Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category

May 21, 2010

So I’m trying a new experiment: writing a blog aimed specifically at discussing hardcore academic philosophy in terms that won’t alienate non-academic philosophers. Or, as I put it at the end of the first post: “You are already a philosopher, and the reason why I started this blog is because I want to prove it to you.”

Go ahead and check it out. If you’re on Tumblr, give it a follow. Because I only have so much time that I’m willing to spend blogging indoors when there are things to be done that are either mandatory or outside among people, I’m putting this blog on hiatus for a little to focus on the other one.

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Only God Can Save Us, But Who Wants to Be Saved?
May 18, 2010

Simone de Beauvoir
Image via Wikipedia

In the comments for my Heidegger post, Dylan writes:

I’m operating on a semester-old reading of B&T here, but even authentic Dasein are indebted to Das Man inasmuch as their authenticity is a result of untethering oneself from Das Man. Viewed collectively, this is pretty unsatisfying. Wouldn’t one be thrown into possibilities even if all those already in the world are authentic? They’d just be different possibilities. This seems like a case where, at a more radical level, only a God can save us. This is me and not Heidegger talking, of course, but I do think there are serious religious possibilities in his account of being-toward-death.

Which is to say this is another edition of “Kierkegaard and Tillich got it right”.

I’m not so sure about that, although that could in part be because I’m misreading Dylan’s objection. But it seems to me that he’s saying he objects to the lack of a natural endpoint in Heidegger’s philosophy. Kierkegaard thinks that we are in despair until we achieve a relation between the opposing forces within ourself; Heidegger, like most of the later existentialists, seems to think that we will always have some sort of struggle, and nothing can save us from it. We will always have anxiety, and we will always feel despair.

Personally, I don’t find that as unsatisfying as Dylan seems to. In fact, if “saved” means what I think it means in this case, I’m not so sure I want to be saved. Noted frumpy philosopher Simone de Beauvoir does, I think, the best job of explaining why.

Beauvoir thinks humans are fundamentally free, that freedom consisting of the ability to assign meaning to things within the world. We exercise this freedom through the goals we project ourselves towards. That means that if one does reach a natural endpoint and accomplishes all of his goals, he needs to find some others or else he is no longer willing his own freedom into existence. If you don’t have a goal to project towards, then you are not assigning anything meaning; and if you are not bringing meaning into the world, then your life itself has no real meaning.

You can bet I’ll be expanding on this idea, and its implications, in the future. Especially because I’m currently reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir’s great work of existentialist ethics, which so far is the most personally resonant and convincing metaethical work I’ve read. Since Freddie is the clubhouse’s resident Beauvoir expert, maybe we can persuade him to offer some insights.

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The Gray Lady Does the Gay Science
May 16, 2010

Well, not specifically the Nietzsche book, but philosophy in general. And no, it doesn’t really have anything to do with GLBT anything, person who clicked over from Twitter or Facebook thinking that was what I was writing about. Gotcha!

To be more specific, the Times just started a series of blog posts about philosophy from various academic philosophers. Brian Leiter, who I suppose you could call academic philosophy’s foremost new media ambassador, is unimpressed.

Now I can’t comment on his allegations of hackery against Simon Critchley, writer of the series’ first entry, but I can say that the entry didn’t do a whole lot for me, and did not, I think, come close to adequately explaining what philosophy is. Will Durant has a far more succint definition on the first page of his excellent history, The Story of Philosophy:

[…] philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself. Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge; philosophy must provide a synthesis for wisdom.

All of that being said, I’ve got high hopes for the series. I’ve argued again and again that philosophy is a fundamental human endeavor; everyone does it, and the more they understand what it is they’re doing, the better. Kudos to the Times for even attempting to spread some understanding.

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Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan, Martin Heidegger
May 16, 2010

Heidegger Action Figure
Image by Mads Boedker via Flickr

Lo and behold, just as I’m jumping back into the blogosphere I see that two prominent political bloggers are debating one of my favorite philosophical hobbyhorses.


To be human is to be aware of our own finitude, and to wonder at that. Montaigne argued that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Camus put it differently: men die and they are not happy. For me, this last thing is our first thing as humans. It is our defining characteristic, even though some animals may experience this in a different way.


“Facing it is our life’s task”? I can’t even conceive of that. I think about death sometimes, just like everyone, and sometimes these thoughts bother me more than other times. But thinking about it all the time? Casting it as uniquely central to the human condition? That’s almost incomprehensible to me. Wondering about our own finitude is one thing — I imagine we all do that from time to time — but why should this be elevated above the human ability to create art, science, mathematics, love, war, poetry, trade, government, or ethics — or the ability to wonder in the first place? Why is learning how to deal with our eventual death the defining characteristic of being human?

Drum says, “this attitude toward death surely sums up a vast chasm between the religious [Sullivan] and the nonreligious [Drum].” But as a fairly strident atheist, my own position is actually much closer to Sullivan’s, with one major caveat: I wouldn’t call awareness of death’s inevitability the defining characteristic of what it means to be human. It’s just a byproduct of the defining characteristic.

We Now Return To Our Regularly Scheduled Programming
May 15, 2010

I’m back in the city, which means I’m returning to a regular blogging schedule. And since I’m just now coming off of hiatus, this is as good a time as any for you guys to tell me how the blog could be improved. Drop a comment below, or get in touch with me directly.

Stuff about form is appreciated, but primarily I’m interested in what sort of content you’d like to see in the future. For most of this blog’s history it’s been primarily a political blog, but lately I think the philoblogging and litblogging has caught up. So I’m going to be recalibrating the ratios in the future, but that’s not something I can do without your input. More literature? More philosophy? Stick to mostly hard politics? Blog entirely in passive-aggressive rants about unnamed frenemies?

Vegas, Baby
May 4, 2010

Thanks to everyone who’s voted for me in the DFA scholarship thing. If you haven’t yet, please consider doing so.

Also, I hope you’ll support my friends Jamelle Bouie and Sahar Massachi. I’ll admit I have selfish reasons for wanting them to be able to attend: I haven’t hung out with either of them in person more than once, so I’ve been looking forward to an opportunity to do again.

Their respective profiles are here and here.

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.

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.

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.

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