9/26/2007

Logic job at Alberta

From my man at the University of Alberta, Ingo Brigandt, comes news of a logic job in his department:

The Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta, invites applications for a tenure-track position in Philosophy, with a specialization in Logic. Other areas of research and teaching specialization and competence are open. The appointment will be made at the rank of Assistant Professor, effective July 1, 2008. Responsibilities include undergraduate and graduate teaching and maintaining an active research programme. Tenure stream faculty normally teach four one term courses per year. Candidates should hold a PhD in Philosophy and provide evidence of scholarly and teaching excellence. Salary is commensurate with qualifications and experience, and the benefit package is comprehensive. Applicants should arrange to send a letter of application indicating the position applied for and describing areas of research interest, curriculum vitae, all university transcripts, a sample of written work, letters from three referees, and, if available, a teaching dossier and teaching evaluations to Bruce Hunter, Chair, Logic Search, Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA, T6G 2E5. CLOSING DATE: November 10, 2007. The University of Alberta hires on the basis of merit. We are committed to the principle of equity in employment. We welcome diversity and encourage applications from all qualified women and men, including persons with disabilities, members of visible minorities, and Aboriginal persons. All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be given priority. For further information concerning the Department, please consult http://www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/philosophy/.

Ingo also tells me that Alberta will be advertising a postdoc and an open Associate professor position this year, so all you Oilers fans should start polishing your CVs.

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9/25/2007

Haslanger on conceptual analysis and social construction

Last Friday we were lucky enough to have Sally Haslanger visit. She gave a lecture that was open to (and aimed at) the general public, called "But mom, crop-tops are cute! The Social Critique of Social Knowledge". We also basically had a seminar on some of her recent work on social constructionism and the metaphysics, epistemology, and semantics of social kinds, where we peppered her with questions and she enlightened us. We also talked a fair amount about the current deplorable level of sexism in academic philosophy. (Her recent paper on this topic has generated a good deal of discussion, and I, like much of the rest of the philosophical blogosphere, can unequivocally recommend it.)

One thing that I especially like about her work is that she takes the basic ideas of social constructionism and (re-?)formulates them in a way that is much more palatable to analytic philosophers. I always felt some basic affinity for the social constructionist project, yet oftentimes the way it is couched by sociologists, anthropologists, social historians, etc. either confuses me or seems just a bit too crazy. She translates good bits into the idiom of current Anglophone philosophy in a very helpful way.

An example: Social constructionists might say that our conceptual scheme forces us into ways of thinking and acting that is often opaque to ourselves; that our concepts somehow create an illusory false consciousness that 'masks' their true nature. Haslanger has a nice way of thinking about such an idea that (I think) makes sense to an analytic philosopher. How can we misunderstand our own concepts? She says we should distinguish between the manifest concept, which is (roughly) captured by the dictionary definition an ordinary language-user would give, and the operative concept, which is (roughly) captured by the way the community in question actually draws distinctions/ applies the concept in practice. As an example of where these two things pull apart, she suggests race: the 'ordinary' person's definition of race will include some sort of biological (or at least broadly physical/ natural) component; yet the way we actually classify people as white, black, etc. actually does not track some single shared genetic -- or even biological -- trait. So now we have (to my mind) a clean account of where the 'illusion' or 'opacity' comes in: the operative concept will be used in the vast majority of everyday life, but when we consciously reflect on what we're doing (specifically, what distinction we are drawing), then the manifest concept takes the leading role.

What should we do when the manifest and operative concepts split apart like this? Haslanger does not want to say that we should always opt for one over the other as somehow the real meaning. Rather, she says, when we have this mismatch, that creates an opportunity to re-think the question 'What, exactly, do we want this concept for? -- What function (if any) do we want this concept to serve in our thinking?' And here we have a third concept, which she calls the 'target concept.' And here is where the normative aspects of ideology critique can appear: what should this concept be? (Note: we do not need a mismatch between operative and manifest concepts in order to ask about the target concept -- but the presence of a conflict generates a desire for a resolution, and the target concept holds out the promise of resolving the conflict between the operative and manifest concepts.)

I'm pretty sure I haven't captured Sally's ideas in exactly the way she would put them, but I hope I'm not horribly far off. If this is in the ballpark, I'm wondering about a couple of things concerning this tripartite picture:

(1) Are there really ethical ways to sort entities and unethical ones? Just creating a set with a certain group of members does not seem to me like the kind of thing that can be moral or immoral. Of course, classifications can be used to commit horrible injustices – insert any oppressed group here for an example. But, I want to say, just as the atomic theory of matter is not really ethically good or bad in itself, though it can be used to build an atomic bomb which can be used to commit ethical atrocities, the act of classification is not good or bad in itself (even though it may be a necessary precondition for injustice – or reparation). [I should note that after her talk, Sally did mention that she had thought a lot about whether the normative dimension of ideology critique should be separated from the conceptual analysis part; so this remark would be no news to her.]

(2) This is my being thick, I think. I’m having trouble seeing how exactly the idea of ideology (as studied by people in the social sciences) maps onto Haslanger’s tripartite conceptual scheme. Why? Because ideology (when it’s working ‘well’) is “implicit” knowledge, i.e., it is taken for granted and deployed without even noticing that we are using it, only semiconsciously or unconsciously. When it is articulated explicitly, it ceases to be as effective. So that sounds like it maps onto the ‘operative concept.’ But e.g. in the case of race, a social constructionist or an eliminativist about race wants to say the idea of race being biologically grounded is a key part of racial ideology – but that is the ‘manifest concept.’ So maybe ideology doesn’t map neatly onto Haslanger’s conceptual classifications, but I got the sense that she wanted it to.

It was great having Sally here. She is as rigorous and uncompromising an analytical philosopher as you could hope to meet, but she actually works on things that matter to people’s lives. So she really should be a model to the philosophical community.

9/14/2007

Out of Africa

I came back from Africa just in time for the new school term. To my pleasant surprise, we have returned uneaten by the wildlife, and (apparently) uninfected by any of the various diseases that the guidebooks said were rampant in sub-Saharan Africa.

I had hoped that spending over a month working in (first) rural schools and (second) refugee camps, that I would have some sort of insight or revelation about circumstances in the developing world, or the proper relationship affluent Western people and countries should have with developing areas. Or some epiphany about globalization etc. No such luck. I met many people who were very smart, very kind and generous, and very funny. I worked on some very small projects with some of these folks. I miss them now. But no deep enlightenment about the difficult conditions of the majority of the world's inhabitants.

I also didn't have any real thoughts about philosophical stuff; just one little note that I might try to incorporate into an intro to political philosophy class. So one issue that comes up in political philosophy 101 in the debate between Hobbes and Locke is whether it is worse to live in the state of nature, or under a dictator. Hobbes says the former is worse, Locke the latter. I always thought this was an important question in the dialectic between the two, but answering it seemed difficult to impossible -- how could you really decide?

Well, during the 50 hours or so I spent riding travel buses in Zambia, I read a great book by Martin Meredith, called The State of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence. It was perfect for an ignoramus like me: not too much detail, but still plenty of concrete material. And the history of the last several decades in Africa makes Locke's answer to the above question look prima facie pretty good. The large majority of the strongmen were absolutely brutal to citizens, and not just people who "got on the dictator's bad side" -- you could be from the wrong tribe; you could have starvation-inducing taxes levied upon you; as we see in Zimbabwe today, your currency could be massively devalued to the point of worthlessness. If you have a problem, then you are killed -- horrifically -- along with your friends and family. In the state of nature, you at least have a chance of overpowering your neighbor; but imagine if, in a Hobbesian state of nature, God gave one person the power of throwing deadly lightning bolts at will... that's what a strongman's presence is like. And as e.g. Mobutu's power in the DRC waned, and his paramilitary power dwindled, you no longer have a capricious and wrathful Zeus hanging over your head. (Though then another strongman, Kabila, fills the void, backed by neighboring countries, and horrors continue.)

I say this is prima facie evidence, because I think a Hobbesian could conceivably retort that as the strongman's ability to throw thunderbolts decreases, some other social entity steps in to take his place, so that the people are not in the state of nature. But this is all just my amateurish speculation; I am certainly not an expert in early modern British political philosophy.