Category Archives: Uncategorized

against using the humanities instrumentally

Imagine this scenario: most college students major in humanities disciplines, while the applied sciences languish. The National Endowment for the Humanities spends 250 times as much money as the National Institutes for Health, instead of vice-versa.

Kindly humanists recognize the value of the applied sciences and gather among themselves to consider how to involve their STEM colleagues in their research. For instance, some humanities professors might be working on the 2025 presidential theme of the Modern Language Association: visibility and invisibility in various kinds of texts. Others are addressing the theme of the American Historical Association’s presidential address: “conversations with the dead.” After brainstorming ways for STEM colleagues to contribute to these agendas, they might come up with proposals. Maybe computer scientists could build a website for presenting the invisible aspects of texts? Come to think of it, the WiFi in the Humanities Center seems a little unreliable–could the Comp. Sci. department help with that?

This is satire, but I want to challenge well-intentioned ways that STEM researchers and administrators often view the humanities. Basically, they assume that important agendas come from the applied sciences, including the biomedical fields. The humanities are worth consulting in two main ways.

First, humanists might be able to address the ethical questions that arise in engineering or health projects. In my view, applied ethics is important, but it involves a tiny proportion of humanists. Besides, if the agenda is already determined, then the ethical horizon is narrow. For example, the question is not whether to have private tech. companies, but how they should design AI tools.

Second, STEM people sometimes hope that humanists can help with communication–they can frame convincing messages for the public good. But humanists are more typically interested in reading against texts, or understanding the relationships among texts, or interpreting especially complex texts that are not particularly accessible, or challenging the assumptions in texts. Studying these questions does not make one particularly good at communicating with broad audiences.

I believe in the engaged or public or civic humanities. I don’t think that humanities professors should set their own agendas in isolation and expect society to pay for their work. I argue that humanists must engage the diverse public in two-way conversations, affecting the public debate while also responding to it.

Therefore, I see value in interdisciplinary projects that originate in the STEM disciplines and that involve limited numbers of humanists. As a philosophy PhD, I often find myself in such roles and enjoy them. But most of the potential is lost if the STEM fields always set the agendas and if the humanities are seen as merely useful around the edges.

See also: “The world wants the humanities”; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; Tisch Program in Public Humanities

Beliefs and connections among beliefs in a club

An Association as a Belief Network and Social Network

I will present a paper entitled “An Association as a Belief Network and Social Network” at next week’s Midwestern Political Science Association meeting (remotely). This is the paper.

Abstract:

A social network is composed of individuals who may have various relationships with one another. Each member of such a network may hold relevant beliefs and may connect each belief to other beliefs. A connection between two beliefs is a reason. Each member’s beliefs and reasons form a more-or-less connected network. As members of a group interact, they share some of their respective beliefs and reasons with peers and form a belief-network that represents their common view. However, either the social network or the belief network can be disconnected if the group is divided.

This study mapped both the social network and the belief-network of a Rotary Club in the US Midwest. The Club’s leadership found the results useful for diagnostic and planning purposes. This study also piloted a methodology that may be useful for social scientists who analyze organizations and associations of various kinds.

Two illustrative graphs …

Below is the social network of the organization. A link indicates that someone named another person as a significant influence. The size of each dot reflects the number of people who named that individual. The network is connected, not balkanized. However, there are definitely some insiders, who have lots of connections, and a periphery.

The belief-network is shown above this post. The nodes are beliefs held by members of the group. A link indicates that some members connect one belief to another as a reason, e.g., “I appreciate friendships in the club” and therefore, “I enjoy the meetings” (or vice-versa). Nodes with more connections are larger and placed nearer the center.

One takeaway is that members disagree about certain matters, such as the state of the local economy, but those contested beliefs do not serve as reasons for other beliefs, which prevents the group from fragmenting.

I would be interested in replicating this method with other organizations. I can share practical takeaways with a group while learning more from the additional case.

See also: a method for analyzing organizations

modeling social reality

I’m working on an article and have recently posted various excerpts in draft form.* This is the current outline:

  1. A model is a simplified representation of social reality that may take the form of a diagram, a story, a thought-experiment, an ideal-type, or an analogy to something that’s better understood.
  2. Human beings use models to navigate the social world.
  3. Judgment (phronesis) requires choosing and applying models of social reality.  
  4. Social models characteristically have empirical and normative aspects (both “facts” and “values”).
  5. Models can be categorized by their forms, e.g., root-cause, cyclical, genealogical, historical-institutionalist, organizational, game-theoretical, interest-group-coalition, etc.
  6. A model offers guidance, much as a fable suggests a moral (Cartwright 1999; Johnson 2020).
  7. The empirical details of a model should be testable and falsifiable, but new evidence typically modifies a model; it doesn’t invalidate the model. This is because (a) the model has normative aspects that are not empirically falsifiable; and (b) methods, concepts, sources, normative principles, and specific facts interrelate.
  8. Models are wise or unwise, not true or false. The best model is the one that does the most good, not the one that is most correct.
  9. The logic of applying a model to a given case is abductive (per C.S. Pierce), not inductive or deductive.
  10. Choosing a good model requires understanding and considering other options; it’s comparative.
  11. Therefore, (a) good education for civic life involves exploring multiple models, never one model; and; (b) good participation in civic life involves sharing one’s model and listening to others.

*See choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy; different kinds of social models; social education as learning to improve models; making our models explicit

the coincidences in Romola

In George Eliot’s Romola, we see events from the perspective of four major characters (one at a time): Tito Melema, Baldassarre Calvo, Tessa, and Romola herself. Four people can have up to 3! = 6 bilateral relationships. In Romola, each of these six potential connections is filled out with several independent interactions.

Just for example, Tito encounters Nessa on his first day in Florence and then on several important occasions, Baldassare takes shelter in the farm where Tessa lives, Tessa’s toddler runs into the street and into Romola’s arms, and Tito washes ashore at Baldassare’s very location on the shore of the Arno. In that last case, the older man has no reason to expect his enemy to appear, but when this happens, he understandably feels that “something was being brought to him” for a reason–as a “fortunate chance for him” (italics in the original).

These distinct connections arise over a short period in quite a large community. (The population of Renaissance Florence was on the order of 100,000, but that understates the improbability, since Baldassare has been enslaved in the Middle East and encounters Tito almost as soon as he finds himself in Florence. The odds of that encounter must be one in a million.)

I think we generally assume that we pass through life with one thing just happening after another–sometimes as a result of our decisions, but often by sheer contingency. Occasional coincidences should be expected as a matter of probability, but they do not mean anything. Every one out of a million events will be a one-in-a-million event.

These assumptions make Romola look contrived and perhaps didactic, evidently the work of an artist who has deliberately connected four characters in the maximum number of ways to explore symmetries and contrasts. The text seems unlike life.

As Caroline Levine (yes, my sister) shows, Romola learns as the story unfolds. She figures out that life is not foreordained and prophesies are unreliable–sometimes true, but only by chance. (Prophesies are important in this political novel, since the main political actor, Savonarola, gains his influence through prophesy.) Romola concludes that human beings make free moral choices that alone determine what happens. Her conclusion seems inconsistent with the density of coincidences in the plot, which should instead suggest (as the addled Baldassare concludes) that everything has been set up for a reason.

Caroline notes that plotted narratives typically have a strange feature. The author knows what will happen and selects the events to narrate with that outcome in mind. It’s a flaw in a plotted narrative if we’re told things that don’t matter later.

Imagine two events that occur in a sequence, A and B. In a novel, A should have an affect on B, yet B is the cause of A in the sense that it explains why A is narrated.

This means that Romola may (or may not) be correct about how life works, but she is wrong about her own story as it is told in the eponymous novel. Her story is determined by an omniscient creator and organized to reach coherent conclusions.

For me, the density of coincidences is a bit alienating: it’s like seeing the puppeteer’s hands. As the coincidences mount, I think: this is just too improbable. I prefer Middlemarch, which also has coincidences, but at a much lower rate. Still, perhaps the best conclusion is that any narrated story is a contrivance. In this case, it’s contrived to teach us that only our choices matter, and that is a bit of a paradox.

Source: Caroline Levine, “The Prophetic Fallacy: Realism, Foreshadowing, and Narrative Knowledge in Romola,” in Levine and Mark W. Turner, From Author to Text: Re-Reading George Eliot’s Romola (Ashgate 1998), pp. 135-164. See also Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; my favorite book (on Middlemarch, from 2008); Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time; Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin.

Participants and Frontiers of Democracy 2023

register and propose sessions for Frontiers of Democracy 2024

Dates: June 13 (5pm) until June 15 (1 pm) at Tufts University in Medford, MA

Please hold the dates (June 13-15), register and purchase tickets at the “early bird” discount rate until March 29, and consider proposing one or more sessions for the conference by April 16.

This year’s special theme is “Violence, Nonviolence, and Robust Democracy.” We anticipate robust conversations (and disagreements) about what defines and causes political violence and about the potential and limitations of nonviolent strategies. This year’s plenary speakers on the nonviolence theme will include This year’s plenary speakers on the nonviolence theme will include Damien ConnersHeather CronkJalene SchmidtMaria Stephan, and Thupten Tendhar. Jessie Landerman and Keisha E. McKenzie from Everyday Democracy will lead an interactive plenary session on Prime Time Propaganda: Using Narrative, Dialogue, and Facilitation Techniques to Confront Violent Forms of Communication

The nonviolence theme is not exclusive; we welcome sessions on other topics related to Tisch College’s “North Star”: building robust, inclusive democracy for an increasingly multiracial society. In particular, we are eager to continue last year’s rich conversations about religious pluralism and democracy and would welcome proposals in that area, whether or not they relate to violence and nonviolence. 

Although we will consider proposals for presentations or panels of presentations, we generally prefer proposals for other formats, such as moderated discussions, meetings devoted to strategy or design, trainings and workshops, case study discussions, debates, and other creative formats.

The conference agenda will develop over the next several months.

Cost: $240 for a standard ticket with discounts for current students. This includes hors d’oeuvres on June 13, breakfast and lunch on June 14, and breakfast and lunch on June 15. Other meals and lodgings are not provided.

Learn more and register