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Mohan Matthen
Toronto
Philosophy professor
Interests: Philosophy of perception, philosophy of biology
Recent Activity
Contrary to Mazviita, I find it extremely implausible that outrage with the conduct of Hypatia's Associate Editors and with two of Tuvel's teachers is simply displaced despair re Trump, Le Pen, and Farage. I also disagree with her about the open letter. Generally, I think petitions and open letters are faintly ridiculous and quite ineffective. But what I find distressing about a number of cases that have been discussed recently is that so many professional philosophers are afraid of saying what they believe—afraid not because they will be targeted by their employers, but because they think they might be stigmatized by their peers in social media. An open letter would put pressure on these people to come out into the open, and, as Molly Gardner says, serve as evidence of where the profession stands. And to the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter: if you are willing to go public with your disagreement of the editors who accepted the article, then surely you should either publicly call on them by name to resign or resign yourselves.
These stories of bad behaviour make me wonder. Can't you treat a contract as non-binding if it is against the rules? What if you simply accepted a tainted offer of this sort, with every display of enthusiasm and delight, but didn't think of it as binding? If another offer comes along before April 15th from a school you prefer, tell the first school you've changed your mind. If they get upset, just say: "Oh, I thought these offers and responses were open until April 15th. I didn't mean my acceptance to be final. Did you take it that way?"
Many of my reactions have to do with my personal history and I neither expect you to share them nor to give them any credence. I've lived most of my life in North America. A lot of people (though very few nowadays) exoticize me by attributing to me the ancient wisdom of my forebears or, more generally, making assumptions about my views or my background. Recently, I was in a University committee meeting when somebody greeted me with a Namaste. No doubt well meant, but what was he thinking? That's the kind of attitude I read into Weiss and Roth. (C. A. Moore is a different kind of case; the East-West Centre at Hawaii was very important, wasn't it?) Anyway, I certainly knew and encountered a lot of white people with a colonial history when I was young. Some were patronizing, but the vast majority simply wanted to reach out and share a human moment with somebody that they identified as sharing something in their past. That's how I interpreted W. D. Ross. He had a simple human emotion that he shared. He was a tremendous scholar and influential philosopher, but he didn't speak about that. The fact that the emotion came out of a colonial past doesn't bother me at all. (Trivandrum is my family's home city, by the way, and I was particularly interested that Ross's father had served there.) As for Nehru, again I could be wrong, but I think I know a little bit about him in a personal way. I read suppressed irritation in his message, and was intrigued by why. I think he respected Radhakrishnan, but was not on warm terms with him. Radhakrishnan's son wrote biographies of both and it should be easy enough to find out. Anyway, I was intrigued by what might have lain behind the message. Not that we'll ever know, I imagine.
Thank you for the interesting post, and for the link to the Silver Jubilee volume, which was most interesting to peruse. I had a rather different reaction than yours to two of the messages you quote. Personally, I find it embarrassing, and even annoying, when people address comments to me about Indians that they find complimentary, but I find stereotyping. I think I would have responded rather brusquely to Leon Roth's "India has always implied for the world at large the inward light of the spirit," or to Paul Weiss's "Indian philosophers have such a magnificent sense of what is important." I'm still seething over their patronizing blather. I found far more moving simple, yet clearly deeply felt, messages such as this one from W. D. Ross: "I have a very close link with India, in that my father was Principal of the Maharajah's College in Trivandrum, now the University of Trivandrum. Hence it is with interest and real emotion that I send my greetings." What a gent! Finally, I was very amused in "Oh Dad!" kind of way by Nehru's message. Nehru was a man of great intellect and humanity. He was also, more than occasionally, an extremely imperious sort of guy. And this was what he expressed here: "Really, I have nothing to say to you. What have you ever done for the world?"
It's very difficult to rationalize, but my sense is that often books by recent PhDs are regarded with some suspicion. Maybe I am reporting a biased sample, but people are more likely to go 'wow' if there are one or two papers published in top journals. Go figure.
This is sad and it must be very difficult and identity threatening for you, but I hope that with some creative interdisciplinary thinking you can turn it into a positive. All good wishes going forward.
I wonder whether it would be feasible to ask every candidate for a job to declare whether they have ever been found guilty of sexual harassment, or possibly something broader—whether they have ever been found guilty of any violation of university codes of conduct. (I don't know what the correct wording would be.) This would be a simple matter if applications were made online. There could be a box to check. ("I have been found in violation of university codes of conduct" Yes or No. If yes, please give details.") In some senior appointments, no application is ever made. In this case, appointees could be asked the question in writing when their appointment is being processed. This would put the onus on the candidate to reveal their past history, and would give the university the right to discipline or even fire them if they were later found to have falsified their application.
Referees have a responsibility to ensure to the best of their ability that what gets published is accurate, well reasoned, and worth saying. I find it frustrating to read papers in my areas of expertise that are not all of the above, and I find it particularly frustrating that my graduate students waste a lot of time on some of these papers. Fulfilling this responsibility takes me three to four hours for a paper that is around 8,000 words long. As for reports, I am closer to Out to Pasture (comment 3) than to those who oppose her/him. One can certainly explain one's recommendation in a couple of paragraphs, provided that explaining is not equated with arguing the point. In any case, I don't find myself or my friends agreeing more with the more argumentative reports. On the contrary, it seems that the longer a negative comment is, the more an author will find to disagree with. There is a faint suggestion in one of the anti-OTP comments that one has a duty to help the authors write a good paper. (Networking is hard to find.) I would find this presumptuous: who am I to give advice to someone I don't know? In any case, I referee perhaps twenty five papers a year—though recently I have been trying to do no more than one a month—and I certainly wouldn't take on that number if I thought that this was expected of me.
Just got a letter from an outfit called International Innovation, offering to write a three-page article showcasing my work. (Actually, I suspect I would have written the article, and they would have published it.) The cost to me would have been US$5000 or so, I think, going on some information I got by Googling. (I can't be certain; the discussion didn't go that far.) International Innovation does exist; it's an open access magazine (http://www.internationalinnovation.com/). The profile would have been "genuine," or at least accurate. And It follows the funding model that Richard Price talks about. I didn't go for it, but it isn't unethical or even a clear shill. At least, I don't think it is. I'd certainly be interested in feedback on this.
Personally, Charles, I feel quite hard line on this. You have to read ALL the writing samples. There are ways to make the work manageable. For example, you can divide the labour within your Department or committee. But you must, as a selection committee, rely on direct evidence. You say that this risks bias on the basis of background. This is a legitimate concern, though I have found that if you insist that the readers summarize and address the content (rather than simply giving an assessment or letter grade), this concern is somewhat mitigated. However that might be, you can't just pass the job of assessment to somebody who is less invested in their judgement than you are. (They are assessing the publishability of one paper; you are choosing a lifetime colleague.) Unfortunately the good folks in HR departments don't understand this, and this is a problem in places where they have undue oversight. Maybe we shouldn't threadjack. So though I am interested in your response, I won't respond back (except off-air).
This is not the first time a problem has arisen from a Synthese special issue. To me it seems as if the journal should either stop publishing them or exert the usual oversight. The rationale for a special issue is that it is edited with special expertise on a particular topic, which serves as the focus for the issue. But it is not a license for the editor of a special issue (Gergely Szekely, in this case) to publish conference proceedings without adequate vetting. Nor do EiCs have less of a responsibility to ensure that proper standards are met. As for hiring people on the basis of their publication records, surely hiring committees have a responsibility to read and evaluate a candidate's publications before they hire him or her? It is sheer irresponsibility to delegate the evaluation of your candidates to referees and editors whose identity you don't know.
You can call Dennett and the Churchlands crazy if you like, UG. That's different from questioning their competence. In the first place, both Dennett and the Churchlands have contributed oodles more than the denial of consciousness. And secondly, what they say is a good bit more nuanced than you give them credit for. I don't think the Churchlands deny consciousness; they just think that neuroscience doesn't treat it as the unitary phenomenon that "folk psychology" makes of it. Dennett's heterophenomenology comes closer, I guess—he's never quite shaken free of his teacher, Ryle—but doesn't actually get there. Both the Churchlands and Dennett allow propositional attitudes, though they take a deflationary, pragmatist view of them. Let me just say this. If you knew and had spent time with these people, and if you are an open and generous person, you wouldn't dismiss them so lightly. They are polymaths, who have had huge influence not just in philosophy but in the sciences and in popular culture. Just take Dennett's contribution to Cheney and Seyfarth's project on monkey communication, or Paul's work on connectionism, or Pat's collaboration with people like Francis Crick and V. S. Ramachandran. Or take Dennett's magnificent argument with Lewontin. Or Pat's shrewdly undermining work on free will and morals. They are not the kind of shill who privately prints books and mails them around the world in the hope that they'll become famous. They are no nine-day wonders. Come on: show some respect for a level of achievement most of us can only aspire to.
Dear UG, Very good point about Kripke, less good about Swinburne whose dualism is more under the influence than influential. I'm not questioning his brilliance, merely his originality in this area. I have to say I am a little (OK, more than a little) shocked to hear you question the "competence" of Dennett and the Churchlands. Really??—it makes me think that UG might actually stand for what we usually think it stands for. It's appalling to dismiss these truly important and influential figures in this cavalier way. It's hard to know where to stop when I start counting up what they have contributed to contemporary discussions of the mind . . . and even if you think that each of these contributions is off the wall, they have enormously enriched the discussion and subsequent understanding of the mind.
Thanks "little helper" for Lynne Baker! Good call. Brian, you didn't say anglophone. Is that the default assumption here?! BL COMMENT: The poll was explicitly limited to Anglophone philosophers of mind--see the original post and the poll itself.
Hard to argue against the contemporary importance of these figures (with the possible exception of Gilbert Ryle). But without making a judgement about whether they should displace anybody (or who), here are some other people who have had a huge influence: Merleau-Ponty (younger than Ryle though he died young), Place, Smart, Austin (as good as Ryle and less prone to making silly mistakes), Strawson, Evans, Charles Taylor, Brian O'Shaughnessy (completely crazy, but laser sharp and very influential still, though not often acknowledged by name), Chris Peacocke, Ruth Millikan (of course!), Larry Hardin, Ronnie de Sousa (his work on emotion has been remarkably durable), Colin McGinn, Michael Tye, Andy Clark. (I feel sheepish that my list of the overlooked includes only one woman, Ruth Millikan, and she is not overlooked in the comment section. Can somebody help me out? For the record, I think Anscombe and Pat Churchland deserve to be higher in the ranking.) BL COMMENT: Several of these people were in the poll, but did not make the top 20. Merleau-Ponty is, of course, not an Anglophone philosopher of mind!
Ok, so I spent a minute looking it up. According to Wikipedia: "Calhoun was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he defended as a "positive good" rather than as a "necessary evil". His rhetorical defense of slavery was partially responsible for escalating Southern threats of secession in the face of mounting abolitionist sentiment in the North. Calhoun was one of the "Great Triumvirate" or the "Immortal Trio" of Congressional leaders, along with his Congressional colleagues Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In 1957, a Senate Committee selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators of all time. Calhoun "was a public intellectual of the highest order...and a uniquely gifted American politician,"[7] and "probably the last American statesman to do any primary political thinking." Great life, eh? And what a Senate you guys have.
In response to a worry expressed by some on this thread . . . There are people like Aristotle, Jefferson, and Heidegger who made positive contributions to life and letters, but who also subscribed to evil views (whether excusably or not). Then there are people like Calhoun whose achievements amount, I gather, to this: he gave money to Yale and championed evil views. We should make a distinction. Yale has no reason at all to commemorate this person except for the fact that it took money from him. The case is different from that of (e.g.) Heidegger who, if he is commemorated, would not be commemorated for his support of the Nazis.
I am puzzled by Steven Hales's question. Damnatio memoriae was (according to Wikipedia, anyway—I had to look it up) the Roman practice of prohibiting forever the mention of some disapproved person, with the intention of erasing this person from history. I guess erasing Calhoun's name from this college would in some limited way be a damnatio memoriae (though not really, if it arose out of vigorous discussion of Calhoun's evil ways, which entails remembering him, though not in a good way). Is this meant to be an argument against? . . . I honestly don't understand the thrust of this comment. To be clear, my view is that Calhoun should now be dishonoured by removing his name from the college, and erecting a plaque that says something like this: "On this day, the 15th of November, 2015, we the trustees of Yale University rename this college Michael Brown College. We sincerely apologize for letting it bear, for more than eighty years, the name of an odious racist."
To repeat a question I asked on Daily Nous (and should more properly have asked here, my apologies): what is the x-axis in your second graph (the one entitled "H index"? And what does the size of the various circles indicate?
I don't exactly understand where your correspondent is headed. As you suggest, Brian, the last paragraph is virtually incoherent. On the specific issue, the "stranger" addressed a "friend" in a manner that the friend seriously didn't like. Having been called out, stranger decided that he didn't want anything more to do with his friend. Very odd response, unless there's more to know. If you give a friend offence, why not apologize? This relationship must not have run very deep. On the more general issue, I agree that one shouldn't be taken as malevolent just because one uses language people don't like. But really, your correspondent doth protest too much. He (can we fairly make inferences about your correspondent's gender?) has worked himself into a big theoretical froth over something that's not worth more than a shrug. Why is he in such a tizzy about the travails of a stranger?
I don't know how you could know that your 75th percentile are 95th percentile at most middle tier universities. More importantly, I don't know how an admissions committee member could know it, or know that this is what you mean to say. They will take it as semaphore: "She's brilliant as hell." (Cancel previous signal.) I think Ken Taylor's read is spot on: just tick the left-most column right down the line, and everybody will ignore that part of your letter.
A couple of things. First, it seems to me that recommendations are a terrible way to judge applicants for anything: jobs, PhD programs, or anything else. But given the volume of applications, people are going to take short cuts where they can. One way to make a quick judgement is to look for outliers in places that are easy to spot. If you say top 5%, nobody's going to notice, but if you say top 10-25%, it'll stick out like a sore thumb. Indeed, it might be taken as a coded dis-recommendation. Second, and perhaps more contentiously, are your students really so outstanding that top 25% is as good as top 5% at a less prominent university? That's not obvious a priori, and it seems to me understandable that an admissions committee might be sceptical.
As a former New APPS blogger, I must say that I find this post obtuse. Jon did not in the least suggest that one should not push hard against speaking sensitively, carefully, and respectfully about everybody, and in particular about the disadvantaged and excluded. I don't see at all how he has "lost perspective" on systems of exclusion. His worry, as I understand it, is about how productive it is to disallow even a slight amount of give in the use of language. I share that concern. I don't think, for example, that it is wrong to use 'blind' when it is clear that it does not suggest stupidity. (By the way, Mark Lance's extraordinarily priggish comment on Jon's thread—he is "shocked", he says, literally shocked—accuses him of being "blind". You come very close to committing the same offence with your talk of "losing perspective"—such an affliction, if it literally exists, would count as a visual agnosia.) I don't think that the metaphor of justice being blind is objectionable, because unlike your "lost perspective," it suggests a virtue, rather than a failing. Putting the precise example to one side, I don't think it's productive to ratchet up this kind of rhetoric to the point where you feel that you can use terms like 'disappointing' to describe a colleague. I mean really, what gives you the right?
Hi Roberta, A concern was recently expressed on Philosopher's Cocoon about the dangers of not being properly cited when you post unpublished papers on the Internet. I am not sure that I fully understand this concern; but as somebody who is involved with a preprint archive you might have some thoughts.
It's a horrible and unprecedented result, the ascent to the highest office of an extreme Hindu nationalist, a member of the quasi-militia RSS. But it seems beside the point to criticize it as undemocratic because proportional representation might have led to a different result. (Actually, I haven't seen an analysis of what the result would have been in a proportional representation scenario: after all, the BJP got 60% more votes than the next best party.) Let's face the ugly truth: India voted badly. Let's hope it comes to its senses next time.