A Pro-Bono Offer To Teach Brett Stephens Some Epistemology

This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.

I’m a professor of philosophy of Brooklyn College and I’m writing to offer to teach epistemology (the study of knowledge) to Brett Stephens, your Op-Ed columnist. His last three essays (‘This Revolution Too, Will Eat It’s Children‘, ‘This I Believe About Blasey vs. Kavanaugh,’ ‘Believability is the Road to National Ruin‘) have shown an alarming ignorance of some basic principles of epistemology–the kind that we introduce to our beginner undergraduate students in elementary introductions to philosophy or in our elective epistemology class. (The study of epistemology goes back all the way to Plato and a firm grounding in its fundamentals is essential for any student, not just philosophy majors.)

To wit,  Mr. Stephens does not understand the relationship between beliefs and action. He does not understand the difference between belief and knowledge. He does not understand the difference between different epistemic standards employed in differing contexts–as such, he does not understand the difference between legal standards of belief and knowledge, and how they pertain to legal decisions, and ‘normal’ or other standards of belief and knowledge and how they apply in different contexts. These are elementary distinctions and everyone, especially every adult and every responsible citizen of a democratic republic, should be aware of them. It is entirely possible that Mr. Stephens has never taken a class in philosophy or epistemology and perhaps he has never been introduced to the notion of ‘epistemic standards’ and how these might vary across different ‘epistemic contexts.’ But that is no reason for him to remain ignorant of them.

Which is where my pro-bono offer to teach Mr. Stephens some basic epistemology comes in. I also teach philosophy of law, and would be happy to introduce Mr. Stephens to some basic jurisprudential debates about the nature of belief formation in legal contexts and how even within legal domains, there can be differing epistemic standards that generate varying epistemic contexts.

I write in the spirit of offering to perform my civic duty. Mr. Stephens has a prominent and powerful pulpit from which he can address the American people, and he is, as I am, concerned about the state of the American Republic. I believe, as I’m sure he does, that his writing would be improved if he did not trade in the sorts of elementary confusions that are on display in his writing. Mr. Stephens indicates in his pieces the need to keep an open mind; I appreciate that spirit, and in keeping with it, would like to help educate Mr. Stephens.

I do not have contact information for Mr. Stephens and would appreciate it if you could please forward this email to him. I can be reached at my work email address above. I look forward to hearing from him, given his avowed commitment to open inquiry and fair thinking.

Professor Samir Chopra
Department of Philosophy
Brooklyn College
2900 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11210


Breaking News: The US Supreme Court is a Political Institution

Yesterday in Florence vs. Board of Freeholders, the US Supreme Court ruled that if you are arrested–for any reason whatsoever–the law-enforcement officials in charge of you can strip-search you. Over at ScotusBlog, Lyle Denniston sums it up a little better:

Insisting that it has no expertise in how to run a jail or prison, the Supreme Court divided 5-4 Monday in ruling that every person arrested and held temporarily can be subjected to a routine strip search, so long as it involves only a visual inspection without touching or abusive gestures.  The prisoner, however, may be told to manipulate some part of the body….The Court explicitly refused to limit the authority to use strip searches only to situations in which a specific individual gave officers a reason to consider that prisoner to be dangerous or likely to be carrying a concealed weapon or drugs.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said the law was best defined as a prediction of what judges or courts would do. In that sense, this Supreme Court offers stable law: take any case, imagine what a  run-of-the-mill-conservative would suggest as a ruling and write down ‘4’ next to it; do the same for a run-of-the-mill-liberal. Then, for the deciding ninth vote–Justice Kennedy’s–you could toss a coin or roll a dice or inspect tea leaves.

This confidence in predicting ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ votes stems, of course, from voting patterns but also from the transparent displays of ideological commitments by Supreme Court Judges in their spoken pronouncements and their writings. For instance, in Florence vs. Board of Freeholders, the Supreme Court’s majority ruled that in this domain, it had to defer to jail and prison managers, that it possessed no relevant expertise that could be brought to bear on their activities. This is a striking admission of limitations, one that we can be sure will not be expressed any time in the future when a conservative outcome is required.

I could carry on like this, picking apart each point of the majority ruling, but it would be a far better use of my time to simply note what many have done since Bush v. Gore: the US Supreme Court is just another political institution (This politicization of the institution does not back only to 2000, of course. It is just that in Bush v. Gore, the court’s politicization was made overt in, I think, a previously unprecedented manner.) The US Supreme Court  has an ideology; it has political preferences; it most assuredly has dogs in the fight, and it will back them by any means necessary; it has political rhetoric at its disposal, and when it wants an otherwise weak or untenable legal argument to carry weight it will back it up with just that rhetoric.

In this situation, there is something quite touching about the gallons of ink spilled, by our nation’s legal class, on intricate legal analysis of fact patterns and the like, in an effort to predict and analyze Supreme Court judgments.  One might think that legal analysis never offered any cause for hilarity; but in matters like these, it most assuredly does. And this is not restricted to those that analyze Supreme Court rulings but even those who write them: the painful, intricate, attempts to cover up straightforward political preferences with long-winded, superficially sophisticated legal arguments can only be chuckle-inducing. Better, I think, to be honest, and simply use my method of prediction above. It is concise; it is honest; it gets you the same predictions as a fancy Harvard or Yale lawyer might.

Who would have thought it: law can be politics by other means.