O.P. Recommends: The Relentless Honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Ian Ground

Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnism, Pencil on board 1985, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Ian Ground writes:

‘If you ask philosophers – those in the English speaking analytic tradition anyway – who is the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, they will most likely name Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the chances are that if you ask them exactly why he was so important, they will be unable to tell you. Moreover, in their own philosophical practice it will be rare, certainly these days, that they mention him or his work. Indeed, they may very fluently introduce positions, against which Wittgenstein launched powerful arguments: the very arguments which, by general agreement, make him such an important philosopher. Contemporary philosophers don’t argue with Wittgenstein. Rather they bypass him. Wittgenstein has a deeply ambivalent status – he has authority, but not influence.

For the more general reader, Wittgenstein’s status in contemporary philosophy will be puzzling. The general view is that Wittgenstein is surely the very model of a great philosopher. The perception is that he is difficult, obscure and intense, severe and mystical, charismatic and strange, driven and tragic, with his charisma and difficulty bound up with his character and his life. Wittgenstein saw philosophy not just as a vocation, but as a way of life he had to lead. This is perhaps why writers and artists have found him an object of fascination and inspiration. He is the subject of novels, poetry, plays, painting, music, sculpture and films. In the arts and the culture generally, Wittgenstein seems to be what a philosopher ought to be

Read more of this excellent piece in The Times Literary Supplementpart of a TLS series about great thinkers and their ideas called Footnotes to Plato

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The New Black Radical Moment, by Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II. Photo: Society for US Intellectual History Blog

Recent weeks have seen the release of several books that, have in some form or fashion, something to do with the Black Radical Tradition. While much fanfare has preceded the release of the new Ta-Nehisi Coates book, We Were Eight Years in Power (and with good reason), other books also speak to a renewed interest in African American radical thought. Where Coates seeks to describe the past and present of black history in America (in a discourse that ranges between center-left and radical), these other works offer a distinctly radical viewpoint of race and modern life. The rise of Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump’s election, and qualms about the limits of the Barack Obama administration have all played key roles in this new Black Radical moment in modern intellectual discourse. Within the academy, growing interest in the works of Cedric Robinson—most notably Black Marxism but also his other works The Terms of Order and Black Movements in America, among others—coupled with deep, penetrating critiques of capitalism’s relationship to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, have provided some of the intellectual fuel for this moment. The “Black Perspectives” blog has also filled an important role in this, being a clearing house for all manner of scholars of the African American experience to talk about these various political and cultural intersections for a wide audience. This is all a long, and winding, way towards saying that everyone who reads this blog should take time, sooner or later, to read the edited collection Futures of Black Radicalism.

The edited collection, curated by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, plays off of Cedric Robinson’s landmark book and gives scholars and lay readers alike the chance to think about what the term “black radicalism” actually means. To their credit, Johnson and Lubin don’t try to offer an ironclad answer to that question. As they put it in the introduction, their goal is “merely archiving a moment in Black radical thought, one which exceeds the pages of this book, and which is always more expansive than the people writing here.”[1] What stands out about this book is the richness of intellectual discourse within its pages. A variety of historians, sociologists, and other scholars all tackle a central question: what, precisely, does the Black Radical Tradition say about life in the twenty-first century?  In the pursuit of these questions, the scholars featured in Futures of Black Radicalism—which is a who’s who of scholars that study political economy, history, sociology, and other fields—demonstrate a determination to enter the kinds of public debates that scholars have argued for years we should join in earnest. In that sense, they speak to another essential tradition from the African American intellectual tradition: the need for scholars to go beyond the academy and join debates in the broad public concerning race, politics, and other intertwined fields.

Another book, coming out soon, also promises to shake up discourse about the Black Radical Tradition. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new collection of essays and interviews, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective will be a valuable work for reminding people of the importance of the Combahee River Collective’s radical interpretation of feminism in the 1970s. The Collective was founded by African American women who wanted to make sure feminism did not remain an ideology linked exclusively to white, moderately liberal political discourse. More importantly, the name alone—Combahee River—recalls radical action and liberation (Combahee River was also the location of a famous raid led by Harriet Tubman during the American Civil War). It’s no surprise Taylor is doing work like this—her previous book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation was also a crucial entry into modern debates about black radicalism and American society.

Other books also promise to open new avenues of thought on the long history of black radicalism. Works such as Brittney Cooper’s Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women offers much to think about when considering the history of African American intellectuals. The forthcoming work from Ashley Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, will be an exciting—not to mention much-needed—evaluation of the role black women played in various Black Power-organizations and movements. We’ve already had a few works tackle this topic—most impressively The Revolution Has Come by Robyn C. Spencer—but I doubt we’ll ever have enough books about African American women and the role they played in various social movements in the twentieth century. Speaking of, Keisha Blain’s Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, which is slated for release early next year, follows this same vein.

The Black Radical Tradition lives on through both the scholarship of historians and activism in the streets. It is no coincidence that whenever the struggle for black freedom heats up in American society, the scholars and intellectuals always provide the literary firepower necessary to further the fight for justice. We are living in another such time—one that, I believe, will be both an exciting time for intellectual curiosity and a dangerous time to be an honest, opinionated intellectual.

[1] “Introduction,” Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, in Futures of Black Radicalism. London: Verso Books, 2017. P. 13.

This article was originally published at The Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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!

Black Issues in Philosophy – A New Series Presented by the American Philosophical Association Blog

Here’s the announcement by the APA:

‘Dear Readers:

We here introduce Black Issues in Philosophy: Blog of the APA Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers.

The purpose of this series is to offer announcements, discussions, critical reviews, opinionated statements (op-eds), and philosophical suggestions, ideas, or explorations relevant to the status of philosophers of African descent and readers interested in such issues….’

You can read articles, find out how to contribute, and more at the APA’s website

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!

Say What? ‘Cato Means Well…’ Francis Bacon Quotes Cicero

‘Cato means well: but he does hurt sometimes to the State; for he talks as if he were in the republic of Plato and not in the dregs of Romulus.’

– Marcus Cicero, as quoted by Francis Bacon in Wisdom of the Ancients

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!

Happy Birthday, Gwendolyn Marie Patton!

Gwendolyn Marie Patton, photo from Trenholm State Community College Libraries

To celebrate the memory of activist and scholar Dr. Gwendolyn Marie Patton, born October 14, 1943, I share here an excellent article by Ashley Farmer, assistant professor at Boston University and a regular contributor to the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog Black Perspectives. By the way, if you also seek to learn more about the contributions of great thinkers like Dr. Patton who are not widely known or celebrated enough in popular culture, Dr. Farmer is an excellent author to follow.

Remembering Gwen Patton, Activist and Theorist, by Ashley Farmer

“Ideas are powerful,” Dr. Gwendolyn Patton used to say when she talked to the younger generation about civil rights and political organizing. This simple but powerful notion undergirded Patton’s incredible activist life, one that spanned much of the late 20th century and many different facets of the Black Freedom Struggle. Patton always contended that access to knowledge, and in particular, theoretical frameworks for understanding oppression and liberation, were key sites of protest and contestation. Weaving together a powerful life of theorizing and activism, she was and remains one of the most profound black thinkers of our lifetimes.

Patton was born outside Detroit, Michigan in 1943. Her early childhood was characterized by the dialectic between the trappings of middle-class life and insurgent black politics. She grew up in a comfortable black neighborhood and spent her summers with her grandmother in Montgomery, a hotbed of civil rights activism in the early 1950s. In 1960, after her mother passed away, she became a full-time Montgomery resident. As a teenager, she volunteered with the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization responsible for the Rosa Parks-led boycott in 1955. When Patton went off to college at nearby Tuskegee University, she brought this zeal for activism with her. She joined several student-led organizations and protests and eventually became the first woman student body president of the university.

At Tuskegee, Patton was part of what she called a “close-knit, intellectual student movement” that engaged in public accommodation desegregation battles and voter registration work…’ Read more:

And to learn more:

Dr. Gwendolyn Marie Patton, 1943-2017 ~ by Brian Jones via Academia.edu

Gwendolyn M. Patton ~ Interview for the Civil Rights History Project conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Montgomery, Alabama, 6/1/2011 for the Library of Congress

Gwendolyn M. Patton ~ Bio and interview at The HistoryMakers website

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!

The Triage of Truth: Do Not Take Expert Opinion Lying Down, by Julian Baggini

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thirst for knowledge is one of humankind’s noblest appetites. Our desire to sate it, however, sometimes leads us to imbibe falsehoods bottled as truth. The so-called Information Age is too often a Misinformation Age.

There is so much that we don’t know that giving up on experts would be to overreach our own competency. However, not everyone who claims to be an expert is one, so when we are not experts ourselves, we can decide who counts as an expert only with the help of the opinions of other experts. In other words, we have to choose which experts to trust in order to decide which experts to trust.

Jean-Paul Sartre captured the unavoidable responsibility this places on us when he wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (1945): ‘If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example – you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise.’

The pessimistic interpretation of this is that the appeal to expertise is therefore a charade. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the power of motivated thinking and confirmation bias. People cherry-pick the authorities who support what they already believe. If majority opinion is on their side, they will cite the quantity of evidence behind them. If the majority is against them, they will cite the quality of evidence behind them, pointing out that truth is not a democracy. Authorities are not used to guide us towards the truth but to justify what we already believe the truth to be.

If we are sincerely interested in the truth, however, we can use expert opinion more objectively without either giving up our rational autonomy or giving in to our preconceptions. I’ve developed a simple three-step heuristic I’ve dubbed ‘The Triage of Truth’ which can give us a way of deciding whom to listen to about how the world is. The original meaning of triage is to sort according to quality and the term is most familiar today in the medical context of determining the urgency of treatment required. It’s not infallible; it’s not an alternative to thinking for yourself; but it should at least prevent us making some avoidable mistakes. The triage asks three questions:

  •  Are there any experts in this field?
  •  Which kind of expert in this area should I choose?
  •  Which particular expert is worth listening to here?

In many cases there is no simple yes or no answer. Economic forecasting, for example, admits of only very limited mastery. If you are not religious, on the other hand, then no theologian or priest can be an expert on God’s will.

If there is genuine expertise to be had, the second stage is to ask what kind of expert is trustworthy in that domain, to the degree that the domain allows of expertise at all. In health, for example, there are doctors with standard medical training but also herbalists, homeopaths, chiropractors, reiki healers. If we have good reason to dismiss any of these modalities then we can dismiss any particular practitioner without needing to give them a personal assessment.

Once we have decided that there are groups of experts in a domain, the third stage of triage is to ask which particular ones to trust. In some cases, this is easy enough. Any qualified dentist should be good enough, and we might not have the luxury of picking and choosing anyway. When it comes to builders, however, some are clearly more professional than others.

The trickiest situations are where the domain admits significant differences of opinion. In medicine, for example, there is plenty of genuine expertise but the incomplete state of nutritional science, for example, means that we have to take much advice with a pinch of salt, including that on how big this pinch should be.

This triage is an iterative process in which shifts of opinion at one level lead to shifts at others. Our beliefs form complex holistic webs in which parts support each other. For example, we cannot decide in a vacuum whether there is any expertise to be had in any given domain. We will inevitably take into account the views of experts we already trust. Every new judgment feeds back, altering the next one.

Perhaps the most important principle to apply throughout the triage is the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s maxim: ‘A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Trust in experts always has to be proportionate. If my electrician warns me that touching a wire will electrocute me, I have no reason to doubt her. Any economic forecast, however, should be seen as indicating a probability at best, an educated guest at worst.

Proportionality also means granting only as much authority as is within an expert’s field. When an eminent scientist opines on ethics, for example, she is exceeding her professional scope. The same might be true of a philosopher talking about economics, so be cautious about some of what I have written, too.

This triage gives us a procedure but no algorithm. It does not dispense with the need to make judgments, it simply provides a framework to help us do so. To properly follow Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment injunction ‘Sapere aude’ (Dare to know), we have to rely on both our own judgment and the judgment of others. We should not confuse thinking for ourselves with thinking by ourselves. Taking expert opinion seriously is not passing the buck. No one can make up your mind for you, unless you make up your mind to let them.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Happy Birthday, Philippa Foot!

‘Philippa Foot [, born on October 3rd, 1920, was] a philosopher who argued that moral judgments have a rational basis, and who introduced the renowned ethical thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem…’ William Grime’s New York Times obituary of this philosopher, far less widely known than she is influential, is an excellent introduction to the life and ideas of the brilliant Foot.

You can also learn more about Philippa Foot at

Philippa Foot – by Martin L. White for Encyclopædia Britannica

Philippa Foot ~ Interview by Rick Lewis for Philosophy Now, conducted in the autumn of 2001

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) ~ by Lawrence Solum for Legal Theory Blog

Philippa Foot Obituary: A ‘Grande Dame of Philosophy’, She Pioneered Virtue Ethics – by Jane O’Grady for The Guardian, October 5th, 2010

Philippa Foot: Trolleys and Natural Goodness ~ by Edward Harcourt for Prospect magazine, Oct 7, 2010

Professor Philippa Foot: Philosopher Regarded as Being Among the Finest Moral Thinkers of the Age ~ by Peter J Conradi and Gavin Lawrence for The Independent, Oct 18th, 2010

and a multitude of citations in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries

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