Philosophy Trends
November 1, 2010

aatombomb asks:

What’s in vogue right now academia-wise? When I was in school, many moons ago, it was postmodernism (I was a Derrida fan myself). I feel like that has fallen out of favor since. Has anything else emerged in its place?

Honestly? I haven’t the faintest idea. Ever since I graduated college, I’ve kind of existed in my own little universe when it comes to what philosophy I consume and why. The best answer I can give is based on anecdotal evidence from my time at NYU. I can tell you that I didn’t hear Derrida mentioned once in any of my classes (as a result, sadly enough, I couldn’t even really tell you much of what he’s all about, besides mumbling something about deconstruction and postmodernism). It seems like he’s mostly only brought up in comparative lit and other non-philosophy classes these days.

The big thing at NYU, and, I think, most other US universities is analytic philosophy. You’re unlikely to hear much about any philosophers from the European continent after Kant; not even Nietzsche. Personally, I found that to be sort of a bummer.

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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The Eternal Recurrence of Not Too Much
August 13, 2010

Friedrich Nietzsche
Image by mansionwb via Flickr

NYU’s Philosophy department has a mostly-deserved (I think) reputation as the most prestigious philosophy department on earth, but it’s particulate focus on analytic philosophy and snobbish attitude towards most other fields left some pretty substantial gaps in my education. One of the bigger gaps is shaped like Nietzsche’s comically large mustache, and I hope to soon plug that hole with a copy of The Nietzsche Reader that I picked up at the Book Barn (stay tuned for a lot of Nietzsche blogging once that happens). One reason I’m excited to dig in: the concept of eternal recurrence has been on my mind a lot lately.

For those who only have a foggy notion what I’m referring to, here’s the relevant passage from The Gay Science:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

I’m obsessed with this passage. Part of the reason why is because I love the whole concept of philosophy imparted by aphorism. It’s a far cry from the lab report-style of analytic philosophy; it’s a good deal more Gothic, and a bit more poetic.

What also intrigues me about the aphorism is that it’s impossible to tell whether Nietzsche intended it as a metaphor for how to take stock of one’s life, or as an actual metaphysical proposition about the way the universe is. His writing elsewhere clarifies that it’s the latter, but I refer the ambiguity here. There’s more to the idea as a simple thought experiment than as a real theory.

It’s a thought experiment that carries particular personal resonance for me at this point in my life. I just finished college, and I am currently unemployed. Since I’m not sure what state (or even what country) I’ll be moving to once I find a job, I’m living with my parents for the time being. There’s not a whole lot for me to do, and to the extent that I feel any real pressure to complete a project, that pressure is all internal. It’s been this way for about a month. As someone who only feels comfortable when he’s busy, the frustration has been, at times, immense. What drives me crazy is the lopsided feeling of the days: how they’re over before they’ve even begun, and how I find myself straining for some way to occupy the hours until the next one appears.

But then I think of eternal recurrence, and imagine my July—my month of very little—not as thirty-one days I squandered and will never see again, but as thirty-one days I will repeat throughout eternity. After all, in a way, I will: those days, or at least the narrative I tell myself about them, are now an irrevocable part of the grander narrative of my life. When I think about it that way, I start to grasp the stupidity of wishing them away, or just wishing that it will be over soon. When I start doing that, I’m squandering an opportunity to construct something of value out of those moments.

To me, the challenge presented by eternal recurrence is to create something of value out of even the most mundane moments. In order to do that, one must have a preternaturally fertile inner life. Since I’ve always believed that cultivating your inner life is something that deserves a lot of effort and care, maybe the days that force us to rely on it for stimulation are valuable after-all, like an intensive introspection workout. It’s in that spirit that I look forward to reading some more Nietzsche—and, since I’ve missed it, doing some more philosophy talk on this blog.

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