A philosopher enters politics

Matt Johnson is the only philosopher I know who responded to the political shit-storm of 2016 by actually throwing down and running for public office. He’s doing it right now – somehow juggling finishing his PhD, teaching seven (!!) courses, serving as a human relations commissioner, and running for Lancaster city council all at the same damn time. And he wrote a goddamn musical.

His whole approach is so impossibly cool that  I had to interview him about what it was like. The whole interview is over here.

Things I learned:

  1. Matt actually starting teaching free rhetoric and argument courses to activists in a local pub.
  2. Matt thinks the joys of philosophy and the joys of public service are deeply similar – throwing yourself at profound and intractable problems – except sometimes, in public service, you actually, like, save somebody’s home.
  3. Best of all: Matt thinks that the skills he developed over in philosophy are incredibly useful for consensus building in political life. Which blows my goddamn mind, because in academic philosophy itself, everybody’s using their analytic skills to stab each other in the face. But it occurs to me: maybe that’s nothing about the skills of philosophy itself, but just the incentive structure of academia. As in: to publish, you have to prove you’re different. But in political life, the incentives switch: things happen when you build consensus.

Matt’s take is so thrilling and so invigorating that he almost convinced me to run for city council.

 

New paper: “The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony”

My new paper, The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony, is out in the British Journal of Aesthetics. (For those without institutional access, here’s an older draft for free.)

What it’s about, technical version: There’s this debate about the seeming “asymmetry” between aesthetic and empirical testimony. We’re allowed to acquire beliefs based solely on testimony for empirical stuff (doctor’s advice, mechanic’s advice), but we’re not allowed to uptake judgments about how, say, the beauty and brilliance of Van Gogh’s Irises based solely on testimony. I say: yeah, yeah, but look over here: there’s an even more interesting second asymmetry within the aesthetic itself. There are all sorts of things I’m entirely permitted to do from aesthetic testimony: I can take restaurant recommendations, I can choose a travel destination, I can choose an art school, all from testimony. The uses of aesthetic testimony are rich and varied. There’s only this one very particular thing I can’t do from testimony, which is acquire a belief wholesale. The real mystery is how to explain the way our intuitions change between different uses of aesthetic testimony.

You might think, then, that this all just turns on speech acts vs. practical action. But consider the following case: when I’m picking out a painting to hang in my own bedroom, it would be totally weird to defer to the word of an expert and not engage my own taste. But if I were a museum director, I could totally defer to the word of an expert in choosing my acquisitions. No speech, all action, same asymmetry.

I then try to show that, if you take seriously all these intuitions about the uses of aesthetic testimony, it points us towards a moderately cognitive theory of aesthetic judgment.

What it’s really about: We act like aesthetics is all about autonomous judgment. But the really interesting thing that people don’t study is how much we profoundly trust others everywhere in our aesthetic lives.

New Paper: “Competition as Cooperation”

Here’s my new paper, Competition as Cooperation, coming out soon in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. It contains:

1. My view that games are a sort of moral technology for converting competition into cooperation.

2. Exhaustive technical detail on the motivational structures that human beings must have in order to use this technology properly.

3. The fun part: me having a go at the dominant position in the philosophy of sport – that the purpose of sports is developing or displaying human excellence. I think the social conversion stuff just as important. The coolest part of the paper is about whether the paradigmatic case of sports are Olympics/professional sports, or, like, flag football with your family.

It’s probably my… most ambitious paper? And, if you follow my wife’s “Thi Scale of Papers”, in which the more completely goofy and inane examples a paper has, the more Thi it is, then this is the most Thi paper I’ve ever written. There’s even a bit where a shitty asshole houseguest shows up at my house and I save the evening by deploying a board game that converts their dickheadery into something useful for everybody else.

This paper is deeply connected to the Good Violence, Bad Violence paper I wrote with Jose Zagal. “Competition as Cooperation” has got way more technical detail on Suits and the nature of game consent and the purpose of game-playing; “Good Violence, Bad Violence” has way more discussion of juicy online stuff like spawn-camping and trash-talking/harassment, the formation of online communities, and all the cool stuff that comes from the fact that Jose is an actual, you know, game designer.

New paper: “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The Ethics of Competition in Multiplayer Games”

Jose Zagal just presented our co-authored paper, “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The Ethics of Competition on Multiplayer Games” at the DiGRA-FDG 2016 conference. It’s coming out in the conference proceedings soon, but, if you just can’t wait, you can get your hot little hands on the final version right here.

There’s a more formal abstract, but here’s a quickie version:

There’s a whole set of fascinating questions about the ethics of competition. Some kinds of competition seem healthy and transformative – they take our hostile impulses and turn them into something positive for all involved. Other kinds of competition seem problematic, including, perhaps, trash-talking, spawn-camping, and ganking. But where’s the line, and how do we draw it? The paper argues against certain standing accounts that provide a simple, unidimensional answer. One target is the view, from the philosophy of sports, that all that matters is player consent. Instead, we use a magical sprinkle of Bernard Suits’ work to argue that morally good competition requires a whole host of factors in alignment, including player consent, successful game design, and psychological fit. Many older views tend to locate all the moral lifting in the intentions of the players. Our view distributes that responsibility between the players, the game designers, and the structure of the player community.

(This paper is the first published tip of a massive and sprawling project that I thought was just one quick idea, but has metastasized into multiple distinct papers on various aspects of the morality of game competition. Turns out: it’s a complex topic.)

 

Food assembly and the idea of a dish

The Korean dish of bibimbap comes as a bunch of distinct little piles of veggies and meat, on a bowl of rice. You pour out a little splat of hot sauce, and mix all it up yourself.

Yukkwe Bi Bim Bap - Buga

My friend Kathy Shin told me that mixing it up yourself was part of the very meaning of bibimbap. When I asked her what would happen if they brought it to you pre-mixed, she jumped out of her seat and actually smacked me. “It wouldn’t be bibimbap! You’d be eating something, but it sure wouldn’t be bibimbap.” When I pointed out that the (non-Korean) patrons at the next table over were eating their bibimbap without mixing it up at all, she recoiled it almost moral outrage. “I don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s definitely not bibimbap either.”

Her horror and semi-comic outrage might map onto how an American might react, say, if they saw somebody carefully disassemble a sandwich and eat the bits daintily and separately, with chopsticks: they’re eating something, but it sure ain’t a sandwich.

All of this makes me wonder how culturally complicated the idea of a particular dish is. Is our idea of “sandwich” or “bibimbap” or “egg roll” made of, not just the ingredients, but how we how we assemble them for ourselves? Does the idea of a particular dish include a very specific idea of the eater’s role in assembly or disassembly?

Hsian Ju Lin, in Chinese Gastronomy, comments that, though Westerners often view the chopsticks of the East as comically uncivilized (“look at ’em, eatin’ with a bunch of sticks”), to the Chinese watcher, Western eating traditions are unbearably barbaric. European eating culture involves bringing tiny little tridents and tiny little knives to the table, for God’s sake. It’s one step away from Vikings in the long hall, eating with their hunting knives and throwing the rest to their dogs. Whereas in high Chinese cuisine, everything comes to the table perfectly bite-sized and ready, all the violence confined, out of sight, to the kitchen.

In fact, it becomes curiously evident that a lot of Asian culinary traditions involve building the final dish-entity at the table. In a Vietnamese restaurant, when you order egg rolls, you’re brought the egg rolls with a plate of fresh green herbs, and you’re supposed to wrap the egg rolls in a bit of lettuce with a few bits of fresh herbs, and eat the whole thing, glorying in the contrast between the hot crispy roll and the cool crispy lettuce. There’s the various forms of beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck) where you assemble just the right amount of crispy skin and soft wrapper and sweet sauce, just to your precise desire.

And there’s my beloved pani puri, the mint hand-grenades of Indian street-food culture, where you take a little tiny crispy fried hollow bread puff the size of a golf-ball, and carefully tap-tap-tap a hole in the top, and fill it with bits of chickpea, bits of potato, a little drizzle of sauce, and the fill it to the brim with cold spicy mint water and – quickly now! – throw it your mouth and bite down and feel the whole thing explode cold mint water and crispy shards of bread all over the inside of your mouth.

DSC_2597

And then think of the Western traditions: carving the chicken at the table. Carving the ham at the table. Carving the roast at the table.

And here, I was so goddamn excited about the clarity of this contrast, that I was pounding on the steering wheel and shouting to Melissa: “Don’t you see? The Asian traditions are all about creation at the table, and the Western traditions are all about destruction at the table, and of course it must seem so goddamn uncivilized! You’ve got to kill the thing outside, and then symbolically kill it again at the table!”

But, of course, she brought me down to earth. Western culinary tradition is full of assembly-dishes, too. Most preciously: the Thanksgiving dinner. Think of the horror if you were to come to a Thanksgiving dinner, and were presented with a pre-assembled plate. No no! The right thing, the only thing, is to make your plate yourself, to assemble just the right balance of turkey and ham and stuffing and potato and gravy, placed with just the right amount of overlap – mashed potatoes just barely spilling over the turkey, maybe – arranged on the plate to by yourself to please nothing but your very own gut. The notion of self-assembly is so deep in our soul-concept of Thanksgiving dinner, that you probably don’t even see it, until somebody breaks it.

So inane cultural reductionism doesn’t work here. Maybe there’s a practical explanation for some of this stuff – for the lettuce-wrapped egg-rolls, for the pani-puri, you have to assemble it at the last moment. Otherwise, you couldn’t get the temperature contrast, the crisp-wet contrast. But that doesn’t explain all the cases. It doesn’t explain bibimbap; it doesn’t explain Thanksgiving.

I need more examples.

The philosophy writing workshop sequence

Most undergraduates who come into my classroom seem to have no idea what it’s like to work on a paper with other human beings, or work on a paper in stages. They just sort of crap out a paper in one long go and throw it at you, starting with an empty screen and making it up as they went along. So I started forcing them to do what most serious writers do: write down their ideas at every stage, show them to other human beings, and get feedback. I tried to gather as many of the different methodologies I knew about for paper-writing, and turn them into a set of exercises. I’ve been fine-tuning it for about eight years.

The biggest thing is to break apart writing into a conceptual stage, and a communication stage. I mean doing an outline first, settling what you want to say, and then starting to actually write prose only after most of the conceptual work is settled. Most students, I think, start writing by opening up their word-processor, with no idea of where they’re going, and just start writing.  (I polled a class of thirty philosophy majors once about how many did at outline first, or anything like that, before starting to put prose to page. The answer: one.) I emphasize that separating the stages makes it easier: you don’t have to worry about communication when you’re figuring out your arguments, and when you’re writing, you can focus on the task of clearly presenting your ideas.

Most importantly, this introduces a low-cost stage where students are willing to change and revise their ideas.  I used to comment on rough drafts, but my students were almost never do any deep surgery when they’d already written a draft. It’s just too easy to get too attached to your own prose, and the sunk effort. But if you get the criticism in at the outline level, it’s so much emotionally easier to pivot. The moment I started doing outline-level work, the quality of argument in the final papers took a major jump up.

Students often hate it at first. And then they love it. Usually, they get frustrated and ego-wrecked for the first few sections. By the end of the term they’ve come to terms with it. And then so many of them come back to me in a year or two and tell me that they think this is how they actually learned to write, that they’ve been using this style of thing forever paper since, that this workshop sequence was one of the most valuable things they’d gone through.

There are many variations. Below is how I run it in a standard upper-division philosophy class. It’s designed for maximum impact for minimum in-class time expenditure. Here’s how it goes:

First Paper Outline Workshop

Students write a one to two page outline of their future paper, based on several provided essay prompts. It helps to be very explicit about the fact that I’m asking them to separate the conceptual stage from the communication stage. When they’re thinking about their arguments, they only think about their arguments. And by the time they’re actually writing a paper, they’re supposed to already know what they want to say, and only have to worry about how they’re going to say it. I say, for the outline, to not worry at all about reading clarity, and just to worry about their arguments.

They come into class with copies of their outline. I break them into groups of four or five. Each students takes about twenty minutes to stand up in front of their group, and present their thoughts. I tell them to do it in two stages: first stage, present the argument, where the audience only asks clarificatory questions. Second stage: the audience raises challenges, look for gaps in the argument. I emphasize that the goal in the second stage not to be antagonistic, or to crush the presenter, but to help them locate weaknesses in the paper, and to think together about how the paper might be improved. The goal is for each student to use their fellow students to locate weaknesses in their paper, so that they might be improved. And, more importantly, to figure out which criticisms are deepest and will lead to the most interesting dialogue

I also tell the students not to be too attached to where they originally thought their paper was going. It’s easy for students to get broken-hearted if their original line of argument seems to fall apart. But if you tell them that the goal of this session is not to defend their original argument, but to search for the most interesting version of their paper possible – if you tell them it’s OK to modulate, or restrict, or even switch directions for their conclusion – things go a lot better.

I give them colored markers and white-board space and usually make them sketch out their arguments in some sort of logical flow-chart. Usually, students resist doing this at first, but it seems to really help a lot of the groups talk about the structure of the argument.

I usually give them about 1.5 to 2 weeks to generate a final paper from this workshop.

Second Paper Outline Workshop

The second paper outline workshop is much like the first, but I provide no essay prompts. Typically, students struggle with choosing topics of appropriate size. Thus, the second paper outline workshop often forces students to focus their topic, refine their thesis, and clarify their direction of argument.

It’s really important here that students have a sense of ownership over their ideas. Having to present an original idea in front of their peers seems to force students towards coherency, and towards actually thinking about the motivations for taking on a particular topic. Without this, papers often have an automatic quality, as if the students are simply filling out a template passed down from on high. There’s a sense I often have that students have been taught this thing, this essay form that they plug through, which is completely disconnected from any sense of communication. But by doing peer presentations of their own ideas, the students suddenly seem to start viewing themselves as actually communicating, and their natural sense of clarity and order emerges.

Second Paper Draft Workshop

A week after the second paper outline workshop, the students bring a draft of the paper into class. I break them into groups of four or five, and circulate their papers, reading and commenting on them. I tell them that, though they’re free to raise criticisms, the primary goal of this session is to focus on writing clarity. I tell the students that they are not editors today – they don’t need to provide fixes. They are simply reporting their reading experience. They’ll write down where they become confused, what words they don’t understand, what questions they had, where they got lost about the structure. I say: “It’s often so hard to see your own writing, because you often don’t actually see what you put on the page – you just fill in what you wanted to say, from your own head. But a lot of times, the most important thing is so obvious to you that you don’t put it on the page. So now, as a reader, your job is to communicate to the writer what the experience of reading was like for you, where you stumbled or got lost, so the writer knows what got through into the writing, and what was left out.”

I have a theory here that most important thing here is being on the reading end of this exercise. Of course, getting feedback is great. But having to trudge through all these other students’ papers for an hour or more is the heart of it. They see: how easy it is to get lost, how important structural transitions are. They see how, over and over again, little tiny vaguenesses in grammar or simple pronoun ambiguity accumulate and destroy communication. They see how hard it is to understand argumentative material when it is anything less than absolutely lucid. And usually, in a batch of papers, there’s one or two that are much more clearly written, and it suddenly becomes clear to them how much work the little transitional and structural details are doing, to help the reader.

They usually end up in a state of misery and nausea, and a lot of the times what I hear is, “How the hell do YOU manage to read papers like this without shooting yourself?” And then they get their own papers back, covered with marks from their peers about the very same problems – the ambiguities, the confusions. And it’s so much easier to understand what’s missing in their paper when they’ve just been in the confused-reader role on their peers’ papers.

Peer-commentary is also, I think, more emotionally convincing. A lot of students are, I think, ready to dismiss their professor’s comments as coming from some weird, nit-picky, ivory-tower sort of place, but willing to accept their peers’ comments about unclarity or incomprehensibility.

The final drafts I get after this work are so, so, so much clearer.

Feel free to use these ideas in your own class. One request: if you do, let me know how it goes, and let me know any tweaks or improvements you come up with.