All’s Well That Ends Well

746px-Slippery_when_wet_iconBertrand Russell once suggested that Western philosophy began with Thales. His insight gains a humorous edge when juxtaposed with a popular biographical tidbit about the ancient Greek. For one day, as the story goes, Thales was so entirely absorbed with contemplating the heavens above that he fell head-long into a well directly in front of him. Continue reading “All’s Well That Ends Well”

Searching for Justice in Injustice

We live in a world of unambiguous and alarming injustices. The World Bank estimated that in 2005 about 1.4 billion people in the developing world (one in four) were living on less than $1.25 a day. We all acknowledge the existence of an unfortunately considerable number of people in society suffering from a wide range of disadvantages – and the injustice that this situation represents. Nonetheless, contemporary philosophers struggle to define a plain set of justice principles that should govern the ideal institutions. Continue reading “Searching for Justice in Injustice”

Crabs In Love

Horseshoe_crab_pair Interpreters of Plato’s Symposium continue to disagree over the ‘theory of desire’ presented by the dialogue. Does the figure of Socrates suggest that our embodied love relationships serve as the mere tools by which we are propelled ‘upward’ to the love of higher, intelligible things (i.e., the Beautiful, a ‘God’)? Or, might the interruption within the text by the beautiful Alcibiades mark a clear re-valuation of our desirous experiences in the sensible realm? Continue reading “Crabs In Love”

A “torture” debate

Gitmo_AerialAs a matter of editorial policy, several major media outlets, including The New York Times and NPR, do not use the word “torture” to describe treatment of prisoners in US custody.  This policy has drawn criticism from opponents of US interrogation methods. Continue reading “A “torture” debate”

Don’t mention the war: or, doing what you didn’t want to do

In last week’s issue of Science Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University, summarised his research into a peculiarly incompetent example of agency. There are various actions we perform. We fix on our goal and act in a way that will bring it about. But sometimes we go about trying to not do something. Ever make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation, only to bring it up? Wegner calls these phenomena “ironic effects” and proposes that they are the effects of a monitoring process the brain undergoes when we try to avoid thinking about or doing something. Unsurprisingly, he found that “effective strategies include accepting symptoms rather than attempting to control them.” I.e. the best way to not do something is, sometimes, to stop trying to not do it. In the same way one does not maximise one’s pleasure by trying to maximise one’s pleasure (the paradox of hedonism), successful exercises of agency do not always follow the simple model of directing one’s thought or will toward one’s goal.

For an interview with Daniel Wegner go here.

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$1.99 - smallThe Phenomenology of Agency
By Tim Bayne, University of Oxford
(Vol. 3, January 2008)
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$1.99 - smallThe Natural Philosophy of Agency
By Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
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Bad Grammar Picked-Up By Monkeys

Cottontop Tamarin

Following Chomsky’s seminal Universal Grammar hypothesis in the mid-twentieth century, the debate continues to rage over whether human language capacities involve any innate and/or domain-specific component, or whether they are wholly learned. It also remains an interesting question as to how human beings came to acquire whatever innate language endowment they may possess. Researchers at Harvard claim to have uncovered evidence of an evolutionary precursor to human language affixation (the method by which we ‘tense’ verbs, e.g. walk/walk-ed) in Cottontop Tamarins. The research team, led by Ansgar Endress, found that Cottontops display the capacity to recognise incorrect, or ‘ungrammatical’, syllable sequences of this form. In the study, the Tamarins were familiarised with a particular prefix or suffix (for instance, ‘shoy-‘) by being exposed verbally for half an hour to syllable strings displaying that pattern (‘shoy-bi’, ‘shoy-la’, ‘shoy-ro’, etc.). When tested again the next day, the monkeys showed signs of surprise when the speaker uttered a ‘word’ which did not conform to the pattern (e.g. ‘bi-shoy’).

While this might not show that the monkeys recognised the speakers ‘slip’ as bad grammar, the researchers argue that their results show that human language capacities incorporate memory processes that were not language specific in our ancestors, such as an (innate) ability to recognise and respond to simple temporal ordering patterns, as demonstrated by the Cottontops. This ability finds employment in non-human forms of communication (the songs of humpback whales, for instance) and, in primates, the ability to learn how to use complex tools, says Professor Marc Hauser, who collaborated in the study. The primates may be a long way away from being able to correct our grammar; nevertheless, they may have cognitive capacities that are less than a million miles away from our own.

Read the source article here.

Article: ‘Evidence of an evolutionary precursoe to human language affixation in a nonhuman primate’, By Endress, Cahill, Block, Watumull & Hauser. Forthcoming in Biology Letters, manuscript available at:

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(Vol. 1, August 2006)
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By John Collins , University of East Anglia
(Vol. 2, November 2007)
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FREE Syllabus: Some Questions in Hume’s Aesthetics

FREE PDFTeaching & Learning Guide for: Some Questions in Hume’s Aesthetics
By Christopher Williams, University of Nevada, Reno (December 2008)


Sections: Aesthetics & Philosophy of Art, History of Philosophy
Philosophy, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art
People: Hume, David
Key Topics: subjective, normativity, value

(See all Philosophy Compass Teaching & Learning Guides‘)