Philosophical Disquisitions #1
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Welcome to the fourth edition of the Philosophical Disquisitions newsletter. It's been awhile since the last one (mid-November). The Christmas holidays obviously intervened, as did various work-related commitments, but, to make up for it, this edition has an extended recommended reading section covering a lot of the reading I got done over the winter break. There's also lots of blogging and podcasting to catch up on so let's get to it without further ado. (Oh yeah, and if you like the newsletter, please spread the word and encourage others to sign up...)

The Shame of Work (New Rambler Review)

(Picture: Jiro Ono from Jiro Dreams of Sushi)

I wrote a review of David Frayne's book The Refusal of Work and it was published on the New Rambler website back in mid-November. Here's an extract from the intro...

"David Gelb’s 2013 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an unusual film. It is a vivid, memorable and beautifully-filmed portrait of Jiro Ono, the indomitable and indefatigable owner and head chef at the tiny, 10-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant nestled in a Tokyo subway station. Although small and unassuming in size, the restaurant is world-renowned. It has received three Michelin stars and is regularly lauded by food critics. The owner is also a remarkable man. Now in his late 80s, he still dedicates his life to his work, following the same routine day-in and day-out, reluctantly breaking it only when there is a national holiday.  

I have watched the film twice and had very different reactions each time. The first time I found it exhilarating and uplifting. Although stern and uncompromising, Jiro exuded a deep passion and commitment to his life’s work. He seemed to embody the Japanese spirit of the Shokunin, the master craftsman, constantly striving for perfection through slow and incremental improvement. There was a seriousness of purpose and an unapologetic dedication to what he was doing that was refreshing to my cynical and world-weary ways. Work is good, the movie seemed to be saying, and it can be great if you approach it with the right attitude.

Then I watched it for a second time. This time the movie was less uplifting. Gone was the paean to craftsmanship and the power of the work ethic. In its place was a somewhat nightmarish and dystopian warning call. The movie depicted the troubling apotheosis of capitalism. Jiro was dedicated to his craft but at what cost? He worked closely with his two sons, but there was virtually no representation of family or home life in the film. He only became close to them when they started to work for him, and after denying them a university education. Jiro’s wife is never mentioned; we get a fleeting glimpse of her in an old photograph. Jiro’s older son clearly wishes to take over the family restaurant, but his father refuses to retire. A trip to the fish market revels in the extractive horrors of capitalism. The sellers lament the low quantity and quality of fish on sale, a crisis being precipitated by the overfishing that supplies the rising demand for sushi. An old man at the market complains of being tired and worn out. He longs to retire. Why can’t he? We are never told. The colonizing and soul-crushing powers of work were suddenly brought into sharp relief..." [click to read the whole thing]

The Normativity of Linguistic Originalism: A Speech Act Analysis

I have published two papers critiquing originalist theories of constitutional interpretation. Nobody seems to have read them. Here's the first.

Abstract The debate over the merits of originalism has advanced considerably in recent years, both in terms of its intellectual sophistication and its practical significance. In the process, some prominent originalists—Lawrence Solum and Jeffrey Goldsworthy being the two discussed here—have been at pains to separate out the linguistic and normative components of the theory. For these authors, while it is true that judges and other legal decision-makers ought to be originalists, it is also true that the communicated content of the constitution is its original meaning. That is to say: the meaning is what it is, not what it should be. Accordingly, there is no sense in which the communicated content of the constitution is determined by reference to moral desiderata; linguistic desiderata do all the work. In this article, I beg to differ. In advancing their arguments for linguistic originalism, both authors rely upon the notion of successful communications conditions. In doing so they implicitly open up the door for moral desiderata to play a role in determining the original communicated content. This undercuts their claim and changes considerably the dialectical role of linguistic originalism in the debate over constitutional interpretation

Read it for free on Philpapers or If you want the official version, drop me an email.

Best of the Blog

  • The Logical Space of Algocracy (Redux): Text version of a talk I delivered in Edinburgh University on the 25th November. I revisited my earlier thesis that it is possible to construct a logical space of algocratic decision-making procedures.
  • The Philosophy of Social Constructionism: An attempt to understand what it means to say that 'X is socially constructed'. Unsurprisingly one of the more popular posts I have written (given the link to identity politics).
  • Why Communication is Needed for Consent: Lots of people talk about affirmative consent standards nowadays. What does this mean and can they be defended? I look at Tom Dougherty's argument for public communication in consent.

End of Year Lists

Like most bloggers, I compile a series of lists at the end of the year summarising my various online activities. Here they are.


I am doing a podcast as part of my Algocracy and Transhumanism Project. Did you know? You can subscribe here and here. Here the three most recent episodes:

  • Episode #15 - Nicole Vincent on Happiness and NeurointerventionsIn this episode I talk to Nicole Vincent. Nicole is an international philosopher extraordinaire. She has appointments at Georgia State University, TU Delft (Netherlands) and Macquarie University (Sydney). Nicole’s work focuses on the philosophy of responsibility, cognitive enhancement and neuroethics. We talk about two main topics: (i) can neuroscience make us happier? and (ii) how should we think about radically changing ourselves through technology?
  • Episode #16 - Anders Sandberg on the Ethics of Time Compression in Computing: In this episode I talk to Anders Sandberg about the ethical implications of time compression – or the speeding up of computational tasks to quantum levels. Anders is research associate to the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. His research at the Future of Humanity Institute centres on management of low-probability high-impact risks, societal and ethical issues surrounding human enhancement, estimating the capabilities of future technologies, and very long-range futures. He is currently senior researcher in the FHI-Amlin collaboration on systemic risk of risk modelling. I ask Anders about his latest research on time compression in computing, and about the effects this might have on human values and society.
  • Episode #17 - Steve Fuller on Transhumanism and the Proactionary ImperativeIn this episode I talk to Professor Steve Fuller about his sometimes controversial views on transhumanism, religion, science and technology, enhancement and evolution. Steve is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of a trilogy relating to the idea of a ‘post-’ or ‘trans-‘ human future, all published with Palgrave Macmillan: Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future (2011), Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0 (2012) and (with Veronika Lipinska) The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism (2014). Our conversation focuses primarily on the arguments and ideas found in the last book of the trilogy.

Recommended Reading 

Books on Intellectual Quarrels

I did a lot of reading over the Christmas break but for some reason most of it was about intellectual quarrels. Some of these were just historical gossip and entertainment, others more had more intellectual depth, but all were enjoyable to read:
  • The Cambridge Quintet (John Casti): This was a re-read. It's a short, fictional, philosophical dialogue about the possibility of artificial intelligence. The gimmick is that it all takes place over dinner in a Cambridge college, shortly after WWII, and features some famous historical figures. The dialogue is mainly a dispute between Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein, with occasional contributions from CP Snow, JBS Haldane and Erwin Schrodinger. It's an afternoon read and gives a basic introduction to the philosophy of AI (circa mid-1990s). It's dated, but fun.
  • Wittgenstein's Poker (David Edmonds and John Eidinow): This was another re-read. It's a breezy history of early 20th century philosophy, centring around a (disputed) historical event in which Ludwig Wittgenstein threatened Karl Popper with a poker. It does a good job describing the cultural context and personalities involved.
  • The Philosophers' Quarrel (Robert Zaretsky and John Scott): Pictured above, this one is about the quarrel between David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Great portrait of Paris during the Enlightenment but, try as they might, the authors can't convince me that there was anything deeply philosophical about the dispute between the two men. Seems to have mainly been about Hume (allegedly) spying on Rousseau's correspondence and conspiring to ridicule him in public.
  • The Best of All Possible Worlds (Steven Nadler): Beautifully written intellectual history of the debates between Leibniz, Malebranche and Arnauld about metaphysics and the problem of evil. Lots of insights into early modern philosophy as it made the shift away from presuming the truth of Christianity to a more sceptical outlook. Any book I've read by Nadler has been excellent.
  • Keynes vs Hayek (Nicholas Wapshott): This is a detailed review of the back and forth between two of the most famous economists of the 20th Century. When I say 'detailed' I mean it summarises specific articles and lectures they gave in reply to one another. Might be quite difficult for someone without a background in economics.
  • The Undoing Project (Michael Lewis): Officially, this isn't about a dispute. It is, rather, about the intellectual love affair (Lewis's words) between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, both of whom were psychologists who spearheaded the 'biases and heuristics' research paradigm, and became influential in behavioural economics. Unofficially, it ends up being about the break of the two men and what provoked. This was fascinating to me since I was quite familiar with the work they had done together but had no idea that they fell out in the end. Also, fascinating on academic jealousy and self doubt.


A lot of my article-reading gets folded back into my blogging, but two papers that I've recently enjoyed and not yet had the chance to blog about are:

Talks and Lectures: Winter-Spring 2017

I am doing a handful of talks over the next few months. At least two are open to the public:
  • University of Aberdeen - TBA - A research seminar at the Law School in Aberdeen. 17 March 2017.
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