Sep 302010

Here we see guys in goofy Lewis and Freud costumes putting forward simplistic alternative views on the origin of moral sentiments to set up a round-table discussion:

The discussion interestingly displays no evidence of these folks having read Freud’s discussion of morality in Civilization and its Discontents, specifically his claim that experience in fact does not support the utility of Christian morality, but that its central tenet, “Love thy Neighbor as Thyself,” is an absolute psychological impossibility, and so nonsense as a commandment.
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Sep 292010

Here is a somewhat startling video of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek talking briefly about trying to apply the insights of psychotherapy (which deals with individuals) to cultures:

Watch on youtube.

His remarks about being able to relate an “anonymous social field” reflect Heidegger’s conception of “Das Man,” i.e. our tendency to conform to social norms, seeing through eyes that are not authentically our own.
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Sep 282010

Smoking baby

A bit of thoughtful pop culture to kick off our Freud blog deliberations:

In what I believe was the pilot episode of Mad Men, the 1950s advertising professionals that are the show’s main characters are thinking about how to do a campaign for a cigarette company now that it was becoming common knowledge that smoking causes cancer. The company’s researcher pulled out Freud’s notion of the death drive, saying that really, people want danger on some level, so an effective ad campaign should play on that: acknowledge that the product is deadly but say “so what?”

Now, this suggestion ends up getting dismissed by both the main character and, when it is later brought up in a moment of desperation, by the client. (A paraphrase: “So we tell them that since you’re going to die smoking anyway, you should die with us? That’s crazy!”)

The scene points out an obvious initial objection to Freud’s idea of putting forth the sex drive and death drive as fundamental explanatory forces for human behavior. If these forces both worked overtly, then a campaign like this should actually work: just as sex is used to sell, death should work too, so long as it’s glammed up as advertising is. …And certainly this could be an explanation for the appeal of slasher horror and other forms of entertainment, but really, the apparent danger of thrill rides, scary movies, dark music, and the like is only attractive because it’s actually perfectly safe for us. Catharsis seems a better explanation than any actual will towards death; we may want to go on a scary ride at Six Flags, but as soon as we hear that that ride has caused actual permanent injuries, attendance tends to go down considerably.
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Sep 252010

Discussing Civilization and its Discontents (1930).

What’s the meaning of life? Well, for Sigmund Freud, an objective purpose rises or falls with religion, which he thinks a matter of clinging to illusion, so to rephrase: what do we want out of life? To be happy, of course, yet he sees happiness as a matter of fulfillment of pent-up desires, meaning it’s by its nature temporary. Yet we can’t shake off its pursuit, and so we’re in a bind, and have a number of strategies for obtaining some satisfaction: some compensation for what we have to repress in order to live in a society that forces us to repress our innate desires.

Read the book online or purchase it.

End song: “The Easy Thing” by New People from The Easy Thing (2009).

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Sep 252010

Does anything really exist? Sure, we have experiences, which seem confirmed by other experiences, and other people seem to corroborate some of these experiences, so we naively consider the world of our experience as objectively there, but is that all there is to it?

Well, if you go into philosophy with the idea that life is fundamentally sucky and even death doesn’t let you escape from that suckiness, so the best thing to do is to somehow get out of it, then you certainly have motivation to try to see things in a different way, and voilà! The Buddha has supposedly gotten ahold of a secret: everything is in fact empty of real being, and with appropriate conditioning, you too can see things that way and so escape this sucky existence, not just in your own mind, but for real and forever! …But, you probably want to stick around on earth after your Enlightenment and help out the rest of your sick, deluded fellow beings before taking off, okay?

This is the stage upon which entered Nagarjuna in around the 2nd century A.D., a major writer in the earlier stages of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in India, who was particularly influential on later Tibetan Buddhism and eventually Chan Buddhism in China and its descendant Zen in Japan (and now the West).
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Sep 252010
Monadology - a work of art by Dennis Hollingsworth


Every since we did the episode on Danto I’ve been oddly making contact with actual artists, both directly and indirectly.  I consider this to be good thing, not just because the ones I’ve met or corresponded with seem to be excellent people, but also because – from a visual art perspective – I feel my life has been impoverished. 

Aside from visiting a lot of churches and museums in my youth, I don’t have a lot of art in my house and Austin, though it has a relatively vibrant local art scene, doesn’t have the museums or facilities to house a lot of traveling exhibits or Master’s showcases.  So I was thrilled when PEL listener, artist and student of philosophy Jay Bailey moved from Las Vegas to Austin and reached out to us.  Not only did we meet up, but he’s going to join us for another episode on Aesthetics, looking at Nelson Goodman (keep your eyes peeled).  You can check out his work here.

A little while back we also got a shout out from from Dennis Hollingsworth.  He indicated in a post on a work he calls Monadology, that he listens to us while working in his studio.  He’s the one who said I was ‘sad with a calm voice’.  Ha!  I sent him a note about that and we’ve corresponded a bit. 

It’s weird and fun that the interwebs have made it possible both for me to be a public figure and to have the opportunity to make connections with fantastic folks like this who I would otherwise have never known.  Go check out their work and hey, maybe even send them a note.  As an aside, I’m currently on vacation in Zurich and went to the Kunsthaus yesterday, which is an absolutely fabulous, world-class museum.  In addition to the permanent collection, I was fully absorbed by their special exhibit on Albert Giacometti.  Fantastisch.

Go get you some art,


Sep 242010

My post on fake myths has generated some good discussion, and our future podcast guest Daniel Horne pointed me to a nice concise New York Times review by Ross Douthat of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, which prompted my line of thought about myth.

Douthat’s review presents a much better summary to the book than my preliminary attempt, and makes the overall point, which I agree with, that her argument ultimately doesn’t save the what the average Joe considers religion to be.

In short, she thinks what’s valuable about religion is its fulfillment of a spiritual need, and that fulfilling this need doesn’t require making specific metaphysical assertions. So, we should read scriptures allegorically and should be pluralist and open-minded about the many historical attempts to reach the divine, which is essentially inexpressible though not on that account entirely unknowable.
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Sep 222010

I recently sat through the Rifftrax of Troll 2 (see my previous post re. Rifftrax) and felt the need to relate my fascination with flavors of irony to the so-bad-it’s-good movie experience.

Just to clarify, the Rifftrax guys claim that they don’t actually like bad movies. These movies are simply bad, so the humor in what they do is their addition, and comes in part (and this is me filling in the gaps here) because humor is more natural and easy when it’s reacting to something than when it proceeds from a vacuum; so I can make occasional jokes about philosophers but have a very hard time writing stand-up comedy. In short, humor should be occasional, i.e. a reaction to an occasion, not forced. The fact that MST3K/Rifftrax is forced in that the jokes come constantly creates its own challenges and internal resonances, meaning that getting steeped in their project is more rewarding than listening to just one riffed movie, and a lot of the appeal is the particular people doing the riffing as opposed to just the jokes in isolation (I find it hard to get into the various imitators on the web).

Now, my family got HBO when I was maybe 12 years old (that would be 1983) and for years I would watch virtually anything that channel would show, and after that until at least a couple summers into college my buddies and I would rent movies constantly, covering anything horror/sci-fi-looking no matter how obviously crappy, so I’ve seen my share of Ghoulies, Crawlspace, Troll (not in any way related to Troll 2, even legally), Silent Night Deadly Night, Phantasm, Witchboard (OK, I had to look up the name of that one; I just have an image of Tawny Kitaen all deviled out)… the list goes on and miserably on, but I will likewise say that while we appreciated crap, we weren’t sophisticated enough to enjoy crap for crap’s sake. We hoped that the movies would be good and cheered when they had a plot. In fact, any movie based on a book was automatically OK with us, because that meant that something would have to actually happen.
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Sep 222010

Reflections on the poptastic Rivers Cuomo.

Watch on youtube.

Weezer is one of my favorite bands, and as in the case of most of my favorite bands, I like all of its eras and permutations, whereas most critics and fans latch on to one (the first) era and are frustrated or disappointed by the rest. Strangely, I got into them late in the game: around 2004 or so; I didn’t like “The Sweater Song” when it came out much, as it seemed affected, too trendy (the trend being grunge), and I was put off of the album by a review that talked about Cuomo’s apparently pro-Dungeons & Dragons lyrics.

Anyway, most critics like their first two albums, which were raw and displayed recognizable emotion. They displayed irony, but it was a kind that could be easily recognized as such: 90′s snotty teen irony, with occasional faux hip hop lingo (“What’s with these homies dissin’ my girl?“), a retro Happy Days-themed video.

With their third album and most subsequent work, they started consistently singing in tune and toned down the grunge somewhat, alienating a lot of their fans, and as Cuomo has aged, he’s cared even less about record-store clerk purism. The irony has also become more subtle and I would say more humble; sneering requires a self-regard that most self-reflective people outgrow. Even the self-mockery becomes less severe, and the distinction between pretending an air of frivolity and being frivolous becomes moot.
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Sep 212010

Here’s a talk from 2008 by Phiippe Goldin (now at Stanford) about the neuroscience of emotions, aimed at non-scientists, specifically Google employees:

Watch on youtube.

We’ve not talked a lot about on the podcast so far about the differences in approach between current psychology and philosophy. In this lecture, we get references to specific studies of external behavior, of discussion of observable capacities in people, and attempts to correlate these to brain states: all methods that, according to the consensus on our philosophy of mind episode, are going to miss something essential about emotional experience and so not constitute a full account. Still, this method doesn’t restrict the subject matter (he mentions re. the subject of empathy that ten years ago, scientists wouldn’t touch it) and is geared towards providing not only clinical benefits, but insights to help people live their lives (i.e. what the humanities are supposed to address).
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Sep 202010


In the realm of superhero comics (and movies), there’s been (since Watchmen at least) a realization that what superheros allegedly do, i.e. beat people up, requires a certain psychosis, and comics like The Punisher make that explicit.

With the “Dexter” books by Jeff Lindsay and the TV show based on them, this is approached from the other side, where the main character is beset (thanks to childhood trauma) with the need to kill, that his foster-father channels into killing according to a code, i.e. only killing bad guys. To some degree, the comparison is made ironically: Dexter knows he’s sick and that the world would be better if he were dead, but clearly we’re supposed to root for him, both because the show’s villains are obviously worse and because of Dexter’s intrinsic likability.

The show is trying to pick at the moral sensibilities relevant to our enjoyment of any kind of splatter-fest film fare, for one. Some of us, for whatever reason (there’s certainly been lots of speculation and study on this, but I’m going to assume that we as audience members don’t already have a clear philosophical theory about it), enjoy violence-filled entertainment, and two elements enjoyment in this are 1) when something over-the-top gross happens (and I’ll argue that it doesn’t even have to be realistic, not that we normal people would necessarily know what constitutes realistic in this area, but it includes, e.g. the obviously fake black knight “only a flesh wound” spurting in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and 2) when particularly bad guys get put down, preferably with poetic justice.
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Sep 182010

In anticipation of our episode on Freud, we welcome your Freudian analysis of this extremely weird short about the value of springs, presented in MST3K-vision to make it tolerable.

Watch on youtube.

This particular video is sort of “It’s a Wonderful Life” made into a commercial about springs, and the fact that it was ever made is thoroughly astounding. What interest group would fund this? Who could be the possible audience? Why does it keep going on and on? The commentary makes this much more explicitly Faustian, and the latter portion of the movie depicts the life of many a philosophy doctoral student who can talk about nothing but, for instance, Hegel’s take on the dynamic relations of substratum-specific components to create emergent phenomena within another substratum, thereby giving an account of apparent transcendece within a system that is basically enclosed, though only in its potentiality.
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Sep 172010

David BrinI just listened to a great conversation with author David Brin on one of the podcasts that inspired me to create ours: GeeksOn. The episode is here.

Brin is a sci-fi author and technical consultant with a Ph.D. in astrophysics. For a fun bit of moral analysis of pop culture, see his 1999 article re. why demi-god myths like Star Wars are evil. (Presumably Tolkien too.) In the GeeksOn interview, he gives us more of this, discussing why most movies feel the need to portray society as evil and humanity as irredeemable, as well as his reflections on current politics, 9/11, the American zeitgeist, aesthetics (he agrees with my sentiment that we should enjoy whatever out there is at all enjoyable), and more.
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Sep 172010

Karate dude

We have had a great jump in viewers of late, not least because my bro-in-law Dan Colman finally let us put a self-glorifying post on his fantastic and widely read Open Culture blog, and also because I’ve started bombarding entire philosophy grad school departments with invitations to check us out.

So welcome, all you new readers/listeners. However, with our increasing visibility, we open ourselves to more criticism, both from regular web troll types exponentially nastier than this guy who called Wes a nerd (though to be fair, he is), and to those academic types whose approval we both shun and crave (Brian Leiter has not weighed in on us, but I have little doubt that we’d fall under his blanket condemnation of “…lots of solo ‘philosophy’ blogs by individuals who claim to be ‘mavericks’ and the like; most, alas, are repositories of philosophical mistakes.”)

Now, I’ll readily admit that I have a very thin skin. The small number of bad reviews (among an only slightly larger number of total reviews) I’ve received as a musician have shaped my attitude towards my own work far more than they should (speaking of which, aren’t you folks supposed to be complaining at me for more fetid music blog posts? Get on the ball, people!). As a man on the street, I keep a low profile, and when, say, one of my neighbors builds up a grudge against me for leaving dog poop on their lawn, I slink around feeling bad about it for months.

And so, preemptively, I have decided to (instead of editing the Freud episode which you’re actually waiting for) develop a series of meditative exercises (the technical term is “mindfux”) that you too can use to steel yourself against criticism. Continue reading »

Sep 162010

Wes referred in our Spinoza discussion to Antonio Damasio, a figure in neuroscience influenced by Spinoza. Here he describes the emotions’ role in decision-making:

Watch on youtube:

Spinoza agrees that decision-making is based on emotion. Even a “rational” decision, i.e. one made in a calm manner by considering the alternatives, requires an emotional component to actually choose a path and move forward.


Sep 152010

I must pass on this important technological breakthrough that I witnessed at When his halo turns red, get under the bed!

Threat Alert Jesus

Interestingly, the religious aspect of this fine piece of craftsmanship makes the resultant terror warnings immune on Kantian grounds from empirical verification or falsification. You are free to believe or disbelieve the claims of this ad according to your whims!

To read the text more easily, see the full size version at


Sep 142010

In light of our recent Spinoza discussions, it seems an apt time to review Leibniz, whom we talked about way back in Episode 6.

This video (and its two sequels; the author’s intended “10 small videos” did not not materialize), with its deadpan German narrator and its low-budget visual aids, provides an introduction to monads for those of you like myself with short memories and/or an appreciation of cheese.

Watch on youtube:

By: Mark Linsenmayer

Sep 132010

Gaga as a teenager:

Camille Paglia will reveal in the Sunday Times that Lady Gaga is in fact bluffin’ with her muffin: she’s fake, antiseptic, and stripped of eroticism. It’s an enjoyable irony that the moralizers of this generation must hearken back to those simpler, more innocent times like the … 70s. Women were women, men were men, and the group sex was authentically erotic.

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Sep 132010

Haven’t had enough Spinoza? Watch a panel of Spinoza scholars weigh in via a two-hour Philoctetes Center roundtable.

The video is configured so that I can’t embed it here; check it out on youtube here:

The discussion is rambling and badly needs editing. The panelists all monologuize (worse than we do on the podcast) and (particularly near the beginning of the discussion) barely respond to each other (or when they do, it’s often 20 minutes later, so you’ve lost the thread). So use your progress bar on this one to jump ahead (skip the first 3.5 minutes, for one; there’s nothing interesting there) and check out each of the speakers, who include: Continue reading »

Sep 122010

In its current issue The New Yorker profiles Rhonda Byrne, the author of the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed “The Secret,” the book that “urges readers to rid themselves of illness through ‘harmonious thoughts,’ to attract love by loving themselves, and to express gratitude for what they want before they get it.” There is a “law of attraction, which decrees that thoughts have physical power, and that thinking about something is the way to get it.” And in a phrase reminiscent of both post-modernism and the Bush administration: “You are the only one who creates your reality ….”

Unfortunately, these affirmations have not worked so well for Byrne’s colleagues, one of whom parted ways with her in a financial dispute and another who was charged with manslaughter after he led a sweat-lodge ceremony in which three people died. Apparently they thought overly hot thoughts.

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