Jerry Fodor And Philosophical Practice

I wrote a short post on Facebook today, making note of the passing away of Jerry Fodor:

Much as I admired Fodor’s writing chops, I deplored the way he did philosophy. The stories of his ‘put-downs’ and sarcastic, ironic, ‘devastating’ objections, questions, or responses in seminars always left me feeling like this was not how I understood philosophy as a practice. The admiration all those around me extended to Fodor was a significant component in me feeling alienated from philosophy during graduate school. (It didn’t help that in the one and only paper I wrote on Fodor–in refuting his supposed critique of Quine‘s inscrutability of reference claim–I found him begging the question rather spectacularly.) I had no personal contact with him, so I cannot address that component of him; all I can say is that from a distance, he resembled too many other academic philosophers: very smart folk, but not people I felt I could work with or for, or converse with to figure out things together.

In response, a fellow philosopher wrote to me:

[H]onestly that was my impression of Fodor also….while I too didn’t ever even meet him in person, I thought much of his rhetoric was nasty and unfair, that he routinely caricatured positions of others and then sort of pranced around about how he had totally refuted them, and that he basically ignored criticism…he was very far from what I would take to be a model for the profession….I got the impression that pretty much every other philosopher he mentioned was just a foil – produce a sort of comic book version of them to show how much better his view was.

There has been plenty of praise for Fodor on social media, much of which made note of precisely the style I pointed out above, albeit in admiring tones. In their obit for FodorThe London Review of Books paid attention to similar issues:

Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB….Many of them were on philosophy of mind…more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong….His literary criticism included a withering review of a pair of ‘amply unsuccessful’ novels about apes; and he had this to say of Steven Pinker’s view of Hamlet in his demolition of psychological Darwinism:

And here [Pinker] is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Unsurprisingly, this quote from Fodor was cited as a ‘sick burn’ on Twitter–as an example of his ‘genteel trash talk.’ But a second’s reading of Pinker, and of the response above by Fodor, shows that Fodor is again operating at his worst here. The paragraph cited is a deliberately obtuse and highly superficial reading of Pinker’s claim. Do we have to think about the specific events in Hamlet in order to ponder the ethical dilemmas that the play showcases for us? Is this why people have the emotional responses they do to Hamlet? Or is it because they are able to recognize and internalize the intractability of the issues that Hamlet raises? Do we need to specifically think about rings, dwarfs, and giants in order to specifically ponder the abstract problems that lie at the heart of the tale Fodor cites? Indeed, the many folks who have read these stories over the years seem–in their emotional responses–to have been perfectly capable of separating their concrete particulars from the concepts they traffic in. Fodor does not bother to offer a charitable reading of Pinker; he sets off immediately to scorn and ridicule. This kind of philosophy, and this kind of writing, earns plenty of applause from those who imagine philosophy to be a contact sport. But it does little to advance philosophical thinking on the issues at play.

Critiquing The Law And Discomfort

This semester, in my philosophy of law class, my students and I have attempted to work our way through a collection of ‘critical legal studies‘ articles; these run the gamut from critical legal histories to feminist legal theory to critical race theory. The reactions of my students to these pieces, and in particular to the second and third members of the list just made note of–represented by the writings of Catharine MacKinnon and Alan Freeman respectively–has been instructive.

Feminism makes men uncomfortable; for different reasons, it also makes women uncomfortable. It induces discomfort in men by reminding them of their privileged position of power; it induces discomfort in women by reminding them of this imbalance, and sometimes, of their own complicity in maintaining it. Both these reactions were on display as we read and discussed MacKinnon in class, especially in her claim that the ‘legal point of view’ is just the ‘male point of view.’ Her discussion of rape law, and especially of how the law understands the crucial notion of ‘consent,’ brought vital aspects of her critique together; no other component of her writing, not even the infamous ‘in a patriarchal, sexist society structured by forces of masculine domination, all sex is rape’ claim, made the students as uncomfortable as this discussion; they might have realized their own implication in the critique they were reading. They might also have imagined, like most other legal subjects, that whatever the messiness and infinite complications and entanglements of human sexuality, those were all magically resolved by the cleansing antiseptic force of legal formulations, categories, and reasoning. Not so; instead, seeking refuge in law as a response to the ‘problem,’ the ‘crime,’ of rape had merely allowed for the further institutionalization and entrenchment of sexism and male prejudice, now disguised as societal reason.

Talk of racial discrimination too, especially in a society like the US, induces discomfort. It reminds some that their assumed positions of merit and power rest on shaky, morally suspect, foundations; it serves notice that a dishonorable history underwrites this supposedly glorious present. And as in feminist legal theory, it points to how a supposed dispenser of fairness and justice is instead, in point of fact, the repository and the engine of social prejudice. The rhetoric on display here is similar: a claim is made to the rational dispensation of justice, to only be guided by ‘logic’ and ‘evidence’; the results as in the case of rape law, are eerily similar: claims of racial discrimination disappear when subjected to the inspection of the legal lens; the perspective or point of view of a central actor, the ‘victim,’ is ignored. Here again, an uncomfortable silence descends over many in the classroom; a reminder has been served that the assumption of a calm working out of an impeccable meritocratic logic serves only to mask the violence done to those finding themselves stuck with the short end of the legal stick.

Sometimes my students are curious and ask about what happened to the ‘critical legal studies movement’; I respond that the discomfort they experienced as ‘mere’ legal subjects in attempting to tackle its claims would only have been a  fraction of that experienced by those on the inside: the practitioners and theoreticians of law themselves. They would have actively sought to assuage their discomfort; the institutional displacement of critical legal studies would have suggested itself as a possibly remedy.

A Good Loss Of (Parental) Self

The parenting life suffers from many disadvantages: reduced hours of sleep, a severely compromised household budget, loss of intimacy with one’s partner, anxiety, the destruction of professional ambitions and drive, the list goes on (and on.) Still, parenting does offer one huge, off-setting benefit: a shitty day can be redeemed by your child’s good day. Or, in other words: on any given day, you can afford to fuck up, so long as your child does well.

The way this works is a familiar trope for most parents; you spend time with your child, engaged with him or her in one of many activities, physical or mental, each with their own learning curve, each possessed of their own particular developmental significance; you notice that during each enterprise, minor and major roadblocks occur, each threatening to derail your child’s onward and upward triumphal march toward greater maturity and accomplishment; you become accustomed to a kind of anxious holding of your breath as your child undertakes each activity; and then, as each is successfully surmounted, you figuratively exhale. In relief. And pride.  Perhaps it’s walking, perhaps it’s talking, perhaps it’s reading or riding a bike; no matter the task, the parent becomes invested, to varying degrees, in the successful ‘completion’ of each, in the successful attainment of each benchmark, real or imaginary.

And so it comes to be. Just as you revise–in response to your child’s presence in your life–your ‘table of values’ pertaining to intellectual and romantic and professional satisfaction and achievement in your lifetime, your notion of ‘a good life,’ a ‘life well lived,’ so do you revise–in response to your child’s onward progress in their life–your micro-and-daily sense of a ‘good day.’ Speaking for myself, a ‘useless’ academic day–which consists of little or no ‘heavy’ or ‘serious’ reading, few words written or drafted–can now be redeemed by the discovery that my daughter has read or written a humble word or two; those ‘minor’ increments seem far more significant than my usual pursuit of an ever-receding, ever-inaccessible intellectual ideal. A day on which I’m possessed of the usual middle-aged anxiety about physical performance or ability is quite easily salvaged by finding out that my ‘little girl’ has accomplished a physical task that seemed intractable until only recently. (For instance, this afternoon, my daughter succeeded in climbing a couple of routes that had thus far proven too difficult for her in our local climbing gym; the elation I experienced on witnessing her wave at me from the top of the climbing wall was a salutary antidote to my sense of physical disrepair following a couple of days of dietary disasters. My mood is still ebullient and will likely remain thus till tomorrow.)

These experiences speak to an ‘alarming’ loss of parental self, of course; but the idea of a wholly autonomous self is already risible for most parents; we are used to welcoming the collapse and implosion of many boundaries formerly held to be sacrosanct. Some losses are good ones.


The NYPD Tells Us What They Think Of Brooklyn College Students

This is most decidedly a storm in a tea-cup, but it is a most revealing one. The New York City Police and their friends at the New York Post do not like the concern expressed by some Brooklyn College students about the presence of police on their campus:

Brooklyn College is kowtowing to cop-hating students by directing officers who need a bathroom break to the broken-down facilities in a building on the far edge of campus. A visit by The Post to the first-floor men’s room…revealed a broken toilet with a hideously stained seat and an “OUT OF ORDER” sign taped to the door of its stall. There was also a total lack of soap and paper towels. A junior…said it was far and away the worst place to go on the campus, which is part of the City University of New York system. “The bathroom is horrendous,” Abe said. “You can only wash your hands in one of the sinks because the other two are broken.”

Well, at least we have confirmation that our facilities are broken down and dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, an unidentified student is drafting a petition to college President Michelle Anderson to completely exile police….The student told the paper he wants Anderson to make it clear “that we do not want the NYPD on campus in any respect even if it’s just to take breaks and use bathroom.” Several students told The Post they and their pals shared the sentiment….Student-body President Nissim Said blamed the sentiments on an NYPD operation that sent an undercover cop to infiltrate the school’s Muslim community in search of Islamic terrorists.

Most interesting however, are the NYPD’s reactions. Please pay attention to the language below. Note the hostility, the entitlement, the self-pity:

Police who patrol the neighborhood around Brooklyn College were outraged at the students’ hostility to law-enforcement personnel. “It’s not like we’re invading their campus,” one cop said. “We’re only going there to use the bathroom.” Another called the students “insane,” adding: “That protester culture is warping their f–king minds.” NYPD sergeants-union chief Ed Mullins suggested, “Maybe it’s time these students, who fail to recognize the value of those protecting them, go take classes abroad — where they can have their bathrooms all to themselves.”

 In another article, an old offender, the morally deficient Pat Lynch chimed in as well:

The head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Pat Lynch, said the college “needs to stand up for police officers and teach students to appreciate those who risk their lives so that they can get an education.”

“They will learn when they get out in the real world that police officers not only protect the rights of all to voice their opinions, regardless of how ill informed or moronic they may be, but we are the ones who will risk our lives to save them when an active shooter appears on campus,” he added.

The inconvenience caused to the police is minor; their reactions however, suggests that severe psychic damage has been caused. The fragility on display is alarming, a familiar reminder that the folks who patrol our city, ostensibly keeping the peace, all the while armed to the hilt, are very angry folks, easy to offend. Perhaps in these reactions we find the best case made for the students’ request that they stay off campus. With their guns and anger.

Note: The city’s Mayor, Bill De Blasio not wanting a repeat of the unpleasantness that has marred his relationship with the city’s police force, obligingly agreed:

Mayor de Blasio said the school “should never ban any police presence on campus.” “That makes no sense whatsoever,” Hizzoner said. “But even if it’s a student group, I think it’s misguided. I agree with the commissioner.”


An Irresponsible, Yet Edifying, Adventure

A couple of weekends ago, my family and I set out to hike Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Highlands just outside New York City. I’d hiked the Ridge for the first time the day before we went and judged the route–sometimes exaggeratedly described as “the hardest hike around New York City”–to be doable by my almost-five-year old daughter. It was; the scramble up to the top is indeed steep and rocky at points, but nothing that a little hand-holding would not ameliorate. The greatest environmental hazards and barriers were the large weekend crowds from the city; hundreds of folks accompanied us on our hike, making us feel, more often than not, that we were concert goers heading up for a recital on the ridge’s exposed ledges. Enroute, on a flatter portion of the ridge, we stopped to watch a few youngsters doing some bouldering on a large rock structure with a crack running down the middle. One young man had already scaled the feature; another one was attempting to scale it. After a few tries, he gave up, joining in the laughing and general merriment that seemed to be characteristic of this young, adventurous group. My curiosity was piqued; I decided to give the route a try.

There was a minor problem with this decision. The bouldering underway was proceeding without a protective pad, the kind used to cushion falls when boulderers slip or dismount. The ground beneath was not rocky but the route was long and exposed enough to ensure that a fall could hurt badly. Nevertheless, I began my ‘ascent,’ wedging my fingers into the crack for my starting hold and moving on from there. I had lost sight of my wife and daughter; they had moved on ahead and up to the top of the rock. After a couple of false starts, and one partial retreat, I began inching my way up the face. As I did so, I realized with some alarm that the time for safe descents was past; I had to climb this rock in order to be safe. There was no way but up. All around me, my spectators had gone quiet. They had perhaps realized this fact too.

At that moment, a curious crystallization of my thoughts took place; I was gripped with a terror of sorts, but also a tremendous clarity. I had no choice; I had to make it. Every point of contact with the rock became measured; every movement became precise. I did not make any tentative moves; there was no attempt to use a hold that did not seem like it would work. I could see the ‘promised land’ just a few feet away, and sensed out of the corner of my eyes, the young man who had climbed the rock move toward me to extend a helping hand in case I needed it. But he would not be able to help me if I slipped, and certainly no one below me would be able to cushion my fall. I was simultaneously terrified and determined; I had to make this. Or else. That clarity made me climb on. Successfully.

A few seconds later, I was up on top, high-fiving folks. My wife fixed me with a stony glare, and told me to never try that again. She was right; had I fallen, I could have suffered a broken bone or two, a painful and inconvenient injury up at the top of Breakneck Ridge. We were hiking with our daughter, and we had to get her off the ridge as well. It was an irresponsible move on my part. And yet, for hours, I could not stop smiling. Those few moments of absolutely crystalline concentration of mind and body, of utter absorption in the task, of experiencing such acute sensitivity of touch and hold–all mingled with a peculiar terror–were indescribable. Yet again, climbing had delivered; I had been transported.

Contra Cathy O’Neil, The ‘Ivory Tower’ Does Not ‘Ignore Tech’

In ‘Ivory Tower Cannot Keep On Ignoring TechCathy O’Neil writes:

We need academia to step up to fill in the gaps in our collective understanding about the new role of technology in shaping our lives. We need robust research on hiring algorithms that seem to filter out peoplewith mental health disorders…we need research to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made again and again. It’s absolutely within the abilities of academic research to study such examples and to push against the most obvious statistical, ethical or constitutional failures and dedicate serious intellectual energy to finding solutions. And whereas professional technologists working at private companies are not in a position to critique their own work, academics theoretically enjoy much more freedom of inquiry.

There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives. That’s not surprising. Which academic department is going to give up a valuable tenure line to devote to this, given how much academic departments fight over resources already?

O’Neil’s piece is an unfortunate continuation of a trend to continue to castigate academia for its lack of social responsibility, all the while ignoring the work academics do in precisely those domains where their absence is supposedly felt.

In her Op-Ed, O’Neil ignores science and technology studies, a field of study that “takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology,” and many of whose members are engaged in precisely the kind of studies she thinks should be undertaken at this moment in the history of technology. Moreover, there are fields of academic studies such as philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and the sociology of knowledge, all of which take very seriously the task of examining and critiquing the conceptual foundations of science and technology; such inquiries are not elucidatory, they are very often critical and skeptical. Such disciplines then, produce work that makes both descriptive and prescriptive claims about the practice of science, and the social, political, and ethical values that underwrite what may seem like purely ‘technical’ decisions pertaining to design and implementation. The humanities are not alone in this regard, most computer science departments now require a class in ‘Computer Ethics’ as part of the requirements for their major (indeed, I designed one such class here at Brooklyn College, and taught it for a few semesters.) And of course, legal academics have, in recent years started to pay attention to these fields and incorporated them in their writings on ‘algorithmic decision making,’ ‘algorithmic control’ and so on. (The work of Frank Pasquale and Danielle Citron is notable in this regard.) If O’Neil is interested, she could dig deeper into the philosophical canon and read works by critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer who mounted rigorous critiques of scientism, reductionism, and positivism in their works. Lastly, O’Neil could read my co-authored work Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, a central claim of which is that transparency, not opacity, should be the guiding principle for software design and deployment. I’d be happy to send her a copy if she so desires.

The Worst Sentence William James Ever Wrote

I have just concluded, in one of my classes this semester, my teaching of William James‘ classic Pragmatisma bona fide philosophical classic, one richly repaying close reading and elaboration of its central theses. My admiration for James’ writing and thought continues to grow, even as this semester, I encountered a passage that is remarkably incongruous with all I know about James’ sensitivity and appreciation of diverse religious traditions–this is after all, the man who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Lecture IX, ‘Pragmatism and Religion,’ James says:

Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety…is unwarranted. It is a real adventure….Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? Would you say that, rather than be part and parcel of so fundamentally pluralistic and irrational a universe, you preferred to relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which you had been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice?

[I]f you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. There is a healthy-minded buoyancy in most of us which such a universe would exactly fit. We would therefore accept the offer…Yet perhaps some would not; for there are morbid minds in every human collection, and to them the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance of safety would probably make no appeal. There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving….We want a universe where we can just give up, fall on our father’s neck, and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the river or the sea.

The peace and rest, the security desiderated at such moments is security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The hindoo and the buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life. [emphasis added]

The total misunderstanding on display here of these two great religious and philosophical traditions is acutely disappointing. James seems to have absorbed, uncritically, the most facile and reductive view possible of the claims they make; he reduces the diversity of Indian thought to a quick caricature. ‘Nirvana’ is not nothingness; it indicates a state of living in this world that is not afflicted by the pointless suffering that is the lot of all those who do not practice the kind of ‘ironic detachment’ the Buddha preached and practiced. The ‘hindoo’ for his part does not retreat, afraid of this world; nowhere in the diverse philosophical systems that make up ‘Hindu thought’ is retreat from the world the central prescriptive claim. At best, it might be one of the practices that lead to enlightenment, one of the stages of life that we must pass through.

James betrays here a parochialism that still infects the modern academy; the misunderstanding on display still reigns supreme.