Friday, January 16, 2015

New paper on knowledge first epistemology

Carrie Jenkins and I have written a paper exploring what it means to put "knowledge first". Here is our current draft. From the introduction:
There is a New Idea in epistemology. It goes by the name of ‘knowledge first,’ and it is particularly associated with Timothy Williamson’s book Knowledge and Its Limits. In slogan form, to put knowledge first is to treat knowledge as basic or fundamental, and to explain other states—belief, justification, maybe even content itself—in terms of knowledge, instead of vice versa. The idea has proven enormously interesting, and equally controversial. But deep foundational questions about its actual content remain relatively unexplored. We think that a wide variety of views travel under the banner of ‘knowledge first’ (and that the slogan doesn’t help much with differentiating them). Furthermore, we think it is far from straightforward to draw connections between certain of these views; they are more independent than they are often assumed to be.

Friday, January 02, 2015

New Year's Resolution: Weekly Writing

I feel like apologizing for navel-gazing, but it's my blog so I won't. Please skip if you don't care to read about and my goals.

I didn't write as much as I wanted to in 2014. There are particular reasons it was a difficult year for me to make time to write, but it's pretty easy for that to be the case. My New Year's resolution for 2015 aimed at getting more writing done.

In particular, I resolve to get some non-trivial amount of writing done every week. At the end of each week, I should be able to identify ways in which my total writing output has increased. Maybe some weeks when I have other priorities it'll just be a paragraph. I hope there'll be some very productive weeks where I'll churn out most of a paper or chapter. But I resolve to make it a priority to do at least some writing every week. I'm talking writing for research purposes—things I intend to publish. (The tons of stuff I write for my students doesn't count.)

I'm the kind of person who benefits from structure and public accountability and feeling like I'm winning at a game. That's why this blog post is here. The plan is to update it weekly every Friday until 2016. If you notice that I'm behind in updating, please feel free to give me a hard time about it.

Here's a list of weeks that have ended in 2015 so far, with a note of what writing I've done in them.

  1. Jan 2. Started an overdue book review of Prichard's Epistemological Disjunctivism. (I blogged some in preparation for this in the fall, but this week I finally started the actual review.)
  2. Jan 9. I made a bit more progress on the book review—it's now perhaps 30% complete—and I also did a full round of edits on the knowledge first paper Carrie and I are writing together. It is now small finishing touches away from being sent to the editors. I'd like to have achieved more, but the first week of teaching isn't a bad excuse. Hopefully next week both of these will be finished, and I'll be well into a new paper on experimental philosophy.
  3. Jan 16. Carrie and I finished our knowledge first paper and sent it off. Penultimate draft here. I did some editorial work on my contextualism volume, working on lining up the last few authors. My book review isn't quite finished, as I'd hoped it'd be, but it's close. I've said 90% of what I want to, at 125% of the word count. So now I'm editing. I should certainly have sent it off by next week. I also hope to make revisions on a dreaming paper and send it off; and to start on an intuitions/x-phi paper.
  4. Jan 23. I didn't get as much writing done this week as I'd've liked. I made significant progress on two research-related items: a grant application and editorial work for my contextualism volume, but very little actual writing of research. I did finish and send off the book review. That's about all I can claim though. My writing goals for next week are the same as those for this week.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Brief Follow-up

Some people have asked me why I am speaking out publicly about Brian Leiter’s threat of litigation. If the only thing I cared about was getting Brian Leiter to leave me and my wife alone, silence would probably be the prudent response to the letter we received. But I think the philosophical community is entitled to know when freedom of speech within it is under threat. That's why it's important to me that Leiter's threatening actions are brought to light.

The things we have said about Brian Leiter constitute protected speech. They were not misleading, and we stand by them. If Leiter carries out his threat to sue, we will vigorously defend. We will also have the right to counterclaim against Leiter for false and defamatory statements he has made about us during the last year, including those contained in the letter from his lawyer he published and his commentary on it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Recent Email from Brian Leiter's Canadian Lawyer

On December 15, Professor Brian Leiter notified me and my wife Carrie Jenkins, through a Toronto lawyer, that he "is prepared to seek redress in the courts of Canada" against us over various Internet postings which he alleges defame him.

Professor Leiter claims to be defamed by:
  1. Carrie’s pledge on her tumblr blog to behave with civility towards other philosophers and colleagues;
  2. Carrie’s post to Facebook of the complete text of Professor Leiter’s email of July 2, 2014 regarding that pledge;
  3. the so-called “September Statement”; and
  4. the post on the Feminist Philosophers blog entitled “Sometimes An Apology Doesn’t Help.”
His Toronto lawyer has demanded that Carrie and I publish on the Internet, for a continuous period of at least six months, a lengthy apology and retraction (which his lawyer drafted).  If we do not, we are warned, Professor Leiter “will pursue his legal remedies against [me and my wife]” and “perhaps others among the original signatories to the ‘September Statement’.”  We are also warned that Professor Leiter’s Canadian lawsuit against me and my wife will involve “a full airing of the issues and the cause or causes of [Carrie’s] medical condition;”  a reference, it would seem, to posted information about the impact of Professor Leiter’s actions on Carrie’s health, her capacity to work, and her ability to contribute to the public discourse as a member of the profession.

Carrie and I have instructed our lawyer to inform Brian Leiter that anything we have posted about him on the Internet is lawful free speech under Canadian law and under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Monday, October 20, 2014

High School Popularity: A Modest Proposal

One of the difficult things about high school is figuring out which people to be friends with. After all, it can make a big difference in your life! Being friends with popular kids is a good way to become more more popular yourself. Plus, your teachers might treat you better, you'll get more cool stuff (from being friends with the popular kids, who are also often the richer ones), etc. In the status quo, however, freshmen often enter high school without a very clear idea of who the popular kids are, so they're aiming their friendship aspirations pretty haphazardly.
But here's an idea for an enterprising popular kid to provide an invaluable service to everybody. He gets a group of his friends together, and they rate everybody in the school (or at least everyone they think is at least minimally popular) for popularity. Then he can make the results known to the whole school, free of charge! Now everyone worth thinking about trying to be friends with comes along with a numerical popularity rating. Sure, everybody's going to try to be friends with that one girl who was already a 4.8, and she doesn't have the time or energy to be friends with everyone, but since she's the most popular, it makes sense for her to be able to be the most selective about choosing her friends. And aren't the best candidates for friends the ones who deserve to have access to the most popular kid's friendship?
Now I'm the first to admit this system won't be perfect. The popular kids are likely to get ever more popular, since everyone will know that they're the people to try to be friends with. And of course everyone will have some incentive to be friends with that one kid who started the rating system, and with the raters that make up his circle of friends. (The latter can be mitigated somewhat if that first kid occasionally makes changes to the roster of kids who do the ratings.) So yeah, maybe there are better possible systems. But in the status quo, people are just trying to guess who's most popular by asking a couple of people or -- even more unfairly -- by judging by superficial cues like race and attractiveness and athletic ability. How is that fair.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Introspective and Reflective Distinguishability

Mooreans, including neo-Mooreans, think that we know lots of ordinary stuff, and that we also—maybe on this basis—know the denials of extraordinary skeptical scenarios. Duncan Pritchard defends a particular disjunctivist brand of neo-Mooreanism, according to which, in cases of successful perception, one has reflective access to factive reasons of the form I see that p, and perceptual knowledge based on such reasons. So for instance, when one looks at red wall under ordinary circumstances:

  • One sees that the wall is red.
  • One has reflective access to the fact that one sees that the wall is red.
  • One knows that the wall is red on the basis of the fact that one sees that the wall is red.
Since Duncan also accepts a closure principle on knowledge, he accepts:
  • One knows that the wall isn't a white wall illuminated by red light.
Like all forms of Mooreanism, Duncan's view is in tension with certain skeptical intuitions. For example, it is in tension with this intuition:
(S) One can't tell by introspection that one is faced with a red wall rather than a white wall with red light.
As Duncan puts it,
If, in the non-deceived case, one has reflective access to the relevant factive reason as epistemological disjunctivism maintains, then why doesn't it follow that one can introspectively distinguish between the non-deceived and deceived cases after all, contrary to intuition? ... In short, the problem is that it is difficult to see how epistemological disjunctivism can square its claim that the reflectively accessible reasons in support of one's perceptual knowledge can nonetheless be factive with the undeniable truth that there can be pairs of cases like that just described [ordinary perceptual cases and corresponding deceptions] which are introspectively indistinguishable. (21)
(Duncan defines 'introspective indistinguishability' as the inability to know by introspection alone that the cases are distinct. (p. 53))

If I wanted to be a neo-Moorean of broadly Duncan's style (something I might well want to do), I'd just deny S, along with the many other skeptical intuitions that come out false on this view. But Duncan doesn't want to go that way; as this passage indicates, he considers S and claims like it to be 'undeniable truths'. (On p. 92 he even says that disjunctivists in particular are "unavoidably committed to denying that agents can introspectively distinguish" between the relevant cases.) I confess I don't see why it's so important to hold on to this particular skeptical intuition while happily rejecting others, such as the intuition that an ordinary person at the zoo doesn't know that she isn't looking at a cleverly disguised mule.

How does Duncan go about resolving the tension between his disjunctivism and S? By leaning on the 'by introspection' qualifier. He does think that, if one in the good case, one can reason thus, resulting in knowledge of the conclusion: "I have factive reason R. Only in the good case would I have factive reason R. Therefore, I'm in the good case." But, he says, this is consistent with intuitions like S, which are about introspective abilities. And while one may be able to tell by introspection what reasons one has, one cannot tell by introspection that factive reasons obtain only in the good cases. This is something one can come to know by a priori reflection, but not by introspection. (And maybe the same goes for the epistemic standing of the inference from the two premises to the conclusion.)

This is ultimately a much milder concession to skeptical intuitions than at first it appeared. Although he preserves the letter of his interpretation of the claim that we can't introspectively distinguish the good cases from the bad cases, he does so by pointing out that "introspectively" is a stronger qualifier than one might have realised. He does think (p. 95) that one can reflectively distinguish between good and bad cases, where reflective distinguishability is the ability to know distinct base on a combination of introspection and a priori reasoning.

So two thoughts. First the smaller one: is it really right to exclude a priori reasoning from the considerations that establish 'introspective distinguishability'? It's very hard for me to even make sense of just what that constraint is. (In The Rules of Thought, Ben and I argue that we can't divorce any kind of thought from a priori reasoning.) Consider these two cases: (1) I am presented in ordinary circumstances with a blue ball. (2) I am presented in ordinary circumstances with a black ball. Given the way my perceptual faculties work, we should consider these cases to be distinguishable in the relevant sense if any are. But is it clear that I can know them to be distinct without using a priori reasoning? It's not like the proposition that they're distinct is made available to me directly via introspection. Instead, I have introspective access to how one case looks, and to how another case looks, and I observe that they're different. From this I infer, using something like Leibniz's law, that they're distinct.

Second, supposing Duncan is right about introspective distinguishability: maybe this just shows that the worry wasn't properly articulated in the first place. I submit that someone motivated by the kinds of skeptical pressures that would drive someone to say that you can't tell good cases and bad cases apart by introspection, isn't going to feel better if you allow a priori reasoning along with introspection. The key skeptical intuition in the first place was just that it shouldn't be that easy to tell the good cases and the bad cases apart. And there's no getting around it: that's just an intuition that disjunctivists need to deny. Once we come to appreciate this fact, I'm not sure how important it is to conform to the letter of certain idiosyncratic statements of the intuition.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Some thoughts about the PGR and Brian Leiter

In academic year 2002/03, I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Rice University, and I decided I was interested in applying to grad school in philosophy. Like many undergraduate philosophy majors, I knew next to nothing about the discipline of philosophy—I just knew that I'd enjoyed my philosophy courses, and done well in them, and I wanted more. The ideal circumstance, of course, would have been if someone with intimate knowledge of a wide variety of philosophy departments sat down with me for many hours and helped me to select a number of possible good fits. That was impossible, in my case and in most cases, for many reasons. I was exactly the kind of person the Philosophical Gourmet Report was meant to help. One of my professors pointed me to it, and I used it as a starting point for my research into grad school. It was an extremely useful resource, and I would have been worse off without it. So I agree with the people who have recently written to Brian Leiter, thanking him for creating what is a useful professional service.

Since then, as I have gotten to know the profession more intimately, I have become aware of many concerns about the PGR. Some of them, I think, like the weirdly strategic aspect with which some departments make hire in an attempt to raise themselves in the rankings, are an accidental result of the PGR's large success and influence. I also recognise that there are appropriate concerns about the PGR's methodology, and that it has a tendency to amplify problematic biases about who is and isn't a good philosopher, and what is and isn't a 'core' area of philosophy. I understand why some philosophers think that the PGR does more harm than good. But I do think that it fills what continues to be a genuine need in the profession. I don't really have better advice for a student trying to take the first steps to think about where to apply to grad school than to look at the PGR. Unless and until there is a better source of information available, the PGR remains useful and important.

But the other thing that I have come to realise, as I have gotten to understand the workings of professional philosophy better, is that Brian Leiter has a tremendous influence in the profession, in significant part because of his role as founder and editor of the PGR. And while he often channels his influence in what I consider to be positive directions, he also has engaged in a harmful pattern of bullying and silencing of those who disagree with him. If he were 'just any' philosopher saying mean things about people, this would be rude (and, in my view, unacceptable) but only marginally harmful. But in a culture in which philosophers are afraid to voice dissent against such a powerful individual, the harm is magnified tremendously. I do not think that Leiter himself understands the stifling and silencing effect that his words have on the less powerful people in the profession. In the most recent high-profile instance I have in mind, as most readers will already know, the target was my wife, Carrie Jenkins. Carrie wrote a widely celebrated statement, in wholly general terms, about the importance of philosophers treating each other respectfully. Brian Leiter—who had not previously been in correspondence with Carrie—interpreted this as a criticism of him personally, and wrote Carrie an insulting email, which had significant stifling and intimidating effects. In my opinion, this is not only unacceptable behaviour, but an abuse of the powerful position that Leiter finds himself in. And although the situation with Carrie is the one I am the most familiar with, it seems clear from discussions with others that this kind of bullying, silencing behaviour represents a pattern. That is why I have signed on to this statement (update: here), publicly declaring that I will not assist in the production of the PGR while it is under Brian Leiter's control. I am an untenured junior member of the profession, and have never been asked to contribute to the PGR, but I consider public statements like this important, especially in this context where fear of becoming the object of a negative Leiter campaign is so prevalent. It is important that other philosophers see that if they take a stand, they will not be alone. I am happy to see that many much more prominent philosophers than I—including at least one person who was on the PGR advisory board last week—have also signed.

I remain ambivalent about the PGR itself. As indicated above, I think it plays an important role. Perhaps something else could play that role in a better way, but unless and until such something exists, I think that the PGR itself does good. But in the status quo, where it makes everyone afraid of Brian Leiter, there is serious harm that comes along with that good. It is time for that harm to stop. The best solution for now would be for the PGR to proceed without its founder.