Jan 282011

Brian Leiter bizarrely endorses this idiotic review by Aristotle scholar Peter Simpson of Richard G. Stevens’ Political Philosophy: An Introduction. It’s clear that the logic behind this endorsement is that Simpson criticizes the book because it has been written by a Straussian, and Leiter despises Straussians. Unfortunately, the logic behind the review is that Simpson is a Christian and he despises Leo Strauss because he thinks he was anti-Christian (Strauss and Straussians are more typically controversial for their interpretative esoterism and association with neoconservativism).

Whatever one thinks of Strauss (who incidentally taught at my alma mater St. John’s College toward the end of his life), Simpson’s review is unforgivable.

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Jan 262011

DworkinMark’s posts on Frithjof Bergmann help lay the groundwork for the upcoming episode on Montaigne and what constitutes the “good life.” Coincidentally, there’s a similarly-themed article by Ronald Dworkin in this month’s New York Review of Books. I may disagree with Mark’s conclusions, and maybe even some of his premises. But I better appreciate Mark’s approach after reading Dworkin’s essay. Nowhere in Dworkin’s piece does he acknowledge that the “good life” might be unattainable for most people through no fault of their own, because the circumstances into which they are born too often frustrate the search. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Dworkin. But he seems to place the sole responsibility of living a “good life” solely upon the person living it:

We are charged to live well by the bare fact of our existence as self-conscious creatures with lives to lead. We are charged in the way we are charged by the value of anything entrusted to our care. It is important that we live well; not important just to us or to anyone else, but just important.

We have a responsibility to live well, and the importance of living well accounts for the value of having a critically good life. These are no doubt controversial ethical judgments. I also make controversial ethical judgments in any view I take about which lives are good or well-lived. In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had. If you agree, we cannot explain why he should regret this simply by calling attention to pleasures missed: there may have been no pleasures missed, and in any case there is nothing to miss now. We must suppose that he has failed at something: failed in his responsibilities for living.

No, I don’t agree. Dworkin’s concept of a “good life” feels like one only a comfortably tenured professor would concoct. Anyone who manages to “thoroughly enjoy” the life they have had, under any circumstances, has already accomplished something significant and rare. A great many people (say, your average Iraqi) would consider themselves lucky to be able to lead a “boring, conventional life.” I’m not terribly familiar with Dworkin’s work, so maybe there’s a context I’m missing. But his ethical judgments strike me as unpersuasive and a little obnoxious. Insofar as Mark is trying to discuss how we can achieve the good life (or at least the better life) by attacking its material obstacles, I’m certainly more sympathetic to that agenda.

-Daniel Horne

Jan 252011

Here are the main elements of Frithjof’s Bergmann’s idea of “New Work” (introduced in this post) as he taught it back at U. of Michigan.

1. Developing a calling. Work can sap our will to live, but the right kind of work can be invigorating. If it’s an enterprise you can identify with, that’s meaningful to you, then it becomes part of “the good life” that philosophy is always shooting for. Such a goal will of course vary between people, and Bergmann cites Nietzsche in pointing out that people inherently suffer from a “poverty of desire,” meaning they don’t know what they really want to do, and in fact interests need to be cultivated over time to take hold. Fortunately for us, when people are really given the opportunity to think seriously about what they’d really like to do with their lives, they very often want to contribute something to the betterment of the world, so while a calling might well be artistic or academic or individually spiritual, for many people it’s going to be service-oriented. So no, unburdening ourselves from the job system as traditionally conceived doesn’t mean everyone would just lie around playing Halo or something, but the complexities involved in overcoming the poverty of desire mean that we need social networks and institutions (e.g. apprenticeships, volunteer organizations, counseling services) to help people figure out their “callings,” which could of course change over time.

2. Cutting down the number of hours we work. This needs to be done with the expressed intent of encouraging #1. While just reducing the work week to 35 hrs. would be freeing and certainly raise the quality of family life in our country, little bits of extra free time just add up to the void of leisure, where we do just waste time playing video games. In some cases, a work-3-months, 3-months-off breakdown might work better to really engage some other project.

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Jan 242011

What does philosophizing really get us? We can’t attain much in the way of certain knowledge. Knowing really doesn’t, contra Plato, make us virtuous. In fact, getting too sucked into parsing long and complex texts can cause us to lose perspective, i.e. miss the point of our interest in philosophy in the first place.

16th century intellectual Michel de Montaigne gives us a model of philosophy as practical: philosophy is a way to put us at peace with ourselves, to steel ourselves for the challenges we have to face, to humble our pretensions while ennobling our aspirations, to open us up to the world while making us sure enough of ourselves to maintain our integrity. Overall, philosophy should help us to be cheerful, even in the face of misfortune and death.

We’ll be reading some selections from his massive tome Essays. You can get Charles Cotton’s public domain translation online here. We’ll be reading the much more recent Donald Frame translation, which you can purchase here.

The book as a whole is definitely worth leafing through, but we’ll be reading some of the more famous essays:

     ”That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die” (Book 1, Chapter 20. Written in around 1574)
     ”Of the Education of Children” (Book 1, Ch. 26. 1580)
     ”Of Cannibals” (Book 1, Ch. 31. 1580)
     ”Of Solitude” (Book 1, Ch. 39. 1574)
     ”Of Experience” (Book 3, Ch. 13. 1588)
     ”Apology for Raymond Sebond” (Or as much of this one as we can manage; it’s a very long treatise on skepticism. Book 2, Ch. 12. 1580)

Jan 212011

To supplement whatever you interested folks might have encountered in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the site for the “Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology,” run by Lester Embree (a student of students of Husserl).

This site pulls text from Embree’s introduction to the very overpriced Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (only $789!) to characterize some “widely accepted features of the phenomenological approach” (the last of which is, amusingly to me, that “phenomenologists tend to debate whether or not what Husserl calls the transcendental phenomenological epochê and reduction is useful or even possible.”).

What interested me here primarily was Embree’s breakdown of “tendencies and stages within philosophical phenomenology,” which tells you how Husserl fits in with later folks:

(1) Realistic phenomenology emphasizes the search for the universal essences of various sorts of matters, including human actions, motives, and selves. Within this tendency, Adolf Reinach added philosophy of law to the phenomenological agenda; Max Scheler added ethics, value theory, religion, and philosophical anthropology; Edith Stein added philosophy of the human sciences and has been recently recognized for work on gender; and Roman Ingarden added aesthetics, architecture, music, literature, and film…. This tendency… flourished in Germany through the 1920s, but also continues today.

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Jan 202011

Our blogger and guest podcaster Daniel referred in response to my previous post that EconTalk with host Russ Roberts (pictured) and guest Robin Hanson of George Mason University did an episode on “The Technological Singularity.”

The idea here is that at a few points in history, there’s been a technological breakthrough that fundamentally transformed how people can live, which in turn led to a massive growth in population, creation of wealth, and a fairly rapid overturning of much of previous culture. The last time this happened was the industrial revolution, and before that, the development of farming. Hanson theorizes that the same would happen with development of sufficient artificial intelligence that most work could be pushed off onto robots: not only manufacturing jobs like at present, but services like cutting hair and driving taxis and, ultimately, product design. At this point, yes, the whole point would be sucked out of the job system as it currently exists, and we’d be forced to figure out some alternate way of structuring our lives.

Hanson doesn’t think this would be so unprecedented: there are people now who are rich enough that they don’t have to work for money, but yet still tend to fill their time very productively. There’s also a hint that there would have to be some redistribution of wealth to help out those whose only current asset is their ability to sell their labor, but, really, if wealth is so abundant, surely we can work that out and in any case we don’t have to worry about that yet. (This is what I’m reading into Hanson, anyway.)

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Jan 182011

I had intended to wait for some upcoming episode more relevant to this topic than Husserl to start ranting on this on the blog, but it’s been much on my mind of late.

As you may know from my mentioning it at every possible opportunity on the podcast, probably my favorite undergrad prof. at U. of Michigan was Frithjof Bergmann. He was a student of the major Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann and applied a basically Nietzschean (and Hegelian) analysis of human nature to come up with a new vision for the way we structure our relation to work in our society. I’ll let him take a crack at introducing it:

Watch on youtube.

I’ll post some more thoughts and details about this in coming days, but let me help Frithjof here to give the introduction, because there are multiple ways into the vision here, and this particular emphasis on technology is only one of them. It’s easy to watch this video and get lost in the details of him talking about 3-D printers and things.

The crux of the vision is that right now, we are all expected to get a full time job and pretty much give our lives to it. We are generally expected to at the very least work 40 hours a week at it, which I think for most people is as much as they can possibly stand and still maintain meaningful human relationships (kids, marriage, friends) and take care of practical matters, with some weary time left over for hobbies, or more often than not semi-vegetative TV watching and surfing the net and the like.

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Jan 182011

We received another donation, this time from noted personage Kyle Walton, so that means it’s time for another custom crafted Personal Philosophy! Kyle would like to dedicate this to his mother Sylvia, who has of late gotten interested in Kierkegaard.

Kyle’s Mom’s Personal Philosophy*
Many mothers would be upset that their son is… well… different. I mean… well… a person who doesn’t always believe in our Holy Father, the Lord God Almighty. But not me. When my son came to me and said “Mom, I’m an a-word,” I didn’t blink.

Well, he didn’t say “a-word,” exactly, but you know what I mean: The A WORD, like the not believing in our Lord and Savior Who is Responsible for All of Us. What I’m trying to say is that I’m proud of my son. I’m proud that he thinks for himself, and questions, even if that questioning ends up being a stab in the back for He Who Was Nailed to a Cross to Save His Ungrateful Hiney.

No, I’m not going to let a little thing like the fate of his eternal soul come between me and my son, because he’ll always be my little man, my little shwubsy wubsy.

…Plus I’m confident that he’ll come around with a deathbed re-conversion if it’s the last thing he does.

*This personal philosophy should not in any way be taken to reflect the actual, current views or predilections of this person, though, given that it was crafted JUST for him or her, he or she should really feel obliged to adopt this philosophy out of politeness if not actual gratitude.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jan 172011

Daniel has already linked to this video in comments, but I wanted to make an actual post about it:

Watch on youtube.

The Husserl discussion here is pretty brief and not very revealing. Dreyfus, for one, is a Heidegger scholar and thinks that Husserl is only important insofar as he influenced Heidegger and showed (through his exemplification of it) the bankruptcy of a tradition going through Descartes and Kant, which entails starting your philosophical project with an analysis of consciousness and wondering how subjective consciousness can reach things out in the objective world when we think of or perceive or desire something. (More discussion of that issue is here.)

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Jan 142011

welcomeI’ve sent out a few mass e-mails to graduate philosophy departments of late, and wanted to send out a special welcome to any new folks checking out the site.

What you have undoubtedly come for is the podcast itself; you can see just the podcast episodes via this filter, but really should start with episode 1, or better yet, our introductory, special content-free episode 0. Don’t worry; our recording quality gets better after the first 5 episodes or so.

This here blog is our way of blowing off steam between podcasts, filling in some of the gaps, and covering information that doesn’t fit easily into our podcast format or which may not actually be of interest to enough of the podcasters to go ahead and include. It’s also our primary discussion forum, so I encourage you new or otherwise previously non-participating folks to post a reply to this message and introduce yourselves.

Lastly (and this message goes to both veterans and newbies here), I should say that somewhere close to half of our episodes involve a guest participant, and we’re always on the lookout for people who might have some extra experience and insight into some particular area of philosophy to potentially come on and talk with us, or at the very least help us figure out what exactly to read by a figure you’d like to hear us talk about. So, for instance, specialists in contemporary Continental philosophy, philosophy of mind, Eastern philosophy, philosophy of some particular science, political philosophy, Middle Ages philosophy, ancient philosophy, aesthetics, theology… really, just about anything… are encouraged to reply here or send me an e-mail (mark@marklint.com) if you think you might be interested in participating. Note that by “specialists” I just mean someone with maybe slightly more knowledge/interest in this area than we have, not a professional dedicated to that sub-field.

Thanks for your interest.

-Mark Linsenmayer

(I don’t actually have to point out that the welcome flowers are ironic, do I? Or are they?)

Jan 142011

A research physicist friend of mine who works at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a bit of a global warming skeptic. When I brought up all the scientific research on the subject, he said, somewhat dismissively, “Yes, but anyone who gets a PhD in climate science goes into it with an agenda. No one goes into particle physics just to prove a point. So no, I don’t always trust their research.” Not being a scientist myself, I had no clever rejoinder at the time, other than to say, essentially, “Well, 50,000 climate scientists can’t all be wrong!” But what if most scientists tend to be wrong most of the time? And not due to political agendas, but academic, professional, or even psychological ones?

A good New Yorker article appeared last month regarding the fallibility of scientific research as currently practiced, or perhaps as inevitably practiced. There is a lot to chew on here, once you consider the ramifications.

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Jan 142011

In this clip (broken into five parts), Robert Sokolowski reads a paper in 2009 at a conference organized to celebrate Husserl’s 150th birthday:

Listen on youtube.

He describes Husserl’s place in the history of philosophy (there’s a lot of talk of ancient philosophy in here) and outlines his project, including more on the phenomenological reduction (epoché). One theme is the perennial conflict between philosophy and what Sokolowski describes as its non-philosophical alternatives: science (including empirical psychology) and sophistry. Husserl isn’t just studying the structures of meaning (like Frege) but transcendental reality itself, just like philosophers back to the Greeks.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jan 132011

An important point on the Husserl episode that I was trying to get across was his notion that “intentionality” as he uses it doesn’t just mean that all conscious acts have a target, i.e. something you’re conscious of, but that this content is not itself something subjective. When we grasp something in consciousness, we’re not just contemplating our own sensations (as Schopenhauer describes our inner sense checking out and making sense of the data fed in by our outer sense). Rather, consciousness is a connection between us and something objective: you and I in general can experience the same objects, whether they be physical objects or even the notion “Santa Claus.” If you and I think about that, we’re thinking about the same thing, which of course raises the question of what this thing is. Frege considers this “sense” that we both contemplate to be an objective entity that we have to admit into our ontology: we can’t take intentionality seriously and be materialists.

In reading Martin Heidegger’s The Basic Problems of Phenomenology,I found a discussion of this around p. 62:

Intentionality is said to be a character of experiences. Experiences belong to the subject’s sphere. What is more natural and more logical than to infer that, consequently, that toward which immanent experiences are directed must itself be subjective? But however natural and logical this inference may seem and however critical and cautious this characterization of intentional experiences and of that toward which they direct themselves may be, it is after all a theory, in which we close our eyes to the phenomena and do not give an account of them themselves.

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Jan 122011

This feature will henceforth occur no more often than weekly, if that, unless this new policy suffers recursion problems, in that the policy itself as as adjunct entity to this type of post is by leakage subjected to that same policy and and so is only enforceable on a weekly basis, in which case additional posts of this sort might sneak through while the enforcement was not in force. Thus endeth the lesson.

Danny C. has been gifted this personal philosophy, for his non-exclusive but super-special use, through a $20 by his wife.

Danny C’s Personal Philosophy*
I believe the children are our future. I mean, a lot of people say that, but they don’t work out the implications. It means, for one, that they have superior technology to us, and are to be feared. But it also means that they know, somewhere deep down inside them, how the stock market will go, which is information that I must have now.

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Jan 122011

Via Luke Muehlahuser’s Common Sense Atheism, we see Stephen Colbert ripping on Bill O’Reilly’s spurious use of the teleological argument for the existence of God.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bill O’Reilly Proves God’s Existence – Neil deGrasse Tyson
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> Video Archive

The obvious lesson here is that the argument from design is at the very least not so evidently persuasive that you can just refer to it like O’Reilly does, but to be charitable to him (which I’m loathe to do), I see this as a shorthand way of referring to some other experience of being more rigorously convinced, just like someone might dismiss the Bible as ridiculous just by gesturing at the implausible events that it describes. This kind of prima facie argument works well in most practical situations, e.g. why you think Harry Potter-style magic is fictional, but just doesn’t happen to work if you have a much more historically complex situation, i.e. an actual controversy. So O’Reilly is not rigorous or thoughtful. I can’t say that’s a revelation, though it is funny.

See my earlier post for more Neal deGrasse Tyson.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jan 112011

Pigliucci strongly rebukes the organization of which he is a lifetime honorary member, for an ad calling all religions “scams”:

First, the ad is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying. Not a good virtue for self-righteous critical thinkers…

Yet, several atheists I have encountered have no problem endorsing all sorts of woo-woo stuff, from quasi-new age creeds to “alternative” medicine, to fantapolitics. This is partly because many of them seem to be ignorant of the epistemic limits of science (in which they have almost unbounded faith) and reason (ditto). At the very least it seems that we ought to treat factual evidence with due respect, and claiming that religions are scams flies in the face of the available factual evidence. Hence, it is a bad idea that damages our reputation as an evidence-oriented community.

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Jan 102011
Edmund Husserl-filtered

Discussing Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations (1931).

How can we analyze our experience? Husserl thinks that Descartes was right about the need to ground science from the standpoint of our own experience, but wrong about everything else. Husserl recommends we “bracket” the question of whether the external world exists and just focus on the contents of our consciousness (the “cogito”). He thinks that with good, theory-free observations (meaning very difficult, unnatural language), we can give an account of the essential structures of experience, which will include truth, certainty, and objectivity (intersubjective verifiability): all that science needs. We’ll find that we don’t need to ground the existence of objects in space and other minds, because our entire experience presupposes them; they’re already indubitable.

Plus “Personal Philosophies” for Seth and Wes!

Read the text online or purchase it.

End song: “Sleep,” from the Mark Linsenmayer album Spanish Armada, Songs of Love and Related Neuroses (1993).

Jan 092011

In this Guardian.UK review of Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
Nicholas Lezard characterizes the disorganized genius of Montaigne:

So, just because Montaigne doesn’t have a plan, this doesn’t mean he can’t be ranked with the great philosophers, because what he is doing is trying to teach us how to live, how to cope not just with the big stuff, but also with all the funny, fiddly, bothersome and trivial things that occupy us between birth and death.

Read the article.

We’ve tentatively planned a Montaigne episode after Heidegger… details to come within a couple of weeks.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jan 082011

Here’s another documentary video clip on Schopenhauer, discussing his early disaffection from Christianity, and also some fun facts. For example, he always kept two statues in his study — one of Kant, and the other of Buddha.

Watch in YouTube.

This clip also paraphrases some amusing quotes from Volume II of Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, highlighting Artie’s snarky wit, which echoes that of another thinker discussed in earlier podcasts: Continue reading »

Jan 072011

Here’s a review by Lesley Chamberlain of Alfred Tauber’s Freud, the Reluctant Philosopher,which connects Freud’s idea of the Id to Schopenhauer’s notion of Will, and also traces the lines of influence back to Nietzsche and Kant.

Read the article.

I enjoyed the summary here and the quick attempt to put Freud’s fallen star (as far as being a scientific figure to the modern era) in perspective, but Chamberlain’s attempt to make a philosophical point doesn’t jibe with me:

Philosophers have a problem with Kant’s “amphibian” view of humanity. They consider the idea that we should be part determined and part free to be sheer metaphysical invention. But isn’t this just what reflective individual existence feels like? We would forfeit our humanity if we believed we could not intervene in our physical destiny. Arguably, all the reluctance to accept Freud comes down to his similarly dual view of the human condition.

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