Archive for April, 2010

My Own Philosophical Project
April 30, 2010

Looking over my breakdown of the analytic versus continental philosophical divide, I think I sort of come off like a dismissive analytic philosopher. Part of that is my schooling–in most American universities, continental philosophy is considered more a branch of the Comparative Lit department than “real” philosophy–but I should really stress that it doesn’t reflect my views at all.

Here’s where I stand: I’m glad that I was schooled the analytic method because it really helps you be a logical, organized thinker. And I like selected works of analytic ethics–Rawls, for example, and Sharon Street’s done some interesting work in metaethics.

But a lot of the continental stuff I’ve read just hits me on a much more visceral level. Their concerns–especially the concerns of the existentialists–are much closer to my own. I just can’t summon up the same level of enthusiasm regarding whether or not Mary knows all the facts about the color red.

This semester I got to take “Existentialism and Phenomenology” with John Richardson, a respected Nietzsche scholar. In my last recitation, a student asked him why he choose to teach a fairly marginalized field of philosophy at NYU, and his answer helped me clarify where my own interests lay a little bit more.

What Richardson does–and what he asked us to do in the papers we wrote for his class–is apply the analytic method to continental subjects. That isn’t to knock how, say, Nietzsche approached his subject matter. I think there’s a lot to be said for accessibility (for a non-academic audience) and resonant, if overwrought, imagery. But the analytic method is the best way to put a philosophical proposition to the test. My continued interest in philosophy is sustained by the notion that its logical rigor and the continental school’s artistry and most potent ideas don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

links for 2010-04-30
April 30, 2010

Friday Afternoon Music: Cavalier Rose’s “Button”
April 30, 2010

These guys haven’t recorded an album yet, but I’m looking forward to when they do. Then when everyone else discovers them, I can be really smug and talk about how I saw them when they were still playing showcases and bars in Williamsburg.

I always appreciate a proficient, soulful blues-rock band, and these guys are better than most. What sets it apart is Heather Christian’s vocals–you don’t often hear bands of this sort with a female singer, especially not one whose voice occasionally takes on this spectral, Björkish quality. It contrasts really well with the powerful, sturdy rhythm and grimy riffage of the rest of the band.

Seriously, if you’re in NYC, check out one of their free shows sometimes. And remember this post, because I’m going to use it as evidence of my hipster cred when you come telling me about how great they were at Bonaroo 2013.

Blogging’s Potential for Philosophy
April 30, 2010

I don’t know how much any of you have been following the back and forth between Chris and I in the comments for this post, but I think it’s a pretty good example of why blogging is a really interesting medium for doing philosophy.

Analytic papers break down their arguments into discrete components, similar to a mathematical proof. When Chris questioned one step I made in a larger argument, I wrote that post to elaborate on the step. Then, in the comments, he tested it further and I continued to elaborate, breaking down more of the component pieces. My argument was sort of sketchy to begin with, but Chris’s line of argument helped me clarify it both in text and in my own mind.

That’s the sort of thing I’d like to see more of on philosophy blogs. It’s a great tool, I think, for philosophy instruction, and it’s also a good way for academic philosophers to get their thoughts straight and here lines of criticism they need to address before they actually get down to writing papers. Unfortunately, most of the philosophy blogs I’ve seen are dedicated to either presenting already-complete papers or commenting on insider-y Philosophy department happenings.

I can see why philosophers–especially accredited ones with reputations to maintain, as opposed to undergrad ramblers like myself–would be reluctant to publicly present less-than-fully-formed ideas. It’s a competitive field, and not really kind to error. But blogging strikes me as a particularly good medium for engaging with those ideas, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

links for 2010-04-29
April 29, 2010

Philosophy 101: Analytic versus Continental Philosophy
April 29, 2010

So after consulting the Twitternets, I’ve resolved to do some more philo-blogging in an attempt to introduce some of the concepts that interest me most to non-majors. I’ve argued before at length that a little education in Philosophy is valuable to everyone–and that, in fact, it should be a mandatory part of education in any liberal democratic society. So here’s my attempt to spread some of what I’ve learned at the undergraduate level, and in my own readings.

First off, I want to clear up what I think is one of the most common misconceptions about the study of academic philosophy: What, exactly, it is we tend to study.

Since around the early 20th century, the fundamental split in Western philosophy has been between analytic philosophy (most popular in the UK and US) and continental philosophy (which, as you can probably guess, comes mostly from the European continent). NYU, even by American standards, is a very analytic-heavy department–before this semester, my last at NYU, only one of my classes had referenced so much as a single continental philosopher.

In very rough terms, here are the differences between the two schools:

The Case For Positive Skepticism
April 29, 2010

In the comments on my last NYU Local post, Chris Kennedy wonders how I got from laying out a case that we live in a world completely absent of any concrete meaning and value to arguing that, “the ceaseless search for one is the fundamental worthwhile human endeavor.” I didn’t have the time or space over there to fully connect the dots, but I would argue that the latter conclusion is an inevitable consequence of the former.

Once you’ve come to the conclusion that nobody has conclusively demonstrated the existence of a set of concrete values you can buy into unreflectively, that leaves you with pretty much two options which I outlined in that post: unreflective skepticism and positive skepticism. Unreflective skepticism is the philosophical position that value is either inherently unknowable or nonexistent, so there’s no point in seeking it out, and we might as well just live our lives.

I’ve already talked at length about the problems with that attitude, but here’s a recap: it’s profoundly lonely and unsatisfying, because it means that all that’s left for us is transitory, corporeal pleasures. I’m profoundly skeptical that anyone can live on that stuff alone and be happy. It reduces us to the level of mean-spirited, self-involved children.

Of course, arguing the psychological costs isn’t very persuasive if the unreflective skeptic still happens to think he is factually correct. So here’s something else to chew on: because it is, as I’ve said, unreflective, it’s a position that hobbles your ability to critically assess your own beliefs in a similar with that fundamentalist religion does. The only significant difference is that religion promises spiritual fulfillment, while all unreflective skepticism promises is a smug sense of rationalized self-satisfaction.

Besides which, any unreflective position leaves you fundamentally unfree and chained to that position. I’ve written before about the idea that we don’t “choose” our unreflective beliefs in any meaningful sense, which means that the only way to really make a choice on your own is to derive it from values and goals you’ve reached only after a long period of agonized introspection.

This introspection is the position that I call–oxymoronically, probably–positive skepticism. It’s the belief that we don’t know anything about values for now, and that even if we never do, we should make a project out of continually searching/trying to construct and deconstruct those values. Kant argues that skepticism is “no dwelling place for permanent settlement”–I argue that, barring a profound, life-shattering insight of the kind I can’t even imagine right now, we should never be satisfied with any permanent dwelling place.

links for 2010-04-28
April 28, 2010

Last NYU Local Post Ever
April 28, 2010

Is here. I had to cut the philosophical ruminating kind of short, but check this space out for some expansion on those ideas in the future.

links for 2010-04-27
April 27, 2010


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