Nov 21, 2010

Three Aspects of The Will in Anselm's Thought

Saint Anselm is best known to non-philosophers and non-theologians for the so-called "ontological argument,"  found in his second major work, the Proslogion, ch. 2 (or perhaps ch. 2-4, and all too often philosophers' distortive reconstructions of those passages). Actually, even for most philosophers who do not specialize in Medieval thought, what they know of Anselm is typically just a hazy penumbra surrounding some version of that argument.  For theologians who, for one reason or another, lack much exposure to Anselm's thought, his key work is Cur Deus Homo, and the crux of it (pun intended) is his argument explaining the necessity of the Incarnation and Atonement.

Deriving a novel argument for God's existence and producing a new treatment of central mysteries of the Christian faith are significant achievements in their own rights, befitting their author a place in pantheons of philosophy and theology.  But, there is yet more, much more, than even these in Anselm's work.  Another set of achievements are hinted at early on in Cur Deus Homo, where Anselm attempts to beg off the task his student lays upon him:
. . . .we need an analysis of ability and necessity and will and of certain other notions which are so interrelated that no one of them can be fully examined apart from the others. And so, to deal with these notions requires a separate work — one not very easy [to compose], it seems to me, but nonetheless one not altogether useless. For an ignorance of these notions produces certain difficulties which become easy [to deal with] as a result of understanding these notions.
[using, as is my wont in these blogs, Hopkins and Richardson's translations,]

Nov 18, 2010

Online Communication, Morality of (counter-)Violence, Take 2

A week and a half ago, I was scheduled to give a talk with my colleague from Communication, Todd Frobish, on the topic of a paper we are co-writing, dealing with flaming the flamers as a viable rhetorical and ethical strategy.  For me, it's an interesting problem to apply an Aristotelian perspective to, not least since Aristotle had a lot to say in his own time about rhetoric, civic and social life, and ethics, and would have much to say about this contemporary problem.  Todd is more interested in the analysis of communicative interchanges and what they reveal.  We are both interested in developing typologies of aggressive online acts, persons, and motives, and in the moral evaluations and strategies such typologies afford.

At its basis our central contention is this:  In opposition to much of the literature discussing flaming which views it as uniformly negative and as a sign of decay of decent social life in online settings, we regard it in some circumstances as a legitimate response to other people's online aggression.  Todd frames it as a last resort measure, to be used only after all other resources have been attempted or ruled out.  I see it instead as a response which is admittedly fairly far along a continuum of forceful, coercive, or (verbally) violent acts, but which one might use ethically even before it becomes a last resort.

Nov 17, 2010

Pleasure in Student Failure: An Aristotlean Perspective (part 1)

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran what turned out to be a very provocative piece Monday (ok, not as provocative as their tell-all The Shadow Scholar earlier today).  

The short article was called The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail, ostensibly by an Alice Fenton.  In it, she admitted to a range of positive affective states when certain students fail in her classes -- deservedly fail.  As the short essay it is, I would actually rate it quite well as a contribution to discussions about moral psychology, desert, and the profession of teaching, not least because she sets out a typology of differing types of bad students and associates different responses in emotion and action to the pattern of actions (or lack of actions) of those students.

As I've been writing this, harvesting from the rich trail of 109 comments responding to her essay, I realized that for blogging-brevity's sake this will have to be the first of two entries.  This one leads reflectively through the comments, reviewing them and the arguments as an Aristotelian like myself does.  Aristotle actually has a lot to say about this sort of controversy over pedagogy, student failure, and emotional responses, and in the second installment, I'll carry out the more systematic and exegetical work that I skip over in this post. 

Nov 14, 2010

Anselm on Persons In God's Mind (part 2)

Two weeks ago, in one of my Sunday musings, I posted some reflections bearing on some of the implications of a tripartite distinction the  great Medieval thinker St. Anselm made.  This was what we'd call an "ontological" or "metaphysical" distinction, meaning that it has to do with the being or reality of things.  The distinction bore on the modes of being or reality of a thing, the way a thing is or exists.

There is the thing as it actually is, in itself, real, existing.  And then there is how it is in our mind, in our knowledge, or imagination, or memory of the thing, even in our language, perhaps even in a painting of it.  The thing does exist this way, but with a lesser degree of reality or being than the thing as it is in itself.  Then there is the thing as it is in God's mind, in God's knowledge of it, which like every other genuine divine attribute for Anselm (e.g. God's goodness, His eternity, His justice) is in fact what God is, entirely so (so God is His justice, eternity, knowledge).

Three things to say about this.  First, it might be helpful to think of an example.  Second, this whole perspective, which may seem very strange and counter-intuitive, is a perfectly respectable philosophical stance which we call Platonism or neo-Platonism, and Anselm does definitely fit that label. Third, from that perspective, there is a hierarchy of degrees of being, and for a Christian (or for that matter Jewish or Islamic) neo-Platonist, from low to high it goes like this:  how a thing is in our minds, an image; how a thing is in itself, as it exists; and how a thing (most truly, most genuinely) is in God's mind.

Let's take an example:  there's a vase.  It is made of marble.  It came into being, say, 500 years ago, formed by the hand of a craftsman.  It is real.  You touch it, hold it in your hands, feel the coolness and smoothness, run your eyes over it.  Now, imagine it.  What's in your mind?  That same vase, or rather an image of it.  An image which has less reality, less truth than the actual thing itself of which it is a more or less faithful copy.  That has a lower degree of being.  And, then there is the vase as it is in God's mind, existing in there with all of the rest of the world, eternally.

Nov 13, 2010

On VYou: Carving New Turf for Philosophy in Cyberspace

A few days ago, I came across a story from the Atlantic, From Social Media Startup VYou:  Endless Questions, about yet another new social media site in my twitter feed.  As it turns out, going back into a twitter search on "VYou" -- after weeding out all of the posts of"so-and-so's video response to. . . . " -- there's several other interesting stories out there about this type of social interaction, from apparently more cutting-edgy sites, like TNW and Black Web, explaining what kind hybrid or cross this new site by reference to yet other sites, and worrying about whether VYou will succumb to pornification as did Chatroulette.

Busy with classes, meetings, preparing for the last of the six or seven presentations I've made this semester (after a while, you lose count, but thankfully they don't blur together so badly that I think I'm supposed to talk about Aristotle and internet flaming but actually am expected to talk about Plato's dialogues and close readings, or vice versa), I put off exploring the site until I had finished my presentation at the Saturday Academy earlier today on CLA grading rubrics.  I'm still the office now, having created a VYou profile, recorded the requisite "waiting" and "no response yet" videos, then responded to three questions, the first two asked by a colleague (our debate coach, here today to meet with his team), the other anonymously.

You have to record your answers with a web-cam.  Multiple takes are allowed -- in theory as many as it requires to get it right -- but you can't stage your videos by recording them elsewhere and then uploading them.  A certain degree of spontaneity is not only required but even seems appropriate, or better yet befitting to this type of interaction.  It's strange but enjoyable to think a bit and then work out answers to the questions that get asked.

That's a key aspect to this medium -- questions and answers.  One only gets to video answers to questions that get asked so without incisive, well-worded questions -- the questions act as tags for the answers -- the medium is not likely to be of much use to potential viewers and contributor, and will fail to gain the critical mass and momentum needed in cyberspace.

I am just starting to envision uses to which we philosophers might put this medium.  I'll just mention two:

If the philosopher answering is personable enough, works out (or just by knack quips) witty answers, and is diligent in getting to questions, this could provide an excellent forum both for popularizing philosophy and for stamping interactions with enough of a personal touch to bring people young and old to philosophy, or at least to some topics (you'd have to be extremely charismatic or inventive to make some topics in contemporary analytic philosophy anything other than deadly dull).

This could also be an excellent medium for fostering interdisciplinary discussion, debate, collaboration. . .  That aspect I admittedly have to devote a lot more thought to, and I'll defer that for the time being so that I can eventually get to the CLA website work I'm supposed to be working on.

One last point, not so much a complaint as an expression of the hope that the designers of VYou will expand and modify it:  You get to list your interests and specialties, but philosophy is not among them.  You have to stretch a bit to find categories that fit you.  In my case, Religion, Literature and . . . .  Motivational Speaking.

Nov 11, 2010

Best Practices Not Always Best: Real Goods, Ideal Bests, and 3 Potential Problems

Harvard Business Review, whose enticing, bite-sized articles I get referred to through my Twitter feed, published a post yesterday which my recent experience compelled me to read:  Why Best Practices Are Hard To Practice.  Lately, I have been struck by how often we invoke that jargon  of "best practices" in higher education, particularly at conferences, during workshops, and in education theory literature.

We also throw about other similarly popular buzz-words:  Take "high-impact practices." As part of an FSU team detailed to study and gather information on these last Spring, I traveled to the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference on Faculty Roles in High-Impact Practices (HIPs)  It was eye-opening, to say the least, for a philosopher who, focused on scholarship and teaching within my discipline admittedly devoted little attention  to scholarship of teaching and learning until immersing myself in it at FSU.

As it turned out, many of the educational strategies we were already doing some work with fell into that category of HIPs.  We involve our first year students in Learning Communities.  We have brought in guest speakers to provide workshops on Inquiry-Guided Learning and the closely related Problem-Based Learning. We have invested heavily in CLA in the Classroom.  Through Title III, we've established excellent programs in Writing Across the Curriculum, Reading Across the Curriculum, and the Chesnutt Library Fellowships which focus on Information Literacy. Once Service Learning became a priority, our Center For Community Justice took on three new words and a new role, becoming the CCJSL.  We have a Chancellor's Reading Club, which has all of the incoming Freshmen read and discuss a common book.  A program was even established linking faculty mentors with budding student scholars, the objects of which were to produce a work of undergraduate-level scholarship and to introduce the student to how real scholarship is done in the field.  With the exception of RAC, I've been involved in every one of these, with notably mixed successes and failures, whose narratives I'll defer to later posts.

Nov 10, 2010

Crossing The Tracks: Ethics in Business Education

Or, why I enjoy working with the FSU Business faculty on Ethics education.

Today, over in the School of Business and Economics, we held a second workshop emerging from a fairly new, needed, and exciting partnership, the Ethics in Business Education Project (EBEP).  Since I provide the history and initial purposes of  the project on our website (which is still under construction), I'll skip over it here, other than to mention three things:

First, EBEP is a collaborative partnership between philosophers and businesspeople.  Second, the model of collaboration EBEP relies on and embodies involves philosophers, as subject matter experts in Ethics, assisting business faculty to develop high levels of competence and confidence in teaching Ethics and in assessing student learning and development in Ethics. Third, the project arose symbiotically both from needs perceived on the side of the businesspeople and from opportunities grasped on the side of the philosophers.

The first and most pressing specific project we saw the need to tackle was reviewing, then developing a better version of, a scoring rubric used for grading student essays responding to typical ethically problematic cases in Business. Again, the history of that process, including the developmental stages of the rubric, is summarized on the EBEP website, so rather than cover that same ground, I'd rather think and write about why this particular exercise took on importance for a philosopher and for business professors, and what took place between us in today's grading workshop.

There is a stock joking response to any mention of Business Ethics:  "Isn't that an oxymoron?" It reveals a common, longstanding, and doubtless not entirely unmerited perception of businesspeople, even Business faculty, as not knowledgeable about, as uninterested in, and as unmotivated by ethical principles, concerns, values, let alone theories, figures, and texts. 

The reality is that those involved in business have always had some sort of  interest in ethics.  Admittedly, this may well have often taken the form of explicitly worked out ethical stances which academics (particularly in the humanities) and the intelligentsia have found less than congenial.  There certainly have been many cases of businesspeople clearly and deliberately acting unethically.  Plenty have used moral language and concepts as window-dressing for what they wanted and aimed to do anyway.  It may well be that due to the nature of business and business education, there are some environments particularly corrosive to ethical standards and reasoning, more seductive in their temptations. . . .

Nov 3, 2010

Departure: Technogeek in place of Philosogeek

Back now for several days from a grueling month of attending conferences, preparing and providing workshops, seemingly interminable committee meetings, web-design, a few job applications, and . . .  oh, yeah, how could I forget, regular web-enhanced Critical Thinking classes for my students -- back and almost fully up to speed, it's time to get the blogging back into gear.  I've got a few started and then parked posts which I hope to finish, polish, and bring to light in the next several days.  But today, instead, a short, technogeeky (as opposed to philosogeeky) post.

One of our webmaster-IT gurus at FSU, Bill Gibson sent out an interesting email, which linked to his blog, which linked then to Odiogo, a site which takes blog posts and "reads" them as near-human quality speech to anyone who clicks on the newly-enabled buttons on one's blog, in this case my own little site of ramblings and ruminations.