Saturday, October 06, 2007

Notes Upon Notes, and Links Too

* John Wilkins has a post on Feyerabend that is worth reading.

* JJ at "Feminist Philosophers" notes a point where cognitive science can potentially meet up with feminist inquiry, in the sense of providing materials for feminists investigating the real relationship between emotion and reason.

* As an early modernist, though, I can't help but twitch a little at the quotations from Pascal used in the excerpt from Trends in Cognitive Science that JJ quotes; I really wish cognitive scientists wouldn't do things like this, because it makes me fidget and want to say, "But we have to be careful in bringing the Pascalian heart into a discussion of 'emotions', since it is the faculty by means of which we understand space, time, and mathematical and logical first principles; it is our loving sense of everything real (including ourselves and God), and while it can be the root of passions, we can only discuss its role in our passionate life by carefully distinguishing it from the imagination, with which it is often confused. In Pascal's example, people often feel they are converted when really all they have done is imagine being converted. The heart does have connections with the sorts of things we might classify as 'emotions'; it is by the heart, for instance, that we know we ought to be loved, and it is by the heart that we love ourselves and thereby know ourselves to be lovable. But it's really not wise to bring it in unless you make those distinctions...." And so forth. It takes some force of will not to continue!

* Incidentally, to return (tangentially) to the issue of feminism, it has occurred to me recently that one reason people often eschew the title of 'feminist' might possibly be that they think of feminism as a theory: a set of things (perhaps only vaguely delineated) that you have to believe. Something like a system but less orderly, perhaps. But more and more I think we should regard feminism as a project of inquiry -- one that allows an immense amount of diversity, but is united in an attempt to find ways to see things in a better and more accurate light given a recognition of the need to make an explicit attempt to oppose and undo bias against women, as well as to oppose and undo those constraints that lock people into unconstructive, and often destructive, patterns of oppression, culpability, and complicity. And there are plenty of areas in which one can see that this is a beneficial and valuable project: I've briefly noted some scientific examples before (even though there I also used the term 'theory', what I describe can best be put in terms of this project of inquiry, and although I now think that what I say there is too restrictive), and history of philosophy provides plenty of examples as well. I'm inclined to think that seeing it this way shows (in a way that thinking of it as a theory does not) that it is utterly necessary and can't just be treated as an isolated group of things believed by That Group Over There. Of course, this isn't wholly new; in a sense Helen Longino has always been saying it in philosophy of science, for instance, and it isn't that difficult to extrapolate from there. But it would be nice to see it more widely and thoroughly developed and recognized.

* There is a post at "Crooked Timber" on the danger of softpedalling book reviews (among other things). I confess that I think the problem here is the tendency to think of the point of a review as evaluation, which I don't think is reasonable. It is utterly irrelevant to me whether the esteemed professor from such-and-such college thinks the book is worth reading. I've met enough esteemed professors to know that I don't trust their taste in books, or, in some cases, their reading skills. What I want to know is what I, the reader, should know if I do, in fact, happen to read the book. Now, I can see the point of laying out something to satisfy those who go into the review wondering whether they should put the book at the top of their reading list or put it aside in favor of other things. But there is no piece of writing so odious as a book review in which the reviewer tries to tell the readers what to think of a book before they've read it; except perhaps a book review in which the reviewer tries to tell the readers what to think of the author of the book. And that is true whether the it's all praise or all blame.

It's an issue for me because I'm the sort of person who will be reading the book reviews. I always read all the book reviews in almost every philosophy journal I pick up; because I often read outside my field, I often read book reviews in journals outside my field; and I think long and hard about the reviews I read. There have been academic book reviews that have given me something to think seriously about for hours. But there are a great many bad book reviews out there, too, and what makes it worse is that you can be pretty sure that the reviewer thinks they are doing a good job writing it. The three questions that come to my mind, in one form or another, whenever I read a book review:

(1) Does this review give me the means better to compare this book with other books and articles on the topic?

(2) Does this review help me to identify interesting things in the book discussed that I would not otherwise have identified, and give me the tools for getting more out of reading the book than I otherwise might?

(3) Does this piece help me to recognize dangerous latent biases in myself that might interfere with good reading of the book?


Now, I ask you: if the answers are No, No, and No, what possible function could the review have except to be a sordid little line on someone's CV and a bit of pointless little fluff taking up space and paper and ink that would be better used if it were filled with something else entirely? I would even prefer badly-written reviews that do at least one of these three things to well-written reviews that do none of them.

Of tenure review letters I know much, much less, and, in any case, I am puzzled by the notion of an 'overly generous tenure review letter'; I don't understand how generosity enters into the equation. Either you are lying or you are not. If you are lying, your moral self-inquiry should begin with something other than the issue of excessive generosity. If you are not lying, you are only doing the person reviewed a justice he or she deserves as a human being and a colleague. Of course, your letter might suffer the defect of leaving out things that need to be seriously considered in tenure review; but any praise you give stands or falls not on this, which is another thing entirely, but on the truth. So I would have thought. But, as I said, I know rather little about such matters.

* Tertullian on reason (De poenitentia 1.2):

For reason is a thing of God, since there is nothing which God, the creator of all things, has not foreseen, arranged and determined by reason; moreover, there is nothing He does not wish to be investigated and understood by reason.


* In Getting Past Multiple Guess at "In Socrates' Wake", Michael Cholbi asks about the use of multiple choice examinations in philosophy. I suspect the common sort of protest against them would be that which Cholbi notes: "But it can be difficult to fashion multiple choice exams that test higher level skills or knowledge that we typically care about a lot in philosophy: the ability to craft or appraise arguments, the understanding of logical relations, etc." But it is noteworthy that this is often surprisingly true of the common alternative, essay questions; as are most of the other common objections: superficiality, excessive dependence on memorization, etc.

I also (I must confess) am a bit suspicious about the horror many people have when it comes to multiple choice, because I always wonder whether the real reason for the revulsion comes from the difficulty of writing good multiple choice tests: you have to know and understand your subject extraordinarily well to formulate good multiple choice tests that require the use of higher-level skills and knowledge. Most people seems to be very lax about essay questions, though; and writing an essay question only rarely involves the same amount of effort in a teacher that answering it requires in a student, whereas multiple choice questions are a much more level playing field by the very nature of the question. (I think short answer tends to be a more level playing field, too.)

I am more heretical than those who like multiple choice questions; my preference is for true/false quizzes, which I've always loved -- I love taking them, I love writing them, I love grading them. (Although I also like short answer. I don't like essay questions, unless they are very precise and specific about what is required, although I was always exceptionally good at them.) But then I am perverse enough to write true/false quizzes like the one I give in the comments here, which, though, was not for a grade but as a review activity, and was, it should also be said, a slightly mocking self-parody.

* The Thomist at "Just Thomism" hits the nail on the head with regard to Pascal's Wager.

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