Feb 282011

This Piece by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker is very good and suitably conflicted concerning complaints about the social effects of technology:

The odd thing is that this complaint, though deeply felt by our contemporary Better-Nevers, is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

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Feb 252011

More ethics on TV! (Hear our discussion of “Walking Dead.”)

Being Human” is a Sci-Fi network show based on a British TV show (by the power of induction, I can pronounce the original better than this despite having never seen even a second of the British version) that follows in the footsteps of “Smallville” and probably other shows by relying on a certain kind of teen appeal: long stretches of modern “indie” rock, dreamy characters in teen-identifiable situations, etc.

That aside, the show is at least attempting to confront ethical dilemmas on a weekly basis. For example:

1. If you regularly turn into a were-wolf and kill everyone around you, should you allow your friends and family into your life to help you with your problem, or keep them at a safe distance so you don’t kill them?

2. If you are a 200 year old vampire who’s killed lots and lots of people but now want to be nice, how vigorously are you obligated to fight your former-friend vampires who still kill lots of people? Should you just live and let them live (and kill)?

3. If you’re a ghost and know who killed you, should you haunt the murderer until he’s insane or dead, or should you get over it and move on?

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Feb 232011

An article by Paul Pardi (“Philosophy News Service”) at the Huffington Post sums up the significance of “new atheism:”

1. The arguments of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens tend not to be “new” and don’t engage the actual arguments of liberal theologians.

2. As a social movement, they’re nonetheless affecting the perception that the mass of people have on “the role religion is permitted to have int he public square:”

Political point scoring aside, serious talk that God is somehow involved in the daily workings of this world and that public life should be oriented toward pleasing Him and following His will has almost vanished. The New Atheism has succeeded in shifting broad attitudes towards public talk of this kind from one of mild amusement or irritation to one of outright fear and derision and has done so inside of just a decade.

3. An approach modeled on the natural sciences does not seem to be optimal for delving into questions of meaning and ethics. Which is to say (and this is not Pardi here:) that the history of philosophy offers multiple alternatives (e.g. Heidegger’s phenomenology or Montaigne’s “practical wisdom”) to both scientism and theology to approaching these issues.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 212011

Montaigne’s Essays are a deeply personal investigation into ourselves and our lives that isn’t typically treated by philosophy books.  Here, in another great BBC series, Alain de Botton (a notable philosopher in his own right), talks about Montaigne’s notion of self-esteem and how philosophy can be a guide to happiness. It kicks off around 1 minute in…

De Botton focuses on Montaigne’s three key ways that people feel inadequate: discomfort with their bodies, unease at being judged and feeling intellectually inferior.  He covers Montaigne’s responses to all three conditions weaving in biographical notes from Montaigne’s life while talking to ordinary Britons and Cambridge graduates. Watching this is no substitute for Montaigne’s poignant and witty prose, but you will get a feel for what a profoundly caring thinker he was and a sense of his eminently practical advice for dealing with the vicissitudes of everyday life.

Having a philosopher talk about farts, bowel movements and his penis is certain to crack any veneer of intellectual austerity or distance.  (But then again, so should one talking about hammering or farming.  Doesn’t always work out that way.)   Montaigne is not typically considered a figure in the canon of Western Philosophy.  That said, I’m attracted to the philosophical focus on problems facing everyday people and accessibility to the lay reader.  Perhaps he belongs to the likes of Plutarch, Caesar and Erasmus – not bad company even if you don’t consider them “philosophers.”


Feb 182011

Discussing Michel de Montaigne’s Essays: “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die,” “Of Experience,” “Of Cannibals,” “Of the Education of Children,” and “Of Solitude” (all from around 1580) with some discussion of “Apology for Raymond Sebond.”

Renaissance man Montaigne tells us all how to live, how to die, how to raise our kids, that we don’t know anything, and a million Latin quotations. Montaigne put the skeptical fire under Descartes and both draws upon and mocks a great deal of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Plus, he’s actually fun to read.

The role of Seth is played this time by our guest podcaster Dylan Casey.

Read along here; the translation we all read is available for purchase.

End song: “I Like Life” from Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio (1998)

Feb 152011

I had not heard of Barbara Bolt until I stumbled upon this video lecture she gave at the University of Melbourne about Heidegger from an artist’s perspective.  [see my previous post about Australia being the most philosophical nation on earth - I stand by it.]  She’s both a practicing artist and publishing academic and I get the sense this was a lecture to a philosophy class as a guest speaker.

She touches on “The Question Concerning Technology”, “The Origin of the Work of Art” and “Being and Time”.  It’s an interesting take on the notion of use and equipment for the purpose of creating art.  She takes the Heideggerian idea that use, as a way of being, is prior to knowledge and asks what that means for artists and their tools.

We’ve talked some about art in our Danto and Goodman episodes and some of our longest tenured listeners are artists.  A theme we have touched on is how ‘intellectual’ art and artists are, and whether it’s a hindrance or a help in the creation of art.  Or whether it’s even necessary for an understanding of art.

Taking Bolt’s notion into account it seems you can ask that question at two levels:  use vs. knowledge in the creation of art and use vs. knowledge in the experience of art.  I think we’ve discussed the latter, but not so much the former.  As a discussion of aesthetics and the enjoyment of art it is very interesting, but it also opens the door to a wider notion of use in experience that would enrich discussion about different forms of art (beyond painting).  How do using MOMA or the Kimball as buildings impact our experience of them as works of art as well?


Feb 152011

Listener Nathan J. writes: “I recently started listening to your podcast and came up with the idea of listening to them in the chronological order of when the source material was written. My theory being that doing this will be a way for me to see how philosophical thought has evolved over the years. Anyway would you happen to have such a list or will I have to do a bunch of research and make the list myself?”

My answer, which I thought might be of general interest: I’m afraid we’ve been pretty spotty historically at this point. Our dips into ancient Greece have all so far been in contrast to more modern figures, i.e. we did Aristotle specifically as an alternative to Mill and Kant in ethics, and Plato on knowledge to contrast with Hume. Our approach to aesthetics has been particularly ahistorical, reading two modern figures and just bringing up older stuff as a side issue whenever it’s seemed relevant. We hope eventually to have a good historical selection covering all the major topics (metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, politics, aesthetics, phil. of science) but really aren’t even close to that point yet.

That said, here’s a roughly chronological list (you can figure out which episodes these are by putting someone’s name in the “search” box to the right and down a bit on any of our blog pages):

[updated 7/13/11]:

Three Plato, Aristotle, Chuang Tzu, Nagarjuna, Machiavelli, Montaigne, then Descartes, Leibniz, two Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Bentham/Mill (utilitarianism), Rousseau, two Kant, three Hegel, Schopenhauer, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, two James, Frege, Russell, two Wittgenstein, Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, Camus, Heisenberg (quantum physics), the phil of Mind episode (Turing et al), Arthur Danto, Nelson Goodman, Patricia Churchland.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 142011

Thanks to listener David Emerson for suggesting this video on plurality of tastes (in response to some of the things we said back on our Danto episode, but equally applicable to our other aesthetics one on Goodman):

Watch on the TED site.

The point is not that people’s tastes differ, that everyone has different favorites (i.e. that taste is subjective) but that there are different ideals, and once an ideal is selected, then you can talk about how best to meet that ideal. Gladwell, though, doesn’t seem to distinguish between plurality and subjectivity here. His hair is f’ing crazy looking qua hair but pretty damn cool qua ‘fro. The fact that I have to consider it aesthetically according to its category doesn’t mean that we get rid of standards altogether, though of course I may not be immersed enough in the world of that breed of hair to adequately assess his ‘fro within that category.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 132011

Image of Ludwig Feuerbach commemorative stamp from autodidact projectThere are lots of directions one can go in investigating influences on Heidegger or uncovering ideas he appropriated and reworked in Being and Time.  Hegel, Kant, Descartes, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc.  One of the more interesting might be Ludwig Feuerbach, a post-Hegelian and pre-Marxist who is most well known for a critique of Christianity (and later religion in general) in which he claims that god-hood and religion are simply projections of our own humanity and subjectivity.  Worshiping divinity is celebrating human accomplishment.

In countering abstraction and transcendence, Feuerbach turned to a view of human beings as material organisms connected to the world through body and senses, that have a sense of community and a desire for fulfillment which manifests as desires.  Ultimately he was still preoccupied with solving a problem of knowledge (epistemology) and altruism (ethics), but you can see this same structure reflected in B&T.  Heidegger’s move is to treat the question of these ‘facts’ as ontological – which requires a different way of talking about them.

Another notion that Feuerbach introduces is the alienation of the subject from the community.  He says that focus on the subjective “I”, misses the fundamental “I-Thou” relationship which part of human existence.  Love, which involves an essential I-Thou, is the defining desire of humanity, if you will and death, because it is the one shared experience, represents the last surrender of the self.  For Marx, this idea was essentially political (alienated labor) and for Buber, ethical.  I don’t want to stand too firmly on this assertion, but there is something here that I imagine influenced Heidegger’s idea of authenticity.  The inauthentic person is someone who is alienated from the world and hence his/her essential humanity.

Feuerbach is a challenging and influential thinker who none of us will probably ever spend much time on, but I was surprised doing a little digging how much he echos in B&T.  Check out the canonical entries for some background:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


The Wikipedia entry has some biography but is otherwise weak and IEP doesn’t even have an entry for him.  Alternatively, you can listen to this rap about the Feuerbach neighborhood in Stuttgart.

Feb 132011

What is it about sentences that expresses truth or falsity? Gottlob Frege is considered one of the fathers of analytic philosophy, but it’s hard for someone with a general interest in philosophy to see much of his work as overtly philosophical. He did a lot of the work inventing modern symbolic logic, with an eye to providing a logical foundation for mathematics. But in doing this, he showed a philosophical agenda that was very influential for Wittgenstein and many others.

Frege is concerned with what it is about sentences that make them true or false. He’s convinced that while our judgments about matters of fact are subjective, the matters of fact themselves are not. His objectivity is so extreme here that he considers abstract propositional entities, numbers, and meanings to be objectively real; they aren’t just ideas you or I have in our heads, but are discovered and shareable between different people. He thinks that while a proper name refers to something in the world (“Dick Clark”), a sentence about that name (“Dick Clark is bad ass”) correspondingly refers to THE TRUE, i.e. a weird metaphysical entity that all true sentences refer to. Smoke that, man!

Read these articles along with us:

The Thought” (1918)

On Sense and Reference” (1892)

On Concept and Object” (1892)

Frege’s introduction (p. 12-25) to his book The Basic Laws of Arithmetic: Exposition of the System (1904)

Feb 112011

More than most other philosophers, Heidegger’s life is almost as much a subject of scrutiny as his writings.  Part of this comes with the territory of being a founding figure in Existentialism, but 99% has to do with his conduct during and immediately after the National Socialist era in Germany, particularly regarding his membership in the Nazi party, treatment of Husserl, failure to speak out against Antisemitism and steadfast refusal to apologize or admit he had acted poorly, if not immorally.

The BBC covered Heidegger’s life, focusing on his involvement in National Socialism, in their “Human, All Too Human” series, reproduced on YouTube in 6 parts.  Here’s the first:

The purpose of the series is biography, not intellectual history, but there’s still some insight into his philosophical work.  It touches on Being & Time, but as you might expect, focuses on the Existentialist aspects over the ontological undertaking.  Of special note are the interviews of Richard Rorty, Hans Georg Gadamer and Heidegger’s son Hermann.

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Feb 112011

I just got a message from sculptor Robert Toth, who apparently creates busts of philosophers like Freud and Socrates (no Husserl yet, it appears!) and other cultural figures, and is also a very thoughtful guy.

So, for instance, if you have a toy piano and want a life-size disembodied head of Beethoven to sit on it and stare at you to make you feel inspired and/or to have your own inferiority constantly in mind (I think that was really Schroeder’s deal; he was a self-hating over-achiever), here’s an option for you.

$350 Freud “Sculpted Life Sized Mask.” He sees your Oedipal feelings.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 102011

Schematic Heidegger

Irony so overwhelming I want to tweet about it with a #Heidegger hashtag:

scientific study recently found empirical support for Heidegger’s concept of zuhanden, which was discussed in the Being and Time podcast.* Wired Science covered the story last year, but the study itself is short enough that you can get through it during a lunch break. To quote the summary section of the paper:

Heidegger’s phenomenology has been influential in the cognitive sciences, despite the fact that no attempts have been made to empirically confirm his insights. The experiments in this paper support Heidegger’s description of the transition from readiness-to-hand to unreadiness-to-hand, a phenomenon that is key for his overall phenomenological philosophy. When humans are smoothly coping with entities ready-to-hand, they see through their tools to focus on the task they are using those tools to complete. When that coping is disrupted by a temporary malfunction, humans can no longer see through the malfunctioning tool and experience it as unready-to-hand. We demonstrated this transition by showing that when participants smoothly operate a mouse in a video game task, the body-tool performance displays the complex dynamics typical of an IDS [interaction-dominant dynamics]. Temporarily disrupting mouse behavior temporarily disrupted this IDS, at least at the body-tool boundary. We also showed that this disruption led to a reconfiguration of the participants’ awareness of the situation by showing a shift in resources allocated to an additional cognitive task. This is closing in on Heidegger’s transition from readiness-to-hand to unreadiness-to-hand. We take these experiments as progress toward justifying the influence that Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy has had on cognitive sciences and justifying the partly Heidegger-inspired claim that cognitive systems sometimes extend beyond the biological body.

Take that, positivists! I’m not capable of assessing the quality of the study, but it looks impressive enough. More interestingly, some smartipantzen undergrads over at CalTech cited the study as inspiration for their class project on web browser optimization. One of them now works at Google. So, the ideas of a notoriously anti-technological fascist philosopher may now be influencing new ways to improve web browsers. This may be the only justice history can offer!

*Note that Hubert Dreyfus has also applied Heideggerian concepts to analysis of high technology, but Dreyfus never attempted any empirical research of which I’m aware.

-Daniel Horne

Feb 092011
Professor Hubert Dreyfus from UC Berkeley

Hubert Dreyfus

The preeminent Heidegger scholar in the US (and perhaps in the English language), is Hubert Dreyfus at the University of Berkeley.  Daniel did a post for the Husserl podcast linking to a series of videos of him being interviewed by Bryan McGee here.  In that series he actually talks more about Heidegger, so it’s worth revisiting for the Heidegger episode as well.

Dreyfus has written a fair amount about Heidegger, but he recently did a seminar at Berkeley on Being and Time that got recorded and turned into a podcast series.  It’s from the Fall of 2007, so pretty recent and it’s a very disciplined approach to the text.  Dreyfus is a terrifically engaging teacher and is able to speak ‘right down to earth in a language that everyone here can easily understand’.  Mark mentioned that Dreyfus has also written on cognitive science and philosophy of mind and he brings that kind of sensibility to the text, while maintaining respect for the project and its insights.  You can find the recordings here:

Dreyfus lectures on Being and Time (also available at Learn Out Loud – which has other good Philosophy stuff – like PEL!)

You’d have to have a lot of time and really be committed to listen to the whole series of lectures.  If you just want to get the flavor, he does a great job of laying out the project of the book and many of the key insights in the first four lectures:  Being, Dasein and Being-in-the-World I & II.  [You can skip the first 30 minutes of the first one while they talk about the syllabus and course scheduling, etc.]  I took notes on the first two that I’m happy to share with anyone who is interested.


Feb 092011

My band, New People, has now finally completed our second album. You can hear tracks and purchase it (if you’d like) here. You can also find details there about our CD Release Party tonight (Wednesday), for those of you in the Madison, WI area.

Note the nifty art by Ken Gerber, who did the P.E.L. logo and caricatures.

Are the songs philosophical? Oh, yes, there’s one about Heidegger and one about Schopenhauer and… no, not overtly philosophical, though typically reflective and/or infused with some oblique point. The other two writers are not so much philosophy readers, but very sharp. Some nice pessimistic meditations there.

Hungry for more music? Try here.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 082011

During the podcast, I mentioned some video of Heidegger from television back in the 70s.  I think I uncharitably characterized him as being a bit out of touch with a broader audience and arrogant.  You be the judge:

(This is an excerpt from a longer piece which is (I think) in full available on YouTube, but broken into two parts, only the first of which is translated.  This is from the second part.)

So if you were a teacher being interviewed on national television, you might find some way to articulate your views in a way that didn’t come off as aloof and prophetic.  That being said, you see him here packing in a bunch of Heidegger-tastic notions.  The key one is the distinction between ‘thinking’ and ‘philosophy’, which is central to his later work and only suggested in B&T.   Heidegger wanted to open a dialogue about Being that wasn’t bound by the strictures of the philosophical tradition – Ontology without Metaphysics, if you will.  In Being and Time, he thought there was a systematic way to do this, by ‘destroying’ the history of philosophy and doing a kind of hermeneutic maneuver to recover some ancient lost meaning.

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Feb 072011
Martin Heidegger

Discussing Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), mostly the intro and ch. 1 and 2 of Part 1.

When philosophers try to figure out what really exists (God? matter? numbers?), Heidegger thinks they’ve forgotten a question that really should come first: what is it to exist? He thinks that instead of asking “What is Being?” we ask, as in a scientific context, “what is this thing?” This approach then poisons our ability to understand ourselves or the world that we as human beings actually inhabit, as opposed to the abstraction that science makes out of this.

This is Seth’s big episode: this was his primary concentration in his later grad school years. Plus: Nazis, trying to figure out things by free associating about their origins in ancient Greek, and whoopee cushion record breaking news!

Read online or buy it.

End song: “Find You Out,” from the brand new New People album, Impossible Things.

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

Feb 072011

As promised, here are the noted Personal Philosophies of (i.e. for) Seth and Wes respectively. During the period of this fund-raiser thingy, we got maybe a half-dozen nice donations, including those you’ve seen written about in this series plus another couple. I’ve not totaled up the cash intake, but given our modest expenses, it will cover I believe more than half of 2011′s file hosting costs, so I want to say thanks again to all who participated and to shower the rest of you with a guilt that can only be assuaged by clicking the “Donate” button to your right.

I will still produce more of these personal philosophies with a donation; you can get one for yourself, aim it at a friend, enemy or celebrity of your choice, or suggest some new variation on the project that may amuse the readers here. As things stand, I wanted to briefly share a few insights I’ve gained from the process now that I have a bit of distance:

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