Recent Responses

Is there any way to get published if you're not a professor in a university? For example, let's say I just pick up a philosophy magazine out of interest and want to respond to the article. Will I even be read or do I have to have a degree? Since people seem to agree that on the basic philosophy questions everybody asks them and has their own answers, it's theoretically possible that some non-professional has got a good answer right? And perhaps s/he wants to publish it. How might someone like this proceed? Separately, is it possible to know where philosophy presently is without being educated formally? I feel like the books in bookstores are mostly classics from at least 50 or so years ago. But can you get aboard of what's going on now without entering a university? For example, how would I proceed if I want to know the present state of deliberation on the...philosophy of mind, say? Thanks!!

Nearly all of the philosophy journals practice "blind review" of submitted articles. What this means is that those making the decision to publish or not to publish the contributed piece have no idea who the author is, or what his professional status (or lack of it) might be. So yes, it is certainly possible for someone who is not a professional academic to publish philosophical work where professionals will read it.

Even so, I think it will be difficult for someone without specialized training to get published in this way--the rejection rate at most philosophy journals is very high even for those with graduate training and years of experience, so getting one's work published can be quite challenging, and usually requires that the piece to be published demonstrates mastery of the field and the most recent work in thsi field.

As for how someone might keep up with what is going on now, many publishers (I would recommend Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Blackwells, who all publish such works) have excellent collections of work, selected by an editor who is presumably an expert in the field, who chooses articles to include on the basis of their special impact and current relevance to study in that field. Purchasing (or borrowing from a good library) books of this sort and reading the articles included in them is an excellent way to "catch up" with what is really important in the field right now. Obviously, reading what appears in the most competitive journals (such as The Philosophical Review or the Journal of Philosophy) would also be very valuable. One who has read and understood well the works in such recent collections, and has also read and understood well the recent work in several of the main journals in the field, who thinks that he or she has a contribution to make to the literature could then reasonably submit a paper to one of the journals in the field and know that the referee(s) will not be prejudiced by the author's lack of professional status, because of blind review.

Is global capitalism workable? That is, if capitalism is a system where most of the economic activity is based on self-interest, are the kinds of restricting factors like social welfare, laws, charity and human instincts enough to stop the polarizing of wealth, destruction of the environment and stuff that we see?

To take a different line, those defending capitalism would argue that despite its inequalities and inefficiencies, it nonetheless produces more overall wealth than any other economic system. There is no reason why that wealth should not subsequently be distributed in fair and sensible ways, provided that such an allocation does not interfere unduly with the production of yet more wealth. In fact, some capitalist societies have been rather good at doing this, and there seems no a priori reason why all could not. After all, it might strike people that what you call unbridled self-interest involves social security, protection of the environment and so on. It is not in most people's interests, after all, for the streets to be unsafe due to poverty or the ice caps to melt and drown us all.

Would an alien race, with a completely different understanding of the world and different values, rate our art and music the same? (Assuming they could comprehend it.) I don't think that they would. Would this call into question the objectivity of artistic value?

I agree that an alien race that differed considerably from us would be unlikely to rate our art and music the same.

However, this does not, by itself, show that there is no objectivity in artistic value. If one wished to defend the objectivity of artistic value in the face of such evidence, one might use one of two strategies. (I) One might argue that the alien race is simply mistaken in its value judgements; for some reason---which one would have to independently specify---the aliens get it wrong while we get it right (or vice versa). Alternatively, (II) one might argue for the conditional claim that if the alien race truly understood our art and music, then they would appreciate it; evidence that they do not appreciate should be interpreted as evidence that they do not understand it. Again, one would have to independently specify some reason why the aliens do not understand our art and music.

Without more detail on the aliens and their disagreement with us, it is difficult to say which, if either, strategy would be possible.

Let us assume that it is moral for people to act selfishly, and by this I don't mean in the empty sense that whatever you do is that which you have chosen to do. It seems right that long-run happiness is better (more selfish) than simply taking a lot of drugs, sleeping with random people, and just feeling a lot of pleasure rather than actually feeling satisfied by accomplishing goals. Yet for the life of me, I cannot logically justify why. Is there good reason to live a life of long-term planning rather than empty sensation? Thank you, Adam

There are really three questions here, worth distinguishing clearly.

Question 1 is whether pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the sole ends of human life or whether we rather have reason to value and seek other ends (as well). Here you may think about whether the value of pleasures is unaffected by the fact that they rest on false beliefs (e.g., the belief that you are loved and admired when in fact you are despised, etc.). An extreme case of this is Nozick's experience machine which, attached to your brain, stimulates in you the most wonderful experiences. Also, think about the burden of proof here. Why should it be somehow obvious that pleasure is worth pursuing while other ends (knowledge, wisdom, love, artistic excellence) stand in need of justification? It seems more plausible to start with a very general notion of well-being and then to examine with an open mind what one's well-being might consist in.

Questions 2 and 3 were perhaps most interestingly (though not flawlessly) discussed by Derek Parfit in Part 2 of his Reasons and Persons. Question 2 is what good reason there might be to give weight, in deciding how to act, to one's well-being in the future. Here one possible answer is this: If each time-slice of me (one hour, say) attends only to its own well-being, then nearly every one of these time-slices would fare worse in terms of well-being than it would fare if these time-slices cooperated through intelligent planning. For example, if each time-slice cares only about itself, then nearly all of them are likely to be broke (none will want to leave cash to its successor). In this way, such narrow care is (or comes close to being) directly collectively self-defeating (Parfit's expression).

Question 3 is what good reason there might be to give weight to how one has conceived one's well-being in the past and to how one will conceive one's well-being in the future. Suppose you have reason to believe that you will conceive of your well-being quite differently in 20 years from how you conceive of it now. Should you promote that future self's well-being as you conceive it (leave him many frequent flier miles to tempt him away from the sedentary life which he will like and which you despise)? Should you promote that future self's well-being as he conceives it (buy a piece of land near a dull village to ensure that he will be able to build a cottage there even if real estate prices go through the roof)? Insofar as you see some merit in the latter answer, you come around to what your question explicitly assumed at the outset: that it is moral for people to act selfishly. When your future self conceives his well-being quite differently from how you conceive it, then your reasons for promoting his well-being as he conceives it are similar to your moral reasons for promoting any other person's well-being as s/he conceives it.

I frequently hear physician's voice the following argument with respect to sexual disorders and anxiety/depression, and I wonder of its validity: If there's a chemical treatment (e.g. pharmaceuticals) and it's successful, then the problem is physiological, not psychological. The argument appears invalid to me, because it seems to assume too large of a rift between one's psychology and one's brain. More exactly, if a chemical treatment works, and if one's psychology (i.e. thought-patterns and emotions) can have an effect on one's brain chemistry (and vice versa), then couldn't the problem still have a psychological source? It seems as if these physicians view psychology as having a basis in a something (a soul perhaps) that is causally independent of the brain. But that seems like an odd view for a Western physician to hold. I'd greatly appreciate any thoughts on this.

I agree that this reasoning seems strange. However, here's one possible justification for it. Any cause can be described in a large number of different ways. For example, a brick thrown at a window can be described as: (i) a brick thrown at a window, or (ii) the movement of a bunch of molecules through space.

Which way we choose to describe a cause depends on our interests in the case. If we are interested in atomic physics, we may prefer description (ii); if we are interested in the movement of bricks in the area, we may choose description (i).

Suppose that in medicine our interests are primarily to explain and treat disorders. For some disorders, it may be easier to explain and treat them by describing their causes in purely psychological language. For other disorders, it may be easier to explain and treat them by describing their causes in purely physiological language. There may also be difficult mixed cases, as you mention, in which the best strategy is to describe the causes in a mixed psychological and physiological language.

However, none of these three options commits one to the view that you mention: that there is a soul that is causally separate from the brain. A physician could say that it is just the same thing (the brain) that is being described in different language in each of the three cases, in much the same way as the case of the brick.

Are there any great literary stylists in philosophy? Its analytical nature would seem to militate against this i.e., trying to express difficult ideas as intelligibly as possible. Some may have (but the only ones I can think of are in translation and far from what the panel go in for) and are usually aiming for a 'felt' response such as Nietzsche, Kierkergaard, Plato's account of the death of Socrates, and so on. Wittgenstein seemed to like portentous statements (again I only know him in translation and couldn't really understand him) such as 'The world is all that is the case' and 'Whereof we cannot speak thereof we must pass over in silence'. Was he trying to sound gnomic and literary while conducting philosophical analysis? I teach English and use Russell's lay writings as models of concision and eloquence in style. I also use extracts from Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness' to show how not to write! Someone told me Sartre had had no training in logic hence his tedious verbosity. I also consider Martin Heidegger's written style an incomprehensible and impenetrable joke (but maybe it works in German). I am not referring to any philosopher's literary work here, just their 'factual' texts. I would value your thoughts on this and would also like to thank you for this site.

Two mention just two further wonderful writers in English:

J.L. Austin has a very powerful voice. And W.V. Quine has an extraordinary style about which much could be said. (And I would not call Wittgenstein's style "portentous". Pitch perfectly resonant, yes.)

I have been reading Bertrand Russell's <i>History of Western Philosophy</i>, and am puzzled by a paragraph in a section on Plato ('Knowledge and Perception in Plato') pertaining to the use of the verb 'to exist'. The paragraph reads as follows: "Suppose you say to a child 'lions exist, but unicorns don't'; you can prove your taking him to the zoo and saying 'look, that's a lion'. You will not...add 'and you can see that that exists'...if you do then you are uttering nonsense. To say 'lions exist' means 'there are lions', i.e. 'x is a lion' is true for a suitable x'. But we cannot say of the suitable x that it 'exists'; we can only apply this verb to a description, complete or incomplete. 'Lion' is an incomplete description, because it applies to many objects: 'the largest lion in the zoo' is complete, because it applies to only one object". What puzzles me about this paragraph is quite how it is, as Russell sees it, nonsensical to say 'there is a lion, and it exists'. Is it because we do not need to add 'and it exists', because we can see that it does (thus the addition is not necessary and does not add anything to the statement), or is it due to a lack of specification over whether we are making a general or a particular claim (i.e. 'lions exist' as opposed to 'that lion exists', the aforementioned statement taking neither form)?

Russell may be making the claim that existence is not a property. An individual may have the property of being furry, of making loud sounds, and of living in Regent's Park Zoo, but it does not also have a property of existence. Rather to exist is for those properties to be instantiated. To say that something exists is to say that there is something with various properties, but existing is not one of them.

Does the individual consciousness depend on the actual atoms or only on the configuration of the atoms? Suppose we have mastered cryo-freezing and atom-manipulation technology. We can freeze and unfreeze people at will. We freeze Sarah. We replace Sarah's atoms one by one. With all atoms replaced, we wake her up. Is it the "same" Sarah? (the same to herself, not just to us). Thanks, Mario

Let's call the being that results from all this replacement Sarah2. We can ask a pair of questions that seem different. One is whether Sarah2's conscious states will be like Sarah's. I agree with Mark that the answer to that question is yes; at least, it's hard to see why it would be no. But we can ask another question that seems to a different one: is Sarah2 the same person as Sarah? That's a lot more controversial.

A comparison, based on an example by Peter van Inwagen: Suppose little Johnny builds a house from a small number of blocks and leaves it in the middle of the floor. And suppose that I come in and clumsily kick the house over. If I re-arrange the blocks in exactly the same way, then the house I assemble will be indistinguishable from the one Johnny built, but it's not so clear that it's literally the same house. And if I actually replace the blocks with new ones that are just like the old ones, then it's even less clear.

So if we cryo-freeze Sarah, interrupting her normal biological and psychological processes, and then perform this massive replacement, there's at least room to wonder whether it's literally the same person. Sarah2 will no doubt think she's Sarah, but she could be wrong for all that.

This is part of a big debate, of course. One good collection that provides a wide range of background readings with a nice historical introduction is Raymond Martin and John Barresi's anthology Personal Identity, published by Blackwell.

Which edition of Kant's critiques do you recommend? (And for that matter, where is there reliable information to be found about which editions of philosophy books are best?)

I think the Cambridge University Press editions are probably best in all three cases, they tend to do very good editions -- both of translated and of originally Anglophone works.

Typically, a good indicator is what the best recent secondary literature is using or what top scholars assign in their classes. This information is often easily obtainable through Amazon or the internet generally.