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In your face: transcendence in embodied interaction

A new open access article by Sean Gallagher (there currently seems to be some problem with the journal’s website but will hopefully be resolved).

In cognitive psychology, studies concerning the face tend to focus on questions about face recognition, theory of mind (ToM) and empathy. Questions about the face, however, also fit into a very different set of issues that are central to ethics. Based especially on the work of Levinas, philosophers have come to see that reference to the face of another person can anchor conceptions of moral responsibility and ethical demand. Levinas points to a certain irreducibility and transcendence implicit in the face of the other. In this paper I argue that the notion of transcendence involved in this kind of analysis can be given a naturalistic interpretation by drawing on recent interactive approaches to social cognition found in developmental psychology, phenomenology, and the study of autism.

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Bernard Williams

It’s been about 18 months since my last posting on Bernard Williams. Having worked my way through Bryan Magee’s excellent series (Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers) my original perception that BW was the best performer of both series, remains in tact 25 years on (Searle being the other good performer though I think BW has the clear edge). And I had the distinct sense that BM felt that way as well. Despite BW being in decline, his dazzling, cutting and deep brilliance is still very much evident. Unlike others who have courted the life as public intellectual, BW never did stop doing real philosophy. Check out the talk called The Human Prejudice.

Many people think that “humanity” is an ethical idea, and that it makes a basic moral difference whether a creature they are dealing with is another human being or not. This is implicit in such as ideas as “human rights”, and in one sense of “human values”. Some philosophers attack this outlook as a prejudice, similar to racism or sexism. I shall argue that their view is based on a deep misconception, which itself involves an attempt to project human attitudes on to the universe. The only way forward is to argue out from what we care about, and to consider who might belong with “us”.

Bernard Williams portrait

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Philanthropic Institutional Design and the Welfare State

Here is the abstract to David’s and my paper just published in Conversations on Philanthropy, Vol. IX: Law and Philanthropy

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The topic of philanthropy has a great deal of philosophical interest because it exists at the nexus of issues surrounding distributive, remedial, and commutative justice, perennial issues in political philosophy (Ealy 2010, vi). It is perhaps because of this that, conceptually speaking, philanthropy seems to have a twilight existence, typically laboring under one of the most prevalent confusions—the synonymous usage of the terms “nonprofit” and “philanthropy” (McCully 2010). Yet, discussion of the philosophy of philanthropy is surprisingly neglected. The present discussion examines the relationship between private philanthropy and the welfare-oriented state: Is it possible for the philanthropic sphere and/or indeed the philanthropic impulse to coexist in an expansive governmental environment that sees health care as a natural part of its administrative monopoly? We answer with a qualified “yes.” Our paper, however, is not concerned with an appraisal of welfarism in its many guises nor with recommendations for reform, but with the pragmatics of operating within such an environment. As such we: (a) assess the philosophical presuppositions that animate recent discussion of the “Big Society” and the role philanthropy is accorded within it; and (b) offer practical guidance about protecting and encouraging the philanthropic impulse when a climate of welfarism prevails.

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Taleb on Skin in the Game

Nassim Taleb talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his recent paper (with Constantine Sandis) on the morality and effectiveness of “skin in the game.” When decision makers have skin in the game–when they share in the costs and benefits of their decisions that might affect others–they are more likely to make prudent decisions than in cases where decision-makers can impose costs on others. Taleb sees skin in the game as not just a useful policy concept but a moral imperative. The conversation closes with some observations on the power of expected value for evaluating predictions along with Taleb’s thoughts on economists who rarely have skin in the game when they make forecasts or take policy positions.

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The Moral Philosophy of T.H. Green

It’s been some 25 years since my chum Geoff Thomas’ book was published. It holds the unusual distinction of being one of the very few Phds to be recommended to the OUP committee to publish as a book and it stands the test of time. The recommendation came from none other than Tony Quinton.

Examining Thomas Hill Green’s moral philosophy, Thomas defends a radically new perception of Green as an independent thinker rather than a devoted partisan of Kant or Hegel. Green’s moral philosophy, argues Thomas, includes a widely misunderstood defense of free will, an innovative model of deliberation that rejects both Kantian and Humean conceptions of practical reason, a barely recognized theory of character, and an account of moral objectivity that involves no dependence on religion–all of which yield a coherent body of moral philosophy that raises important problems neglected in contemporary ethics.

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Philosophical Literature

H/T to a kindred spirit “Infrequent literary reflections by an analytic philosopher” for bringing the slowly but surely growing secondary literature to my attention. Since it was through Kafka that my latent philosophical impulse was first generated, I’ve always wanted to write a piece on some aspect of his work. I have however been granted an opportunity to write on Musil for an upcoming conference – that will be this summer’s project. Paul writes:

I linked in my previous post to some items that connect Wittgenstein to literary themes.

Duncan Richter has a post about Wittgenstein and Kafka. In the comments to that post, there are recommendations of some additional work that involves Kafka and Wittgenstein. Richter refers to Rebecca Schuman’s paper, ‘”Unerschütterlich”: Kafka’s Proceß, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and the Law of Logic’, which has now appeared in The German Quarterly. I know of one fictional work that puts Kafka and Wittgenstein together (very briefly). It’s a story by Guy Davenport called The Aeroplanes at Brescia.

Last fall, Ben Ware published ‘Ethics and the Literary in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the Journal for the History of Ideas. Ware there ‘explores the connections between the literary and the ethical in the book,’ and argues that ‘Wittgenstein hoped to achieve a practical rather than cognitive transformation in his readers’ lives.’

On another German lit front that involves Wittgenstein, Gwyneth Cliver’s 2008 dissertation, Musil, Broch, and the mathematics of modernism, has two chapters on Wittgenstein.