Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Somehow, I find this inspirational, particularly when I recall that Hume wrote his Treatise when he was 27, and that Mill was a polyglot by (something like) 5:
Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?
From Thoreau, Walden (Conclusion)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Understanding without Agreement

[Update: The second and third links in the text below now take you to a newer version of this paper.]

I've been thinking about the relationship between understanding and agreement, specifically, about whether there are cases where we can't really be said to understand a person with whom we disagree.

I've been drafting a short paper about this, and would appreciate any comments. It's a bit compressed, but I'm hoping, if the project seems on the right track, to try to submit it to a conference or two in the spring.

Here's a short abstract:

When two people disagree about a matter of judgment (say, about a moral issue), the disagreement will often be explained in terms of psychological differences. This leaves it open that one party to the disagreement could understand the other without agreeing with her. This paper explores the thesis that there are cases in which understanding and agreement do not come apart because psychological explanation is not always an adequate way of explaining the disagreement. That is, sometimes it may be that we cannot claim to understand a person unless we have also come to agree with her.

Again, the paper is here.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Peace, Etc.

I'm currently at the Concerned Philosophers for Peace conference in Dayton, Ohio. Got lots of positive feedback and ideas on my paper, and have met many really great people.

Angela Davis
gave the keynote last night, discussing various examples of injustice and violence that get perpetuated by the American prison system. Davis, if you aren't familiar, is a "prison abolitionist." And she really means it. The interesting point was not so much the point of trying harder to understand why crimes happen, but that abolishing prison is not the same as the end of holding people accountable. Rather, it means that we could, if we face the problems, come up with much more creative and productive ways of holding people accountable than by making them invisible (by, as it were, putting them behind bars). Of course, for Davis, that is a secondary point; her primary concern has to do with the connections between prison and our history of racism (and other forms of oppression). Very thought-provoking.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Understanding and (Dis)Agreement

Here's a vignette I've been thinking about:
Pete and Vera, good friends, are having a discussion about the ethics of eating other animals. Pete eats meat, but is somewhat troubled by the arguments for vegetarianism that he has encountered. He wonders whether he has been missing something. Vera, a vegetarian, discusses the several arguments with Pete late into the night, and draws his attention, in particular, to the line of argument that she herself has found to be the decisive one. As morning draws near, Pete remarks, “I understand what you’re getting at with this argument and why you accept it, but I simply don’t see things that way.”

Vera responds, “Then you don’t at all understand me.”
I think people sometimes respond to disagreement as Vera has here, and I'm wondering what such a comment as hers amounts to. Does it imply that Pete could only come to understand her if he came to agree with her? (Or, that his understanding just would involve his agreeing with her?) And if that's a plausible interpretation of what she says, does her remark make sense? Can't we understand other people without agreeing with them?

I'm working on the subtleties of this, but I'm curious what others think.