Dec 292011

There’s a guy on youtube named Corey Anton, who is a Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University.  He’s posted a ton of videos on a broad range of subjects, many philosophical.  He’s one of those that comes up when you search on the usual suspect terms and I’ve had occasion to watch him from time to time.  I find the videos hit or miss based on my mood and the topic, but he’s got over 12k subscribers, so he’s clearly speaking to an established audience.

I just checked out his one titled “Phenomenology of the Senses”: (video quality is a bit choppy)

Watch on YouTube.

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Dec 262011

In episode 53, the full four-man PEL crew spoke with Duke University’s Owen Flanagan, mostly about his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, which has a number of aims:

-To argue that supernatural beliefs can be removed (or “tamed”) from Buddhism and still leave an elaborate enterprise relevant to modern life.
-To put Buddhist conceptions of virtue and happiness in dialogue with other types of virtue ethics, particularly Aristotelianism.
-To argue that claims of the superior happiness of Buddhists are both conceptually confused (because the Buddhist conception of happiness isn’t equivalent to what you might think; it’s not just a feeling, but definitionally requires attainment of Buddhist virtue) and unsupported by neurological evidence (the popular media have taken up stories of certain very limited experiments that have shown certain neural chracteristics in one or two Buddhists, but this is far from what is required; see this article for details).

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Dec 262011

Owen FlanaganWe are currently scheduled to talk with Owen Flanagan about his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. I’ll put up the formal “topic announcement” when I have a better idea what the discussion will focus on (i.e. after we actually interview him). For now, anyone who is already familiar with the book, or his work, or this topic in general is welcome to weigh in here and try to steer us through this. If you post some questions for him that strike us as particularly cogent, we’ll try to bring them up with him.

Read Seth’s earlier post about this. I highly encourage you to listen to the episode of The Secular Buddhist podcast that Flanagan is on; that will likely give you enough material to post some questions here.

Listen to the episode.

Dec 252011

It’s Christmas – Jesus Christ’s birthday or, if you so choose, appropriated Yule, Saturnalia or the birthday of Mithra.  Whatever you may believe, most of you will be celebrating something with someone while bloggers around the world bemoan either the audacity of Christianity or forgetfulness thereof via commercialism.  I’m not a Jew for Jesus (just a Jew), but I’m a big fan of positive moral messages no matter where they come from.  I am inclined every year to reflect on the spirit of the season and try and appreciate what good there is sans religious metaphysical baggage.

This year it occurred to me to survey Christmas Carols and see what they had to say.  I have a confession to make:  I have always been jealous of the range and emotional power of carols vs. what we got for Hanukkah (Dreidel Song, Hanukkah O Hanukkah).  This is not to say that I don’t like Klezmer and other traditional Jewish music, I’m just saying we haven’t stepped up to the plate holiday tunes.  (Hey, even The Jazz Singer did a Christmas album!)  I confess to a secret love of Little Drummer Boy in just about every rendition – saving a special shout out to Bing Crosby and Joan Jett.  I’ll give you some more color on this below. Continue reading »

Dec 242011

Brian Leiter

A really good interview with Nietzsche scholar and opinionator Brian Leiter appears in 3:AM Magazine, where he drops pithy quotes on Obama, Nietzsche, Marx, and Foucault.

But he also appears to have a new argument to sell. Leiter advocates a new way to divide the philosophical canon, not into “contintentals” or “analytics,” but rather into “naturalists” and “anti-naturalists”. You can also listen to Leiter’s argument on the latest Philosophy Bites episode, where Nigel Warburton thankfully pushed back a bit.

It seems to me that Leiter focuses too much on outlier examples to deny the boundaries of the “continental” and “analytic” camps. Sure, perhaps Marx wouldn’t have thought much of Derrida (though who can say, and what kind of an argument is that, really?). But that doesn’t mean they weren’t both united as students of Hegel, and therefore assignable to a certain intellectual camp. I mean, Heidegger didn’t think much of Sartre, either, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t more similar than different when compared to Frege and Russell. Not all Republicans agree on all points with their fellow Republicans, but they can still sense when a Democrat has entered the room; there’s a reason these camps evolved in the first place. Continue reading »

Dec 232011

Frightened thingGoeff is a discourser on this here blog from way back, and has now contributed a great heap of cash, and has taken me up on my offer for a Personal Philosophy. You, too, can request such a thing, you who have already contributed within the past couple of months or who do so right now. Forget to buy that special someone a gift? Give the gift that says “You deserve something, though I’m not sure what!” Do it TODAY, before everyone hates you.

Merry Christmas, every monkey!

Geoffrey Edwards’s Personal Philosophy*

Did you know sentience is actually a very late development? Animals look like they are sentient, but they are actually automatons. You can poke them all you want, and they don’t care. They might whine, but that’s just like the light going on when you flip the switch. They might do an interpretive dance to express their pain at your torturous actions, but that’s just like that chess-playing computer. They might talk to you in your mind, but telepathy is not sufficient for sentience.

Some people aren’t actually sentient either. It doesn’t matter if they say so. They’re just programmed to do that. You have to have the special sentience gene to be sentient. I have it. I know. You may have it, but I don’t know that. Just to be safe, I won’t poke you, but if I’m cranky that day, maybe I’ll risk it.

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Dec 222011

Cellulite reductionJohn Townsend (who does video blogs about Merleau-Ponty) reminded me (here) that there’s more than one kind of “reduction” in phenomenology.

Since pretty much none of these were covered in our Husserl episode as far as I recall, I thought this was worth my time to do some quick Wikipedia research and report back.

The phenomenological reduction, or epoché, is a suspension of judgments about the existence or non-existence of the external world. For Husserl, we are normally in the “natural attitude,” which assumes metaphysical realism (as opposed to idealism), but he thinks that once we put aside that controversy, we can focus on the phenomena themselves. More generally, this is the phenomenological effort to stop shoving theories into our descriptions of experience, as, say, Hume pretty blatantly does when he states outright that our experience is all just impressions and ideas (which are really just faint impressions). It quickly becomes clear that this project of removing all theory from our descriptions is hopeless, but it’s a move in the right direction, in that we want to figure out, at least, what theories are presupposed by experience, which leads to a whole study of language and the ego and all that.

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Dec 202011

masksIt’s a strange but established fact that a number of strains in continental philosophy are most readily found in university departments other than philosophy: post-modernism, critical theory, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, etc. I’d not previously thought, though, that this extended to phenomenology. Here is at least one example of this happening:

It’s a podcast (not sure why it isn’t under iTunes U instead of podcasts) by the “School of English, Communications and and Performance Studies, Monash University,” that features (in this episode) Ed Creeley presenting a paper on using phenomenology to analyze theater performance. The lecture is the “April 6″ entry here, under “The trials and tribulations of phenomenological analysis in performance studies.”

In the first part of the lecture, Creeley gives a few of the variations in phenomenological method, and name drops some entries that we’ve not yet brought up. Interestingly, he describes A. N. Whitehead as a “process phenomenologist,” as if regular phenomenology (like, say, Being and Time) doesn’t take into account change over time (with all the talk of essences in Husserl, this illusion is understandable). This all seems a helpful enough introduction, but by the middle of the lecture, he gets down to the business of how this can be applied to theater performance, and here’s where it seems to go wrong insofar as I understand the scholarship he’s invoking. He describes Husserl’s phenomenological reduction as, in this case, boiling down the usual complexity by which a performance is analyzed (in terms of the text involved, though I was unclear on exactly what he had in mind here) to the emotional experience of the actors doing the scene. As useful (I suppose) as this might be for Creeley’s project, it has next to nothing to do with what Husserl meant by reduction, which was the suspension of ontological attribution to the contents of experience (i.e. during reduction, you’re not a realist or idealist; you just describe the phenomena and don’t care whether they have any correlate beyond experience). The only analogy for applying this to theater that I can think of is something like judging a performance seen on TV without regard to whether there were real actors or just CGI creations doing it, or whether it’s a dream in my head for that matter.

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Dec 192011

[Brad is a frequent contributor to our Facebook page, so we invited him to post on the blog - welcome him!]

I found this to be an interesting video which relates to both the Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty episodes. In the video, Hubert Dreyfus discusses Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and the philosophical implications for artificial intelligence. Dreyfus has long been a critic of AI and has often cited Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty as offering important phenomenological insights into AI’s philosophical underpinnings.

Dreyfus discusses how human expertise depends primarily on practical coping skills and a basic engagement with the world, not on some internalization of rules. I think he’s spot on. Practical knowledge, as more fundamental than that of the theoretical, need not even rise to the level of consciousness.

Merleau-Ponty is mentioned as being significant for calling out that the body plays an essential role for our being-in-the-world. Whereas the philosophical tradition has always taken the body to be something which gets in the way of reason and the intellect, Merleau-Ponty takes it to be crucial. Dreyfus goes on to talk about his book, the internet, and how the past failures of AI were based on mistaken philosophical presuppositions.  [The video is in two parts, if you don't get a youtube link at the end to part II, you can find it here.]

-Brad Younger

Dec 172011
Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Discussing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Primacy of Perception” (1946) and The World of Perception (1948).

What is the relation of perception to knowledge? In M-P’s phenomenology, perception is primary: even our knowledge of mathematical truths is in some way conditioned by and dependent on the fact that we are creatures with bodies and senses that work the way they do. Science is great, but it doesn’t discover the truth of things hiding behind perception: it is an abstraction from certain kinds of perceptions. Other modes of approaching things, e.g. art, can equally well give us knowledge, though of a different kind.

Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan argue over whether this thesis is just a bunch of truisms and despair over not having read The Phenomenology of Perception, the longer work which what we did read was meant to summarize. Is M-P just saying that scientific knowledge is defeasible, which scientists already believe? Read more about this topic.

Buy “The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Consequences,”or read it online. Buy World of Perception,or read online.

End song: “Write Me Off” by Mark Lint and the Simulacra. Read about it.

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

Dec 162011

Watch on YouTube.

Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday after a punishing bout with cancer, and I’d like to take the liberty of inserting a brief memoriam. I do this in a philosophy blog partially because PEL recently discussed one of his books. But mostly I do it because I would hate to think anyone remembers Hitchens as nothing more than a “New Atheist” icon.

I first stumbled across Hitchens’ work in law school, after picking up discarded issues of The Nation left lying around student offices and library carrels. I soon came to seek out ever more trashed copies of an otherwise predictable opinion paper, simply for the chance to cheer on or get pissed off by his unpredictable stances. A reliable aspect of Mr. Hitchens’ writing over the years has been his willingness to pugnaciously defend unpopular views, whether on political figures,religious figures,or, more recently, unpopular wars.
To get a sense of the younger but no less feisty “Hitch”, check out the clip above. He punches in fine form around the 6:45 mark.

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Dec 162011

Both the Sartre and the Merleau-Ponty episodes have me thinking about memory, body, and truth lately. Our memories are indispensable for forming our identities and are the causal path for experience itself and its effect on our identities. So, there’s a piece to this that we can get to by thinking about memory (and the act of remembering) itself and a piece that we can get to by examining our bodies and the effect that expectation and memory have on it. This weekend, just by coincidence (really!), I heard an essay on the radio about memory and a read another about the effects of the mind on the body.

Saturday’s episode of the Wisconsin-based radio show “To the Best of Our Knowledge” concerned the literature of memory and has a particularly interesting interview with Julian Barnes, author of The Sense of Ending,about memory and how it factors into the constitution of one’s identity. Barnes discusses how earlier in his life he thought of memory as being fundamentally distinct from imagination, particularly in having something like truth content. He’s come closer to thinking that they’re much less distinct, in large part because of how we essentially have memories of our own imaginings. (He mentions discussions with his brother Jonathan Barnes who was a professor of ancient philosophy at Oxford and Geneva in this context — that he’s come much closer to what his brother has thought for a long time.) The other interviews in the episode are also well worth listening to about memory — preserving it, writing about it, and trying to find truth in it.

Another piece of this ego/memory/identity puzzle lies is how our thoughts, ideas, and expectations are held in our bodies. This is something of concern for Sartre and even moreso for Merleau-Ponty. In this past week’s New Yorker magazine, Michael Specter gets at it through an article about a new institute created at Harvard University to study the placebo effect called the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. A big chunk of the article is getting to know Ted Kaptchuk, the director of this new institute. For me Kaptchuk shows us how data-driven questioning (i.e., science) helps clarify deeply multifaceted mind-body issues without simplistically turning the human being into a clockwork. Additionally, for a philosopher, the placebo effect is a ripe example of the contingency of our thoughts on our bodies and our bodies on our thoughts.

-Dylan Casey

Dec 152011

We don’t live in a totalitarian state, we’re not slaves, and most of us are not so desperately poor that our power of choice has been effectively snuffed out, so we’re free, right?

Michel Foucault says no. In his book, Discipline and Punish, he tells a story reminiscent in style of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals about how techniques of punishment in Europe quickly changed from public torture and execution in the 18th century to incarceration with an intent to reform by the early 19th. While the old method was brutal and clumsy, we shouldn’t, he thinks, see the new method as solely a matter of government becoming more humane. The old ways weren’t given up out of compassionate reform; they evolved because they had problems that made them unsustainable given changes in demographics and economics. The state did not simply give up its absolute power; instead, power became diffused, more subtle, and more effective. The strategy was no longer to intimidate the populace into behaving with a show of force against transgressors, but to preventively train us all to behave.

Foucault is fascinated with the mechanisms of power, and sees power relations as much more pervasive in our lives than you might think: pretty much, any time you’re caused, motivated, or influenced into doing something, there’s a power relation being expressed, so all of the institutions we interact with, all our friends, our professional associates: dealing with any of these means dealing with power issues, and even if we feel free, we might on further examination decide that the things exerting power on us are ones that we would much rather shake off.

The most famous chapter of the book concerns Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, which is a model for a prison where all the inmates are easily visible from a central point, yet the observer can’t be seen by them. So the inmates know they could be watched at any time, and so behave, yet it isn’t necessary to actually watch them even most of the time. Bentham saw this as a useful model for improving organization and increasing productivity in businesses, schools, and other institutions, and Foucault argues that the influence of this idea was crucial in building our current society. Today’s surveillance technology makes this even more relevant, and the fields of cubicles, rows of school desks, various virtual spaces (Facebook, for one) used to present us: all this would conform very well to Foucault’s expectations. Read more about panopticism. This site has some nice panopticon pictures.

Buy the book,or you could read this copy I found online. We read part 1, sections 1 and 2; Part 2, sections 1 and 2; and part 3, section 3 (on panopticism).

Dec 112011

Our Sartre episode focused on one single, apparently not widely discussed text:The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness. I say not very widely discussed because you would expect Sartre and consciousness to have a ton of videos on youtube and lots of scholarly papers when Googled. Instead, most of the things that come up when you search are related to existentialism, Heidegger, Bergson and the like. Cf. Daniel’s post about the BBC’s “Human, All Too Human.”

Even those articles, essays and videos that refer to consciousness allude to Being and Nothingness, existentialism, bad faith or other, later themes that he develops. I think Sartre’s critique of Husserl in ToE is pretty strong, and the notion of consciousness he advocates out of the phenomenological structure is both interesting and compelling in its own right. It seems, however, that this book for most serves only to lay the groundwork to Sartre’s later work.

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Dec 112011

Francis FukuyamaIn his new book The Origins of Political Order,Francis Fukuyama tackles the history of the idea and its reality “from prehuman times to the French Revolution.” Fukuyama works under the contemporary name of political science, but he is really one of the few people we have today intellectually able to go beyond the narrow confines of academic specialization and to give us the sort of philosophically-informed and empirically-informed broad vision comparable to that of the classical modern political philosophers, e.g., the grand ambitions we find in Adam Smith‘s Wealth of Nations, David Hume‘s 6-volume History of England (“From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688″), and Hegel’s History of Philosophy.

Watch a video interview where Fukuyama summarizes his book.

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Dec 092011

Watch on YouTube.

You’ll find precious little discussion of Transcendence of the Ego within the Sartre episode of Human, All Too Human, the BBC’s 1999 documentary on existentialist thinkers previously name-checked by Seth. However, you do get a capsule summary of Sartre’s thesis around the 10-minute mark. BBC provides some lucid illustrations of certain Sartrean arguments, particularly his entertaining (and somewhat telling) “pervert’s argument” against solipsism. The creepy, hyper-dramatic soundtrack is unfortunate — assigning existentialism such a morbid affect doesn’t help its cause, whatever the Gauloises-smoking set might think. Points also deducted for interviewing the inexplicably famous BHL, whose contribution is to summarize Sartre thusly, “He was freedom.” Just fast-forward through that part.

-Daniel Horne

Dec 082011

Bad Faith WaiterThis Philosophy Bites episode focuses on concisely focuses on a key practical implication of Sartre’s picture of the self as a fiction as described on our episode: bad faith, which is a matter of identifying one’s free consciousness as that fiction, or more precisely, denying that the self is a fiction, that we each have a fixed nature that constrains our future choices.

Sebastian Gardner gives some of the examples of bad faith from Being and Nothingness (which has a chapter toward its beginning called “Bad Faith”), leading up to Sartre’s claim that human nature is paradoxical: we both are and are not defined by our past behavior and characteristics.

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Dec 072011

We’ve often name-dropped our former U. of Texas professor Bob Solomon, perhaps best known for his great original work The Passions or his appearance in the Richard Linklater film, Waking Life. For our Hegel episode, I was clutching tightly to his work explaining it: In the Spirit of Hegel.

One of his central philosophical concerns was Sartre’s view of freedom and responsibility, and his take on existentialism always seemed to climax at that point. Here he is introducing the major themes of existentialism.

Watch on YouTube.

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