Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How to Impress a Philosophy Professor

Thinking about former students whom I've suspected of being Objectivists has made me think more generally about what I hope for from my students.

It's sometimes funny, sometimes troubling, to catch a glimpse of what they think I'm looking for.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Confession of a Former Objectivist, part four

I think that I am more or less done writing about my misspent youth, for now. I may have more to add at some point in the future.

I did want to add that I occasionally come across a student whom I suspect of being an Objectivist, or at least an Objectivist sympathizer. The signs are not hard to spot.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Confession of a Former Objectivist, part three

On second thought, it may be that the paper I wrote about Objectivism during my last semester in college is best left in obscurity.

Part of the problem is that I just can't help reading the paper as the work of a student. I keep wanting to grade it, to comment on it, to correct it, to steer it in a better direction by sheer force of will. I am haunted by what the paper might have become in more capable hands than those of my twenty-one-year-old self.

(I experience this sort of thing a lot when reading students' work. They have no idea what an agony it can be, always wanting their work to be the best it can be, but always seeing how it could have been better.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Confession of a Former Objectivist, part two

In the wake of my experience with Objectivism, I came to mistrust all claims to certainty. This was reinforced by my continuing study of philosophy, through which I gained a growing understanding of the richness and ambiguity of human experience and the elusiveness of knowledge.

Through many years of disorientation and bafflement, I gradually came to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. By recasting myself as an environmental philosopher, using the intellectual resources of the philosophical tradition to grapple with complex issues of knowledge and value in environmental ethics and policy, I was slowly able to open up a practical domain in which I could make some (tentative) assertions and hold some (tentative) convictions.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Confession of a Former Objectivist, part one

I owe a debt that I do not often acknowledge openly. At least some of what I have become as a philosopher, as a citizen, and, for that matter, as a human being can be traced back to a two-year period during which I was devoted to the writings and the thought of Ayn Rand.

That's right, I was an Objectivist.

In fact, reading Ayn Rand's books - nearly all of them, if you can believe it - was the reason I first decided to study philosophy. It was not, however, the reason I continued to study philosophy.

Let me start at the beginning.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1809 of Charles Darwin, and also the anniversary of the publication in 1859 of On The Origin of Species. Someone, somewhere decided to dub this "Darwin Day" and to encourage celebrations, discussions, public presentations, etc., etc.

Of course the really big party will be two years from today, on the bi- and sesquicentennial.

In observance of the day, I offer the following news story from Agence France-Presse, the link for which was first sent to me by a colleague some days ago. The original story is dated February 2, 2007.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


A passing observation, a propos of nothing much:

Watching my two daughters playing together, I'm struck by the way they use the verb 'to pretend' in the imperative. It's not something you hear very often among adults.

"Pretend you're a kitten who's lost in the woods," one will command the other. "Okay, now. Pretend I'm a princess who has been invited to a ball! . . . "

Perhaps even more striking is the way in which the other child always takes this in stride, switching from lost kitten to robot to wizard to pastry chef without question or protest, and without missing a beat.

Friday, February 9, 2007

What We Don't Know about Sprawl

I have been reading a lot in the rhetoric of the debate over "urban sprawl" and "smart growth", with a particular angle. I am interested in the question of whether and to what extent people can be said to choose sprawl.

If the rhetoric (pro and con) is any guide, then the question comes down to this: Is sprawl the true and highest expression of human freedom, as individuals pursue their own preferences in a free market, or are people coerced into building and living in the sprawlscape by political and economic forces beyond their control?

As far as I can tell, this way of framing the debate is all but worthless. That's not what I wanted to write about, though.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Obscure and the Profound

An old idea came back to me last night, shaken loose while I was watching Lost on TV.

I’ve sometimes noticed that people mistake the obscure for the profound: it must be deep, they seem to say, because I can’t really understand it.

No, sorry. Sometimes things are obscure simply because they are obscure, even if they are as shallow as a mud puddle or as thin as a paper bag.

In the case of Lost, of course, the obscurity is deliberate, and its creators are counting on the conflation of obscurity and profundity to keep stringing viewers along and raking in the ad revenue.

I keep watching, even though it has come to feel like a chore, in part just to see what kind of hooey they try to foist on us next.

(For another example of the obscure-profound conflation, consider any song by the Indigo Girls.)