Recent Responses

What sorts of questions are considered in the philosophy of sex? Beyond questions of sexual ethics, it seems like most of the questions I can think of are better dealt with via anthropology or psychology.

I have but five things, now, to say in reply to this question. (1) Might you post several of the questions that you can think of that are not questions of sexual ethics and seem to you to be anthropological or psychological, not philosophical? Maybe I could show how they are, after all, philosophical, or could be approached philosophically as well as anthropologically, etc. (2) Here is a philosophical task for you: please define "sexual act" for me. I do not mean describe it ("it feels sooooo good"); I mean provide what some philosophers call an "analysis." What is it about sexual acts that make them sexual and that distinguish them from other kinds of acts? This task is not as easy as you might think (and it has practical import; recall Clinton and Lewinsky). (3) Might I suggest that the philosophy of sex deals with ontological, metaphysical, conceptual, historical/textual, and normative (ethical and nonethical) matters? If so, sexual ethics might be a rather small part of the terrain. (4) For a discussion of the various branches of the philosophy of sex, see my encyclopedia entry at -- however, this essay is slightly dated. For a more complete account, write to me for a pre-print of yet another essay on the subject, which won't be pubished until early 2006. (5) Even if the philosophy of sex were exhausted by ethical questions, we would not have world enough and time to explore or answer them all.

What is the history of the belief that representation requires an intentional stance? I am a neuroscientist and we regularly use representation in what I believe is a very different sense: something like a 'token realization.' For example, I show you a bar of a particular orientation and a neuron in your cortex fires. Other bars fail to evoke that response. A typical neuroscience paper might say something like: that neuron's activity represents a bar of that orientation. Is there a difference here? I think this concept of representation as a 'token realization' (maybe a bad term) is central to the description of brain function by practicing scientists.

The term "representation" is a very slippery one in philosophy. The U.S. philosopher H. P. Grice ( some info can be found at ) distinguished two sense of the word "meaning," but his distinction has relevance to contemporary talk about "representation".

Grice asks us to reflect on the difference between sentences like these two.

1 -- Those spots mean measles

2 -- The "occupied" sign means that someone is using the lavatory.

He points out that if sentence 1 is true, then the occurrence of spots entails the existence of measles. Equivalently, if the occurrence of spots doesn't entail the existence of measles, then it's not correct to say that the spots mean measles. If, for example, the same sorts of spots can be produced by an allergic reaction to penicillin, then one should have said, "those spots mean either measles or an allergic reaction to penicillin."

On the other hand, the truth of sentence 2 doesn't entail that if the "occupied" sign is present, then someone is in the lavatory. "Occupied" means occupied, even if some practical joker has managed to trigger the sign on an empty toilet.

Grice calls the first kind of meaning "natural meaning," indicating that it's the sort of relation that exists when there is a natural connection between the sign and the thing signified, when it's a matter of natural law that the appearance of the sign is, as a matter of natural law, dependent on what the sign stands for. Because we have such relations in nature -- because smoke means fire, and bear scat means bear -- we can and do speak of "natural signs".

In the second case, however, the relation between the sign and the thing it stands for is not determined by any natural law. In fact, it was quite up to us human beings which sign -- which representation, which set of symbols -- to use to represent occupied-ness. We could have all used the sign the French chose -- "occupe" (with an accent). That is, the relation between "occupied" and being occupied is conventional -- a matter of social agreement, rather than natural law.

Now a really interesting question (to me, anyway) at the intersection of philosophy of language and philosophy of mind is this: is convention the only way to get non-natural meaning/representation? Because if it is, then we have a problem ab9out thoughts. The problem is this. Thoughts seem to be kinds of representations. When I think about Paris, I am representing the city of Paris in my mind. And when I think that Paris is lovely in the spring, I'm representing the situation of Paris's being lovely in the spring. But these representations have to be non-natural in Grice's sense. Why? Because it's perfectly possible for me to think about Paris even if Paris (alas!) isn't there, before me, in all its splendor. My Paris thought does not indicate the presence of Paris, in the way the spots indicate the presence of Paris.

But on the other hand, it can't be that the relation between my thought about Paris and the city itself is conventional -- it can't be like the relation between the English word, "Paris" and the city. Why not? Because to set up a convention, one needs to have thoughts that already have representational content. Suppose I want to use a certain neurological state as my personal symbol for Paris. To make that policy for myself, I'd have to form the intention to use that state to refer to Paris. But in order to form such an intention, I'd have to already have a way of representing Paris to myself -- and we're back where we started: with a representational state that can't have natural meaning, but that can't be conventional, either. The project of explaining how there could be this sort of in-between case -- a case of non-natural, but non-conventional meaning, or represntation, is one that has absorbed the energies of a number of prominent philosophers of mind, including Jerry Fodor, Fred Dretske, and Ruth Millikan. These philosophers all have theories purporting to show how a relation of non-natural, but non-conventional meaning could arise out of a natural world filled with merely natural signs.

Many philosophers want to reserve the term "representation" for items that have non-natural meaning. Some want to reserve the term "intentionality" (which in its broadest sense just means "aboutness") for the same purpose. Now the way in which the specialized neurons you speak of "represent" some specific orientation of a bar sounds to me like "natural" representation -- the firing of the specialized neuron is a natural sign of the presence of a bar oriented in that particular way. If that's right, then the philosophers alluded to above will balk at calling the neuronal firing a "representation" at all. But you don't have to argue with these philosophers about how to use words. Just ask them this: can non-natural mental representations (like my current thought about a bar oriented plumb to the plane of the earth) be somehow explained in terms of the neurological natural signs with which you are familiar?

Is it philosophically defensible, or morally right, to inculcate your child to an organized religion when you yourself do not firmly believe in it? Along the same line, is there anything wrong about avoiding religious topics with your child with the intent that the child will choose her own set of beliefs when she becomes more mature?

The first sort of reasoning (not that I need to tell Jyl) goes bythe name "Pascal's Wager". It has been the subject of much controversy.The best recent paper I know is by Alan Hájek. See his"Waging War on Pascal's Wager", Philosophical Review 112 (2003), 27-56. Alan also wrote the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Pascal's Wager, which is presumably a better place to start for those who are interested.

Letme offer a slightly different perspective on the question originallyasked. I don't think I'd want to say that it is permissible to"inculcate" one's children in a religion one doesn't accept. But thatis strong and fairly loaded language. I actually know two people whoare in the something like the following situation. (I could be wrongabout some of the details, so if anyone guesses who I've got in mind,don't assume I'm right. The situation is officially hypothetical.) Alexand Tony are white academics and have adopted two black children. Theybelieve very strongly that, as the church is and long has been thecenter of the black community, it is important for their children togrow up in a black church. So they attend one and take their children,even though they themselves are not believers. I don't myself seeanything impermissible about their doing so. In fact, it strikes me asadmirable. Note that it isn't obviously consistent with their broader goals to convey theirlack of belief to their children, since doing so could undermine theirchildren's involvement in the church.

So let's ask a more general question: Is it permissible to expose one's children in a serious wayto religious life even if one is not oneself a person of faith? Hereagain, I don't see why it shouldn't be, and I can well imagine goodreasons for wanting to do so. It doesn't have to be a fear ofdamnation.

That isn't, of course, to say there is some obligation to expose one's children to religious life. That would be a much stronger claim.

I have always been wondering whether the behaviours of philosophers in daily life are greatly influenced or even somehow dominated by their study, e.g. when he/she is buying a T-shirt, will he/she keep thinking this shirt is not red as people normally think but some kind of colour that could never be discovered and described or will he/she think of whether all the things still exist inside of the room everytime he/she leaves the room and closes the door? These may not be good examples but I hope I have made myself clear. Thanks!

This question reminds me of a passage from Hume in his Treatise. First Hume works himself up about the problem of skepticism:

"Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty."

But he then steps back and notes the following:

"Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium ... I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther."

In any event, I think philosophy does affect one's view of the world, and that philosophers probably are affected in daily life by many of their philosophical beliefs, but I also think that there are some beliefs (such as the belief in the existence of the external world around us, and the belief that one has knowledge about that world) that are virtually impossible to shake, and no matter how much anyone is a philosophical skeptic, she still will behave as if she has knowledge of the world around her.

I am a psychologist, and have to introduce my Introductory Psychology students to consciousness. Is there an acceptable, concise definition of "consciousness"? Most psychology textbooks seem to fall woefully short. For example, David Myers defines consciousness as "our awareness of ourselves and our environment." ACK! Thanks for any feedback you might provide for me and my students.

My favorite remark on this question is due to Ned Block. He quotes (I believe) Duke Ellington as having said that, if you have to ask what jazz is, y'ain't never gonna know. Block says that something similar is true of (phenomenal) consciousness. It's what makes pain hurt and ice cream yummy, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you never will. Block is also the best source for the distinctions among kinds of consciousness that Amy already noted. See, for example, his "Some Concepts of Consciousness". It is, of course, the distinctions he draws are controversial, like just about everything in this area.

Why is the love I feel for my two daughters far stronger than any love I've felt for anybody else?

Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt thinks that "the loving concern of parents for their infants or small children is the mode of caring that comes closest . . . to providing pure instances of what I have in mind in speaking of love" (from his essay "On Caring," p. 166)---as opposed, in particular, to romantic and sexual loves. In his book The Reasons of Love, he similarly writes: "Among relationships between humans, the love of parents for their infants or small children is the species of caring that comes closest to offering recognizably pure instances of love" (p. 43; see p. 82). So, what is love for Frankfurt?

In Frankfurt's account of love, there are four "conceptually necessary features" (Reasons, pp. 79-80). First, love is "disinterested concern for the well-being or flourishing of the person who is loved." "Disinterested" means "unmotivated by any instrumental concern." Second, love is "ineluctably personal," that is, "[t]he person who is loved is loved for himself or for himself as such, and not as an instance of a type" (Reasons, pp. 79-80; see p. 44). Third, the lover "identifies with his beloved." And fourth, love "is not a matter of choice but is determined by conditions that are outside our immediate voluntary control" (Reasons, p. 80; see p. 44).

Note that Frankfurt leaves out "affection." It seems to me that if I loved my children more than anyone else (indeed, that IS true for me), that would mean in large part that my affection for them was immense. I suspect that this is also what the question-poser means.

Frankfurt claims that love in his sense is exhibited most clearly in a parent's love for his or her child. I will leave to you the exercise of determining, for each of the necessary features, whether your love for your child satisfies it better than your love for your spouse (or for your romantic/sexual partner). It is not obvious to me that on Frankfurt's account of love, it is a parent's love for a child that will be the best example. So much the worse for his account?

It may well be true that I have a powerful love for my children (say, a strong desire to benefit them, to actualize their flourishing) "because" they carry my genes. But, as some (not all) evolutionists say (and even Aquinas, in his own way), if that is a reason for caring for my child, it is equally a reason to care just as much for my spouse---for without him or her, my children will have less of a chance of flourishing, and my genes go down the drain.

But maybe I should invest more in my children (love them more, care for them more) because they will eventually mind the farm and take care of me in my old age---while my spouse will be an invalid like me and not be of much use. That seems more a social point, not evolutionary. In any event, how my love for my children or my spouse could be robustly "disinterested" if the evolutionary story is true is a minor mystery. Again so much the worse for Frankfurt? Like Lipton, I am not very worried about the fact that my immense affection for my children, my strong desire to help them flourish, is ultimately not (totally) disinterested because they carry my genes.

What is the connection, if there is any, between enjoyment of art and the judgment of its aesthetic merit?

In many cases enjoyment and positive judgment go hand in hand. But enjoyment and positive evaluation can come apart in a number of ways. Some works of art do not seem to be designed to be enjoyed. Consider works of art that might be characterized as ‘difficult’ (e.g., some paintings of horrific scenes, certain movies about tragic events, novels that investigate evil, some contemporary political art, works of music such as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima). It seems perfectly plausible that in some such cases we may judge these works to be valuable while not enjoying our interaction with them. There are, after all, a whole range of activities and experiences that we may judge to have value irrespective of whether they provide enjoyment (e.g., voting, helping those in need, writing lecture notes, etc.). Another sort of case stems from the possibility that we may be incapable--for some personal reason--from enjoying a work of art that we judge to be good. We all experience such blocks sometimes. Well, I do. I’m tired at the opera, or the play reminds me too much of something I’d rather not think about, or the music was written by someone I don’t like, or the novel is just too darn difficult for me given my limited powers of concentration these days. And so on. I might judge the opera/play/song/novel as good, but I just can’t enjoy it. Things can pull apart in the other direction too. A person may enjoy some works of art that he or she doesn’t judge to be of much worth. One way this can happen is if we recognize that our enjoyment depends on some idiosyncratic feature of our relationship to the work of art. I might enjoy a movie because it is about the toughest philosopher in the world (or about philosophy graduate student vampires) but recognize that this isn’t really a reasonable basis for judging the movie to have much value.

That being said, it seems to me that the fact that we enjoy a work of art is often one of the most important reasons that we judge it to be good. And it’s not unreasonable to take the fact that you enjoy something to be at least some reason to think that it is good. Moreover, we often enjoy what we take to be good—that is, we enjoy it because it is (judged to be) good. So the two notions are not completely unrelated.

What if two politicians are running for office and neither is qualified? Is there an ethical duty to vote for the lesser of two evils, even if doing so results in putting a stamp of approval on an unqualified candidate? Or is there an ethical duty not to vote for either of them, since doing so would give them legitimacy?

There is no ethical duty to vote or not to vote. Only a person who is an act utilitarian view holds that people have an ethical duty to do whatever has the best consequences, and this view seems to require far more than most people would accept. Especially in this case, when it is not even clear whether voting would have better consequences than not voting, it would seem quite extreme to claim that one had a duty to do either. However, if you think that one of these choices has better consequences than the other, then it would be a sign of a good moral character to act in the way that you thought would have the best consequences, or in this case, the least worst consequences.

It was pointed out to me by Wm Derek Bowman, Philosophy Grad Student at Tulane University that my answer was incorrect. It is not only act utilitarians that might claim that you have a duty to vote. Almost any revisionist ethical theory can claim that you have a duty to vote. However, if we are using "duty" in the ordinary sense that someone has a duty only if not doing his duty makes him liable to punishment or some similar sanction, e.g., being fired from his job, then no one has a duty not to vote, and only in countries that have a law requiring one to vote, is one morally required to vote. (Philosophers generally use the term "duty" as equivalent to "moral requirement, whereas it is ordinarily used in a narrower sense, as a moral requirement that stems from a job, social role, or special circumstances.)

In 1907 William James gave his Lowell Lectures on Pragmatism at Harvard and later at Columbia. I believe that <i>Pragmatism</i> was intended by WJ to complement his book <i>Varieties of Religious Experience</i>. 2007 will be the Centennial of Pragmatism. Will this event be observed by philosophers? Universities? Or by the literate public -- which is the audience William James often tried to reach. Bill DeLoach The University of Memphis

I can't imagine there won't be conferences and the like, what with the resurgence of American pragmatism over the last couple decades. You might want to contact Harvard and ask them if they have any plans. If not, perhaps your letter would suggest to them that they should make some.