May 312012
Henri Bergson

On Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900).

What is humor? Bergson says that, fundamentally, we laugh as a form of social corrective when others are slow to adapt to society’s demands. Other types of humor are derivative from this: just as the clown falls on his face because of a (pretended) physical flaw, as if he’s a machine that doesn’t work and so becomes noticeable as a machine, in satire, we poke fun at society’s breaking down, and in wordplay it’s as if the language is breaking down, and in a sit-com featuring unlikely coincidences, it’s like fate itself is breaking down into senseless patterns of repetition.

Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan are joined by comedienne Jennifer Dziura, using Bergson as a jumping-off point to throw around lots of theories and questions: is it the unexpected that makes something funny (which would make timing key), or our identification with the funny situation, which would go against Bergson’s notion that you need some distance from the person you’re laughing at, or else you grasp him as an individual and get sucked into the breakdown as tragic? Can deformities be hilarious, as Bergson thinks? What about dark humor, or self-deprecating humor, or the laughter of delight or being tickled? Read more on the topic and get the book.

End songs: Another two lo-fi, quickly recorded driblets from the Mark Lint album, Black Jelly Beans & Smokes: 1991′s “The Nipple Song” and a song written by the Gerber Brothers (Ken Gerber being the guy who drew our PEL icon) performed with Mark from 1990, “Come On, Lady.” Between these is a snippet of Jen’s standup. No puppets, though. Sorry.

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

May 312012

Castles in the sky(Painting by Robert McCall)

In his book Wittgenstein and William James,Russell Goodman makes a case that James influenced Wittgenstein’s thought and he does so by detailing their shared commitment to concrete experience and actual practice over intellect. (Wittgenstein was also positively influenced by James’s view of religion, especially by The Varieties of Religious Experience, but that’s another can of worms.) Goodman’s account is somewhat provocative simply because Wittgenstein and James are both considered to be major figures, but in separate philosophical traditions.

As Jaime Nubiola reported to the William James Society at Harvard:
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May 292012

It’s been a while since we had a post using some of our negative feedback to reflect on our project and methods.

On the US iTunes store, one reviewer who had admittedly only listened to our two recent Wittgenstein episodes and nothing else, said that we were “A) woefully ignorant of the material at hand and B) too arrogant to even begin to acknowledge that they might just be missing the real significance of the work under consideration.”

I’m less interested in rebutting this particular dude (if one of you that hasn’t yet given us an iTunes review wants to jump on and do that, feel free) than getting at the ideological assumptions and questions lurking here.

Continue reading »

May 282012

Em & Lo on feminist porn via

In a press release (cited here in the New Statesman) from his School of Life, Alain de Botton claims he’s going to take on our cultural obsession with unethical porn and create some that accords with our moral sensibilities and the good life.

This is, of course, hilarious and there have been some requisitely wicked reactions like here (HuffPo has nothing on the Guardian‘s writers).  In general, I appreciate that de Botton is trying to bring philosophy to the ‘real world’ and he is a genuinely engaging writer and speaker.  You can’t argue with the fact that he is doing practical philosophy and changing people’s lives.

But this initiative seems to me to be misguided.  It sounds like porn for women or feminist porn, which are subjects of tremendous debate.  If there is a question of whether or not women can appropriate the medium, it seems to me there is a huge question of whether a male philosopher can.  I have to wonder whether the question isn’t how to ethically sanitize adult material but rather it’s examining why people utilize it as a substitute for meaningful sexual and emotional interactions with others.  People having sex on camera, whether done depicting mutual respect and consent or not, is still a representation of something you could be doing yourself with real, live, ethical agents.

I’m of course assuming here an individual consumer of this ‘entertainment’.  If one counters that couples would use ethically approved porn from de Botton to stimulate their ethically above board sex lives, I’d still ask why the Pleasures and Sorrows of their mutual attraction don’t suffice.  Or rather, how does de Botton’s desire to become a pornographer (not judging the profession, just the motivations) support Thinking about Sex.


May 252012

Listening to the guys and Philosophy Bro on the last episode, I want to interject that actually I see Wittgenstein as a bridge between analytic and continental philosophy for reasons beyond his being Austrian. What he brackets out and why is crucial to his project, which does become “anti-philosophical” in a broad sense. Anti-philosophy is defined by both Alain Badiou and Boris Groys both, separately, definite anti-philosophy as a philosophical critique of a philosophical enterprise through other means.

Badiou compares Wittgenstein to Nietzsche in that his anti-philosophy is based on three operations (from Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy,p. 74-75:

1. A linguistic, logical, genealogical critique of the statement of philosophy; a deposing of the category of truth, an unraveling of pretensions of philosophy to constitute itself as theory. In order to do so, antiphilosophy often delves into the resources the sophists exploit as well. In the case of Nietzsche, this operation bears the name “overturning of all values,” struggle against the Plato-disease, combatant grammar of signs and types.

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May 242012

Sean WilsonAt some point after our Tractatus episodes came out, Sean Wilson, a political science professor at Wright State University, contacted me to find out when we’d be doing the Investigations so as to coordinate something between us and his discussion group.

Some years later now, I’ve checked out his forum: “Wittgenstein’s Aftermath: Life in the Post-Analytic World, Given by the Man Who Ended Philosophy As History Knew It.”

The forum is not very active right now, but there’s an archive of decent discussion with many links if you’d like to know more about Wittgenstein on language, mind religion, mathematics; about Wittgenstein’s personal life; or if you’d like to talk more about the Tractatus, this might be a good place to look.

Here is part of a conversation there concerning one of the issues PEL has been tackling which maybe you commenters can continue here:

§43 of the Investigations famously says:

“For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’ – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of the word is its use in the language. And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.”

The caveat in this passage (“though not for all”) has always intrigued me. Which class – or classes – of cases might Wittgenstein have wanted to exclude? Of course, he gives an example of one such class at the end: pointing to the bearer of a name. But are there any others you can think of?

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May 222012

Cain and Abel

Would it be reasonable to take Wittgenstein’s case against private language as his case in favor of public language? Or is that too simple? As I was listening to episode 56, a quote from William James from Pragmatismcame to mind:

All human thinking gets discursified; we exchange ideas; we lend and borrow verifications, get them from one another by means of social intercourse. All truth thus gets verbally built out, stored up, and made available for everyone.

Hence, we must talk consistently just as we must think consistently: for both in talk and thought we deal with kinds. Names are arbitrary, but once understood they must be kept to. We mustn’t now call Abel ‘Cain’ or Cain ‘Abel.’ If we do, we ungear ourselves from the whole book of Genesis, and from all its connexions with the universe of speech and fact down to the present time. We throw ourselves out of whatever truth that entire system of speech and fact may embody.

The demand for consistency in our uses of language is, according to James, almost a matter of remaining within the bounds of sanity. If we constantly confuse the murderers with their victims, we “ungear ourselves” from the whole universe of speech – and to have a private language, supposing it were possible, is to be isolated in the corner of dunces. Are James and Wittgenstein saying the same thing on this point?

-Dave Buchanan

(Image by Conrad Botes.)

May 172012

These two episodes cover some related approaches in 20th century ethics:

First, we read Chapter 1 of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica(1903), which argues against utilitarianism and other ethical philosophies by exposing the “naturalistic fallacy,” which equates “good” with some natural property like pleasure or people’s actual desires. This error, says Moore, also extends to equating good with what God wants or what we would choose upon calm reflection on social norms and our own innermost desires. It may well be that the good coincides with one of these categories, but that’s not what the word “good” means, as it’s always a sensible question to ask “but is pleasure good?” or “is God’s will good?” for any alleged equivalent. No, says, Moore, good is a basic, indefinable, non-natural quality of the world. Buy the book or read it online. You can also listen to it.

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May 162012

Watch on Vimeo

In the video above, Prof. David Papineau compares different “naturalist” theories of consciousness to propose that phenomenal concepts pose a problem for Wittgenstein’s private language argument. (A version of this issue was briefly raised during the second episode discussing Philosophical Investigations.) Hint: If you’re not yet familar with the “Mary’s Room” thought experiment, it would be helpful to review a synopsis.

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May 142012
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Continuing discussion of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Part I, sections 1-33 and 191-360.

Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Philosophy Bro talk about “family resemblances” in concepts, including the concept “game” as used by Wittgenstein: is there really no theory that can capture all and only instances of games, e.g. do all games have rules? Also, what does Wittgenstein mean by characterizing philosophical problems as mistakes of grammar, and how might that apply to the mind/body problem? Finally, we get to the private language argument, where W. argues that we don’t talk about our pains and things by pointing at and naming our inner states. Language is inevitably public, and our language about pains grows out of observable pain behaviors. Does this make Wittgenstein a behaviorist, and so hopelessly antiquated? Probably not.

Listen to Part 1. Read more about the topic and get the text.

End song: “Not a Woman,” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the album So Whaddaya Think? (2000). Download it free.

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

May 142012

You may not know that Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin wrote short stories back into the early 70s, and one of them, “A Song for Lya,” won the Hugo award for Best Novella in 1975. I see it online here or get a Kindle version for a couple of bucks.

The story has to do with our essential, existential isolation as referred to in the Wittgenstein episode. It’s about a husband-wife couple who are psychics of various sorts and so can overcome (for brief periods, at least) some of the isolation that they pityingly describe the rest of us as stuck in. They’re put on assignment to investigate an alien race where every one of them allows a parasite to kill and eat them when they hit age 40. Well, it turns out that this parasite enables a sort of group mind, allowing an everlasting unity and bliss much more profound than even the psychics can have with each other, such that turning oneself over to the parasite may be rational: it may fulfill the goal of all human religious endeavor, which is to get rid of this existential aloneness.

So, it’s a pretty thought-provoking, interestingly written story, though on the depressing side (and, as I experienced the audio version,hearing the male narrator gush on and on in the female psychic Lyanna’s voice about love and oneness was a bit much for me). It raises one of the usual kinds of objections to utilitarianism and other theories of value: “Look! Here’s what your value system should applaud! Yet letting your brain get eaten by alien fungus is gross! You’d better rethink things!”

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May 122012

I was listening again to Mark’s interview on Douglas Lain’s Diet Soap podcast and was struck by an interesting question posed by Doug.  He was talking about how ontology seemed to be the starting point for philosophy (Thales) and asked whether ontology was required for ethics and if Mark knew of any philosophical points of view where the ontological contradicted the ethical.  Mark’s response was to note his ‘skepticism’ with respect to ontology – his doubt that we can know the world ‘in-itself’.  It’s quite reasonable to think the ultimate nature of the universe is unknowable and even science resorts to metaphors to describe the ultimate ‘stuff’ of the universe (he mentions string theory).

Mark goes on further to say that if you have a skeptical stance towards ontology it seems kind of problematic to base ethics on it – particularly if you think of ethics as being immediately present to human beings as opposed to ontology.  Ethics is kind of ‘in your face’ in a way that things-in-themselves are not.  You can start the ethical endeavor from someplace other than ontology – in experience perhaps.  It is possible that ethics is primary:  ‘What should I do?’ comes before ‘What is there?’ Continue reading »

May 102012

[Editor's Note: We haven't heard in a while from Robert from our God episode and are happy to have him digging into our back catalog and blogging on it:]

For those working through the PEL ethics episodes on Kant and Bentham (episodes 9 and 10), a common difficulty with the philosophy of ethics is that it can seem abstract and somewhat difficult to relate to the material in a practical sense.  That’s why I like to think through my moral philosophical frameworks in terms of life in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland.  And no show does Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham as zombie killers better than The Walking Dead (spoiler alert: this post contains Season 2 plot points).

If we could crudely oversimplify Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy into the maxim “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong” perhaps Bentham’s philosophy might be manifested as The Walking Dead‘s police officer Shane Walsh.  The hardened pragmatist of the band of survivors, he guides the group with his practical “all that matters is staying alive” philosophy.

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May 082012

I’ve mentioned Oxford’s Very Short Introductions before on the blog, but I can’t help pointing out another written by A.C. Grayling on Wittgenstein. It’s a great example of distilling something complicated down into digestible hunks in an honest presentation and analysis. Very well done. In addition, he’s a fine essayist with a number of collections worth reading, such as Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age.Check it out.


May 072012

I enjoy listening to philosophers I respect talk about the life and thought of other philosophers. Below is a discussion between the popularizer of philosophy Bryan Magee and the great John Searle.

Watch on YouTube.

Magee is an under-appreciated philosopher. His books The Philosophy of Schopenhauerand Confessions of a Philosopherhave always impressed me with their lucidity and originality. Also, his book Story of Philosophyis a wonderful introduction to the history of philosophy.

John Searle is an influential thinker–and from the few times I’ve met him, a pretty cool dude. His Chinese Room arguments against artificial intelligence are still discussed in philosophy of mind circles, and his 1970s debates with Jacques Derrida about Speech Act theory are the stuff of legend.

This discussion between Searle and Magee, I think, will provide a non-philosopher with a little bit of context for the Wittgenstein episode. Here are parts two, three, four, and five.

-Law Ware

May 062012

FeedbackAs we podcasters think about how to proceed, we welcome as always your feedback. Here are three live questions for us at the moment.

1. Does having guest participants help more than it distracts? There are many smart people out there, and we’ve tried to rope many of them to come be on the show with us, participating in an area where they may have more experience/interest than we do. Do you like this, or are we better able to focus on what we do best if we’re not spending so much time engaging new people? Relatedly, does having five of us on there more confusing or negatively impactful in procuring your desired levels of particSethpation? (As a separate issue, do you like the celebrity philosopher interviews, or again, is that just a distraction from what we do best?)

2. Depth or breadth? Reading a shorter text means we can cover it more thoroughly and have time to go off on our own views. However, doing this consistently means we cover less ground, and there are plenty of important works that just aren’t short or such that reading a small chunk of it would really do it justice. (Even the “short” works we choose often run 100+ pages.)

3. Are we getting harder to understand? As we get farther into some topics, we necessarily can’t re-explain all the terminology and figures that we’ve repeatedly brought up. However, if the consensus is that we’ve gotten too fast and loose in explaining things in our recent episodes (like eps 51 and 52), then we can try spell things out a bit more. (It’ll be hard to do this with the celebrity philosopher interviews, as we actually want to get at what they think, but hopefully we can make up for this with subsequent discussion.)


May 032012

Here’s the episode.

What is humor? Henri Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900) states that humor is a social tool by which we mildly scold each other for being insufficiently adaptive and flexible. On this account, the paradigm of humor is the absent-minded person, but any form of idiocy or freakishness or social ineptness also works: what’s funny is the disconnect between the logic of the clown’s behavior and what’s actually called for socially in the situation.

One key way such a disconnect can be brought about is through the divergence of body and spirit, or more generally between one’s intent and an opposing material reality. So a minister farting while giving a sermon would be especially funny.

Much of the book is taken up with stretching this theory to show how different types of humor relate to it. While he sees character humor as I’ve described above as central, there are derivative types: a funny coincidence mirrors the disconnect we see in character humor. Dramatic irony likewise involves the characters’ intent clashing with circumstances of which they are unaware.

Continue reading »

May 022012
Ludwig Wittgenstein

On Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Part I, sections 1-33 and 191-360 (written around 1946).

What is linguistic meaning? Wittgenstein argues that it’s not some mysterious entity in the mind, but that it is a public matter: you understand a word if you can use it appropriately, and you know the context in which it’s appropriate to use it and how to react when you hear it in that context. W. calls such a context a “language game,” and sees language as big heap of these games, spanning a wide range of human activity. Words don’t just name objects; they could be commands, or variables, or exclamations, or even meaningless when considered outside of a particular game. When philosophers pull words out of the kinds of settings in which they originated and try to figure out what they really mean, that creates bogus philosophical problems.

This discussion is part 1 of 2; we only get through the first sections of the book in detail, and you’ll have to listen to part 2 for a good explanation of the famous “private language” argument. Read more about the topic and get the text. The foursome is joined by Philosophy Bro (the two posts of his we read part of are here and here).

End song: “Kite,” by New People from The Easy Thing (2009), written and sung by Matt Ackerman.

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

May 012012

1 Million Downloads screenshot
This is a screenshot from this morning’s back-end stats, indicating that we have at last passed the 1 million download mark for this server (which we phased over to a few months in, but our traffic prior to that point was very low anyway, and we don’t have accurate counts on that). That’s right, you all have now downloaded 1,000,000 PEL episodes, and we thank you highly for that.

As you can also see, our monthly downloads are over 100K per month, which only started happening in December when the iTunes store featured us and started sending us heaps more traffic. In the past month I’ve noticed us in the “What’s Hot” section not only in our traditional “Society & Culture” category (the parent of “Philosophy”), I’ve seen us likewise featured on the Arts and Comedy category pages, as well as the overall podcast “Staff Favorites.”

We also recently hit our 3rd birthday; our first episode was recorded on April 19, 2009, with our web site up on May 12. Huge thanks to all of your for listening, reading, and participating. Thanks also to the great guest participants and bloggers, as well as the people who’ve helped us edit our recent episodes (anyone else with sound editing experience want to get in on this?), and those who’ve helped get the word out through their own blogs, Facebook posts, Tweets, and other outlets. It’s been a great trip so far, and we have no plans to stop until 13% of the earth’s population recognizes the value and enjoyment of philosophy. (And I’m sure the $1 suggested donations for all those million episodes will be coming in any day now so we can all quit our jobs.)

-Mark Linsenmayer