Writings of 2016, and Why I Love Philosophy

It's a tradition for me now, posting a retrospect of the past year's writings on New Year's Day. (Here are the retrospects of 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.)

Two landmarks: my first full-length published essay on the sociology of philosophy ("Women in philosophy", with Carolyn Dicey Jennings), and the first foreign-language translations of my science fiction ("The Dauphin's Metaphysics" into Chinese and Hungarian).

Recently, I've been thinking about the value of doing philosophy. Obviously, I love reading, writing, and discussing philosophy, on a wide range of topics -- hence all the publications, the blog, the travel, and so forth. Only love could sustain that. But do I love it only in the way that I might love a videogame -- as a challenging, pleasurable activity, but not something worthwhile? No, I do hope that in doing philosophy I am doing something worthwhile.

But what makes philosophy worthwhile?

One common view is that studying philosophy makes you wiser or more ethical. Maybe this is true, in some instances. But my own work provides reasons for doubt: With Joshua Rust, I've found that ethicists and non-ethicist philosophers behave pretty much the same as professors who study other topics. With Fiery Cushman, I've found evidence that philosophers are just as subject to irrational order effects and framing effects in thinking about moral scenarios, even scenarios on which they claim expertise. With Jon Ellis, I've argued that there's good reason to think that philosophical and moral thought may be especially fertile for nonconscious rationalization, including among professors of philosophy.

Philosophy might still be instrumentally worthwhile in various ways: Philosophers might create conceptual frameworks that are useful for the sciences, and they might helpfully challenge scientists' presuppositions. It might be good to have philosophy professors around so that students can improve their argumentative and writing skills by taking courses with them. Public philosophers might contribute usefully to political and cultural dialogue. But none of this seems to be the heart of the matter. Nor is it clear that we've made great progress in answering the timeless questions of the discipline. (I do think we've made some progress, especially in carving out the logical space of options.)

Here's what I would emphasize instead: Philosophy is an intrinsically worthwhile activity with no need of further excuse. It is simply one of the most glorious, awesome facts about our planet that there are bags of mostly-water that can step back from ordinary activity and reflect in a serious way about the big picture, about what they are, and why, and about what really has value, and about the nature of the cosmos, and about the very activity of philosophical reflection itself. Moreover, it is one of the most glorious, awesome facts about our society that there is a thriving academic discipline that encourages people to do exactly that.

This justification of philosophy does not depend on any downstream effects: Maybe once you stop thinking about philosophy, you act just the same as you would have otherwise acted. Maybe you gain no real wisdom of any sort. Maybe you learn nothing useful at all. Even so, for those moments that you are thinking hard about big philosophical issues, you are participating in something that makes life on Earth amazing. You are a piece of that.

So yes, I want to be a piece of that too. Welcome to 2017. Come love philosophy with me.


Full-length non-fiction essays appearing in print in 2016:

    The behavior of ethicists” (with Joshua Rust), in J. Sytsma and W. Buckwalter, eds., A Companion to Experimental Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell).
Full-length non-fiction finished and forthcoming:
Shorter non-fiction:
Editing work:
    Oneness in philosophy, religion, and psychology (with P.J. Ivanhoe, O. Flanagan, R. Harrison, and H. Sarkissian), Columbia University Press (forthcoming).
Non-fiction in draft and circulating:
Science fiction stories:
    "The Dauphin's metaphysics" (orig. published in Unlikely Story, 2015).
      - translated into Hungarian for Galaktika, issue 316.
      - translated into Chinese for Science Fiction World, issue 367.
Some favorite blog posts:
Selected interviews:

[image modified from here]

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