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


    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

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


    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.

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


    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.

    Also, please support our sponsor, Squarespace for your web-site creation needs. Use the checkout code “Examined” for a free trial and 10% off.

  4. Topic for #101: Maimonides on God


    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.

  5. Inverting the Gaze: Pagan Political Philosophy

    Courtesy of University College London Library via

    Courtesy of University College London Library via

    [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

  6. Not School Discussion of Being and Time


    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


  7. August Not School Study Groups


    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

  8. Sandel: What’s the Practical Upshot?


    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

  9. Episode 98: Guest Michael Sandel Against Market Society


    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.

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

  10. Bruno Latour and the Relationship Between Science and Religion


    latour inquiry into modes of existence[From Oppenheimer and the Rhetoric of Science podcast was the relationship between science and religion. It came up because Oppenheimer frequently mused on this relationship and because the main argument of my book is that the political role that science advisers now play is a mutated version of the role originally designated for religious prophets in democratic societies.

    In the podcast and in some discussion that had to be edited for time we ran through the dominant configurations of the science–religion relationship:

    • Expansive materialism (aka “quantum mysticism”): suggested by physicists such as Oppenheimer, Schrödinger, and Freeman Dyson, this position holds that our notion of materialism must be expanded to accommodate the effect of an observer. With this definition as a basis, science and religion are cast as two “windows” on reality; they won’t necessary produce the same views (and thus, the same realities), but they are presented as having essentially the same object and as being equally valid perspectives on it.
    • NOMA (“Non-Overlapping Magisteria” aka the “is/ought” or “facts/values” divide): Here Stephen Jay Gould (also Einstein, Max Weber, Tolstoy, and others) suggested that the proper purview of science was the facts of life, while religion handled the questions of how best to live and the only problem remaining was how to maintain a civil relationship between the two.
    • Fundamentalism: We didn’t discuss this in much depth, but there are of course factions that take either science or religion as the “correct” guide to democratic life and reject the other as epistemologically and politically deficient. (Here’s looking at you, Sam Harris ;)

    Continue reading

  11. Episode 97: Michael Sandel on Social Justice and the Self


    Michal Sandel by Genevieve ArnoldOn his book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), mostly ch. 1 & 4.

    Classical liberalism from Locke to Rawls focuses on rights as primary: a good government is one that protects people from violations of their rights, and that’s what social justice amounts to, though of course, there’s some disagreement about what counts as a “right.”

    Sandel thinks that there’s a idea about the self behind this picture: we are selves that have interests, but are not itself composed of those interests. In other words, on this view, you are in your essence just a choosing being, not a member of your family or community. Sandel thinks that is bunk. It doesn’t allow for real introspection, or even real freedom, as all of our choices would merely be based on ultimately arbitrary preferences, and not on understanding who we really are.

    Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan debate whether Sandel is really representing Rawls’s liberalism fairly here and what alternative to a liberal state he’s actually suggesting. Read more about it and get the book. Also, the post about Alec Baldwin that Wes refers to at the end is here. Make sure to listen to the follow-up to this episode where Sandel himself answers some of our questions about this book.

    End song: “Wonderful You,” from Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio (1998). Download the album for free.

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

    Please support our sponsor and enter the code “PEL” when you check out.

  12. Topics for #97-100: Sandel, Symposium, and What We’ve Learned


    You’ve likely all heard about our big ep. 100 recording, and should surely start reading Plato’s Symposium right now prep for that. To help you get all the various speakers involved in that work straight in your head, you might want to listen to the “In Our Time” episode on this from last January. For even more detail, you can watch the five different lectures on various parts of this from David O’Connor’s Notre Dame course: “Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love.”

    The dialogue is about love, and a number of participants of this ancient Greek drinking part are supposed to speak in praise of Eros. Unique among Plato’s dialogues, we don’t just get Socrates’s view in depth, but get to hear from a number of other figures representing rhetoric, medicine, tragedy, and comedy, with these various guys voicing what really amounts to their own experiences of love, or rather praising types of love in a way that amounts to to self-praise, and we get to learn a lot about Athenian aristocratic pederasty. Eventually, it’s Socrates’s turn, and though he’s supposed to give a speech, he gives it in the form of a remembered dialogue with his teacher Diotima who supposedly doled out wisdom about love to him when he was a youth. Socrates’s position as revealed by Diotima is predictable if you know much about Plato’s proto-Christian philosophy: The best kind of eros is the one that transcends physical love, into first not just loving the beauty of your beloved, but loving beauty in general, and from there getting even more general into loving the good. Love is ideating beauty (the Form of the Good) and wanting to create/procreate in its presence, which means among other thing for the participants at this party to teach virtue to teenage boys instead of fondling them. Love is not itself a matter of having good, but of seeking it, like a philosopher, i.e. a lover of, or seeker after, wisdom.

    For episode #99, we’re going to record this Saturday night, when we’re all gathered in Madison (also including recurring guest Daniel Horne!) on what we’ve learned in 5+ years and 100 episodes of doing this. How have our attitudes toward doing philosophy changed? This will be comparable to our episode 73; can we be interesting without having a specific text to focus on? Who knows?

    For episode #98, we had Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel on as a guest to talk about his 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. If you’re not familiar with Sandel, you might want to go watch his very popular lecture series on justice, which is a great introduction to Locke, Kant, utilitarianism, libertarianism, Rawls, and contemporary moral problems like gay marriage, affirmative action, and the draft. (He also wrote these up in a book called Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? from 2009.) What Money Can’t Buy discusses practices such as selling advertising space on everything, paying to jump to the front of lines, selling your body, buying the right to immigrate to the US, etc. Market logic is supposed to be a win-win for all involved: a buyer and a seller both benefit, or they wouldn’t have made the exchange, but are there areas that should be off limits to markets? Are there other goods that get crowded out by this kind of thinking? Sandel says yes.

    Before that, for episode #97 (which is nearly ready to post), we did some more rigorous philosophical work on Sandel, reading his 1982 break-through work Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, which is a major contribution to the modern dialogue about justice starting with Rawls, who he spends the book describing and critiquing. Where Rawls argues that justice is self-evidently the preeminent virtue of a society, Sandel argues that no, justice is only needed insofar as the society lacks fellow feeling, when there are parties in conflict, and that Rawls’s social prescriptions therefore beg the question against making solidarity a desirable social goal.

    Also, Rawls thinks that he can argue for his principles of justice based merely on our current intuitions, or rather the intuitions we think we would have if we put ourselves in the “original position” (not knowing whether we’d be rich or poor, smart or not in the society, or otherwise what our particular interests would be). As a kind of deontology, this is supposed to tell us about the right (what we should do) without making any particular claims about metaphysics: about what kind of creatures we are, for instance. Sandel thinks that in fact Rawls’s original position assumes that we are the kind of creature who (like Sartre describes) don’t have any particular interests built into our nature, into our identities. We are creates that will, and that’s what freedom is. Sandel thinks this is wrong: we are, prior to any choices we might make, members of particular families, societies, etc. We are embedded selves. Sandel thinks that on Rawls’s view, there’s not really such thing as introspection, of “knowing thyself.” You can figure out what you want, yes, and you can even figure out if you want to want what you do in fact want, but because (apart from not violating others’ rights, a requirement of justice that restricts what ends are legitimate for us to have) there’s no ultimately grounding for wanting one thing over another, no specific good dictated by our human nature (teleology) or by utilitarian considerations, our choices ultimately end up being arbitrary. Sandel thinks this isn’t true freedom at all. Now, whether this Sartrean view accurately represents Rawls is something we debate in the discussion; Rawls himself claimed that he didn’t hold this view of the self that Sandel attributes to him. We read chapters 1 and 4, plus the introduction and conclusion.

  13. Yes, PEL Live 7/20 Will Be Web-Cast


    We’ve tested out a web-cast solution and are planning to broadcast the proceedings for 7/20 1-4 central time live. Check out at the time (well, hopefully we’ll get the cast started 10 minutes early or so) and you’ll be able to see both the musical opening act (me and my violin buddy Rei playing for about 20 minutes), then maybe some Philosophy Bro for a few minutes reading some of his work while we get settled, then our full episode #100 discussion of Plato’s Symposium.

    We’ll be doing this with Google Hangouts On Air. I THINK that watching this, then, will require that you take a second to create a Google Plus account (if you don’t have gmail or a Chrome login or anything like that already), and ready yourself to be able to do hangouts. When you click the link to watch, it should just guide you through the process, but you may want to go look at Google’s documentation in advance and make sure you’ll all set to go, as it does require installing some kind of browser extension:

    Note that we’ll be using an iPhone hotspot as our Internet connection for this ‘cast, so it may well not work. No guarantees!

    If you miss it, worry not. We’ll also be videotaping, using better equipment and a better sound feed than you’ll see on the webcast, and posting that at some point after the fact. And of course the episode will be edited per usual and posted on our podcast feed.

    There are still more than 10 seats left (and a whole balcony of listening-only space) if you’re in the neighborhood of Madison, WI and want to catch us in person. You can order said seats in advance online here or just show up on a whim. Tell your friends who live in the area!

    -Mark Linsenmayer

  14. Ecce Zizek! Feynman Homo


    eccehomoIn the normal functioning of intellectual discourse we expect interlocutors to obliterate themselves before the alter of the Eternal Progress of Human Wisdom, that is, people should not feature amongst that which we praise, contemplate or idolize. That a particular person has offered us an idea is a purely contingent fact: he is merely at the right place and time to do it and has had the right mixture of experiences and education. It is indecent to suggest that any person should have a following: we ought to be fanatics for ideas, not for their ephemeral vehicles.

    In aesthetics the analogous phenomenon is treated in the reverse: a particular body is beautiful; we should invest in the beauty of particulars (of paintings, music, etc.) and see universal beauty made concrete in their essential contingency (“only this face now, in this place, under this light, could embody beauty so”).

    However intellectual obliteration and aesthetic apotheosis do not always stay separate. The mixing of these processes can reveal a great deal about our contemporary ideological commitments. As I type, two serendipitous discussions are taking part in (largely online) intellectual communities, under consideration are the sins of Richard Feynman and Slavoj Žižek. Continue reading

  15. Google Scholar citations–a measure of academic importance:


    rawls theory of justiceA scan of Google Scholar revealed the following citations since 2009 for philosophers:

    Rawls: 250,000
    Quine: 146,000
    Kant: 119,000
    Rorty: 105,000
    Foucault: 62,300
    Nietzsche: 38,500
    Hegel: 38,500
    Heidegger: 38,300
    Derrida: 26,900
    Wittgenstein: 25,400
    Deleuze: 23,600
    Husserl: 20,000
    Lacan: 21,300
    Gadamer: 16,600
    Zizek: 15,400

    What are we to conclude from this hierarchy? Apparently, academia is working hard on Rawls, Quine, Kant and Rorty. Foucault is surprisingly up there. The Continental three of Nietzsche, Hegel and Heidegger are next, while Derrida, Wittgenstein and Deleuze are hanging in there. Lagging behind are Husserl, Lacan, Gadamer and Zizek.

    Go to Google Scholar and enter your favorite philosopher to see how he or she ranks comparatively since 2009.


  16. Free Will Worth Having


    What are your thoughts on machines that can predict what you’re going to do in the next five minutes? Do you think that everything that happens now in the universe was causally determined by some event(s) that happened before it? When professional philosophers check people’s intuitions it looks as though sometimes people generally agree that we have free will even if the universe is guided by the natural laws that we learn about in physics, chemistry, and biology and sometimes they do not.

    People just don’t seem to have intuitions about these sorts of cases and the questions that are raised by them. People have intuitions about which path would be shorter to work, what color shirt would look best with their complexion but not whether the laws of the universe somehow limit the human capacity to act freely. Not only ordinary people but philosophers since the time of the ancient Greeks have had trouble coming to a consensus on the nature of human freedom, demonstrating that they too do not have uniform intuitions about free will. Continue reading

  17. Convenience, Thought and Technology

    janus snake headphone

    Courtesy of

    No-one could argue that technology does not make our lives easier, or that technology has not been one of the great liberators in the history of humankind; it certainly has been. Our lives would be more solitary, poorer, nastier, more brutish and shorter without technology, to steal a line from Hobbes. We should hope for continued advances in this liberating sort of technology, particularly in technologies that allow for advances in ‘new work‘.  At the same time we should explore the impact of technological advances on thought.

    In an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine entitled “Ein gefährlicher Pakt”, Ranga Yogeshwar discusses the problematic power of technology. According to Yogeshwar technology is so convenient and powerful that it inhibits us from thinking for ourselves. Technology keeps us immature. Yogeshwar connects this to the famous opening of Immanuel Kant’s essay An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”:

    Continue reading

  18. Discussion of “Antigone” Now Posted


    The Not School Theater group got together via Skype last week to discuss Sophocles’s play “Antigone”, and members can now find our conversation over in the Free Stuff for Citizens section of the site.  The roster on this one consisted of Carlos Franke, Phillip Cherny, Mark Linsenmayer, Michael Rissman and myself.

    Trying to get a toehold on the play’s philosophical aspects, we talked a little about existentialist ethics, the concept of justice, power dynamics between the state and citizens, and about ancient Greece in general.  Later on, we debated a bit about Antigone’s motives.  One of her speeches contains a few severe statements about her dedication to her brother that seem to call into question the commitment to justice that she expresses throughout the rest of the play.  Apparently those statements have been provoking controversy among readers for a long time; according to translator Robert Fagles, Goethe refused to believe that they were even written by Sophocles.

    Up next for the group will be Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double, which we’ll be reading for a discussion to take place in either late July or early August.  If it sounds like your kind of thing, then come join up and talk about it with us.

    - Daniel Cole

  19. Not School Study Groups In July


    Not SchoolWe’ve got a number of attractive reading groups going this month, a couple of which are entirely new.  It looks like almost every group will be starting fresh with a new text, so this should be a good month for members new and old who’ve never joined a group to try it out.  If you’re not familiar with how Not School works, you can find everything you need to know right here.

    First up, the Philosophy and Media Theory group will be continuing to read Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.  Our first discussion was postponed from last month to this one, so there’s still plenty of time to get the text (which is immensely interesting) and join us without having missed anything.

    There’s a new group of folks that will be starting Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.  This looks like it will be a very active group, and friendly to first time Heidegger readers.  We’ve also got a second new group starting which will be reading Communitarianism and its Critics by Daniel Bell.  It looks like this one should tie in well with the recent episode on John Rawls.

    Both the Fiction group and the Theater group are continuing this month, and each will be starting new books.  For the Fiction group,  Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille will be the book, and for the Theater group it’s Antonin Artaud‘s “The Theater and It’s Double“.  Both of these groups love new members, so don’t be shy about heading over and introducing yourself.

    - Daniel Cole

  20. Episode 96: Oppenheimer and the Rhetoric of Science Advisers


    Oppenheimer by Corey MohlerDiscussing Lynda Walsh’s book Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy (2013) with the author, focusing on Robert J. Oppenheimer. We also read a speech from 1950 he gave called “The Encouragement of Science.”

    What is the role of the science adviser? Should scientists just “stick to the facts,” or can only someone with technical knowledge make decisions about what to actually do? After leading the atomic bomb project during WWII, Oppenheimer thought that scientists needed to become politicians themselves to make sure that the power of technology wasn’t abused. His views about openness (sharing weapons tech with other governments) didn’t go over well with the Eisenhower administration, and he was stripped of his security clearance.

    Lynda’s book is not philosophy, exactly, but about rhetoric. Her thesis is that the social role of preacher-scientists like Oppenheimer is comparable to that of ancient prophets like the Oracle at Delphi: they serve to bring about political certainty by providing knowledge inaccessible to ordinary citizens. Insofar as we can’t ourselves analyze the data, we’re taking them on faith as authorities.

    Lynda tries to get Mark, Seth, and Dylan to talk about the difference between philosophy and rhetoric. There’s some talk of Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, Rachael Carson, Stephen Jay Gould, and others. Listen to Lynda’s introduction and get more information about the topic, as well as Lynda’s book.

    End song: “Request Denied,” by Mark Lint, recorded in spurts between 2000 and now.

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

    Come see PEL Live near Madison WI on 7/20!

    Thanks to Corey Mohler for the picture of Oppenheimer.