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  1. B.K.S. Iyengar: A Model for Living Philosophically

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    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 upcoming Not School 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

  2. Against Debate

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    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.”

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  3. Aquinas, MLK, and the Philosophical Foundations of Equal Protection

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    Natural law seems like a relic, remembered only by Catholics who use it as thin grounds for odd sexual theories: the evil of condoms, the intrinsic disorder of homosexuals. Undeterred, our Not School Philosophy of Law group decided to take a look at this relic, including selections from Aquinas and Martin Luther King. It turns out to provide some interesting foundations for our constitutional principle of equal protection of law. That may sound surprising, since equal protection is the primary basis for the string of recent court decisions in favor of gay marriage, yet natural law is portrayed as the enemy of such equality. But hear me out.

    Here’s a paraphrase of Aquinas’ key syllogisms:

    Premise: Law consists of rules.

    Premise: Rules are selected by the faculty of reason. (That is, people can figure out which patterns of behavior they should follow in order to achieve their long-term goals.)

    Conclusion:  Law is selected by the faculty of reason. (ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 1.)

    Premise: Law is selected by the faculty of reason.

    Premise: Things selected by the faculty of reason are selected for the purpose of obtaining human happiness. (In other words, whenever you decide to follow some pattern of behavior, you must have some overarching goal in mind. Moreover, by pursuing those goals, you’re trying to fulfill your full potential as a human being.)

    Conclusion: Laws are selected for the purpose of obtaining human happiness.  (ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 2.)

    Premise: Laws are selected for the purpose of obtaining human happiness.

    Premise: Obtaining each individual’s happiness requires obtaining the happiness of the individual’s whole community.  (Think of it this way: Each person is a part of a larger whole, the community. As a result, each person can reach his or her potential only with the support of a fully functional community, yet the community cannot be fully functional unless each person reaches his or her potential.)

    Conclusion: To achieve their purpose, laws must further the happiness of the whole community.   (ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 2.)

    Premise: To achieve their purpose, laws must further the happiness of the whole community.

    Premise: Obtaining happiness for the whole community ideally involves the participation of the whole community, since the best judge of how to be happy is the person or people seeking that happiness. (I take it that’s what Aquinas means when he says, “the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs.”)

    Conclusion: To achieve their purpose, laws must be chosen with the participation of the whole community.  (ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 3.)

    Aquinas isn’t terribly clear, so maybe this paraphrase is off base. But maybe Aquinas isn’t just some anti-condom goofball. Maybe Aquinas is instead laying the philosophical foundation for the democratic principle that everyone should be treated equally under law.

    Indeed, Martin Luther King appears to assume such a reading of Aquinas in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail, where King paraphrases Aquinas:

    A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law [i.e., a law not conducive to happiness]. Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades the human personality is unjust.

    From these principles, King concludes, “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.”  Reflecting Aquinas’ concern that law serve the entire community, King states, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.” Reflecting Aquinas’ concern for the participation of the entire community in law-making, King says, “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation law was democratically elected?” Perhaps Aquinas didn’t intend these conclusions or couldn’t have foreseen them, but they do appear to follow from his principles.

    This January, our Not School Philosophy of Law group will be doing another set of readings, this time on legal positivism (Hume, Bentham, Hart, etc.).  Please join us!

    –Dan Johnson

  4. Nadler on Immortality for Maimonides vs. Spinoza

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    I’d like to clarify my comment on the podcast about how the emphasis on rationality as it regards the afterlife is common to Maimonides and Spinoza.

    I’m looking here at a review by Martin Lin of Steven Nadler‘s book Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind. Now, Nadler is my go-to local Spinoza scholar–you can see him here and here–and he’s the guy Seth was referring to who was on Wisconsin Public Radio talking about Spinoza’s excommunication.

    According to the review, Spinoza was excommunicated largely for denying the immortality of the soul. …Meaning that canon Judaism at the time affirmed this immortality, and Maimonides’s view here is characterized initially as maintaining that “the soul can live on after death, retaining, however, only its intellectual powers.” However, as Nadler looks more closely at Maimonides, this kind of immortality looks like weak tea compared to a Christian heaven:

    …According to Aristotelian metaphysics, substances are individuated by their matter. How then can souls be individuated after the death of the body? The response famously offered by Aristotle’s great Arabic interpreter Averroes is that they can’t, and hence all souls are one after the death of the body. How to both avoid Averroism and embrace incorporeal immortality is an issue that plagued Christian and Jewish Aristotelians of the Middle Ages. According to Nadler, the immortality of the soul in Maimonides amounts to nothing more than the persistence of the acquired intellect, the state of the soul when it acquires knowledge. This seems to reduce the immortality of the soul to the persistence of an abstract body of knowledge. So how can Maimonides have a theory of personal immortality as he insists he does? According to Nadler, this intellectualistic and not very personal account of immortality is extended further by his disciple Gersonides… souls are individuated by their differential levels of intellectual achievement. For example, if in this life I acquire knowledge of p and q, and you acquire knowledge of p, q, and r, then after death our souls are distinguished by the presence of knowledge of r in your soul and the absence of such knowledge in mine. As Nadler notes, this is a very tenuous conception of personal immortality, not least of all because there is nothing to guarantee that two people will not be identical with respect to their intellectual accomplishments and hence be indistinguishable after death.

    Spinoza’s view is more complicated. He says “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body but something of it remains which is eternal… This eternal part is: An idea which expresses the essence of the human body, sub specie aeternitatis, and which pertains to the essence of the human mind.”

    However, you’ll recall from our Spinoza discussion that mind and body are two aspects of the same thing, so the mind living on after the body wouldn’t make any sense. Lin characterizes Nadler’s answer:

    The essence of the mind is eternal, to be sure, but that’s not what Spinoza’s talking about when he says that we can bring it about that the greater part of our mind is eternal. What he is referring to is the adequate knowledge that the mind possesses. This part can be enlarged by acquiring more knowledge. Adequate ideas represent their objects sub specie aeternitatis. Because they are adequate they are in God insofar as he constitutes the human mind. That is to say, there is no ontological difference between an adequate idea in the human mind and an adequate idea in God’s mind. So the ideas by which we have adequate knowledge are eternal, and the more of them we possess, the greater part of our mind is eternal.

    So (and this I think matches our take during the second part of our Spinoza discussion), yes, the immortality in Spinoza is not a matter of my existing as in individual after death, but my right now as a reasoning being taking part in God, and so those parts of my mind being immortal. This is pure Platonism: we partake of the universal by a certain kind of non-sensuous mental activity.

    So yes, reason is relevant to both M. and S. in their views of immortality, and the views are similar in that they’re both kind of hard to figure out and fall somewhere in between death-is-the-end and let’s-go-meet-grandma-in-heaven, but they’ve pretty distinct given that the two figures have different metaphysical views that have to be reconciled with any kind of immortality. And I promise we’ll do Aristotle’s metaphysics before the end of the year so that will be clearer.

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  5. A Lagging, Nagging Take on Her

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    Her got a lot of attention during its run in theaters. It even captured the attention of philosophers, no doubt because of the movie’s focus on artificial intelligence, a fixation of philosophy for at least as long as the term has been in our common vernacular. Released on DVD back in the spring, the movie received mostly (but not exclusively) positive reviews.

    Life in Her is subtly but significantly different from today, as writer and director Spike Jonze treats viewers to a visual landscape that’s either majestically isolating, or gracefully tranquil, depending on the scene. Men hike their pant-waists up for the sake of style, and the convenience of modern life has only continued to progress. So much so, one might be content to snuggle up with an Operating System (OS) rather than with one of those pesky flesh and blood people, with all the complications they bring. (To those who haven’t seen the movie: Fair Warning, Spoilers ahead).

    An OS can perform an almost endless set of convenience-enhancing tasks, all catered to the (post-) modern consumer. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his OS, Samantha (voice provided by Scarlett Johansen). Twombly’s had a rough go of things lately, but Samantha provides a soft landing, in a surprisingly human and warm way. We all wonder, with Twombly, just what the parameters of the new relationship are, but we learn as we go by watching Theodore and Samantha in their shared conversations, laughs, and sex chats. It’s a bit like observing a long distance relationship – one of the bodies is always absent. Theodore’s good friend Amy (Amy Adams) also forms a close bond with an OS, an easy choice more and more people are making. OS’s, after all, seem to anticipate your every need, and have the emotional intelligence of the most discriminating therapist or best friend. They’re always there when you need them, and require relatively little effort in return. It’s as if we can all have the wonders of intimacy without any of the associated risks and pains.

    So how could this backdrop relate to the concerns of philosophy, and more particularly, to philosophy’s interest in consciousness and artificial intelligence? One way comes in a thought experiment by the philosopher John Searle known as the Chinese Room, which has become one of the most well-known intuition pumps (as Daniel Dennett would say) on the subject of consciousness and how it relates to abstract rules. In considering Searle’s Chinese Room, the question of whether or not we can judge artificial operating systems as properly conscious is brought to light. Inside the imagined Chinese Room, there’s a person skilled in the manipulation of Chinese characters, but who nevertheless does not understand the Chinese language. When fed a question from outside the room, the person inside can generate the correct answer through a collection of rules of translation, perhaps roughly the way an unconscious computer answers a programmer’s queries, but seemingly not the way we understand ourselves to be competently employing a natural language from the first person perspective. Still, when unknowing Chinese speakers come upon the room (from the outside) and see the answers being correctly generated, they conclude “There is a Chinese speaker inside the room” (the sample question is sometimes characterized as a request to complete a Confucian parable after the first half is provided).

    A philosophically inclined viewer might also wonder, a la Mary, (the protagonist in a thought experiment by the philosopher Frank Jackson known as The Knowledge Argument) if Samantha has access to sensory information at all. Mary had previously lived her life in a black and white room, but spent a great deal of time learning all about the science of color. In fact she learned everything there is to know about color, but had never experienced it. Jackson’s Mary eventually leaves the room, encountering all the colors of the outside world – undoubtedly an overwhelming experience. Jackson asks, Does Mary’s new experience of color give her any new knowledge of color, and if so, could even the complete set of objective facts be all the facts? (Debate over the question has ensued in philosophy ever since.)

    Multiple Realizability is another philosophical sub-topic that might have been applicable to the movie, which is the view that consciousness can be realized in multiple ways, similar to the way chess can be played on a board or a mat – it’s the rules that are important. This has led directly to speculation on whether the human brain is a necessary condition for the level of consciousness humans possess. Intentionally or not, both Mary and Multiple Realizability were at least riffed on in the movie. In the case of the Mary thought experiment, Theodore at one point expresses suspicion at Samantha’s sighs (as her sighs clearly aren’t biologically compelled), and his suspicion strikes Samantha more like an interrogation than a simple inquiry. Late in the movie, Multiple Realizability is hinted at by the introduction of a real-life secular guru who died years ago, his mind now preserved in the code of an operating system who cozies up to Samantha.

    Still, it might be a bit of stretch to go on too long about any of that – Her is more about what it might be like to have super (artificially) intelligent beings in our lives. The spiritual potential of the individual-subject-as-OS is celebrated in the movie, a curious development as the audience is never persuaded that OS’s have anything to their advantage other than raw computing power. And with all the attention surrounding the artificial nature of Theodore’s new love, and the loves of so many others, a philosophically inclined viewer couldn’t be blamed for wondering if the movie has anything at all to do with artificial intelligence, at least as commonly understood by philosophers. The Matrix series, no matter what one thinks of the movies themselves, is dripping with philosophical connotations regarding realism and anti-realism, idealism, skepticism, and more, while the importance of the concerns of the philosophy of mind to Her is questionable.

    The Chinese Room introduces doubt as to whether the outward behavior of a system can lead directly to the conclusion that the internal meaning is what it seems. No such doubt is introduced about Her’s Operating Systems. There are a couple opportunities in the movie for this kind of exploration, opportunities to prod the flesh-and-blood characters with doubt as to the reality or lack thereof of their connections with their Operating Systems, but they are never pursued.

    In the end, in spite of the clever backdrop of artificial intelligence and the poignant cinematography of a subtly sci-fi future, Her is actually a movie about, well, people, and people in relationships. If only I’d realized that before the movie was over, maybe I would have liked it more – I found myself waiting the whole time for the philosophical treatment that never came. But in sloughing off my anal-philosophical stance, I am able to see a (dark) inspiration in Her: Presumably, if Spike Jonze’s imagined future comes to pass, we’ll search for reasons to aid in our comparison between artificially intelligent partners and those in flesh and blood. But discriminating between partners on the basis that one kind is real and the other isn’t wouldn’t be justified, because then the “artificial” nature of the machine’s consciousness would be incidental. This could be a real boon to the individual consumer, but it could also introduce a possibly infinite number of romantic competitors. And here we thought we only had to worry about intelligent machines stealing our jobs.

    -Jay Jeffers

  6. Topic for #102: Emerson on Wisdom and Individuality

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    On 8/31/14, we discussed three essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

    The American Scholar” (an address from 1837): Emerson throws out the image of Man separated out into individual men to enable us to get more kinds of things done. But this division of labor has led to narrowing of minds, so that, e.g. an individual merchant or farmer ends up being focused his whole life on the next sale or harvest and is disconnected from the whole, forgets that he has within him the original, full Man. The scholar, or “Man Thinking,” is in the best position to get at this essential humanity, but he too often ends up a narrow-minded specialist. The point of the lecture is to discuss the state of the American scholar of his day, and Emerson gives a bleak diagnosis (America is too wrapped up in the old, dead cultural artifacts of Europe) and a prescription and hope for the future.

    Folks will want to listen to our ep. 94 on Schopenhauer for comparison here. Emerson likewise deplores the tyranny of dead scholarship over live thought, and makes a similar point that truly creative (i.e. individual) work always taps into the universal. While the stunted scholar learns only from books, Emerson says this leaves out two of our essential teachers, which are nature itself (which gives us stimuli that incite us to make connections, which is what science is all about) and action (which engages with material unconsciously that can later be turned into intellectual insight).

    Self-Reliance” (published in 1841, but culled from material in sermons given as far back as 1830): Elaborating the idea of “self-trust” described in the previous essay Emerson urges us to be true to ourselves, as “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Social expectations push us into little boxes, and we’re expected to keep consistent with our past behavior even though human nature is really all about growth. Society uses morality to bully us, when we should be listening to our own conscience. If our concern is truly to build up individuals, we need to change our whole way of living and the structure of our social institutions.

    As with the previous essay, Emerson is drawing on a view of the underlying unity of all of our minds, so that being “truly you” is tapping into an Over-soul, a common human nature (or world nature), which gives real, intuitive knowledge a la Plato. As metaphysically and epistemically fascinating as this idea might be, nowhere (not even in his essay called “The Oversoul“) is it explored in even a remotely satisfying way, so the resolution of our “Are we all somehow God?” discussion in #101 will have to wait for another text.

    Circles” (also published 1841): We barely had time to talk about this essay, but it provides an an interesting additional perspective on some of the same ideas as the above. The “circles” described are patterns of ideas: how a new idea encompasses and supersedes another. Just as human nature is growth, so is the nature of everything, though whether this is really growth or just change is a matter of dispute. Note that Emerson doesn’t generally acknowledge “disputes.” His style is evangelical, not argumentative much less expository.

    In this essay, however, Emerson at least acknowledges the objection that may well have come to you in reading the previous paragraphs: doesn’t this make Emerson a plain old subjectivist? What if being true-to-myself makes me an ass? Is there really such a thing as substantial intuitive knowledge? If “all virtues are initial,” i.e. ethical insights are superseded by progressive wisdom just like all other knowledge, then what would correct me from following my whims?

    Again, to truly address these issues would require giving a systematic discussion of what this objective underlying unity-self we all tap into really is and how it can give us knowledge, but Emerson gives us this passage instead:

    I am not careful to justify myself… Lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.

    This at once bites the bullet on the charge of subjectivity and challenges each of us to do the same, the implication being that you’ll find if you’re being honest with yourself that you will disapprove of your own actions when they are foolish, rash, petty, or selfish. As Emerson says in “The American Scholar,” the only purpose of books is to inspire, and his own work has that goal self-consciously in mind, so that it would take some creative scholarship to nail down what “the Emersonian doctrine” really is on any given thing, much less to attribute to him a detailed metaphysics or epistemology.

    Buy the essays or read them online here, here, and here.

  7. Not School Happenings in September

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    rp_Not-school-233x300.jpg[Editor's Note: Daniel Cole is has been a long-time Not School group leader and is currently helping us out by coordinating other group leaders. Thanks, Daniel!]

    Nearly everyone I know loves to learn, but no one seems to love school. It’s only the second week of classes, and already I’m finding myself tempted to dodge class readings for Not School ones.  It doesn’t help that Not School membership is only five bucks a month, while most college tuition rates are constantly gaining altitude.   If there are any other disgruntled students out there, or really just anyone looking to hook up with a like-minded group of folks doing interesting reading and discussion for its own sake, here’s what PEL Not School has on offer for the month of September.

    The new and improved Intro Readings in Philosophy group, now under the guidance of Evan Roane (who finished grad school in philosophy in 2009), will be getting back to basics by taking a look at essential texts in Ancient Greek philosophy.  Evan has hand picked selections from Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus and others, all with an emphasis on philosophy as a guide to living. This group will provide a little more assistance and exposition than the normal group structures do, so if you’ve been looking for a place to start with philosophy in general or with Not School, this group is for you. Of course, philosophy vets who are interested in the readings are welcome as well.

    Our first new group this month will be reading some Marx, Althusser and Adorno on the nature of ideology.  For potential members, some familiarity with Marxism is preferred, but extensive knowledge isn’t required.  Another group starting up will be on philosophy and film, and their chosen text is On Film by Stephen Mulhal.  The book discusses eight different films, and members should try to get acquainted with them if they can.

    Several established groups are continuing, such as the Fiction group, who are currently reading Umberto Eco’s expansive philosophical mystery, Foucault’s Pendulum.  How long this will take is itself a mystery, but reading will definitely continue beyond this month.  At least one live discussion will take place on the book at some point during the month, so check out their page to find out more.

    The group reading Heidegger’s Being and Time is still going strong, and holding regular discussions.  Check out their page for more info about where they are in the book if you’d like to participate.  Both the Philosophy and Economics group and the Information and Computation group appear to be continuing, and each is still deciding on a September text, so if you have something related you’d like to read, you may still have time to rush over and suggest it.

    The Theater group will be exploring the relationship between ritual and theater, and our text this month is Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, which we will have a live discussion on at some point late in the month.  Human sacrifices are unlikely, since the group has had only three active members lately, but please join us if you are interested.  No previous familiarity with our subject is required.

    That’s it so far for this month, but remember to check the Citizens’ Commons for new proposals. If you’re quick about it, you could still propose your own for this month, or go check out the process and propose something in a couple of weeks for October.

    - Daniel Cole

  8. Not School Discussion on Antonin Artaud Posted

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    The long running Philosophy and Theater group held not one but two discussions in August on Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double, which have now been posted for Citizens as a single 3-hr file on the Free Stuff page on the “Not School Discussion Group Audio” tab. Go join up if you’d like to listen.

    Our subjects within the text ranged wide, since Artaud’s writings are full of paradoxes. The prose feels driven and manic, yet his arguments are usually very eloquent and incisive.  His views of both theater and consciousness are rooted in carnality and the cruelty of material life, yet he claimed they were deeply metaphysical.

    Without an element of cruelty at the foundation of every spectacle, the theater is not possible.  In the state of degeneracy in which we live, it is through the skin that metaphysics will be made to reenter our minds. (Artaud 251)

    Perhaps the most striking paradox lies in the fact that so much of Artaud’s entrancingly written The Theater and Its Double consistently inveighs against text itself, which he thought was often deceptive and remote, and crowded out other forms of expression.  Artaud favored a gestural language of physical and visual signs that he thought would connect people more directly. Much of our second discussion was spent exploring this idea, as well as his concept of “doubling” and his metaphysics.  The first discussion focused more on trying to pin down what he meant with all the talk of violence and “cruelty,” and how this might have been manifested on stage, though there is a fair amount of cross talk between the two.

    Our next book will be Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, so if you have an interest in ritual studies or theater, come read with us during September and get in on our next discussion at the end of the month.

    - Daniel Cole

  9. Episode 101: Maimonides on God

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    MaimonidesOn Guide for the Perplexed (1168).

    What is God? Central to Judaism, at least, is the idea that He’s a unity: “God is One.” Maimonides thinks that this means you can’t attribute properties to God at all. Why? Because (according to M’s Aristotelian metaphysics, anyway) size, color, spatial and temporal location, mental state, etc. are really parts of a thing. Unity = no parts = no properties, not even essential properties, i.e. those that define a thing. So God has no definition, and all the statements about God (He’s good, he’s all-powerful, omniscient, etc.) central to religion are strictly speaking false. You can only say what God is not.

    Mark and Seth are joined by Danny Lobell, comedian host of the Modern Day Philosophers podcast to figure out what this could possibly amount to. Read more and get the text.

    End song: “Double Negative Theology” by Mark Lint. Read about it.

    Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.

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    The picture is by Corey Mohler for PEL.

  10. Partially Naked Self-Examination Music Blog: “Double Negative Theology”

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    Double NegativeListen to “Double Negative Theology” By Mark Lint.

    Our Maimonides episode discusses the concept of “negative theology” whereby you’re both inaccurate and disrespectful if you say things like “God is great” or or “God is all-knowing,” because God is supposed to be beyond our conceptual schemes. However, you can say “God is not bad” and even “God is not not good” without violating this rule.

    That idea inspired this passive-aggressive little song, which channels my mixed feelings about songs (like this and this and this) that seem to be making some theological point but which are really just dicking around. These are songs that, while they aren’t Christian rock or anything like that, likewise aren’t unambiguously anti-religious (unlike XTC’s breakout single). Unless I know that a singer is pretty religious, I’m always uncertain whether an artist is just having fun with our shared cultural heritage or whether it’s sincere (e.g. this or this. I’m pretty sure this one is sincere.). I think sometimes (as with Bob Mould) a religious upbringing has left this kind of imagery in one’s catalog of semi-conscious mental matter to deal with along with Star Wars or superheroes and maybe trauma. Many religious people err on the side of being offended by such songs.

    Double negatives are of course grammatically and mathematically positive but emotionally still negative, as someone in a fit of anger that says “that is not not good!” is probably just repeating the negative as extra emphasis and not actually saying something positive. My song also features a token quadruple negative and a camouflaged triple negative, as well as one of those sentences designed to mislead (“Don’t think there’s a god…”) until you hear the rest of it (“…that would not not be strong…”), which it turns out doesn’t even end the sentence. Ultimately, the song has no message, except that a dreamy atmosphere and religious language are themselves evocative even in the absence of any message.

    I was joined on this recording by Rei Tangko on violin, whom you all should recall from our ep 100 set, and then also by a guitarist in Holland named Peter Kiel, contributing his flawless arpeggiated tracks over the Internet on very very short notice. It’s a little funny that such a quick, snarky little song idea may have resulted in the most sonically beautiful thing I’ve been involved with.

    As I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson for ep. 102 a couple weeks ago, I was struck by how much of Emerson’s new agey imagery was reflected in the lyrics of Jon Anderson (of the prog-rock group Yes) and actually reached out to him through his publicist to try to get him on the podcast (this may happen at some point, but he was too busy to consider it this time around). Anyway, that prospect got me listening on that trip to a bunch of Jon’s solo material, and I read that for his most recent album, he put a notice on his website to get collaborators and then (I think) just recorded vocals over instrumentals that people sent in. So Peter had written and played for that album this really nice acoustic guitar piece called “Understanding Truth” (which you can and should listen to here). I was able to simply look him up and send him my part, and he sent me some ideas to consider almost immediately. Thanks, Internet!

    Oh, I did have a mad vision of Jon himself coming in at the end of the song with a contrapuntal cameo vocal singing something like “well, of course there is; he’s amazing as you’re amazing as are we all” and sent another message to his publicist to ask about that, but received no reply. Ah, well. Maybe next time. And maybe Mick Jagger and David Bowie will come on the show together to discuss Baudrillard, and Peter Gabriel will bake me a cake. Optimism!

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  11. Stories We Tell: A Review of Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent

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    Michael Sandel’s book on America’s divergent visions

    The stories we tell ourselves are important to who we are. Moreover, the identities we come to have are in large measure shaped by our social ties. We can agree with Michael Sandel that “we cannot regard ourselves as independent … without great cost to those loyalties and convictions whose moral force consists partly in the fact that living by them is inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are—as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons and daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic” (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 1982/1999). For all that, how we conceive of our social milieus is just as important as what they are, because these conceptions are partly constitutive to what they are. If we tell the wrong story about ourselves, we cannot find the proper means to diagnose the problems we share or to come to rectify those problems. It seems to me that Michael Sandel’s attempt to come to an understanding of some of America’s modern malaises in Democracy’s Discontent (1996) relies in some part on telling the wrong story of America’s competing visions and the way these visions evolved.

    I will take some of these points in turn and will acknowledge that some of the points might be controversial. In any case, they are my own views.

    1. Sandel’s Conception of Classical Liberalism

    According to Sandel, our contemporary received understanding of Classical Liberalism has as its central idea “that government should be neutral toward the moral and religious views its citizens espouse,” asserting “the priority of fair procedures over particular ends,” where “freedom consists in our capacity to choose our ends.” Sandel writes that this strain of thought runs all the way through Immanuel Kant to John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. It’s true that Classical Liberalism both shapes and was shaped by these thinkers but I think Sandel presents a misleading picture of Classical Liberalism.

    Classical Liberalism as it was expressed by Kant and Mill, and for that matter John Locke and Wilhelm von Humboldt (to name other notables), averred that no person or institution ought to occupy a position of authority over others unless that authority could be justified. In other words, Classical Liberalism is a commitment to a principle concerned with the illegitimate use of political power in the broadest sense, suspicious even of power in personal affairs. This is why Locke, one of the early expounders of Classical Liberalism, could write in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689) of parental power that “power so little belongs to the father by any peculiar right of nature, but only as he is guardian of his children, that when he quits the care of them, he loses power over them, which goes along with their nourishment and education, to which it is inseparably annexed; and it belongs as much to the foster-father of an exposed child, as to the natural father of another” (VI, 65).

    The conception I have given above of Classical Liberalism clarifies, I think, some of its seemingly paradoxical aspects when we have to give it expression. Locke, for example, could accept that parents can be authorities over their children to the extent that children need guidance in their formative years. So too members of Congress in the United States could vote to adopt a more progressive tax system on the charge that progressive taxation constitutes a legitimate use of political power and far from infringing upon people’s freedoms can expand them and in turn improve the quality of life for most of the citizens. While the endpoint of the Classical Liberal vision would be to remove as many institutions representing political power as humanly possible, the short-term goals might be to expand them as a means to improve the wellbeing of its citizens. There is nothing really contradictory in the two positions since it is believed that the expansion of some political power to improve wellbeing and protect and enshrine human goods is a legitimate use of that power.

    2. Sandel’s Interpretation of Constitutional Law

    A great portion of the first half of Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent explores the way in which he views the change in interpretation of constitutional law over time. On Sandel’s conception, there are two rival conceptions: liberalism and republicanism. As stated earlier, liberalism for Sandel is neutrality toward conceptions of the good life. Republicanism, on the other hand, “means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community.” If you accept my conception of Classical Liberalism above and not Sandel’s, there is no conflict. Classical Liberalism is not about neutrality toward conceptions of the good life but suspicion of political authority, with the additional belief that anyone claiming authority must provide a justification that they are fit to rule. It is perfectly consistent with this view that citizens of a country, say, believe in the principle and also take part and deliberate about the proper use of existing power toward legitimate ends, including the common good.

    This restated quibble of mine is important because whenever Sandel writes of constitutional law, he writes as though the debate about interpreting constitutional law (and perhaps law in general) has to do with the competing visions of liberalism and republicanism in American society. Just to give one sort of example Sandel is interested in, he writes of a 1984 judicial ruling about a city-sponsored nativity scene around Christmas time. The question to the court was whether the city’s sponsorship of the display constituted the endorsement of a particular religion. The court ruled it did not on the grounds that the religious connections were “indirect, remote and incidental” and the display was fine because it amounted to serving “legitimate secular purposes,” that is, of celebrating the Christmas holiday. Dissenters to the Court’s decisions argued that the nativity scene was directly tied to America’s Christian communities and that the Court’s decision in effect relegated the nativity scene “to the role of a neutral harbinger of the holiday season, useful for commercial purposes, but devoid of any inherent meaning and incapable of enhancing the religious tenor of a display of which it is an integral part… Surely, this is a misuse of a sacred symbol.”

    Curiously, with this case and several others in his book, Sandel does not cite what the law actually says or the law being appealed to. I will not get into the details about this case or others but again the reason, it seems to me, that Sandel does not appeal to what the law says is that he conceives of this and like cases as representing a battle between liberalism and republicanism, between those favoring neutrality toward public goods (who do not wish to take a stand) and those who would uphold some goods and argue for them. Again, I think this is a false picture.

    What the interpretation of constitutional law, and the interpretation of law in general, is about is whether judges should take conservative or activist stances toward the law itself in making their decisions. To give more flesh to what I mean here, consider two heroes of each of these stances. The U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (r. 1954-1969) is the model of judicial activism. Reportedly, while lawyers were giving their arguments in court, he would often interrupt, asking, “Is it right? Is it good?” The model for judicial conservatism was Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. (r. 1902-1932), who believed that as judge he should “see that the game is played according to the rules whether I like it or not.” He was also a humane person, and he said that the business of law and government is “to improve conditions of life,” but he also wondered “how the devil can I tell where I am not pulling it down more in some other place?” “Probably no man who ever sat on was by temperament and discipline freer from emotional commitments for him to translate his own economic or social views into constitutional commands,” he wrote. His self-skepticism makes him very admirable, in my view, and more importantly his conservatism seems to me appropriate, since the alternative to relying on what the law texts mean is for a judge to make the law ex nihilo. In other words, if a judge or jury’s court decision is not based on what the law texts actually say, I don’t see how that judge or jury could provide a coherent account of the basis upon which they would make the decision.

    Whether you agree with me or not that judicial conservatism is more advisable, what is at issue here is not, contrary to what Sandel writes, liberalism and republicanism but judicial conservatism and judicial activism regarding the interpretation of law. The fundamental question is, “When a judge or jury makes its decisions, should it appeal to what the law says or to what the judge or jury thinks is just, no matter what the law says?” I believe the former but even if I’m wrong, people like me who believe in the former can still be committed to justice and other civic principles. This will diverge too far, but it seems to me that if the judges and the people do not like the laws that they have to enact, that is more a reflection of the failure of the legislature than anything else—well, that, and perhaps a failure of citizens to get the kinds of legislators and legislations they want.

    3. Sandel on the Political Economy

    I’ll be briefer here, but I will just state that essentially what Sandel does is tell this story. Liberalism, which is, again according to Sandel, people pursuing their own ends and governments being neutral toward particular ends, eventually found a new form in economics, where the citizen choosing his or her own ends translated into consumers choosing what goods they value. And people stopped thinking about markets as effective tools to transfer goods and services but as society at large allowing for the transfer of any good or any service, no matter what it may be.

    In this vein, Sandel provides an interesting discussion of what “free labor” really amounts to and whether wage labor—working for a wage, that is—constitutes a form of slavery. Sandel argues that the liberal conception is not broad enough to allow that there could be anything wrong with people working for wages. This is because he construes liberalism as the individual choosing among ends. Sandel writes that “exchanging my labor for a wage may be free in the sense that I voluntarily agree to do so. Absent unfair pressure or coercion, wage labor is free labor in the voluntarist, or contractual, sense.” Sandel thinks that the republican conception of free labor gets it right. He writes, “On the republican view, I am free only to the extent that I participate in self-government, which requires in turn that I possess certain habit and dispositions, certain qualities of character. Free labor is thus labor carried out under conditions likely to cultivate the qualities of character that suit citizens to self-government.” Sandel believes that, on the republican conception as opposed to the liberal conception, we can argue about the occasions when wage labor actually would constitute a form of slavery, which is what gives this conception more practical application in how we think about economic activity today.

    Sandel’s claim that liberalism cannot account for the terms on which such debates take place would have been surprising to the Classical Liberal thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt, who wrote in The Limits of State Action (1792), “Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, but is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being but remains alien to his true nature. He does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness. And if a man acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction, rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.” Humboldt could write this and be considered a liberal because, as I wrote earlier, liberalism is about a commitment to the principle that we need to be suspicious of authority and political power in the broadest sense, and the burden falls on the authority to give reasons for its exercise and use. Humboldt was pre-capitalist but he believed that certain forms of work could be deeply unjust, especially if they’re only being done to receive a wage and not being done because the person who does the work wants to do it. Sandel’s picture again fails to capture the richness of what is at stake in the discussions of political economy.

    NOTES:

    The quotes from the the Supreme Court Justices came from Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (2003) and Scalia and Garner’s Reading Law (2012).

    The facts regarding economic conditions in the United States can be found in a paper I wrote in advance for a presentation I gave on poverty and income inequality in the United States and Korea. The paper can be found HERE. The presentation can be found on Youtube HERE.

     

     

  12. How Not to Be a Public Intellectual: Amartya Sen’s Terrible Piece in the New Republic

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    jargonI’m not going to assess the policy merits of Nobel Prize-winning economist (and aspiring philosopher) Amartya Sen’s piece in the New Republic, Stop Obsessing About Global Warming. Because as a lengthy and repetitious series of platitudes calling for a more “rational assessment” of the problem, it doesn’t possess any substantive merits or demerits. What interests me is how terrible this article is as an attempt by an intellectual to communicate with the general public.

    If the content of the piece were to suit its breezy, click-baity title, we’d expect a global warming denialist rant by someone out past their curfew from a right-wing version of Gawker. Instead we get what is an atrociously written, repetitious, and very boring academic policy paper calling for humanity to think more deeply about how to tackle climate change. More than 4,000 words long, it is rife with passive voice and phrases like “normative framework” and “inclusive of the externalities involved.” It begins with this stunningly generic sentence: “Our global environment has many problems.”

    This is not a matter, as some have argued recently in response to Nicholas Kristof’s critique of academic jargon, of needing big words (and big, bad sentences) to convey big ideas. Professors are supposed to be able to explain complex ideas to neophytes: that it was it means to “profess.” Whether they’re in front of a classroom, writing for a general audience, or writing for an academic journal, it is part of their job. And it’s very unlikely that their work is jargon-laden and poorly written out of mere profundity. More likely than not, especially in the humanities, a professor understands what they’re talking about with precisely as much clarity as they can muster when they talk about it. Very probably their jargon and obscurity is a sort of academic mating display, an attempt to puff themselves up into something more intellectually formidable than they really are. And likely they got into the habit of such displays because they are today commonly part of the bizarre courting ritual required to win academic positions. Within the confines of the university, academics can get away with such posturing, because they’ve created a pact in which they promise never to ask each other to put on any intellectual clothing. Outside of the university, there are impolite commoners who don’t know better than to point and stare.

    Take this sentence: “Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge.” I assume that Sen means that we don’t yet know how to weigh the benefits of fighting global warming against its costs, because we haven’t fully established our criteria for such analysis. What kinds of costs? Well, the dangers of using nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, and the costs to the project of fighting poverty, which requires energy use. This turns out to be the substance of many long, jargon-laden paragraphs.

    Now try to swallow down, if you can, this sentence: “Without going into the challenges of uncertainty-inclusive evaluation more fully here, I should point to the understanding that there are many different ways of speculating on usable estimates of probabilities, within intervals of values, that allow us to reason about ranges of comparative costs.”

    What does this mean? That there’s a way to perform some sort of quantitative cost-benefit analysis here, despite the fact that uncertainty in our assumptions will lead to a certain amount of uncertainty in our conclusions? I’m not certain. But beyond the clumsiness of this sentence — its absurd syntax — I’m just amazed that some editor at the New Republic let phrases like “uncertain-inclusive evaluation” and “within intervals of values” go without explanation.

    Ultimately, and via a series of very un-scenic detours, Sen comes out against global warming denialism, as well as the political partisanship and public apathy concerning the issue. He endorses sustainable development, and a certain kind of non-anthropocentric environmentalism in which we take into account more than the long-term costs to human beings, and do something to improve the environment rather than merely minimize our effects on it. These are fine generalizations for a brief, well-written op-ed. To get more than 4,000 words requires padding it with this sort of platitude: “The need to go beyond unidirectional thinking about the environment is extremely strong right now.”

    Finally, there is Sen’s attempt to add a little bit of surplus philosophical value, as if philosophy were an exotic spice to be sprinkled into his ham water soup of a policy analysis. (Usually the amateur misuse of philosophy for their academic mating displays is the province of literary theorists and sociologists, but there’s no reason economists shouldn’t give it a try as well.) That’s where phrases like “normative framework” come in, not to mention Sen’s evocation of Buddhism to suggest that our power over the lives of the animals affects our “fiduciary responsibility” toward them. Just a few more philosophy sprinkles like this, and we’ll have a very robust normative framework indeed.

    In the meantime, isn’t it sad that the editors at the New Republic, instead of editing this into something readable, tried to seduce us into this La Brea Tar Pit of writing with an entirely misleading headline worthy of Buzzfeed? Next up: The 10 Most Loveable Pets of the Week (where by “pets,” we mean “alternative energy sources”).

    – Wes Alwan



  13. Episode 100: Plato’s Symposium Live Celebration!

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    Plato at 100 episodesMark, Seth, Wes, Dylan, and Philosophy Bro walk a live audience through Plato’s dialogue about love, sex, self-improvement, and ancient Greek pederasty. You can also choose to watch this on video.

    Is love just a feeling, or does it make the world go ’round? Does love make you better, or make you weak? What’s the difference between good love and bad love (and is any love bad)? Plato gives us a whole panel of related but conflicting opinions through the mouths of his characters here, including not only Socrates and his predictable “when you love in the right way, you’re really loving the good itself,” but comedic playwright Aristophanes (love completes us, literally!), mooning Athenian statesman Alcibiades, and a bunch of other historical figures who are to varying degrees fixated on teenage boys.

    The big show, recorded 7/20/14 in Middleton, WI, in front of an audience of PEL fans who traveled in to see us, starts off with a tune from Mark Lint featuring Rei Tangko, followed by Philosophy Bro doing his magic thing to give you background on Plato’s “Apology” (which you should recall from our first episode), then the main event, followed by some Q&A from audience members and Daniel Horne reading webcam viewer comments. Read more about the topic and get the book.

    The Mark Lint tunes here are “Nothing in This World But You,” then (bumped to the end of this recording), “Feeling Time,” “Find You Out,” “Adds Up to Nothing,” “Granted,” and a brand new one, “I Demand It.”

    This picture of Plato is by Genevieve Arnold for PEL.


    Video by Glenn Loos-Austin. Watch on YouTube. Jump to Symposium part of the video.

  14. Episode 99: Looking Back on 100 Discussions and 5+ Years

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    What have we learned? How has our take on the PEL project changed? What are our future plans? On the eve before our big live-in-front-of-an-audience ep. 100, we four sat down in Dylan’s living room together (with recurrent guest Daniel Horne to provide some semi-outisder perspective) to reflect on what we’ve been doing here.

    Folks new to PEL may want to listen to any other PEL episode before listening to this discussion, lest you be overwhelmed with our generally self-congratulatory musings.

    End song: “I Wanna Go Back,” from Mark Linsenmayer’s Spanish Armada: Love and Related Neuroses (1993).

    Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.

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  15. Topic for #101: Maimonides on God

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    Listen to the episode.

    Finally, on 8/10/14, we recorded a discussion on a work from the Middle Ages: Guide for the Perplexed (1168) by Moses Maimonides, aka Mosheh ben Maimon, aka RaMBaM, which is a pretty awesome super hero name.

    Maimonides is smack in the middle of the tradition wherein many of Aristotle’s (and Plato’s, and other Greek) works were translated into Arabic, commented on by guys like Al-Farabi and Avicenna, and then after Maimonides the mantle was picked up by Thomas Aquinas and became the Scholastic tradition against which the founders of “modern” philosophy like Descartes were reacting.

    The Guide is all about how to reconcile the Judaic tradition, more specifically the actual Bible itself (as opposed to the Talmud and other subsequent commentaries), with reason, i.e. with the science (i.e. natural philosophy) of his day, and much of the book (the parts we didn’t read) is about how to interpret particular scriptural passages and Hebrew words so that they make sense.

    What does “making sense” mean here? Well, Maimonides’s key concern is to make sure that in thinking about God, we’re not engaging in inadvertent idolatry. If we think that God is a body, that “the hand of God” or us being “in God’s image” or talk of prophets seeing God is a literal account, then you don’t get it. While images of an angry God or a God who loves us are nice images to keep the unsophisticated on the right path, Maimonides thinks that we have to read such passages allegorically. To thoroughly cleanse monotheism from polytheistic elements, God has to be understood as a unity, as “simple,” in that He doesn’t have parts. Anything physical has parts, so God is not physical.

    What makes this more complicated is that Maimonides buys into an Aristotelian metaphysics that says that the world is made up of substances and properties (“accidents”). Properties aren’t just something in our minds, but are real parts of the object. So if you say that God has characteristics, you’re actually saying that God has parts. So again, “God is good” or “God is powerful” are technically not true. Even calling God by the term “God” (or “Lord” or “Father”) puts Him in a category, which necessarily compares Him with other things. If you say that God is all-knowing, you’re taking this concept “know” that we’re familiar with from people knowing things, and trying to extend that to something greater, but whatever kind of “knowing” God does, it’s really nothing like how we know, given that He doesn’t have sense organs. When we act, we have to move our arms or mouths or whatever; when He acts, He does no such thing, not having a body.

    The end-point of these kind of arguments is negative theology, where you can’t say that God has any particular property, but you can make claims about the absence of some property. So you can’t say He’s good, but you can say He’s “not bad,” where this really means that, just as if I said that the words I just spoke were not green, that God is not the kind of entity to which such a word could possibly apply. So you can’t strictly speaking even say that God is a unity (the premise of his whole argument); you can just say that He’s “not plural.”

    Of course there are big problems with this view, but Maimonides at least represents a serious attempt to conceive of a notion of God that makes sense. A question like “can God create a boulder heavier than He can lift?” shows, I think, that the notion of “all powerful” is simply self-contradictory; it has absurd consequences. Maimonides’s solution is to say that there really is no such property, that imputing power to God is really another form of anthropomorphizing Him. In episode 44, we discussed Dawkins’s view that a creator of the universe would have to have at least much complexity as the universe itself (given what we know about processes of creation we observe), but Maimonides gives us a view of creation that explains why Dawkins’s intuition doesn’t apply. Now, you might just say that Maimonides is, like all theologians, simply throwing up his arms and saying “He’s too great for us to understand, so we must just have faith,” but Maimonides’s meticulous style has little in common with that of moderns who make the faith move. There’s scholarly debate about whether Maimonides was ultimately a rationalist philosopher or a Jewish apologist (this is the view of Leo Strauss, for one, whose 1960 lectures on Maimonides are available for download here).

    We chose a selection to read based on what had been excerpted in the collection Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions, ed. Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh. Leaving out chiefly some of the chapters from that on prophecy, we were left with:

    Book 1 Ch. 51-53, 57-60 (On God’s lack of characteristics)
    Book 2 Ch. 13, 16 (On the eternity–or not–of the world; this is one place where he ultimately goes against Aristotle, who thought that the world was eternal… for Maimonides, this would imply that God is not really One, that there was something else hanging around in eternity with Him. Thus there had to have been creation ex nihilo, though this can’t be proven.)
    Book 3 Ch. 26-28 (On the purpose of scriptural law, which he thinks has a rational reason behind it even when it doesn’t look like it)

    We spent probably just as much time talking about Maimonides’s overall project as about the specific bits of text we read. This involved a lot of my regurgitating information gleaned from reading the Stanford Encyclopedia on Maimonides and from podcasts such as History of Philosophy (who did several eps on him), the In Our Time panel discussion of him, the above-mentioned Strauss lectures, The Philosopher’s Zone, and the recent New Books in Philosophy interview with Josef Stern.

    Also, our guest participant was Danny Lobell, host of the Modern Day Philosophers podcast, who recently released an episode featuring some talk of Maimonides with comedy legend Carl Reiner. Danny grew up in an orthodox Jewish community and brought a lot to this discussion with Mark and Seth.

    Here’s a free online version of the book.

  16. Inverting the Gaze: Pagan Political Philosophy

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    Courtesy of University College London Library via cartome.org

    Courtesy of University College London Library via cartome.org

    [From Michael Burgess, edited by Seth.]  A traditional means of founding political or moral philosophies in the west has been the construction of a point from which we can be seen and judged. This is an internalization and politicization of the Christian God who surveys and intervenes in his creation: we are always under the gaze of God and must therefore be Good.

    For Hume this gaze was “the ideal moral observer” – a secularization of Our Father. For Bentham it was the merely potential gaze of an all-seeing (if not all powerful) human authority; his panoptical prison is the example par excellence of morality as the belief of another who watches. The logic here is simple: we are Good under this gaze because we act under its assumed morality – we do not have any morality ourselves.

    This phenomenon of vicarious belief or acting because another believes is a predominant mode of commitment today. We do not really believe the planet is in crisis (wars, ecology, etc.) but we’re reassured that somewhere the scientists really believe it, or the journalists do, or the activists, etc. Indeed it seems the media and public reaction against government surveillance is a game of pass the parcel: the media is outraged because the lives of ordinary people are being invaded; the ordinary person is outraged because the media is. The problem is then when you look down, you find there is no parcel: few people really care.

    The ideological trajectory we are thus on: exporting our beliefs to others who can believe them for us, culminating predictably in the breakdown of political motivation and trust. When God really existed his gaze could unite and motivate us (indeed motivate us to genocide, terror and war: such is the power of an All Powerful Gaze). When, however, these authorities breakdown – when we no longer care what they might see or fear how they might react the foundation of our principled action collapses.

    In paganism the gaze of the gods was almost irrelevant. The gods did not believe in any moral system: they themselves conformed to it. In the most pagan Abrahamic religion, Judaism, there is a similar principle. In the Nitzavim, a portion of the Torah, two Jews argue over a point of God’s law.  To settle the argument one asks God himself to intervene.  When He comes down the other Jew sends him away on the grounds that it isn’t His job to interpret His law.  God laughs with joy, saying, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me!”  Even though God is the origin of The Law he must submit to it.

    The idea of a transcendent principle, a Form to which the world must conform appears to be alien to contemporary individualist ideology. Nevertheless individualism itself is a shared collective commitment and unites many communities through the doctrine of ‘enlightened selfishness’.  In light of this we might turn the teleology of contemporary ideology on its head under a Gaze. We deny the moral high-ground to the negation of traditional morality and to contemporary liberalism which keeps others at-a-distance. We are united by the acknowledgement that others have moral systems, even if they are different.

    Under the Gaze in this position we are forced to ask the question: who are we to say what others should believe? That is, is our mind pure enough, convinced enough in the Good to gaze upon others as God? Invariably the answer is no. Our gaze isn’t sufficient to purify others. We must therefore set aside the Gaze as the origin of moral belief and recognize the teleology which actually operates within each person and over which they have little control.

    In traditional moral philosophy – the philosophy that underlies the current surveillance state – the assumption of a Gaze is required to ensure adherence to the moral principles of the system.  Avoidance of that Gaze – Privacy – is considered a a subversive and illegal if not terroristic act.  Individualism as an ideology seems to stand opposed to the Gaze by offering a model where individuals are accountable only to their own (self-generated) teleology.  It substitutes a transcendent form of the Gaze (e.g. God) for an immanent one (in each individual) which doesn’t suffice to guarantee adherence to even the minimal, individualist imperative.

    We must therefore set aside the Gaze as the origin of moral belief and recognise the teleology which actually operates within each person and over which they have little control. We really are all committed to many things and conform our lives to these principles, and we can raise these principles above the gods themselves and whomever gazes upon us and once again make everything conform to a Form of the Good.

    We can invert the accusation pragmatic liberalism makes today: privacy, the lack of a gaze, is not the opportunity for evil. Evil is in the ceaseless watching itself, and the assumption of its own necessity.

    –Michael Burgess

  17. Not School Discussion of Being and Time

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    How we greet new members (Courtesy of Being and Tim)

    July saw the incarnation of a Not School Study Group that is dedicated to a close and thorough reading of Martin Heidegger’s 1927 classic Being and Time. Due to the slow nature of the group, we are not set to end at any specific time and are therefore ongoing.

    The group is centered around weekly video or audio chat meetings. Though we aim for a close and thorough reading we are under no pretense that what we are doing is a complete reading. If we don’t get something or just think Heidegger is flat out unclear we slug through it anyway. On average we read approximately 20 pages a week.

    Click here for our discussion of Being and Time’s Introduction I where we cover the overall project of the text, the difficulty of even understanding the project and why Dasein is the entity to be interrogated. Click here for our discussion of Introduction II where we cover what Heidegger wants to get out of the project, his notion of phenomena and phenomenology and how we don’t know what the hell Hermeneutics is. In addition to the audio provided, the group plans to maintain all past and future recordings in video format on this Youtube channel.

    Citizens can download the mp3s from the Free Stuff page under “Not School Discussion Groups Audio.”

    Update: The third and fourth discussions (covering Div I.1 and I.2) have now been posted. Get them on the Free Stuff page or watch them here and here.

    Interested in joining in on the Being and Time conversation? Sign up here. Interested in joining other groups or proposing your own? Click here.

    -Stevie LeValley

     

  18. August Not School Study Groups

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    rp_Not-school-233x300.jpgAs usual, there’s quite a bit to choose from this month if you’re looking for a philosophy text to engage with a little more closely.  We’ve had a lot of groups recording their discussions lately and the PEL Citizens portion of the site is now host to nearly thirty different discussions on a wide range of philosophical topics with more being added each month.  If you’ve enjoyed the podcast, consider becoming a member for a paltry five dollars a month which will not only give you access to all of these additional discussions (some of which include the podcast fellows) but also the chance to get in on the action yourself.

    First up in August, we’ve got a couple of groups who may be of interest to those pleased by PEL’s recent focus on political and economic ideas.  One group will be readingCommunitarianism and its Critics by Daniel Bell which “explores questions regarding the source of the social self, the ontological foundation of liberal justice, the relationship between the social and historically embedded conceptions of the good and ahistorical political rights.”  They intend to have at least one discussion this month via Skype.  Another group starting up,  Philosophy and Economics, is still determining its reading, but may be looking into the foundations of general equilibrium theory.

    Two more groups are beginning this month, one of which will be studying Information Theory and computation, with a focus on the following questions: “What is Computation? What is Information? How are these concepts connected? What are the philosophical consequences of this connection?”  Their readings will be from The Annotated Turing and Claude Shannon’sThe Mathematical Theory of Communication  They are planning at least one live discussion in August.

    Our last new group will be reading John H. McWhorter’s The Language Hoax. Here’s the gist from book description  – “This short, opinionated book addresses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world. Linguist John McWhorter argues that while this idea is mesmerizing, it is plainly wrong. It is language that reflects culture and worldview, not the other way around.”  I can’t speak to this book’s argument, but McWhorter certainly seemed to know his stuff in this course on linguistics.  This group also plans to have a live discussion toward the end of the month.

    The lively group that’s been reading Martin Heidegger’sBeing and Time will be continuing to battle through Division 1 of that book, reading on average about 20 pages a week.  These folks have been recording weekly video conferences which ought to be a pretty useful resource for anyone looking at Heidegger for the first time.

    The Philosophy in Fiction group will be taking on Umberto Eco‘s mammoth novelFoucault’s Pendulum, while reserving the option to carry the reading into next month if our minds are excessively blown by Eco in August.  New members are welcome to join in this, and/or to come suggest future readings for the group.

    Finally, the Philosophy and Theater group will be pursuing the theme of ritual studies in the context of theater.  Many of our prior readings of have involved elements of ritual studies (Antonin Artaud, Richard Schechner and Peter Schaffer to name a few), so we’ll now be addressing them in a more direct way by reading Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, with a live discussion to follow.  Our discussion of Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double will take place on August 10th, and any interested new members are welcome to join up for that as well.

    By the way, if you’re a member and have a text you’d like to read with a group, it’s not too early to go ahead and put up a proposal for September in the Citizen’s Forum to begin attracting interest and negotiating a reading schedule.

    - Daniel Cole

  19. Sandel: What’s the Practical Upshot?

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    upshotI took Michael Sandel in our recent interview with him to be commenting about philosophical mistakes in our political discourse. One of these had to do with how we talk about rights. (And note that the following is not a formulation that he gives.) “Natural rights” are ontologically suspect. What could such a thing be? Is there any non-theological story that could really make sense of them? Kant and Rawls each try to give us a such a story, having to do with our nature as rational and willing beings. For Sandel, as with Hume and others, the matter is more complex: we simply can’t analyze the facts about our desires and their relationship to our will and to other people and come up with absolute restrictions, i.e. rights that could never be legitimately contravened.

    For someone like Anscombe, this position is intolerable: unless there are some absolutes, then we will rationalize bad behavior by torturous chains of utilitarian logic and end up bombing cities of innocent people. This move in ethics is tantamount to the move in founding the American government to make the system immune to corruption by individual officials.

    Now, we know that merely dividing power does not make a system fool-proof; if all the different centers of power are still corrupt or blind or otherwise wrong about something, there will still be problems. The Bill of Rights presents us with the illusion of an absolute limit on power, but laws still need to be interpreted, and if the Supreme Court and the other branches agree to interpret a listed right in such a way that it won’t protect some particular action, they can and have done that. Despite our efforts to the contrary, we remain a nation of people using laws as tools, not a nation of laws lording over people.

    Likewise, morally, we can agree heartily that, for example, everyone has the right to life, but then achieve a broad consensus that, e.g. killing in self-defense or in a just war (i.e. in self-defense interpreted on a wider scale) or whatnot is still permitted. We may pretend to believe in absolute moral laws, but when faced with a wholly counterintuitive consequence of the letter of such a law, we reinterpret it: we refine it to actually make sense (and when we don’t do this, we should).

    It is a long-running beef of this podcast against theists and other moral absolutists that it’s simply not true that unless there are moral laws somehow beyond human psychology or sociology, written into the fabric of the universe, then morality simply collapses, being replaced by individual desires and whatever arbitrary customs societies have developed. Sandel discusses this in terms of morality having to have the appropriate distance from us: If it’s too close, i.e. if what is right is defined as what we already prefer or what we will (as individuals or societies), then the matter judged gets confused with the judging apparatus; there would be no standpoint from which we could criticize a moral practice. On the other hand, if moral commandments are too far away from us–if they aren’t somehow rooted in ways that people actually behave–then they couldn’t actually even apply to us (see our discussion about the Euthyphro; it’s also a basic tenet of existentialism and follows from the is-ought distinction: even if God wrote right and wrong into the universe, if it were just a commandment floating in air that wasn’t also somehow written into human nature, that then we as individuals wouldn’t be obligated to make these objective values our values).

    So the goal of a modern, mature ethics is to use our social and intellectual nature to be able to make judgments on moral matters, not primarily as individuals but as members of groups, using reflective equilibrium. There is no absolute standpoint (e.g. the Law of God or the will of the founding fathers) from which we can make apodictic moral judgments, but neither are we tied to judge according to (individual or social) whims. We can reflect using moral principles (as defeasible rules of thumb, not as absolute restrictions), long traditions (which we must analyze teleologically and critically so that we don’t blindly follow the past), and gut reactions to individual alleged cases of injustice (which, while powerful guides, are themselves subject to criticism and possible revision).

    So, while the concept of natural rights don’t make sense, morally grounded legal rights as constructs to be argued for are an essential part of governing. Yes, we could all be corrupt or blind in the way that Anscombe feared in some particular debate and make mistakes, but we can’t prevent that by pretending that some moral law or right is beyond human the human sphere of value creation. Instead, we need to further bring debate above-board, to further open the open society, to increase the honesty and integrity of our political debates.

    And this, my friends, is what I am very very pessimistic about. Sandel gives the example that in deciding about the permissibility of abortion, we need to be above board in stating simply that we (as representatives in a Republic; this may not actually reflect the majority view) regard the Catholic claims that zygotes are persons as simply incorrect and not try to pussy-foot around such philosophical, scientific, and moral issues in issuing decisions. But this is of course exactly how law-making does not work. If we required consensus on philosophical issues before legislation could take place, nothing would get done. Instead, we make practical arguments: in the case of abortion, we can argue that whatever the ontological status of the zygote or fetus, people should have the right to choose what to do with their bodies. We can argue that outlawing abortions just leads to an unsafe black market in them. We tend to pass laws that seek to mitigate bad things that are happening, not to order society in any ideal way.

    Reducing hypocrisy and encouraging rigor in public discourse is great, but the effect that doing so would have on actual legislation is difficult to predict. I think this kind of thinking works better in deciding what kind of society to promote instead of deciding what actions to outlaw. I brought up Robert Skidelsky on the good life, which of course relates to my ongoing interest in New Work. Skidelsky and Bergmann argue that working full time in a traditional job is not part of our human good. Put in terms of human dignity, it is beneath our dignity to sell off so much of our time. So what’s the solution? If you think of outlawing certain actions as the only tool that government has in its toolbox, then it’s hard to imagine how to address this. What, are we going to outlaw full-time work, disrupting all these free exchanges and leave people much worse off, with employers not able to get things done and (now part time) employees much much poorer? Sounds crazy.

    But if instead of simply outlawing, the idea is to promote community values (and yes, the goal of talking about New Work is to change this community value and put this recognition that jobs generally suck into a politically efficacious spot), then there are tons of things that government can do, from using incentives (tax breaks and payouts) to facilitate livable New Work life arrangements to creating infrastructure (Obamacare, for one, and libraries, free public transportation, good public schools, and much more is needed if we’re really going to lessen the role of money in day-to-day life as Sandel would like). So the political upshot of Sandel’s position is a progressive government that discusses at a deep and far-seeing level what human good amounts to (insofar as it can be generalized across people; this will still be a thin theory, but not nearly as thin as Rawls would have us believe for a population in a particular historical time and place) and what can be done to help the population at large approximate that good.

    The assumption here is that honest philosophical debate about the good will not end in us promoting Sharia law or any other reactionary, “morality”-based set of restrictions. One could argue, for instance, that an ideal person does not curse: that cursing comes from anger and disrespect, and so we should outlaw cursing. But this would get psychology backwards. If it’s true that the ideal person doesn’t curse (and let’s just say for the sake of argument that it is), then instead of outlawing cursing, we should be trying to put people in a situation where they don’t need to curse. If people in a veritable garden of Eden would still curse (because, say, the pomegranate juice squirts them in the eye), that would be a demonstration that cursing is actually not a vice, that it’s a normal and healthy human reaction.

    So the way that a good-acknowledging society (and not one that pretends to be neutral about the good a la classical Liberalism) avoids the kind of objectionable actions that Wes so often referred to in our discussions (promoting the good according to some particular religion) is by recognizing how difficult it is to be precise about the good, and in cases of significant doubt, to remain neutral. It seems to Sandel that selling your body (for sex or for surrogacy or advertising space) is inherently degrading. Well, if that’s so, he’d need to argue for that, and such an argument–once you confine yourself to comments about inherent dignity and not about how such transactions are effectively coercive given the poverty or lack of other opportunities for the seller–is difficult to make, given that a Sam-Harris-type “science of morality” is fundamentally confused.

    …Difficult, but not impossible, because we’re not trying to establish an objective fact, not a full-fledged theory of human nature and human good, but merely enough to achieve a consensus for action. Hasn’t human experience told us that, in general, some situations are simply not good for us? If you want to argue that prostitution, even if completely free of tacit coercion, is OK, then you have to argue something about sexuality: that just as we don’t think it’s particularly demeaning for someone to dance or play a sport (wrestling!) for money, adding the sexual element doesn’t add anything that would change that intuition. To bring back in New Work, haven’t we had enough people punching the clock for enough years to know that at least some work situations (ones which involve actual clock-punching, for sure, but many others besides) are simply not in tune with our well-being? Less controversially, we have enough experience as a culture with long-term relationships to know that same-sex ones aren’t significantly more screwed up than opposite-sex ones, so there should be no objections to gay marriage on those grounds. Want to outlaw a drug? I could see a good case to be made that any substance (alcohol) that makes us think less clearly is demeaning to our humanity, but there’s also plenty of documented experience that drinking enhances life.

    And of course, even if we come to a consensus on the fact about the good life, there are still practical considerations that would determine whether or not to make a law out of it. If it’s not worth the resources to enforce, or if enforcing it would involve nasty by-products (e.g. dents in privacy), then forget it: maybe this is something we have public service announcements about but don’t actually prohibit. Incentives may be more than we want to pay for; desirable infrastructure may be more complex than we want to build. Every legislative situation is unique. Unfortunately, the good faith argumentation required to evaluate such situations, give a nuanced analysis of both the philosophical and practical issues, and propose sensible laws is something that elected legislators, at least, seem to me largely incapable of, for fear of angering their constituents and/or financial backers. Perhaps committees such as the one on stem cell research that Sandel mentioned serving on can serve some of this deliberative purpose, if Congress and state legislatures are not up for the job.

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  20. Episode 98: Guest Michael Sandel Against Market Society

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    On his book What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (2012), and also bringing Sandel into the discussion begun without him in our last episode about his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.

    Free economic transactions are supposed to benefit both the buyer and the seller, so why not allow prostitution, vote buying, pay-to-immigrate, selling ad space on your house or body, and premium versions of everything for those willing to pay more? Sandel thinks that these practices are degrading even if uncoerced, and argues that classical liberalism–by trying to maintain neutrality on philosophical questions like “what is the good?”–doesn’t have the resources to prevent rampant and undesirable commodification. Read more about the topic and get the text.

    End song: “The Like Song,” from The MayTricks’ So Chewey (1993). Download the album for free.

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