How Can We Answer for Answerability?, by Hannah Tierney

Measles illustration from The Practical Guide to Health by Frederick M. Rossiter, 1908, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsJenny McCarthy is a celebrity in the United States and a prominent anti-vaccine activist. She is the president of Generation Rescue, a non-profit that advocates the view that autism is at least partially caused by vaccines, and has written several books promoting this view. Since 2007, she’s been featured on several media outlets where she’s been asked to defend her views on the relationship between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. In many of these interviews, it’s clear that those questioning McCarthy are trying to hold her morally responsible for her view by demanding that she justify her position—by holding her answerable. Despite these numerous calls for McCarthy to justify herself, she hasn’t changed her view on vaccines (Although in a 2010 interview with Frontline, McCarthy clarifies the position of her group). In fact, calling on McCarthy to defend herself in the public sphere arguably only serves to legitimize her views and expose them to larger audiences. Though the CDC determined that measles was eliminated in 2000, due in large part to an increase in the refusal to vaccinate, a record number of measles cases were reported in 2014. If we think that McCarthy’s position on vaccines is incorrect and her advocacy of the position is blameworthy, how can we hold her responsible for her behavior without reinforcing the very behavior we find blam

Cases like these pose a problem for philosophers who work on moral responsibility. Following the work of T. M. Scanlon, many philosophers argue that there is a relationship between moral responsibility and answerability—the demand for justification. Of course, philosophers have argued about how exactly responsibility and answerability relate to each other. But both those who argue that moral responsibility should be identified with answerability (Smith 2012) and those who argue that answerability only captures one facet of moral responsibility (Shoemaker 2011) face a problem.

In many cases, when we attempt to hold someone morally responsible for an action by demanding that they answer for their behavior, the person, rather than see the error in their ways, can become even more confident in their reasons for action and refuse to alter their behavior. This can have quite damaging effects when the behavior in question is dangerous, violent, or qualifies as a public health risk. Such cases place those who defend the relationship between moral responsibility and answerability in a precarious position. If the very means by which we hold people responsible for blameworthy behavior only serves to worsen that blameworthy behavior, then it’s hard to see why we should hold people morally responsible in the first place. And, if the answerability account of moral responsibility can’t easily be operationalized, then perhaps we should look for another theory of moral responsibility. Though those who defend the answerability account have remained relatively silent on how to successfully hold an agent answerable, the behavioral sciences can help address this question. By developing an account of answerability that is informed by this research, answerability theorists can shield themselves from the worry that their view can never be successfully operationalized.

The case of Jenny McCarthy is not an isolated incident. Objecting to people’s beliefs is notoriously ineffective in changing those beliefs. Confirmation bias (Lord et al. 1979)—the tendency to accept evidence that supports one’s previously held beliefs and discount evidence that doesn’t—is a robust phenomena that has been found in a wide variety of contexts. The backfire effect is perhaps even more pernicious, indicating that when given evidence against a belief, people will reject the evidence and hold the original belief even more strongly (Nyhan & Reifler 2010). Asking people to give their reasons for their beliefs is also unsuccessful when it comes to changing their beliefs (Fernbach 2013). But if neither objecting to people’s views nor asking them to provide their reasons causes them to see the error in their ways, how are we to successfully hold people answerable? Is answerability a misguided account of moral responsibility?

Those who defend an answerability account of moral responsibility, whether they think answerability just is moral responsibility or answerability captures only a facet of moral responsibility, remain vague about how we can successfully hold people answerable. Angela Smith argues: “In my view, to say that an agent is morally responsible for some thing is to say that the agent is open, in principle, to demands for justification regarding that thing” (Smith 2012, 578). But we can demand justification in many different ways, and we can do so more or less successfully.  Though asking an agent to respond to arguments against her view or asking her to list her reasons are demands for justification, they are largely ineffective when it comes to getting agents to jettison morally problematic beliefs and curbing morally blameworthy behavior. Are there more effective ways to demand justification from moral agents? This is a question that the behavioral sciences can help illuminate.

One recent study indicates that asking people to explain their beliefs and the policies they endorse is more effective at reigning in extreme beliefs than asking people to respond to objections to their views or listing their reasons for their beliefs (Fernbach 2013). In particular, getting participants to explain the causal mechanisms at play in the political policies they endorse undermines the illusion of deep understanding many participants felt, which makes it more likely for participants to adopt less extreme policy beliefs. Fernbach and his collaborators also found that the call for explanation made it less likely for participants to donate money to organizations that supported their previously held political positions. Not only did the demand for explanation reign in extreme beliefs, it also played a role in changing participants’ behavior.

Answerability theorists may be right that holding people morally responsible should involve a demand for justification. But how we demand justification matters when it comes to altering people’s morally blameworthy beliefs and behavior. Thus, answerability theorists should focus on developing operational views of answerability, which are informed by the behavioral sciences.

~ Hannah Tierney is a Ph.D candidate in the Philosophy program at the University of Arizona. She has broad philosophical interests, but writes mainly on issues of moral responsibility, personal identity, and the self, and is also interested in experimental philosophy and cognitive science

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Works Cited

Fernbach, P., T. Rogers, C. Fox, and S. Sloman. 2013. Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science 24: 939-946.

Lord, C., L. Ross, and M. Lepper. 1979. Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The

effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 2098-2109.

Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. 2010. When corrections fail: The persistence of political

misperception. Political Behavior 32: 303-330.

Scanlon, T. M.  2008. Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame. Cambridge, MA: Belknap

Press of Harvard University Press.

Shoemaker, D. 2011. Attributability, answerability, and accountability: Toward a wider

theory of moral responsibility. Ethics 121: 602-632.

Smith, A. 2012. Attributability, answerability, and accountability: In defense of a unified

account. Ethics 122: 575-589.

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass New Bedford, Massachusetts Sites

Nathan and Polly Johnson House (and adjoining) at 21 Seventh St, New Bedford MA, 2016 Amy Cools

Nathan and Polly Johnson House (and adjoining) at 21 Seventh St, New Bedford MA, 2016 Amy Cools

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Fifth Day 5, Thursday March 24th

When I arrive in the old whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, it’s overcast and very chilly. I had so enjoyed the respite from the cold in New York City’s balmy weather I was already a little spoiled. But I’m wearing lots of wool and my shearling boots, so I think I’m prepared. I start with the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park visitor center, run by the National Park Service. Several of the town’s buildings of historical interest are also preserved by the NPS, including one of particular interest for my journey today. The visitor center is housed in the Old Third District Courthouse constructed in 1835, a handsome Greek Revival building.

I’m assisted by the kind and knowledgeable Diane Altman Berube, and when I describe the purpose of my trip, she immediately supplies me with information, advice, a map, some pamphlets about Frederick Douglass, the town’s Underground Railroad and abolitionist history (a strong one!), and another about the 54th Regiment of the Union Army and an accompanying collection of cards, like baseball cards, with images and stories of men involved…

… Read the original account here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass New York City Sites

230 and 232 W. 135th St, Harlem, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

230 and 232 W. 135th St, Harlem, New York City

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Fourth Day, Wednesday March 23rd

I arrived yesterday afternoon in New York City and had a good hangout with my friend with whom I’m staying (thanks, Devin!).

After doing more research and mapping out today’s journey, I head to my first destination. I take the subway to lower Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge stop, zigzag my way southeast to Wall and William Streets, then down to S. William St. Wall Street was the northern border of the city when it was still young, so I decide it’s as good a way as any to get a feel for the old city, though really, the truly old intact buildings in NYC are scattered, and few. I’m only looking back to the 1830’s for this trip, but as you may know or may remember from my earlier series on Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, this city has a long history of tearing everything down regularly and starting fresh…

… Read the original account here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Havre de Grace and Philadelphia Sites

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Old City Philadelphia

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Old City Philadelphia

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Third day, Tuesday March 22nd

I head north, the direction of freedom for the American slave of the antebellum south. Spoiler alert: so did Frederick Douglass! To his and all of our great benefit, he took his life and whatever fortunes he could hope to enjoy in Maryland into his own hands, and made his risky bid for freedom in September 1838 at age 20.

Douglass was a particularly clever young man, and by this time, had educated himself to an impressive degree for anyone his age, let alone one who had to get his learning on the sly while working more than full time. He had honed his skills, become more resourceful, and gained a wider circle of friends, and he counted on all of these to make this attempt more successful than the first…

… Read the original account here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On Martyrdom

Memorial at Ben Gurion High school in Afula for students murdered in a suicide bombing in April 1994, by Almog (cropped), public domain via Wikimedia CommonsThe school shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College on October 1st, 2015 ended with nine dead and many more injured. The shootings may have been religiously motivated: according to some reports, the gunman commanded some of the students to stand up, asked if they were Christian, and when they responded ‘yes’, he shot them down.

Some have praised these murder victims as Christian martyrs dying for their faith. In one sense, it’s a plausible, and in any sense, an understandable interpretation of what happened: the gunman shot them down after they responded ‘Yes’ to his question ‘Are you a Christian?’ Other survivors tell the story a little differently. In any case, the martyr interpretation is tricky: if it did happen as described above, the murder victims wouldn’t have known ahead of time whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was the right answer, as at least one survivor pointed out. Though they may have intended to defy death rather than deny their faith, they could instead have thought that the truthful answer of ‘yes’ would save them from death. Sadly, we can never really know.

I’ve found myself discomfited at the way many have used the horrific murders at Umpqua as a vindication of their own world view, often by portraying it as a tale of heroic martyrdom triumphing over evil. The account of the shooting itself is a very important story to tell: it’s one in a series of so many others in our country and around the world where disturbed young men channel their obsessions and their rage through the barrel of a gun and into the bodies of other people. There are so many similarities between the circumstances and motivations of the shooters that we have no choice, if we’re honest, but to acknowledge there’s a serious problem. We’ve seen too many times that maleness, youth, ideological extremism, mental disturbance, social alienation, and obsession with guns are a deadly mix. But when examples of mass killings and terrorism such as the Umpqua shooting are recast as tales of martyrdom, the motivation they should inspire in us, to do all we can to stop the killing, can for others become lost in the romanticism of idealized self-sacrifice.

Detail of a miniature of the burning of the Grand Master of the Templars and another Templar. From the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThat’s because we’re still under the influence of a very old, even primal idea: that death is rendered not only glorious but a worthy goal if it’s for a cause. Nearly all ideologies and belief systems still prize their martyrs, and we see, worryingly, the resurgence of this idea in some parts of the world are leading to ever more deadly results. Martyrdom has long been such a potent symbol of belief and an effective recruitment tool that if there aren’t any genuine ones to hold up for emulation, it’s a sure bet some will be created. The Umpqua tragedy may be an example of this, of recasting the horrific murder of innocent people as a romantic tale of holy self-immolation in defiance of evil personified. The memory of the lives of the innocents who died there, and the heroism of those who risked themselves to protect others from harm, can become lost in the ideological rhetoric.

But what of beautiful, inspiring, authentic examples of martyrdom? How about Father Damien of Hawaii’s Molokai Island, who ministered to the leper colony quarantined there until he died from contracting the disease himself? How about Quảng Đức, who immolated himself in protest of the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists? How about Joan of Arc (who’s long been an subject of my admiration and fascination), who was executed for refusing to betray her own beliefs about her mission to deliver the French from English rule? How about countless soldiers who have thrown themselves on mines and grenades and dashed through enemy fire to save innocent civilians and their comrades in arms? There are so many moving accounts of people who suffer and die because they will not compromise or allow themselves to speak or act otherwise than their sense of self and honor will allow. I, too, am deeply moved by the beauty and strength of their courage.

Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy CoolsYet I am simultaneously wary of glorifying these cases of martyrdom for martyrdom’s sake, even when the circumstances of deaths such as these appear most moving, most noble, and most beautiful. That’s because I can’t forget, and I believe none of us can afford to forget, that what makes death or suffering count as martyrdom depends entirely on your frame of reference. My martyr may be your heretic; your martyr may be my traitor who deserved death; my martyr may be the holy warrior who attacked your corrupt and sinful country in the name of all that’s holy and your deadly foe it’s your patriotic duty to destroy. Martyrdom of this sort, understood as the ultimate sacrifice of the death-defying, uncompromising champion of the ultimate good, knows no side and every side. Every side claims their own, and every side who has martyrs to claim (creating them if necessary) treats them as their trump card, the ultimate demonstration of the rightness and superiority of their own beliefs. There’s Father Damien, and there are kamikaze pilots. There’s Quảng Đức, and there are suicide bombers. There’s Joan of Arc, and there are Crusaders, jihadists, those who carried out pogroms, and youth who still flock every day to join the ranks of ISIS and fight to deliver sacred territory from the hated infidels.

But surely there’s a distinction between those whose form of martyrdom imposes death and suffering on others, and those who choose suffering and death for themselves alone?

Kamikaze attack left HMS Formidable burning, 1945, by Royal Navy photographer aboard HMS Victorious (cropped), public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBut here’s the problem: if it’s okay to sacrifice one person, even if that person is one’s own self, then it’s more than just a slippery slope to thinking it’s okay to sacrifice others. As we can see in such cases as kamikaze pilots, crusaders, holy warriors, and suicide bombers, the glorification of martyrdom has always had the unfortunate tendency to inspire willingness to sacrifice others along with ourselves. After all, if it’s good to sacrifice one person for the greater good, isn’t it at least as good or even better to sacrifice more people? But self-inflicted martyrdom which simultaneously kills others is generally not driven by this sort of calculation, of each side just upping the ante. When we consider martyrdom, we must also consider the ideologies and belief systems that inspire or at least allow for it. And nearly all not only involve a belief in an afterlife, they believe this world is merely a proving ground for that afterlife, so death counts for little in comparison to eternity. Furthermore, most ideologies and faiths who glorify martyrdom base their beliefs on sacred books in which holy war and violent destruction of the nonbeliever, the godless, the idolator, and the infidel is celebrated as much or even more than personal martyrdom. In the end, we end up with the same old world full of mutually hostile martyr/holy warrior belief systems that have led to centuries of violent religious and ideological conflict and ethnic cleansing.

Martyrdom of Four Crowned Martyrs by Mario Minniti, San Pietro dal Carmine, at Siracusa, Sicily, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsAnd who’s to say who’s right? Which religion, which ideology has the correct view of martyrdom? Which, if any, can be demonstrated to inspire true martyrdom, to the exclusion of others? Bertrand Russell, philosopher and ardent pacifist, is often quoted as saying ‘I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong’. Many have described this as cynical or revealing a weakness of character, an inability to form convictions. I think a more fair and charitable interpretation is that Russell believed everyone should practice proper epistemic humility. Especially when it comes to such a momentous question as preserving human life, our own and others: we should do so whenever possible, since whatever our other beliefs, we can all readily demonstrate, whatever our other beliefs, that other human beings suffer grief when we die and that we can surely help others when we’re around to do so. It’s far more difficult to demonstrate, for example, that God likes it even better when we die in his name or that we can help those on earth from beyond the grave, as believers in intercessory prayer or spiritualists hold. Better all around, when it comes to our safety as well as our chances of not believing in things that are terribly wrong, when we’re accountable to one another for the larger consequences of our beliefs.

But how if we take religion and ideology out of it, and consider only those cases where the martyr’s entire cause is the well-being of others? Even in these cases, the problem is a simple matter of justice: it’s difficult to see how one can truly believe that all persons have equal rights and dignity and are therefore deserving of care, and still believe it’s okay to sacrifice one’s own well-being when that sacrifice can be avoided. There are times in which it can’t be: the example of heroic soldiers throwing themselves on grenades to save others comes to mind as a paradigm example of justifiable self-sacrifice, since equal concern for all logically allows for sacrificing one’s self to save many. Others are not so clear: Father Damien was clearly motivated by a noble desire to help his fellow human beings as he ministered to the exiled lepers at Molokai. He made it a point to embrace and kiss the lesions of patients to show a Christlike love, but the ideology of martyrdom that also drove him may have robbed him of an even better opportunity, the opportunity to show that love to more of his fellow human beings by keeping himself alive to serve them. If he had taken reasonable precautions to care for his own well-being and avoid contracting the disease, known in his time to be contagious, he likely would have lived much longer to serve the people who loved and counted on him; kissing of lesions and other reckless exposure to contagion is not an unavoidable requirement for showing our deep concern for others. Martyrdom, though it may not be apparent, involves at least to some degree the inequitable valuing of the lives of persons, at the very least our own.

And this leads us to consider whether martyrdom is really the ultimate altruistic, selfless act it’s so often characterized to be. It’s hard to see how there can be such a thing as truly selfless martyrdom in a world in which human lives are so intertwined. Through death, parents are deprived of a child, children of a parent, siblings of a sibling, friends of a friend, citizens of a fellow citizen, the needy of a benefactor, the world of a unique life that has something to offer. It seems to me, then, our lives are not fully our own: they are given to us by others, are largely sustained by the efforts of others, and provide emotional support for others, and vice versa. There is no human being that doesn’t rely on the support and contributions of others to sustain it and make it secure and happy. As in the case of Father Damien, when we choose death over life, we remove ourselves from the human community of inter-reliance we all belong to. I’m speaking here in the worldly sense; according to many religions, we can help others after death by interceding with God or by providing personal supernatural guidance, such as in spiritualist beliefs. But as we’ve already considered, this view of martyrdom as a holy thing is hard to justify consistently, and even worse, it necessarily values supernatural concerns over worldly ones, allowing for the same disdain for life that underlies all forms of martyrdom, from the self-sacrificer to the jihadist. So even when it appears that a martyr is sacrificing nothing but their own life and happiness, this is rarely if ever the case. And if this is so, our right to sacrifice our own life and well-being appears very tenuous in all but those very special circumstances, such as the case of those grenade-blocking soldiers who can’t help others unless they risk themselves.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Human Rights Declaration, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn a world where religiously-, politically-, and ideologically-motivated terrorism and mass shootings are again on the rise, we need to let go of our old cherished ideal of martyrdom as the ultimate holy and noble act. If we want to instill in ourselves and others the value that all lives matter, the glorification of any kind of martyrdom appears as toxic to this as the old belief in the curative powers of bleeding and purging was to health. This seems like a call for rejecting our long-loved heroes, our Joans and Quảngs and Damiens, but I don’t believe it is. We have a robust capacity for understanding that context matters, and just as we can believe George Washington’s doctors did their best to cure him the only (turns out wrong) way they knew how, we can simultaneously revere the courage and conviction of martyrs of the past while believing that in the age of universal human rights and ethics of care, martyrdom is the wrong way to go and should not be glorified, praised, or used as evidence of the superiority of our own beliefs over others.

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

The Death of George Washington‘, The George Washington Digital Encyclopedia

Father Damien‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Sidner, Sara and Kyung Lah, Steve Almasy and Ralph Ellis. ‘Oregon Shooting: Gunman was Student in Class Where He Killed 9’. CNN (online), October 2, 2015. 

‘The “Werther-effect”: Legend or Reality?’ (abstract). Neuropsychiatr. 2007;21(4):284-90. Source:

Turkewitz, Julie. ‘Oregon Gunman Smiled, Then Fired, Student Says’
The New York Times (0nline), Oct. 9, 2015

Vanderhart, Dirk and Kirk Johnson and Julie Turkewitz. ‘Oregon Shooting at Umpqua College Kills 10, Sheriff Says’, The New York Times (0nline), Oct. 1, 2015.

O.P. Recommends: Ordinary Language Philosophy, by Melvin Bragg and Guests

Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnism, Pencil on board 1985, Creative Commons via Wikimedia CommonsFrom time to time, like anyone who publishes online, I do an online search for ‘Ordinary Philosophy’ to see what comes up. Without fail, the first results are a list of articles and discussions on ordinary language philosophy. It recently occurred to me that I should discuss ordinary language philosophy with my readers, not only because it’s such an interesting and influential school of philosophical thought, but because it likely influenced the name ‘Ordinary Philosophy’. I say ‘likely’ because, though I have no memory of having ordinary language philosophy on my mind at the time, my familiarity and interest with it no doubt kept the phrase stored in my mind, easily recalled through some sort of unconscious word association.

This school of thought holds that problems and contradictions in philosophy arise chiefly through confusing language as actually used in everyday discourse with technical language, or terms abstracted from ordinary usage and understood to have discrete, consistent definitions. A ready example is eternity. What is eternity?  What do we mean by ‘eternity’? Are these two questions asking the same thing in different ways or are they actually asking two different questions? If, for example, we understand eternity to mean an infinite duration of time, how does this make sense if we know time to have at least one defining boundary, its beginning at the big bang? Do we mean just one thing when we talk about eternity, as in the example of religious doctrines which hold that all souls have eternal life, or does it have a variety of very different but equally valid meanings, such as in this example of a common usage ‘this water is taking an eternity to boil’. If eternity has only has one or a limited set of valid meanings, why is/are these meaning(s) valid and not others?

The brilliant Melvin Bragg, author and radio host and documentarian par excellence (his video series on the history of the English language The Adventure of English is among my very favorite documentary series) discusses ordinary language philosophy with philosophers Stephen Mulhall, Ray Monk, and Julia Tanney on his program In Our Time on BBC’s Radio 4. This discussion is comprehensive and very interesting, and there are few hosts better than Bragg at keeping the discussion clear, orderly, and comprehensive. He makes sure to require his interviewees to define and clarify their terms and provide the necessary background before getting too technical. However, if you happen to find the tone and style of academic discourse rather dry, this discussion may be a little hard to listen to with full attention all the way through. Still, I think it an excellent introduction to ordinary language philosophy, and I’ve included a short list of links below of other very helpful resources for better understanding this interesting and important school of thought.

After all, there are many ways we actually express the same ideas, and some are more effective than others at promoting understanding depending on the listener. So, while some might prefer Bragg’s style of moderated academic discussion, others might find Sally Parker-Ryan’s entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy much more clear and enjoyable to read. The variety of ways we express and understand things is among the very problems that ordinary language philosophy may be particularly helpful in figuring out.


Sources and inspiration:c

Blackburn, Simon. ‘Philosophy of Language: Ordinary Language Philosophy‘. Encyclopædia Britannica

Bragg, Melvin, Stephen Mulhall, Ray Monk, and Julia Tanney.’Ordinary Language Philosophy‘. In Our Time, BBC Radio 4

Magee, Bryan and John Searle. ‘John Searle on Ludwig Wittgenstein‘ video series.

Parker-Ryan, Sally. ‘Ordinary Language Philosophy‘. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass’s Birthplace, Easton, and St Michaels, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites

Easton, MD on a bright spring morning in March, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Easton, MD on a bright spring morning in March

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Second day, Monday March 21st

I wake up early, and make my way to Maryland’s east shore, looking forward to a beautiful day in the country. It’s windy and very cold, but clear and sunny. I head for downtown Easton: the route from there to my first destination is easiest to follow for a non-local like me. And I can use all the help I can get: this will be the first site I visit in any of my history travels where I will rely both on maps that predate the turn of the 20th century and natural landmarks to locate it.

… Read the original travel account here and here (originally published in two installments)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Frederick Douglass Boston Sites

Phillips Street sign, where I begin my Frederick Douglass Boston journey, 2016 Amy Cools

I commence my Frederick Douglas Boston journey on Phillips St, and long for my bike. Mine is blue with upright bars for better sightseeing. Sigghhh.

Sixth Day, Friday March 25th

As I’m quick to discover, parking is at a premium in central Boston and its environs. I’ve decided not to pay the high garage rates and stick with metered parking (reasonably priced but harder to find). It’s to be expected in an awesome, busy, historically important city, of course, just be prepared! It’s such a handsome city, so much to look at, and I long for my bike: fleet, nimble, with uninterrupted view, parkable anywhere there’s a pole. At times such as this, a car feels like little but an expensive burden.

Frederick Douglass never did live here in Boston, but this city has many connections with his life: he and his family lived just a few miles north of here in Lynn from 1841-47. Douglass visited, worked, and spoke here often, and the Boston Anti-Slavery Society published his Narrative which, combined with his speaking tour of the British Isles and the United States that followed, catapulted him to fame and made him the leading African American abolitionist of his time.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published by Boston Anti-Slavery Society, image L.O.C.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published by Boston Anti-Slavery Society, image: Library of Congress. It was published on Cornhill St which no longer exists, but I passed near its old location while walking through City Hall Plaza

As I discussed an earlier piece on Frederick Douglass and the Constitution, Douglass had a falling-out over time with the abolitionist movement of William Lloyd Garrison in the early 1850’s. The Garrisonians rejected the Constitution as a pro-slavery document and as a result, considered the government unjust and therefore illegitimate; Douglass came to believe that the Constitution, if interpreted correctly, is an anti-slavery document, and the government must be reclaimed from its pro-slavery element by seizing power through political channels if possible, through violence if necessary. The advent of the Civil War changed everything; in the face of this monumental upheaval and national crisis, political and theoretical disagreements no longer seemed so important. (Douglass demonstrates, to my mind, that one can be fully both a fiery revolutionary and a pragmatist.)

In November of 1861, the Emancipation League organized in Boston, where Douglass, the followers of Gerrit Smith (who influenced Douglass to reexamine the way he interpreted the Constitution) and the Garrisonian abolitionists formally reconciled so they could rally and unite their efforts in the cause of the Civil War cause for national union and the end of slavery. Try as I might, I’m unable to locate any exact addresses where they assembled, though I find many newspaper accounts from the time announcing their meetings and relating their activities in Boston and elsewhere. These activities included petitioning the Senate to commence emancipation efforts in earnest.

From the Daily National Republican, January 12, 1863 2nd Ed, from Chronicling America, Library of Congress

From the Daily National Republican, January 12, 1863 2nd edition from Chronicling America, Library of Congress

I begin my day’s journey by heading up Beacon Hill, where many of Boston’s abolitionists and black people settled, to 43-47 Phillips St, one block north of Cambridge between Grove and Anderson. I start here for efficiency’s sake since it’s right up the way from the coffee shop where I’m marking out my map with some new details I’ve just learned. However, it doesn’t make sense to start my story here since what happens at this site is the second part of a two-part event, so I’ll tell you about it shortly.

Museum of Afro-American History and African Meeting House, Boston Massachusetts

Museum of Afro-American History in front of the African Meeting House, Beacon Hill, Smith Ct, Boston

African Meeting House on Beacon Hill in Boston, MA

African Meeting House, the oldest black church in America

Then I head east on Phillips, turn right (south) on Irving, left on Myrtle, left on Joy, to Smith Court which heads off to the left from Joy St between Cambridge and Myrtle. The African Meeting House stands at the end of Smith Court just behind the Museum of Afro-American History at 46 Joy St. The Meeting House was built in 1806 ‘…to house the first African Baptist Church of Boston (a.k.a. First Independent Baptist Church) and it is now the oldest extant black church building in America’ according to the National Park Service, which maintains it and many other Black Heritage sites here on Beacon Hill. Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Sarah Grimke all spoke here at the African Meeting House, and for those in this list of people I haven’t talked about yet in my account, they will feature later on. There’s a guided tour you can take in season (I’m here too early in the year for that) or the self guided tour. I wish I had another day to visit all the site, including the guided tour of the Meeting house which is actually available today but I’d have to wait till the next available time (which, sadly, I run out of). Next time I’m in Boston…!

There are a great few things about traveling to historical places in the off-season: the crowds are light and you can get better pictures, it’s cheaper to fly, and it’s a bit easier to park (the fact that I can hope to find street parking at all is pretty good, and I didn’t get a ticket either time my meter expired). But, the weather can be iffy, the trees are bare, and some places are closed or have very limited hours. So, you have to decide if the trade-offs are worth it.54th Regiment Memorial, Boston Common, 2016 by Amy Cools

Two closeups of the 54th Regiment Memorial at Boston Common. What determination revealed in these sculpted faces!

Two closeups of the 54th Regiment Memorial at Boston Common. What determination is expressed in these sculpted faces!

Then I turn back and head south to Boston Common, to the 54th Regiment Memorial on Beacon St at Park, near the park’s northeast corner. On May 28 1863, the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment of 1000 troops marched triumphantly into Boston Common. It was the first black regiment to be raised in the North. As discussed in my post from yesterday’s travels to New Bedford, Douglass was instrumental in the fight to get Abraham Lincoln to authorize and federally fund black troops’ enlistment in the Union Army, and Douglass’ two sons Lewis and Charles enlisted to fight in this regiment. What a proud papa he certainly was!

Plaque honoring Crispus Attucks, at Philadelphia's African American Museum

Plaque honoring Crispus Attucks, at Philadelphia’s African American Museum

The 54th Regiment continued their march from Boston Common on to Battery Wharf (which I will also do soon), passing the site of the Boston Massacre. That incident, where a colonial mob dared British guards to fire on them until they did, happened outside of the Old State House, at Congress, Court, and Washington Sts. (John Adams successfully defended most of the British soldiers. Though he was as ardent a patriot as you could find, he was also a man of high integrity and made the legally sound argument and fair point that if a large mob attacks a small number of armed guards, they are duty bound to defend themselves, whatever side they’re on. Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American ancestry, was mortally wounded in that scuffle 0n March 5th, 1770, and is often regarded as the first American casualty of the American Revolution. When I passed by Philadelphia’s African American Museum a few days ago, I snapped a photo of his memorial plaque there, knowing I would soon visit the site of his death.

The Old State House, Boston Massachusetts

The Old State House in Boston Massachusetts, site of the Boston Massacre and of debates over whether the colonies should rebel against Britain

Back to the story of the 54th Regiment: Douglass was also active in recruiting efforts, believing that enlistment in the Union army, made possible by the Emancipation Proclamation, would give black people their chance to prove themselves as the strong, brave, patriotic, true Americans he knew them to be, and their participation in the war would establish their full right to citizenship once and for all. Unfortunately, black soldiers faced unfair and degrading treatment in the Union Army: lower pay than whites, less weapons and equipment, no chances for promotion, assigned the most dangerous and menial jobs, and so on. Many black soldiers, joined by the 54th’s white commander and son of wealthy Boston abolitionists Robert Gould Shaw, refused pay until it was equal, which was granted the next year. The South also imposed terrible penalties for captured black Union soldiers and anyone leading them: immediate execution, same as for insurrectionists. To his great credit, Shaw accepted no pay and braved the same risk of execution along with the rest of his regiment. In response to the poor treatment of black soldiers, Douglass stopped recruiting for awhile.

Tremont Temple (on the right), Boston, Massachusetts

Tremont Temple, the very ornamental building on the right, Boston, Massachusetts

Tremont Temple Plaque, Boston Massachusetts

Then I wind my way east of Boston Common to 88 Tremont St, between Bosworth and School, to Tremont Temple. From December 31st, 1862 through the next day’s New Year holiday, Union Progressive Association and about 3,000 attendees, abolitionists, and human rights advocates gathered to greet the official announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Douglass spoke at this event.

Tremont Temple doorway, 'First Integrated Church in America'

Tremont Temple doorway, ‘First Integrated Church in America’

Douglass had spoken here before, and at one time was roughed up when the recent election of Abraham Lincoln inflamed pro-slavery violence against abolitionists, even in relatively anti-slavery Boston. The Temple structure now here dates to 1896, replacing the original 1827 fire-damaged, much smaller building. Many years later, in 1893 (still in the old building), Douglass’s friend and inspiration Ida B. Wells delivered a lecture on lynching here at Tremont Temple; as discussed in my account of following Douglass in NYC, she inspired his anti-lynching activism later in life.

After the Union Progressive Association’s celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, the party left Tremont Temple, since it closed at midnight, and moved the meeting to Twelfth Baptist Church. After fighting, working, and hoping for such a proclamation for so long, the party was not to end anytime soon, not until the wee hours at least.

43-47 Phillips St, former site of Twelfth St Baptist Church in Boston, photo 2016 Amy Cools

43-47 Phillips St, former site of Twelfth St Baptist Church in Boston

I’ll backstep a bit here: remember the first site I visited today, on Phillips Street? That’s where the Twelfth Baptist Church (where the Emancipation Proclamation celebration continued) used to stand, founded by former congregants of the African Meeting House, at number 43-47 Phillips St, a little over a half mile away on the other side of Beacon Hill.

Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Then I head a little less than half a mile away in (kind of) the opposite direction of the Phillips St church site to Faneuil Hall at 1 Faneuil Square, where the body of Wendell Phillips lay in state in on February 6th 1884, after his funeral in the Hollis Street Church (more on this shortly, in fact, it’s the last story of the day and the most exciting as a traveling history nerd… ahem, enthusiast seeking a hard-to-find site). Phillips was another great human rights activist, writing in support of women’s civil rights including the right to the ballot box, in an article he published about two years before Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously introduced this same resolution at the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls (we’ll be returning to this story in an upcoming piece). In his Life and Times, Douglass referred to the great abolitionist and reformer Phillip’s eloquence as ‘word painting’, an art which he had performed in life previously in this same hall.

A view from Battery Wharf, now used by the Coast Guard

A view from Battery Wharf, now used by the Coast Guard

Battery Wharf plaque maps, detail

Battery Wharf plaque maps, detail

Battery Wharf office building, Boston MA, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Battery Wharf office building

Then after moving the car (again!) I head to Battery Wharf, where, as I described earlier, the 54th Infantry Regiment continued their triumphal march to the sea on May 28th, 1863, to travel by steamship to South Carolina. Seven weeks later, about a quarter of their number and their commander Shaw died in a bold and bloody assault on Fort Wagner. Though that battle was lost, the heroic example of these soldiers inspired many others to enlist, and Shaw’s body remained buried in a common grave with many of his soldiers. The Confederates who buried Shaw this way saw it as an insult, since officers were generally accorded their own burial with special honors, even by the enemy. Shaw’s abolitionist family and the soldiers inspired to join by the Fort Wagner fight, however, thought this manner of burial a great honor, and a testament to his courage as a soldier and his devotion to his men and the cause of human rights.

Tremont at Stuart, approaching the Citi Performing Arts Center, 2016 by Amy Cools

Tremont St at Stuart, approaching the Citi Performing Arts Center

I make the long walk south and a bit east, about a mile and a half, to the Citi Performing Arts Center. I’m seeking the site of the old Hollis Street Unitarian Church, where Wendell Phillips’ funeral took place prior to his lying in state at Faneuil Hall. This site took me far longer than any other site to find. I had scoured through old newspapers and finally discovered that his funeral was at ‘Hollis-street chapel’, certainly Hollis Street Unitarian Church, according to a Feb 16th 1884 edition of Washington D.C.’s The Bee. I found the entry in Chronicling America, an absolutely invaluable online resource for the history enthusiast on the go, an archive of old newspapers hosted on the Library of Congress website. (When fact-checking later, I find a secondary source that confirms this, based on another newspaper in an archive available only through a paid subscription.

Ye Wilbur Theater (left) and Wang Theater at Citi Performing Arts Center (right)

Ye Wilbur Theater (left) and Wang Theater at Citi Performing Arts Center (right)

To continue the story of Wendell Phillips’ funeral, which Douglass attended on February 56th, 1884… He was not alone: he was accompanied by his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, who he had married just that January. Helen was white, and even many of their closest friends and family couldn’t deal this fact, as we’ll discover more about later in this series. Even at this church packed with Phillips’ and Douglass’ most progressive, ardent, life-long abolitionists and human rights activists, no one would dare to be the first to sit next to them until… who other than the most beloved author of my youth, Louisa May Alcott. Alcott’s show of friendship and solidarity warms the deepest parts of my heart. I read every single Alcott novel I could get my hands on throughout my girl- and young adult-hood, over and over again. As it was and still is for so many young people, especially girls and women in the English speaking world, she was one of my primary early influences, one who helped set my moral compass more than just about anyone or anything else.

Wang Theater back end, along alley off Tremont St

A rear side view of Wang Theater along the alley off Tremont St

I expect to find little here today, since the history of the church reveals it’s no longer standing, but I made the trip and spend some time poking around anyway. Because that moment at Phillips’ funeral is so beautiful to me, I’m doing to dig deep. Clearly, from the name, the church was on Hollis St; trouble is, there’s no longer a Hollis Street according to Google Maps, the print maps I have with me, or anywhere else online. Poring over old city atlases earlier today, I at last discovered where Hollis Street used to be. It seems that stood about where the Tremont St garage is now, just south of the historic and grand Wang Theatre of the Citi Arts Center and Tufts Health Sciences campus behind it. More specifically, Hollis St used to connect Tremont and Washington Streets halfway between Kneeland and Oak.

I also discover that Hollis Street Church became Hollis Street Theater in 1885, after the congregation moved to a more spacious location the year after the funeral. I poke around, and walk up and down the walkway between the Wang Theater and the garage. Could the Wang Theater be standing on the site of the old Hollis St Theater? I notice that the front of the Wang Building differs in motifs and materials than the wide of the building. It occurs to me that possibly, a building already standing here may have been incorporated into the Wang Theater. Could there be remnants here of the old Hollis Theater, once the old Hollis Street Unitarian Church where the funeral was held? In researching the history of the Wang Theater, formerly the Metropolitan Theater, I find no evidence of this; by all accounts this grand theater was built entirely in 1925, and the photos of the old Hollis Street Church show a very different looking structure, though looking at the half-windowed bottom parts of the two buildings (see photo below and at the end of this piece), there are some similarities. Too bad, that would have been a great find!

Wang Theater on Tremont St, side facing alley, showing contrast between marble front and brick back sections of the building

Wang Theater on Tremont St, side facing alley, showing contrast between marble front and brick back sections of the building. As you can see, this side is undergoing some restoration work

But in a moment of good luck, as I’m scanning the building and the area surrounding it for any evidence of older structures, I spot something among the scaffolding that wraps around the front and south sides of the Wang Theater as its south end it undergoing some maintenance. Near the corner of the building are old brass letters which spell out ‘Tremont St’ on its west side and ‘…ollis St’ on the south. My heart skips a beat. Here it is: confirmation that this is where Hollis St was.

Wang Theatre's south side with scaffolding, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Wang Theater's southwest corner revealing where Hollis St used to be, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Wang Theater’s southwest corner revealing where Hollis St used to be

Hollis Street Church from the northeast, 1870, image public domain via Library of Congress

Hollis Street Church from the northeast, 1870, photo public domain via Library of Congress

We can see what the church looked like inside from an old photo I found onlineBut more importantly for my purposes here, the Library of Congress has a photo of the church ‘taken from the Northeast’. If that description is right, then it seems that the church stood not where the Wang Theater does but across from it, somewhere under where the Tremont St. Garage stands now, with its side facing Hollis (as you can see, it opens onto a square rather than the street) with its steepled front facing towards but not onto Washington St, and its back to Tremont.

This last discovery, successfully triangulating the location where this beautiful moment of true friendship, of love and sympathy overcoming prejudice, makes me feel very emotional and celebratory. My friend recommends The Lower Bottoms, a place that pours excellent ales, so off I go as the sun sets.

Many more adventures and exciting historical discoveries soon to come, as I continue to follow Douglass north… come on back, y’hear?

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Wang Theater (left) and Tremont St Garage (right) view from Tremont St. (west)

Wang Theater (left) and Tremont St Garage (right) view from Tremont St. (west)

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Sources and Inspiration:

1843 Boston Almanac Church Engravings: Hollis Street Church‘. Congregational Library Exhibits website

54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

African American Churches of Beacon Hill‘ and ‘African Meeting House‘. Boston African American National Historic Site Massachusetts, National Park Service website

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999

Boston Athenæum Theater History‘, from BostonAthenæ

Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. ‘Funerals and Wakes at Faneuil Hall‘. History of Massachusetts: A History Blog About The Bay State. May 14, 2012

Bromley, George Washington and Walter Scott. Boston, 1895. Index Map. Pub. G.W. Bromley and Co. From David Rumsey Historical Map Collection at

Cutter, William Richard and William Frederick Adams, eds. Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of the State of Massachusetts, Volume 4. New York, 1910.

Daily National Republican. (Washington, D.C.), 12 Jan. 1863. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 07 Feb. 1884. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Frederick Douglass Chronology‘. From Frederick Douglass National Historic Site District of Columbia, National Park Service website

History of the Old State House Building‘. The Bostonian Society (website).

Hollis Street Church‘. (2016, March 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Hollis Street, Harvard Street. Boston 1819 and 1820 Street-Lines. Pub. 1819 by John Graves Hale, author unknown

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Tremont Temple. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wendell Phillips‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

What was the Boston Massacre?.’ John Adams Historical Society (website).

Happy Birthday, Averroes (Ibn Rushd)! By Eric Gerlach

Averroes by Giorgione890 years ago today, on April 14th, the great Islamic philosopher, theologian, political theorist and scientist Ibn Rushd (1126 – 1198) was born, or as he is known via Latin in Europe, Averroes.  Among his many achievements, he is credited with popularizing the study of Aristotle in Europe, inspiring the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Scholastics.  Averroes was known as “The Commentator” and Aristotle “The Philosopher” to Aquinas and the Scholastics, as Averroes wrote multiple commentaries to help others understand Aristotle’s thought.  Included here is an image of Averroes standing between and above an ancient Greek sage, likely Aristotle, and an Italian scholar of the Renaissance, sitting at their feet, painted by Giorgione of Venice.  Averroes was also a major influence on Maimonides, Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Baruch Spinoza, and was one of the great souls that Dante wrote was dwelling in limbo with the Greek sages who lived before Jesus.

Aquinas Averroes and Scholastics

Averroes’ grandfather and father both served as chief judge of Cordoba, the place where Averroes was born, which later became part of Spain.  Averroes wrote many works, twenty eight in matters of philosophy, as well as important works on law and medicine.  As a rationalist, Averroes argued that philosophy and religion teach the same truth and thus are not in conflict, such that intellectuals pursue the same matters that common people comprehend through religion and rhetoric.  He also argued that analytic thinking was important for the proper interpretation of the Quran, as Christian Scholastics would argue later about the Bible in Europe.  Averroes’ works were banned and burned in Islamic and Christian lands at different times, but they were revered enough to survive in both places.


Averroes was opposed to the work of Al-Ghazali, the Sufi mystic and author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers.  Ghazali argued that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi and Avicenna contradict each other, and are thus incoherent as a set, and also contradict the teachings of Islam.  Ghazali also argued that Aristotle and those who follow him are wrong to assert that nature proceeds according to established laws, as all things proceed directly through the will of God.  Averroes wrote his most famous work, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in response to Ghazali.  Averroes defended Aristotle and argued that philosophy does lead to coherent truth, which is not in conflict with Islam, and that nature proceeds indirectly from God via the laws of nature, which God established during creation.


Averroes is also famous for his idea of monopsychism, that we all share the same divine soul, mind and awareness, with each taking a part such that the lower soul is individual and mortal but the higher soul is universal and immortal, the source of true inspiration and reason.  Spinoza, who said that each of us is like a wave on the great sea of being, was a pantheist, inspired in part by Averroes.  Much later, when Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, he said, “I believe in Spinoza’s god”.  Clearly, the history of human thought should continue to celebrate Averroes, as well as the many he inspired.

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

In remembrance of Thomas Jefferson (April 13 1743 – July 4, 1826) on his birthday, here’s the story of my travels last year following his life and ideas

Ordinary Philosophy

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my third philosophical-historical themed adventure, this time in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and various sites in Virginia to follow in the footsteps of…. you may have guessed it… Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13th, 1743, and in his long life, he accomplished more than most. He was a founding father of the United…

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