From the monthly archives:

August 2003

Donald Davidson is dead

by Chris Bertram on August 31, 2003

Donald Davidson, one of the foremost philosophers of mind and language of recent decades, died yesterday in Berkeley. Davidson was the author of many papers that defined the terms of subsequent debate, such as “Actions, Reasons and Causes” and “How is Weakness of the Will Possible?” The last couple of years have seen a succession of philosophical giant die (Lewis, Rawls, Nozick, Williams) and it is sad to see Davidson joining their number. An account of his life and importance can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I’ll add links to obituaries to this post as they become available. (News via Brian Leiter’s site). Obituaries: New York Times, UC Berkeley News, Guardian, The Times, Daily Californian, Independent.

Funding Basic Research

by Kieran Healy on August 31, 2003

My gradual progress through the multi-volume Latham and Matthews transcription of The Diary of Samuel Pepys continues. Here we are on February 1st 1664:

bq. Thence to White-Hall, where in the Dukes chamber the King came and stayed an hour or two, laughing at Sir W. Petty, who was there about his boat, and at Gresham College in general … Gresham College he mightily laughed at for spending its time only in weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else since they sat.

William Petty was a fascinating character who is remembered variously as a pioneer in demography and political economy, the man responsible for the first really good map of Ireland and, as we see him here, the designer of a novel “double-bottomed boat” (i.e., a catamaran). Pepys’ editors — who have a great line in dry commentary — chime in with a footnote:

bq. The gibe was of course untrue, and in any case this laughable weighing of air did in fact lead (by way of Newcomen’s steam-engine in Anne’s reign) to the development of steam power. Cf. the similar complaint of a pamphleteer in 1680: “We prize our selves in fruitless Curiosities; we turn our lice and Fleas into Bulls and Pigs by our Magnifying-glasses; we are searching for the World in the Moon with our Telescopes; we send to weigh the Air on the top of Teneriffe … which are voted ingenuities, whilst the Notions of Trade are turned into Ridicule or much out of fashion”.

We also learn that the French Ambassador, “in a despatch to Louis XIV of 25 January/4 February, referred to Petty’s double-bottomed ship as ‘la plus ridicule et inutile machine que l’esprit de l’homme puisse concevoir.'”

Get a Lifestyle

by Kieran Healy on August 31, 2003

In Newspaper Land, Summer is the season of fake lifestyle trends. There’s nothing like a bit of pop sociology to fill the feature pages on those long, hot days. The New York Times has been doing quite well on this front recently. A couple of months ago it was telling us about metrosexuals, the allegedly new breed of straight male who uses Neutrogena products and so on. They also had a story about the rise of the thirtieth birthday party. Today we read about rejuveniles, who are grown-ups with “busy lives with adult responsibilities, respectable jobs and children of their own” but who nevertheless like to play with children’s toys, sing children’s songs and generally make well-functioning adults and children alike feel rather uncomfortable. Here’s the pitch:

bq. From childless fans of kiddie music to the grown-up readers of “Harry Potter,” inner children are having fun all over. Whether they are buying cars marketed to consumers half their age, dressing in baby-doll fashions or bonding over games like Twister and kickball, a new breed of quasi adult is co-opting the culture of children as never before.

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Probability and Emotions

by Brian on August 30, 2003

It’s well known that our intuitive approaches to probabilistic reasoning lead to fairly bizarre beliefs and behaviour in some circumstances. It can also lead to fairly odd attitudes and emotions in the right circumstances. Consider, for example, how it would feel being a fan of the various teams in the American League playoff race.

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Applying to grad school

by Maria on August 30, 2003

While many other CT bloggers muse about conference etiquette, I find myself daydreaming about just getting into a PhD programme. Tacitus posted a question on how to get into a US grad school (poli sci or thereabouts) with a low GPA.

As someone who spends far too much time surfing through admissions and advice pages, and wondering what’s behind all the rhetoric, I think there is more good sense concentrated in Tacitus’ comments than I’ve seen anywhere else. Good luck T.

Trolley Problems

by Brian on August 30, 2003

A staple of intro philosophy courses is the ethics of runaway trolleys. There’s probably an interesting sociological study as to why this is so, but rather than delve into that I thought I’d share a new-sounding version of the trolley problem due to Carolina Sartorio posted on Philosophy from the (617).

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Reasons for fighting the Iraq war

by Chris Bertram on August 30, 2003

There were some good arguments for going to war in Iraq, especially those based around the need to remove from power that country’s murderous regime. Other reasons were not so good, and, as is now emerging, not based in particularly good evidence. Reasonable people can differ about which set of reasons were conclusive and also concerning whether it matters if the Bush adminstration’s reasons for fighting the war differ significantly from whatever the best case for fighting was. But the Bush adminstration’s reasons do matter to our evaluation of what is happening now. Is the adminstration’s purpose in invading and occupying to produce, inter alia, a democratic Iraq where human rights are respected, or not?

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Buying success

by Chris Bertram on August 30, 2003

Anyone who follows football (or “soccer” to some of you people) knows that English club Chelsea have recently been bought by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. On top of the price of the club and wiping out its enormous debts, Abramovich’s spending on players has now exceeded £100 million and a club near bankruptcy when the last season ended has become a serious contender for the championship. Naturally, the response of sporting journalists has not been to ask Michael Walzer-like questions about power in one sphere being translated to another, about the corruption of sporting contests (it was bad enough even beforehand) or about where and how this mysterious Russian got his cash (political leverage with the Yeltsin clan). Rather, they’ve fawned uncritically over this rather repulsive character. (I might add that commentary on the subject at Libertarian Samizdata hasn’t exactly focused on Lockean principles of justice in acquisition or anything similar.)

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Russia and China

by Kieran Healy on August 29, 2003

Nick Kristof discusses the economies of Russia and China today in the Times. He wants to stop you from using the phrase “market democracies” quite so freely. China’s economy is doing very well. The centralised and basically despotic communist state has managed to smoothly introduce market-type institutions in the economy. Meanwhile nominally democratic Russia is a disaster. “I wish I could say that free elections pay better dividends than massacres” Kristof says, “But, although it hurts to say so, in this case it looks the other way around.”

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Time Travel Movies

by Brian on August 29, 2003

I’m teaching a freshman seminar on time travel at Brown this year, so I’ve been watching a lot of time travel movies as ‘preparation’. I always knew that many time travel movies don’t make a lot of sense on a bit of reflection. What surprised me on recent re-watchings was that some seemed unintelligible even on relatively generous assumptions.

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Real and Unreal

by Kieran Healy on August 28, 2003

David Adesnik doesn’t believe there’s much in the way of Iraqi resistance outside the “Sunni Triangle.” Tacitus disagrees and gives a list of U.S. fatalities. David rebuts him, saying

bq. Tacitus most definitely has a good eye for detail, but are ten or so fatalities supposed to persuade me that there is real resistance outside the Sunni Triangle?

Well, it’d probably convince the hell out of me if I’d been one of the soldiers killed. Except it wouldn’t matter, because I’d be dead.

This is kind of a cheap riposte from me, and the two may have already resolved their differences about the substantive issue. But it’s worth policing the armchair generalship if only because tossing around phrases like “Are ten or so fatalities supposed to persuade me” is not a good habit for a responsible Oxblogger to have. It’s a bit like that Economist article that Daniel picked on recently for casually making a distinction between hunger and “mere uncertainty about where the next meal was coming from.”

Give children the right to vote?

by Micah on August 28, 2003

I’m taking a course on election law, and the professor mentioned a proposal today that I hadn’t heard about before. He said there’s a movement in Germany to propose a constitutional amendment that would give children the right to vote from birth. I thought he was pulling our leg at first, but listen to this segment on “NPR”: The idea is that parents (or principal care givers) would act as proxies for children by voting on their behalf. According to proponents, this would have two benefits. First, it would give politicians greater reason to care about family and children’s issues. Second, in an effort to correct for Germany’s declining birth rate and rapidly aging population, it would give people greater incentive to have more children. (A quick search turns up some other proposals of this kind floating around, from the “sophomoric”: to the “more considered”:,3858,4599961-107865,00.html (by Gillian Thomas at “Demos”: to the “academic manifesto”: (by Duncan Lindsey at UCLA.)

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by Brian on August 27, 2003

I imagine most readers have seen Edward Adelson’s checkershadow illusion, because it’s done the rounds of a few blogs. If you haven’t seen it it’s worth looking at, because it’s really quite remarkable.

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by Henry Farrell on August 27, 2003

Following the good advice on conference going from various parties, I’m off myself for the next couple of days to the annual American Political Science Association conference, where I’ll be sharing a “panel”: with Dan Drezner. Intermittent blogging in the meantime, dependent on access to Internet, and on whether I’m enjoying myself too much to blog (yes, you can have a good time at political science conferences).

Hitchensian nastiness

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2003

Christopher Hitchens has a review of Robert Dallek’s John F. Kennedy biography in the Times Literary Supplement. Hitchens doesn’t exactly hold back from laying into the Kennedy cult, and I would have expected him to be highly critical of Kennedy’s record in office. I have to say, though, that I found the manner of Hitchens’s revelling in Kennedy’s physical ailments somewhat arresting. I won’t go through the whole catalogue here, but Hitchens’s judgement is this:

bq. Obviously, a good deal of “spin” is required to make an Achilles out of such a poxed and suppurating Philoctetes. The difference was supplied by family money in heaping measure, by the canny emphasis on a war record, and by serious attention to the flattery and suborning of the media.

And when I read the following, I was somewhat shocked:

bq. But the furthest that Dallek will go [in agreeing with the Hitchens view that Kennedy’s ailments made him unfit to be President] here is to admit – following Seymour Hersh’s earlier book The Dark Side of Camelot – that Kennedy’s back-brace held him upright in the open car in Dallas, unable to duck the second and devastating bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald. This is almost the only connection between the President’s health and his fitness that is allowable in these pages, and I presume that it is its relative blamelessness which allows the concession.

“Relative blamelessness”? I’m not sure where the “relative” comes into play here. It must mean something like “somewhat blameworthy, but not as blameworthy as some of Kennedy’s other disabilities.” It is, at any rate, a poisonous phrase which would certainly attract Hitchens’s disapprobation in other, all too easily imagined, contexts.

UPDATE: The link above has now become non-functional. The curious had better consult the print edition.