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Derek Parfit

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Vox eulogizes philosopher Derek Parfit:

Derek Parfit, who died at age 74 on Sunday evening, was not the most famous philosopher in the world. But he was among the most brilliant, and his papers and books have had a profound, incalculably vast impact on the study of moral philosophy over the past half century.

"Parfit was not a prolific author," the piece observes:

...he tended to write his books over the course of decades, refining them repeatedly after discussions with colleagues and students. In the end, he wrote only two: 1984's Reasons and Persons, and 2011's On What Matters, a two-volume, 1,440 page tome whose third volume is still yet to be published.

[The first two volumes of Parfit's opus On What Matters are available here, with a third volume due in March.]

As befits its title, Parfit's last and longest book On What Matters sprawled across a great variety of topics. It's broadly interested in what reasons people have to act in certain ways, or hold certain beliefs, or desire certain things. A lot of those questions have to do with morality, but some don't. Perhaps the greatest joy of reading it is spotting the occasional diversions, the odd moments here and there where he makes an aside from the main narrative, often concisely expressing what would take others of us pages and pages to articulate.

What I Believe

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Rhian Sasseen discusses EM Forster's defense of liberalism. Published some 77 years ago as "What I Believe," Fosters opens with the statement that "I do not believe in Belief." Sasseen wonders, "Where to begin, then, for those of us who still think that a fact is still a fact, an article of so-called "fake news" is better branded as a piece of propaganda?"

Outlets like Breitbart, InfoWars, Russia Today, and other luridly-named websites peddle conspiracy theories and half-truths that in another era might be more easily fact checked; today, they pile up too quickly on the evanescence that is the internet, as overwhelming and as momentary as a cloud of smoke. In this particular age of belief, dependent as it is on the digital, it seems as appropriate a time as any to turn to an artist from an earlier age for guidance.

Foster's commentaries, writes Sasseen, "offer a defense of liberalism during a time of shifting extremes and ideologies that feels startlingly relevant to this 21st century American"

And in "What I Believe," there's a clear appreciation and love for humans, despite our foibles and inconsistencies, which rings true even in today's smoke and mirrors world of online trolling.

Forster's essay "What I Believe" was published in Two Cheers for Democracy. It begins thus:

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long. But for the moment they are not enough, their action is no stronger than a flower, battered beneath a military jackboot. [...] My law-givers are Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St Paul. My temple stands not upon Mount Moriah but in that Elysian Field where even the immoral are admitted. My motto is : "Lord, I disbelieve - help thou my unbelief.

"Where do I start?" he wonders:

With personal relationships. Here is something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty. [...] I distrust Great Men. They produce a desert of uniformity around them and often a pool of blood too, and I always feel a little man's pleasure when they come a cropper.

"I believe in aristocracy, though - if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it," he continues:

Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names.

This observation surely cost him some accolades:

I cannot believe that Christianity will ever cope with the present world-wide mess, and I think that such influence as it retains in modern society is due to the money behind it, rather than to its spiritual appeal.

If you're unfamiliar with Foster's essay, it's worth a read.

lil' philosophers

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Quartz reports that teaching philosophy to kids improves their math and English scores:

More than 3,000 kids in 48 schools across England participated in weekly discussions about concepts such as truth, justice, friendship, and knowledge, with time carved out for silent reflection, question making, question airing, and building on one another's thoughts and ideas.

Kids who took the course increased math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching, even though the course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds saw an even bigger leap in performance: reading skills increased by four months, math by three months, and writing by two months. Teachers also reported a beneficial impact on students' confidence and ability to listen to others.

The Education Endowment Foundation's Philosophy for Children program comments that "The project does not aim to teach children philosophy; instead it equips them to 'do' philosophy for themselves:"

SAPERE [Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education]'s program does not focus on reading the texts of Plato and Kant, but rather stories, poems, or film clips that prompt discussions about philosophical issues. The goal is to help children reason, formulate and ask questions, engage in constructive conversation, and develop arguments.

The report "Philosophy for Children: Evaluation report and Executive summary" (PDF) notes that "Philosophy for Children (P4C) is an approach to teaching in which students participate in group dialogues focused on philosophical issues:"

Dialogues are prompted by a stimulus (for example, a story or a video) and are based around a concept such as 'truth', 'fairness' or 'bullying'. The aim of P4C is to help children become more willing and able to ask questions, construct arguments, and engage in reasoned discussion.

Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle teach in the department of philosophy and religion and the University of North Texas. They are co-authors of the forthcoming Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy, claim that philosophy has lost its way ever since "the locating of philosophy within a modern institution (the research university) in the late 19th century:"

This institutionalization of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy.

Take this simple detail: Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere -- serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were "serious" thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.

Philosophy, then, as the French thinker Bruno Latour would have it, was "purified" -- separated from society in the process of modernization.

"This was the act of purification," they write, "that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today:"

As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns.

"Philosophy should never have been purified," they conclude.

Jonathan Rée's look at the dream of enlightenment via Anthony Gottlieb's 2000 book The Dream of Reason, (described as "a brilliant retelling of the story of ancient Greek philosophy") and his recent work The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy ("which picks up the story with Descartes and carries it forward to the beginnings of the French Revolution") is rather pessimistic about the situation:

There was a time when every self-respecting egghead had to keep up with the latest developments in philosophy; not any more. Today's intellectuals, if they do not ignore philosophy entirely, can content themselves with reading one or two books about its past. Hundreds of histories of philosophy are available, and they are all much the same: they tell the same basic story, with the same cast of leading characters.

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