How to buy The Teaching Company’s Great Courses for cheap

TheGreatCoursesOver the last few years I’ve listened to a bunch of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses lecture sets. In my experience they are uniformly good. The lectures seem to be prepared with the medium in mind and are pitched at just the right level of complexity for a half-distracted listener to stay tuned in while hanging out the washing or jogging or whatever. Frederick Gregory’s The Darwinian Revolution and Thomas Williams’ Philosophy in the Middle Ages were particular highlights for me.

I recently discovered an alternative way of buying TTC courses. stock a significant portion of TTC’s catalogue as audiobooks. These can be purchased using Audible’s annual plans, the biggest of which gives you 24 audiobooks (plus one for free when you join). That plan costs $229.50 USD at the moment, and TTC courses count as one audiobook each no matter how long they are. That works out at a flat rate of a bit over $9 per course.

$9 USD is vastly cheaper than the sometimes stratospheric prices of the courses when they are not on sale. The massive 40+ hour courses such as Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition or Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition usually retail for $300+ for the audio, so the Audible option represents remarkable value.

Australian listeners are free set up accounts at the US site, and the exchange rate at the moment is no barrier.

If your conscience permits you to throw yet more money into the gaping maw of Amazon, then this is a great way to do some cheap self-directed learning.


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John Stackhouse in Sydney

Readers might be interested to hear that John Stackhouse, of Regent College fame, will be in Sydney in August speaking at several events. These include evening public lectures on the 12th and 14th and a daytime conference on 13th-14th at Sydney Uni (at which I will be giving a short paper on some of my MPhil research on Marion and Milbank), both under the aegis of The Scots College. There’s also a day of lectures on the 7th at Alphacrucis College in Parramatta.

Looks great.

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Misplaced metaphor

Jerry Fodor, in an old review of Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable for LRB:

Dawkins is the kind of scientist who disapproves of philosophy but can’t stop himself trying to do some. That’s quite a familiar syndrome. I should say a few words about what I’m afraid he takes to be the philosophical chapters of his book. They are, in my view, a lot less interesting than the biology. Dawkins says, rightly, that Darwinism teaches us that the biological population of the world wasn’t made for our comfort, amusement or edification. ‘We need, for purposes of scientific understanding, to find a less human-centred view of the natural world.’ Right on. But then he spoils it by asking, in effect, if it’s not all for us, who (or what) is it all for? This is a bad question, to which only bad answers are forthcoming.

The bad answer Dawkins offers in the present book follows the same line that he took in The Selfish Gene: it’s all in aid of the DNA. ‘What are living things really [sic] for … The answer is DNA. It is a profound and precise answer and the argument is watertight.’ The idea is that, from the gene’s point of view, organisms are just ‘survival machines’ whose purpose is to house and propagate the DNA that shaped them. A creature’s only function in life (or in death, for that matter; see Dawkins’s adaptationist treatment of the evolution of altruism) is to mediate the proliferation, down through the generations, of the genes that it carries. Likewise for the parts of creatures: ‘The peacock’s beak, by picking up food that keeps the peacock alive, is a tool for indirectly spreading instructions for making peacock beaks’ (i.e. for spreading the peacock’s DNA). It is, according to Dawkins, the preservation of the genetic instructions themselves that is the point of the operation.

But that doesn’t work, since you could tell the story just as well from the point of view of any other of the creature’s heritable traits; there’s nothing special, in this respect, about its genetic endowment. For example, here’s the Cycle of Generation as it appears from the point of view of the peacock’s selfish beak:

Maybe genes think what beaks are for is to help make more genes, but what do they know about philosophy? Beaks see life steadily and they see it whole, and they think what genes are for is to help make more beaks. The apparatus – a survival machine, if that amuses you – works like this: beaks help to ensure the proliferation of peacocks, which help to ensure the proliferation of peacock DNA, which helps to ensure the proliferation of instructions to make more peacocks’ beaks, which helps to make more peacock beaks. The beaks are the point; the beaks are what it’s all ‘for’. The rest is just mechanics.

What’s wrong with this nonsense is that peacocks’ beaks don’t have points of view (or wants, or preferences), selfish or otherwise. And genes don’t either, not even ‘unconsciously’, though Dawkins is often confused between denying that evolutionary design is literally conscious and denying that it is literally design. It’s the latter that’s the issue. All that happens is this: microscopic variations cause macroscopic effects, as an indirect consequence of which sometimes the variants proliferate and sometimes they don’t. That’s all there is; there’s a lot of ‘because’ out there, but there isn’t any ‘for’.

More here.

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Aquinas’ materialism

Terry Eagleton on Aquinas in LRB:

Like Marx, Aquinas got into hot water with the authorities for being a materialist. It was not that he held the boring view that there is nothing but matter. His materialism was not some kind of brutal reductionism, any more than Marx’s was. On the contrary, as Denys Turner points out in this superb study, he understood that ‘there is a lot more to matter itself than meets the eye of today’s average materialist.’ His criticism of the materialists with whom he was acquainted was not that they were bad on the subject of mind or spirit, but that they weren’t very good on the subject of matter. Aquinas believed in the soul, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins do not; but one reason he did so was because he thought it yielded the richest possible understanding of the lump of matter known as the body. As Wittgenstein once remarked: if you want an image of the soul, look at the body. The soul for Thomas is not some ghostly extra, as it was for the Platonising Christians of his time; it is not to be seen as a spiritual kidney or spectral pancreas. The question ‘Whereabouts in the body is the soul?’ would to his mind involve a category mistake, as though one were to ask how close to the left armpit one’s envy was located. For Aquinas, the soul is everywhere in the body precisely because it is what he calls, after Aristotle, the ‘form’ of it, meaning the way in which it is uniquely organised to be expressive of meaning. The soul is not some sort of thing, but the distinctive way in which a particular piece of matter is alive. It is quite as visible as a club foot. To claim that a spider has a different sort of soul from a human being is in Thomas’s view simply to say that it has a different form of life. What distinguishes an animal body from a hat or a hosepipe is the fact that it is signifying, communicative, self-transformative stuff, in contrast to the meaninglessly dumb matter of so much contemporary materialism. It is, in Turner’s phrase, ‘matter articulate’.

More here (paywalled)

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Causes and reasons

Amia Srinivasan in LRB:

The widespread belief that scientific explanation replaces morality and moral talk – and its corollary, that science must be rejected if morality is to be saved – labours under a confusion. Consider the question: ‘Why does Sarah believe that it’s good to keep promises?’ It can be answered in two ways: by giving a causal explanation of Sarah’s belief, or by listing the considerations Sarah might reasonably cite in support of her belief. When we answer the question in the first way – for example, by saying something about the evolutionary origins of promising – we inhabit the world of cause and effect. When we answer it in the second way – for example, by talking about the special duties that are incurred when one makes a promise – we inhabit what Wilfrid Sellars called the ‘space of reasons’. The mistake is to think that living in a world of causes precludes our also inhabiting the space of reasons. We are indeed creatures of cause, living within and as part of the natural order; but at the same time we are creatures of reason. Our capacity to justify ourselves to each other, to persuade without coercion, is constitutive of our personhood, and as important for the scientist as for anyone else.

via Amia Srinivasan reviews ‘The Ethical Project’ by Philip Kitcher · LRB 6 December 2012

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Why should we read critical theory?

Gordon Finlayson interviewed at 3:AM:

Why should we still read the work of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse? We should read them because there is something very compelling about their diagnoses of the age. However much things have moved on historically and culturally, the problems facing us have remained stubbornly unsolved since the end of the Second World War. Technology and science develop and improve, but people’s lives don’t. Productivity increases and still poverty, inequality, and misery exist. Wealth increase, but general well-being does not. Our lives are regimented with technological devices that supposedly save time and labour, and yet people seem to be busier and have less time than ever before.

Another reason why they are of interest is that they are not shy of attempting to connect up all the various different areas of social and cultural life. This is a feature of their philosophy that they inherit from Hegel and German Idealism. They are purveyors of theory on a grand scale. Framed within wide intellectual and cultural horizons their work has a great richness and interest. Much contemporary philosophy works within narrow compartments on increasingly specialized material.

via Habermas, Adorno, Politics » 3:AM Magazine.

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‘The deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself’

R.P.C. Hanson:

The subjects under discussion between 318 and 381 were not, as has sometimes been alleged, those raised by Greek theology or philosophy and such as could only have been raised by people thinking in Greek terms. It was not simply a quarrel about Greek ideas. In the fourth century there came to a head a crisis (as Simonetti has aptly called it in the title of his book La Crisi Ariana nel Quarto Secolo) which was not created by either Arius or Athanasius. It was the problem of how to reconcile two factors which were part of the very fabric of Christianity : monotheism, and the worship of Jesus Christ as divine. Neither of these factors is specifically connected with Greek philosophy or thought; both arise directly from the earliest Christian tradition. Indeed, as will, it is hoped, be shown in this book, it was only by overcoming some tendencies in Greek philosophy which offered too easy an answer to the problem that a solution was reached. Greek philosophy and religion could readily accept a monotheism which included an hierarchically graded God and could easily accord a qualified divinity to the Son, Neither was in the end accepted by the Church. But it would of course be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy. The reason for this was, paradoxically, because the dispute was about the interpretation of the Bible. The theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself. In the course of this search the Church was impelled reluctantly to form dogma. It was the first great and authentic example of the development of doctrine. For theologians who are to-day interested in the subject of the development of doctrine, the study of the period from 318 to 381 should present an ideal case-history. This is another reason why the period is of permanent interest and importance.

The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381, xx-xxi

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