Sep 302012

When writing about literature and philosophy there are three obvious tropes: the existential or absurdist nior, the speculative fiction, and the condemnation of poetry.  Not that poetry hasn’t had its defenders, and if Mark’s rant is indication, the sort of “deepity” he seems to accuse McCarthy of can easily be applied to most poets. In fact, Zizek would apply atrocities to us and except his favorite forms of pulp drama from such dangerous Romanticism.  However, this seems to miss why both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein defended poetry:  it alludes to concepts which the necessary rectification of philosophy seem ill-suited to expressing.
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Sep 292012

Wallace AlcornIn last Monday’s Austin Daily Herald (that’s Austin, MN), Mr. Wallace Alcorn, Ph.D., historian of religion and Bible expositor, wrote this a priori argument against same-sex marriage, where he argues that it is “ontologically impossible.” Here’s the argument:

Nothing has meaning, much less existence, if it does not have properties that belong to the universe of the thing. With only particulars and no universals, the thing does not belong to any broader thing and is betrayed as a notion and not a concept.

A red ball possesses the properties of red and round. Calling a green round object or a red square object a red ball does not make it a red ball. Calling same-sex “marriage” does not make it marriage.

The universe in this philosophic consideration is marriage, which is–by its very definition and essence–the complimentary wedding of male and female. Other properties of this particular can be health, ethnic, and intelligence. All such are non-essentials (the term is “accidentals”) and can vary greatly and still be marriage. This is so because these are either consistent with or indifferent to the essence of the univesal. In contrast, same-sex by its very nature is dissonant and incongruous with the essence of marriage…

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Sep 292012

In Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, Iris Murdoch claimed that “[a]rt is far and away the most educational thing we have…” Here she is discussing this notion, among many others, with the philosopher Bryan Magee.

Part One:

Watch on YouTube.
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Sep 282012

Can literature be philosophical? Can philosophy be considered literature? What are the roles of literature and philosophy in relation to “truth?” Why should philosophers be interested in literature?

While trying to come up with something to post in relation to the recent PEL discussion on Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” I came across an interesting discussion over at the Philosophy Now podcast on literature and philosophy that raises the above questions. The conversation opens by addressing the obvious “What is literature?”, going on to explore the role literature plays in relation to philosophy, whether it is a “philosophical enterprise” or could “possibly” contribute to the “philosophical enterprise” (The answer? “Yep.”)
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Sep 262012

The Federalist Papers (originally published as just The Federalist) are a collection of essays published in newspapers in 1787-1788 arguing for the ratification of the American Constitution. Each was published under the pseudonym “Publius” though most were written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. (There are a few written by John Jay.) They were collected and published in groups during the ratification of the Constitution and then published as a group following ratification. They are among the most important documents articulating the political philosophy underlying the American Constitution itself.

The essays are widely available in many forms and have been published by many presses. You can get a free version from Project Gutenburg. The Wikipedia entry for the Federalist Papers contains extensive links and structure to the papers and cross-references to each of the essays.
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Sep 252012

Peg Tyre

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Peg Tyre documents the remarkable turnaround in student performance at an underperforming high school when the curriculum was altered to put a focus on analytic writing.  Analytic writing, it turns out, is a marker of critical thinking:  if you can craft clear and coherent written sentences, paragraphs and essays it generally means you have clear and coherent, well considered thoughts.  Sounds like common sense or maybe even obvious?  Apparently not.  And the ability to write well translates into improved performance in all disciplines, not just English and the Social Sciences.What?  Critical thinking skills help you no matter what subject you are studying?  Sacre bleu!  I was part of that generation that had to do grammar exercises as part of my core studies – I remember what felt like a whole year (probably a semester) doing nothing but diagramming sentences.  Also spelling, handwriting (cursive and block), debate, all that stuff.  Then when I got into advanced grades, we wrote.  First it was outlines, then summaries of books (aka the book report).  Then we had to have ideas about those summaries. Continue reading »

Sep 252012

One of the comments on Mark Satta’s recent very hot post about universal salvation has been zooming ’round my brain, and demands, I think, a PEL episode at some point. A comment by our listener Bear stated:

My questions about Atheists wanting to redefine orthodoxies of particular belief systems, be it Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, Islam &c., demanding those within the belief system to accept certain propositions internal the belief system. For example, telling very conservative Evangelical Christians or Buddhists that they must accept and not condemn sodomy, and they must accept what greater society thinks about these things.

This is not an abstract concern, I have seen this regularly.

When does the internal beliefs of a group become public debate? How much can a society demand that a religious group abandon its beliefs and conform to the rest of society?

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Sep 242012

There’s a long history of philosophers bashing poets, back to Socrates bashing rhetoriticians (poetry being a species of rhetoric, to him) for pursuing felicity of expression over an actual search for the truth. Though in the McCarthy episode, we were very upbeat about the utility of literature for conveying philosophical ideas, today I’m in a grumpy mood about it and feel the need to vent the other side of the matter.

Per my name drop near the end of the episode, I just finished a book (actually a three-volume book) by one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, called 1Q84. In this book, some characters have slipped into another world (the novel takes place in 1984, so one character names this new world 1Q84) that is nearly exactly like the ordinary world, but with a few differences that take a while to notice, which make the characters then question their own sanity and basically not understand what’s going on. Continue reading »

Sep 232012

[Another post from Adam Arnold, FotP "Friend of the Podcast"]

Recently I read a short story entitled “My Brother’s Foot”. My interpretation of the story, like my interpretation of just about anything these days, was philosophical. I took the story to be a critique of the idea of an existential hero and a radical notion of self definition. How when we forget or push off our intersubjective world of meaning, the very notion of meaning eats itself up (the first sentence says: “On the last day my brother ate his foot.”).  I took the story to be a critique of our modern nihilistic world in which the only thing we champion, the only thing we hold in regard, is those who “do something” with their lives. Where this to “do something” is not an objectively meaningful task but one that is nothing more than a subjective impulse with no other purpose then to fend off boredom.

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Sep 222012

[From friend of the podcast Adam Arnold]

In regards to the latest episode on Candide and the continuing discussion of scientism and evolution on the blog, it is interesting to look back on the classic article by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin on the “adaptationist programme” in evolutionary biology. In “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme”, Gould and Lewontin take on what they consider the dominant view in evolutionary biology at the time:

…based on faith in the power of natural selection as an optimizing agent. It proceeds by breaking an organism into unitary ‘traits’ and proposing an adaptive story for each considered separately. Trade-offs among competing selective demands exert the only break upon perfection; non-optimality is thereby rendered as a result of adapatation as well. [Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, p. 581]

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Sep 212012
Cormac McCarthy

On philosophical issues in McCarthy’s 2005 novel about guys running around with drug money and shooting each other, and about fiction as a form for exploring philosophical ideas.

What can morality mean for people who have witnessed the “death of God,” i.e. a loss in faith in light of the horrors of war? For both the protagonist and antagonist in “No Country for Old Men,” morality is about being satisfied with your own actions, even if what you’ve done is set in stone forever, and even if it were to be the last thing you do before death. This is not purely subjectivist, though, seemingly not just dependent upon our whims. In McCarthy’s sort-of Nietzschean world, we have duties toward the dead, and duties towards ourselves. It’s clear that this sort of “ethic” is not coincident with “ethics” as we’re familiar with it, as it’s something shared by both the risk-taker-with-a-heart-of-gold hero and the I’ll-kill-you-like-cattle baddie.

What does McCarthy himself think? Who knows? Like many good philosophical novelists, he puts philosophies in the mouths of his characters to try them out as world views, to see how they hang psychologically and what fate they lead to, in the author’s best estimation. Another peculiarity of the novel as ethical philosophy is that is provides a full-blown concrete ethical situation to analyze instead of a classroom abstraction.

We discuss these issues and more with Eric Petrie, Professor at Michigan State University, who’s an old friend and teacher of Dylan’s. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “My Grandfather” by Dylan Casey (2001).

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Sep 202012

A Stanford course on iTunes U, “Literature in Crisis,” includes two lectures on Candide: here and here. These are by Martin Evans, Chair of the English Department.

As a literature guy, he has a bit to say about satire: why it flourished in this age in particular (because of the relative peace and stability, which explains why it’s rampant now too). He also has some interesting points to make about Voltaire’s biography. The bulk of the lectures is taken up by a consideration of the various positions on the problem of evil:

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Sep 182012

The New York Public Library hosts regular live events (details here), and one of these was held in April 2010 to celebrate Candide’s 250th Anniversary. Read about it, watch/listen to it, and get the transcript here. Here’s the video (95 min):

You can also download just the audio from iTunes U.

Though some parts of this are simply librarians getting much too excited about the capabilities of the Internet, there are also attempts to connect the book to the present day, a bit of dramatic reenactment, some illustrations, and best of all, a long stretch of PEL-like exchanges about the themes, and even a bit of the philosophical content, of the book. It gets into areas like feminism, anti-semitism, and meliorism, which we didn’t get into on our episode. I referred to it explicitly with regard to the discussion of the sequels to Candide not written by Voltaire.

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Sep 172012

In the recent Candide episode we saw how Voltaire satirized Leibniz’s solution to the Problem of Evil. The Problem of Evil is still a popular topic in contemporary philosophy of religion. One twist on the traditional problem of evil comes from philosopher and theologian, Marilyn McCord Adams, who suggests that for Christians the principal problem of evil is the compatibility of God and hell (especially if hell is understood as a place where people suffer forever).

While this question may be particularly pointed for Christians or adherents of other faiths which teach the existence of both an all-loving, all-powerful being and the existence of a place of eternal punishment, a careful examination of the logical compatibility of God and hell can be used more generally as a way of addressing questions about the nature of love, justice, and the human condition. From St. Augustine’s City of God to Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, many influential thinkers have claimed not only that the existence of God and the existence of hell are compatible but that they rationally go hand in hand.  This view has, unsurprisingly, been rejected by many religious and nonreligious individuals alike. Adams, for example, rejects that God and eternal punishment are compatible and instead holds to the doctrine of universal salvation—the view that eventually everybody will be reconciled to God and forgiven of any past wrongs done.
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Sep 122012

Lucy LawlessIt has occurred! On the evening of 9/10/12, we talked with actress Lucy Lawless about fame. Listen to the episode. She’s been a great supporter of the Partially Examined Life, and if she is to be believed (and her piercing stare will make you believe it), our little discussion group product inspired her to go back to school and study philosophy, in between flying back from New Zealand to the states to film things, saving the arctic, and tweeting. She was a great sport, and regular listeners will be pleased that the recording came off much more like a regular PEL episode than a fawning celebrity interview. Much as when we have had a comedian or artist on in the past, Lucy was there to provide a reality check on our wild speculations about that divide between the numinous and the civilians.

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Sep 112012

Where I Was

(A re-post of an essay I wrote last year on the anniversary of 9/11).


Where was I on 9/11?

At the time I worked not far from the World Trade Center – at 11 Broadway, across from the famous Wall Street Bull that’s not really on Wall Street. At 9:02 AM I left for work from my apartment on the Upper West Side, one minute before the South Tower was hit and two minutes before my answering machine started filling up with warnings not to go to work – messages I wouldn’t hear for a week. Getting onto the subway at 103rd St., I saw that the station booth had a handwritten cardboard sign in the window announcing delays due to the fact that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. At the time this was nothing more to me than a novel reason for a delay, one that would just make me even later to work than I already was. I imagined that a student in a Cessna had put a dent in something essentially indestructible.

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Sep 082012

Being the wife of an unemployed philosopher might be worse than being the unemployed philosopher from

Dan Mullin is a philosophy grad student and part-time teacher who runs a blog called The Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog.  His mission statement is to challenge the view that a philosophical education isn’t of much value for employment.  As he says:

 My name is Daniel Mullin and I’m a philosophy grad student and part-time teacher. The other part of the time, I’m unemployed and/or looking for work. I’ve been relatively successful in finding work in the traditional job market for philosophy — teaching at universities — but that market consists mainly of contract positions that don’t really provide a liveable wage. Continue reading »

Sep 072012

This post is a follow-up on my Dallas Willard post from a few days ago. A couple of reader comments on that (on the blog and Facebook) shamed me into re-listening to the second half of Willard’s lecture and newly listen to the Q&A afterwards. I can now say that his positive story is not anywhere as oversimplistic as I was implying, and in fact I agree with several of his main points:

1. Without a notion of the independence of the world from our whims, science, knowledge as a grounds for action, and communication itself don’t make sense.
2. Self-fulfillment requires real bonding with other people.
3. Freedom is not just “freedom from,” but “freedom to.”
4. Today’s society is excessively consumerist, which is not all that fulfilling.
5. The “hedonistic paradox,” which is that happiness is a by-product of the pursuit of goals that are not happiness; to actually pursue happiness itself doesn’t work too well.

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Sep 052012

On Candide: or, Optimism, the novel by Voltaire (1759).

Is life good? Popular Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz argued that it’s good by definition. God is perfectly good and all-powerful, so whatever he created must have been as good as it can be; we live in the best of all possible worlds.

Voltaire loads this satirical adventure story up with horrific violence to demonstrate that Leibniz’s position is just silly. Life is filled with suffering, and human nature is such that even in peace and prosperity, we’re basically miserable. Yet we still love life despite this. Voltaire’s solution is to “tend your garden,” which means something like engaging in meaningful work, whether personal or political.

This is a very special episode for us, as it’s our first with all of us recording in the same room, as part of a weekend of fun and frolic in Madison, WI. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Woe Is Me,” from Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio (1998). Download the album for free.

Please check out the transcriptions for this and other episodes, and support us through your donations, at