Apr 152014

Henri Bergson postage stamp

“If I had not read Bergson,” William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe, “I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately.” James had been engaged in a very long philosophical debate with the leading Idealists of his day, F.H. Bradley and Josiah Royce, when Bergson came to the rescue. James thought that Bergson supplied him with the concepts he needed to finally win “The Battle of the Absolute,” as his debates with Royce came to be called. For his purposes, James explains, “the essential contribution of Bergson to philosophy is his criticism of intellectualism. In my opinion he has killed intellectualism definitively and without hope of recovery. I don’t see how it can ever revive again in its ancient platonizing role of claiming to be the most authentic, intimate, and exhaustive definer of the nature of reality.”

What’s wrong with intellectualism, you may be wondering, and why would any philosopher want to celebrate its death? The ability to deal with abstractions gives us a tremendous advantage, James admits. “Both theoretically and practically this power of framing abstract concepts is one of the sublimest of our human prerogatives,” James says. It supplies us with “an increase both of vision and of power.” The problem, oddly, is that intellectualism is a bit too good. As any heroin addict will tell you, it’s so damn good that it will ruin your life.

It is no wonder that earlier thinkers, forgetting that concepts are only man-made extracts from the temporal flux, should have ended up treating them as a superior type of being, bright, changeless, true, divine, and utterly opposed in nature to the turbid, restless lower world. The latter then appears as but their corruption and falsification.

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Apr 122014

I was recently alerted to the existence of an up-and-coming podcast that just started last summer called Modern Day Philosophers. Hmmmm, is that like the New Books in Philosophy podcast, bringing to light the work of under-appreciated academics?

No, as you can see by the guest list: These are for the most parts established comedians like Artie Lang, or Bill Burr, or Lewis Black, and the idea is that these thoughtful people have a lot to say about religion, society, the good life, and reality.

So it’s a comedy podcast, and to get these comedian guests to wax philosophical, each episode assigns them one historic philosopher. Now, at PEL I’ve long looked for a famous comedian (or rock star, etc.) to actually read some philosophy and come on to represent their profession. I’ve found it’s very hard to get these famous people to read anything and so prep in the way that we do here (Lucy Lawless being the exception).

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Apr 122014

Listen now to Tamler Sommers’s summary of the two Strawson articles.

On 4/6, Mark, Wes, and Seth were joined by Tamler Sommers of the Very Bad Wizards podcast to discuss the following articles:

1. P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” (1960)
2. Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” (1994)
3. Gary Watson’s “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme” (1987)

We also brought a bit of insight in from a great article by Thomas Nagel: “Moral Luck” (1979)

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Apr 112014

On “An Introduction to Metaphysics” (1903)

How does metaphysics differ from science? While Kant had dismissed metaphysics as groundless speculation about things beyond human knowledge, Bergson sees it as a matter of grasping things “from the inside.” He calls this “intuition”: the kind of understanding we have of our own inner lives. If you try to describe this with concepts or images, you falsify it, you freeze it into position. That’s necessarily what science does, and is very useful, but doesn’t get at what’s metaphysically fundamental for Bergson, which is the unbroken flow of duration.

The regular foursome are joined by Matt Teichman to try to figure out how this proto-phenomenology is supposed to actually amount to metaphysics, like how you can sympathetically have an intuition about anything besides your own experience.

Listen to Matt’s introduction. Read more about the topic and get the text.

End song: “I Recall” by Mark Lint & the Simulacra (recorded mostly in 2000, completed just now).

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

Apr 112014

Two old friends find themselves at the same hospital, one diagnosed with pulmonary disease and the other madness, and while they long to be near each other both confront their separate mortality. Though that Wittgenstein is mentioned, this story is about another Wittgenstein, one of several “geniuses” from the Austrian family. 

I want to see him clearly again with the help of these notes, these scraps of memory, which are meant to clarify and recall to mind not only the hopeless situation of my friend but also my own hopelessness at the time, for just as Paul’s life had once again run into an impasse, so mine too had run into an impasse, or rather been driven into one.

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Apr 092014

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

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

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Apr 082014

Guest Tamler Sommers (from the Very Bad Wizards podcast) summarizes Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” (1994) and his father P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” (1960).

Read more about the topic and get the articles.

Apr 082014

Moving away from just reading plays and more toward theory, the Not School Theater group in March had a look at the work of theater director and performance theorist Richard Schechner.

Daniel Cole, Philip Cherny and I discussed a video of The Performance Group’s Dionysus in ’69 (you can buy the text here, a very loose adaptation of Euripides’ Euripides’s The Bacchae.

In addition, we read Schechner’s essay Drama, Script, Theater and Performance (which you can purchase in the collection, Performance Theory), in which he basically tries to do two things: 1. Establish a classification of the aspects of various social events in the four categories named in the title. 2. On that grounds, explain the relation of the performing arts to ritual, play, hunting and warfare, in concepts taken from ethology as well as from anthropology. Continue reading »

Apr 072014

When the Partially Examined Life discussion of human enhancement (Episode 91) turned to the topic of digital technology, the philosophical oxygen was sucked out of the room. Sure, folks conceded that philosopher of mind Andy Clark (not mentioned by name, but implicitly referenced) has interesting things to say about how technology upgrades our cognitive abilities and extends the boundaries of where our minds are located. But everything else more or less was dismissed as concerning not terribly deep uses of “appliances”.

I think this is a misguided way to look at technology. It dramatically underestimates how technologically mediated behavior can impact character and autonomy.

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Apr 042014

Our main man Philosophy Bro was way futurist compared to us, and covered transhumanism way back in 2011. Go check it out.

I quote:

So, broadly transhumanism is a movement that seeks to move past our human limitations by using technology. Think of all the cool shit we can do – we are already giving injured bros robotic limbs. And not shitty arms that just open and close like they’re trying to pick up a stuffed animal – these arms are getting more and more badass by the day. If we invent an arm strong enough to throw a car and articulate enough to write in cursive, why wait to lose an arm the hard way? Just tack that shit on…

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Apr 032014


There is a classic anxiety about technology: that it can lead to a lack of individuality and spiritual emptiness. Why might this be?

The place to start is with the lack of control technology can bring about in our lives. This may seem counter-intuitive since it is normally thought that technology is what helps us attain more control in our lives. Of course it does. However, while on the one hand technology is freeing and allows us not to have to labour to do basic things and meet basic needs, it also reduces our individuality, hence our freedom and control over our own lives. Horkheimer and Adorno see this dialectic clearly:

Technology has changed human beings from children into persons. But all such progress of individuation has been at the expense of the individuality in whose name it took place, leaving behind nothing except individuals’ determination to pursue their own purposes alone (Dialectic of Enlightenment p. 125).

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Apr 012014

Much like rockers Brent Bourgeois, Neal Morse, and Dan Peek, doing this PEL thing, with all the sex and drugs that has come with it, has over the last year brought me to rock bottom, as I found myself reading Ayn Rand and Jacques Lacan by choice, and after spending a night rolling in my own puke, I saw a light, and the light spoke to me, saying:

Too long has secular philosophy permeated our culture. You can’t even turn on the TV these days without hearing “Descartes this” and “Quine that” and “You Kant!” It’s time for you to turn the PEL ship to the task of promoting that nearly unknown, vastly underfunded, underrepresented figure, Jesus Christ Our Lord And Savior.™

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Mar 302014

If you wanted to hear or read more from David, the place to start is his blog Contrary Brin. Here also is a collection of articles, nicely categorized, which in turn links to this collection of interviews.

A couple of the topics he touched on with us include the “disputation arenas” and self-righteousness as an addiction.

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Mar 292014
300- 2

Continuing discussion of David Brin’s novel Existence (without him) and adding Nick Bostrom’s essay “Why I Want to Be a Posthuman When I Grow Up” (2006).

Are our present human capabilities sufficient for meeting the challenges our civilization will face? Should we devote our technology to artificially enhancing our abilities, or would that be a crime against nature, a God-play that would probably lead to disaster? Is thinking about this issue a juvenile waste of time?

Mark, Seth, Dylan, and Brian Casey are rejoined by Wes to reflect on ep. 90′s discussion with David Brin and figure out how his project is related to transhumanism. While you’ll get a more thorough introduction to transhumanism from Rationally Speaking or many other web sources, we did confront Bostrom’s argument that extending our lives and enhancing our IQ and emotional range would be good, and human-all-too-human fun was had. Read more about the topic and get the text.

End song: “Waygo” from The MayTricks (1992). Read about and get the whole album for free.

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Mar 282014

Some of the initial listener reaction to our David Brin episode harkens back to similar comments we got about our Pat Churchland episode, our first attempt at including a celebrity author in the discussion.

As Seth commented right after the recording with David, there was little purchase on his edifice in which to plant a foothold in real time. I did my best to engage him in discussing what philosophy is and how it really differs from science and sci-fi, and Dylan hit him about the same issue from a different angle a few times, but his answers tended to be in the form of “OK, but what you’ve got to understand is…” and then lapsing into one of his stump speeches whose relevance to the question was only evident about 5 minutes in. I’ll admit at the time that by half way through the episode I had more or less given up and was starting to tune out a bit, particularly since I had just listened to David on maybe three other podcasts deliver many of the same points that we were hearing. This was not what I had in mind, but as he was essentially doing us a favor by participating, I didn’t see a lot of options to change the dynamic then and there without massively violating the spirit of PEL congeniality. It was good to have the follow-up discussion (which Wes did join us on) a week later, and I hope to post that early next week for you.

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Mar 272014

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

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Mar 262014

Discussing David Brin’s novel Existence (2012) with the author.

What’s the point of thinking? Brin sees the future as a pressing threat, and Existence speculates that the reason we don’t see evidence of life on other planets is that no species survives its technological adolescence. The solution? We need to be smarter than our parents and work to give our kids the tools to be smarter than we are. In the book, the ultimate hope comes from a concerted effort to develop and diversify the coalition of Earth’s intelligent life, to make “humanity” encompass more than just the biological humans that we currently are.

In our present political difficulties, Brin sees the solution as positive-sum games: institutions like science and markets that (are supposed to) result in everybody benefiting overall. We need to keep elites (whether corporate or governmental) from screwing these games up, and to use technology to foster reciprocal accountability. The government is illicitly spying on people? Spy back and call them out when power is abused! Instead of vainly trying to hold back technology, just make sure that it’s not restricted to elites, that there can be effective debate re. its uses.

The point of thinking for Brin is to “be a good ancestor.” Philosophy and science fiction can help through thought experiments that visualize the outcomes of our ideas and can help in developing scientific theories. Philosophy’s most Brin-approved task is to promote the critical argumentation needed for reciprocal accountability. The “examined life” is not just for navel-gazers, but for societies prone to catastrophic mistakes.

As this is largely a Brin monologue (with a few interjections by Mark, Seth, Dylan, and also Brian Casey), we recorded a follow-up without him that you can listen to after this. Be sure to listen to Mark’s introduction, and then read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Persevere” by Mark Lint & the Simulacra (recorded mostly in 2000, sung and mixed now).

Our sponsor for this episode is Squarespace: Go to squarespace.com/examine and use the offer code Examine to get a free trial offer and 10% off.

Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen (which will get you access to that exclusive draft Brin essay) or making a donation.

Mar 262014

Johnson refutes BerkeleyA few listeners have pointed us at Melvyn Bragg’s recent podcast on Berkeley (listen to it here). It starts off with the oft-cited anecdote about Samuel Johnson claiming to have refuted Berkeley by kicking a stone: obviously, such a stone that I can kick is not an “idea in my head.” As should have been clear from our episode (and my recent post), this is an elementary misunderstanding of Berkeley.

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Mar 242014

It turns out you’re a self-righteous hypocrite. Poor you. If only you followed my morality, then you’d be on the right path. But I suppose we can’t all be right. Don’t get me wrong though. Your pitiable beliefs’ leading you astray in no way brings me great pleasure. How could confirming something I knew all along really satisfy me? In truth, I feel sorry for you. You built up such an elaborate artifice, and you tried to impose it on others. You were so sure you had it figured out. How could you have been so blind? Heck, I’m sure you’re asking yourself that already, so there’s no need for me to bury you any further.

What’s really sad, though? You drafted so many other people to your team. You knew how people want to win friends and influence others (i.e. be social), and so you gave them an in-group. And you knew that once you hooked their intuitions, you’d have them in your clutches. For what is reason but the slave to our intuitions? We’re almost too talented at justifying what we do and what we believe, aren’t we? You knew that you could build any moral system and find a way to substantiate and sustain it. You just needed enough followers to bind and blind. Give people a bias and they have something reliable to confirm for the rest of their lives. Our world is so generous: it gives us exactly what we need for that stability.

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Mar 212014

Ulysses read by Ben in LostOur Philosophical Fiction Group began reading Ulysses in December, continued through January, then February, and at the beginning of March only a few had made it through James Joyce’s epic. The novel is large, but what’s stunning- to me as a non-finisher- is the richness and depth of Joyce’s expanding story of the phenomena of a single day.

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