1. Why Substance Matters


    Kick Rock notice

    Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism, which says that matter does not exist, is one of those slightly famous moments in the history of philosophy. As the story goes, Johnson and his friends stood outside a church and complained about “Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter.” They did not believe the idea but did not see a way to refute it. As James Boswell reports it, Johnson answered with great enthusiasm. He kicked or stomped a large stone and declared, “I refute it thus.” As see it, such a demonstration only shows that Johnson did not understand the substance of the matter.

    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. Johnson only confirmed the latter, which was not in dispute in the first place. The point is not to defend Berkeley or Idealism but rather to simply unpack this stuff called substance. Pragmatists like William James and Robert Pirsig both reject what the latter called “the metaphysics of substance” – and not just physical substance but also mental substance – so I’ll rely on them to help unpack this notion. Let’s start with Charles Sanders Peirce’s “canonical statement,” as the Stanford Encyclopedia describes it, from his essay titled ‘How to Make our Ideas Clear’. (James approvingly quoted this pithy formula):

    Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

    As the SEP article explains, this was the central proposition of Pragmatism and it was meant to be used, among other things, “as a tool for criticism, demonstrating the emptiness of a priori “ontological metaphysics” and “to undermine spurious metaphysical ideas.” Oddly, perhaps, Pierce deployed this pragmatic principle to show “that the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation was empty and incoherent.” Just as it is with Johnson’s rock, the bread and the wine is identified by a certain set of distinctive features found in experience, by a particular set of effects on the senses so, Pierce says, “to talk of something as having all the sensible characters of wine, yet being in reality blood, is senseless jargon”. The doctrine of transubstantiation (please notice the root word “substance”) says that the bread and wine still look and taste exactly like bread and wine but its underlying substance, which can never be experienced or sensed, has been transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The point is not to dispute theological doctrines but to fully illustrate the difference between empirically knowable rocks and the unknowable material substance that supposedly lurks beneath.

    Physicalism or scientific realism is often taken as non-metaphysical or even as anti-metaphysical but it certainly counts as metaphysics, as a metaphysics of substance. And to the extent that empirical science is predicated on metaphysical substances, it’s going beyond the empirical world and beyond the proper domain of science. The pragmatists weren’t rejecting religion or science as such. Far from it. But they do have very strong reservations about metaphysical claims, claims about essences, or about the things-in-themselves. In the application of the scientific method, Pierce, who was as hard-nosed as a Positivist, said that…

    Almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless gibberish–one word being defined by other words, and they by still others, without any real conception ever being reached–or else is downright absurd; so that all such rubbish being swept away, what will remain of philosophy will be a series of problems capable of investigation by the observational methods of the true sciences.

    Illustration by James Asher at There Are Real Things.

  2. Science, Technology & Society I: Francis Bacon


    This post in the first in a new series on Science, Technology, and Society. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.

    What is science?

    In general, answers to this question fall between two poles. The first is the traditional view of science–that it is a process of discovery which, performed correctly, faithfully reveals the mysteries of the universe. Science produces objective knowledge, and that is why it is special. The second, which dates roughly to the 1960’s, holds that science is a social process which invents, rather than discovers, models of the universe. Like any human activity, it is governed by institutions and assumptions that are historically conditioned, and there for contingent. According to this way of thinking, context matters in science for the same reasons it matters everywhere else – because we are bound by time and space, circumstance and personality, and cannot escape their limitations.

    Scholars have come together to explore the nature of science in a relatively new field called Science, Technology, and Society (STS). It attempts to address questions that surround science. For instance, what is the difference between science and pseudoscience? When we have competing theories, and they both explain the evidence, how do we choose between them? How have inventions and theories transformed our lived experience, and the course of history? Which conditions help scientists do their work, and which hinder them? Why does science work? When it doesn’t, why doesn’t it? Does gender, race, and class meaningfully effect a researcher’s work? If so, is that a good thing that we want to encourage, or a bad thing we want to suppress?
    Given the tremendous prestige of science in our culture, and the power its theories give us, these are important questions. In this series, I would like to explore contemporary perspectives on this activity, which is so central to our every day lives.


    “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.”

    Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) was an English aristocrat, lawyer, and parliamentarian, who was also, in his spare time, one of the most influential philosophers who ever lived. In The New Organon (1620) he outlined a new approach to philosophy, which historians call the Baconian Program, and which the world calls Science. Its main components were:

    1. Emphasis on eliminative induction (i.e. establishing what is not true) on the basis of observation and experiment, collaborative effort, and the systematic accumulation, organization, and communication of information. (The traditional method in philosophy was additive deduction – that is to say, positively affirming what is true, on the basis of known principles and individual reason.) The approach to philosophy which Bacon advocated was institutional rather than individual – it envisaged a vast cooperative effort extending across kingdoms and cultures and generations, in order to systematize all knowledge, and also to expand it.

    2. Avoidance of metaphysics, theology, politics, and ethics (the traditional concerns of philosophy.) According to Bacon, the questions raised in these fields form no part of his philosophical project, because they are incapable of resolution through experiment or observation.

    3. Rigorous application of reason in order to minimize the pernicious influence of faulty habits of thought, which he called Idols of the Mind. He divided these into Idols of the Tribe, the Theater, the Cave, and the Market Place (i.e. those arising from human nature, from social convention, from personal attachment, and from language.) Clear, rigorous thinking was to be essential, and could only be achieved by dissociating oneself from one’s particular context of time and place.

    4. Application of knowledge thus gained for the improvement of life through mastery over nature, summed up in his famous dictum “Knowledge is Power.” Science thus had a moral quality – that of improving the human condition. The pursuit of science was itself to be a moral activity, and, indeed, the quintessential moral activity of the Enlightenment.

    Bacon’s New Organon was written as a response to the Organon of Aristotle, and was thus an implicit challenge to the intellectual orthodoxies of his time, for whom Aristotle was the philosopher. It was written toward the end of his life, and he did not live to see its success in the following generation. According to legend he caught pneumonia while experimenting with snow. However, his philosophy inaugurated what has since been called The Age of Reason.

    Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in Nineteenth century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.

    The graphic is from Action Philosophers, an award-winning series of comic books by Ryan Dunlavey and Fred Van Lente.

  3. How To Survive a Philosopher Attack


    Philosopher_pillageThe Philosiologist has some useful information that readers of this blog may want to share with their friends and loved ones.

    She describes the phenomenon:

    I don’t know how many times we’ve been at a philosophy party when I wander back to my philosopher after making the rounds of conversation with other non-philosophers, I discover that he is in heated and angry-sounding discussion with other philosophers. When it’s all over, though, everyone is happy and joking and full of philosophy intoxication.

    She points to the horrendous consequences:

    My sister nearly threw the phone at me, in tears, and left the room. My philosopher, on the other hand, was in an absolutely superb mood.

    What just happened? My sister was the unfortunate survivor of a philosopher-attack.

    She offers sage advice:

    Turn the conversation around on them and say something like, “I don’t really understand this problem well. Why don’t you explain to me what you think the best answer is?”

    This may not work on some philosophers, but can work marvelously on arrogant (or unaware) ones. After all, it is very hard for almost every philosopher to resist the sirens’ call of “Please tell me what you think is correct in this philosophical argument,” so the more arrogant among the philosophers, who already love to talk about philosophy, will be more than happy to indulge to you what they think. Some philosophers do not fall for this trick, though.

    And, most important, she offers hope:

    It is also worth noting that as you get better about redirecting philosopher-attacks, you might be able to train your philosopher to not be so thirsty for blood when she/he enters into philosophical discussion with you. Philosophers, like other humans, can be trained effectively, if you are patient.

  4. Reading Fiction in February, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor


    WayneColemanOur Philosophical Fiction story for February is ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor, where a grandmother and her family go on vacation yet encounter an outlaw known as The Misfit.

    “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”

    O’Connor writes about characters in crisis, and while she is known as a ‘Christian author’, her stories never shy away from the terrible, like the con-man in ‘Good Country People’ or the brutal death in ‘Greenleaf’. The Misfit in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ is no exception, one of O’Connor’s best villains who’s considered evil makes this story’s final scene worth reading.

    You can hear O’Connor read her own story below (thanks to Open Culture for the link):

    Philosophical Fiction is part of ‘Not School’ from the Partially Examined Life, we choose a new story each month for a live conversation on the truth in fiction. We review the plot, discuss the story, quote key passages, and spoil everything.

    As a PEL Citizen, you can listen to our Philosophical Fiction conversations in Free Stuff, and I’d recommend:

    “The Map and the Territory’ by Michel Houellebecq

    “Distant Star” by Roberto Bolano

    “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy (with special guest Dylan Casey)

    You can also join a future conversation or recommend a read, by visiting our forum in Not School- Philosophical Fiction. As always, happy reading!

  5. Close Reading (Preview) of Heidegger on Truth


    Close ReadingMark Linsenmayer and Seth Paskin read and interpret Martin Heidegger’s essay “On the Essence of Truth” (1943), first half.

    This is a 17-minute preview of a two-hour, 38-minute bonus recording, which you can purchase at or get for free with PEL Citizenship (see You can also purchase it at iTunes Store: Search for “Partially Heidegger Truth.”

    A Close Reading is us going line-by-line through a text trying to figure out what’s being said, which less much less agonizing than it sounds.

    We’ve covered another later Heidegger essay, but had a hard time really making sense of his vocabulary, and so the Close Reading strategy is ideal for helping us (and you!) decode this difficult thinker.

    Heidegger thinks that the traditional correspondence theory of truth somehow begs the question of what truth actually is. For Heidegger, the truth of sentences is derivative of the truth of beings, e.g. the difference between true gold and false gold is more fundamental than the sentence “this gold is true gold” being true or false. So what makes us call true gold true? Listen and see if you think Heidegger can give an alternative account that’s more informative than correspondence theory and which doesn’t itself somehow rely on the notion of truth. You may well want to throw up your hands and say that truth is simply fundamental and undefinable… but then I bet you’d say the same about being, wouldn’t you? Heidegger wouldn’t.

    To read along, you can get ahold of a copy of Heidegger’s Basic Writings or read the John Sallis transation online.

  6. Ep. 110 Aftershow (Preview) with Stephen West


    Stephen West of the Philosophize This! podcast returns to host the Aftershow for PEL episode #110 on Alfred North Whitehead. In this preview you’ll hear Stephen, Dylan Casey (who has a lot to say about process philosophy and science), and David Buchanan (guest from our Pirsig episode and PEL blogger). Later in the conversation they were also joined by Amough Sahu.

    This is a 20-minute preview of a 80-minute discussion. Get the full audio by becoming a PEL Citizen and going to the Free Stuff for Citizens page. This will also enable you to take part in the next Aftershow (on Gadamer) on March 8 at 5pm Eastern time.

  7. The Montaigne Project


    In 2011, Dan Conley started, and completed, My Montaigne Project: a series of 107 essays, one a day for 107 days, each inspired by one of Montaigne’s 107 Essais. The project almost, but not quite, landed him a book deal; this week he brought it back to the web with a newly designed website. He’s writing some new essays; intends to focus, among other things, on Montaigne’s alleged turn from stoicism to skepticism in the An Apology for Raymond Sebond (Penguin Classics) and plans to include links to all available public domain English translations of Montaigne’s works.

    (Here’s the PEL podcast on Montaigne. And Seth,Wes, Mark and Daniel Horne have all posted links to, and commentary on, contemporary discussions of his life and work.)

  8. Close Reading (Preview) of Kant on the Sublime


    Close ReadingMark Linsenmayer and Wes Alwan read and interpret Kant’s Critique of Judgment, sections 23-25.

    This is a 13-minute preview of a 72-minute bonus recording, which you can purchase at or get for free with PEL Citizenship (see You can also purchase it at iTunes Store: Search for “Partially Examined Kant Sublime.”

    A Close Reading is us going line-by-line through the text to help you ferret out what’s actually being said. The point is to not only get you to understand this text, but to learn how to decode Kant, and how in general to take on difficult texts if that’s maybe something you haven’t felt confident about before.

    We’ve previously explained Kant’s account of how we recognize beauty and the view of one of Kant’s influences, Edmund Burke, on the difference between recognizing beauty and experiencing something as sublime. So what is Kant’s view on the sublime?

    He thinks that, as with beauty, the apparatus by which we cognize anything comes into play here, but the process only goes half way, i.e. we don’t actually apply a concept to an object. Only with the sublime, Kant thinks that instead of the Concepts of the Understanding that get almost-applied, it’s the Ideas of Reason, which are more abstract. Whereas Burke saw the sublime both in overwhelming sensory experiences but also in scary connotations in stories, Kant thinks that strictly speaking, nothing we actually experience is sublime. Sublimity has to do with the infinite, the formless, so our sensory experiences can at best suggest these ideas to us; what we’re really reacting to is not the object, but to some ideas in ourselves.

    We’re here reading the translation by Paul Guyer, which you can purchase here.

  9. Topic for #111: Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: How to Interpret


    On Feb. 8, the regular four discussed a spate of works by Hans-Georg Gadamer about hermenutics.

    Hermeneutics is all about how to properly interpret a text, and was initiated mainly to deal with the Bible, e.g. Augustine wanted to know how to reconcile the Old and New Testaments, and many more recent folks wanted to know how to interpret the Bible so that the horrible parts aren’t taken literally: How can the Book speak to us modern folks? It was given its modern form by Schleiermacher (the episode we did about him wasn’t on this topic, but our treatment will give you an idea of his approach), who urged us to learn about the historical distance between us and the text (not just the Bible) and systematically purge ourselves of our modern prejudices so that we can enter into the world of the text, to understand the author’s meaning as well as possible.

    Gadamer’s response is that it’s not possible to purge ourselves of our prejudices, and while there are of course bad prejudices that make us willfully misunderstand a text and usually dismiss it, the word “prejudice” really just means hypothesis, and of course we need to constantly make hypotheses and hold forth expectations in order to understand a text at all. It’s like Plato’s puzzle in the Meno: how can look for knowledge unless you already know it well enough to look for it?

    The “hermeneutic circle” traditionally meant going back and forth between the sentence you’re trying to interpret and the work as a whole. You need to use your expectations of what the work is in order to interpret any one sentence, but then as you interpret the individual parts, your conception of the whole evolves. Gadamer adds to this going back and forth between the text and your own prejudices, which (good or bad) should be as much as possible brought to light, so that engaging with a text means engaging with yourself too: it’s actually just a part of knowing thyself, i.e. a part of philosophy. And moreover, you don’t even need a text; this strategy applies whenever you’re trying to understand what someone is saying, whether through conversation or through a work of art.

    We spent most of our time discussing chapter 4 of Gadamer’s most famous work, Truth and Method (1960), “Hermeneutic Circle and the Problem of Prejudices” (we read pages 268-273 and then 291-299). Gadamer was a student of Heidegger, and this is where he directly relates what he’s doing to Heidegger’s language and project: we are temporal beings, and the way we understand something has a “forestructure” (i.e. our expectations).

    Gadamer thinks that Heidegger was onto something in describing all of this not as an interpreter consciously experiencing a text, explicitly handling hypotheses about it and using reason to come to the best conclusion. This doesn’t capture how unconscious this fore-understanding is, and how permanent our situation of being stuck in our own bed of prejudice is. Heidegger describes all of this as an ontological matter, i.e. as a matter of our modes of being, where we are not fundamentally separate from these things that we interrelate with, not Cartesian subjects looking at objects but fundamentally a unit. Gadamer describes interpretation with the image of a game, where we likewise don’t think of a game primarily as individuals sitting back and cogitating at each other, but as an interactive whole governed by its rules: we don’t play a game with others so much as the game plays both us and the others. Likewise, when you fully enter into hermeneutics, you’re putting yourself on the line, putting your preconceptions at risk, and you don’t come out the same person exactly as when you started. In a sense, it’s your prejudices, your traditions, that are acting and being subtly altered, through you. It’s not like you can choose your traditions, or take them off like clothes. You are just one element in this complex interaction, though a key element, as it’s your decision to throw yourself into this hermeneutic game, and your skill that determines how well you let the Other speak to you.

    We also discussed the essay “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics” (1964), which criticized Kant‘s view of appreciation as too consciousness-oriented per the above. If art is just something to be enjoyed, and the only pure art is all about form, then art becomes purely a luxury, an idle passtime of the rich. Gadamer emphasizes that good art is always saying something, even when no words are involved. It is part of a culture, meant to be doing things in people’s lives. Moreover, a work’s meaning always exceeds what the author explicitly intended; to “mean” anything is to enter a fundamentally public world of expression where idioms are historically developed, so you’re really not delving into the mind of the artist in connecting with the work but learning more about the meaning expressed, including how it relates to you in your historical situation that may be different than the artist’s. A great work will always have more to say to future generations, so long as they enter into hermeneutics and are open to actually listening to it.

    “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” (1966) described (among other things) how this hermeneutic approach relates to science: First, title of his book Truth and Method is misleading, in that the “method” part is all about how hermeneutics can’t actually be a method with strict rules laid out, whereas science much more resembles this kind of method. Hermeneutics (and the social sciences in general) shouldn’t try to ape the natural sciences, and it’s unfortunate that our whole society has become so dominated by the ethos of science that we think anything that doesn’t use the kind of reasoning employed by science must be simply bullshit. Gadamer points out that actually, underneath the scientific method, there still is (unscientific!) hermeneutics going on: you have to decide what experiments to perform next, what knowledge is worth seeking, etc. (All this was previously discussed in different terms on our Thomas Kuhn episode.) We need hermeneutics, for example, to tell us how to interpret statistics, and a really great scientist succeeds not just by following a method, but through imagination and consequent intuitive leaps (such as Newton being inspired by the falling apple).

    Moreover (and this gets into the territory of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”), trying to apply the methods of science to everything leaves us blind to these value questions surrounding science, and too apt to look at everything in terms of efficiency, as resources to be used. Scientists ignore the practical uses to which their findings may be put, and we lose the ability to see what is fundamentally questionable in the way things are being done.

    Finally, we spent a little time on “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy” (1972), which clarified the “non-scientific” character of hermeneutics by bringing in Aristotle and how he contrasts techne (anything involving a method, which could be shoemaking but also technological science) from prohairesis, i.e. praxis that involves human preferences, which is the source of doing ethics and politics and really all philosophy that’s not purely a matter of trying to find out facts.

    So the distinction is not the modern one between being practical (researching new medicines, building things, getting a job) and intellectual masturbation of one form of another. That picture involves the same sort of mistake as the alienated model of art described above. No, we need to understand that philosophy too (hermeneutics being a major part of this) involves praxis. It is oriented toward human good, and far from being “useless,” it provides necessary orientation without which our science and industry are blind machines, chugging away building the needs that nobody needs (to quote The Lorax, not Gadamer). And this “orientation” is not a one-time thing, but requires constant (or at least frequent) engagement, openness, and sympathetic communication, i.e. philosophical hermeneutics as a way of life.

    (To clarify, Aristotle recognizes theoretical philosophy too, i.e. pure science and math — he puts theology in there too — which is of course not praxis. So the distinction between that kind of science and philosophy is not between knowledge and practice, but within the realm of knowledge. This doesn’t undermine his criticism about the way we dismiss philosophy as impractical in our culture today.)

    Get the texts:

    Buy Truth and Method or read it online.

    “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” and “Hermeneutics and Aeshetics” are both in the collection Philosophical Hermeneutics, which also has an excellent, lengthy introduction by David E. Linge. You can read them online; pages 3-17 and 95-104.

    “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy” is in The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of the Later Writings. Read it online (pages 227-245).

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  10. Paul Feyerabend and Philosophy of Science


    “Science is essentially an anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.”

    Paul Feyerabend (1924 – 1994) was an Austrian philosopher of science who advocated an anarchic and utilitarian approach to methodology. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht out of high school (1942), and spent most of the war as part of a (non-combat) pioneer battalion. However, as the fighting intensified toward the end he saw more combat, and was rapidly promoted through the ranks. He earned the Iron Cross for valor and finished the war a major, but he also took a bullet in the spine (1945) that left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. After the war he entered university, studying theater, singing, astronomy, and philosophy (under Karl Popper.) This unusually eclectic background left him in a unique position to argue for the unique brand of cross-disciplinary anarchism that made his reputation. He accepted an appointment to UC-Berkeley in the late 50’s, where he spent the rest of his career.

    In the early 70’s Feyerabend and his friend Imre Lakatos agreed to write two halves of a book, titled “For and Against Method.” Feyerabend wrote his half, Against Method (1975), but Lakatos died unexpectedly from a brain hemorrhage in 74, and the other half never appeared. Expanding on Kuhn, Feyerabend argued that the standard account of science – as an orderly, rational, methodical process – is a “fairy tale.” In practice, science is a messy business. Galileo, for instance, would be disqualified as a scientist on any rational model. He did not test hypotheses or perform experiments in order to decide between the geocentric and heliocentric theories – he looked at the data, decided which theory was right, and afterwards refrained from nothing in order to make his case. He ignored, misinterpreted, and mishandled the evidence when it suited him, and didn’t think a low ad hominem or two was beneath his dignity. Nonetheless, his achievement was undoubtedly real. Far from being an extrinsic element to an otherwise orderly process, Feyerabend argued that this messiness is essential to creativity. The appearance of orderliness is imposed after the fact, by a selective interpretation of history, for essentially ideological reasons.

    According to Feyerabend, the lesson we should draw from this is that messiness is good, because it is conducive to creativity. Instead of trying to impose a method from the top down, or dividing up the academy into artificially separated disciplines – scientists, scholars, musicians, artists, poets, priests, witch doctors – everyone should be encouraged to select the method that seems best to them. There are no correct methods – only useful insights. Similarly, there is no answer to the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science, for it is no problem at all, and there is nothing unique to demarcate from anything else. “The events, procedures, and results that constitute the sciences,” he said, “have no common structure.” The myth of science as an epistemically privileged activity is just that – a myth. The technological marvels and universe-spanning theories that surround us are not the products of a uniquely privileged mode of inquiry, but of a joint creative effort in which all creative people can and have participated in.…/subject/ph…/works/ge/feyerabe.htm

    <em>This post previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life Facebook page.</em>

  11. The event(s) of September 11


    Two years after a group of mostly Saudi men flew commercial planes into One and Two World Trade Center, resulting in both buildings’ collapsing, several New Yorkers packed into a courtroom, a mile from where the buildings once stood, in order to hear a court case on the semantics of the word occurrence. In July of 2003, Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center site, sued the insurers of the WTC site, claiming he was entitled to 7.1 billion dollars, twice the amount the insurers believed he was entitled to. According to policy, Silverstein was guaranteed maximum compensation for any occurrence that led to the devastation or destruction of the buildings, but the language of the contract was shaky about what constituted an occurrence. An occurrence was defined as “losses or damages that are attributable directly or indirectly to one cause or to one series of similar causes.” In this somewhat idiosyncratic rendering, an occurrence is basically a bad event caused by a person or persons, or some other event, say a natural disaster like an earthquake. The question in the courtroom that July, for the three Second Circuit Court judges, was this: Was the attack on One and Two World Trade Center one event or two?

    Silverstein and his lawyers argued that the attack constituted two events. At 8:46 AM, the five terrorists in the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north face of One World Trade Center, and about 15 minutes later, five different terrorists crashed into the south face of Two World Trade Center. It’s possible that either never happened, that no terrorist attack was ever planned and carried out, that One and Two World Trade Center are still standing and that the people inside are at work as usual. It’s also conceivable that after the first building was hit that an air marshall aboard United Airlines Flight 175 recruited passengers to help take out the terrorists aboard and diverted the flight path away from Two World Trade Center. Silverstein and council believed that if it’s possible that no attack was carried out, or that only one attack was carried out, then the destruction of both towers must be two events.

    The World Trade Center insurers claimed otherwise. They argued that the terrorists aboard those commercial planes intended to destroy both buildings and as such was part of one large plan. Therefore, the attacks constituted one event, they said.

    To the three Circuit Court judges, none of this was clear. Everyone agreed about the facts but here they were listening to lawyers have a conceptual debate. And it was up to the judges to make a ruling based on the argumentation about what an event really is. Even though it might not have been clear to the judges, it’s not too hard to understand the conceptual distinction being made here. When we’re talking about people, should we think about the events they bring about as what springs from their larger plan? Or we should we think in terms of the result of their actions and number what they wrecked? The judges eventually sided with the insurers, by fiat determining in a court of law that an event is really a matter of the successful execution of plans, at least when we’re talking about persons.

    But there really is no answer to the question of what events are, outside of some framework or other, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that when talking about what people do and why they do what they do, we appeal to the reasons why they act as they do, and in the absence of knowing what the reasons are, we reconstruct them. Conceivably, two otherwise incommensurate constructions of reasons for actions can account for the events that follow. It’s possible, for example, to construe the attacks on 1WTC and 2WTC as the conjunction of two events, with the intention to carry them both out, and it is just as valid a construal to conceive of the attacks as part of one orchestrated plan, and so as one event. This is what the lawyers were doing regarding the insurance claim.

    There’s another reason there’s no telling what events are, though, a deeper reason, and that is because there are no word-world relations that we know of. Another way to say this is there’s no semantics in the formal sense, let alone a real meaning to what events are. On that July day, when the lawyers for both Silverstein and the insurers used the word occurrence, they used it in reference to the attacks, roughly in the same context but with vastly different intentions. But the different intentions are not internal to the word; they’re internal to the people using them. Questions about meanings of a word are really questions of normativity, namely how we ought to use the word. Even if we were to grant that certain words have a definite range of meanings—say we assume that events are limited in scope to either successful execution of a plan or conformability to acts we can individuate—this range would still be limited to the internal structure of a word or the word’s concept and tell us nothing about the word’s deeper relationship to the world.

    The only way to say whether an event ought to be one thing or another is just to define it a certain way so that it fits the framework you want to use it in. If you want to make use of the word to understand how something works, you can’t be agnostic about what it is. This defining of words ahead of time to fit some explanatory framework is not as strange as it might sound. For example, we talk about the gravity of a situation, or, a person’s gravitas. This usage predates Isaac Newton’s use of the word gravity, but it made sense to use it in the way that he did. He needed some name for what he was looking for, namely some name for force that attracts bodies. But regarding uses of the word event, we won’t know how to make use of it unless we know what we’re looking for. So we can’t know what it is until then.

    This has larger implications for rational inquiry in general. Think of Alfred North Whitehead’s attempt to construct an event ontology as opposed to an object ontology, or Donald Davidson’s event semantics. Or the lawyers’ squabble over whether the WTC attacks were one event or two. We need to know what we’re investigating here. What is an event? The question should be posed to those people seeking to understanding something. The appropriate response to anyone seeking to make use of the term when they want to know how the world works is: You tell us.


    An article on Larry Silverstein’s claim against the WTC insurers can be found in Dan Ackman’s article in Forbes titled “Larry Silverstein’s $3.5 B Definition” (23 July 2003).

    Discussion of the semantics of the word event is in Steven Pinker (2007), The Stuff of Thought, New York: Viking, pp. 1-24, and also in the context of the September 11 attacks.

    Donald Davidson’s “Actions, Reasons, and Causes (1963)” in Essays on Actions and Events (2001), Oxford: Oxford UP, pp. 3-20, was helpful to me in formulating how we explain human behavior in terms of reasons for action.

    For more discussion of the possibility of semantics in the formal sense (in terms of word-world relations), see Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (2002), New York: Cambridge UP.

    I learned of Isaac Newton’s use of gravity as metaphor from James Gleick, Isaac Newton (2004), New York: Vintage.

    For more information on Donald Davidson’s event semantics, I highly recommend Terence Parsons, Events in the Semantics of English (1990), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (NB. Amazon list price is $500. Best to check it out from your local library.)

    Billie Pritchett is a writer and English professor with interests in moral and political philosophy, philosophy of social science, and phenomenology. He maintains his own blog called si hoc legere scis… and is on Twitter via @b_pritchett.

  12. ‘The Philosofa’ – brand new philosophy podcast from the UK


    philosophy image 3Bring out the marching band, episode one of the brand new British philosophy podcast, The Philosofa, is now available online at

    If you like the Partially Examined Life then you will love this podcast.

    The Philosofa discusses the practical, real-world significance of abstract      philosophical problems, balancing a fine-line between wit and wisdom along the  way.  Its purpose – to let the grizzly philosophy bear out of its cage and unleash it on  a frightened public.

    The format is a playful yet penetrating parley between panellists.  Each episode the hosts, comedians Omar Hamdi and Helen Arney, introduce the philosophical quandary of the day.  They are joined in the studio by an academic philosopher, who offers his or her expertise, and at least two other guests from beyond the academy, who give their own perspectives and discuss the ways in which the topic is important and applies within their own fields.

    Discussions are witty and off-the-cuff, whilst still being edifying and insightful.  No prior knowledge needed.  The podcast is aimed as much at the philosophical fledgling as at the most wise and wizened of initiates.

    In the first and latest episode, the glorious Omar and Helen are joined by philosopher and Nietzsche scholar, Professor Ken Gemes of Birkbeck University; and veteran TV producer and author of, Into the Woods, a bestselling book about how narratives work, John Yorke.

    Go to to download, tune-in and enjoy!



  13. Continue the Discussion and Have Fun Doing It!


    Hello everyone! I’m Stephen West.

    I host the Philosophize This! podcast: a show where I try to get people thinking. I do my best to talk about important ideas from philosophy in a way that doesn’t make people feel like they’re being lectured by a second-rate elitist university professor with tenure. (We all know how that is.)

    But before I ever did this for a living I was a huge fan of The Partially Examined Life. The joy and insight that these long conversations have given me is something that I truly cherish; I loved them so much that I wanted to be part of the conversation. Sure, my brain would be dwarfed by Wes and his renegade genius. And yes, I might have to sit down when I pee for the rest of the day after Mark proves who the true intellectual alpha-male of the coversation was, but I at least wanted to raise my hand and ask a question. I wanted to clarify some things. Whether it was something I didn’t quite understand or a comparison I didn’t quite agree with, I wanted just a few seconds to kiss their rings and glean the wisdom of my headmasters.

    Turns out they can’t hear me when I’m on the treadmill and ask them a question through my headphones. That’s the thing about podcasts: they’re a little one-sided. So when the guys reached out to me and asked me to be a regular presence in their after-show where they would continue the conversation with listeners, I said “YES!” before Mark even finished the sentence and it was a little awkward.

    Thinking philosophically doesn’t need to be an individual pursuit. In fact, I would argue that it’s best when it isn’t. It would be an honor for me to talk with my fellow PEL citizens about your take on the most recent episode of the show. We’ve already done one of these, it was incredibly fun, and it only stands to get better as we get better at producing these things.
    Please, if you are free on Sunday the 15th of February (1pm Eastern/10am Pacific), consider signing up to join our discussion on Alfred North Whitehead. The only prerequisite is that you’ve listened to the PEL episode; we don’t expect you to have read any of the book. There is absolutely no pressure for you to say something smart; just come hang out with me and Dylan.

    Here is a link to a clip from the one we already did so you can get an idea of what to expect: Karl Jaspers Aftershow; PEL Citizens can download the whole thing from the Free Stuff page.

    And here is a link where you can sign up to be a part of the next discussion if that is something you are interested in: Alfred North Whitehead Aftershow. You’ll need to be a PEL Citizen to access that page and actually participate in the discussion, but we’ll try to remember to post the Google On Air link to the Facebook group at the time of the discussion so that anyone can watch it in real time.

    Thank you for your time,
    Stephen West
    Philosophize This! (Subscribe on iTunes)

  14. Meta(evolutionary)psychology


    Affe_mit_SchädelOne of the consistently best sites on the Internet for thoughtful reviews of worthwhile books is Metapsychology Online Reviews, edited by Christian Perring. A standout in the current issue is George Tudorie’s review of Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Thinking.

    Tomasello is co-director of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the author of several influential books on the evolutionary origins of human cognition, language use, and cooperation. Tudorie explains the problem being addressed in A Natural History like this:

    From early on, human children are quite different from the progeny of even closely related animals, like chimps. They are, for example, much more inclined to cooperate (manifesting the rudiments of ‘prosocial’ behavior), and seem driven to understand what goes on in others’ minds way before they could master anything like the mature repertoire of concepts applicable to a thinking being. What makes human babies and infants unique in this way?

    And the solution Tomasello proposes is to borrow an idea from philosophy: specifically, the notion of collective intentionality. The issue at stake,as Tudorie explains it:

    Philosophers were interested in demystifying the apparent ‘merging’ of minds involved in such impressive coordination as that exhibited by a symphonic orchestra, but also in more prosaic events such as jump starting a car by dividing labor between pushing the vehicle and working its clutch. In philosophy, this was perceived as a problem only in the context of a more general challenge, that of linking intention, supposedly an instance of the ‘inner’, and action, which is overt. The problem of collective action seemed harder, since it involved a certain ‘meshing’ . . . of intentions in separate individuals. If I act alone, my intentions control, or are reflected by, my actions; but when we act together there seems to be a need for my intentions to inform your actions and vice versa. How could that be, since presumably I can only intend what I myself could attempt?

    Versions of solutions to this problem have been proposed by Michael Bratman and John Searle, among others. (Bratman explains his solution in this lecture.) Tomasello’s adaptation of the “shared intentionality hypothesis” into evolutionary psychology includes elements of both.

    Tudorie refers to above-described problem as a “somewhat marginal philosophical conundrum,” and suggests that it may be “a badly formulated problem to begin with.” His more important critique of Tomasello, though, is that this borrowing represents a misuse of a philosophical analysis:

    These changes are described, as in previous works by the Max Planck group, on the lines of the criteria suggested by Michael Bratman for ‘joint cooperative action’ — this is the basis for what Tomasello calls ‘joint intentionality’. However, while Bratman was asking what defines genuine cooperation, Tomasello reifies the defining criteria and reads them as specific adaptations.
    . . .
    The heavily psychologized theory of early cooperation [Tomasello’s account] is based on — effectively forcing Bratman’s functional description of familiar interactions of competent contemporary adults into the role of evolutionary psychological speculation about (at best) protolinguistic hominids — remains a weakness. One can hardly begin to ask questions of plausibility regarding the emergence of ‘joint intentionality’ if this very concept is ill-suited for describing adaptive transformations driven by natural selection. As things stand, this seems to be the case. Any intelligible notion of sharing thoughts already requires such a sophisticated understanding of mental life that to posit it as the root of human thinking — and not as its culmination — begs the question.

    Other works under review in the current issue of Metapsychology include

    Philosophy of Biology (Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy)(Peter Godfrey-Smith)

    Foucault Now (Current Perspectives in Foucault Studies) (James Faubion, ed.)

    Evolved Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience
    (Frans B.M. de Waal, Patricia Smith Churchland, et al., eds.)

    The Aesthetic Mind: Philosophy and Psychology (Elisabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie, eds.)

    Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
    (Daniel K. Gardner)

    And finally, one of the books that Tudorie cites in his review of Tomasello gets the prize for Book Title of the Week:

    Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition
    (Kim Sterelny)

    Artwork by Jfderry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

  15. Not School Happenings In February


    Alfred North Whitehead

    There is plenty of philosophy afoot in Not School this month. Our members are running a variety of groups, and some of the podcast fellows are running others. We have another post-episode discussion with Stephen West coming up, which is but one of the many perks that PEL Citizens receive. Membership options start at only $5 a month, and you can sign up right here.

    First up, the post-episode discussion on episode 110 will take place over Google Hangout on 2/15 at 1pm Eastern time. As with the previous one on Jaspers, you don’t have to have read a page of Whitehead’s text. Just listen to the most Whitehead episode and come give the group (including Stephen West and Dylan Casey) your two cents. Check out the group for more details.

    Mark Linsenmayer has started a group to read and discuss Karl Jaspers’ Truth and Symbol. They’ll finish up with a Google Hangout later this month. The book is only around eighty pages, and members can download it from the group’s page. This is your chance to find out what Jaspers was actually talking about.

    We have a new group beginning Charles Taylor’s A Secular Agethis month. They are mainly using the forum for discussion, and are picking topics as they go. Tangents are expressly welcome.

    Another new group is set to read Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This group is an outgrowth of a forum discussion on “how knowledge is shared in an unequal society, especially focusing on the role schools have played in favoring some knowledge and suppressing others.” These folks have had some really interesting conversation already, and they’re looking for a few more members to fill their ranks. If that sounds interesting to you, see their proposal in the Citizens’ Forum.

    The Philosophical Fiction Group is still voting on their next endeavor, and so far the frontrunners appear to be books by Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov. Members can suggest readings for future months at any time, so if you like philosophical novels, this group is worth looking into.

    Finally, our Philosophy and Theatre Group is watching a performance of Jerzy Grotowski’s Akropolis (which is in French) and reading the corresponding section in The Grotowski Sourcebook, which can be found through their page. A Skype talk on this will take place on February 15th at 1.30pm CST. This group welcomes new members and suggestions about what to tackle next.

    There were a few proposals this month that never made it off the ground, so be sure to check back frequently to see what’s new. Enjoy your reading.

    - Daniel Cole

  16. Episode 110: Alfred North Whitehead: What Is Nature?


    On The Concept of Nature (1920).

    Whitehead thinks that old-timey metaphysics wrongly insists that what’s fundamental in the world to be studied by science is things (substance) moving around in space and time. We don’t actually experience any such thing as “substance,” so on this view we end up with an uncrossable gap between the world of our experience and that of science. Whitehead wants us to start instead with what we experience, which is events, and figure out how to abstract from those to come up with time, space, objects, and motion.

    By getting rid of a pre-existent space-time grid, he also thinks his way of describing nature will accord better with relativity theory, since he allows for multiple space-time frameworks. His explanation involves a lot of tortured 4-dimensional geometry and heaps of weirdly defined terms, but the regular four podcasters are mighty events (not mere people), and we will soldier on to Cleopatra’s Needle and beyond!

    This will all be clearer to you if you listen to Mark’s introduction, then you can read more about the topic and get the book. When you’re done with this, listen to the Aftershow for more discussion hosted by Stephen West.

    End song: “Run Away,” by Mark Lint, written in 1987 and recorded in 2005 and 2015. Read about it.

    Support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation. Citizens can sign up to join the Aftershow conversation on Feb. 15 at 1pm Eastern time.

    Please visit our our sponsors: Go to and enter the code “PEL” when you check out.

    And visit to checkout the new Squarespace 7 and enter checkout code “PEL” to get 10% off. And don’t forget

    The Whitehead picture is by Sterling Bartlett.

  17. Partially Naked Self-Examination Music Blog: Run Away


    Listen to Run Away (or right-click/shift-click this link to download).

    I’ve previously written about this song, and how I wrote it when I was 16, and it was the first song of mine that was any good, and we performed it at the high school variety show. The “final” recording version from that came out in 1989 (listen to it here).

    But I couldn’t help but think something had gotten lost in the translation from my nice, home acoustic version (horrendously recorded, of course; I’m not going to upload it) to that over-synthed version, so my college band The MayTricks recorded it for our initial demo in in 1991 and for an album in 1993.

    My equipment has improved much since then, of course, and I set about in 2005 trying to record the definitive version, trying to return to my original vision of the song as, purely acoustic, with no drum kit and no guitar solo, with me playing everything, except I recruited my sister-in-law Valree Casey, who was an oboe major in college. I also got my father Bob Linsenmayer to add some vocals to the end.

    And there it sat for a long time, until now, when our Whitehead episode needed a tune, and… well… “action of the day” vs. Whitehead’s “events.” OK, so it’s a pretty tenuous connection, but it’s a pretty little song. In these latter days I added more percussion, re-did the 12-string-guitar (incidentally, there the rhythm part is a ukulele, the only time I think I’ve ever recorded myself playing one of those), got my daughter Mina to put some more backing vocals on, and of course tweaked and mixed the bejesus out of it as is my wont.

    So despite the very cheesy lyrics, this is still a favorite among those I’ve written, and it has certainly occupied enough of my brain space over the years to deserve a properly recorded version.

  18. Ep. 109 Aftershow (Preview) with Stephen West


    Stephen West of the Philosophize This! podcast hosts a new PEL offering: An Aftershow to a PEL episode, in this case #109 on Karl Jaspers. Hear questions and comments from super-smart PEL listeners, Stephen, and Mark Linsenmayer.

    What does Jaspers mean by “transcendence?” Do you buy the claim that science doesn’t give you a world-view? What is a world-view anyway? What are the “limits of reason?”

    This is a 20 minute preview of a 72 minute discussion. Get the full audio by becoming a PEL Citizen. This will also enable you to take part in the next Aftershow (on Whitehead) on February 15 at 1pm Eastern time.

    If you want to learn even more about Jaspers, you can also join Mark’s new Not School group to read Truth and Symbol (1947) in February.

  19. Metzinger on Spirituality and Intellectual Integrity


    This video of a talk by Thomas Metzinger called “Spiritualität und intellektuelle Redlichkeit” (in German, with English captions) has attracted some attention on the Internet; Metzinger has translated his title into English (“Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty”) written an essay (available in PDF form here) summarizing the main ideas of the talk. (In this post I’ll be responding to the written essay.)

    His main theses are:

    • Intellectual honesty (or integrity) is a special case of moral integrity.
    • Spirituality is a specific epistemic stance, that involves the desire for a specific type of knowledge.
    • The spiritual stance is a form of intellectual integrity, and (some) spiritual practices are aids to intellectual integrity.
    • At the present time, thoroughly embracing the spiritual stance, in a form that reflects intellectual integrity, necessitates abandoning some but not all of the traditional goals of spiritual knowledge. (Metzinger doesn’t explicitly say this, but it’s implicit in his “three critiques” – of of God, immortality, and enlightenment – in the latter portion of the essay.)

    He makes all this work, first, by defining spirituality in the right way: Spirituality is an epistemic stance that involves the desire for a specific type of knowledge. Spiritual knowledge involves inner attention, bodily experience, and altered states of consciousness, in which the subject-object distinction is dissolved and the individual first-person perspective is transcended. The goals of spiritual knowledge partially overlap with those of religion and traditional metaphysics, and frequently involve an ideal of salvation, liberation, or enlightenment.

    While all of these are characteristic of some forms of spirituality, I very much doubt that they are all consistent with each other (and Metzinger may not intend them to be, since ultimately he wants to jettison a lot of the traditional goals of spiritual knowledge). Moreover, his conception of spirituality as an epistemic stance is a pretty narrow one, and excludes a great deal of what a lot of people would regard as falling under the concept.

    His conception of intellectual integrity is an admirable ideal: I think, though, that he makes several unwarranted leaps in spelling out what it entails. His unexamined and undefended assumption is that the will to avoid self-deception (a crucial part of intellectual integrity) requires us adopt the canons of evidence of the natural sciences and the concept of rationality in contemporary analytic philosophy.

    I’ll illustrate what I mean with regard to what he says about God. Considering first logical arguments for the existence of God, Metzinger tells us,

    Conceptually, there is not a single convincing argument for God’s existence in 2500 years of the history of Western philosophy.

    He then backtracks in a footnote:

    Of course, there are first-class philosophers who would hold a completely different view. What does not exist, however, is a consensus among experts in the field that would point in the direction many still hope for.

    I’m with the latter claim, provided that “experts in the field” refers solely to people whose professional field of expertise is the major arguments for God’s existence in Western philosophy. I’d point out that there’s no consensus among the public at large, nor among those who might in one sense or another be counted as “experts on religion,” that that narrow sort of expertise is particularly relevant to the main issue. Moreover, I question whether reliance up expert consensus is consistent with the kind of intellectual integrity that Metzinger urges upon us.

    Second, he considers arguments based upon religious experience:

    Empirically (and this is a trivial point) there are no proofs for the existence of God. Obviously, mystical experiences or altered states of consciousness as such cannot provide empirical evidence in any strict sense of the word.

    Well, it depends on what you take “the strict sense of the word” to be. While Metzinger’s aware that there are alternative views with regard to logical arguments, on this subject he shows no awareness of other points of view. His discussion of intellectual integrity relies heavily on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on “The Ethics of Belief” and “Integrity” (both of which he refers the reader to). Had he explored in equal depth the articles on “ The Epistemology of Religion,” “Religious Experience,” and “Mysticism,” (to pick a few examples) he’d have been led to confront the current robust debates on the epistemology of religious experience. (For a sample, see William Alston’s Perceiving God, and critiques thereof by Keith Augustine and Jonathan Kvanvig.

    In this brief response, I have not come close to doing justice to Metzinger’s wide-ranging and thought-provoking essay. Most egregiously, I’ve left out his report on recent accounts of the evolution of belief and how it may make us prone to systematic error. Give the whole thing a read or a listen. It’s worth it.