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Frank Jackson

Philosophers fear many things, as do economists, lawyers, politicians, and electricians. But there is one thing philosophers fear which is special to their profession. It is the question, asked as it might be at a dinner party or in a taxi on the way to the airport, ‘What is it that you do, exactly?’ with perhaps a somewhat intimidating emphasis on the word ‘exactly’. Often – too often – we philosophers take the easy way out. We reply that questions like: Does God exist? Is there an objective basis to morality? Is a commitment to equality simply a commitment to equality of opportunity? What makes a society a just one? are, we can all agree, important questions, and that they are the kinds of questions philosophers concern themselves with.

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Introspection and Consciousness edited by Declan Smithies and Daniel Stoljar

March 2013, no. 349

I have beliefs about what you believe. I also have beliefs about what I myself believe. The big difference between the two cases is how I come by these beliefs. By and large, my beliefs about what you believe come from observations of your behaviour (understood in a wide sense, which includes the environment in which your behaviour is located). Here are two illustrations. You sell all your shares and buy gold. I infer that you believe that gold will outperform shares. You write an article saying that the Coalition will win the next election. I infer that you believe that the Coalition will win the next election. However, my beliefs about what I myself believe don’t usually come from observations by me of my own behaviour. My belief that gold will outperform shares may explain why I sell all my shares and buy gold, but it doesn’t reveal to me that I have this belief. Likewise, I don’t need to write an article saying that the Coalition will win the next election in order to discover that I have this belief. There is, to borrow some jargon, a first person–third person asymmetry in how we arrive at beliefs about beliefs.

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During the lead-up to the last United States presidential election, I found myself waiting for a train at the Princeton railway station with nothing to read. I picked up a copy of the student newspaper. Much of it was standard Bush bashing, intermingled with unrealistic expectations of what Obama might achieve. But one sentence in an editorial caught my eye: ‘It is time to end amateur hour at the White House.’ One of the great failings of George W. Bush’s presidency was the neglect of expert advice on the complex issues that faced America during his two terms. Ideology, prejudice and vested interests trumped properly informed judgements based on good research.

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The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy edited by Frank Jackson and Michael Shmith

April 2006, no. 280

Handbooks are not new to philosophy, but the twentieth century’s final decade witnessed the start of a publication flood. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks and companions began to appear in unprecedented quantities. It is tempting to attribute this phenomenon to some fin-de-siècle anxiety – Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? – but the principal explanatory factor is probably more mundane: in the face of an increasingly unsurveyable range of journal articles, collections and books, there was a correspondingly burgeoning need among students for guidance, and among professionals to share the labour of keeping up.

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