Richard Rorty 1997 on Democracy and Philosophy

When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, I was an occasional guest host on a public affairs program of the local PBS station. In 1997 I interviewed the philosopher Richard Rorty.

This afternoon, with the help of Emory graduate student Karen McCarthy, I finally got around to digitizing it. Then we uploaded it to YouTube.  It’s kind of eery watching it again.  So many of the issues Rorty and I discussed are still with us today in the clash of cultures between religion and secularism, attempts at democratization in the Middle East versus the Taliban, and the near-impossibility of finding a way to adjudicate between our differences.  Rorty stuck by his position that we can never really get outside our culture and history to adjudicate anything, yet at the same time he appealed to notions of “better” and “worse” that could be understood through stories we tell ourselves.  I wasn’t satisfied with that then, and I’m still not now.  But maybe that is simply because there is no philosophical panacea that could ever be satisfying and, in the end, we are really just left, rather bereft, with our ability to tell compelling stories. Rorty at one point appealed to the occasional geniuses like Jefferson and Jesus and Socrates (a weird troika) who, perhaps struck by a cosmic ray, could move us forward.  Then and now this appeal to genius is hardly helpful. But I think I get what he was saying — that the occasional fluke could get us out of our constituting context.  At the very end I bring up a piece he had written the year before for the New York Times on what might happen in the future in America, the future, specifically 2014 and 2015.  So it is a fascinating kind of time travel to watch this interview now, from here in the future.

Philwikis to the rescue (updated 2x)

In the age of big data, crowdsourcing, and the philosophy hive mind, why not let the entire philosophical community contribute to showcasing all the great work going on in philosophy graduate programs around the world — and by extension how well trained are the people teaching undergraduates at liberal arts and other colleges and universities?  Thanks to Shawn A. Miller, this alternative is rolling and I am delighted to be a part of it.

UPDATE: I think the philwiki that I am overseeing, on twentieth century continental philosophy, will be live in about a week, maybe sooner.  It will be able to list all the PhD programs in the world with at least one faculty member specializing in some area of 20th century continental philosophy (substantiated by a university website or publicly accessible CV).  That is the baseline.  Then there is the capacity to find out how numerous the faculty is and what sub-areas are specialized in.  And there will be links to faculty websites and philpapers profilles.  All this will depend on the philosophical community updating the wiki.  I’ll put forward a really good start, then it will be up to all of us to keep making it better.

UPDATE: The philwiki on 20th century continental philosophy is available here: Note that this is not a finished product — not at all — but the start of an ongoing project for those doing work in continental philosophy to continue filling out and improving.  If you do not see yourself or your program here, and you think you or it should be, please go into the edit mode and make the additions.  There are lots of instructions on the site. And I’m happy to help too.

the life of clarice or philosophy?

In meeting with a graduating senior this afternoon, I learned that her only exposure to a woman philosopher, in a syllabus for a class, was in my freshman seminar on the masters of suspicion with some readings on Arendt and in a 400-level class now in her senior year. In my seriously progressive department, how the hell did that happem? She is super smart and planning on doing a joint MD-JD program. I asked her if she thought about philosophy and pointed her to look, right behind her, at my philosoHERs poster of women in philosophy, and she noted that she did in fact see a few women of color like herself. But it was still much easier to see herself as a forensic MD-JD getting into the minds of serial killers than to see herself as a philosopher.

On Miscreants

I don’t want to give too much attention to the news of the day in the philosophy blogosphere (I’m not going to link to that place so forgive the obscurity of this post) when, alas, i am the headline, accused of being a “miscreant”  — a word that sounds much more sinister than its definition, “a person who behaves badly or misbehaves the law.” I do admit to having acted badly in the past and occasionally running a stop sign. Mostly, I am haunted by a memory of standing by — when a kid in school was bullied — instead of standing up.  That memory motivates me to this day to stand up, especially when the matter is of little concern to me personally.

Such is the case with a certain institution related to my profession, philosophy, that has branded itself as a service to the profession but has done much more harm than good, not to me personally but to many people who do philosophy otherwise than the mainstream and also to many junior women in the field.  Over the past several months, the profession has largely come to see this.

Over the years, I have not stood by.  And I am proud of that.  (Evidence is on this very blog.) Thanks to a few years of training and practice in survey research methodology I have been a serious critic of a certain project that aims to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of doctoral programs in my discipline.  My primary criticism has been that the methodology is flawed all the way down.  There is nothing at all redeeming about this project’s methodology.  It begins with biases and ends as a result completely biased.  Now, finally, this is widely recognized and the project has been thoroughly discredited.  Good.

But now I am being called by the author of this project, perhaps in desperation, as a miscreant and a vandal to boot.  Supposedly I (he says without any proof) am a vandal for editing this certain person’s wikipedia page.  Let’s make a few things clear here:

  • any wikipedia entry belongs to the entire world and not the subject of it
  • a wiki by definition is a website that can be edited by anyone — so editing does not equal “vandalizing” but rather it means contributing to wikipedia
  • a wikipedia entry should be balanced, including both positive and negative news, all of which should be properly sourced
  • it is against wikipedia policy for the subject of an entry to police the entry and delete anything negative
  • the history page of the entry will list all the changes that have been made, including attempts by editors to add material that gives balance, including, for example the other side of a news article that was otherwise used to give a glowing remark
  • attempts to “out” pseudonymous editors can immediately lead to someone being blocked from wikipedia

Enough attention to this matter, enough I hope to correct errors but not so much as to fuel further controversy. I think we’ve all got much better things to do.

UPDATE: I should also correct the claim that “the Wikipedia editors eventually put a stop to her mischief.”  It is actually the other way around.  After this person threatened to sue me, I contacted a high-level editor at Wikipedia and asked for help.  That editor got in touch with this person and told him that were he to try to do so that the Wikimedia Foundation would hire the best law firm in my area to defend me.  That is the last time he ever threatened to sue me. So, readers, please note that nothing he says should be believed.

So just how much do you want to study philosophy?

Hannah Arendt to Mary McCarthy, August 20, 1954

At the moment, translating the old book [The Origins of Totalitarianism] into German, I am unhappy and impatient to get back to what I really want to do [likely her reflections on labor, work, and action]—if I can do it. But that is minor, I mean whether or not I am capable of doing what I want to do. Heinrich [Blücher] has a wonderful advice to give to his students when they talk about studying philosophy: he tells them you can do it only if you know that the most important thing in your life would be to succeed in this and the second most important thing, almost as important, to fail in precisely this.

Documenting the meltdown on Leiter and bad tactics in rankings

If you are a philosopher in the English speaking world, you no doubt know that the old self-appointed emperor has lost his clothes. As of this writing, more than 520 philosophers (including the original signatories at the top) have signed a statement that they will decline to support his Philosophical Gourmet Report so long as he’s running it.  Twenty-four members of his board have asked him to relinquish management. Since I’ve been one of the characters in this tale, I’ve been keeping up with all the talk in the philosophy blogosphere.  For those interested in what’s going on, Leigh M Johnson has been keeping track here.  Also Richard Heck is starting to collect accounts and analyses of what is wrong with the methodology of rankings in general and the Philosophical Gourmet Report in particular on his blog here.