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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Miss Real America
May 19, 2010

On Twitter, Christa reminds me that the beauty pageant is a long-running Southern institution. Without speculating about why that is, I think it makes the explanation for why Miss USA has become so politically significant in the conservative community pretty simply: it’s a function of the further blurring between political and cultural signifiers for the right.

Obviously there’s going to be some overlap between the two in any cohort (says the liberal who listens to punk rock, watches The Daily Show, etc.), but what’s interesting about folks like Pipes and Malkin is how they find it impossible to view any form of cultural expression through any lens other than the ideological purity detector. It’s easy to criticize, but mostly it just makes me feel bad for them; I can’t imagine how much more narrow and impoverished my life would be if I reflexively rejected any form of cultural expression that didn’t conform to my own worldview.

UPDATE: Via Dara, beauty pageants have apparently been declining in popularity for decades.

Theory: As beauty pageants became less popular in the north, conservatives started identifying them even more closely with the values of Real America, which in turn alienated more non-conservative fans and contestants, which then in turn made pageants into even more of a conservative shibboleth, etc.

You know what other recent historical trend fits that shape? Conservative orthodoxy in general.

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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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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.

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