Nov 302011

Discussing Jean-Paul Sarte’s The Transcendence of the Ego (written in 1934).

What is consciousness, and does it necessarily involve an “I” who is conscious of things? Sartre says no: typical experience is consciousness of some object and doesn’t involve the experience of myself as someone having this consciousness. It’s only when we reflect on our own conscious experiences that we posit this “I.” The ego is our own creation, or more precisely a social creation. This means that far from being some primordial structure of all experience, this transparent thing inside us that we have more immediate knowledge of than anything else, the ego is an object: it has parts we don’t see, and we can be wrong when we make judgments about it. Other people might even know us better than we know ourselves.

This is a difficult text, and we spend lots of time bickering about what Sartre might mean by terms like “transcendent” or “non-positional consciousness,” so surely you will love that. Read more about the topic.

Buy the bookor try this version online.

End song: “Thing in the World,” by Mark Lint. This song was begun around 1996 but mostly written and wholly recorded just now, with Mark playing all the instruments, with lyrics actually motivated by this Sartre reading.

The suggested donation if you like this episode is $1. Do so, and you’ll be e-mailed a high-bitrate mp3 of the song.
Buy Now

Read more about the Close Reading product on Sartre described at the end of the episode. Shopping cart functionality to allow you to get the song plus our other products on the Shop/Donate page.

Nov 282011

I’ve been so overwhelmed by the amount of good will I’ve had coming from listeners that it’s nice to be reminded that we really are still on the Internet. Thanks, Internet!

Recently, our supporter Ernie P. scolded us a little for being too timid in voicing our own opinions. (See his post, and my response.) Food for thought.

My motivator for this quick post, however, is not Ernie’s complaint, but today’s challenge to our whole format (Comments #22 and #23 here), where an anonymous gentleman scolds us for talking about ourselves too long before getting into the actual discussion (among some other helpful comments).
Continue reading »

Nov 282011

Why is oldness found so repulsive in our culture today? Why do old people feel so compelled to make themselves look like worse versions of young people through plastic surgery? The easy answer is ‘it’s natural’, i.e., youth gives a competitive Darwinian advantage, so if we have the bio-technology available to keep ourselves younger we gotta go for it! However, one of the most important reasons for studying historical philosophy is for how it can help free us from the groupthink of the present age. Does our democratic culture’s focus on fulfilling individual possibilities make us death-denying and therefore age-denying?

As Dylan noted in PEL Episode 40 on Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ criticism of democracy is often emphasized in classrooms for its ability to give us critical perspective on the democratic values we normally do not question. Thus Peter Lawler turns to Plato’s dialog for its analysis of how the political regime, democracy in particular, shapes the soul and its attitude (perhaps the soul just is an attitude) toward life, aging, and death.

Continue reading »

Nov 262011

Hannah ArendtThe question of the “pernicious influence” of scientism on modern life and philosophy gets raised fairly often here at PEL. I get the sense that Wes and Seth think the influence ‘quite pernicious’ while Mark thinks ‘not so pernicious’. (Correct me if I’m wrong guys). So I thought it would be helpful to clarify what is implied by the term, so that we might open the way for some good discussion of the issue. In my view, when we explicate the problem and put it in the right light, we should see that it is the essential problem of modern philosophy.

I recently came across the following article by Hannah Arendt, written late in her life during the 1960s. I felt that she gives here a good expression of the issue. It would not be mere political correctness to say of Hannah Arendt that she is a philosopher of the first rank, and a better critic of the modern age, our science and politics, than Heidegger was. She recognized the import of Heidegger’s diagnosis of the ills of modern existence (as one of his students) while not falling prey to the naive neglect of politics in his philosophy and the terrible choices wound up making in that arena.

Continue reading »

Nov 262011

Given that the next episodes are about phenomenology and not about religion any more, I wanted to give a few parting thoughts to the topic of religion for the moment and refer new listeners to some old episodes they may not have been aware of. I’ve created a Podcast Topics page that includes a Philosophy of Religion section that I’ll keep updating as we do more episodes. These particular comments are just meant to get my own thinking in order; I don’t pretend to speak to the other guys on the ‘cast.

1. Kant is right: we can’t know with certainty what the world is “really” like, so ruling out a metaphysical creator is simply not something that science or reason can do. (See our agnostic streak on Episode 43 about arguments for the existence of God.)

2. At the same time, I just don’t see invoking a divine creator as at all explanatorily helpful. Contra Swinburne (also from Ep. 43), I don’t find the concept of God simple (see Dawkins’s argument in Episode 44), i.e. a component of the simplest explanation for anything.

3. Though I can’t vouch for Hume’s entire epistemology, I do buy in outline his argument against miracles: see our description of his epistemology in Episode 17: whether there are miracles or not, we’re not epistemically justified in believing in them. Were God to come up and turn into a burning bush in front of me personally, that would change matters.

4. Though Swinburne has lessened my conviction that the concept of a God is just plain nonsensical (e.g. via problems with the notion of omnipotence), I definitely still find the concept of a personal God incoherent. Per Spinoza (in Episode 24), if God is everything (and this is how I interpret His infinite, omnipresent nature; He wouldn’t be simple in the way Swinburne thinks if He weren’t), then creation is part of God, not a separate thing. God is One and inseparable, whereas consciousness, which is involved in any kind of personal relationship, requires separation, which the universe qua God just doesn’t have.

Continue reading »

Nov 252011

Ah, success. Fame. Money. A little of it whets our appetite for more, twists our priorities, and like your clothes in a public dryer that you have to sit there and watch lest they get stolen, it’s a source of stress.

When we started this podcast, it was just a leisure time activity, something primarily for us, the podcasters, but even as the first episode was being prepared, we felt a sense of responsibility to make the thing worth others’ time, resulting in some rigorous editing, whose current bar makes each episode cost us hours and hours of post-production time while we digitally add in “ideas,” “thoughts,” and “guest podcasters” (typically, as with Getty, created via application of choice noise-addition algorithms).

But now, as the donations waft in and a few influential people have said some nice things about us, and the number of total downloads marches incrementally towards the 1 million mark (OK, it’ll be a a while still for that; believe me, we’ll let you know!), we feel the hunger. Can make enough money off of this to actually recompense our time (likely not, but we’ll see)? Can we become the #1 philosophy podcast in terms of popularity (we’re certainly in the top 5 at this point)? Can we annex a small city-state and call it PELyville where we attempt to implement our dark utopian visions? And most importantly, can we get celebrities to come on the show?

Continue reading »

Nov 252011

Hey, I know we’re entering the shopping season and all, and I wanted you to keep in mind: If you’re gift-shopping via Amazon, whatever you happen to be buying, please get there via one of the Amazon links on our site, like this one here. This will donate a percentage of your purchase to us without costing you anything extra.

Happy Thanksgiving and all!

Nov 242011

It’s the holiday season again, and time for you to give the gift of a custom-made Personal Philosophy!.

Per last year’s rules, if you donate $20 or more to P.E.L. starting today (OK, recent big donors can e-mail me and request this w/o an additional donation), you are entitled to a Personal Philosophy written to/about a loved one, hated one, yourself, or a celebrity. Give one for an office Secret Santa gift! You can send me some information about this person for me to skew or just let me make up some bullshit, and I can use the person’s real name or an alias or, as in this post (making fun of one of my own sentiments), use a non-specific attribution.

The Reluctant Carnivore’s Personal Philosophy*

In a different society, I would definitely be a vegetarian. I mean, I know that growing all that grain to feed the animals is an inefficient use of our environmental resources, and I certainly feel bad for the animals and their tiny tiny cages and their bored, dread-filled, meaningless lives, but people keep serving me meat, and I like it, and I don’t like soy or those other weird things.

Continue reading »

Nov 232011

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s magnum opus–his equivalent to Being & Nothinginess or Being & Time–is The Phenomenology of Perception. It is reputed (by Seth, at least) to complete Heidegger’s project by paying proper attention to our embodiedness: we have bodies, with specific perceptual limitations and are not only culturally but physically situated in ways that (as Heidegger insisted) make Cartesian doubt a sham. Scientism is a mistake, and in particular attempts to explain consciousness without allowing first person reports (i.e. by strictly applying the scientific method) will be hopeless, because all inquiry starts with, is founded on, and presupposes this situation of us already in the world, with other people, with all these layers of meaning packing up our conscious experiences and even our unthinking behavior, to be elaborated by phenomenology.

So the Phenomenology of Perception is a very fat book that purports to give an existential phenomenology, from an analysis of perception (attention, judgment, “the phenomenal field”), to the various aspects of having a body (its spatiality, sexuality, expression, and how mechanistic psychology and classical psychology teat it), to a consequent analysis of time and freedom. …All stated with much less of the horrific made-up terminology of Heidegger or B&T-era Satre than you’d expect.

However, that book is much too long, and takes a long time to get around to saying much, so instead, we chose to read a sort of presentation of that work to a lay audience.World of Perception,from 1948, is actually a series of radio lectures for a general audience, presenting on broad strokes what the viewpoint of the kind of philosophy he represents has to add the popular view of science.

Continue reading »

Nov 232011

You’ll likely remember Tom from our Hegel podcasts and his several posts on this blog. His blog has switched names now to Owl of, and one of his interests is how the conception of reason by Hegel and the phenomenologists differs from the one prevalent in our culture, i.e. thinking clearly in the context of scientific naturalism (that’s my formulation, not Tom’s). This latter conception of reason is what leads directly to the sentiment that anyone religious is being irrational.

In his post on Intelligent Design theory, he gives a brief defense of “transcendental reason,” which he defines as “deciphering the ultimate purpose behind the patterns of things we observe.” In Aristotle’s terminology, this means looking for final causes. Using a slightly different but I think equally secular tack as Thomas Nagel (as discussed at the outset of our quantum physics epsiode), Tom suggests that since naturalism is ultimately unsatisfying–incomplete (Nagel’s rationale for this is clearer in light of his take on philosophy of mind), there’s a future for this transcendental conception of reason. I quote:

But natural science does not give us and cannot give us an empirical explanation of itself, of its own character as a rational social institution, appearing over time, historically. It cannot explain its own rationality as a result of natural mechanisms.

I grant that the transcendental conception of reason with which the cruder proponents of Intelligent Design theory operate may be more flawed and less plausible today than naturalistic instrumentalism at explaining human life, but neither is the instrumental sense of reason adequate to this task. Naturalistic thinkers would be foolish to assume that Intelligent Design theory is simply Biblical Creationism in disguise, denying the possibility that it could draw wider public support among intelligent persons. It can do this by appealing to many such persons across the political spectrum who are frustrated with the dominance of instrumental reason in science, business, and technology, with its reductive understanding of culture, humanistic knowledge, and public institutions.

Read Tom’s post at

-Mark Linsenmayer

Nov 222011

In this interview with Kenan Malik (a “scientific author,” i.e. a psychology/biology guy who dabbles in philosophical issues) uses the Euthyphro to argue that presenting religion as the guardian of moral values “diminishing the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework.” His enemy is “false certainty” in ethics, whether because you think that basic moral precepts are given by God and beyond question or that science yields up moral truths (note that since scientific findings are by their nature defeasible, I don’t think this description is apt).

In describing Leibniz’s view (which agrees with Plato’s), Malik makes the same jump from the metaphysical to the epistemological that Matt criticized me for in our discussion (the bolding is mine):

Or, as Leibniz asked at the beginning of the 18th century, if it is the case that whatever God thinks, wants or does is good by definition, then “what cause could one have to praise him for what he does if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?” If, on the other hand, God recognises what is good and promotes it because of its inherent goodness, then goodness must exist independently of God. But God is no longer the source of that goodness, nor do we need to look to God to discover that which is good.

Continue reading »

Nov 212011

Via The Leiter Report, David Chalmers has provide details about, where you can browse and search for conferences. I know the intended audience is for people looking to present their work, but even if you’re just a tourist, you can usually get into these things to hear the speakers without a problem, and if you don’t live near the event, they might well issue papers or even videos of the presentations that you can collect if it’s in an area that interests you. What to know what philosophers are up to today? Here’s a good place to look.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Nov 212011

Here’s a response to our recent episode from C Derick Varn, aka Skepoet: Read his “partially informed review.”

So, yes, other blogs that take the time to talk about us coherently will probably get a link-back, if you’ve not noticed that before. You may have to send the link directly to me, though, as my narcissistic Googling of our own podcast name has become much less constant of late. Come on, religion bloggers! Give us your take on the dilemma!

-Mark Linsenmayer

Nov 192011

Our Sartre episode will still take a couple of weeks probably to edit and post, but you needn’t wait for that brain-crushing Sartre experience.

To supplement the episode, I’ve recorded a new kind of podcast file: half an hour of guided reading through the opening pages of Being and Nothingness. This also marks the first for-sale audio product made specifically for this this site, and I’m very interested in your thoughts on its utility. If enough people are interested, I’m prepared to start cranking these out, but I can’t justify putting the time in to do it unless I can sell at least 100 of these.

It’s not going to be for every PEL fan, I know. My primary audience for this are those who are interested in tackling the most difficult books but feel a bit lost in doing so. Just like in a graduate seminar, I’m going line by line, page by page in this thing, inching forward and trying to get all the nuances instead of just glossing over them to get the gist.

In addition to the product itself (for sale for a mere $1.50), I’ve put up a 6-minute sample file so you can get a better idea what I’m talking about and see if this is something for you.

Read more, sample, and perhaps buy your P.E.L. Close Reading file.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Nov 182011

Free will is always a sticky wicket. On the one hand, we make decisions every day that point to our having a say in what we do. Accountability, in general, relies on this notion. On the other hand, whatever our will is, it is clearly constrained: we can’t will away gravity.

Free will is a hot topic in neuroscience these days, especially with experiments leveraging new fMRI imaging techniques in which we can “watch” the brain do its thing. One of those the neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, interviewed briefly in Scientific American to “explain the new science behind an ancient philosophical question.” Though he wants to claim “the demise of free-will,” he does seem less carelessly strident than some, characterizing the study of free-will as the study of “the nature of action.”

Philosophers, of course, continue to be in on this conversation. Recently in NYTimes’ The Stone, Eddy Nahmias asks, “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?” The article does a nice job of pointing out common oversimplifications of the problem of free-will, particularly as a dichotomy with determinism.

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

Not too surprisingly, the way out of this all-or-nothing style free-will/determinism discussion relies on being in the messy middle where we have constraints that don’t determine. (Emergence anyone?)


Nov 162011

Discussing Plato’s “Euthyphro.”

Does morality have to be based on religion? Are good things good just because God says so, or (if there is a God) does God choose to approve of the things He does because he recognizes those things to be already good? Plato thinks the latter: if morality is to be truly non-arbitrary, then, like the laws of logic, it can’t just be a contingent matter of what the gods happen to approve of (i.e. what some particular religious text happens to say).

We’re joined by Matt Evans, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan to discuss the text, which seems to be not as directly related to modern debates regarding the Divine Command Theory as we thought going into this. Ah, well. We cover all the angles and Seth spends the last bit going on about Judaism. Oy!

Buy the bookor read it online. Read more about the topic.

End song: “False Morality” by The MayTricks, from the album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down (1994) Read about it.

The suggested donation if you like this episode is $1. Donate via the button and you’ll get a free download of a high-bitrate mp3 of this episode’s song. After paying on the PayPal site, click the yellow “Return to the Partially Examined Life” box there, and you’ll be sent to a page with the download link. If this doesn’t happen, please email me.

Nov 162011

The analytic philosophy of logical positivism or logical empiricism, which dominated 20th-century Anglo-American scientific thinking, leaves philosophy with a complex and problematic legacy that must be addressed and overcome if we are to have any hope of a renewed, meaningful, philosophically rational realism.

On the one hand, the positivist view of philosophy is deflationary, diminishing and even de-legitimizing the very notion of philosophy.  The idea that philosophy was to become ‘underlaborer to science’, following Lockean empiricism, proved quite popular with scientists and science enthusiasts, and to this day informs the common belief that philosophy can be wholly displaced by empirical investigation on pretty much any question. On the other hand, following the linguistic turn and Thomas Kuhn’s historicist account of science, many disillusioned analytical philosophers have become convinced that their discipline cannot really provide any affirmative, unchanging, principal foundations to scientific thinking. For example, the principles of method and observational verification sounded great until one realized that the principles themselves couldn’t be reached by method nor verified by an empirical observation.

Continue reading »

Nov 152011

The University of Edinburgh from World University

As mentioned in my previous entry, moral philosophy in the eighteenth century was principally concerned with three issues: “the selfish hypothesis,” the nature of moral judgment, and the character of moral virtue. This entry regards the second component: the debate between the rationalists and sentimentalists over the nature and justification of moral judgment.

Moral rationalism—exemplified most clearly in modern philosophy with the work of Ralph Cudworth, Samuel Clarke, and John Balguy—affirms two theses: first, that morality exists; and second, that all particular truths about morality are ascertained through a priori reasoning. Moral judgments are then, properly speaking, judgments performed by an agent’s “faculty of reason.” What is it that the agent is reasoning about? She is reasoning about conceptual relations; or, in Hume’s terms, the “relations of ideas.” (An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding IV.I) Ideas, or concepts, are either “fit” or “unfit” for each other. For example, the idea of “human being” fits with the idea of “perfecting oneself,” but it does not fit with the idea of “pursuing one’s happiness above all others.”

Continue reading »

Nov 142011
Anti Nazi spraylogo from Gamebanana

Anti Nazi spraylogo from Gamebanana by --HunteR--

OK, I was listening to the latest episode of Philosophy Bites, where Nigel “Daddy Warbucks” Warburton is interviewing Sean Kelly about Homer and Philosophy.  I have documented elsewhere my love and admiration of Warburton and the podcast, so this is not in any way to be construed as a criticism.  But a couple of things pushed my buttons.

At the beginning, David Edmunds says that philosophers haven’t regarded the epic poems of Homer as worthy of philosophical investigation.  I think Nietzsche did.  Small quibble.  What really annoyed me was that during the discussion, Kelly and Warburton are talking about group think/mob mentality (listen to the episode if you want to know how they got there from Homer) and Nigel uses the Nuremberg rallies as an example (pejoratively, of course).

Really Nigel?  The Nuremberg rallies?  You couldn’t come up with a more recent, more topical, non-Nazi example?  I get it, I agree:  Nazi = bad.  And if it seems like I’m picking on Nigel, I apologize.  But it’s painful to see, hear and read philosophers using National Socialism and the Holocaust as their ‘go-to’ examples to make points about moral theories.

Continue reading »

Nov 132011

To the extent that we talked about Richard Dawkins at all in the new-athiesm podcast this summer, we never got around to properly discussing science as wonder. Dawkins makes this argument in a really beautiful new book “The Magic of Reality”. Illustrated by Dave McKean, it’s ostensibly a children’s book, structured around a series of basic questions like “Who was the first person, really?” and “What are things made of?”, but, as he presents in the introduction, it’s a book aimed at showing that there is distinction between myth and science and that the account of the world through science is astonishing and wonderful.

Though it’s out as a hard-cover book, you should check out the iPad version if at all possible. That version includes a number of clever and wonderful  mini-apps to illustrate some key scientific concepts and discoveries. I particularly liked the scalable solar system and Newton’s light-splitting experiment.

You can read a review of paper book from the Guardian newspaper.