Liberty and Pity-Charity
March 15, 2012

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

John Locke, via Wikipedia

I’m working my way through Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy right now. It’s been slow going, but I’ve managed to claw my way all the way up to the Enlightenment, where I was struck by this quote from John Locke (emphasis mine):

I can as certainly no this proposition to be true as that a triangle has three angles equal to two right ones. Again: ‘No government allows absolute liberty:’ the idea of government being the establishment of society upon certain rules or laws, which require conformity to them; and the idea of absolute liberty being for any one to do whatever he pleases: I am as capable of being certain of the truth of this proposition as of any in the mathematics.

In Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Philip Pettit defines the classical liberal position as being that liberty equals freedom from interference. That’s not exactly what Locke, the father of liberalism, says here. Instead, he offers up what would seem like a fairly commonsense definition of liberty as the freedom to do whatever you’d like. (Russell writes repeatedly that Locke championed common sense at the expense of a lot of other philosophical virtues.)

But as blandly intuitive as Locke’s definition might seem, the small-r republican must take exception. I think the classic republican master-slave thought experiment can help us understand why Locke’s definition is lacking. As an added bonus, contrasting the republican definition of liberty with the Lockean understanding might shed some light on the philosophical roots of certain modern policy disagreements.

Republicanism, as I’ve previously explained at length, takes liberty to mean freedom from domination, not interference. To illustrate what he means, he makes frequent reference to the case of the master and the slave (a recurrent theme in republican writings going all the way back to the days of Rome). The question we should be attending to is, what makes a slave unfree? (more…)

Against Atheism 2.0
January 22, 2012

Alain de Botton

Image by juan tan kwon via Flickr

Since writing this post on Godless theology, I’ve been meditating a lot on the possibility of religious atheism. That could mean anything from Jewish humanism to Zen Buddhism to the ideas outlined in Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship.” Jewish humanists, Siddhartha and Russell all have different ways of finding meaning in a world absent a personal God, and your mileage for each may vary; but I’ll wager that the least satisfying of those accounts is still infinitely more nourishing than Alain de Botton’s banally Gladwellian “atheism 2.0.”

De Botton begins a recent TED Talk (via — who else? — Andrew Sullivan) by attempting to distinguish his cuddly, family-friendly atheism from the more vituperative New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Chris Hitchens. But the New Atheists, despite their numerous failings (of which I’ve written extensively in the past), are at least willing to treat religious claims as if they mean something. By trying to please everyone, De Botton ends up condescending to both the serious faithful and the serious faithless — in other words, anyone who bothers to think critically about big questions. As insufferable as PZ Meyers and his ilk may be, I’ll take combativeness over a pat on the head.

De Botton’s starting point for developing atheism 2.0 is reasonable enough: he argues that atheism, which is to say the rejection of a narrow band of metaphysical claims, is not on its own a sufficient foundation for a whole worldview or collective identity. So far so good, but his proposed alternative is utter pablum. He says:

I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways — and I’m being both very respectful and completely impious — of stealing from religions. If you don’t believe in a religion, there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. And for me, atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way of going through religions and saying, “What here could we use?”

I’ve complained in the past that atheists all too often try to dodge serious existential problems by just appropriating religious concepts and giving them a pseudo-rationalist gloss. De Botton not only does the same thing, but proudly announces his intention to do so. Too bad for him that a religion isn’t a salad bar, where you can nibble on the parts you like and elide the nasty bits; the pieces fit together to form a larger whole. Decontextualizing the parts you like and plugging them into your own worldview willy-nilly means importing some of religion’s most grating excesses as well: its smugness, its philosophical complacency. If atheists want to interface with religion — and that is, for sure, something I encourage — then they must be willing to interface with all of it. That means opening yourself up to uncertainty, confusion, and even fear.

De Botton clearly finds uncertainty and fear distasteful. Otherwise, he might have a very different attitude towards religious art than the one he expresses below:

My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions. And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum — if I was a museum curator, I would make a room for love, a room for generosity. All works of art are talking to us about things. And if we were able to arrange spaces where we could come across works where we would be told, use these works of art to cement these ideas in your mind, we would get a lot more out of art. Art would pick up the duty that it used to have and that we’ve neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas. Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society. Art should be didactic.

One might wonder how one of the greatest religious artists of all time — Fyodor Dostoevsky — fits into this notion of didactic art. No doubt a didactic Christian artist in the De Botton mode never would have written the parable of the Grand Inquisitor — a critique of Christian morality so devastatingly persuasive that the author himself never discovered a proper rebuttal. That is what true religion and true art look like: struggle. Yis’rael is often translated as “He who wrestles with God.”

If religion has anything to give atheists, it’s more than just a series of empty gestures and defanged observances. Religion can help us define the terms of greater struggles, but only as a means toward taking those struggles seriously. The problem with atheism 2.0, then, is the problem with De Botton’s whole shtick: he peddles anesthetic, not real medicine. Like his spiritual brother-in-arms Simon Critchley, he specializes in masticating thorny philosophical questions into easily digestible gruel for the educated but intellectually timid. If he really wanted to do his audience a service, he would acknowledge that there is such a thing as despair.

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In DC
September 26, 2010

Washington dc
Image via Wikipedia

Made it in late last night, and now I’m dividing my time between unpacking, exploring my new neighborhood, and ducking into various cafes to check my email (our Wi Fi isn’t set up yet). Tomorrow I start work—and, by extension I suppose, adult life in the bizarre simulacrum of the real world that is our nation’s capital.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen to this blog when that starts. I’d like to continue writing it, but how much time I’ll be able to allocate towards future blogging remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: it’s likely to get even less overtly political than in recent weeks. I’m going to be thinking about, discussing, researching, and writing about politics for a large enough chunk of my waking life without giving this space over to it. Me being me, I’ll still visit the topic occasionally, but I’ve been liking the mix of cultural criticism and straight philosophy so far, and hopefully you have too.

I’m also finding the Nietzsche Blogging to be an enormous pleasure, and I’d like to do the same with other works of philosophy and political theory in the future (taking a break in between tomes to do some more recreational reading). I’d still like to visit Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, but before we get there, Peter and I have been talking about jointly tackling Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Let me know what you’d like to see in this space in the future. And if you’re at all familiar with DC, what I should be doing here as a local.

Nietzsche Blogging: Introduction
August 23, 2010

Walter Kaufmann - The Portable Nietzsche
Image by lungstruck via Flickr

A couple days ago I asked whether I should blog my way through The Portable Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Only four people responded (clearly I am a powerhouse blogger and my audience is legion), and they were evenly divided on the topic. But the half of my respondents (and by half, I mean two) who voted for Nietzsche were the ones who happened to be philosophy majors, so I gave greater weight to their ballots. And besides, I’ve been eager to dig into Nietzsche myself. So. Nietzsche it is.

The introduction by translator and renowned Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann already has me pretty excited. In this introduction, he takes great pains to emphasize that Nietzsche was a brilliant prose stylist as well as a philosopher, and that he was a much more nuanced character than the popular caricature gives him credit for. “Almost as different from his popular caricatures,” Kaufmann writes, “as a character in Shakespeare, or more likely in Dostoevski, is from the comic strip version of Superman.”

Nietzsche, he writes, was not a dour anti-Semite but a man with a keen sense of both justice and humor, whose messy estrangement from Richard Wagner was largely motivated by the composer’s hypocrisy and anti-Semitic views. Moreover, Kaufmann’s characterization of Nietzsche’s philosophy is fascinating to me: he describes it as a marriage of enlightenment rationalism, post-enlightenment romantic passion, and psychological insight. He also argues that Nietzsche is the first truly post-religious philosopher, rejecting both Christianity and the eastern-influenced metaphysics of Hegel and Schopenhauer.

All of this strikes a chord—or, rather, I guess I’m expecting it to strike a chord. And with that in mind, I think I’m taking the right approach in reading my way through this whole collection, cover to cover, rather than picking and choosing individual works. Kaufmann describes them all as chapters of a single, larger project, and suggests that trying to climb the mountain is well worth your time.

“What one gets out of Nietzsche may be vaguely proportionate to the sustained attention one accords him,” he writes. And later: “[Nietzsche] challenges the reader not so much to agree or disagree as to grow.”

This is going to be fun. I’m pumped.

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Philosophy Book Blogging
August 21, 2010

Cover of "A History of Western Philosophy...
Cover of A History of Western Philosophy

I’ve finished Nausea and I’m now kicking back and taking it a little easy by reading Franny and Zooey. But once I’m done with that book—which probably won’t be too long from now, since, as Salinger himself writes, it is “pretty skimpy-looking”—I was thinking of tackling one of those hefty books on philosophy I picked up from the Book Barn, and blogging my impressions of it. The books are: The Portable Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. I’d like to read both at some point, but have no strong preference regarding which one I should read first.

So I thought I’d open it up to the floor: is there one in particularly any of you folks would rather see blogged about?

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