On Feeling Others’ Pain

Years ago a friend confided at the dinner table that he felt no connection to the events he read about in the paper. He noticed that other people felt appalled or sad or moved by the terrible events they read about, but to him they were just words on paper. He recognized it was strange to have no empathetic response, but he just couldn’t muster one.

I’m the other extreme. I get teary when I hear about the most minimal acts of kindness as well as the most distant suffering. I cried when I saw Solidarity take to the streets in the 80s, and I could barely sleep thinking about people jumping to their deaths on 9/11 or about the suffering and grievous loss following the tsunami and Katrina. I think most people are more like me than my friend at that dinner table.

I don’t take much stock in something like Hume’s notion of an inner moral sense. But there does seem to be a palpable difference in how people respond to the suffering and the joy of others. There’s evidence that this difference is hardwired, but I’d like to think there is more to it than that.

Diversifying Media Ownership

A coalition of citizens’ groups, including the National Organization for Women and Consumers Union, is asking people to write to their members of Congress in a campaign to “stop big media.”  I know leaders of many of these organizations and can attest that they’re doing good work. Their draft letter is as follows:

I am writing to urge you to support S 2332, the “The Media Ownership Act of 2007.” This legislation will ensure that the Federal Communications Commission addresses the dismal state of female and minority ownership before changing any rules to unleash more media concentration.

Nearly 99 percent of the public comments received by the FCC oppose changing the nation’s media ownership rules to allow a handful of large conglomerates to swallow up more local media outlets. Congress rejected the same changes to the rules in 2003. Yet the FCC is still pushing a plan to overhaul the rules by the end of the year.

This legislation would mandate that the FCC give the public 90 days’ notice before holding a vote on new rules to ensure a full public accounting of the impact of media consolidation before changing the ownership limits. These steps are necessary to preserve diverse local media that meets the needs of our communities.

Diversity is the cornerstone of a democratic media system. Yet research by Free Press found that that while minorities make up 33 percent of the U.S. population, they own less than 8 percent of radio stations and 3 percent of TV stations.

This legislation would create an independent task force to address the crisis in minority media ownership.

Our democracy requires the free flow of local information from diverse voices. Please support the “The Media Ownership Act of 2007.”

For more information and a way to send your own version of the letter electronically, go to StopBigMedia.com.

What Counts as Philosophy?

Apart from the question of “Who has the rights to the lands of Palestine?” little can be more contentious than the question, “What counts as philosophy?” What are the bounds of this discipline of ours? I like to think that there aren’t any clear and proper boundaries but that there is a roughly common approach (but don’t ask me to define it) and, delightfully, a common canon (at least for what is understood as pre-20th century western philosophy, though lamentably white, male philosophy). Anyone of any persuasion teaching an intro to philosophy class is likely to include some of the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bentham, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Rousseau, and maybe some selection from Marx, Nietsche, and James. With texts of the twentieth century all bets are off. But what’s one century in a discipline that goes back 25? Given our long history, we’ve had nothing like the canon wars that tore apart English departments in the 1980s. The common canon saves us, but it doesn’t give us a way to define or set bounds to what philosophy is. Philosophy has a way of undermining boundaries, like the boundary between what is properly philosophical and what is not. Just try to set up a fence and see how long it stands.

Even to the extent that we have a common canon, the question of what counts as philosophy is desperately unclear, at least once one strays from a “view-from-nowhere” approach to metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, or any of the many philosophy-of-x arenas. Once the approach becomes more specific and situated, the border wars arise. And the lines are usually drawn between what is hegemonically understood as proper philosophy and what is not. Philosophy that is not in fashion in “the best” schools, not “prestigious,” not hard and clear and rigorous, not properly erected — including today American pragmatism, critical theory, post-Kantian European philosophy, and, oh, certainly feminist philosophy — doesn’t seem to count as philosophy at all, at least by those who are counting and protecting a certain definition of proper philosophy.

Just look (and you’ll have to scroll down and then scan the rigt-hand column) at the specialities of the list of evaluators who were invited to rank graduate programs in philosophy for the 2006 Philosophical Gourmet Report. I am told by a defender of the report that this is a “remarkably diverse” group of good philosophers and so it is truly able to gauge what are, objectively, the outstanding graduate programs in philosophy. Any program that doesn’t end up on the list, I’m told, simply isn’t a good program.

Shocking.

Who defines what counts as good philosophy and hence who counts as the good philosophers? Isn’t this kind of counting tantamount to defining philosophy itself, to saying that M&E (metaphysics and epistemology) counts, but feminist philosophy doesn’t? Or if it’s feminist, it isn’t M&E? Or if it’s concerned with Derrida and not Tarski, or the late Wittgenstein but not the early Wittgenstein, it just ain’t philosophy?

Is that very philosophical?

Slouching Toward Annapolis

This morning, up the road a ways in Annapolis, MD, the Bush administration is hosting belated Mideast Peace Talks between Israel and Palestine. Maybe this is just a last race to save face for the Bush administration after all it has done to create havoc in the Middle East.  But still we all hope for the best.

Two op-eds in this morning’s Washington Post bring home what is at stake and how hard it is going to be—maybe not in the cushy confines of Annapolis but certainly back home in Palestine and Israel.  Richard Cohen describes the impasse between two mothers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, whose two daughters were killed when one of them set off a suicide bomb.

Beyond the Reach of Annapolis

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, November 27, 2007; Page A17

On March 29, 2002, an 18-year-old woman walked into a Jerusalem supermarket and blew herself up. One of her victims was a woman just a year younger than herself. The two women looked so much alike, Palestinian and Israeli, and their mortal wounds were so similar, that the pathologist had trouble reassembling the two girls. They had so much in common.

So it was perhaps understandable that the mother of Rachel Levy would try to contact the mother of Ayat al-Akhras because they, too, had so much in common. read more


Also on the Post’s op-ed page
, Maher Najjar, the deputy director of Gaza’s water utility, pleads with the west to help persuade the Israeli military to stop its collective punishment of Palestinians by cutting off electricity, fuel, and clean water whenever militants set of a Qassam rocket.  As the Israelis try to punish the Palestinians into policing themselves, the Palestinian reaction, as anyone would suspect, becomes more defiant.

The majority of the 1.5 million men, women and children living in Gaza do not fire Qassam rockets. Most of us want normal lives, starting with the ability to provide for ourselves. We want to live in peace with our neighbors. We hope that Israel will realize, before it is too late, that in Gaza, playing with water is playing with fire.

It’s going to take more than a couple of days eating crab cakes together in Annapolis for Israelis and Palestinians to get through these impasses and begin to forge some kind of peace.  Still, fingers crossed.

Philosophy and the City

My friend and colleague in philosophy, Sharon Meagher, is starting up a really great project on philosophy and the city. The premise is that philosophy is at its best bound up with the public affairs of a particular place. Meagher argues that the philosophical pretense to adopt a “view from nowhere” ignores the ways in which philosophy is entangled with the problems of the world, and the problems of our own communities, increasingly large urban places. One of the innovations of Meagher’s work is the idea of a philosophical walking tour of a city. Imagine taking your students on such a tour, pausing at the places that caused major social upheaval, other places in which new social relations and ideas were worked out. Meagher’s site is still under construction, so check it out now as well as later for new ideas on how to engage philosophy students in the problems of the world.

Women, Children, and Philosophy

Why are women only 21% of faculty in philosophy compared to 41% in the humanities overall? See links on the SWIP page for thoughts on this question as well as a post on Lemmings. Here’s an additional possibility: Might it be that conventional philosophy in America styles itself more like the sciences than like the humanities? And we know how women fare in the sciences.

And of this 21% why is it when I go to academic conferences so few of the accomplished women scholars there have children? Is it that women in philosophy largely decide not to have children? Or is it the other way around — that having children with the usual division of labor makes it incredibly tough to teach, write, and travel? Is it that the women philosophers who are parents drop out of the profession more or simply can’t get away to go to conferences? There are amazing counterexamples, including two brilliant feminist theorists, one a Foucault scholar and another a Merleau-Ponty scholar each with four or more children! How do they do it? Probably with immense help from their partners, for the profession itself, and its societies, does very little in the way of providing childcare at conferences. How does philosophy compare to other disciplines? What factors make a difference?

Philosophy Rankings

The other day someone named Ann posted a comment to an earlier thread about philosophy rankings, including Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet Report. The upshot of her comment is that (1) she recalls a paper “statistically analysing the feedback and showing near total consensus amongst faculty from the entire range of depts assessed as to who was top and who bottom” and (2) she thought that “at least Leiter’s methodology is explicit and based on up-to-date information. Thanks to the statistical analyses it’s possible for people to be fully informed of the fact that having metaphysicians will count for more than having historians of philosophy (and know exactly how much that counts). Whatever else you think of the PGR, it at least allows people to think clearly about these matters.”

Let’s do think clearly. Years ago I took 3 semesters of graduate level statistics, including survey research methodology. And subsequently I worked on some deliberative polling projects in which some of the nation’s top survey researchers participated. I saw how careful and exacting they were about survey methodology. This doesn’t make me an expert by any means, but I do know the basic fundamental principles, including this one: If done right, a survey of x number of people will tell you what that x number of people thinks. We are tempted to think that we can generalize from that sample to the larger population, just as it’s tempting to think that we can generalize from the people that Leiter has enlisted to do the rankings to the discipline as a whole. But the only way this can be done is if, at minimum, the original sample is (i) randomly selected and (ii) a large enough sample size, which is generally at least 350 people. Given that Leiter’s sample fails either criteria, all his rankings tell us are what those people think. So, Ann’s remark that because Leiter’s analysis is statistical it can fully inform us that one type of philosophy counts more than another is wrong. Leiter’s analysis only pertains to what counts for that specific group. It tells you nothing more than that. Nothing. And, as Ann herself suggests, (1) could be so—and I’d love to see that report—only because the profession at large has come to believe the conventional wisdom.

Granted, Brian Leiter selected his group because they are accomplished in their fields, but again the result is only a reputational ranking of what those particular folks think of the schools that teach their own particular fields. If you analyze the 2006 report, you will see that not a single professor at a “top ten” department had a Ph.D. from a Catholic university. The vast majority of professors teaching at top-ranked departments got their Ph.D.’s from the very same set of departments. Of course, we would expect that Ph.D.s from “top” departments would get jobs at “top” departments. But the problem is that the Leiter report provides no objective measure for ascertaining what are in fact the top departments. Hence it commits a classic logical fallacy. The Leiter report presumes what it sets out to prove. There is no objective measure in the report for ascertaining what in fact are the “top” departments.

And notably underrepresented in the group of rankers and the departments ranked well are outstanding departments such as Michigan State University, Vanderbilt University, SUNY at Stony Brook, the University of Oregon, Emory University, the University of Memphis, Penn State University, and CUNY Graduate School—despite the productivity and influence of their faculty and the success of their graduate students.

Potential philosophy graduate students have good reason to seek out objective ranking of departments. First it’s important to find a good place to study with good faculty where one can fruitfully pursue one’s interest. Second it’s important to find a graduate school with a good placement record. The first is often accomplished with a little sleuthing and good advice, identifying who is doing interesting work in one’s field, or if one is not quite certain yet, what department has broad, plural research taking place. The second requires some study of actual placement success over the years.

For students interested in studying in the areas in which the Leiter report covers, the report can help those students find a congenial place to study. But it won’t help them identify what place has a good placement record. For students interested in studying fields that the Leiter report looks down on or omits altogether, the Leiter report does a huge disservice.

We need studies of Ph.D. granting philosophy departments on criteria like these:

  • the quality and influence of faculty members’ research in their fields (Academic Analytics’ rankings are a step in this direction)
  • faculty-student ratios
  • teacher training
  • preparation for the job market
  • placement records for graduate students

This would be a real service to the profession. In the meantime, I ask any administrator who is taking seriously the Leiter report to confer with the statisticians in his or her own university to get an objective measure of the soundness of these rankings’ methodologies.