to branch. Based on my own library and reading experience, I would say that a must read for philosophers of mind and science is Principles of Neural Science by Eric Kandel, James Schwartz, and Thomas Jessell. For those interested in philosophy of physics, I recommend SpaceTime Physics, by John Wheeler and Edward Taylor. Aside from that, I should think that philosophers of religion would be into sacred texts, such as the Bible, aestheticians would devour all forms of art, and political philosophers and philosophers of history would benefit from good histories. (I can’t put down The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, by Alistair Horne and am an American Civil War buff.) Finally, as a free will theorist, I have often found myself analyzing the choices made by various fictional characters such as Don Corleone, Michael Corleone, Fredo Corleone, and Tony Soprano.

  5. There’s a fairly long and interesting discussion of the “second best” paper in Joseph Heath’s recent semi-popular book on economics (_Economics without Illusions_ in the US, Filthy Lucre in the rest of the world.)

    It’s somewhat old now, but I still think many philosophers would do well to read Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism.

  6. I like Alexandra Aikhenvald’s book- Evidentiality.

    Also: Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer’s “Uniting the Tribes of Fluency to Form a Metacognitive Nation”, Pers Soc Psychol Review 2009, (available on Oppenheimer’s website at Princeton).

    Also: Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. The whole thing.

  7. Sheaves in Geometry and Logic: A First Introduction to Topos Theory (MacLane and Moerdijk)

    This excellent book provides a view of logic that is substantially different from what philosophers typically encounter.

  8. Any philosopher who is tempted by the siren voice of postmodernism, and who is immune to warnings issued by other philosophers (because “they would say that, wouldn’t they”), could benefit from reading the views of some historians. Geoffrey Elton was famously robust, describing postmodernism as the intellectual equivalent of crack (Return to Essentials, page 41). Richard J Evans’s book In Defence of History is also well worth reading.

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