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Monday, March 23, 2009

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Thank you Mark.

I recently re-discovered Russell's History of Western Philosophy. Much of it does not bear close inspection. E.g.

"From Greek times to the present day, mankind, or at least the economically more developed portion of them, have been divided into debtors and creditors; debtors have disapproved of interest, and creditors have approved of it. At most times, landowners have been debtors, while men engaged in commerce have been creditors. The views of philosophers, with few exceptions, have coincided with the pecuniary interests of their class. Greek philosophers belonged to, or were employed by, the land-owning class; they therefore disapproved of interest. Medieval philosophers were churchmen, and the property of the church was mainly in land; they therefore saw no need to revise Aristotle's opinion."

Ha! But for all that, it is amusingly written and that allows it to communicate some important and occasionally true ideas. Russell did the world a great service by writing that book. (Although much of it from the nineteenth century onwards is a bit of a mess).

PS I am mystified why the publishers turned down this interesting book. We are always being told they are desperate for material which is both accessible and yet academically respectable.

I don't think it is suitable for the Internet. If it's suitable for skim-reading, or quick reference, then yes. Otherwise proper books that you can read on a train or on the beach or in a sofa, are to be preferred.

O,

As you know, Russell wrote many of his books for money, and I believe the one you mention above is no exception. I agree that it is bad in places. If memory serves, he dictated it.

I disagree with your second point. A book suitable for hard publication is suitable for the Internet despite the fact that most people skim the Internet. You're a skimmer too which explains why you seldom understand (and therefore agree with) my posts. [GRIN]

Speaking of 'proper' books, have you seen Richard Gaskin's magisterial The Unity of the Proposition?

>>Speaking of 'proper' books, have you seen Richard Gaskin's magisterial The Unity of the Proposition?

I skimmed it.

Bill, your remarks above seem unnecessarily hostile.

Bill,

I also don't rate Badiou very highly. http://mises.org/misesreview_detail.aspx?control=349
I'm sorry to post this here, but I couldn't see how to post a comment to your "Badiou" thread.

David,

Nice essay. If only people like you commented, then I would allow comments on all posts. But to allow comments on a post like the Badiou one is just asking for bad trouble. I've been reading Bernard-Henri Levy, LEFT IN DARK TIMES. If you have a review of that, let me know.

O,

More frustration than hostility. Didn't the GRIN add a note of softening and facetiousness?

Thankyou for passing on the link to a very accessible book; myself being the wife of a philosopher, I always appreciate finding quality material I can understand.

As for the problem you highlighted, this is something I have spent a great deal of time thinking about and putting effort into countering. Philosophy is a very worthwhile project. My own exposure to it over the years as I have edited my husband's works, discussed them with him, attended his seminars, debates, etc and in more recent years, co-authored a philosophy of religion blog with him, has not improved my ability to analyse and argue the issues within my own field but has made my ability to assess information and make decisions about all manner of things in my life better. I now intend, should I ever complete my long-suffering undergraduate law degree, to pursue post-grad studies in jurisprudence and I doubt I will ever stop feeding my mind now it has a philosophical appetite.

I am not alone in this. I have also seen the benefits of the pursuit of philosophy for my friends who too are wives of philosophers who like many mothers feared returning to/pursuing tertiary study after having children (the curse of baby brain!) but who found the confidence by dabbling in a little philosophy via their husbands. Passing on these skills to our children has seen them shine academically amongst their peers - our 16 year old daughter was recently accepted to Auckland University on the strength of her analytic reasoning skills.

When my husband who, due to the size of New Zealand and small number of philosophy departments has struggled to find work in his field, said he wished he could find a way of getting his work out there, thus bypassing the tedium of waiting on editors (a pursuit he still pursues none the less) suggested a blog, I pointed out the obvious; we live in New Zealand, there are 8 universities and only about 4, very small, philosophy departments (one of which is continental – need I say more!). Who in the New Zealand blogosphere would read it?

While I wasn't opposed to the idea, we could both see the problem; how do you publish philosophy for a wide audience? How do you inspire non-philosophers that philosophy is a discipline that everyone, no matter what their field, should have some grasp of and should come and read what you have on offer? In addition to people not understanding the necessity, there is the additional problem of many being lost after reading the first sentence.

As you pointed out, and as I have seen occur, some view the solution to be a dumbing down or popularising of the material. My husband was very anti us going in that direction and I agreed. So we formulated a marketing plan. We knew of several wives of philosophers who, with no formal training who can now read Plantinga and articulate his views so we figured that if we could people to realise the need and show them there was nothing to be scared of, that you can, in fact, get yourself past the first sentence, you can train your brain.

It has been almost three years but now we have a philosophy of religion blog that is read by lay people and philosophers and enjoyed by both. What we do is a blend of posts so that there is something for everyone to start on and there are items they can challenge themselves on thus slowly expanding their own understanding and ability.

We aim to have a couple of high-level, philosophical treatments each week, a couple of medium level – still pretty robust but less complex terminology and abstract concepts, a couple of more practical "let's apply philosophy to real life" type posts which typically comment on some current event or political thing so to demonstrate philosophy’s usefulness to the lay person. Some philosophy humour to show it you don’t have to be serious all the time and more recently we have added occasional personal snippets - my idea - but to show that we are approachable, normal human beings like everyone else as people tended to be responding, "but you are philosophical machines, I could never..." (This is a common problem in kiwi culture).

We also work to explain the more complicated concepts and I go over the really technical stuff with a lay person's eye to make sure the language is as uncomplicated as possible while Matt makes sure I don't inadvertently lower the standard. If I over-simplify something he pulls me up on it and goes over the subtle nuances and then I find some plain English to represent it more faithfully.

To begin with only other philosophers would comment on the more complex posts but over time our regular readers have been venturing further and their ability has grown, some of the comments we get now from some of the lay people who have been following us are really insightful and their ability to shoot down the sceptics that visit is very good too. It still has not translated into full-time employment for my husband but he has picked up some short-term work in the field now so we live in hope!

Madeleine,

Thank you for writing. (Just clicked on your profile and I see you received about 1000 hits to your husband's 560. Now I wonder why that is?)

I am very pleased to hear that philosophy has had a positive effect on your friends and your children. One of my purposes five years ago when I started this weblog was to do my bit to popularize philosophy especially since the philosophy of the academic journals, to which I also contribute, can become excessively technical and ingrown.

Your expression "New Zealand blogoshere" is curious. There is just the blogosphere. After all, we have known about each other's blogs for quite some time now. There are no national boundaries in the 'sphere. Likeminded people find each other.

Keep up the good work!

I guess being all the way over here in a tiny country and largely, until the latter part of last year, only being blogrolled by New Zealand blogs and having most of our regular visitors from New Zealand, it has felt like we are in a NZ blogosphere bubble. In addition, Matt is one of only a small handful of philosophers of religion, all scattered through the country so we are very isolated - it is not a big field in New Zealand.

The other part of it relates to the reason we have turned up the blogging efforts and that has been to raise Matt's profile as he continues to seek employment. I previously mentioned the small number of NZ philosophy departments, for which there are currently no vacancies in Matt's field, that leaves the even fewer christian institutions.

These institutions are really only just waking up to the fact they should offer philosophy to their students now, so a few are talking about adding philosophy programs - meaning vacancies loom. However, they seem to both not be aware of the renaissance in Christian Philosophy in your part of the world. They seem to think that philosophy is something one can "just pick up" so they think hiring someone with a PhD in it is overkill and such a person will speak over the tops of the heads of their students. Most of them have a very pastoral focus and while they realise they need to be more academic they are stuck in the habit, both and staff and students expectations need to be shifted and the management have their work cut out for them.

As an example of what we are trying to counter, when we organised Bill Craig's debate here in Auckland last year some philosophy lecturers in these Christian institutions actually did not know who he was. One actually said (after we sent him some relevant web links) "Is he a good speaker? He looks like the guy who played Bruce Almighty." That institution turned down the opportunity to have Bill speak to their students. (Auckland University, a secular state owned institution, knew precisely who he was and were very keen to have him so we worked with them.)

Currently those few places that offer philosophy use people with degrees in other subjects. As a result philosophy is taught at a very popular level and with focus on the low level philosophers that might have had some attention 20 years ago in your part of the world.

It is very frustrating; hence, our deciding to step up our project last year to show that the higher end of philosophy of religion was not only relevant and accessible to Christiandom but was vital (and that having a PhD did not necessarily mean you couldn't talk to lay people). I still have days where I think we should give up and move to the US and, in all honesty, if an offer came Matt's way he would take it in a heartbeat.

I was surprised at your report that I have that many more hits than Matt. I expect it is a combination of (at least on sites my photo shows up on) the "pretty face factor", also that male commenters on philosophy blogs tend to outnumber women quite considerably and that as I no longer work due to serious injuries sustained in a car accident I can either promote the blog and read interesting items on the net or watch daytime TV. Matt is not near the net during the day and has to help me with the things I cannot get done due to my injuries when he gets home so his online time is more focussed than mine, normally I point him to anything I have found that might interest him and he works on whatever writing project he has on the go.

We both really enjoy your site and have done so for years and it was your work that gave us the idea for ours.

Madeleine writes, "We both really enjoy your site and have done so for years and it was your work that gave us the idea for ours." I didn't know that! So maybe I'm doing some good. Thanks so much for the kind words.

It is definitely the "pretty face factor" together with the fact that most readers and writers of blogs are male!

There is a vibrant philosophical scene in Australia, but I'd guess it is not that welcoming to Christian philosophers, so the proximity of Oz doesn't help your isolation much.

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