22 December 2008

Just Arrived

The latest edition of The Adam Smith Review (vol. 4, 2008) is now out. It is a special issue edited by Douglas J. Den Uyl on the topic of "Adam Smith and His Sources." My paper, "Shaftesbury's Evolutionary Morality and Its Influence on Smith," is included in the volume, and I am happy to have some of my work included in a group of such excellent work. This volume also contains my review of Craig Smith's recent book, Adam Smith's Political Philosophy, along with Smith's response to my review.

The latest edition of The Independent Review (vol. 13, no. 13, Winter 2009) is also just out. My paper "Kantian Individualism and Political Libertarianism" is included (the webpage includes a summary of my paper). TIR is a journal that I find myself reading from cover to cover whenever it comes out--a high compliment, I can assure you. So I am happy to have some of my work appear in it.

09 December 2008

Submissions Welcome

Since starting this site a couple months ago, I have received several suggestions from readers of books I should read. Thank you! I thought I should extend a general invitation: I would be happy to hear your suggestions of books. Either post them as comments or e-mail them to me at jimotteson [at] gmail [dot] com.

UPDATE 12/22/08: I have received numerous good suggestions. Thank you! I will post them in a future entry. Please keep them coming!

08 December 2008

And in Sports . . .


Barack Obama is right: College football needs a playoff. It is the only major sport, at either the professional or collegiate level, that has no playoff tournament, and every year that fact gives rise to needless arguing about who should be included in the single, subjectively-determined national championship game and, thus, who is truly the best team.

Now that this year's BCS bowl games, including the national championship game between Florida and Oklahoma, have been set, the predictable and perfectly reasonable arguing have begun. Why not Texas? Why not USC? On any given day, any of those teams, along with the other BCS teams--Alabama, Utah, Penn State, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, and Ohio State--might be the best team in the country. And let's not forget undefeated Utah and Boise State, along with one-loss Ball State. Why not give them a chance to prove on the field just how good they are?

Here is an easy solution (the one that Obama suggested as well): take the top eight teams and have a single-elimination, three-weekend tournament. Piece of cake. The locations of the seven games could be selected from standard bowl locations, with the championship game rotating through the current BCS locations. The final game could be on January 1, the traditional day of the most important bowl games. Other teams with six or more wins could go to other standard bowls.

Why eight teams? There is nothing special about the number eight. It seems reasonable, however, to think that the best team in the country will be among the top eight at the end of the season; two or four seem too few, and more than eight seems needless. Moreover, an eight-team playoff is easy to administrate.

The fans and coaches have long been in support of this, and now the President-elect is as well. This is a change that we can all believe in.

07 December 2008

This Just In

Well, not just in, but . . .

Ayaan Hirsan Ali's latest book Infidel is now available. She is the inspiring Somali-Dutch writer, activist, scholar, and politician who has criticized Islam especially for its treatment of women and has shown astonishing courage in the face of threats of reprisals. Her defenses of the dignity of womanhood have been compelling and inspirational. Infidel has been published at the same time (this past April) as her book The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, another work well worth reading.

What an amazing person.

Coming Soon

I have had the pleasure as serving as guest-editor of volume 7, number 1 of the Journal of Scottish Philosophy, which is dedicated to the topic of "Scottish Philosophy and the Social Sciences." It contains excellent original papers by Samuel Gregg, Maria Pia Paganelli, Henry Clark, Ryan Patrick Hanley, and Craig Smith, as well as a review of Eugene Heath and Vincenzo Merolle's edited collection Adam Ferguson: History, Progress and Human Nature by Gordon Graham and a review of Neil McArthur's David Hume's Political Theory by Eric Schliesser. See here for more details.

It should appear soon--keep an eye out for it!

This Just In

A book that has just been brought to my attention is America's Forgotten Founders: Beyond Washington and Jefferson, edited by Gary L. Gregg II and Mark David Hall (Louisville, KY: McConnell Center, 2008). Gary Gregg, whom I had the pleasure of meeting recently, holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville and is the McConnell Center's director. This book focuses, as its title suggests, on the thoughts and actions of some of America's lesser-known founders.

03 December 2008

Wise Words

"For it is more characteristic of virtue to do good than to have good done to one, and more characteristic to do what is noble than not to do what is base." --Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1120a11-13

Wise Words

"The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate. [ . . . ] And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by. But with far more subtlety does this mischief insinuate itself into philosophy and the sciences; in which the first conclusion colors and brings into conformity with itself all that come after, though far sounder and better." --Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620), Aphorism XLVI

02 December 2008

Wise Words

"There is no particular . . . in which we are more frequently unjust, than in applying to the individual the supposed character of his country; or more frequently misled, than in taking our notion of a people from the example of one, or a few of their numbers." --Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (pt. IV, sect. V)

What I'm Reading

Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). The main thesis of the book is that the promised efflorescence of learning and education with the onset of the digital age has not happened. Bauerlein argues that the evidence does not support the widespread consensus that computers, digital media, wifi, wikis, etc. in the classrooms aid education. Indeed, he argues that, if anything, these tools have limited our intellectual horizons by enabling--and even encouraging--students to spend more and more time on social networking, which tends to contract rather than expand our attentions. Who has time to read and digest all the wonderful information available on the web if we're updating our Facebook page 27 times per day?

I recently finished reading, on a recommendation from a friend, John R. Lott Jr.'s Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don't. Lott is the author of the infamous More Guns, Less Crime. The cacophonously named Freedomnomics is intended as a response to the wildly popular--and quite entertaining--Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, which Lott argues does not fully understand why and how markets work.

I am also re-reading parts of Mark Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect, 5th ed. Having just completed teaching a course on the history of economic thought, I found the insights in this book even more impressive than I did the first time I read it.

11 November 2008

What I'm Reading

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality, by Charles Murray. Murray is the co-author of the notorious The Bell Curve. Real Education claims that America's system of education rests on a series of falsehoods. The four "simple truths" that Murray argues would, if acknowledged, radically improve American education are: (1) academic ability varies widely, and is largely incorrigible; (2) half of the children are below average; (3) too many people go to college; and (4) America's future depends not on how we educate those at the lower end of the bell curve but rather on how we educate the academically gifted.

In preparation for a conference I am attending, I am also re-reading Edmund Burke's 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France, F. A. Hayek's essays collected in Individualism and Economic Order, and selections from Russell Kirk, including from his 1953 The Conservative Mind and his 1954 A Program for Conservatives. These are fascinating, and enduring, works. One striking fact is that both Hayek and Kirk claim Burke as one of their intellectual forebears, yet Hayek claims to be a "liberal" and sharply criticizes conservatives, while Kirk claims to be a "conservative" and sharply criticizes liberals.

10 November 2008

Wise Words

"No one who attempts to lay down propositions for the guidance of mankind, however perfect his scientific acquirements, can dispense with a practical knowledge of the actual modes in which the affairs of the world are carried on, and on extensive personal experience of the actual ideas, feelings, and intellectual and moral tendencies of his own country and of his own age. The true practical statesman is he who combines this experience with a profound knowledge of abstract political philosophy. Either acquirement, without the other, leaves him lame and impotent if he is sensible of the deficiency; renders him obstinate and presumptuous if, as is more probable, he is entirely unconscious of it."
--John Stuart Mill, "On the Definition of Political Economy and the Method of Investigation Proper to It" (1836)

04 November 2008

Wise Words

"We frequently hear the young and the licentious ridiculing the most sacred rules of morality, and professing, sometimes from the corruption, but more frequently from the vanity of their hearts, the most abominable maxims of conduct. Our indignation rouses, and we are eager to refute and expose such detestable principles. But though it is their intrinsic hatefulness and detestableness, which originally inflames us against them, we are unwilling to assign this as the sole reason why we condemn them, or to pretend that it is merely because we ourselves hate and detest them. The reason, we think, would not appear to be conclusive. Yet why should it not; if we hate and detest them because they are the natural and proper objects of hatred and detestation? But when we are asked why we should not act in such or such a manner, the very question seems to suppose that, to those who ask it, this manner of acting does not appear to be for its own sake the natural and proper object of those sentiments. We must show them, therefore, that it ought to be so for the sake of something else. Upon this account we generally cast about for other arguments, and the consideration which first occurs to us, is the disorder and confusion of society which would result from the universal prevalence of such practices."

--Adam Smith,
The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), II.ii.3.8.

28 October 2008

Wise Words

"Almost all the governments, which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story, have been founded originally, either on usurpation or conquest, or both, without any pretence of a fair consent, or voluntary subjection of the people." --David Hume, "Of the Original Contract" (1748)

"In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part." --Karl Marx, Das Kapital, vol. 1 (1867)

20 October 2008

Wise Words

"Natural science will in time include the science of man as the science of man will include natural science: There will be one science." --Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, "Private Property and Communism" (1844)

(Sounds very like the thesis of E. O. Wilson's 1999 book, Consilience.)

05 October 2008

What I'm Reading

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, by Christine Kenneally. This book was recommended to me by a former colleague and friend, but, because I have only just begun it, I cannot yet recommend it myself. It is a fascinating topic, however, one that cuts across many disciplines: history, anthropology, linguistics, political economy, and evolutionary biology.

Up next on my list:

Language Evolution: Contact, Competition and Change, by Salikoko S. Mufwene. I met Professor Mufwene briefly when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and he was chairman of its linguistics department. He is a very impressive person. I look forward to reading his book, especially since "invisible hand" is one of its central organizing concepts, and appears already on p. 2 and throughout the book.

02 October 2008

What I'm Reading

A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark. A fascinating new entry into the debate about (1) why there was an unprecedented explosion of wealth around 1800AD, and (2) why some places got so much wealthier than other places. Clark's intriguing suggestion is that culture--not, e.g., institutional structures or geographical features--is the most important single factor explaining both (1) and (2).

A remarkable passage from the book:

". . . much of modern quantitative economic history has been a search for empirical confirmation of his [Adam Smith's] vision of growth. These empirical studies of past societies, however, rather than confirming Smith's hypothesis, systematically find that many early societies had all the prerequisites for economic growth, but no technological advance and hence no growth. [. . .]

"Economic historians thus inhabit a strange netherworld. Their days are devoted to proving a vision of progress that all serious empirical studies in the field contradict." (pp. 146-7)

And later:

"Indeed, based on the Smithian conception, it is not clear why economic activity has not completely ground to a halt [in today's many countries with "high taxes on economic activity, combined with generous provision of income and services independent of effort"]." (p. 150)

01 October 2008


I have resumed blogging at the History News Network's blog, Liberty and Power. I had blogged there a few years ago, but am returning now after a hiatus. I am pleased to join several other distinguished bloggers on the site, whose focus is politics, political philosophy, economics, and educational policy.

23 September 2008

Wise Words

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” --Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

19 September 2008

A Personal Matter

It is with an enormous sense of relief that I report that an appellate court has upheld the conviction of the man who brutally attacked my step-father, giving him injuries that eventually led to his death. He was convicted of murder over a year ago, and the appellate court just this week rejected his petition to reduce the sentence to manslaughter. He will serve 79 years.

This has been a painful years-long ordeal. My step-sisters have been heroic in their diligence and vigilance, making sure that justice was done. Perhaps we can now all begin to mourn Jack properly.

May God rest your soul, Jack.

14 September 2008

What I'm Reading

A periodically updated post on things I've been reading recently . . . .

A History of Economic Thought, by Lionel Robbins. A collection of 33 essays Robbins delivered at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s (shortly before he died, in 1984). Robbins was one of the great economists of the twentieth century, and an excellent writer in addition.

Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, by Bradley J. Birzer. A fascinating biography of a thinker whose work was enormously influential on Catholicism in the first half of the twentieth century. A worthy successor to Birzer's previous book, J. R. R. Tolkein's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth.

In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology, by Eric Cohen. An extended argument laying out the limitations of modern science and technology, while remaining cognizant--and appreciative--of their obvious promise and benefits.

The Wal-Mart Revolution: How Big-Box Stores Benefit Consumers, Workers, and the Economy, by Richard Vedder and Wendell Cox. The authors argue that Wal-Mart unquestionably benefits everyone, and they review and address many objections to their claims and many criticisms raised against Wal-Mart.

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life, edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr. An extensive, wide-ranging, and challenging set of essays laying out the claims and evidence that experimental economists, evolutionary psychologists, primatologists, and others have presented attempting to give various forms of naturalistic explanations for human morality.

08 September 2008

My Scholarship: Books

In 2002, my book Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life was published by Cambridge University Press. Here is a review of the book by Timothy M. Costelloe, here is one by David Gordon, here is one by Robert McCarthy, here is one by Margaret Schabas, here is one by Jack Russell Weinstein, and here is one by Jeffrey T. Young.

In 2003, my five-volume edited collection The Levellers: Overton, Walwyn, and Lilburne was published by Thoemmes Continuum Press.

In 2004, my edited collection Adam Smith: Selected Philosophical Writings was published by Imprint Academic, as part of the Library of Scottish Philosophy series.

In 2006, my book Actual Ethicswas published by Cambridge University Press. Here is a review of the book by Blain Neufeld, and here is a review by David Gordon. Actual Ethics won the Templeton Foundation's 2007 Culture of Enterprise Award, first place, which carries with it a cash award bigger than that of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize! Here is a news story about the award, and here and here are two press releases about it.

06 September 2008

Brief Academic Biography

I received a BA magna cum laude from the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 1990. My senior essay, entitled "The Therapeutic Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein," won PLS's Otto A. Bird Award for best senior essay. I spent my sophomore year abroad, studying at the Universitaet Innsbruck, in Innsbruck, Austria.
From there I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, from which I received an MA in philosophy in 1992. My paper "A Problem in Wittgeinstein's Philosophy of Language" won the department's 1991 Richard M. Peltz Memorial Award for Excellence in Philosophy. My master's thesis, "Locke's Arguments for the Existence of Natural Law," was directed by William Wainwright.
I then joined the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, from which I received a PhD in 1997. My dissertation was entitled "The Unintended Order of Morality: Adam Smith and David Hume on the Origins of Morality." It was directed by Daniel Garber (now at Princeton University), with readers Ted Cohen and Ian Mueller; Knud Haakonssen was an outside reader (then at Boston University; now at Sussex University).
Upon graduating from the University of Chicago, I took a position in the philosophy department at the University of Alabama in 1997. I was first an assistant professor, then promoted early to associate professor with tenure in 2002, then promoted to full professor in 2006. I was chairman of the deparment from 2005 until I resigned in 2007.
In the fall of 2007, I accepted a position as Director of the Schottenstein Honors Program in Yeshiva College, Yeshiva University; I was also made joint professor of philosophy and economics. In 2008 took a leave from Yeshiva to be a visitor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.
In the fall of 2009, I returned to Yeshiva as professor of philosophy and economics. As of September 1, 2009, I am also a Senior Scholar at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, DC.

Jim Otteson's website

Hello and welcome to my new website! With the help of a good friend (thanks, Coop!), I've put together a site on which I will collect information about my professional activities. It will be under constant construction, and of course more content will be coming soon.

Please check back often and let me know what you think! E-mail me at jimotteson (at) gmail (dot) com.