Final Exam

I’m typing this on my way back home from the 2013 Eastern Division conference of the American Philosophical Association, a conclave where over a thousand philosophers (mostly professors and graduate students) gathered in Baltimore to ponder the universe, torture job-seekers and fret about funding for the field.

Before the holidays, I argued that one method for evaluating whether a One Year BA based on MOOCs and other forms of free learning was equivalent to a traditional degree program involved looking not at the components of that program but rather the final results.  Specifically, did my study over the last twelve months leave me with the same level of understanding as a graduating senior from a brick-and-mortar university who had spent four years earning a BA in philosophy?

A few months ago, my philosopher buddy (who I hold responsible for getting me into this mess in the first place by triggering my interest in the subject) suggested I join him for this year’s APA confab where, as a “final exam,” I could assess whether I had learned enough to not get “caught” as a philosophical tourist and not feel like an idiot when I sat through talks and presentations.

I decided to kick off this test by attending a session called “Kant’s Political Philosophy: Recent Interpretations” where Pauline Kleingeld from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Peter Neisen from Technische Universitat Darmstadt in Germany shared their research and analysis on topics related to Kant’s political writing.

Professor Kleingeld’s work on Kant’s attitudes towards European imperialism put the philosopher’s later political writing (which is strongly critical of the exploitation of other peoples by European countries) into a context that also looked at earlier works (including writing and speeches) where Kant showed far less sensitivity to the exploitation of people of other races. In fact, in letters, essays and speeches written before the mid-1790s, Kant seemed quite comfortable putting peoples into a racial hierarchy, each marked by what they lacked compared to the “White European Man” and pondering that Europe would eventually supply the laws that would govern conquered lands.

The historic record provides no “A-Ha! moment,” when Kant realized that his earlier opinions on race and empire needed to be rejected and replaced. This opens up interesting questions, such as whether the political philosophy he developed towards the end of the 18th century might have convinced him that all peoples (including all races) needed to be included in the type of political concord he proposed for all nations.

That philosophy, which envisions the nation state as a transitory period on the way to a cosmopolitan future where all states would submit to a form of global governance, is obviously a vision that has shaped the modern world (especially the post-war order we live in today).  The second presenter, Professor Neisen, explored a specific aspect of that proposed world order: how nations freed of from imperial control might be made whole for what they suffered under European imperialism and slavery.  On the whole, Kant was very cautious about facilitating claims and counter-claims between nations before a new cosmopolitan order was established, given that it opened up possibilities of endless grievance-fueled warfare (with an end to war the whole purpose behind his political-philosophical project).  And I found it interesting that his formula for freed peoples entering a new cosmopolitan community of nations would require them to (1) become nations; and (2) submit their nation to a new order governed by “international law” crafted in the West (which would, ironically, fulfill his earlier prediction of all nations of the world living under rules cooked up in Europe).

While I did not study Kant’s political work during my One Year BA, the self-study program I finished on his metaphysics (notably his Critique of Pure Reason) provided a reasonable grounding to understand the points each professor was making.  And it continues to amaze me how much we today live in a world envisioned by Kant in matters that go far beyond philosophy.

That session was followed by a keynote address by Anthony Appiah who talked about how the search for truth can be facilitated by taking into account things we suspect (or even know) to be false.

This idea was embodied in the “As If” approach taken by philosophers who looked at what fruitful opportunities lay in treating a questionable topic as if it were true.  For example, a scientist who is a committed atheist need not believe in God in order to act as if the universe was created by an ultimate builder.  In fact, the entire scientific project must pre-suppose the existence of a set of consistent rules that very much resemble what a purposeful designer would put in place.  Similarly, treating the square root of negative one as if it were “true” number opens up all kinds of mathematical and scientific possibilities that would be closed off if we dismissed imaginary numbers out of hand, simply because they are contradictory according to traditional mathematical rules.

While the thinkers whose work anchored Appiah’s talk were unfamiliar to me, the ideas I studied regarding Pragmatic philosophy helped me navigate the ideas he shared with the scholars in the audience.  For Pragmatism places high stakes on what “works” (i.e., what delivers useful results).  And if treating a deity or imaginary numbers “as if” they were “real” can give us modern science and advanced mathematics, then they clearly fall into the category of the pragmatically useful.

While that talk provided the most ambitious (and thus challenging) line of reasoning to follow (not to mention the most finger quotes I’ve ever seen used in a presentation), another talk more resembled the kind of arguments my philosophy buddy warned me about – ones which zero in on a few passages of work in order to “prove” a point not being argued in the text.

In this case, it was the English philosopher John Locke (generally believed to have dismissed the notion that thinking could derive from how matter was organized) who got the treatment, with a piece he wrote “proving” the existence of God used to anchor an argument that Locke should not be treated as completely rejecting the notion that matter could think.  While a materialist view of intelligence today seems plausible (given that our ability to act as thinking beings seems to derive from how material atoms arrange themselves to form our brains), Locke’s is generally assumed to have taken a strong stance against the notion of thinking matter (a stance the presenter tried to convince us was not as strong as many people assume it to be).  And while the presenter gave an able argument, by the end of the session he did not seem to have convinced a number of people in the audience (including me).

To be fair (i.e., to admit my own ignorance), my study of Locke this year primarily consisted of looking at his political philosophy in Michel Sandel’s HarvardX class on Justice).  Oh, and speaking of Justice, any readers who took that course with me should tune in tomorrow as I report out a potential solution to that ever-vexing moral dilemma: The Trolley Problem.

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