Mostly Pictures Today

Today, I'll be cooking up a big pot of Bengali Masoor Dal for Thanksgiving, so I'll leave an extended critique of a stray comment made by Paul Churchland for another day.


Chilly Monday

Not much going on here.
Except playing with my colored pencils, and toying with the idea of creating a stencil.



This one took longer, because--surprise!--I don't have their albums lying around.

And I don't think it would make a particularly good t-shirt.

Just for Brian

I normally don't take requests, but here you go.


Ethics in Question

I've been reading, in turn, two books that address problems with Kantian ethics from very different standpoints.
One is Paul Churchland's Neurophilosophy at Work; the other is Theodore Adorno's Problems of Moral Philosophy.

Those of you familiar with my book will remember that I discussed Churchland's Moral Network Theory at length; while I found it useful, it ultimately fails to do everything he wants it to (or perhaps, everything I want it to). This collection of essays doesn't add anything that would challenge this evaluation, but it's interesting to see how he's extended and updated the theory over the years.

Adorno, on the other hand, is someone whom I've been reading on and off since taking a class with James Rolleston about 20 years ago. I always struggle with his writings, but unlike some other Continental theorists, I keep coming back for more. This book is based on lectures he gave in the early 60's with (I exaggerate) Nietzsche in one hand, Freud in the other, while standing on Marx.

I like the contrast between the two, since they are both critiquing Kant with very distinct agendas; for instance, Adorno isn't concerned with finding a biological ground for ethics, and Churchland doesn't acknowledge the tension between the "good life" of the individual and the good of the community. I have a hard time thinking outside of the field that Kant has defined; I've delved into his writings (and plunged into the vast secondary literature) more than any other philosopher's except Nietzsche, but I find him problematic and mistaken in ways that I have difficulty articulating (past the traditional critiques, first posed by Benjamin Constant)--even though that's more or less the topic of my book. As anyone who has read Nietzsche knows, his critiques of Kant tend more to the ad hominem than careful refutation (one of the reasons I like Robert Solomon's writings on Nietzsche is that he recognizes that a well executed ad hominem isn't necessarily a fallacy). However, I continue to find myself falling back into well-worn Kantian ruts, even though I know better.

My next book won't attempt to reconcile Churchland and Adorno; it will probably just be a collection of cartoons.

Gratuitous quote of the day:
"As with many lonely children, his problem was not solitude itself but that he was never left free to enjoy it."
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay



As my loyal readers know, I'm in the process of looking for a job (and not, I will add for anyone who is worried about it, putting this blog on my resume). Unfortunately, as you may or may not know, the economy has tanked in the past few weeks. I saw an ad to be a carney in the Pacific Northwest next spring, but I'm still hoping to find work closer to the kids. And, for that matter, indoors.

The last cartoon refers, obliquely, to a Justin Timberlake song which, for the record, I've never listened to all the way through.

And, bonus points to the person who translates the seal behind Judge Mai. (Really: I've forgotten what it was. I'm sure it's absolutely hilarious!)


"Bad idea"

I finished reading Pinker's Stuff of Thought (scroll down for various links!) sometime last week, but there's one more quote I wanted to share--not because it's deep or particularly funny, but just because it makes me wonder if Steve reads my blog:
"When you combine these two aptitudes--metaphor and compositionality--the language of thought can be pressed into service to conceive and express a ceaseless geyser of ideas... Of course these abilities can also feed a ceaseless geyser of bad ideas." (page 437, for those of you following along at home.)

Now I'm reading--and enjoying--Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, but he isn't as quotable as Pinker. Which I find odd, because in general his style is much more accessible and chatty: all the fellow researchers are his friends, he talks about his wife and children frequently, and is generally a compelling and appealing author. Maybe that's the problem: he reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell, whose book Blink I recently read (and also enjoyed very much).

So what's the problem with that? It goes too fast, like a very long magazine article. Both Ariely and Gladwell generalize quite a bit, teasing out suggestive avenues (but not exactly building arguments). There's genuine insight, but I prefer Pinker's slow, dense chapters on microclasses of verbs and his careful dissection of theories of meaning. (Admittedly, I'm more familiar with some of the background material that Pinker deals with--here, I'm thinking specifically of Jerry Fodor's theory of meaning--than I am the details of economics. Then again, Ariely doesn't ever slowly dissect those theories in a way that might make me want to read them anyway, in the way that I get excited about reading Chomsky.)
Of course, I'll want to watch Ariely if he ever gets to the Colbert Report. Malcolm Gladwell wasn't nearly as funny as Pinker (admittedly, that's a pretty high standard!), but his hair is wild enough that Colbert didn't make a joke about it (which is the kind of meta-level humor that I like).


"We might could do that."

The title of this post is not a quote from The Stuff of Thought, but I was reminded of it while reading. Steven Pinker recounts an old joke,

"When a lady says 'no,' she means 'maybe.'

When she says 'maybe,' she means 'yes.'

If she says 'yes,' she's no lady.

When a diplomat says 'yes,' he means 'maybe.'

When he says 'maybe,' he means 'no.'

If he says 'no,' he's no diplomat."

(page 396, although it's a joke I've heard before, and Pinker doesn't attempt attribution. He also acknowledges that it's outdated, so you don't have to draw my attention to it: I remember that Madeline Albright--among many others--was a fine diplomat.)

This reminds me of a conversation I had many, many years ago with Bruce Payne, a professor and friend of a couple of my friends (which is to say, I got along with him just fine, but never took a class from him and didn't socialize with him except when I was with either Stu or Lisa). Bruce tells a story about when he worked for Terry Sanford, former senator from North Carolina, as well as former president of Duke University. Occasionally Bruce would be approached by someone who had spoken with Senator Sanford about a pet project, asking how things were coming along. Bruce, knowing that nothing was coming along at all, would ask, "When he spoke with you, did he say that he 'might could do that'?" They would nod, and then he would gently explain that this was a polite way of saying no.

It doesn't fit neatly into the form that Pinker provides, but certainly follows the spirit.


Another Pinker Quote!

But I'm getting near the end of the book.

"Craig is a latte-drinker in every sense except that he doesn't actually drink lattes."

Apparently, Steven knows I take my fair-trade organic coffee black.