Wes Alwan

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Apr 092014

Bernard Williams was the rare academic who was also a great writer. In his review of Williams’ Essays and Reviews: 1959-2002, Paul Sagar lets academia have it:

We can now see that Williams was not lazy: he spent an immense amount of time reading and thinking, and knew much beyond his own academic arguments. What he chose to do was spend time thinking about things that most interested him, rather than engaging in the Sisyphean task of attempting to stay up to date with the vast and ever-expanding sea of contemporary scholarship, which tirelessly throws out publication after publication in every conceivable niche of enquiry. It is undeniable that the vast majority of present scholarly output in philosophy and attendant disciplines is of a poor standard: it is either unoriginal, original at the expense of being preposterous and tiresomely pointless or trivial, or else diligent and robust but utterly devoid of interest to anybody other than those academics who have made a career out of grinding out points and counterpoints within debates that only exist because of the very professionalization of intellectual pursuits of which their activity is a function. Williams chose to bypass all of this and get on with being original and interesting. It is not at all clear that he was making a mistake.

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Mar 272014

belly dancingIn my post on the identity politics of belly dancing, in which I argued that Randa Jarrar’s recent tirade against white belly dancers must imply the moral inferiority of white women, I bypassed – because I thought it particularly weak – the notion that white belly dancing unwittingly perpetuates racist stereotypes about Arabs, even if there is nothing inherently mocking or belittling about the practice itself or the intentions of white belly dancers. This objection is the substance of a series of comments on the post by reader Harri Siikala, proffered in the jargon of critical theory and cultural studies: “cultural appropriation should be viewed as part of wider social discourse about otherness” – specifically, how “otherness is conceived” (by the dominant class): “one could make an argument tying the innocuous seeming role playing to eroticism, racial otherness, and orientalist ideas of the exotic.” Finally, “we have a moral obligation to be especially sensitive to” the values of minorities “due to their disadvantaged position in society, structural racism” – one that overrides “abstract notions about equality”; “certain socially constructed groups have distinct rights … pertaining to their cultural heritage.”

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Mar 112014

belly dancingNovelist Randa Jarrar has been mocked – and accused of racism – for telling the world that she “can’t stand” white belly dancers. As Eugene Volokh notes, if we were to universalize Jarrar’s objections to “cultural appropriation,” then we might object to East Asian cellists or Japanese productions of Shakespeare, rather than treating the arts as they ought to be treated: as the “common stock of humanity, available for all humanity to use, rather than the exclusive property of some particular race or ethnic group.”

Are such rebuttals entirely fair? After all, there is such a thing as cross-cultural mockery or unintentional caricature. And Jarrar is claiming that the belly dancing of white women is a form of racism and cultural degradation that causes her and other Arab women direct emotional harm. It is something that happens “on Arab women’s backs.” How is it racist and degrading? For wearing traditional costumes and certain kinds of makeup, Jarrar accuses white belly dancers of dressing up in “Arab drag” and appearing with a “brownface Orientalist façade.” She otherwise criticizes the appearance of white dancers (one dancer was too thin for Jarrar’s liking) and the use of made-up names.

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Feb 032014

woodyallenDear Reader: You do not know whether Woody Allen molested Dylan Farrow. You do not know this, because the only evidence you have are her accusations, his denials, and heaps of evidence that call Dylan Farrow’s account into question. Further, you are aware of – or ought to be made aware of – the many cases of false accusations of molestation elicited from children by adults with their own sinister motives: an elicitation that is also, by the way, a great crime against children, one that ought to be punished accordingly. Some studies put the rate of false accusation as high as 10 percent.

To point this out is not to insult Dylan Farrow specifically or the victims of child molestation in general. It is not to presume, as Aaron Bady absurdly argues in The New Inquiry, that Dylan Farrow is a liar. Respecting alleged victims and their claims does not, as Bady argues, require giving up – if only in the non-juridical sphere – our presumption of innocence for the accused.

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Dec 132013

fairnessWe need rules for living together, we cantankerous human beings: this is one premise governing John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, and one that governs social contract theory in general. As chaos is the point of departure for creation myths, so conflict has been for political theory. We need rules to establish peace and order and stability. Just as “the word” makes existence possible, and conceptual categories (causality and the rest) make experience possible, rules are (to put it in Kantian language) the conditions for the possibility of a society.

The question is then what these rules are to be. We might appeal to a variety of different standards when determining them, only one of which is “justice.” Other possibilities include, for instance “the word of God.” But the point of Rawls’ book is not to argue directly for justice over these competing possibilities. When he tells us that justice “is the first virtue of social institutions,” he is asking us to assume with him that it is the correct standard for ordering a society. He also asks us to assume from the outset that justice is a particular sort of thing: that it involves at its core, concepts of fairness (premised on human equality) and liberty (with attendant rights), and is a means to the fair allocation of goods within a society (that is, “distributive justice”). Rawls calls this “justice as fairness.”

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Dec 062013

In his latest response to my criticisms, Ta-Nehisi Coates oddly compares Alec Baldwin to Strom Thurmond in a way that inadvertently makes my case for me. Thurmond adamantly and openly opposed desegregation and civil rights, even as the political winds were shifting the other way, while Baldwin adamantly and openly supported gay rights, long before this was the majority opinion in the United States. Do you see? That’s an important distinction: it’s one that our language ought to reflect.

This distinction is related to another, between one’s considered beliefs and one’s dispositions (or habits, impulses, tendencies toward certain emotional reactions, unconscious thoughts, and so on). It’s a distinction important to many philosophers and psychologists: lots of interesting consequences rest upon it. Coates conflates belief and disposition once again when he reiterates his view that Baldwin, if he uses language demeaning to gays when he’s upset, must be “refusing to accept another group of people as humans,” even if he supports gay rights. But when Alec Baldwin was upset in these instances, it was individual members of the press toward whom he was directing his hate. And in such moments, the (universal) temptation toward dehumanizing generalizations – as a tool for one’s hatred of a particular person – is enormous: many people have not learned how to suppress such tendencies when enraged. But this does not mean that they affirm such dehumanizing generalizations in their saner moments.

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Nov 292013


Update: Coates responds. I rebut.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan have both responded to my criticisms of their claim that Alec Baldwin is a “bigot” for, among other offenses, calling a photographer a “cocksucking fag.” In doing so, they resort to two tried-and-true tactics available to someone on the losing side of an argument: the first is to quietly abandon various critiqued assertions, and pretend that one never made them; the second is to redefine a key concept – entirely distorting it if necessary – such that one’s original assertions are legitimated (in this case, Coates offers a new definition for “bigotry” of which he could disabuse himself simply by picking up a dictionary).

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Nov 202013


Update: Coates responds here, and Sullivan here. My follow-up here.

Alec Baldwin is a talented actor who also happens to be extremely intelligent, verbally dexterous, and politically active on the left. And he has a history of getting in trouble for very public (or publicized) displays of anger, once leaving a rant on his 11-year-old daughter’s voicemail in which he called her a “rude, thoughtless little pig.” More recently, he’s been blowing up at the swarms of paparazzi that seem to spontaneously generate in his presence at the mere prospect of feeding on his anger. As his outbursts have escalated, Baldwin has gotten himself into increasing levels of trouble for violating current speech codes. For calling a photographer a “cocksucking fag” in a blowup caught on video, and another journalist a “fucking little bitch” and “toxic queen” on twitter, Baldwin has been roundly condemned as a “bigot” and “homophobe,” despite the fact that he has been a vocal supporter of gay rights.

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Oct 302013

Everyone once in a while I run across the opinion that non-Euclidean presents a serious problem for Kantian epistemology. While I’ve rebutted this notion before, it’s common enough that I thought I’d have another go at explaining why it’s a misconception.

For Kant we can’t know the universe to be spatial “in itself” (as in “things-in-themselves”), Euclidean or Non-Euclidean or otherwise. Time and space are something supplied by our cognitive faculties. To say what really is the case here means we’re making objective judgments about the world of object-appearances (which is to say we’re correctly analyzing what we’ve already synthesized).

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Jul 312013

motherLet’s pause for a moment to do proper homage to the remarkable fact that during the 1980s, there was a blockbuster family film in which large parts of the plot revolved around the subject of incest. That film was Back to the Future, which I recently discussed with Dan Calvisi and William Robert Rich on their screenwriting podcast (PEL listeners can download a free story map outlining its plot structure free for the next 30 days here, after which it will be available on Amazon.com).

You may recall (or may have repressed) the fact that the subject of incest is not merely subtext in Back to the Future, but a central part of its plot. After traveling back in time, Marty McFly becomes the object of his young mother’s not-so-maternal affections. Getting back to a future in which he has actually been born requires that he deflect his mother’s sexual interest back to his father. As we shall see, “Back to the Father” would have been just an apt a title for the film.

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May 262013

8_2Andrew Sullivan has accused Glenn Greenwald of “justifying” terrorism for a post that is largely about the inconsistent use of the word “terrorism.” Greenwald’s response is a thorough and decisive debunking of Sullivan’s accusations, but I wanted add something as a follow-up to my discussion of Sullivan’s incoherence on these issues.  In this latest piece, he doubles down on the completely irrational notion that such incidents as the killing of a soldier in London are “terrorism in its most animal-like form, created and sustained entirely by religious fanaticism which would find any excuse to murder, destroy and oppress Muslims and non-Muslims in the name of God.” That’s my emphasis on the entirely by religious fanaticism clause, because I think it’s telling that Sullivan feels compelled to make such an unworkable generalization, despite hinting in the past that he is aware of the idea that any such act must the result of multiple causal factors working together.

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Apr 262013

Tamerlan-Tsarnaev-1842056Since it became known that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects are Muslims, there has been a predictable celebration by a chorus of right-wing commentators for whom the evil of Islam and the collective guilt of Muslims in such cases are tenets of faith.

More subtle but equally pernicious are the reactions of blogger Andrew Sullivan and political entertainer Bill Maher. While they say they reject Islamophobia and routinely acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not violent extremists, Sullivan and Maher believe that the left’s defense of Islam from right-wing attacks is overzealous and devolves into “liberal bullshit” at the point where it attempts to deny a) that “jihad” is the primary motivation of the Marathon bombings, and is generally a serious threat; and b) that Islam has certain features that make its religious extremists more violent and dangerous than those of other religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism. These views, they say, are motivated by a dedication to the truth, even when such truth is unpalatable and doesn’t fit well with the bleeding hearts and fuzzy heads of liberals.

While I’m generally a fan of Sullivan and Maher, these positions, far from representing a kind of fearless rationality, are really solid examples of the bullshit they think they stand against. In fact, they’re spectacular attempts to pawn off primitive free association and fuzzy thinking as truth-seeking.

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Apr 152013


1. Choose liberty over security.

2. See events like the Boston Marathon bombing — by virtue of their rarity — as evidence of our relative security, not as one more reason to feel afraid.

3. Understand that our relative security is guaranteed on the whole not by guards and guns, but by basic human psychology, which involves the remarkable nonviolence of the majority of human beings in ordinary circumstances. The exceptions to this rule, far from being minimized by repressive or violent acts, will only be multiplied by them.

4. In the name of both liberty and security: Whatever the ideology of the perpetrators of a terrorist act – right wing or left, Islamist or otherwise – do not make one event an excuse to clumsily demonize a large swath of largely peaceable humanity: conservative or liberal, Muslim or other.

– Wes Alwan

Feb 072013

Thomas Nagel, a famous philosopher if there is such a thing in America, has written a book a bold title: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. The main title invites you to settle into your armchair for an evening of speculative meditation; the subtitle orders you to the barricades, in preparation for the coming intellectual revolution. The title as a whole seems to be premised on the good cop, bad cop theory of naming. When you write a book with a title like this, you better be able to deliver.

Nagel doesn’t deliver.

Not only doesn’t Nagel deliver: he strikes out three times, with three distinct arguments as to why we should reject natural selection in its current, materialist form. Each of the book’s three main thrusts – involving consciousness, theoretical knowledge, and morality – begets a unique species of error.

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Jan 292013

misconceptions_beavers2I’ve been stalled for some time now in my attempt to write a review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. My primary stumbling block has been his reliance in one section on Sharon Street’s “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value”, which attempts to show that natural selection (in its current form) is not compatible with moral realism. Where Street takes this incompatibility as a reason to reject moral realism, Nagel takes it as a reason to reject natural selection (unmodified by teleology).

I don’t think that Street’s argument is as strong as Nagel thinks (despite the fact that I find the constructivist alternative to which she refers more attractive than moral realism). In what follows I say why – first outlining Street’s argument and then my objections. This piece is longer and more technical than the typical PEL post (and also excruciatingly analytical), but I thought it was worth airing my objections now that I’ve thought them through. (I haven’t conducted research to see if others have made similar objections in academic publications – although we can assume that this is probably the case).

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Dec 092012

Today I had the pleasure of discussing Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False as part of a PEL Not School study group on the book. Joining me were Not Schoolers Neil Earnshaw and Jon Turner.

We discussed our dissatisfaction with with Nagel’s argument that evolutionary naturalism fails to explain consciousness and therefore must be supplemented by a teleological explanation. In the next few days I’ll be publishing a full review of the book.

If you’re a Not School member (or as we like to say, PEL Citizen), you can access the audio of this discussion here (as well as a lengthy and interesting forum discussion on a number of issues, including Nagel’s idea that the evolutionary development of consciousness is “implausible”).

If you’re not a member, please consider joining. For $5 a month you’ll get access to regular audio discussions (above and beyond our regular podcast episode). As one Not Schooler put it about a recent discussion with Mark about Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind, these can be “almost as good as a regular podcast.” Membership also gets you access to study groups and discussion forums, all sorts of other bonus content, and the opportunity to participate in Skype/Google Hangout audio or video discussions yourself if you’re interested (fame and/or notoriety await you). Read more about Not School and sign up.

– Wes

Nov 052012

Every once in a while, a listener of The Partially Examined Life complains that that our liberal political proclivities — and occasional outright partisanship — are not consistent with our being philosophical, which should make us more neutral about such matters.

I disagree.

I do agree – after listening recently to the first few PEL episodes – that in the wrong context, political opinions are neither entertaining nor pretty. Absent a context of justification or an audience that feels precisely the same way, they will seem  irrational and ugly, merely brute expression of preference. If good reasons led to these opinions, these reasons are lost in the expression of the result. We might say this even about political opinions with which we agree, for example when expressed as slogans on signs at a political protest.

We could broaden this conclusion to opinions in general: “opinions are like assholes,” the saying goes. We all have them, but having does not entail showing. Opinions are, in a sense, indecent, when they concern anything more controversial than the weather. People refrain from talking about them in the polite company of strangers in the same way they avoid getting naked, barring certain dis-inhibiting rituals. We are told not to talk about religion and politics with people we don’t know well. This means, ironically: don’t get too personal. Such opinions are in one sense about the most public of things; in another, they simply reveal too much.

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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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Aug 282012

Andrew Delbanco, author of his own book on what ails today’s university, gives the thumbs down to another critique that tilts at feminists and queer theorists: The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.

Delbanco is sympathetic to the notion that identity politics has taken its toll on academic life (as am I). But apparently it’s just not as significant force in the academy as it once was:

When I look around, I see younger colleagues returning to close readings of literary classics. I see an emerging synthesis of the old political history focused on kings and presidents with the newer social history of ordinary people written “from the bottom up.” I see graduate students leading discussions on Plato in coffee houses, and undergraduates flocking to such new fields as environmental science in hope of acquiring the knowledge they need to make a positive difference in the world.

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Aug 212012

Contemporary neuroscience is not a challenge to free will, according to Eddy Nahmias:

Most scientists who discuss free will say the story has an unhappy ending—that neuroscience shows free will to be an illusion. I call these scientists “willusionists.” … Willusionists say that neuroscience demonstrates that we are not the authors of our own stories but more like puppets whose actions are determined by brain events beyond our control.

According to Nahmias, “willusionists” wrongly assume that free will requires some sort of dualism, or “an impossible ability to make choices beyond the influence of anything, including our own brains.”

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