Oct 312012

HalloweenNovember starts tomorrow, which means the Not School groups need to get all sorted out ASAP.

The proposed “What Is Philosophy?” group (reading a bit of Plato, Locke, and Bertrand Russell) is ideal for new-to-philosophy readers–or anyone who has been out of the game for a while and wants an easy and fun way to get back in. Right now, I see that the group record has been created, but only two people are signed up! Well, that’s just sad and wrong, so I’m offering up to 10 people who sign up today their first month (i.e. $5) free.

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Oct 302012

As my first Not School group, I led some folks in discussing two Netflix philosophy documentaries, i.e. things that have been on my instant queue forever, and which I feel culturally, given my position here, I should watch, but always seemed too boring. Examined Life (2008) (Netflix link) was the best of the two that we picked, and the well of that sort of thing is dry enough that I’m not going to subject any group to more of them.

The movie is a series of 10-minute-or-so clips of different semi-famous philosophers talking, and so serves as a decent introduction to some of the most generally famous (which of course is not the same as the most academically respected) names in philosophy today, including Cornel West, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Slavoj Žižek. Here’s Žižek:

Watch Žižek in “Examined Life” on YouTube.

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Oct 272012
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton

On Alexander Hamilton/James Madison’s Federalist Papers (1, 10-12, 14-17, 39, 47-51), published as newspaper editorials 1787-8, plus Letters III and IV from Brutus, an Anti-Federalist.

What constitutes good government? These founding fathers argued that the proposed Constitution, with its newly centralized–yet also separated-by-branch–powers would be a significant improvement on the Articles of Confederation, which had left states as the ultimate sovereigns.

Hear Dylan, Mark, and Seth here rap about factions: Does our current system prevent the abuse of power by interest groups in the way Madison predicted it would? (Hint: no.) If we want to argue for change, we have to diagnose what went wrong in this and other instances: is it that Madison’s/Hamilton’s predictions were simply wrong in some areas, or have the contextual facts (e.g. education and technology levels) changed the situation, and/or do we simply have different central concerns now than we did then? For instance, their fresh-from-the-revolution audience was worried about kingly tyranny, and European powers were skeptical of any democracy, while we face new challenges like the rise of corporations that apparently have personhood according to our Supreme Court. Learn more about the topic and get the readings.

End song: “Feeling Time” by Madison Lint (2002).

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Oct 252012

Quine, Age 27I’ve posted a new item on our member site, namely me reading the entirety of “Two Dogmas of Empiricism, which we’ll discuss on episode 66. Dylan is planning on recording the other essay we’ll discuss, “On What There Is,” prior to the release of the episode.

Due to copyright issues, I can’t just put this on our public site, nor can I sell it as a one-off item, so the member site is the only way we can currently distribute this. Learn more about membership.

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Oct 242012

[Editor's Note: Here's a post by Getty from our Hume/Smith on ethics episode. Incidentally, Getty will be leading a Not School Reading group on Harry Frankfurt's The Reasons of Love. Go join.]

Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy and law at NYU, is notorious for his heterodox philosophical positions (this was discussed a bit on PEL here). He is a scientific skeptic, anti-materialist, anti-physicalist, and a strong moral realist. (This isn’t to say that the previous four positions are false, just that they are unpopular.) I have often found myself arguing against Nagel. I’m not particularly convinced by his classic paper “What is it Like to be a Bat?” (discussed on PEL here), and I find his brand of moral realism unsatisfactory. That said, I feel the need to come to his defense now.

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Oct 232012

Freeman Dyson has a review of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? in the early November issue of The New York Review of Books. Dyson is an esteemed physicist who, as a young man, cinched the link between accounts of quantum electrodynamics given separately by Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Sin-Itiro Tomonanga in the late 1940s. He probably should’ve been included in the Nobel Prize awarded for QED, but it is limited to three simultaneous recipients. Dyson’s review is interesting for a few reasons. First, he attended Cambridge at the time of Wittgenstein and, in fact, lived in an apartment below him. He had been given the Tractatus as a gift in high school and “read it through in one night in an ecstasy of adolescent enthusiasm.” His reminiscences about Wittgenstein in a few paragraphs is worth the read itself. Second, his judgment of the philosophy is linked to his judgement of the actions of the man. For instance, “Heiddegger himself lost his credibility” when he joined the Nazi party as a rector at Freiburg. Discussing Wittgenstein and Heidegger (the twin 20th century biggies according to Holt), Dyson quips:

Holt summarizes the difference between Heidegger and Wittgenstein in nine words: “Wittgenstein was brave and ascetic, Heidegger treacherous and vain.” These words apply equally to their characters as human beings and to their intellectual output.

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Oct 222012

A recent blog post at New York Magazine‘s Vulture blog queries whether fandom is inherently pathological. This seems a fair question to ask after some of the more amusing anecdotes revealed on the Lucy Lawless episode:

[Fandom is], by definition, a bit different from hobbies like cooking or learning an instrument in that fandom is in the service of someone else’s creativity rather than one’s own. And all the time invested in these pop-culture passions: Who among us hasn’t wondered what else we could be getting done with the time spent studying up on or arguing about them?

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Oct 192012

Following my thread of “if something feels weird, let’s call it some kind of existentialism,” I’ve been listening a lot to Badfinger lately.

See who I’m talking about on YouTube.

Of course there’s something a little disconcerting about the passage of time itself, and the fact that, if you’re listening to anything from a few decades back, some of the participants are probably dead or at least can’t sing like that any more, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is the suicide of the lead singer Pete Ham, reportedly largely because of the shitty business situation of the band at the time (bad record deal + another bad record deal + horrible management = multiple albums of work getting shelved, no money, failure). Ham was a member of the 27 club, and it being 1975 when he went out, a lot of the blame goes to substances and that 70s rock lifestyle, but given the situation:

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Oct 182012

In a recent column in The Stone, Harvey Cormier considers the political oomph of pragmatists through a nice presentation of some central thinking of William James. The occasion for the piece is a recent spate of writings characterizing Obama as “a pragmatist politician.” What I like best about Cormier’s article is his refutation, through James, of the lame but pervasive equation of pragmatism with weak-kneed inaction. Pointing to James, he emphasizes that pragmatism is compatible (even essential) to genuine truth-seeking by being incompatible with ideology:

Still, while James did want us to believe, he also wanted us to give up “ideologies.” He called pragmatism “[t]he attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” Pragmatists can have principles but not self-verifying ones; they renounce any certainties that are based on claims of universal necessity.  In our world of chance and change, things may not go the way we want either intellectually or practically, so we have to look to the developing world of actions and results for support of, and challenges to, our most cherished faiths. The final test of even our logic is how well it leads us to act and live. Pragmatists therefore think, and act, provisionally, or subject to later changes in course. Still, provisional action is action, and particular actions are sometimes irrevocable. Moreover, “provisional” need not mean “timid.”

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Oct 172012

Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000) was a prototypical American analytic philosopher. Following Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, he was concerned with how logic provides a foundation for mathematics, which in turn grounds physics and the other sciences.

We’ll be reading two of his most famous essays, both of which can be found in the collection, From a Logical Point of View (1953): “On What There Is” and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”

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Oct 162012

Not SchoolI’m sure you’re sick to death between my post here, my Facebook posts, and my very long commercial on our most recent episode of hearing about Not School. Too bad. It’s here, it’s working, and you should know about it. If you have time to be reading this blog post, you probably have time to be reading some small chunk of philosophy over the next month, and it would undoubtedly help you to get the most out of it, and motivate you to actually do it, if you’ve got a group of other people reading with you expecting you to have something to say about it.

We’ve reached the middle of October, which means it’s time for people to start tossing out ideas and proposals for groups to study things in November. How does it work? There’s a forum area where you start conversations to see whether other people are into the same things you are, enough so that at least three of you can pick some particular thing to read/watch/etc. Someone then has to step up and be the group leader, i.e. the person who creates the group page (this is very easy, requiring no technical skills at all), tells everyone exactly what to read when, and kicks off the discussion. Being a leader involves only slightly more responsibility and effort than mere participation. In either case, the pressure is on you to show up, and not commit to more than you can handle.

In just these two weeks since launching the site, we’ve gotten over 60 members, i.e. more than enough for some good discussion groups. These are the ones that have been set up already:

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Oct 152012

Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid

“I really would like to have the film rights to this book,” Robert Redford said to the book’s author. “You’ve got them,” Robert Pirsig replied. “I wouldn’t have gotten this involved if I hadn’t intended to give it to you.” As you may have inferred already, Redford is asking for the film rights to Pirsig’s autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Their conversation, as it’s reported in Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals (1991), took place far above the ground in hotel room overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. Two famous guys talking in a famous city about making a famous book into a famous Hollywood movie. The celebrity factor is so thick in this scene that you could cut it with a knife, preferably a famous knife with jewels set into gold.

Pirsig devotes a brief, six-page chapter to this scene (chapter 19) and then uses the occasion to ponder the larger meaning of celebrity (chapter 20). His meeting with Redford begins with the same sort of existential weirdness that Mark Linsenmayer experienced in his interactions with our favorite warrior princess, Lucy Lawless. Pirsig describes what it was like to open the hotel room door and find himself looking at the Sundance Kid. The 19th chapter could be titled, “the phenomenology of being star struck”. Continue reading »

Oct 142012

Two friends of mine have recently started blogs, though of different stripes.

One is by Gary Borjesson called Idle Speculations. Gary and I met on the faculty at St. John’s, and, like me, is on leave right now. Gary’s book on dogs, friendship, and philosophy, Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters: On Friendship and Dogs, has just been published. His blog, just a few entries long, swerves from ruminations on the coming death of his dog (Aktis has been ill), to an article on the National Sheepdog Finals, to reminding us that dogs have rudimentary, but essential, understandings of justice.

The other, Clearing My Head, is by Robert Henderson, a good friend from my grad school days at the University of Rochester where I studied experimental particle physics. Bob studied theoretical particle physics, but following his degree became a quant on Wall Street. After 15 years working at several banks, he’s gone on a motorcycle trip to clear his head and make a transition in his life. He’s riding across the US, taking the back roads from New York to the west coast, mainly improvising the path along the way. Clearing My Head, is primarily a travelogue, recording his trip and commenting a bit along the way. He’s a big fan of Pirsig and istened to our episode on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as he rode from Madison to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There’s something fitting about listening to that episode while riding a motorcycle across the country.

Oct 132012

For your weekend podcast-listening pleasure, a friend of the podcast pointed me to the most recent episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast in which the hosts take up science fiction and chew on what kinds of philosophical insight might garnered from such speculative fiction. (Beware those who, like Seth, abhor the thought experiment!) In the words of the podcasters themselves:

By its very nature, science fiction has always been particularly suited to philosophical exploration. In fact, some of the best science fiction novels, short stories, movies, and TV shows function like extended philosophical thought experiments: what might cloning tell us about our views on personal identity? If we could all take a pill to be happy, would we want to do that? In this episode, Massimo and Julia recall some of their favorite philosophically-rich science fiction, and debate the potential pitfalls in using science fiction to reach philosophical conclusions.

Oct 112012

A friendly listener, Alicia S., submitted this note to us:
No questions

I was asked this question and had no idea how to respond to it… This is the question: “Would you rather never be able to answer a question or never be able to ask a question”?

The point of the question is to tease out whether philosophy (or rather, what you see as valuable in doing philosophy) is a matter of the answers you get or the search for those answers. A more scientific conception of philosophy dictates the latter: we want to learn truth. A more artistic conception emphasizes the value of the journey, that introspection and playing with ideas are good in themselves.

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Oct 102012

Wicker manPart of the goal of The Partially Examined Life is to pull ivory-tower philosophical theories out into the light of day and see if they hold water. If an academically lauded idea seems totally absurd when discussed in ordinary language, well, then either those presenting the idea aren’t doing a very good job explaining its context, or maybe it is in fact ridiculous.

With the fame episode, we have the added benefit of the discussion getting thrown out among Lucy’s fans, many of whom (if they’re anything like the general populace) aren’t into philosophy. So I’ve found it interesting to read the ongoing discussion on her fan site about the episode, which has been a mix of approval over Lucy’s broadness in engaging in this kind of discussion and disgruntlement by some about how the discussion focused too much on the negatives of fandom, like the fans are a bunch of ravenous beasts that have to be tamed. Now, this misses first of all the point made that we are all, including Lucy, fans ourselves with respect to many, and that it was a repeatedly raised criticism of Payne’s thesis during the discussion that it doesn’t seem to account for non-destructive admiration (Seth’s Cal Ripken example, or my teen worship of my favorite bands, or Dylan and Lucy on Lyle Lovett).

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Oct 092012

Shameless cleavage shot of Mrs. Famous

Andy Warhol famously said that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”  This is commonly interpreted to mean that the hierarchical structure that identified worthy subjects of art – ‘celebrities’ – from those not worthy – ‘civilians‘ (thanks Liz!) was breaking down.  In other words the structure that delineated who was famous from who was not would break down, making it possible for everyone to be famous.

You could also infer that this would mean that no one would be famous, but Warhol was clearly right as we still have fame and there are people now who have become famous outside of the traditional model of celebrity (Honey Boo Boo).  So if anyone can now become a celebrity, that is, can be sacrificed on the alter of fame, what does that mean for Payne’s thesis that celebrities serve a social function in society? Continue reading »

Oct 082012

Lucy LawlessIn one of Woody Allen’s films (Annie Hall?), one of the characters remarks that existentialism is a matter of projecting one’s neuroses onto the world. Instead of me being depressed, I am in an ontological state of despair. Instead of being a person who is considering what to do with my evening, it is the world that is pulsing with possibility. What seems especially weird about this language is that if the feelings are objective, out there in the world in front of me, then this seems to imply that they are not under my control. It means that I’m acting like a helpless infant beset by these forces.

Though the objectifying language implies this, it’s a misreading of existentialism, or rather a pop existentialism that hasn’t delved into the real theoretical goods. According to Sartre, what we call ourselves really is objective, in that it’s a social construction, not something trapped inside my head. Talking about possibilities and emotions as swirling around an infinitely small point that is consciousness is actually a pretty good phenomenological description of my experience, but a further account of experience reveals (for Sartre) that we have pretty much total control over the interpretations we give to things, e.g. over whether we see the landscape as laden with possibilities or as impossibly confining. Sartre would agree that the neurotic pop existentialist is being infantile and should just get it together.

To fandom: On our big sell-out episode, I referred to one of my motivations in looking into the topic as trying to grapple with the existential weirdness of being a fan. I’m still trying to unpack why I feel the need to use the word “existential” in that context. Continue reading »

Oct 062012

On Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity by Tom Payne (2010).

What’s the deal with our f’ed up relationship with celebrities? Payne says that celebrities serve a social need that’s equal parts religion and and aggression. TV’s Lucy Lawless (Xena, Spartacus, Battlestar Galactica) joins us to discuss the accuracy of this thesis, along with her obsession with philosophy (and our podcast), the relation between fandom and mental illness, the drive for fame, sacrificial heroes, celebrity encounters, fame for fame’s sake, infamy, celebrity philosophers, mentally ill philosophers, and what Nietzsche’s will to power has to do with all of this.

Read more about the topic and get the book.

End Song: “Celebrity” by New People (2012)

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This episode is sponsored in part by Audible: get a free audiobook at audiblepodcast.com/PEL.

Oct 062012

You should now see the words “PEL Citizen Commons” on the PEL site in the menu bar below the header. Clicking this will allow you to set up a recurring $5/month donation to PEL which will give you access to a whole new portion of this site. There’s a discount if you sign up for a year.

Doing this will not only allow PEL podcasts to continue, but it will immediately net you a bunch of free stuff, including exclusive essays and fiction by all PEL podcasters and some guests, including Eric Petrie’s not-yet-published essay that we discussed with him on our recent episode about Cormac McCarthy, transcripts for four episodes, Wes’s Guide to ep. 61, my two most recent albums and other free music, the Sartre Close Reading audio, and more. We will add to this store of member booty over time.

However, our prime reason for creating this resource was to add support for listener study groups, and we call this feature PEL Not School. The tools for Not School are fairly simple, the kind of thing you can find in lots of places on the Internet: forum functionality, and the ability to create and manage user groups, including internal-to-the-PEL-site messaging and group-specific forums.

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