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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: philosophy, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 382
1. Thought experiments in philosophy

Philosophers love thought experiments. Many of us deploy them as our version of the scientific method: They isolate some feature of our experience and evoke intuitions about it, and these revealed verdicts enable us to adjust relevant theories in light of what we find. Sometimes we appeal to these science fiction cases too quickly when there are plenty of real life cases all around us that are potentially more fruitful.

The post Thought experiments in philosophy appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. Earth Day: A reading list

To celebrate Earth Day on 22 April, we have created a reading list of books, journals, and online resources that explore environmental protection, environmental ethics, and other environmental sciences. Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 in the United States. Since then, it has grown to include more than 192 countries and the Earth Day Network coordinate global events that demonstrate support for environmental protection. If you think we have missed any books, journals, or online resources in our reading list, please do let us know in the comments below.

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3. Wittgenstein and natural religion

In the philosophy of religion ‘Wittgensteinianism’ is a distinctive position whose outlines are more or less unanimously agreed by both its defenders and detractors. By invoking a variety of concepts to which Wittgenstein gave currency – language games, forms of life, groundless believing, depth grammar, world pictures – the defenders aim to defuse rationalistic criticisms of religion by showing them to be, in the strict sense, impertinent.

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4. The world as hypertext

We all have experiences as of physical things, and it is possible to interpret these experiences as perceptions of objects and events belonging to a single universe. In Leibniz’s famous image, our experiences are like a collection of different perspective drawings of the same landscape. They are, as we might say, worldlike. Ordinarily, we refer the worldlike quality of our experiences to the fact that we all inhabit the same world, encounter objects in a common space, and witness events in a common time.

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5. Can you match the quote to the philosopher? [quiz]

Philosophy is one of the oldest fields of study in the world, branching out to various areas. How well do you know the writings of the most influential philosophers? Do you know the difference between sayings from Kant, Nietzsche, and Locke? Take the quiz below to see how well read you are in philosophy.

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6. Mixed Yablo Paradoxes

The collection of infinite Yabloesque sequences that contain both infinitely many Y-all sentence and infinitely many Y-exists sentences, however, is a much larger collection. It is what is called continuum-sized, and a collection of this size is not only infinite, but strictly larger than any countably infinite collection. Thus, although the simplest cases of Yabloesque sequence – the Yablo Paradox itself and its Dual – are paradoxical, the vast majority of mixed Yabloesque sequences are not!

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7. Easter for a non-believer

I have ambivalent feelings about Easter. I am sure I am not alone in this attitude towards the greatest of events on the Christian calendar, especially among people who grew up, as I did, in intensely religious (and loving) families but who have long put their Christian beliefs behind them. As it happens, my family were Quakers and that religion does not mark out the church festivals. But I went to a school that had a great musical tradition and each year there was a performance of one of the Bach Passions, alternating the St Matthew with the St John.

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8. Excerpt: A Significant Life



“A Meaningful Life”

An excerpt from A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe by Todd May


Let us start with a question. What does it mean to ask about the meaningfulness of life? It seems a simple question, but there are many ways to inflect it. We might ask,“What is the meaning of life?” Or we could ask it in the plural: “What are the meanings of life?” If we put the question either of these ways, we seem to be asking for a something orsomethings, a what that gives a human life its meaningfulness. The universe is thought or hoped to contain something—a meaning—that is the point of our being alive. If the universe contains a meaning, then the task for us becomes one of discovery. It is built into the universe, part of its structure. In the image that some philosophers like to use, it is part of the “furniture” of the universe.

When we say that the meaning of life is independent of us—that is, independent of what any of us happens to believe about it—we do not need to believe that there would be a meaning to our lives even if none of us were around to live it. We only need to believe that whatever meaning there is to our lives, it is not in any way up to us what it is. What makes our lives meaningful, whether it arises at the same time as we do or not, does not arise as part of us.

The idea that something exists independent of us and that it is our task to discover it, is how Camus thought of the meaning of life. If our lives are to be meaningful, it can only be because the universe contains a meaning that we can discern. And it is the failure not only to have discerned it but to have any prospect of discerning it that causes him to despair. The silence of the universe, the silence that affronts human nature’s need for meaning, is that of the universe regarding meaning itself.

The universe, after all, is not silent about everything. It has yielded numerous of its workings to our inquiry. In many ways, the universe seems loquacious, and perhaps increasingly so. There are scientists who believe that physics may be on the cusp of articulating a unified theory of the universe. This unified theory would give us a complete account of its structure. But nowhere in this theory is there glimpsed a meaning that would satisfy our need for one. This is because either such a meaning does not exist or, if it does, it eludes our ability to recognize it.

The idea that the universe is meaningful precisely because it contains a meaning independent of us is not foreign to the history of philosophy. It is also not foreign to our own more everyday way of thinking. It has a long history, a history as long as the history of philosophy itself, and indeed probably longer. One form this way of thinking has taken is that of the ancient philosopher Aristotle.

For my own part, I long detested Aristotle’s thought, what little I knew of it. For me, Aristotle was just a set of sometimes disjointed writings that I somehow had to get through in order to pass my qualifying exams in graduate school. It wasn’t until a number of years into my teaching career that a student persuaded me to read him again. In particular, he insisted, the Nicomachean Ethics would speak to me. I doubted this, but I respected the student, so one semester I decided to incorporate a large part of theEthics into a course I was teaching on moral theory. Teaching a philosopher is often a way to develop sympathy for him or her. It forces one to take up the thinker’s perspective. Before embarking on the course, I recalled the words of the great historian of science Thomas Kuhn, who once said that he came to realize that he did not understand a thinker until he could see the world through that thinker’s eyes. In fact, he said that he realized this after reading Aristotle’s Physics. I figured that if anything would do the trick with Aristotle, teaching his Ethics would be it.

It did the trick.

Not only do I find myself teaching the Ethics on a regular basis. Once, in a moment of hubris, I signed up to teach a senior-level seminar on Aristotle’s general philosophy. In doing so, I told my students that I would try to defend every aspect of his thought, even the most obsolete aspects of his physics and biology. This forced me and the students to take his thought seriously as a synoptic vision of human life and the universe in which it unfolds.

Aristotle’s ethics, his view of a human life as a trajectory arcing from birth to death and his attempt to comprehend what the trajectory of a good human life would be, has left its mark on my own view of meaningfulness. His attempt to bring together the various elements of a life—reason, desire, the need for food and shelter—into a coherent whole displays a wisdom rarely found even among the most enlightened minds in the history of philosophy. It stands out particularly against the background of more recent developments in philosophy, which often concern themselves less with wisdom and more with specialized problems and the interpretations of other thinkers.

Aristotle talks not in terms of meaning, but of the good. So the ethical question for Aristotle is, What is the good aimed at by human being? Or, to put it in more Aristotelean terms, What is the human telos? It is, in the Greek term, eudaemonia.Eudaemonia literally means“good” (eu) “spirit” (daemon). The term is commonly translated as “happiness.” However, happiness as we use the word does not seem to capture much of what Aristotle portrays as a good human life. For Aristotle,eudaemonia is a way of living, a way of carrying out the trajectory of one’s life. A more recent and perhaps better translation is “flourishing.” Flourishing may seem a bit more technical than happiness, or perhaps a bit more dated, but that is one advantage it possesses. Rather than carrying our own assumptions into the reading of the term, it serves as a cipher. Its meaning can be determined by what Aristotle says about a good life rather than by what we already think about happiness.

Flourishing is the human telos. It is what being human is structured to aim at. Not all humans achieve a flourishing life. In fact, Aristotle thinks that a very flourishing life is rare. It is not difficult to see why. In order to flourish, one must have a reasonably strong mental and physical constitution, be nourished by the right conditions when one is young, be willing to cultivate on’s virtue as one matures, and not face overwhelming tragedy during one’s life. Many of us can attain to some degree of flourishing over the course of our lives, but a truly flourishing life: that is seldom achieved.

What is it to flourish, to trace a path in accordance with the good for human beings? The Nicomachean Ethics is a fairly long book. The English translation runs to several hundred pages. There are discussions of justice, friendship, desire, contemplation, politics, and the soul, all of which figure in detailing the aspects of flourishing. But Aristotle’s general definition of the good for human beings is concise: “The human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue.” The good life, the flourishing life, is an ongoing activity. And that activity expresses the character of the person living it, her virtue.

For Aristotle, the good life is not merely a state. One does’t arrive at a good life. The telos of a human life is not an end result, where one becomes something and then spends the rest of one’s life in that condition that one becomes. It is not like nirvana, an exiting of the trials of human existence into a state where they no longer disturb one’s inner calm. It is, instead, active and engaged with the world. It is an ongoingexpression of who one is. This does not mean that there is no inner peace. A person whose life is virtuous, Aristotle tells us, experiences more pleasure than a person whose life is not, and is unlikely to be undone by the tribulations of human existence. And a virtuous person, because he has more perspective, will certainly possess an inner calm that is not entirely foreign to the idea of nirvana. However, a good life is not simply the possession of that calm. It is one’s very way of being in the world.

To be virtuous, to have any virtue to express, requires us to mold ourselves in a certain way. It requires us to fashion ourselves into virtuous people. Human beings are structured with the capacity to be virtuous. But most of us never get there. We are lazy, or we do not have the right models to follow, or else we do have the right models to follow but do’t recognize them, or some combination of these failures and perhaps others. A human being, unless she is severely damaged by her genetic constitution or early profound trauma, can become virtuous, whether or not she really does. But to do so takes work, the kind of work that molds on’s character into someone whose behavior consistently expresses virtue. Most of us are only partly up to the task.

What is this virtue that a good life expresses? For Aristotle, virtues are in the plural. Moreover, they come in two types, corresponding to two aspects of the human soul. The human soul has three parts. There is the vegetative or nutritive part: the part that breathes, sleeps, keeps the organism running biologically. Then there is desire. It is directed toward the world, wanting to have or to do or to be certain things. But desire is not blind. It is responsive to reason, which is the third part of the soul. And because desire is responsive to reason, there are virtues associated with desire, just as there are virtues associated with reason. There are virtues of character and virtues of thought.

The vegetative or nutritive part of the soul cannot not have its own virtues, because it is immune to reason. Unlike desire, it cannot be controlled or directed or channeled. To be capable of virtue is to be capable of developing it. It is not to be already endowed with it. This requires that we can both recognize the virtue to be developed and develop ourselves in accordance with it. And to do that, we must be able to apply reason. I can apply reason to my desire to vent anger on my child when he has failed to recognize the need to share his toys with his little sister. In fact, I can do more than this. I can notice the anger when it begins to appear in inappropriate situations, reflect on its inappropriateness, lay the anger aside, and eventually mold myself into the kind of person who does’t get angry when there is no need for it. With anger I can do this, but not with breathing.

The virtues of character include, among others, sincerity, temperance, courage, good temper, and modesty. For Aristotle, all of these virtues are matters of finding the right mean between extremes. Good temper, for example, is the mean between spiritlessness and irascibility. It is the mean I try to develop when I learn to refrain from getting angry in situations that do not call for it, as with my child. If I never got angry at all, though, that would not display good character any more than a readiness to vent would. There are situations that call for anger: when my child is older and does something knowingly cruel to another, or when my country acts callously toward its most vulnerable citizens. Virtues of character are matters of balance. We reflect on our desires, asking which among them to develop and when. Sometimes we need to learn restraint; sometimes, alternatively, we need to elicit expression. We are all (almost all) born with the ability to do this. What we need are models to show us the way and a willingness to work on ourselves.

Virtues of thought, in contrast to virtues of character, are matters of reason alone: understanding, wisdom, and intelligence, for instance. The goal of virtues of thought is to come to understand ourselves and our world. Like the virtues of character, they are active. And like the development of virtues of character, the development of virtues of thought is not a means to an end. The goal of these virtues is not simply to gain knowledge. It is to remain engaged intellectually with the world. As Aristotle tells us, “Wisdom produces happiness [or flourishing], not in the way that medical science produces health but in the way that health produces health.”

This point is easy to miss in our world. In contrast to when I attended college, many of my students are encouraged to think of their time in a university as nothing more than job training. It is not that previous generations were not encouraged to think in these terms. But there were other terms as well, terms concerning what might, perhaps a bit quaintly, be called “the life of the mind.” In 1998, the New York Times reported that “in the [annual UCLA] survey taken at the start of the fall semester, 74.9 percent of freshmen chose being well off as an essential goal and 40.8 percent chose developing a philosophy. In 1968, the numbers were reversed, with 40.8 percent selecting financial security and 82.5 percent citing the importance of developing a philosophy.” The threat faced at many universities to the humanities, from foreign languages to history to philosophy, signals a leery or even dismissive attitude toward a view of the university as helping students to “develop a philosophy.” Aristotle insists that a good life is not one where our mental capacities are taken to be means to whatever ends are sought by our desires. It is instead a life in which our mental capacities are exercised as an end in itself. In fact, although we need not follow him this far, for Aristotle contemplation is the highest good that a life can achieve. It is the good he associates with the gods.

What might a good life look like, a life that Aristotle envisions as the good life for human beings? How might we picture it?

We need not think of someone with almost superhuman capacities. A good person is not someone larger than life. Even less should we think of someone entirely altruistic, who dedicates her life to the good of others. That is a more Christian conception of a good life. It is foreign to Aristotle’s world, where a good life involves a dedication to self-cultivation. Last, we should not light upon famous people as examples of those who lead good lives. It may be that there are good lives among the famous. But a good life is not one that seeks fame, so whether a good person is famous or popular would be irrelevant to her. For this reason, we might expect fewer good lives among the famous, since public recognition often alights upon those who chase after it.

Instead, a good life is likely to be found among on’s peers, but not among many of them. It would be among those who take up their lives seriously as a task, a task of a particular sort. They see themselves as material to be molded, even disciplined. Their discipline is dedicated to make them act and react in the proper ways to the conditions in which they find themselves. This discipline is not blind, however. It is not a military kind of discipline, where the goal is mindless conformity. It is a more reflective discipline, one where an understanding of the world and a desire to act well in it are combined to yield a person that we might call, in the contemporary sense of the word, wise. e

It would be a mistake to picture the good life as overly reflective, though, and for two reasons. First, a good life, in keeping with the Greek ideal, requires sound mind and sound body. Cultivation of character is not inconsistent with cultivation of physical health. In fact, if recent studies are to be believed, good physical health contributes to a healthy mind. It is, of course, not the sole contributant. We cannot assume that because someone is athletic, he is a paragon of good character. On the contrary, the list of examples that would tell against this assumption would make for long and depressing reading. There is a mean to athleticism as there is a mean to the virtues. But the person lost to reflection, the person who mistakes himself for an ethereal substance or sees his body merely as an encumbrance to thought, is not leading a good human life. Even if, for Aristotle, contemplation is the highest good, it can only be sustained over a long period by the gods. The good human life is an embodied one.

Second, if a person cultivates herself rightly, then over time there should be less of a need for continued discipline. A good person will learn to act well automatically. It will become part of her nature. Someone who is flourishing, confronted with a choice between helping others where it would benefit herself and helping them in spite of the lack of benefit, would not even take the possibility of benefit as a relevant factor in the situation. It would remain in the background, never rising to the level of a consideration worth taking into account. The fact that she would benefit just wouldn’t matter.

It is not surprising, then, that for Aristotle the person who does not think of acting poorly, for whom it is not even a possibility, is leading a better life than someone who is tempted to evil but struggles, even successfully, with herself to overcome it. The latter person has not cultivated herself in the right way. She may be strong in battle but she is weak in character. This is one of the reasons Aristotle says that a good life is more pleasurable to the one living it than a bad one. Someone who has become virtuous is at peace with herself. She knows who she is and what she must do and does not wrestle with herself to do it. Rather, she takes pleasure in not having to wrestle with herself.

It might be thought that the good life would be solitary or overly self-involved. But for Aristotle this is not so. In fact, what he calls true friendship is possible only among the virtuous. The weak will always want something from a friend: encouragement, support, entertainment, flattery, a sense of one’s own significance. It is only when these needs are left behind that one can care for another for the sake of that other. True friendship and the companionship that comes with it are not the offspring of need; they are the progeny of strength. They arise when the question between friends is not what each can receive from the other but what each can offer.

The flourishing life depicted by Aristotle is certainly an attractive one. It is attractive both inside and out, to oneself and to others. To be in such control of one’s life and to have such a sense of direction must be a rewarding experience to the person living it. As Aristotle says, it is the most pleasurable life. And from the other side, there is much good that such a life brings to others. This good is given freely, as an excess or overflow of one’s own resources, rather than as an investment in future gain. It is a life that is lived well and does good.

But is it a meaningful life?

In order to answer that question, we must know something about what makes a life meaningful. If we were ask Aristotle whether this life is meaningful, he would undoubtedly answer yes. The reason for this returns us to the framework of his thought. Everything has its good, its telos. To live according to on’s telos is to be who or what one should be. It is to find one’s place in the universe. For Aristotle, in contrast to Camus, the universe is not silent. It is capable of telling us our role and place. Or better, since the universe does not actually tell it to us, whisper it in our ear as it were, it allows us to find it. What we need to do is reflect upon the universe and upon human beings, and to notice the important facts about our human nature and abilities. Once we know these, we can figure out what the universe intends for us. That is what theNicomachean Ethics does. When Camus seeks in vain for meaningfulness, he is seeking precisely what Aristotle thinks is always there, inscribed in the nature of things, part of the furniture of the universe.

The problem for us is that we are not Aristotle, or one of his contemporaries. We do not share the framework of his time. The universe is not ordered in such a way that everything has its telos. The cosmos is not for us as rational a place as he thought. Perhaps it can confer meaning on what we do. But even if it can, it will not be by means of allocating to everything its role in a judiciously organized whole.


To read more about A Significant Life, click here.

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9. APA Pacific 2015: A conference guide

We hope to see you in Vancouver, British Columbia for the 2015 American Philosophical Association – Pacific meeting! OUP staff members have gathered together to discuss what we’re interested in seeing at the upcoming conference, as well as fun sights around Vancouver. Take time to visit the Oxford University Press Booth. Browse new and featured books which will include an exclusive 30% conference discount. Pick up complimentary copies of our philosophy journals which include Mind, Monist, Philosophical Quarterly, and more.

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10. Women in Philosophy: A reading list

To celebrate Women in Philosophy as part of Women’s History Month, we have created a reading list of books, journals, and online resources that explore significant female philosophers and feminist philosophy in general. Recommendations range from general interest books to biographies to advanced reader books and more.

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11. Thinking about how we think about morality

Morality is a funny thing. On the one hand, it stands as a normative boundary – a barrier between us and the evils that threaten our lives and humanity. It protects us from the darkness, both outside and within ourselves. And it structures and guides our conception of what it is to be good (decent, honorable, honest, compassionate) and to live well.

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12. Nonviolence, revolution, and the Arab Spring

In 2011, the Middle East saw more people peacefully protesting long entrenched dictatorships than at any time in its history. The dictators of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen were deposed in a matter of weeks by nonviolent marches. Described as 'the Arab Spring', the revolution has been convulsing the whole region ever since.

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13. Publishing Philosophy: A staff Q&A

This March, Oxford University Press is celebrating Women in Philosophy as part of Women’s History Month. We asked three of our female staff members who work on our distinguished list of philosophy books and journals to describe what it’s like to work on philosophy titles. Eleanor Collins is a Senior Assistant Commission Editor in philosophy who works in the Oxford office. Lucy Randall is a Philosophy Editor who works from our New York office. Sara McNamara is an Associate Editor who assists to manage our philosophy journals from our New York offices.

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14. All Signs Point to Atlantis

When I tell people I've spent the last three years working on a book about Atlantis, they usually have two questions. The first almost always goes unspoken: Are you nuts? (I don't think so, but perhaps I'd be the last to know.) The follow-up question — which almost always does get asked — is where [...]

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15. The paradox of generalizations about generalizations

A generalization is a claim of the form: (1) All A’s are B’s. A generalization about generalizations is thus a claim of the form: (2) All generalizations are B. Some generalizations about generalizations are true. For example: (3) All generalizations are generalizations. And some generalizations about generalizations are false. For example: (4) All generalizations are false. In order to see that (4) is false, we could just note that (3) is a counterexample to (4).

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16. Does philosophy matter?

Philosophers love to complain about bad reasoning. How can those other people commit such silly fallacies? Don’t they see how arbitrary and inconsistent their positions are? Aren’t the counter examples obvious? After complaining, philosophers often turn to humor. Can you believe what they said! Ha, ha, ha. Let’s make fun of those stupid people. I also enjoy complaining and joking, but I worry that this widespread tendency among philosophers puts us out of touch with the rest of society.

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17. Nineteenth and twentieth century Scottish philosophy

In the history of Britain, eighteenth century Scotland stands out as a period of remarkable intellectual energy and fertility. The Scottish Enlightenment, as it came to be known, is widely regarded as a crowning cultural achievement, with philosophy the jewel in the crown. Adam Smith, David Hume, William Robertson, Thomas Reid and Adam Ferguson are just the best known among an astonishing array of innovative thinkers, whose influence in philosophy, economics, history and sociology can still be found at work in the contemporary academy.

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18. Why we should read Dante as well as Shakespeare

Dante can seem overwhelming. T.S. Eliot’s peremptory declaration that ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them: there is no third’ is more likely to be off-putting these days than inspiring. Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being staged and filmed, and in all sorts of ways, with big names in the big parts, and when we see them we can connect with the characters and the issues with not too much effort.

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19. A toast to your unconscious mind

We like to think that we can control the contents of our mind, but if we watch ourselves think, we will quickly realize that this isn’t so.

If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Sit in a quiet room for five minutes, during which time you stare at a blank wall and try to empty your mind of thoughts. Unless you are an exceptional person, you won’t succeed. You might find yourself thinking about what you will have for dinner or about something your significant other said—or failed to say.

You might also have experienced the ideas-from-without phenomenon while doing a crossword puzzle. You needed, say, a three-letter word meaning eggs. You pondered the clue for a minute and drew a complete blank. And then, when you had given up on the puzzle and turned your attention to other things, the answer came to you: ova!

And of course, while you are sleeping, your mind is periodically filled with ideas not of your choosing. We call them dreams, and they can be wildly creative. A gopher singing the blues! How crazy is that?

What is the source of all these ideas? Your unconscious mind.

For your unconscious mind, coming up with answers to crossword puzzle questions is child’s play. It can also solve complex problems. Indeed, if you think back, you will realize that your unconscious mind was the source of some of your best ideas. It saw connections you didn’t see, and it considered possibilities you didn’t consider. As a result, it was able to solve problems that boggled your conscious mind.

It is easy, however, to downplay the role your unconscious mind plays in your mental life. This is because your conscious mind is perfectly happy to take credit for the gems that your unconscious mind hands it. But face it, without the ongoing efforts of your unconscious mind, your conscious mind would flounder.

Once you admit that your unconscious mind is the source of whatever brilliance you possess, you can take steps to extract the maximum possible benefit from your association with it. What you will quickly discover is that it can’t be ordered about.

You can’t, for example, wake up one morning and say, “Unconscious mind, today I want you to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture,” one of the great unsolved problems of mathematics. On hearing this request, your unconscious mind will simply laugh—not that you will realize that it is doing so.

What you must instead do is interest your unconscious mind in working on a problem by working on it with your conscious mind. It might take hours, days, or even weeks of unsuccessful conscious effort before your unconscious mind takes an interest. You will know that it has because you will start experiencing aha moments with respect to that problem.

The period when you are trying to interest your unconscious mind in a problem can be deeply frustrating. A writer might sit there for days or weeks writing a draft of a novel, knowing from experience that there is little chance that the words she has written will make it into the final draft. Instead, they will be thrown away when inspiration strikes and the structure of the novel is finally revealed to her. When this finally happens, she might describe the event as a visit from her muse.

Mathematicians also know from experience that the first step in proving a theorem is to fill wastebaskets with failed attempts at proving it. They know that such efforts are simply the price that must be paid to get their unconscious mind interested in a theorem so that it can reveal the trick to proving it.

Writers and mathematicians undertake their conscious efforts knowing that even if their unconscious mind takes an interest in a problem, there is a chance that it won’t deliver the goods. What has happened, in such cases, is that their conscious mind—which as we have seen isn’t that bright—has foolishly chosen to work on a problem that is so difficult that not even their brilliant unconscious mind can solve it.

Because serious problem-solving starts with this leap of faith, it makes it that much sweeter when your unconscious mind does deliver the goods. It is like watching a magic show in which you are both the magician and the audience. And if you have any humility at all, you will, at the dinner you have to celebrate “your” breakthrough insight, drink a toast to your unconscious mind.

Headline image credit: Pensive woman. CC0 via Pixabay.

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20. Self-knowledge: what is it good for?

Marvin is a delusional dater. He somehow talked the gorgeous Maria into going on a date with him, and today is the day. Maria is way out of Marvin’s league but he lacks self-knowledge. He thinks he is better looking, better dressed, and more interesting than he really is. Yet his illusions about himself serve a purpose. They give him self-belief and as a result the date goes better than it would have done otherwise. Maria is still out of Marvin’s league, but is at least impressed by his nerve and self-confidence, if not by his conversation.

The case of the delusional dater suggests that self-knowledge doesn’t necessarily make you happier or more successful, at least in the short term. According to social psychologists Timothy Wilson and Elizabeth Dunn, there are physical and mental benefits associated with maintaining slight or moderate self-illusions, such as believing one is more generous, intelligent, and attractive than is actually the case. There are some truths about ourselves which, like Marvin, we are better off not knowing.

Real world examples of the benefits of moderate self-illusions are not hard to find. In my experience as a university teacher, average students who believe they are better than that tend to work harder and do better than average students who know their own limitations. Studies of HIV-positive men have shown that they are more likely to practice safe sex if they believe they are unlikely to get AIDS. Sometimes positive self-illusions can be even self-fulfilling. Studies of women at weight loss clinics have shown they are more likely to lose weight if they believe they are going to lose weight.

My favourite example of the power of self-illusions is a famous study of snake-phobic subjects who were played what they believed were the sounds of their own heartbeats as they were shown slides of snakes. In fact, instead of their own racing hearts, they were played the steady heartbeats of someone with no fear of snakes. As a result, the snake-phobic subjects inferred that they weren’t that scared of snakes after all and became less snake-phobic.

Knowledge of how generous, attractive, or frightened you are might not sound like “self-knowledge.” We like to think of self-knowledge as something deeper, as knowledge of the “real you.” But the real you isn’t something apart from your thoughts, motives, emotions, character traits, values and personality. Knowledge of these things is knowledge of the “real you,” and the question remains why knowledge of the real you should matter. Most of us have heard of the ancient command to “Know thyself” but few have dared to ask what good it does.

Abstract Reflections, photo by Francisco Antunes, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

Low-end explanations of the value of self-knowledge say that self-knowledge is a good thing because it makes you happier or more successful. High-end explanations say that the real point of self-knowledge is that having it enables us to live more authentic and meaningful lives. From this standpoint it doesn’t matter if self-knowledge doesn’t guarantee happiness or success. That was never the point of “Know thyself.”

High-end explanations of the value of self-knowledge are seductive but don’t really work. To be authentic is to be true to yourself, and you might wonder how you can be true to yourself, to who you really are, if you don’t know yourself. Actually, it’s easy to show that authenticity is possible without self-knowledge. Suppose the opportunity arises to cheat in a card game but you don’t cheat because you aren’t a cheat. In refraining from cheating you are being true to yourself but what makes you refrain from cheating is the fact that you aren’t a cheat. You don’t need to know you aren’t a cheat for you not to cheat. You can be true to yourself regardless of whether you know yourself.

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Could this be why self-knowledge matters? The idea that self-knowledge has something to do with finding meaning in your life is promising but controversial. There is plenty of evidence that people find their life choices more meaningful when they are consistent with the kind of person they think they are, but the kind of person you think you are may be quite different from the kind of person you actually are. Being mistaken about the kind of person you are needn’t prevent you from finding your life meaningful on its own terms.

Am I saying that self-knowledge is worthless? Not at all. What I’m saying – and this might be a surprising thing for a philosopher to be saying – is that self-knowledge is overrated in our culture. The truth of the matter is not that you can’t live authentically, meaningfully, or happily without self-knowledge, but that a modicum of self-knowledge might, depending on the circumstances, improve your prospects of living in these ways. While self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, you are unlikely to do well in life if you are grossly self-ignorant. Marvin’s self-illusions might get him through his date with Maria but in the longer term he will save himself the pain of repeated rejection if he stops kidding himself.

“While self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, you are unlikely to do well in life if you are grossly self-ignorant.”

The same applies to talentless contestants of reality TV talent shows. It’s hard not to think that delusional contestants who believe they can sing like Michael Jackson would in the end live happier lives if they learned to handle the truth about themselves. How can you plan your life if you are completely clueless about what you are good at? At some point, you need to come to terms with the real you, and the challenge is to figure out how to do that.

Writing in the 17th century, René Descartes saw self-knowledge as strictly first-personal, as the product of a special kind of mental self-examination. Descartes was wrong. We aren’t unbiased observers of our own inner selves, and the studies suggest that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves aren’t to be trusted. We all like to think well of ourselves.

A better bet is to try to see yourself through the eyes of others. When it comes to the real you, your friends, colleagues, and nearest and dearest probably have deeper insights than you do. The self-knowledge you get by social interaction is indirect and third-personal but that’s okay. For example, you might not think that you are generous but if everyone you are close to thinks that you are tight with money then that trumps your self-conception. In this case, other people know the real you better than you know the real you.

Of course, seeing ourselves through the eyes of others can be hard to do, especially when their opinion is unflattering. That’s one of many factors which make worthwhile self-knowledge so hard to get. So if self-knowledge is something which matters to you then here is some practical advice: try to accept that reliable self-knowledge is not something you can get by self-examination. Instead, try to see yourself as others see you, and give up any idea that you are always the best judge of the real you. Even with the help of others, a degree of self-ignorance is unavoidable. But if self-ignorance is part of the human condition, so is the ability to get by without really knowing ourselves.

This article originally appeared in LUX Magazine.

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21. Trains of thought: Roxanna

Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Roxanna’s perspective.

Roxanna is a heartless logician with an exotic background. She would much rather be right than be liked, and as a result she argues mercilessly with the other characters.

Roxana: You appear not to know much about logic.

Sarah: What did you say?

Roxana: I said that you appear not to know much about logic.

Sarah: And you appear not to know much about manners.

Roxana: If you want to understand truth and falsity, logic will be more useful than manners. Do any of you remember what Aristotle said about truth and falsity?

Bob: Sorry, I know nothing about Aristotle.

Zac: It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Sarah: Aristotelian science is two thousand years out of date.

Roxana: None of you knows. Aristotle said ‘To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true’. Those elementary principles are fun­damental to the logic of truth. They remain central in contemporary research. They were endorsed by the greatest contributor to the logic of truth, the modern Polish logician Alfred Tarski.

Bob: Never heard of him. I’m sure Aristotle’s saying is very wise; I wish I knew what it meant.

Roxana: I see that I will have to begin right at the very beginning with these three.

Sarah: We can manage quite well without a lecture from you, thank you very much.

Roxana: It is quite obvious that you can’t.

Roxana: It is quite obvious that you can’t.

Zac: I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name.

Roxana: Of course you didn’t. I didn’t say it.

Zac: May I ask what it is?

Roxana: You may, but it is irrelevant.

Bob: Well, don’t keep us all in suspense. What is it?

Roxana: It is ‘Roxana’.

Zac: Nice name, Roxana. Mine is ‘Zac’, by the way.

Bob: I hope our conversation wasn’t annoying you.

Roxana: Its lack of intellectual discipline was only slightly irritating.

Bob: Sorry, we got carried away. Just to complete the introductions, I’m Bob, and this is Sarah.

Roxana: That is enough time on trivialities. I will explain the error in what the woman called ‘Sarah’ said.

Sarah: Call me ‘Sarah’, not ‘the woman called “Sarah” ’, if you please.

Bob: ‘Sarah’ is shorter.

Sarah: Not only that. We’ve been introduced. It’s rude to describe me at arm’s length, as though we weren’t acquainted.

Roxana: If we must be on first name terms, so be it. Do not expect them to stop me from explaining your error. First, I will illustrate Aristotle’s observation about truth and falsity with an example so simple that even you should all be capable of understand­ing it. I will make an assertion.

Bob: Here goes.

Roxana: Do not interrupt.

Bob: I was always the one talking at the back of the class.

Zac: Don’t worry about Bob, Roxana. We’d all love to hear your assertion. Silence, please, everyone.

Roxana: Samarkand is in Uzbekistan.

Sarah: Is that it?

Roxana: That was the assertion.

Bob: So that’s where Samarkand is. I always wondered.

Roxana: Concentrate on the logic, not the geography. In making that assertion about Samarkand, I speak truly if, and only if, Samarkand is in Uzbekistan. I speak falsely if, and only if, Samarkand is not in Uzbekistan.

Zac: Is that all, Roxana?

Roxana: It is enough.

Bob: I think I see. Truth is telling it like it is. Falsity is tell­ing it like it isn’t. Is that what Aristotle meant?

Roxana: That paraphrase is acceptable for the present.

Have you got something you want to say to Roxanna? Do you agree or disagree with her? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Roxanna’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 20th March from 2-3pm GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Roxanna’s response!

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22. Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, and cosmology

Renowned English cosmologist Stephen Hawking has made his name through his work in theoretical physics as a bestselling author. His life – his pioneering research, his troubled relationship with his wife, and the challenges imposed by his disability – is the subject of a poignant biopic, The Theory of Everything. Directed by James Marsh, the film stars Eddie Redmayne, who has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his moving portrayal.

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23. 2015 PROSE Awards


Now in their 39th year, the PROSE Awards honor “the very best in professional and scholarly publishing by bringing attention to distinguished books, journals, and electronic content in over 40 categories,” as determined by a jury of peer publishers, librarians, and medical professionals.

As is the usual case with this kind of acknowledgement, we are honored and delighted to share several University of Chicago Press books that were singled-out in their respective categories as winners or runners-up for the 2015 PROSE Awards.



Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile
By Megan R. Luke
Art History, Honorable Mention



House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again
By Atif Mian and Amir Sufi
Economics, Honorable Mention



American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why
By Joseph P. McDonald
Winner, Education Practice



The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools
By Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski
Winner, Education Theory



Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters
By Martin J. S. Rudwick
Honorable Mention, History of STM



The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini: A Bilingual Edition
By Pier Paolo Pasolini
Edited and translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Honorable Mention, Literature



How Should We Live?: A Practical Approach to Everyday Morality
By John Kekes
Honorable Mention, Philosophy


Congrats to all of the winners, honorable mentions, and nominees!

To read more about the PROSE Awards, click here.

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24. The philosophy of perception

Parmenides, in the Way of Mortal Opinion, envisions the sensible world to be governed by Fire and Night, understood as cosmic principles. As a consequence, Parmenides conceives of the colors as themselves mixtures of light and dark. Parmenides’ view, here, is in line with an ancient tradition dating back at least to Homeric times.

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25. Trains of thought: Sarah

Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Sarah's perspective.

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