Post-comps report

Here I am, making an appearance after much delay. Preparing for my comprehensive exams kept me busy until about 10 days ago, and Pesach has occupied me since. I’m finally taking a moment to post something before I head to Chicago for the last days of Pesach and a quick visit with my family. Here are a few updates:

Comps: I took my two required written comps this semester, electing to sit for metaphysics at the beginning of March and philosophy of language a month later. I’d like to report my success, but as of today results have yet to be posted for either exam. While quite a large group sat for metaphysics and that surely accounts for some of the delay in receiving results, six weeks feels like an awfully long time to wait, especially since I’m not so confident about my performance on it. I’m convinced that everyone in our study group for the exam, myself included, deserves to pass; but actually showing that to the readers is a different matter entirely. I feel better about the language exam, which is appropriate since that is much more my area. Where preparing for the metaphysics was often annoying (and not just because I have an almost visceral dislike for almost all of metaphysics: some of the assigned readings were just terribly bad arguments), preparing for the language exam was very much worthwhile and even pleasurable: being forced to read so many related articles in close proximity, and to think carefully about the relations between them, was very helpful for my thinking. The material on attitude ascriptions, in particular, has left me seized of the topic since, although the attitude ascriptions question on the exam unfortunately pertained exclusively to Kripke’s “A Puzzle About Belief” so I didn’t have the opportunity to speak to the other readings. Be that as it may, much of the pleasure of studying for the language comp is surely do to the excellent Ludlow anthology put out by MIT Press; it is worlds better then the Martinich for language, and more helpful and better produced than the various Blackwell anthologies (whoever thought double-columned settings made for legibility in books of that size?). In general, preparing for the comps has led me to see the value in working carefully through articles and writing up summaries of them, which I had not appreciated so much previously. I don’t much relish the idea of taking them again in the fall though, so I do hope I pass...

Courses: Just one course this semester, Quine & Sellars taught by David Rosenthal, which will be the last of 20 (!) courses I’ll take for credit as a graduate student. As is apparently the norm for Rosenthal’s courses, the syllabus has proved rather optimistic as we got bogged down in Quine; we are skipping ahead into Sellars when we return from spring break.
        So far I have found the course interesting and it has given me a deeper appreciation for Quine, even as I find myself frustrated that no-one has produced a thoroughgoing critical response to Quine’s philosophy as a whole. My experience in reading Quine for various courses since I was an undergrad has been that Quine’s arguments are pushed very hard at one point in the course, and then we move on to talking about other things (e.g. Kripke), which aren’t compatible with Quine’s arguments, without ever going back in a serious way to explain why Quine was wrong. I get the feeling the philosophers just got tired of dealing with him and decided they’d rather talk about more enjoyable things. This is extremely unhelpful educationally, to say the least. I’m aware that many responses exist to various parts of Quine’s philosophy, but part of what made his philosophy so compelling for so long is the way it hangs together as a whole. Someone needs to write a book which takes on his philosophy across the board and puts him finally to rest. Perhaps it should be called: “Quine: A Philosophical Eulogy”. Michael Levin told me it would make a wonderful thesis, which would be of great value to the philosophical community, but it won’t be mine — I have no desire to spend the next three years working on that or to go on the market with a thesis that is so stuck in the past.
        Quine aside, I’m also sitting in on a few courses: Kripke’s course on Russell and Richard Mendelsohn’s course on Frege (based on his recent book), which together have proved very stimulating and helpful in my comp preparations. (Mendelsohn has a very interesting argument that a consequence of Russell’s scope distinction is that simple propositions (e.g. of the form Fa) must be ambiguous, much as are simple modal propositions like □Fa; he argues that given this ambiguity, Donnellan’s distinction actually supports Russell’s account of definite descriptions by giving an account of the ambiguity. (If that is confused, I apologize: his argument is really very elegant once you see it, even if it is hard for me to sum it up neatly.) He is scheduled to speak at the CUNY Seminar in Logic and Games on 12 May; no title has been announced, but I suspect he will be presenting this argument.) I am also sitting in, though somewhat sporadically, on Iakovos Vasiliou’s course on Plato’s Republic in an effort to remedy my shocking ignorance of ancient philosophy.

Current project: I’m now working on a paper that I owe Jonathan Adler for the course he taught on belief last spring. I’ll be presenting a draft of this paper at the CUNY Graduate Colloquium series on 1 May. As it stands the thought behind the paper is that certain problems in belief are most easily handled when belief formation is understood as the evidence based selection of one out of a contrasting set of possible beliefs; I shall argue that practical interests govern which are the appropriate sets of possible beliefs from which evidence selects actual beliefs. This role for practical interests in belief links belief closely to knowledge where I am convinced practical interests are also critical.
        My interest in contrastive accounts and practical interests in epistemology dates back a few years, though I did not pursue it, and it was only during Adler’s course that I became aware of Jonathan Schaffer’s advocacy for “contrastivism” and only more recently that I discovered the recent attention that has been given (by Jason Stanley, John Hawthorne, and others) to the connections between practical interests and knowledge. I have yet to work through this literature, but I’m glad to see that practical interests are the focus of so much philosophical attention. I’m now reading Stanley’s recent book, Knowledge and Practical Interests, which (so far at least) strikes me as just the sort of book I should like to have written: it bridges a number of areas of philosophy while making a strong case in philosophical methodology, which is perhaps my most cherished interest of all — I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

The future: I’m pondering plans of late, for the summer and beyond. I had thought I would take the summer off to travel or go to Israel to learn (or get married...) and I would still like to do so, but I’m concerned that my coursework has not yet produced papers that are suitable to take to conferences or move toward publication. That has let me to consider whether I would be better off spending at least part of my summer here in NY working on developing my papers in order to have material for the fall conference season. Staying here has its costs (literally), making it very desirable to find part-time work, which is an extremely unappealing prospect. But, if I split my summer between Israel and philosophy, which I perhaps the most appealing option, I’ll sink any real chance at finding work and will have to foot the bill for the whole summer out of savings. I’m quite unsure what to do, though there are other considerations which may sway my decision.
        Beyond the summer, I’ve been thinking about possible dissertation topics, and I think I’ve made some progress on that front. Perhaps I’ll post again with my thoughts on various options.

Worth reading: Jason Stanley’s “Philosophy of Language in the Twentieth Century” This was linked to on the Leiter Reports, but I thought I’d mention it again as I found it to be a very informative and helpful read.

To all those celebrating Pesach: חג כשר וסמח!

I’m off to pack...


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