Archive for June, 2010

Sisyphean Existence
June 29, 2010

Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
Image via Wikipedia

Responding to my post on happiness, Mariel writes:

if our life is only the pursuit of happiness, we will never be truly satisfied. it would be a sisyphean existence because there is no concrete definition of what happiness is- it is an ever-changing abstract concept. we will never be able to reach the top level of happiness because the doubt and uncertainty that is inevitable on this journey would lead to perpetual turmoil. we will always be on the search for ‘better’, never reaching ‘best’.

I know this is quibbling, but I would hesitate to fully endorse this view only because I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with a Sisyphean existence, at least in the sense Camus and other existentialists thought of it. Recall that in Camus’ famous essay, he concludes that Sisyphus is aware of the futility of his task, and yet, “one must imagine [him] happy.” That’s because his life-long project is one that he knows will never be completed—and, as a result, he will always have an end to strive towards.

So Sisyphus winds up looking a lot like the model of existence I would propose as an alternative to this self-involved pursuit of happiness. Where I would break with Camus is in his insistence that all possible projects are equally absurd, and rolling a boulder to the top of a mountain is as worthy a goal as any other.

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New Salon Column
June 29, 2010

When I said I wouldn’t comment on Weigelgate, I guess that was a lie. But this is actually more about a broader point:

Weigelgate has instigated a long-overdue fight within the bowels of a major newspaper over the relative merits of traditional, self-consciously impartial reporting and opinionated coverage. It’s an old skirmish, but not one that has ever been fought with this level of intensity, before such a wide audience. And perhaps now that it’s out in the open, we can expose the misguided, antiquated ideology its supporters have dubbed “objective journalism” for what it really is.

Because what better time than right after graduation to render myself unemployable by several major news outlets?*

Anyway, take a look. And it being Tumblr Tuesday and all, maybe if you like the piece you could shoot me a recommendation.

*Hahahahahah! Just kidding, Mom and Dad! I think!

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People Are Bad at Happiness
June 28, 2010

infinite jest
Image by dorywithserifs via Flickr

Earlier I argued that it’s a fool’s errand to make your life-long project a quest for personal satisfaction for its own sake. If you want to understand why, all you have to do is try and conceive of what such a project would look like.

By definition, we’re not talking about a project that seeks to directly better the lives of others. Nor is it one that aims towards any higher moral ends. This is a project that is either purely hedonistic or projects towards some other kind of self-affirmation: say, a carefully cultivated self-image or career goal.

So a goal like that is necessarily materialistic. A non-materialistic endeavor projects itself towards something larger than, and outside of, ourselves. If we’re not going to find fulfillment in moral virtue, religion, idealism, compassion or anything else, where does that leave us?

A lot of you probably share my belief that narcissism is morally monstrous, but that’s not really the argument here. I think the more salient point is that it is necessarily self-defeating, for the simple reason that it is impossible to satisfy. That’s because, when it comes to satisfying our own happiness, we’re notoriously bad at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The things we think will raise our overall happiness in the long-term, usually don’t; after the initial endorphin rush dissipates, we’re just left with a higher threshold for maintaining our current happiness level.

David Foster Wallace’s great insight was making the link between a lot of the wildly disparate way in which we pursue happiness through material things: in Infinite Jest, he juxtaposes the pursuit of entertainment, career advancement, fame, and chemically altered states, suggesting that they all operate on more or less the same principle. A small measure of that book’s genius lies in how he demonstrates, with humor and compassion, that all of these things can dull our anxiety and suffering in the short term while really just crippling our ability to function normally without them in the long term.

A lot of self-help pop philosophy is focused on the question, “How do I find happiness?” But reflecting on this stuff has led me to reject the premise. I’m not so sure that happiness qua happiness is a reasonable or worthwhile lifelong goal. If you’re lucky, it’s the byproduct of pursuing a different, worthier project.

(I’m going to try and make this my last Infinite Jest/DFW-related post for a little while. For one thing, I don’t want this blog to become too one-note. But I’m also running out of non-repeated pictures to run at the top of these things.)

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A Scanner Darkly
June 28, 2010

Drawn portrait of Philip K Dick
Image via Wikipedia

The AV Club just posted the first entry in an ongoing discussion of Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi novel, so take that as further incentive to read the thing if you haven’t yet.

Or actually, just read any Philip K. Dick novel if you haven’t yet. His books have their flaws—most notably clunky prose and, far worse, a pretty ugly attitude towards women—but the author has an eye for the absurd to rival Kafka’s, and a surprising tenderness directed at those trapped in absurd situations. A Scanner Darkly captures that about as well as any of his books, shifting from his trademark grim sense of humor to a conclusion that’s genuinely heartbreaking.

Incidentally, Richard Linklater’s film adaptation is also very, very good. There have been many film versions of Dick’s work in the past, and they’ve ranged from good-but-completely-detached-from-the-tone-of-the-original (Blade Runner, Minority Report) to let’s-just-pretend-that-never-happened (Paycheck, Impostor, and most likely the upcoming The Adjustment Bureau). Linklater’s adaptation is the only one I’ve seen to capture the druggy digressiveness of his novels, the surreal sense of humor, and the all-pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and existential dread that hooked me when I first picked up his work in high school.

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June 28, 2010

I am trying to decide what the creepiest thing about this video is (via Ben Smith).

  • The way in which Barber blithely equates taxation to pay for social welfare programs with slavery.
  • Zombie Abraham Lincoln.
  • The juxtaposition of standard-issue Tea Party ranting about taxation and liberty with PHOTOS OF AUSCHWITZ HOLY SHIT.
  • The David Lynch-esque musical interlude.
  • The militia of well-armed aryans, plus a lone black guy in the front row to prove that this isn’t, like, a race war or anything.
  • The fact that the ad ends with Barber taking a jab at Glenn Beck for being insufficiently crazy.

See, this is what I talk about when I fret over the corrosion of any kind of basic national consensus in this country. The public and its elected representatives don’t need to agree on everything—in fact, it’s better if we have substantive disagreements on a lot of things—but at the very least we should be able to agree that there’s no moral equivalence between the modest health care reform and, say, the Holocaust. Because, remember, the general consensus is that armed insurrection directed towards the goal of preventing or ending the Holocaust is morally permissible. And if a small but politically significant chunk of the electorate believes the same thing applies to incremental expansions of the welfare state, well, that’s a problem.

An even bigger problem is that I think Barber is actually sincere, and not just irresponsibly stoking populist rage to further his own advancement. Contrast that with a man who like Nixon, who was fundamentally sociopathic in the lengths he was willing to go to further his career, but also sufficiently cognizant of reality to be an effective manager. What he failed to account for—and this is perhaps among his biggest sins—is that the people to whom he was serving cups of kool-aid would eventually run for office themselves.

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The Stone Hits a Bullseye
June 28, 2010

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...
Image via CrunchBase

I’ve done my fair share of ragging on The Stone, the New York Times’ paved-with-good-intentions attempt at bringing philosophy to a wider audience, but this pair of essays, intended to respond to the all-too-common complaint that philosophy is too abstract and esoteric to have anything to do with the interests and concerns of real, non-PhD-holding people, is quite good. At the very least, it’s a nice antidote to Simon Critchley’s embarrassing nonsense. And a couple parts in each column nearly had me pumping my fist in the air. To whit, here’s a great excerpt from founder Alexander George’s entry:

It certainly doesn’t help that philosophy is rarely taught or read in schools.  Despite the fact that children have an intense interest in philosophical issues, and that a training in philosophy sharpens one’s analytical abilities, with few exceptions our schools are de-philosophized zones.  This has as a knock-on effect that students entering college shy away from philosophy courses.  Bookstores — those that remain — boast philosophy sections cluttered with self-help guides.  It is no wonder that the educated public shows no interest in, or perhaps even finds alien, the fully ripened fruits of philosophy.


And here’s Frieda Klotz:

Plutarch thought philosophy should be taught at dinner parties. It should be taught through literature, or written in letters giving advice to friends. Good philosophy does not occur in isolation; it is about friendship, inherently social and shared. The philosopher should engage in politics, and he should be busy, for he knows, as Plutarch sternly puts it, that idleness is no remedy for distress.

Also yes!

The point that philosophers should be involved in politics is, I think, a particularly good one; if you believe that the study of ethics and political philosophy has any merit at all, then surely you believe that the people who devote their lives to studying it have something to contribute to, and gain from, the political sphere.

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New New Digs
June 27, 2010


The Life-Long Project
June 27, 2010

So I know a lot of you crazy kids with your RSS feeds and Tumblr main page and the hippity-hoppity and bippity-boppity might not have noticed, but we have a new URL here and a snazzy new template, keeping in line with my desire to expand this blog’s focus. But that doesn’t mean we’re abandoning philosophy entirely, and philosophy is what I want to talk about today.*

About a month ago, I and several other past and present NYU Local editors fell into a bout of collective navel gazing on the nature of romantic love. One line from the whole discussion stuck out to me, in Annie’s entry:

With this post-feminist (I suppose?) kind of psyche, a lot of girls my age want relationships, but they also don’t want to seem needy. What results is a lot of cold quasi-relationships, and they forget that maybe there is something to be said, something strong, about a life-long project that isn’t entirely self-centered.

My own thinking and reading on the subject has led me to a stronger thesis: a life-long project focused, in part, on something other than, and larger than yourself is a prerequisite for being a fully developed person.

There are two reasons for this, and only one of them has to do with the expected references to moral necessity. One way in which I suppose you could say I’m sort of Ancient Greek in my thinking is that I do believe that we all share certain communitarian obligations, and an obligation to strive for some form of public virtue (especially in a democratic society).

But there is another argument for this thesis, one which I’ve seen made most eloquently by two people you’ve seen mentioned here a lot before: Simone de Beauvoir and David Foster Wallace. One of Wallace’s greatest insights is, I think, also one of Beauvoir’s: that we must have non-self-absorbed life-long goals not just out of moral necessity, but also personal necessity.

That may seem an obvious point to a lot of people, but I don’t believe in obvious points. There are the things you can argue for, and the the things you can’t. In this case, I think it’s crucial to get the argument out there as much as possible, and so I’m making it a project of mine for the foreseeable future.

(As to why it’s so important to talk about this now, it goes back to what I was talking about in that God Is Dead post: because of the new order I identified, a large chunk of my generation was raised without being given the tools to assemble an internally coherent set of values beyond themselves. Keep that in mind when you read yet another brow-furrowing, lip-pursing boomer’s article about the “Me Generation’s” overweening narcissism. I don’t think these concerns are without merit, but the root causes—the fundamental moral and philosophical failings of prior generations—are usually ignored. And ignored at our peril.)

*I’m consciously avoiding Weigelgate because it’s already been over-commented-on, and my main thing about how this whole debacle is a far greater embarrassment to the Washington Post than Weigel himself has already been pretty well covered elsewhere.

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Expanding My Focus
June 25, 2010

I know I keep saying this, but I’m pleased and more than a little flummoxed by the continual expansion of this blog’s readership. Right now I’m at 241 followers, which, needless to say, comes as a happy surprise. It’s gratifying to see this many people are so interested in philosophy.

That being said, I’m starting to miss straight political and cultural blogging a lot. And as I hunt for a job (I finished my undergraduate coursework yesterday) in either journalism or political advocacy, it’s something I probably should be doing for career reasons. So I’m thinking seriously about expanding the blog’s mission again: changing the name from Philoblog to my own name, tinkering with the template, and doing a little bit more general interest blogging.

To be clear, I have no intention of pulling a full Yglesias here: my background is in academic philosophy, and it will remain a major part of what I do here no matter what. Similarly, I intend to find a way for philosophy to inform and contribute to whatever I choose to cover whenever possible. That fact that it can do so is, after all, the primary argument I was trying to advance when I created this blog.

Nothing’s final here, so if you’ve got strong objections feel free to voice them in the comments. And while I’ll understand if this isn’t the case, I hope my writing here has generated enough good faith for the possible move to not result in any unfollows, at least until we try out the new format for a time.

UPDATE: To clarify, when I say that my “background is in academic philosophy,” I mean that my admittedly slim academic background is in philosophy, not politics or journalism.

The Perennial Philosophy
June 24, 2010

I think Julian Baggini is spot on here. Too often the project of combining aspects of religions, philosophies and mystical traditions from all cultures devolves into logical incoherence. To the extent that there are extremely broad commonalities, it’s because these traditions satisfy common human needs. That is the “deeper truth” we can find from comparing how they overlap.

That’s why I find phenomenology a much more compelling way to look at how they overlap. Why are we so hungry for philosophies of transcendence? What hole does that plug?

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