Monday, December 22, 2008

Teaching Philosophy of Science

When I was an undergraduate, one of the best courses I took was philosophy of science, and that was years before I thought about turning in this direction as a career. I've finally found the confidence, time, and support to teach the course using the technique that I so enjoyed as a student, satellite presentations on problems in the special sciences.

Why do we teach philosophy of science courses with confirmation and explanation at their center, maybe winding up the course with Structures of Scientific Revolutions and a few thoughts about realism or constructivism? Judging from the textbooks that are out there, this is the standard format.

But whose research is general, or in confirmation and explanation? Our research interests are problems in molecular biology, levels of evolutionary selection, evaluations of climate models, how economics represents the rational mind, and so on... Those are the truly interesting questions, and we keep our undergraduate students out of them because we think the problems are too complex or require too much technical sophistication. Or maybe because our own expertise is in one narrow area of biology, and so we wouldn't be able to tackle the problems in psychiatry, physics, and information processing with the appropriate level of skill.

I bit the bullet. I'm requiring a student presentation on a philosophical problem in the special sciences, but I'm adjusting my expectations to account for my own levels of expertise and my students' inexperience with philosophy, with science, and with presenting. We've had three weeks of our term, and many students have clearly expressed their excitement about doing independent research.

My hope is that these presentations will build skills, but also that they will be fun and interesting, and so will build curiosity. I don't remember much of anything from the lectures my undergraduate philosophy of science professor gave, but I do remember a half dozen of the student presentations--17 years and many many philosophy of science talks later!

I expect the format to accomplish several goals:
1. giving student presenters the opportunity to see what it is like to be the expert in the room.
2. giving student presenters the opportunity to present philosophical material. I allow but discourage PowerPoint for these 15-minute presentations. Several students were dismayed by this policy. "What are we supposed to do for 15 minutes if we don't use PowerPoint?"
3. open-ended questioning that models philosophical inquiry. Many of the topics that were chosen will lead us into the territory of metaphysics, logic, confirmation or explanation, methodology, and even religion.
4. student presenters acting as teachers--providing questions as much as answers; or, if answers, then answers which they have to defend.

The first weeks' presentations--on emergent properties (via Steven Johnson's popular book) and on the classification of mental illness--provoked a lot of quality discussion. I had suggested the latter topic as a possibility, but I didn't realize at the time how many questions it raises:
  • To what degree are disease concepts socially constructed?
  • What does social construction mean in this context? That a disease has an environmental component, e.g. one may have a genetic disposition but not be an alcoholic if never exposed to alcohol? Or that abnormality depends on acceptance and approbation?
  • To what degree does labeling the cause of unacceptable behavior a disease release the patient from responsibility from illegal actions?
  • Does identification of symptoms as the result of a physical illness rather than a mental illness depend on the sophistication of our science? That is, neurological disorders, in which a harm to brain tissue can be identified, are not classified as mental illnesses, but chemical imbalances are equally physical but as of yet unidentifiable.
The NYT reports on the development of the DSM-V, which will bring some of these questions about responsibility and social construction into wide discussion. Commentary by Christian Perring here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Take a breath of fresh air

What's a walk in the woods worth? And to whom?
Is it just "nature lovers" that unwind in the great out-of-doors?

A study in Psychological Science finds that people perform a memory task better after walking through an arboretum than after a walk in a streetscape. Even viewing scenic images is a better treatment for mental fatigue than pictures of buildings. Science does occasionally prove the obvious--in this case, that strolling in the forest really is relaxing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

CFP: "Science, Technology, and the Humanities"

This would be a great opportunity to hear Karen Barad speak, and it's within spitting distance of Manhattan.



April 24-25, 2009
College of Arts & Letters
Stevens Institute of Technology
Hoboken, New Jersey 07030

DAVID LOWENTHAL, Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, University College London
KAREN BARAD, Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Several scholarly disciplines focus on science and technology. Especially since World War II, the fields of the history, philosophy, literature, and social studies of science and technology have become well established as academic programs, and they have brought us ever richer and more subtle appreciations of science, technology, and their social dimensions.

As valuable and productive as these research endeavors have been, it is also the case that their principal purpose has been to produce better understandings of the enterprises of science and technology. Even where “external” or socially-oriented considerations have been brought to bear, by and large the goal has remained to shed new light on science and technology and the continuing roles they play in our lives. What remains of mere incidental or peripheral concern are the humanistic disciplines themselves.

In many ways, the traditional humanities and liberal arts have hardly felt the impact of these studies of science and technology. In recognizing this circumstance, the College of Arts & Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology has taken as its institutional mission to rethink the traditional humanities and liberal arts with science and technology as our points of departure. In so doing, we aim to reverse the analytical arrow and to focus more directly on the ways science and technology impact, inform, and redefine our disciplines.

Our upcoming conference, Science, Technology and the Humanities: A New Synthesis seeks to inquire—both on theoretical levels and in case studies—how by taking science and technology into consideration, we might enrich our understanding of history, philosophy, sociology, literary analysis, and the arts.

We invite as wide a range of speakers and papers as possible. We anticipate the speedy publication of conference proceedings. The closing date for consideration of proposals is January 15, 2009. Please send abstracts to CAL Conference, Spring ’09, c/o Prof. James E. McClellan III, College of Arts & Letters, Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030

Monday, December 01, 2008

Where are the Girl Mice in Physiology Research Labs?

Dr. Isis explains why the absence of female test subjects is not simply a matter of gender discrimination.

Namely, beliefs about gender have most certainly had a role in female-blindness (unlike gender-blindness, that's when researchers who depend on women to staff their offices--and who may themselves be women--don't notice that their research subjects are not). This can account, in part, for the assumption through most of the twentieth century that heart disease progresses the same in women as in men. The underlying assumption was that the differences between men and women are just the sexy ones. Although we know better now, research on women still progresses more slowly, and when research on women is lacking, the default position is that they must be more-or-less like men.

Dr. Isis says:
"as we interpret published findings, especially as they apply to the treatment of human patients, we have to remember to ask who comprised the cohort and ask if it is appropriate to apply the findings to female patients. Finally, we have to continue to support groups like the Society for Women's Health Research that remind us of a major gap in medical knowledge, appreciate the effect this gap has on public health, and aims to close it."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Crazy crazy Nietzsche

Let's start the week with a European philosophy mashup: a pairing of Family Circle with Friedrich Nietzsche.

This is mine:
Judgments, value judgments concerning life, for or against, can in the last resort never be true:
they possess value only as symptoms, they come into consideration only as symptoms -
in themselves such judgments are stupidities.

Now you try!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A fun question

On the SWIP list, someone asked what reading you would recommend to a 13-year-old who has expressed an interest in philosophy.

I'm trying to recall what I might have been reading when I was 13. Around that age, I loved mysteries, including Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I especially remember reading The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin in 5th grade.

I read the Symposium and the Crito when I was 14. Although I found them stimulating, I think they were too difficult for me to follow.

What age group reads Sophie's World? Is it at the right level for teens? I doubt that I could have maintained interest in such a long book back in those days. (Oh yeah, I guess I still avoid reading books that are more than 300 pages long!)

Are there some Borges short stories that are not too sophisticated? It's been years since I read them, but I loved "The Library of Babel" and "The Circular Path."

Friday, October 24, 2008

CFP: IASTS Conference

The 2009 annual meeting for the International Association for Science, Technology, and Society will be held at RIT! I expect to organize a session, but I haven't decided yet how to conceive of the topic. The possibilities revolve around sustainability, biodiversity, and ecosystem management. Then again, I might try to organize one on values in science, such as a successful session that we had at 4S a few years ago. If you're interested, please send me a note!

****** CALL FOR PAPERS ******

International Association of Science, Technology & Society
24th Annual Conference
April 2 to 4, 2009
RIT Inn and Conference Center
Rochester, NY

Paper proposals are invited by December 1, 2008 on themes addressing the relationships between science, technology, society and the biosphere or on specific aspects of STSB, as described on the IASTS website.

Two special themes will be featured:

* Retrospective on the thought of Jacques Ellul. A recent French book described him as “the man who foresaw almost everything,” and yet his work has not received the attention it merits as one of the most important thinkers in STSB.

* Perspective on efforts to creating sustainable energy utilities.

Paper proposals of no more than 450 words should describe the subject matter in sufficient detail for referees to make an informed decision. Please send these proposals as rich-text files to Professor Pamela Mack:
Please indicate IASTS in your subject line. We encourage early submissions, and will provide notice of acceptance, acceptance with suggested modifications, or rejection, within one month. The last date for receiving proposals is December 1, 2008.

This week's thoughts on women in philosophy

I haven't posted much on women in philosophy lately, but the concern is always operating there in the background. My current research is not in feminist theory, the course I'm teaching includes only a handful of women authors, I don't even run into my female colleagues on campus. But the concern is always there, and here are some of the ways it has been popping into my head lately:
  • We just had winter quarter registration, and my philosophy of science course has 1 woman out of 32 students. I've had 6 additional requests from people who want to get into the course, and all of those have been from men. 
  • I mentioned this dearth of women to a colleague, who said "well, what do you expect? RIT is 2/3 male." I'd be satisfied with a class of 32 that had 10 women in it! The background ratio doesn't come close to explaining why women students don't take upper-level philosophy classes. And the fact that it's philosophy of science? The ratio of male:female students in the sciences at RIT is more equal than the student body as a whole. Look at it this way: I have more deaf students in my courses than women.
  • I also mentioned it to our program coordinator, who responded that the gender imbalance will probably correct itself since I was hired last year and another female professor starts next quarter. Having a few women professors in the department is important, but it's not enough. And recruiting women should not be all on our shoulders.
  • Most of the attention to the gender gap elsewhere in the profession has been in reference to the hiring of women professors. But I do believe the (incomplete) data indicate that one significant difference between our leaky pipeline and the pipeline in the sciences is that most of the leakiness is at the undergrad level. How can I fault our program coordinator for having no plan to recruit women except to cross his fingers and wait? Because I'm not sure that anyone has a clear idea of how to do it.
  • At least at RIT, the lack of interest among women is not due to the unclear or unlucrative career path for philosophy students. We just got a major this year, so nearly all the students in the upper-level philosophy courses take the course to fulfill a liberal arts requirement.
  • I was trying to pick a textbook for the class, and I had the same frustration I have every year: every single textbook in philosophy of science contains only selections by men or, if it does contain some selections by women, they are writing as "feminist" philosophers of science.  This is true even of the textbook put together by a woman (Janet Kourany's). Why? We women make up between 10 and 20% of philosophers of science, so why don't we make up between 10 and 20% of the authors in the textbooks? Those of us who write on feminist philosophy of science write on other things, as well.
  • Finally, I'm looking forward to the women's caucus at the Philosophy of Science Association annual meeting in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

CFP: Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering Conference

Call for Papers

Philosophical Inquiry into Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering

May 14-16, 2009
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon

The conference will be primarily philosophical in focus, but we also invite interdisciplinary scholarship from fields outside of philosophy including, but not limited to, sociology, psychology, women’s and gender studies, and health care related fields.

Keynote Speakers:
Eva Kittay, State University of New York at Stony Brook
Lisa Guenther, Vanderbilt University
Invited Speaker:
Andrea O’Reilly, the Association for Research on Mothering, York University

Submit abstracts for papers or panels. Approximately 750 words.
Due January 31 at 5pm.
Email submissions or questions to :
Include a cover sheet with name, institution, department, & contact information.
Document should be submitted in MS Word (.doc file).
For additional information please link to:
Anyone who would like to receive a poster or postcard version of the CFP can email

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Diversity Among Philosophers

Anne Jacobson has posted some thoughts about the barriers to increasing the proportion of philosophers who are women, and she lists some of the available resources.

In comments, Bryce Huebner articulates a well-founded reason for skepticism:
"[W]hether these strategies are likely to help at all is contingent on people in the discipline recognizing that there are implicit biases at play in our psychology that we can’t just suppress and move on. The fact is that non-conscious processes play an integral role in our psychology. Moreover, they are incredibly difficult to modulate. And, unfortunately, this is something that is hard for many academics to recognize."

The 80th Philosophers' Carnival...

is up here, with a special U.S election theme. Rima Basu's collection includes many thoughtful post on the ethics of voting and civic responsibility, not to mention my earlier post on whether there is an ethical argument for buying local. Thanks, Rima!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Local Economies and Ethics

In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben argues in support of local media and in support of distributed power generation. (This is my university's common text this year, and I'm teaching it in my ethics course.)

I’ve long believed that these are important and under-appreciated public problems (together with how recent expansions of intellectual property rights constrain creativity).

McKibben cleverly twins these issues as symptoms of a larger problem: the loss of local control over how we lead our lives. If local media were substituted for corporate nation-wide media, we would have the opportunity to develop our own tastes and ideas, not just swallowing what is mass-produced for everyone to consume. We might appreciate the diversity around us, learn more about our communities, and develop new tastes. If we had the ability to feed to as well as take from the electric grid, we might find pleasure in making this commodity for our neighbors to use:

Instead of something that you buy from far away, energy becomes something you help make and distribute to your neighbors. On a sunny day I can walk down to the electric meter under my porch and watch it spin the wrong way. As long as the sun stays out, the solar panels on my roof make me a utility. It’s a sweet feeling, knowing that my neighbor’s refrigerator is running off the panels above my head….Japan leads the world in building a decentralized solar-panel energy economy…[Perhaps] because people feel both an obligation to and an ability to trust one another… (p. 148)

But I’m left with the question: What is ethical about supporting local economies? Is this just a fancy twist on identifying and supporting what is in our own selfish interests? Sometimes McKibben presents localism as a way of keeping profits in the community: we support our neighbors’ businesses, and then they reciprocate and support us. We benefit by cutting out middlemen who drain profits out of the community.

This may be smart and it may be efficient, but is there any sense in which it could be ethical? Indeed, an emphasis on local communities over the universal public cuts against over 200 years of Kantian ethics and over 100 years of calculating “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I’ve been wondering how to fit this support for local economies into an ethics class. In an earlier post, I argued that virtue ethics can sometimes do the job, since virtue is aimed at guiding people to cultivate the virtues that we most admire in others, including virtues such as charity, friendliness, and living deliberately. Care ethics, in particular, prioritizes beneficence directed toward our circles of family, friends, and acquaintances over beneficence to strangers.

Without adopting a version of virtue/care ethics, it is impossible to say what drives a choice to consume local goods rather than imported ones (excluding, of course, the environmental cost of transportation). In utilitarian fashion, Peter Singer argues that buying food products grown in poverty-stricken areas directs our money to the people who benefit from it the most. He argues convincingly (in The Way We Eat) that this is true even when foreign growers are not participating in fair trade programs. Against this argument, McKibben’s plea to invest in local communities rather than poor communities seems to be supported by little more than self-interest? (Certainly, many of my students interpret it in that way.)

However, I think that support for local economies, local power generation, local media, and local agriculture can be justified in one more way. It can be justified on the grounds of the psychology of responsibility and on the limits of knowledge. Looking for justification from ethical theory is to look in the wrong toolbox. Instead, we should look to social epistemology and to moral psychology.

The greatest benefit of localism is that it functions to establish accountability. McKibben sells localism as a route to greater happiness—we are more likely to have friendly, meaningful conversations at the farmer’s market than the supermarket. But another benefit of localism is that it’s easier to know what’s going on in a limited sphere, and we are more likely to take an interest in it. “NIMBY” is a phrase that’s used to denigrate elites who would prefer exploitive, dangerous, unsightly, or polluting operations to be located out of sight, in other communities or overseas. But there’s a positive side to NIMBY movements, too. If something is so unpleasant or harmful that no one wants it, there is motivation to change our practices or improve our technologies or accept higher prices. When products and power come from under our noses, it's much more difficult to hide or externalize costs.

Perhaps McKibben's best example is of local, sustainable logging. In the forestry industry, it is efficient to clearcut an area and then replant it. One reason this is efficient is that it takes all of the value now, and thus hedges bets against an uncertain future. Another reason is that sustainable logging is more labor and equipment and time intensive. In fact, with the economy going the way it has been (barring global recession, that is), it is more economically efficient to harvest the value from forests now and to reinvest the profit. Any standard investment will reap a greater economic return over the time that it takes to regrow a forest than to actually regrow the forest. But this is a viable strategy only if you don't mind eradicating your forests, and forests have more than economic value. In McKibben's example, people are more willing to pay a higher price for sustainable forest products if those products come from woods that they know and enjoy.

The ethical aspect of McKibben’s localism is that it activates responsibility.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

CFP: Evidence, Science and Public Policy

It is high time that philosophers of science became more involved in bridging theory and policy problems. Science and technology policy now extend to many issues, most of which, other than medical policy, have received less attention than they deserve. I hope a conference like this one emerges soon stateside. I know that I can't justify the time, expense, and carbon expenditures to make it to Australia in the middle of spring quarter.


Sydney-Tilburg conference on

Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science
26-28 March 2009

Conference website:


KEYNOTE SPEAKERS: Mark Burgman (University of Melbourne), John Quiggin (University of Queensland) and John Worrall (London School of Economics)

ORGANISERS: Mark Colyvan (Sydney), Stephan Hartmann (Tilburg), James Justus (Sydney) and Jan Sprenger (Tilburg)

The relationship between science and public policy is complex. Good public policy on matters such as the environment, climate change, health, the economy, and justice must be informed by good science. But this science needs to be conducted in ways amenable to the needs of the policy makers and the results communicated in ways accessible to both the policy makers and the public at large. Public policy issues might even impinge on the science itself. For example, acceptable levels of error might be thought to be determined by the consequences of the decisions to be made using the scientific findings. This raises many interesting philosophical questions about the relationship between science, evidence and public policy. Should science remain independent of policy decisions and concern itself only with evidence? Is this possible? What is evidence-based medicine and does it live up to its advertising? What is evidence-based public policy and what does it offer above standard policy making? Our goal in this conference is to bring together philosophers of science, political philosophers, policy makers, and other researchers interested in the science-policy interface. We welcome papers on any of the above questions as well as papers on broader issues concerning evidence, especially in applied contexts (e.g. legal, medical, and environmental).

We invite submissions of
extended abstracts of up to 1000 words by 1 December 2008. Decisions will be made by 15 January 2009.

CFP: Technology, Culture, and Globalization

My colleague, Evan Selinger, has passed on this CFP for the annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy of Technology. I couldn't help but notice that most of the conference organizers are men, although the subject of the CFP is very relevant to feminist issues. This would be a good research area for feminist philosophers, and especially FEMMSSists and FEASTers to develop.

Call for Papers

Converging Technologies, Changing Societies

16th International Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology

July 8-10, 2009

University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands

Deadline for abstracts: January 5, 2009

SPT 2009 welcomes high quality papers and panel proposals in all areas of philosophy of technology. Given the focus of this year’s conference, papers dealing with converging technologies and their social and cultural impact are especially welcomed. SPT 2009 will include 15 tracks, including:

12. Technology, culture and globalisation. Chairs: Charles Ess and Evan Selinger

Globalized innovation facilitates new forms of experience and engenders dilemmas that call for critical philosophical inquiry. We invite analyses that explore the diverse interactions between technology, culture, and globalization. Suggested—but by no means exclusive—thematic possibilities include inquiry into:

* culturally-variable values, beliefs, norms, and practices as interacting with the design (expressed as affordances), implementation, and response to emerging / converging technologies (including, but not limited to ICTs) implicated by globalization;
* diverse cultural and philosophical perspectives on the globalizing roles and uses of technology – for development (including ICT4D); in efforts to overcome the Digital Divide; in possible diffusion of democracy, gender equality, freedom of expression; in conflicts occasioned by globally-distributed ICTs (e.g., the “Muhammed Cartoons” episode), etc.;
* how philosophical views on cosmopolitanism, post nation-state politics, the capabilities approach to justice, universal ethics, and the phenomenological experience of artifacts, may enhance our understanding of how cultural hybridization is emerging in relation to innovative uses of technology;
* how ICTs enable new industries, types of work, management styles, and financial markets to emerge, and along with them, the introduction of new goods, services, and priorities, as well as identifying categories, such as “knowledge worker” and the “information economy.”

Descriptions of all the tracks can be found on our website

Papers will be accepted on the basis of a submitted abstract, which will be refereed. An abstract must be between 500 and 750 words in length (references excluded) and submitted via email ( as embedded plain text or an attachment in RTF or WORD (no docx) or PDF format. It should also contain the name and number of the track to which the abstract is submitted. Abstracts must be submitted no later than
January 5, 2009. Authors will be informed of the decision of the referees by March 2, 2009.

Panel Proposals. We will also accept proposals for panel discussions, also to be submitted by
January 5, 2009. Panel proposals must include a statement of the general topic and an overview of the specific questions or issues to be addressed. In addition, the proposal should include a list of the panelists involved, their expertise in this area, and whether they have indicated that they are willing to participate.

Using Edublogs

I've been using a blog at to supplement my Intro to Ethics class. I post the assignments so they're available electronically, I post interesting links or thoughts that didn't make it into the lecture, and students have posted comments to continue our in-class discussion. As a method, the course blog is a superb fit with my teaching style, the course content (timely environmental issues), and RIT students' predilections (lots of time online). 

As a platform, has lost my support. The positive aspects are that it's free, that it's run on Wordpress (which provides many superior design options compared to Blogger), and (supposedly) it creates an educational community. I haven't seen much community, except for Brandon Watson's excellent ethics course blog.

Problems started a couple of weeks ago when I had trouble posting. The site posted an announcement that there would be an interruption of service for a couple of hours in the wee hours of Saturday morning. The interruption continued through the entire weekend, making it impossible for my students to access their assignment, the reading schedule, etc. From Monday through Wednesday, I was able to access the site only on occasion, with a lower than 10% success rate. At times, it was offline completely; at other times, I could view but not post.

I located the blog of the founder, James Farmer (interestingly, not itself hosted on edublogs), which had a note about the extended outage issues. In a comment, I asked 
Can you give me a reason that I shouldn't migrate to Blogger? I like the wordpress design and the educational community, but reliability is everything.
The response I received was:
Good luck with migration issues.
Hard to imagine a clearer blow-off!

I was truly hoping to hear some good reasons that would save me the trouble of moving to another host (the sunk-cost fallacy had me in its hold), but now I'll be on my way as soon as this quarter winds down.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Candidates Who Support Science

At the Your Candidates, Your Health website, you can see answers that the two major party presidential candidates and some Congressional candidates have given to a questionnaire about health and science policies.

The questions are along these lines:
Do you agree or disagree that it is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure all Americans have basic health care coverage?

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? "The U.S. is in danger of losing its global competitive edge in science, technology and innovation." If you agree, what approach would you take to change this trend?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cultivating Good Ideas

I read a New Yorker article not so long ago about how the process of insight works, and since then I've been noticing how and when different kinds of my ideas originate.

We all have flashes of insight at unusual times--not the times that we're thinking about a problem--but times when we're somewhat relaxed. For me it's when I'm waking up or going to bed, in the shower, on the longish walk between my car and my office or, most typically, when I'm out for a run. These are not times when a pencil or computer is handy, and I'm always nervous I'll forget them. Why the bad timing?

According to the neuroscientists interviewed in the article, there are different brain pathways for cranking through a routine problem and for finding solutions to non-routine problems. The latter requires the brain to explore all kinds of cognitive resources, and the flash of certainty we get with an insight is due to the unconscious cognitive work that we've already done, not just generating an idea but checking its fit, as well. (And this raises questions about how much of our "selves" we are actually aware of!) The process of insight requires that the brain relax and that the conscious mind pay attention to the weaker and more distributed signals it gets from unexpected quarters. This happens when the soft voice of what we might call the insight module is not drowned out by the insistent and confident voice of the grinding module. Naps help.

Knowing how the insight process works and which kinds of problems need insight rather than grinding should help us to work more productively. All creative work feeds off of some insight. I do think that in philosophy, there are some routines or scripts that are used to generate ideas, such as the many iterations on "A Kantian Analysis of..." the latest social problem in the headlines. The most interesting ideas, though, have more unique forms. Interdisciplinary work also requires bringing ideas that have not yet met each other into contact, and that resonates with the insight process.

Most of my work is of the grinding along nature. I have systems and reminders set up so that my lecture planning gets done on time. Also, the research writing that I'm doing right now is on some scientific research that is already completed, so that when I have the time to work on it, the process involves just describing what I did and what the results are. All the truly creative work came in the doing.

Blogging often feels creative to me, and sometimes driven by insight. Surfing others' blogs, perhaps because there is an element of the unexpected in what I will find, helps to turn on my own insight machine. In blogging (and for some, perhaps in writing their facebook updates), I pay attention not to something that I'm reading, but to my reactions about what I'm reading. I read something and then, an hour or day or week later, notice that I'm still thinking about it and that I have something to say. Knowing that there will be an audience is the motivation for thinking it through.

A piece on digital identity and security in the New York Times points out that many of us go through this process:
It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another — quite different — result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves.

Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter’s Web site — “What are you doing?” — can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?)

Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they’re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.
It occurs to me that this is a valuable and underappreciated effect of Web 2.0: it increases self-knowledge and reflection.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Ethical frameworks and sustainability

I'm teaching an Introduction to Ethics course with an emphasis on examining environmental sustainability. Although I've assigned a textbook that has some collected readings on ethical theories, the class is relying predominately on reading about environmental issues as they come up in non-philosophical venues.

I've had some difficulty illustrating the usefulness of Kantian ethics in the context of environmental problems. Any suggestions that readers have for how to apply Kantian ethics to such problems would be appreciated!

For instance, the class did work through the problem of overpopulation, achieving the insight that if everyone had large families, the human population would quickly exceed the earth's carrying capacity. But the implication that each and every one of us has a duty to limit family size to 2 children or fewer did little to guide recommendations for how that duty should be enforced or encouraged. Utilitarianism, by contrast, seems well suited to problems of global scope; increasingly, environmental and economic problems do have that scope.

Another problem that loomed was how to give theoretical ethical support to the lifestyle recommendations in Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. I happened across Peter Singer's recent book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, which provides utilitarian support to some, but not all, of McKibben's views (a review here).

Singer, for instance, does not find an ethical justification for buying locally-grown foods. He acknowledges the environmental reasons to support buying foods grown nearby rather than those transported across the US. But he also believes that we are doing more good for others by buying foods imported from poverty-stricken countries than buying US-produced food, even when products are not the result of fair trade practices. Also, I find the utilitarian argument against speciesism to be, well, specious.

I think virtue ethics, though, is ideal for justifying the kinds of actions that McKibben endorses. Even its derivative, care ethics, can make sense of why people choose to buy local: people who have definable relationships to us, who live in our communities, have a greater claim on our consideration.

Peter Singer, by the way, is speaking at RIT tomorrow on "A Better, More Sustainable World" at 2:30 pm in Golisano Auditorium. All are invited.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

CFP: Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice

Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP)
Second Biennial Conference
June 18-20, 2009
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA

Please send an abstract of 500 words, and full contact information, to
For registration and further information:
Deadline for submission: February 1st, 2009.

The Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP) aims to create an interdisciplinary community of scholars who approach the philosophy of science with a focus on scientific practice and the practical uses of scientific knowledge.

The SPSP biennial conferences provide a broad forum for scholars committed to making detailed and systematic studies of scientific practices — neither dismissing concerns about truth and rationality, nor ignoring contextual and pragmatic factors. The conferences aim at cutting through traditional disciplinary barriers and developing novel approaches. We welcome contributions from not only philosophers of science, but also philosophers working in epistemology and ethics, as well as the philosophy of engineering, medicine, agriculture, and other practical fields. Additionally, we welcome contributions from historians and sociologists of science, pure and applied scientists, and any others with an interest in philosophical questions regarding scientific practice.

The SPSP Conference in 2009 will be held concurrently with a large workshop for teachers on integrating historical, philosophical and sociological perspectives into science teaching ( Joint sessions are planned.

In addition to keynote lectures by invited speakers, the conference will feature parallel sessions with contributed papers. For the 2009 conference, we particularly welcome contributions on the topics listed below; however, other topics are by no means excluded. Please indicate clearly in your abstract which of the following topics (if any) your paper addresses — this will help us construct coherent themed sessions.
In addition to individual papers, proposals for whole, thematic sessions with coordinated papers are strongly encouraged, particularly those which include multiple disciplinary perspectives and/or input from scientific practitioners. Session proposals must include a 500-word abstract for each paper (or an equivalent amount of depth and detail, if the format of the proposed session is a less traditional one). Multiple submissions of any form by the same person will not be allowed.

1. Philosophy of Science and Science Education: How does philosophy of science inform science teaching? What ideas about scientific practice, including those based on historical and sociological perspectives, are important to teach? How can they be effectively taught in a science classroom? How is such understanding assessed? What insights and challenges might such contexts offer to philosophers?

2. Epistemology of Scientific Practice: There has been a degree of disconnection between epistemology and the philosophy of science, despite the clear relevance of the two fields to each other. We welcome contributions that flesh out epistemologists’ concerns in terms of scientific practice, or broaden traditional epistemological categories in order to make them more suitable for the understanding of knowledge practices.

3. Experimental Practices: More than 20 years ago the ‘new experimentalists’ in philosophy of science called for a more serious engagement with experimental practice. The work continues, and significant questions remain. How are scientific phenomena produced and observed — in the laboratory, in the observatory, in the field, and even in the armchair? What exactly does the knowledge of phenomena consist in? What are the characteristics of the technologies and sites that enable scientists to identify the objects of their study and to theorize about them?

4. Practices of Modeling, Simulations and Computer Experiments: Anyone familiar with today’s cutting-edge scientific research will feel how out of touch our common philosophical images of scientific activity are. Most scientific theorizing today seems to happen in the form of modeling and simulation. Has there now been enough philosophical work on modeling, after the flurry of activity in recent decades? Have we, for instance, paid enough attention to the more applied and complex subjects that tend to be neglected in traditional philosophy of science, including climatology, synthetic chemistry, ecology and seismology?

5. ‘Knowing Well’, Values, and Evidence-for-Use: How do philosophical approaches to knowledge change when the context shifts from ‘pure’ science to applied science and public policy, in areas such as engineering, agriculture and medicine? How do we go beyond mere knowing to ‘knowing well’? How does the blurring of the traditional distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ affect our conceptions of evidence and epistemic justification? And how do individual and social values and sense of responsibility shape the scope, focus and methods of scientific practice?

6. Rationality, Pluralism and ‘Styles of Reasoning’: Philosophers tend to accept very few kinds of reasoning as rational: deductive, inductive/statistical, and perhaps abductive. From historical and empirical studies it appears that scientific practices employ many other styles of reasoning. Often, these other ‘styles’ are seen as ‘merely heuristic’ and unable to play a role in the justification of knowledge. Is it possible to present more interesting accounts of these other styles of reasoning and of rationality?

7. Philosophical Pragmatism and Science in Practice: Are there existing philosophical frameworks that are particularly well-suited for the understanding of ‘science in practice’? In recent years many people have paid renewed attention to the American pragmatists in this connection: Dewey, Peirce, James, and also C. I. Lewis. Can pragmatism really provide useful guidance for the philosophy of science in practice? If so, which ideas are most useful for which purposes?

8. Social Epistemology: Within both the philosophy and sociology of science, there is a shared interest in the production, assessment, and validation of knowledge. We welcome contributions which synthesize sociological and philosophical points of view — empirically based research into the origination and transmission of scientific knowledge, as well as considerations about the social issues which arise when such knowledge is applied in a variety of types of practice.

Monday, September 22, 2008


This weekend there was a profile in the NYT of an unlikely philosophy department to have a large # of majors and the philosopher who built it. [No, I'm not linking it; I'm dissing it. If you want to find it, check the Leiter Reports.]

Here on this blog, we might use it as a case study in the pedagogical beliefs and techniques that exclude women and other vulnerable students from our discipline. I recommend Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (by Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt, 1997) as a detailed case study in the attitudes that communicate to students the ideals of male academic privilege. This study and others have been essential in guiding the interventions that have helped the sciences correct their skewed gender ratio. For instance, weed-out classes are designed to weed out the least "talented" students but have the effect of weeding out the least tenacious as well. Those students that are less tenacious may be so because they lack self-confidence, or it may be because they have many talents and don't benefit from a masochistic viewpoint, or because they misread the moral message that strict (usually masculine) teachers convey.

Here's a student, quoted in the philosopher's profile:
“I was expecting a survey course, and in walks this big scary guy, using words I’d never heard before, talking about Hume as background for Kant, telling us how hard the class was going to be."
This student (male) ended up admiring the professor but admitted that many others drop his classes.

The philosopher
says that philosophy requires a certain rare and innate ability — the ability to step outside yourself and observe your own mind in the act of thinking. In this respect, he recognizes that his detractors have a point when they criticize his approach to teaching. “It’s aristocratic in the sense that any selection based on talent is aristocratic,” he told me. “I know it offends everyone’s sense of democracy, this idea that everyone’s equal, but we all know that’s just not true.”
And here he assumes that if he fails to communicate with a student, it is due to the student's innate low intelligence.

This is not the pedagogical model that philosophers should be known for. And these are not scholarly goals that we are required to adopt in order to love our discipline. Philosophy can be practical; analysis can be useful; and our students can be successes without pursuing PhD's.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Back to School

It's a holiday for most of us in the U.S., but for me it's the first day of fall term classes. It's been a wonderful and fairly productive summer, but I'm excited about the ethics class I have planned.

I'm trying a course blog this year:
I've come to a point where I can't imagine that students would be satisfied with only paper copies of syllabi and assignments. And the online course support that RIT uses (MyCourses), besides being private, has a clunky and ugly interface that requires multiple page loads just to give out links. I hope that blogging will provide a better forum for student discussions (via comments) and for generating excitement.
(Thanks to Brandon Watson for encouragement!)


I'm not teaching Plato this year, but I agree with Schwitzsplinters, who notes that the Dialogues are not much in the way of give-and-take. They model a mode of learning but not progressive inquiry and discovery; dialogue is still an underexploited genre.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Social Web-building

I've been visiting two new web applications.

Sympoze is a social bookmarking site designed by philosopher Andrew Cullison where we can pool our collective judgments about online writing and resources. The site has multiple uses: you can visit just to see what other people are talking about, or you can contribute by adding your recent reads or evaluating what others have posted.
I'm excited to see this application and curious to see how it works over the long run. A recent study published in Science showed the counterintuitive result that electronic research databases have led to fewer rather than more published works being cited, in spite of easier and wider access. I hope that Sympoze will have a different effect--widening rather than narrowing the range of recognized philosophical writing and democratizing our field rather than concentrating the recognition of elites.

Academia is a social networking site for academics, also developed (in part) by a philosopher. The model, of course, is facebook, but with just what academics need and none of the chucking and quizzing that we don't. Also, it's public and transparent, as knowledge rightly should be. I'm not yet sure if the site will develop into a strong presence, since it seems to me that it's precisely the exclusivity of facebook that contributes to its appeal--that is, the parade of "friends."
One note, which is that Academia has a preset--and rather strange--list of "interests." On the science side, there is no distinguishing among life science, though what I do with ecological history shares very little overlap with someone working in genetics. On the humanities side, though, one can pick between English or World Literatures. I think this site would become more useful for networking if it were possible to enter (and search) for very narrow specialties like "social epistemology," "historical ecology," and "public participation GIS." (Those are three that I would sign up for!)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Philosophy Podcast

Public Ethics Radio, a thought-provoking listen and a great resource for classroom use.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Feminist Theory: What's Coming Up

Here's a round-up of deadlines for U.S. conferences and cfp's in feminist philosophy:

Pacific SWIP is hosting a session at the Pacific APA in Vancouver on April 8-12. Essays for the session are being solicited on the topic of "FEMINIST POLITICS FOR DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS." Deadline is September 14 (coming right up!) and can be submitted to Christina Bellon. More info. here.

The 3rd FEMMSS conference will be March 19-21 at the University of South Carolina. This year's theme is "THE POLITICS OF KNOWLEDGE" and the deadline for submitting paper abstracts or panel proposals is September 15 (Yikes! Also coming right up!). Info here.

Midwest SWIP is September 19-21 at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Program here.

A CFP on reasoning and political engagement:
Call for Papers

We invite submissions for a special issue of the journal Informal Logic that will address the relationship of reasoning and argumentation to political change and progress.

Informal Logic ( is a peer-reviewed open access online journal. It addresses topics related to reasoning and argumentation in theory and practice. It is multi-disciplinary, welcoming theoretical and empirical research from any pertinent field.

This issue of Informal Logic will focus on “Reasoning for Change.” Whether we seek to redress existing social inequities such as sexism and racism or halt the decay of our natural environments, the operations of reason can aid the achievement of social and political progress. In turn, political engagement can affect how people reason, and be involved with theories about reasoning and argumentation.

Possible topics include but are not limited to the following:
What forms of reasoning are most effective in bringing about change in social, political, or environmental circumstances?
What forms of reasoning encourage or discourage activism and political engagement?
Which types of reasoning entrench existing views and which encourage change?
How may activism affect a person’s or a community’s reasoning and argumentation?
Do specific models of argumentation help or hinder understandings across differences (social, cultural, political, or religious differences, for example)?
What are the liberatory potentials of monological as opposed to dialogical models of reasoning and argumentation?
What are the political implications of the distinction between formal and informal logic?

The editors for this special issue are Catherine Hundleby, Department of Philosophy, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada (, and Phyllis Rooney, Department of Philosophy, Oakland University, Michigan, USA (
The submission deadline is Monday, February 10, 2009 and submission information is available at

Christina Bellon has asked for volunteers to write articles for the INTERNET ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY in their areas of feminist theory expertise. She's posted a wishlist here.

Monday, August 25, 2008


A few times in the last year I've noted the projects of my Congressional representative, Louise Slaughter, who especially supports women and whose work is scientifically informed. She recently wrote an opinion column for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle laying out some reasons why opening up more places for domestic oil drilling will not solve our energy problems.

I last wrote about Slaughter in relation to her support for people who are sexually assaulted during their military service. In comments a reader rightly pointed out that victims of sexual assault are not limited to women and bravely writes about his experience here.

A friend guided me to the Angry Professor's blog, who has also responded to the Chronicle's article defending male privilege. Ahhh, would that I were so angrily eloquent.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trees, We Love Them

A friend called my attention to the NYT's profile of Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a medical researcher who has written books about trees, including Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest.

Her ideas range from the common-sensical to the visionary (and perhaps beyond, to the wishful).
She tries to bring together aboriginal healing, Western medicine and botany to advocate an unusual role for trees. She favors what she terms a bioplan, reforesting cities and rural areas with trees according to the medicinal, environmental, nutritional, pesticidal and herbicidal properties she claims for them, which she calls ecofunctions. Wafer ash, for example, could be used in organic farming, she said, planted in hedgerows to attract butterflies away from crops. Black walnut and honey locusts could be planted along roads to absorb pollutants.
One thing the article's author focuses on is the speculative nature of some of her proposed uses for trees. Many are based on folk medicinal lore, some of which has been confirmed by science and some of which are certainly far-fetched.

© Scot MacLean

But the real challenge of her ideas seems to me to be something different--it is a radical idea that we should look to the particular uses of trees and plan which trees grow where based on their uses rather than their appearance. For one thing, most forests aren't planned, they just grow. Urban forests are partly planned, as when city foresters pick street trees to create an aesthetic and disease-resistant mixed forest. (This is a top concern ever since our monoculture street trees were devastated by Dutch elm disease.) But urban forests are mostly unplanned. Norway maples, at least in my New York neighborhood, grow wherever they find soil and aren't pulled up or mowed down. And people make aesthetic decisions about planting trees which are based on fashion and availability.

Planning a forest, outside of the context of plantation planting or restoration projects, is a novel idea. I think that some might jump on this idea and worry that too much planning undermines the agency of nature. That is not my worry. The agency of nature is already working against a great burden. Apathy is the real force that would work against it. For instance, some would not see the point in growing medicinal or food trees when we are living in such a time of plenty. A half dozen times last month, neighbors saw me and my kid grazing on mulberries and asked "You really eat those?"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Explaining the Persistence of Inequalities in Philosophy

Noumena has posted a deep analysis of the reasons for resistance to moves toward gender equity in physics, theoretical math, engineering, computer science, economics, and philosophy.

Although I said yesterday that I believe that the majority of such resistance, at least in philosophy, is passive rather than overt, it is sometimes given expression. It comes up, particularly, in conversations about the Larry Summers controversy or discussions sparked by comments like John Tierney's last month that women simply prefer less analytic and conceptual work.

This blog as well as others (and the SWIP list) have been keeping track of the research that needs to be done in order to make a strong case that the underrepresentation of women in philosophy represents an injustice. That case has been made strongly in scientific disciplines, as science institutions (departments, universities, federal agencies) actively work (and succeed at!) correcting participation inequities.

One thing that we need in philosophy is good evidence that women are in fact underrepresented. We have this for undergraduate education, from the U.S. Dept. of Education. The data that we have for graduate education is on graduation rates by gender. Some have claimed that without figures on graduate school application and acceptance rates, though, the data is incomplete because we don't know if the pipeline leaks in decisions to go to graduate school or if it leaks during time enrolled in graduate school. (I would claim that these data are relevant to implementing an efficient solution given our discipline's limited financial resources, but are not relevant to establishing the existence of the problem.) Likewise, we have federal employment statistics which show that professorships are male dominated. That type of data could be improved by knowing more about job application rates (by gender), job acceptance rates, and the part-time labor pool. The APA has said that some of this missing information is being collected for the latest job cycle.

Something else we need is a clear understanding and explanation of the persistence of inequalities in our field. Noumena's analysis is clearly motivated by the practical (that is, the rhetorical as opposed to philosophical) problem of convincing the resistant that 1.) unequal gender representation is a problem; 2.)
unequal gender representation is a problem that we collectively ought to take responsibility for; 3.) unequal gender representation is a problem that our institutions have a duty to address.

There are two hurdles to be overcome. One is in the nature of trying to overturn a status quo. Even passive resistance to change can be enough to quell it. The second is that the causes of gender inequality are very likely irrational.

When we look at other struggles for justice, there are strong forces working against rational persuasion. We might hope that this is not the case for philosophers--that philosophers are more likely to change their beliefs and practices based on reflective consideration of rational argument. Although that is perhaps too optimistic, it suggests another avenue for research--collecting and responding to the reasons that are given for failing to address our professions inequalities.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What's the point with gender diversity?

Female Science Prof examines a CoHE essay which manages to sneak in an especially silly defense of male privilege. Do read the comments on her post!

In philosophy, it is rare that anyone out of undergraduate study will dare to make such comments (except in blog comments). And yet, with the explicit attention our profession gives to justice, equality, objectivity, and complex explanation, there are numerous blatant cases where women are excluded from professional networks or taken less seriously than their male counterparts. There has been little systematic attention from institutions, whether that be our universities, our funding agencies (which, granted, are mostly without funds), or our professional societies. This is a problem where ignoring the problem is an effective means of continuing it.

I will say that one useful thing that the Woods essay does is to implicitly treat the absence of women as a scientific problem. Even in denying that this is appropriate, he assumes that others see it that way. Likewise, the absence of women in philosophy is both an educational problem (particularly since the gap is initiated at the undergraduate level), and it is also a philosophical problem. 

Monday, August 11, 2008

Teaching Sustainability

In a few weeks I'll be teaching a lower-level Introduction to Ethics course, and one of the texts I'm using is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. The book is not particularly philosophical, so I'll provide the classical ethics material separately--Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Mill.

I hope that what this book will provide are some concrete and pertinent questions that are still unanswered about how individuals should live and how societies can organize themselves around ethical goals. The book seems fairly (though not entirely) neutral as far as the American political spectrum goes. That is, conservative communitarians may find something attractive about McKibben's emphasis on communities, and some liberals may be squeamish about the nonchalance with which personal liberties and life goals take second place to community traditions.

One thing that reviewers have noted is the Vermontesque quaintness of so many of McKibben's examples and tropes. Farmer's markets, bike paths, eco-communes.

About those farmer's markets. McKibben uses Farmer's Markets as a unifying trope. When something works well and promotes sustainability, it's like a farmer's market. But how useful is this metaphor, even to those of us who do shop at a Public Market?

Even the Internet, McKibben says, is kind of like a Farmer's Market (p. 174).
This gets it backward!
What is more central to my experience, to my students' experience? the Internet? or the farmer's market?
Well, obviously.
And as much as I see the reason behind McKibben's fixation on farmer's markets to illustrate local exchange, it leads him to overlook the power of technological infrastructure in determining higher-level structures like economies. (Besides, it comes off as Ludditism.)

The Internet, with its redundant and open architecture, has taught us much about the qualities that make networks work. In particular, what has been innovative about the internet is how it is distributed and accessible. It has created networks where people exchange ideas and labor, not always for economic reasons (think of open source software, Flickr, blogs).

If farmer's markets are the model for the future, it is some of the features that they share with the internet which we should be noticing: low cost of entry, low investment in infrastructure, open to the public, personal, and offering a diversity of goods.

Likewise, it makes sense to think of distributed power generation as modeling the Internet: a flexible infrastructure that accepts multiple types of power inputs, can track microcosts, directs the commodity in the most efficient path, and is resilient against localized failures.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Hooray for Rep. Louise Slaughter

Louise Slaughter is my representative, and yet again she is taking a strong stand on an important issue.

Last week she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommitte on sexual assault in the military. She said that in 2003:
The sheer number of incidents was disturbing. More than that, however,the military's responses to victims who came forward were antiquated, often punishing the victim rather than the perpetrator. It was shameful.

She goes on to commend Congress and the DoD for recent attention to sexual assault. However, she says that changes in reporting procedures have obscured the gathering of statistics so that there is no accurate estimate of whether the problem is actually getting better.

Failure to uniformly gather and report information related to the investigation and disposition of sexual assault claims complicates Congressional policy-based efforts to address sexual assault in the military and frustrates the purpose of the Department of Defense’s existing programs.
This week, in a column for the Huffington Post, Slaughter shares her opinion of the sincerity of the Department of Defense's participation:
Kaye Whitley, director of the Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, had been subpoenaed to testify at Thursday's hearing, but apparently Department of Defense officials instructed her to stay away from the hearing. I am very disturbed by the DoD's resistance to Congressional oversight on sexual assault.
Kudos to Slaughter for making this an issue before Congress and for publicizing the inadequate procedures for reporting sexual assault in the military.
Quite simply, the current structure makes women who have suffered sexual assault choose between confidentiality and justice.

It is unconscionable that women who serve their country in the military should have to make that decision. For three Congresses, I have introduced the Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act. This legislation will ensure greater protections for service members and their families if they become victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.

Prize for Feminist Scholarship

The Catharine Stimpson Prize
for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship

Call for Entries: The Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship

Deadline: September 20, 2008

The University of Chicago Press is pleased to announce the competition for the 2009 Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship. Named in honor of the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, the Catharine Stimpson Prize is designed to recognize excellence and innovation in the work of emerging feminist scholars.

The Catharine Stimpson Prize is awarded biannually to the best paper in an international competition. Leading feminist scholars from around the globe will select the winner. The prize-winning paper will be published in Signs, and the author will be provided an honorarium of $1,000. All papers submitted for the Stimpson Prize will be considered for peer review and possible publication in Signs.

Eligibility: Feminist scholars in the early years of their careers (less than seven years since receipt of the terminal degree) are invited to submit papers for the Stimpson Prize. Papers may be on any topic that falls within the broad rubric of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship. Papers submitted for the prize must be no longer than 10,000 words and must conform to the guidelines for Signs contributors. Guidelines for submission are available here.

Deadline for Submissions: The deadline for submissions for the next Catharine Stimpson Prize is September 20, 2008.

Please submit papers online here. Be sure to indicate submission for consideration for the Catharine Stimpson Prize in the cover letter.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Shackling Women During Labor and Delivery

Forcing induced labor, forcing C-sections, using shackles during labor and restraints during delivery. These sound barbaric, surely not current practice, surely not here. Can a baby in the US, in the 21st century, be born to a mother in leg irons?

Via Feminist Law Profs (and
here): a circuit court has ruled that shackling a pregnant inmate in labor does not constitute a violation of the 8th Amendment (that's the amendment which forbids punishments that are excessive or cruel and unusual). Only 2 states (Illinois and California) have legislation regulating the restraint of laboring women (and legislation is pending in my state, New York).

Never mind that restraints during labor, and especially shackles, pose a risk to the welfare of both mother and baby. An Amnesty International report notes that women in labor should be free to assume different positions and should be easily transportable to an operating room. Read a moving account and a 2006 NYT article. Lest you think that this applies to only the rare case, keep in mind that about 2,000 babies are born to incarcerated women each year.

That this could happen in the USA is no doubt linked to unfortunate and unethical intersecting social trends:

— erosion of prisoner rights
— denial of adequate health care to prisoners in the US
— the common practice of constraining laboring women to labor on their back for the sake of fetal monitoring
— lack of recognition of human rights for pregnant women

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Teaching Ethics and Sustainability

I'm teaching a lower-level Introduction to Ethics course this year (4 or 5 times), and I have a grant to design it with a sustainability focus. A focus on sustainability fits well with RIT's recent (baby) steps toward energy conservation, and the school's "common book" this year is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy.

I'll use Deep Economy in the course alongside selections from classic primary texts (the usual suspects: Mill, Kant) and some recent but equally common selections on environmental ethics and lifeboat ethics.

I'm pleased with the university's pick of this common text because it provides a framework to bring a discussion of some of my long-time personal interests into the classroom--food ethics, media consolidation, and distributed power generation. There is a confluence, of course, between my pragmatic, pluralist, and empirical philosophical commitments and these issues. And the sustainability framework gives a reason to emphasize social/political philosophy as much as the standard ethical approaches (Aristotle, Kant, Mill). I also like having a unified problem-based framework rather than a grab-bag of issues, some of which seem outdated or distant from my (and my students') experience, such as euthanasia and capital punishment.

But designing the course is not without problems:
1. The problem of burn-out and closed-mindedness on environmental issues. Although I don't think these issues are strictly partisan, people who listen to conservative talk radio have been told that they are. And an Institute-wide emphasis on sustainability could make philosophy seem mainstream rather than exciting and subversive.

2. There are many special events coordinated by the university and related to the Deep Economy book and the topic of sustainability. Bill McKibben is coming to talk, and so is Peter Singer. There will be tours to local farms and to Ithaca's EcoVillage. I can't make these course requirements because of the time slots they are in. But the topic of the course lends itself well to experiential learning, and I can make that a requirement. However, I have large sections of this course--2 sections of 40 each--so I can't exercise the guidance that I do in an upper-level Environmental Philosophy course. How will self-guided experiential learning projects go over in a lower-level course? Does anyone have experience with this?

3. Of course, there are no ready-made textbooks. I'm putting together a coursepack and, even at this late date, would love to hear reading suggestions!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Schwitzgebel: Statistics on Women in Philosophy

Eric Schwitzgebel and his collaborator Joshua Rust have used a unique set of data to analyze promotion rates of men and women in philosophy, concluding that women in recent cohorts are not advancing to tenure as quickly as men.

Take a close look at the figures for philosophers with birthyears between 1970 and '79!
1970-1979 (57 professors.):
81% male (2% full, 11% assoc., 74% asst., 13% non-TT)
19% female (0% full, 18% assoc., 45% asst., 36% non-TT)

This valuable study clearly involved a significant amount of legwork (so to speak). More comments on it at Feminist Philosophers.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Unreasonable reasoning

Via the Women's Bioethics Blog, a series of special essays in the New Scientist covers 7 reasons why Reason is not enough (unfortunately the full series requires a subscription).

This tired chestnut? Define Reason narrowly enough, and of course it alone cannot solve problems of politics or engineering! But consider the alternatives on their own--emotion, tradition, hearsay, trial-and-error--and we come out even worse.

Yes, some say were were never modern, but I'll stand for the Enlightenment.

Do please consider....

Anti-Reason Reason #1:
"Reason stands against values and morals"
And thank goodness for that! How many brutal traditions have been used to dehumanize women and others? Hurrah for the power of moral reason and a universal sense of humanity.

Anti-Reason Reason #2:
"No one actually uses reason: If we had to think logically about everything we did, we’d never do anything at all."
What is meant is that "no one uses formal logic alone in solving real-world problems with complex contexts." But this is something we've known for just a little while--well, decades, at least. Thank you Rudolf Carnap!

Anti-Reason Reason #3:
"I hear 'reason,' I see lies: Science is routinely co-opted by governments and corporations to subvert people’s ability to make their own decisions."
This is a reference to pseudo-science's kissing cousin, pseudo-reason--including chart junk and all of its allies. Not reason itself.

Anti-Reason Reason #4:
"Reason excludes creativity and intuition."
Another narrow view. See #2 above. Deference to experience (sometimes known as 'intuition') is, again, dictated by reason. How else could we judge our experience and the experience of others?

Anti-Reason Reason #5:
"Whose reason is it anyway?: Real people don’t live their lives according to cold rationality."
This essay is from a bioethicist, and, I will admit, this is the challenge I am most likely to trip on. Indeed, the author writes:
Feminist theorists, for example, argue that the Enlightenment's focus on the individual, on rights, on reason, ignores the complicated and subtle web of networks that we are part of: the interdependencies and the relationships. For them, it's not just about individual choice, but about the context in which we choose.
Still, I would say that we can use reason to understand gaps in reasonability. Women have no doubt been left out of knowledge networks, and this is the observation that the literature on standpoint and situated knowledge responds to. Still, I hold that the problem is not with the theory or tools of reason but with the fairness with how they are distributed.

Anti-Reason Reason #6:
"Reason destroys itself: Even in formal mathematics, reason breaks its own rules"
Roger Penrose's supposed proof is none other than Hume's Problem of Induction. How do we know that reason is successful? How do we know that 2 + 2 = 4? The only way we can judge is by Reason's own lights, and perhaps (a little Cartesian flair, now...) we've always been deceived. Yes, without a benevolent God to rescue us from paradox, we are left with nothing but doubt.
This is a fun game for philosophers to play, I suppose, but a dishonest one assuming they've read Hume themselves. A naturalist's reason is not at odds with experience, and it is experience that drives us forward and allows us to live our lives, not Reason alone.

Anti-Reason Reason #7:
"Reason is just another faith."
But we know that Mary Midgley would not give up reason in favor of faith, would she? And indeed she does not: this is an essay against scientism.

Here she wraps it up for us:
" fact it is not clear that thought could go on at all in such a rarefied vacuum. In order to make actual decisions we need serious standards of what is or is not satisfactory. Hume's mistake lay in defining reason far too narrowly, as mere logic. This splits it off entirely from the rest of our thinking."