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I’ve written on this blog before about the ways in which I think political discourse in the US serves democracy poorly. A recent article by David Gewirtz at ZDNet on the subject of the moral status of DDoS attacks has prompted me to write about this topic again.

Gewirtz writes in response to the arguments of Molly Sauter, of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Sauter summarizes her project like this:

(more…)

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RIP: Jim Aune

With Jim Aune’s death, the discipline of rhetoric lost one of its bright lights this week.  Sincerest condolences to those who knew Prof. Aune, worked with him, learned from him, and wrote with him at The Blogora.

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Those acquainted with informal logic and argumentation will no doubt recognize Trudy Govier as one of the pioneers in the field.  RAIL is happy to report that her efforts have been recognized outside of the argumentation community too.  As the title of the post indicates, Prof. Govier has received the 2012 Distinguished Academic Award of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Association (CAFA).  The full story can be found here.  Well deserved!

 
(Thanks to Cate Hundleby for bringing this to my attention!)

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Some RAIL readers may recall the fracas that developed between Peter Wood, of the NAS and AILACT around the end of 2011.  Unfortunately, it’s a fracas in which RAIL played a direct role–something I sincerely regret. Though I had written what I hoped was a moderate-in-tone post questioning Wood’s use of the term ‘critical thinking’ before this, it was a guest post by Don Lazere that really earned Wood’s anger in sufficient quantity for him to denounce both RAIL and AILACT in a post at the Chronicle of Higher Education website. Many members of AILACT, including myself, found Wood’s characterization of the organization and its conception of critical thinking in this post to be both unfair and inaccurate.  In order to respond to Wood’s charges, the Board of AILACT wrote the following reply, which appears in the organization’s April Newsletter.  It is reproduced here, in its entirety, by permission of the Board.  In addition to setting the record straight about AILACT and the sense of critical thinking it endorses, I hope that it sets the stage for a more constructive dialogue between AILACT and Wood, and with others who care about critical thinking and its place in higher education.

A Reply by the AILACT Board to Peter Wood’s CHE Comments on “Critical Thinking” (more…)

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I had thought that the increasing strategy of reductio ad absurdum in US politics was because so much of US politics is verging on the absurd.  However, the picture may be more complicated than that, and it’s nice to think there is some source for the problem we might address systematically.

A series of “joke amendments” provide reductios to abortion bills that have recently surged.  These “jokes”, such as the suggestion that vasectomies be illegal, are a serious move, argues Jessica Ogilvie in The Gloss.  They reveal inattention to the medical nature of abortion procedures.

“Legislating against it is just as fucked up as, say, legislating against heart surgery. Or prostate cancer surgery. Or…vasectomies.”

How does this happen?  She suggests it’s political inflation:

“When we talk about abortion, we get so caught up in the politics of it, as well as the philosophical questions it brings up (questions that would be better addressed in a house of worship or a college class than on a Senate floor, for the record), that we tend to lose sight of one important fact: abortion is a medical procedure.”

But what is the source of this inflation?  Everyone likes to think he or she is a moral expert and may caught up in the headiness of the debate.  How many philosophers avoid teaching the abortion debate because it is just so very heady?  Too many, I’d say.  I concur with Ogilvie that that’s a proper venue, and I’d add underused.

What allows us to lose sight of the medical nature of abortion, and the fact that it is a rare law that prohibits people from choosing what to do with their bodies, right or wrong, is the proliferation of discourse.  Politics has become self-sustaining and spun off from the concrete contexts that give it significance; likewise medical decisions can be assigned to physicians (as abortion used to be in Canada) instead of patients.  Such divergent discourses are harder to avoid in a classroom, or in the personal decision (as this joke card makes clear).

Thank goodness feminist lawyers are trained in critical thinking and strategic argumentation that aids the revelation of assumptions, such as the assumption that abortion is not a medical procedure.

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University of Guelph graduate students (it’s my understanding) have been organizing in a serious fashion to take philosophy out of the ivory tower.  A two-day series of events, with six concurrent sessions addresses issues from Einstein to zombies, heuristics, and feminism. 

Philopolis Guelph, inspired by Philopolis Montreal aims to “[do] a better job [than academic philosophers have been doing] of engaging in dialogue with the public: this requires finding a common language, as well as being explicit about the relevance of the ideas at issue. Both academic philosophers and the broader public stand to benefit one another greatly through this kind of exchange—free of jargon, of minced words, and of exclusionary assumptions. “

Philopolis’ resistance to academic jargon and presumption promises to make philosophy accountable as well as show non-philosophers how valuable philosophy can be.  The development of a common language is a creative endeavour that requires public engagement, and making assumptions explicit is an important principle of critical thinking to put into practice.

Philosophers sometimes think we own “critical thinking,” which is an extremely dangerous assumption in itself.  Sociologists, neurologists and physicists engage in critical thinking too, and are more aware of the limitations to their methods.

I know at Guelph they’ve been talking about this sort of event for years, and I spoke at one such around 2004.  Unfortunately, that lacked the upswell and publicity that supports this event.  Such savvy is to the credit of the graduate students, I expect.

As a faculty brat, I have a long-abiding affection for graduate students from the old days when there were more personal relationships between faculty and graduate students.  While that intimacy could and often did involve a number of problems regarding sexual morality and nepotism, some of us benefited in the most benign ways.  As the numbers of graduate students swell — at least in Canada where governments are putting money into that sector of education (mostly to the exclusion of others), many freshly-minted doctors will be disappointed by their job prospects.  The benefit however (and this is the reason the government puts the money there) is for society in general.  Graduate students have insight, passion, networking skills, and drive that can drive social and intellectual progress.  That power is well-demonstrated by Philopolis Guelph.

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Steve and I have had an extended discussion about the subversive potential of art since the (latest) Hendricks scandal broke.  The case of the public library in Troy, Michigan is a good case in point, I think, of how hiding the artistic quality of a communication can aid in critical thinking, foster political dialogue, and be constitutive to the art itself.

When the library was in danger of closing, supporters enacted a reductio ad absurdum on those pushing for the closure to save on taxes.  The supporters posted false publicity of a book burning party, a campaign that enraged so many people that the nature of the discourse shifted away from taxes and back to books; eventually the library was saved.

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