Our present relationship to technology can hardly be compared to the situation Thoreau faced in 1854, when Walden was first published. American attitudes toward nature began to shift in his lifetime, as steamboats and railroads appeared on the scene. The advent of such penetrating technologies meant that the ordering force of civilization had gained a powerful new advantage in its ongoing efforts to tame the wilderness. Before these developments emerged in the middle of the 19th century, nature was seen as a wild and dangerous obstacle to travelers and to the advancement of civilization. But in this period American authors (and painters) took a romantic turn and began to see nature as a place of sublime beauty and spiritual renewal.
In Walden Thoreau hopes that his experiment in living a natural and simple life at Walden Pond will teach him to see either “the whole and genuine meanness of it” or to see “if it were sublime.” His famous project was aimed, among other things, at weighing the advantages of civilization and technology against the value of nature and simplicity. He ventures out to the edge of town just two miles from his home, builds his cabin on Emerson’s land, and attempts to inhabit the edge of both worlds.
We, on the other hand, live in a post-industrial urban nation, on an urban planet, where most people are city dwellers and many people feel the need to fight to save what’s left of nature. The smoke and noise of 19th century steam engines seem quaint now that we measure annual carbon emissions in billions of tons. The environmental movement began to take shape approximately 100 years after Walden was published. The Resources and Conservation Act of 1959 was one of the first major milestones. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring greatly expanded the scope of this movement. Her book focused on the environmental impact of chemical pesticides like DDT. Large chemical companies like DuPont were harshly critical for a year or so but Carson’s book received a series of prestigious awards in 1963 and it was still casting a long shadow when the Environmental Protection Agency was first formed in 1970. It has been included on many lists of the 20th century’s greatest works of non-fiction. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) is set in this period, depicting a road trip that occurred in 1968 and humanity’s relationship to nature and technology is a key theme in the book. A paperback copy of Walden is among the items packed for this father-son road trip.
After a while I reach into my pack for the paperback by Thoreau, find it and have to strain a little to read it to Chris in the grey rainy light. ..What happens is I read a sentence, he comes up with a long series of questions about it and then, when he’s satisfied, I read the next sentence. We do this with Thoreau for a while, but after half an hour I see to my surprise and disappointment that Thoreau isn’t coming through. Chris is restless and so am I. The language structure is wrong for the mountain forest we’re in. At least that’s my feeling. The book seems tame and cloistered, something I’d never have thought of Thoreau, but there it is. He’s talking to another situation, another time, just discovering the evils of technology rather that discovering the solution. He isn’t talking to us. Reluctantly I put the book away again and we’re both silent and meditative. It’s just Chris and me and the forest and the rain. No books can guide us anymore.
By the time Zen was published the hippie movement had mostly come and gone. This subculture is famous for its anti-war stance, its support for civil rights and feminism, and also for its love of sex, drugs and Rock and Roll but slightly less obvious was their vague back-to-nature aesthetic and ethos. The hippies often imitated the styles and fashions of native Americans or other primary cultures, as they imagined them anyway. You know–bare feet, headbands, love beads, fringed jackets of animal skin and, more to the point, these styles reflected an aversion to technological society and a love of nature.
This is the context in which Pirsig’s narrative is set. The novel’s “plot,” if we can call it that, centers around a cross-country motorcycle trip with his young son and two of his technology-averse hippie friends. These friends “and millions of others like them” don’t have any real solutions, he says, except at a personal level wherein they simply abandon “square” culture altogether and operate on feelings instead. In real life the Sutherlands were not hippies (although John Sutherland was a drummer who remained unpersuaded by Pirsig’s defense of technology) but this characterization helps to set up a series of dichotomies: art and technology, hip and square styles, romantic and classical thinking. Pirsig’s solution entails a fusion of each of these opposites, with the fusion of art and technology already being suggested in the title of the book. The hybrid form of the book can even be seen as a kind of performance of this fusion in the sense that it is a philosophical thesis embedded in a novel, an artful form of rationality. Like Thoreau’s Walden, it also contains a strong autobiographical element. For Pirsig, the problems with technology are symptomatic of a larger, deeper problem. Our Western modes of rationality are at the root of the problem and so his solution to a cultural crisis is focused on an analysis of rationality itself. “A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance,” he writes, “is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”
Despite his published complaints that Walden is “talking to another situation, another time,” Pirsig’s work is part of the same Chautauqua tradition and in real life he’s actually a pretty big fan. As was mentioned previously, a few years ago I wrote to ask Pirsig what he thought about Emerson in particular and American Transcendentalism in general. Pirsig wrote back, saying he agreed with Emerson to some extent but that “there is always a whiff of ministerial unction in his rhetoric.” Pirsig continued, “Thoreau never sounded unctuous and I could read him forever.” Similarly, he had recently visited Emerson’s house but the most interesting thing about the tour was what he learned about Thoreau–and Zen Buddhism.
The best thing I took away from Emerson’s house was a story. When Thoreau was about to walk down to nearby Walden Pond, Emerson offered him a walking stick. ‘No’ said Thoreau, ‘That’s too much company.’ What an insight into him! ‘Simplify, simplify,’ he said. ‘As he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.’ This likeness to Zen is overwhelming.
Per my message last week, I just attended the New Work, New Culture Conference in Detroit this last weekend. Now, this was organized by folks from the Boggs Center, so the overall orientation of the conference was one of activism against the “occupation” of Detroit.
I don’t know the number of attendees at this point, but it was a gym packed with people, many from Detroit but also many who traveled in from other states and even some international attendees. The speakers (not chosen by Frithjof) were pretty disparate; some of them didn’t know each other and/or weren’t very familiar with or to the Detroit group or Frithjof’s immediate cohorts. There were enough people there I think unfamiliar enough with New Work basics that just explaining what it is was a daunting task. Frithjof’s spiel focused on “most people don’t like their jobs, and certainly the unemployed or precariously employed don’t like the system… we can do better!” while Blair Evans of Incite-Focus Detroit provided the really amazing illustration of how community production through a fab lab can work (the video for both of these things as well as the other presentations should be up at some point). Small group discussions went over topics covering various ways of “getting off the grid,” e.g. community farming, generating electricity through home-grown means, aquaponics, time banking, acquiring funding for these various types of projects, etc.
However, a good chunk of the conference seemed more to have to do with community organizing, and much of that wasn’t so much providing information on how to do it as actually providing a pep talk, i.e. doing the organizing as if we were the community. To me, this was somewhat confusing and misplaced: New Work is an umbrella of ideas, not itself an organization. Various community efforts can find inspiration and guidance from New Work, but New Work is not like the Green Party or some other organization that needs to sit down and as a group to come up with a mission statement and sketch out its values and all of that. The problems with work are so widespread among different populations that very different looking solutions are needed to attack each of them, and overall, the focus needs to be on getting these programs going and solving real problems by whatever means, some of them involving government, and industry, and grants whenever these are available, though in many the most pressing cases no such help is forthcoming, so the solution does have to look more like communities making their own way by their collective bootstraps, as will largely be the case with Detroit.
Unsurprisingly, most folks involved in helping the unemployed or running community gardens or the like are self-proclaimed radical leftists, and so the message that the economic powers that be should best be fought by actually competing against them (by giving people the means of supporting themselves in a community without having to purchase so much from corporations) I think may have been unexpected. A difficulty in explaining New Work to a wider audience is convincing them that these technologies and techniques pioneered largely by hippies are possible to bring into the mainstream, i.e. without having to live in a commune or become an ascetic, and likewise (per my post that made Thoreau stand in for all anti-technologists, which I realize is not a great depiction of Thoreau, but nonetheless describes quite a few people who idolize him) some of the folks present were clearly not used to the idea of actually promoting technology, where its use is actually dictated people the community members designing it, who can insert their environmental ethics into the process (e.g. in deciding what materials are involved, the downstream and upstream costs).
I certainly left with a lot of names of folks to try to interview for Frithjof’s YouTube Channel, so as to display the diversity of focus and viewpoints among the range of leaders who showed up. For from seeing Frithjof’s particular vision as the end statement of the project, I’m eager to document other people’s takes on how to best react to the hopefully by now uncontroversial observation that the current job system is terrible. Given the ubiquity of the problem, there should be no excuse for any portion of this non-movement to say “those people don’t have the right values and so can’t be part of this.” Promoting New Work is like promoting democracy when democracy was a new idea. Again, particular efforts to do something in a particular city should be highly focused in setting out their goals, but advocates of New Work in general need to keep from getting bogged down by the details of specific proposals, elements of some particular vision, or philosophical points. Maybe you don’t believe in the poverty of desire, maybe you emphasize entrepreneurship and someone else sees that as anathema to New Work. Maybe some want to focus on pushing the government to implement strategies to permit alternate work strategies, and others see any government action as a fundamental abuse of power. All we need to agree on at this point is recognition of the job system as legitimately problematic and that solutions really are realistically possible within our lifetime. That’s a hard enough sell to the unconvinced!
If you’re new to PEL and don’t know what “New Work” refers to, go listen to our episode interviewing Frithjof Bergmann, or my short precog on the topic, or check out the videos on the New Work channel I manage, or read one of the many articles I’ve written here about it (like this one).
There’s a “Worldwide Conference” coming up on New Work in Detroit on Oct. 18-20 that I’ll be attending, so check it out if you have a serious interest. Hopefully a lot of the speakers will be taped, and I’ll try to interview some folks and maybe write up an article for publication somewhere fancier than this blog. If you go, find me and introduce yourself! Details on the conference are at reimaginingwork.org.
I described in our Walden episode how Thoreau powerfully gives the intuitive grounding for New Work, i.e. that jobs, in the way they come to most of us, are positively unhealthy, and certainly fail the meaning-of-life test, meaning that whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing (if that “supposed to” phrase means anything in this context), or whatever it is that we would really find meaningful, chances are, your job isn’t even close, nor are most other people’s jobs.
But what do we do about this? Thoreau says, in essence, that we have to give up our appetite for luxuries and live simply, minimizing economic/social entanglements. So insofar as you can live off the land, do that. It’s easy, he says, to make some money working at your own pace at something you don’t mind, and some is all you need to get whatever you need to live.
But as I pointed out in that discussion, there are two problems with this argument. First, economic calculations change with the times. Today’s highly regulated and market-saturated society requires we pony up a lot more cash just to live, much less live somewhere without heaps of crime. On the flip side, lots of technology, and the results of that technology, have become much cheaper, so that, for example, a very minimalist lifestyle today most likely would include wi-fi of some sort.
Second, his argument simply doesn’t work when you involve a family. Maybe in his time, a husband could simply make his wife and children live according to whatever crazy-ass “principled” lifestyle he fancied, but it’s more likely (based on his own lack of romantic entanglements) that other people are part of the bother that he thinks we should minimize involvement with. It’s hard to tell from his personal life given how young he died (age 43)… Despite never being married, he did propose to someone, and in any case the experiment of Walden is not presented as a fundamental, ultimate lifestyle, and we (or at least I) don’t know how literally he thought one could apply the lesson of simplicity to his post-Walden, more socially engaged life.
(As a side note, some scholars have ventured that Thoreau was a closeted, non-practicing homosexual. I have no idea if that’s true, but it would be very ironic if this guy who championed being true to yourself instead used chastity and turning away from people altogether as a way of sublimating his socially forbidden desires.)
If a simplicity-driven lifestyle can’t be supported within the context of having a partner and maybe kids, then it simply can’t be a feasible goal for general adoption; Thoreau may have found a vacation from the discontents of civilization, but not a recipe for curing them.
I found when presenting New Work ideas to the PEL community last year that some of the folks most likely to embrace its (and Thoreau’s) complaints about jobs were highly resistant to Bergmann’s proposed solutions, which involve what he used to call “high-tech self-providing” but more recently has re-termed “community production.” This involves using technology to make production much more efficient, so you actually can do it with very little money, and not have to sacrifice comfort in favor of austere, back-to-nature asceticism. In fact, community production is principally (though not solely) designed to work in concentrated, urban areas, where there’s an actual community, and, not coincidentally, where there’s the most poverty and crime and decay now.
I’m more than aware that a complete picture of community production and the economic calculation that would prove “yes, you can live this way viably and comfortably” is still wanting, and I can’t provide that here. But I think we know enough about the possibilities now to be able to argue about an approach to the problem: I claim that Thoreau’s anti-technological bias is a major hindrance in thinking about realistic ways to solve the work-life problem. Likewise, his insistence upon do-it-yourself individualism closes off essential avenues, and by extension the anti-government sentiment that for libertarians today trumps all other concerns makes solving this fundamental problem much more difficult.
This is the source of my concern voiced during the podcast that Thoreau was basically talking out of his ass. Wes said that as an essayist, Thoreau is asking you to reflect on your moral intuitions, and that the alternative to his approach would be constructing some kind of system and basing your social/moral claims on that.
I don’t think this is the problem with the anti-technology argument. Heidegger actually had a system (most recently talked about on our blog here) for justifying his anti-technology claims, and I still think they amount to unsubstantiated, sentimentalist bullshit.
Yes, as Wes pointed out, there are clear ways in which our lives can be dominated by technology, as with any other obsession. Just as you have to put in time taking care of your house, you have to put in time unfragging your hard drives and fighting viruses and deleting spam and all that crap. You can use more technology to make those tasks easier, one could make the argument that it’s a never-ending cycle: it’s always something.
And that kind of sentiment, “it’s always something,” much like “and that’s how they screw you!” is the essence of crank-dom. Thoreau’s claim is that whenever you invoke technology to answer a problem, you create more problems with the technology than make the benefit worth the effort. Many similarly argue that whenever government tries to solve a problem, the very fact that it’s government doing it creates more of a problem. Or you could argue that whatever benefit a corporation provides, they extract even more in cost. (That’s the point of economic transaction!)
What kinds of claims are these? They’re not straightforward universal claims, because then you’d only have to come up with one instance where, e.g., a government action produced more benefit than harm, and the universal would be refuted. Now, I expect some people are such cranks that they’ll insist on the exceptionless truth of these claims, but we can more reasonably take them as generalizations, as truisms.
One could then have an argument using historical examples of why technology or government or business is more often than not more of a pain than a boon, but I think that this rather misses the point, because the claims are not just generalizations about history, but somehow statements about the essence of the phenomena/institutions in question, such that no matter how many holes we plug, these things will never work.
It is a goal of computer manufacturers to make them as user-friendly as possible, and I’d argue that it’s much much easier now for a technologically-deficient older adult to use a computer than it was in 1982. A computing device like the iPhone or X-box geared to a narrower set of purposes than a full computer is even easier. These advances prove that the ideal of technological transparency, where your device actually works, and so functions as a tool ready-to-hand (to use Heidegger’s terms) instead of an obstacle present-to-hand, is reasonable. So no, it’s not “always something” in terms of more crap for end-users to take care of, and the fact that more challenges come up results from further advances, as when the computers in an office became networked together, and then connected wirelessly, and then available through Citrix and the like to at-home use of work computers. The advances enabled not only efficiency, but (especially the last) increased freedom.
Tele-commuting is to me one of the most literally liberating advances of recent years, but the anti-technogist can still make this argument: Yes, you can work from home, but that’s given employers the opportunity to make you work from home in addition to working at the office. Your job has become 24/7, and your freedom has actually shrunk. But clearly, this isn’t a technological problem: it’s a political one.
Foucault described the pernicious technological advances exemplified by “the panopticon,” i.e. more technology means more ways for powers-that-be to exert their control over us. But the answer isn’t to get rid of technology (in fact, David Brin argues that technology also gives us the ability to watch the watchers), but to fix the underlying political dysfunction. Per our Oppenheimer episode, technology gives us more power and so brings conflicts that were already in existence to a head so they need to be dealt with.
If blacks and whites hate each other (or Americans and Chinese, or star-bellied vs. plain-bellied Sneeches), but live largely in different geographic areas, then overt conflict is minimalized. If you use technology to bring them together, then there are more avenues for communicating messages of hate, yes, but also an acceleration of a dialogue toward shared understanding. To give a dramatic analogy, if members of the hating groups had a button they could push and kill members of the other group, then, after a lot of initial death, that conflict would certainly come to head and have to be dealt with.
In this light, technology is not always good in its immediate consequences, but forces us to deal with social problems more rapidly than we otherwise might have to. But what about the more Heideggerian (and Waldenesque) claim that merely living technologically puts us out of sync with nature? That we’re no longer living fully human lives?
This sentiment is broad and vague enough that it’s hard to counter. If taken to an extreme, it means that we shouldn’t use electric lights, heat, or even a roof over our head (caves are better!). By working with tractors instead of hoeing land by hand, are we no longer Man Farming as Emerson was concerned with, and so living an authentic life? By communicating with someone over the Internet, we’re not hearing a real voice, looking at a real person, and this certainly deprives us of some elements human contact that we need to get elsewhere, but is using such technology essentially dehumanizing? Is the fact that I wear boots mean I’m no longer in touch with the soil? At an extreme, imagine an astronaut on the moon, who can’t walk outside without protection, whose air has to be purposefully generated and conserved: would that be a life missing something essential to true humanity, and even if so, are the real effects of our present and anticipated technological advances harmful in this way?
On what grounds do we allow in some technology but not others? I think that we have to evaluate each piece of technology (and society!) individually to see if it helps make life more satisfying or not. (Note that there’s the separate, ecological question of how living certain ways harms the environment. That’s important, certainly, but is irrelevant to Heidegger’s formulation at least: we’re concerned in this discussion with what makes life, for us, worth living. Of course, any technology that turns our air to ash, kills off animals and other features of nature that make life more satisfying, etc., will matter impact this discussion.)
These discussions should be very familiar: For instance, television can clearly be harmful, as anyone know lived through the days where you actually had to watch commercials, and where every show had to aim at the least common denominator of idiocy. So parents nowadays often have pretty well thought out approaches to what their kids can watch and how much. As with alcohol, masturbation, video games, and even books, intemperance is a constant temptation for adults, with no real mechanism available beyond individual self-control to keep us from indulging until we screw up our lives. Technology now allows us to watch TV via phones on a near-constant basis if we want to do that. So this is another pre-existent form of conflict, a problem, that technology forces us to actually confront. If you have an addictive personality, and you now have more access to substances that might screw you up, then you have to deal with your personal problems.
Ultimately, there’s simply a great deal of room for individuals’ tastes to determine their attitudes toward technology. Some clinical findings might tell us that certain video games or media are harmful when taken in certain doses, or that staring at a screen for too much of your day can screw up your eyes, or that cell phones give you brain cancer. Other things we can discover by ourselves, such that binge watching or all-night video-game sessions leave you groggy and probably boring. (Likewise, reading too many formulaic romance or mystery novels, or being obsessed with going to live sporting events, or any number of other low-tech behaviors can have negative consequences.) None of this adds up to a blanket denunciation of technology that any reasonable person should need to pay attention to.
And back to the central point, none of this should make people interested in solving the problem of work rule out, in advance, potential technological solutions. I think in the case of Thoreau, he used some technology (his hammer, his knowledge of building, board other people had already cut from trees, nails made in factories, etc.) while eschewing other technology in a somewhat arbitrary way, so he could feel he was being pure and principled while still really taking advantage of the very thing he was railing against. So maybe instead of aiming for purity and naturalness, we should just try to clearly and without prejudice examine all the available options for solving our problems. If you’re not a crank, it shouldn’t be hard to admit that some technologies are on balance helpful, and some aren’t; government actions if actually successful are fine, even if historically there have been a lot of mis-administered fuck-ups; corporate actions aren’t necessarily evil just by being corporate. And yes, there’s “always something,” always some new challenge to deal with in the light of some advance (like, say, the challenges that come up in a new relationship), but that doesn’t mean that advancing wasn’t worth the effort and we should just stop.
It’s been suggested that my questioning of Thoreau’s (lack of) methodology was light on textual analysis.
So here’s an example for y’all’s consideration. Wes quoted a passage from Ch. 11 ripping on over-eaters (section 5 in the annotated version): “The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.”
Now, I think this is a ripe phenomenon for philosophical analysis, but what we get instead from Thoreau is an aphorism: utterly unsupported, flippant, borderline racist.
Does the context help us understand his point? Here’s all of section 5 (note that it’s just the editors of the annotated edition that divided the text into sections):
 I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect. I have tried it again and again. I have skill at it, and, like many of my fellows, a certain instinct for it, which revives from time to time, but always when I have done I feel that it would have been better if I had not fished. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning. There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom; at present I am no fisherman at all. But I see that if I were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest. Beside, there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to see where housework commences, and whence the endeavor, which costs so much, to wear a tidy and respectable appearance each day, to keep the house sweet and free from all ill odors and sights. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. Like many of my contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, etc.; not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination. The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct. It appeared more beautiful to live low and fare hard in many respects; and though I never did so, I went far enough to please my imagination. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists — I find it in Kirby and Spence (4) — that “some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them”; and they lay it down as “a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvae. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly … and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly” content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid. The abdomen under the wings of the butterfly still represents the larva. This is the tidbit which tempts his insectivorous fate. The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.
In this section he’s been giving his opinions, also discussed in the episode, about hunting (fine for boys, a great introduction to nature, but to be grown out of). So why does he think fishing is degrading? Well, he’s not really sure; he’s trying to read himself: “It is a faint intimation.”
He says that “every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom,” meaning that he’s not just saying that he’s growing wiser as he grows older and so realizing that fishing is base. (Both this statement and the “faint intimation” part support my interpretation that Thoreau is, at times, self-consciously humble in his opinions: he’s musing aloud, and he knows it.) He acknowledges that if circumstances were different, i.e. if he were living in the wilderness (so he’s not now at Walden), then he’d at least be “tempted” to fish.
Then (as Dylan brought up on the podcast), he talks about how gross cleaning fish is, and how apparently they didn’t fill him up enough to be worth it. So this is again going about simplicity, not about fishing itself being savage. According to his “imagination,” his sense of beauty, “every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind.” Then he gives this image of the caterpillar, meant evidently not as a proof, or even an illustration, but as a suggestive metaphor: to transcend the base part of our humanity is to get over sensual indulgence.
Now, what do you all think of that, as a piece of prose, as an argument, as philosophy? To me, he’s dressing up a profoundly unoriginal sentiment in fancy clothes and acting like this is insight. And I find this sentiment profoundly problematic. What kind of being are we that has a base side and a transcendent side, and how does that relate to nature? Thoreau can’t (and shouldn’t!) rely on some simplistic mind-body dualism whereby to be spiritual is to transcend base physicality. Instead, by embracing concrete nature, he’s saying that, in essence, God is in the natural world, so vivid that you don’t even need the word “God” or any other overtly theoretical language. But nonetheless, instead of “spiritual,” we here have “poetical,” and there is still room for “higher laws” in this picture. This sounds like a great project to me: to really explain (if only by exemplification) how all the awesomeness of religious life can be obtained without believing in fairy tales and abstractions and unfounded otherwordly suppositions. I think what he’s largely doing in the text is phenomenology: he’s telling us what it’s like to be in this situation, what insights come to one.
But the point of phenomenology is that it’s supposed to be repeatable: If I put myself in the same situation, I’d reach the same conclusions, and even just reading through the experience is supposed to be sufficient to bring one to the same point. Of course charging Thoreau with “thinking differently than others” is not an objection if by “others” you mean unthoughtful sluggards who’ve never made the attempt to live deliberately. But living close to nature is now a well-trodden path: it’s one of the things that thoughtful people do, one of the things that can make people thoughtful. The quietness, the clear view of the sky, the animal noises: all these things bring upon a certainly very spiritual experience. But like other types of mystical experience, we then fill this void with whatever it is that we already find sacred (or with some modification of this), so that for some, the wilderness would mean solitude, and for others, it would mean private time with loved ones. For some, hunting becomes spiritual; for some, hunting is totally antithetical to the appreciation of nature. For some, it means enthusiastic, athletic movement, for some, it means calm and rest.
For Thoreau, it means asceticism, and maybe it’s just my immersion in Nietzsche (a thinker with some comparable conclusions and a similarly zesty writing style, but a much different methodology, almost painfully stringent in the way he circles back and explores the same subjects again and again from different vantages), but to me, asceticism is one of the enemies of health: it means self-hatred, and fundamental denial of even those instincts that simply can’t be dismissed. Thoreau gives us a picture of spirituality through embracing nature, including one’s instincts, and I think is really trying to feel out what this really means, but I think he’s insufficiently self-critical, and a passage like the one quoted above ultimately just leaves me shrugging at his unfounded, unattractive idiosyncrasies.
On Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854).
What is the appropriate life for a truly thoughtful person? Thoreau warns against getting ensnared by social bullshit like jobs and charity, and instead living simply, in direct contact with nature, relying as much as possible only on your own effort. His time in the woods on Walden pond was meant to be an experiment to see what life lived this way really has to offer.
Mark, Wes, and Dylan argue about how to best take Thoreau’s brand of opinionating, and what the ethical upshot of the attempt to live naturally is supposed to be. Read more about the topic and get the book.
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Listen to “Green Song” and “Idiot, Listen” By Mark Lint.
Fall is the time for remixes! For the Emerson episode, I finally finished a song recorded in (I think) 1998 (written in ’95), called “Idiot, Listen,” about how I should get off my ass and stop being depressed, given that my love life was in decent shape, the lack of which had always been my excuse for depression in my college years. It was basically done, but some of the tracks didn’t sound so great, but a lot of processing and a newly added kick drum on the 1 to glue things together make this sound as good as anything I freshly record now.
“Green Song” was recorded painstakingly in 1992 (the main guitar riff for the song was written in probably 1990, with the lyrics added the following year as I mooned in Ancient Philosophy class over some woman that I thought would be a better match for me than my current girlfriend) using a 1986 (?) Casio CZ-5000 keyboard, the same model whose capacity to design new sounds and program in a step-by-step manner had astounded me when my friend had one back in my high school band days, and the Tascam Portastudio 424 that I bought in 1991 and used through 1994.
I was able to load the sequencer and sound data back onto the Casio (from data stored on a cassette tape, before the days of disk drives!), eventually compensate for the motor on the Tascam now running decidedly slow and so making all the tracks slightly out of tune and out of time with the new recording of the sequencer, spend a crapload trying to make the taped tracks (which were already bounced so that the guitar, bass, and drums were crammed together into a mono soup, and all of which had a pretty horrible old reverb sound on them that can’t really be removed after the fact) sound decent, and uncountable hours later, voilà: a reasonably listenable version of this most psychedelic monstrosity, which represented the terminus of a certain direction in my songwriting that I will no doubt never retread.
Why call it “Green Song?” It’s because of the bridge section, which enters totally different sonic territory from the rest of the tune, and represents the emergence from mere dreamy drifting (the rest of the song) into a promised land of faux native noble savagery, complete with one’s “keen green soulio.” It should be evident that my opinion of such nature worship was and remains fairly low. Sorry, forest sprites and wood nymphs and swamp things! Making love on a bed of bug-infested leaves is grody!
Seth Paskin introduces Anarchy, State, and Utopia about libertarianism and the limits of legitimate government power. Watch for the full discussion to be released in a couple of weeks.
We are considering doing a 2015 PEL Calendar for the upcoming holiday season. It would be wall-mount, spiral or folded 24 page, 12 month calendar with PEL-style images (like this and this and this), fun quotes, significant dates, etc. In other words, a kick-ass gift for yourself or loved ones. We are going to try this the old fashioned way, aka get a bunch made and ship them ourselves vs. just-in-time fulfillment through a service. That lowers the cost to you but means money up front from us.
We figure the price to be in the neighborhood of $20 + shipping and handling ($5 US & CA, $10 International). May vary slightly based on demand but that’s going to be the ball park.
So we need to know before we commit that enough people are interested and would buy it. We figure the minimum number of takers to be 100. If you are definitely or maybe interested, please take the following survey. It’s short – just three questions. If you are not at all interested, no need to respond.
PEL 2015 Calendar Survey
-The PEL Guys
About an hour into their discussion the PEL guys (minus Seth) briefly grappled with the meaning of Emerson’s revolution. This revolution will be wrought, Emerson thought, by a “domestication of Culture” with a capital “C.” Should we take “domestication” to mean some kind of taming, or does it mean that “Culture” should be brought home in some sense? This revolution, Emerson prayed, would be more illustrious than any monarchy in history but how so? There are probably several good ways to answer these questions but I think Wes was right to describe this as Emerson’s call for a kind of “democratic elitism,” a deliciously oxymoronic idea.
This sort of “elitism” is an aspect of what Stanley Cavell describes as “Emersonian moral perfectionism.” If the Stanford Encyclopedia is right, “Stanley Cavell’s engagement with Emerson is the most original and prolonged by any philosopher, and Emerson is a primary source for his writing on ‘moral perfectionism.’” Unlike its counterpart in psychology, this kind of perfectionism is not about the impossible standards of a control freak. It’s not about flawlessness. Instead, Emerson’s version of philosophical perfectionism asks us to engage in a never-ending process of personal development. On this view, greatness is no longer the exclusive domain of generals, kings, and popes. It is a democratic elitism wherein the site of cultural and spiritual authority shifts from the aristocratic few to the democratic many. As the Stanford article explains it, Cavell’s development of this Emersonian perfectionism was prompted by the criticisms of John Rawls. (Rawls had explicitly rejected Nietzsche’s perfectionism but this was an implicit rejection of Emerson too.) In response, Cavell insists that this is not the elitism of dominant overlords but rather a widespread elitism that democracies need in order to remain healthy and democratic. As the Stanford Encyclopedia puts it,
Cavell replies that Emerson’s (and Nietzsche’s) focus on the great man has nothing to do with a transfer of economic resources or political power, or with the idea that ‘there is a separate class of great men…for whose good, and conception of good, the rest of society is to live.’ The great man or woman, Cavell holds, is required for rather than opposed to democracy: ‘essential to the criticism of democracy from within.’
I suppose Emerson would applaud Cavell’s sustained engagement and originality and you’ll probably want to read him carefully if you’re interested in Emerson, but Cavell is not a specialist in Emerson or anything else. He’s a unique voice and an interdisciplinary generalist. In fact, there is a relatively new journal dedicated to discussions of his work and, as necessity seemingly dictates, Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies is an interdisciplinary journal that “puts no restrictions on the nature of the dialogues, or the number of disciplines.” The first issue contains at least two articles on perfectionism, including one about the aforementioned dispute with Rawls, although you’d have to sign up to get access to them.
Unlike Cavell, Robert Pirsig’s engagement with Emerson was not at all prolonged and I’m not sure how original it was either. He quotes Emerson just once in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but mistakenly attributes the words to Thoreau. (“You never gain something but that you lose something.”) Despite this apparent lack of attention, there are still many reasons to suspect that Pirsig’s work, like the work of other classical pragmatists, is deeply influenced by Emerson.
A few years ago, while working on a Master’s thesis comparing Pirsig with William James, I wrote to Pirsig to ask him about this influence. “We were at Emerson’s house in Concord a few years ago and bought a book about him they recommended as the best,” he wrote. “I liked the start but got bogged down. If you’ll send your address, I’ll mail it to you.” Pirsig is not a huge fan, apparently, but the signed biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, makes a great souvenir and its author is highly respected. (Robert Richardson, the author of Emerson, also wrote the definitive biography of Emerson’s godson, titled William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.)
One of the reasons Pirsig “got bogged down” and didn’t finish Richardson’s biography, he wrote, is that “Emerson was an iconoclastic minister” and so “there is always a whiff of ministerial unction in his rhetoric.” I suppose many of Emerson’s readers are turned off by the smell of that ministerial unction. Despite these misgivings, Pirsig does agree with Emerson’s transcendentalism to some extent. These are the comments I found most interesting but they include some unfamiliar concepts that might need some explaining. For example, it might be helpful to know that “philosophology” is a term Pirsig invented to distinguish those he considered real philosophers from unoriginal historians of philosophy. This is very much like the difference between creative artists and art historians, with the latter being parasitic on the former. He uses the antiquated word “Chautauqua,” which was a traveling institution that offered edification and entertainment to adults in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, usually held outdoors in the summer, and it’s also the name of a resort town on Lake Chautauqua where this quasi-intellectual circus first began. Finally, Pirsig mentions his late friend, Bob DeWeese, who also appears as a character in Zen.
Whenever I see the suffix, ‘ism,’ I think ‘Oh-oh, here comes some philosophology,’ and shy away. I think that there is a narrow philosophological Transcendentalism that starts and ends with Emerson. But there is a philosophical Transcendentalism, a ground swell of cultural belief, that starts with the Protestant Revolution in Europe and ends with the Chautauquas when they were killed by radio in the 1920s. I think the cultural root of Transcendentalism is still here, dormant, and the reason ZMM ‘hit a nerve,’ as DeWeese once said, is that ZMM tapped into this root.
Here, I think, Pirsig wants to put Emerson’s revolution into a particular historical context so that the domestication of Culture is part of an ongoing process. If we think of the rise of Protestantism as a movement away from institutional authority and toward the authority of individuals, then Emerson’s vision is just one more step in that trend. This groundswell of cultural belief, then, is all about the diffusion of authority and autonomy so that ordinary people are increasingly the author of their own lives, as opposed to following the prescriptions of popes and kings and ancient books. In the pre-Modern period, large domains like art, science, religion, and politics were all rolled up into a single, undifferentiated central authority. The Modern period is marked by the attempt to set these domains free while affording a certain dignity and independence to these disciplines. This is also the period in which actual revolutions occurred and our Modern democratic impulses were increasingly formalized and institutionalized. Pirsig is saying that Emerson’s hopes and dreams for a revolution more illustrious than any monarchy in history is, I think, one piece in a larger puzzle. It’s one more step along the path that we’ve been walking for several centuries. Those who followed after Emerson, including people like Nietzsche, James, Dewey, and Pirsig, took us even further down that same road.
What is the fate of humanity as technology advances? This is a difficult question not least because we cannot anticipate the technological advances of the future. It is a very important philosophical question that Marx—as one example—took seriously. What we need to do is face this question with a realism that doesn’t succumb to naive optimism about the power of technology.
We have become stupefied by the future and technology through the feedback loop between scientific progress and technological advancement, argues Hans Jonas in “Toward a Philosophy of Technology.” So much so that we can no longer ask the questions “Do we really need this?” and “Is this really going to improve our lives?” It is an unquestioned assumption that technological advances are inevitable and always good.
Jonas, following his teacher Martin Heidegger, expressed an anxiety that we are unable to face how technology is going to change who we are. As Jonas writes, “[T]he despotic dynamics of the technological movement as such, sweeping its captive movers along its breathless momentum, poses its own questions to man’s axiological conception of himself.” The question before us in this regard might be: Why can we no longer be with nature without technologizing it, controlling it, dominating it? Heidegger expressed this clearly in an interview with Der Spiegel published in 1976:
Everything is functioning. That is precisely what is awesome, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth. I don’t know if you were shocked, but [certainly] I was shocked when a short time ago I saw the pictures of the earth taken from the moon. We do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us]—the uprooting of man is already here. All our relationships have become merely technical ones. It is no longer upon an earth that man lives today.
Heidegger, followed by his student Hans Jonas, saw how the increase in technology feeds back upon itself and escapes human agency. Technology takes on a life of its own, dislodging and uprooting humankind from the earth. Elsewhere Heidegger calls this anxiety “enframing” and “standing reserve” (in “The Question Concerning Technology“). The earth reveals itself as just another thing to be used. It is nothing to us, has no meaning or significance outside of its usefulness. This includes humans as well as nature.
Think of exploiting the earth through an “all of the above” energy plan that includes Fracking and Oil Sands. Consider private prisons which count people only insofar as they generate revenue. These may be indicative of the inevitable fate of a technological society. If we are not mindful, we become disconnected from the real struggles that humanity faces when confronted by technology. As with most aspects of our lives, we must be vigilant and thoughtful, which, if Heidegger is right, becomes harder the more functioning everything becomes.
In less than a week we’ll post the follow-up discussion to our Emerson podcast, recorded on 9/25/14, this time covering his friend and student Henry David Thoreau. We read the entirety of Walden, the tale of Thoreau’s two years living simply, which he refers to as the manner of philosophers. The bulk of the philosophical ideas are packed into the first six chapters (mostly the first two), plus we also focused on Ch. 11, “Higher Laws.”
The two main philosophical points are first, what self-reliance really amounts to if lived: it means living deliberately, according to your natural rhythms, and not getting sucked up into society’s damaging plans for you. This serves as a good precursor to our New Work episode: working a regular, full-time job is bad for you; it saps your life’s energy and restricts your freedom.
The second theme is anti-technology. Thoreau seems to think that no invention is really worth the effort: e.g. you could walk across the county in a day or two, but to afford a train ticket, you’d have to work for a week, and “the train ends up riding you.”
This latter theme launched our main point of contention. Yes, of course technology can often be a bad deal, and you should really look at the effects of a given innovation before rushing to embrace it, but of course the calculation re. its being worth it changes over time. For the above example, for instance, the calculation no longer works given how cheap transportation is. So was Thoreau, like Nietzsche or Emerson, just delivering a message to move society away from some immediate danger he saw, or was he the kind of guy to get stuck on a theme whether or not it actually makes sense in a given situation? For example, he also denounced the telegraph, on the grounds that people across the globe really don’t have anything worth saying to each other. Yet he praises the technological innovation of books, and would likely have approved of our use of high-tech communications to create this podcast that incites people to contemplation.
The rest of the book is an in-depth study of the natural world as he was exposed to it, with the changing seasons, and also comments on the people he met: like he meets this one very simple, original fellow, who was unlearned enough that his opinions came from only himself. This kind of simplicity of character sounds like something Thoreau would praise, but his verdict ends up being a mixed one: it’s not actually Thoreau’s goal to be simple and natural in the sense of actually acting like an animal. His “higher laws” like chastity end up involving distinctly human capacities. By trying to get us to be authentic individuals, he’s inveighing against more natural, herd-like human behavior. He’s not encouraging us to exert our Will to Power as a nice bit of nature does, but to take a broader view of the ecosystem, which only a human “overcoming nature” (a phrase he uses) can.
Buy the fancy 150 year anniversary edition of Walden that I read, read this online version with nice section breaks in it online, or listen to this perfectly passable librivox version (best at 1.5X speed!). We also referred sometimes to Thoreau’s famous essay “Civil Disobedience,” which you should definitely go ahead and read.
Just a few days later on 9/28/14, we were rejoined by Seth and by Slate‘s Stephen Metcalf (author of a notorious article that revived public debate about Nozick from a couple of years ago, “The Liberty Scam“), to discuss Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. We read chapters 1-3 and 7. This book came out in 1974 and revived libertarianism by giving it an academic stamp of approval. According to Metcalf, anyway, it was seen as just a fringe movement between WWII and that point, and so Nozick may well be one of the people responsible for the prevalence of anti-government sentiment in politics today.
The book paints its position on government power as mid-way between the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard (you can read Rothbard’s rejoinder to the book here) and the rights-oriented statism of John Rawls, whom he spends much chapter 7 arguing against. (You should definitely listen to our Rawls episode now if you haven’t already, before listening to the Nozick discussion.)
I’ll soon be posting a precognition by Seth (recorded last May before our first attempt at this discussion; that recording was loss due to a dead hard drive, and this was the soonest that we could get everyone on board to try again… it actually went much more smoothly this time, so you didn’t miss anything) largely talking about the transition from anarchy to the minimal kind of state Nozick approves of: the night-watchman state, where the state does have the power to forcibly collect taxes for the purpose of providing protection, including police, military, and enforcement of contracts, but nothing else. In particular, contra Rawls (and and contra Peter Singer, whose 1974 review of Nozick’s book from the New York Review of Books we also read), the government has no right to redistribute wealth.
This is part of a general, supposedly Kantian defense of individual rights, of the inviolability of persons, of never using someone “simply as a means” by violating their consent. Instead of seeing individual autonomy as something to be maximized by social action, as a goal to be achieved through positive political means, Nozick says we can only really respect individual rights by looking at non-interference as a “side-constraint” to action. If autonomy were a goal, then legislation might allow some violations for the sake of preventing more extensive violations. Instead, justice demands an absolute restriction: the government can’t interfere with rights (apart from the exception of taxation to support policing) without acting unjustly.
Now, this seems to make sense if we’re talking about not killing someone for the sake of the group, not unjustly imprisoning them, but how does even modest taxation qualify here? Nozick, in line with the tradition of focusing on distributive justice but really narrowing this to talk about money, is all and only concerned in most of this book with taxation, not about distribution of government offices, or voting (presumably, his doctrine would prohibit taxation to support public polling places, not to mention roads, certainly not education), or anything else.
Nozick borrows a pre-existing libertarian argument that taxation amounts to slave labor: by taking a portion of your income, the government is in effect forcing you to work that portion of your day that supports the tax for them, as much as if you were subject to being drafted into the Coast Guard or other part-time civil service.
Despite this old chestnut’s providing the core of Nozick’s view, it’s not the focus of his arguments, which center around an entitlement theory of justice: holdings are just so long as they were acquired lawfully, whether through making something yourself (here he draws on Locke’s labor theory of value), receiving it as wages or a gift, or through restitution for some past injustice. So no matter how much money you have, if you got it in one of those ways, then the government has absolutely no right to take any of it from you (apart from policing, an exception that is explained at length in the text but which, if you look at it closely, really opens the door to quite a lot of other proposed government actions).
Of course, given the amount of theft, conquest, and barbarism that current holdings are based on if you look back in history far enough, pretty much no current holdings should be regarded as clean. Nozick acknowledges that this may be a problem, but isn’t really interested in this practicality: he’s interested in what justice is, philosophically, what follows from the concept of justice itself. Justice is fundamentally historical, so that if no past injustice resulted in current holdings (in short, if you earned your money, or received it as a gift: this is not a matter of morally deserving the money, merely being entitled to it, which is is a term that is supposed to be in a certain sense morally neutral), then that’s the end of the story. There is no room in Nozick’s view for looking merely at the current distribution of holdings and deciding, for example, that there’s too much discrepancy between rich and poor, and moving to address that. Of course, people are free to give to charities or correct the disparities themselves, but given that government has a monopoly on physical force, it’s simply giving too much power to it to allow government officials to redistribute.
Nozick criticizes Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” as begging the question against the entitlement theory, or any other historical theory of justice. When behind the veil, by definition, we don’t know the history of transactions, i.e. whether holdings are (on Nozick’s view) just or not. Rawls is committed by this method in advance to some patterned view of justice. For Nozick, once you grant that justice lies in enforcing any pattern of holdings, then the government is committed to endlessly meddling in people’s lives to enforce the pattern.
Note that since government is the only one with the power of physical force, there’s no similar restrictions on actions by corporations or other private entities. Though Nozick (unlike the more extreme Rothbard) does recognize that a monopoly restricts choice (in line with Locke’s proviso, i.e. if your acquisition of a good affects the supply so that others can’t similarly acquire such a good through similar means, like if you take all the wood from the forest and make it into lumber), otherwise, there’s no recognition of any need to address vast disparities in power between the rich and the poor. No contract, if agreed to by both parties, is unfair, and the only recourse that employees have against employers is to join in a union with other like-minded workers (of course, you couldn’t then force others to join the union or otherwise prevent the employer from simply sacking the lot of you and hiring scabs).
The key to unraveling Nozick’s view is the distinction between micro and macro evaluations. “Micro” here refers to using your intuitions about specific instances of alleged injustice. “Macro” means determining what is unjust or not by reflecting on large-scale principles. Nozick uses this to argue against Rawls: Rawls, according to Nozick, uses the veil of ignorance to get our intuitive approval of basic principles of justice to apply to the whole society, but then ignores the many individual instances of injustice (where the government gets into people’s pockets) that this entails.
But of course, the latter are only deemed unjust if you’ve already bought into Nozick’s account of justice as entitlement. If you actually reflect on your intuitions, you’d probably feel, when a billionaire is taxed at 35% to pay for much of the infrastructure that enables him to live in a society where his customers have money to buy his products and his fellow citizens aren’t so impoverished that they’re going to come stab him in the neck, that this taxation is fine as far as justice goes.
Nozick, instead, is trying to undercut those everyday, common-sense intuitions by appealing to entitlement, which also uses the division between micro and macro. Intuitively, we do tend to think that, for instance, if you’ve got a pile of money, you have a right to pass that on to your heirs, or give it to whomever you want. That’s one micro transaction that looks OK. Likewise, if you throw just one empty beer bottle into the bushes, how is that really going to matter? But amazingly, contra Nozick, lots of kosher-looking micro activities, seen together through the macro picture, often lead to something objectionable. Surprise, surprise!
It looks like two groups are carrying over September’s readings, and another two will be starting a new books. At least a couple groups are still deciding whether to continue, so if you want to read something in their vein you probably still have time to jump in and encourage them. We’ve also got a number of potential groups still in the proposal stage, so be sure to check the Citizens’ Forum if you are looking for something to get involved with this month. If you like the podcast but haven’t joined up, please consider doing so. You’ll get access to Not School and a hearty share of other bonus material.
Our longest running group, the Philosophical Fiction Group, will be starting afresh with Roberto Bolano’s novella Distant Star. A recorded Skype discussion will follow at the end of the month, and new members are welcome.
Another mainstay, the Philosophy and Theater Group, will be continuing to study Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. A recorded discussion is planned for October 12, and anyone who can be familiar with the material by then is welcome to join in.
The group of folks making their way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time are continuing with that endeavor. I’m told they’re more than halfway through Div. 1 at this point and are still holding weekly meetings to discuss the book. Check out their page if you want to know more; and you can watch their initial discussions on YouTube without even signing up for a membership.
Finally, there’s a new group of people who will be reading Soren Kierkegaard’s essay “Fear and Trembling” (listen to PEL talk a bit about that here) and are also planning a live, recorded discussion to wrap up. See the proposal here for more info.
The other aforementioned proposals are for works by Akeel Bilgrami and Walter Ong, as well as to examine conservative thought and identity politics respectively. If any of that strikes your fancy, then go find their threads and help them get started, otherwise check back next month to see what’s new.
- Daniel Cole
Overseas fans scroll to the end for context.
Last Thursday the Washington football team lost 45-14 to the NY football Giants. The game was nationally televised and, as has so often happened in the last 20 or so years, the Redskins failed to rise to the occasion. After another embarrassing beatdown by a hated rival I, a long suffering fan, am ready yet again to renounce my allegiance and walk away from the team and league. The dark psychological side of fandom however, challenges this desire. It’s hard to escape the cult, to leave the abusive spouse.
My response is to work through an issue I have with the team. A therapeutic exercise if you will, like writing a letter you will never send to an ex-significant other or an absentee parent. Amid the latest couple of seasons of despair has arisen an old shadow on the legacy of the team: the name. “Redskins” may or may not in historical usage be a racial slur. The debate about it has, however, forced me to reflect and consider my own opinion. It’s tough because I’m a fan—I’m divided.
First some context on where I am emotionally with respect to my relationship and the team for full transparency. There is a reason people say “NFL” stands for “No Fun League.” The product of NFL Enterprises LLC© has become less and less watchable over the years as the focus has shifted from the players on the field to the sponsors, officials, talking heads in the booth, the stats, graphics, human interest stories, and dramatic vignettes. The NFL officiating crew of quinquagenarians and sexagenarians is overmatched, the expansive governing rules are byzantine, grotesque head and leg injuries have become ubiquitous and even expected. As a fan, if your team is winning it is easier to look past such disregard for the value of the product. If, like mine, your team is maddeningly, consistently, soul-crushingly inept, it is much harder to do so.
Washington’s fault lies with the owner, Daniel Snyder, who is ultimately accountable for the performance of the team. Snyder bought the team in 1999. During his tenure (not including this season) the team’s record has been 104-136, a 43% winning percentage. Empirically speaking, he is either a poor judge of talent (as are his coaches), a poor manager of talent, or both. The team and Mr. Snyder have failed not only to win; they have failed to repay my loyalty and that of their large fan base. They have not exchanged our consumer revenues for a quality product. If this were any other industry we would have switched vendors. The NFL, however, is a multi-billion-dollar, non-profit, tax-exempt monopoly operating in a decidedly un-free market, and “fandom” is not a true consumer activity.
The situation is made all the more ironic in that Mr. Snyder is a self-avowed, lifelong fan of the team as well and it is Mr. Snyder’s fandom that brings us back to the question of the team’s name. He has been defiant in his rejection of a team name change precisely because of his emotional connection to the team and its iconography since childhood. In an interview with USA Today he said, “We’ll never change the name.. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”
While there have been rumblings, protests, and actions for years against the use of “Redskins,” this past year has seen the most heated debate and national attention to the issue. A consortium of Native American tribes put together a commercial in protest of the name that aired during the NBA finals. Members of Congress openly called for the team to change its name (and the President chimed in), threatening the league’s anti-trust-exempt status. The US Patent and Trademark Office revoked the team’s trademark for the name on the grounds that it is disparaging to Native Americans. The team, in a response that can only be interpreted as indicating the seriousness with which it took these various actions, went beyond legal defense to create a goodwill organization called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, which “utilizes the national platform of professional sports organizations and their partners to address the challenges in the daily lives of Native Americans based on what Tribal leaders tell us they need the most,” as the mission states.
Since November 2013, Snyder and his staff have traveled to 26 Tribal reservations across 20 states–not only to listen, but to learn first hand about the views, attitudes, and experiences of the tribes. During those visits, Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation officials met with 400 Tribal leaders.
In a personal letter sent March 24 to Redskins fans, Snyder said it became clear that members of the Native American community “need action, not words.”
“The fact is, too many Native American communities face much harsher, much more alarming realities,” Snyder said. “I’ve listened. I’ve learned. And frankly, it’s heart wrenching. It’s not enough to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans. We must do more.”
(The irony that the name is not “Washington Redskins Redskins Foundation” has not gone unnoticed. Also, there is no website for the foundation that I have been able to locate.) A measure of the gravity of the issue is the fact that it was the subject of a South Park episode—indicating at least some measure of social currency.
I will not here rehearse the litany of arguments for and against the name. The bottom line is that the team and its sympathizers think the name is not a slur and represents something like honor, courage, and some other “virtues” that are assumed to be embodied by Native Americans (or at least some class of them). Opponents think the name is a slur, noting that no one ever calls a Native American a Redskin as a compliment, they don’t use it to refer positively to each other, and it has a checkered past in public usage. This comes down to a claim by one group that a term used by another to refer to the first is offensive. It is compounded by the fact that the first group is a historically oppressed—indeed genocidically so—minority and the latter not only the dominant, historically privileged majority but a protected subset thereof.
This is not only a moral, emotional, and political issue, it is also an economic one. Despite losing a majority of their games during the course of Mr. Snyder’s tenure the team remains one of the most valuable franchises in the league and one of the most valuable sports clubs in the world. The risk involved with any change to the team brand is high. It is not, however, unprecedented for established organizations to re-brand and to do so successfully. Snyder’s stance on the team’s name and the creation of a foundation indicate an emotionally charged, defensive, reactionary position from someone who knows there is something wrong with his opinion. If this is in fact true, I offer him now a positive, proactive solution that will not only resolve the name situation to the benefit of all involved but may offer a karmic redirection that improves the franchises prospects.
There are many teams with mascots that relate directly or indirectly to Native Americans. “Indians,” “Chiefs,” “Warriors,” and “Braves” being the most notable (incidentally, Washington of the NFL isn’t the only team with “Redskins” as its mascot). One well-known example is the Florida State Seminoles. While other teams were prohibited by the NCAA from using their traditional Native American mascot names and logos, Florida State was allowed to keep “Seminoles” as a name and their mascot, a face paint and costume wearing Chief Osceola who thrusts a flaming spear into the center logo on the field before each home game. The simple reason why Florida State is allowed to do this? They have the blessing of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Naturally the relationship between the Tribe and the University is multilayered and probably not 100% altruistic on either side. That said, the University’s solution was to not have a generic Native American mascot or name to which some one or another of the multitude of Native American tribes could object. The name and mascot are specific to one tribe (with ties to the region) and the University got that tribe’s permission to use it. This has the virtue of both adding meaning to the appropriation of the heritage and symbols by the University and immediately and completely eliminating dissent. Most likely the Tribe benefits financially through the relationship and has control of its image. You can see where I am going with this.
The Redskins should work with a tribe to change their name and mascot in a manner following the model set by Florida State. Preferably the tribe would be indigenous to the Washington, DC region but that isn’t strictly speaking necessary. An obvious choice would be the Powhatan tribe and Chief Powhatan. The tribe has a seminal place in American history, Chief Powhatan is a complicated and interesting figure, his daughter Pocahontas would provide a paired icon who would appeal to female fans and even the traditional dress and adornment of the tribe is not radically different from the current team logo design. Add in a possible strategic partnership with Disney to leverage their Pocahontas franchise and draw in the kids as well as driving the massive fan base to replace existing merchandise (jerseys, hats, scarves, rugs, mugs, underwear, flags, etc.) and you have a marketing bonanza beyond the front office’s wildest dreams.
If Powhatan, Nanticoke, Pamlico, Tuscarora, Tutelo or Catawba don’t work Mr. Snyder and team can look elsewhere. Find one with a legacy and preferably a present that embody all of the virtues the team supposedly values and create a relationship that is mutually beneficial. This would put an end to the objections, renew the image of the team, and create a merchandising opportunity surpassing his wildest dreams. And maybe, just maybe, he could truly use the team as a platform for educating people about—a specific—Native American culture.
By the standard measure of success in football, wins, Snyder has been a below average leader. The team could use a karmic shift to get back to the winning ways they embodied before he bought the team. There is no evidence that such a shift will come through the management efforts he has employed the last 15 years. I suggest he change things up—beginning with the name.
“Football” in this post refers to the American style of the game, played by massive men in sides of 11 decked out in 14 kilos of gear ostensibly to protect them but which simply enables ever escalating violent behavior. The team based in Washington, DC is and has been embroiled in a controversy about its name, which may or may not be a racial slur for the indigenous peoples of America known now politically correctly as “Native Americans.” Yours truly (Seth) has been a fan of said Washington franchise since the early 1980s, a time during which the team won frequently and had a culture of excellence. Over the last 20 years or so the team has been at best mediocre, at worst exceedingly poor excepting a golden, shining moment three years ago when a first-year quarterback (you’ll have to Google that one) led the team to a division championship and hinted at great things to come that, predictably, have not materialized.
If you ever sign up for a class on Pragmatism, there’s a good chance you’ll find Emerson on the syllabus. In fact, you’re likely to find “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” among the earliest reading assignments. Emerson was a poet and a prophet rather than a philosopher but his vision deeply informed American Pragmatism, particularly the Pragmatism of William James. Emerson was James’ godfather and often dined with the James family but Emerson’s influence on the American psyche is much broader than this bit of historical trivia might suggest.
What is the Emersonian vision? As I read him, he describes reality as essentially dynamic and, as part of that reality, we are fundamentally creative beings. As Dylan points out about 90 minutes into the latest PEL podcast, Emersonian souls “are an act in progress.” Or, as Emerson himself put it, “the soul becomes.” If Dylan is right, this is as close as Emerson gets to giving us an ontology of the self and Emerson was doing a kind of process philosophy. Similarly, Mark’s treatment of “Circles” about 105 minutes into the podcast reveals a picture of the Emersonian soul in a constant state of growth wherein the aim is to overcome the self or transcend it over and over in ever-wider orbits. I like to imagine this as something like Maslow’s developmental hierarchy transposed onto a series of nested spheres or concentric circles.
The American Scholar could rightly be taken as Emerson’s attempt to summon a young nation, as if he were encouraging the country to stand on its own cultural feet. “In the right state,” Emerson says of the American scholar, “he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” Emerson was trying to help a newborn country overcome its cultural inferiority complex, so to speak. But this call to creativity and originality can also be read at a more visionary or philosophical level so that “Man Thinking” is understood not in terms of national pride but as the Emersonian soul, that fundamentally creative self existing in an essentially dynamic reality. There’s a key moment in “The American Scholar” wherein this call for originality seems to be elevated or vastly enlarged. “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments,” Emerson says. “When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” On one level he’s just talking about the relative importance of books, as opposed to something more directly read and something more “precious.” But what does it mean to say that Man Thinking “must not be subdued by his instruments” or to say that a person “can read God directly”?
It’s not easy to say what Emerson means by “God.” Plausible interpretations could construe it as the God of the Unitarians (a term of abuse coined by Trinitarians), a Platonic God, Spinoza’s God, a Hegelian God, the supreme deity of Hinduism, the Tao of Taoism, or as the all-pervasive presence of pantheism. The array of possibilities can be frustrating and one might be tempted to conclude that this lack of clarity is a result of Emerson’s religious zeal, his poetic excesses, or even his weakness as a thinking man. Should we dismiss his preaching as a quaint (and slightly embarrassing) antique or otherwise bracket out this part of Emerson’s work? I think it wouldn’t be too far-fetched or too generous to read Emerson as a mystic, in which case there are some very good reasons why Emerson’s God would be so hard to pin down. Even further, if we read him as a philosophical mystic, his vision doesn’t necessarily entail any kind of theism. In that case, his preaching doesn’t need to be bracketed out but rather read as a poetic form of expression that’s not to be taken literally. As Robert Pirsig writes in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals,
Some of the most honored philosophers in history have been mystics: Plotinus, Swedenborg, Loyola, Shankaracharya and many others. They share a common belief that the fundamental nature of reality is outside language; that language splits things up into parts while the true nature of reality is undivided. Zen, which is a mystic religion, argues that the illusion of dividedness can be overcome by meditation. The Native American Church argues that peyote can force-feed a mystic understanding upon those who were normally resistant to it, an understanding that Indians had been deriving through Vision Quests in the past.
A common belief among mystics (that reality is outside of language) needs to unpacked but first I’d offer an informative little digression. It’s worth mentioning that Plotinus is a favorite for both Emerson and Pirsig and that Emerson and William James’s father, Henry Sr., were both Swedenborgians. (It’s easy to imagine that William James was exposed to Swedenborgian mysticism at the family’s dinner table.) Swedenborg is probably the most influential person that you never heard of. As Wikipedia tells it, people influenced by Swedenborg include Blake, Borges, Arthur Conan Doyle, Emerson, Jung, Kant, Helen Keller, D.T. Suzuki, and Yeats. His philosophy was also ridiculed as foolishness, insanity and blasphemy. A heresy trial was initiated against his writings and against two of his followers in 1768. Eugene Taylor barely mentions Emerson but paints a picture of Swedenborg’s influence on Pragmatism in his essay “Swedenborgian Roots of American Pragmatism: The Case of D.T. Suzuki.” As was mentioned in a previous profile, the late Eugene Taylor was considered to be some kind of reincarnation of William James. A person could spend an entire career exploring all the connections suggested by all this but let’s return to this assertion of mysticism. What does it mean to say that reality is outside of language?
Is there a way to talk about this notion without sounding like a preacher, a Zen meditator, a peyote eater, or a vision quester? Yes, and that’s what the Pragmatism of James and Pirsig is all about. As James writes in Some Problems of Philosophy, “there must always be a discrepancy between concepts and reality, because the former are static and discontinuous while the latter is dynamic and flowing.” Pirsig quotes this line from James as a summary of his own view and explains how he was pleasantly surprised to discover that “James had chosen exactly the same words” for this distinction as he had. On this view, the philosophical mystic is saying that reality is too big and rich and ever-changing to be adequately captured by our thought categories or to be adequately described in words. Man Thinking, Emerson says, “must not be subdued by his instruments” (language and concepts) but should instead “read God directly” (have direct acquaintance with pre-verbal, pre-conceptual experience). From this perspective, Emerson, philosophical mysticism, and Jamesian pragmatism are all making the same basic assertion about the relation between concepts and the immediacy of lived experience.
I think that theologians often construe this notion to mean that it’s a sin or a moral violation to utter the name of God and this prohibition is sometimes expressed in terms that suggest humans are simply unworthy of speaking the name and must cower before the majesty of the divine Creator. But as James and Pirsig present it, the ineffable reality is not a divine being or a supernatural entity at all and the reason we cannot speak of it is based on what we might call epistemic humility: an acknowledgement that words and concepts are limited in their power to capture truth. The ineffable is ineffable not because of its majesty or magical powers but because it is more basic, simple, and direct than language. From this perspective, Emerson’s “God” is what Pirsig calls “a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.”
If Emerson’s “God” is taken as poetic or metaphorical reference to this mystic reality, then its vagueness and openness to interpretation can be seen as fitting and proper. He’s not going to offer any precise definitions because he’s convinced that none are possible. This is what James says about his own “pure experience” and what Pirsig says about his own equivalent term, “Quality.”
Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates.This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate, and direct.
Pirsig had some pretty interesting things to say about Emerson and Transcendentalism, things that have never been published or otherwise shared with anyone. But that deserves a post of its own. Until then, go tell your instruments that they work for you and not the other way around.
Anyone reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) for the first time is likely to be taken by his call to us, his Dear Readers, to trust in ourselves, be our own persons, arrive at our own insights. He writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” And no surprise that the language Emerson uses is so gripping. He was a Unitarian minister so his essays have a grand style to them. I could easily imagine these essays or something like them being read in front of a church congregation and inspiring those people just as they still do today. The main idea that underlies “Self-Reliance” and other works by Emerson is what philosopher Charles Taylor has called the Ethics of Authenticity, which involves individuals seeking the good life for themselves, on their own terms.
That the Ethics of Authenticity is the implicit thesis to Emerson’s essay is undeniable when we look at representative passages that encourage us to follow our own path and arrive at intellectual and moral virtues on our own terms. Emerson writes that in the work of so-called great men and women, we will read insights that we have had ourselves, if only we take a moment to reflect on the fact. He writes,
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
Recognizing our own thoughts in the thoughts of “bards and sages” will remind us of how much wisdom we already possess and should inspire us not to conform to the conventions of our society and our traditions but to bring to them our own original inspiration.
Recognizing our thoughts in the words of great figures of the past could be one sort of tipping point to lead the sorts of lives we above all see fit, but Emerson believes that for each individual there could be still other tipping points, which come in the form of a kind of intellectual and moral maturity. He writes,
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the convention that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universal is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
It is, according to Emerson, through the exercise of our own creative energies, that we discover who we are and what we can do, but we cannot know unless we trust these creative powers and put them to use.
Emerson has little good to say about society in contrast to the individual. He believes that society is anathema to the Ethics of Authenticity, what he calls “self-reliance,” believing, trusting, relying on oneself to lead the life one wants. Emerson writes,
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. [Society] loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Being self-reliant, in contrast, is about not conforming to these social norms. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance is a celebration of the individual par excellence.
When we read passages like the ones above, we are probably faced with one of two kinds of intuitions. One kind of intuition tells us that we too feel compelled as he does to praise the individual in all his pursuits above all others because this is after all what we want for ourselves. We want to be able to pursue the good life on our own terms, without interference from others, without being forced to meet someone else’s ideal of the good life. We can freely make use of the goods that our society presents us, to be sure, but it is ultimately up to us to do what we want with our lives. Indeed, on one reading of Socrates’s advice, he encouraged just such a form of psychological egoism: Not only do we seek what is good for ourselves but we ought to be free to pursue what is good for ourselves.
The sort of objection we might have to this intuition is met by a second, competing intuition we might have. There is also something alarming or off-putting about Emerson’s self-reliance. Taken at face value, Emerson’s claims appear to throw aside social norms and traditions too readily, as if they have nothing to teach us about how we ought to live. And furthermore we have all met people who seem to operate off of some conception of how to live like Emerson’s who have no idea what they’re doing in life and go around making trouble for the rest of us. Extreme cases come in the form of criminals or sociopaths, who act without conscience, and the milder cases can be seen in the likes of people who have no qualms about lying or cheating to get what they want or who flout convention just for its own sake.
Lest the Reader think I am being unfair to Emerson, “Self-Reliance” contains several passages that would attest to a belief that the individual is so important that intellectual, moral, and legal norms ought to have no bearing on individual behavior. He writes,
No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he.”—“I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.
This flouting of any sort of norm extends for Emerson to putative obligations to help the poor, for example, and to contribute to public goods:
[D]o not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb to give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
No one, in Emerson’s view, ought to tell us what to do with our money, our resources, or are lives. We are free to lead them any way we wish, trusting in our own virtues.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what it is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
It is easy enough to argue that these notions are self-evident. But is it possible to square the competing notions that (A) we ought to, with Emerson, favor the individual’s ability and right to make his own choices while paying little heed to convention, and (B) the suspicion that there will always be those who, neglecting social, moral, and legal norms, act to his own detriment, or worse, to society’s detriment? Earlier I said that Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance is a kind of formulation of the Ethics of Authenticity, which states that we get to decide what the good life is for us, and no tradition, society, or government can tell us what that is. Arguably and ironically, the Ethics of Authenticity is the tradition that most of us living in contemporary, Western society believe, whether we know it or not. Nowadays it is mainstream to believe that no one ought to tell us how to lead our lives when we begin to have certain freedoms curtailed. Think of how people would feel in the United States if, say, the draft were re-instituted for military service. Right or wrong, there would be a public outcry. This is because most Americans would argue that mandatory military conscription violates our ability to decide for ourselves what we want to do with our lives.
The Ethics of Authenticity is inescapable, and Emerson’s particular iteration of it with the concept of self-reliance—a refusal to accept an obligation to conform to social norms in formulating our decisions about the good life—is so widely accepted as to be futile to militate against. Nevertheless, there is value in exploring the particular traditions and norms that Emerson does believe are valuable in order to help us decide what he thinks is important. This in turn might be helpful in making up our minds for ourselves about what a good life amounts to.
Taylor refines these concepts in The Ethics of Authenticity (1992) when he writes,
…authenticity (A) involves (i) creation and construction as well as discovery, (ii) originality, and frequently (iii) opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what we recognize as morality. But it is also true… that (B) requires (i) openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that saves it from insignificance) and (ii) a self-definition in dialogue. That these demands may be in tension has to be allowed. But what must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other, of (A), say, at the expense of (B), or vice versa.
In other words, the Ethics of Authenticity is about creation, originality, and opposition to norms within the context of pre-existing ideas. It is a stand taken in a long dialogue concerning the role of the concepts used. And Emerson’s own ideal involves a background assumption about how human nature works.
Creation, originality, and nonconformity in the form of self-reliance ought and can arise in an individual vis-a-vis mass society, the church, the State, and other institutions because human beings are endowed by their Creator with moral and intellectual capacities that function best in a free environment. Emerson takes a strong stance on the side of the primacy of the individual’s decisions over and against institutions. He makes clear why this is so. Emerson’s admonition for us to trust our own morality against anything thrown up by society lapses into moral relativism—unless we are aware that people, in their natural environments, can interact perfectly well because we are endowed with moral and intellectual instincts toward the greater good. These instincts play out best, Emerson argues, in a context in which they have little to no constraints. This view of human nature clarifies Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance. He writes,
We live in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.
Emerson advises that we follow our own moral sense and enact the principles that we see fit. Better this way with respect to our traditions and norms than to err by accepting such traditions and norms blindly.
If it were not for the endowment of this moral and intellectual sense (which Emerson thinks is endowed by God), would Emerson be so quick to encourage us to be self-reliant? I think if Emerson did not believe in moral and intellectual instincts he would not have encouraged self-reliance. But to imagine human beings incapable of moral and intellectual strength would be to imagine a different world. We can assume that we have these instincts, otherwise we would not be able to so readily make intellectual and moral decisions across the wide range of situations we already do. Emerson’s self-reliance is important, therefore, for helping us understand the shaping of an American ethos, and the Ethics of Authenticity more generally helps inform our contemporary understanding. As Charles Taylor writes, The Ethics of Authenticity “points us towards a more self-responsible form of life. It allows us to live (potentially) a fuller and more differentiated life, because more fully appropriated as our own. There are dangers… But at its best authenticity allows a richer mode of existence” compared to alternatives.
There are many great, mind-bending science fiction films that, for whatever reason, are worth watching over and over, if only to suss out what actually happened. Coherence, the most ironically titled movie to come along in a while, is not one of them.
Fans of science fiction, and science fiction films especially, could probably name dozens. The first that come to my mind are Memento and, more recently, Looper. Primer, which tells the story of smart but basically average guys who mistakenly invent a time machine, is arguably the Citizen Kane of mind-benders. It makes Back to the Future look like an episode of “Golden Girls.” I’ve seen Primer three times and studied timelines and explanations of the film, but I still don’t really get it.
These kinds of movies are of special interest to philosophically inclined geeks because they are not just fun in the way any action or sci-fi film might be fun. (Primer, famously, was shot on a shoestring with no special effects and no settings more interesting than a storage locker.) They also attempt to deal, in as rigorous a fashion as possible, with the vast metaphysical implications and problems that arise in a world where time travel and parallel worlds are possible. They are difficult because the topic itself is difficult.
And yet, you watch them a few times and you begin to sense that they are in fact logically coherent, and even seem plausible in some sense. They work hard to establish and reveal the laws of their alternative world, and then they stick to them.
But not Coherence. Coherence is mostly incoherent, not just in the sense that it is hard to understand. It is also hard to understand because its parts do not cohere, making the film difficult for the wrong reasons.
Any serious consideration of parallel worlds is bound to perplex—try wrapping your head around modal realism or the general-audience books by theoretical physicists Brian Greene and Michio Kaku and you’ll see what I mean. And yet, one can forgive a filmmaker for seeing it as a fertile subject, and not just because of its formal or narrative possibilities: Greene and Kaku, et al., represent a community of physicists who admit that it’s only the math—not empirical observation—that points toward the reality of eleven dimensions and an ensemble of universes, but stress that statements such as “only the math” could lead to underestimations of literally cosmic proportions.
So the idea is out there, as it has been for a while, which I suppose comforted this film’s creators enough to spend only about the time it takes to watch the movie on working out all its details. The worst thing about Coherence, however, is that, though some of the ideas are undoubtably compelling, it is not rewatchable at all. Not in the slightest. The characters are two-dimensional, even by the relatively low standards of a science fiction film, and the dialogue is lazy and grating.
Assuming you’ve seen it or have no interest in seeing it, I should offer a quick refresher/summary: A group of loathsome quasi-yuppies gather for a dinner party on a night when a comet happens to be passing through the night sky. It turns out that all the worst pre-modern superstitions about comets are true, because comets really can cause all kinds of strange and terrible things to happen. In this case, it rains down a kind of poetic justice tailor-made for an increasingly narcissistic age: The single timeline, where there is exactly one of everything, bursts open to create a possibly infinite number of similar but somehow different things. They find themselves trapped in a world where there are countless identical houses with identical dinner guests. For them, the world really is all about them. From the outset it is established that this moment, the appearance of the comet, is the exact moment when one reality became many, which is important to remember, as we will see. (I am willing to give Coherence one benefit of a single doubt: This type of alternate-world scenario—though it is the least interesting from a cinematic point of view—could be seen as partly satirical since it is the most mundane. I’d like to think that if there were an alternate version of me out there in the multiverse, he is not exactly the same guy, sitting at a computer writing a movie review; if not a Nobel Prize laureate perhaps a writer with better hair or fewer Star Wars figures.)
My first real pang of regret upon seeing this movie came about a quarter of the way through, just as they are realizing how deep the shit they are in really is. Someone mentions Schrödinger’s Cat. I’m not sure why, except that it too is soooo weird. He gives a stripped down, though not inaccurate retelling of the thought experiment, and then another character gives us the moral: “We can be both dead and alive at the same time!” See? Just like the cat. Except this is not quite the point of the Gedankenexperiment, at least not as I’ve come to understand it. It’s not just that a thing can be two completely different things at the same time. This would be difficult enough to justify. Rather, Schrödinger designed the hypothetical scenario to show that it is the act of observation itself that produces the results. This idea is, when you think about it, far more profound because of its implications for experience, even if cats and people don’t generally behave like subatomic particles.
I don’t mean to say that a sci-fi movie should be held to the same standards as philosophers and scientists. However, this missing-of-the-point reflects the central flaw of the movie: It’s a very lazy take on a topic stuffed with narrative possibilities. To wit: It is revealed that one of the dinner guests has probably slept with the wife of one of the other dinner guests. (Before the night of the dinner.) The cuckold confronts the cuckolder, willing to give him a chance to explain himself because, not only are they best buds and he just doesn’t want to believe it, but because all of existence has gone haywire and no one knows what is real and what isn’t anymore. Then, all of a sudden, the cuckolder reveals his understanding of basic metaphysics: He had sex with the wife before the Event, which means, as he puts it, he didn’t just sleep with her in one of the possible worlds but in every possible world, since all possible worlds are derived from the one they are currently in. Then he gets punched in the face.
This single interaction reveals how the issues of free will and causality (issues that are very relevant to practical areas of philosophy such as ethics and epistemology) are related to the topic of parallel worlds, which, as far as we know, is more of a philosophical playground that allows us to explore how topics like ethics and epistemology ought to work. I enjoyed how the characters immediately begin to employ simple, everyday objects such as glow sticks, photographs and Sharpies to try and keep track of who is who: The first thing the comet did was fry everyone’s cell phones, which I suppose would be a likely result of one reality shattering into a possibly infinite number of realities.
The real problem with Coherence, however, is this: The dinner guests assume that their alternate selves are somehow very different from their “actual” selves. But why? If they know the exact moment when the single timeline branched off into many, wouldn’t that be the moment when new decisions and thus new outcomes and new selves would be produced? This is never seriously addressed. Instead, everyone assumes that their alternate selves are somehow better or worse versions of their “actual” selves. They do this despite the fact that they have interacted with some of their alternate selves, who are similar in every way, with the same clothes and the same photographs. Sure, they can’t be absolutely certain that their other selves are really the same, but we have to assume that, since Mike really did sleep with Beth before the Event, most of the causal chain that led them to this night is the same. Same causal chains, same people (I would argue).
The movie ends with Emily, who is a pretty blonde and therefore the closest the film comes to having a central protagonist, leaving the house, walking down the street and peering in through the windows of the other houses on the block. She finds every house to be the same, with every house populated by the same group of people, i.e., her and her friends. In some realities they are screaming at each other, while in others they are lazing on the couch sipping cabernet and chatting about—who knows, whatever it is white people chat about when they sit on couches and drink cabernet. In other words, as I said, the other realities aren’t too different from the original one. It’s possibly the most boring and uninspired way to depict alternate realities—but in some sick, unintentionally satirical way, the most realistic one. Emily, being a barely developed character in a barely developed film, cares about one thing only: Her boyfriend, Kevin, who is kind of a jerk. We know this because he kissed Laurie, an ex-girlfriend who now dates one of the other guys at the party and who must also be kind of a jerk because he invited her, knowing Kevin would be there. Also, Kevin’s memory of a day with Emily at the fair doesn’t seem to mean quite as much to him as it does to her. So she finds another house/reality, one where Emily-two is snuggling with Kevin-two, deduces from this that Kevin-two is somehow not a jerk, kills Emily-two and takes her place.
Thus, one of my theses about parallel realities is proven: Just as there might be a parallel world with unicorns or where I go to the gym more but there could not be a parallel world where 1 plus 1 equals 4, there could never be a parallel world where there are movies in which pretty white women care about anything except having great boyfriends.
But the real question is this: If it has been established that there was a single timeline that branched into many and we know when that happened, why is Emily assuming that the Kevin-two she finds is any less of a jerk than Kevin-one? Because he likes PDA and has a higher opinion of fairs? Are we really to believe that something happened since the Event to change his mind about Emily?
The best one could say in the movie’s defense is that people are people and they believe what they want to believe, even when really weird things happen. I can accept that. But I also find that kind of takeaway, in a science-fiction film, to be trivial, as well as insipid when the stakes are no greater than those of a second-rate reality show.
Whether the film is truly incoherent or the characters are just completely forgettable might, in the end, be up to the viewer. I can forgive either one of those missteps. Not both. If Coherence were philosophically challenging and rigorous but kind of boring (like Primer) or fun but not especially profound (like Looper) I’m sure I’d have something very different to say about it. But it is neither, which makes it terrible in every possible world.
In our Emerson discussion, Wes and Dylan didn’t seem too interested in trying to figure out Emerson’s religious/metaphysical views, which were drawn on in the essays we read but which were not their central feature. I think (as does Thoreau, who incidentally we’re talking about next) that reading him in a secular vein is ultimately more rewarding, but my complaints about how unsatisfying Emerson’s explanations of his metaphysics were by necessity just hung there in the conversation. Given that Emerson is primarily known as a transcendentalist, and that’s actually supposed to mean something, this is my attempt to fill in the picture a bit with some quotes from his essay, “The Over-Soul,” which was published along with “Self-Reliance” in 1841).
From the first paragraph of the essay we see the foundation is supposed to be in our experience. He says that “our faith comes in moments… Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”
However, he immediately then states:
For this reason, the argument which is always forthcoming to silence those who conceive extraordinary hopes of man, namely, the appeal to experience, is for ever invalid and vain. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope. He must explain this hope. We grant that human life is mean; but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim? …The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. …Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.
So this is not ordinary phenomenology, but an appeal to interpret a certain nagging sense we have in a certain way. This is pretty typical of religion, and of course the experience radically underdetermines any particular type of religious doctrine. But as Emerson denounces religious doctrine, he’s surely aware of this, and is discussing the unknowable in much the same way as Schleiermacher.
But Emerson does not remain in silence, saying “we know not whence” comes our sense of something greater than the drab immediacy of material existence. The third paragraph of the essay states:
The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest… that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart… We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.
So we’ve got a clear statement of the oneness of all creation here, not just the unity of people. The portions of the above paragraph that I left out for brevity indicate more the fundamentally ethical character of this oneness:
…Of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.
That paragraph continues:
And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith. Every man’s words, who speaks from that life, must sound vain to those who do not dwell in the same thought on their own part. I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall short and cold. Only itself can inspire whom it will, and behold! their speech shall be lyrical, and sweet, and universal as the rising of the wind. Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.
More standard religious talk here: if you don’t agree with this “experience” of oneness, with this Platonic take on beauty and virtue flowing from some fundamental metaphysical ground with which we are always in touch but which we seldom get a clear glimpse of, then you “do not dwell in the same thought,” i.e. you haven’t had the same esoteric, religious experience; you haven’t gotten a glimpse. The appeal to “hope” earlier is not that different from an appeal to faith: you could interpret your experience of beauty and goodness as being nothing at all like the Platonic picture, e.g. you might think that our current ethics and aesthetics are the result of a long train of evolutionary accidents and semi-random cultural development, but why don’t you not interpret things in that way? (See William James make this point.)
Emerson says that experience “constrains us” (presumably the “us” means only those not corrupted in some unspecified way) to give an analysis involving the divine. This was too early in the geist of religious development–before “God is dead” and all that–to fess up to the choice involved (a la Kierkegaard’s leap of faith), that experience doesn’t really “constrain” us to interpret the world in religious terms, that doing so is a hermeneutic strategy, and that the “overpowering reality” of the divine is only overpowering once you’ve implicitly accepted the religious world view.
OK, so he’s not trying to convince the skeptic, and faith is involved. Big deal. Maimonides falls into that category, and he still provided us with a good deal of philosophical meat to chew on. Like, what is this Over-Soul exactly? How do we interact with it? If I am you and you are me and we are altogether, why can’t I read your thoughts? Or is this essay just another sermon, pretty much valueless to anyone not sharing its fundamental premise and merely inspirational (as opposed to actually enlightening) to one of the faithful? Is this just like a religious pep talk before the big game? Let’s read on:
…The soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie, — an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.
OK, so contra Sartre, Emerson here is stating (certainly not arguing) that there is a transcendental Subject, i.e. an absolute “I” that is the one that experiences, wills, etc. So what individuates me from you? Only a different particular set of things experienced, i.e. nothing essential about the Subject at all. It would be a small leap (though still one requiring explanation which I don’t see here) to venture that really there’s only one Subject, one seer who sees through different eyes. But still, wouldn’t we expect if that were the case to be able to more than just metaphorically see through each others’ eyes?
He then describes further how we only get a glimpse of this reality, yet nothing separates us from it. Then we get:
The sovereignty of this nature whereof we speak is made known by its independency of those limitations which circumscribe us on every hand. The soul circumscribes all things. As I have said, it contradicts all experience. In like manner it abolishes time and space. The influence of the senses has, in most men, overpowered the mind to that degree, that the walls of time and space have come to look real and insurmountable; and to speak with levity of these limits is, in the world, the sign of insanity. Yet time and space are but inverse measures of the force of the soul.
So why do we think that the Subject is independent of time and space? Because we buy some Kantian theory that says that time and space are something that our psychology adds in order to create our experience?
Schopenhauer made a mistake when he concluded that because time and space (and number, etc.) are features of our experienced world, then they could not be features of the thing-in-itself that lurks behind the objects we experience. On this view, we simply can’t know what the thing-in-itself is really like.
Similarly, here Emerson is saying that the Subject, because it exists beyond any particular experience, can definitely be said to have different qualities than any of those experiences, that consciousness itself (as opposed to consciousness of material objects or things we think about, i.e. our individual stream of consciousness) is not temporal. I see no justification for thinking this.
Emerson then talks about how inspirational intellectual work is, how art uplifts us, how the soul “has no dates, nor rites, nor persons, nor specialties, nor men.” Yes, yes, I agree that all this analytical getting bogged down in particulars, much less mundane particulars, can be a drag, and that music and beautiful sunsets and all that are a necessary release for our well-being.
And how does the “soul advance?” We hear that, morally, the soul rises “not into a particular virtue, but into the region of all the virtues” and that “To the well-born child, all the virtues are natural, and not painfully acquired. Speak to his heart, and the man becomes suddenly virtuous.” I think these claims are just plain false, but as they’re irrelevant to the metaphysics, I won’t dwell on them.
Here’s something that sounds like Plato’s Symposium:
Persons are supplementary to the primary teaching of the soul. In youth we are mad for persons. Childhood and youth see all the world in them. But the larger experience of man discovers the identical nature appearing through them all. Persons themselves acquaint us with the impersonal. In all conversation between two persons, tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature. That third party or common nature is not social; it is impersonal; is God.
So we have the claim that we grasp the universal through the particular (this is what getting concepts is all about), and that communication of any sort requires a common standard. The latter point raises an interesting issue. Insofar as the common standard is linguistic (or otherwise symbolic), then it’s surface-level, it’s an abstraction, it’s not getting at the deep and inexpressible. So he can’t be talking about that as the “implicit reference.” More likely, he’s talking about a shared life-world, or rather, the assumption (the hope!) that each one of us has that the person we’re talking to (insofar as we can “relate to” him or her) has a common base of experience, i.e. “knows what we’re talking about” instead of merely being competent in using the words we’re using. The existentialist will stress that this feeling is an illusion, that each of us has our own, separate experience (we all die alone!). Since both he and Emerson are reacting to the same human condition, again, this seems a matter of how we interpret this same data. The data underdetermines its interpretation (of course), so that how we choose to interpret things is a matter of, well, maybe not choice, but at least some creativity. Emerson has advised us to be individuals, to not go along with the crowd or even adopt his own (Emerson’s) point of view, to call it like we see it, and in following his advice, I think that both of these contrary interpretations (the world is warm and unified vs. the world is cold and isolating) are equally groundless, reflective more of the mood we’re in on a given day than anything more profound.
The soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth. We know truth when we see it, let skeptic and scoffer say what they choose. Foolish people ask you, when you have spoken what they do not wish to hear, ‘How do you know it is truth, and not an error of your own?’ We know truth when we see it, from opinion, as we know when we are awake that we are awake… In the book I read, the good thought returns to me, as every truth will, the image of the whole soul. To the bad thought which I find in it, the same soul becomes a discerning, separating sword, and lops it away. We are wiser than we know. If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know the particular thing, and every thing, and every man. For the Maker of all things and all persons stands behind us, and casts his dread omniscience through us over things.
So if you don’t agree with Emerson, or are otherwise skeptical, you’re “foolish” and denying the truth that is in yourself. Nice.
But beyond this recognition of its own in particular passages of the individual’s experience [he's talking here about good art tapping into the universal], it also reveals truth. And here we should seek to reinforce ourselves by its very presence, and to speak with a worthier, loftier strain of that advent. For the soul’s communication of truth is the highest event in nature, since it then does not give somewhat from itself, but it gives itself, or passes into and becomes that man whom it enlightens; or, in proportion to that truth he receives, it takes him to itself.
This is pure theology, moving to a “worthier, loftier” tone. What does it mean to say that the soul “gives itself, or passes into and becomes that man whom it enlightens”? So the soul here is no longer the “transcendental Subject,” i.e. the knower who looks out of all of our eyes as we pour our cereal or look for street signs or make sure all the feces have flushed properly. The soul only “enters” us from time to time as we get a glimpse of the divine. So the starting point in talking about the soul was to explain perception, but now he’s saying that it’s only part of perception, leaving perception itself (and the subject of perception) unexplained.
So let’s be charitable and say that, yes, the individual soul is the transcendental Subject, and yes, all such Subjects are technically One, i.e. they are the Over-soul, but it’s only occasionally, during moments of revelation, when we actually experience ourselves as One, as the Over-soul, and can use the metaphor in that case of it “entering into us” even though really, it’s been in us all the time. So on this interpretation, Emerson is not incoherent, merely careless in his use of words.
OK, so we get these glimpses, these incursions of the Divine. What do they actually tell us?
The nature of these revelations is the same; they are perceptions of the absolute law. They are solutions of the soul’s own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after.
Revelation is the disclosure of the soul.
So these “questions” are non-verbal, and the answers are also non-verbal. We feel an existential yearning, turn toward the Divine, and feel better, but this is not just like taking a drug to feel better, but getting a glimpse of “Truth,” of “absolute law,” which doesn’t just make us feel better but which justifies this feeling, which justifies our existence.
But what is “Truth” if divorced from any actual claims that could be true or false? Why use the term “absolute law” when it has no clear relation to scientific law or moral law or any other kind of law? It’s all a matter of being in the presence of God. How do you know that you’re in the presence of God? If you have to ask, you’re not there. You just know. The knowledge presents itself as self-justifying.
Lest this be taken as a mere dismissal, I think that as a religious view, this purposeful muddiness is probably better than a doctrine of any sort, which by necessity falsifies its subject matter, which is the ineffable. In this passage near the end, he makes it clear that the point is not actually a metaphysical theory, but a kind of therapy. It’s about being soothed, and empowered to let go of disappointment, and inflamed with energy to create and live:
Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul. The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God; yet for ever and ever the influx of this better and universal self is new and unsearchable. It inspires awe and astonishment. How dear, how soothing to man, arises the idea of God, peopling the lonely place, effacing the scars of our mistakes and disappointments! When we have broken our god of tradition, and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.
On Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” lecture (1837) and his essays “Self-Reliance” and “Circles” (1841).
How should we live? Emerson thinks that conformity, which includes most of what passes for ethics, jobs, and scholarship, makes us less than truly human. Be true to yourself! But since we’re all ever-changing, that’s a moving target, right? But Emerson thinks that when you get really truly honest about what you think and feel, it turns out that you’ve tapped into something universal, something beyond just you, something eternal.
But don’t expect Emerson to really explain that part; the upshot of these essays is primarily social, not religious, much less metaphysical. Trust yourself, stop bullshitting, stop living according to others’ expectations! Mark, Wes, and Dylan argue over whether this is tired cliche or acutely perceptive, and whether Emerson’s poetic language provides helps or distracts. Read more about the topic and get the essays.
End song: “Idiot, Listen” by Mark Lint, recorded mostly in 1997, newly completed and mixed.
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The picture is by Corey Mohler for PEL.
At some point, western philosophy became alienated from its original intention: to help people live well. Pierre Hadot, a historian of philosophy, pointed out the difference between philosophy practiced, on the one hand, as a way of life (as Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans did) and, on the other hand, philosophy practiced as mere discourse. Much contemporary philosophy is practiced as discourse—conversations about fascinating and meaningful ideas. However, this characterization is not universally true. One man who brought back to the modern, western world a welcome cross-pollination between living and thinking was B.K.S. Iyengar, an Indian teacher, author and yogi who died in August at the age of 95.
When listening to NPR’s radio obituary on Iyengar recently, I was struck by the incredible similarity between his description of the goal of yoga and an Epicurean doctrine. At one point, Iyengar says: “Goal – one to be free from the afflictions of body and mind. So when the afflictions are gone, one is in heaven.” We can find a nearly identical sentiment preserved in a 14th century Vatican manuscript of Epicurean teachings: “The cry of the flesh is not to be hungry, thirsty, or cold; for he who is free of these and is confident of remaining so might rival even Zeus for happiness.”
From these statements it is possible to draw four significant parallels between Iyengar’s philosophical teachings and Epicureanism. (1) Each is a committed way of life—if you are a serious yogi or Epicurean, you don’t just follow that path for a day or two. Rather, that path animates your life in an ongoing way. (2) Both revolve around a community with shared meeting times or meals—yogis congregate in studios or more traditionally at ashrams while Epicureans initially lived together in Epicurus’ garden, while later Epicureans lived in communes. (3) These communities share an ideal that Iyengar calls being “free from the afflictions of body and mind,” or as we saw in the Epicurean doctrine, to be free from the “cry of the flesh.” (4) Both use particular practices such as health programs, mantras of key doctrines, or dietary guidelines to help their disciples strive after their goals. Pierre Hadot suggests that these four characteristics are the essential features of ancient philosophy.
It is amazing to think that a practice so ancient is alive in so many places today. Even if a person does not practice yoga, we can all appreciate the dedication and love that Iyengar infused into his practice and teaching. Is Iyengar yoga philosophy? If we say yes to this question, then what should we call “philosophy”? What makes something philosophical besides being part of a tradition? Must we read certain texts? Pray to certain gods? Use certain arguments? Practice certain physical postures? If you want to explore these questions further, you might want to become a P.E.L. citizen (if you are not already) and join my Not School group (the new iteration of the Intro Readings in Philosophy group) called “Show Me How to Live: Essential Texts in Ancient Greek Philosophy.” We will be reading a variety of ancient texts to see if we can figure out what philosophy was to these authors. Doing so will place us in a position to examine what philosophy is for us today.
Suggested Further Reading:
Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot
What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot
Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar
In our ep. 99, Daniel Horne suggested we have more antagonist-guests, i.e. people with entrenched positions that we know we disagree with: a hard-core Marxist or libertarian or Christian or pro-scientism person. OK, we did already do the last of these, and listeners will know already how that turned out.
One can point, as we did on ep. 99, to crap like Crossfire as having degraded and despoiled the debate format, but that’s not a definitive criticism. Is it merely because we want to keep things cordial? Well, there are plenty of very nice though very opinionated people we could bring on, and certainly we don’t have a problem with that when we regulars have a particular beef about something. Or maybe we just don’t want to have to defend our views? Well, our views as voiced on a particular episode are typically about the interpretation of some textual passage, or whether or not some author’s concept really makes any sense, or whether the take the author has chosen is really an effective way of making a point at all. In most cases, what’s most effective and least irritating for an audience is for us to articulate these views in as much detail as their importance in the overall discussion deserves (which means sometimes we just gesture at some point, and sometimes take the whole discussion to hash it over) and let you all decide. This articulation and counter-articulation may or may not resemble an argument or debate as it’s normally recognized.
Key here is the difference between a specific claim and an overall point of view. We all know that you can’t effectively argue someone out of his point of view, at least within a particular discussion. You’d have to be a mighty poor Christian (or atheist, etc.) to be converted by a particular argument. You don’t get turned from an optimist to a pessimist, from a conformist to a radical, or from a democrat to a republican overnight, unless your initial views were pretty thoroughly unexamined.
But an individual claim should be arguable, right? Global warning is real or it’s not. The social contract is a bullshit concept or it’s not. Derrida is a huckster or he’s not. Well, as the sequence of my three examples there was supposed to show, individual claims are not always so easy to extract from a larger point of view. The social contract takes many forms in different authors, and it’s much easier to focus on someone’s particular argument for it than to say categorically that no argument for anything like the social contract will work. And “work” for what purpose? Am I trying to convince you to simply pay the taxes you legally owe (and to affirm that it’s just to do so)? Or am I trying to convince you that you have the obligation to enlist in the army, or not to run away when you’re drafted?
When I was looking recently at Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” I was initially turned off by the anti-government rhetoric (“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.”), but then quickly realized that he was specifically concerned with a) the war of his day, and this was of course in the time of the draft, and b) slavery. So instead of arguing with his wording (“is equally liable”? How could someone possibly support that claim as stated in a convincing way? It falls into the “bullshit generalization” category that philosophy was designed to save us from), I can agree with the thrust of his views. Specific claims have a context, and that is the individual’s overall world view. Conflicts in world view are often conflicts of emphasis.
Consider Wes’s beef with Michael Sandel in episode 97: His argument was that Sandel had misrepresented Rawls’s overall point: Rawls was trying to establish some minimum principles that widely differing people would agree to in order to found a society. Sandel was arguing that this whole project is ill-conceived. Given that we’re in a society, given who we actually are, and all we have in common, there are things that it would be best for us as a group to promote, i.e. human well-being according to our common telos (our nature). Each thinker can grant the bulk of the claims the other makes but add “but that’s not the point.” The argument is not primarily over the truth of particular sentences, and getting bogged down in arguing over one particular one would be beside the point. The argument is over emphasis, about relevance, about emphasis, ultimately about one’s goals in telling a philosophical story, which is a part of, for lack of a better term, world view.
On the one hand we have the rigorous ethic that says “if you believe something rationally, you need to stand up for your convictions and argue for it.” On the other we have the ethic that says “my world view is me, and you disrespect me if you try to silence my voice with attacks” (this latter might seem foreign to readers here but is dogma, for instance, in the domestic violence intervention program that my wife attended). These are two sides of the same bogus coin, misrepresenting the process of gaining knowledge as a matter of conquest to be either embraced or repressed.
A better model for philosophy is “I’ll show you mine, and you show me yours,” where two or more different visions are articulated, each responding in part to the last, pointing out points of agreement or difference where illustrative, but not pretending to be able to fully deconstruct and refute the other’s view. We see this on display in The Symposium, where Socrates’s bullying is much less of a factor than in any other Platonic dialogues, but really all of Plato’s work insofar as he’s interacting with the reader (and not Socrates with his stooges) displays it as well. Yes, challenge your beliefs; listen to other people and take their concerns and counter-points seriously, but the reflective equilibrium involved is yours: these are your beliefs, undergirding your life, that you need to live with, and any tipping of the whole tray is your own doing, even if it’s in reaction to some or another great author (or podcast!) that you’ve just discovered.
We learn formal logic and argumentative fallacies as a type of laboratory grunt work: we learn to see when someone is using a slippery slope argument (but of course, aren’t some argumentative slopes actually slippery?), or confusing correlation with cause (though causation is often a perfectly reasonable hypothesis given observed correlation; you can’t know without more testing), or overgeneralizing from a too-small set of cases (not that induction isn’t often necessary, helpful, and/or the best we can do), but the scenario whereby you can lay out all of your opponent’s arguments in symbolic form and show where the fallacies occur is mostly mythical, unless your opponent is a five-year-old. Popper gave us a model whereby scientific generalizations are refuted by countervailing evidence, but Kuhn pointed out that this pretty much never happens, that accepting something as countervailing evidence as opposed to an unexplained anomaly involves some larger change in world-view.
Learning these fundamentals helps us develop critical skills, and likewise a high-school debate format is useful… for people in high school. A debate like the one between Bill Nye and Ken Ham (discussed in ep. 96) can yield a few interesting facts or argumentative strategies that you can then regurgitate, but its primary purpose is as a gladiatorial display where each team roots for their guy. So I do think that we have something to learn from hard-core X’s, but a real engagement with those ideas is going to be best done by reading their work and engaging with it deliberately, as we did with Ayn Rand and the New Atheists, rather than getting someone similarly belligerent on the show with us and “taking him on.”