Here’s a short conceptual analysis of bragging….


The fact that Wikipedia lists me as a notable alumnus of my college speaks ill of the reliability of crowd sourced information.

~ Tweet by @johnmoe

1. Aim to impress


The speech act of bragging has never been subjected to conceptual analysis.  This paper fills that lacuna.[1]  The most-studied speech act is assertion.  Less attention has been paid to other speech acts, such as requests, promises, declarations, and apologies.  We argue that bragging is a special form of asserting.[2]  Specifically, a speaker brags just in case she aims to impress her addressee with something about herself by asserting something about herself.

Many speech acts characteristically aim at generating a particular type of mental state in the addressee.  Assertion aims to generate belief.  Promising aims to generate trust or reliance.  Commands aim to generate intentions.  We contend that bragging aims to generate the state of being impressed.  It suffices for present purposes to characterize being impressed as a distinctive mental state, which we think is best construed as an emotion akin to awe, wonder, and admiration. Our first claim, then, is that someone doesn’t count as bragging if she isn’t trying to impress her addressee.

Consider a case: your interlocutor tells you, “I used to play fly-half for the Oxford rugby team.”  Let’s contextualize this conversational gambit.  If you, like the speaker, are a rugby aficionado and realize that the fly-half position is arguably the most important on the team, then you are likely to be impressed.  Intuitively, if the speaker makes this assertion to another sports fan, he is bragging.  However, if you’ve just told him that you feel nothing but contempt for sports and sportsmen, then unless he’s simply clueless it would hardly seem that he’s bragging.  After all, he can’t intend to do what he takes to be impossible, and it’s likely that he thinks it’s not possible to impress you with his sporting prowess.  Perhaps he’s telling you something about himself to test whether you can be friends.  Perhaps he’s purposefully outing himself to end the conversation.  Perhaps he’s engaged in special pleading on the part of his favorite sport.  But one thing he’s clearly not doing is bragging.  In each case, he’s asserting that he’s accomplished something.  In the original case but not the variants, he’s also bragging.  We think the best explanation of this difference is that bragging aims to impress.

Does he need to be impressed with himself?  We think not.  Suppose, for instance, that he thinks the competitive level of university rugby is embarrassingly poor, such that nothing one does in that context could be impressive.  Still, if he thinks you don’t know that, he would be bragging.

Does he need to think that a fully-informed, disinterested observer would be impressed?  Once again, no.  A fully-informed, disinterested observer would also realize that the competitive level of university rugby is embarrassingly poor.  Nevertheless, if he thinks that you have some investment in rugby or sports more generally, he could boast by asserting that he used to play fly-half.

Does he need to think that the thing that will impress his address is or will be seen as good (morally, prudentially, or in some other way)?  A third time, no. Consider Cool Hand Luke’s claim that he can eat fifty eggs.  Is it morally, prudentially, epistemically, or aesthetically good to have this capacity?  Nevertheless, it is a feat.  His claim to be able to eat fifty eggs is a boast.  One can even brag about something that is or is likely to be perceived as negative (morally, prudentially, or in some other way).  Imagine a university professor who preens about the fact that she’s never, in her career, given an undergraduate paper a grade of A, let alone A+, because she is only willing to award such grades to papers that are publishable without revisions.  She knows that her colleagues find this standard appalling but impressive.  She is boasting.  This provides an opportunity to distinguish between bragging and self-praise.  They overlap extensively, but they doubly dissociate.  You can engage in self-praise that isn’t bragging if you don’t intend your audience to be impressed with you.  You can brag without engaging in self-praise if you don’t intend your addressee to attribute responsibility to you.  As Aristotle points out in the Nicomachean Ethics (3.5), praiseworthiness presupposes responsibility.

These considerations suggest that in bragging a speaker aims to produce in the addressee (and not necessarily in anyone else) the state of being impressed.


2. Impress by asserting


An obvious objection is that if bragging is aimed at producing the emotion of being impressed, then we are wrong to classify it as a kind of assertion.  This objection fails because, on our account, bragging aims at producing both a belief and the state of being impressed.  Specifically, we think that a speaker brags iff she intends by making an utterance:

(1)  to produce in the addressee the belief that p,

(2)  that the addressee should recognize the speaker’s intention (1),

(3)  that the addressee should base her belief that p on her recognition of (1), and

(4)  that the addressee’s belief that p lead her to be impressed with the speaker.

The first three conditions will be familiar from Grice (1957).  The fourth distinguishes bragging as a special kind of assertion.  One might wonder why we don’t include a fifth condition to the effect that A recognizes (4) and a sixth condition to the effect that A should base her being impressed with S on her recognition of (4).  We take up this issue below.  In this section, we defend the assertion conditions (1-3).

Does boasting really have to piggy-back on assertion?  Can one boast by asking a question, by issuing a directive, by apologizing, and so on?  Consider this case: an audience-member at an academic talk asks a devastating question then smiles smugly to herself.  Let’s stipulate that she aimed to impress the rest of the audience.  Does her question count as a boast?  We think the answer depends on how exactly she aims to impress the rest of the audience.  Presumably, she intends to get them to think that she’s very clever.  On our account, if she also intends them to recognize this intention and to base their belief on it, then she is indirectly bragging because she’s indirectly asserting that she is clever (in much the same way that someone can indirectly command you to get off his foot by asserting that you’re standing on it).  If she doesn’t have these further intentions, then our account says she isn’t bragging.  This seems right, or at least not clearly wrong.

One might think, though, that only condition (4) is truly necessary: as long as the addressee ends up being impressed with the speaker, the precise pathway is irrelevant.  We think that cases one might be inclined to describe as non-assertive brags fall into just two categories: indirect assertions (and hence indirect brags susceptible to the same analysis as the question case above) and non-brags.

For example: “I want to compete for another Iron Chef trophy, but my chances this time are terrible.”  Instead of asserting that she’s already won one Iron Chef trophy, the speaker presupposes it.  Is she bragging?  If by presupposing she indirectly asserts that she’s won and intends to impress, our account says that she indirectly brags.  If she doesn’t indirectly assert (perhaps she thinks her addressee already knows that she’s won once), she isn’t. If expressing the desire to compete, regardless of whether she’s won already, seems like bragging (who would want to compete if they didn’t think they were very good indeed?), we give the same analysis.  Either there’s an indirect assertion involved, or it isn’t a brag at all.

One might demur, claiming that in some cases the speaker intends to impress her addressee directly, without any mediating belief or other mental state.  How, we ask, is it possible to end up in a state of being impressed with X without taking some predicate to be true of X?  You might not be able to articulate what you’re impressed by.  You might get it wrong.  But it seems to us preposterous that you can be in such an emotional state without some belief-like attitude implicitly grounding it.  “I don’t know what it is about X, but I find X impressive.”  That sounds fine.  “Nothing about X is impressive, but X is impressive.”  This strikes us as absurd.


3. If you’ve got it, flaunt it


We have now argued for two necessary conditions on bragging.  First, the bragger must aim to produce in her addressee the emotional state of being impressed.  Second, she must aim to produce this emotional state via the belief produced by asserting.  We now argue that both the belief and the emotion must involve being impressed with something about the speaker.  This is a natural extension of our previous argument that one is never simply impressed with X; one is always impressed with something about X.

Consider two cases of bragging and non-bragging that both aim to produce the emotion of being impressed by way of belief.  In the first, an Oxbridge philosopher by the name of Petro Ungero claims to be smarter than almost all of his own colleagues, as well as the Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman.  In the second, Pyotr Ungerovich claims that David Lewis was the smartest philosopher of the twentieth century.  What distinguishes Ungero from Ungerovich?  It seems clear that the former is bragging while the latter is not.  Both are trying to impress their addressees by getting them to believe something.  The crucial difference is that Ungero is trying to get his addressee to believe something about Ungero which will in turn lead the addressee to be impressed with Ungero.  By contrast, Ungerovich is trying to get his addressee to believe something about Ungerovich, which will in turn lead the addressee to be impressed with Lewis.  More precisely, the structure of bragging is to make an assertion aimed at getting the addressee to believe that the speaker has property P, and thereby to be impressed by the speaker’s having P.

So far, we have rested content with an intuitive notion of what counts as being about the speaker.  We are not in a position to give a full account of this concept, but we can say that we understand it capaciously.  You can clearly brag about your traits and skills.  “I’m courageous,” would traditionally count as a boast, as would, “I’m a chess grandmaster.”  You can also brag about your achievements.  “I’ve summated Annapurna,” is a boast.  It’s also clear that people can and do brag about their group identities.  “I’m a Rothschild,” can be a boast, as can “Canada is the world’s greatest hockey power,” when spoken by a Canadian.  This might seem odd, since it’s no achievement to be born into a particular family or nation, but people clearly do brag about these things.  An analysis of bragging fails if it doesn’t recognize this fact.

You can brag about your traits, skills, and group identities; it’s clear that you can also brag about your possessions.  “I own a Bugatti,” is a boast, as is, “I’m all about conspicuous consumption.”  Again, it might be distasteful, bourgeois, philistine, or immoral to boast in this way, but the question whether it’s permissible to boast is distinct from the question whether it’s possible.

It might seem at this point that, on our account, there’s nothing you can’t in principle brag about.  In fact, we are sympathetic to this idea.  We want to suggest that it doesn’t matter whether the thing bragged about is in any fundamental way associated with the speaker.  Instead, what matters is that the speaker takes the addressee to associate the bragged-about thing with the speaker (and potentially be impressed by it).  If I think that you think that the identity of my great-great-grandfather is sufficiently associated with me, I can brag about my ancestry.  If I think that you think my astrological sign is sufficiently associated with me, I can brag about my zodiac.  If I think that you think the accomplishments of my acquaintances are sufficiently associated with me, I can brag by name-dropping about whom I’ve met.  What matters is the speaker’s construal of what the addressee associates with the speaker.  Given sociological facts about what people tend to associate with each other, traits, skills, achievements, group identities, and possessions can all conventionally be bragged about.  Were these sociological facts to change, the opportunities to brag would also change.


4. I don’t mean to brag, but…


Thus far, we’ve argued that a speaker brags when and only when she makes an assertion about herself in order to produce in her addressee a belief that will in turn lead the addressee to be impressed with something about the speaker.  Something needn’t be in any way good to be impressive to the addressee, nor need it be impressive to anyone else.  Its connection with the speaker can be tenuous, provided that the speaker takes the addressee to associate it with her.  In the remainder of this paper, we discuss the conditions under which it’s possible to cancel a brag while still making the related assertion, which leads us to conclude with a few remarks on the recent neologism ‘humblebrag’.

It’s of course possible to make a non-bragging assertion that would, in some contexts, constitute a brag. “I used to play fly-half for Oxford,” is an example we’ve already seen.  What makes the difference, on our account, is condition (4): whether the speaker also intends her addressee to be impressed with something about her because they come to believe something about her.  The speaker’s communicative intentions are determinative.  If this is right, it’s not possible to brag by accident, since – even if you end up impressing your addressee unintentionally – you wouldn’t meet the necessary conditions for bragging.  Nevertheless, simply denying that you meant to brag after engaging in egregious self-aggrandizement seems suspect – the braggart’s version of Moore’s paradox.  Compare the more familiar example of an indirect speech act (Searle 1975) in which the speaker performs one speech act by performing another: I can request a beer by asking whether you have any beer.  But I can cancel the implied request by prefacing my question with, “I don’t want a beer, but….”  Canceling the brag while making the assertion doesn’t seem to work so well.  “I’m not trying to impress you by saying this, but I am a genius.”  Yeah right.

Why is it especially hard to cancel a boast?  This question can be answered by distinguishing between two distinct but interlocking aspects of communication: meaning, which is determined by the speaker who must nevertheless take into account how the addressee is likely to interpret her utterance, and interpretation, which is determined by the addressee who must nevertheless take into account what the speaker is likely to have meant by her utterance (Neale 2004).  An utterance succeeds to the extent that what the speaker means is identical to what the addressee interprets.  What’s odoriferous about at least some attempts to assert-without-bragging is that, even if the speaker really doesn’t aim to impress, she makes bizarre if not quite inconsistent demands on the addressee’s interpretation of her utterance.  On the one hand, the addressee is meant to believe something impressive about the speaker.  On the other hand, the addressee is not meant to be impressed – indeed, is meant not to be impressed.  On top of that, the speaker draws attention to the fact that the content of her assertion could be considered impressive.

Why is it especially difficult to cancel brags?  To answer this question, we revert to the familiar point that you can’t intend what you take to be impossible.  The question, then, is whether it’s possible to intend your audience to believe that you’re a genius because you say so, to pay attention to the fact that this would ordinarily be impressive, and yet not to be impressed.  There are bizarre cases in which this is possible, but the vast majority of the time it’s not.  With something less conventionally impressive than genius, the cancellation is more likely to work.  What the speaker needs is an “out.”  She needs to be able to point to some aim other than impressing her addressee that she thinks the addressee will consider plausible.  For instance, the speaker is on an airliner with the addressee, and the pilots have been incapacitated.  She say, “Trust me.  I’m a retired fighter pilot.”  She’s trying to get her addressee to believe that she’s competent to fly the airliner, but she doesn’t care whether the addressee is impressed with her credentials and experience.  She cares whether he trusts her.

Thus, one way to cancel the brag that would otherwise piggy-back on an assertion is to cancel the attempt to impress the addressee by providing an alternative purpose to the utterance (“Trust me; don’t be impressed by me.”)  Another way to cancel the brag is to sever the connection between the impressive thing and the speaker.  For instance, “I’m a multi-millionaire, but all of my wealth is inherited.”  Or, “I’m a descendant of Charlemagne, not that that means anything about me.”  In many cases, canceling the emotional component and canceling the connection to self are patently impossible, so any attempt to do either is doomed.

If the speaker knows that the addressee won’t accept the disclaimer, then she can’t cancel the brag.  Consider the tweet we used as an epigraph, “The fact that Wikipedia lists me as a notable alumnus of my college speaks ill of the reliability of crowd sourced information.”  This is a paradigmatic humblebrag.  What distinguishes it from straightforward bragging?  The humblebragger, in addition to saying something about themselves with the aim of getting their addressee to be impressed with them, tries to do so in such a way that the addressee doesn’t realize that the speaker is trying to impress.  This is usually done by saying something self-deprecating while bragging.  For instance, “I’m not notable,” is paired with, “I’m described as notable on Wikipedia.”

Here’s another example, this one a tweet by American stage actor Steve Kazee responding to the Daily News comparing his appearance to that of Ricky Martin: “Who wore it better?  I mean it’s @ricky_martin for gods sake.  Of course he wears it better!  I can’t compete with that.”  Kazee is bragging: he’s drawing attention to the facts that he is starring in a Broadway show, that his appearance was remarked on positively in a major newspaper, and that he was compared to the heartthrob Ricky Martin.  But he’s trying to brag in such a way that his addressees don’t realize that he aims to impress.

Humblebrags always do this.  They’re especially annoying because they implicitly challenge the addressee’s competence.  For a humblebrag to succeed, the addressee can’t recognize that the speaker aims to impress.  Thus, humblebragging always suggests or presupposes that the addressee isn’t intelligent, sensitive, or savvy enough to see through the self-deprecation to the intention to impress.

We’re finally in a position to return to our decision not to include in our analysis of bragging conditions requiring (5) the speaker to intend that the addressee recognize (4) and (6) be impressed with the speaker based on her recognition of (4).  Condition (6) is a non-starter.  Unless the speaker is embroiled in a boasting contest, she presumably wants her addressees to be impressed not because she means to impress them but because the content of her boast is impressive.  “Don’t be impressed with me because I say so,” she’d say, “Be impressed because I’m impressive!”[3]

What about condition (5)?  If this reflexive intention were necessary for bragging, then humblebragging as we’ve analyzed would be impossible, since the humblebragger would intend both that her addressee recognize that she intends to impress and that her addressee fail to recognize that she intends to impress.  But maybe our account is wrong.  Perhaps instead humblebragging isn’t really bragging.  Alternatively, perhaps humblebragging doesn’t involve hiding one’s intent to impress; perhaps the humblebragger intends to impress but also intends the addressee to make a character-level judgment that she isn’t a bragger.

Neither of these suggestions strikes us as more plausible than our original theory.  We suggest instead a three-way taxonomy of brags: (a) brazen brags, where the speaker intends the addressee to recognize that she’s trying to impress, (b) humblebrags, where the speaker intends the addressee to fail to recognize that she’s trying to impress, and (c) indifferent brags, where the speaker doesn’t intend one way or the other.

We leave for future research the paradox apparently generated by saying, “I’m so humble.”[4]



Grice, H. P. (1957). Meaning. Philosophical Review, 66:3, 377-88.

Neale, S. (2004). This, that, and the other.  In M. Reimer & A. Bezuidenhout (eds.), Descriptions and Beyond, pp. 68-182. Oxford University Press.

Searle, J. (1975). Indirect speech acts. In Cole & Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics, 3: Speech Acts, pp. 59-82. New York: Academic Press.

Searle, J. (1976). A classification of illocutionary acts. Language in Society, 5:1, 1-23.




[1] We will use ‘brag’ and ‘boast’ synonymously.

[2] This claim is consistent with Searle’s (1976) taxonomy, which counts boasting as a kind of representative speech act.

[3] This argument is connected to our earlier point that one is never simply impressed with X; one is always impressed with the fact that X has some property or other.

[4] We are indebted to the following people for helpful discussion of this paper: Carl Sachs, Daniel Harris, David Pereplyotchik, J. Adam Carter, Adam Morton, Julia Staffel, Luke Maring, and John Greco.

Ramsifying virtue theory

Draft of a paper to be published in Current Controversies in Virtue Theory.  My controversy is over the question “Can people be virtuous?”  My respondent is James Montmarquet.  Other contributors to the volume include Heather Battaly, Liezl van Zyl, Jason Baehr, Ernie Sosa, Dan Russell, Christian Miller, Bob Roberts, and Nancy Snow.

Ramsifying virtue theory 

Can people be virtuous? This is a hard question, both because of its form and because of its content.

In terms of content, the proposition in question is at once normative and descriptive. Virtue-terms have empirical content. Attributions of virtues figure in the description, prediction, explanation, and control of behavior. If you know that someone is temperate, you can predict with some confidence that he won’t go on a bender this weekend. Someone’s investigating a mysterious phenomenon can be partly explained by (correctly) attributing curiosity to her. Character witnesses are called in trials to help determine how severely a convicted defendant will be punished. Virtue-terms also have normative content. Attributions of virtues are a manifestation of high regard and admiration; they are intrinsically rewarding to their targets; they’re a form of praise. The semantics of purely normative terms is hard enough on its own; the semantics of “thick” terms that have both normative and descriptive content is especially difficult.

Formally, the proposition in question (“people are virtuous”) is a generic, which adds a further wrinkle to its evaluation. It is notoriously difficult to give truth conditions for generics (Leslie 2008). A generic entails its existentially quantified counterpart, but is not entailed by it. For instance, tigers are four-legged, so some tigers are four-legged; but even though some deformed tigers are three-legged, it doesn’t follow that tigers are three-legged. A generic typically is entailed by its universally quantified counterpart, but does not entail it. Furthermore, a generic neither entails nor is entailed by its counterpart “most” statement. Tigers give live birth, but most tigers do not give live birth; after all, only about half of all tigers are female, and not all of them give birth. Most mosquitoes do not carry West Nile virus, but mosquitoes carry West Nile virus. Given the trickiness of generics, it’s helpful to clarify them to the extent possible with more precise non-generic statements.

Moreover, the proposition in question is modally qualified, which redoubles the difficulty of confirming or disconfirming it. What’s being asked is not simply whether people are virtuous, but whether they can be virtuous. It could turn out that even though no one is virtuous, it’s possible for people to become virtuous. This would, however, be extremely surprising. Unlike other unrealized possibilities, virtue is almost universally sought after, so if it isn’t widely actualized despite all that seeking, we have fairly strong evidence that it’s not there to be had.

In this paper, I propose a method for adjudicating the question whether people can be virtuous. This method, if sound, would help to resolve what’s come to be known as the situationist challenge to virtue theory, which over the last few decades has threatened both virtue ethics (Alfano 2013a, Doris 2002, Harman 1999) and virtue epistemology (Alfano 2011, 2013a, Olin & Doris 2014). The method is an application of David Lewis’s (1966, 1970, 1972) development of Frank Ramsey’s (1931) approach to the implicit definition of theoretical terms. The method needs to be tweaked in various ways to handle the difficulties canvassed above, but, when it is, an interesting answer to our question emerges: we face a theoretical tradeoff between, on the one hand, insisting that virtue is a robust property of an individual agent that’s rarely attained and perhaps even unattainable and, on the other hand, allowing that one person’s virtue might inhere partly in other people, making virtue at once more easily attained and more fragile.

The basic principle underlying the Ramsey-Lewis approach to implicit definition (often referred to as ‘Ramsification’) can be illustrated with a well-known story:

And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, “There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.” And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man.”

Nathan uses Ramsification to drive home a point. He tells a story about an ordered triple of objects (two people and an animal) that are interrelated in various ways. Some of the first object’s properties (e.g., wealth) are monadic; some of the second object’s properties (e.g., poverty) are monadic; some of the first object’s properties are relational (e.g., he steals the third object from the second object); some of the second object’s properties are relational (e.g., the third object is stolen from him by the first object); and so on. Even though the first object is not explicitly defined as the X such that …, it is nevertheless implicitly defined as the first element of the ordered triple such that …. The big reveal happens when Nathan announces that the first element of the ordered triple, about whom his interlocutor has already made some pretty serious pronouncements, is the very person he’s addressing (the other two, for those unfamiliar with the 2nd Samuel 12, are Uriah and Bathsheba[1]).

The story is Biblical, but the method is modern. To implicitly define a set of theoretical terms (henceforth ‘T-terms’), one formulates a theory T in those terms and any other terms (henceforth ‘O-terms’) one already understands or has an independent theory of. Next, one writes T as a single sentence, such as a long conjunction, in which the T-terms t1…, tn occur (henceforth ‘T[t1…, tn]’ or ‘the postulate of T’). The T-terms are replaced by unbound variables x1…, xn, and then existentially quantified over to generate the Ramsey sentence of T, which states that T is realized, i.e., that there are objects x1…, xn that satisfy the Ramsey sentence. An ordered n-tuple that satisfies the Ramsey sentence is then said to be a realizer of the theory.

Lewis (1966) famously applied this method to folk psychology to argue for the mind-brain identity theory. Somewhat roughly, he argued that folk psychology can be treated as a theory in which mental-state terms are the T-terms. The postulate of folk psychology is identified as the conjunction of all folk-psychological platitudes (commonsense psychological truths that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows, and so on). The Ramsey sentence of folk psychology is formed in the usual way, by replacing all mental-state terms (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘pain’, etc.) with variables and existentially quantifying over those variables. Finally, one goes on to determine what, in the actual world, satisfies the Ramsey sentence; that is, one investigates what, if anything, is a realizer of the Ramsey sentence. If there is a realizer, then that’s what the T-terms refer to; if there is no realizer, then the T-terms do not refer. Lewis claims that brain states are such realizers, and hence that mental states are identical with brain states.

Lewis’s Ramsification method is attractive for a number of reasons.[2] First, it ensures that we don’t simply change the topic when we try to give a philosophical account of some phenomenon. If your account of the mind is wildly inconsistent with the postulate of folk psychology, then – though you may be giving an account of something interesting – you’re not doing what you think you’re doing. Second, enables us to distinguish between the meaning of the T-terms and whether they refer. The T-terms mean what they would refer to, if there were such a thing. Whether they in fact refer is a distinct question. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Ramsification is holistic. The first half of the twentieth century bore witness to the fact that it’s impossible to give an independent account of almost any psychological phenomenon (belief, desire, emotion, perception) because what it means to have one belief is essentially bound up with what it means to have a whole host of other beliefs, as well as (at least potentially) a whole host of desires, emotions, and perceptions. Ramsification gets around this problem by giving an account of all of the relevant phenomena at once, rather than trying to chip away at them piecemeal.

Virtue theory stands to benefit from the application of Ramsification for all of these reasons. We want an account of virtue, not an account of some other interesting phenomenon (though we might want that too). We want an account that recognizes that talk of virtue is meaningful, even if there aren’t virtues. Most importantly, we want an account of virtue that recognizes the complexity of virtue and character – the fact that virtues are interrelated in a whole host of ways with occurrent and dispositional mental states, with other virtues, with character more broadly, and so on.

Whether Lewis is right about brains is irrelevant to our question, but his methodology is crucial. What I want to do now is to show how the same method, suitably modified, can be used to implicitly define virtue-terms, which in turn will help us to answer the question whether people can be virtuous. For reasons that will become clear as we proceed, the T-terms of virtue theory as I construe it here are ‘person’, ‘virtue’, ‘vice’, the names of the various virtues (e.g., ‘courage’, ‘generosity’, ‘curiosity’), the names of their congruent affects (e.g., ‘feeling courageous’, ‘feeling generous’, ‘feeling curious’), the names of the various vices (e.g., ‘cowardice’, ‘greed, ‘intellectual laziness’), and the names of their congruent affects, (e.g., ‘feeling cowardly’, ‘feeling greedy’, ‘feeling intellectually lazy’). The O-terms are all other terms, importantly including terms that refer to attitudes (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘anger’, ‘resentment’, ‘disgust’, ‘contempt’, ‘respect’), mental processes (e.g., ‘deliberation’), perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features (e.g., ‘being alone’, ‘being in a crowd’, ‘being monitored’), and evaluations (e.g., ‘praise’ and ‘blame’).

Elsewhere (Alfano 2013), I have argued for an intuitive distinction between high-fidelity and low-fidelity virtues. High-fidelity virtues, such as honesty, chastity, and loyalty, require near-perfect manifestation in undisrupted conditions. Someone only counts as chaste if he never cheats on his partner when cheating is a temptation. Low-fidelity virtues, such as generosity, tact, and tenacity, are not so demanding. Someone might count as generous if she were more disposed to give than not to give when there was sufficient reason to do so; someone might count as tenacious if she were more disposed to persist than not to persist in the face of adversity. If this is on the right track, the postulate of virtue theory will recognize the distinction. For instance, it seems to me at least that almost everyone would say that helpfulness is a low-fidelity virtue whereas loyalty is a high-fidelity virtue. Here, then, are some families of platitudes about character that are candidates for the postulate of virtue theory:


(A) The Virtue / Affect Family

(a1) If a person has courage, then she will typically feel courageous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically feel generous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically feel curious when there is sufficient reason to do so.




(an) ….


(C) The Virtue / Cognition Family

(c1) If a person has courage, then she will typically want to overcome threats.

(c2) If a person has courage, then she will typically deliberate well about how to overcome threats and reliably form beliefs about how to do so.




(cn) ….


(S) The Virtue / Situation Family

(s1) If a person has courage, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against overcoming a threat.

(s2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against giving resources to someone.

(s3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against investigating a problem.






(E) The Virtue / Evaluation Family

(e1) If a person has courage, then she will typically react to threats in ways that merit praise.

(e2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically react to others’ needs and wants in ways that merit praise.

(e3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically react to intellectual problems in ways that merit praise.






(B) The Virtue / Behavior Family

(b1) If a person has courage, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically act so as to benefit another person when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically act so as to solve intellectual problems when there is sufficient reason to do so.






(P) The Virtue Prevalence Family

(p1) Many people commit acts of courage.

(p2) Many people commit acts of generosity.

(p3) Many people commit acts of curiosity.

(p4) Many people are courageous.

(p5) Many people are generous.

(p6) Many people are curious.






(I) The Cardinality / Integration Family

(i1) Typically, a person who has modesty also has humility.

(i2) Typically, a person who has magnanimity also has generosity.

(i3) Typically, a person who has curiosity also has open-mindedness.






(D) The Desire / Virtue Family

(d1) Typically, a person desires to have courage.

(d2) Typically, a person desires to have generosity.

(d3) Typically, a person desires to have curiosity.






(F) The Fidelity Family

(f1) Chastity is high-fidelity.

(f2) Honesty is high-fidelity.

(f3) Creativity is low-fidelity.






Each platitude in each family is meant to be merely illustrative. Presumably they could all be improved somewhat, and there are many more such platitudes. Moreover, each family is itself just an example. There are many further families describing the relations among vice, affect, cognition, situation, evaluation, and behavior, as well as families that make three-way rather than two-way connections (e.g., “If a person is courageous, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so and because she feels courageous.”). For the sake of simplicity, though, let’s assume that the families identified above contain all and only the platitudes relevant to the implicit definition of virtues. Ramsification can now be performed in the usual way. First, create a big conjunction (henceforth, simply the ‘postulate of virtue theory’). Next, replace each of the T-terms in the postulate of virtue theory with an unbound variable, then existentially quantifies over those variables to generate the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Finally, check whether the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is true and – if it is – what its realizers are.

After this preliminary work has been done, we’re in a position to see more clearly the problem raised by the situationist challenge to virtue theory. Situationists argue that there is no realizer of the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Moreover, this is not for lack of effort. Indeed, one family of platitudes in the Ramsey sentence specifically states that, typically, people desire to be virtuous; it’s not as if no one has yet tried to be or become courageous, generous, or curious.[3] In this paper, I don’t have space to canvass the relevant empirical evidence; interested readers should see my (2013a and 2013b). Nevertheless, the crucial claim – that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized – is not an object of serious dispute in the philosophical literature.

One very common response to the situationist challenge from defenders of virtue theory (and virtue ethics in particular) is to claim that virtues are actually quite rare, directly contradicting the statements in the virtue prevalence family. I do not think this is the best response to the problem, as I explain below, but the point remains that all serious disputants agree that the Ramsey sentence is not realized.

As described above, Ramsification looks like a simple, formal exercise. Collect the platitudes, put them into a big conjunction, perform the appropriate substitutions, existentially quantify, and check the truth-value of the resulting Ramsey sentence (and the referents of its bound variables, if any). But there are several opportunities for a critic to object as the exercise unfolds.

One difficulty that arises for some families, such as the desire / virtue family, is that they involve T-terms within the scope of intentional attitude verbs.[4] Since existential quantification into such contexts is blocked by opacity, such families cannot be relied on to define the T-terms, though they can be used to double-check the validity of the implicit definition once the T-terms are defined.[5]

Another difficulty is that this methodology presupposes that we have an adequate understanding of the O-terms, which in this case include terms that refer to attitudes, mental processes, perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features, and evaluations. One might be dubious about this presupposition. I certainly am. However, the fact that philosophy of mind and metaethics are works-in-progress should not be interpreted as a problem specifically for my approach to virtue theory. Any normative theory that relies on other branches of philosophy to figure out what mental states and processes are, and what reasons are, can be criticized in the same way.

A third worry is that the list of platitudes contains gaps (e.g., a virtue acquisition family about how various traits are acquired). Conversely, one might think that it has gluts (e.g., unmotivated commitment to virtue prevalence). To overcome this pair of worries, we need a way of determining what the platitudes are. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no precedent for this in the philosophy of mind, despite the fact that Ramsification is often invoked as a framework there.[6] This may be because it’s supposed to be obvious what the platitudes are. Here’s Frank Jackson’s flippant response to the worry: “I am sometimes asked—in a tone that suggests that the question is a major objection—why, if conceptual analysis is concerned to elucidate what governs our classificatory practice, don’t I advocate doing serious opinion polls on people’s responses to various cases? My answer is that I do—when it is necessary. Everyone who presents the Gettier cases to a class of students is doing their own bit of fieldwork, and we all know the answer they get in the vast majority of cases” (1998, 36–37). After all, according to Lewis, everyone knows the platitudes, and everyone knows that everyone knows them, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows them, and so on. Sometimes, however, the most obvious things are the hardest to spot. It thus behooves us to at least sketch a method for carrying out the first step of Ramsification: identifying the platitudes. Call this pre-Ramsification.

Here’s an attempt at spelling out how pre-Ramsification should work: start by listing off a large number of candidate platitudes. These can be all of the statements one would, in a less-responsible, Jacksonian mood, have merely asserted were platitudes. It can also include statements that seem highly likely but perhaps not quite platitudes. Add to the pool of statements some that seem, intuitively, to be controversial, as well as some that seem obviously false; these serve as anchors in the ensuing investigation. Next, collect people’s responses to these statements. Several sorts of responses would be useful, including subjective agreement, social agreement, and reaction time. For instance, prompt people with the statement, “Many people are honest,” and ask to what extent they agree and to what extent they think others would agree. Measure their reaction times as they answer both questions. High subjective and social agreement, paired with fast reaction times, is strong but defeasible evidence that a statement is a platitude. This is a bit vague, since I haven’t specified what counts as “high” agreement or “fast” reaction times, but there are precedents in psychology for setting these thresholds. Moreover, this kind of pre-Ramsification wouldn’t establish dispositively what the platitudes are, but then, dispositive proof only happens in mathematics.

It’s far beyond the scope of this short paper to show that pre-Ramsification works in the way I suggest, or that it verifies all and only the families identified above. For now, let’s suppose that it does, i.e., that all of the families proposed above were validated by pre-Ramsification. Let’s also suppose that we have strong evidence that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized (a point that, as I mentioned above, is not seriously contested). How should we then proceed?

Lewis foresaw that, in some cases, the Ramsey sentence for a given field would be unrealized, so he built in a way of fudging things: instead of generating the postulate by taking the conjunction of all of the platitudes, one can generate a weaker postulate by taking the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of most of the platitudes. For example, if there were only five platitudes, p, q, r, s, and t, then instead of the postulate’s being , it would be (p&q&r&s)v(p&q&r&t)&…&(q&r&s&t). In the case of virtue theory, we could take the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of all but one of the families of platitudes. Alternatively, we could exclude a few of the platitudes from within each family.

Fudging in this way makes it easier for the Ramsey sentence to be realized, since the disjunction of conjunctions of most of the platitudes is logically weaker than the straightforward conjunction of all of them. Fudging may end up making it too easy, though, such that there are multiple realizers of the Ramsey sentence. When this happens, it’s up to the theorist to figure out how to strengthen things back up in such a way that there is a unique realizer.

The various responses to the situationist challenge can be seen as different ways of doing this. Everyone recognizes that the un-fudged Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is unrealized. But a sufficiently fudged Ramsey sentence is bound to be multiply realized. It’s a theoretical choice exactly how to play things at this point. More traditional virtue theorists such as Joel Kupperman (2009) favor a fudged version of the Ramsey sentence wherein the virtue prevalence family has been dropped. John Doris (2002) favors a fudged version wherein the virtue/situation and virtue/integration families have been dropped. I (2013) favor a fudged version wherein the virtue / situation family has been dropped and a virtue /social construction family has been added in its place. The statements in the latter family have to do with the ways in which (signals of) social expectations implicitly and explicitly influence behavior. The main idea is that having a virtue is more like having a title or social role (e.g., you’re curious because people signal to you their expectations of curiosity) than like having a basic physical or biological property (e.g., being over six feet tall). Christian Miller (2013, 2014) drops the virtue prevalence family and adds a mixed-trait prevalence family in its place, which states that many people possess traits that are neither virtues nor vices, such as the disposition to help others in order to improve one’s mood or avoid sliding into a bad mood.

In this short paper, I don’t have the space to argue against all alternatives to my own proposal. Instead, I want to make two main claims. First, the “virtue is rare” dodge advocated by Kupperman and others who drop the virtue prevalence family has costs associated with it. Second, those costs may be steeper than the costs associated with my own way of responding to the situationist challenge.

Researchers in personality and social psychology have documented for decades the tendency of just about everybody to make spontaneous trait inferences, attributing robust character traits on the basis of scant evidence (Ross 1977; Uleman et al. 1996). This indicates that people think that character traits (virtues, vices, and neutral traits, such as extroversion) are prevalent. Furthermore, in a forthcoming paper (Alfano, Higgins, & Levernier forthcoming), I show that the vast majority of obituaries attribute multiple virtues to the deceased. Not everyone is eulogized in an obituary, of course, but most are (about 55% of Americans, by my calculations). Not all obituaries are sincere, but presumably many are. Absent reason to think that people about whom obituaries differ greatly from people about whom they are not written, we can treat this as evidence that most people think that the people they know have multiple virtues. But of course, if most relations of most people are virtuous, it follows that most people are virtuous. In other words, the virtue-prevalence family is deeply ingrained in folk psychology and folk morality.

Social psychologists think that people are quick to attribute virtues. My own work on obituaries suggests the same. What do philosophers say? Though there are some (Russell 2009) who claim that virtue is rare or even non-existent with a shrug, this is not the predominant opinion. Alasdair MacIntyre (1984, p. 199) claims that “without allusion to the place that justice and injustice, courage and cowardice play in human life very little will be genuinely explicable.” Philippa Foot (2001), following Peter Geach (1977), argues that certain generic statements characterize the human form of life, and that from these generic statements we can infer what humans need and hence will typically have. For the sake of comparison, consider what she says about a different life form, the deer. Foot first points out that the deer’s form of defense is flight. Next, she claims that a certain normative statement follows, namely, that deer are naturally or by nature swift. This is not to say that every deer is swift; some are slow. Instead, it’s a generic statement that characterizes the nature of the deer. Finally, she says that any deer that fails to be swift – that fails to live up to its nature – is “so far forth defective” (p. 34). The same line of reasoning that she here applies to non-human animals is meant to apply to human animals as well. As she puts it, “Men and women need to be industrious and tenacious of purpose not only so as to be able to house, clothe, and feed themselves, but also to pursue human ends having to do with love and friendship. They need the ability to form family ties, friendships, and special relations with neighbors. They also need codes of conduct. And how could they have all these things without virtues such as loyalty, fairness, kindness, and in certain circumstances obedience?” (pp. 44-5, emphasis mine).

In light of these sorts of claims, let’s consider again the defense offered by some virtue ethicists that virtue is rare, or even impossible to achieve. If virtues are what humans need, but the vast majority of people don’t have them, one would have thought that our species would have died out long ago. Consider the analogous claim for deer: although deer need to be swift, the vast majority of deer are galumphers. Were that the case, presumably they’d be hunted down and devoured like a bunch of tasty venison treats. Or consider another example of Foot’s: she agrees with Geach (1977) that people need virtues like honeybees need stingers. Does it make sense for someone with this attitude to say that most people lack virtues? That would be like saying that, even though bees need stingers, most lack stingers. It’s certainly odd to claim that the majority – even the vast majority of a species fails to fulfill its own nature. That’s not a contradiction, but it is a cost to be borne by anyone who responds to the situationist challenge by dropping the virtue prevalence family.

One might respond on Foot’s behalf that human animals are special: unlike the other species, we have natures that are typically unfulfilled. That would be an interesting claim to make, but I am not aware of anyone who has defended it in print.[7] I conclude, then, that dropping the virtue prevalence family is a significant cost to revising the postulate.

But is it a more significant cost than the one imposed on me by replacing the virtue / situation family with a virtue / social construction family? I think it is. This comparative claim is of course hard to adjudicate, so I will rest content merely to emphasize the strength of the virtue / prevalence family.

What would it look like to fudge things in the way I recommend? Essentially, one would end up committed to a version of the hypothesis of extended cognition, a variety of active externalism in the family of the extended mind hypothesis. Clark & Chalmers (1998) argued that the vehicles (not just the contents) of some mental states and processes extend beyond the nervous system and even the skin of the agent whose states they are.[8] If my arguments are on the right track, virtues and vices sometimes extend in the same way: the bearers of someone’s moral and intellectual virtues sometimes include asocial aspects of the environment and (more frequently) other people’s normative and descriptive expectations. What it takes (among other things) for you to be, for instance, open-minded, on this view is that others think of you as open-minded and signal those thoughts to you. When they do, they prompt you to revise your self-concept, to want to live up to their expectations, to expect them to reward open-mindedness and punish closed-mindedness, to reciprocate displays of open-mindedness, and so on. These are all inducements to conduct yourself in an open-minded way, which they will typically notice. When they do, their initial attribution will be corroborated, leading them to strengthen their commitment to it and perhaps to signal that strengthening to you, which in turn is likely to further induce you to conduct yourself in open-minded ways, which will again corroborate their judgment of you, and so on. Such feedback loops are, on my view, partly constitutive of what it means to have a virtue.[9] The realizer of the fudged Ramsey sentence isn’t just what’s inside the person who has the virtue but also further things outside that person.

So, can people be virtuous? I hope it isn’t too disappointing to answer with, “It depends on what you mean by ‘can’, ‘people’, and ‘virtuous’.” If we’re concerned only with abstract possibility, perhaps the answer is affirmative. If we are concerned more with the proximal possibility that figures in people’s current deliberations, plans, and hopes, we have reason to worry. If we only care whether more than zero people can be virtuous, the existing, statistical, empirical evidence is pretty much useless.   If we instead treat ‘people’ as a generic referring to human animals (perhaps a majority of them, but at least a substantial plurality), such evidence becomes both important and (again) worrisome. If we insist that being virtuous is something that must inhere entirely within the agent who has the virtue, then evidence from social psychology is damning. If instead we allow for the possibility of external character, there is room for hope.[10]


[1] Nathan is also using an extended metaphor. My point is clear nevertheless.

[2] An alternative is the “psycho-functionalist” method, which disregards common sense in favor of (solely) highly corroborated scientific claims. See Kim (2011) for an overview. For my purposes, psycho-functionalism is less appropriate, since (among other things) it is more in danger of changing the topic.

[3] I seem to be in disagreement on this point with Christian Miller (this volume), who worries that people may not be motivated to be or become virtuous. In general, I’m even more skeptical than Miller about the prospects of virtue theory, but in this case I find myself playing the part of the optimist.

[4] I am here indebted to Gideon Rosen.

[5] It might also be possible to circumvent this difficulty, which anyway troubles Lewis’s application of Ramsification to the mind-brain identity theory, by using only de re formulations of the relevant statements. See Fitting & Mendelsohn (1999) for a discussion of how to do so.

[6] Experimental philosophers have started to fill this gap, but not in any systematic or consensus-based way.

[7] Micah Lott (personal communication) has told me that he endorses this claim, though he has a related worry. In short, his concern is to explain how, given the alleged rarity of virtue, most people manage to live decent enough lives.

[8] For an overview of the varieties of externalism, see Carter et al. (forthcoming).

[9] I spell out this view in more detail in Alfano & Skorburg (forthcoming). For a treatment of the feedback-loops model in the context of the extended mind rather than the character debate, see Palermos (forthcoming).

[10] I am grateful to J. Adam Carter, Orestis Palermos, and Micah Lott for comments on a draft of this paper.

The semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility

Here’s a draft of a paper (co-authored with Markus Christen and Brian Robinson) on the semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility.  We are replicating in German and Mandarin, so those who are familiar with Wilfrid Sellars should think of this as the first step in a seriously scientific dot-quotation research programme.

1. Introduction

The study of personality and conceptions of personality has been pursued by psychologists and other researchers in various ways, including among others observations in laboratory settings and field experiments, correlational studies of survey responses, and psycholexical analyses. The present research embodies the latter methodology, and is informed by both philosophical theory and mathematical modeling tools developed in physical science.

Psycholexical analysis dates back to Francis Galton’s Measurement of Character (1884). The basic idea is that, all else being equal, a natural language is more likely to include a predicate for a property to the extent that the property is important to those who speak the language. This is not to say that every phrase or term refers. There are no unicorns despite the existence of the term ‘unicorn’. Nor is it to say that everything worth talking about is already represented by a phrase or singular term. Words are sometimes coined because new phenomena come into existence or become important; words are also sometimes coined because extant phenomena could not otherwise be parsimoniously described and explained. Sometimes a speaker coins words to describe or explain phenomena for which a word already exists, but of which the coiner is ignorant. So words that are synonyms (or nearly so) emerge, further emphasizing the importance of the phenomena referred to. Regardless, the rough generalization that there is a strong positive correlation between the importance of phenomena in the lives of the speakers of a language and the probability of the existence of a term in the language that refers to those phenomena is hard to deny. If this is on the right track, studying psychological language is an indirect way of studying the psychological properties people care about.

Psychologists in the psycholexical tradition don’t stop there, though. They also typically argue that the semantic structure of a language reflects to some extent the perceived structure of the phenomena described by the language. In personality psychology, this insight was famously used by Allport & Odbert (1936) to create a semantic taxonomy of thousands of personality-relevant terms, which they argued represents how people conceive of personality. Of course, the step from language to people’s conception of personality is not identical to the step from their conception of personality to actual personality, but it’s natural to think that there will be at least a positive correlation – if only a weak one – between how we think about personality and how personality actually is. This two-step connection (from language about personality to conceptions of personality, from conceptions of personality to actual personality) has been empirically validated by personality models such as the Big Five (Peabody & Goldberg 1989) and Big Six (Ashton et al. 2004; Saucier 1997).

The Big Six includes an H factor that represents facets of personality related to honesty and humility. Intellectual humility seems to involve a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively (Roberts & Woods 2007), though others regard it as more of a “second-order” open-mindedness (Spiegel 2012). In our age of information, intellectualhumility has grown all the more relevant. However, little conceptual or empirical work has explored this trait. We think that the psycholexical approach is especially promising in the investigation of intellectual humility because questionnaires are likely to be especially unreliable as measures of this construct. Someone who is genuinely humble is unlikely to report being humble, and someone who reports being humble is unlikely to be humble. Humility – whether intellectual, moral, or otherwise – seems to involve a paradox of self-reference.

Additionally, our investigation is motivated by Aristotle’s insight, reiterated in contemporary philosophy by Roberts & Wood (2007), that a virtue (i.e., a positive value-laden personality disposition or dimension of individual difference) is often best understood in the context of related virtues and the vices they oppose. Put a different way, by contextualizing a term for a virtue in the constellation of its near-synonyms and its near-antonyms, we can create a perspicuous representation of the meaning of the term.

For these reasons, we propose to investigate the trait of intellectual humility psycholexically by comparing ‘intellectual humility’ with both its antonyms and synonyms.

2. Method

Our analysis is based on the assumption that the practice of language is precipitated in dictionaries, lexicons, and other wordbooks. Of particular interest is the thesaurus – a language reference book or database organized to help its users find words related to a concept but having slightly different shades of meaning or connotation. Thesauruses reflect what people in their daily use of language – in particular when writing text – consider semantically similar to a given term. In other words, a thesaurus lists synonyms in a broad sense. Modern thesauruses also list antonyms, which are then again related to a set of their own synonyms.

The present research explores the semantic space of intellectual humility by first identifying the most common synonyms and antonyms of ‘intellectual humility’. Next, by referring to the database (the largest online thesaurus for American English), we associate each identified term with a word-bag, which is the set of synonyms listed for that term. The semantic constellation of a term t is thus an ordered pair (t, {tsyn1, tsyn2, tsyn3, …, tsynn}), whose first element is t itself and whose second element is t’s word-bag, i.e., the set of synonyms of t (including t itself). By comparing semantic constellations, we then create a similarity metric by calculating the relative overlap of each pair of word-bags. The similarities calculated in this way are then used in a novel clustering and visualization tool that generates a semantic map of the terms involved.

More specifically:

1)    We identified potential synonyms and antonyms for ‘intellectual humility’ in three ways:

  1. We searched philosophy and psychology journals for articles that discuss intellectual humility; we found 24 papers or related texts (such as calls for proposals, abstracts, and papers).
  2. We performed an Internet search for entries on ‘intellectual humility’ and found 20 entries that dealt in a significant way with the concept.
  3. We identified scales that are used in psychology for constructs that have some similarity to intellectual humility (e.g., the H factor of the Big Six personality inventory).

In all these texts, we identified terms that are used to represent the meaning of ‘intellectual humility’ or its relevant vices.

2)    Four raters that have experience with the philosophical topic of intellectual humility assessed all terms collected in step 1 to determine whether they could be used to express the concept of intellectual humility or a related vice. A term was kept on the list if three out of four raters agreed to do so. In this way, we identified 52 synonyms and 69 antonyms for ‘intellectual humility’. Each term was represented at least in noun form and usually in adjective form also: for example, {tolerance, tolerant}.

3)    We identified all entries for each term generated in step 2 in the database to generate word-bags for each synonym and antonym. For example, the word-bag for ‘tolerance’ included all entries on for the term set {tolerance, tolerant}.

4)    Next, we calculated the similarity in overlap between every pairwise combination of word-bags. For example, the word-bag of ’tolerance’ contains 55 terms and the word-bag of ’broadmindedness’ contains 40 terms. 12 terms are contained in both word-bags. Hence, the similarity between ‘tolerance’ and ‘broadmindedness’ is 12/40 = 0.3. In this way, the similarity measures are always between 0 (no similarity) and 1 (one word-bag is completely contained in the other word-bag).

5)    We checked for highly similar terms (overlaps > 0.5).[1] We collapsed the word-bags of these terms into a single word-bag to reduce the number of synonyms/antonyms. Conceptually, it’s unclear whether terms that share more than half of their semantic constellations represent genuinely distinct constructs. In this way, we reduced the number of synonyms from 52 to 39 and the number of antonyms from 69 to 46. When two terms were collapsed, our raters kept the term that in their estimation was better known. A new word-bag was created combining those of the two collapsed terms. In cases where the word-bag of term X overlapped with two or more terms by > 0.5 whose mutual overlap was, however, below the cutoff-value, the raters determined collapsing based on the highest mutual overlaps. This occurred 2 times for the synonyms and 8 times for of the antonyms. For all condensed word-bags, the similarities were re-calculated. Step 5 was not iterated.

6)    The similarity measures obtained in this way were then used as inputs in a visualization algorithm called superparamagnetic agent mapping, which employs self-organizing agents governed by the dynamics of a clustering algorithm inspired by spin physics to generate denoised low-dimensional representations. To conceptualize this mapping, imagine each term as a particle that naturally repels all other particles. However, as overlap between two terms increases, they become more attracted to each other. Thus, superparamagnetic agent mapping typically produces clumping, where several particles clump together (connoting similarity) while collectively repelling a different cluster (connoting collective difference between the two clusters). It has been shown (Ott et al. 2014) that this method is superior to standard methods such as factor analysis, principal components analysis, and multidimensional scaling in preserving the topology of the data space with clustered data. Since such a map will never precisely display the real topology of the original, high-dimensional space, we calculated for each point on the map the sum of the differences between the point and all its neighbors both in the map and in the original space (normalized to the longest distance in either case). The lower this sum, the better the map displays the real distance distribution of a point from its neighbors in the original space, so this number is a proxy for the quality of the map. To increase the heuristic value of the maps, we rescaled the sizes of the points themselves so that larger points indicate greater topological certainty.

7)    Finally, using the same clustering paradigm in an adapted version from (Ott et al. 2005), we identified clusters on the map generated in step 6.

Step 7 generates the maps below that are then used to inform our reasoning about intellectual humility.

3. Results

We produced three maps to convey our results. Figure 1 is the synonym map, showing the degree of overlap among intellectual humility’s 39 synonyms. The terms predominantly cluster into three groups. The first group (displayed in green) we have labeled the Sensible Self and is exemplified by terms such as ‘comprehension,’ ‘responsiveness’, and ‘mindfulness’. We take this cluster to be representative of the notion that an intellectually humble person will be open and responsive to new ideas and information. The second (pink) cluster we call the Inquisitive Self; it is illustrated by terms such as ‘curiosity’, ‘exploration’, and ‘learning’. The difference between the Sensible Self and the Inquisitive Self indicates that there is some difference between seeking new information or ideas and being open to them when they are presented. Third, we have named the blue cluster the Discreet Self, which is typified by ‘humility’, ‘decency’, and ‘unpretentiousness’. Finally, some terms (shown in black) have intermediate positions among these groups (e.g., ‘flexibility’ and ‘tolerance’) and do not fit neatly within any cluster.


Figure 1: IH Synonym map.

Figure 2 shows the results of the antonym map, displaying the degree of overlap between intellectual humility’s 46 antonyms. The first result to notice is that almost all the terms are aligned along one dimension and cluster at each endpoint. We take this to represent the distinction between underrating and overrating. The larger, red cluster can be thought of as the Overrated Self, and includes terms such as ‘vanity, ‘pride’, and ‘arrogance’. This cluster suggests that one way not to be intellectually humble is to be overly focused on one’s own high status. Overrating oneself is not, however, the only way to fail to be intellectually humble. The opposite endpoint has two closely related clusters that indicate two other ways. There is the Underrated Other in purple (typified by terms such as ‘bias’, ‘prejudice’, and ‘unfairness’) and the Underrated Self cluster in orange, which is similar in that it involves underrating, but the object of underrating is oneself. This cluster is characterized by terms such as ‘diffidence’, ‘timidity’, and ‘acquiescence’. This cluster suggests that there is such a thing as being too humble, such that one’s lack of pride ceases to have any positive value. It is worth noting how close the two (orange and purple) underrated clusters are relative to the (red) overrated cluster. This indicates that there is a higher degree of similarity based on the nature of the rating (over or under) than on who is being evaluated (self or other). Finally, we again see several terms (such as ‘hubris’, ‘chutzpah’, and ‘aloofness’) in white circles in the middle of the line, indicating that these terms do not fit within any cluster. This result should not be surprising since one can be aloof by either overrating oneself or underrating others (or both).


Figure 2: IH Antonym map.

Finally, we mapped all synonyms and antonyms together. We have preserved the colors from the two previous maps. The resulting map preserves many of the structural features of the previous maps, but with a few significant changes. First, it reveals that for the antonyms the linear structure along the poles of the Overrated Self and the Underrated Other is mainly preserved, whereas the terms on the Underrated Self (orange) are in the same region as the terms for the Discreet Self (blue) from the synonym set. Additionally, the distinction between the terms for the Sensible Self (green) and Inquisitive Self (pink) is no longer discernible. This second merger merely indicates that the difference between the Inquisitive Self and the Sensible Self is large enough to be significant when compared to the Discreet Self, but small enough not to be significant when compared to intellectual humility’s antonyms.


Figure 3: Unified synonyms and antonyms map.

4. Discussion & Conclusion

From these results, there are three points we wish to draw out for discussion. First, there is the matter of what the clusters represent. In the antonyms map, we take each cluster to represent a distinct vice, i.e., a different way one can fail to be intellectually humble. For the synonyms, however, two possibilities exist. It might be that each cluster represents a distinct trait, all three of which go by the same name of ‘intellectual humility’. Opposing this semantic diversity thesis is the alternate interpretation that sees each cluster representing a different facet of the single trait of intellectual humility.

Second, consider the merging of the synonym-based Discreet Self and antonym-based Underrated Self in the combined map. We see two possible interpretations. It might be that the discreet aspect of intellectual humility is essentially akin to underrating oneself. Snow (1995) and Taylor (1985) both argue that humility essentially involves recognizing one’s low status or personal faults. If this is right, then either the discreet aspect of humility is more of a vice than a virtue, or the underrated aspect of humility’s antonyms is more of a virtue than a vice. Either way, the valence of one or both of these semantic clusters may need to change. Alternatively, there might be two different traits picked out by these clusters – one a virtue and the other a vice – that are behaviorally similar enough that they are easily conflated. Someone who underrates herself will behave very similarly to a discreet person. They will both not regularly speak up about controversial topics, in praise of themselves, or for their own rights and entitlements, making it difficult to differentiate them behaviorally. There could, however, be an underlying psychological difference that typically goes unobserved. The discreet person may not often attend to evaluating herself, but when she does so, she does it accurately. One who underrates herself, however, may pay significant attention to her own merits, but regularly devalue them. Further research on the behavioral and psychological aspects of intellectual humility and its contraries may help to answer this question.

The final point relates back to the Big Six personality inventory (Ashton et al. 2004; Saucier 1997). As mentioned earlier, the H factor is meant to represent facets of personality related to honesty and humility. The 100-item revised version measures the participant’s humility (specifically her modesty) by having her indicate (dis)agreement with statements such as “I am an ordinary person who is no better than others.” We worry that the Big Six therefore includes in its H dimension items that are better understood as contrary to humility, not allied with or constitutive of it.



Allport, G. & Odbert, H. (1936). Trait-names: A Psycho-lexical Study.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Ashton, M., Lee, K., Perugini, M., Szarota, P., de Vries, R., Di Blas, L., Boies, K., De Raad, B. (2004). A six-factor structure of personality-descriptive adjectives: Solutions from psycholexical studies in seven languages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86:2, 356-366.

Galton, F. (1884). Measurement of Character.

Ott, T., Eggel, T., Christen, M. (2014). Generating Low-Dimensional Denoised Embeddings of Nonlinear Data with Superparamagentic Agents. Proceedings of the 2014 International Symposium on Nonlinear Theory and its Applications (NOLTA), Lucerne, Switzerland, September 14-18.

Ott, T., Kern, A., Steeb, W.-H., Stoop, R. (2005). Sequential Clustering: Tracking Down the Most Natural Clusters. Journal of Statistical Mechanics: theory and experiment: P11014.

Peabody, D, & Goldberg, L. (1989). Some determinants of factor structures from personality-trait descriptors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57:3, 552-567.

Roberts, R. & Wood, J. (2007). Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford University Press.

Saucier, G. (1997). Effects of variable selection on the factor structure of person descriptors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73:6, 1298-1312.

Spiegel, J.G. (2012). Open-mindedness and intellectual humility. Theory and Research in Education. 10:27-38


[1]This cut-off value was chosen based on a logarithmic count of the long-tailed distance distribution such that the tail was cut off before the beginning of the main mode of the distribution (i.e., the largest mode in a multi-modal distribution).

Google Ngram and the Genealogy of Values

In his funeral oration, Pericles described Athenians as valorous, democratic, just, cultured, open, refined, knowledgeable, deliberative, daring, generous, liberal, versatile, adventurous, noble, dutiful, honorable, free, and patriotic.  In his parody of Pericles, the Menexenus, Plato has Socrates (quoting Aspasia) describe them as just, pious, aristocratic / democratic / meritocratic, equal, free, compassionate (described as vice!), and pure Hellene.  Speaking more in his own voice, in the Republic, Plato calls temperance, wisdom, courage, and justice the primary human virtues.  Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics contains a large catalogue of virtues: courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, pride, good-temper, honesty, wit, justice, and friendship.  Hume has an even more capacious list, which includes at least 70 distinct virtues.

In some recent work, I’ve been examining the geographical diversity of values by mapping out the value-laden terms used in the obituaries of various local newspapers.  Another way to explore values, though, is temporally.  In particular, I’m interested in how values rise and fall relative to one another.  One obvious example is the pride/humility pair.  For the ancients, pride was a virtue and humility a vice.  Christianity reversed that.  What other reversals — in emphasis if not in valence — have occurred?

To help explore this question, I’ve begun using google’s ngram lab, which tracks the usage of terms in google’s massive database over the decades and even centuries.  Here are some (very) preliminary results.

First, it looks like humility and pride have done another dosey doe:

pride vs humility


The x-axis represents the year of publication.  The y-axis represents the percentage of total words published that year.  Thus, we can see that ‘humble’ was used more often than ‘proud’ until the late 19th century, during which it took a nosedive.  Of course, this ngram doesn’t tell us whether people were saying “you should be humble/proud” or “you shouldn’t be humble/proud,” but the collapse of ‘humble’ is striking.

Second, consider the three most common terms in the deontic square of opposition: ‘obligatory’, ‘permissible’ (not obligatory not to do), and ‘forbidden’ (obligatory not to do).  (I leave out omissible, since it’s a philosophers’ term.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 2.26.18 PM


Two things are worth noting about this.  First, the forbidden gets more play than the obligatory throughout the writings of the last 400 years.  This should be unsurprising to anyone who’s aware of the Knobe effect and various other demonstrations that norm violations get a lot more attention than norm-conformity.  Second, starting in the late 19th century, permissibility crossed over obligation.  What does that mean?  I suggest that a plausible interpretation is that — as social strictures loosened — the zone of the merely permissible was opened up.  James Fishkin calls this “the zone of indifference or permissibly free personal choice” (1982, p. 23), and argues that any adequate moral theory should recognize it.  But notice that, from a historical point of view, his claim looks like an innovation.  This is not to say that he’s wrong, of course, but it does suggest that he might be drawing on a rather narrow, culturally-bound set of intuitions.

Third, take a look at the ngram comparing ‘autonomy’ with ‘obedience':

autonomy vs obedience


The period between 1850 and 1950 seems to have been a time of great change!  Obedience, another Christian virtue, plumets while autonomy experiences a study rise.

Fourth, consider the basic emotions (fear, sadness, surprise, contempt, anger, and disgust).  Every language has words for them.  Every culture uses the same basic facial expression to signal them.  They are keyed to different important features of our environments and social worlds.  How have the words that refer to them been used historically?

basic emotionsFear — the emotion that tracks threats — is the clear winner.  But there are some interesting changes as well.  Contempt — the emotion that tracks and enforces socialhierarchy — surged in the late 18th century then experienced a slow but steady decline.  Meanwhile, anger and surprise have seen a slight rise in recent decades.  Does this suggest anything?  Well, social hierarchy is still here, but its pervasiveness and hegemony have declined somewhat.  I’m not sure how to interpret the results for ‘anger’ and ‘surprise’.

One last ngram — and one that would have made Nietzsche happy: ‘bad’ versus ‘evil:

bad evil

Nietzsche famously argues in the first essay of the Genealogy of Morals that Christianity instigated a slave revolt in morals, during which the good/bad distinction was inverted into the evil/good distinction. (What was good in the aristocratic culture became evil in Christian culture, while what was bad in aristocratic culture became good in Christian culture.) This ngram suggests thatm to the extent that ‘evil’ is on the decline and ‘bad’ is on the rise, this inversion has been partially undone.

Thoughts on methodology?  Suggestions for other comparisons?  Questions?


A map of the values of the noteworthy

I here present a map of the values associated with the noteworthy, courtesy of my ongoing collaboration with Andrew Higgins (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) and Jacob Levernier (University of Oregon).  This map was generated from data that I collected from obituaries in the New York Times.  These obituaries are much different from the ones we’ve looked at previously.  Unlike obituaries in local papers, which are typically written by kin or next-of-king, these are commissioned from professional writers.  Also unlike obits in local papers, which are about ordinary folk, these about noteworthy individuals.  Additionally, they tend to be quite a bit longer than local obits and somewhat more critical.  There’s also a huge gender divide: for each obit about a woman, there are roughly six about men.  That makes the gender-comparisons less helpful.  The map in this post is based on about 70 obituaries.  To get a really robust map, I’d probably have to look at 200 or more.  Anyway, without further ado, here’s the map:

NYTAs before, you’ll want to open this image in a separate tab and zoom in to see what’s really going on.  In this map, edge color indicates gender (blue for me, red for women).  As I mentioned, there weren’t that many women, so this is probably not that informative.  As usual, edge width represents the number of times the connected pair of terms co-occurred in a single obituary.  Also as usual, the size of a term represents the number of times it co-occurred with other terms.  In this case, the color of a term indicates its modularity.  As a reminder, modularity is a kind of cluster analysis.  Terms of the same color tend to co-occur with each other and not with other terms.

In Andrew’s words, very lightly edited, “This network is very different, both in terms of structure and content. In terms of structure, we have more clusters with high clustering coefficients, less overall interconnectivity. But that’s an obvious result of (1) the small number of obits, and (2) the fact that lots of descriptions are given in each. The more interesting feature of this network is the content. If there were any evidence against the hypothesis that we only speak well of the dead, this would be it. There are so many seemingly vicious traits ascribed to some of these people.  It seems like we’re getting a more complete picture of the person, perhaps because of the extra space available for describing the person in full. Here are the top descriptions, in order of weighted degree (i.e., the number of terms that co-occurred with the given term across the whole sample):  honored (269), author (246), leader (237), veteran (162), civil rights advocate (125), teacher (100).”
A few more thoughts from me: I didn’t explicitly note how many of these people had been divorced (some more than once), but I’d guess it was something like 80%; it seems like being famous enough to get an obit in the Times is not good for your family-life.
It’s interesting to compare this map with the Schwartz theory of basic human values.  Here’s a quick-and-dirty summary of his model:
Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 11.16.34 AM
Each sector in the figure above represents a value that many many people say they endorse.  Sectors that are adjacent to each other tend to correlated positively.  Sectors that are opposite each other tend to correlate negatively.  To what extent do our modules map onto this model?
Here’s my first-blush read on the modules:
purple (on the left): The biggest term is ‘author’.  The cluster around it seems to have to do mostly with being unapologetically critical of tradition, institutions, etc.  This is a very intellectual set of traits.  Intuitively, this cluster should correlate negatively with tradition, conformity, and security, which would place it among the hedonism, stimulation, and self-direction values.  Hedonism doesn’t seem to fit, but the other two do to some extent.  Schwartz glosses stimulation in terms of excitement, novelty, and overcoming challenge; he glosses self-direction in terms of independent thought and action.
dark green (top left): I’d summarize this one as a kind of autonomy.  Like the purple cluster, it involves breaking the rules, but it’s not breaking the rules in order to change them or criticize them.  It’s breaking the rules because you don’t care about the rules.  Thus, this cluster seems to involve elements from both the self-direction and the achievement sectors.
kelly green (middle and top right): This is the closest, I think, to our family/friends/christian category in the local maps.  It’s about commitment to community.  That involves some improvement of community, like the purple cluster, but seems to be more taking it for granted that the community is already good and worth supporting.  This cluster seems to match pretty well the security, conformity, and tradition sectors of the Schwartz model.
yellowish brown (far right): This is clearly the lawyer category.  Lots of intelligence and smartness, not much morality.  It’s not clear to me whether this matches any of the Schwartz values.
grey (bottom): This is another political category.  Unlike the purple cluster, it’s not about cutting into the soul of one’s community.  Unlike the kelly green cluster, it’s not about leading the dominant part of society.  It seems to be more about leading the oppressed.  This cluster seems to involve elements of both the power sector and the universalism & benevolence sectors.
There are a few other, smaller clusters, which I’m reluctant to try to interpret.


We thus get some partial overlap with the Schwartz model but also some conflict with it.  We’ll need to continue thinking about this contrast as our research develops.


A woman is a woman and a man ain’t nothin but a man

In our continuing exploration of the words we use to talk about the dead, Andrew Higgins, Jacob Levernier, and I have created an “omnibus” map of the traits and other values associated with men and women across the country.  Our sample draws from Eugene, Flint, Wasilla, and Amherst.  (Eventually, we will be adding lots of other towns… it’s hard work reading hundreds of obits!)  As usual, size represents interconnections, edge width represents co-occurrences, and centrality represents, well, centrality.  In addition, color in this map represents gender: the bluer the term, the more its associated with men; the redder the term, the more it’s associated with women.  Here it is:

Female (Red) vs Male (Blue)


If you zoom in, you’ll see a number of unsurprising gender-differences. For example, men are much more likely to be described as veterans, while women are much more likely to be described as cooks. We don’t need to mine obituaries to realize that World War II happened and that woman still disproportionately work as homemakers. But there are also some surprising differences, given the prevalence of traditional gender roles in American society. Women are more likely to be described as courageous. Men are more likely to be described as helpful. Women are more likely to be described as independent and spirited. Men are more likely to be described as understanding and affectionate. There are also some surprising lacks of difference. Most notably, men and women are equally associated with family, with volunteering, with having a sense of humor, and with leadership.

Here’s another version of the same map, with the terms replaced by nodes of various sizes:

Nodes View - Female (Red) vs Male (Blue)

Only Deeds: Twenty Years Later and Still Not Recognizing What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy

This is a guest blog post, authored by Dana Rognlie, a graduate student in philosophy at UO.  The post is her reaction to Carlin Romano’s recent visit to the department.  Here it is:

(Trigger Warning)

“Suppose I decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reviewing her book.”

Carlin Romano, “Between the Motion and the Act,” The Nation

Suppose I decide to skip Carlin Romano’s latest pontification before blogging about him. Because I’m uncertain he understands the difference between being a feminist and being a ‘feminist’.  Perhaps the better question is, suppose the discipline of philosophy valued the existence and freedom of women in philosophy and in society more broadly over abstract claims of freedom of expression of privileged men? Despite attending more to style than to content, touting clarity while remaining incoherent, and responding to criticism with name-dropping and non sequiturs, Romano is what passes in America (the philosophical!) for a public intellectual.  Perhaps I owe it to him, to philosophy, to America, to women, or to myself to attend.  But the carelessness with which he wields his privilege is precisely the problem for women in philosophy (and in the home, and in the streets!).  Would attending implicitly endorse his ignorance and privilege?  Would failing to attend allow him to get away with yet more self-indulgent misogyny?  Should I carry a sign?  Should I wear a vagina hoodie?  Or should I engage in polite, Midwestern chitchat?  Should I patiently explain, as I do to my undergraduates, that sometimes women aren’t treated so well?  More importantly, why do I have to make these wrenching decisions at all?

One thing is certain: you don’t mess with kitty and get away with it.

He’s a self-proclaimed sophist and disciple of Isocrates, though one unrecognizeable even to Nietzsche. Believe me, his 1993 ‘review’ of Catherine—or as he professionally refers to her, “Kitty”—MacKinnon’s book, Only Words, only gets worse (or better? I suppose it depends on your point of view… which is sort of the point) from that first sentence (quoted in the epigraph above). Ahh, the blind bliss of privilege.  Breathe it in.  Unless you’re a woman.  Or gay.  Or not all that into rape culture and the societal dominance of men (both of which Romano gleefully denies are endemic to American culture).  In that case, you can still breathe it in, but it’s less like nosing a fine wine and more like coughing on fumes and second-hand smoke.  Nothing’s perfect.

Life is short, but I decide to attend anyway.  Carlin stands by this provocation twenty years later, claiming he wouldn’t write it any differently today.  He calls himself a feminist. Though he’s so focused on individuals rather than systems that, for him, cat-calling seems like an isolated event, instead of the everyday annoyance (threat?) it is. You know, in the way one wonders whether that mosquito-bite will give you West Nile Virus.

(Except that your chances are better with West Nile: one in 150 develop severe symptoms. One in four of my female students have experienced sexual assault.)

The chronicles of C-Money’s implicit misogyny are plentiful. He denies the socio-economic power dynamics at play in a sex worker’s decision to enter employment. He is emboldened by the outpouring of support of rape victims against MacKinnon’s radical views on pornography—as if survivors don’t have enough trauma to deal with, they are now used to uplift his woeful misreading of a nuanced discussion of the harms of speech acts.

He points out that “Kitty’s” ex-husband told him she wasn’t upset by his publicly imagined rape…err…review.

And then, as the feminist he obviously is, he criticizes Martha C. Nussbaum’s manly legalistic writing style—“She’s a sellout! I, like my hero Hugh Heffner, am to be entertained above all else!”

Dance, Martha. Dance. Carlin will make it rain for you.


I experience an emotion.  Is it shock?  Surprise?  Disgust?  Contempt?  Resentment?  Sheer admiration for the balls on this guy?  Is he just another victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect?  Does he really believe any of this shit?  If there’s anything that can be said for sure about Carl, it’s that he’s memorable. Like the first time you got Rickrolled. When your first pet died.  Or you accidentally saw your parents having sex.  (Hi, Mom!)

This blog post is not an attempt to rehash the sex debates of the 1990s. Nor do I want to add fodder to the continuing pornography debates.

This blog post is about the intersection of our discipline and rape culture.

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Oregon recently invited (read: wasted limited resources bringing) Romano to campus to discuss his most recent book, America the Philosophical.  You see, we care about pluralism here.  For us, that means recognizing that philosophers and other thinkers not working in currently-dominant paradigms deserve a voice in the philosophical conversation. In our commitment to pluralism, our department aspires to recognize the political import of feminist philosophy and the value of women in philosophy to the extent that we embed it into our curriculum, producing scholars who take seriously the oppression of women and other ‘Others’ in our society.  Some might scoff at this statement and point to the Summer 2011 blogosphere hullaballoo regarding sexual harassment claims in our department. Such people are callous to the fact that we live in a culture that supports male domination of the kind exhibited not only in our department, but in departments across the country (take a hard look in the mirror if you disagree). Feminists call this ‘rape culture,’ claiming that everything from our institutions to sexist jokes support and foster the habitual attitude that women are inferior to the extent that male domination is not only common, but expected. It takes seriously the research that shows that 1 in 6 women will endure rape or sexual assault (1 in 4 on college campuses) and that most of these women will know their attackers, only 3% of whom will spend a day in jail.

Rapists are, by and large, utterly unremarkable. They are actually common, ‘normal’ people.  They are mundane–so much so that their heinous acts comprise a whole subset of comedy.

And (unofficial) university athletic apparel.

Philosophy is not outside this rape culture. In fact, the only reason the UO sexual harassment issue even reached national attention was that a group of graduate students, myself included, knew that sexual harassment was out of synch with our department’s commitment to changing the climate of philosophy for women and other minority groups (along lines of race, class, age, ability, sexuality, veteran status, etc). We strive to include students, faculty, and community members from diverse backgrounds in our conversation. Beyond Feminist Philosophy, we offer specializations in Philosophy of Race, Native American Philosophy, Disability Studies, and Queer (or as C-Dawg calls it, “Gay”) Philosophy. We have been taught (and teach our own students) to acknowledge and reject rape culture in order to concretely realize the emancipation of women and all those who have borne the label ‘Other.’

No one said enacting cultural change was easy, particularly not when it comes to altering the gender mores of the oldest and most male-dominated profession (in the academy, of course!). One of the most prized norms in our discipline is free expression. But as MacKinnon so long-sufferingly argued (and Carlin Danger so glibly ignored), freedom of expression is too often used as a trump card against the liberation of women. Following in the tradition of J. L. Austin, MacKinnon argues that we do things with words. “I do” in marriage is a tired example. “Saying ‘kill’ to a trained dog” is a fatal act (MacKinnon, Only Words, 12). Publishing –in The Nation no less – a rape fantasy of a feminist legal scholar who made sexual harassment in the workplace even a ‘thing’ does something. It reproduces the social inequality that makes the rape of women shrug-worthy. As MacKinnon and others argue, social inequality is reproduced by what we do, including what we do in speech. And it’s not simply what we do at an individual level that matters, but that these actions are embedded in institutions and historical memory. Which, bt-dubs was largely built by heterosexual white men in a position of privilege over women.

Freedom of speech is a value.  So is bodily integrity.  Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre (or “He has a bomb!” while on a plane) is disallowed but screeching, “I raped her” is merely an incisive (if I may be allowed the word) critique. Romano defends the vividness of his rape fantasy by pointing to MacKinnon’s own admittedly, albeit purposively, stomach-turning description of what it’s like to be raped from the survivor’s perspective. She can do it, why can’t he? Indeed, “Suppose I raped her” is ardently defended as a highly regarded mode of hypothetical example, of which Carly-boo thinks MacKinnon would approve.

Now, before anybody goes all Duck Dynasty on me, I’m not saying that the First Amendment is a bad thing. Freedom of expression is important. It is important that we be able to gather and say things without fear that we will be jailed (can I get a union shout-out?!). But that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be consequences to what we say. Indeed, there are consequences to what we say. And that’s the point. The Nation need not have published Romano’s article (can you imagine if he had ‘supposed’ he had lynched a black male philosopher? In 1993? 2014?), and my beloved department need not have invited him to our campus. His mere presence here is an affront, because it is an implicit affirmation of his work, which is, at best, shoddy scholarship, and, at worst, a horrifying exemplar of the very culture we must decry and fight in our classrooms each and every day.  Romano is free to imagine (and get off on) all the rape fantasies he wants, but if our discipline, indeed our society, is genuinely committed to the emancipation of women and other cultural minorities it needs to rethink the way we’ve rigged the game. His freedom to express his views should not trump whether I feel safe in my workplace. Until we take a long hard look at the position of women and other minorities and value it above the vapid misogyny of the Philosophical Romanos of America (don’t even get me started on his American Exceptionalism…), women will remain raped both in the flesh and on the page.

Now excuse me while I attend to the million other commitments I have as a woman in the academy…


Dana Rognlie, Ph.D. Student in Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Oregon

A map of the values of Amherst, MA

After that somewhat depressing post about Wasilla, I’m delighted to be presenting some maps of Amherst, Massachusetts.  Before I do, a few methodological and philosophical points are in order.

First, we don’t take the ascriptions in obituaries at face value.  We realize that people aren’t described 100% accurately in these texts.  An obituary, like many other texts, tells you at least as much about its author as its subject.  We’re therefore treating these documents as reflections of what the people in a community value.  Whether the deceased actually embodied all of the traits ascribed to them is not for us to say.  Regardless of the answer to that question, the constellations of qualities ascribed in obituaries tell us what the friends and family of the deceased think is good and important enough to bother attributing.

There are other caveats to consider.  For instance, the vast majority of the people celebrated in obituaries are adults in their 60s and above.  So these texts tell us about what various communities value in the elderly.  Whether they also value such attributes in the young and middle-aged is an open question.

Additionally, as Dana Rognlie, a terrific graduate student in philosophy here at UO pointed out to me recently, we shouldn’t presume that the authors of obits are a random sample of the local community.  Presumably, they’re almost all close family or friends.  But which family and friends are they?  Are they usually the daughter, the son, or the spouse of the deceased?  Or are they typically collaborations among all of the close family?  If it turned out that 80% of obituaries that were written by a child were written by a daughter, that would be good to know.  Unfortunately, we don’t yet have any data on this, but we’re looking into it.

Next, we don’t think of these maps as comprehensive.  In particular, we think that a trait is considered a virtue in a community if, but not only if, it tends to be attributed in the obituaries composed by members of that community.

We also think, with Hume, that distinctions among intellectual, moral, political, and other kinds of virtues are blurry at best.  The rich array of thick terms used to describe the dead doesn’t seem to be carved at the joints by these distinctions.  One of the things most often said about the deceased is that they were a friend.  Is friendship a virtue?  In a forthcoming paper, I argue that it is, but I realize that that’s contentious.  Another thing that’s often said about deceased men is that they were veterans.  Is a group affiliation of this sort a candidate for virtue?  Robert Adams thinks so, but again it’s contentious.  Soldiers do things qua soldiers.  Another thing that’s often said about the dead is that they were fans of the local sports team (the Ducks in Eugene, the Patriots in Amherst, and so on).  Fandom is about as passive as being for the good gets.  When your team wins, you’re, as Garfunkel and Oates put it, vicariously, “temporarily, adjacently victorious.”

Finally, we think that obituaries and other talk about the dead lend an interesting perspective to discussions in meta-ethics and philosophy of language.  What kind of speech act are we performing when we call a dead family member generous (one of the most common terms used in obituaries)?  It looks like an assertion, but as anyone who’s encountered Pericles’ funeral oration, Plato’s Menexenusthe Gettysburg address, or John Cleese’s eulogy for Graham Chapman can affirm, talk of the dead tends to go non-cognitive pretty quickly; it turns into an exhortation of sorts to the audience.

With all that out of the way, here is a map of the values of Amherst, MA:

AmherstThis one is quite detailed, so I encourage you to open it in another tab and explore it by zooming and scrolling.  As with some of the other maps we’ve presented, the size of terms here is determined by the number of terms that co-occurred with the term in question, not  simply the number of times that term occurred.  The width of an edge connecting a pair of terms represents the number of times they co-occurred.  Centrality/peripheralness represents, well, centrality and peripheralness to the network.  And in this case color represents modularity.  Modularity is, somewhat roughly, a measure of the density of interconnections among nodes in the network.  In this map, each color represents a different module; terms within the same module tend to be more connected with each other than they are with terms in other modules (represented by different colors).

The green group seems to encompass a mix of intellectual and political virtues, notably including wit, pedagogy, feminism, civil rights activism, and political engagement.  This group is also the first to have a major node for a religion other than Christianity: Judaism (it also contains a small node for Islam.  The blue group seems to encompass a variety of other-regarding dispositions, including humor, helpfulness, environmentalism, and compassion.  The pink group seems to be primarily about commitment to the local community, including one’s family, friends, church, and civic community.  The red and yellow groups are probably too small to interpret.

If you’ve been following my previous posts that detailed Eugene, Flint, and Wasilla, you’ll probably have noticed some interesting differences.  This map is by far the most complex.  That’s in part because I was able to look at a lot more obits for Amherst (about 600… oy).  It’s also because these obits tended to be quite a bit longer and have richer descriptions.  That’s unsurprising, given how much of a class and educational difference there is between Amherst and the rest of the towns I’ve looked at so far.  This map also has much less focus on sports and religion and much more focus on political and intellectual engagement.  Depending on your prejudices, you might find that unsurprising.

In other towns, we noticed some pretty substantial differences between the constellation of traits associated with women and the constellation associated with men.  What gender differences turn up between men and women in Amherst?  Here’s the map for women:

Amherst FemaleAnd here’s the one for men:

Amherst Male

Again, these are pretty detailed, so I encourage you to open them in other tabs and explore by zooming and scrolling.  No male nuns — unsurprising.  No male feminists – disappointing.  Fewer female sports fans — unsurprising.  No female veterans — unsurprising.  Otherwise, there aren’t that many noticeable differences between these maps.

I’ll post a “complete” map comparing attributions to men and women in all towns surveyed so far in a later post.  For now, I need to take a bit of a break from reading obituaries….



Wasilla: The town where they love nature so much that they shoot it in the face

Here’s the map for all obits from the last few weeks:

WasillaAs before, term-size is based on the number of interconnections the term in question has with other terms, and edge width represents the number of pairwise connections.  Not much going on in this town.  I guess when Sarah Palin eventually kicks the bucket, we’ll see a few more terms.

Speaking of women from Wasilla, here’s the map you get when you partition off the men:

Wasilla FemaleNot much sense of community in this town, which I guess is what you’d expect.  The women don’t seem to have many friends.  By contrast, here’s the map for the men:

Wasilla MaleThe sports fans are back!  It’s also a little ironic that this is the least complex map we’ve produced, and yet it prominently features the term ‘complex’.




Take a hard look in the mirror

Here’s a comparison of the obits in Eugene, Oregon and those in Flint, Michigan.  The redder the term, the more it was used in Eugene; the bluer, the more it was used in Flint.

Eugene (Red) vs Flint (Blue)At least we’re good at sportsball in Eugene.

Oh, and here are maps for Flint all on its own.  Don’t move there if you don’t like casinos, I guess….

Flint TraitsGender differences remain pretty traditional in Flint.  Here’s the constellation for men:

Flint Male TraitsAnd here’s the one for women:

Flint Female TraitsThe ladies in Flint don’t seem to have much of a chance to get out into nature, but they sure are funny.