Open Letter to Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau, President, Howard University


To: Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau, President
Howard University
2400 6th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20059

Dear Dr. Ribeau-

The American Philosophical Association has recently brought to my attention that “A Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal at Howard University has issued a recommendation to eliminate the Philosophy program as an independent department, and combine it with the existing program in Classical Civilizations and, perhaps, add some offerings in Religious Studies.” As a professional philosopher with great respect for the academic integrity Howard University has displayed throughout its distinguished history, I strongly urge you to reject this recommendation of the commission’s.

Philosophy, as an academic discipline, is unique. It’s methodology of carefully examining and critically evaluating the logical relations between ideas is, like that of mathematics, largely a priori. It is quite distinct from the empirical, largely a posteriori methodology of social sciences like History (Classical Civilizations) or Anthropology (Religious Studies). Also, unlike such social sciences, philosophy is, at its core, “normative” in the sense of being concerned with questions of how one should live and how one should come to believe or disbelieve various sorts of propositions, in contrast to the social sciences, which properly describes how we do live and how we do operate psychologically. Philosophy would be irrelevant were it not informed by the social sciences, but it is not a social science itself, and any attempt to merge philosophy with such a department seems likely to result in a deterioration of philosophy’s core mission.

Interdisciplinary programs are laudable, of course, but their value depends on maintaining basic distinctions between disciplines. Thank you for considering this request.


Dr. Larry A. Herzberg
Associate Professor of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh

Larry’s World (Part I)


Two quick ideas for Larry’s World (not a utopia – just a world with fewer problems than this one). The first, I take it, is uncontroversial. I hope those of you who actually know something about economics – as I don’t – will tell me why the second is impossible:

1) In cold climates (like Wisconsin), plexiglass-enclosed bike paths, heated by the sun (mostly passively), with side panels that open in the warmer months.

2) As unemployment becomes structurally permanent (due to productivity gains and automation), simply pay people to consume. It’s nearly a full-time job to shop properly anyway. Citizens could earn bachelor degrees in Optimal Consumption (a new branch of economics). Those who are more productive can still earn more than ordinary consumers, but the structurally unemployed and terminally downsized are actively spending money on producers’ products, instead of fuming with resentment at home. As revenues rise from higher profits, it gets fed back into the system by way of this new class of professional consumers. (Debit cards that draw directly from treasury funds are used instead of cash to prevent professional consumers from saving their salaries; producers, on the other hand, are welcome to save and/or invest their surplus profits. This is still a capitalist society, and the ability of producers to get rich should serve as an adequate incentive to move up to the producer class for those capable of doing so).

Of Dogs, Democrats, and Republicans


After having a few days to let them sink in, I’ve (provisionally) decided that the results of the 2010 midterm elections maybe won’t be so bad for the country. To explain why, I have to tell you a dog story…

Our adorable little Shetland sheepdog, otherwise known as Katie, Sheltie Queen of Oshkosh, actually had the temerity to bite me once, when she was not yet a year old. Why would she do such a terrible thing? Well, whenever we were baking anything and opened the oven door, she had an uncontrollable urge to rush towards it barking and howling like a siren, as if to warn us that it was very, very hot in there. Thus motivated by fear and concern for our welfare, her intentions were no doubt noble, but this pattern eventually got so damn annoying that we called an animal behaviorist (that is, a dog whisperer), who trained us how to train her to control her raw emotions. Anyway, before we reached that desperate point, I tried a different tactic. As I approached the oven to take out some fish, hearing Katie getting all agitated behind me, instead of opening the oven door I opened the door leading out to the garage, which is right next to the stove. Perhaps thinking that it was time for a walk, Katie ran out into the garage and I quickly shut the door, locking her out. All I needed was a few seconds of peace, and while she barked hysterically, repeatedly throwing her 20 pounds at the door, I took out the fish and placed it on top of the stove to cool. “That should teach her,” I thought, and opened the door to the garage. Katie came rushing in, barking her little head off. “Just ignore her,” I thought, but as I turned away I felt her sharp young canines trying to sink into my butt (they almost did).

Perhaps you’re wondering how any of this relates to the 2010 midterms. Or perhaps not. Anyway, the moral of the story is that it’s easy for people as well as dogs to get wildly upset when they are excluded from what they take to be an important process, especially when they are convinced that only they know what’s best. For two years, since they lost Federal power (except, of course, for the filibuster in the Senate) and were effectively locked out of the legislative process, Republicans – especially of the Tea Party stripe – have been barking hysterically, longing to bite Obama on the butt, hard. Last Tuesday, they managed to extract their pound of flesh. Although they did so largely by relentlessly mischaracterizing Obama’s emergency measures (and his otherwise moderate agenda) as as a radically socialist Kenyan Nazi Islamic plot, the best of them no doubt were (and are) genuinely concerned that the nation is heading towards a gaping hole that is very, very hot. So let’s hope that they will take advantage of their new power and work with the President to solve our national and international problems. We don’t want to have to call an animal behaviorist any time soon.