Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Creativity and Innovation

RIT, where I teach, is hosting a big festival this coming Saturday: the 1st Annual Innovation + Creativity Festival. It's expected to draw a crowd in the range of 30,000 people (okay, that seems pretty optimistic).

© Steve Miller

The Philosophy Department is providing support to a student project, and I'm the faculty coordinator. The project is a sculptural installation that's subtitled "A Philosophical Analysis of Creativity and Innovation." We solicited short reflections (poems, etc.) on the topic of creativity and have recorded them. They'll be played back through speakers on the sculpture. The project website is here, containing photos, video, the submitted creativity statements, and an artist's description of the intent of the project.

© Steve Miller

What's noteworthy about the pieces written by philosophers is how each person's "reflection on creativity" is as much a statement of their philosophical perspective: a poetic response to Dogen from the specialist in Asian philosophy, pragmatic guidance from the American philosopher, cryptic skepticism from the Pre-Socratic expert, wistful optimism from the retired philosopher of religion, and dark metaphysical speculation from the resident German Romantic. Does our training so shape our psyches, or are we drawn to a specialty that coincides with our personalities?

Here is my short piece on creativity:

The Life of Ideas

The evolution of new creatures is a magnificently creative process. Animals, plants, bacteria, fungi—we live in a world teeming with unique lifeforms.

The creation of new life has two stages. First is the creation of novelty. This happens through mutation, which creates untested changes to the genetic code and also through sexual reproduction, which puts genetic material together in new combinations. The second stage is the brutal process of selection, which puts to death nearly all of those experimental ways of living. The new life that does survive is a better fit with its surroundings, able to solve some problem that its forebears could not.

Likewise, our culture improves by the creative generation of newness. We can foster and accelerate creativity on the model of sexual reproduction by encouraging communication between diverse people with diverse interests, identities, abilities, and life experiences. Their exchange of ideas will lead to innovation.

But most innovations will not survive. Again, we can help the process along by nurturing fragile ideas, and by not pre-judging them until they have had a chance to prove themselves.

Together with open-mindedness to new ideas, giving them a chance to find their niche, it’s appropriate to practice critical evaluation. Communities of inquiry should judge ideas on their merit. Our standards should be fair and themselves subject to criticism and change. In this way, we innovate both new ideas and the process that nurtures them.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Misplaced skepticism about belief

A further comment on yesterday's post, which noted that Robert Putnam gives all kinds of explanations for declining social capital except for explanations that cite culture, values, or beliefs--

When Putnam first lists the benefits of living in a community that is rich in social capital, he writes that
"dense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants' sense of self, developing the 'I' into the 'we,' or (in the language of rational-choice theorists) enhancing the participants' 'taste' for collective beliefs" (67).

I find this expression odd. Why call this a "taste" or a "preference" rather than just saying that when people interact with others (and especially with people who are not just identical to them), they are more likely to develop a habit of public-mindedness? They believe that it's worth pursuing what's right for the group rather than what will most benefit the individual in the short-term.

If beliefs are too ephemeral (do you know that you hold a belief until it's tested?), then how about using affect as an explanatory term. Surely people care. Some people care about communities, and some people care mostly about themselves. Some people are willing to make personal sacrifices (e.g., slower and smaller cars) for the sake of the environment or for public well-being, and some people are not.

A social science that is unable to refer to values, or that must call them preferences (and preferences which, I imagine, are non-rational because they don't immediately benefit the self) is a social science without a moral center.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Explaining the Bowling Alone Phenomenon

This week my critical thinking classes read and discussed Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" (the Journal of Democracy article, not the book). I had the students write an essay on it.

A number of students chose to weigh Putnam's explanations for the declining social capital in the US. Some speculated that since voter turn-out in the last two national elections had gone up, social capital's decline has been halted (which I think unlikely!). Others considered his explanation that the reason is the amount of time people spend watching TV and tried to extend that explanation to new media technologies. They were split on whether social networking sites (like Facebook) really create and maintain social networks.

There's one explanation which Putnam did not include which is prominent in my own mind--namely, whether there are cultural changes that have undermined Americans' interest in building social capital (and, especially, the kind of social capital that bridges demographic groups).

I can hypothesize that the reason that Putnam doesn't consider culture is that, as a certain kind of social scientist, he does not consider beliefs and values to be "real" or, at least, to be causally potent. I can see this reasoning--because it seems like if there is a change in beliefs, then that change is caused by something which can eventually be connected to a change that is not itself a belief. And yet, I think explanations that help themselves to words about beliefs can be quite enlightening.

For instance, it seems possible to me that a decline in social capital could be due to an increase in perceived threats, whether that is the threat of an economic downturn or the kind of amorphous threat that wartime brings. I would also like to consider whether people feel like there is more competition now than in the 1950s, and that they are competing over goods that are zero-sum. Just to take an example, there has certainly been a change in college applications and admissions.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Gender Equity: False Hopes and False Dreams

Over at The Philosophy Job Market blog, Rebecca Kukla gave us a tally on how this year's job market is shaping up along gender lines. According to the hiring announcements that Leiter has posted, and with all the caveats needed for such informal word-of-mouth data collection, only about 19% of the tenure-track jobs have gone to women. (N.B.: The APA has promised to collect accurate job market statistics this year, but the collection and analysis will take some time yet.)

Since women have been earning about 25 to 30% of PhD's in philosophy, this looks like there are some social or structural barriers to the hiring of women.

This observation set off a fusillade of criticisms, both on the PJM blog and on the SWIP list. Among women in philosophy, one concern is that collecting such statistics carries the implicit message that women who do not choose to pursue a tenure-track teaching career are somehow in the wrong.

This appears to me to be a misunderstanding of the meaning of statistics (and see Kate's earlier response to similar worries). Statistics can only give us a picture of a collective. They cannot tell us anything, much less anything normative, about individuals. They can't say that a certain woman should have been hired in a certain department, or that a certain man should not have.

Indeed, these statistics are completely mute about how many people with PhD's in philosophy move into (or try to move into) tenure track jobs. It is entirely appropriate that some people get a degree and use it for some purpose other than university teaching in philosophy departments. Or they use it for no purpose--they go into another field entirely.

The statistics only point out that men are hired into tenure track philosophy jobs at a disproportionate rate. And the best explanation for this, based on reams of social science research, is that there is explicit and implicit sexism in academia.

But if you don't see my point, then perhaps you'll find some solidarity here instead:
"CEO Barbie Criticized for Promoting Unrealistic Career Images."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Genderrific Toy Preferences

As I've mentioned on another blog, yet another study has enjoyed some news coverage for showing some preference among young males for "boys'" toys. The twist: They're monkeys! Yes, and not just monkeys, but mostly cute little juvie monkeys. That alone is worth the news coverage, for me; if I had my way, my morning Washington Post would just be about monkeys from end to end. With lots of pictures.

I have many questions about the necessity to fund such studies, cover them in the press, and marvel at them in classes. It's not that it's not interesting, and it's not that nifty little studies don't get grants all the time. It's just that I've long been puzzled about the importance of and widespread interest in the toy preference thing. Why toys? What is so fascinating about a small difference in gender preference for toys? Am I the only one stumped at its significance?

Note, by the way, that the toys used were trucks and dolls, yet no mention is made in the coverage in the New Scientist of the fact that an important difference in these two toys is the presence of facial features on one and not on the other. The emphasis of the author is on hard things with wheels vs. soft plushy objects. So the methodological issues abound.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A truism?

I just came across this sentence in a student paper on Rorty's essay "Education as Socialization and as Individualization." Perhaps it's vacuous, but of course I had to post it here!

"Individuals create their values and beliefs based on knowledge and personal experience."

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Why Study Philosophy?

A New York Times article counts (some of) the ways:

For students in philosophy,
"what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers."
"is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow."
"In an era in which people change careers frequently, philosophy makes sense. 'It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking.'"
With its emphasis "on the big questions and alternative points of view, [philosophy] provides good training for looking at larger societal questions, like globalization and technology."
And of course,
“Philosophy is a lot of fun.”

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Numeracy and Democracy

My dad is a statistician/methodologist in psychology, and sent me images of this amazing art installation in Seattle:
http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php?icl=7. It aims to provide a sense of proportion over our waste, and I think it's profound.

Depicts 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the US every five seconds.
© Chris Jordan

Detail at actual size:
© Chris Jordan

In several classes this week, I've been speaking with students about political awareness and apathy. I am especially moved by the significance of democracy and our privilege, given the events in Zimbabwe this week over the elections. Yet at the same time, a University Senate sponsored rally against racism drew a pathetic few demonstrators with no clear message, and no clear aim.

Art can be a great way to raise consciousness. Although it tends to preach to the converted, it provides motivation and vision in a way that grassroots politics and activisim no longer seems to.