February 15, 2017

groundhog

Many of us would beg to differ with T.S. Elliot’s pronouncing April the cruelest month, what with February’s short days, cold temperatures and  road salt everywhere. Waterloo philosophers, though, were out in the gloom trying to make the world (or, for some, at least the academy), a better place.

Andria Bianchi, a PhD student who participated last summer in the Department’s pilot project for the new Applied Philosophy PhD program, recently won the Faculty of Arts heat in the Three Minute Thesis competition. In this event, students have three minutes (and one static slide) to explain their thesis project to a crowd of intelligent non-experts. Andria presented her thesis topic, the difficulties surrounding sexual autonomy for people with dementia, by starting with an example—a legal case in which a person was charged for having sex with their spouse of many decades, since the spouse was judged to no longer have the capacity to consent. Andria went on to outline three interesting and different ways to think more carefully about the question of sexual consent for people with diminished capabilities than legal authorities in that case might have done. I was lucky enough to see her in action. That her topic is both theoretically interesting and practically important was obvious to everyone in the room. She will participate in the University-wide competition on March 23 at 3 pm in the Theatre of the Arts, Modern Languages Building.

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Andria Bianchi in action at the 3MT competition

Two faculty members have recently presented their research on how to make the academy a better place.

Carla Fehr, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy, attended the Minorities and Philosophy Workshop on Testimony and Deference. The question of how to make Philosophy a more inclusive, and consequently more interesting and productive discipline has been a central concern for Carla for many years. Her Feb. 9 talk at the conference was called “Why are numbers better than words? Uptake of different kinds of data about difference.”

In modern universities, where central administrations are under pressure to demonstrate to the governments who provide the bulk of their funding that the research and teaching done in their institutions has “value” and “impact,” humanities scholars often bemoan the fact that the value of what they do frequently gets overlooked in this process. Part of this has to do with humanities research being measured using “metrics” designed for evaluating research in engineering and in the natural and medical sciences. Since the pressure to demonstrate the value of research is not going to go away, a sensible response is to develop alternative metrics that are better suited to measuring the value of humanities research. As it happens, one of Canada’s leading thinkers on precisely this topic is our own Tim Kenyon. On February 7 and 8 Tim presented two invited talks to the University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities on the topic of research impacts and assessment in Humanities and Social Sciences.

Shannon Dea continues to be sought out as a spokesperson on important social issues. She was one of thousands of academics who signed a pledge to boycott academic conferences in the US. The boycott is intended as a show of solidarity with Muslim colleagues affected by US President Donald Trump’s executive order banning many of them from traveling to the US. Shannon found herself being interviewed to explain the rationale behind the boycott by major Canadian newspapers, the CBC, and overseas news outlets that I can’t link to because they’re behind a paywall. She was also interviewed by local media for commentary on the Women’s March on Washington.

Within the department, we heard an interesting presentation on the question of how to ensure that research can be effectively carried out, and that the results of research will get the uptake they should in society.

Heidi Grasswick, who is visiting this term as the Humphrey Professor in Feminist Philosophy, gave the second of her three public lectures on February 10. Her talk, called “Trust, Science, and Epistemic Injustice,” focused on the role of the trust of scientific experts in the scientific enterprise. Without such trust, people may not cooperate with experts, with harmful effects on the quality of the science; moreover, without such trust people are unlikely to believe or modify their behavior in light of science. Both these problems give rise to what Heidi calls “epistemic trust injustices.” She concluded the talk with some suggestions of approaches to mitigating these problems and the consequent injustices.

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Heidi Grasswick with Skeena

The public lecture was followed by a reception in the Department’s Learning Commons. Dr Grasswick will deliver one more public lecture, “What’s in a Name? Feminist Epistemology as Social Epistemology,” on March 17 at 2:30. It is a public talk, and will also be followed by a reception, so we’d be glad to see you there. More generally, if you’d like to be on the notification list for department colloquia, get in touch with Vicki Brett.

The intellectual atmosphere in the Department received another boost with the revival of the Brown Bag Lunch Talk series. In these talks, Department members, often graduate students, give a short presentation of work-in-progress, followed by a longer-than-usual question period. The idea is that these talks give the speaker an opportunity to try out new ideas in front of a sympathetic crowd, while the audience gets to know what others in the Department are working on.

The first talk, on February 6, was by Wesley Buckwalter, who is completing his Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship this year (and who already is author of some of the most cited papers over the past several years in some of the top journals in the field). His talk, “Moral Responsibility and Implicit Social Cognition,” addressed the question of whether we are morally responsible for actions caused by implicit attitudes that we are not aware of and cannot control.

The next talk, on February 13, was by Ian MacDonald, an ABD PhD student. Ian presented a talk, “Why Peirce Rejects Cartesian Doubt,” that grows out of his thesis research. In the talk he defended Peirce against some critics who accuse him of misunderstanding Descartes, and argued that Peirce’s reasons for rejecting Cartesian methodology lies behind his own more plausible account the role of doubt in the progress of science.

Someone who has been making the University of Waterloo better in a different way is official Friend of the Philosophy Department Bob Ewen. On Feb. 10 Bob was one of the honoured guests at the official opening of the Hagey Hall Hub, during which the main floor space was named “Founders Hall” in honour of the people who had the vision to found UW in the 1950s. Bob’s generosity in support of the Hagey Hub is recognized by the second floor work space being named for him. The support he and other donors has provided for this project has allowed the Faculty of Arts to create an attractive space that will benefit students for generations to come. Thanks, Bob!

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Bob Ewen

Engaging Philosophy entries often conclude with a list of blogs authored, or partially authored, by members of the Department. With this entry we are adding a new blog to the list, authored by the Department’s newest member, Katy Fulfer. The blog’s title, appropriately capturing the spirit of the  Department, is Philosophy in the World.

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Katy Fulfer with her new friends Gabrielle, Xena, and Dottie

Finally, we must close with some sad news. We recently learned of the death of Philip McCullough, who graduated in 2011 with an Honours BA in Philosophy. This article, written while he was still an undergraduate, is an example of Philip’s fine mind at work. The Department extends its sympathy to Philip’s family and loved ones.

– Dave DeVidi

Want to read more? Check out our faculty members’ blogs:

Hot Thought

Feminist Philosophers

The Kramer is Now

Philosophy in the World

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