New links…

Discussion welcome.

  1. Was Sellars’ “myth of the given” anticipated 40 years earlier by the little-known philosopher and psychologist Beatrice Edgell? — Uriah Kriegel (Rice University) argues yes, with help from an imaginary dialogue between Edgell and Bertrand Russell
  2. “Strong hyping of precise numbers based on weak evidence and lots of hedging and fudging” and that’s just three of many problems — you think you’ve read enough critiques of effective altruism, but you don’t want to skip this firebombing by Leif Wenar (Stanford)
  3. “It’s just strange that we’re at this historical moment where the pervasiveness of recording technology is reaching a point like Bentham’s Panopticon… and at the same time, the threat of deepfakes will erode the [power] of recording to regulate our choices” — Regina Rini (York) on deepfakes, surveillance, epistemology, and trust
  4. “Understanding time helps us understand how to assess lives lived within time” — Graeme A. Forbes explains
  5. “The largest-ever cross-cultural natural language analysis of moral values” seeks to learn what morality is for — the study involved the development of a “morality as cooperation” dictionary and the machine-coding of ethnographic accounts of ethics from 256 societies
  6. “Moral change comes from an attention to the world whose natural result is a decrease in egoism through an increased sense of the reality of, primarily, other people, but also other things” — on Iris Murdoch, morality, attention, and “unselfing”
  7. “Shouldn’t it be easy to keep promises to yourself that align with what you think is right?” — The Guardian has an article about akrasia, featuring input from a few philosophers (ancient and contemporary)

Mini-Heap posts usually appear when 7 or so new items accumulate in the Heap of Links, a collection of items from around the web that may be of interest to philosophers.

The Heap of Links consists partly of suggestions from readers; if you find something online that you think would be of interest to the philosophical community, please send it in for consideration for the Heap. Thank you.

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3 months ago

NY Times, “How German Atheists Made America Great Again” by S. C. Gwynne. Review of AN EMANCIPATION OF THE MIND: Radical Philosophy, the War Over Slavery, and the Refounding of America | By Matthew Stewart and THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECOND AMERICAN REPUBLIC: Reconstruction, 1860-1920, by Manisha Sinha (March 26, 2024).

The review of the first book focuses on the influence of Marx and Feuerbach on Lincoln and Douglass.

Patrick S. O'Donnell
3 months ago

I am most grateful for the link to the piece on Iris Murdoch’s moral psychology although it was a bit difficult to read with all the advertising. I have been interested in this material for many years and have been (intermittently) working on a piece that argues for the significance of philosophical and psychological conceptions of “attention” for understanding and exemplifying the aspirational and normative ideals embodied in the “arts of living” in general and the “art of conversation” in particular. In my case, interest in the subject is owing to a perhaps surprisingly fond and lingering memory of the salutary effects of Catholic grade school nuns admonishing me in a raised voice—ruler in hand—to “pay attention!”
First, a few snippets from Murdoch:
“To do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament, and yet at the same time to attempt to discover the truth. It seems to me that there is a void in present day moral philosophy [this was written in 1969]. Areas peripheral to philosophy expand (psychology, political and social theory) or collapse (religion) without philosophy being able in the one case to encounter, and in the other case to rescue, the values involved. A working philosophical psychology which can at least attempt to connect modern psychological terminology with a terminology concerned with virtue. We need a moral philosophy which can speak significantly of Freud and Marx, and out of which aesthetic and political views can be generated. We need a moral philosophy in which the concept of love, so rarely now mentioned by philosophers [in our day, Jonathan Lear, is both a philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a conspicuous exception], can once again be made central.” — Iris Murdoch, from The Anatomy of Knowledge, Marjorie Grene, ed. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969); reprinted in her book, The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge, 1970)
“Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.” — The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970): 91.
“The moral point is that ‘facts’ are set up as such by human (that is moral) agents. Much of our life is taken up by truth-seeking, imagining, questioning. We relate to facts through truth and truthfulness, and come to recognise and discover that there are different modes and levels of insight and understanding. In many familiar ways, various values pervade and colour what we take to be the reality of our world; wherein we constantly evaluate our own values and those of others, and judge and determine forms of consciousness and modes of being. [….]

The moral life is not intermittent or specialised, it is not a peculiar separate area of our existence. [….] Life is made up of details. We compartmentalise it for reasons of convenience, dividing the aesthetic from the moral, the public from the private, work from pleasure. [….] Yet we are all always deploying and directing our energy, refining or blunting it, purifying or corrupting it, and it is always easier to do a thing a second time. ‘Sensibility’ is a word which may be in place here. [….] Happenings in the consciousness so vague as to be almost non-existent can have moral ‘colour.’ All sorts of momentary sensibilities to other people, too shadowy to come under the heading of manners of communication, are still parts of moral activity. [….] [M]uch of our self-awareness is other-awareness, and in this area we exercise ourselves as moral beings in our use of many various skills as we direct our modes of attention.” — Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)
Murdoch’s moral psychology often drew upon (directly or by implication) this idea of “modes of attention” (which are minds can direct both inward and outward) and attentiveness more generally, a topic which has since intrigued more than a few philosophers, psychologists, and psychoanalysts (as well as historians of monasticism!), perhaps not surprising when we consider how “distraction” of one kind or another impinges upon our daily lives so as to make the cultivation of attentiveness an elusive if not rare moral psychological and, yes, epistemic virtue. The idea has a rich conceptual pedigree going back at least to both the Stoics (e.g., prosoche) and the Buddhists (e.g., sati in Pali and smṛti in Sanskrit [स्मृति], literally ‘memory’ or ‘retentiveness’ and today often rendered as ‘mindfulness’ which ‘is crucial to all forms of meditative practice’), as well as Christian monks in the late Roman Empire. Both inward and outward modes of attention are said to lead to sundry virtues: cognitive, spiritual, character, scientific, pedagogic, aesthetic or artistic, and social, for example. Accordingly, we find people from an array of scholarly disciplines and the arts keenly interested in our topic (as ‘the problem of attention’): anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, writers, poets, art historians, monks and nuns as well as lay students of traditional yoga and forms of contemplation and meditation cultivated in monastic traditions and their respective religious worldviews from around our planet. Ours is a conspicuous and ubiquitous ”age of distraction” which, thankfully, has generated a response in the form of a multidisciplinary and sharpened focus on problems intrinsic to and the corresponding nature of, modes of attention: “inward” and “outward,” and on both “particulars” and “big pictures.”
The difficulties associated with “inward” attention can be appreciated with a knowledge of the “spiritual exercises” developed in the monastic traditions of religious worldviews such as Catholicism and Buddhism (a good introduction to same is found in the Cottingham book below), wherein a systematic and arduous training regimen seeks to discipline or harness a wandering or distracted mind, one vivid image of which come from well-known verse from the Buddhist Dhammapada (Ch. 3, 34):

“Like a fish out of water,
Thrown on dry ground,
This mind thrashes about and quivers about from thought-to -thought… “
One encounters the attitude and practice of “attention” in a simultaneously and complementary moral-psychological sense and convivial or sociable form in the European Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters, in which modes of sociability and conversational manners and etiquette effectively governed the salons of the (French) Enlightenment. Suzanne Necker (b. Suzanne Curchod, 1737 – 6 May 1794) was one of the remarkable salonnières of this Republic of Letters. According to Dena Goodman, Madame Necker’s
“seriousness, and that of the salon whose discourse she shaped is revealed most clearly in the concern she displayed in all things for paying attention. The word attention dominates the five-volumes of her journals published after her death by her husband. One must pay attention, she reminded herself repeatedly, not get distracted. Her purpose in life was not to distract men from their serious business but rather to discipline herself and her guests so that that business might be carried out. Her concern was to concentrate her own attention and to focus that of the philosophes (her guests); her intent was to be a serious contributor to the social and intellectual project of Enlightenment through the shaping of its discourse in her salon.”
Goodman selects a handful of examples “drawn from the many instances in which attention occurs in Necker’s journals: (i) Attention allows one to find new ideas in the most common things: one cannot read aloud well without fixing one’s attention; in a word, distraction kills, negates all the intellectual faculties. (ii) One gets used to inattention in letting one’s mind wander when one is alone. (iii) As soon as the attention of men gathered together is distracted for a single moment, one cannot fix it again. (iv) The great secret of conversation is continual attention. (v) Virtue, health, talent, happiness, are the fruits of patience and attention.”
As Goodman points out, the notion of “attention” was not foreign to Enlightenment thought, being central to Condillac’s epistemology (which, apart from his conception of the mind, was radically empiricist and based on a ‘sensationalist’ psychology) and, as intimated in the passage from Prose of the Word, it served, at the very least, as an epistemic virtue for Diderot. The economist and philosophe, André Morellet, “identified attention as the first principle of conversation.” For Necker, “attention” was the centerpiece of what we might christen a secular spiritual praxis or askesis that decisively shaped the “art of living” in general and her governance of the salon in particular. In this instance, a secular spiritual praxis might be viewed in the light of her being raised by a father who was a Calvinist minister, for Necker was simultaneously devoted both to Catholic France and Enlightenment Paris.
According to Goodman, the “ideal woman” of this time and place “was characterized by a lack of [narcissistic?] ego which enabled her to direct her attention to coordinating the egos of the men around her.” The fact that these men required this kind of vigorous group coordination and conversational governance, in other words, enforcement of the rules of polite conversation, speaks volumes about their egos (and the aristocracy) and the corresponding lack of requisite self-discipline needed to properly engage in the type of sophisticated intellectual conversation that salons brought to prominence in the Republic of Letters during the French Enlightenment. It also speaks, at least indirectly, to the “agonistic” character of French pedagogical theory and practice. In the words of Goodman (drawing on the work of Walter Ong): “Since the days of Peter Abelard in the twelfth century, French schools had been steeped in the language of battle.” And this was not peculiar to France: “The primary form the agon took in education of boys and young men from the Middle Ages on was disputation, a form of ceremonial combat.” The salons, in effect, and under the gentle yet firm guidance of Necker and other salonnières, had to counter the deleterious effects of French education on male elites with their steadfast yet subtle enforcement of the informal social norms, manners, and etiquette of polite conversation.
Recommended Reading

  • Brakel, Linda A.W. Unconscious Knowing and Other Essays in Psycho-Philosophical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Burnett, D. Graham and Justin E.H. Smith, eds. Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time, and the Senses (Columbia University Press, 2023).
  • Cassian, John (Jamie Kreiner, trans.) How to Focus: A Monastic Guide for an age of Distraction (Princeton University Press, 2024).
  • Cottingham, John. The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  • Craveri, Benedetta (Teresa Waugh, trans.) The Age of Conversation (The New York Review of Books, 2005).
  • Ganeri, Jonardon. Attention: Not Self (Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Goldgar, Anne. Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680-1750 (Yale University Press, 1995).
  • Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Cornell University Press, 1994).
  • Gordon, Daniel. Citizens Without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociality in French Thought, 1670-1789 (Princeton University Press, 1994).
  • ilman, Ilham. Freud, Insight and Change (Basil Blackwell, 1988).
  • Fiordalis, David V., ed. Buddhist Spiritual Practices: Thinking with Pierre Hadot on Buddhism, Philosophy, and the Path (Mangalam Press, 2018).
  • Ganeri, Jonardon. Attention, Not Self (Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Blackwell, 1995).
  • Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).
  • Kreiner, Jamie. The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction (Liveright Publishing, 2023).   
  • Mole, Christopher, Declan Smithies, and Wayne Wu, eds. Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • Mulhall, Stephen. “Misplacing freedom, displacing the imagination: Cavell and Murdoch on the fact/value distinction,” in Anthony O’Hear, ed., Philosophy: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (Chatto and Windus, 1992).
  • Olberding, Amy. The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2019).
  • Philp, Mark. Radical Conduct: Politics, Sociability and Equality in London, 1789-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
  • Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Books, 2016).
  • Wu, Wayne. Attention (Routledge, 2014).
  • Wu, Wayne. Movements of the Mind: A Theory of Attention, Intention and Action (Oxford University Press, 2023).
Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
3 months ago

I am sorry for the mistakes in the bibliography: out of alphabetical order (Dilman [D is missing in the last name as well], Ganeri…). This is corrected at the slightly different post here: