Descartes’ most important influence

The 17th century thinker René Descartes is seen as the father of modern philosophy: A man who was entirely original, whose work marked a clear divide from earlier thinkers, and who laid the foundation for modern thought with his focus on self-knowledge of the individual mind.

But that narrative is “unquestionably false,” says Christia Mercer, a philosophy professor at Columbia University. Indeed, “people in his period did not think Descartes was the father of anything,” she adds. Though the philosopher was renowned in his day for his work on physics and natural philosophy, it wasn’t until the 19th century that historians portrayed Descartes as a major break with the past. This idea has endured in part because, while historians searched for the great male thinkers who might have influenced Descartes’ ideas, they missed the female philosopher who came before him: Teresa of Ávila.

Read on.

Support Tommy Curry

Do consider signing this letter in support of philosopher Tommy Curry. His claim– that it would be good to *study* the history of black advocacy of anti-white violence– has been grotesquely misrepresented. As a result he is getting death threats and the head of his university has spoken against him.

[Although the letter was initially written for members of his University to sign, they are welcoming signatures from others.]

The letter is here.

QR codes and conference accessibility

Image description: QR code for English language Wikipedia
Image description: QR code for English language Wikipedia

As lots of you know I’m a philosopher with a visual impairment. When you try to ban laptop use by conference participants (this happened to me last year) I’m the person who writes in to say that actually I need my laptop (and the conference organizers were happy to accommodate). I often can’t read your handouts and your powerpoint slides. Large print handouts work but my laptop is better because I can control font size depending on how I’m doing that day.

That’s why I was happy to see this suggestion by Adam Cureton to use QR codes.

Cureton writes, “The idea is to insert QR codes (of the sort that are on airplane tickets) on presentation materials, which can easily direct a disabled audience member to an electronic version of the presentation materials, which can still be edited up to the time of the talk. After the talk, the presenter can cancel the code so that it doesn’t work anymore. This would really help, I think, to make presentations of most any kind more accessible for disabled people.”

The full explanation of using QR codes to make your presentations more accessible is here,

Thanks Adam.

Retroactive withdrawal of consent?

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa continues his excellent, thoughtful series on the new Kipnis book with a discussion of nonconsensual sex.

Kipnis often describes sexual assault allegations in these terms. She says that there was a consensual sexual encounter, and then, months or years later, someone “retroactively withdraws” consent, converting what had previously been a permissible sexual encounter into an assault. Her language suggests a kind of “backwards causation”—one can reach back into history and create rapes that weren’t there by removing the consent. The implication: this absurd metaphysics is being embraced by campus activists, demonstrating both their intellectual depravity and their danger.

But why is Kipnis so confident that, in these cases, there was consent in the first place? After all, there is such a thing as a nonconsensual sexual encounter where the victim doesn’t think of it as such at the time, or doesn’t decide to report it at the time. There is such a thing as being coerced, manipulated, or bullied into a sexual relationship. When this happens, one is quite likely to keep quiet about it at first, either for fear of repercussions, or out of failure to understand what has happened.

On Ageing: Nussbaum now online

(See comment 3 for URL.)

Martha Nussbaum will give a Kyoto Prize lecture tomorrow (May 10) in Oxford on ageing.  Here’s the impotant abstract:

The category of age is the only category of discrimination that includes all human beings – if they live long enough. With other categories – racial, caste-based, ethno-religious, gender-based, sexual, and disability-based, the dominant group can view itself as immune from the traits it imputes to the group targeted for discrimination. Because age and its signs are associated with death, this condition is regarded with particular fear and with a disgust closely linked to fear. It is thus no surprise that one of the most tenacious types of prejudice in all societies is prejudice against people who are aging. They are stigmatized in popular culture and discourse, and very often law gives sanction to those forms of stigma.

The bodies of aging people remind younger people of their own frailty and mortality, and popular discourse portrays those bodies as incompetent, unattractive, even revolting. Moreover, even aging people themselves often come to feel disgust with their own bodies, as new research proposes. This stigma is itself a social problem, producing much unhappiness, and it leads to various forms of injustice, such as discrimination against aging people in employment and in informal social interactions, not to mention the huge social evil of compulsory retirement. Age may well be the new issue for our time, since discrimination on the basis of age deprives all societies of valuable human capital. After situating this case in the context of her theory of disgust and stigma, Dr Nussbaum will focus on the special aspects of this case.

I wonder about her idea that the bodies of ageing people remind the young of their own fragility.  I am a bit embarrassed to recall my much earlier conviction that the ageing bodies showed these people could not have lived good lives.


Musings from a Prospective Miscreant (Updated)

Brian Leiter has posted my name on a list of people he claims tried to “destroy” Hypatia. I write here under a pseudonym but I am Amy Olberding. I’ve outed myself before, also under provocation from Leiter, and I now do so again for two reasons.

First, I protest Leiter’s characterization of me and want to provide people an opportunity to judge for themselves. Because I do blog under a pseudonym, I have no idea if Leiter’s accusations about my role in Hypatia using my name will associate for many with who I am on this blog – i.e., “Prof Manners.” So, for the record, all of my public comments on the Hypatia situation are here, here, and here. In them, my consistent plea was for greater calm and kindness to all involved. Moreover, for clarity, I made no social media posts or otherwise communicated about the issue other than what you see in these public statements – i.e., my private conduct is reflected in the public statements.

Second and far more importantly, I do not wish to talk here about Hypatia. I want to talk about Brian Leiter. Upon my posting the “Have Mercy” entry (second link above), he sent me an email with the subject heading “your latest dishonesty.” Since I was unaware of having any earlier “dishonesty” to which he could refer, this came as some shock, as did his remarks about my “general rudeness.” I did not reply. However, now I find that he has included me by name on a list of bad actors he says tried to “destroy” Hypatia and I am not content to forego reply.

Read More »

There is no liberal right to sex with students

There is a long and distinguished history of conceptualising liberal democracy in terms of basic rights to which, all other things being equal, everyone is entitled. Sexual freedom is rightly counted among these. But should this right apply where one person is in a position of power and authority over the other? Doctors are sanctioned if they have sex with their patients, as are lawyers who sleep with their clients. Should sexual relationships between professors and students in the same department also be off limits?

Read on.


The crisis at Hypatia is just the latest occasion to have people in philosophy attesting to being fearful. Fear has become a driver in philosophical discourse, particularly online. The proliferation of pseudonymous participation, anonymous participation, and the entire logic of the various metablog phenomena speak to this. People want to talk but are uneasy and fearful of doing so with their names attached. People also shy away altogether, participating only as readers and, presumably, fleeing philosophy’s online spaces altogether. With the crisis at Hypatia, fear is re-fueled and amplified. People now attest to fear not just of participating in online spaces but of having their work itself exposed to others. Many worry that one effect of the Hypatia situation is that less diverse work will appear in journals because authors won’t be confident writing it and journal editors won’t be confident publishing it. Fear will contract the field yet more.

Read More »

Feminist Philosophy syllabus resources

A reader writes:

In our department, we want to develop a new undergraduate, general education course on feminist philosophy. We also want to hire a feminist philosopher to teach it, since nobody in the department is an expert in the field. But we have a chicken-and-egg problem: we need to get the course approved before the hire (long story). Could you please post this to solicit help from your readers on constructing the course description and syllabus?

There are some constraints:

1) It would need to be analytic-friendly, though not necessarily exclusively analytic.

2) To satisfy general education requirements (another long story), it would need to substantially feature a wide range of perspectives beyond the standard voices in western philosophy. That is, it needs to include perspectives from different cultures, understood broadly. Though again the orientation and plenty of readings again can come from standard analytic philosophy, this emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons can’t be tagged on at the end as an afterthought; the course won’t be approved if it doesn’t include real study of diverse cultures throughout (while staying on the topic of feminist philosophy).

3) Because it will be a general education class, it needs to be appropriate for sophomore-level students with no relevant background.

Any suggestions for readings, course descriptions, unconventional assignments, etc., would be welcome. Also, please share any links to existing syllabi that you think are useful. Thanks for your help on this!

I’d suggest looking at the APA page of resources for diversifying philosophy.

And I’d welcome suggestions from others, in comments.