Philosophy and Comedy


William James said of philosophy, “It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar.” The comedian evokes laughter by making the familiar seem strange, but the philosopher’s way of unsettling us can please in a similar way.

The Nietzschean Comedian


We all need to talk about death especially our own. “I’m talking about something that everyone NEEDS to start talking about, which is death. That is my work as a comedian now, fortunately or unfortunately,” says T. J. Miller. This Nietzschean comedian is starting to put fairly serious philosophy into his stand-up act

Why Substance Matters

kick rocks

What matters about matter is that it’s a certain kind of substance, which is to say that matter is refutable and problematic because it is taken as something underlying or standing below (sub-stance) the outward appearances, such as the hardness and heaviness of Johnson’s rock. In other words, “substance” is a metaphysical reality, not an empirical or phenomenal reality. Pragmatists like William James and Robert Pirsig both reject what the latter called “the metaphysics of substance.”

Emersonian America

Emerson, philosophical mysticism, and Jamesian pragmatism all make the same basic assertion about the relation between concepts and the immediacy of lived experience.

Henri Bergson and William James on Vicious Intellectualism

“If I had not read Bergson,” William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe, “I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately.” James had been engaged in a very long philosophical debate with the leading Idealists of his day, F.H. Bradley and Josiah Royce, when Bergson came to the rescue. James thought that […]

Truth Without the Capital “T”


“Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world.  . . . The supreme task is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only […]

Public Reason

John Rawls certainly has his fair share of critics, but he’s also widely considered to be the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century. As we heard in the Rawls episode, Rawls’s theory of justice is a kind of contract theory wherein he lays out the basic principles of a democratic society. In the […]

The Jung and the Restless

…I cannot outline the spiritual problems of modern man without giving emphasis to the yearning for rest that arises in a period of unrest… It is from need and distress that new forms of life take their rise, and not from mere wishes or from the requirements of our ideals.” When Carl Jung’s Modern Man […]

Zen and the Art of Martin Heidegger?

The partially examined podcasters raised a series of very difficult questions in their recent discussion of Heidegger, particularly during a ten-minute stretch beginning about one hour and ten minutes into the 80th episode. These questions all seemed to pivot around one central problem: what does it mean to get right with Being? Should we take […]

The Truth (and some lies) About Art

“A bad work of art is an oxymoron,” Patrick Doorly says, “like bad skill.” He thinks there’s no such thing as bad art because the term does not refer to a class of objects or a category of activity. Art simply refers to excellence or to any “high-quality endeavor,” a phrase he borrows from Robert […]

The Reincarnation of William James: Eugene Taylor, R.I.P.

Eugene Taylor was only 66 years of age when he passed away on January 30th, 2013. Taylor was a graduate of Southern Methodist University, Harvard Divinity School, and earned his Ph.D. at Boston University. Saybrook University was his academic base but he was also a research historian of psychology at Harvard Medical School, founder of […]

Robert Pirsig and Montana State University

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), will be celebrated at Montana State University in Bozeman on the weekend of December 7th and 8th. On December 15th, during their commencement ceremonies, he will receive an honorary Doctorate from MSU. These events offer some sweet redemption for Pirsig both personally […]

Don’t sell it to Hollywood

“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 […]

Is Philosophy Better Than Art?

If you believe Plato, then the answer is “yes”. If all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then the artists have been subordinated to the philosophers for about 25 centuries. According to Plato’s Republic, especially the last section, the artists present a danger to society and to your soul. Two of my favorite thinkers […]

Nietzsche, Pragmatism and the Fact-Value Distinction

[From David Buchanan, frequent blog and Facebook contributor and participant in our ZAMM episode.  See if that doesn’t make sense after reading this.] Richard Rorty opened one of his talks by pointing out that as Europeans see it, Pragmatism is just what the Americans could get out of Nietzsche. This joke suggests that there are […]

Deeply Funny?

(Image: Tom Motley when he’s all spiffed up.) It is a little known fact, even among our philosophically sophisticated readers, that Heidegger argued for the supremacy of German humor. Because German jokes have the most precise underlying structure, he argued, German humor would rule the earth for a thousand years. (Sorry if you’ve already heard […]

Meaning and Context

(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 […]

My Own Private Language?

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 […]

More Voices on Buddhism and Science

If the dialogue between Buddhism and American intellectuals like Owen Flanagan is part of a fashionable trend, then it has to be one of the longest lasting fads in history. Henry David Thoreau published the Lotus Sutra in the first issue of The Dial in 1844. William James was absorbing Transcendentalist ideas at the family […]

Spirituality Without Religion? (James and Flanagan)

In the same way that Owen Flanagan wants to naturalize Buddhism by stripping its hocus-pocus, William James focused his attention on personal religious experience rather than the “smells and bells” of traditional institutions. As biographer Robert Richardson puts it, “much of what one usually thinks of as religion James rejects at the start”. James says […]

Pirsig as an American Pragmatist

Philosophology is to philosophy as art history is to painting, Pirsig says. He uses that ridiculous-sounding word to draw a distinction between comparative analysis and original thought, between critical examination and creative production. In the tradition of Emerson’s famous 1837 speech, “The American Scholar”, Pirsig is calling for creativity and originality. This is not to […]

All the Pirsig You Can Eat

There’s enough material floating around on Robert Pirsig to keep you busy for a while no matter what your level of interest might be. If you’re in a seriously philosophical mood, there are two at least two Doctoral dissertations, a gidebook,a textbook and a Master’s thesis. There are also options if you want to discuss […]

Pure Experience and Dynamic Quality

William James’ pure experience, the central idea in his radical empiricism,has been subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation for 100 years. As I take Pirsig’s pre-intellectual experience (a.k.a. Quality or Dynamic Quality) to be more or less equivalent to James’s pure experience, any confusion would extend to Pirsig’s work. Objections that cut against James will make […]

There’s a Madness in Pirsig’s Method

[Editor’s Note: Here’s the first full-on blog post by our Pirsig guest Dave Buchanan, though he’s been a long-time, productive commenter to our posts here. Oh, and this image is by Allison Moore, snatched from here.] L’esprit de l’escalier or “staircase wit” is a name for the clever reply that comes too late, for the […]