Orwell’s study of mentality and culture

George Orwell wrote a great deal of literary criticism, book reviews, and intellectual commentary, almost always with a down-to-earth plain speaking that entirely rejected the lofty English conventions of academic writing. (Here is a fairly comprehensive Kindle collection of his essays, A Collection of Essays.) What I find interesting about Orwell's literary commentaries is their honesty, …

Folk psychology and Alexa

Paul Churchland made a large splash in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science several decades ago when he cast doubt on the categories of "folk psychology" -- the ordinary and commonsensical concepts we use to describe and understand each other's mental lives. In Paul Churchland and Patricia Churchland, On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997, …

How to think about social identities

What is involved in having a national or racial or sexual identity? What do we mean when we say that a person has a Canadian or a Haitian identity? How can we best think about the mental frameworks and models that serve as lenses through which people understand themselves and their places in history? Most …

Knowing the population

At any given time there are huge areas of the unknown when it comes to the question, what do various members of our society care about? We have opinion research tools, of course. But we don't really have good answers to any of these questions: How do West Bloomfield teenagers think about their futures? Why …

Being clumsy

We've probably all been clumsy from time to time -- knocking over the teacup on the desk when reaching for a pencil, dropping a jar when moving from the kitchen to the table, tripping on an uneven bit of sidewalk when walking the dog. We sometimes refer to this kind of behavioral mistake as "maladroit". …

Habits, plans, and improvisation

How does thought figure in our ordinary actions and plans? To what extent are our routine actions the result of deliberation and planning, and to what extent do we function on auto-pilot and habit?It is clear that much of one's daily activity is habitual: routine actions and social responses that reflect little internal deliberation and …

New angles on French history

In teaching an undergraduate seminar on the philosophy of history, I tried to come up with some readings that would stimulate some genuinely new thinking on this subject. Several things worked well, including simply reading some talented contemporary historians carefully. But the most truly innovative and stimulating twist was a week spent reading and discussing …

"Folk" sociology

All of us are sociologists, at some level. We have social concepts in terms of which we analyze the social world around us -- "boss," "working class guy," "politician," "evangelical", "millennial generation". (Stereotypes of groups defined in terms of race and class probably fall in that category.) We operate on the basis of stylized schemata …

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