Jan 312012

Freedom FriesWe opened the discussion in the Foucault podcast with the question, “are we really free?”  I’d just like to take a minute to clarify this question and to raise some problems for Foucault.

First of all, there’s certainly a sense in which Foucault never denied that we’re free.  He even says that “freedom is the ontological condition of power,” meaning that power only works to motivate us toward a particular set of behaviors because we’re free to choose within a field of possibilities. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault points out ways in which we are less free than we thought, but it’s not power in general that makes us less free; rather, it’s a specific form that power takes.  Discipline is a dominating form of power, one that creates asymmetrical relationships of power in which there is control over the minds and bodies of individuals.  It’s this kind of power that Foucault is worried about precisely because it limits our freedom by influencing the choices we make and what we even take to be the field of reasonable possibilities.  I think the question I should like to ask of Foucault is not whether or not we are free, but if there can be limitations placed on our freedom that are legitimate.

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Jan 312012

This is an obvious cross-reference for this group—indeed, many of you likely already read it. Peter Singer and Agata Sagan have an column in NYTimes’ “The Stone” today called “Are We Ready for a Morality Pill?” They present the conundrum of the how to factor in our growing understanding of the effect of brain chemistry not just on our mood and temperment, but also our inclination toward morally good actions. Essentially, there’s growing evidence that there are significant brain-chemical correlations not only for rather clear psychological pathologies like schizophrenia, major depression, and extreme anti-social behaviors, but also more subtle distinctions like our sensitivity for morally good behavior and our predisposition for altruistic or good-samartian-type acts. (We talk about some of this in our neurobiology episode with Pat Churchland.) Singer and Sagan conclude with:
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Jan 302012

Foucault [Editor's Note: We're pleased to have some more blog input here from Getty, the guest from our Hume/Smith episode, who wrote his undergrad thesis on Foucault and was in line to be a guest on this one himself. You can blame me for the image, which I found here.]

Was Foucault a relativist about truth? Truth-relativism is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, only relative ones. This view is often attributed to Foucault on account of his scathing critique of “reason” in Madness and Civilizationand his understanding of “knowledge” (even of the biological sort) as social kind. Nonetheless, it is mistaken to label Foucault a truth-relativist. Like Nietzsche, Foucault is primarily interested in how notions of “reason” and “knowledge” are rarefied in our cultural practices—and, conversely, how these practices impact our understanding of these notions. It doesn’t follow from this that Foucault had anything substantive to say about truth as-such. In fact, it seems that he wasn’t even interested in such questions.

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Jan 272012

Harrison and Sheehan

Robert Harrison and Thomas Sheehan

If you’re still confused about what phenomenology is, what Husserl was about, and how he relates to Heidegger, this October 2011 episode of the Entitled Opinions podcast may help clear things up.

Interviewer Robert Harrison starts the discussion expressing the excitement of applied, humanistic phenomenology, i.e. as it was used by existentialists like Sartre. Sheehan says that while there’s not much in the way of modern, creative phenomenology going on now, there are plenty of philosophers who use Husserl and Heidegger as a launching point for their own (apparently not phenomenological) philosophies, and that in particular you can’t understand Heidegger unless you understand him as a phenomenologist, as opposed to someone just concerned with ontology, i.e. metaphysics, which is what you might think given his discussions of the ancient Greeks and his emphasis on “Being.”

Here’s a little quiz for you to see if you got it: What does it mean to say that what Aristotle is to Plato, Heidegger is to Husserl?

Here’s the Entitled Opinions home page.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jan 252012

It is my firm understanding that while The Partially Examined Life tilts decisively toward philosophy generally understood — contemplations of being and nature and self and ethics and thought and morality and consciousness —  the disposition we have of engaging texts for ourselves and talking about them thoughtfully and seriously (if occasionally irreverently) extrapolates well to a disposition regarding many endeavors, be they motorcycle maintenance or cooking. These are activities of the senses and the mind, of manipulation matching art with know-how captured in the greek word techne. Thinking about them and doing them reveals to us the world and ourselves.

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Jan 242012

Rick Roderick from larshjo.tihlde.org

Long time listeners and readers know that I’m a fan of Rick Roderick.  For those who don’t know, he was from Texas, got his degree in philosophy from UT and taught at various places including Duke.  He was a down home type who became famous to philosophiles through a couple of lecture series he published through The Teaching Company.  (Home also to Mark’s crush Robert Solomon)  They were filmed in the 90s and have subsequently been re-posted to various places on the web including youtube.  He died way too young and had a checkered academic career (you can read more about that along with testimonials here) but as evidenced by his videos, was a great communicator and passionate about philosophy in society.

Roderick did a lecture series in 1993 called “The Self Under Siege:  Philosophy in the 20th Century” covering Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Heidegger, Sartre, Marcuse and Ricoeur.  Roderick sets the question as follows:

  1. Current professional philosophy is “deflationary” in that it gives no answers to our larger questions, in particular our questions concerning our selves, our projects, our place in society and in the world.
  2. We have lost a vast resource of cultural meaning upon which we could draw to construct meaning for our lives. Meaning, in this large sense, can no longer be drawn unproblematic from religion. We have information, but not knowledge.
  3. We all strive to have a “theory” or narrative about our selves., we want to have a meaningful story about our lives that affirms our humanity. In short, we want them to mean something.
  4. The complex systems under which we live (economic, technological, global) have put the self”under siege”, overloaded with information and images that offer no meaning for us. We have difficulty making any sense out of our lives. Continue reading »
Jan 232012

Check out this video.  It is a brief history of prisons, but also focuses on the use of technology in and the architecture of prisons.  It makes the indirect but clear point that surveiller goes hand in hand with technology.  There’s a nice spot right at the beginning where the Commissioner of the NYC Dept. of Corrections talks about how military technology is being employed in prisons.  They also trace the concept of the cell as a model for imprisonment from the monastic cell, adding a religious, meditative element to the Foucaultian thesis that systems of discipline in different types of institutions cross-pollinated.


Jan 222012

Here’s a video of Foucault talking about Discipline & Punish.(Well, an audio track with images)  He explains his motivation for writing the book and the central question he sees posed by the development of the penal system in France.  In short, there was a rapid growth of prisons in France.  The prisons still functioned as institutions of punishment and an extension of the power of the sovereign, but they also became to be seen as institutions of reform.  Reforming criminals required disciplinary techniques – which the reformers found in schools and the army.  [The techniques for shaping character are the same].

So the modern prison system is not the same as the ancient prison/dungeon, it is more like other institutions of discipline such as educational institutions and the military.  In turn, the expansion of the application of discipline gives rise to the development of further techniques that spread to other areas of society like factories.  In each case, the system of discipline gives rise to a field of knowledge specific to the subject to affected:  the student, the soldier, the criminal, the worker.

[Note: The poster disabled embed, so this will take you to youtube]

Lest you despair, Foucault in the second part of the recording notes that structure of disciplinary systems is “rational”, not “totalitarian”.  This was Katie’s point in the podcast that Foucault doesn’t see Power as bad in itself, but simply as a way in which society is ordered to influence people.  Awareness of this ordering and influence is necessary to question and potential change or resist it.


Jan 212012

I’m interested in this debate as a strictly philosophical observer, not as a theologian, humanist, scientist, or neo-Darwinist. And I entertain the possibility that the outcome of this dilemma may be that we have to abandon an unjustifiable confidence in the human intellect for neo-Darwinism.

The secular philosopher-sociologist Steven Fuller performs here the role of philosophical midwife to what I believe is arguably the next major conceptual revolution in modern intellectual culture: liberal humanists, who use neo-Darwinian theory in their fights with religion, having to abandon the massive, underlying contradiction between neo-Darwinian theory and the secularized theology or metaphysics of their belief in humanism. The Western metaphysics of liberal humanism — belief that the human intellect is special — has been taken on loan from theology for roughly 400 years. But now the contemporary debate between neo-Darwinism and Intelligent Design theory is critically uncovering the reasons why the time seems to be nearing for liberal humanists to stop living in denial of this loan and their debt.

Like a family intervention taken to stop an addict’s spiral into oblivion, Fuller articulates the sobering confrontation: either you can believe neo-Darwinian theory, or you can believe that the human intellect has the intrinsic motivation and capability to solve any problem humanity faces through reason and science, but you cannot rationally or coherently believe both of these propositions.

Tom McDonald

Jan 182012

Dennis HopperWith the Foucault episode, we entered into a strange new world of sponsorship. Now I hate commercials more than just about anyone on this earth, and see philosophy as, in part, a haven from irritating commercialism. So, in getting into this area, I’m going to do my best to keep the irritation to a minimum.

That Audible commercial I floundered through on the episode wasn’t too awful, was it? Well, whether or not they want to sponsor us further depends on how many of you folks check out www.audibletrial.com/PEL, so go do that if audiobooks interest you.

To get more sponsors, we need to provide our listeners’ demographics. Consequently, we need at least 250 people to go fill out this form. All questions are optional, and providing your email address there will not result in your getting spammed or otherwise inconvenienced. So take two minutes if you will and fill it out as a way of saying, “yes, PEL, we want appropriately tasteful business entities to give you money so that you can feel like you can spend more of your time recording!”

Continue reading »

Jan 172012
Scientia potentia est

Superman at the blackboard from learning3pointzero.com

So there was a longish (8 minutes) bit that I cut from the episode where I asked Katie whether Foucault’s notions of Power and Knowledge correlated in some way with Heidegger’s notions of Being and Truth.  I was incoherent and Katie understandably treated the question as the nonsense that it was.  She has since addressed the Heidegger/Foucault connection in the comments on the episode here.  One of the papers she links to by Dreyfus is precisely on this topic:  Being and Power: Heidegger and Foucault.

In his usual straightforward style, Dreyfus sets the stage:

At the heart of Heidegger’s thought is the notion of being, and the same could be said of power in the works of Foucault. The history of being gives Heidegger a perspective from which to understand how in our modern world things have been turned into objects. Foucault transforms Heidegger’s focus on things to a focus on selves and how they became subjects.   [You should read the paper, it's fun]

His stated goal in the paper is to push the correlation between the two as far as he can and see where it goes.  He hits upon that in which I was interested in section II. Seinsgeschichte and Genealogy.  Here Dreyfus shows the parallels between Heidegger’s History of Being and Foucault’s Genealogy of regimes of power.  Dreyfus is concerned to show the structural similarities in the accounts, how they deal with historical epochs and then how that leads each thinker to their criticisms of the modern notion of subjectivity and human being. Continue reading »

Jan 162012

I’ve been talking to Dereck (aka Skepoet) about coming on as a guest with us (on Saussure), and I noticed this new episode of Diet Soap features he and Doug Lain in a wide-ranging conversation on skepticism and its relation to phenomenology. One interesting point to add to the PEL deliberations on the growth of the self is from the post-structuralists (I guess) on consciousness itself being “built like a language.” I’m not clear from the discussion what this means yet but look forward to figuring it out.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jan 152012

Giles Deleuze from uninvitedguest.com

Deleuze compliments of uninvitedguest.com

I just want to clarify something I said during the course of the Foucault episode: that Foucault and Deleuze did a lot of drugs together.

This could be false.

This is one of those rumors you pick up gradually when you take a few classes in contemporary continental philosophy.  You hear a lot of anecdotes of the dubious kind that always seem to begin, “I can’t remember where I heard this, but…”

Now here are some things we think we know about Deleuze and Foucault on drugs: Continue reading »

Jan 112012
Michel Foucault

Discussing Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), parts 1, 2 and section 3 of part 3.

Are we really free? Kings no longer exert absolute and arbitrary power over us, but Foucault’s picture of the evolution from torture and public executions to rehabilitative, medical-style incarceration is not so much a triumph of liberty but a shift to more subtle but more pervasive exertions of power. Read more about the topic and get the book.

Featuring guest participant Katie McIntyre, doctoral candidate at Columbia.

End songs: Two short, stinky tunes from the Mark Lint album, Black Jelly Beans & Smokes, “The Zoo Song” and “Solitary Drama,” both from 1991.

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

Jan 102012

Neuroscientists are using anesthesia to study consciousness in a way that seems related to higher order theories of consciousness. The conclusion so far: “consciousness emerges from the integration of information across large networks in the brain”:

Over the past few years, other EEG studies have supported the idea that anesthesia doesn’t simply shut the brain down but, rather, interferes with its internal communication. Mashour’s research, for instance, has shown that feedback between the front and back of the brain is interrupted during general anesthesia, leading to a disconnect between different brain networks. That feedback is thought to be important for consciousness.

“What we find is that the anesthetized brain is still very reactive to stimuli,” he says; both EEG and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an indirect method of measuring brain activity, show response to light and sounds. But somehow that sensory information is never processed and integrated into the type of activity necessary for conscious awareness.

– Wes

Jan 092012

If you ever decide to start a podcast under the impression that your early efforts will be protected by a cone of anonymity, do yourself a favor and pretend that you already have an audience in the hundreds of thousands. And operating on that premise, diligently scrub your episodes for any trivial factual errors that — while they may seem harmless to you at the time — could return to haunt you to the end of your days.

In one of our early episodes I said that Camus died in a motorcycle accident. In fact, he died in an automobile accident. I know that now because I am periodically reminded of it by diligent listeners for whom this error seems to have ruined the whole show. What a difference two wheels can make. (These listeners seem unaware of the irony of their focus on factual trivia when listening to the more abstract musings of a philosophy podcast).

I’m publicizing this error now just so that those who feel tempted to correct it in the future will understand that after three years, we’ve already been made aware of the mistake. Several times. It’s just that Mark hasn’t gotten around to editing the episode and overdubbing an incongruently voiced “automobile” wherever anyone says “motorcycle.”

I am also thinking of incorporating a more profane version of this correction into my epitaph.

(P.S.: I also once said “per capita GDP” where I meant to say “GDP.” As far as I know that covers all sins of fact).

– Wes

Jan 072012

Charles Simic from the Santa Barbara Independent

Still listening to Essential American Poets put out by The Poetry Foundation.  I just listened to the latest episode on Charles Simic.  He ends the episode by reciting his “The Friends of Heraclitus“.  It is about the loss of beloved friend and companion with whom the referenced subject has had many philosophical discourses, walking around and getting lost, both literally and in thought.

The loss of a partner in dialogue made me think of Plato (and Xenophon), what a true sense of sorrow he must have in losing such a companion in Socrates. The Apology, the starting point for our Partially Examined journey, is itself a poem, an ode to a lost friend.

Simic’s character goes out for a walk playing both roles, himself and the lost companion.  His sorrow, however, blurs his philosophical sensibilities
Continue reading »

Jan 062012

[Note: This article has been updated post-discussion; I didn't want to create a new post when we've had all this great discussion on this one that I want people to continue. The episode itself should be up w/in the next day or two.]

Mark, Seth, Dylan, and guest David Buchanan have recorded a conversation on Robert M. Pirsig’sZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,a book that’s not about Zen and only a little bit about motorcycle maintenance.

It’s an autobiographical novel describing (in part) Pirsig’s encounters with the idea of “Quality.” In trying to teach this to freshman composition students, he decided that it’s a fundamental, immediate, and undefinable part of our experience. We don’t, on his account, first consciously analyze things, and then decide based on that analysis what’s better than what. Quality (or more precisely, “dynamic quality,” a term he comes up with in his 1991 book Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals)phenomenologically primary: even distinguishing a foreground object from the background, i.e. perception itself, relies on a quality judgment, namely that this aspect of the perceptual field is of interest. Once we establish habits like this (e.g. object recognition, which can be generalized into a metaphysics of objects in space), they get ossified, codified, and passed on, so they seem natural, but we can’t forget that all the systems of classification, of conceptualization, of making sense of things at all are human inventions. This should sound very much like William James’s pragmatism.

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Jan 052012

Dummett in 2004

Last week, on December 27th, Michael Dummett passed away. Dummett was an important and influential British philosophy of the 20th century, probably most famous for his interpretations of Frege. Indeed it was his early work which helped to revitalize an interest in Frege’s work in the second half of the 20th century. (The PEL episode on Frege can be found here.  An interview of Dummett talking about Frege on Philosophy Bites can be found here.)

Dummett was also important for his work in the philosophy of mathematics, logic, language, and metaphysics. His most original work involved the suggestion that we understand disputes in metaphysics over realism as disputes in logic. This turns on the principle of bivalence (the semantic principle which says that every statement is either true or false). Insofar as realists think that entities are mind-independent, they will accept bivalence. Truth is conceived as transcending our abilities to know. Anti-realists on the other hand don’t accept bivalence since they think that the entities in question are mind-dependent. They take truth to be epistemologically constrained.

There are unfortunately not a lot of videos of Dummett on the web, but if you want to join the Bodleian Philosophy Faculty Library, you can get a long interview of Dummett by Donald Davidson here.  Dummett was undoubtedly a significant philosopher of the 20th century. And he will surely be remembered for many years to come.

-Brad Younger

Jan 022012

Colin MarshallOne of the better-written reviews of our podcast can be found here. I quote:

At least three hosts at a time trying to interpret, in their own natural and thus imprecise language, a philosophical text itself composed in its own natural and thus imprecise language, opens up infinite opportunity for purely semantic argument. The show’s discussions, as with so many philosophical discussions in life, sometimes careen inexorably toward thickets of seemingly endless loops circling around what the words being used could or should mean…

Don’t feel too bad if you lose the thread — especially if you listen, as I do, while performing entirely non-philosophical database work. But you’ll find fascination and even intellectual beauty in hearing human minds collectively grapple with concepts even as the concepts crumble under scrutiny.

Marshall is a podcaster too, with a very NPRish demeanor: The Marketplace of Ideas podcast. Listen to him interview Sarah Bakewell about Montaigne. (After, of course, listening to our Montaigne episode; plus, here’s a past post on Bakewell).

-Mark Linsenmayer