Monday, February 26, 2007

Three cheers for Piers

It's a familiar fact of academic life that you can go to hear a talk with great expectations of something arresting from someone who you have read with admiration, and then be bored or even irritated by a banal recycling of half-baked ideas. Equally, you can dutifully turn out to a unpromising-seeming seminar, apparently remote from your interests, feeling for some reason that you really ought to be there -- and you find yourself riveted and enthused.

So three cheers for Piers Bursill-Hall, who was talking at the clumsily named CUSPOMMS last Friday. "Descartes's Earlier Epistemology in Natural Philosophy" wasn't exactly a title to set me alight. In the event, his talk was wonderfully entertaining but also a highly illuminating lightening tour through ancient and Renaissance takes on the problem of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in its application to the material world, and Descartes's attempt to resolve the problem without committing himself to the theologically dangerous idea of mathematics as a direct route to reading the mind of God. Enthusiasm is always engaging, and Piers has it in spades. (You can get a glimpse of his style here.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Vice-chancellors, please note

Moscow university in the 1820s, a place of dissent and a reputed 'hot-bed of depravity'. The Tsar appoints Prince Golitsyn Director to impose order. Herzen writes: 'Golitsyn was an astonishing person. It was a long time before he could accustom himself to the irregularity of there being no lecture when a professor was ill; he thought that the next on the list ought to take his place, so that Father Ternovsky sometimes had to lecture in the clinic on women's diseases and Richter, the gynaecologist, to discourse on the Immaculate Conception.'

Which no doubt improved classes no end. The university also had its own prison for recalitrant students. Models for us to emulate, surely.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

So what's it all about then?

The photographer Steven Pyke has produced another set of photos of great and not-so-great living philosophers. The style is, as with his earlier set published as a book, dramatically black-and-white, distinctly pretentious -- and so, of course, in some cases the portraits are hardly recognizable.

Pyke asks his sitters to describe 'in fifty words of so their own idea of what philosophy means'. So what's it all about then? Ruth Millikan gives a favourite quotation of mine from Sellars: ''The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." (I wonder how many students, at least this side of the Atlantic, read Sellars any more?)

Here are two other answers that chimed with me. David Papineau: "Some hold that the aim of philosophy is to construct theories that confirm everyday intuitions. What a dispiriting ambition. In my book, the best philosophy overturns common sense. Often, the impetus for change comes from outside philosophy, in the form of scientific or cultural innovation. The task of the philosopher is then to show how the new ideas reshape everyday thinking. Does this reduce philosophy to the status of a hand-maiden? Well, far better a hand-maiden of change than a lackey of the intellectual status quo."

And Steve Stich: "The idea that philosophy could be kept apart from the sciences would have been dismissed out of hand by most of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But many contemporary philosophers believe they can practice their craft without knowing what is going on in the natural and social sciences. If facts are needed, they rely on their "intuition", or they simply invent them. The results of philosophy done in this way are typically sterile and often silly. There are no proprietary philosophical questions that are worth answering, nor is there any productive philosophical method that does not engage the sciences. But there are lots of deeply important (and fascinating and frustrating) questions about minds, morals, language, culture and more. To make progress on them we need to use anything that science can tell us, and any method that works."

Friday, February 09, 2007

Two talks: Autonomy and positive sets

I went this week to the Moral Sciences Club for the first time in a while. I don't entirely know why, but I don't find the format or atmosphere of MSC meetings at all congenial. But the speaker this week was one of our own grad students, Ben Colburn, who put up a terrific performance talking about the value of autonomy and the role of the state in promoting the autonomy of its citizens. And that's a theme that mattered rather a lot to one of my heroes, Alexander Herzen. As it happens, at the moment my late-night (re)reading is his great My Life and Thoughts. (I have the four-volume translation of the whole thing, all 1800 pages of it. It is indeed a loose and baggy monster, but a wonderful read. I see there is a more sensible sized abridged version available these days, which looks a bargain.)

Then today Thierry Libert gave an informal talk at CUSPOMMS on positive set theory. I confess this was all news to me. I'm not sure I have a real grasp on what the resulting 'filled out' universe of sets is like, but I got intriguing glimpses. Something else, then, to add to list of things to chase up, given world enough and time ...

Monday, February 05, 2007

For Mac geeks ...

I've just become a real convert to DevonThink, which seems to be by far the best solution for organizing a whole collection of downloaded PDFs of articles, stored emails, lecture notes and the like. I haven't yet begun to explore its much-praised clever AI engine for e.g. finding other material related to some article. But even while I am just dumbly using it to search through a folder of PDFs and browse the results, I think it is going to earn its keep a dozen times over.

I wish I could find a use too for Scrivener which seems a great concept, beautifully implemented. But it just isn't suitable for the way I write -- everything I do these days seems to be symbol-laden, and is crying out to be done in LaTeX from the start. But if I ever write my great novel of the follies of academic life ...