Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini: Round 2

I recently blogged a LRB review of a new book by these two titled What Darwin Got Wrong

Here is another review, equally interesting from the redoubtable Simon Conway-Morris. Snippet:
Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini declare their secular credentials and are adamant that God, like Mother Nature and the Tooth Fairy, is a dispensable fantasy. But suppose they are correct in arguing that there really are nomological principles that underpin what evolution can and cannot achieve? If such principles are inherent to the universe, one is led inevitably to inquire why they are constructed that way. Pure accident.
 From the context of Conway-Morris's review, what is that sentence "Pure accident." doing at the end of this paragraph? Is this his description of Fodor and P-P's view? It seems so, but it is not entirely clear...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

On Tenure: Thinking Outside the Box

Here is a good article on tenure, from which the following snippet stands out on incentives for joining the ranks of academe:

the appeal of job security may be overrated. Tenure may be an added incentive, but it's almost never a deal maker. "All sorts of brilliant people want to be members of academe," says Trower. "I don't think it's because of tenure. It's because of the work." The life of the mind is its own reward.

So what's the alternative model? Renewable contracts. Some suggest seven years. Others say 10. The goal would be to give professors enough security to make them comfortable but not enough to breed complacency and lock the university into a deal that no longer makes sense.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

This past week's Web Reading

1. On Catholic universities and academic life. From this post, one of an increasing number of pointed jabs at the narrowing of academic life. A topic that is set to explode soon onto the front pages of the western press if another economic crisis precipitates a funding crunch...:

The hyper-specialization of knowledge is one of the characteristics of the modern university, which results both in the increasing balkanization of knowledge and in what Luke Timothy Johnson recently (and precisely and felicitously) described as the “desperately trivial character of much academic scholarship.” Young scholars must find ways to get published in obscure academic journals that no one will ever read. While there may be interesting minutiae in the sciences that are also significant, this is rarely the case in the humanities where minutiae remain minutiae, of little significance except insofar as an article about them might help one secure tenure.

And the following remark is not just true but damning. Damning of the entire enterprise that trumps "research" (not scholarship) over teaching in the effort to show students that it really is ok to know more and more about less and less:

Men and women trained as professors in recent decades tend to lack the capacity of earlier generations of scholars to give a broad, accessible account of their field of study, one that can inform the public at large.
Here endeth the lesson...

2. Terry Eagleton on John Cornwell on Newman. hmmm... I think I prefer A.N. Wilson's TLS review (sorry can't find it online)

3. Rod Dreher c/o Flannery O'Connor on Anne Rice's decision to leave the church. Ecclesiology 101 anyone?

4. Rod Dreher on Philip Rieff c/o Ross Douthat on just how deep the debates over SSM really go, and how no proponents and few opponents are willing to stretch their minds that far. Go Rod go.

5. And for something completely... well, only somewhat different: Edward Feser on the immorality of using the bomb. August 9, 1945. Nagasaki. Let us remember.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Money taketh happiness away!

From the abstract of a paper available here:

having access to the best things in life may actually undercut people’s ability to reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures.

I love the title: "Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away"...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Plagiarism is a Big Moral Deal

But not according to Stanley Fish today in a NYT post titled "Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal". Now a lot depends on Fish's use of the words "big" and "moral".

First, on the claim that plagiarism is an issue in the small world of academia. Fish notes:

The concept of plagiarism, however, is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him.
So, plagiarism is not like stealing apparently. But is that right? Is it really more like breaking the rules of a game? This is what Fish suggests with the several paragraphs long discussion of various sports and their rules. A rule, in that context, is simply an agreement on the procedures that should be followed. No big moral deal - as he says.

Second, on defining plagiarism, it is found to lack a philosophical basis, and therefore has no moral claim on which its proscription can stand:

the ground plagiarism stands on is more mundane and firm; it is the ground of disciplinary practices and of the histories that have conferred on those practices a strong, even undoubted (though revisable) sense of what kind of work can be appropriately done and what kind of behavior cannot be tolerated.
So disciplinary practice and moral proscription are two parallel universes? Fish says that originality, which is what plagiarism is intended to protect is not such a big deal:

If it is wrong to plagiarize in some context of practice, it is not because the idea of originality has been affirmed by deep philosophical reasoning, but because the ensemble of activities that take place in the practice would be unintelligible if the possibility of being original were not presupposed.
But originality does not need to be philosophically based in order for the literal copying of a text to be wrong. Taking something without asking is wrong. Period. That is a moral claim, and there are numerous contexts to which it applies. Some are professional, others are not. Why is this so complicated? Stealing is morally and professionally proscribed and no philosophical justification or that philosophy's denial (Fish) adds anything to this proscription.

Fish ends with the following, which is where he is most tellingly wrong:

Everyday disciplinary practices do not rest on a foundation of philosophy or theory; they rest on a foundation of themselves; no theory or philosophy can either prop them up or topple them.
No, Professor Fish. Everyday disciplinary practices rest on the foundation of human art and science, the conventions of which are possible on the basis of human nature, a nature capable of virtue and vice and much else besides.

That is the ultimate moral foundation by which the rising problem of plagiarism ought to be judged. Plagiarism is stealing or lying and usually both if done intentionally. (The plagiarism which I've encountered as a teacher is the unintentional sort - people who literally did not know that they were stealing/lying!)

But here's the point: the person who plagiarized Professor Fish undoubtedly still feels guilt over what he/she did. And guilt is a sure sign of moral failure, a different kind of failure than forgetting to tag third base on the way to home.