From the monthly archives:

January 2024

Synthetic Philosophy within the division of Labor

by Eric Schliesser on January 30, 2024

When I first published on what I call ‘synthetic philosophy’ back in 2019, I presented the two key components of the view in such a way that it caused confusion about the position I was trying to describe as a sociological phenomenon within philosophy of science. I developed the idea of ‘synthetic philosophy’ in order to give philosophers of science a better conception of what they actually do and how this might fit in the modern university (and their grant agencies). I introduced the idea with the following characterization:

‘synthetic philosophy’ [is] a style of philosophy that brings together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both).

It is quite natural that my readers thought that synthetic philosophy just is a kind of integrative project. In contemporary philosophy, Philip Kitcher is (recall) the spokesperson for a view like pretty much this (including the use of ‘synthetic philosophy’) in which it is part and parcel of contemporary pragmatism. My friend, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, also advocates for a version of this view (see, for example, here at DailyNous). In Bad Beliefs, Neil Levy emphasized and developed a slightly different version of this view, too. This approach is also nicely defended by Adam Smith in the context of describing philosophy’s role in the division of labor at the start of Wealth of Nations.

My unease about this program is due to the fact that what does the integration, the integrative glue, as it were, is too unconstrained or (to use one of Timothy Williamson’s favorite words) undisciplined. I also worry that it opens the door to the image of the philosopher as creative genius who has mystical powers at understanding the totality of things. I reject the anthropological (and moral) assumption on which such a heroic figure is based. In addition — and I was myself not as clear about this back in 2019 —, hyper-specialization makes the kind of integrative project Kitcher wishes to defend a glorious, fool’s errand. (To be sure Kitcher himself is quite explicit that he rejects the anti-egalitarian commitments that are inscribed in the creative genius image.)

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As I say in my TED Talk about Vilem Flusser, the most pressing cultural question is: “why are things so weird?” Or as Anna Shechtman describes it:

“that feeling—floating somewhere between mania and motion sickness—that everything has changed.”

It seems like everyone really fucking wants the answer to be “The Algorithm.”

The New Yorker internet and culture columnist Kyle Chayka gives them that answer in his new book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture.

I’ve spent years articulating why this a bad answer. “The Algorithm” is the answer that Susan Wojcicki and Mark Zuckerberg desperately want us to give. It feels like critique but it in fact reifies the premises and business models of the tech platforms: it implies that the platforms are in some computer-genius fashion holding the reins of culture and brainwashing their users. Advertisers, famously, would love to hold the reins of culture and brainwash potential customers.

And Senator, Facebook sells ads.

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Sunday photoblogging: Avon Gorge (2007)

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2024

Avon Gorge 1

Why you should watch American Football

by Doug Muir on January 24, 2024

No, I’m not kidding.  The US football season is wrapping up with its usual bang: two playoff games this weekend, then the Super Bowl two weeks later.  So if you’ve never checked it out, this might be a time.

So, in the spirit of philosophical discussion, let’s start with some reasons you might not want to watch American football.

— “I don’t consume media about team sports.  The exploitation and commodification of the players, the hysteria of the fans, the endless advertisements, the disgusting late-capitalist excess generally, all appall me.”

Okay so 1) this is a perfectly defensible and legitimate philosophical position, and 2) you can stop reading now.  I’m trying to explain to a bunch of white meat fans why beef is actually pretty great, and you’re a vegetarian.  Nothing wrong with being a vegetarian, it’s great, but this post isn’t for you.
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The Kosovo War, 25 Years Later: And So To War

by Doug Muir on January 22, 2024

Part 4 and (for now) last of this series. Earlier installments can be found here.

So, by early 1999 various attempts to resolve the Kosovo situation had failed. In autumn 1998 the Americans had sent Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to Belgrade. Holbrooke negotiated a deal that looked good on paper, with a ceasefire, partial Serb withdrawal, international observers, and negotiations leading to eventual elections. However, in practice the KLA ignored the deal – they hadn’t been consulted, after all – and the Serbs quickly began to foot-drag and renege. So, by January 1999, armed intervention was under serious discussion.

One theory of the conflict deserves mention here. This is the idea that US President Bill Clinton provoked the bombing campaign in order to distract public attention away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment. This idea was widely discussed at the time, usually referencing the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, in which a US Presidential administration concocts a war in Albania to distract from the President’s sexual misconduct.
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Sunday photoblogging: Goldfinches

by Chris Bertram on January 21, 2024

I’ve been reading Maylis de Kerangal’s Réparer les vivants (oddly available in two different English translations as Heart (US) and Mending the Living (UK)), which I highly recommend. De Kerangal’s speciality is writing about people at work and this is the saga of a heart transplant over 24h, from the beginning of the donor’s day (a trip to go surfing) to the moment his heart re-starts in the recipient’s body. She gives compelling portraits of the people who work in intensive care medicine, and one of them is a nurse with a specialism in overseen the transplant and liaising with the family, who also happens to be a singer with an interest in song, including birdsong. So, there’s a passage in the book where there’s discussion of the Algerian trade in goldfinches (chardonnet in French), which, apparently, get sold for vast sums for their singing prowess. There must be something special about the Algerian ones, because the goldfinch is not an endangered species: there are lots of them out there. So, I’ve been reading about goldfinches and listening to clips of their song, and I’ve just bought a new camera lens with a reach of 800mm (full-frame equivalent) and I see birds in the distance from my living room window. I can’t really see what they are, so I pick up the lens and I see a treeful of goldfinches. And I press, through window glass. Not the greatest image, but serendipitous.


Occasional Paper: Purple Sun Yeast

by Doug Muir on January 19, 2024

An interesting paper: researchers inserted a gene for photosynthesis* into ordinary brewer’s yeast. It worked! The yeast began to photosynthesize, tapping energy from the sun.

I’m not generally alarmist about this sort of thing. But this is… maybe very slightly alarming.


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Won’t somebody think of the old people?

by John Q on January 17, 2024

Continuing my discussion of the recent upsurge in pro-natalism, I want to talk about the idea that, unless birth rates rise, society will face a big problem caring for old people. In this post, I’m going to focus on aged care in the narrow sense, rather than issues like retirement income, which depend crucially on social policy.

Looking at Australian data on location of death, I found that around 30 per cent of people die in aged care, and that the mean time spent in aged care is around three years, implying an average of one year per person. Staffing requirements in Australia amount to aroundone full-time staff member per residents. So the “average” Australian requires about one full-time working year of aged care in their lifetime, or about 2.5 per cent of a working life. This is, as it happens, about the proportion of the Australian workforce currently engaged in aged care.

But what if each generation were only half the size of the preceding one? In that case, the share of the labour force required for aged care would double, to around 5 per cent.

If you find this scary, you might want to consider that children aged 0-5 require more care than old people, and for a much longer time. Because this care is provided within the family, and without any monetary return, it doesn’t appear in national accounts. But a pro-natalist policy requires that people have more children than they choose to at present. To the extent that this is achieved by subsidising the associated labour costs (for example, through publicly funded childcare), it will rapidly offset the eventual benefit in having more workers available to provide aged care.

And that’s only preschool children. There’s a significant childcare element in school education, as we saw when schools closed at the beginning of the pandemic. And school-age children still require plenty of parental care. (I’ll talk about education more generally in a later post, I hope).

Repeating myself, none of this is a problem when people choose to have children, more or less aware of the work this will involve (though, as everyone who has been through it knows, new parents are in for a big shock). But it’s clear by now that voluntary choices will produce a below-replacement birth rate. Policies aimed at changing those choices will have costs that exceed their benefits.

The JPP saga — and the way forward

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 17, 2024

This is a post that will mainly be of interest to academic political philosophers, as it concerns what happened to The Journal of Political Philosophy, and I’m assuming readers know what happened to that journal recently (if you don’t, you can read first this, and then this piece on Daily Nous).

Earlier today I attended a meeting that Wiley organised at the Eastern Philosophical Association meeting, and want to share my impression as well as share the three conclusions that I draw from this session. [click to continue…]

The Hayakawa Question

by Kevin Munger on January 17, 2024

I love writing. The medium is excellent for communicating ideas, or a narrative history. But writing is one-dimensional, and it’s much worse at communicating the history of ideas in higher dimensions.

My meta-scientific interest in understanding how ideas travel, how their fate waxes and wanes, has frequently pushed me beyond my preferred medium. Traditional historiography is extremely time-consuming: you have to read and compare various histories of the same topic over time and across perspectives.

An inductive, data-driven approach won’t provide any conclusive results — but it might tell us where we should look. My goal is to find ideas that at one point seemed promising—perhaps, with modern technology, we can explore branches of human development that were prematurely or arbitrarily cut off. The cybernetic socialism of Stafford Beer is one of my favorite such examples; what else can we find?

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Ready for American readers!

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 16, 2024

I should have posted this much earlier, but it just dawned on me that I should have invited all our NYC-based readers to the book launch of the US-edition of my book on Limitarianism. I guess my best and most truthful excuse is that I’ve been too busy with media requests since the Dutch version of my book came out at the end of November. Especially in Belgium, where I was on the main talkshow on TV, the idea that we should limit how much personal wealth each of us can have, has led to a lot of debate (in fact, the same talkshow scheduled limitarianism again as a topic for debate among some politicians the next day, as apparently they had seldomly received so many reactions but also questions from their viewers). There are a few interviews lined up with American and international media – I’ll post links to some of it in due course for anyone interested. [click to continue…]

The Kosovo War, 25 Years Later: Things Fall Apart

by Doug Muir on January 15, 2024

Part 3 of a series on the Kosovo War.  Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

So, Adem Jashari. Very short version: he was a guerrilla leader / local strong man.  He lived in a region of Kosovo that was already challenging for the Serb authorities — rural, rugged terrain, and 100% ethnic Albanian. And in March 1998, the Serbs decided to make an example of him. They came into his village with hundreds of troops, surrounded his house, and just shot everyone in sight. They ended up killing about 60 people: Jasheri, almost his entire extended family, some of his guerrilla comrades, and some unlucky souls who just happened to be there.

This was intended as a show of force. It backfired spectacularly. Kosovar Albanian society was socially conservative and extremely family-oriented, so the idea of wiping out an entire extended family was utterly horrific. Also, say what you like about Jasheri, he and his group went out heroically — surrounded, guns blazing, fighting to the last. So Jasheri became an instant martyr, and his death became the incident that flipped Kosovar Albanian society from unhappy and restive to full-blown rebellion. The Serbs didn’t realize it at the time, but they’d tossed a lit match right into a pool of gasoline.
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Sunday photoblogging: blast from the past, Severn Beach

by Chris Bertram on January 14, 2024

I’ve been taking photography seriously for 17 years now. And every year I assemble a 6 x 6 “poster” of my best photos from each year. So that makes 612 photos on those poster. Here’s one of the very first, from January 2007, and taken with a 1 megapixel Fuji point-and-shoot.

Coastal wall at Severn Beach

Mute inglorious Miltons

by John Q on January 12, 2024

Chris’s post on declining population has prompted me to get started on what I plan, in the end, to be a lengthy critique of the pro-natalist position that dominates public debate at the moment. My initial motivation to do this reflected long-standing concerns about human impacts on the environment but I don’t have any particular expertise on that topic, or anything new to say. Instead, I want to address the economic and social issues, making the case that a move to a below-replacement fertility rate is both inevitable and desirable.

I’m going to start with a claim that came up in discussion here and is raised pretty often. The claim is that the more children are born, the greater the chance that some of them will be Mozarts, Einsteins, or Mandelas who will contribute greatly to human advancement. My response was pre-figured several hundred years ago by Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Gray reflects that those buried in the churchyard may include some “mute inglorious Milton” whose poetic genius was never given the chance to flower because of poverty and unremitting labour

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Billions of people alive today (the majority of whom are women) are in the same situation today, with their potential unrealised through lack of access to education and resources to express themselves. Rather than adding to their numbers, or diverting yet more resources away from them, we ought to be focusing on making a world where everyone has a chance to be a great poet or inventor.

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Here’s a piece I wrote for The Guardian. It’s also at my Substack. Some of it is Australia-specific but some may be of more general interests

The policy debate about the cost of living is among the most confused and confusing in recent memory. All sorts of measures to reduce the cost of living are proposed, then criticised as being potentially inflationary. The argument implies, absurdly, that reducing the cost of living will increase the cost of living.

The issue here is that the “cost of living” is an essentially meaningless concept, rather like the sound of one hand clapping. The problem isn’t the cost of buying goods, but whether our income is sufficient to pay for those goods. For most of us, that means the real (inflation-adjusted) value of our wages, after paying tax and (for homebuyers) mortgage interest.

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