“Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box”: A problem for professional philosophy?

Here are some relevant claims which track a line of thought from cancer to a problem for professional philosophy.

(1) Aromatase inhibitors, very commonly used in post-op treatment for breast cancer patients, lower available estrogen.

(2) Lower estrogen means less available dopamine.

(3) Less available dopamine creates some cognitive problems.

You can find these three discussed on this blog here  One thing I had discovered before learning about aromatase inhibitors is that dopamine gives you your get-up-and-go.  Losing dopamine can bring you to a halt, at least in some ways.  I give an example in the earlier post.  I also note that a recent long  list of side-effects of aromatase inhibitors does not list any cognitive deficits, unless one counts depression and mood swings.

Another cognitive role dopamine has is giving one focus.  Less dopamine means less focus and filtering; more signals reach the frontal lobes where ‘executive functioning’ is located.  There’s more to think about, more to consider possibly relevant.  More technically, having fewer dopamine receptors in the thalamus means less filtering.  And that appears to be a central grounding for divergent thinking and creativity.

This grounding for creativity is not unproblematic, since in this respect schizophrenia appears to be caused in much the same way.  As a comment on recent work has it:

Now research from the Karolinska Institute has shed light on a possible connection to dopamine. Looking at the dopamine receptors (D2 receptors) of ‘highly creative’ people, they found that the dopamine systems were similar to those observed in people suffering with schizophrenia in particular. The researchers postulate that dopamine receptor genes may be linked to the capacity for ‘divergent thought’.

The study, which was led by one Dr Ullen and used psychological tests to measure divergent thinking, found specifically that ‘highly creative’ types, as with schizophrenics, demonstrated a low density of D2 receptors in the thalamus. The role of the thalamus, among other things, is as a ‘filter’ which decides which thoughts and which information should make it to the cortex for reasoning to take place.

Having fewer D2 receptors then might cause less signal ‘filtering’ meaning that you have more information available to the cortex and are better able to come up with ‘novel’ solutions as a result and to ‘think outside the box’. On the negative side however, these sometimes illogical associations and connections could also be partly responsible for the kind of thinking seen in schizophrenic patients.

As the original research paper has it, highly creative types think outside a less intact box.  And I think we should ask what will be the fate of  such types in today’s academic philosophy.  One part of the question concerns what journal referees will think of a paper with a number of original ideas commending different ways of looking at what the writer may think of as one topic, but the referees may not.  One might find the reports say things like “I just don’t get this,” or “Too implausible to publish.”  It may be very difficult for such a person to amass enough for a tenure case, given today’s stress on quantity of peer-reviewed items.  As someone remarked to me very recently in discussing this sort of situation, there may not be any peers for the work in question.

Hopefully the person in question will get help from grad school mentors.  In a more extreme case, if one or more powerful figures, recognising the creativity, get the person tenure despite a thin record, then the problem will be the lesser one of the resentment felt by others who cannot understand the work and don’t see why tenure was possible.  I know of one case like this.

One might want to say to the floundering scholar, picking up a paper with five significant new ideas, “Just pick one and developed complete arguments for it”.  That’s just what may be outside the person’s ability.  To use a vivid but regrettably unflattering analogy:  A very creative landscape artist might continually mess up colouring books.

Here’s the bottom line:  Some valuable philosophers may find our current standards of number of peer reviewed publications excessively difficult to meet.  One can now be almost too creative to be a professional philosopher.

Concluding comment:  I’ve sat in a number of discussions of why “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” doesn’t have any good arguments in it.  What would its fate be today?  Probably it would be foolish to try to answer this question, but we are fortunate to have it in the canon, since it’s got a number of great ideas in it.

From Alison Jaggar: on the new campus watchlist

“A few days ago, I was told that my name had been included on a new Campus Watchlist, whose advertised mission is to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The entry under my name seemed to have been taken directly from David Horowitz’s 2006 book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, because it contained the same errors of fact and the same emphasis on a few sensationalized words pulled out of context from a 400 page book that I published in 1983. Today I cannot find my name, so I wonder if someone noticed that, in nearly fifty years of teaching, no student has complained of leftist propaganda or political discrimination in any of my classes.

Regardless of whether or not my name is listed, my response is the same. No one belongs on the Campus Watchlist because no such list should exist. The Watchlist’s claim “to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish,” while simultaneously aiming to chill any speech that it deems “un-American,” is a prime example of Orwellian newspeak. We remember how the term “un-American” was used for repression in the mid-twentieth century and must resolve never to return to practices of surveillance and witch-hunting that undermine our commitment to the core values of free thought and speech, not only in academia but everywhere in the United States.”


Runciman on Trump and Brexit

David Runciman, head of Cambridge University’s Department of Politics and International Studies, has an article in the latest London Review of Books that has some new (to me at least) and interesting ideas.  It also has some flaws: at some stages he attributes something like reasoning to Trump supporters.  The attributions are perhaps plausible if they are qualified by something like ‘it’s as though they reasoned’, but otherwise not.

The full article is here:


But Trump is not a disruptor: he is a spiteful mischief-maker. The people who voted for him did not believe they were taking a huge gamble; they simply wished to rebuke a system on which they still rely for their basic security. That is what the vote for Trump has in common with Brexit. By choosing to quit the European Union, the majority of British voters may have looked as if they were behaving with extraordinary recklessness. But in reality their behaviour too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed that it was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice. It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can’t be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime.  The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

The above at least offers an explanation of possible catastrophic foolishness in these two instances. The only other explanation I have seen of both together appeals to a lack of education. If Runciman is right, it may well be that the lack of education explains a faith in the state-father, as opposed to an ignorance of the consequences the state will protect one from.

If you can get access, the rest of the article is well worth reading. One nice point he makes is that Trump so misdescribed America’s actual problems that they are not there to be fixed.

On being demonized

Hillary Clinton was often said to be a very poor candidate.  She was portrayed as one of those neoliberals who support Wall Street over her own country, despite her socialist attempts to nationalize health care, to aid families, etc.  Instead, she is seen as someone who committed so many crimes she should be tried and jailed.  She endangered the country through a mishandling of emails.  She was power mad.  She oversaw the murder of political opponents.  And of the nation’s troops.

She was demonized, and that process often consisted in just reiterating some of the charges above.  And honestly the weight of those charges makes me feel as those really nothing can be done against them.  You get that many horrible things said against you, maybe a solution will be hard to find.

Let’s hope not, but whatever is true about defending oneself, let’s consider how demonization occurs.  It might tell us more about what we need to do when it starts up.

And in case you are wondering, Hillary is hardly the only person who has gotten demonized.  Among others, the writers on this blog have been characterized as moral monsters, which looks to me like a fair approximation of demonization.  And I’ve been demonized in another context, like many, many women.  So while I don’t have empirical studies to back up my characterizations, I have had the opportunity to observe what has gone on in a number of contexts.  I’m going to hope that’s enough for starters.  My examples, though, are a hodge-podge.

The thing that has struck me often with demonizers is that they seem incapable of imagining others to have non-self regarding motives.  To add a fantasy onto an example:  suppose you get the opportunity to fulfill a longterm dream.  You get to decorate Central Park with orange bunting.


As Christo and Jeanne-Claude did.

The Passion of the Christos
The Gates, in Central Park, 26 years in the making, mile upon mile of billowing fabric, is the largest artwork since the Sphinx. But what does it mean? As Jeanne-Claude might say, what a dumb question.

For the demonizer, however, you are indulging yourself in a massive display of ego, or perhaps hoping to make a lot of money.  The seemingly sheer and relatively egoless desire to create is always about something else.  And in Clinton’s case, the life-long striving to improve the lives of women and children was really about grabbing power.

In a comparable situation I came to believe my demonizers couldn’t even imagine motives other than self-interest.  And so I propose that demonizers have an impoverished range of motives, and, relatedly, they are weak in empathy.  Along with these deficits, demonizers may be people of considerable ill-will.  The ill-will may be very general, where they are prepared to cut down anyone, or it may be more specifically directed toward women in leadership roles, or blacks with civic power.

Some other possible factors:  demonizers may be able to believe what they wish.  For example, faced with a highly productive woman, they may declare that books, articles and national offices don’t count as fulfilling any part of one’s job.  (I know several women who have fought or are fighting this battle.)  Alternatively, they may decide that one is lying, and putting fake entries on one’s cv or hiding wrong-doing.  E.g., the evidence is quite clear that Clinton was not literally responsible for the deaths in Benghazi except perhaps ex officio, but that was put aside in favor of the idea that she was a murderer.  Ignorance will probably be a large factor in the creation and dissemination of the demonization.

What should we conclude from these ruminations?  Perhaps surprisingly that there is a national character flaw that got manifested in this election.  We couldn’t understand Hillary Clinton vividly enough.  This is true for those who voted against her but also for those who merely voted against him.

Of course, the issues here are much more complex.  Perhaps one can buy into a demonization without having the flaws involved in creating it.  And so on.  People wanted a change, etc, etc.  but look at what the nation in the end accepted!

So I’m not sure in this case that I believe what my reasoning has led me to.  What do you think?


Symposium on Claudia Card in Metaphilosophy

Feminist philosophers, the newest issue of Metaphilosophy includes a symposium on the scholarship of Claudia Card. She would have loved this. Check it out:

Metaphilosophy, Vol. 47 Issue 4-5, October 2016

Symposium on the Philosophy of Claudia Card

Edited by Robin S. Dillon and Armen T. Marsoobian

Introductory Note, Armen T. Marsoobian

The Challenges of Extreme Moral Stress: Claudia Card’s Contributions to the Formation of Nonideal Ethical Theory, Kathryn J. Norlock

Hate Crime Legislation Reconsidered, Marcia Baron

Misplaced Gratitude and the Ethics of Oppression, Robin May Schott

Surviving Evils and the Problem of Agency: An Essay Inspired by the Work of Claudia Card, Diana Tietjens Meyers

Radical Moral Imagination and Moral Luck, Mavis Biss

The American Girl: Playing with the Wrong Dollie?, Victoria Davion

Perpetrators and Social Death: A Cautionary Tale, Lynne Tirrell

Claudia Card’s Concept of Social Death: A New Way of Looking at Genocide, James Snow

Trump and the Age of Ignorance

Myisha Cherry talking to Rachel McKinnon, Meena Krishnamurthy, and Tempest Henning.  It’s all great, but here’s a bit from Meena Krishnamurthy:

King rightly believes – in part because of the efforts of earlier civil rights movements – that many if not most white Americans know that racism is wrong. On his view, knowing that racism is wrong is often rarely enough to move people to act. What is needed is knowledge of what it is like to be victimized by racism. This knowledge is something that many white Americans lack. As this election has shown, people have a variety of different values – related to the economy, the size of government, and religion. Anti-racist values are simply one set of values among a broader group of other values and they simply may not take priority over these other values. King suggests, however, that once you know what it is like to be victimized by racism, eliminating racism is more likely to become your priority. Anti-racist values are more likely to outweigh your other values and, in turn, are more likely to motivate you to act to end racism. In part, it is the lack of experiential knowledge that led people to vote for Trump. Because they don’t know what being victimized by racism is like, they didn’t place priority on their anti-racist views when they were voting.

Go here for more, and do click on the podcast link if you like podcasts!


Talking Turkey: Practical Strategy

Here in the U.S., the holidays are coming and that means some of us will be sitting down with family and reconnecting with more distant friends. I think there has to be a high priority on talking with those in our social circles who voted for Trump. Let me lay out a little more what I mean.

First, I’m mostly talking to white readers, and especially to white readers, since this is largely our experience and, I think, our responsibility. (Comments welcome from all of course!)

Second, if you’re white and have no kin or acquaintances who voted for Trump, I implore you to wonder why. This is not, I think, something to be proud of but is, rather, indicative of how we got here. If progressive white people don’t know white people unlike themselves, we’re abandoning the work of persuasion where it could be most effective. There’s much talk of the bubbles in which we surround ourselves, so if you’re in one, please get out of it for a spell.

Most importantly, the election is over so that means the temptation to go back to “normal” is strong, going along and passing the potatoes while leaving politics and other bits of “unpleasantness” aside. I think this temptation should be resisted. The election is over, but what’s coming next is not. It’s not clear what power we all have but my guess is that remorseful Trump voters would be a help. So too would Trump voters encouraged to oppose things they may have let slide when it was all ostensibly in service to “campaigning.”

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It is now increasingly clear that white women bear a substantial share in electing Donald Trump. Since I am a white woman, I want to talk about us. Not about them – those who voted for Trump – but about us, white American women in general.


My abiding, albeit deeply shaken, conviction is that one of the only things human beings have as a shared moral resource is talking. So we need urgently to talk about white women. I say we need to talk about us, thereby implicitly excluding all the non-us readers (people who aren’t white women) not because I don’t want to hear from them, but because asking them what the hell is wrong with us would be an affront. As if they don’t have enough to worry about and have time to address our delicate agonies. So if you’re not one of us, feel free to chime in but feel free to avert your gaze in disgust too since we earned at least that.


I think I understand – though surely not as deeply as I ought – that many white women have some, several, or all of the afflictions shot through the Trump campaign: racism, xenophobia, misogyny, nativism, white dominance. And one of the challenges, I think, after all this is how to address all this, especially how all of this nets together rather than existing as discrete problems. Still, let me just focus on what might be the lowest hanging fruit for us.


Extraordinary numbers of white women voted for a man who boasts of sexual assault, who has been accused of sexual assault by a long line of women, and who has, in almost every conceivable way to hand for a politician, expressed disdain for women. So somehow millions of white women voters said… what? “Yeah, but…” What? “What he really stands for is…?” What? In other words, even if these women care not a whit for all of the other deeply morally objectionable things Trump professed and laid out as plans, they could have cared about this. Leave them all the other vices and their dignity as women could have revolted and broke the other way. So, why didn’t it?


I don’t think it’s enough to explain this by saying that white women may labor under internalized patriarchy and misogyny. Or, if they do, why do they? More pointedly, where is feminism? White women have historically pretty much run the show where feminism is concerned, so here too, this is us. I think this is one of the things we have a duty to try sort out, though I don’t myself know where or how to begin. So, please, talk.