Film Review: The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 11, 2023

One of the challenges critics of our contemporary form of capitalism face, is how to make the analysis of that beast clear to a broad audience. Let’s face it, most academic books on the topic are hard to understand. Moreover, many people hardly ever read a non-fiction book about politics, let alone the economy. Film is in this respect a great medium, since it is easier to digest than reading a book. And often a picture says more than a thousand words.

Some years ago, I was teaching ‘ethics of capitalism’ to an interdisciplinary group of undergraduate students. Many of them had never had any economics, and since any third-year student could take this course, I had students in that class from all over the university – history, philosophy, economics, geography, anthropology, sociology – even a student from theoretical physics. In the last week of the course, we zoomed in on the financial crisis, and I was worried how to teach such complex material. So, in addition to giving a lecture, I also organised a screening and discussion of Inside Job, and that worked very well. The film was pretty effective to further process the dry material from the lecture, and put all of it into a broader perspective. [click to continue…]

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Open thread on Brazil

by John Q on January 9, 2023

An open thread on the insurrection in Brazil. I’d particularly be interested in comments from a Latin American perspective.

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Twigs and Branches

by John Q on January 9, 2023

A new Twigs and Branches post, open for comments on any topic. Please take long side discussions on other posts here. The usual rules on civil discussion apply.

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Sunday photoblogging: Bedminster

by Chris Bertram on January 8, 2023

Bedminster

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Dasein and Der Fuhrer (update over fold)

by John Q on January 7, 2023

Back in the Paleolithic days of blogging, I got interested in the relationship between philosophical thought and political action, particularly in the cases of Hayek and Heidegger and their support for Pinochet and Hitler respectively. I think the evidence is in on Hayek (see here and here), so I won’t discuss it further.

In Heidegger’s case, there’s been plenty more evidence on Heidegger’s personal conduct, cumulatively quite damning. But the claim that he was one of the greatest of 20th philosophers remains widely accepted. This seems to imply (via an easy application of modus ponens), that his support for Hitler was not a consequence of his central philosophical ideas. The typical version of this claim attributes Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism to some combination of opportunism and a romantic (in a bad way) German nationalism (now known to include anti-Semitism) that can be separated from his main body of thought.

But in any discussion of Heidegger’s philosophy I’ve seen, his concept of Dasein plays a central role. So, what did he have to say about Dasein and Hitler? According to the Wikipedia article on Heidegger and Nazism[1], this:

The German people has been summoned by the Führer to vote; the Führer, however, is asking nothing from the people; rather, he is giving the people the possibility of making, directly, the highest free decision of all: whether it – the entire people – wants its own existence (Dasein), or whether it does not want it. […] On November 12, the German people as a whole will choose its future, and this future is bound to the Führer. […] There are not separate foreign and domestic policies. There is only one will to the full existence (Dasein) of the State. The Führer has awakened this will in the entire people and has welded it into a single resolve (italics in original).

The speech isn’t obscure, and this passage is often quoted in relation to Heidegger’s Nazism, but I haven’t been able to find any discussion of his invocation of Hitler as the embodiment of Dasein. And, while I’m no expert, nothing I’ve seen in discussions of the concept of Dasein suggests to me that Heidegger is misinterpreting or misrepresenting his own ideas here.

Has anyone done the work of drawing distinctions between this piece of totalitarian propaganda and works like Being and Time? If so, is it possible to sketch the argument ?

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Office Hours

by Gina Schouten on January 6, 2023

As I prepare my Spring semester courses, I’m wondering how people handle office hours these days.

For my entire pre-Covid teaching career, office hours were a drop-in affair. I encouraged students to make an appointment outside of office hours if they wanted to be sure they could talk to me without the chance of another student popping in. But the posted office hours could not be reserved; they were for anyone who happened to show up.

Then, during Covid, I worked with a wonderful grad student teaching assistant who encouraged me to reserve half of my office hours each week for student appointments. She told me it would make me more accessible to students.
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Like many other academics, it seems, I spent part of Winter break playing around with ChatGPT, a neural network “which interacts in a conversational way.” It has been trained up on a vast database, to recognize and (thereby) predict patterns, and its output is conversational in character. You can try it by signing up. Somewhat amusingly you must prove you the user are not a robot. Also, it’s worth alerting you that the ChatGPT remembers/stores your past interactions with it.

It’s uncanny how fluent its dialogic output is. It will also admit ignorance. For example, when I asked it who was “President in 2022,” it responded (inter alia) with “My training data only goes up until 2021, so I am not able to provide information about events that have not yet occurred.”

Notice that it goes off the rails in its answer because it wrote me that in 2023! (It’s such a basic mistake that I think claims about it passing, or faking, the Turing test are a bit overblown, although one can see it being in striking distance now.) When I pressed it on this point, it gave me a much better answer:

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Skepticism and human reason

by Henry Farrell on January 3, 2023

[attention conservation notice: I am neither a philosopher nor a cognitive scientist]

A quick friendly-critical response to this piece by Liam Kofi Bright, which also plugs some of my own collaborative work with Hugo Mercier and Melissa Schwartzberg.

The short version – many arguments against the human capacity for reason rest on shaky empirics, as Liam argues. But Liam’s counter-claim – that human beings are individually good at reasoning – isn’t necessary to make the case that I think he wants to make.

Even if human beings are bad at (some forms) of individual reasoning, they may be able to reason quite well collectively. That provides a different set of grounds for optimism about human reasoning that is maybe less congenial for analytic philosophy (I’ve no idea how you would begin to model it formally – perhaps others do) but that is robust against possible empirical criticisms that the usual analytic philosophy arguments are not. [click to continue…]

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A few days ago, I tooted at Mastodon about a Christmas message I’d had from a Russian friend. I intended my post to convey something hopeful about peace and reconciliation, but got immediate pushback from someone who asked why, if there are are some good Russians, they haven’t stopped the war. Meanwhile, over on Elon’s death site, the theme of holding Russians collectively responsible for the war seemed to be gathering momentum with vehement assertions that this isn’t just “Putin’s war” but one backed by “the Russian people”. I think claims such as these, particularly in their maximal forms are absurd, and become all the more absurd when the alleged collective responsiblity of “the Russian people” is extended to an attitude of hostility and blaming towards individuals, simply because they hold Russian nationality. And many members of “the Russian people” are, after all, children. Yet in rejecting such absurdities, I also want to leave room for those Russians who feel their own responsbility keenly and who feel shame at the Russian government’s actions and who want to take responsibility by resisting, in great or small ways, what that government is doing.

One obvious point to make is that Russia is not a democracy and that Russian citizens have no effective means to restrain their government, even if they wanted to. Rather, they live under a tyranny, quick to mete out savage punishments to its opponents, and where public opinion is partly shaped by relentless nationalistic propaganda. In this light, one might think of ordinary Russians as being among the victims of the regime, even though there are others, most notably Ukrainians, who are suffering much more at its hands. During the Soviet era, it is worth noting, Western governments were keen to frame ordinary Soviet citizens as victims of dictatorship rather than holding them individually or collectively responsible, but this approach has been abandoned in some reponses to the war, including by Baltic politicians who refuse to accept that Russians who refuse to fight for Putin are legitimate refugees.
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Book note – The Persuaders, by Anand Giridharadas

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 28, 2022

I recently listened to the new book by Anand Giridharadas, who is well-known for his previous book Winner Takes All. That book was about how (some of) the superrich are happy trying to contribute to some of the world’s problems, but never ask any questions related to why the world is so unequal as it is, what power and the workings of capitalism have to do with all of this, and whether their capitalist strategies are at all suited to address these problems. I thought that was a great book.

So I was looking forward to his new book. It is called The Persuaders. Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age. It is a book about why we shouldn’t just give up on people who have political or social views that we find wrong, perhaps even horrible. The book presents a series of cases, the activists involved, and the techniques or strategies they use – interspersed with some insights from social psychology and other sciences on what works (and what doesn’t) to make people change their mind in a non-manipulative way.

My take-away from the book is that there is no point in believing you are right (or have the right policy, or the right analysis on what needs to happen on matter X), and believing the only thing that is needed for change is airing those views and that analysis. It’s just not enough. We need to actually spend time and effort to persuade others that this is the right analysis/policy/direction, and this persuasion cannot be merely cognitive; it requires understanding “where people are”, what makes them believe what they believe, and showing respect for them as a person at the outset. All of that requires listening, and being willing to engage in a genuine conversation, and finding out why people believe what they believe. Just believing I am right (and having all the arguments sorted out in my head) and airing my views, is not enough to also make a difference in the world, especially not in deeply divided societies. And, very importantly, trying to persuade others, and being willing to be persuaded, should be an essential part of any democracy. Thus, this book is also, at a deeper level, about what contemporary democracies need. [click to continue…]

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My year in fiction

by Chris Armstrong on December 28, 2022

Reading novels is my life-blood; I can’t go more than a few hours between books. That said, this year was a slightly odd one in my reading career. First, the year leading up to August represented the home strait of a self-enforced 12 months of not buying books. So lots of reliance on the not-especially-good local library, and some re-reading. Second, this was a ridiculously busy year for me, and so my yearly total of 46 novels is slightly below par. With that said, here were my top 10:

Katie Kitamura, Intimacies
Natasha Brown, Assembly
Julia May Jonas, Vladimir
Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise
Mary Lawson, A Town Called Solace
Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox
Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day
Julie Otsuka, When The Emperor Was Divine
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Elizabeth Strout, Oh, William!
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Updates from Russia

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 27, 2022

And so it begins… Yulia Galyamina, the first Russian professor who got fired because “she is a foreign agent”.

And here’s Dmitry Vasilets, a Real Russian Hero.

Also, while we’re talking about Russia: Please consider supporting Meduza. Russians must have access to free press, just like all of us – and after it got banned, Meduza can only continue thanks to subscriptions and financial support from outside Russia.

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A decade ago, when the issue of Republican anti-science bias was raised, a common response was to point to attitudes to vaccination, where, it was claimed, Democrats were the anti-science party. I observed at the time that this claim wasn’t justified by the available evidence. A little later, I noted the likelihood of the Republicans becoming anti-vax , a point on have been proved tragically right by the Covid pandemic.

But this case, and many more like it, hasn’t prevented the publication of a continued stream of pieces starting from the premise that “both sides do it”. The latest iteration relates to housing policy, and the claim that Democrats are the party of NIMBYism. For example this piece in The Atlantic by Jerusalem Demsas states

liberalism is largely to blame for the homelessness crisis: A contradiction at the core of liberal ideology has precluded Democratic politicians, who run most of the cities where homelessness is most acute, from addressing the issue. Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups that have historically been shunted to the peripheries of the housing market. But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple.

Demsas is way off the mark[1]. Biden’s infrastructure package included provisions for multi-family housing to be erected in traditionally residential zone. These provisions were vigorously resisted by Republicans, following the lead of Donald Trump, who used racist scaremongering to mobilise opposition.

More generally, the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement is now ascendant among leftists (AOC is a notable example), as well as moderate liberals like Biden. There are still plenty of left and liberal NIMBYs, but it’s Republicans who make NIMBYism a majority view.

Rather than go through this issue in detail, I’m going to propose a meta-theory to explain why Republicans are always wrong, and why they always get a pass from both-sidesists. The central propositions are

(i) Leftist and liberals start from the meta-belief that the right policies will be consistent with empirical evidence
(ii) Republicans and rightwingers start from the meta-belief that “owning the libs” is more important than any policy outcome
(iii) Bothsidesists start from the meta-belief that a situation where half the population is systematically wrong is unthinkable.
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Russell Jacoby Against the Buzzwords

by John Holbo on December 26, 2022

Russell Jacoby has a piece out in “Tablet” that got approvingly retweeted by Richard Dawkins, then by Elon Musk. So maybe it’s worth giving it a read. (This post lightly edits my tweet response.)

I’m sympathetic to Jacoby’s old line: a lot of ‘theory’ silliness got spread about in the humanities in the 80’s-90’s. There were perverse incentives – professional rewards – for doing ‘philosophy’ badly in various ways. This was not good. I’m happy to badmouth bad stuff. But honestly, as Jacoby himself used to acknowledge, it wasn’t threat-to-the-republic-grade. Anyone who pretends ‘ivory tower-types being eccentric’ = ‘barbarians at the gates of western civ’ is one more funny, bug-in-his-ear character in some David Lodge novel. [click to continue…]

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No laptops, no phones.

by Harry on December 22, 2022

In one of the end-of-term reflections I just read a first-year (freshman) student says “It struck me that there was a no technology rule, something my classmates and I were unfamiliar with… when you disconnect from your online presence, you can fully dive into the discussion”. I have a no-laptop, no phone policy in all my classes, and have yet to hear good reasons to give that up. Maybe you can give me some.

In the background: I believe her that most of the students who went to public schools would be unfamiliar with a no technology policy. The local schools rely on laptops entirely for access to textbooks, and until this year the school district has not permitted schools to have a no-phone policy. I think you can imagine that in high school preventing teachers from telling students to put their phones away and sanctioning them if they don’t comply is a total disaster, and is perceived as such by the teachers and, in fact, many of the students (“If other kids are on their phones the teacher can’t teach so there’s no point in paying attention, so I might as well be on my phone”). I vividly remember the first course in which phones were a problem for me: not until 2014, when 4 girls were just routinely on their phones in a small class in which I could see what they were doing, and I didn’t really know what to do. After that I adopted the policy I have now.

I teach philosophy, which is hard. And I trust that my students can read, so if I have a lot to tell them I write it down and get them to read it. That’s not to say that I don’t go over it sometimes in class. But the point of having class is to do learning that won’t (or possibly can’t) be done outside of class. That is, mainly, problem solving: thinking and talking together about the arguments and ideas that I want them to understand, and practicing the skills of analysis and reflection that philosophy is particularly good at developing, and which are essential to doing philosophy. So they don’t really need the laptops for note-taking.

Not that most students who use laptops use them for note-taking. I spend a fair amount of time observing other people’s classes, usually from the back. Few of the teachers are bad, and many are pretty good. In classes which allow laptops anything from 1/3 to 2/3 of the students have them in front of them, and at any given time almost all the screens I can see are email, shopping sites, gaming sites, and television/movies. I’ve sat in numerous classrooms in which fewer than half of the students are paying any attention to what is happening in class.

I don’t exactly blame them: once inattention is the norm, the instructor often defaults to lecture and its not uncommon for the lecture to be more or less word for word repetition of what is on very text-heavy slides.[1] But when they are not paying attention they are not learning, and it is exceedingly difficult to generate high quality engagement in a room in which half or more of the students are otherwise engaged.

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